Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Parable Of The Prodigal Son Calls Us To Change Our Ways #JesusFollowers


The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24) like many of the parables of Jesus, isn't preached much anymore, and there are some reasons for that. 

The story, if you've forgotten it, is about a man with two sons, the elder son who was righteous and the younger one who left the path of righteousness, but later returned.

The unrighteous son demanded his part of the inheritance, and left his father and brother to live in another city. There, the prodigal son squandered it all in reckless living (prodigal, meaning one who spends recklessly.) Coming to his senses, he returned, humbly, to his father's house, and was welcomed back with open arms by his father, who rejoiced at his return. 
 
The parable, of course, is about repentance and returning to our Heavenly Father, who will forgive all who turn back to Him. 

  
Jesus was sent by his Father (who is also OUR Father) and we, the younger son, are being called to respond like the Prodigal Son did – with repentance and humility, returning to the Father and begging for forgiveness. God will forgive our sins, but we must first act upon His calling and His offer to receive us again with open arms. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness, nor is there eternal salvation. 
 
Jesus was sent to call the Prodigals among us back to repentance. We are all called to plead on the Father’s behalf, urging all Prodigal sons (and daughters) to return to righteousness. 

 
It is important to understand that Jesus, who was chosen and adopted by God and sent out to be His spokesman and prophet, commanded us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus calls us to pursue righteousness, to do Good Works in the name of God, Whom we should love with our entire being, and to love and serve our neighbors exactly as we love ourselves.


We must take him at his word. He was not “joking” with us or teasing us as if we could never do what he commanded. We are literally being called to not live like the Prodigal Son, recklessly and without the need to do good and righteous Works. 
 
This parable Jesus is somewhat unpopular with preachers, and with their flocks, because it does not allow us to ever throw our hands up in despair, claiming we cannot do the Good Works and live the righteous life we are commanded to live. Nor are we allowed to vainly throw rags of praise at God while failing to seek the righteousness His Son calls us to seek.  


That the older son in the story remained faithful to the father proves that we may indeed obey God in righteousness. It is an easily-missed part of this story that shows that it can be done. Those who are not ill do not require a physician. 

 
Jesus tells us that we are morally able to do Good Works, and that those among us who have become ill by living unrighteously need to seek a physician by returning to the Father. 


There, in the house of the Father, we will be accepted with open arms. 



Art: The Return of the Prodigal Son; Francesco Bassano the Younger (1559-1592)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Clear Gospel of Jesus. #JesusFollowers


The clarity of Jesus' Gospel is obvious to all who read his words. The life, teachings and example of Jesus are a clear window onto the Will of God. We do not need to complicate it or make it mysterious in any way.

Jesus lived, taught and died as an example, so that we would follow it and achieve spiritual completion, just as he has done. That is the core of his Gospel - his Good and Beneficial Message to all the world, for which he was chosen, anointed by God and sent into the world to preach.

Jesus is the moral example by which we are able to follow in order to reach spiritual completeness. He perfectly models for us how to serve and to love others the way God wants us to love and serve others.

There is nothing greater than the teachings of Jesus. His words and teachings were not his, but they came from God (John 14:10) who Adopted him as his son at his baptism, anointing him with His Spirit, choosing him among all other sons of men to not only teach, but to BE his teachings – our exemplar in all things.

Jesus said his actions always pleased God (John 8:29) making him our perfect example in all things.

The wonderful message of the Gospel is this: That WE can do all that God asks of us, because another of our kind, Jesus, was able to fully follow God’s commandments and Will for our lives.

But to do as he has done, we must believe that Jesus left us an example that we can really follow.

Jesus teaches: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And assures us, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 14:15; 13:15.)

Jesus is for us our Model, our Template, our Guide, our Teacher and our Master.

We are first saved from sin by knowledge of his teachings – that we must repent of our sins, turn our faces to God, and walk in righteousness. When we repent of our sins and pledge to walk in God’s righteous paths, we are forgiven by God, who is, “merciful and gracious, long-suffering – forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin." (Exodus 34:6-7)

The Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus tell us that God forgives our sins simply upon sincere repentance.

Jesus tells us God wishes us to repent of our sins – to be sorry that we committed them, and to cease committing the act of sinning. But without a change in our behavior following this, there is no repentance. Without repentance, we are not following Jesus or serving God.

The words, life, teachings and death of our Master, Jesus, challenge us to do, to act, to follow, to serve, to be better, to do more, to try harder, to be humble, yet Righteousness, to serve God not money, to lose ourselves and gain eternity.

Jesus clearly calls us to a life of Good Works, done in humility and compassion. Service to others leads us to Spiritual Completeness.

"By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk the same way in which he walked." (1 John 2:5-6.) 

Jesus challenges us to become Spiritually Complete by actively seeking and DOING Righteousness, relying on God’s holy Spirit to strengthen us and give us courage to do what is right, and true, and just.

Each of us can grow within us a Spiritual Abundance that gives light and hope to the world, and advances God’s Kingdom here and now, in this place.

Let us take up the challenge Jesus makes clear for us in his Gospel’s words and teachings!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

God's Kingdom is why Jesus Lived and Preached #JesusFollowers


Why was Jesus born? And what was the purpose of his life and ministry?

Was he born simply as a bag of flesh, destined only to later die as a ritual sacrifice that would appease an angry god and "cover" our future sins with his remote and perfect goodness, if we simply believed he existed?

We find nothing in his words to suggest that scenario, despite the popularity of this misguided belief. A very popular minister once said Jesus did only, "Three days' work." meaning that his death and resurrection were all his ministry was worth. Again, Jesus' own words condemn this false belief.

Or, instead, did God choose this righteous man to spread a good and beneficial message and to be our perfect example of how God wishes us to live? Jesus' own words suggest this is the Truth, for example, when he plainly says, "I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I WAS SENT FOR THIS PURPOSE” (Luke 4:43.)

Jesus' ministry and life's message was entirely focused on this Kingdom of God - the ideal realm of Heaven that Jesus said should be made a reality here on earth, "as it is in Heaven" (Matt. 6:10.) That this is a spiritual and not a temporal one is also clear from his own words (John 18:36.)

It's a kingdom in which we are called to be righteous, merciful, and complete ("perfect") just as God is (Matt. 5:20, 5:48, Luke 6:36) and just as the man Jesus - whom God chose as his spokesman - modeled for us with the example of his selfless life and death (John 13:15; 1 John 2:6.)

"Seek first the Kingdom of God" he tells us (Matt. 6:33.) He warns us to not store up treasure on earth that can rust or rot away, but to instead seek Heavenly treasure that lasts forever (Matt. 6:19-20.)

He calls us to love our Creator with ALL of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30) and to not only love our neighbors as we love ourselves (12:31) but extend that love and compassion to strangers we encounter on the roadside and to even our enemies (Matt. 5:44.)

Long ignored by Christian ministers as quaint or out-of-date, Jesus' call to "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matt. 7:12) summaries his entire ministry and the Hebrew Bible's teaching.

In all of this, we see that our actions matter. We will be judged according to our deeds (Matt. 16:27) and our eternal life in God's presence will be determined by our acts, not our vain words (Matt. 6:7.)

We are called to "remain in his love," and we may do this by obeying him and following after his example.

"If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commandments and remain in his love," he tells us (John 15:10.)

Jesus makes it clear that entrance into this Kingdom is NOT without commitment on our part. It's not a wide gate the entire world will choose (Matt. 7:13.) Only those who DO the will of God, our Father, will gain entry to it (Matt 7:21.)

The teachings Jesus left us are the most valuable legacy we can inherit. His words will never pass away (Mark 13:31.)

The death of Jesus was a continuation of his life – his message of extreme self-sacrifice and love for others, and a voluntary act of devotion to both his "friends" and to God. Who are his friends? Those who do as he commands (John 15:12-14.) Those who would make his death into a magical charm that gives them a "get out of jail free" card so they can continue to sin and forgo Good Works are degrading and spitting on Jesus' cross, not honoring it.

And those who are quick to say "Lord, Lord!" but forget it means "Master, Master!" should remember that by claiming Jesus as our Master and God's representative, we must obey his teachings, not just praise his name.

The words, life, teachings and death of our Master, Jesus, challenge us to do, to act, to follow, to serve, to be better, to do more, to try harder, to be humble yet Righteous, to serve God not money, to lose ourselves, but gain eternity.

This is a faith worth having and a Master worth serving - a faith that bring us life, and life more abundantly (John 10:10.) Those who would throw it away by minimizing and glossing over Jesus' words are throwing God's Kingdom away, and this is one thing all who love God must never do.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Empowered By God To Work Righteousness #JesusFollowers


We are clearly called by Jesus to actively and boldly pursue a mission of Righteous Action on this earth. And by so doing, we help bring about God's Kingdom of Heaven in the Here and Now.

This was the core of all Jesus taught in his Gospel, and there was nothing unclear or confusing in his message, nor has anything been hidden from his 12 disciples, or from us.

To do Good Works, in humility and to the best of our ability, was expressly taught and commanded  by the one God chose and anointed at his baptism to be God's chosen example and Master to all humanity.

If we don't accept this teaching, we simply cannot claim his name as that of our teacher. (1 John 2:6)

So, let no one tell us that we are powerless to do good, because God has implanted within our infant souls the Reasonable knowledge of what is good, has given us Scriptural Wisdom to point to what is good, and has chosen and sent Jesus to teach and live out what is good as our perfect example. Then God graciously gives us ongoing gifts of wisdom, strength and courage to continue to do what is good when we ask these things from Him in prayer.

We are in all these ways empowered fully to do all that God asks of us without excuse or hesitation. And for this, we should continually thank and praise God for His gifts.

Jesus teaches us, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." And, "Strive to enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Luke 13:24; Matt. 7:13-14)

By this, we know that we may indeed enter the narrow way of Righteousness, if we strive to do so. But along the way, we can't be detoured by making excuses or adopting "easy" man-made beliefs and short-cuts that let us feel that we are following our Master's way, when we really aren't.

Striving always equates with effort and work. And salvation, like all things worth having, requires work, not just good intentions or vain praise.

Good intentions, or a cheap, works-free faith, can neither win us eternal salvation with God nor enrich our lives here on earth, any more than good intentions alone could build a house, get us an education, find a job, or feed the hungry and care for those in need.

Jesus, who was faithful to God in all things, assured us that we can do all that he did. (John 14:12) And he followed God not with his lips alone but with his acts and with his heart.

Because of this, we need never fear acting, and letting our Works define our Faith.

And we should not fear to act simply because we fear failure, any more than students should refuse to take a test until they are certain they will score a perfect grade.

When we fail to live up to the standards Jesus sets for us, we repent and seek God's inexhaustible mercy and forgiveness. But we must not make excuses for not seeking what Jesus commands, nor hold God responsible for HIS promises if we refuse to strive to fulfill our own.

We should also remember that Jesus' warning for us not to judge applies to our own eternal salvation, which is God's alone to give. We must strive to merit salvation, but humbly allow God alone to be our judge of worthiness.

So, let us Work Righteousness in this world, doing all we can to be an example of the light of God that was born within us, kindled into Good Works by the saving  example of Jesus, and inflamed by God's ongoing help and graceful encouragement.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Are We Listening To Jesus' Teachings? #JesusFollowers


Should we be actively building a better and a more Godly world, or should we simply do nothing and wait for God to make it better? Should we seek our own advantage, or put other's needs ahead of our own? Should we do Good things, or just call ourselves “good?” (Or are we allowed to even CALL ourselves that?)

If we read the words of Jesus, the answers to these and other questions are clear. But if we listen to today's church, the answers are unclear.

The teachings of Jesus are clear, consistent and powerful.

Jesus said his words would last forever - would not pass away. And his teachings about how we should act in this world were clear.

If we understand that, we would naturally put Jesus clear, plain teachings at the center of our Faith, and they would obviously be placed at the core of any teachings about that Faith.

And yet, modern Christianity has been bogged down with man-made words and man-made doctrines that muddle Jesus' teachings and message, and often obscure it entirely, making them of no effect and importance.

Today’s Churchmen and theologians speak words Jesus never uttered: "Justification," "Sanctification," "Total Depravity," "Original Sin," "works-salvation." But these clever words give birth to man-made doctrines that turn Jesus' religion toxic.

Jesus never said that children are born "unable not to sin." Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to allow children to come to him, since they represent the purity of God's Kingdom.

Jesus never even hinted that human beings couldn't perform Good Works from birth. Instead, he says we MUST seek to do Good Works - deeds of the heart that help our neighbors and show them God’s love.

Jesus said we are to begin acting NOW to build up God's Kingdom, "on earth as it is in Heaven." We aren't to wait for any special signs from God, or to wait at all.

We are justified, says Jesus, not by our vain words, or our intentions alone, or even by faith alone, but rather by our acts, which are judged only by God.

Jesus says we become holy by DOING what is holy, good and righteous. Holiness and Righteousness are ACTS we do, not a mere THING we can get by simply claiming Jesus' holiness as our own, as some teach.

Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, to not seek our own advantage, to follow the narrow and difficult path of his religion, and that those who seek to be first will be last. Modern preachers, however, often say the goal of faith and religion is to only get our SELVES into Heaven, and that it can be done easily, without effort. This is wrong.

Our goal isn't to simply to "save" ourselves, says Jesus. Those who seek to save themselves, in fact lose themselves. But if we deny ourselves, and lose ourselves in serving others, we gain victory, eternally and in this life. (Matt. 16)

Far from condemning Good Works, Jesus calls us to do them, without pride, because Godliness is our natural state. (Matt. 6)

Jesus assures us that we will be judged by God according to our Works - the deeds of our hands - and even then, we'll be judged by a merciful and holy God. (Matt. 7)

Our Works will light the world, says Jesus, and they will reflect our spiritual journey towards Righteousness as we repent continually for falling short of the Ideal Jesus sets for us. (Matt. 5)

That is a path Jesus calls us to seek and follow, in his footsteps. And it's a path that is easily understood even by a child.

By twisting and adding to Jesus' simple words and teachings, modern theologians and ministers make Jesus confusing, alien, and strange. He becomes someone who cannot be understood without the help of a Priestly class. Again, that's wrong.

Jesus tells us that neither God nor his teachings were ever meant to be seen "through a glass, darkly." Jesus is a window we can look through to see how God wishes us to live.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, to do JUST AS he did, and even greater things than he did.

This isn't the call of someone who condemns Good Works, who says, "always wait for God to act, don't act yourselves," or someone who wishes us to simply admire Jesus' righteousness, but not emulate it in our daily lives.

Instead, we are clearly and decisively called by Jesus to go and work Righteousness in this world, doing all we can to be an example of the light of God that was born within us, kindled by the example of Jesus, our teacher.

When we begin to see Jesus as an example we can follow, he becomes a Master we can also love as a brother.

So, let us go out and work Righteousness in this world, doing all we can to be an example of the light of God that was born within us, kindled by the example of Jesus, our teacher.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Is Obedience Necessary to Obtain Salvation? #JesusFollowers


Salvation is placed within the attainment of every individual of the human family. God, who gave us existence, designed that existence as a blessing, and He grants every degree of power and instruction necessary to enable us to obtain the reward of our virtuous efforts.

By the mediation and ministry of Jesus, everything has been accomplished for our salvation which is consistent with our intellectual and moral natures.

Some in the state of probation wisely improve their knowledge, piety, and virtue, and thereby qualify themselves for the happiness of heaven; others pass the period of their probation without improvement, and in the day of account they will be found destitute of the qualifications of Christian character.

We, in different proportions, possess the powers of intellectual and free agents; and hereafter an account will be required of the way in which each of our talents has been managed.

We are accountable for what we have and have not done. Our future rewards will be proportioned to what we’ve done under our various circumstances. To all observations of this nature, some may reply, "Moral preparations are indeed absolutely requisite for salvation."

No one will be admitted to heaven, who in the present world is not conformed to the image of God. We must become the children, before they can be made the heirs, of God. 

The very question is: Can we of ourselves acquire the necessary qualifications for heaven? Can we, in our own power, form in their souls the image of their Creator? 

I answer: We possess nothing which we did not receive; and if we received all our powers from God, why should we glory as though we haven’t received them?

Our Maker formed us as free moral agents and has appointed the way by which the true end of our existence may be obtained. God has fitted the earth to yield its increase for the present support of humanity, and we plow the ground with our labors. But those who don’t work won’t harvest.

God in mercy has, by Jesus, promised eternal life to all who by a patient continuance in the ways of well doing, seek for glory, honor and immortality.

The Gospel is altogether calculated for us with our present powers of action; and we are capable of complying with its demands.

The idea that humanity is unable to comply with the conditions of acceptance with our Maker reflects the highest dishonor on the wisdom, benevolence, and justice of God.

When we represent the Gospel as being adapted to human capacity, and requiring from us a service we possess the power to perform –  when we state that God grants all the well-disposed subjects of His government the assistance which is suited to the capacity of an accountable being, and at the same time requires them to co-operate with Him, by the proper exercise of the strength he has given them – we attribute to God the glory of an affectionate parent, the glory of a merciful and benevolent governor, and a just and righteous judge.

The works of each person, God will render unto them, and cause everyone to be rewarded according to their ways.

Christianity places all people in a state of salvation; but it does no violence to our moral ability. It suits its requirements to the present abilities of human nature; and it makes human endeavors necessary to qualify us for the enjoyment of its final rewards.

The gracious provisions of the Gospel fully show the goodness and mercy of our God; and they furnish the highest motives for gratitude, love and obedience in us. God is the parent of our lives, and the author of all our blessings.

God bestows His favors in the most disinterested way, and with the same parental regard beholds all the members of the human family.

By His son Jesus He has provided a remedy for the pollutions of guilt, instructed us in the duties of life, and promised to support his dutiful children under all the trials of the world; and to conduct them to honor, glory, and immortality in heaven.

These blessings, when realized, must move the hearts of all who seriously reflect on them.
When we diligently study the Gospel, we find that it’s fitted to kindle the flame of gratitude and devotion in our hearts, and lead us to a life of piety, righteousness and sobriety.

So, let’s not satisfy ourselves with the words, “Lord, Lord,” but let’s be careful to do the things Jesus has commanded us to do. Denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, let us live soberly, righteously and piously in this present world.


(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Aaron Bancroft, 1822)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Our Great Capacity to Do Good #JesusFollowers


Human beings have an amazing, in-born capacity to do good, to serve and to love others. We are called by Jesus to put these abilities to use, building God's Kingdom here on this earth, while becoming the spiritually complete human beings God wants us to become.

Jesus calls us to a life of active service of others, knowing that we are capable of what God asks if us. It is not too difficult, not are His tasks hard, if we prepare ourselves, and then act in obedience. (Deut. 30:11-14.)

In his Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13) Jesus tells of seeds (his teachings) falling in hard ground, on rocks, and on receptive soil. In the same way, we must let ourselves become fertile, receptive soil to the teachings of Jesus, and let them take root in our souls, so they bear fruit in the world.

Jesus also taught that spiritually Good treasure comes from those who have stored up goodness in their hearts (Matt. 12:35.) We should in this same way cultivate and grow Goodness within us, so we can share it with others, as God intends us to do.

In his Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25) Jesus says that those who bury their gifts, rather than sharing them fully, do not please God, because our God-given gifts are not being put to good use in the service of others, as God intended.

God has given us great gifts, and we are called to use those gifts to serve others, not to bury them, or to ignore what we have been given. We prepare our minds do Good Works when we recognize our gifts, and then commit to use them to actively follow Jesus' teachings.

We should allow our minds and hearts to be open to others’ needs - cultivating the soil of our hearts to be attuned to their needs.

There are those who claim that human beings are too weak to do good, or that we have an in-born, inherited disease that prevents us from doing good. Others demean the capacity for good works God has given all of us at birth. Both viewpoints greatly slander and demean God.

Seeing ourselves - God's creations - as lower and weaker than we are doesn't make God any bigger, which apparently is the motive for this mistaken belief. Instead, it makes both human beings and their creator seem smaller, weaker, and unjust.

If God had commanded us to be do Good, yet knows that we can never do the Good Works He commands, that would make God an unjust ruler, out of touch with His creation.

But we know that God is perfectly Holy, Just and reasonable to His creations. His judgment is tempered by mercy, and He has always known His creatures are capable of more than we, ourselves believe ourselves to be capable.

God and the one He chose as an example for us, Jesus, have commanded us to seek Righteousness, to do Works of Goodness, and to love our neighbors and our God with EVERY spiritual, mental and material gift that we have been given.

If we need courage and encouragement to serve others, we need only reflect on the gifts we've been given by God, our Creator, including the inspiring and perfect moral life of Jesus. And just as Jesus did, we may seek God's face in prayer for further strength, and we know that we can obtain it.

Because Jesus did all that God called him to do, God was "well pleased" with him, and called him His Son. Because Jesus, a man like us, was able to do what God commanded, we may be assured that we, too, may also become the people God wishes us to become.

Jesus is our template and model in all things, and his words and life are proof that we may do all that God requires of us. When we keep our eyes focused on his teachings, and when we obey them, we become more spiritually complete.

We should respond to his call to do Good Works with enthusiasm, knowing that God has given us what we need to do what He asks us to do - at birth, and through His chosen son, Jesus, and continually through God's spirit, which inspires us always to do more for our fellow human beings.