” . . . with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, . . .”            Ephesians 4:2

Any and all tolerance is to be preferred over intolerance. In a diverse and increasingly interconnected world, with its plurality of cultures, intolerance leads to increasing conflict. Tolerance enables diverse peoples to live together with increasing peace.

Though tolerance has become a cardinal virtue of the postmodern world, it has always been essential to Christian faith. The difference exists in that postmodern thinking says we should be tolerant because of what we don’t know, while Christian faith says we should be tolerant because of what we do know.

The current societal emphasis on tolerance comes from the absence of belief in any real truth. If there is no truth or standard, then what anyone else thinks or believes is just as good as what I think. Who can say what is better? I need to tolerate others because their ways are as valid as mine. This is tolerance out of “not knowing”.

Christian tolerance, as St. Paul teaches, is what we have for others because we know the love of God. It neither implies an absence of truth, standards, or the ability to speak about what is good or better. Instead, precisely because Christians know love, as demonstrated by God, we practice tolerance of others. Christians are tolerant, or at least should be, because bearing with the differences of others, even when they appear to be wrong, is how love is expressed.

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God’s Revolution

“John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”   Matthew 21:25

When John the Baptist went into the desert and invited people to come to him and receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) he was setting up an alternative to the temple in Jerusalem. According to Moses’ Law, if people wanted to receive forgiveness of sins they should take a sin offering to the priest and a sacrifice would be made (Leviticus 4). Since the time of Solomon, that sacred rite had occurred at the temple in Jerusalem. 

John invited people to come to the Jordan and be forgiven of their sins. Don’t go to the temple; come to the wilderness. He was rejecting the temple. He was denouncing the priesthood as it was configured and functioned. He was making the same strong statement that Jesus made in cleansing the temple and condemning what it had become (Matthew 21:12-13).

So, when Jesus asks the Jewish leaders whether John’s baptism was of God, it would mean dying to themselves to confess that it was. To acknowledge divine authority as the source for John’s baptism would be to admit that they don’t hold the exclusive venue for sin-forgiveness. Even more, it would be to admit that a shift has occurred, and that God is doing what he’s always done (be merciful), but in a new way. 

Of course, all of this is totally out of the question. Too much is invested in the temple system. Too much power and money is at stake. Their personal stake in the status quo blinds them to what God was doing through John, and is doing through Jesus. 

God’s revolution always subverts the present structures. This should be remembered by those who think of themselves as revolutionaries.

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Obedient Love

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”   John 14:15

What Jesus is not saying:

If you keep my commandments, then I’ll love you.

When you keep my commandments, you have done what it means to love me.

Love and obedience are the same thing.

If you aren’t keeping my commandments, you obviously don’t love me.

If you love me, you’ll blindly do what I say.

When all is said and done, it comes down to rule-keeping.

If you love me, you’ll do all the burdensome and miserable things I want you to do.

Your level of love is measured by your level of obedience.

What Jesus is saying:

Love comes first and is the basis of everything.

Following my instructions is itself an act of love.

I want you to love me and have your obedience flow out of your heart’s devotion.

Loving inevitably finds expression in action.

My commandments are extensions of love, mine and yours.

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Why Jesus Isn’t ‘Good’

17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.    Mark  10:17-18

Jesus’ response in this case often causes some concern for those who affirm his divinity, because he can be construed to be saying he’s not good like God, and therefore did not claim to be what later followers made him out to be. One might fear that additionally Jesus might be admitting that he is not sinless, which would completely undercut the atonement and gospel. However, I think that if Jesus had accepted the title of ‘good’ he would not have been good! Actually, I think for him to accept that description would have been sin. Paradoxically, by refusing such a statement, Jesus remained sinless!

Theologically, I base this belief on the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus is God become man, and in doing so, shows us how to properly be human. He lives out faithfully and perfectly the way to be a creature in relationship with the Creator. Should any man accept the description of being ‘good’? Should we accept this if others say it about us, or should we say it about ourselves?

Clearly, Jesus answers as any created being should, attributing only true goodness to God. If Jesus had said, “Yes, I am good,” he would have sinned as a human being. Was he denying his sinlessness? I don’t think so, but neither was he affirming his sinlessness.

Jesus taught us, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1).  Does that only apply to judging others, or can it also be true that we should not judge ourselves? Paul interprets this teaching to include the latter, when he says,

 3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.       1 Corinthians 4:3-5

All rendering of judgment about anyone is the work of God. While we must and should make judgments about situations, what edifies, and a host of other things, we are to judge no one. If we judge ourselves ‘good’ then our praise comes from ourselves, and not from God. We are like the Pharisee praying in the temple, proud to not be a sinner like others. Even if Paul knows nothing against himself, he recognizes that this does not make him innocent. Only God knows the dark places of the heart.

Jesus sets, as always, the perfect example for us. He leaves all judgment to God. While we might say a certain action was good, and may receive a compliment that something we did was good, we refuse to allow ourselves to be judged as good, by others or by ourselves. If there is praise and a reward, let it come from God.

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Lent: A Physical Spirituality

When Jesus urges us to form our lives within the spiritual direction of the greatest command, we are called into loving God with
our whole heart
our whole mind
our whole soul
and our whole strength.
(Mark 12:30).

Spiritual disciplines involve the whole spiritual self, which includes all that make us who we are. Spiritual disciplines are not only directed toward our thoughts, or our emotions. They do not address only our will, or inward aspects of our being. Our physical self is a part of our spiritual self.

As we enter into the 40 days of Lent, we are invited to embrace a spiritual practice which involves our whole self, but enters through the door of its physical dimensions—

Beginning with the discipline of fasting brings the body into what will also engage our thoughts, feelings, will, and sense of ourselves.

We learn to love God through, in, over, and despite our whole self.

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Jesus: Discovering the Good

20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.         John 3:20-21

We ought to take notice when scripture says something different than what we expect, or contradicts our way of thinking. This passage is one of those times.

Look at the order in verse 21.

First, we have someone practicing the truth. This is happening before they come to the Light. We expect the verse to say, “Once a person comes to the Light, he then lives what is pleasing in the sight of God.” It would be true to make that statement, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.

Jesus is talking about someone who is living the truth, and so comes to the Light because this person recognizes that the Light is the same as the truth he has been living. What happens, then, is that this person discovers that the truth and good they were following and practicing was actually work that was being done in God. It was God all along. This person was living in God and didn’t know the extent of that reality until the Light revealed it.

I know there is a simpler and less mystical reading of these verses: People doing evil hide their actions, and people doing good are happy to have their actions seen for they are godly works. However, because Jesus is speaking of his own coming into the world as the Light (verse 19: This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil) I believe he’s saying something more. He is offering an explanation as to why some accept and others reject him. As the Light, he is exposing evil actions and godly works for what they are. Some choices which seemed godly, are not. Others, which seemed evil, are actually godly. People can learn from his appearing the good they should be doing, as well as discover the good they have been doing all along. The reverse is true about evil actions.

There is an element of discovery here for everyone in the world. We are finding out the nature and quality of what we’ve been living and doing in the world. Since Jesus embodies truthfully the way of God, his appearing is essentially passing judgment (clarifying the reality) over all our ways of acting and living.

We should hear echoes of Matthew 25, where in the judgment both those who did the will of God and those who didn’t, find out, much to their surprise, the true nature of what they were living.

My experience in Tanzania was very much what Jesus is talking about. There were people already practicing what was godly and true. When we preached about Jesus, those with this affinity for the Light were drawn to what they had already been pursuing. They discovered that this truth has a name, Jesus. The Spirit also convicted others of sin, who then abandoned old ways for a new way in Jesus. But some were already on that way, and discovered more fully the God who had been drawing them before this mzungu (white man) showed up with his Bible.

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Peace of Advent

That rush of panic. Suddenly, you wonder if God is really in control. What does God being in control mean anyway? Even if He is, bad stuff happens all the time. His children are not immune, and may even seem to suffer as much, if not more, than those who seem to give no thought to God.

“Fear not!”

The words are spoken again and again in the Advent narrative. Angelic messengers utter them as God’s emissaries to people caught up in circumstances they cannot fathom.

Rather than rebuking us for our fear, these words acknowledge the legitimate uncertainty and vulnerability we experience when events are perplexing, disconcerting, or absolutely terrifying. God knows we are afraid. He expects us to be afraid. The first word to us is always to be at peace. God is not angry because we get scared, but instead comes to reassure us that we do not have to stay in that trembling state of panic. One gift of Advent is peace.

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