Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Christ... Children of God

One of the dominant images for Christians is “children of God.” Jesus taught us the value of this relationship by his habit of referring to God as “Father.” Having grown up in a family with five children, I resonate with the image of the church as “God’s family” and of individual Christians as “children of God.” God, in his mercy, places us in families when we are born so that we can be loved and nurtured and learn how to grow up and become fully human. Yet most families are not marked by continual peace and uninterrupted tranquility! My siblings and I did not always get along well and sometimes it was difficult to feel the love! God wants more from his spiritual family…

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

            Christianity is designed to offer constant reminders that we are not to promote ourselves and place ourselves in opposition to others around us, rather we are to humble ourselves and consider others as better than ourselves. God wants his children to be loving and devoted to one another, not in competition and conflict with each other. Among God’s children, there is no place for spoiled brats! (Our loving Father will tell them to grow up, and will help them with that project!)

            Christians experience a great leveling at the cross of Christ, where all people stand as unworthy sinners asking for his prayer of forgiveness to cover us. We experience that leveling again in the waters of baptism where we claim, not our own righteousness or virtue, but access to the grace of Christ Jesus through our death, burial and resurrection with him. We are continually reminded of our equality as sisters and brothers in Christ each time we offer prayers of confession and repentance, receiving once again the grace of Jesus to cover our sins. God does not have favorite children!

            Of all people on the planet, Christians should be the most accepting and loving community because we have all been cleansed by the blood of Jesus and then clothed in his righteousness. You cannot walk away from the foot of the cross, where all are equal, and then continue to live with the barriers that Satan creates to keep people separated from one another and from our loving Father.

            One of Satan’s oldest tricks is “divide and conquer.” God calls us to an unfailing commitment to “love one another” because where love rules there is no one left out, no one left behind and no one who can honestly say that they are not welcomed. When Christians live together lovingly, everyone who sees it wants to be part of the family. When we don’t, we should not be surprised if people avoid our house like the plague.

            - Kenny Payne

Alive in Christ

             One of the most powerful metaphors for salvation and discipleship in the New Testament is resurrection. Paul tells us that we were dead in our transgressions and sins, but by his great mercy God made us alive with Christ. What a stark image – before we are saved we are dead! Once we are saved, we are resurrected!

            We are, of course, alive physically both before and after our salvation, but the metaphor is so powerful because it points to deep truths about how life-changing salvation is for us. Death was released into the world through the disobedience of Eve and Adam in the early days following creation. Death continues to increase in power and destruction as each person chooses disobedience over faithfulness. One way to look at life is that it is being overtaken by death. But God’s grace is life giving: when you receive new life in Jesus Christ everything about your life changes. Grace teaches you to love – to love God, to love others and to love life itself!  Listen to John – who was taught to love by Jesus: We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14 NIV) Once love replaces fear in your life as the driving force, you are fully living the resurrection life!

            Once you begin living the resurrection life, you immediately notice that everything in the environment around you looks different. While there is a part of you that still sees all the same old people, places and stuff, the “God-alive” part of you sees with heaven’s view. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Paul tells us that we have been seated “in the heavenly realms with Christ.” Once you start looking at people, places and stuff through the eyes of God everything looks different. You see the potential, not the lack. You see the good planted into the entire creation by the Creator who constantly said “It is good!” Once you can see the good you can live in such a way to increase the good, both in yourself and in everyone and everything around you. That is why Jesus was so attractive to people – he “went around doing good” and it brought out the goodness in people around him. Those who are resurrected live like that!

            God is a loving and patient creator. He created us to be his partners in creation. When we choose disobedience and death, we are helping to destroy creation. When we choose resurrection and life, we are helping to restore creation. No one is neutral in the creative process – we are either helping or harming what God is doing in the world. Paul gives us this advice: Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (Romans 6:13 NIV) The choice before us all is crystal clear: death or life, fear or love, instruments of wickedness or instruments of righteousness. Choose wisely because your choice will have a great impact on yourself and all those around you. Choose life!
                                                                                                                                           - Kenny Payne

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In Christ... Grow Up

The growth that God intends for disciples of Jesus follows a predictable pattern: from infancy, to maturity, to “Christ formed in you.”  This growth is neither automatic nor accidental, rather it flows from several important decisions: the desire to remove harmful thoughts and practices from our lives, the commitment to nourish ourselves daily with a healthy spiritual diet, and the willingness to create time and space for God to live in our hearts.

            There are habits and sins that hinder all spiritual growth! We are repeatedly told to remove these things from our lives. Paul contrasts these harmful habits with the healthy habits that lead to maturity – he calls the harmful habits “works of the flesh” and the healthy habits “the fruit of the Spirit.” (Remember that for Paul the flesh and the Sprit are not battling dogs in our minds, but are two very different paths we can take through life). Peter has this to say about starting a life of spiritual growth: Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3 NIV) Notice that our desire for spiritual life and growth is a response to the truth that we “have tasted that the Lord is good.” That truth sets us on a remarkable journey to fill our lives with good, learning along the way to remove all that is not good from our lives.

            The process of spiritual growth, unlike physical growth, is not mostly a matter of the passing of time. Paul points this out in writing to the Christians in Corinth: Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?  (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NIV) While it is certainly appropriate for infants to drink milk, something is wrong with a teenager who does not eat solid food! Our growth comes from the passage of time spent practicing spiritual disciplines and walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

            Spiritual growth, like physical growth, is a very long journey that requires patience, perseverance, mentors, correction, and lots of encouragement. Surround yourself with people who are spiritually mature – allowing their practices to become your practices – and       you will notice growth in your life almost immediately.  That is why God places his newborn children in a spiritual family! Healthy individuals who are having Christ formed in them, create a healthy church family where others learn to walk with Jesus. Are you noticing the signs of maturity in your life? If not, it may to time to give more attention to growing up in Christ!

- Kenny Payne

Be Strong in the Lord and in His Mighty Power

            Every task, job or game has its own set of tools and rules – if you do not master these tools and rules you are unlikely to develop competency in the practice you have chosen. Trying to fight a fire with the tools of a baseball player would be a rather frustrating and dangerous task. Using the tools and rules of a doctor would not be very helpful if your desire is to plant a garden. Familiarity with and commitment to the “tools of the trade” is a necessary part of anything you want to achieve.

            This should be obvious, yet when it comes to spiritual growth too many people want to achieve the result without a corresponding commitment to the tools and practices of the task. No one is naturally good at spiritual growth, rather it is a learned task with a particular set of practices that help promote proficiency.

            Paul, while under house arrest, wrote the letter to the Ephesians, to encourage these Christians to grow up in Christ. As he wrote he was always in the presence of his Roman soldier guard. He took the armor of a legionnaire and used it to explain the tools and the rules of spiritual growth. Listen to his words: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes... Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-11, 14-17 NIV) Paul reminds these disciples of the six tools that will help them fulfill their mission to be salt and light in a dark world: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the word of God!

            The image of a disciple fully dressed in the armor of God is a powerful and helpful image.

·         It reminds us that we are part of a large group of people all seeking to accomplish the same task – if there is only one soldier in the army, it is not an army!

·         It points out that we are not just passing time doing whatever interests us, rather we are committed to the will and mission of the commander.

·         It helps us focus on who we are committed to, and who our enemy is – “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood” – we are engaged in a spiritual battle. (This is important to remember when facing people who are fighting for the enemy – they are not the enemy, rather they are being used by the enemy!)

·         It calls us to be committed to taking a stand and refusing to go AWOL! Imagine how the world would change this week if all those who follow the Prince of Peace put on their armor, and loved the world like Jesus does!

Suit up and get in the fight alongside Jesus…

- Kenny Payne

Thursday, July 02, 2015

In Christ... Security

            Every person has felt the tension between what they want to be and what they are, between how they intend to behave and how they actually behave. We all know what it is to fail. Because of this the words of the apostle Paul easily resonate in our hearts: It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? (Romans 7:21-24 The Message)

            Have you ever wondered this? The question concerns security. If our security and salvation is found in our performance, then we all recognize that we are seriously insecure! Paul plainly tells us that the answer is not in our performance or will power, rather it is found in Christ Jesus. Listen to his words: The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 8:25 The Message)

He acted to set things right…  It is in Jesus Christ that we find our stability and security! Jesus calls us to make a fundamental decision about how we are going to live the life God has given us. Will we live according to the flesh – using human wisdom and insight to guide us and our feelings to make mid-course corrections, or will we live according to the Spirit of God – using divine wisdom to guide us and the continual forgiveness of ours sins by Jesus to keep us on the right path?

Too often the words of Paul concerning “the flesh” (sinful nature in the NIV) and “the Spirit” are taken to be two parts of the human being fighting for control. While we can certainly understand them in that way, Paul is actually referring to two very different paths through life (or worldviews). Paul is saying that we have to make a decision about who is in control of our lives.

The difference between a life controlled by the flesh and a life controlled by the Sprit cannot be more stark: it is the difference between death and life, between darkness and light, between addiction and freedom, between slave and beloved child.

Life in the Spirit means that we do not face condemnation, but are given the gift of holiness. Life in the Spirit means that we are not abandoned in the world, but are made children of God. Life in the Spirit means that no matter what happens to us in the world, God is working in and through it all to benefit his children. Life in the Spirit means that nothing can separate us for the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

There are two paths through life – the path of the flesh, and the way of the Spirit. They are not two roads that both lead to the same end! Choose wisely, choose life in the Spirit.

- Kenny Payne    

In Christ… Gloriously Fruitful!

Just hours before going to the cross, Jesus spoke to his disciples about their need to be intimately connected to him if they wanted to continue growing in their faith and being part of what God was doing in the world. Listen to these powerful words:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8 NIV)
            The disciples understood what it meant to follow Jesus physically, by simply going where ever he went and staying by his side. After his death, resurrection and ascension, they would have to learn a new way to follow Jesus, by being deeply rooted in his teaching and way of living.
            Jesus used the image of a vine and its branches to help them understand what it is like to stay connected to him. They were all familiar with vines and had probably even seen them being pruned and cleaned. Jesus pointed out that his students must maintain their connection to him as a branch must remain connected to the vine. Our source of life is Jesus Christ and if we become disconnected we are dead already, though we may not see it for some time. A branch that is cut off still looks alive, but its source of live is actually removed and it is dying. Jesus makes our need crystal clear – remain in me!
            The reason that Jesus calls disciples is to engage them in the work that he and the Father are doing in the world. It is the purpose for which we were all created, to be made in the image of God and doing the work of God. Jesus calls this state of God working with and through us “bearing fruit,” It is why vines are planted and tended so carefully – to produce their fruit. When we remain in Jesus and our lives become fruitful we are blessed and everyone around us can receive those blessings that flow from God through our lives.

            Imagine this: your life can be so intimately connected to Jesus that you become fruitful, a source of blessing to others, and God will receive glory because of you! This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

- Kenny Payne