Friday, February 22, 2019

The Double-Edged Sword

The Word of God is powerful and capable of bringing monumental change to the lives of those who heed it and the world at large. The Bible, which is the Word, compares it to a sword.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. - Hebrews 4:12
In the above verse, the comparison is meant to illustrate how profound the impact can be when someone encounters the Word. It is interesting that the verse mentions a “double-edged” sword in particular. We commonly use double-edged swords as metaphors to describe something else. Typically, we are saying that something is capable of both helping or hurting depending on how its used.

That more commonly used sword-based metaphor is also true for God’s Word. We as Christians believe the Word can save. That is God’s purpose for his Word. It was written to give us knowledge of his Son and understanding of salvation among other things. Unfortunately, when God put his Word in the hands of Man, it also gained the ability to hurt and destroy. That certainly was not God’s purpose for his Word, but the sinfulness of Man made it so nonetheless.

This happens to be Black History Month. Sadly, slavery happens to be a prominent part of the history of blacks in America. It is impossible to discuss the African American experience without mentioning it. The legacy of slavery in America may be one of the best examples of the double-edged nature of the application of God’s word. Have you ever wondered why Christianity is so strongly embedded in the African American community? After all, it was not widely practiced among the West Africans from which most African Americans possibly descended. On top of that, Christianity was the predominant religion of the people that put those Africans in bondage. Why would they have adopted it as their religion, and why would it have remained so strong in the community after all these years? An article in Christian Today offers some insight:
The question that remains is why. Why did enslaved Africans embrace the religion of their captors, who used the Bible to justify the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade?

Powery and Sadler’s simple answer is that “they fell in love with the God of Scripture.…In Christ they found salvation from their sins and reconciliation.” They conclude that though this was certainly enough, there was more to the answer. They write: In these texts they found not just an otherworldly God offering spiritual blessings, but a here-and-now God who cared principally for the oppressed, acting historically and eschatologically to deliver the downtrodden from their abusers. They also found Jesus, a suffering Savior whose life and struggles paralleled their own struggles.*
The slaves found hope in the Bible and Jesus in particular. The Word offered hope of salvation both for the spirit and from the trials of the world at that time. That hope is the Bible’s intended purpose. If that were the only way the Bible were used during America’s slave era, one could argue that God’s will was done. However, there was another side to the Bible’s use during that period in our history. Slave owners routinely used the Bible to justify slavery. A favorite passage of theirs was Ephesians 6:5-7.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Paul was not promoting slavery here. He was acknowledging that it existed and instructing slaves to act in a manner befitting a child of God regardless of their situation. Some might disagree even with that sentiment. That is fine. Christians must learn to accept that everyone who hears God’s Word will not accept it. Christians must never accept others twisting God’s word to serve other purposes. The slave owners even went so far as to create a revised version of the Bible known now as the “Slave’s Bible” that contained everything that seemed friendly to the institution of slavery and removed everything against it including the whole saga of Moses taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt. The Christianity of the slave owners was so corrupt, it led Frederick Douglas to say:
Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity…**
One could argue that same dichotomy exists today. We still see the Bible being used to justify hatred, cruelty, and even murder. There is only one Christ, so there should be only one Christianity. Let us make sure that we only promote and support the real Faith. And when we wield the Bible, let us make sure that it cuts only to save as God intended and never to destroy.

Chris Lawyer
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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Christian Correspondence

When reading the Bible, you’ve likely noticed a number of differences between the Old and New Testaments. One in particular might have stood out to you. The Old Testament books are largely narrative in nature. Most of them tell stories or series of stories about God, the trials of the Israelites, great prophets, and several other topics. The New Testament starts off similarly as the Gospels tell the story of Jesus and the Book of Acts recounts the events following the death of Jesus. However, immediately after that the nature of the books changes. Instead, of narratives, we get letters from several prominent figures from the era when Christianity first came to be.

Paul is one of the most notable characters in the New Testament. While his story is told in the Book of Acts, his real prominence in the New Testament comes from the inclusion of so many of his letters. Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1st and 2nd Thessalonians were all letters that Paul wrote to churches in the corresponding cities, while 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were letters he wrote to friends that he had brought into the Faith. Paul did much through his letters including: teaching about who Jesus was, explaining how Believers should conduct themselves, and advising the churches on how they should handle internal conflict among other things. Much of what Christians believe to be true for life in the Faith comes from what Paul laid out in his letters. Though the letters all had different purposes and touched on the different issues that concerned the specific churches being addressed, Paul was always sure to express thanks, love, and encouragement for his fellow Christians. For example:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way - with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge - God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. - 1 Corinthians 1:1-7
Peter is another well known figure from the New Testament. We see him go from a weak faithed and impulsive student of Jesus in the Gospels to being one of the primary leaders of the Faith. The end result of his transition is made clear through his letters. Whereas Paul wrote to specific churches and people he knew. Peter’s letters were directed at Believers throughout the known world at the time. As a result, his letters weren’t so much geared at addressing particular problems or concerns of any group in particular. His letters were instead concerned with providing a fundamental understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ. As the saying goes “the student became the master.” He made his purpose for writing most clear in his second letter.
Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. - 2 Peter 3:1-2
Notice that he considers the letters to be correspondence with friends, and he is using the letters to encourage those friends. John’s letters take this even further. Whereas Peter wrote to those for which he had affection due to their common status as Believers. John wrote to people with whom he had true friendly relationships. His second letter is particularly interesting because he writes to a woman that he considers to be great in the Faith. Sometimes Christianity seems to be centered on the ways and actions of men, but John’s letter is good proof that even back then, women played an important role in the Faith. We see exactly how he feels about her and her role from how he first addresses her:
To the lady chosen by God and her children, who I love in the truth - and not I only, but also all who know the truth - because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever. - 2 John 1:1-2
It may seem strange that a Holy Text like the Bible gives such prominence to letters of this kind, and one might wonder what we can truly take from them. It is true that each letter contains important instruction on living according to God’s will. So they are certainly useful for gaining knowledge about God, what he wants from us, and what he expects of us. However, something else we should see is the importance of correspondence between Christians. If the Bible is our guide and it puts such importance on Believers reaching out to their brothers and sisters in Christ, we must conclude that such correspondence is supposed to be an important part of the Christian experience.

In today’s world, we are more capable of communication within the Body of Christ than ever before. We’re not limited to mailed letters. We have email, text messages, and social media among other things. We should be using all of these things to spread word about Jesus and encourage each other in the Faith. In a world where we can speak to anyone in the world instantly using phones, some might say that writing is an all but archaic form of communication. What good does it do to write to someone when you can just call them to offer instant encouragement?

Consider this. Messages over phones are gone as soon as the call is over. Written messages stick around. You may have a set intention for your words, but you never know what God intends for them. After all, Paul, Peter, and John were just writing to their fellow Believers, they didn’t know that those letters would eventually become books in the Bible that would be used to instruct Believers for centuries after they were written. God knew and that all went according to His will. He can use us in ways we’d never expect. So, whether your words are meant for a friend, some people you helped into the Faith, or the world at large, if God moves you to reach out for whatever reason, make sure you do. You never know what kind of impact your words might have.

                                                                                                                                          Chris Lawyer

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Order of Operation: Love

Love is the last of the things Peter stated needs to be added to our Faith. In the previous entry, we discussed mutual affection and how it is essentially the most basic way that humans understand love. Mutual affection isn’t the same as God’s love, but if we learn how to extend the affection that we feel for family and friends to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in effect learning how to reduce the conditions required for our affection. However, God’s love is unconditional, so to truly fulfill the order Peter laid out, we have to learn to love like God, without condition. Paul explains how such a love should look.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Perhaps we all show glimpses of such love, but we need to be consistent. We need to demonstrate that pure love for family and friends, not just when things are good between us but also when things are not. We need to show that love for our spiritual family, not just when we are at church but also in our everyday lives. However, those are relatively easy to accomplish. To truly display love as the Bible instructs, we have to show it not just for people with which we have relationships but also for those that we do not even know. Perhaps even more difficult, we must love those who are against us and mean us harm.
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. – Luke 6:27-28
Love is more than lip service. While loving words are important and can uplift those around us. Love in its truest form is action. We have to want the best and do the best for those around us. We have to want to do good for those that we encounter, even if bad is all they want for us.
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. – 1 John 3:18

It is sometimes said that being a Christian is hard, and it can be. Most would think that’s because of all the things from which Christians must abstain. However, that’s not really the truth. Being a Christian can be hard because of how committed we must be to love. John makes an interesting point.
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. – 1 John 3:14
Love is so closely tied to our salvation that John argues that its presence is the sign that a person has been saved.

In a previous message (2 vs 10), we discussed how Jesus condensed God’s commandments down to loving God above all and loving your fellow man as you love self. Based on that order, one would be led to believe that loving God is the most important commandment, and it is. However, the Bible also tells us that it is impossible to truly obey the first commandment without first obeying the second. A couple reasons are given for that.
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. – 1 John 4:20
First, John makes the argument that we have never seen God. Our knowledge of his existence is based on faith. John is saying that it is doubtful that we can truly love someone that we’ve never encountered physically when we can’t even love those that we have.Christ
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. - James 3:9
Second, James points out how contradictory it is of us to use our words to exalt God while simultaneously using them to debase our fellow people who are made in his likeness. By extension, is it not also contradictory to say we love God while also not loving our fellow people who are made in his likeness? Loving God is paramount, and clearly, so is loving our fellow human beings.

Love is crucial in our walk as Christians. The Bible makes that point over and over. Peter, in particular, believed it to be so important that he held it as the final step in the order he presented. Goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love - those are the steps in Peter’s order, but we must be careful. The order is not a simple checklist. You can’t just exhibit one quality and then move on as if your mission is complete. Exhibiting love consistently requires a constant exhibition of all the other qualities. Love itself isn’t something that you can demonstrate once and be finished. You have to be able to demonstrate it and the other qualities day in and day out for the rest of your life. Finally, when that life is over, if you have adhered to the order as Peter instructed, you will be able to meet God and reflect over a life lived righteously.

Chris Lawyer
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