Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Imitate Jesus… Forgive!

             Human nature, being selfish, delights to return pain for pain, and betrayal for betrayal. We even calculate the amount of pain necessary not just to get even, but to send the message “Don’t mess with me again!” The old law of “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was an improvement over perpetual escalation, but it created an environment with a lot of toothless grins and the inability of most to see them very well. Returning evil for evil only adds to the total evil in the world. 

            In Christ we are commanded to “return good for evil.’ Jesus showed us how to do it when, on the cross, he took upon himself all the sins of a fallen and broken world, killed them and their evil power there, and spoke words of life – “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” When Jesus rose from the dead, those defeated sins stayed in their grave. We are free from the power of sin, if we choose to believe it.

            Now when someone sins against you, you are fully capable to take the pain and insult into your heart and soul, crucify it there, and make the decision to return good to the one who gave evil to you. The moment you make this series of decisions you are full of the new life of Jesus Christ. The one who receives good, in return for their evil, will likely be quite surprised especially if you have not been in the habit of forgiving for very long. But your decision to break the chain of sin and offer grace will put them in an awkward position. It is not an easy thing to return evil for good! Your forgiveness may be the gift that helps their heart open to the grace of Jesus.

            Jesus would have us forgive others because we are asked. The power of the request is one of the greatest powers in the kingdom of God. Ask and you will receive, said Jesus. It shows tremendous respect for others both to make and to answer the request, particularly the request for forgiveness.

            Jesus would have us forgive others because we love. As Christians we are taught that we love because God first loves us. Therefore love (and almost all other virtues) is not a matter of our strong will, but rather of our proper response to the love and generosity of our Father. When we love others in response to God’s great love for us, we can easily offer good in return for evil because we truly have received good that is greater than any evil people can do to us. In light of the love of God, my returning good for evil is not incongruous, but to return evil to someone who wronged me, despite the amazing love of God in my life – that would be unimaginable.

            Jesus would have us forgive other because he forgives us. People have a deeply ingrained tendency to minimize their own sin, while maximizing the sins of others. That is why we are often comfortable being hypocrites! But when we remember the tremendous gift of Jesus to forgive our sins, we cannot withhold forgiveness from others. The joy and relief for forgiveness fills our hearts and then flows into the lives of others who have sinned against us. Those who have been forgiven, forgive!        

            This prayer of Jesus should never be far from our lips… “Father, forgive them!”

- Kenny Payne

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Imitate Jesus: Prayer

Often skeptics speak of prayer as if it is no more than “wishful thinking…” (and too often we believers think the same thing!) But the Bible speaks of prayer in terms of “spiritual engagement.” There are three “prayer stories” in the life of Jesus where some very unusual things happen: at his baptism, on the mount of transfiguration, and in the garden of Gethsemane. These are usually interpreted as isolated events that happened only to Jesus, but what if they are meant to offer ordinary disciples a window into what is really happening – physically and spiritually – when we pray like Jesus? The unusual things involve the presence of God, an influx of power from God, and a renewed sense of purpose for God’s mission. These are things that all disciples will agree we desperately need. Let’s notice these prayer times of Jesus. 

            When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22 NIV) Notice the unusual things that happened when Jesus prayed: heaven opened, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove, and a voice spoke from heaven. What if this is not an abnormal picture of what happens when believers pray, but is an unusual glimpse into what is the normal practice of prayer?  Then it may not be that Jesus was somehow special and different from us in ways that are not open to imitation, rather maybe Jesus was showing us what can happen when we are committed to prayer!

When Jesus was praying on the mount of transfiguration, he was visited by Moses and Elijah. These men were pioneer servants of God ushering in new eras of Law and Prophecy and they knew what it meant to suffer for being prayerful and faithful. Their conversation and presence with Jesus had to do with his approaching “departure” which he would bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem. When the disciples woke up (and sleep seems to be a major barrier to prayer!) they were amazed at what was happening. This was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. They wanted to “sanctify” the moment, but Jesus wanted them to sanctify the practice!

Of all the recorded pray times of Jesus, the garden of Gethsemane was by far the most intense for him. It was also the most difficult because the presence he experienced was not his Father or the Holy Spirit, but merely an angel. In place of a booming voice from heaven, there was only silence! Yet Jesus prayed himself to a state of willing obedience.

Jesus’ prayer life was one of the most striking things about him, and the source of power for his life and ministry.  When Jesus prayed there was spiritual presence: The Holy Spirit as a dove, Moses and Elijah, an angel strengthening him. When Jesus prayed there was an increase in spiritual power. When Jesus prayed there was a deepened commitment to spiritual purpose. Prayer, for Jesus, seemed to always clear his vision and renew his focus!

            Prayer is the place where the space between heaven and earth becomes very “thin.” It is always accessible to us – though usually without visual or audible confirmation. When we learn to close the gap between heaven and earth through our prayers, we will discover that the gap narrows in our lives as well.

- Kenny Payne

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Imitate Jesus: Grace and Truth

The apostle John describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth”  (John 1:14)  Because of misunderstandings about both grace and truth, many people struggle to hold onto these two virtues without tremendous tension developing.

To resolve the tension some people develop a commitment to “graceless truth” which is good at pointing out faults and sins, but is completely ineffective at producing repentance. People on the receiving end of graceless truth generally feel like they have been spiritually mugged in the name of Jesus. They learn to avoid practitioners of graceless truth like the plague. Practitioners of graceless truth are generally dumbfounded at the inability of sinful people to “handle the truth.”   

Others resolve the tension by practicing “truth-less grace.” Truth-less grace is usually a commitment to live and let live without doing the frightening work of actually looking at the fruit of our lives. Truth-less grace only works until someone sins against you in such a painful and devastating way that “live and let live” is no longer an option. Too often, at that point, the truth of their sin trumps your weak sense of grace and unwillingness to forgive rules the day.     

            Neither graceless truth, nor truth-less grace, are helpful in moving people from sin to salvation. What is needed is a truthful grace or a graceful truth. Jesus was able to offer grace without ignoring the truth of the bitter consequences of sin in our lives, and to speak truth without making our situation seem hopeless and irredeemable. Jesus was able to hold truth and grace in perfect harmony.

            You can see Jesus offer people truthful grace/graceful truth in many of his encounters in the gospels. To the religious leaders he often spoke blunt truth – concerning their shortcomings and their hypocrisy – but at the same time he held out the offer of grace and a heart cleansed by repentance. This is clearly seen in the encounter Jesus had with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a religious leader, a member of the Jewish high court, and he came to Jesus one night to discuss the life of faith. Jesus shocked him with descriptions of spiritual life and health that were unfamiliar to him and were surrounded by mystery. Jesus pointed out that he knew truth that Nicodemus could not even imagine. Rather then being angry with Jesus and turning away, Nicodemus became intrigued and apparently started learning from Jesus. Jesus told him the truth and graciously gave him the space to grow in both truth and grace.  

To “sinners” Jesus offered abundant grace, but never at the expense of ignoring their sins or implying that sin is not a big deal. This is clearly seen in the story of the woman caught in adultery. Facing strong criticism and judgment from the angry religious leaders, the woman must have been preparing herself for approaching death. Yet Jesus turned the focus off of the woman and caused the men in the crowd to look at their own lives and hearts. Rocks began to fall and convicted men began to walk away. Once they were alone Jesus asked the woman about her accusers: “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir” she replied. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” Jesus pointed out the truth about her sinful life, but offered her the grace to stop sinning and start a new life. According to graceful truth or truthful grace the most important truths about us are that God loves us deeply and we are able to receive redemption from his generous hand. That is something to share!

- Kenny Payne