Sunday, December 10, 2017

We Are Given Moral Freedom By God #JesusFollowers

Jesus, in the establishment of his religion, did not force his followers to accept him. He taught every essential religious truth, made laws for their behavior, and spoke to them with persuasive words.

He then left them to act freely, so the happiness of his disciples might be the reward of obedience, which flows from an enlightened mind and a teachable attitude.

Our Master exhibited the clearest proof of a divine mission. By his life, he displayed the moral worth of his character. He called on his followers to examine his doctrines, to reflect on his works, and to weigh the actions of his life; and for themselves receive his words, obey his commands, and rely on his promises.

Jesus recognized powers in us to judge the evidence on which his religion is founded, and to perceive that his instructions conformed to the unchangeable laws of truth. A number of important inferences may be drawn from this appeal of our Master to the human mind. One is that religion is a rational and voluntary service.

God has given us the attributes of reason and liberty. These make us the subject of a moral government, and make us capable of virtuous action. Take away these abilities, and we cease to be subject to reward or punishment.

To make any course of action good, in a moral sense, an agent must be conscious of duty, and have the ability and power to do it. 

Actions in which the will of the agent have no place have no virtuous properties; and doing those actions cannot be called "moral." The way in which the human mind is used determines our moral character. Our actions create the morality of human conduct.

Having the Reason to distinguish good from evil, and the liberty to choose the one and refuse the other, make us capable of moral conduct and moral self-government. If our freedom and agency is taken away, we are no better than animals, or we become like mere machines.

It is the duty of human beings to enlighten their minds about religion. To act rationally and freely in the important aspects of our faith, we must know its foundation, and learn its essential truths and duties.

We cannot consistently perform the duties of religion, while ignorant of its first principles, any more than we can converse intelligibly in a language with which we are unacquainted.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Aaron Bancroft) 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Work Builds Character! #JesusFollowers

Employment is the life of every soul, from the Most High down to the least of his children. Only those who are spiritually dead, or sleeping, ask for idleness. 

Man, resting in thought or feeling, is at best a useless abstraction; he becomes truly a man only when his thoughts and feelings come forth into life, and impress themselves on outward things.

If he fails to do this, the rust of idleness eats into all his powers, till he becomes a useless cumberer of the ground; the world loses, and heaven gains nothing when this mortal puts on immortality. Such a being is dead while he lives – a moral paralytic. His capacities are as seed cast upon a rock where there is no earth.

Man, created in the image and likeness of God, resembles Him most nearly when the life influent from God which fills his soul, flows forth freely as it is given, quickening with its powers all that comes within the influence of his sphere.

There is an old proverb that tells us, "Idleness is the devil's pillow," and well may it be so esteemed, for no head ever rested long upon it, but the lips of the evil spirit were at its ear, breathing falsehood and temptation. The industrious man is seldom found guilty of a crime; for he has no time to listen to the enticings of the wicked, and he is content with the enjoyments honest effort affords.

It is the vicious idler, vexed to see the fortunes of his industrious neighbor growing while he is lounging and murmuring, who robs and murders that he may get unlawful gain. 

It is the merry, thoughtless idler who, to relieve the nothingness of his days, seeks the excitement of the wine-cup and the gaming table. It is the sensual idler, whose licentious ear is open to the voice of the tempter as often as his track crosses the pathway of youth and innocence.

Not only by reason of the external, palpable rewards which labor brings is it to be considered a blessing; but every hour of patient labor, whether with the hands, or in study, or thought, brings with it its own priceless reward, in its direct effects upon the Character. 

By it the faculties are developed, the powers strengthened, and the whole being brought into a state of order; provided we do all things for the glory of God. "But," exclaims the impatient heart, wearied with the cares of daily life, "how can all this labor for the preservation and comfort of the merely mortal body, this study of things which belong merely to the material world, subserve in any way the glory of God?"

It is by these very toils, worthless and transitory as they may seem, that the Character is built up for eternity; and so to build up Character is the whole end for which the things of time were created. 

One who thinks wisely can never live a life of idleness, and where there is excessive indolence of the body there is never healthy action of the mind. A life of use is a life of holiness; and a life of idleness is a life of sin. He who performs no social use, who makes no human being happier or better, is leading a life of utter selfishness; is walking in a way that ends in spiritual death.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the King condemns those on the left hand, not because they have done that which was wrong, but because they have omitted doing that which was right.

No matter how small the duty entrusted to our performance, by performing it to the best of our abilities we are fitting ourselves to be rulers over many things –  to hear the blessed proclamation, "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

(Excerpted from “The Elements of Character,” by Mary Greene Chandler Ware, 1854)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

In Jesus, We Find The Joy Of God! #JesusFollowers

Every holy principle rejoices in a connection with spotless purity. Every grateful sentiment is stirred by recollecting the labors of redeeming love; every generous affection is roused by the mildness of his yoke; and every hope is animated by the prospect of that life and immortality which Jesus has brought to light.

This joy, it is evident, can only be tasted by the consistent, faithful, practical believer. The friends of Jesus will possess the joys of Jesus; but the friends of Jesus are those who do his commandments.

This is his own account of the matter, and therefore, when we lay this down as a rule, we are sure that we are right, for we are only repeating what he, himself has said.

We are called to study the attributes of God; the relations in which He stands towards us, and those duties which, in consequence, we owe to Him. We are to make ourselves acquainted with the divine authority, the pure doctrines, the holy precepts, and the perfect character of the blessed Jesus. This is the knowledge which will make us wise unto salvation.

Knowledge without virtue will do us no good. In the divine administration, which is wisdom and benevolence in action, we behold means and ends invariably suited to each other. Holiness is the great mean of real and lasting happiness.

If to grow in the likeness of our divine Master is the only preparation for the happiness he has promised, an unwearied attention to his precepts and example is strongly impressed upon us. 

We must be active, vigilant, and persevering. Prejudices must be eradicated, passions must be governed, appetites and inclinations to evil resolutely restrained.

The heart and the life must be kept with all diligence, if the prize of our high calling is to be made sure.

Jesus shows us that God is love, the original spring of happiness, and that the grand end he proposes, in the production of man, is the communication and extension of happiness. He shows us that no situation of human life can warrant a fretful and despondent attitude; but that, in. all cases, we may, and, in justice to our great benefactor, ought to encourage a cheerful, and even a joyful attitude.

Let us look for strength where alone it is to be found. Seek for salvation only in that way which the Gospel prescribes. Go directly to the narrow gate. Depend upon it that in no other way redemption can be found. Consult your reason. Make a worthy and noble choice. Aim high. Ambition here is a virtue.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Edmund Butcher, 1805)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Jesus VS. Christian Theology. #JesusFollowers

One cannot help wondering what the Christian world would be like today if the Church had kept to the policy and program of Jesus. What if the Church in her ideals and efforts had remained predominantly religious and ethical, instead of becoming, as she did, predominantly doctrinal and speculative?

It is not easy, indeed, to envision it. We are so accustomed to associate the great doctrinal disputes of past ages with the history and activity of the Church, that they almost seem an essential part of her life. But are they really?

As we look back upon the extinct and, as it now often seems, pretty much meaningless controversies of the past, it is not easy to resist the feeling that the Christian Church might have done a greater work and might now present to the world a better representation of the Spirit of Christ if she had observed the terms of his commission and had not undertaken to annex to her province so many foreign territories.

The Sermon on the Mount is a new law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology. Metaphysics is completely absent from it.

The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it. 

One belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers.

The absence of ethics from one of the great ecumenical creeds of Christendom, and the metaphysical conditions of salvation prescribed in another, represent one estimate of the relative value of dogma and of character in the Christian world.

This estimate only shows how completely the gospel of Jesus became transformed into an esoteric doctrine as remote from the motives and purposes of Jesus' life-work as the unseemly strifes and alienations which it engendered were unproductive of the fruits of his Spirit in mankind. Jesus was wholly concerned with ethics, with begetting and fostering in men the Godlike life.

The word "character" summarizes the great interest and life-purpose of Jesus Christ.

The primacy of dogma in the Nicene Creed is obvious. More than forty paragraphs are devoted to the dogmas belief in which is declared to be essential to salvation; but two sections at the end are reserved for laying emphasis on a good life, so that this is not completely excluded from the definition of "the Catholic Faith."

Jesus and the apostles also spoke frequently of what men must do to be saved, but we can detect no resemblance between what they said and the propositions contained in these forty-one paragraphs.

The Sermon on the Mount is a typical description of the true righteousness which must characterize the members of the Kingdom — the righteousness which surpasses the legal formalism and ceremonial punctiliousness which the scribes and Pharisees called righteousness.

Meekness, being merciful, aspiration after goodness, purity, peacemaking, humility, patience, charity - these are the constituents of the Christian character as Jesus there portrays it. 

How obvious it is that we have here an elaboration of the prophetic conception of righteousness that’s practically synonymous with love.

Micah summarizes God's supreme requirement of us in words which sound the keynote of our Master’s teaching in this Sermon: "to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God." (Micah 6:8)

We are thus brought face to face with the contrast between the biblical conception of righteousness and that which has been most widely current in traditional theology.

The various qualities and activities of the Christian character on which Jesus lays most stress are all consistent with what we have found in his mountain Sermon.

The true righteousness which makes us children of God consists in a love like that of God Himself. 

The Christian character, then, as Jesus conceived it, is summed up in the one word "Godlikeness." 

Become the children of your Father; be like your Father in love, in purity, in readiness to serve and forgive, and you thereby become members of the Kingdom of heaven; to acquire such a character - to live such a life - IS salvation. 

But how are we to know what God's nature and requirements are so that we can understand, desire, and choose them as prescribing the law of their own life? The life and character of Jesus himself are the answer.

The more abstract demand to be like God is translated into the concrete and unmistakable requirement that the disciple should be like his Master. 

It is, indeed, the unparalleled marvel of the character of Jesus that we can transfer the qualities of that character, point by point, to God himself with a perfect sense of consistency and truth.

If Jesus seems to set before us a high and abstract law for life, he does not leave us without a clear and definite interpretation of it. If he points us to a distant and apparently unattainable goal, he proves himself to be the way to an ever-closer approximation to it.

The Way of Christ Jesus is the way to the Father.

(Adapted from the writings of Rev. George Barker Stevens)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Costly Faith #Jesus Calls Us To Follow! #JesusFollowers

"Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27-31)

What does Jesus mean when he says, "Counting the costs?"

Too many people are willing to believe in a God that requires nothing – no work, to time, no money, no effort, and no works of love; a religion that’s made easy, that requires less effort than is required to put a meal in a microwave.

They're more than ready to go to Heaven, as long as God carries them there without any requirement that they move their feet a single step.

But the inconvenient problem for those who believe this, and wish to continue to call themselves "Christian" or followers of Christ Jesus, is that this is not the religion Jesus preached. That’s not the path he calls us to walk. It's not the life he wishes us to lead in this life. And it doesn't even lead to eternal salvation with God, our Father.

If people really put a faith in our God at the center of their lives, and believed that Jesus himself lays out this religion in his words, then they would find no work for God too hard, no self-denial too severe, and no offering of service in the name of God’s chosen Son, Jesus to be enough.

Jesus spoke about costly, righteous obedience that would cause people to hate us, and a Godly kingdom here on earth that requires us to act righteously, loving even our enemies. God would then reward us with Heaven based only on our deeds.

That’s a salvation that is not easy, lazy or cheaply obtained with our vain words and lengthy prayers (Matt. 6:7; 7:21.)

That which we obtain cheaply, we esteem lightly. A gift freely given, a gift unwrapped and unused, is a worthless gift, regardless of the cost. Teachings unused, and unapplied, are exactly the same - useless.

Jesus never said that salvation would come without cost. He never said it would require no effort, or that it cannot or must not be earned. In fact, he said just the opposite.

His parables, including this one about the costs involved in building a tower, all point to a costly faith – a faith that requires us to give all we have to serving God by loving and serving both Him and our fellow human beings.

If faith costs nothing, and salvation can be achieved without effort, what "costs" must we count?

If effort and self-sacrifice is not required of us by God, then of what "costs" does Jesus speak regarding the tower in this parable?

If the wide and easy path is the path condemned by Jesus, why do so many seek it?

Those who don't plan, or don't count the costs, or don’t believe there ARE costs in achieving eternal salvation deserve to be mocked, just as those who would build a tower without considering the costs would deserve to be mocked, says Jesus.

And those who don’t consider ALL they have to be on the line when following Jesus should reconsider calling themselves by his name. We must be willing to share all, give all, and do all in order to follow the Paths of Righteousness and, ultimately, eternal Salvation Jesus calls us to follow.

"Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more." (Luke 12:48.) Does this sound like the words of someone advocating and approving an easy, lazy faith, to be rewarded by God with a cheaply obtained eternal life?

God said at Jesus' baptism, when He adopted Jesus as his anointed Son and appointed him as our Example and Savior, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him." (Matt. 17:15.) We should, then, listen to and believe Jesus’s words, both here and elsewhere, when he says we must obey God's commands and follow his own example, doing all things he has done in obedience to our Creator.

God chose this perfectly obedient human being to be our example in all things. We therefore must make every effort to humbly and honorably seek to follow Jesus in obedience to his life's pattern, which pleased God so much.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What Do We Owe God, And Others? #JesusFollowers

What do we owe to God? What do we owe to others? Many today might answer that we owe God and others nothing. Instead, they might say, we owe it to ourselves to focus on building up our self alone.

This message is reinforced in almost every aspect of the society we live in. Advertising tells us that we owe it to ourselves to Grant our every desire, without hesitation.

We are told that we deserve every luxury and every Indulgence we can think of. It's very very easy to fall into this trap, to believe that by gratifying ourselves that we will somehow be happy.

Even some preachers teach that we owe it to ourselves to be rich - and that God endorses our quest for riches. They even say that our main goal in life is to "get saved," and save our souls for the next life. Once that's accomplished (and it's done quickly and easily, they claim - with just one prayer!) we may continue to focus on getting rich.

But as we have seen again and again, people who have lived in luxury beyond our wildest dreams have the same feelings of unhappiness, of being unfulfilled, of feeling alone and unloved.

It's almost a stereotype and a truism that money and fame does not really bring happiness. And yet some still believe it, and Chase the dream.

If we follow Jesus, however, then the question of what we owe God and what we owe others is a simple one to answer. We owe everything to God and we owe complete and total service to others in the name of Jesus, whom we serve.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said that we are to love our God with all our hearts all our minds all our strength and all our understanding, and our neighbor as ourselves. (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:37)

Some say this is just a simplistic and easy summary of all the laws of God. And while it is a summary, for sure, it is not simplistic, but an incredible, powerful challenge that Jesus calls us to take up daily.

Because if we owe everything to God, our creator, we will live our lives full of gratitude to him for this creation and for our lives in it. If we owe everything to others, we will serve them and love them and cherish them. We will do everything to comfort them to ensure they have what they need to survive and thrive in this world.

When we understand that our lives here are meant to build up an Earthly kingdom of God, one that reflects the spiritual Perfection of our creator, we will do all we can to alleviate suffering, comfort those in pain, and fill the needs of those who lack basic necessities. (Matt. 6:10)

This leaves little room for simply piling up riches. In fact, Jesus repeatedly calls on us to reject riches for riches' sake, saying (perhaps most famously) that it's easier for a rich man to go through the eye of needle than to enter into the Kingdom. (Mark 10:25) 

Perhaps not as famous, but just as important, is his warning that we ought to, "be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." (Luke 12:15)

This is the selfless vision and the mission Jesus came to preach. Jesus calls us to individually reach out to those among us and serve them.

We as Jesus followers are called to deny ourselves, not focus on gratifying ourselves - to put others first, even ahead of our own enrichment. Jesus calls us to pick up the cross of service, the cross of love, the cross of self-sacrifice and love of our neighbor.

Jesus actually warns AGAINST seeking to save oneself. To do so means we will actually lose ourselves. (Matt. 10:38-39) Jesus seemed to know that we lose our souls when we focus inward, not outward.

And he specifically says that simple praise, crying out or reflexively using repetitive phrases will not impress God, and will not save us, either. Only by doing what he commands us to do leads directly to Godliness, and pleases God. (Matt. 6:7; 7:21-23; Luke 6:46)

We should seek to live in a way that lets God's spirit flow through us in the same way in which it flowed through Jesus, our Master. 

When we do this, we are obeying our Master, whom God sent to us as an example and our teacher. We are then telling  God that we are living lives of gratitude and service, just as his chosen son, Jesus, called us to do.

As his followers, we ought to do no less.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

#Jesus Challenged Religious Leaders To Reform; We Must, Too! #JesusFollowers

The religious figures of Jesus’ day had it all figured out. They knew the religious system and the religious buzzwords inside and out. They could spout bits of Scripture to prove everything he said was wrong. They called him a “heretic” and worse: one who speaks evil against God.

Jesus’ preaching challenged the doctrines of religious leaders, plainly telling them they were wrong, and that they needed to rethink their beliefs and practices.

It was no longer just enough to SEEM to be doing God’s will, one must actually DO it, he said.

It was not enough to SEEM to be pious, praying publicly with long prayers and fancy words. One must actually BE pious, and do much of it in private.

Intentions mattered as much as outward appearances, said Jesus. And the motives of the heart, which give birth to actions, are important to control (and CAN be controlled) and turned towards Righteousness, so that our actions will also be Righteous.

But it is never easy to challenge religious ideas - especially long-cherished ones. It can hurt feelings and brings great anger.

Yet, Jesus was often blunt, and he knew that he would be met with great anger and even death. And so he was. And in three days, God took Jesus back.

But soon after his death and return to God, others came – as Jesus had predicted – with a different Message, one that was easier, less Godly, and less powerful and challenging to authority.

They called on people to believe special things about his death, but to not worry too much about his teachings and life.

They told people that Jesus wasn’t REALLY calling for us to perform Righteous Works, because we are not capable of them.

God, they claimed, at his own good pleasure, doles out the strength we need in order to do the Good Works, then rewards us for doing what He did through us.

And they elevated Jesus to equality with God, so that he could be admired, and worshiped, but not imitated.

Thus, they put Jesus out of reach, out of touch, and out of our minds as a perfect example to follow, and the Dark Ages and “reformation” which followed did nothing to bring the original Jesus back.

Today, the story that was once powerful and universal is powerful in numbers and wealth, but is almost universally arrogant and prideful.

Shockingly, Christendom today promotes a “Wide Gate” of easily-obtainable eternal salvation at the drop of a check, after spouting an unbiblical, simple prayer.

Much of Christendom – particularly PROTESTANT Christendom – teaches that we may, without repentance or Good Works, and with only a few magic words, steal from God the salvation promised through His messenger, even though Jesus told us that this was available to us ONLY if we repented and worked Righteousness.

A movement - a "Reformation" - that started off with such promise, but gained earthly power and dominance at the cost of its soul, is in need of a fuller, more complete Reformation.

A message that originally was a clear, simple call to greatness through perfect Love and a call to serve God and other people through complete self-sacrifice stands in desperate need of renewal.

What is easy to purchase with a quick prayer and a promise of wealth must be rejected and confronted as false and contrary to Jesus’ express teachings.

What is incomprehensible and man-made must be stripped off like a layer of suffocating paint, so the original Truths of Jesus may shine through and breathe again.

What became large and lethargic must become again humble and holy, less demeaning and more dynamic in its evaluation of what we, as God’s creatures are both called to do and capable of doing for others and our Creator, God.

Today, as we embark once again on the Way Jesus preached, we must also dare to boldly question today's religious leaders' long-held, man-made beliefs, as well as some even less attractive alternatives which call us to look inward and serve only ourselves. 

We must do the hard work of discerning God’s will for our lives and re-learning Jesus’ true message. In other words: we must keep Reforming!

Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, today’s religious leaders are not going to be very happy about being challenged, either. 

But we owe it to God and the one whom God sent to us – the man, Jesus, our Master – to become merely Jesus Followers and servants of God once again.