God, the Goodness of Life and Creation, and Humanity’s Destruction of that Creation through Greed, Selfishness, and Sin

Genesis 1:1-2:4 (NRSV)

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.
God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.
The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,
and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.
God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,
to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”
So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.
God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

I am not sure that, as Christians, we entirely believe those words. When I write “those words,” I am not referring to God’s act of creation of the world, but I am referring to the multiple times it states in this passage, “And God saw that it was good.” In today’s modern age, with our eyes enthralled and enraptured by the lust of modern technology brought about by a vastly over-industrialized world, we seem to have lost sight of what God has observed regarding his natural creation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Whether God created this world in billions, millions, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, or tens of years, or simply in months, weeks, or days, is not for us to know, and is simply a needless argument which causes unnecessary strife and division. Nonetheless, our small ability to grasp the wholeness of time, compared to God’s creation of time within the endless infinitude of eternity is, I think it is fair to say, rather limited. We cannot forget the astute words of 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (NRSV). Moving on, however, my point is to say that God’s labor of love in making this world is that this creation, and everything in it – human, beast, bird, insect, fish, tree, fruit, vegetable, and even the sea monster – was indeed, very good.

Yet, overall, Christians, especially in the “modern,” “western” world act as if we have forgotten these seven words: “And God saw that it was good.” And because we, even as Christians, act in a way that tosses the reality of these seven words into the perpetually growing landfills that litter our planet, it paints and foreshadows an even uglier world for future generations of people we must learn to love, with even more waste covering the world that God has inherently deemed as good. Now, I may get in trouble for writing what follows at the end of this sentence, but by the way we act, especially in the United States, in our over-consumption of natural resources in the wanton destruction of the earth in the pursuit of what can only be called greed, we might as well be giving God, the one who patiently took his time to create this world of sustainable beauty out of love for us to enjoy, the middle finger when it comes to his creation (Whew! Now that I have your attention….).

Yet, epitomizing the definition of irony, the majority of people who call themselves Christians living in the “modern,” “western” world will hike to the top of a mountain, or travel to the middle of a rainforest, or visit any of the other countless natural wonders out there, take a deep breath, and say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” We will then take a swig out of one of probably billions of grossly over-produced plastic water bottles, eat a piece of vacuum-packed processed food made with high fructose corn syrup, return to our manufactured steel vehicle, turn it on, pump pounds of toxic gas into the atmosphere, drive back on one of the countless paved roads in the nation, and return home only to realize that we accidentally left our plastic water bottle at the top of the trail while we were in awe of the beauty before us. We will then toss the wrapper of our high fructose corn syrup “trail food” in the trash, where it will go to a landfill and sit there in a vain attempt to decompose over what could be millions of years; meanwhile, it does not register in our minds that as long as we continue to produce such ridiculous amounts of garbage, that one day even that mountain view will become a landfill that future generations will not enjoy.

This picture is unfortunately a common reality, yet it is a common reality that many of us, including myself, are guilty of. However, it is a common reality that needs to change. The truth of the matter is that a hike to a beautiful mountain peak will often inspire people toward environmental conservation and awareness (sadly, I am also sure that there are some who are uninspired and take beautiful mountain views of creation for granted); I was simply pointing out the tragic irony of the situation (and also pointing out to be aware of where you put your trash during a trip outdoors and to please drink out of a reusable water bottle!).

One piece of trash may seem like a small, miniscule thing, but we often forget that even our smallest actions have consequences; each of those small consequences will build up to, and are currently building up to, environmental disaster. Even if we do not see these consequences in our lifetimes, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will see them in their lifetimes. It is time that we put a conscious check on what is for many of us a selfishness that we are unaware of, and instead learn to be selfless in being a steward of God’s creation for future generations. Aware or unaware (most of us are aware – we just do not want to recognize how aware we are), selfishness, and selfishness regarding natural resources, is still a sin against God; if we do not change our attitudes and behaviors, it is a selfishness and a sin that will have drastic consequences for future people around the world whom we still have an obligation to show selfless, Christian love for today. We must learn to show future, unborn generations the same type of selfless love that we claim to have for current generations, family, and friends.

We, in the “modern,” “western” world, are robbing the earth blind; today’s robbery has drastic effects on multitudes of people in terms of sustainable livelihoods such as fishing and farming. Already, there are huge dead zones spanning our oceans, bays, and rivers, brought about by over-fishing and the washing of chemicals into our waters via poor farming practices. Our robbery, our arrogance in what can hardly be called stewardship, will produce arid lands and dirty waters; famine and ensuing sicknesses will sweep across the land. If Christians are going to legitimately claim to love others, and consider the health and well-being of brothers and sisters living today and in the future, then we certainly do not act like it with the gluttonous lifestyles that we live today in the “modern,” “western” world. Consider the child who will be born in half a century, or a century from now, who will be forced to live with the consequences of our current actions. That child will look back in recent history to our over-industrialization and realize just how systematically and culturally selfish our generation was. I would like to think and hope that God will have mercy on us through his prevenient grace, but allowing his people to live with the consequences of their actions is not something new for God. If you have questions about that, read the Old Testament.

I belong to a denomination within Christianity called the Church of the Nazarene which emphasizes Christian holiness. Holiness means living in a way that is obedient to God, but holiness is also a word that is nearly inseparable from another word: love. Both holiness and love are not only meant to apply on an individual basis, but also meant to apply on a community basis. There must be community in order to show true, selfless, Christian love to another; a holiness and love without considering the well-being of others is a selfish view of both. Today, with the proliferation of technology, Christians find themselves in a global community. If we are going to profess to be a holiness people, then we must begin to recognize the consequences of even our smallest actions on people halfway around the world, as well as for the people who will live a century or centuries from now – such as buying a t-shirt made by low wage workers in China, or chocolate made with what is effectively slave labor, or a phone made with minerals that fuel ravaging wars.

Besides the negative impact on the people who are forced to participate in these systems so someone in the United States can buy a new item that they most likely do not need, each of these industrializing systems contributes to negative impacts on the environment somewhere in their production lines (economic growth is good for poorer places in the world, but it should be done in a way that creates jobs that are beneficial to the health and well-being of the people, and is friendly to the environment; one of the keys is education). A communal view of holiness and love is something that not only the Church of the Nazarene is called to, but all of Christianity is called to. Yet it is a view of holiness and love that is conveniently swept under the rug in places such as the United States, where a consumeristic, materialistic culture ravages like a disease, and where responsibility is not something we particularly like.

There is a reason for our (unnatural) nature to destroy life (human and non-human); it is caused out of selfishness and pride, and at the root of it all is sin. It is disobedience to God’s call on our lives for a humble love of all the life that God has breathed into this planet. In C.S. Lewis’ “The Space Trilogy,” the protagonist, Ransom, says we are “bent.” And without God, and the nature of God’s love, we are bent beings. To be bent is to be unnatural. It is to bend what was once straight. A human is now bent and unnatural as a result of sin. Genesis 1:27 states that we are created in God’s image – that image is holy love. That holy love is a human’s natural state, but as a result of sin, that image has been marred and removed. We become bent out of what was once a nature of divine love. There is no way to recover that image of true love except through the grace of God found in Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, unbending humans out of an unnatural state of sin, selfishness, pride, greed, lust, and gluttony, and returning us into our natural state of divine, holy love. Our sinfulness only destroys us, tears us apart, and dehumanizes us both internally and externally, from who we truly are – an identity that can only be restored in God. By the grace of God, each one of us must rip sinfulness from our lives and replace it with true, selfless love. Although God entrusted us with dominion over creation, it was a dominion meant to be exercised in God’s image of selfless, holy love.

Our “bent” sinfulness takes on a variety of forms; all too often, corporate and big-business America plays a part in promoting our “bent-ness,” primarily by putting the value of money in front of the incomprehensibly greater value of a human being, as well as by placing a higher priority on a dollar bill over the other forms of beautiful life that God has created on this planet. More-so, this plays out in the politics of our nation and other nations around the world, where Christianity is misused, manipulated, and made a mockery of, by politicians whose main motivation is also not the love of life, but the love of the dollar bill, and whose love of the dollar bill is cheaply veiled by the term “economic growth.”

One of the big businesses whose love for money over love for life is vastly apparent is the monopolized agricultural industry. Corporate agriculture promotes cheap farming practices with produce that is forced to grow by harmful chemicals. The chemicals and fertilizer wash into groundwater, contaminating it, washing into rivers, destroying aquatic life in those rivers, bays, and oceans, further destroying coastal peoples’ ways of life. The reason is our dependence on products like high fructose corn syrup, an alternative to sugar whose cheap proliferation is directly contributing to our epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Another reason is our gluttonous desire for inexpensive beef; the cattle are fed unhealthy corn, leading to cut-rate beef in our food systems, and also contributing to the epidemics of obesity and various heart diseases. What can you do? Support your local small farmers instead of big-business agriculture. Do not buy products with high fructose corn syrup. Eat less meat products; when you do eat beef, demand grass-fed beef, where the cattle are allowed to roam freely like the wild beasts that God created them to be. One of the reasons for the Jewish Kosher law is so that animals are not systematically treated horrendously in order to feed gluttonous societies like ours in the United States. And if you reread Genesis 1:29-30, it is perfectly scriptural to become a vegetarian.

Just recently we have seen the introduction of “fracking,” a last-ditch effort to feed our (also gluttonous) energy dependence and addiction in the United States. Politicians again claim “economic growth,” but all it is is simply feeding a corporate and personal lust for money while the fracking process contaminates groundwater reserves with unnatural chemicals never meant to be introduced inside a human body. What can you do? Write a letter to your senator, congressional representative, and president, and tell them that we have had enough and that the cost of people’s health and environmental destruction is not worth it. Call your energy provider, complain, and tell them that the cost of people’s health and environmental destruction is not worth it.

Again, there is a horrible irony in this situation: we are destroying our clean water supply so that we can turn on the air conditioner when it is only 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Meanwhile, there are children struggling to get clean water around the world as their families sit in wooden huts with dirt floors with temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There is something wrong with this picture; what is wrong with it is Americans and our ridiculous lust for more of what we do not need.

Not to mention the destruction of rainforests, the abundant varieties of life that are being killed, and the indigenous peoples’ ways of life that are being desecrated, all in the name of making another dollar. Again, it is a horrifyingly ugly and blatant lack of respect for the life that God has blessed his creation with.

I realize that some may challenge that climate change is a myth; all I will say to that is scientists are not idiots, they are incredibly smart, and I think that they have got a pretty good idea of what they are talking about. A branch of Christianity known as fundamentalism has somehow spread this myth that climate change is not real and in the process, has hijacked American Christianity; little do they know that they are unwittingly being the pawns of the big-business corporations that are putting the value of money before the value of humanity. Nonetheless, even if you say climate change is a myth, you still have an obligation to care for this creation, if for no other reasons than that God has created it and God saw that it was good.

Fundamentalists spread a Calvinist influenced theology that says we do not need to take part in conserving and respecting this earth, because the course of history has already been determined down to the last minute detail until the end of time. The truth is, in fact, that in the pre-deterministic sense, the kingdom of God is much more liquid than rigid, and out of love God calls us to participate in the shaping of this kingdom; being considerate to all the life that is a part of this creation is not simply an option in being part of the kingdom of God, it is the fundamental (to put the word fundamental back in its proper definition) responsibility of anyone who claims the label of Christianity.

Moreover, many Christians, fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist alike, have fallen prey to gnostic influences on theology, an ideology the negates the inherent goodness of God’s creation, and states that the earth will disappear forever and only a spiritual realm will remain; it is an ideology that was deemed heretical by the Church within the very first centuries of Christianity. If you continue to study the New Testament, you will learn that scripture speaks of creation being made new again, and heaven coming down to this new earth at the end of the age. Just as God continues to sanctify us through the work of the Holy Spirit, making us into new creations, God desires the sanctification of all creation, seeking to make it new again with the residual effects of sin finally removed. This sanctification of creation is yet another absolutely critical aspect of the kingdom of God, which God, again out of love, calls us to participate in.

Imagine this scenario: you pour out your energy and your love in creating a masterpiece of art; it may be a painting, it may be a sculpture, it may be a carving, it may be a beautiful piece of handcrafted furniture, it may be a poem, it may be a story, it may even be a vibrantly colorful and exquisitely landscaped garden. Whatever it is, you put every last ounce of your creativity into it, even exhausting yourself to the point where you simply have to rest after you have finally finished creating it. But you did not just make it for yourself, you created this masterpiece of art for a loved one, so that they too may enjoy it. You give it to your loved one with the understanding that they will take care of it and that they will be a steward of it; they are in awe at how beautiful your creation is.

Now imagine that they do not take care of it, but take it for granted, misuse and abuse it for other things, and they tear and cut pieces off here and there so that they can use those pieces for other, less meaningful projects. You realize that your painting, sculpture, piece of furniture, or garden will soon be destroyed if they do not change their attitude toward it. Among the other emotions going through your mind, body, and soul, it makes you feel that this loved one does not care for you because they do not care for the gift you have given them.

We must learn to show our love for God by showing our love for the creation he has blessed us with. That begins with being responsible stewards of this world, its resources, and by being aware of the consequences that each and every one of our actions has on the environment and the people who live in the various parts of the world, today and in the future. It means exercising holy, “unbent” love over God’s creation.

If we are living in the United States, or in any other part of the world that could be considered “modern” or “western,” there is a good chance that we are guilty of taking part in the systems that contribute to the degradation of the environment and to the degradation of various people groups around the world, future and current; I am unfortunately guilty of contributing to these systems as well. However, we are not helpless to change; if we call ourselves Christian, then we are part of a kingdom where change, no matter how impossible it may seem, is possible – Jesus Christ, after all, rose from the dead. But it begins with you and me taking responsibility in our roles in God’s kingdom on earth. Christ gave us an example of selfless love through his death thousands of years ago; we are reminded of it every time we partake of the Eucharist. Perhaps we can start to embody that selfless love to all of creation and the future generations of people that will also inhabit this creation; we must give them an opportunity to enjoy it just as we have enjoyed it, give them an opportunity to be responsible stewards of it, and bless them with a healthier creation than what we even have. For many of us, it may mean changes in our lifestyles; it may be a sacrifice, but God calls us to sacrifice. There is no definition of love that does not include sacrifice.

Maybe it means driving the car less and considering other forms of transportation, such as your own two feet that God has blessed you with, or a bicycle, or public transportation, or carpooling. Maybe it means staying local.

Maybe it means putting down your devices that consume energy and electricity, such as your cell phone, computer, or television, and doing an activity that does not require the use of electricity, such as reading a book, or playing a game with friends, or going outside to enjoy what God has created. Maybe it means turning off lights when they are not in use.

Maybe it means being conscious of how much water you use during the day, and trying not to use so much.

Maybe it means being aware of how much waste and trash you produce, and consuming less so that you produce less garbage which will take up less room in a landfill. Maybe it means recycling and composting more. Maybe it means that you buy less plastic water bottles, and only buy one reusable water bottle that will last you for years.

Maybe it means not being consumed by an insatiable greed for more (of everything). Maybe it means consuming less material goods. Maybe it means that you do not need the newest technological product. Maybe it means buying refurbished or used instead of brand new. Maybe it means you should stop playing video games. Maybe it means not taking things for granted and taking care of the products that you have now so that they will last longer. Maybe it means learning to be more content with less.

Maybe it means that you choose not to consume products with high fructose corn syrup, which will tell the monopolized, over-industrialized agricultural businesses to stop destroying our land and water in pursuit of another dollar bill. Maybe it means supporting your local farmer instead.

Maybe it means becoming a vegetarian, or limiting the amount of meat products that you eat, or considering following Kosher law.

Maybe it means writing a letter to your politicians and telling them that as long as they are motivated by money, they will no longer get your vote.

Maybe it means that we really just do not need to rape our earth of its natural resources and murder its natural, God-given beauty so that we can satisfy our lust for more. Maybe that means that we really do not need everything, right now so that future generations can enjoy this earth.

Maybe we can slow down the mass extinction that we as humans are causing to countless species around the world.

Maybe it means rooting out every last selfish behavior, thought, and tendency from our lives.

Maybe it means that we as Christians begin to act as if we believe the words, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

*In writing and publishing this post to my blog site, I fully realize that there may be many who disagree with the words I have written. It is okay to disagree, but please do so respectfully and lovingly; I reserve the right to delete any response that may not be loving in nature. You may call me a hippy, you may call me a tree-hugger, you may call me what you like – but, please, call me a Christian; and I sincerely hope that if you call yourself a Christian, you will recognize the necessity of legitimately loving and taking care of this inherently good creation that God has made for us. To take care of creation, and to take a stand for the good health of our creation, is an act that will lovingly benefit humanity, show others the love of Christ in a real way, and is a beautiful act of worship that glorifies God’s name.

a prayer for our Church

In 1054 A.D., the Western and Eastern Churches excommunicated one another, a schism that was further sealed in anger as the West destroyed the Eastern Church’s capital, Constantinople, during the fourth crusade. In 1965, 911 years later, the Pope of the West and the Patriarch of the East have given the Church a glimmer of hope for remembering its unity. It is never too late for reconciliation, but it is never too early either. The following is the text read simultaneously by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in both Rome and Istanbul on December 7, 1965:

“1. Grateful to God, who mercifully favored them with a fraternal meeting at those holy places where the mystery of salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and where the Church was born through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I have not lost sight of the determination each then felt to omit nothing thereafter which charity might inspire and which could facilitate the development of the fraternal relations thus taken up between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. They are persuaded that in acting this way, they are responding to the call of that divine grace which today is leading the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, as well as all Christians, to overcome their differences in order to be again “one” as the Lord Jesus asked of His Father for them.

“2. Among the obstacles along the road of the development of these fraternal relations of confidence and esteem, there is the memory of the decisions, actions and painful incidents which in 1054 resulted in the sentence of excommunication leveled against the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and two other persons by the legate of the Roman See under the leadership of Cardinal Humbertus, legates who then became the object of a similar sentence pronounced by the patriarch and the Synod of Constantinople.

“3. One cannot pretend that these events were not what they were during this very troubled period of history. Today, however, they have been judged more fairly and serenely. Thus it is important to recognize the excesses which accompanied them and later led to consequences which, insofar as we can judge, went much further than their authors had intended and foreseen. They had directed their censures against the persons concerned and not the Churches. These censures were not intended to break ecclesiastical communion between the Sees of Rome and Constantinople.

“4. Since they are certain that they express the common desire for justice and the unanimous sentiment of charity which moves the faithful, and since they recall the command of the Lord: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brethren has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go first be reconciled to your brother” (Matt. 5:23-24), Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I with his synod, in common agreement, declare that:

“A. They regret the offensive words, the reproaches without foundation, and the reprehensible gestures which, on both sides, have marked or accompanied the sad events of this period.

“B. They likewise regret and remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed these events, the memory of which has influenced actions up to our day and has hindered closer relations in charity; and they commit these excommunications to oblivion.

“C. Finally, they deplore the preceding and later vexing events which, under the influence of various factors—among which, lack of understanding and mutual trust—eventually led to the effective rupture of ecclesiastical communion.

“5. Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I with his synod realize that this gesture of justice and mutual pardon is not sufficient to end both old and more recent differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

“Through the action of the Holy Spirit those differences will be overcome through cleansing of hearts, through regret for historical wrongs, and through an efficacious determination to arrive at a common understanding and expression of the faith of the Apostles and its demands.

“They hope, nevertheless, that this act will be pleasing to God, who is prompt to pardon us when we pardon each other. They hope that the whole Christian world, especially the entire Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church will appreciate this gesture as an expression of a sincere desire shared in common for reconciliation, and as an invitation to follow out in a spirit of trust, esteem and mutual charity the dialogue which, with Gods help, will lead to living together again, for the greater good of souls and the coming of the kingdom of God, in that full communion of faith, fraternal accord and sacramental life which existed among them during the first thousand years of the life of the Church.”

I offer a prayer for our Church; I hope you will join me in echoing these words:

May God grant forgiveness to the Church for its pridefulness and arrogance in our divisiveness against one another.

May God give us a spirit of humble conversation as we dialogue with one another about theology. May God give us his Spirit through humility.

May we remember that the way of God is peace. May God give us his Spirit of peace.

May God forgive the Church for the blood that has stained our hands in the divisiveness of our pridefulness throughout history. May God grant the Church his holy love for all through his Spirit.

May God forgive the Church for its selfish quest for political power. May we remember that the only power of the Church comes through the breath of the Spirit, purposed for a mission of holy love, with Christ as our leader.

May God give Protestants humility in recognizing the great faith in Christ that our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters have. May God grant us the wisdom to see the catholicity of the Christian faith (and may God grant Protestants the wisdom to not be so afraid of the word “catholic”). May God grant Protestants the ability to see ourselves in light of the global, catholic, universal Church.

May we remember the words of one our earliest, unifying, and catholic creeds:

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

(The Nicene Creed, affirmed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., and re-affirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.)

May we have the wisdom to learn from our history.

May we behave as if we truly understand what means to live in the Anno Domini.

May we seek our example for unity in the unity of love that is found in you, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

May we never stop seeking being restored to you through your Spirit.

May you give us hope to be the Church you have called us to be.


“caught in a bad romance”

I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on what defines loves at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene yesterday morning.

John 15:9-17 (NRSV)

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

At the core of this passage is Jesus’ instruction for his followers to love one another. These are instructions that are demonstrated by Christ’s life and teachings; it is also a theme that is present in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, mostly everyone knows the latter half of 1 John 4:8; we recite it to each other all the time: “God is love.” However, many times in talking about love, whether it be the love of Christ or the love of God, or even in our culture when popular or well-respected authority figures instruct us just to “love one another,” we never really elaborate on what defines love. One of the most popular songs by the “Black-Eyed Peas” is titled “Where is the love?” Another song from the early 1990s by (the musical “great”) Haddaway asks, “What is love?” Movies, popular music, books, poetry, and philosophy: they all talk about love. Most of the time (though not all of the time), answers about love are not very deep and only skim the surface.

We rarely hear a description of what love actually is. Maybe it is simply assumed that we know? Or maybe we just think we know? A lot of what we think we know is actually just about the feeling or emotion of love itself. But as many of us know, feelings of love come and go; feelings are fleeting. Even if love feels so strong, that feeling still may dissipate after years and years. And if we, humanity, really think that we have got a grip or a handle on what love really is, why is it that everyday on the news we hear about wars in various parts of the world, someone being shot on the street corner, a store being robbed downtown, a millionaire banker stealing millions more in their greed, or pop culture stars (ironically, they are often times the very same ones who are telling us that all we need to do is “love one another”) getting divorced and married to someone else after only a couple months? Not only does so much of humanity base its idea of love off of only a feeling or an emotion, but how are we supposed to know what love is, if on a daily basis humanity is separating itself from God – God, who is the very beginning of all love, the author of all love, and where all love flows from and out of?

Humanity separates itself from God through our very own sinfulness and selfishness; but true to what love actually is and not what we think love is, and true to God’s eternal demonstration of that love, God still shows us and demonstrates his love to us whether it is through grace, patience, mercy, protection, justice, and blessing and granting our needs and prayers. God does not base love, his holy love, off of only a fleeting feeling or emotion, but through a practice of love. And it is a practice of love that is found in sacrifice and obedience to God which we can build our love with. Perhaps today, each one of us must change our concept of love from feelings and emotions to a practice of love that is consistent with the practice of love that God continually demonstrates to each one of us. Perhaps our view of love needs to be reoriented so that it does not have a foundation in us, but rather that it becomes a love that has a foundation in God; then we may truly find what love actually is and learn how to show that love to one another.

What, exactly, is this love? Christ tells us in verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ tells us in verse 17: “I am giving you these commands that you may love one another.” But Christ does not stop there; Christ elaborates on what exactly his love is. It is not a fleeting feeling or emotion that comes and goes, but it is a practice of love that finds eternal fulfillment; it is a love that gives us joy, it is a love that gives Christ himself joy, and it is a love that gives others joy.

Love means sacrifice. Christ says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He then follows this piece of instruction with: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Christ is, in fact, alluding to his very own death, saying that his death is an act of love for his friends. His own death is a sacrifice of himself so that humanity, and you and I, might be reconciled to God. But Christ tells us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Christ loved us so much that he was willing to die for us so that ultimately we may be together with him. Sacrifice to the point of death: that is the depth of love that Christ has for us, yet it is also the depth of love that Christ desires us to have for other people. Sacrifice is an integral part of love for others; we, as followers and friends of Christ, are called to that level of love for one another. Perhaps today it may not mean death; but what does it mean? Our lives are valuable to us, but what else is valuable to us? Time? Money? Material goods? Food? Water? Shelter? Our unique skills? Perhaps this level of love means sacrificing those things for others when they are in need so that we may show the love of Christ to our neighbors. Perhaps it means a death of our selfish selves, and living anew in Christ, so that we may freely give of these things in a way that is like the love of Christ. (We cannot forget that there are countless numbers of people living in poverty all over the world. Many of them are Christians; our own brothers and sisters are going without food, clean water, and shelter everyday. What does loving them through sacrifice look like in your life?)

Love means obeying God. Christ foreshadows that love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” but then adds the stipulation: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Christ also tells his disciples in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Here is Christ’s commandment: “That you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ calls on us to live in obedience to God and to Christ. It is an exercise in the selfless nature, not the selfish nature, to live in obedience to another. Christ even calls those who live in keeping with the commandments his friends. Perhaps in our own lives, living selflessly and not selfishly, to others is what the practice of love actually is. Maybe this means taking the time to listen to another’s story. Maybe this means giving of yourself in a way where there is no gain for you. Maybe it means spending time with another person who you do not necessarily want to spend time with. Maybe it means humility and respecting another person’s wishes. Sacrifice and selflessness: these are examples of what love actually is. Both of these are demonstrated by Christ.

God loves all of us; in fact, there is so much love within God that in the beginning, God created people. From the very beginning, and from the outpouring of God’s love, God desired to be in relation with others; that is the reason God created us – so that we may be in communion with God and with each other. In fact, it is something that is evident in the very nature and character of God himself! If we look at God, God is one, but God is also three (in one); three very distinct aspects of God all in relation with one another in the trinity – God is relational even within himself. And God is love; out of this relational and self-giving love, God created humanity. God created the world that we live in. God created the mountains, the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land that we walk on. God created the birds, the deer that roam the woods, the big cats of the jungle, the fish that populate the sea, the bees that pollinate the vividly colored flowers in our gardens, and even the snakes that slither around, all to be in harmony and balance with one another. And out of love, God entrusted us to have a role in taking care of this world. (The responsibility we have as stewards of God’s creation is something that we simply cannot forget about, but it is critical as we give others a glimpse into the kingdom of God. Out of love for God, love for others, and love for what God has made, we must therefore do a better job of fulfilling this responsibility.)

And out of love God gave us free will, even if that meant the possibility of turning against the very one who created us, even if that meant that people may choose to live in disobedience to God and even if that meant the resulting physical manifestations of evil, sickness, and disease within this world, things that have come about from living in a world filled with generations of people who have long since removed themselves from a foundation of love in God.

But it also means, by the basic characteristic of freedom found in love, we may choose to respond to God’s grace and the love that is inherent in his kingdom. It is only in the hope we have in Christ and the renewing of ourselves by the Holy Spirit, and by the present work we are called to in the kingdom of God in this world, that these evils will be overcome.

Nevertheless, out of love and desire for God to be in communion with us and for us to be in communion with God, God loved humanity even in our sinfulness against him. God chose a group of people as his own, and through that group of people, all the people of the world would one day be reconciled to him. God made a covenant with Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. And through Israel, and through Christ, through whom we Gentiles are grafted in to God’s chosen people of Israel, becoming one of God’s chosen people in the Church today, that covenant and promise with Abraham still holds true. It is through Christ and the Church today that God calls us to live out his message of practicing love in both sacrifice and selflessness.

Moreover, as a testament to God’s grace and love, God provided a way for humanity to return to him through both obedience and faith in God. In the Old Testament, this was the law given to Moses; that through this law, the Israelites in their own disobedience to God, might be once again reconciled to God. Part of that involved sacrifice in order to atone for their sins, a sacrifice of their very best animals and livestock to God. God desired their best; today God desires the very best of what we have to offer. However, today this is not through the sacrifice of animals and livestock, but in our time, our talents, our skills, our belongings, and in fact, you and me. God asks us to give it all over to him and God asks us to give ourselves over to him in obedience.

In the Old Testament, ultimately it was a law that taught love. The prophet Micah tells us the meaning of the law, writing: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In Mark, when a scribe asks Christ what the most important commandment is, Christ tells him: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Paul, an expert in the Jewish law, tells the Church in Galatia: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). And here, in this passage in John, Christ tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The meaning of the law: to love God with everything that we are and to love each other in the same way that God loves us and in the same way that we love God. This is a practice of love that involves sacrifice and selflessness.

Ultimately, as Israel abused this law and its rulers and religious leaders manipulated and exploited this law and obedience to God, God sent his own son, Jesus Christ, so that the law of love in obedience to God may be made known: Jesus Christ, who was there from the very beginning, who is part of the trinitarian, relational, loving nature of God, and who is love itself. In this way, Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the law given to Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that law. The law given to Israel was meant for love; Christ, the manifestation and fulfillment of the law, is love itself.

However, just as Christ tells us in this passage that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Christ alludes to and foreshadows his very own death. The law demanded sacrifice of the very best, and in order for Christ to truly fulfill this law it meant his own death. This moment, of Christ suffering and dying on a cross which was designed for humiliation and shame, is God’s love embodied in a practice of sacrifice and selflessness. However, in this atoning death of Christ, it not only meant a redemption for the people of Israel but it meant the possible redemption of all of humanity throughout all of history, so that as long as we have faith and we believe in Christ, Christ, too, is our atoning sacrifice. And through Christ’s resurrection, Christ conquered the sin and the death and the evil that separates each one of us from God; through the grace of God found in Christ, our sinfulness is overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is overcome by love itself manifested in Christ! Moreover, through this we may learn to have a foundation of love in love itself: Jesus Christ.

This story that is found in the Bible, from the very first verses in Genesis to the very last verses in Revelation, is the greatest love story, ever. It is a story of God loving humanity, then humanity in pride, selfishness, arrogance, and disobedience to God (each of these in sinfulness), separating ourselves from God. But God, in his vast love for us, for humanity, for his created beings, wanted for all of us to be in communion with each other once again. So God created a way, and ultimately that led to the sacrifice and resurrection of his own Son; through God’s grace and through Christ, each one of us may be redeemed to God, and humanity and creation may be restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed in God. It means that we may once again find love, true love of sacrifice and selflessness which emanates from God, and have a foundation for practicing that joyful, fulfilling love in God; out of the joyful, sacrificing, selfless love that is found in Christ, we too may find fulfillment. But it is not a fulfillment that we keep to ourselves, but it is a fulfillment that we are called to share with others. It is a love that Christ asks of us, now as his friends and no longer as servants, so that we may love one another as Christ has loved us.

Christ asks us to show this practice of love to one another: this includes our neighbors, the people around us, and even our enemies. What does this sacrificing and selfless love look like in your life? How does sacrificing and selfless love transform your relationship with your husband, your wife, your fiance, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your brother, your sister (and your brothers and sisters in Christ), your father, your mother, your coworkers, your friends, and even your friends who you find to be just a bit annoying? What about the person who cuts you off while you’re driving? How does this view of a sacrificing and selfless practice of love, of loving others in the same way that Christ loved us, form your relationships with those who you would consider to be your enemies, the people who have done wrong against you, or the people who you hold, for one reason or another, a grudge against?

Christ selflessly died for us so that we may be restored to God, so that this overarching love story between God and humanity throughout all of history may be complete in you, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. How does the idea of sacrifice, whether it is of our time, our interests, our money or other material goods, affect our relationships with all of those people I have listed?

It is a contrast between selfishness and selflessness. Culture, society, the world: they will always tell you to put yourself first. They will tell you to put yourself above others and get what you want or what you think you need even if it is at the expense, manipulation, exploitation, or unjust treatment of others or entire other groups of people. The world, in discussing love, inevitably returns to selfishness. The gospel, on the other hand, implies selflessness; Jesus Christ tells us to put others before ourselves. (A warning though: this is one of the reasons the gospel is so dangerous; it is not selfish, but selfless and sacrificing. Sacrifice and selflessness are problems for a world that promotes manipulation, exploitation, and injustice – all for a selfish purpose – whether it is on behalf of a person, business or corporation, or a government.) Selflessness is what Christ demonstrated in his life; sacrifice and selflessness are what Christ showed with his death on the cross, dying so that humanity may have an opportunity to be restored to communion with God. In this way we can know what love actually is; love is not selfish, but selfless. And through Christ’s act of selflessness, our own selfishness, pridefulness, arrogance, and sinfulness are overcome by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Ultimately the practice of love, founded in God and demonstrated through sacrifice and selflessness, does conquer sin and our separation from God.

God’s Holy Spirit works in us and creates in us a new and restored person, that we may show what true, holy, sacrificing and selfless love is to our family, friends, and even our enemies. Christ instructs us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Demonstrate and practice this fulfilling yet sacrificing and selfless love, in obedience to God, in your lives and in your relationships with all who you encounter.

“subconscious wanderings”

A short article I wrote several years ago after my experience racing in the 2009 Missouri River 340:

Beacons of hope – in college, that’s what a friend and I called our kayaks. The yellow and orange boats stood out in the parking lot, sitting head and shoulders above all the other cars. In that world of academia, as students endlessly studied within the campus confines of the limestone walls, these kayaks were symbols. They were a chance to get away from the academic stress that students too often unnecessarily put on themselves. When people saw those kayaks, and when they see your kayak strapped to your roof as you drive by, their imaginations are captured by the boundless possibilities of adventure that could be had within that very same boat. Their minds subconsciously wander to what could be as they sit in traffic, on their way in to another day at office. They begin to think about some far off body of water with the sun shining down on them, wearing sunglasses, and exploring the unknown. A symbol, a beacon of hope, that’s what a kayak is.

Three months ago I was sitting in my boat on the Chesapeake Bay, tired, weary, and frustrated, screaming and cursing at the wind as it laughed in my face, mocking me, blowing against me and sending waves crashing over my boat. A friend, the same friend from college, and I were on the last day of a six day journey. We paddled from the heart of Pennsylvania and our goal was a point about halfway down the bay, 190 miles from where we started. And on that last day the bay itself was fighting our attempt, questioning our willpower, almost ridiculing us as we struggled on. And it could have thrown so much more at us, but it didn’t; it was only toying with us. As I sat there, tired and beaten down, a thought flashed through my head about this race I had signed up for in August. Would I be able to do it? I would have to paddle almost twice the distance and do it in half the time. I didn’t know if I could do it.

The hazy orange glow of the full moon began rising over the horizon. The warm, humid air settled over the river. Forcing my eyes open as wide as possible, I knew I had to stay awake. I was on my own. If I looked far off in front of me at just the right angle, I thought I could see the dim light of another canoe or kayak. Then it would disappear again. If I looked backwards, it was the same case. Every so often I thought I heard a voice. Maybe it was from a boat, maybe it was people on the shore, and maybe it was in my head. I didn’t know. As I looked at the river bank, straining my heavy eyes in the darkness, the trees began to take shapes. My sleep-deprived imagination took over. Dinosaurs chased other creatures that were half rabbit and half dog. More animals appeared in the trees. Snakes, something from the Chronicles of Narnia, and wolves stood static, yet ready to attack if I strayed too far from the moonlit path down the center of the river. A log floated by, but my eyes only saw the head of an alligator coming up to scan for food. I heard the sound of machines working in the cliffs overhead. More voices. Something was lit up. Were those even people up there, or some kind of underground beings that only came out during night to mine the hills of Missouri for some strange element they needed to survive? There were more lights in the distance and I began to wonder who built a parking garage out in the middle of nowhere, right on top of the Missouri River. I needed to sleep, but I couldn’t. If I closed my eyes for more than a second, I didn’t know when I’d wake up again. I’d end up leaning over, tipping over in my kayak, and it was more than possible that I’d just sleep through it. Even with my life-jacket on, the consequences were something I didn’t want to think about. I put the paddle in the water and just kept going. A few more hours and I’d be at Cooper’s Landing. I could sleep there. But for now I was on my own and I had to stay awake.

I found this race online months ago. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to do it. Three hundred and forty miles in 88 hours. Paddling across the entire state of Missouri. The longest non-stop continuous race in the entire world. Even today, it still doesn’t quite register that I’ve completed something with the words “longest” and “in the entire world” in its description. Rivermiles was right – this was the stuff legends were made of. I had my kayak for about a year and a half, and had done some pretty cool trips, but nothing like this. This would test my entire body, my endurance, my strength, and my willpower. It was challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it. As soon as January 2009 rolled around, I signed up. Besides, I’d be moving to the Kansas City area to begin seminary in the fall and it would be a good way to get acquainted with the Midwest.

The morning of the race I woke up to the sound of rain against my window. The wind was blowing, thunder roared, and lightning lit up the sky every few minutes. I ate a bowl of Cheerios, double checked the kayak, got in my car, and went to pick up my mom from the hotel. Somehow I had convinced her to be my ground crew; she was pretty apprehensive about it at first, but by the time the informational meeting was over, she was ready to go.

We waited out the storm at Kaw Point and after an hour and half delay, the race began. There was no turning back. I was in my boat, surrounded by a hundreds of other people ready to tackle 340 miles. We were all ready to go. Helicopters flew overhead as news agencies covered the event. I glanced over to the shore one last time. The guns fired. I put my paddle in the water, leaving the great Kaw River behind and crossing over into the muddy Missouri River. Fifty miles to the first checkpoint. I could do it.

An intense blunt pain consumed my upper right arm as I awoke at the Herman checkpoint. I could barely move my arm. Paddling nearly 270 miles continuously had finally caught up to me. I felt as if someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer over and over again, pounding my muscles into a painful pulp. This would be the last day of paddling; I was nearly there. I had to finish, but it crossed my mind that it may not be a good idea to keep going with this kind of pain. My body was telling me something, something more than the fact that it’s not natural to paddle 340 miles in three and a half days. I went back to sleep; maybe it’ll go away, I thought to myself. I still had another hour before I needed to wake up. At the very least, I knew that I’d definitely have to take some ibuprofen that day, something I avoided for most of the trip.

“Finish Line.” I looked up and read the bright red letters on the banner. A crowd was gathered at the boat house in St. Charles. Someone sounded an air horn and the group that was assembled on the shore cheered loudly. For a second I was confused. What were they all cheering about? Then I realized that they were cheering for me, and for all the others who pushed themselves to the limit in this race. And it wasn’t just a random group of people either; it was fellow paddlers, ground crew, and race organizers, people who experienced the pain and difficulty of the race, who knew you just had to keep going and put the paddle in the water one more time. Despite the pain in my arm, which had gone in and out most of the day, I forced my paddle victoriously in the air and smiled. Moments later the tip of my boat hit the shore of St. Charles, Missouri and my mom greeted me at on the bank. I was finished.

There were only a few times the river tried to fight the paddlers with wind, but God quieted it after it had gone on long enough. I was tired and weary, but there was no frustration. There was a celebration. There was food, sleep, and showers. There was a mutual respect and admiration for everyone who participated. There were new friends that had been made. There was the completion of a true adventure as dirty and muddy canoes and kayaks lined the boathouse lawn. Here were those beacons of hope, embodying the journeys that so many people long to take in their lives. And here is where people actually challenged themselves to take that journey. And though they may not know it, this is where people’s minds subconsciously wander when they see that car driving by with a kayak strapped to its roof rack.

“paddling in perseverance toward Christ”

This is the last sermon that I will preach at the Kansas City Rescue Mission. K.C.R.M., it’s been fun. May God continue to bless your ministry to those in need.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

On August 4, 2009, just a little less than three years ago, I was sitting in my kayak at Kaw Point, where the Kansas river meets the Missouri river. I was participating in the Missouri River 340, one of the longest river races in the world. It is a canoe and kayak race that stretches between Kansas City, KS and St. Charles, MO. The race organizers describe it as “340 miles of wind, heat, bugs, and rain,” and you only have 88 non-stop hours to complete this distance. A large number of people who sign up and start the race at Kaw Point drop out somewhere during those 340 miles. They face dehydration, heat exhaustion, or simply, exhaustion. The record for the course is 36 hours and 48 minutes, set in 2010 by a tandem team. The record for a single person completing this race is 37 hours and 46 minutes, set in 2008 by the man who currently holds the Guinness world record for the longest distance paddled in 24 hours.

There I was, sitting in my 14 foot kayak in the murky waters of the Kansas river (during later visits to Kaw Point I have even seen snakes swimming around, poking their ugly heads several inches out of the water as their bodies trailed behind them), about to embark on one of the first real adventure races I have competed in. I did not know exactly know what I was getting myself into. I was somewhat nervous, but was prepared. I had a little over three and a half days to paddle a kayak, by myself, for 340 miles down a river I had never been on before – yeah, I was a little nervous. Somehow, I had even convinced my mother to come out and be my ground crew for the event; she would meet me at the various mandatory checkpoints along the way, helping me with food, water, and other supplies.

As the days passed by on the river, I was sure to drink plenty of water in the stifling August Missouri heat, sun, and humidity. You and I know that summers can get more than a little warm and more than a little humid up here. I made sure that I was eating plenty of food; I needed the energy. Ever so slowly the mile markers passed by. Even at the first checkpoint, 50 miles into the race, people were already dropping out due to dehydration and other issues. However, I looked ahead, thinking about the next checkpoint, and focused on making it there. To tell the truth, I did not want to think about the end of the race; I could not think about 340 miles all at once. It was overwhelming. I only thought about the distance to the next checkpoint, whether it was 50 miles, 27 miles, 36 miles, or whatever it might have been. The goal before me was the next checkpoint on the river.

Each day, I paddled over 100 miles and did not stop until it was four or five o’clock the next morning. And even then I only stopped for a short meal and a few hours of rest. During the entire 340 miles, I only slept for about eight hours; for that first major ultra-marathon endurance race, my ultimate goal was simply to finish within the allotted time and to make it to each checkpoint before the cutoff time so that I would not become disqualified.

During the day the heat and sunlight kept me awake; during the night I had to force my eyes to stay open. Closing my eyes just for a second might mean falling asleep and being swept into the debris that is so abundant on the muddy Missouri. Even worse, I could tip over. The river has barge traffic and sand dredges all along it; if I allowed my exhaustion to get to me, it may have meant losing focus and coming too close for comfort to one of these. I had no desire to be swept under an oncoming barge or through a sand dredge.

On the final night of the Missouri River 340, after waking up from only an hour of sleep at a city park in Hermann, MO, my right shoulder suddenly felt as if someone had beat it to a pulp with a sledge hammer. That moment was the first time I truly considered dropping out of the race; I was in so much pain that I could barely move my arm. I told myself that if I felt okay by the time I left before the sun rose, with one more hour of sleep, I would continue the race. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to leave and finish the race later that day, and with the help of a few ibuprofen, the pain had dissipated.

Furthermore, paddling in the darkness on the water, my constant state of exhaustion played tricks on my mind. Trees on the riverbanks suddenly looked like dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park”; I thought I was seeing construction on bluffs where there was no construction. I thought I saw parking garages that were built right on top of the Missouri river at three o’clock in the morning. It was a difficult race, but it was a race that I had to persevere through. It was a race that was in no way easy for me, a beginner to the sport of ultra-marathon endurance canoe and kayak racing. But I had a goal, and that was to make it to each checkpoint on time and to ultimately finish the race that was before me.

The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing about following Christ. While they did not have the sport of canoe and kayak racing during the time of Christ (Christ, however, did spend a lot of time on boats, so if they did have canoes and kayaks…. Well, who knows….), one of the popular sports of the day was running, such as in the original Olympic games from ancient Greece. The author of Hebrews tells us that the Christian life is like a race, and we must run it with perseverance, looking the entire time to Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Each of us knows that in following Christ, and in responding to God’s abundant grace, and living as a disciple of God’s law of love, fulfilled and manifested in Christ himself, this race is not an easy one to run. Each of us knows that we may go through difficulties when we put Christ first, many of those possible setbacks coming from the world around us.

We may become tired and exhausted as we face apparent obstacles before us. We may become discouraged or our worries may bog us down. There could be any number of things that appear unexpectedly in our lives. As a result we might be tempted to put a halt to this race that we are running (or paddling) toward our goal in Christ. Just like the huge barges that appeared unexpectedly during the day as I paddled, tired and exhausted, with blisters the sizes of dimes and quarters forming on my hands, I had to maneuver my way around them, keeping the goal of the next checkpoint at the forefront of my mind.

Each one of us, through everything we are facing in life, cannot become discouraged; we must keep the hope and the promise that is found in Jesus Christ as our focus and as our goal!

On Friday we will remember the death of Christ; he died on a cross so many years ago so that each one of us, and all of humanity, would have an opportunity, through our mediator Christ, to be reconciled to God. Christ was an atoning sacrifice. The author of Hebrews tells us to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” These weights and sins distract us from our goal in Christ and from our fulfillment in Christ. Today, I would ask each one of us: what are the weights and sins that are pulling us down? What are the sins that are clinging so closely to you and separating you from God? Are we putting our faith in something, or someone, besides God? Are we not demonstrating a love and respect for our neighbor that is true to the example of Christ? Ask yourself: what is weighing me down? What sins are clinging to me that I can cast aside in order to run freely to Christ? Just as Christ was put to death on a Friday so long ago, today we must put to death the sin that is separating us from our goal in Christ!

However, death was not the end for Christ. On Sunday, Christ rose from the dead! He conquered the death, despair, and destruction that sin leaves in our lives. Remember the hope that we have in a risen Christ! Remember that we are running a race toward a Christ who is alive and who is working in our lives today! Remember that Christ has already conquered death and sin and we can hand our worries, our doubts, our anger and hate, and our idols over to Christ! And through Christ, these things will no longer be in our lives, but through our resurrected Savior and Messiah, we too are resurrected out of our death and our sin; we have a new existence in Christ. We have new life as we run this race toward Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and we run this race without the weight of our sins burdening us down!

Christ: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Christ has already endured the cross and taken his seat beside the throne of God. Christ endured the hostility of sinners, so that each of us may not grow weary or lose heart! I realize that truly following Christ can be difficult, but again, do not grow weary or lose heart! Christ has been there and has experienced it; with Christ as our goal and as our focus, even with all of the distractions and the difficulties of this marathon, we too “may not grow weary or lose heart!”

Each of us must remember that we are not alone in this race. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” In this race we need the encouragement and the support of the community that is found within our friends who will cheer us on when we struggle or doubt, or whatever else it may be. Many times, these encouragers are our family and friends. A lot of times they are people that we find in the Church, there to help us grow, and encourage and challenge us to become stronger in our walks, runs, marathons (and even paddles) with Christ. I could not have finished all 340 miles of that first ultra-marathon endurance race in only three days if it were not for the encouragement of those fellow racers who paddled their canoes and kayaks next to me in the exhausting darkness of the humid night, or during the miles of windswept river with the wind blowing against me; I could not have finished without the encouragement of my mother when I met her at the checkpoints, or the motivation that other race volunteers gave me along the way. Each of us, in this race towards Christ needs one another. We need the support of community from other believers who are persevering through this same race, who also have Christ as their goal.

It is Easter; remember that Christ has risen. Remember the race that is set before us and run it with perseverance and encouragement. Run it without the weight of sin. Run it and do not grow weary or lose heart. Christ has already conquered death and sin; know the hope of Christ and the goal that is before you in Christ!

wisdom in foolishness; power in weakness

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NRSV)

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification,
31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

God uses those who are considered weak and powerless in the world for God’s purpose. It is amazing how God uses the people who we might talk about and say: “There’s no way that God would choose to use that person! Nothing good could ever come from that person!” Society might look at people in prison, people who might not seem that bright, people who might have messed up in their life, people who might be going through addictions, and say the same thing: “Those people are foolish and weak. There’s no way anything good could come from them.” People don’t want to associate with those considered foolish and weak. People don’t want the foolish and weak hanging around. People don’t want the foolish and weak in their lives. The foolish and weak won’t help them advance in their jobs. The foolish and weak won’t help someone become more popular or make more money. Society has already made their decision on the foolish and weak, and it’s not good.

But when Paul writes his first letter to the church in Corinth, he tells us something different: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

The idea that God would use the low and despised, the things that are not, the foolish, the weak, and the least expected, is not a new theme. In fact, it’s a theme that is found all over scripture! We see it in the story of David, who became the standard-bearer of kingship for Israel in the Old Testament; David was the king who everyone else measured up against.

What were the beginnings of the story of David? In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel, the chosen prophet of the Lord, chooses and anoints the young David as God’s choice for king. Yet David was not the oldest of the family; he was not the first-born child. David was the youngest. In fact, when Samuel shows up to find the new king, the father Jesse brings out all of his sons to ask which one will be anointed. Samuel says none of them; he asks the father Jesse if he has any more sons. Jesse replies, “There remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” The youngest, David, finally came, and Samuel knew that he was the one to be anointed as God’s choice for king. Jesse least expected it.

As we progress further in David’s life, the young shepherd encounters Goliath, the Philistine, feared by all of Israel’s army. There was not a single soldier in the entire army who was brave to face Goliath. But who could blame them? Goliath is described in 1 Samuel 17 as being “six cubits and a span” (I have no idea what that equates to today, but the bottom line is, Goliath was a big man!) The Philistine Goliath, according to 1 Samuel, wore “a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield bearer went before him.” There is no doubt that Goliath was an intimidating warrior! Who could blame the soldiers in Saul’s army? Not a single person wanted to face him. They were all terrified!

And then David comes along: the youngest son, the shepherd, the one who Jesse did not even expect to be anointed. David accepts the challenge to face this intimidating Philistine warrior. Refusing to wear Saul’s armor, David walks out onto the battlefield with only a sheep herding staff, five stones in his pouch that he picked up out of the dried and empty river bed, and his sling. He walks out there against this giant who struck fear into even the most hardened soldier of Israel, and Goliath laughs in his face.

To Goliath, David was foolish. David was powerless and weak. To Goliath, David was nothing. But David said to Goliath, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.” What happened next? David strikes Goliath with the stone and Goliath falls over dead.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

God takes the low and despised and turns the person or the situation around for God’s purpose. Even when David sinned against God by having an affair with Bathsheba and subsequently having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed, God still brought something good out of David’s sinfulness. God did not desire for David to sin and it was in no way God’s purpose for David to sin. God did not want David to disobey his law by committing adultery and murder; but even through the horror of the situation, God brought something good out of it. Even today, God still brings good out of bad situations. The eventual good that I am speaking of from David’s situation is the goodness and love of God manifested in humanity, incarnated in Jesus Christ. This is the genealogy of Matthew.

This theme of God using the foolish, the weak, the powerless, the low and despised, the things that are not, resurfaces yet again. Christ was not born out of nobility. He was born of a woman whose community thought she had been unfaithful to Joseph, her soon to be husband. In actuality, she was not unfaithful, but a humble young woman who was simply being faithful and obedient to God. And Jesus did not arrive as a powerful king; he was not wearing the shielding that the intimidating Goliath wore or the armor that Saul tried to give to David. Jesus was born as a helpless, little, weak, crying, human baby. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were even forced to flee to Egypt from the powers that were. By the world’s definition this was not strength, but weakness, foolishness, lowly, and despised.

When Christ began his ministry, he ministered to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the demon-possessed. These were the people who society, who the Pharisees and religious leadership, who the nobility, thought were foolish, weak, low, and despised. The disenfranchised – these were the people who Jesus, the incarnation of God, ministered to. These were the people who Christ offered healing and redemption to; they were the ones who the Messiah performed miracles for. And when we look at the disciples of Christ throughout history who lived out God’s message of love and peace, these were the ones who God used to “reduce to nothing things that are.”

In Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5, Christ says, “Blessed are poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. And blessed are you when people insult you because of me.” People that seem lowly and despised in the world and who the world may look at as powerless, people who show mercy, people who search after God and are insulted because of God – Christ says, “Blessed are those….”

And then Christ died in the way that a common criminal of the Roman empire died. It wasn’t anything special; there was no ceremony. He was crucified just like any other criminal. He died; as the world saw it, his life was finished, powerless, helpless, and foolish.

Remember Paul’s words: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” Through this foolish and powerless death of Christ, God allowed for the atonement of the sins of all humanity so that through Christ we may once again be restored in right relationship with God. And God shamed the so-called wise and the so-called strong, and reduced to nothing the things that are. God raised Christ from the dead, conquering death and sin and bringing life. The same is true today for us: through God’s “foolish” and “weak” message of Christ and the cross, God conquers death and sin within us, redeems us, and brings us to a life that is only found in God.

In considering this passage in 1 Corinthians and the message of Christ, we must critically examine our definitions of the words “wisdom” and “power.” We must ask ourselves how the wisdom and power of this world are different from the wisdom and the power found only in Christ’s message; we must ask ourselves what the purpose is.

Paul’s words apply to us today just as much as they applied to the Corinthians. Paul writes that by worldly standards, not many were wise, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. Wisdom, power, and nobility – these are very real things that the people of our world, society, and culture are searching for. But our world, society, and culture are searching for these things on its own without God; without God, it is a pointless and vain search. We have already begun to understand what these words truly represent; their definitions can only be found in the message of Christ and the cross.

The “wisdom” and “power” that the world searches for are not the same wisdom and power that God represents. If we look around at the world today, it is not hard to observe that the “wisdom” and “power” that the world and society are searching for is born out of greed, selfishness, and pride. We can see where that has gotten us; rather, we can see where that has not gotten us: violent wars, economic hardship and depravity, epidemics, sickness, disease, addictions, hate and jealousy, murder and rape, etc. We can see what happens when our motivations are born out of selfishness, pride, and a desire for personal gain.

On the other hand, the wisdom and power that God represents and the wisdom and power that is found in the message of Christ and the cross is born out of love. As Paul states, Christ’s act of love becomes for us wisdom, power, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

We cannot seek God’s wisdom and power out of selfish reasons or even out of an attempt to somehow manipulate Christ’s act of love for our personal gain. God did not bless David with a defeat of Goliath so that David could manipulate and exploit it for his own use and gain. David defeated Goliath so that God’s wisdom, power, and purpose may be made known. David tells Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:47: “…so that all the earth may know that that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

It is not about us; it is about God. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Wisdom and power are found in the message of Christ and the cross; God uses us as vessels so that God’s wisdom and power may be made known. God uses us for God’s message, the proclamation of God’s story, God’s love, and the sharing of the good news, redemption, sanctification, and righteousness that is found in Christ.

Wisdom and power found in Christ cannot be manipulated for our own gain; it is only to demonstrate God’s message of love found in Christ through which we are ultimately restored to God. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 4, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We are the fragile vessels that hold this treasure of power and wisdom found in Christ!

God uses the weak, the foolish, the low and despised, and reduces to nothing the things that are. God uses these so that the amazing wisdom and power of God may be made known! Ultimately, this wisdom and power is manifested in the message of Christ and the cross. Ultimately, it is so that God may restore us back into a right relationship with God. Ultimately, it is so that God’s love for all of humanity will be known.

I would ask each one of us reading: will you allow God to use you for the purpose of God’s love? Will you be the humble servant of God so that his wisdom and power, found in the message of Christ and the cross, will be known? We are not wise, powerful, or of noble birth by the world’s standards, but through God there is wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness.

random theological thoughts

*These are just a few (seemingly) random reflections on God as I continue classes at Nazarene Theological Seminary, and as I read through Wesley’s writings, Arminius’ works, and Wynkoop’s “A Theology of Love.” Feel free to address them with conversation if you’d like.*

Above anything else, love is the driving force of God. It is a holy love, which can only be truly understood in the scope of the narrative of the entire canon of Scripture with Christ at the center.

Holiness and love can never be thought of apart from one another. They are different, but are directly related; when we think of one, we must think of the other.

Holiness is a quality of both the personal life and the life in relation to others. It is both, and not just one or the other.

Out of love, God has given people free will. But God has placed a call on all of our lives; it is a call that God exercises through prevenient grace when were apart from God and a call that God invites us into more deeply through salvation. This is a call to know Him and to live in a way worthy of Christ.

In many’s people’s lives, he calls them to certain things. Sometimes it is painfully obvious and many more times it takes discernment. God asks us to respond to His call not by force, not by some magical fate of an already prescribed predestination, but by love. And God asks that through love and obedience, we respond.

God’s prevenient grace works incredibly in all of this; God moves in the entire world, working continuously to draw all people toward Him, and eventually redeeming all of creation in creating a new kingdom.

In attempting to understand God, we must learn to be content in understanding that there is a tension with the mysteries of God. We must always make room for God’s mystery; there will always be that which we do not understand regarding God. We cannot put God in a box; in doing that we are saying that we’ve somehow figured out God in totality. If we say that, than we’ve attempted to make ourselves bigger than God in addition to saying that we’re smarter than God (pride and arrogance) as well as making God a possession that we own (idolatry). God cannot be reduced to a math equation. This is one of the dangers of Christianity in a western culture where society for some reason always needs to know the answer. This is especially a danger in fundamentalist circles. And this is one of the dangers of an American Christianity that is already much too influenced by Calvinist theology. The most we can do is solely begin to understand God, primarily through Christ, Scripture, and the Church.

God could potentially use anything as a means of grace; however, there are known and recognized means of grace; these are the sacraments recognized by the Church.

Sanctification is the process of God’s Holy Spirit working in us that begins at justification, the point when we, through faith, are justified before God by Christ through his atoning sacrifice for all of humanity. During sanctification, there are crisis moments, such as realizations of God, realizations of obligation and consecration to God. Sanctification is a process by which God works in conjunction with the person who is justified, through the Holy Spirit to continually transform someone into a person that is more like Christ. Sanctification is a continual and dynamic state. “Entire sanctification” refers to sanctification working in the entire person, not just part of the person; by a Hebraic and Christian definition, we are holistic beings (we are not the Greek definition of a person in the dualist, platonist, Gnostic sense). “Entire sanctification” does not mean that we have reached a completed or finished state of sanctification; because of this temptation, we should probably think of sanctification and Christian Perfection as continually being sanctified. It directly relates to responding to God’s grace and growing in God’s love through obedience. It also demands responsibility that we live in a way worthy of Christ; God’s holy love is the bridge between our faith in Christ and the works we do in response to God’s grace and the Holy Spirit continually working in us. (For a further understanding of God’s work in a person, see Wynkoop’s “A Theology of Love.”)

Today the world is searching desperately for a Christianity that lives up to the example of Christ. This must be a Christianity that is always looking for ways to apply God’s message of love. In the face of competing ideas, John Wesley’s practical and theological lens of the Church and the Christian life is perhaps more critical now more than ever.

chapel sermon, kansas city rescue mission, 2.1.2012

Luke 2:22-40 (NIV)

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”),
24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required,
28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

Upon seeing the boy Jesus, Simeon, a righteous and devout servant of the Lord, had said, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory of your people Israel.” And the prophet Anna, another servant of the Lord who was present, (the scripture states that she was continually at the Temple, fasting, praying, and worshiping God) had described the child in reference to the redemption of Jerusalem. Jerusalem – this was the holy city of Israel, the Mecca, if you will, of the people of Israel. And despite being God’s chosen people, these were a people who had some good times and some bad times in God’s eyes; they had gotten in trouble on more than a few occasions. But nevertheless, this is the story of Israel, and it was their capital Jerusalem that this boy Jesus would one day redeem.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and come to today. There was a young boy growing up in the city, about six years old, and just starting elementary school. His eyes were bright and full of hope. He was ready to make friends, learn, play, laugh, and run around with the other kids. The boy had a younger sister who was just about a year younger than he was, and he cared about her so deeply. Their mom was single. He never knew his father, and his mom rarely, if ever, talked about him. But in order to take care of her two children that she loved more than anything, she had to work two jobs. As the boy grew up over the school years, he saw his mother less and less; she had to continue working more and more in order to take care of her kids. Eventually, when the boy was in middle school, she got sick and had to go the hospital; she didn’t have the health insurance to pay for her medical bills. The boy now had to take care of his younger sister. The boy had to find money to get them both the food and clothing that they needed.

Though through some of the friends he had made at school, the boy learned that he could sell drugs in order to make the money he needed to take care of his sister. But through selling drugs he became more and more familiar with the violence of the world through the beatings, fights, and shootings that he witnessed; he didn’t like it, but he realized it was the way his world worked. It was therefore the way he would have to operate. Eventually, as the years slowly passed and he was a student in the high school, his mother died. It was now only the boy and his sister in this world, alone. He began to drink alcohol and use the drugs he was supposed to sell in order to deal with all the pain and hurt that he felt on a daily basis. There was the pain of abandonment, the pain of the violence he witnessed too often, the pain of losing his mom, and the pain of worrying that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his sister. When the boy was in high school, he was arrested on drug charges and thrown in prison. This boy, who so many years ago had eyes that were bright and filled with the hope and the love and the joy of life, had become jaded by the dark realities of the world he had become accustomed to. He saw no hope.

But in this scripture we have Simeon and the prophet Anna, at the temple of Jerusalem, speaking of the young boy Jesus as a light of revelation for the gentiles, a hope of salvation for all nations, and the coming redemption of Israel. And here, separated by oceans, continents, and thousands of years of history, was another boy who had grown up in poverty without a father, who had lost his mother, and was forced to resort to selling drugs, violence, and alcoholism. Where was the light of revelation for him? Where was the salvation and the hope of redemption? On the one hand we have this boy, a gentile by every definition of the Jewish term, and on the other hand we have this boy Jesus at a temple in Jerusalem, who was supposed to represent the hope, redemption, and salvation in the midst of a painful and suffering world.

Anna saw the boy Jesus and referred to him as the redemption of Israel. Let’s take a quick look at the story of Israel. It is one characterized by a cycle of obedience, disobedience, violence, but yet one that is characterized by a hope for the future with the redemption of a promised Messiah. Abraham, so long ago, was told that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars; yet he was forced to sacrifice his only son only to have God stop him at the last minute and enter into a covenant with him. Generations later we have the beginnings of the twelve tribes of Israel, again marked by distrust, violence, and a brother sold into slavery by none other than his own family in a fit of jealousy. Generations later and the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are oppressed as slaves by the Egyptian Pharaoh, subject to beatings and even more violence. Leaders arise like Moses and Joshua, who led them through the desert. Meanwhile many wonder what hope they have for a future; many of them even give up. Finally they are brought to a new bountiful land, but yet again it is a process marked by war and blood as they take control of their new land. The Israelites beg God for leaders, only to have kings mistreat and abuse them. They start to worship foreign idols instead of the one true God. They even kill God’s prophets among them. They are forced into exile in Babylon, and years later are allowed to return, a broken people who have lost their identity in God. More religious leaders rise up, some bad, some good. Legalism abounds, and finally the birth of this boy Jesus happens. It is a moment that changed history, but the Jewish people didn’t know that at the time. Here was the one who was supposed to be a Messiah, a savior for the people who would rescue them out of this cycle. When some Jews began to recognize who he was, they thought he would lead them into victory over the Roman empire, but that’s not how the story goes.

Christ came and told them he was the fulfillment of the law. Christ demonstrated the redemption that God promises – he gave it to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, and to the people who were tormented by demons over and over again in life, and to the man who was blind, who could finally see when Jesus rubbed mud in his eyes. He gave redemption when he brought Lazarus back from the dead. He gave hope when he healed sick sons and daughters and performed countless other miracles. This boy Jesus grew up into the Christ who gave hope to those who thought they had none. Christ demonstrated love to the poor and the outcast of society who thought they had nothing in life.

Christ was killed, crucified on a cross, but not just for the redemption of Israel, but for all of humanity and for the hope of all nations and gentiles. All people would one day have a hope of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. And even through death, perhaps the worst you and I can imagine, and death where surely it is the very end, and there is without a doubt, absolutely, positively, and most certainly no returning from, Jesus Christ came back. Christ rose again to demonstrate to all the hope of a risen Lord and Savior, to give hope that even the worst in this world can be overcome, and to give hope that the evil in this world can be conquered after all. On every level, this is the message of Christ. This is a good news message that has persisted through persecution, doubt and critics. It is a gospel message that is alive today through a risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and a living God. This is a gospel message that proclaims the renewal of life and the renewal of hope. It is the renewal of the Jerusalem story that we, through Christ, are now a part of. And it is a gospel message that simply will not go away until all things are renewed through Christ.

This is even a gospel message that brings hope to that boy who grew up in the city, who was once hopeful with bright eyes looking for joy and happiness. It is a message that can even overcome the pain, despair, and hurt that boy has faced in this world; it is the good news of a very real Jesus Christ that will even offer that young man the redemption, hope, and love that he desires. It is a chance to receive the father that he never knew growing up. It is a chance to be an entirely new person in Jesus Christ and change the very fabric of a life to live in the faith of Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity to once again show his sister the love that he tried to show her so many times, but failed. It is a chance to show the people around him the the light of a revelation to the gentiles, the glory of God’s people, salvation from the evil of this world, and participate in the redemption of Jerusalem.

Christ has come to redeem Israel; the amazing thing is that we, once considered gentiles, are now a part of this people through Christ. God has come to restore each one of us so that we too may be a part of the loving kingdom of God, so that we may know God as our father, Christ as our savior, and the Holy Spirit as working within our lives to continually change us to become more like Christ.

This is our story – a story of people broken through the brokenness of this world, who without the grace of God would continue in our self-destruction through hate, jealousy, disease, drug-use, cancer, alcohol, addictions, wars, fights, and violence. But it is a story that has hope in a Messiah who overcomes all of these things of a selfish and prideful world and mends our own internal struggles, addictions, illnesses, and worries. It is a hope of being a part of a redeemed Jerusalem and being a child of God. God’s grace is there, available to all through the love of a living Christ. And so I finish tonight with this question: How will we respond to the hope that exists in Jesus Christ?

chapel sermon, kansas city rescue mission, 12.7.2011

During advent, we are often unfortunately consumed with things other than Christ.   Instead, we must challenge ourselves to live this season in a way that reflects the message of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 13:1-10 (NIV)

1 This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,
3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.
4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?
6 And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.
7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong – not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.
8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
9 We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored.
10 This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority – the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

It is evident that Paul cares deeply about the Corinthian church; this is his second letter to them and in both, he urges them to live in a way that is reflective of a faith in Christ. He has already even visited them twice! It’s also apparent that Paul is somewhat frustrated by the church in Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 12:20 Paul outlines some of those frustrations: discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, and arrogance and disorder among others. Unfortunately, even in the Church today, and even in our other various Christian communities, we face the same issues that Paul outlines. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians clearly have just as much significance to us today as they did for the varying churches in the Mediterranean almost two thousand years ago. Paul cares about the Corinthians and he wants them to be a church that reflects Christ. Multiple times in his letter, Paul tells the church in Corinth to have confidence in God, and to therefore live an authentic Christian life even through any hardships.

In this section of scripture, Paul reminds them of something very important: God works in amazing and powerful ways, even through what may appear to be weak in our own eyes. In verse 4 he warns the Corinthians, writing, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.” In verse 9 Paul writes, “We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored.” Despite what we may think, God works in unexpected ways; through our weakness God restores us.

In the season of advent, when we anticipate the coming birth of Christ, we must remember the message of Christ. Through an unexpected birth over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem; it was the last place the Jewish people thought the Messiah would be born. This baby was the Messiah who would restore God’s people to Him once again. It is the same Jesus who can restore each and every one of our own lives today. This is the same Jesus who changed history and continues to work in amazing ways. Yet Jesus, who is so strong for us, came in such a weak state as a crying baby, whose family even fled and ran to Egypt when threatened with the death of that baby.

However this was the same Jesus Christ who lived a life demonstrating the true nature of God’s love, making it available for all of humanity no matter what a person has done. It is through Jesus Christ that we receive the forgiveness of sins and are able to be restored to God. It was Jesus Christ who died on a cross, who hung there in agony in such a weak state and died. But out of death, Jesus Christ rose again and demonstrated his strength, victory, and power over death and the sin that destroys lives. And it is through Jesus Christ that a broken man, woman, or child can gain victory over the sin that consumes their lives today. This is why we celebrate advent and Christmas – to realize Christ’s message and to reflect the great love that Christ so freely shows us to all the people we meet in our daily lives. Paul was correct in warning the Corinthians in this passage; after all Christ has done for us, the least we can do is to live in a way that reflects him!

In the conclusion of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells them to “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now pray to God that you will not do anything wrong – not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.” In our world and churches today, we face the same temptations. Unfortunately even during the season of advent, we still see people who are in discord on a daily basis. We see people who are jealous and covet another person’s belongings. People lose it and become violent in fits of rage because they did not get what they wanted on “Black Friday.” People put themselves first with blind and selfish ambition; they simply do not think about what happens to the people around them. People tear each other down with slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. It may be that you and I are guilty of these same things as well.

Regrettably, during a time when we are supposed to be celebrating the life and the meaning of Christ and putting others before us, the American propagation of consumerism tells us to buy everything through a message of selfishness and greed. We tell our friends and family what we want and when Christmas day comes we better get what’s ours or else…. It’s pitiful that this is too often the time of year in the world when we forget the meaning and life of Christ and instead only resort to the list of fears and temptations that Paul laid out earlier in 2 Corinthians.

Paul gives the Corinthians a challenge and asks them if they will pass the test. Each one of us must take that challenge and ask ourselves the same question, especially during the season of advent. Are we living in a way that reflects our belief in Jesus Christ? Do our actions and our words demonstrate Christ’s message? We must live in a worshipful way that brings glory to God. We must live an authentic life for Christ, even during any hardships that we might face. Let’s demonstrate the deep love and compassion of God to the people living around us! Let’s celebrate the true meaning of Christ! Paul writes that the reason he is writing to the Corinthians is “for building you up, not for tearing you down.” As we prepare for the birth of Christ this season, perhaps the best way we can honor his birth is to not tear each other down, but build each other up, as Paul states. Christ is our example; let’s look to him! Let us attempt to be the Church God has called us to be.

viewing others through the eyes of Christ

In viewing others through the eyes of Christ, we begin to live in a way that reflects the Church God has called us to be.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NIV)

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
19 that God was reconciling us to himself through Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This scripture has two implications for living a holy life. First, we are to view others through the same eyes God views them. Second, we are to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation. In regarding others with the eyes of God, we open the opportunity for others to be reconciled to God and become a new creation, just as each one of us has been reconciled to God through Christ.

Paul writes in verse 16 to “regard no one from a worldly point of view.” As Paul states, we are new creations through Christ; as a result, we must begin to see people how God sees them. The way we understand people often determines how we treat people. Seeing someone from a Godly point of view means treating them with the respect and love that God would show that man, woman, or child. It means showing them the love and respect that Christ would show; Christ, after all, is the example we have of God on this earth. Not only does this determine how we treat non-believers, but also our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Too often, we in the Church treat our family with contempt, anger and bitterness; there is no difference between this and how people in the world view each other. This is not the way to do it; we must instead view our fellow Christian brothers and sisters in a Godly way. Treat them with respect and love. When someone trips, falls, or stumbles, we help them get back on their feet in a loving way. If someone makes a mistake, we as Christians can not call each other names, cast blame, or attempt to divide the Church; alternatively we hold each other accountable in a way that reflects the love of Christ. We help restore each other as only the restoring blood of Christ can offer.

As we build relationships with those who choose not to believe in Christ, we view them in the same Christ-like way. In the Wesleyan tradition and in the Church of the Nazarene, the denomination I am a part of, we recognize what is called prevenient grace. It is God’s warm love and grace that is constantly drawing everyone, even non-believers, towards him. So for those who may disagree with Christianity, or who may have not yet heard the gospel of Christ, Christians are not to thump the Bible down on their heads but show them the warmth and love that Christ showed to those he interacted with on earth. We are to represent God’s prevenient grace. We have the example of Christ’s interaction of the woman by the well who was shamed into getting water at a time when no one else would be there, or the man who cried out for Christ to help his unbelief when his child died. God has made us into new creations, and as a result we have no choice but to view humanity through the same eyes that Christ views humanity.

Working at a homeless shelter in Kansas City for nearly the past year and a half, I work with many men who have spent time in prison and faced hopeless addictions to alcohol and other hardcore drugs. However, through knowing Christ their lives have completely changed, a result that can only be explained by the redemptive and transformative power of Christ. The old has gone, and they are new creations. Even so, these men, who may have once viewed people through the eyes of a hopeless and scared person, are now able to start viewing others with the hopeful eyes of Christ. It may have only been because they themselves were seen by someone who had the eyes of a new creation in Christ.

This is a gift of God that is only available through Christ. Specifically, as Paul writes, this is the gift of reconciliation. In verses 18 to 19, Paul states, “All this from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Becoming a new creation is to become reconciled with God. Our sins, our downfalls, our addictive habits and behaviors, are all erased through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. After Christ’s death, we are once again able to become the people God originally created us to be. We can once again be in relationship and in proper worship of God. God will work in our lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit to transform us into new creations. “The old is gone, the new is here!” as Paul exclaims.

Ultimately, however, it does not stop with simply receiving Christ’s reconciliation. Paul writes that “he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Furthermore, Paul states in verse 20, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” We must now be the body of Christ. We must be agents and ambassadors of reconciliation ourselves. We must view others through the same eyes that Christ has viewed us. We must give others the opportunity to become a new creation in Christ. To view others in a Christ-like way is a mindset and a way of thinking that we must actively be aware of. It is only an opportunity that comes through Christ; it is through this that we are able to become the righteousness of God as Paul describes in verse 21.

This is the beginning of holy living in how we relate to those living around us. We must treat people with the same love and respect that Christ has so gracefully shown each one of us. This is how we become the Church God has called us to be.