pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Perfectly United

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1:10-18

Verse 10: “I appeal to you… that all of you agree… no divisions among you… be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

Photo credit: Clay Banks

As we turn to our Epistle reading, Paul appeals to those in the church to find unity. There are quarrels and divisions in this church community. There are particulars to this strife – factions are wanting to follow different leaders – but this detail is secondary to resolving the bickering and fighting. Their infighting is tearing at the fibers of community and it is greatly diminishing the church’s witness to the world.

There will always be differences in our churches. Some people may, for example, like the gospel of Matthew better than the gospel of Mark. They like the fact that it has more stories and better connects to the Old Testament. But others prefer the more straight-forward, quicker pace of Mark. Both are right factually about each gospel. Both writings are valuable to Christians seeking to grow in their faith. Yet if both “sides” were to begin talking down to the other, using their gospel truth to bash the other side, then the focus would shift from the words and teachings of Jesus to the bickering and infighting of those in the church. That would not be a good thing.

Paul’s call is to be a community of faith “perfectly united in mind and thought.” Unity comes through having the mind of Christ, from speaking and acting as Christ did. In all things both big and small, may we begin in Christ and with his example. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, bring me back again and again to the one in whom we find our faith. Draw me to Christ’s example and to his humility and love. Ground me in these things always. Amen.


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Knowledge and Gifts

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1:4-9

Verse 5: “In Christ you have been enriched in every way.”

Continuing in our Epistle reading for this week, Paul reminds those in the church in Corinth that they have been “enriched in every way.” In and through Christ, these Christians have been enriched in both speech and knowledge. Along these same lines, Paul tells them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. What a great place this church is in!

Before getting to the heart of the letter, Paul closes the opening section by encouraging them. He shares that Christ will keep them strong to the end. They will be blameless because God is faithful. Wow! What words of encouragement! It sounds almost too good to be true.

To have knowledge and gifts, it can be dangerous. To know one knows more than others, to see that one is more blessed than most folks – that can be disastrous. We’ve all seen examples of this in the sports world, in the entertainment industry, in the economic and political arenas. We’ve all been turned off by someone’s ego or arrogance or judgmental attitude. When one’s faith goes down this road, it is especially dangerous.

To be arrogant and prideful around one’s faith is an immense turn-off. It creates division when one person or group thinks they’re better than everyone. It is a more massive cause of division and hurt when Christians take this approach, looking smugly down upon those outside the community of faith. There is trouble brewing in the church in Corinth. It will be good reading. It is also good reading for us today. Stay tuned!

Prayer: Lord God, you do bless us in so many ways. You are the only way to life eternal and to true joy in this present life. But instead of holding these things over others, instead of allowing them to be used for division, let us use our blessings to bless others. Let us use our relationship with you to draw others into relationship. Guide us to gently and generously share all that you offer. May we live in love with the world, not with ourselves. Amen.


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Welcome Him, Welcome Me

Reading: Philemon 1-21

Verse 17: “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Photo credit: Markus Spiske

Philemon is a unique book in the Bible. This short letter is personal in nature but has wide application. It is written to one man, Philemon. The letter addresses a unique situation. Onesimus is a slave who stole from Philemon and has run away from him. Fleeing to Rome, probably hoping to blend into this big city far away, he encounters Paul and his life is forever changed. Onesimus comes to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He longs to return home, to go back to Philemon. Paul appeals to Philemon “on the basis of love.” Paul asks Philemon to “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” Onesimus is now “useful” and wants to live a different life, a good life.

We all know people who have been difficult or hard to be around. Maybe they’re unhappy with their situation, like Onesimus used to be. A change of scenery leads to a change of heart. They return a different person, eager to reconnect. Sometimes we, like Philemon, need a little encouragement, a little prompting to fully receive them back. Paul uses his influence and the basic tenets of reconciliation and forgiveness in his appeal to Philemon. These are things we too have in our life and faith that we can use to build connections.

In our current culture there are many opportunities to practice the love of Christ and the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Division and barriers are abundant. As a society we are polarized, often galvanized in our positions. Acting in Christian love, walking in humility, we can walk across those gaps, past those walls. Living and loving as Christ did, we can seek to build unity, to begin reconciliation, to offer forgiveness to those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. May we seek to welcome these as we would welcome Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, you call us to live all people because all people are our brothers and sisters, all are created by you. So fill me with your love, fill me to overflowing. Use that overflow to begin the healing and reconciliation needed in our world. In your healing, may we all become one in the Lord. Amen.


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Fire and Division

Reading: Luke 12:49-53

Verse 51: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

Photo credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel

Jesus begins this teaching by declaring that he came to “bring fire on earth.” This reminds me of an expression once used to describe enthusiastic Jesus followers: they are “on fire” for Jesus. This phrase was used to paint a picture of someone who was super eager to share Jesus with everyone they met. Oh, wait. Isn’t that what Jesus is talking about here? And does this describe you and me?

The fire Jesus refers to next is the fire of the Holy Spirit. The baptism that he had to undergo was the baptism of his death. Here Jesus is longing for the day when he returns in Spirit, dwelling in each believer’s heart. Leading and guiding, the Spirit empowers all believers to be “little Christs” in the world. Sadly, this often looks more like poking and prodding. “On fire” isn’t exactly the best description, is it?

One reason for this might be what Jesus touches on in verse 51-53. In verse 51 he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Peace to our lives? Yes, Jesus! Peace to our world and to our relationships? Well, no. Living out our faith will cause division. It will create rifts in all of our relationships – family, friends, coworkers, classmates. Living for Christ will inherently push against living for the world. Selfish versus selfless, greedy versus generous, authority versus service – these and many more are places of division, places where we will pay a relationship cost for walking in Jesus’ footsteps. May we tread faithfully, assured of Christ’s Holy Spirit presence within our hearts.

Prayer: Lord God, grant me the courage and strength to always choose you. Empower me to walk the path that you set before me, no matter the cost, being light and love and hope for the world. When the desires of the flesh rise up in me, make greater the fire of the Holy Spirit. Refine me then to be more like Jesus. Amen.


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God with Us, Christ in Us

Reading: Colossians 1:24-28

Verse 27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Continuing in Colossians 1 today, Paul rejoices that Christ suffered for us. It was a suffering that was willingly endured to defeat the power of sin and death. It was also necessary so that we could experience the mystery that has been “disclosed to the saints.”

To me, we need God more than ever. Our time is challenging and difficult. There is great division and divisive thinking: if you are not completely with us, you are against us and you are absolutely wrong. It hasn’t always been like this. Yes, we’ve always had varied opinions and thoughts on this, that, and the other thing. We’ve not always seen eye to eye. The world has always been a messy place. God in Christ was willing to enter our messy world to show us a better way to live with and to love one another.

Our world needs more love, more compassion, more understanding, more empathy. Our world needs Jesus. Our world needs forgiveness and restoration, healing and unity. Our world needs Jesus. In our text for today, Paul recognized that he was commissioned to make Christ known. Jesus commissioned all who believe to do the same thing as we seek to make disciples of Christ. This feels like a hard task. God is with us. In verse 27 we read, “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ dwells in us. The Spirit fills us with the hope of Christ, the hope of glory. God is with us. Our world needs Jesus. May we connect others to Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, where there is division, may I bring peace and empathy. Where there is anger, may I bring compassion and understanding. Where there is brokenness, may I bring healing and wholeness. Lord, you fill me with your Spirit. Go with me today as I strive to bring others into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Rich and Beautiful

Reading: 1st Corinthians 12:1-11

Verse 11: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and the Spirit gives them to each one, just as the Spirit determines.”

We return today to 1st Corinthians 12, where Paul lifts up some of the gifts that the Spirit gives. There are many other gifts or “fruit” of the Spirit – qualities or talents bestowed upon people, all to enhance or further the work of the body of Christ. As I wrote about earlier this week, all gifts were given for the “common good.” At the same time, though, the varieties of gifts can cause division instead of unity.

Division and factions seem to be the order of our day. If you are not on our side or of our opinion or just like us, then you are bad, the enemy, evil. As a people – not just as churches or denominations or even nations, but as a whole – humanity has digressed, regressed, become less than we used to be and certainly less than God designed us to be. Under the banner of individualism we’ve forgotten that we as truly so much better together. Under the hammer of tolerance we have grown blind to the fact that all people (no matter their color, gender, faith, wealth, education, vocation…) are valued and worthy and sacred.

In our homes, churches, and society is a rich and beautiful diversity. It is just as God designed, created, and drew into being: “Through Christ all things were made; without him nothing was made” (John 1:3). Who or what are we to see God’s creation and then to draw lines, barriers, dividers? Whether gifts, service, or activities, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and the Spirit gives them to each one, just as the Spirit determines.” The Spirit works first in the way of love, leading out as Jesus led out. As followers of this Jesus, may we too use our gifts and talents to build each other up, to draw outsiders in, to let all people know they are loved by God and by those who walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

Prayer: Lord God, first gives me clearer eyes and a heart of love. Then create in me a more committed servant’s heart. Lastly, send me out into the world with a renewed love, using the gifts and talents that your Spirit blessed me with to be love poured out. Amen.


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Commitment and Connection

Reading: Mark 3: 20-35

Verse 35: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”.

Photo credit: Hans Heiner Buhr

In our passage from Mark, Jesus looks at community and connections. The religious leaders are challenging his authority and his biological family is worried about his health – physically and perhaps mentally. In verses 23-27 Jesus focuses in on division and the impact thereof. Whether a kingdom, a household, or even Satan himself, division spells disaster for that entity. This remains true today. We can see many examples of division in our society and some of us experience it in our own lives. In all cases division is a detriment, lessening whatever it touches.

In the second half of our passage Jesus turns to the more personal. In response to his earthly family’s concern for him, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers”? Jesus is not totally discounting his own family with his response but is elevating the value or place of Christian community. Answering his own rhetorical question Jesus says, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to earth. His response reflects this priority. In the twelve men that followed Jesus we see this same choice. They left all behind to follow. There was no division in their hearts. It was clear that for Jesus and those who followed him, God was first, loving the other was second, and family… fell somewhere down the line. May our commitment to and connection with God be the same!

Prayer: Lord, may my life reflect an undivided commitment to you and your will. May my love for you rise above all else. Amen.


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. Amen.


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Look Upon Us

Reading: Isaiah 64: 5b-9

Verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”.

As we continue in Isaiah 64 today, the second half of the passage begins in verse 5b with an admission: “When we continued to sin, you were angry”. Yes, God will come to the help of those who do right, but the sinners? Isaiah asks the correct question: “How then can we be saved”? As a people living in sin, the Israelites were taken into exile. God still loves them, but what can God do with his children who continue in their rebellion? The prophet laments that they have become “unclean” and that their faith has “shriveled up” like a dry leaf. In verse seven his words are honest: “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you”. The situation, the condition of the people’s faith, is not good. Yet there is hope. There is always hope with God.

In verse eight Isaiah speaks of that hope: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”. Our God never gives up on us. Yes, we may choose to distance ourselves from God and from our relationships with one another. Our sin leads to separation. Even in the midst of our sin, even then we can cry out to God. Like a petulant child, we cry out only half-heartedly because we remain unclean. We want our way and we want God to do our will too. At that point God hears but does not respond. This is where almost all of Isaiah’s audience is at spiritually. Yet the one who speaks for God has hope. Isaiah knows that God can and will reshape the people. Through the process of defeat and exile, God will fashion Israel back into obedient children once again. Our passage ends with a humble plea: “Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people”.

In this season, especially in this time of division and discord, in this time of online worship and personal distancing, in this time of illness and loss, Lord, look upon us. We pray for all of your people. Great potter, shape us into something new.

Prayer: Lord God, show us the way. Help me to work through this discord in my soul, through this time of unease. Bring healing to our land, O God. Not just physical healing but also spiritual and emotional and relational healing. Unite us, O Lord, in your love and grace and mercy. Amen.


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Wholeness and Unity

Reading: Philippians 4: 1-3

Verse 2: “I plead with ___ and ___ to agree with each other in the Lord”.

Paul is imprisoned in Rome as he writes these words. The man who founded many churches and who was a key figure in bringing many people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Paul is highly respected in the Christian communities spread throughout the known world. His words and writings carry weight. As he sits under house arrest in Rome, word of a dispute in the church in Philippi comes to his attention. Philippi is about 800 miles from Rome. Word would be carried across land, then sea, then land again. As he closes the letter to the Philippians, Paul takes time to address the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent women in the church. In the opening verse above I left two blank lines because for most churches today we could fill in the lines. The spat may be past tense in some of our churches, but it is alive and well in too many others.

The fact that two women are in a sharp enough disagreement to merit mentioning means that it had significance for that church. Such disagreements often do. We do not know the source or cause of the disagreement, we just know it was doing what these things do – causing division and hostility. Paul knows these are bad for relationships and for churches so he asks a third party, believed to by Syzygus, the “loyal yokefellow”, to mediate. Again, in our churches it could be Bob or Anne or anyone skilled at bringing reconciliation. This is often a necessary step.

Division in the body of Christ does harm in so many ways. When we dig in and hunker down and refuse to enter into dialogue, we allow division to exist. When we in the church allow this, Satan is winning the day. Our community is weakened and our witness to the world is lessened. Whether one person is wrong or if both are wrong or if neither is wrong, all parties had a hand in creating division. Understanding and healing and forgiveness and grace and reconciliation must be found. Just as Paul pleads for these people to “agree with each other in the Lord”, may that be the prayer that we lift whenever needed in our churches and communities of faith. May the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of our hearts bring wholeness and unity to the body of Christ.

Prayer: Father God, where there is division, bring me words of healing and peace. Where and when there are disagreements in the body of Christ, give me words of understanding and love, words of grace and forgiveness. When hearts are hard, lead me to foster openness and care for the other. God, draw churches of all flavors into the unified church that will better resemble eternity. Walk with me as I seek to lead in that direction. Amen.