pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Limitless Love

Reading: Acts 10: 44-48

Verse 45: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”.

Today’s passage is a great example of the growing circle of God’s love. Throughout the Bible we see that God’s love is much more expansive than was currently realized. At first it was just God and Adam and Eve. Then the immediate family grew. It was just Noah and family on an ark, then it grew. It was just Abram and family that headed out, following God’s promise. Eventually the people of God end up as slaves in Egypt. God redeems them and under Moses’ and then Joshua’s leadership the Israelites were God’s “chosen people”. For many years, one was a Jew or one was not. One was beloved by God or one was not. Even during most of Jesus’ ministry his focus was on his fellow Jews. There were hints of God’s love being bigger than that but the prevailing feeling was still one of exclusivity.

Peter was born and raised a Jew, steeped in this understanding of the Jews being THE chosen people. They were all that really mattered to God. And then God’s says, ‘Excuse me, Peter, but…’. In two visions that come in the first part of Acts 10 God shows Peter that his love is bigger. God begins by revising the traditional Jewish dietary restrictions – one of the big exclusivity definers. All that God created is clean. This is followed up by the Holy Spirit instructing Peter to go with three men to Cornelius’ home. Wait for it… Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a Gentile!

Turning to today’s passage, at Cornelius’ house Peter tells of the good news of Jesus Christ. During his teaching the same Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and all who are present. All that God created is clean, acceptable, valued and loved by God. Preparing to baptize these new believers, an astonished Peter declares, “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”. In God’s sight the whole world is the mission field. All people are beloved by God. All people are created by God to be in the family of God. All people.

When I think about Peter being astonished, initially I feel a bit superior. I think, ‘Of course God loves the Gentiles. How silly of Peter to try and limit God’s love’. And then the Holy Spirit convicts me too – slaps me upside the head. There are folks I’d be astonished to see in the family of God. There are times I try and limit God’s love. I too need to better understand the limitless and unconditional nature of God’s love. Like Peter, I am still a work in progress. May God continue to break my heart for what breaks his.

Prayer: Loving God, this day help me to love more fully, to love more openly, to love deeper and wider. Keep praying open the circle of my love too. Your love knows no bounds, no barriers. Make my love the same. Amen.


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Bear Much Fruit

Reading: John 15: 1-8

Verse 4: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine”.

Photo credit: Summertrain

Today we continue in John 15 with the vine and branches metaphor. Yesterday we looked at the primary role that our relationship with Jesus Christ plays in our life of faith. Jesus is the vine that gives us true life. God “prunes” or shapes and refines us to better model Jesus’ love to the world and to one another. As we practice Jesus’ sacrificial love in the world we are part of making new disciples – “bearing fruit” in this metaphor.

Today we look at our fellow branches and our connection to them. The branches of a vine are also connected to one another. There is often an interdependent relationship amongst the branches – they work together to produce a harvest. This idea reminds me of my community of faith. At the church we have a large community garden. The produce goes to people in need. Yesterday about a dozen folks gathered to plant potatoes, beans, carrots, beets, okra, turnips, strawberries, and many vining plants. Another group of about six gathered and provided a morning coffee break and a yummy lunch. Later in the day another came to help the leaders set up and test the watering system. All together we laid the groundwork for a ministry that will help feed many, sharing the love of Jesus along the way. In this way we are planting seeds that we hope and pray that the Holy Spirit nurtures into faith.

There are many other ways that our community of faith and other communities of faith work together to produce a harvest for the kingdom of God. For each of us, our call is to find where we each “fit” within our own communities of faith. Once we find our places to be a part of the vine we begin to fulfill God’s purposes for our lives. In these places we “bear much fruit, showing ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples”. May it be so for each of us.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the beautiful communities of faith that have helped me to grow and that have nurtured my faith. Thank you for the place where you have now planted me and for the ways they nurture me and help me to grow. Continue to be at work in us; use us to build up the kingdom of God in this time and place. Amen.


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The Vine

Reading: John 15: 1-8

Verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”.

Photo credit: Rohit Tandon

Jesus begins John 15 with a familiar analogy. Vineyards were common in Israel – a good topic to use to describe the connection between disciples and the divine. In the first verse Jesus establishes himself as the vine and God as the one who tends the vine. You and I are branches.

Over the years, on my walk of faith, I have found it very important for me to stay closely connected to Jesus. Has this been true for you? When I am faithful about my personal disciplines – early morning prayer, reading and study, reflection, journaling – then my daily life is better aligned with Jesus’ mission. In those seasons when I am just going through the motions, my connection weakens and my faith begins to get dry and stale. Challenges and difficulties arise during both seasons. Working through these with Jesus is much different than going it on my own. Has this been your experience too?

A grape vine, like all living organisms, is either growing or it is dying. Seeing the leaves and then the grapes appear and mature is easy. Noticing the vine growth is not so noticeable. Left unchecked a vine will grow and grow. If left on its own, the vine growth will decrease fruit production. This reminds me of something that I must guard against. In ministry it can be easy to say ‘yes’ to many things. I’m active and am a doer, so this is my natural tendency. I want to try new things, to offer more opportunities, to just keep adding. Because of this tendency, I am thankful for the gardener. At times God prunes me. The Holy Spirit reveals a busyness that can be let go. A fellow Christian questions my latest, greatest idea or impulse. A colleague in ministry helps me to return to the focus of my calling. Each of these persons reminds me of the truth of verse five: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”. To bear fruit you and I must remain closely connected to Jesus Christ, the source of our faith and love. May it ever be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Loving God, day by day, draw me to you. Fill me each mourning, nourishing me for the day ahead. Guard my heart and mind, leading me to walk the path you purpose for me. Connected to your son, may we bear much fruit. Amen.


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Perfect Love and Fear

Reading: 1st John 4: 16-21

Verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”.

Photo credit: Christopher Beloch

Today we continue in love as John further develops the connection between God and love. In the opening verse for today John writes, “God is love”. It is a simple yet profound statement. It is the truest and best description of God. God = love! John goes on to write, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him”. Now, some may be thinking, ‘Love, love, love, … blah, blah, blah…’. Yes, faith is about more than saying we love God or that God is love. Yes, faith is more than believing God’s grace will forgive anything and everything because God loves us so much. These shallow or limited understandings of faith fall far short of the example set by Jesus.

When we love God and the other as Jesus loved these we allow love to guide all we say and do. Following Jesus’ model, love always places our relationship with God and our relationships with one another ahead of our relationship with self. When we fail to love as Jesus loved we have elevated love of self above all else and we slip into lesser emotions – lust, envy, greed, jealousy, pride, judging… Our sin works to separate us from God and from one another, sometimes even from ourselves. Here the guilt and shame can work to bring up fear and doubt in our hearts and minds. We fear that God’s love is smaller than our sin; we doubt that God still loves us that much. In those moments we need the Holy Spirit to remind us of John’s words that we read in verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”. John acknowledges that our fear is rooted in being punished because of our sin. Here we reveal our humanity. John calls us beyond that; he calls us to “perfect love”. That is God’s love, not our love. God’s perfect love says the price has already been paid. God’s perfect love drives out the fear and guilt and shame, again reminding us that the cross says his love is greater than all of these emotions, greater than all of our imperfections.

This perfect love also calls us to more. As we live deeper into the perfect love of God, our love grows and is refined. God’s perfect love empowers us more and more to do as God commands: love one another. The deeper we grow into God’s love, the more we reflect that love towards others. Each and every day may we walk in God’s perfect love, bringing God the glory as we spread that love.

Prayer: Lord God, when my mind slips into things lesser than your love, remind me by the power of the Holy Spirit just how much you love me. Remind me again and again of your perfect love, of your no-matter-what love. Lead me to walk in that love. Amen.


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Seeking

Reading: Acts 8: 32-40

Verse 35: “Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus”.

As we continue today in Acts 8 we see how the opportunity that God provided for Philip impacted the Ethiopian eunuch. Led by the Holy Spirit, Philip was invited to sit with the eunuch in order to explain these verses from Isaiah 53. The prophet writes of a man who was killed – “led like a sheep to the slaughter”. The eunuch asks, “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else”? There is a desire burning inside the eunuch to know more.

In verse 35 we read, “Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus”. Beginning with this messianic prophecy, Philip tells the good news of Jesus Christ to the eunuch. We do not know what all Philip taught the man. Did he include other Old Testament prophecies? Did he include the birth stories? Did Philip just begin at the point that he himself encountered Jesus? What story did he use to plant the seeds of a desire to be baptized? Whatever Philip taught the eunuch must have been filled with compassion and personal belief. Led still by the Holy Spirit, Philip connected the eunuch to Jesus Christ and the new life offered through a relationship with Jesus.

We too will encounter people that are seeking. Some will be like the eunuch, seeking Jesus. Seeds already planted will be ready to blossom into faith. Here we guide them in their final steps into a relationship with Jesus. Some will be seeking meaning and purpose in their lives. With these we will need to model and eventually teach how and why Jesus is the only thing that fills that hole in their soul. Some seekers will be hurting or broken or lost, knowing that they have a need but are unable to identify or name it. They just know they want out of that valley. Working through the pain or grief will proceed any obvious steps of faith. Pouring God’s love and compassion and comfort into their lives will help bring healing and wholeness. These are but a few of the people we will encounter if we are listening to the Holy Spirit, if we are seeking to be used by God.

Like Philip did with the eunuch, may we meet the person right before us where they are, ministering to them as we are led by the Holy Spirit. Doing so, we too will share the good news of Jesus Christ, drawing others closer to our Lord and Savior.

Prayer: God, open my eyes and heart to see the ones you place before me today. Fill me with your Holy Spirit, guide my words and actions. Use me to build your kingdom today. Amen.


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God’s Grace

Reading: Acts 8: 26-31

Verses 30-31: “‘Do you understand what you are reading?’, Philip asked. ‘How can I’, he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?'”

Photo credit: Sabina

Almost twenty years ago I was at a large men’s conference. I found myself unexpectedly in their prayer room. I had asked the powers that be if ‘we’ could share that “See You at the Pole” was coming up the following week, alerting thousands of dads to the opportunity to go and pray with their children at their schools on this national day of prayer. Told ‘no’, I was not pleased. A man asked me if he could take me to the prayer room to pray for me and the event. Frumpy, I went along. After laying their hands on me a small group prayed for me, my school, the See You at the Pole event. As I was about to leave, a young lady asked if she could share something with me. After receiving permission, she shared a vision she has during the time of prayer. I left with a great assurance of the plans that God had for me and for my life and ministry.

An Ethiopian eunuch, a high court official, has been to Jerusalem to worship God. As he is traveling home, he pauses to read some scripture. God sends Philip down the same road. Led by the Holy Spirit, Philip approaches the chariot and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading”? The eunuch replies, “How could I unless someone explains it to me”? The man invites Philip to join him. An opportunity is provided. When I walked into that prayer room I felt as if I had been shot down. I did not understand their decision. Yet even then the Holy Spirit was at work. By the time I left that room it was crystal clear why things happened as they did. This chance encounter with a woman in the prayer room was totally led by the same Holy Spirit that guided Philip to that chariot. The eunuch’s life would never be the same.

The woman’s vision changed me. In an unexpected and surprising way, God blessed me immensely. A seemingly insignificant trip to a prayer room had great impact and influence on my life and ministry. When has God’s grace blessed you in an unexpected way, refining you forever?

Prayer: Lord God, I am still so grateful for that day long ago in Denver. In the moment, I didn’t see you coming. I thought I was as far from what I wanted as I could be. You showed up and spoke deeply into my heart. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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The True Kingdom

Reading: John 10: 16-18

Verse 17: “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life”.

We turn to John 10 for a second day in a row. Yesterday we were drawn to consider the present reality of God’s kingdom here on earth and to consider how we are each working to include others in said kingdom. Today we focus in on the how and the who of our task to draw others into the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the how was laying down his life. Jesus did this literally, going to the cross to defeat the power of sin and then to and out of the grave to defeat the power of death. This obedient, sacrificial action reflects both Jesus’ love for God and for us. In turn, it draws God’s love and our love too. While we may not go as far as Jesus did with our obedient and sacrificial actions, we can certainly expect to be called upon to pay a cost as we seek to share the love of God with others. It may be financial, physical, emotional, relational. The ‘how’ will almost always involve giving something for or to the other. While this is often difficult, the real ‘who’ is harder.

When we consider Jesus’ ‘who’, is general they were Jews. The people Jesus spoke with and ministered to were often much like Jesus himself. This too is our general mission field – those we work with, associate with, maybe go to school with. Jesus also welcomed and engaged those from the edges and fringes – those society and formal religion rejected or avoided. Herein lies our real challenge. We like the neat and ordered, the understandable and routine. Our churches like these things too. But for the kingdom of God to be fully revealed, it must reflect our actual communities, in all of their beautiful diversity. To realize this we must be willing to engage and welcome those outside of our normal circles. We must be willing to be uncomfortable and unsure of the places and people we seek to connect with – only in these thin spaces will we really rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. Only then will the margins and fringes be wiped away by the love of God, opening our community of faith to reflect the true kingdom of God here on earth.

Prayer: Loving God, it’s easy to call upon or engage those like me, those inside the church. It is much harder to engage and love those who are not like me. Give me a willing spirit and a deeper trust in you. Go with me Holy Spirit. Amen.


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A Beautiful Place

Reading: 1st John 3: 19-24

Verse 24: “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them”.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

This second half of our passage from 1st John 3 centers on our connection to Jesus Christ. John first acknowledges that we are imperfect. We don’t always love in action and truth. In those times we often feel the condemnation in our hearts that John refers to in verse twenty. Even then, though, John reminds us that we can “set our hearts at rest in his presence”. Because God is greater than our hearts – and greater than our failures – we can trust that God will continue to be at work in us, will continue to refine and shape us more and more into who we were created to be.

When we are living at our best, obeying God’s commands, doing what pleases God, we have a confidence before God. We sense his presence active and alive in our lives, empowering us to believe in Jesus Christ and to love one another. Living this way we deepen our connection to Jesus and to one another. We “live in him” and can feel him living in us. Christ becomes tangible in our lives. We feel it, others sense it. That indwelling Holy Spirit feels like a part of who and what we are, almost becoming one with us. It is a beautiful place to be. It is a place where we surrender all of who we are to all of what Christ calls us to be.

As we seek to walk each day with Jesus Christ and his Spirit within us, may we open ourselves to the love of God and neighbor, living with hearts filled with joy and peace and hope and contentment. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for those times where we have been so close. In those times my joy has been made complete. Draw me there again and again. By the power of your Spirit within me guide me to walk in obedience to your love. Amen.


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Righteous

Reading: 1st John 3: 4-7

Verse 5: “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin”.

Photo credit: Emily Crawford

John begins our passage for today reminding us that sin breaks the law and that sin is lawlessness. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, a life of faith entailed following the Law. Breaking a law required confession and the offering of a sacrifice to God. The Jewish faith had become very legalistic at this point. Keeping the law had in many ways superceded the practice of living in a relationship with God.

Jesus came in the flesh not to abolish the law but to reveal God’s love in and through the law. Almost everything Jesus taught and lived out came from the Old Testament. The ways of God were lived out in Jesus’ life through the lens of God’s love. There was no legalism in the ways and teachings of Jesus. The acts of confession and repentance and forgiveness had become boxes that check, parts of the law to keep, motions to go through. This had already been evident by the time of the last prophets, 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Through Amos, God tells the people he won’t even look at their “offerings of well-fed animals” (5:22) any longer. God desires justice and righteousness instead, for peace to “roll down like a river”. This is the broken system that the sacrifice of Jesus replaced.

In our passage today we read, “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin”. Jesus came to be the sacrifice, to pay the price once for all, to open the curtain that separates. As Jesus gave up his life, the temple curtain separating the people from God’s presence was torn in two. Through Jesus, God became accessible, more present. God’s love had been fully revealed. No longer was it necessary to go to the priest with an animal to sacrifice. Jesus gave direct access to God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness – not through a burnt offering but through a humble and repentant heart.

With Jesus Christ in our heart we are no longer slaves to sin. In John’s words, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning”. The Holy Spirit works within us, helping us to walk a more holy and devout life. Sin is not absent from our lives; in and with the Holy Spirit we recognize it and repent. Through the power and presence of the Spirit, Jesus within us, may we ever seek to be righteous “as he is righteous”.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the gifts of your love: Jesus Christ my example and the Holy Spirit my guide. Thank you for loving me beyond my sin and then back into right relationship with you. Amen.


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Faithful and Abiding Presence

Reading: Acts 3: 12-19

Verse 16: “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong”.

In the opening verses of Acts 3 Peter heals a crippled beggar. The man had been carried to the same temple gate for years. All who came and went from the temple would know who this man was. This day he begs for Peter and John to give him some money. Instead, Peter commands him to walk in the name of Jesus. Instantly the man is made strong. He enters the temple courts, “walking and jumping” and praising God.

The people who saw this man walking and jumping were astonished. Peter asks them, “Why does this surprise you”? He then asks why they stare at John and himself, “as if by our own power or godliness” the man was healed. Peter continues on, explaining that it was the power of the risen Christ that healed the man. In verse sixteen he says, “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong”. This complete healing has come through faith in Jesus Christ.

At times we too experience the healing or renewing or comforting or strengthening power of Jesus Christ. His power fills us as we pray or as we meditate on scripture. His power fills us as we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. His power fills us as we step beside another in love and compassion. Sometimes Jesus’ power comes in unseen or unexpected ways – that friend who calls just when we need their wisdom or loving words, that opportunity that opens up just when we are desperate for work, that peace that surrounds us just when we think we cannot go on. In many of these cases, we too stand in wonder, amazed at the power of Jesus Christ to change lives. Today may we pause and thank God for our own “times of refreshing” that come from the Lord. Thanks be to God for his presence and love!

Prayer: Lord, for all the times when you have shown the way, lifted me up, carried me through, spoken into my heart, strengthened my weary soul… thank you. Thank you for your abiding and faithful presence. Amen.