Thursday, August 27, 2015

In Christ…Freedom

            Jesus was remarkably free. In a world that praised wealth as the “blessing of God” and looked down on people in poverty, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” and he associated with them. In a culture that denigrated women and even taught men to pray, “God I thank you that I am not a woman” Jesus welcomed women as his disciples and taught them their God given value. In a religion that sought to be holy through separation from those whom they deemed impure, Jesus “was a friend of sinners.” The freedom of Jesus was so offensive to the religious leaders that they decided they had to kill him to keep his teachings of freedom from destroying their work. Jesus was remarkably free, and it made the people around him nervous!

            One of the people nervous about the freedom of Jesus was a young man named Saul of Tarsus. He was so upset with the followers of Jesus that he went from city to city trying to arrest them and destroy their freedom in Jesus Christ. Then he met Jesus and everything changed for him. All the things he trusted as his ticket to the kingdom – his Jewish identity, his family pedigree, his personal accomplishments, his willingness to submit to the traditions of his religion – he traded for faith in Jesus!  And the God of freedom set him free. The one who sought to stomp out the freedom given by Jesus became its best promoter!

            To the churches in the province of Galatia, Paul wrote these amazing words: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1) I find it amazing that a man who was once willing to arrest and even kill people to defend his faith, could so casually describe it as “a yoke of slavery!” But if you read Paul frequently you will know that in speaking to the Philippians he used an even more surprising term! “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:7-8). All those things he was so proud of and trusted in during his former life he called “loss” and “rubbish.” (In the Greek it is the word for dung!). Only a heart set free could talk like this!

            This transformation in Paul was noticed by the people who were still interested in controlling others in the name of God! They sought to oppose Paul and spoil his work. Paul should have recognized them easily because he was once just like them. But once you have been set free, you cannot return to a life of slavery – even (especially!) religious slavery. So Paul taught these Christians to stand firm in their freedom in Christ. He pushed them to remember that “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love!” (Galatians 5:6) Jesus is remarkably free. He gave that freedom to Paul as a precious gift. Paul shared it with others in an effort to help them live “free in Christ.” It might occur to you that only those who are free can give freedom to others! Jesus offers you freedom – freedom from sin, freedom from oppressive religious systems, freedom to love. Are you ready to live free?

- Kenny Payne   

In Christ…Submit

            Jesus is remarkably free and he gives freedom to all those who follow him. When Paul met Jesus, he was deeply entrenched in the tradition of the Pharisees, the group that Jesus said “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” After meeting Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul became remarkably free and soon after that he became a champion of Christian freedom.

            Paul challenged the Christians he taught to stand firm in their freedom and not allow themselves to be enslaved again by either the law or sin. Paul himself stood firm for the freedom of Gentile believers to become Christians without submitting to circumcision. For Paul the most important thing was that Christians trust Jesus and not themselves or the law they follow to provide salvation and security. But he also insisted that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

            It may seem like a paradox that Paul could tell Christians to stand firm in their freedom and then say this amazing statement: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)  He then takes it further and encourages Christians to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Writing in the letter to the Romans Paul speaks of the need to voluntarily limit our freedom in order to help other people grow in faith. Paul learned well the lesson that Jesus taught him that freedom is not the ultimate goal of the life of faith – rather love is! This is difficult to hear and believe in the North American culture that says the highest value is personal freedom. Paul says that we are to voluntarily limit our freedom – to eat what we want, to celebrate certain days as having tremendous significance –in order to love the people around us well.

            Paul points out that when people who disagree about “disputable matters” two possible positions – either contempt or judgment. You do not have to look hard to see the truth of this idea: those who think of those who disagree with them as “unenlightened” or “uninformed” are displaying contempt; on the other hand, those who think that their opponent is either “liberal” or “sinning” by their belief and actions are displaying judgment. Neither contempt nor judgment is a loving practice, that is why Paul tells us to avoid them both! 

            When we disagree with others we naturally want to convince them to come around to our way of thinking. If the disagreement is sharp enough, then we switch to a strong desire to “win” the argument. Paul most certainly felt these strong pulls to prove his own position as superior to his opponents. Yet he tells us that as students of Jesus Christ, we win by loving others well and voluntarily submitting to their needs by limiting our freedom. If we “win” the argument by bullying or writing off our brother or sister (using either contempt or judgment), we have failed to love and have, by definition, failed to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus we can boldly say: “Though I am free, I will use my freedom to benefit others!”

- Kenny Payne

Thursday, August 13, 2015

In Christ…Blessed!

            Everyone wants to be blessed. It is one of the deepest longings of our souls. Quite often we think of material things as the greatest blessings (and they are nice!), but the most profound blessings are always the spiritual and emotional blessings.

            Paul writes, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3)  That is an easy sentence to read, but difficult to comprehend fully and to believe! Yet Paul tells us that this is a truth we can build our lives upon. When Jesus prayed for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, he did not imagine that it would just somehow happen despite the choices and decisions of people, rather he knew that for God’s will to be done on earth lots of individuals have to choose to listen to and follow the Father. Since you won’t follow someone you do not trust, we must first learn to trust God if we are going to be blessed in the heavenly realms!

            Paul tells us that in Christ we have some significant reasons to trust God: we are adopted as God’s children, we are redeemed from our sins, we are chosen to bring God glory, and we are marked by the Holy Spirit. Talk about some serious spiritual blessings! What else could we need? We are welcomed into God’s family through his willingness to adopt us! We are forgiven of our sins and failures by his marvelous grace the he lavishes on us! We are chosen by God so that he can work though our lives and be glorified because of us! We are given the Holy Spirit to live inside our hearts and minds to confirm our adoption and continuing status as dearly loved children of God!

            But what is God up to by doing all these things? Is he just trying to give us nice experiences so that we enjoy our lives? Or is he trying to do something larger with his creation through us? Paul tells us plainly: With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:8-10) God is working to answer the prayer of Jesus for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and he is using his obedient children as the tools to make it happen! What a great description of the purpose of our faith – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ!

            So if your concept of blessings is that God gives you little gifts that you can enjoy in private, you could not be more wrong. God is giving you tremendous gifts – gifts that will satisfy your soul and ease your mind – to be used to share with everyone around you so that God’s desire for his kingdom to actually rule all creation – on earth as it is in heaven – will become reality. On that day sin will be no more, death will be completely defeated, love will reign on the earth and God will join his family as the holy city descends and God makes his dwelling place with us!

            If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you have been blessed beyond your wildest imagination. You are adopted, forgiven, chosen to bring God glory and marked with the Holy Spirit. Live like it!

            If you have not placed your faith in Jesus Christ, what are you waiting for? Your heart and soul long to be blessed, and Jesus is eager to pour his blessings into your life. Trust him today!

- Kenny Payne

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

In Christ…Full!

            People in our culture sense emptiness in their very souls that they desperately want to fill. The response of our culture has been to teach them to consume – everything – in great quantities! Yet the emptiness remains.

            St. Augustine (354-430) addressed this idea of existential emptiness with this famous quote: “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Writing over 1,000 years later, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) said: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.” These two statements seem to be the foundation for the claim that “In every human heart there is a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.”

            I am sure that, if you have slowed down enough to think about it, or if you are ever awake in the middle of the night, you are aware of this nagging sense of emptiness. There is great news concerning this condition! For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:9-10)

            Paul says a lot here in just a few words. First, the idea that all the fullness of God could possibly dwell in a human body is a staggering thought. Paul says in Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the very nature of a servant” and that in response to this self-emptying and sacrifice, God “exalted him to the highest place.” Through his obedience, Jesus became the full embodiment of God – in the flesh. That leads to the second point that Paul makes, Christ brings his followers to fullness!

           That does not mean that when you arise from the waters of baptism you are automatically mature. Far from it! But it does mean that through his Spirit living in you, Jesus is constantly cleansing and filling your life with his life. That is what it means to grow in Christ – to allow ourselves to decrease so that Christ can increase in us. The more we are able to do this, the more full we become. Understanding this can help you understand other statements in the Bible – like, “Do not quench the Sprit” andMay God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19, 23-24) Spiritual growth is a process, but it can be aided by emptying ourselves and allowing Jesus to fill us.

            It seems counterintuitive that the way to deal with a nagging sense of emptiness is to remove more from your life, but that is the wisdom of Jesus – empty yourself and allow Jesus to fill you fully. I love the quote by C.S. Lewis: “The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.” This is what Jesus means by saying you must “lose your life to find it!” The faster you do this, the faster your situation improves!

- Kenny Payne