Day 90: For Christ’s Sake

  Today’s reading: 1 Corinthians 1-16; Psalm 136

“Since you are so eager to participate in what God is doing, why don’t you concentrate on doing what helps everyone in the church?” (1 Corinthians 14:12, The Message)

It could be said that, almost in its entirety, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians moves toward this verse. From what Biblical scholars have been able to piece together, it appears that members of the church community in Corinth had attempted to use their “freedom in Christ” as license to practice their faith without regard for others. As a result, there is significant dissension in the congregation and, therefore, the integrity of their witness to the Christian faith has been compromised.  Paul is deeply hurt by this news, having helped establish the congregation on his second missionary journey. He writes to them, much like a parent might communicate with an erring child, in an effort to remind them of the kind of life they have adopted in Christ.

Central to his message is the reminder that they are now part of something bigger than themselves–they have become members of Christ’s own body, the church. As such, they are connected to one another in such a way that they must always consider the impact of their actions on other members of the body. The freedom they have received in Christ does not give them permission to abandon concern for their brothers and sisters. In fact, time and time again Paul reiterates that they should be putting the interests of others above their own.

Reading Paul’s letter, it seems that the attempt to privatize religion is nothing new. Even in the early church, there was the temptation to turn the life of faith into a self-indulgent exercise. Paul offers us a wonderful antidote in chapter 13, a passage meant to apply not only to young couples at the altar, but to all who join themselves to the body of Christ. When we love one another the way he describes it, we’ll be on the right track, for Christ’s sake.

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Day 89: Hope

       Today’s reading: Romans 1-16; Psalm 135

Romans 8. . .it is one of the most magnificent chapters in all of Scripture. At the heart of his letter to the Romans, after making an honest assessment of our human propensity for sin, Paul spells out the grounds for our hope. We do not have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in order to get in right relationship with God–in fact, we cannot. We also need not wonder if God will be able to overcome evil when we look at circumstances in the world around us. Through Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us and, in fact, all of creation.

Paul’s message to the Romans is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It is the working out of his theology, rooted in a deep-seated assurance that present circumstances will not have the final word.

When we are feeling beat up by the world, we are not alone. All creation is groaning with us, as we wait for God’s final plan to come to fruition, Paul says.

When we are exhausted and no longer have any energy even to pray, not to worry. The Spirit steps in on our behalf, filling in the gaps with sighs too deep for words.

When we dare to imagine that God would abandon us, we are reminded that Christ was risen from the dead. Nothing, then, can separate us from the love of God.

This entire letter is chock-full of golden nuggets for our lives of faith–and with good reason. Paul writes to a community he has not yet visited. So he painstakingly shares the central tenets of the gospel with them. Certainly the first listeners were both inspired and encouraged. Nearly 2000 years later, so are we.

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Day 88: Unwavering

       Today’s reading: Acts 19-28; Psalm 133-134

As we wrap up the Book of Acts today, it is inspiring to read about Paul’s commitment to his calling. Heckled,  imprisoned, threatened, beaten. . .nothing could repress his indomitable spirit for sharing the good news that had been shared with him on the road to Damascus that day. So when he sensed that it was time to go back to Jerusalem and face the authorities there–even if it meant death was on the horizon–he didn’t flinch. He could not be swayed even by his closest companions, who would have preferred that he play it safe by staying put in Asia Minor.

What we see in the final chapters of Acts is Paul using every opportunity–even as a prisoner–to communicate the gospel. He even preaches to the king, who admits that if he spent much more time with Paul, he himself just might be converted (26:28).

Paul’s unwavering commitment to share the good news with others should challenge us in 2011. We have lost the sense of urgency that he and others in the early church had for inviting others into the faith. It is unlikely that any of us will ever face the level of persecution for being a witness that Paul did. The question is. . .are we willing to risk at all?

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Day 87: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

       Today’s reading: Acts 9-18; Psalm 131-132

Peter was not at all prepared for what was about to happen. It cut against the grain of everything he had ever been taught. His job was to carry the message of the gospel to the Jews. Period. They were the ones Jesus had come to save. . .or so he thought. And then, the dream.

God uses a blanket full of all kinds of food that would have been detestable to a good Jew in order to prepare Peter for the visitors that are about to be at his door. Just as God instructs Peter in the dream to go ahead and accept the food he sees there, so he will be expected to accept his soon-to-be visitors–Gentiles!

It is a remarkable expression of having an open heart and an open mind. Rather than remaining entrenched in the assumptions of his tradition, Peter chooses to be responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit and accepts people he never would have accepted before. His act of hospitality was a crucial event in the formation of the early church. His example certainly contributed to the Council in Jerusalem’s openness to the founding of new communities of faith throughout the Greek world. We read about several of these today as the book of Acts recounts the travels of Paul and Barnabas.

Peter’s example is also instructive to the church today, wherever congregations assume they have the right to declare who is “in” and who is “out.” His witness reminds us that the Holy Spirit tends to be in the business of opening doors, not closing them.    

 

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Day 86: Holy Boldness

       Today’s reading: Acts 1-8; Psalm 129-130

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The book of Acts picks up where the gospel of Luke leaves off. Attributed to the same author, it is the continuation of the story, and it begins with a final visit from Jesus to the disciples. His closing words are both a charge and a promise–“YOU have to carry the banner now, but you will not carry it alone. The Holy Spirit will empower you.”

It’s not long before we begin to see amazing things taking place. Starting at Pentecost, these apostles who just weeks earlier had scattered and fled in fear at Jesus’ crucifixion can be found boldly proclaiming the Message. They suddenly have a keen sense of timing, seizing opportune moments to present the gospel in such a way that it draws an enormous response. Their bold actions recorded in these early chapters of Acts are the evidence that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work, using ordinary people to bring about the beginning of Christ’s church. At the center of several scenes in today’s reading is Peter–remember, the one who denied even knowing Jesus on the night that he died. Something extraordinary has certainly taken hold of him as he takes the lead in a movement that will not cower to the religious authorities.

Today, we see that the witnessing has begun in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus said. . .and it’s about to go on the move to the ends of the earth.

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Day 85: Called to Serve

       Today’s reading: John 13-21; Psalm 127-128

Our reading for today begins with Jesus and the disciples gathered in Jerusalem for their final meal. We have visited this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke already, but what John chooses to tell us about the event is markedly different. For one thing, it is in this section that he records Jesus’ lengthiest oration found anywhere in Scripture. In chapters 14-17, we hear Jesus encouraging, instructing, comforting, and challenging the disciples, then we hear him praying on their behalf. Just prior to the final words he offers them, it is his action that speaks volumes.

The synoptic gospels report Jesus’ instructions from the Upper Room for how the disciples are to remember him–through the sharing of the bread and the cup. John reports how the disciples are to follow him. In a world where everyone scrambles for power and position, they are instructed to live differently. His humble act of footwashing is more than enough to convey the message. Serving one another is the way in which disciples will distinguish themselves from the power-hungry. Going back to yesterday’s blog, the desire to serve is a tangible sign of the life that is satisfied to be aligned with Jesus Christ. There is no need to chase after anything else, setting disciples free to serve joyfully without regard for what other people might think.

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Day 84: Satisfied

         Today’s reading: John 1-12; Psalm 126

From the opening verse today, we can tell that we are in a very different gospel from the three we have completed in recent days. One of the features that became familiar to us in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is Jesus’ use of parables–short, illustrative stories–to communicate his message. John gives us none of these in today’s twelve chapters. Instead, we hear Jesus using a more direct style of speech, yet one that often goes misunderstood. A prime example of the gap in communication occurs in the humorous interchange when Jesus speaks about being born “from above” and  Nicodemus is totally confused, trying to figure out how in the world someone can be “born again” from his mother’s womb.

A theme that recurs throughout much of Jesus’ communication efforts is what I will call the satisfied life. Time and time again, he encounters people who are hungry and thirsty–sometimes literally, but his focus is on a spiritual emptiness. In a variety of ways, he tries to say to them, “Choose me.” Each of Jesus’ famous “I am” sayings, a trademark of John’s that we don’t find in the other gospels, is an invitation for his hearers to be satisfied in him. For me, the most poignant of these moments comes in the sixth chapter today. At the climax of the discussion with the crowd, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers and thirsts no more, ever.” (John 6:35, The Message)

Jesus continues to offer this invitation, you know. As we seek to cram more stuff into our lives that we somehow imagine will bring a sense of satisfaction, Jesus is somewhere nearby saying, “Choose me.”

Note: You may have noticed that there was no Day 83 post. There was an error in the original reading schedule (there is no day 80), which ultimately resulted in everyone getting a free day this week!

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Day 82: Their Eyes Were Opened

         Today’s reading: Luke 17-24; Psalm 125

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us about the last supper in the upper room, just hours before Jesus is arrested and then put to death. In each of these synoptic gospels, the writer tells us that Jesus blessed and broke the bread and took a cup and shared them both with the disciples. Only Luke records the words that have become familiar to Christians everywhere and engraved on many an altar table: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

It is Luke who also reports an incident only two days after Jesus’ death to show just how important this final act of breaking of bread is. In his final chapter, he tells the story of two of Jesus’ followers walking along the road to Emmaus. Jesus comes alongside them and, astonishingly, they do not recognize him. Even as they carry on a conversation about all that has just happened and he teaches them again about the law and the prophets and the anticipated coming of the Messiah, they seem clueless. . .until they sit down to eat together. It is when he blesses the bread and breaks it that Luke tells us “their eyes were opened.” In that moment, they do indeed remember him.

John Wesley liked to speak of communion as a means of grace. What he meant by this is that when people participate in the receiving of the bread and the cup, it is a way for them to experience a tangible sign of God’s unconditional love. It is even possible, for those who have not previously professed the Christian faith, that their eyes will be opened. This is why, in the United Methodist Church, the table of communion is always open for anyone to receive. At the table, we are all invited to remember and give thanks.

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Day 81: Who Is My Neighbor?

         Today’s reading: Luke 8-16; Psalm 123-124

The smooth-talking attorney wanted to make himself look good. He had already given the right answer to Jesus’ question–love God and love neighbor and you will fulfill the expectations for obedience to the law. Pushing the envelope a little further, he was hoping to limit his level of responsibility. Certainly Jesus would help him define the boundaries for who qualifies for neighborly treatment. Once defined, he would be off the hook for his treatment of anyone outside those boundaries.

In responding, not only does Jesus blow the doors off any boundaries that the lawyer might be anticipating. Using one of his favorite teaching methods–storytelling–Jesus instead turns the question on its head. As the story begins, a man is in trouble. Listening intently, the lawyer is certainly expecting a Jew to show up as the hero, demonstrating the model for appropriate behavior. After all, the attorney wants to know the limits for how he, a good Jew, should act neighborly. Instead, Jesus has two Jews–both respected community leaders–walk right by the beaten man lying in the road. Then, the one who finally shows up to help is, of all things, a Samaritan, a member of the “unclean” clan.

In telling this story, Jesus uses elements of both irony and surprise to communicate a radical message to his listeners. In the kingdom of God, everyone is neighbor. Acting out of our love for God, there can be no limits to whom we will be willing to help in their time of need. It is the good Samaritan who shows us the way today.

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Day 80: Filled with Joy

         Today’s reading: Luke 1-7; Psalm 122

You can’t read the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel today without being captured by the tremendous sense of joy he conveys. Luke’s opening scenes reveal the kind of response that the coming of the Messiah is meant to elicit. Men and women, young and old, are caught up in the extraordinary good news of what God is doing. Elizabeth and Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds, Simeon and Anna all participate in the celebration.

It is Mary’s song that has been given special place over the centuries for the way in which it communicates this joy. Many a composer has tried his or her hand at setting this text to music. The song testifies that God takes action on behalf of those who have been marginalized, a message that reverberated throughout the prophets we recently read. With the coming of the Christ child, there is a world inversion taking place. No longer will those who have been outcast, unwanted, or unloved have no place. They are all welcome in this new kingdom that is inbreaking.

Here we see that the song and the singer are a perfect match–God has chosen an unmarried, teenage girl to be the bearer of this child who comes to save the world. It is the perfect beginning to the gospel that will remind us over and over again of God’s surprising ways that bring joy to the brokenhearted.

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