Who’s in?

[Adapted and abridged from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Who’s In?” Click to listen to the podcast.]

COMMUNITY

Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Bear one another’s burdens—whether it’s a burden of temptation, of sin; or a burden of a difficult situation, a health problem, a loved one’s health problem. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ—that is, love one another.

But bearing one another’s burdens is easier said than done, isn’t it? I like to be the one helping but I don’t like to be the one being helped. We hate having to ask for help. We think it’s a sign of weakness, that it means we haven’t got things together. Or maybe we’d rather not impose on others—but really, that’s an excuse for keeping things in our control (at least, we may think they’re in our control!). We’d rather not be vulnerable; we’d rather not let people in; we’d rather manage on our own, but thanks for asking. America’s rugged individualism and sin’s inclination to isolate are in our bloodstream.

But one of the keys to healing, to restoration, to healthy living, is this: utterly honest relationships of humiliating vulnerability. Twelve-step groups know this truth even better than many churches do. And so Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” That means not only being the helper but being the one who needs help. It means not only helping to restore someone with gentleness but being honest about your own problems and struggles so that others can help restore you.

Community is one of the core values of our church, and we celebrate it. Welcoming those who are alone, including those who are isolated, reaching out to those who have been ignored—these actions are all close to my heart, and so I’m always excited and encouraged when people come to a Sunday gathering or get involved with a small group or come to an event and they comment on how welcoming we are.

L to R: Sheldon, Rachel, Heather, Amy, LaToya, and myself.

But community—if it is true—is also hard.

When I first moved to DC, I lived in intentional community with five other interns—we all worked at Sojourners, and we all lived in a house together. We did chores together, had a shared food budget and shopped for food together, cooked together, ate at least five meals a week together, and spent a lot of intentional time together. Now this is a group of people that I didn’t choose, each of whom is different from me. All of us had different interests and hobbies and passions and callings: photography, baking, soccer, running, art, deep conversations. All of us had different dietary preferences and requirements: beans and rice, no dairy, no soy, no meat, only meat. And all of us had a different way of looking at things, of dealing with problems, of communicating or not communicating, of expressing or not expressing frustration. Doing life together that year, spending almost every waking moment in each other’s company taught me what it meant to really love my neighbor, because even if we get to choose who we do life with—those are our closest friends—even then, if those relationships are to be healthy, there has to be honesty and vulnerability, trust and honor, encouragement and accountability, flexibility and graciousness.

Jesus’ twelve disciples are an interesting mix. You have Simon the Zealous, known for his fervor, his earnestness, his commitment to ethnic and religious purity; and you have Matthew the tax collector, a Jew who was working for the Romans to extort money from his own people—tax collectors and sinners were equated with one another all the time! Do you think they got along well from the outset? Do you think that was a walk in the park?

Then you have Peter, brash Peter: the entrepreneur, the activist, the go-getter, the one who walks on water just because Jesus says so, and who leaves his buddies behind to haul in the catch when he sees Jesus on the shore. And you have Thomas, doubting, careful Thomas: the naysayer, the cautious one, the one who keeps his cards close to his chest, who never agrees to do something unless he knows it’s going to be a success. How often do you think those two got on each other’s nerves?

But Jesus called them all, and they learned how to do life together in the presence of God. They came together, rough edges and all, and over time and by the power of the Spirit that came upon them at Pentecost, they were transformed to be more like Christ. And likewise, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells the church, “We are one body. Different parts, different functions, but one body. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

As believers, we are all part of the body of Christ, called to bear one another’s burdens, so when someone here gets married or has a kid or gets a promotion or graduates or completes a recovery program, we all celebrate together. And when someone here loses a loved one or falls into temptation—whatever that looks like—or struggles with being single (or being married or being a parent) or gets fired or is unemployed, we all suffer together.

True community is hard; I’m not going to pretend otherwise. It requires time and effort and sacrifice, give and take, forgiveness and reconciliation—that’s what it takes to live well, to live as we were meant to in the realities of a world as it is now, a world that has been blighted by sin but will be fully restored in due time.

SOWING & REAPING

In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul writes:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Your choices do matter–not as to how much God loves you, not as to how much he desires the best for you, not as to how much grace is available to you; but God has given us freedom, and freedom comes with responsibility. How you choose to live your life matters—whether you choose for yourself, “sowing to your own flesh,” as it says here; or in obedience to God and for the good of others, “sowing to the Spirit.”

Here at The District Church, we often focus on what life with God means in the here-and-now—Christ invites us into a full life now. Forgiveness and restoration are available now. What matters is what happens now. And that’s all true, but part of the reason we emphasize this is because we’re surrounded by a cultural Christianity that does the opposite—that focuses purely on what’ll happen when Jesus comes again, that promises life after death but says nothing about life before death, that treats the here-and-now as something purely to be endured.

But both are a part of the gospel life: both the here-and-now and what is yet to come. We live in the time in-between, between Jesus’s first and second comings, so on the one hand, Jesus has sent his Spirit to enable us to live out our callings in the here-and-now, but on the other hand, the day has not yet come when there is no sorrow or death and there are no tears. And so we pray, “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” even as we long for and work toward the full restoration of creation, even as we fight against the powers of darkness that still hold sway in our world and show themselves in violence and human trafficking and extreme poverty and domestic abuse and racism and sexism.

I say this to remind us that, while there is more to be lived for in the here-and-now than perhaps we’ve been told or than we think, there’s even more to come that we long for. We like to see results that come instantly. We want to see the fruit of our labor or our effort or our sacrifice right now. We’re not very good at delayed gratification, particularly if we may not see it in our lifetime.

Abraham didn’t see his descendants number like the stars before he died. Moses didn’t enter the Promised Land before he died. By the world’s standards, they failed; but in the eternal perspective—from God’s perspective, they were faithful; and that, more than the world’s standards of success, is what matters.

Even if you don’t see the end of extreme poverty in your lifetime, even if you don’t see peace in the Middle East in your lifetime, even if you don’t see the end of violent conflict or human trafficking, even if you never fully reconcile with your parents, even if you end up unable to salvage a friendship or a marriage, even if you never get promoted to that position you thought would be the pinnacle of your life, even if you never get married or have kids …

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (vv.9-10)

Now I don’t know what this harvest will look like. There’s a lot we don’t know about the world to come, and I think it’s often unhelpful to spend our time in conjecture or fancy. But I do know this: it involves knowing fully and being known fully, loving fully and being loved fully, living fully in the presence of God. And if the joy and the peace and the love and the grace that we experience so fleetingly in this life here—in the midst of struggle and sorrow and temptation and turmoil and loss—if those are as wonderful as they are even here, I can’t wait for what’s to come.

GRACE

Paul closes—as do I—in verse 18, by returning to grace:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ; this is the good news that the Bible proclaims: that there is grace.  There is grace. There is grace. Man, if only truth could be communicated by repetition alone …

Grace sets us free from a life of nervous anxiety—did I do good enough? What happens now that I’ve messed up? What is wrong with me? And grace sets us free to live into the calling that God has placed on every one of our lives.

Jesus invites all to participate by the power and presence of his Spirit in the full life now and to celebrate an even fuller life in the age to come. Jesus died for all so that all might live. And those who live for him will live differently. This is an invitation to a life that is true: a life that recognizes and acknowledges the awful realities of sin and brokenness, but also recognizes and acknowledges and points to the God who works in the midst of it, who desires relationship, who promises presence and peace. The God who, in the right time, will restore fully, but in the meantime, holds us up, envelopes us, embraces us, and surrounds us with his amazing love.

And so I want us to respond by answering the question that this series poses—not in the way that Paul’s opponents were using it, that is, to ask who was included in God’s grace; but rather in the way that Paul used it, as a challenge and an invitation to the church: “Here is grace. Here is the gospel. Here is God. Here is the Spirit-filled life. Here is freedom—true freedom. Here is life and life to the full! Who’s in?”

Who’s in? I’m in.

With what I know and with what I don’t know, God, I’m in.

With the words I choose to say and not to say, God, I’m in.

With the thoughts I choose to think and not to think, God, I’m in.

With the actions I choose to take and not to take, God, I’m in.

With the time you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the education you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the resources—financial and otherwise—you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the influence you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the relationships you’ve blessed me with, God, I’m in.

With the people it’s challenging to be around, God, I’m in.

In choosing to live a life of worship and community and justice, God, I’m in.

In seeking to love you and to love my neighbor, God, I’m in.

In deciding to be humble and vulnerable and honest and gracious, God, I’m in.

With the life I have, God, I’m in.

By the power and presence of your Spirit living in me, God, I’m in.

By the grace—and through the sacrifice—of your Son, Jesus Christ, God, I’m in.

And to share this grace and good news with all I encounter, God, I’m in.

Amen.

Freedom

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Freedom.”]

Freedom’s something we hear a lot about here in the US. America is, after all, “the land of the free.” The First Amendment of our Constitution grants us various freedoms, including the freedom of religion—and we are thankful for the freedom to worship that we have and remember those in many parts of the world that don’t have this same freedom. The Declaration of Independence affirms that, among the inalienable rights of all men—and women—are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, ‘freedom’ can mean different things to different people at different times. And I think relearning or rediscovering God’s idea of freedom is part of what Paul is trying to get at in Galatians 5.

I started, though, by Googling “freedom,” and the first result that popped up was actually an application for your computer called “Freedom.” This app comes on the recommendation of writers, authors, and screenwriters such as Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, the late great Nora Ephron, Seth Godin, and many others. And what it does is that it blocks your access to the internet for a specific period of time so that you can be productive.

You’re welcome!

Anyway … back to Galatians.

1. What we’re free from

In Galatians 5:1, Paul writes:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

The slavery that he’s referring to is this idea that in order to earn right standing before God, you can, you need to, do things—in this case, for the non-Jewish Christians, follow the requirement of circumcision of the law of Moses. This is the idea that the outsiders were propagating, and the idea that Paul has come against full-force. He’s saying, “If you think that even a little bit of obeying the law will improve your standing with God, you’re disregarding the very core of the gospel of Christ, which is that it is all grace.

Some of you know that I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I grew up going to a great church, where I learned the value of family and of reading and memorizing the Bible, and of the importance of a relationship with Jesus. I also learned—from church culture as well—what it meant to be a “good Christian.” A “good Christian” is someone who doesn’t get drunk, who doesn’t swear, who can recite Bible verses, who has as-close-to-perfect Sunday school and Sunday service attendance as possible, who knows the right words to say in a prayer, who knows the right words to say to someone who isn’t a Christian, who has said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ to invite Jesus into his or her heart, who has been baptized, and who doesn’t sin any more.

But I don’t think I really knew what grace really meant for a long time, because whenever I did mess up, whenever I did sin, I’d feel like I’d messed my whole life up, that I’d let God down and that he was looking down on me with disappointment and anger and judgment, that I was no longer welcome in his presence—not until I said sorry, and maybe did some penance.

Please don’t hear me wrong: repentance, confession, forgiveness, and absolution are all vital parts of the Christian life. They are part of how we relate to and interact with God: acknowledging wrongs and reconciling and moving forward. And it does matter how you live your life—I’ll talk about this more in next week’s message—but they don’t determine how much God loves us. Let me say that again: your actions, your addictions, your good deeds, your screw-ups, your triumphs, your brokenness, your baggage—none of this determines how much God loves you.

Years ago, I read The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning; and it changed my life. After years of guilt and shame at not being able to live up to the standard I thought I was ‘supposed to’ live up to, falling short in failing to always treat people kindly, in losing my temper (I was an angry teenager, too!), in struggling with issues of lust and pornography, in taking for granted the many blessings I had been given rather than accepting them with gratitude and using them to bless others, and in a hundred different other ways—for the first time, through the words of this book, I began to truly understand grace—amazing grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.

I realized—not just in my head but in the very core of my being—that I didn’t have to work to earn God’s favor any more. I realized that God wasn’t keeping track of the number of times I’d failed and fallen. I realized that God loves me, accepts me, and welcomes me, as I am. I realized what it means when Paul writes, in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

And in that moment, it was like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders or like I’d walked into the cool of an air-conditioned house from the oppressive heat outside. In that moment, I knew that God wasn’t some sort of record-keeper but a loving Father who only desires the best for those he has created. In that moment, I knew that there was freedom to make detours on the journey, to get lost, to make mistakes along the way, as long as my eyes were fixed on him, on home. In that moment, I knew I was free.

Free from feeling as if it all depended on me and that at any moment I might slip off the narrow path that God had meticulously drawn out for me. Free from striving, from fear, from guilt and shame. Free to live, as Jesus said in John 10:10, “life to the full.”

2. What we’re free for

In Galatians 5:6b, Paul writes, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

Our modern and postmodern minds like to keep things separate; it’s easier to understand that way. So we see faith as an entirely spiritual or mental thing and love as an emotional thing. We understand faith as a decision you make in your mind. If you asked the question, “What is faith?”, most Americans would probably say something like “belief in God” or “belief in a God,” and they’d be referring to the mental assent that there is a superior divine being.

On the other hand, love—we’re told—is an emotional thing, a feeling, something you know in your heart. So when you get all gooey around someone, it must be love; and then after a while, you stop feeling so great about them—you fall “out of love”—and you quit. Or you hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemy,” and you wonder how on earth we’re supposed to manufacture or drum up feelings of love for people that don’t like us or people that you find it hard to feel any sympathy for. Or you hear the commandment, “Love the Lord your God,” and you’re left with this impression, this understanding, that you’re supposed to feel great about God all the time, and if you don’t feel it, then you must be doing something wrong and God must have abandoned you.

But thankfully, the Bible’s understanding of faith and love is a little different.

The writer of Hebrews says, faith is “trust in God [that] is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (11:1, MSG). Faith is about trust: trust in a person; trust in a relationship; trust that Jesus’ life and his sacrifice and resurrection by God were and are enough to redeem and reconcile all of creation, including you. That’s faith.

And love clearly can’t just be that warm fuzzy feeling if Jesus expects us to love our enemies. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit, reinforced by … the grace [received] from God.

This is love: seeking the good of the other through tangible action.

Our common cultural understanding of freedom is being unencumbered by restraints; it’s being able to do whatever we feel like, whenever we feel like it, with whomever we feel like doing it. Generations, and particularly the last few, have been told over and over again, “Do what you want. Do what makes you happy. Do your own thing. Be free.”

And so we look at the Bible, which says we’re free from judgment, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and yet there still seems to be so much talk about sin and doing good works and living a holy life, even having to trust someone (even if it is God) and being called to love—to take action, to put others before ourselves. But that sounds like more rules and regulations; that sounds like work; that doesn’t sound particularly free, does it?

Well, not by the world’s definition of freedom, no.

On July 3, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times called “The Downside of Liberty,” and in it, Kurt Andersen points out the impact of the world’s definition of freedom:

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators.

This culture of “freedom” has become—for individuals, companies, political parties—what Paul warned against in v.13: “an opportunity for self-indulgence.” The verse says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters”—freedom from fear, from shame, from the slavery of sin—“only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Wait, free from slavery in order to be free for … slavery? I thought we were free!

Yes, we are. But this is true freedom: being free to be who we were created to be.

In Genesis 1:27—“God created humanity in his image, male and female he created them”—we discover that we are created to be like God, created to show God to the world, and given the freedom to pursue that purpose. And as we read through Scripture or look even at our own lives, we see how everybody in history has epic failed in being like God—in justice, in grace, in community, in relationship, in love, in seeking the good of others in tangible action.

All but one. Jesus was the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was loved by his Father regardless of what he did or didn’t do. Jesus lived the life we were meant to live—who showed us what it looked like to be truly human—and died the death that we were meant to die. Jesus was the freest of us all and calls us to do as he did in loving God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving others.

Jesus knew what he, what we, were made for. Jesus chose to use his freedom to live life as it was intended to be lived. Jesus became like a slave, washing the feet of his disciples—a servant’s task; and so Paul writes, “We also should become slaves to one another.” Jesus loved his neighbors; he loved his enemies; he loved the unloved, the outcasts, the marginalized; he gave himself for their good, so that all could be saved from the power of sin and death, restored to right relationship with God and to true freedom—he sought our ultimate good, even before we knew what that was. And the ultimate exercise of his freedom was to have faith in God and, in love, to give his life so that we could live. Even hanging on the cross, Jesus was free, loving his enemies and seeking their good: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We are called not to use our freedom for selfish means or self-indulgence, but to focus on the things that really matter—to be who we were created to be.

It is by the work of the Spirit, through our trust in God, that we are set free from sin and death. And we are set free for the purpose of being who we were made to be—to love God and to love one another.

For it is for freedom that Christ set us free.

I love The District Church

This past Sunday’s service at The District Church was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience. We’re in the middle of our “My Most Important Question” series, where we talk about some of our biggest issues. Part of the reasoning is that we don’t want to be a church that tells its people to leave their questions at the door. That’s not what God asks us to do–the Psalms are full of honesty, even brazen honesty. God doesn’t get worried when we voice our questions, our doubts, our struggles; all he asks is that we voice them to him, that we include him in our conversation, that we’re in relationship with him.

And so this past Sunday, Blythe, Bruce and Lindsay shared their stories, respectively: “What if I’m not doing enough?”, “What grace is there for those who have not met Jesus Christ?”, and “What is freedom?” And what stories. Their honesty, their passion, and the clear evidence of the Spirit of God clearly at work in their lives were such an encouragement to me. God has brought an amazing band of people to this church, and God is doing an amazing work in the life of every person that calls him- or herself a part of our community.

So grateful to be on staff at The District Church. All glory to God.

You can listen to the podcast online here.

What real freedom is

Pastor and author John Ortberg:

Real freedom is not the external freedom to gratify every appetite; it is the internal freedom not to be enslaved by our appetites, to have a place to stand so that we are not mastered by them.

(The Me I Want To Be, 140)