pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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What Counts

Reading: Galatians 6:1-16

Verse 15: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians focused on being the community of faith. It was a “how to” letter about being the church. The natural way churches formed was sometimes a barrier to unity and acceptance. Paul’s initial audience in most places were Jews. It is natural to begin conversations about Jesus with folks who are religious in some way. They are more open to the conversation. We follow suit. For example, we’re a lot more likely to invite a new neighbor to church if they tell us they’re looking for a new church home. A lot more likely than when the new neighbor doesn’t fit our idea of someone who is “churchy.” For the Jews that became Christians, they had certain boxes that they thought needed checked. That’s the danger of starting a church with religious people.

The focus of today’s passage is circumcision/uncircumcision. That’s not really a thing anymore. But we have lots of things that we substitute today: white/nonwhite, upper class/lower class, educated/uneducated, conservative/liberal, neat and tidy/rough around the edges, Christian/nonbeliever, orthodox/unorthodox… The thing is, as it was with circumcision, these are all outward signs. God straightened us out on this argument way back in 1st Samuel 16, when Samuel anointed David. God said, “Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Today we have identifiers that read “Christian.” We include things like: goes to church on Sunday, reads the Bible, prays before meals in public. In the initial look, these too are just outward signs. The bigger question – and the one that I believe concerns God – is this: Do these practices lead to inner transformation? Asked another way, does our worship on Sunday morning affect how we treat someone on the other side of one of those substitute pairings? Does our Bible study impact how we love someone who is different than us? Does our prayer life fundamentally change how we see and welcome the “other”? If not, we are not becoming “new creations.” That’s what counts, according to Paul. May we be transformed day by day, becoming more and more like Jesus each step of the journey.

Prayer: Lord, help me to see as you see. Help me to see the heart. Doing so, may I love as you love. Amen.


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Go in Power

Reading: Luke 24:44-53

Verse 47: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in my name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing himself to be in ministry. At the end of his time on earth, Jesus spends 40 days preparing his followers to carry on his ministry. On this last day, Jesus summarizes and reinforces his time with them, together in ministry. Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures.” It is the next to last step.

Jesus begins their commission in verse 47. Here he says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in my name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” The disciples will begin in Jerusalem and then will spread out into the world, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. He reminds them, “You are witnesses.” They have seen lives changed; they have been present when hearts have been made new. They know firsthand the power of Christ to transform lives. And, in verse 49, Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. We will celebrate the giving of this gift soon, as the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, clothing the disciples with Jesus’ power. Filled with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the disciples will proclaim Jesus to the world.

Today, on Ascension Day, may we too accept the commission anew, committing ourselves to the sharing of the good news. Jesus continues to transform lives and to bring healing to our broken world. Like the disciples, we too need the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. May we pause at times, allowing the Spirit to fill us, to lead and guide us, to help us discern the path, and to go before us. Filled in these ways, may we then go forth in power, witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, flood my heart and mind with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Open me up to you, filling me with your words and your love. Speak to my heart and mind today, Lord, and use me to spread the good news of Jesus Christ with a world in need. Amen.


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Model God’s Heart

Reading: Acts 16:16-23

Verse 19: “They dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace to face the authorities.”

Photo credit: Gary Butterfield

In today’s passage Paul and Silas continue to minister in Philippi. They encounter a slave girl who can predict the future. After days of her following them around, shouting, “These men are servants of the most high God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Paul finally has enough and he casts the spirit out, freeing the girl to be herself. This kind act comes with a cost. The girl’s owners can no longer profit from her divination skills. In response, “they dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace to face the authorities.” There is a price to pay for cutting into their profits. Paul and Silas are stripped naked, beaten, and thrown into jail.

As we consider the time and place in which we live, who do you know that is captive to an unjust system or to unacceptable conditions? Or, who do you know that benefits from a system that lessens or oppresses others? These are two sides of the same coin, as we saw in today’s text. Is there someone in a bad relationship that just needs a little help to get out in their own? Is there someone living in poor housing that you can raise awareness of, leading to an improved situation for them? Is there someone stuck in grief or dealing with illness – mental or physical – that you can come alongside, offering relief or help to?

At times we are called to be the voice for those without. And at times we must stand up for and with those without power. In these ways we model the heart of God. May God open our eyes and hearts to the needs all around us.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes to the world around me. Reveal to me the places and people who need your help or intervention or rescue. Show me the way to help however I can. Amen.


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Open and Obedient

Reading: Acts 16:9-13

Verse 10: “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once.”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

As we continue in Acts this week we see that the church continues to grow. The early church leaders have just made a significant decision: Gentile converts do not have to follow all of the Jewish laws to be Christians. Yes, to think that they should sounds weird. They’re becoming Christians, not Jews! Yet this still happens in churches today. We think new folks need to conform to our way of doing and being if they are going to be a part of our community of faith.

With the hard decision made by the council, Paul and companions head back out, visiting churches to share this decision and to encourage the churches. Today and tomorrow’s passage begins in Troas. But they’re not there long. In a vision Paul sees a man and is asked, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” In verse 10 we hear the reaction to the vision: “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once.” They immediately got ready and went. Once they arrive in Philippi, they continue to be obedient to God’s guidance. On the Sabbath they go “where they expected to find a place of prayer.” Paul and his companions are obedient to the guidance God gives. Because they have open hearts and are obedient, God will use them in amazing ways.

The same is true for you and me. God is always speaking, nudging, leading us – or at least trying to. If you’re like me, you can ignore, avoid, put off the promptings at times. Yet we are called to have open hearts and obedient minds, allowing ourselves to be used by God is amazing ways. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, what might you have for me today? I ask that you would use me for the building of your kingdom. Help me first to be open and willing then guide me to hear and follow. Amen.


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Here on Earth

Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

Verse 3: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and God will live with them.”

Photo credit: Thanti Nguyen

Revelation 21 comes near the end of John’s vision. Much unfolds up to this point – words are spoken to the 7 churches, there is trial and persecution, there is rapture and eternal punishment, there is a great era where Satan rules yet the name of Christ is still made known. As chapter 21 opens John sees a new heaven and new earth and a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. God becomes present once again, just as God has been originally with Adam and Eve. In verse 3 we read, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and God will live with them.” This is the traditional, future-focused, apocalyptic reading of the book of Revelation.

Much of scripture has layers or multiple meaning. Jesus’ use of parables is the best example of this. For example, the parable of the sower is not just about planting seeds in different soil types. The first readers of Revelation, for example, would have read is as a present day event, with Satan representing the Roman emperor. Passages such as our today can also be read as a present and ongoing reality, not just as a historical or future event.

When we choose to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of our life, we are made into new creations, indwelled with the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit lives with us and in our hearts from that point forward, daily walking with us. Not that we don’t ever again experience pain or loss or other hard things, but God present with us will “wipe every tear” from our eyes. The power of death was swallowed up in Christ’s victory on the cross – “the old order of things has passed away.” Death is no longer the end. It is just a point of transition to something more, to something much better. And like the woman at the well, in this life we too experience the “living water.” As we thirst for more of Christ in our lives, he gives abundantly “drink without cost” from the water of new life. Yes, we can experience the kingdom of God here on earth. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, heaven and being in your eternal presence is something I look forward to, even long for. Yet in this time and place you dwell with me, love me, walk with me. Thank you for the gift of experiencing a taste of heaven here and now. Amen.


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The Mind, The Attitude of Christ

Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Verse 5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

Our passage today opens with quite a challenge! Other translations challenge us to have the mind of Christ. What a life we’d live if we always practiced the attitude or mind of Jesus Christ.

In the passage Paul explains what it requires to meet this challenge: emptying self and then being a servant, being humble, and being obedient to God. I don’t know what’s harder – the emptying or the being. I do know that to truly be these things one must be willing to empty or die to self. This act of surrendering our will and way to God is the necessary first step to true servanthood and humility and obedience. We can be partly these things without surrender, but always in a lesser way because we will still keep self in mind.

In our world so much value is placed on possessions, titles, status, and so on. Living in this world, it is hard to let go of these things. That’s why faith is so counter-cultural. To serve others usually asks us to give away and to be generous with what God has blessed us with. To be humble is to relinquish place and to think more of the other, to see and live into our interconnectedness and interdependence. To be obedient is to listen to God’s voice – both in the scriptures and as spoken by the Holy Spirit. To listen implies that we hear and follow what is said.

To live in this radical, counter-cultural way is to exult the name of Jesus. When we die to self we take on the mind of Christ. When we live as humble servants, obedient to God, we practice the attitude of Christ. Doing so, we bow down to and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Doing so, we invite others to do the same. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, lead me to kneel at your throne and to pour out self, surrendering to you. Prune away all within that holds be back; nurture and grow those parts that witness to your will and way. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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A Difficult Road

Readings: Luke 13:1-5 and 1st Peter 3:8-17

Verse 8: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”

Photo credit: Jan Huber

In the first half of this week’s passage from Luke 13, Jesus is presented with two scenarios, both with the same theme. In these scenarios people suffer a great tragedy. Those present ask Jesus if those who died suffered because they were “worse sinners”. In other words, did God single them out because of their sin? Jesus’ short and emphatic answer is “No!” Turning the conversation back to those present, Jesus twice says, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Yes, we’ll all die one day. God does not go out of God’s way to punish us here for our sins. But ultimately, we will perish and spend eternity outside of God’s glory if we choose to live in sin.

These concepts of suffering and living faithfully are continues in our 1st Peter 3 passage. Our passage begins with these words: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” Living faithfully involves getting along, being understanding and loving and caring, practicing humility. Jesus modeled this way of living. Peter also encourages us to not repay evil with evil but instead to be a blessing even to those who cause suffering in our lives. Jesus also modeled this way of living. Going further, Peter invites us to be willing to suffer for our faith at times. This idea of being willing to suffer is incongruent with our “feel good”, selfish culture. To do or say something that might bring some actual suffering is greatly avoided.

Yet this is the way of the cross. Jesus asks us to have a willingness to do what he did: to carry a cross, to walk a difficult road. For us, the first step is offered by Peter in verse 15: “in your heart set apart Christ as Lord.” This decision leads us to always choose Jesus’ way over the way of the world. Jesus’ way is primarily the way of love. Loving enough will lead us to times of suffering and sacrifice. This includes having less so that others can have some. This includes standing with those who are experiencing injustice, being a voice for equality, engaging oppressive systems. Each of these difficult roads invite suffering and require sacrifice. When we are willing to repent from the sinful ways of the world, when we are willing to practice compassion and empathy and understanding, when we are willing to carry a cross for the other, then we are our world will be changed. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, give me a willingness and a courage to walk the difficult road. With a heart to suffer for others, send me out into the brokenness of the world. With a holy courage, lead me to those who need voice, to those who need one willing to stand beside them. Amen.


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A Longing Love

Reading: Luke 13:31-35

Verse 34: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longer to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.”

In our gospel text for this week we find a lament from Jesus. Laments express a deep sadness and a longing for something. There are lots of laments in scripture, especially in the Psalms. Jesus was not the first prophet to lament a lack of faith. In today’s passage Jesus expresses his sorrow over the Jews rejecting him as the Messiah. This is a common lament subject for Jesus.

In verse 34 Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longer to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.” Jesus’ desire to be known and accepted by the Jews is deep and sincere. He was born among these people for a reason. Early on many are drawn to Jesus. Great crowds gather. In remote places people come from all around. People living under Roman occupation and a burdensome religion were driven to the healings and other miracles that Jesus offered. These eased or lightened the difficulties of life. But those at the top of the religious hierarchy kept their distance. This faith that Jesus proclaimed was dangerous to their religion. As his ministry progressed, Jesus taught more and more about humble service and truly loving God and neighbor more than self. The crowds began to thin out as the reality of what it meant to really follow Jesus became clearer and clearer.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, knowing the final rejection and death soon to come, he pauses and laments what could have been. It was nothing new. The religious leaders have a long history of killing and stoning those sent by God, of rejecting God’s prophets. It is with deep and sincere sorrow that Jesus says, “But you were not willing!” Jesus longs to gather them up, to protect them, to shelter them. This remains true today.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the heart revealed in Jesus – a heart of pure love for all of humanity. Thank you for a love so great that it even longs for those who reject and even abuse it. Lead me to love as Jesus loves. Amen.


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All People

Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Verse 10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

In our passage today Paul is proclaiming that all who call on Jesus as Lord and Savior will be saved. That is a bold and sweeping statement. Yet it pales in comparison to the breadth and depth and width of God’s love for us.

Our text for today begins with a recognition that for believers “the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your hearts.” There is a closeness in our relationship with God. The Spirit, God’s presence, is within us, dwelling in us – ever on our hearts and in our minds. Ever at work in the faith of the believer, the Holy Spirit helps us to grow in our faith, deepening the belief in our heart. Part of this growing process is our justification. This is the process of being made right with God. This process requires our mouth to confess and our minds and hearts to commit to repentance. The words spoken by our lips and lived out by our hearts brings God’s forgiveness and saving mercies upon us. This ongoing and often repeated process is part of our daily walk with God. Thanks be to God for this great love.

While we celebrate the love of God that continues to work in us, drawing us more and more into the likeness of Christ, do we freely extend this love to all others? Do we really believe that God loves “that guy” as much as me? Surely God could not love that grumpy neighbor or that mean boss that much. Certainly there is less love for the prostitutes and drug dealers. Yet in verse 12 we read, “there is no difference between Jew and Greek – the same Lord is Lord of all.” Today Paul would write that there is no difference between Christians and non-Christians – God is the God of all. God’s heart yearns to include all people in God’s family. May our hearts yearn for this as well.

Prayer: Lord God, may my words and actions proclaim that your love reaches out to all people. By my words and actions may I reveal that love to all people, drawing them towards your unconditional love. Amen.


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Increasing Our Resemblance

Reading: 1st Corinthians 15:42-50

Verse 49: “Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

In today’s portion of our passage from 1st Corinthians 15 Paul offers some contrasts between what we are in the flesh and what we will become. We are perishable and weak in the flesh; we are prone to sin. One day we will be raised in glory, becoming imperishable as we are filled with power from God. In the body we are captive to the natural forces of this world: sickness, disease, death. In these ways we also bear the image of Adam and all of humanity. At the same time, though, when we walk in faith we grow to be more and more like the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

Paul reflects this change in verse 49, where he writes, “Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” Born as people of the dust of the earth, we live that way at least for a while. At some point all Christians make a decision to be more. We find a desire to love for more than this earthly existence. Accepting Christ, our focus shifts away from the things of this earth and towards the walk of faith. Claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, we begin to follow Jesus’ ways and example, living into the likeness of the man from heaven. As we enter this new life, we begin a process of ongoing transformation as the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our heart.

Choosing Christ begins our journey towards heaven, towards the resurrection of the body. One day we will become so much more than we are now. It will be beautiful and amazing. Yet what happens here and now is also beautiful and amazing. Transformation begins the moment we enter a relationship with Jesus Christ. May we welcome this process each day. May we all be open to the power of the Spirit of Christ to work in and through us each day, increasing our resemblance to Jesus Christ, the man from heaven.

Prayer: Lord God, I ask you today to work in my heart, making me more into the image of your son. Turn me from the ways of men, empowering me to walk increasingly as your disciple. Amen.