Great narrators have a way of keeping the audience’s attention all the way to the end of the story, and gospel writer John is no exception. His carefully organized account of Jesus’ life and ministry left some loose ends. The great climax of the story is the resurrection, of course, and afterwards John breaks our suspense with satisfying details.

In chapter 21, John relates Jesus’ appearances to his disciples in various settings. Late in the day of his resurrection, he visited his closest associates to confirm what they had heard after finding his tomb empty. Thomas (the Twin) missed the meeting and, when told later of Jesus’ coming, would not believe it unless he saw the Lord with his own eyes. . . . a loose end left dangling for a week until Jesus came back to present himself to Thomas specifically.

In chapter 1, the disciples were curious about the new Teacher, who invited them to come and see what he did for a living. One by one, they responded to Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” Throughout his ministry, the twelve accompanied him on his preaching and healing mission. But now, after the resurrection, with Jesus out of their sight (most of the time), they are looking for something to do and decide to go back to fishing. The Man on the Beach calls out to them, gives them some fishing advice, and then invites them back to the shore for breakfast. Peter is already in the water, swimming the 100 yards to the beach, because it can only be the Lord who provides the miraculous catch of 153 fish! And what is Jesus serving? Bread and fish, just like on that day he fed five thousand people with five rolls and two sunfish. And very similar to the Last Supper. Another theme comes full circle.

But there was one more loose end to be tied up, and that had to do with Peter’s denial of Jesus during the night of the trials and scourging. Three times, Peter claimed to strangers that he did not know the Man being tried before Pilate. He was bitterly reminded of Jesus’ prediction of his denial when the cock crowed three times. Peter was not present for the crucifixion. He hid in the Upper Room in fear and confusion. He was paralyzed by what we now call an epic fail. Guilt. Shame. Disqualification.

The charcoal fire Jesus has ignited on the beach reminds Peter of the charcoal fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home, where the trial was held. The site of Peter’s test is transported from courtyard to beach in an instant, and the Lord has some questions for the disgraced disciple.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Three times Peter is asked, Do you love me? And three times he says yes, erasing the record (so to speak) of his three denials. His hurt feelings indicate that Peter doesn’t yet perceive Jesus’ questioning as an offer of grace. In fact, Jesus is clearing the air with a particular purpose in mind, so that Peter can go into action to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”

At the heart of the gospel is forgiveness. The Lord gives second chances when we fail. He verifies our loyalty and commitment, and asks us, “Do you love me?” If our answer is “Yes,” then Jesus says, “Get to work on the job I have given you!”

If only we could do the same for each other. Despite the universal need for forgiveness and restoration—a fact that should induce empathy—we still have trouble forgiving and moving on with a person who has not lived up to our expectations. We are not sure we can trust a person’s expression of remorse and resolve. In the polarized climate of present-day America, the public shows little tolerance for mistakes or errors in its leaders. Business and political figures are forced out of office after one offense, with no time or opportunity to make something right. Neither the judged nor the judge in this case is perfect, and wisdom must prevail as we organize and govern ourselves. I wonder what difference it would make if we followed our Risen Lord’s example in the evaluation and support of our leaders. Can we discern their intentions, verify their loyalty and commitment to the good, and define what we expect of them? We should try!

The human lust for power is a natural outflow of Adam and Eve’s resistance to God’s authority. When a person, a group, or a nation believes itself to be any equivalent of “the center of the universe,” bad things begin to happen. Adam and Eve’s choice may seem innocent enough to modern eyes, but within a generation, murder had entered human experience. The desire of one to dominate another comes out of the irreconcilable demands of two adjacent egos vying for the center of the universe.

If a culture adopts the philosophy that all people are free to do whatever they wish, to pursue happiness on their own terms, to be in essence the center of their universe, then several things unravel:

  • people get locked into competition mode in order to win the pot of finite resources

  • politics seeks personal power above the common good

  • the basis for law erodes and it becomes impossible to protect individual rights against the libertine advances of others

  • no one can be truly happy as long as an opponent or a rival, exists

  • there will be wars

If this isn’t a picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

But it is rapidly becoming the picture of the world, including American culture, and some of its micro-systems. It would be an interesting exercise simply to read the newspaper through these lenses and count the number of stories that relate to the above list. As a side note, I would observe also that these dynamics exist within the church, including my own tribe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Disputes over property, doctrine, and inclusivity have their genesis in human resistance to God’s authority and power.

Power in the hands of human beings who are flawed and damaged by sin can turn into exploitation very quickly. This is one reason why Presbyterians, for example, generally exert power through their governing bodies rather than through individuals. But even so, original sin permeates the system because it has infected every person involved.

Power-seeking can also turn violent, as we saw in the Waco meeting of rival motorcycle gangs this week. Power corrupts the human spirit, because people have nothing within themselves to stop its insistent march toward dominance.

This is where God comes in.

The Bible teaches, and I believe, that God is the center of the universe. More than that, the one and only most holy God is bigger than the entire creation. You can get the picture through God’s thunderous objection to Job’s complaints, in Job 38-39. By virtue of his eternal existence, his unmatched might, his complete knowledge of all reality, and his inherent goodness, God holds all authority and possesses all power to rule the universe. His is not an idle interest in the affairs of the world, for he has known and governed every person on earth and through all history. God’s care is active, personal, and effective, and no person is beyond God’s reach, whether one is aware or not.

If it is true that God possesses all power and dominion, then we mere mortals do not. This is a fact that does not depend on our feelings about it. Here is where we find relief, if we want it, for the lust for power. The god of self must stand down. The fundamental transaction requires us to give up, give in, and give to the One who is sovereign over all. A tall order for sure! Who really wants to do this, in their heart of hearts? Nobody! That’s why we’re in this mess to begin with! But if giving up, giving in, and giving to God are required, what is to be done to make this happen?

For now, let’s frame some questions that will direct future thoughts:

  1. Is God worthy of my trust?

  2. Can God help me give up, give in, and give to?

  3. Is the effort to reorient my life going to be worth it?

Stay with me in this discussion, which will unfold slowly for some. I am laying a groundwork for Christian faith.

The Gods We Worship

May 15, 2015

My second prod to think and write about belief in God comes from my experience in Turkey and Greece, where “gods” were everywhere—or at least remnants of worship spaces, icon niches, and other ancient signs of pantheism and Greek/Roman mythology. Walking up the hill through the ruins of Delphi (Greece), we encountered the monument to Argos, the sanctuary of Gaia, and the great temple to Apollo. In Ephesus (Turkey), strolling down the main road made of marble, we saw what is left of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World, but represented now by only one surviving column). Hadrian and Domitian have their temples, too, giving some evidence to a Roman emperor cult.

The point is, in ancient Greece and then Rome, objects of worship, gods if you will, were present and the focal points of cult worship, treasure-building, and interpretation of life. We get a feel for what this dynamic produced, by recalling the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace . . .. 18. . . Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? . . .

22Then Paul . . . said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . . .

29 . . . we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31)

Pow! The dark backdrop of paganism provides dramatic contrast to the light of Jesus Christ, the one who has been raised from the dead and thereby having a rightful claim to supremacy over all other deities.

Yesterday, I wrote about the “nones,” those who do not believe in anything particularly. An irony of history is noted in the accusatory language directed at first century Christians, who were called “atheists” because they did not embrace the pantheon! Here we have the two extremes, those who claim no god whatsoever, and those willing to identify anything with deity.

The great contribution to the world of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that there is only one God. Whenever pagans—be they Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Incan, you name it—are engaged in dialogue with the Christian faith, the first step toward faith is not necessarily to meet and submit to Jesus Christ but to espouse monotheism. The idea that our fortunes and futures rest upon only one God—the Lord Almighty, the highest power with no rivals—represents a huge leap for a vast number of people around the globe. This is not only an ancient challenge, or a foreign challenge. I suggest also that monotheism is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

We are people of no god or of many gods, or perhaps the wrong god. Belief in no god requires a person to self-define goodness, rightness, and meaning. Belief in many gods requires a person to keep them all appeased somehow, like the Chinese acrobat spinning several plates at a time. Many deities command our frequent and intense attention, our money, our commitments and our loyalty. I can think of a few: the iPhone, the television, our homes, our money, our places of employment. We sacrifice ourselves at their altars every day it seems, and yet we do not comprehend that this is worship of a materialistic pantheon. When we do get it, God Almighty turns our world upside down and everything has to be realigned under God’s banner.

In my next post, I will expand on the possibility of worshiping the wrong god.

Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of remembrance in the entire church year. On this day we recall the aftermath of Jesus’ betrayal by one of the twelve, his sham of a trial, his suffering, and his crucifixion in public view just outside the walls of Jerusalem.

For secular types in-the-know, Jesus’ appearance for judgment was an uncomfortable intrusion on their “live and let live” policy toward the Jews. For the Jewish elite in Jerusalem, Jesus’ latest offenses—including the raising of Lazarus (John 11) and his claim to deity at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7-8) for instance—were the straws that broke the camel’s back. Something must be done with this man, or we are going to have an insurrection on our hands.

I wonder how 21st century news media would have covered the story, if press presence at Jesus’ middle-of-the-night trial might have held Romans and Jews accountable for their inept judicial proceedings. We know some of the inner workings of this process through eye-witness accounts gathered by the gospel writers from folks who must have been sympathetic to Jesus’ cause. But no one overtly stood up for Jesus, offered a defense, or otherwise provided a “fair trial.” He was “tried” by a hostile stampede of public opinion.

The news of Jesus death spread locally, but there was no 24/7 news cycle to analyze it from every angle or replay the scene ad nauseam. No, in those first couple of days, people retreated to their homes or walked along the way, dispirited and wondering, remembering his life and teaching and questioning whether they had gotten it wrong and that he wasn’t that special after all. I think they also wondered if this sort of injustice could happen to them, too.

And then Jesus rose from the dead, and within a matter of hours and days, he was appearing to hundreds of people and news spread through the witness of the apostles that Jesus was Lord, the Christ, and believing in him would impart salvation. This news, wholly unexpected and outrageous to the Powers That Be, nevertheless made its way into hearts and communities who demonstrated great faith and courage by believing and proclaiming it despite the hostile religious environment.

The Good News of the Gospel as we have come to know it was not a commodity to be sold but a message to be given to all who could possibly hear it. We are not part of the News Business, but participants in the Gospel Project. Its impact on individuals, villages, and societies in the two thousand years since is immeasurably for the good. As Paul would indicate in another letter, he did not personally gain by sharing this news. He was not charging a fee, selling commercials, or otherwise commoditizing the gospel for his own benefit. He sacrificed a lot, worked hard on the side to earn a living when he could, and ultimately was arrested in situations where the gospel was bad for business.

So when Paul asked for prayer that he could be clear about the gospel (Colossians 4:3-4) and bold in his presentation (Ephesians 6:19) he was demonstrating the priority of clear teaching over personal safety. His role was misunderstood apparently, because there were plenty of snake oil salesman giving itinerate preachers a bad name (2 Corinthians 4:1-2). Paul would not be one of those, and neither should we.

The news we have to share is lifechanging and very important. Its content is the Truth. By sharing it, we are not—are we—trying to pad our coffers, build a reputation, sell a product, or otherwise capitalize on the gospel. We are not in the News business; we are preachers and teachers of the gospel as potentially life-changing, personally transforming, and powerfully motivating.

We are never promised safety, but we are given inner peace. As we put our trust in Christ we are never to expect prosperity or the easy life, but we have his presence through thick and thin. The point of our discipleship (the discipline of apprenticeship to Jesus) is to gain enough strength in the Lord that we can remain standing through the difficulties that come with our allegiance to Jesus over any temporal power or ruling authority. That standing, in itself, becomes part of the testimony to the gospel—our willingness to put Jesus at the very center of our lives even at the expense of comfort, safety, or approval. In this, let us follow Jesus to the cross, die to ourselves, and live unto God.

You might call me a news junkie. In a day’s time, I hear four radio newscasts, read the morning newspaper, catch a few articles from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or something else linked by the daily Church and the World news compendium. I read TIME Magazine cover-to-cover every week, watch the Nightly News on TV, 60 Minutes on Sunday night, and occasionally while I am sewing turn on BBC World News or the PBS News Hour.

I am now sick of it.

I am sick of the repetition of news stories, looking for new angles, new sensations, new fears, and new salacious details until the next new story comes along.

I am sick of the speed with which people come to judgment of events, giving no pause for grief, for review, for prayer, for study, or for compassion.

I am sick of people not doing their homework, commenting on events, texts, or rulings without knowing what they are talking about.

I am sick of the narcissism that drives so much of our media and political processes these days. People are so bent on getting their own particular way, point of view, or priority adopted by all that they have lost sight of the common good.

I am sick of the burdens our society is putting on public servants, CEOs, and even entertainers. Woe be unto you if, in a moment of adolescent stupidity you said something dumb (you define) or twenty years ago supported a cause that is no longer politically correct. Somebody who doesn’t like you, or suffers from PC scrupulosity, or craves power at any cost, is going to “investigate” and smear you until you resign. Pretty soon, the only ones left to lead are going to be the ones who crave power and smear others. Do we really want to be a country like that depicted in House of Cards?

I am sick of the impact news media have on the development of news stories. They have gone beyond reporting what has happened to making things happen simply by repeating ad nauseam some speculation or other.

I am heartsick at the condition of our world, and heartsick that American news outlets are so silent on events and trends in other parts of the globe. [My eyes and ears were opened to this dynamic when I lived in Zimbabwe for a few months in 1994. While the U.S. was fixated on O. J. Simpson’s arrest, Africans were celebrating Mandela’s election and recoiling from the genocide in Rwanda. O. J. Who?]

Yes, I am sick of it.

We live in a world saturated with messages. Many of them are not true. Some seem to glorify death, destruction, and catastrophe. Others are merely inane. For some reason, however, they “sell,” and message delivery is a business.

Against this backdrop, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul who is incarcerated because of his evangelistic activities. He has spent the previous twenty years or so promoting one message: Jesus is Lord over all creation, his salvation is available to all people, the church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to glorify God and make known the mysteries of the gospel. By all measures, Paul was a brilliant apologist, a tireless teacher, and a courageous traveler. Even from a prison cell, he is optimistic and looking forward to new open doors for the gospel:

3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Some of the dynamics I mentioned above make it difficult sometimes for Christians to be clear about the Message, the gospel. Our audience, particularly in America, has very tight filters and low tolerance for challenge to its narcissism. Paul’s prayer is that he can be clear and bold to proclaim “the mystery of Christ,” which at the very least humbles us under God’s sovereignty. How can we clearly uphold the kindness of God’s purposes, in hopes that it will lead the world to repentance? (Romans 2:4) . . . No, I don’t have a quick answer, either, which is why this prayer request is not only Paul’s but ours!

More in my next post.

 

 

2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!

In Memoriam: Steve Hayner

February 23, 2015

A service celebrating the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Steve Hayner takes place today in Atlanta, Georgia. Steve was president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, and former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He was also a friend and encourager to me, in the context of our national covenant group which met two weeks ago shortly after his death.

Join me today in attending Steve’s memorial service at Peachtree Presbyterian Church through live-streaming.

The service begins at 2 p.m. EST, and the worship bulletin is available as a PDF download here.

As I participate in this service shortly, I will be contemplating also the next line in Colossials 3, “And be thankful.” I am thankful for Steve, his influence in the wider church, his humble and gracious and reconciling spirit, and the joy with which he walked the journey from this life to the next.

Spring training has started! The Giants are warming up their pitchers and catchers in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. Assessments are being made, recovery from injuries celebrated, starting lineups tried on for size. Next week the full team checks in. As of today, Major League Baseball has exactly forty-five days until opening day, April 6.

What we do not hear much about, however, are the umpires. The roster of 68 umpires qualified for “the Majors” is a traveling band of baseball experts. Their calls are sacred—even with official reviews, also made by umpires—and they bear an authority that elicits respect from little kids all the way up to grannies watching the game on TV. [Last June, a fascinating article told the story of a Christian ministry to umpires. The human side of their role—schedules, travel, and stresses of the game—awakens the compassion of a pastor called to minister to them.]

I bring up umpires, because there is a word in today’s Colossians 3 passage that hints of umpiring.

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.

The word is “rule,” and it connotes the overarching judgment and voice of authority, such as an umpire would administer through a game. What is it that is to rule, or umpire, your hearts? The Peace of Christ! So let’s explore this a bit.

When we hear “the peace of Christ,” we are probably more inclined to think of it in terms of personal, inner reassurance and contentment. This is the focus of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians (4:4–7). There, he talks about trading in worry for prayerful petition and thanksgiving, the result being peace in one’s heart. So this individual, inner peace is certainly legitimate and necessary in the Christian life.

However, in Colossians, Paul takes a different spin by indicating that this peace is a quality to which we “were called in one body.” This points to a corporate condition of peace, relational peace, that is to guide and adjudicate our dealings with each other. Keeping the peace is a virtue in Paul’s playbook.

Thinking about my fellow Presbyterians for a moment, the peace in our ranks has been shaken greatly in the last twenty-five years or so. Discontent and dysfunction have disturbed the peace, unity, and purity of our denomination for almost as long as I have been a member. My desire is not to replay any of those fights, but only to illustrate that peace is truly a precious commodity in short supply. And yet, we are called to it. So how do we manage it?

The conditions in which the peace of Christ can flourish include the following:

  1. single minded and pure hearted recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

  2. an agreement (yes, “being of one mind”) about the essentials of the Christian faith

  3. the exercise of the fruit of the Spirit in community with fellow believers, with love as the tie that binds all others together

  4. in the reality of conflict, discernment of those matters that fall under #1 or #2 above and dealing with them clearly and thoroughly in a timely fashion.

Speaking only for the conflicts of which I have been a part, we have failed to realize the peace of Christ, even yet, because

  1. there is still plenty of human competition for the role of “Lord” in the church

  2. we cannot state and therefore cannot agree on what is essential for Presbyterians to believe in order to remain within the fellowship

  3. we have betrayed one another’s trust and given confusing messages about loving one another

  4. our dealings with the issues at hand have dragged on now for decades, have been ecclesiastically clumsy, and have created mixed messages for the church and the world. The solution currently under scrutiny by the presbyteries will only confuse matters more, for what its new statement about marriage does not say, as much as what it does say.

So I do not hold out much hope that “the peace of Christ” will reign in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) anytime soon. It makes me very sad to say so.

It reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel’s indictment against Israel, which included, “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” (cf. Ezek. 13:8-16). Lest we join the prophets who are making statements simply out of their own imagination, leading to dead-ends, let us submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, hold fast to the faith, and bear with one another out of love for Christ.

For those done with church, this passage probably comes across as a lament. If only the church had let peace rule, we say . . . so now what do we do to promote the peace of Christ, to live in it in community? We are going to have to listen more, talk less, pray more, walk alongside, anguish in the Spirit and long for purity that is wrought by God’s thorough work in our souls and in our fellowships. A tough call, and we may not be up to it yet. But still, we must affirm that Paul’s admonition is on target: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

A Facebook friend was fretting a bit that she had not yet decided what to give up for Lent. She brings up an interesting question. As a born and raised Catholic, my family of origin refrained from eating meat on Fridays. Nowadays, such a discipline is a daily and year-round practice among vegetarians, robbing the deprivation of its spiritual meaning. But being the consumer society we are, chances are pretty good that we are all eating, drinking, injecting, or inhaling something that threatens to get the upper hand in our lives. Something in this category would be a sharper focus of discipline during Lent.

On the other hand, rather than eliminating something, would it not also be Lent-worthy to adopt a new habit or practice instead? Yesterday’s verse, Colossians 3:12, suggested arenas for our thoughtful application: patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility. What is something you could do that would exercise one of these virtue-muscles for spiritual strengthening?

Today’s verse is even more pointed, as Paul urges us to express that patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility in the act of “bearing with one another.”

“Bear with each other and forgive
whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

I can think of at least two ways “bearing with” happens:

  1. We help our [friend, family member, co-worker] to bear a particular burden, by our ministries of intercession, presence, and merciful action; or

  2. We “grin and bear it” when our [friend, family member, co-worker] errs, sins, or offends us, and follow up that tolerance with forgiveness in the same manner Christ has forgiven us.

Both interpretations offer possibilities for Lenten discipline.

This past week, one of our covenant group members experienced a confusing medical problem and had to be taken to the hospital ER. Three different brothers in Christ took turns staying with Tom and his wife Betty while the situation was sorted out over a matter of days. Just being there to share the burden and to help them know they were not alone away from home was “bearing with them.” In your life, is someone suffering a prolonged illness, requiring isolation from his or her community and yet needing it more? Can you take a meal? Drop off a little stuffed animal? Do a load of laundry or garden maintenance? Send a meaningful card with a verse worth re-reading and remembering? Your imagination is far more creative than mine is. What is important is that you show up in some way, as a sign that the burden is shared by the Christian community.

But then we come to the other meaning of “bearing with,” which is another way of saying Christian forbearance toward others while they work out the sin thing in their own life. Perhaps Lent is the time to stop nagging or being critical of someone close to you. The Christian discipline would be one of fervent intercession (pray for them!), openness to their humanity (listen to them!), active choosing not to be bothered by irksome behavior (forgive them!), and tending to their wounds with the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Just today, a Christian friend was sharing frustration over a work relationship that seems to be going south. The Christian friend thinks the solution is to quit the job because he feels he is being discriminated against as a Jesus-follower. I do not know the details, only that he feels this way about the situation. But maybe for Lent, he (and I in similar situations) could choose to take the barbs and put-downs without losing sleep over them, and walk in Jesus’ footsteps toward the Cross. After all, isn’t that a point of reflection during Lent? We ponder how it is that Jesus took our sins upon himself and absorbed them. He did not return evil for evil, he did not displace any anger or frustration on others around him. No, he bore the sins of all people and carried them to the grave where they could do no more harm. He bore with us, and he forgave us.

There is escalating tension and terror on earth today. Perhaps giving up retaliation might just be the Lenten discipline that could change the world.

Finally I come ‘round again to the letter of Paul to the Colossians. I left off ten days ago with a general reflection on the idea that we are to clothe ourselves in Christ and his character. This week, I would like to use Paul’s list of admonitions as a springboard for discussion of the sorts of changes you anticipate Jesus might accomplish in you in today’s world. We’ll take this verse by verse through Colossians 3:17.

Though it may seem like a thought coming from left field, I start by expressing my outrage at the anti-Semitism that is rising in Europe. Prejudice is defined as preconceived bias against someone or a group, based on misunderstanding, misconception, or incomplete knowledge. For whatever reason—and I admit utter bafflement—France, for example, is becoming inhospitable to Jews. But please hear me: there is nothing in Christianity to justify hostility towards the Jewish people. If one points a suspicious or accusatory finger towards a Jew, one must point that same finger towards oneself, for we have all sinned—Israeli, Palestinian, Parisian, Jew, Gentile— and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We all like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). We have all been alienated from our Creator, and our sin resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus died at the hands of Romans (pagan Gentiles) and Jews who provoked them —no denying this fact of history. But we all bear a common burden of sin guilt. Reception of Christ’s grace and forgiveness does not make a person superior or in any way justify contempt for those who have not received this gift. We are called to treat one other as kin (in the sense that our faith and humanity is grounded in the same Old Testament roots), even as we await the coming return of Jesus Christ to make clear his identity as the Messiah and invite everyone to believe and receive him.

Do hear how Paul begins his admonition:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

So when Paul calls us “chosen ones,” we stand in spiritual solidarity with the people that were the first to live in covenant with Almighty God. Identifying believers as chosen ones, holy and beloved, puts Gentile Christians like the Colossians squarely in the circle of the covenant between God and the Chosen People. In our generation, it is a great honor to be numbered in the family of faith that started with Abraham. This honor is humbling and dangerous in certain parts of the world (and our country and neighborhoods) where Christians stand up against prejudice. We Christians, like Abraham, were called out of a worldly life into fellowship with the living God (hence, we are holy). We were embraced in mercy by our heavenly Father (hence, we are beloved). We were grafted into the covenant by Jesus’ death on the cross, allowing us to receive the same covenant blessing (hence, we are chosen). You can read more about that in Ephesians 2:11–22.

And since we are chosen, we are to clothe ourselves with virtues that should lead to gracious tolerance of others (more on that as Colossians 3 unfolds). Those virtues would include patience with others’ foibles or cultural practices, humility before God and one another, and costly kindness extended to those who need it.

Questions for your reflection:

  1. Watch this brief video. How would you feel about being this chap’s bodyguard?

  2. Can you cite any instance of anti-Semitism in your neighborhood or city? What can you do to call this out or model Christ’s way?

  3. If you were “clothed with compassion, humility, etc…” how would your behavior change in response to local or common vexations?

  4. Sojourners done with church: is there any element of prejudice embedded in your reaction against the church? How can you show kindness, patience, humility, or compassion to those who have disappointed, disillusioned, or injured you?