Now, Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Acts 9: 1, 2

 

Just for the sake of clarity this man here named Saul is the same one that we know as Paul, the Apostle. The author of at least thirteen of the books of the New Testament, and the man whose writing brings depth of insight to our relationship with God that is beyond value. This same man who would willingly give everything he had in this life in order to serve Jesus is here seen preparing to go to the ends of the earth and to spare absolutely no effort in seeking to crush the life out of this new religious sect made up of people who were following the teaching of the recently crucified man named Jesus. If the transition, the transformation that takes place in Saul in a matter of hours is not proof of the unending grace and the all-searching love of Christ, then, nothing else could be sufficient to prove them.

 

The Lord went after the chief tormentor of His people, but He was not out to get revenge or to hold Saul accountable in the ways that most of us seek to do these things with the people that have harmed or hurt us. Saul was confronted with his sin, and he was forced to answer for what he had done; yet, the Lord wanted Saul to see that he was loved despite who he was and what he had done and that God had a place for him to be useful and valuable in both this world and in eternity. The Lord brings this same sort of unyielding, unrelenting, and total pursuit to bear in the lives of everyone. Additionally, Christ brings the potential for salvation from eternal death and for the redemption of the rest of this life so that it can be lived for the glory of God.

 

When I look at this picture of the extraordinary way that God seeks to bring all people under His grace and of the drive that He has to enter into a relationship with each of us, I am humbled by my own lack of the same qualities and the same drive to bring loving truth to others. The Lord desires that each of us would start to see the potential in others rather than focusing on their lostness. Christ calls on each of His people to follow His lead in bringing the truth of the gospel to everyone in our lives. Just as He does not back away from people because of how they have lived, what they have done, or how unlikely they might seem to be to respond to God, we can not judge either. The next person that I meet on life’s road deserves to meet and to know the love of Christ, and I am sent by my Lord into the world to share this love, the love that has already saved me.

 

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12: 18

 

This statement is about as conditional as Paul ever gets, for he rarely leaves this much to our own discretion and understanding of the situation. Yet, here in this proverbial saying that is placed within a string of similar expressions, we are told to do something “If possible.” So, whose possibility is to make that determination? If it is mine, then there may be very few times when I am really going to live peaceably with people who rub me the wrong way, or hold views about issues that differ from mine, or come from a different cultural background than mine. The possibility for exception to that directive to live peaceably gets to be very long quite quickly, and the list of people with whom I am living in peace becomes short enough that I can readily handle it on my own.

 

Perhaps that is really the point. God’s desire for us in all aspects of life is that we would let go of control and surrender all of it to Him. So, in this very challenging area of relationships with other people, God is giving us the option of releasing our grip upon the rules for acceptance or rejection of others or of holding onto them so that we manage the way that we interact with the human elements of our world. To me, this places the idea of possibility into an entirely different light. It says that my relational boundaries and barriers can be either as narrow as my own definitions and comfort or they can be as expansive and inclusive as are God’s. This is the real choice that Paul is proposing to us, and it is one that he had entered into, himself, as a significant aspect of Paul’s coming to Christ involved the reordering of his view of God’s mission for him in relation to accepting or persecuting people who viewed their relationship with God differently than did Paul, the Pharisee.

 

It seems to me that entering fully into the possibilities in connecting with and caring about and for others is predicated upon surrender to Christ. The more of myself that I give over to my Lord in submission to His will, the more likely it is that I will see the lovable and the beautiful in people who would otherwise make me uncomfortable or worse. There is no one on this earth who Christ cannot love. There are no people for whom He did not die in order to redeem them from the death that belongs to all who are born into this world. So, there should be very few people who I am unable to care about and to love with a similar passion and redemptive desire. Now, I am not Christ, and all of this depends upon the response of others in order for me to be able to live peaceably with them, but, in so far as I am able to impact the outcome of the interaction, I can yield my attitudes, actions, and responses to Christ with my heart and mind set upon doing all that I can to enter into productive life together with all of the people that God grants me the gift of encountering during my days.

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

Galatians 3: 5

 

Life is miraculous. Being alive in the sense that God views it is even more so. All of us, although dying by virtue of nature and the passage of time, are already dead when we start out in life. Our souls are separated from God and our natures are owned by the sin that is the true bringer of death. So, we come into soul-deep life and into the eternity with God that is its result by virtue of nothing less than the miraculous work of that same God in the person of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice and victory over death grant to all who believe the gift of a new existence that is fully alive.

 

This comes about through the gracious gift of God’s love. There is nothing that we can do to earn it, and none of our efforts will secure it. It is ours through faith in Christ, and the new life that is granted to us is also lived to its fullest by and through that same faith. It is faith that empowers us to enter into the realm of the miraculous in our daily lives. Faith speaks to the heart and says to it to have courage and walk boldly into the day with Christ on our lips and love in our hands. This thing that we call faith is a quality that focuses the mind on Christ and that helps to shut out the voices of doubt and the images of fear that come at us from all sides.

 

Although Paul was speaking about other forms and types of miracles here, I know that he was more than aware of the greatest of all of the miracles that God works in and among people in that it is absolutely miraculous to me that God chooses to come and to dwell in me. He grants to me and to every one of us who believes in Him the miracle of this new life. Then Christ takes a broken and lost soul and fills it with the presence of His Spirit so that this new life has a purpose that is to be a part of God’s redemptive plan for all of creation. This is the miracle of new life in Christ!

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

Acts 17: 29

 

Paul has been speaking to the Greek philosophers gathered in the Areopagus in Athens; so, his reference here is to the idols that were all around him and that these Greeks worshiped as gods. But it strikes me that there is a word of instruction to me and to others in our times in what Paul had to say. You see, there have been times, and I fear that there will be similar ones to come, where I have treated the God who I do know in a fashion not so far removed from the way that those people in Greece did so long ago.

 

It can be very convenient to take God and to fashion a beautiful package to contain Him. I am not talking about icons and images that we might place in our homes or churches, for I see no problem in them. What I am thinking of is the way that people have of fashioning simple and comfortable descriptions of the nature and the character of God that, in fact, limit that very nature to one that is easy for us to embrace without personal challenge. This process recreates God into a form and substance that matches the life that my flesh desires to live. This is not the true nature of God.

 

Instead of God being shaped by my hands, God desires to recreate me into His already perfect image. God is and operates out of all that I might find appealing and personally desirable at this moment, but He is also much more. He is love, grace, mercy, comfort, righteousness, holiness, and Lord of All. God is the Great Shepherd who seeks out all without sparing any cost in order to bring each and every person on this earth into His Kingdom. God is the One who sees us as we are in all of our darkness and sin and still loves us beyond all measure. He is the righteous judge of our souls, and He spares no one from that judgment; yet, He saves anyone who turns to Him. This is an idea of the full image of God that I need to hold continually before my eyes, for this is the nature and the character of the person that He is working to shape me and each one of His people into being.

So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10: 17

 

I have faith in a number of things, and foremost among these is faith in Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is God, one of the three persons of what we call the Trinity. He descended from heaven to live as a man on this earth, and Jesus was crucified and died as the only satisfactory sacrifice for the sins of all of humanity. He was buried and rose on the third day, and Christ dwells with the Father in Heaven. Today the Holy Spirit resides with and in people on earth and provides us with God’s counsel and purpose. Then at the end of this age, Christ will return and utterly destroy all that is evil in Creation, and He will bring about the complete recreation of this world into the sin-free form that God originally crafted. All of this, I believe; yet, my hearing of its implications for my life is often very poor.

 

My mind and my heart have been exposed to God’s Word for almost all of my life. Pastors and others have taught it to me, and I have read scripture and discussions about it for as long as I have been able to read. My heart and my mind accepted and surrendered to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ a very long time ago. Still, there are too many occasions when these ears just don’t let these life-long truths into the parts of me that control my thoughts and actions. It does seem that true hearing is something that goes far beyond the function of auditory receptivity and processing. It is a function of the heart and it connects to my being at the point where my will and personal desire yield fully to God’s will and desire for me.

 

So, how does this change? What sort of auditory training do I require to become a better listener when it matters the most? It seems that Paul is a good resource for solving this challenge. My guess is that he knew my problem well, and his point of contact with the truth that leads to deep and unyielding faith is the word of Christ. That is, the complete expression of God’s righteous love and grace that is found in the full text of the Bible, is made real as life is lived in the fellowship of people of faith that is the church, and is revealed more completely by the Spirit of Christ. Hearing at the soul-deep level that Paul is discussing comes through surrender to Christ, and faith in Him grows as His word of truth fills every moment of my life.

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.

Galatians 6: 9

 

The idea of “due time” is a hard concept to grasp, and it is even harder to wait it out. It is particularly difficult when it is someone else who is due and when it is my time clock that is ticking. Yet, I think that this is a big part of the point that Paul is making, for he had a very special and totally real grasp on the differences between human internal clocks and God’s eternal clock. Christ was willing to out wait Paul’s stubborn heart. Then Christ taught Paul how to view his interactions with others from a perspective wherein he no longer needed to be responsible for the results. This is a difference in viewpoint that changes lives.

 

We invest in people by giving them our time, understanding, tangible gifts, love, and our view of God’s wisdom and truth, and sometimes these people respond in ways that are amazing and transformative for them. There are other times when the investment seems futile or when the person simply rejects the effort to care for and about them. Yet, people aren’t like a poorly performing mutual fund; we don’t get to just change our investment to a different portfolio and go on with life. When we are involved with people, we can seek the wisdom of Christ’s Spirit first; then, we need to react to what He says to us, and we need to be brave enough to always tell others the truth as God reveals it.

 

The Lord may tell us to change our approach with someone, or He may lead us to simply continue to care about them and to provide a safe place where truth can be heard. Every person is different, and each situation is unique. However, there is one constant in all of this messy business of becoming involved with people’s lives, and that is that God is a shepherd who never stops seeking to save each of His sheep. He is the unending source of all of the strength, courage, wisdom, and grace that I will need to answer Christ’s call and to join Him in that quest.

 

 

For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before God.

1 Thessalonians 3: 9

 

As I read Paul’s prayer for the people that he cared for and taught in Thessalonica I am made aware of just how much more thankful I could be for the people that God has placed into my life. Paul has heard from Timothy about the way that these people that he left suddenly are living out their relationships with Christ. They have true faith and they operate out of God’s love. Although the Apostle desires and prays to God for the opportunity to return to them in order to continue to disciple them, Paul is thankful to God for who these new brothers and sisters are becoming as they grow in Christ.

 

This sort of thankfulness for the people of faith both near and far who contact my life is something that I could appreciate more than I do. As we follow Christ, God places people into our paths. Some of these people will join us on this journey of faith in various roles and settings. There will be those who demonstrate Christ and teach us God’s truth, others will be similarly influenced by our leading, and still others will simply join us along the way. God places people into our lives who encourage us and He grants us the opportunity to encourage others. The Lord provides teachers of His word to us, and grants to us the opportunity to teach others. These people are all God’s gift to me.

 

Lord, I ask you to help me be more mindful of these people. I desire to remember them individually and as a group. Like Paul, I want to be a person who expresses my thanks to God for the gift of people that He has given to me and that He continues to provide on a daily basis. People of faith are the true currency of the Kingdom of God. The love, grace, and mercy that they pour out constitute the tangible bounty of God’s garden. The companionship and support that they provide brings nourishment to my soul. Thank you Lord for the people of your body, and thank you brothers and sisters for your service of love to Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3: 28

 

This is an extraordinary thought. In the days of Paul these three sets of contrastive people groups were culturally and societally about as far removed from each other as any sets of people could have been. These were descriptors that framed people into the boxes that separated them and that helped keep the strong in their positions of superiority and left those with less power in their subservient places. God has a different view of the pinnacle of His creation. He didn’t design things to be this way. People forced divisiveness into our differences, and we have worked hard ever since to fortify and to defend these false ideas.

 

Christ changes it all. He brings those of us who were far removed from each other into a state of occupying the same space. Christ swings the mighty hammer of grace and reconciliation so that these stout walls of separation that we have spent generations of time in constructing are not just knocked down but they can actually cease to exist. As we embrace God’s love as granted to us by and through Jesus, His Spirit works on our understanding of who people truly are. God sees people, all of us, as equally made in His image. The Lord also desires to draw us into close and intimate relationships with each other. These are relationships that are founded and based upon our commonality in Christ.

 

It seems to me that there is something very special about all of this. The familial bonds that come about as a result of Christ have the potential to be even deeper and stronger than those of traditional family. These new relationships can be most closely recognized as like the connection between brothers and sisters, but they are even more profoundly deep. Christ desires to see us embrace Him with a totality of being that forces us to set aside all of our personal difference so that we would sacrifice all for the sake of another. In the community of Christ we can live as brothers and sisters who are also the closest of friends. In this community our differences are beautiful and our loving care for each other brings glory to our Lord.

 

Thanks to Wesley Hill and his book, Spiritual Friendship

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, Just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1 Corinthians 10: 32, 33

 

The world that Paul traveled and lived in was multi-cultural. There were people from many nationalities present, and he crossed paths with various practices of religion along the way. Paul was raised as a righteous, practicing Jew, and his training as a rabbi just reinforced his caution and concerns about the risk of being contaminated by the sinful ways and practices of everyone who was outside of his religion. So, his thinking about how followers of God are called by Christ to live in close contact and interaction with people without regard to what they believe represented radical transformation at the very core of who Paul was.

 

Paul is not telling us that we need to agree with everything that others may believe, and he is not suggesting that we should engage in all of the practices of their religion. What he is saying is that God had revealed to him that rigid separation was wrong. God wants His people to Know and to understand our neighbors, and He desires for us to have faith in Him to the degree that we can embrace strangers without fear. These are the things that God desires for His children to accept as normal in our daily lives. This is the way that Jesus lived, and loving others is what His Spirit calls upon our hearts to pursue.

 

We cannot know someone who we have not met. We are not able to understand the life story of a person who we hold at arm’s length, and they will never hear our recitation of how Christ has transformed us. Yes, there is evil in this world, but it is almost never present in our neighbors or even in the newcomer to our town. When we make broad and sweeping statements about others and about who they are or the intent of their religions, we are placing barriers between ourselves that inhibit relationship. Christ wants us to enter into those relationships, to hear the hearts of people, and to allow Him the opportunity to speak salvation through our love.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5: 1

 

This is an interesting choice of words on the part of Rabbi Paul. First off he submits for our consideration that we have been set free. The question would be, “Free from what?” Most people who know Christ can answer that one. We have been set free from the oppression of sin that owned us before we knew Jesus. The chains that tied our hearts and minds to the walls of a prison cell that was defined in terms like anger, lust, hatred, envy, fear and self-gain have been removed. There is a newly found lightness of step and of heart that makes the weight of this world bearable. Christ brings us out of the darkness that we have been hiding in and into the light of His truth. This is quite a lot to consider, but Paul is saying much more about this new life that we have been given.

 

It would seem that God’s purpose in setting us free is so that we would, in fact, live in freedom. Well, so? This is often the real rub when it comes to experiencing the changed life that Christ promises. Frequently people are frustrated and held down by figuratively continuing to reside in their old prison cells. It is familiar territory, feels safe, and the risk of new relationships and expectations is avoided in there. However, that room is dark, dank and oppressive. The spirit can not soar to the heights that God has promised when it is held down by a concrete ceiling. Christ wants to lead His people into the adventure of engagement with and in our world. He brings us out of an old life, and He takes us into a new one where our potential is almost unlimited. There is peace, joy, and unbelievably great blessing to be found in the new life that Christ has in mind for us.

 

Yet, there is danger out there, too. Opposition comes at us from many different directions, and fear can quite suddenly drive us to seek cover and to find safety in places that we determine to be best for ourselves. Unfortunately, this can lead us back into those old, familiar ways of thinking and of acting that we have been rescued from. We stumble in life or encounter trials that seem to be too hard for us to handle and we turn back to the life patterns that had previously enslaved us. Although Paul may very well have played with a yo-yo, he did not use that expression; still, that is what this life process is like. When we are caught up in it, we move up and down and up again in a cycle of progressive and then regressive thinking and behaviors. Through His blood, Christ has granted us freedom from this uncertain and disturbing way of living. We are the ones who are doing the choosing. We can decide to embrace the freedom, or we can choose to enslave ourselves to the burden of sin. For me, Lord, take me into your freedom!