Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Spiritual Worth of Humanity #JesusFollowers

"But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about humanity, because he knew what was in us." John 2:24, 25.

What is in us, and what is merely superficially attached to us, are different things; as different as the soul and the body. Jesus knew what was in humanity; ordinary observers only know what accompanies or describes us considered from the outside. Knowledge of humanity and knowledge of a person are different things: one refers only to our personal history, the other to our nature and essential qualities.

This knowledge is frequently expressed by clever people who sum up their whole conception of human nature with a general suspicion and contempt for their species.

Knowledge of the world (for them) usually means only knowledge of the vices, selfishness, and weaknesses of humanity. Those who trust their fellow-creatures, who readily believe their word, who easily expect them to be influenced by high motives, are deemed by them as gullible and ignorant.

They see, behind their masked faces, only how unworthy people are.

But the theory of Christianity is that humans are beings made in the image of our Maker; that we carry within us the spirit of God; that we are capable of rising above the carnal and selfish parts of our character; and we possess in our reason and conscience the elements of an ideal being worthy of the Divine Source from which we sprang.

To believe this is faith, and faith is the ultimate principle and the all-controlling method of religion; and when Jesus appeals to us, it is faith appealing to faith.

If we cannot be the kind of creature Jesus assumes us to be, if we have no latent capacity for disinterested goodness, and cannot love God more than our immediate pleasures and desires; if we are naturally and permanently low, lustful, self-seeking creatures – then Jesus might as well have called upon the stones to erect themselves into temples, or called the beasts of the field to come and worship in them, than to have called on us to repent and forsake our sins and to love God with all our heart and soul and our neighbor as ourselves.

Nothing can rise above or pass beyond the limits of our nature. No training, no rewards, no punishments, no patience, can make a brute into a human being. But who has discovered the limits of humanity? And what study of past history, what list of gifted people, exhausts humanity’s possibilities?

This is the doctrine of Christianity: that we have within us a sure, direct access to God's spirit! This is what Jesus knew to be in us; and in having this, he knew us to be capable of building up the kingdom of righteousness in ourselves, in the human race, and in the civilization of the future.

This is the glory of faith: It cannot be outvoted, outnumbered, or trampled to death, because it is only a little one amid ten thousand. Faith knows that one spark of fire is worth a mountain of ashes, a rift of blue sky more significant than a whole heaven of clouds and darkness.

The Source of thought and of aspiration and charity must smile at our concern about His honor and glory, when we think the decay of human errors and ecclesiastical slavery can ever put in peril His spiritual rule. There have been more thoughts, and more educating thoughts, of God since we got off our knees with their faces turned to the ground, and stood upon our feet straining our sight to look into the very eyes of the Great Invisible, than ever before since His worship began in blindness, fear and superstition.

In spite of the decline of priestly influence, church dominion, and implicit believability, there never was a day when Jesus had so lofty a throne in the common heart of humanity as now. He has come down from his seat in the clouds, from the blinding glory of a mystic adoration, to become the companion, guide, and example for us — to be for us what he was to his disciples: one on whose bosom we may lean and freely ask him questions in our doubts and perplexities – more truly divine, because so exquisitely and intelligibly human. His kingdom is now building upon the earth, and not merely in the skies.

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Henry W. Bellows

Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Authentic Gospel Leads to Our Authentic Selves. #JesusFollowers

It is said that a sculptor was asked how he carved a great work of art out of a large slab of marble. He replied that he simply carved away all the parts that were NOT part of the sculpture.

Jesus calls us to an authentic Faith - a Faith of action that sheds those things that are keeping us from becoming spiritually complete.

There is within us an ideal person - the person God created us to be, and one that God KNOWS we can be. When we allow the inauthentic and false parts to be chipped away, our authentic and true selves emerge.

Today, when we hear that we need to be "authentic," many imagine that this has something to do with our clothing and how we present ourselves to others. While that's somewhat true, in our Faith, wearing a more authentic set of clothes can be a new, trendier mask that continues our false beliefs and attitudes.

Jesus often spoke of being "true" - by which he meant we must be genuine and authentic both on the inside and out.

Jesus called out the Pharisees for being inauthentic. They were like tombs on the inside and all bright and shiny on the outside. 

He wasn't calling for the Pharisees to also become rotten on the outside, as well as on the inside, so that they "matched" - although that certainly would have made them "true to themselves" in one sense. He was instead calling on them to carve away all the non-ideal portions of their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. 

Our false and ungodly parts have perhaps been with us for many years; attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are false and hinder our spiritual growth have encrusted us like shavings of marble that cover our true selves and keep us from God, as well as from Godliness.

But draping trendy clothing on a slab of marble that is encrusted like this will not help. How silly it would be for an artist to simply cover up a slab of marble with a sheet or a jacket and say "I'm done!" or "It's fine just the way it is!"

And yet, there are those in christianity today who believe simply wearing cooler clothing, using more "relevant" cultural references and having a rock band perform during a church service will make what they're saying better and truer. It does not. 

Like the Pharisees, who took away the “key to knowledge,” and failed to guide others to it (Luke 11:52) many today claim that the path to salvation is easy, and the gate to Heaven is wide - requiring no changes WITHIN us and nothing FROM us. They are not speaking to us about the knowledge of true and authentic Righteousness Jesus calls us to seek, so that we may achieve spiritual completion in Godliness by transforming our behavior.

No, instead, they condemn and even ridicule the Good Works Jesus tells us we must perform in order to become lights to the world (and to achieve salvation with God eternally.) And they are doing it, not with the Puritanical clothing, stern words and majestic organ music of past generations, but with blue jeans, accompanied by rock music and a light show.

One has to think that it's not even the hip clothing and shiny, large buildings that are offensive to God - because styles of clothing and music certainly change - but it's the wicked lies told by the hiply-dressed pastors within them that are truly offensive. Spoiled milk poured into new cartons is still spoiled.

We must have the courage to embrace the Authentic Gospel in order to become our Authentic Selves.

Jesus alone provides us this Authentic Gospel. He said of his own teachings, "The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is TRUE [authentic/genuine] and in him there is no falsehood." John 7:18 (ESV)

Jesus calls us to be authentic, and that starts with knowing God - the one, authentic, indivisible God of Israel. It starts with knowing the man Jesus, whom God chose and commissioned from among us human beings to be our template and example to follow in all things.

Jesus calls us to be fully transformed and changed by his teachings, and these teachings of his are the only basis for an authentic faith in his God and our God. 

These words of Jesus call us to action, not just to change our clothing, but to change our lives, to change our attitudes, to change our behaviors, and to shed our false but stubborn beliefs, so that we may become the authentic human beings God wants us to become.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

We are Saved by Following the Example of Jesus! #JesusFollowers

Jesus' idea of salvation centers in his idea of God. His most characteristic description of God is as the bountiful Giver. With a liberal hand God pours out His blessings upon all people.

His love is large and generous. He is ready and eager to bestow His gifts. This impulse to give and to bless springs from God's boundless, universal love.

Jesus' favorite expression for this aspect of God's character is the term “Father.” As the Father, He loves and blesses all people - even His disobedient and sinful children. He yearns for the lost son and waits and watches for his return; He continues to love those who are indifferent, or even hostile, to His will, and sends His Son to seek and to save them.

Salvation means a life corresponding to this character of God. Jesus expressed it by the phrase "becoming sons of the Father" (Matt. 5:45.) Sonship in the Jewish mode of thought denotes moral kinship and likeness.

Jesus presented a view of God designed to move the heart to penitence for sin and to gratitude and obedience. He set the highest value on small deeds, if done from love or compassion.

Jesus illustrates in detail the elements which constitute this true righteousness or salvation. They are: humility, meekness, aspiration after goodness, mercifulness, purity, and peacemaking. These qualities constitute that real righteousness which is the passport into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:3-9, 20.)

The man who fulfilled Jesus' law of neighbor love was he, social outcast though he was, who ministered to the poor sufferer at the roadside (Luke 10:36, 37.)

The first and great commandment, which summarizes the whole import of the law and the prophets, is the law of love. In comparison with the requirements of this law, all sacrifices and other religious ceremonies are of little consequence.

Love is the law because it is the principle of God's own moral perfection. God’s requirements are grounded in His nature.

The life of love is the Godlike life, the life of sonship; it makes us members of the Kingdom of Heaven; it IS salvation.

This teaching of Jesus does not minimize the requirements of holiness. If the statement of it appears to do so, this is due to the fact that Jesus does not separate righteousness from love, as later thought has done. To him these are never contrasting and rival terms.

What, then, must a person do in order to be saved? They must repent of sins and forsake them. The first word in Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom was, "Repent" (Mk. 1:15). But not only must we repent; we must turn (Mt. 18:3) — turn away from the old life, and in humility and self-surrender take up the life of obedience to God. Our Master’s descriptions of the conditions of salvation are not abstract and formal, but concrete and realistic.

It lay within the power of the erring son to forsake his evil life and escape his sinfulness by returning to his Father with a penitent and obedient heart.

When one recalls the complicated theological discussions of Salvation, the teaching of Jesus on the subject does seem, in comparison, very simple.

That’s because popular theological terminology for the subject is derived more from the language of others than from Jesus himself. Jesus did not analyze the process of attaining salvation, nor define its various steps and stages. He simply pictured the Father's house as standing open, and the Father's heart as ready and waiting to receive the wandering, lost son.

Jesus calls sinners to repent. He demands moral purity, humility, charitableness, and kindred virtues, and does not hesitate to require "good works" in one who wishes to glorify the Father in Heaven (Matt. 5:16.) In one place he declares that only one who does the will of God can enter His Kingdom, and elsewhere he prescribes the law of service as the law of that Kingdom.

When we further observe that he conceives his own mission as a mission to serve humanity, we realize one of his saving works was to induce us, by example and influence, to live the Godlike life of self-giving, in which our true greatness and glory are found.

Jesus saw his teaching and example as saving in their effect upon us. He sought by these to strengthen in us the desires and efforts for a better life - the life of sonship to God.

The life of Jesus, with its various expressions of itself in word and act, was a powerful saving agency in his time, and still remains so. The teaching of Jesus gives us no warrant to speak flippantly, as is commonly done, of his "mere" example.

Theology rarely takes time to mention the saving power of the personal influence of Jesus.

But let us not minimize by silence or by qualifying words what Jesus placed in the very forefront of his message to humanity: the declaration that the door of God's Kingdom stood open before them that they might enter then and there if they would, and that he had come to show them the way.

Jesus says: I am the world's light; by me you can know the Father, God's Kingdom is in your midst - by such words as these Jesus announced a present salvation, available at this moment, and himself as the guide to its realization.

Adapted from “The Christian Doctrine of Salvation” (1917) by George Barker Stevens

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Let Us Not Delay in Doing Good! #JesusFollowers

Prayer and praise are not exercises which are to terminate in themselves. They are pledges of, and preparations for, future activity and service. 

By such activity in holiness we are to prove that in our devotions we did not mock the Almighty, or think to cajole and flatter him with fair speeches, and mere empty professions. Our prayers should be only the forerunners of our zeal for the divine glory, and our honorable exertions for the welfare of mankind.

Every man has his post of duty allotted him. To such an extent one is to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. In one place, he is to give advice from his experience, and in that, condolence and sympathy to the distressed from his humanity.

Another person may not have the means to act in this manner; but he can often lend a little personal aid. He can sometimes spare a few moments for neighborly conversation; and can always put up a humble, heartfelt prayer for the spiritual welfare of those around him. A cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple shall not go without its reward. We can all do something for the comfort and edification of the little circles in which we are known. In this respect, as well as others, great providential differences are made: to some, five talents are communicated, and to others only one.

Let each of us endeavor to do as much as we can. Let those especially who are recently recovered from sickness listen to the voice of exhortation. Every event of this nature must convince us how precarious the day of usefulness is.

By interruptions of health many of our schemes are delayed, and not a few, perhaps, broken off. It is happy when these frustrated designs are of little importance to any but the parties themselves; but this is not always the case. Persons may be so circumstanced, that a few weeks, or a few months confinement, may subject them to losses and evils which can never be retrieved.

Let us be warned, therefore, against procrastination. Do not delay until tomorrow what may be done today. You know not what an hour may bring. Scripture has not a single promise for tomorrow, if today has been deliberately neglected.

The foolish virgins slept at the close of a day of idleness, and it was this circumstance that constituted their crime; for had they stocked their vessels with oil before nature demanded repose, they would not have been excluded from the bridal entertainment. We should never listen to an argument for delay, unless it is such as we can justify at the tribunal of judgment.

Permit me to guard you against one instance of delay. Let property be disposed of in the days of reason and health; do not let the lack of a properly executed will lay the possible foundation for contention among your survivors.

But what is of infinitely more importance than this, get your accounts for heaven ready. In a moment the judge may be at the door. Thousands in every stage of life are, every year, every month, swept into the grave. Walk, then, before the Lord, while you are allowed to do it, in the land of the living.

Walk, and do not fold your hands in idleness, letting opportunities of doing and getting good slip from you. Be in a posture of activity, ever ready to go where duty calls you. Walk before God in a uniform dependence upon His support, with a constant sense of his presence, and under the influence of this awakening thought: "Wherever I am, God sees me." Do this, in the land of the living. The great field of society lies open. Before, and behind, on the right hand, and on the left, objects for the display of benevolence, and the exercise of all the useful virtues, are to be found. The day is now bright, but in a little while it may be overcast; in a few years it must draw to a close.

In the name of God, be up and doing. Do not be slothful in business, but be fervent in spirit. Be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord and your labor in the Lord shall not be in vain.

(Adapted from a Sermon by Rev. Edmund Butcher, 1757-1822)