"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Monday, September 30, 2013

Joyful Greetings

When I run into someone who has been a friend for some time, it is not unusual, when we part, for him or her to say something like: "Say hi to Mary for me." So it is not unusual for us to exchange "parting greetings." So did Paul typically send along greetings as he closed a letter to a church. His letter to the church in Philippi is no exception:

"Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with  me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen." Philippians 4:21-23

Unlike some current approaches to Christianity that build a hierarchical structure, in Paul's letters all true believers (followers of Christ) are considered saints. So when he says "greet all the saints," he is basically instructing the recipients to greet all the believers in their town. The same is true of all the brothers and saints who are with him, who send greetings to the saints in Philippi. The reference to Caesar's household might well refer to literal family members of the family of Caesar that Paul has witnessed to during his imprisonment. No wonder Paul could say that his current situation had advanced the gospel of Christ. As usual, Paul gave great prominence to the grace of Jesus Christ as he closed his letter, "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit."

It is always a temptation to skim opening and closing comments in these letters. In doing so, we run the risk of losing some nuggets. Paul's all inclusive language is not accidental, I suspect. I think it fits in, and enhances, his message of unity and joy to the Philippian church. The letter is not only to a pastor, or the elders, or to certain hand-picked individuals who were somehow special or superior. Rather, it was from all the saints to all the saints. The implication is simple and profound...we are all the same. All who come to Jesus are in need of the same grace for salvation and sanctification (Philippians 1:4-6).

When we lose sight of these things, hierarchies develop, people develop superior attitudes and become judgmental about inconsequential things. When our focus is all about Jesus and the things he brings to us, peace, joy, and unity reign in our hearts, in our relationships, and in the body of Christ. This does not happen automatically or without some intentional effort on our parts, but the Holy Spirit assists us to do his will in the work of unity.

So, friends, readers, brothers and sisters, saints, we close this letter with Paul. We have looked at every verse together over the last several months. As you continue to reflect on the book of Philippians, I am certain that the Spirit will show you deeper and deeper understanding, insight and application of these joyous truths. That's what he does, because he loves us so. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all, no exceptions. Amen


Monday, September 23, 2013

Fragrant Offerings

Sometimes when I am out and about, usually when I am overdue for lunch or dinner, I catch the aroma of delicious food cooking. Winter nights leaving the office, I smell the medley of restaurants downtown, or walking the dogs in the summer, the fragrances of barbeques in the neighborhood envelop me. Then there are the non-food related pleasures of sweet honeysuckle, pine, roses and Colorado rain bringing the evergreen and sage into the valley as an unexpected gift. I count these as gifts from God and, I thank him for them.

In the early church, people were acquainted with the offerings involved in various religions, both pagan and Jewish. No doubt the fragrant offerings from the temple were a part of their lives, even if they were not Jews. So Paul's expression of appreciation to them made perfect sense to them:

"I am amply supplied now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, and acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen" Philippians 4:18-20

It is important to remember, occasionally, that Paul was writing from prison. So, when he speaks of all his needs being amply supplied. it is a testimony to his ability to be content in any and every circumstance (4:11-13). How many of us would feel that God was meeting all our needs under these circumstances? But Paul's focus was not personal comfort or gain (the values embraced even in the church these days), rather to have the resources to spread the gospel as far as possible in his lifetime. Apparently God met these needs a little at a time, repeatedly demonstrating his provision. That believers were God's instruments and the conduits of these fragrant offerings was a blessing to them and to Paul. As they were generous with what God provided, their gifts rose back to God with the sweet aroma of grace.

Paul gives the lesson back to them. Just as God has met all his needs, God will meet all their needs as well. Note that needs and luxuries are two different things entirely. Food, clothing, shelter, and resources to give back to the Kingdom of God...These are needs. God is not challenged by meeting our needs, but does so out of his glorious riches. (Advertising is very good at persuading us that we "need" a lot of other things, and I see this as a friendly attack on our focus and our faith.)

Paul's perspective was one of God's faithfulness to meet his real needs. He saw God's faithfulness in any and every circumstance, and he had some terrible ones to endure. The principle here, to boil it down to its basic elements is this: when your life is all about God, you never have reason to despair. Everything else in this life is temporary (sand) but, he is the Rock upon which to build the purpose of your life. So the closing statement to this paragraph is a natural conclusion: All the glory goes to God our Father for ever and ever. Amen!


Monday, September 9, 2013

Cycle of Joy

In the 70's there was a trend in Bible studies (before they were tagged as "small groups" or "life groups"). This new facet was a sign of the times, and it was called "sharing." Truthfully, I am not sure whether it grew out of group therapy or the other way around (I was not involved in the counseling field until the mid-80's). The idea was, everyone had a perspective to contribute. I call it a sign of the times because American society was drifting away from authority (and absolutes) and into individuality, and subjective interpretations and applications.

In the New Testament, sharing has an entirely different meaning. In the early church, each shared according to his or her ability. What set this apart from a socialist state was the voluntary, from-the- heart, aspect of their giving. It was motivated by the Holy Spirit, not by the strong arm of government. Many of Paul's letters include statements of gratitude that the churches he knew and loved shared in his ministry. Such statements are found in his (nearly) closing statements to the church in Philippi:

" I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed you have been concerned but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances...Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out form Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.  Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account." Philippians 4: 10-11; 14-17

Paul found joy in the expression of their concern for him. Apparently this was practical, tangible support as he speaks to his contentment in the material realm (under any circumstances). He has not forgotten earlier days when the Philippians stood alone in their support of him. Interestingly, Paul's maturity shows in that his joy is not in what he has received from them so much as the rewards they will receive for their generosity. They shared in his troubles, they shared in his financial burden, and they will share as well in whatever " may be credited to their account." Such is the nature of Paul's love for the church: he always has their best interest at heart and he is joyful that they will now share in the benefits of giving from gracious hearts. This is not a prosperity doctrine, rather, it is an example of selfless living which finds its reward in the knowledge that God is pleased.

A consistent theme in this book about rejoicing is the focus on God and others. Paul appreciates their gift, and acknowledges it was good of them to give it. He is most excited, though, about what they will receive in the process. This may be eternal reward or spiritual maturity or both (I wonder if they are so different, really).

The cycle we can observe here looks something like this: Jesus laid down his life for us; Paul responded by laying down his life for others (for Christ's sake); others responded to their own opportunities for selfless living; Paul rejoiced and Christ was both pleased and glorified.

These are keys to the Kingdom. We do not earn salvation by good works but, we respond to salvation by good works. We want to please the One who laid his life down for us. Others are blessed and respond in kind and on and on. It is the reverse of cultural values to amass wealth and possessions as the meaning and measure of success. By asking, "How can I be truly helpful?" and, "Does it please God?' we find joy in sharing each other's burdens, triumphs and rewards. The paradox is that to find joy we give it to another. In order to do so, we need to take Jesus at his word when he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bringing It Home

One of the developments in conveying a message has been the use of multimedia presentations. It is no longer optimal for a speaker to just stand up and talk to an audience. Now we expect to engage more of our senses--we will also see beautiful images projected on large screens, we will hear and sing words which are hopefully congruent with the message, we may see relevant poignant or humorous videos to engage our emotions--all carefully planned to bring the message home to our hearts and lives.

Long before the age of multimedia presentations, Paul invited the members of the Philippian church to think about all the ways his message (of the gospel; of right thinking resulting in peace and unity) had been set before them:

"Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:9

They had been taught and learned these things from Paul. This intellectual grasp, while not the whole enchilada, was a good start. At least (he assumes) they had paid attention and understood the message. They had also received it.  Today we may speak of "receiving Christ," meaning we have accepted the message and believe that his sacrifice was sufficient to redeem us. The Philippians had received Paul's message, as they listened, understood and embraced it. When we receive a thing we call it our own. In the same way, the Philippians had "owned" the message. They had not only heard the message from Paul, but they had seen it in him. The way he lived his life matched what he taught. Paul, though mature, was still a fallible human being. Part of what they had seen in him was a full acknowledgment of his weaknesses, his need for grace and forgiveness, and his dogged determination to forget the past (even the recent past) and press on to the fulfillment of all Christ had in mind for him.

Multimedia presentations are fine. Now that we understand the various ways that people learn and imitate things, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using that understanding to enhance the way we present things. As we do so, it is very important that we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Word to life in the hearts of believers. It is equally important that our walk match our talk.

It is not enough to lecture people about right thinking and living. I believe this is part of what the book of James is talking about when it says that teachers will undergo a stricter judgment. People are right in expecting us to live out what we teach, though imperfectly. In humility, if we seek forgiveness and grace when we falter, we are still teaching by example. We are showing others how to follow Jesus, stumbling and getting back up again and again, forgiving others as we ourselves need ongoing forgiveness, and choosing to train our minds to dwell on all that is good, righteous, pure, true, excellent and praiseworthy.

Walk in what you profess to believe.  Teach truth and love well. Cling to the God of peace who is with you always.