July: Three sermons and a little traveling

[My latest email update.]

Thanks so much for your thoughts and prayers, all. I survived July! Here’s a quick recap:

I preached three weeks in a row. This was the first time I had done this, and it was both a great experience and a tiring one! I got to close out our “Who’s In?” series on Galatians (and got to benefit directly from my dad’s smarts as a Pauline scholar, which was particularly fun). Check out the sermons here:

I traveled several times.

  1. We had our staff retreat in mid-July–a time of thanksgiving and celebration for the past year as well as planning and strategizing for the coming year. I feel blessed to work alongside such great people, and it was a truly refreshing time to hang out with good friends.
  2. A couple weeks ago, I was in Madison, WI for the Lausanne North American Younger Leaders Gathering. Again, a time when I was reminded that God is at work all over the place and that, in the body of Christ, I get to work with some genuinely awesome and faithful people.
  3. And last week, entirely unrelated to work, I got to go to New York for a couple days to visit some friends and see the taping of The Daily Show–most of you probably know I’m a big fan of Jon Stewart, so it was a real treat!

On to August. Back in DC (and happy for a little lull in the busyness as we prepare for the fall), we’ve just started a new series at church called, “My Most Important Question.” If you were part of the community (or friends with me) last summer, you’ll know that we did this a year ago and it was a big hit. It’s a time when we get to hear from several people in the church community about the biggest question they have wrestled with (or continue to wrestle with).

I’m always amazed and astounded by the people God brings to The District Church, by their stories, by their journeys, and by their accounts of how God has been involved in their lives, even in the midst of struggle, of doubt, of uncertainty. Yesterday was our first week–Robyn and Matt shared (listen here), and it was powerful!–and I’d encourage you to check back over the next couple weeks, too.

Hope you’re all doing well; grace and peace to you.

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.

Learning How to Live Well #2: Living

[The following is adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Learning How to Live Well.” Listen to the podcast here.]

I want to point out three things, regarding Paul’s analogy of the fruit of the Spirit.

1. It’s not something we can acquire by simply trying harder. Throughout Galatians, Paul dismantles the idea that all God wants is for us to try harder, to do more things, to count on our achievements to gain right standing with God. The fruit of the Spirit comes when the Spirit is living in us.

To state the obvious: if you want an apple, you grow it. You plant the seed, you water it, you care for it, you allow for whatever factors you have no control over—weather, for example—and you trust and hope that, in the right time, the tree will spring up, it will blossom, and it will bear the fruit you’re looking for. It takes time and effort, and even then, we have no guarantee of what, where, when, or how something is going to appear.

Have you ever heard someone pray for patience now? It kind of misses the point of what patience is, doesn’t it? I definitely think we should be praying for these things, but don’t expect them to be just placed in your lap—“Here’s the love for your neighbor you requested”! Absolutely, there are times when God pours out a supernatural measure of peace or joy on us, but more often than not, instead of just giving us those things, God gives us opportunities to learn those things—love, joy, gentleness—and he gives us his Holy Spirit to be with us at all times, including those times, and the Spirit brings peace and joy in the midst of those things, so that we can cultivate the life framework to sustain it all, to grow a healthy soul, where we learn how to weave body, mind, and spirit into one cohesive whole.

2. It’s not just about you. Notice that the fruit of the spirit is a lot to do with how you interact with others. You don’t become more loving on your own—it’s about how you put others before yourself. It’s really easy to be peaceful on your own, especially if you understand peace as an absence of conflict but in the Bible, peace is about something bigger, something more holistic—shalom in the OT and eirene in the NT: it’s being in right relationship with God and with others. And as I alluded to earlier, patience is easy until you have to deal with people. We are not called to walk this on our own; we are not called to do lone-wolf Christianity; even Jesus himself didn’t do life on his own, but in community.

So maybe you’ve been trying hard to be a better Christian, to be better at doing what you think God wants you to do—but you’re tired and you’re feeling lonely. Maybe you’ve hesitated to get too involved with a church community because people are messy, relationships are transient, and you wonder if it’s really worth it. But if this is you, call it a hunch, but I think God might want you to find some folks to do life with. And this leads us into the next point.

3. It requires intentionality. This doesn’t negate point one about not trying harder—you can’t just acquire the fruit of the Spirit by trying harder. But part of the process is planting and watering. Just as with every aspect of life with God, there’s the part that God does—which is most of it, actually—and the part that we get to do; in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we do our part but it’s God who makes things grow. Therefore, Paul writes to the church in Galatia:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. (5:25, MSG)

We can’t just relax and do what comes naturally—our natural inclination as sinful human beings is often to put self first, to avoid effort. Sometimes we have to get out of the way and let the Spirit do his thing—that requires intentionality. Other times we’ll have to choose to love or choose to forgive or choose to speak the truth, and as we continue to do so, we will cultivate habits and practices that change what comes naturally to us from choosing for ourselves to choosing for God and for others.

2007: me, my nephew Matt, and the piano I learned on.

Actually, instead of trying harder, let’s look at it as training. When I was younger, I had piano lessons.

There were days when I’d love playing—mastering a new piece, or learning how to play the Pink Panther theme song—and there were days—most days!—when I felt lazy and unmotivated. I hated practicing for an hour a day, but that’s what my mom made me do; we even had a little booklet where I’d write down the times when I’d practiced, and if I took more than a five minute break, I needed to write that in there too.

After about eight years of lessons, of disciplined practicing, of taking exams—as soon as I was able to—I stopped. I considered myself free.

And I was, finally; only I was free in a new and better way—not just free from having to practice or to have lessons; but I was free to play notes without worrying about them, I was free to improvise because I’d acquired a familiarity with the keys.

Now, I didn’t learn to play the piano by being lazy (even when I felt like it) or watching lots of TV; I learned by practicing, by submitting myself to something that was making me better. And I thank God that my mom knew what was better for me than I did (and thanks to John Ortberg for highlighting that metaphor).

Paul uses the analogy of an athlete in training for the spiritual life in 1 Corinthians. Just as we don’t live healthy lives physically by eating junk food all the time, trashing our bodies with drugs or alcohol, lounging around on the couch all day, and not getting enough sleep; so also we don’t live healthy lives spiritually by treating others unkindly, being stingy with our possessions, refusing to care for those in need, putting our concerns first, or holding on to grudges. And, as we know, the physical and the spiritual aren’t as unrelated as the world likes to make them.

Wendell Berry has this beautiful phrase in one of his poems:

Practice resurrection.

Live your life as if Jesus is alive. Live your life as if Jesus meant everything he said, from “I am with you” to “Love your enemy” to “Do not be anxious about anything but seek first the kingdom of God” to “If you have something against someone, go make peace with them” to “Go and sin no more.” How do we do this, how do we practice resurrection?

It’s pretty straightforward, actually. It’s pretty ordinary. We worship God, and we do this in every moment and every aspect of our lives, we do this in the way that we live our lives:

  • we sprinkle the words we speak with grace;
  • we show patience and persevere when things get tough or when things don’t go the way we think they ought to;
  • we comfort those who mourn and stand with those who are going through tough times;
  • we go to work and treat people with respect;
  • we date and break up or date and get married, all the while treating the other person with honor and dignity as befits them as made in the image of God;
  • we seek justice, we love mercy;
  • we speak up for the oppressed;
  • we care for the poor and those afflicted by war and grief and loss and abuse;
  • we bring the healing of Christ into a broken world and into broken lives;
  • we hurt and cry and we bring it to God;
  • we laugh and celebrate and we bring it to God.

You see, our calling is not just to be saved by grace but to live by grace. It’s not just to be saved by the stirring of the Spirit but to live in step with the Spirit; it’s not just to say that we believe in God but to live as God did in Jesus.

So when we come back to that initial question of how we measure our spiritual growth, the fruit of the Spirit is one tell. It’s one indicator that we are choosing to use our freedom for Christ, that we are choosing to live life as we were intended to live life.

John Ortberg writes:

The main measure of your devotion to God is not your devotional life. It is simply your life. (The Me I Want to Be, 51)

How much sleep you get isn’t just to do with your body; it impacts how able you are to engage mentally, it impacts how patient you are when you’re with people that you might find irritating or frustrating. The kinds of thoughts you entertain don’t just affect your mind; they affect how you see people, how you treat people. And reading the Bible or spending time in prayer isn’t just an exercise in spirituality; for me, it’s about learning the vocabulary of God, so that his words and stories become my first language, and it’s about spending time hanging out with the One who made me, who knows me best, and who loves me as I am; and this comes out in everything I do.

Maybe you have sin in your life that you need to confess, that you need to bring before God. You need to stop hiding, and thinking that as long as nobody else knows about it, you’re okay; or that, actually, it’s not a big deal—you’ll turn things around when you want. But the truth of the matter is, you’re living a lie. If there’s anything we learned this weekend, it’s that life is fragile and evil is real—choices matter. If you’re living for yourself, if you’re enslaved by your appetites and your impulses, I’m telling you, it only leads to destruction—and God is saying to you, “It doesn’t have to be that way. Come back. Start over. Let’s do this together.”

Maybe you feel trapped; you’re stuck in this downward spiral or you’re surrounded by all of this trash, and you want to get out. You want to live life in the Spirit, but you don’t know where to begin or how to start. It’s easy: start by asking. Ask God for his help, ask God for his strength, ask God for his forgiveness and for his cleansing power to make all things new in you, ask God for his Spirit to live in you and form Christ within you. That’s how you start.

Or maybe you just needed to be reminded that what we do matters—that the body and the mind and the spirit are not separate but that we are one person, and that if we follow Christ, he has purchased us by his sacrifice on the cross for his own. Maybe God is pointing out that you’re doing something with or to your body that is impacting the rest of your life; or maybe you’re thinking things or looking at things or listening to things that are warping the way that you treat other people. Jesus rescued us, ransomed us, from the grasp of sin and death, and he offers us all life to the full, if we seek him, if we let his Spirit live in us.

Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, write it down—there’s something powerful about putting it in writing. And then share it with someone you trust, someone who loves you. Talk about life—talk about where you’re at and where you want to be. Pray together—ask God to bring the growth, to bring the change, to bring the life. And ask that person to hold you accountable; or if it’s someone here, keep each other accountable; because remember point 2: we were made to do life in community—that’s part of God’s design.

And by the grace of God, may we all live well.

Learning How to Live Well #1: Growing

[The following is adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Learning How to Live Well.” Listen to the podcast here.]

The life well lived is not an impossibility.

Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and life to the full.” The Greek word used for “life” here is zoë, which has a spiritual element to it. It conveys a sense in which you’re not just healthy physically or mentally or emotionally, but at the very core of your being, in your very soul, you’re alive—you’re operating out of the depths of a groundedness, creating a life upon the firm foundation of Jesus Christ that’s going to stand regardless of the circumstances you may find yourself in, and even when your physical, mental or emotional health fluctuate, as they do and as they will.

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul takes the two understandings of freedom—the world’s, which seeks to gratify what’s sometimes called “the flesh” or “the sinful nature”—that, sadly, is our inclination as fallen, broken, messed-up, sinful human beings; and God’s, which is about “living by the Spirit,” fulfilling our created intentions to be in right relationship with our Creator and with those around us—and Paul helps us here see what those things look like. He says:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. (5:16-18)

So he lays them out very starkly, side by side: the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But they aren’t just “do’s” and “don’ts.” It’s not just another checklist of things you need to do or not do in order to make it into heaven. I think The Message does a great job of bringing these words to life, though:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This is the “kind of life [that] develops out of trying to get your own way all the time.” This is what we see all around us—the reality of living by the world’s definition of freedom, which is putting self first:

  • families and relationships break down when people stop feeling it—whatever ‘it’ is;
  • we lose the concept of the common good and we act as if how we live our lives doesn’t impact others or the world around us;
  • constituents and consumers think purely in terms of what’s best for me, and politicians and advertisers help propagate the cycle;
  • companies seek only what’s best for their bottom line when that’s all their shareholders seek, and news channels only what’s best for their ratings;
  • we treat our world, our resources, our money, our time, as ours alone, to do with as we please—and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the world of “do what you want” gone mad, full of systems and structures that have been built up and reinforced and buttressed by continued habits of individuals who have put themselves—and let’s be honest here, ourselves, because we’ve all done this—and our interests before everyone and everything else.

And, Paul says, if we make—or continue to make—putting ourselves first into a lifestyle, if we consistently put our wants and needs above others’ wants and needs or reject what God tells us is what we were made for, we close ourselves off from the flow of God, from growing to be more like God, from being who we were created to be. And the consequence is:

those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (5:21)

It’s pretty straightforward, strong language. It’s pretty uncomfortable for us to hear. We don’t like hearing that there are consequences and cut-offs. But, if you think about it, this is merely a logical conclusion: if the kingdom of God is where God reigns and where his character is supreme, and if he is characterized by love, joy, peace, and all of the other things we’re about to talk about, then the person who consistently lives for him- or herself is clearly choosing the opposite. If you draw a shape with three sides, you have not drawn a circle, however many times you try to do it—that is a logical conclusion. And so, N.T. Wright concludes:

a society in which most people behaved in such a way is unlikely to be a happy or thriving place. What is more, when God finally establishes his kingdom, people like that will have no place in it; it would be very surprising if they did. That’s not the sort of place, and state of affairs, that God wishes ultimately to create.

And that’s not who God is. And if the life of faith is about life with God, about becoming more like God, then it makes sense that “those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—they are choosing to say no to Jesus, to the fulfilled life, to a restored relationship with the God who loves us.

This is the alternative:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (5:22-23)

We could easily devote a blog post (or book) to each of these (and maybe I will, one day), but in the interests of time I’m going to highlight three.

  1. Love—in the Greek, it’s the word agape—is not just having warm fuzzy feelings but seeking the good of the other in tangible action, putting them before yourself. That’s what it looked like when Jesus loved us: he put our needs before his own; and so he calls us to do the same for those around us. “Love your enemy”—seek the good of even those who despise you; that’s tough, especially when you operate in the world of politics, for example, where tempers fray and we say all sorts of awful things, throw all sorts of crazy accusations around, impute the basest of intentions to each other. How will you seek the good of even those who call you ‘enemy’?
  2. Gentleness is not a particularly hip word, is it? Some other translations say, “meekness,” which seems kind of soft! We live in a world that extols boldness and praises those who seize their opportunities, and we think of meek people as those who are submissive or easily imposed on—doormats. But in my dad’s commentary, he writes that neither “gentleness” nor “meekness” fully captures the sense of the Greek word. This term was “typically used to describe a person in whom strength and gentleness go together.” I hope you know people like that: who may be tremendously gifted and talented and capable but who are humble about it and who use their gifts to build others up; or who maybe exhibit a quiet confidence. They don’t need to prove themselves, they don’t need to draw attention to themselves; they just do what they do: they love and serve and give themselves for others.
  3. Self-control is the ability to not be ruled by our appetites and our impulses, to not just do whatever we feel like simply because we feel like it—whether that’s cussing someone out just because you’re angry, or having another drink just because it’s there, buying another gadget just because it’s new, or refusing to forgive someone and move on because the world has told you that you have the right to not forgive. Self-control isn’t just about not doing things; it’s about intentionality, whether it’s something you choose not to do or something you choose to do. It’s bending our wills, our minds, our bodies, our souls to the purpose for which they were created—to love and serve and be in relationship with God.

Paul uses the analogy of fruit very intentionally—just as Jesus did in Matthew 7, when he said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit; you will know them by their fruits”—because we can’t just make fruit. Fruit doesn’t simply appear, fully formed and ready to go; it grows.

[Part 2 tomorrow.]

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.