Sunday, December 29, 2019

Putting Others First, Just As Jesus Taught! #JesusFollowers

What if everyone put others first in all things? What if all of us, all the time, thought of others' needs and put ourselves in second place?

If this concept doesn't sound familiar to you, it should, because this thinking is at the core of the teaching of Jesus, and is actually the Gospel he taught.

If Jesus is the one whom God chose to be our teacher of Righteousness and our perfect example to follow, what he says actually matters.

And while we would sometimes like to give others' words equal authority to his, in fact, Jesus' words alone are to be our pathway to the life God wishes us to live, if he alone is our Master.

Jesus taught that we must seek not to be first, or the Greatest among others, but instead to be the last, putting others first.

Jesus told a parable saying that we must not seek to give the most important and most visible public seats to alleged VIPs - seeking favors from thrm in return - but instead, we ought to let others, including the poor and disabled sit with us.

“When you host a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors. Otherwise, they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed." (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus taught that God doesn't make distinctions among people, and neither should we.

When some of his disciples asked to be given honors, he said that the first would be last and the last would be made first.

Jesus made it clear, speaking to the disciples,  "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." Jesus says he made his life a ransom for many, giving all to others. We, he said, must do the same.

Jesus says we must love our neighbors just as we love ourselves, and treat others as we wish to be treated. Further, he said we must deny ourselves if we are to follow him.

We ought to heed Jesus' teachings, then, and seek to treat everyone equally, putting others first, and our desires second.

It's clear from all the he taught that Jesus calls us all to a life of action and Good Works. Every one of our actions in our daily lives should show to others how God wishes humanity to relate to one another and to our Creator.

God wishes us to be holy, just as God is holy, merciful, just as God is merciful, and righteous, just as God is righteous.

Jesus says he did all that God asked him to do, and calls us to always seek to do the same. (John 8:29; 13:15)

Jesus never shirked his duty to serve others, even washing the feet of the disciples as a sign of his humility and how he was living as a "ransom" to others (John 13.)

Serving each other selflessly is the pattern our exemplar, Jesus, gave us to follow. It's not too hard for us, and it's not just a model to admire.

He gave us this example not to make us feel insignificant and unworthy, or to merely "convict us" of our inability to do it, but to prove that this is a path that we, too, may tread, in his footsteps.

By taking up the challenge of seeking to emulate Jesus in all things, we are pleasing God, Who, through Jesus, gave us this challenging Good News, and Who made us capable of accepting it and doing as He wishes us to do.

"Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Matt. 16:24)

"And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 8:39)

This was quite the opposite of the teaching of the religious authorities of the time, the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, "They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues." (Matt. 23:6)

God wishes us to put others first, and his chosen son and spokesman, Jesus, demonstrated in word and deed how to do this perfectly, then told us to follow him and do just as he had done.

Let's get busy, then, serving and loving our neighbors!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Let Us Welcome The Adult #Jesus, Too! #JesusFollowers

Later this week, on Christmas Day, we will "welcome" Jesus into the world along with Christendom. This is a Jesus we already know, a man fully grown and with whom we are more than acquainted.

This isn't a baby we must perpetually welcome into our homes. We are confronted instead with the adult Jesus.

Meeting the adult Jesus is difficult for many, and even frightens them to meet him as an adult and not a helpless, unassuming child. The adult Jesus scared the religious elites of his day because of what he asked, just as he scares the religious elites of today.

Jesus is an adult whom we must each decide whether to ignore, or to serve, as God intended us to do.

If we claim his name, and wish to be identified with it, we must not assume that admiring a baby in a manger is what God wishes. We must not delude ourselves that admiration - or even worship - is alone sufficient. We cannot ignore the adult Jesus, or prefer the baby instead of the adult.

The adult Jesus is hidden away by the religious elites. He scares them. 

A fully human Jesus, fully grown, with a clearly understood, fully formed mission and a challenging religion of Good Works, scares them EVEN MORE!

So this adult Jesus isn't celebrated at Christmas. At all. And he rarely, if ever, makes an appearance the rest of the year, either.

So, just who is this Jesus?

Jesus, the adult, was of course born a baby, but he was born fully a man, of human parents, just as we were born. (He was recognized as such in the Gospels by his neighbors, by the Disciples, and by his parents.) 

He grew in the knowledge of God and gained wisdom; he pleased God in all he did. When he became an adult, he was chosen and anointed by God to be our Master, our Teacher, our Template and the Example of how a human being should live for the glory of God and most beneficially for our fellow human beings.

This Jesus is not the one created for us by Priests whom we must simply admire and worship from afar; unable to obey, unable to follow because he is so different, so distant, so alien.

We may instead celebrate the Jesus - a man called and chosen by God - whom we can fully love as our elder brother, and the one whom we can actively follow as our example in all things. We may become more like God because one of us has done it already, setting the example towards which we may strive.

Let us remember the birth, but also the adult life, of THIS Jesus, a Jesus worth celebrating on Christmas Day, and every day.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Real Message of the Thief On the Cross #JesusFollowers

Two men, identified in the Book of Luke as criminals, were put to death by crucifixion on either side of Jesus on Golgotha, the place of the Skull.

In Luke 23:39-43, the story is told that, "One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This thief's experience has long been repeated by ministers and Christian apologists as "proof" that salvation can come instantly to us, effortlessly, just for the asking, and requires no knowledge or action on our part. But a closer look at this story reveals a deeper message, more consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who should be our final authority.

The teaching of many modern preachers is that the thief received "instant salvation" because of his utterance to Jesus that he believed him to be the messiah.  But they neglect one important fact: the thief clearly knew Jesus, or at least knew about him and his ministry of the Kingdom.

This is evidenced by his statements that he knew that Jesus had "done nothing wrong," that he taught about a "kingdom" and that even his colleague had called him "the Christ," or "One who is Anointed (by God)." In this case, the Messiah, or savior.

His affirmation that Jesus was innocent and that he had been anointed by God to preach about a Kingdom, showed more than a passing knowledge of Jesus and his ministry. 

Therefore, his statements showed a knowledge of Jesus and his teaching, and that teaching had been that all will be rewarded according to their deeds. His utterance, therefore, was evidence of a previous faith in Jesus, even if it had been a recent one.

And we are called to, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16)

Showing mercy to the thief was clearly in line with Jesus' teaching that "blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." The thief's comments to Jesus and his rebuke of his fellow thief were clearly acts of mercy and kindness towards Jesus, who had just forgiven those who were putting him to death, saying "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" (23:34) even as the Roman soldiers and others taunted him.

That the thief would "surely" be with Jesus "today" in paradise (a theological hornets nest, since Jesus was said in the Fourth Gospel to have ascended to Heaven two days later, on Sunday) doesn't mean the thief was "granted" eternal life with God in Heaven, based merely on his utterance on the cross. That would be assuming a fact not stated here. At most, it means he was to stand before God, and be with Jesus, in the afterlife. It certainly showed Jesus' approval, and appreciation, for the thief's comments.

Now, all this is not to say that the thief's late recognition of Jesus wasn't rewarded by God. After all, God isn't bound by our utterances, nor by our sense of Justice. As James (2:13) notes, "Mercy triumphs over justice." Christians today tend to put God in a box, saying that he "cannot" forgive or grant mercy to whomever He wishes. He surely can. 

We must not say that he "may not" grant mercy, any more than we may say that He MUST forgive and grant us eternal salvation, simply because of a single utterance of Faith about Jesus, like the one the thief made from the cross.

It also follows that we cannot take Jesus' mercy here on this one man as a license to extrapolate man-made doctrine and dogmas. Specifically, we may not use this story to imply that works and good deeds are not required by us by God, when Jesus and the entire Hebrew Scriptures before him taught otherwise. Jesus said, "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required." (Luke 12:48)

And when he was asked directly how one obtained eternal life (Mark 10:17-22) he replied by reciting the (Ten) Commandments, and elsewhere gave his own that he believed we are required by God to follow.

Jesus calls us to a life of joyful service done lovingly to our neighbors, so that God's Heavenly Kingdom may be made a reality here on earth each day by the light of our actions.

The moment we are saved by this knowledge, and learn of Jesus' example and teachings, we are then called by him to live the life he demonstrated for us and become the whole and complete human beings God wishes us to become. THAT is the clear message Jesus left for us.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Our Duty To Improve #JesusFollowers

We are in the midst of things; not at rest, but passing onward; not at home, but travelers; not stationary inhabitants, but pilgrims and strangers. We are going on from stage to stage, leaving on the road one scene of business and pleasure after another, and arriving at new. What was ours is ours no longer. What is ours will be soon gone from us.

Behind us are our childhood, our youth, and our early homes, our first warm loves, our first bright hopes, our early innocence and our early sins; before us are the cares and trials of an unknown destiny, and the duties of an uncertain probation - bereavement, toil, sickness, age, death, judgment.
Behind us is ignorance, weakness, imperfection; before us, knowledge, virtue, perfection, or, it may be, worse ignorance, baser sin, and the loss of glory - behind us, a few brief years; before us, eternity.

Improvement is the universal law of God; to which everything in nature, are all conformed. Look where we will, we find nothing made perfect at once; scarcely any thing is stationary; all things are in a state of progress. This may be in a thousand ways illustrated, and in every illustration, we may read a lesson of instruction for ourselves.

The herb, the tree, the animal, spring from an insignificant beginning, and reach their perfect stature by a gradual progress. The day does not open on the eye in meridian splendor. The year does not burst into ripe maturity at once. The nation does not arrive at power and fame in a day. — To look more widely for instances. The earth on which we tread, with its tribes of plants and animals of every order, ascending in a beautiful scale to perfect man, has come to its present condition by a process of improvement.

Our researches into its structure appear to prove, that, before it was brought out of the chaos mentioned by Moses, it had been already more than once inhabited and destroyed.

The remains of its former tenants are found embedded in the ancient rocks. But amongst them are no remains of men. The world, at its several antecedent periods, seems to have been peopled successively by creatures more and more perfect, and then humanity, the most perfect has existed upon it only since its last formation. And we cannot tell that the series of changes is yet completed. It may be, that after the destruction of the earth by fire, it shall be remodeled for the abode of a yet higher order of beings.

Improvement, then, is a law of the universe. All things alike, great and small, are made to be in progress. Individual human beings must not be an exception. We must not allow everything else to move on, and we, ourselves be stationary. 

When the insensible earth and the irrational animals obey the commandment, let not us, who alone are capable of voluntary obedience, let not us alone be unfaithful. When even the all-wise Creator, in unfolding his ways and purposes to his children, observes this rule of constant progression, let not us, with wisdom only of yesterday, children in understanding, let not us fancy that we may rest where we are, and refuse to move forward.

Our very capacity of progress is itself a further reason for striving after perpetual improvement. The plants and animals around us have limits set to their advancement which they can never pass. They go forward by a prescribed course to their maturity, and there they necessarily stop.

The voice which spoke to the sea, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther,” has spoken to all things terrestrial excepting man. From that mandate his spirit is exempted. The tree has its growth, and the bird its instinct, and they can add to themselves nothing beyond it. Man, reasoning, immortal, immaterial man, to whom the inspiration of the Almighty has given understanding, has received the power of expansion. His soul may grow - not like his body, which is to perish in seventy years, and therefore becomes perfect in twenty; but, as it is never to perish, it never reaches a perfection beyond which it may not pass. If its duration were bounded by a thousand years, or a hundred thousand centuries, then we might anticipate the day when its growth should be completed. But since it shall exist through eternity, since it can never approach the termination of its being, neither can it approach the termination of its progress. It must enlarge, extend itself, and advance.

Other things may stop, and become stationary; for they are to come to an end. But not man, for he is to know no end. 

Others may be satisfied with a perfection which earth can understand and contain; for they are of the earth, and they shall return to its bosom. But human beings - the children of the Most High - his spirit a ray from the fountain of unquenchable light, made capable of attainments which the gross delusions of earthly beings cannot imagine themselves, let us not dream that any present attainment is our perfection; let us press forward to that mark - that something immense and infinite - which Jesus has set before us as the prize of our high calling. For us to be stationary - it would be a rebellion against our nature, a willful forfeiting of our birth right, and should subject us to the harsh reproaches of our own minds, and to the deserved scorn of all higher and lower beings.

This great progress of the human soul is but begun upon earth. But it is begun. The desire of purity, the love of excellence, the habits of holiness, the relish for spiritual pleasures, are begun below; and he who has made the greatest advances in these during his mortal life, is doubtless best fitted for entering on a future state.

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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

God Is The King Of The Earth! #JesusFollowers

“For God is the King of all the earth. Sing praises with understanding.” (Psalm 47:7)

If there is any truth that is clear and indisputable, equal to the comprehension of all humanity, or irresistible in the authority it asserts over the human heart, such is the great truth contained in the text, that God is the King of all the earth, and that it is the duty of human beings to show forth our praise with understanding. 

Superior intellect, extraordinary sensibility, or any strained efforts of the mind, are not required for the apprehension or the intimate conviction of it.

Under certain circumstances, the sense of it grows up in every human being; and it is believed and felt at the heart with a force it were vainly attempted to destroy—which cannot be impaired or weakened. There it necessarily lives, with all the power of the greatest of realities.

Earth, heaven, air, ocean, proclaim it to us. Myriads of moving, living creatures, beyond the utmost powers of finite computation to number, evidence it.

The highly favored, wonderfully endowed race of human beings, the lord of the lower creatures – yet weak, dependent, mortal, who at his best estate is but vanity, whose days are as grass, and whose goodness is but as the flower of the field—the human race affords the last complete and most striking confirmation of it.

The innumerable series of wonders around us, and all the marvels within ourselves; the structure, faculties, affections, and passions of our nature, present to our very sight and view creating, preserving, restraining, and governing power; show us that God is King over all the earth, and call us to give our due homage to the great Potentate, to Whom we belong, by Whose will and for Whose pleasure all things are and were created,—to Whom be all lowly duty and service fitly paid.

Yes, God is absolutely our King. We look upon a vast assemblage of what we term secondary causes; but Nature itself, with all its laws and processes, is but the continual operation of His power. 

All intelligent natures are subject to His sway, and the government He exercises over them has unalterably for its basis holiness, equity, clemency, and faithfulness. The whole world of being, of matter, life, and thought, is His—administered by Him.

He of whom it is said that “whatsoever He pleased that has He done, (that He does,) in heaven, in the earth, in the seas, and in all deep places:” He has also the hearts of all men in his hands, considers their works, proves their ways, disposes their lot, and finally awards their doom, in accordance with those righteous principles which direct all his Fatherly proceedings and counsels,

God is King over all the earth. Our being, condition, and that of all around us, is not an inexplicable accident, causeless, precarious, unconnected with anything more exalted, with other and higher interests, or vaster relations. And the Being from whom all has sprung, upon whom all depends, must be the object of our highest praise with the faculties of our understanding.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Joseph Ashton, preached Aug 23, 1829)