Sunday, February 16, 2020

What is The Essence Of Christianity? #JesusFollowers


When a man comes out of a dark room into the light, his eyes are dazzled, and he discerns all objects indistinctly, not because there is not light enough, but because there is too much light. When I look back to the early years of Christianity, I see in that bright dawn a few figures, shadows of men like trees walking, and one form in the midst of them like unto the form of the Son of God.

The eyes are dazzled by such a vision, and yet there appears at first little enough for the mind to dwell upon. The records are broken and fragmentary, the details somewhat meager, and the authenticity in some parts thought by many to be more than doubtful.

Then I ask myself "Was Christianity nothing but a dream of the past? Is it nothing but a sentiment in the present?"

The heart, which has longings for something definite and tangible, wants to go up to Jesus, as it were, and touch the hands and the side, and be present at the dark hour in Gethsemane, and feel the crown of thorns, and watch the agony of the Cross, in order that it may be fixed and certified concerning the Son of Man, and know in whom we have believed. "What is Christianity?" is a question which many serious men are asking in the present day.

We must have sadly departed from the simplicity which is in Jesus - we must have somehow got entirely off track, away from the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. I don't think there was any doubt in the minds of those who heard that sermon as to what Christianity really meant, or what Christ really taught.

They did not argue when they heard the words, "Blessed are whose who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,: and ' Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," and those were the sort of words which drew thousands after Jesus, and made the common people very attentive to hear Him. The words did not sound vague; they conveyed a definite meaning, quite definite enough for all practical purposes; and doubtless that meaning was the very essence of Christianity.

Many people say, 'There was nothing new in the teaching of Christ; the world had heard it all before." And we should do well to admit what is admissible in such a statement at once, and to the fullest extent. We might perhaps say that there was nothing very new in any one individual precept of Christianity; that, if we knew enough about the religious developments which preceded it, we should find a great deal of Christianity before Christ.

Every petition of the Lord's Prayer, for instance, in the literature that already existed at the coming of Christ. You don't find the very prayer anywhere written down, but you may pick out the several parts of it, or something very like them.

Now just in the same way you don't find Christianity itself in the past religions or philosophies of the world; but you may take out a great many points and arrange them in a certain order, and call that Christianity, and say that the whole of its ethical system was in the world in a sort of fragmentary way, in a sort of general sense, long before Christ came.

But supposing it was, what then? Christianity is not less original, and not less divine, even although there may have been nothing unknown, nothing new in its several parts. People seem to think that originality must always consist of novelty in detail, but it does not. Christianity does not consist of such novelty, yet it is original.

Christ teaches us to carry on the development of our religious feelings, of our infinite aspirations under the influences of Purity and Love—twin stars revolving around each other, making one center of life, out of which springs the development of the world, and the harmonious progress of human society.

The interest of human beings in other human beings, and of God in all human beings, shown by deeds of love, and the irresistible power of a holy life, that is the heart and marrow of Christianity, as it is sketched lightly but firmly by the Master's own hand in the Sermon on the Mount; and that was, and ever must be, the only life, and heat, and radiance which the Christian Church ever had or ever can have.

(Adapted from an 1870 sermon by Rev. Hugh Reginald Haweis 1836-1901)

Sunday, February 9, 2020

What Is Love? #JesusFollowers


What Is Love? Love is one of those words in the English language that can be easily confused. Love can mean a strong attachment to pancakes or pickles, a deep emotional attachment to another person like a spouse, parent or neighbor, it can express a deep “fan” relationship with a movie franchise like Star Wars, or it can mean lust for a drug, a person, an object, or a stranger.

This imprecise definition didn’t exist in the oldest manuscripts of the words of our Master, Jesus, which were preserved in Greek. 

Love most often was conveyed with a word, agape [agapaō] which means a pure, all-consuming love. 

It’s this word that is used when Jesus calls us to, "Love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." And, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

It was not limited to our friends, or to those who love us, because it’s agape that is used when Jesus says “Love your enemies.” (Matt. 5:43)

The Fourth Gospel records, “For God so loved the world,” using that same word, agape, showing that God has deep, abiding and unlimited love for us. God chose and sent out Jesus as our special example to us, so that we might not live in darkness, but in light.

But it’s not just God than can show this love, however. We are called by Jesus to “Love one another; JUST as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)

The fact that we are to love “JUST AS I HAVE LOVED YOU” is a powerful calling to us. We are told by Jesus that we may indeed love just as he loved; act just as he acted; serve just as he served. Our love is to have no bounds, just as Jesus’ love had no bounds.

This is all important to understand, given the many misconceptions about “love” – even among those who attend the churches of Christendom today – and even among those who do not.

"Love" having so many meanings, many today believe the love we are called to show is the shallow love we have for food, movies and other things with which we have a strong emotional attachment.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to assume that ALL we must do is express a light, shallow Love towards God and towards others. "Love is All You Need" is the name of an awesome Beatles song about emotional attachment between two lovers, not the imperative that Jesus calls us to embrace.

The Power of Love, the kind of Love that God shows us through His son, Jesus, is the kind of Love that is deep, unattached to emotions. It’s not an erotic love, or a shallow love, or a "love" that has no meaning or caring behind it, but it is instead the deepest and most pure Love there is. 

This kind of Love must be the cornerstone of our faith. Love of God and love of our neighbors is what Jesus calls us to actively show in our daily lives.

The faith that Jesus teaches challenges us to love God so much that we love others just as God does, and show it by doing Good Works in the service of others.

And we are called to love and obey God and serve others, using Jesus' perfect example as our guide, and then we are to accept that GOD ALONE is our judge, and our God is a God of mercy, if we ask for it.

"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." (John 14:21)

"If you keep my commandments," says Jesus, "you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love." (John 15:10)

Sunday, February 2, 2020

We Possess The God-Given Gift of Reason #JesusFollowers


All of us are born with the God-given gift of Reason, the ability to think, analyze and question, and we are called to use that for the glory of God, the advancement of His spiritual Kingdom, and for the benefit of those around us.

Reason and Faith are not opposed to one another, but are instead necessary for us to understand God and God's will for us. Rationality walks hand-in-hand with Spirituality. When irrational elements of religion are stripped away, we may focus clearly on the mission God's Anointed One sends us to do.

God gave us Reason and the ability to obey Him, and Reason is a God-given gift we must use to discern His Will.

The Book of Proverbs begins with a beautiful poem praising wisdom, understanding, Reason and knowledge:

"To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth  - Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov. 1:2-7)

God has created us as thinking beings, capable of perceiving, learning, growing, and expanding in knowledge and great understanding.

By use of Reason, we can either choose to understand the words God and His spokesman, Jesus, sends us for our own benefit, or choose freely to HATE knowledge, wisdom and reproof, turning our backs on God and those whom He sent us. We will "eat the fruits of our way" if we do so, however (Prov. 1:29-31) and will be judged according to our Works.

Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to, "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37.) Loving with our hearts and our very being (our Souls, our psyche) is one thing, but we are called also to use our MINDS - our understanding and our knowledge. These are not dirty words that spit upon faith, and our God does not diminish them at all, nor does his chosen and adopted Son, Jesus.

Some might now cite the Proverb, "Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding," (3:5) and it's certainly true! Anyone who has begun seeking higher education knows how much we simply do NOT know! But a humble acknowledgement of our lack of understanding itself points to our need to acquire it, and God loves those whom he corrects (Prov. 3:11)

Rev. George Harris (1794-1859) wrote, "Because we are required to submit to the divine authority, we should be assured, before we receive any doctrine that it is divine; and this it is evident we can only learn by bringing the doctrine before the high tribunal of Reason.

Reason is unquestionably a divine law, written with indelible characters upon every human heart; and no laws can be divine which are a contradiction to our Reason, or which are plainly repugnant to that sense of right and wrong which is implanted in the mind."

When looking at scripture, we therefore must examine it cautiously - rejecting narrow, small-minded Literalism and mindless (often out-of-context) proof-texting - and instead interpret it using our God-given gifts of Reason and common sense, and knowing these books were written by men, selected and chosen for inclusion in a Bible for men, and are interpreted by men.

Just as Jesus tells us the Sabbath was created for us, and not us for the Sabbath, use of our gift of Reason to examine God's message for us only makes sense.

In our moral lives, as well, we must employ Reason as a tool by which we may be guided.

The Rev. Joseph Priestley wrote, encouraging young men in college, "Above all things, be careful to improve and make use of the reason which God has given you, to be the guide of your lives, to check the extravagance of your passions, and to assist you in acquiring that knowledge, without which your rational powers will be of no advantage to you."

We have not been given impossible tasks by our God and by His Prophet, Jesus. Our senses have not been dulled nor our understandings darkened so much that we cannot turn to God and repent of our shortcomings.

If both Reason and our Hearts, along with our Teacher, Jesus, compel us to obey God, love Him, serve our fellow human beings with every fiber of our being, how can God's Kingdom NOT appear on the earth as we walk it?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What Is Salvation? #JesusFollowers


A strict adherence to the language of the Scriptures will keep us from the error of imagining that the evil from which Jesus saves is the curse of man's original condition - the fearful destiny in which we are "cursed" by Nature.

It is not only inconceivable that a benevolent Being should have subjected His creatures to such a miserable fate prior to their sinning, or even to their existing, but, which is more to the point, the sacred writers perpetually teach that the misery to be saved from is that of sin, not of our natural condition; that the wrath to be escaped is that which comes from their own transgressions, not that which awaits them because they are simply human.

They speak of no evil prior to or greater than that of active sin. They speak of no curse before this, or independent of it. And they propose to save from this as the grand, the essential, the all-comprehensive ill, leading to consequences of wretchedness and despair.

To avoid the penalty, yet still enjoy the sin, has always been a chief object of false religions. But let us not be deceived. No such preposterous compromise has been made. 

What, then, is the nature of salvation, and from what does Jesus save us?

If we inquire of religion, as taught either by nature or by revelation, what is it, in strict truth, which God designs especially to promote by his government and his dispensations? Happiness? Yes, unquestionably. But how? Happiness only? Of any kind or of any description? If so, there were no need of laws and restraints, and moral laws, or institutions of discipline and instruction; for God might by the arbitrary appointments of His will lavish it abundantly on His creatures. But surely it is not so.

Being a holy God, whose hatred of sin is equal to His desire of happiness, and in whose view there is no true happiness where there is no holiness, He, therefore, makes holiness the primary object of His government, and the moral perfection of His offspring the favorite purpose of His dispensations.

God provides the means for the regeneration of free, intelligent, voluntary agents, existing in a state of probation.

There is nothing either arbitrary or compulsory in the Gospel. Salvation is offered to us, but not forced upon us. It is left to depend upon the use which is made of those privileges and aids which the grace of God has bestowed.

It is thus entirely conditional. It is dependent on every person’s free choice.

The waters of life flow by us in copious and inviting streams; if we will come and take them, we shall live forever; but let us act our own pleasure; there is no constraint. The table of heaven is spread, and urgent invitations are sent abroad, and a joyous welcome awaits those who will be guests. But it rests with ourselves to accept or refuse.

Jesus has thrown wide the doors of everlasting day, and poured a strong light on the true path of peace. He has placed himself at its entrance, to invite, and urge, and warn us - by our allegiance to God, by the miseries of our present condition, by the welfare of our souls, by the inconceivable glories of heaven – to pursue the way of holiness and life.

Jesus has offered us guidance, direction, aid, and blessing. We need only come to him, and we shall have life.

It is thus that salvation is by grace. Grace provides the means. Sinful and undeserving people, by an act of essential Benignity, by the unmerited favor of divine love, is put in the condition to escape from sin, and reach the bliss of heaven.

It is a general provision for the human race ; not a plan for the recovery of a selected few, nor a favor bestowed upon individuals; but an impartial offer of mercy to all — which offer having been made, and the opportunity having been given, each one is then, separately, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

The grace of God makes the most ample and munificent provision, even, as it were, the wings of an angel for his flight upward; but if we will not stretch them and rise, it sends down no chariot of fire to bear away our reluctant souls.

God saves us through Jesus — by opening to us a free path of escape from sin and misery, and guiding and aiding us in it, through the perils of life, to our heavenly home.

God opened the way and provided the means; and in each of us must walk in the way and use the means; or, instead of inheriting the blessing, we perish in the wilderness.

(Adapted from a sermon by Henry Ware, Jr. ca. 1850)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

God Gives Us Freedom To Choose! #JesusFollowers



God, our Creator, has created all of us with the awesome responsibility of the Freedom to Choose. The abilities and knowledge we inherit from God at our birth allow us to choose the Good, but has also left us with the ability to choose what is evil. It is in recognizing what is evil, and avoiding or repenting of it, then actively choosing the Good that we are considered Righteous by God.

In the Hebrew Bibles, and as taught by Jesus, God repeatedly tells us to "choose" and "obey" and that we will be judged according to our choices.

God, through Moses, said that His Law was “not too hard” so that we “could do it.” (Deut. 30:14) And God expected us to obey his moral commands, as Jesus repeated consistently. Jesus said that no one else would be charged with our disobedience, and no other would be responsible for our actions except ourselves.

In the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, we learn in the story of Adam and Eve how men were entrusted with a Freedom of Choice. The story portrays God as giving Adam and Eve the choice of not eating from a free of knowledge and remaining in a Garden of innocence forever, or eating from it and eventually dying, and leaving to make his own way in the world.

They chose to leave, and were told by God to "Be fruitful and multiply." Otherwise, his choice, and that of  Eve, affected no one but them. And note that Adam and Eve - created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) - were created to be perfect by God, they lived in a perfect world, yet were able to disobey God.

Sin cannot be inherited. Here's how we know: God told Adam's son, Cain (just one generation after Adam!) that he COULD avoid sin, and MUST do so to avoid punishment (Gen. 4:7.)

God didn’t respect Cain and his offering, "So Cain was very angry, and the expression on his face fell. And Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires you, but you must rule over it." (Gen. 4:5b-8)

If he was able to freely choose to do Good, so may we! Only Cain was affected by his subsequent evil choice. The Bible teaches us that sins are acts, not THINGS. Sins are what we commit or avoid, not a thing we inherit biologically.

This is why Ezekiel records: "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, fand the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezek. 18:19)

Just after the Exodus out of Egypt, Joshua told the Israelites to serve Yahweh their God, "in sincerity and in truth," and to "choose this day whom you will serve," (Joshua 24:14-15) Clearly, Joshua believed they could choose to faithfully serve God in sincerity and in truth.

The prophet Isaiah also clearly agreed with God that human beings were capable of choosing to, "reject the wrong and choose the right." (7:15)

Psalm 24 notes who may stand before God: "The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god." This strongly affirms our ability to obey God and seek to be righteous. If we cannot do these things, then literally no one would ever stand in God's presence. But that's not what the Bible teaches.

Psalm 25-27 are even more personal, with King David saying that he has (following repentance) led a clean life by choosing the righteous path. He had earlier written: "Yahweh dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me." (Psalm 18:20)

Jesus had high hopes for our moral abilities, and taught that we are to be, "perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) This same teacher - this human being chosen by God - said that he did all things that pleased God (John 8:29.)

He also said that we must follow him, doing ALL that he had done. (John 13:15; 14:12) Based on these teachings, we definitely have the ability to do great good, if we choose to do so. It's the choosing that can be hard sometimes, but that does not diminish our ability to do the good, which is God-given.

We have the God-given ability to seek Godliness and that we can become Godly and complete – not by ourselves without God or without God’s chosen example, but with God's ongoing help and with the example of Jesus always before us.

As we have seen here, it is NOT our inherited destiny to be "unable to not sin," and that we are not born so depraved that we may not choose what is good and do it. The scriptures teach that we may indeed choose NOT to sin.

Ecclesiasticus records the clearest statement of our freedom to choose, saying: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin." (15:15-20)

It is God’s choice – His GRACE alone – whether we shall live with Him eternally. But it is up to us if WE CHOOSE to seek this gift, and God says we demonstrate this choice by our actions. This isn't true only if we are unable to freely choose what is good.

We are called to commit our lives to obedience to God's chosen Son, Jesus, the Anointed Prophet of God, and submit to humbly walk with him, relying, as he taught, on God's grace and forgiveness and growing into the Righteous Perfection that God knows we are capable of achieving.

And while sin may be waiting by the door for us, seeking to master us, we are assured that we may indeed defeat – and master – sinful temptations. This is amazingly good news, because it shows that our Creator knows us, and still trusts us with the ability to act and choose to obey Him freely!

Through the teachings of Jesus, God shows us that He is a parent Who allows His children to make mistakes, repent, and turn back to doing what is right.We should thank God, our Creator in Whose image we were created, for trusting us to make our own choices, and let’s pledge to always take that awesome responsibility seriously in all that we do.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Faith That Works #JesusFollowers


Without action, nothing is achieved. Jesus told a parable in which a king left a group of servants in charge of some money. The ones who invested and used it were praised upon his return. Those who did nothing and hid the money were scolded.

The same is true with our Faith in God, Whom Jesus reveals to us through his teachings, life and death. We are saved from sin in this life, and eternally, only by the teachings and example of Jesus.

A Faith that rests in smug complacency and pride fails. A Faith that puts our talents to work and tests us makes us spiritually stronger.

Jesus calls us to run, to achieve, to do, to act, to work, to become better, to seek out truth, to be righteous, to be humble, to worship and praise our God, and to love others.

And our works have eternal consequences, as well as being of great benefit to others around us right now.

This is a world desperately in need of a deep, loving faith that can work righteousness in the heart as well as in the mind. It needs a Kingdom of Godly men and women who actively feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, bind up the broken-hearted and tend to the ill. This is the very mission Jesus tells us he was sent to proclaim by his, and our, Creator.

Mere platitudes and a religion based upon “instant salvation,” which leaves our neighbors unloved, unserved, and falsely assured of eternity, cheats both them and us out of experiencing the Kingdom that Jesus announced as his mission.

Jesus taught clearly that we are saved eternally by God according to our works (though not by others' opinions of our works, nor by our high opinion of our own works, nor by how loudly we perform our works.)

God alone judges our Works, but it's clear from Jesus' teachings that mere good intentions alone do not save us, nor do they bring about God's Kingdom on earth.

There is no other teaching claiming the name ‘Christianity” that leads to salvation other than the words of Jesus, our Master. All we need to know about God’s Will for us was revealed in the words and example of Jesus, the one God adopted, chose and commissioned to preach to us.

So, when we encounter what is claimed to be the Gospel, if it fails to challenge us to pursue Good Works, we know that it's a false and easy Faith we've encountered – a wide and false gate, rather than the Gospel preached from the very mouth of Jesus.

That's because Jesus clearly calls us to an active Faith - a Faith that Works. It's a challenge worth accepting and worth LIVING. It leads to a spiritually complete life and to eternal life.

Jesus is a teacher who challenges us, his students, to become spiritually complete by actively seeking and doing Righteousness.

“For I have given you an example,” says our Master, “that you also should do just as I have done to you.”  (John 13:15)

Jesus preached in order to challenge us to seek spiritual completeness, and calls us today to be examples in his name. And he, as a human being, demonstrated that we can follow him in all things.

To imagine Jesus teaches anything less is to make him and his teachings into something small, and his Faith into something light, unimportant, and easy to obtain.

We must not degrade Jesus' teachings and the Faith that he proclaimed to the world in this way. And we should not settle for a Faith that doesn't Work Righteousness in this world, which desperately needs it.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The God of Second Chances #JesusFollowers


Jesus teaches us about the God of Second Chances, and with every new day, and new year, we face fresh opportunities to turn back again to God.

When we come to the knowledge of God's will for our lives - that we should love God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul, and love and serve others just as we love and serve ourselves - we have embraced a new beginning, and undergo a New Birth. We are saved from sin.

Mere knowledge, however, is not enough. Mere verbal or mental assent is not enough. Emotional fervor and good feelings about God are not enough. God, our Creator, calls us to act, and do, and become better, more Spiritually complete people who reflect that which God created for us to become.

Repentance of our past sins and shortcomings gives us a clean slate - we indeed become "white as Snow" when we first ask for forgiveness and repent. But then we must commit to strive to keep ourselves clean and unspotted from a world that has not yet embraced the love and purity of God's path.

While we have not yet achieved moral completeness, all of us are called to seek it. Those who continue to recklessly sin and rebel against God's moral Law does not know God, nor the one whom God sent, Jesus.

Jesus demonstrated with his life, teachings and death the way we should respond to God's gifts. Jesus' example is our model and template.

If we follow the example of Jesus, our lives may become just as full, complete and pleasing to God as his was.

Jesus calls us to a life of Good Works in humility and compassion. Service to others leads to spiritual completeness.

We must approach his example with fear and trembling, and with great humility, and not arrogance. And of course, always seeking forgiveness from God our Father and Creator for our shortcomings.

If we seek forgiveness from God, in true repentance, then our past sins are forgiven. If we then remain in his Teachings, Jesus says we will be saved by God.

After repenting and accepting the knowledge of God's path Jesus reveals to us, we are challenged to actively live out this Faith.

But God doesn't leave us to face this challenge alone. We always have the example of Jesus, and we also have God's ever-present spiritual comfort, always there to guide, encourage and hold us tightly during times of trouble and trial.

And God has implanted within us the seeds that can grow and become a visible representation of the Kingdom of God - in this place and in this time. Knowledge of God's moral plan for our lives, shown to us by Jesus, germinates those seeds and they are nurtured by his example and God's ongoing love and strength.

Each of us can grow within us a Spiritual Abundance that gives light and hope to the world.

Let us greet every new year, new month, new day, new hour, and every new minute as a precious opportunity to serve God and our neighbors in God's name!