Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ephesians 1:1-10

Off the top of one's head, one might think there is not much to write about in the opening verses of a letter. I mean what can Paul say in the first 10 verses? The opening of a letter is usually just filled with pleasantries and telling the recipient how your life is going. But this is not the case with the opening of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. These opening verses have some powerful messages. Let's take a look.

Paul tells us that God is to be praised because He has given us "every spiritual blessing" in Christ. I do not know about you, but I do not always feel spiritually blessed. Sometimes I wonder if I missed out on one or two of these blessings. Paul helps us here as well. To make sure we do not misunderstand what he means by "every spiritual blessing", Paul spells them out.

First, we have received the blessing of being adopted by God as His spiritual children. Please remember that Paul wrote this letter form a prison in Rome. In ancient Roman times, when someone adopted you, you received the same rights and privileges as a natural born child. Thus, when Paul says God adopted us, we receive His grace like a father gives forgiveness to his own children.

The second spiritual blessing comes to us through God's son, Jesus. Here four items are listed that make up this blessing - redemption, forgiveness, enlightenment, and enrichment. To be redeemed means to be brought back. By being redeemed by Christ we are freed from sin. To forgive means to give up the right to punish for that transgression. Enlightenment means understanding, or knowing, God's will. Finally, we are enriched when we give up living by our will and live following the will of God.

Yes, there is much in the opening of Ephesians. Paul outlines clearly how each of us has received spiritual blessings and how lucky we are to have received them. With so much in the opening, one can just imagine what must be in the remainder of the letter.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

2 Thessalonians 3:1-18 "Peace at all Times"

Grace be unto you, and Peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are not a world at peace.

We are a nation split straight down the mushy middle, each side voting mostly against the other.

We are a community with a sharp divide between the have-much and the have-little.

Our nights are punctuated by wakefulness and worry.

Medication helps, for a time.

But it always comes back to this:

There is nothing in the world that brings peace.

And yet, this is a lesson that I've never learned very well, because I keep returning to trying things that have never brought me peace, and -SURPRISE--they still don't. Even things that are very good by themselves--a good meal with family and friends, an afternoon paddling on the Potomac River, relaxing at night with a good sea story--fail ultimately to change me in the ways that I need to change.

At the same time that I'm persisting in the usual routine of things, both productive and unproductive, I'm falling off doing the things that are inherently more difficult--things that involve sacrifice of my time, my money. Paul's advice is don't get weary. It seems sometimes that we have every reason to quit trying, especially if we're not getting results. Keep going. Remember the promise. The Lord himself will grant us peace at all times and in every way.

Friday, April 25, 2008

2 Thessalonians 2:1-17

Today’s reading reminds me of the Charles Dickens line “They were the best of times and the worst of times.” The time when the early Church was forming was certainly difficult. Even at the best of times, life then was rough, filthy and short-lived. For the early Christians, those times were also dangerous. They were in constant danger of being at best harassed and at worst, killed for their beliefs.

So when the apostles taught that Jesus would come again when the world was full of lawlessness and hopelessness, many thought that the time had already arrived. In their minds, things could not possibly get any worse so, therefore, the time for the second coming had arrived.

The apostles had a hard time convincing some of the early Christians differently. The reading for today was Paul’s attempt at trying to deal with this issue once and for all. He is telling the new church in Thessalonia that certain things must happen first, like the rise of the Anti-Christ. He comforts them by telling them that God chose them to wait out this time until Jesus comes again and that they will be blest for making the decision to have faith.

Sometimes it seems like our world today is in the worst of times. The overcrowded world does not have enough resources to sustain life on the planet. People die needlessly every second of every day. Racism, religious persecution, genocide and just plain hate are a way of life for so many in our world. We know that this is Satan’s work. But is it bad enough yet to be the apocalypse? We will know the answer one day, when we come face to face with our Father in Heaven. Until then, we must also follow the words of Paul and have faith.

Vicki Nelson

Thursday, April 24, 2008

2 Thessalonians 1:1-12

Obviously, today we start with a new book of the Bible—the second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Like the first letter, it is written clarify what is going to happen in the future.
Having just finished NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope, I am particularly mindful that this hope is not that we will fly away to some spiritualized heaven, but that we will be resurrected to a new heaven and a new earth.

In other words, though transformed by the life giving power of God’s Spirit, earth will continue to exist. That’s why early Christians were so ready to suffer persecution and affliction in the here and now. They realized this world, and the people in it, mattered. They realized that following Jesus wasn’t just about escaping this world with their free pass to heaven, but doing their part in redemptive history by working with the Spirit towards the day when this new heaven and new earth are realized.

In these verses, after Paul writes his normal thanksgivings he goes on to write about divine retribution and eternal punishment. These words were meant to reassure and hearten the Thessalonians—though they were presently being persecuted for their faith, justice is on the way. There will be a second coming when “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven” and God will judge. Though life may not be fair now, and evil does sometimes prosper, the day is coming when God will set things right.

Still, these are hard words for many of us to read—words of God “punishing” (TNIV), “inflicting vengeance (NRSV), or “evening up the score (The Message). The reality of hell, and that this appears to be a very possibility for those who resist God and work again Him and his purposes, is quite disturbing.

But that, I think, is exactly the point. Bono, of the band U2, talks about social justice on one of his albums and says, “Am I bugging you yet?” Well, this passage is meant to “bug” us. It’s meant to bug us enough that we do something about it. It’s meant to bug us enough that we will allow God to “make us worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (verses 11-12).

How have you and I resolved to help build God’s kingdom in very real and practical ways? What concrete works of faith are being manifested in your life and in mine? These are the practical applications of the Bible’s teaching about eternity. Who can ignore them?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

What a way to conclude a letter. These last verses of 1 Thessalonians conclude an awesome letter in an awesome way.

In these last verses Paul gives us some specific ways to display the changes Christ brings into our lives. In verses 12 & 13 Paul outlines the way we should behave toward church leaders - respect them and hold them in the highest regard. In verses 14 & 15 we are given instructions for Christian living - warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, and do not seek revenge.

Verses 16 through 18 provide us with some inner attitudes a Christian should have. "Be joyful always" - no matter what circumstances you are in because you know your ultimate reward is yet to come. "Pray continually" - maintain a constant attitude of being in God's presence. "Give thanks in all circumstances" - realize that God works all things out for the good of those who love and serve Him.

Now Paul moves into some personal responsibilities and spiritual integrity in verses 19 through 22. Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and do not stifle His work. Seek God's will and not your own. Follow the teachings found in the Bible. Measure everything you see and hear against the teaching in the Bible.

Finally we get to the benediction, verses 23 through 27. All of the instructions about our lifestyle can be accomplished only by the help of the Lord. We should pray for His assistance and presence.

Then, in verse 28, the sign-off, the goodbye. Many of us say goodbye by using whatever is in vogue, "see you later", "catch you later", "take it easy", "so long", "have a nice day". Paul wishes these people God's grace. What a wonderful ending to a letter that encourages us all to live for Christ instead of ourselves. Paul points out, extremely well, in this letter the question behind all the decisions we face. This question is always - who are we living for?

Friday, April 18, 2008

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13

This passage is full of joy and relief. We’ve all had situations where we were beside ourself with worry about someone. We care about them, even love them, but they have been left vulnerable and we wonder if they have been able to bear up under their life situations. Paul had to leave the young believers in Thessalonica with little support and being persecuted. So, he sent Timothy back to see how they were doing. Paul loved the believers so much and he was so afraid for them.

Paul called the believers his glory and joy (2:20). It’s easy to overlook these words. How often do I think of fellow believers as my “glory and joy?” Paul had poured his life into this group of people. What we invest in is close to our heart. It reminds me of an artist shaping a work of art; that’s perhaps how Paul felt. He stood back and looked and felt a surge of joy.

Now, however, Paul was worried that he’d hear that the believers were broken and scattered by the persecution; that all his work would have been for nothing (v. 5). Now that summer is coming I can picture a beautiful sandcastle wiped out by a huge wave; so easily can all of our work be wiped out like it never existed.

When Paul hears the news that they endure and remain faithful his joy overflows. He can’t resist stopping a minute to exhort; he reminds them he had predicted they would suffer so they should not be surprised. Then the passage erupts in his words of joy. Here are his phrases, “fond memories,” “ your faith and love,” “now we really live, now that you are standing firm in the Lord.” What joy and relief he feels.

Last week a friend of mine, after many years of effort, became a US Citizen. She told me how overnight she feels secure in a way she can hardly describe. Paul says, “now I really live,” knowing his dear friends persist in the Lord. And what prayer does he leave with them? That their love would increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else. As I consider our body of believers at St. Matthews, I want to pray that we would have this love. It wouldn’t be a gift just for us; it would be a love which would cause others to know Christ.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

1 Thessalonians 2:13-20

If you look at how your church spends most of its time and money, what would you say is the pride and joy of your church?

Some obvious answers come to mind. For some churches, their pride and joy is their building, or maybe some feature of it. For some it is their programs, or perhaps their liturgies. For others it is their heritage. For still others, it might be their doctrinal statement and strict adherence to it.

Paul’s pride and joy—his “hope” and “joy” and “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” is perfectly clear in these verses: it’s people. The Thessalonians, Paul says, are his “glory and joy.”

And that leads us to a second question: What is our pride and joy?

It’s probably worth asking how we are investing ourselves in the lives of others so that they, like the Thessalonians, will receive God’s word as God’s word. In what ways are we devoting ourselves to people so that they might know the power of God’s word at work in them?

It’s probably also worth being very specific in answering these questions. Who are we investing in—names, faces? When are we doing it—precise times and places? Can we think of explicit changes that have occurred in people’s lives as a result of our sharing God’s word with them?

And when we think of these people and these times, is our heart filled with the same kind of thanks and joy that Paul describes in these verses? Is our joy in these people and our involvement in their lives the greatest joy of our lives?

Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook way too easily on this. And that’s too bad, because I think God is still looking for people like Paul and Silas and Timothy—people who’s greatest joy is in loving people and sharing the Gospel with them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thessalonians 2:1-12

1 Thessalonians is one of my favorite letters that Paul wrote. In fact I had the privilege of leading a Bible study on this letter. In my comments today, I will expand on a couple of verses at the end of today's reading.

In verse 18 Paul writes, "For we wanted to come to you ... but Satan stopped us." I like this verse because I believe Satan is real and that Spiritual warfare is real. As Christians we should attempt to understand God's will for each of us through prayer and meditation. Satan does not want God's will to be accomplished so he will devise all sorts of schemes to distract us from our communication with God. When there does not seem to be time for prayer in our busy lives, this can be Satan adding too many things to our plate. It is our job, our duty, to overcome Satan's distractions and make sure we do find the time to pray. Now in Paul's case I am sure Satan did not keep Paul from understanding God's will, but Satan evidently kept Paul from returning to visit the Thessalonians.

The other verse I want to touch on is verse 20, "Indeed, you (the Thessalonians) are our glory and joy." The ultimate reward is not money, prestige, or fame, but bringing new people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter what ministry God is calling you to be a part of, your highest reward and greatest joy should be those who come to believe in Christ and are growing in Him. Remember, God's highest priority is people. The heavens are His, the stars, moon, and sun were made by Him, and the mountains and oceans are His handiwork - but people are His pride and treasure. If people are God's pride and treasure shouldn't they be ours too?

Wishing you the best in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Colossians 3:1-17 "Everything in the Name"

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:16-17

Shout to the Lord, all the earth
Let us sing. Power and majesty, praise to the King.
Mountains bow down and the seas will roar
At the sound of your name
I sing for joy at the work of your hands
Forever I'll love you, forever I'll stand
Nothing compares to the promise I have in
--from “Shout to the Lord”, lyrics by Darlene Zschech (Hillsongs Australia, 1993)

Thanks to a featured performance by the American Idol Top 8 this week on “Idol Gives Back”, this classic praise song has rocketed to #5 on iTunes. I have to admit that I was initially shocked to hear it on the show—it’s certainly not penetrated into the popular culture, nor is it from the country or gospel genres where references to faith are pretty much a given. I know it mostly from its being performed a few years ago by the 9:15 band, with Heather providing the outstanding lead vocals.

Interestingly, though, the version you can buy on iTunes differs from last Wednesday night’s performance in one significant aspect—on Wednesday the opening lines were altered from “My Jesus, My Savior” to “My Shepherd, My Savior.” What would Paul have thought of that? Whatever you do, in word or deed (and maybe especially in song!)—do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus. Paul knew, in his day (as it is in ours) that the name of Jesus is powerful. To some, it is the sweetest sound they’ve ever heard. To others, it is utterly offensive. Blessing or curse—and not much in between. I suppose that “Idol” played it safe so as not to offend those latter folks. But on Thursday night’s reprise of the song, it was back to “My Jesus”. Hmmmmm.

Finally, I am curious to know why this song was selected to be featured on Idol. It is a purely “spiritual song” that flows from a grateful heart in which the word of Christ not only dwells but—dare I say it?—burns. Was it a song from the hearts of all those who sang it? I have no idea—I hope so. Can it be the song of our hearts? It can be, if we choose to set our minds on things that are above. After all, nothing compares with the promise we have in Jesus.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Colossians 2:8-23

In today’s reading, Paul is contrasting the secular world, which consists of captivity “through philosophy and deceit”, and the world of the risen Lord in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” In the days of the early Church, it was so difficult for the apostles, who planted these churches, to stay in any one place to help the fledgling Christian community stay true to their calling. The letter Paul wrote to the Colossians was his attempt to warn them against allowing behaviors which would take them away from the Christ-centered path that Paul taught.

The imagery of the words in today’s reading are interesting to me in that Paul uses the image of captivity and condemnation. He uses terms such as allowing others to disqualify the Colossians from a life with Christ. He speaks as to how Christ erases the record of legal demands which stood against us. He uses the word regulations more than once when talking about the secular ways of the world. He says that Jesus, in His death on the cross, disarmed the rulers and authorities and triumphed over them.

The inference is that the secular way is a life of captivity to the “elemental spirits of the universe”. But, living in the fullness of the risen Lord brings freedom and everlasting life. Paul is not saying that Christians should not follow the law. Although he does not specify this difference, he describes the legalism of the secular world as “regulations which refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.” Paul goes on to say that the human world has the “appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility and severe treatment of the body.”

When I read these words I think immediately of the high priests and rulers of the Jews who condemned Jesus to death. Jesus was not teaching the Jews to turn against their religion. He was teaching them the reasons why their temple leaders were not the God-loving believers that they pretended to be.

So, for me, today’s reading reminds me to stay sharp so that I can recognize the difference between the elements of our world that lead to captivity and the elements of our world that would lead me to freedom and eternity with God.

Vicki Nelson

Colossians 1:24-2:7

To be a Christian in this world is to suffer, plain and simple.

There will be joy, to be sure, and there is always hope. But there will also be considerable, pain, grief, and sorrow. Believe me, I can tell you that first hand. And I can also tell you that anyone who says something different is lying.

I base my claim on verse 24 in today’s reading. Paul writes, “… in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Though this verse is the source of considerable debate, this much is clear.

  1. Paul is not talking about adding anything to Christ’s death once and for all for our sins (called the Atonement). That is the central theme of the book of Colossians; the complete sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work.

  2. This verse suggests there is a profound link between the suffering of the Church and the suffering of Christ. When the Church suffers, Jesus suffers. On this there is complete agreement.

And perhaps that is enough. When the Church is faithful to Jesus, it often finds itself at odds with the world. That causes suffering for the Church even as it did for Jesus. Sometime being faithful to Jesus means being willing to join the suffering of others, even as Jesus joined in our suffering.

The point is that the Church, the body of Christ, still has a lot of suffering to undergo as God works to create a new Heaven and a new Earth in which the Kingdom of God fully reigns. Paul is saying that he is not only willing but glad to do his part, to accept his share of the pain in working to bring Heaven to a world that too often is bent on going to Hell. He is glad not because he likes pain, but because he knows the good God will bring from it. And all of this only serves to draw him closer to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

What about us? How are we doing entering into in the suffering that so marks our world--the kind of suffering Christ takes on? How are we doing at welcoming the chance to take our share in the church's part of that suffering? (These questions are a paraphrase of how the Message translates this verse.)

Where are you—where am I—suffering for Jesus?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Colossians 1:15-23

I feel today's reading is one of the strongest statements that Jesus Christ is in fact God found in the Bible. If you have not read it yet, please take a moment to do so.

The fact that Jesus was in fact God, is a key element of the Christian faith. We must believe in the deity of Jesus or our Christian faith is hollow, misaligned, and without meaning. We must know in our hearts that Jesus is the visible manifestation of God, our eternal creator, and our reconciler who has supremacy in the universe and the Church. As Christians we must oppose those who state that Jesus was merely a prophet or a good teacher.

These verses also relay another important Christian belief. No one is good enough to save him or herself. If we want to live eternally with Christ in heaven, we must depend totally on God's grace. It does not matter if we are criminals or good law abiding citizens, we have all sinned repeatedly. Our sins are forgiven by the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us on Good Friday. We must accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior to have our sins forgiven and to receive eternal life.

When a judge in a court of law declares a defendant not guilty, the defendant has been acquitted of all charges. Legally it is as if he or she was never charged with the offense in the first place. The record is wiped clean. When God forgives our sins, our record is wiped clean too. It is as if we never committed the sin in the first place. This outcome is available to anybody. No matter what any of us has done or what kind of life we have led, God's forgiveness is available for all of us and if we truly seek it we will find it.

Friday, April 04, 2008

I Peter 3:13-4:6

I remember the first time I had to step backwards off of a cliff. I was in college, in a rockclimbing class, so I was wearing the proper safety gear. But the chasm behind me looked vast and I was scared. Before we leave Easter too far behind I’d like to remind us all of the wonderful relief we feel that Christ has risen.

In our devotional book Bread and Wine Karl Barth writes that that the resurrection represents a threat because it reminds us that we are all leading to the edge of a precipice and we need Jesus’ resurrection to save us. By participating fully in the Passion experience, more and more I feel relief on Easter day. I am relieved that the bonds of sin are broken and I love the Scriptures that remind us that Jesus bridged the chasm and opened the gates of heaven. Whew! Alleluia!

In today’s reading Peter reminds his readers of this good news as he reminds them of what their life in the world may be demand of them. Peter writes to encourage believers who are suffering for their faith. He bolsters their faith not by pitying their misfortune but by calling them blessed. Even though they are upset and frightened he exhorts them to respond to people with gentleness and respect (v. 15). It strikes me that if Peter could urge believers who are being harassed for their faith to be gentle of speech and action, how much more should we be gentle of speech and action with those who we come in contact with. Some just don’t understand about the chasm, and some just have different opinions than we do.

In Chapter 4, Peter goes on to point out another benefit of suffering for Christ; it strips away the things in our life which would distract us from the Lord. It’s so easy to be distracted. Peter explains how suffering causes us to examine our priorities and look to Jesus.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

1 Peter 2:11-25

Some years ago a group of three men from St. Matthew’s went to a conference on “Servant Evangelism”. As part of the conference, we did things like feeding homeless people in a city park on a bitter cold day and going door to door handing out light bulbs to people living in subsidized housing. Often these acts of kindness opened the door to talk further with people, and sometimes that conversation led to talking about Jesus and praying together. It was a very powerful experience.

This is precisely the idea behind what Peter is saying here: Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. Jesus, of course, taught something very similar. He said, Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Peter then goes on to list ways to do this. Be good citizens. Honor others. Love well. Respect authority. It’s simple stuff, really—but harder to practice.

How are you and I good citizens? Good citizens are involved in their community. What are you and I doing on a regular basis to make our community a better place to be? How are we serving the needs of those around us?

What does it mean to “honor” someone? Who might we honor? I’d suggest that in a day and age where disrespect is all too common, honoring one another might be a powerful way of witnessing to the power of the Gospel to change lives.

What does it look like to love well? What is one concrete way you and I can show someone love today, especially someone outside our family and friends?

What does it look like to be under authority? Specifically, how could we put this into practice in such a way that those around us might notice it?

These are the kind of questions that Peter asks us to consider.

And not just to consider, but to answer.

And not just to answer, but to d0.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

1 Peter 1:13-25

Peter, the rock on which the Church was built, gives us a very powerful reading today. I especially like a couple of passages. Let's have a look.

Verses 18 and 19 say, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed ... but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect." In this passage, the word "redeemed" is dominant. It is used to describe our salvation and our hope. The word "redeemed" means "to release by paying a price or a ransom." Before we enter a relationship of faith with Jesus Christ we must realize that we needed to be ransomed from our old life. Peter's readers were trapped in the lifestyle inherited from their pagan ancestors. We, too, are often trapped in the pagan materialism inherited from our culture, and thus need to be ransomed. Obviously these verses tell us that Christ's death was the ransom paid for our spiritual deliverance.

The next verse I would like to discuss is verse 20, "He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake." I especially like this verse because it tells us that Christ's sacrifice for the world's sins was not an afterthought - not a plan B. This plan was set in motion by our omniscient God long before the world began. It was not an accident or twist of fate. It was planned and carried out in accordance with God's will. God knew we would need his grace - he also knew we would not deserve it.

God, in his mercy, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ has given Christians a living hope that cannot be taken away. Even though our lives may be excruciatingly painful it is through God's grace that we can all look forward to a pain free life with him.