My beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15: 58

 

Have you ever experienced uncertainty or become so weary from trying to live righteously in this troubled world that it felt like you were going to be swept over the edge of a towering cliff at any moment? Right, I didn’t think that I was totally alone in these responses to life. This world is a big time highly stressful place to exist. Also, Paul is generally a fairly practical guy; for, he lived his life in the center of the storm that happens whenever people who desire and seek to serve the Lord venture out into their communities and engage in bringing the truth of Christ to others. So, my conclusion is that realistic Paul wouldn’t tell us to do or to be something that couldn’t be done.

 

In order to avoid the inevitable sense of futility that comes when my desire to serve Christ intersects with all of the road blocks that spring up in front of my path, I am required to find my direction and the strength to carry on from a very special source. Christ calls me to follow Him and to do His work in my world. If this work is to reach the sort of potential that He knows exists, I must allow someone else to make decisions with me. Finally, if I am to stay the path of that calling through times of personal failure, disappointment with others, and the distractions that life brings my way; my feet need to be firmly set on a foundation that is stronger and that runs deeper than anything that I can fabricate on my own.

 

This all seems so complex to my mind; yet, it all has one relatively simple answer. Jesus, the Christ, is God’s response to every concern that I can contemplate. Jesus, who gave all so that I can live in the complete fullness of God’s riches is all that I need. Jesus, whose Spirit goes through everything in this life with me is my guide and counselor. Jesus, the One who took all of my sin and the shame that it brought to me onto His back is my strength. Jesus, the One who loves me despite all of my hurtful acts and deceitful thoughts holds me steady through all of the trials and the storms that attempt to drive me away from the Lord’s way. Jesus, there is nothing more; so, how can I accept anything less?

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Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one.

1 Corinthians 8: 4

 

As we start out today, I am making an assumption, and that is that very few of us are concerned about the consumption of foodstuffs that were previously used as sacrifices to various types and forms of gods or in other religious practices. This was a real issue in Paul’s world, and it is simply not as obviously pervasive in ours as it was in his. Yet, the fact that idols exist is something that I think is important for us to consider in our culture and in our lives, and almost in contrast to the approach that Paul took toward the sacrificial foods, I think that the way that we feed our idols and the idolatrous foods that we consume are important to consider.

 

We live in an age of consumption. It often seems that the primary fuel that feeds our world is made up of the goods and the services that we can purchase and utilize for the sake of personal enjoyment, pleasure, and self-worth appeasement. These things that take on great importance to us are not very different from the idols that were so prevalent in Paul’s times, for they too demand our attention, bring us to a place of worship for their sake, and engage our passion as disciples to their cause and of their personage. We can each look introspectively at our lives and into our hearts in order to determine where this sort of over zealous commitment to things of this world might be found. They can be relatively minor in their impact upon living for Christ, and they can be powerfully consuming and devastating to the same purpose and calling.

 

Regardless of the depth of commitment to the idol or of the amount of personal resource it demands from us, everything that ascends to this level of ownership over us is something that drives its wedge of distraction and distance between Christ and us. Anything that takes us away from our ability to focus on the Lord’s calling and commission for our lives or that places itself above Christ in priority for us, even if this is only momentary in duration, is an idol, and it will demand that we feed it out of the precious resource that is our love, devotion, and submission to righteousness. Fortunately Paul also gives us an answer to this universal challenge. He points us toward the one singular truth that changes everything in the fact that there is only one real God. All of these other things are false and are made by our hands out of the raw materials that God, Himself, created for us. So, everything in life that takes us away from serving Christ with the fullest possible expression of our heart and the complete engagement of our passions can and should be placed behind Christ so that all of our being is dedicated without distraction or diversion to service to our God.

 

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.

2 Timothy 1: 3

 

There is something beautifully simple present here in Paul’s words that I think often gets lost in the fog and the haze of daily life. This is an attitude of thankfulness. The Apostle seems to be holding out his thanksgiving as a very broad idea and a remarkably open one too. Now Paul was not dwelling in comfort or safety when he set out these ideas. He was a prisoner in Rome in the brutally oppressive times when Nero was the Emperor. Paul was certainly going to die in the near future, and he was fully aware of this fact. He was separated from his dear friends and traveling companions, and his valuable work of sharing the Gospel of Christ throughout the gentile world had come to a halt. From a natural and a human perspective these were hard times.

 

Yet, Paul sees the good in it all, for he sees Christ in his days. This is not some mystical vision or self-deluded refusal to face into reality. Rather, Paul seems to have a vision of the greater reality of life in this world as a follower of the Lord of Creation. Rather than viewing his situation and circumstances as desperate or hopeless, he comprehends the opportunities to serve Christ that are there before him. Instead of focusing on how hard his days are or upon the grim prospects for his life’s future, Paul is reflecting upon the many ways that people have entered into his days and given special care and consideration to him. All of this brings him to a place where his spirit is lifted and his mind seems to be clear as he expresses praise and thanksgiving to God and for all that has been granted to him in this life.

 

It seems that thanksgiving is something that has become a part of the rhythm of Paul’s days. So, by looking at his example, I am challenged to follow his lead in this matter. When life is viewed from the perspective of Christ’s engagement with me and with His loving sacrifice as the filter for everything, all that takes place in my days and to me can be cause for thanksgiving and praise to God. From the breath that I breathe in and expel from my lungs to the purpose that my existence enjoys, all of my life and everything that influences its course is a gift from God. Even sickness, pain, loss, grief, disappointment and failure serve to guide my steps along a path that belongs to Christ. As I hold the image of my Lord before my heart in an on-going prayer of devotion, He speaks to me a truth that is deeply embedded in the foundations of Creation and that truth is the basis for hope eternal and the reason for expressing thankfulness in and to all.

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of the calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thessalonians 1: 11, 12

 

Our worth and worthiness are not things that we create on our own. In fact, true worthiness, as Paul knows it and as God sees it, is impossible for any of us to gain by our efforts or out of our personal resources. Of course, Paul knew this reality of living from his own experience. He was a diligent and committed worker for what he perceived as being his own place of prominence and value in God’s earthly kingdom. Yet, in fact, he was pouring out his sweat and the blood of others in doing work that was stridently in opposition to God’s purposes. The Risen Christ confronted him, spoke truth into his mind and transformed his heart. It was Christ who changed Paul, and it was this same Christ who continued to grow and mature him in his knowledge and understanding of God and in his efforts to serve Him.

 

It was this transformed Paul that was worthy of being known as a true follower of God. The Lord mightily used the Paul who realized that even his most diligent efforts were meaningless at best and were often destructive to spread His Gospel of love, grace, and reconciliation. Paul surrendered his own powerful drive to the greater love of Christ, and His Lord led him into the realized glory of living, working, and giving all for the Kingdom of God. Thus Paul prays for others who he knows and loves desiring that each of them would come to that same place of surrender of self and full commitment to serving Christ. In this way, anything that God desires to see done is possible and everything that they might do would serve to bring glory to God’s name in the world.

 

If Paul were here now, he would be doing the same thing regarding each of us who follow Christ, and this should be our prayer for ourselves and for others as well. As we place our efforts onto Christ’s cross of obedience and recognize that we have nothing of real value to offer to God beyond our own willingness to follow and to serve, Christ’s grace and redeeming love do work in our own hearts to bring about the eternal worthiness in which God sees us as His beloved children. It is from this place that Christ leads us and empowers us to serve the Kingdom of God in ways that demonstrate the great love that God has for all of creation and for all of its people. As people who labor in the power of Christ, we bring the light of His glory into our world and we are made worthy of that calling by Christ’s unending grace.

 

 

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

1 Thessalonians 5: 8

 

In our natural world day and night stand in stark contrast to each other. That is why people have used images of light and dark as descriptors of the sorts of differences in thought, feeling, action, and behavior that frequently can be associated with living out in the openness of light or under the concealment of darkness. There are things that most of us would be fine with having our mothers see and other things that we want to do in obscurity. We all entertain thoughts that help to define our best selves and others that are not ones that we would share with the public. This is how people operate in our sinful humanity. So, this is also a part of what the presence of Christ within the body, mind, and soul of people who believe in Him works to transform.

 

Christ changes us. He takes us from the world into which we were born and places us into His renewed perspective on that same environment. We may still seek out those dark places of seeming pleasure and self-worth, but the Spirit does speak a different, a transformed, reality and truth to us. Although we are not forced by Christ to change or to conform to this new understanding of what it means to live as a redeemed person in Christ, the presence of His Spirit within sets up a constant tension and a form of discomfort that, when we surrender to God’s Word of truth, should drive us toward living in the light of righteousness. This is the life-long tension that most followers of Christ experience. Paul is appealing to us to seek out living in the reality of our enlightened souls. He wants each of us to make that choice each and every time we are confronted with it.

 

So, the Apostle speaks about some basic aspects of deciding to live as Christ in our world. The first thing here may seem obvious, but it is a challenge at times for almost everyone; thus, we are to orient ourselves to our new position in life as people who reside in the light of the Gospel. We no longer have a home in the darkness of sin, and there will be activities, thoughts, places, and people that we need to leave behind if we desire to truly follow Christ. This process of relocating from the dark into the light of truth requires that we be clear headed, which requires us to leave behind the habits and the addictions of various types that have clouded our thinking in the past. Finally, Christ gives us tools to live well in this new orientation to the light with its revealing brightness. Christ grants to us faith in all that is eternal and a love that gave all so that we could know it and that is abundant so that we can pour it out onto our world. He also fills us with the hope of His victory over the sin that has darkened our days. In Christ we do truly belong to the light of God’s unceasing glory. .

This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Acts 19: 10

 

Paul must have been a stubborn soul. He just didn’t get the message when people were growing tired of his persistent telling of the story of a new life that was to be gained through Jesus, the Christ. At this point in the account of Paul’s life of service to Christ he had been traveling from city to city in Asia Minor for a number of years. Generally he would stay in one place and preach, teach, and enter into relationships with the people there until his truth telling caused antagonism and hostility to rise up against him to a level that required Paul to move along to another place. It seems that the world where he lived wasn’t always very accepting of or even open to hearing the accounts of this new way of knowing God. You see, the Gospel of Christ is subversive; it changes people who, in turn, start living differently. This new way of engaging with life, which is foundational in creation, causes people to challenge the systems and the practices of the culture, and it impels them into becoming workers for that change.

 

The presence of these transformed people with their different perspectives on how life is to be conducted under the authority of God and within His grace, love, and mercy is upsetting enough for those who are in power. Yet, I think that there was more than this behind the antagonism that Paul encountered. His message of Christ was essential truth expressed in terms that moved beyond the abstraction of religious ritual and entered into the arena of real everyday life. This was both convicting and frightening to those hearers who were unwilling to accept the surrender of self that Christ demands of His followers. So, people who felt threatened or who were disturbed by this confrontation of truth pushed back and fought against the message of the Gospel by speaking and acting in opposition to the person who was delivering it. Most of this push back was expressed in words or in acts of rejection, but some of it was also carried out by means of physical violence. Paul’s mind, heart, and body were at risk.

 

Yet, he did not stop doing what Christ had called him to do. When required to do so, he would move along to another city, find a new corner to preach on, and start building relationships with more people whose eternal souls needed to hear the truth of the Gospel of Christ that Paul so diligently and joyfully served. This is a great story about the character and the calling of one of the people who we hold to be a foundational writer for our understanding of the Gospel that he served. However, like almost everything that is contained within God’s Word, the point here is not really historic in nature. I grant that Paul was a very special person with a particular calling from God; yet, I think of these aspects of his life as serving more by way of example and as a form of encouragement for each of us than as mere recitation of the past. We too live in a world that pushes back aggressively against the truth of the Gospel. Like Paul, we reside in cities, counties, and a world where the only real hope lies in the transformative presence of Christ in the hearts and the minds of people.

 

As followers of the same Christ as was Paul, we should also not be quiet and certainly not be satisfied until every one of the people who resides in our sphere of contact has heard the truth of the new life that is gained in and through Christ. We cannot allow the voices of disagreement and of opposition the momentary victory of our silence. We may need to follow Paul’s example and move from a place of overwhelming contention to a similar one where Christ’s words of love and reason can be heard, but this is not silence, and it certainly is not defeat. The Gospel of Christ is life, it brings hope, and it answers all of the fears, violence, anger, and oppression in our world. This truth must be heard, and you and I are the ones that God has called to speak it out loudly and clearly so that the glory of Christ lights these dark days with its compelling radiance of new life in Christ.

Him (Christ) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toll, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works in me.

Colossians 1: 28, 29

 

Paul was a man of rather singular focus. His primary purpose for almost every day that he lived after that moment when Christ had interrupted his life’s work and faced him down with the truth of his own complete sinfulness was to bring people everywhere into this state that he called maturity in Christ. Now there were steps that were necessary along that journey into deep faith. First and foremost among them was for a person to recognize the sinfulness of her own life and turn to Christ as its answer. But I think that even that initial step was secondary to the calling that Paul perceived for himself as a teacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

The message that Paul proclaimed was that of the risen Christ, and the new life that Christ would bring about for those who followed Him. This message of reconciliation with God was one of hope, peace, and love, but it also had a very sharp edge to it. This razor-like surface is the place where God’s truth intersects the vagaries and compromises of this world’s view of truth. It also works to demonstrate and to separate out the ways that each of us enter into the delusion and acts of deliberate rebellion that form the core of our own sinfulness. Paul knew that the peace and love that God offers were at odds with the world where we all live so that our only hope of entering into them fully was through facing honestly into the areas of our own lives where we fall short of Christ’s standard of righteousness.

 

This honest discussion of God’s truth and of the ways that each of us falls short of living it out is the platform from which Paul’s idea of warning is launched. If we desire to be people who are mature in Christ, it is essential for us to face the reality of the ways that we act and think differently than God’s Word tells us to do. When we encounter the conflict between God’s truth and our own lives, we can confess our sinfulness and submit ourselves to the restorative work of Christ. Each of us, like Paul, is tasked with living as Christ in our world and with proclaiming His truth without compromise in the process of so living. Both aspects of this form of life are possible only by the strength of Christ and with the powerful energy that His life within us provides.