faith

The Struggle to Believe

Romans 10:1-13 (NLT)

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;
   it is on your lips and in your heart.”


And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


Paul’s heartfelt desire in this portion of Romans continues to be for all Jews to know what he knows—Jesus is the Christ, the promised savior, the one who will bless all the world.

While he has brought up the subject before in Romans, Paul describes in a new way the Jews’ struggle to believe, saying they have “misdirected zeal.” In the case of the Jews, this means they have become so enamored with the Mosaic law that they cannot see the bigger picture of what God has accomplished through that law. They “cling to their own way,” and miss the incredible gift God has given all the world.

As a pastor, I have seen the same struggle in other kinds of nonbelievers. They know little or nothing about the law given to the Jews, but they have their own kind of “misdirected zeal,” chasing righteousness with God or some sort of higher power  in completely wrong ways.

In many ways, this struggle to believe is a struggle to understand the incredible simplicity of what God has done in the world through Jesus Christ. People have trouble with the idea that heartfelt belief is enough for salvation. So long as that belief makes you able to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and declare the resurrection real, you are made right with God despite your sin.

Surely, there must be more to do, the zealous strivers think. Surely, it’s not so easy that anyone can find salvation. Surely, some good works on our part must balance out the evil that we have done; surely, there is a price we must pay.

Nope. There was a price for our sins, a terrible price, but Jesus picked up the tab by going to the cross. Any good works we do are simply a joyous response to the truth that we are already saved simply because we have believed.

Simplicity can be perplexing, I suppose. God’s work is so simple that it astonishes the angels. If we read our Bible carefully, it would seem they are puzzled about what God is doing for his little humans.

I’m thinking particularly of 1 Peter 1, where Jesus’ most impulsive apostle sounds much like our Romans text today. Like Paul, Peter rejoices in how we are saved by faith in Christ raised from the dead.

In verse 12, he says, “It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” The original Greek creates a picture of what is heavenly peeking in amazement into God’s work on earth. With this sermon today, I included the image of Jocopo Tintoretto’s 16th-century “Last Supper,” as it includes angels hovering in the smoke, watching Jesus prepare his disciples for his trip to the cross.

In theory, those of us who call ourselves Christians have grasped salvation’s simplicity, even if the angels have not. But I think we have to acknowledge that we also demonstrate some of that misdirected zeal first attributed to the Jews. Our problem is more rooted in forgetting why we exist as a church.

All churches, and consequently, all church members, have a scripturally defined vision and mission, both aligned with what Paul calls “the very message about faith that we preach,” this simple good news about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

At Luminary, we state the vision and mission in our communications. For example, look at the cover of our bulletins or the front page of our web site. Our vision is “a world conformed to Jesus Christ,” and our consequent mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our daily job as a church is to figure out how to localize the mission and then live into it.

This next part is hard for me to say, but I think it’s true. Even with our vision and mission before us, we too often go off on tangents, sometimes quite zealously. As a church, we have to be careful not to lose our way.

One example: We love to gather, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, but to what end? Fellowship is good, but ideally our fellowship should draw us and those currently outside our church circle into a deeper relationship with Christ. Are we structuring our gatherings in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school room or the small group gathering to such an end?

Another example: We love music at our particular church. We often revel in it, and there is a real effort there to glorify God as we worship. But again, we have to be sure we are always asking ourselves, “Are we using our love for music to draw others into a relationship with Christ?” And even if we are, how can we do it better?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to any of these environments, or to the church as a whole. The first one is simple: Are we working alongside the Holy Spirit to make new Christians? We did have an adult baptism and a reaffirmation of faith last week, examples of two people publicly engaging with Christ’s kingdom in new ways.

So, the answer is yes, occasionally. We’re not really changing lives enough to qualify us as some sort of dynamic force for the kingdom, however.

The second one is a little harder to quantify. Individually, are we growing in our depth of understanding and our commitment to the kingdom? I try to make an overall assessment as a pastor, but the answer for each of you individually lies in your own hearts. Are you closer to God each year, or are you casually chugging through life with God in the background somewhere?

I’ll simplify all of this with an old cliché: We too often fail to keep our eyes on the prize. We forget that we live to see evil destroyed and creation fully aligned with God. We live to see progress made toward those ends in our community now.

We forget that we have eternity ahead of us, and we let the concerns of this brief worldly existence pull us off a very clear, very simple mission.

We have to remember that when we operate with misdirected zeal, we are chasing something of far less value than what Christ is offering the world, and we are failing to live into what we are called to be as Christians.

Maybe our zeal is for a good feeling about good works. Maybe we chase a kind of status or respect we’ve failed to find elsewhere. Maybe we desire human relationships to the exclusion of a relationship with our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Maybe we become so used to operating like a club that we forget what it means to function as an active, living part of God’s universal church.

Next week, we’ll dive into what Paul has to say about really preaching this simple good news about Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. In the meantime, I hope you’ll do what I’ve been trying to do the past several weeks.

Spend some time assessing how deeply you’ve let Christ in and how committed you are to letting him use you for his kingdom. What we determine in that assessment will help us as we move further into Romans.

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Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

Family of Faith

Romans 4:1-12 (NLT)

Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”

When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:

“Oh, what joy for those
   whose disobedience is forgiven,
   whose sins are put out of sight.
Yes, what joy for those
   whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.”


Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!

Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.


Not many of us here today would claim to have Jewish blood, but we are invited to be a part of Abraham’s family, Paul tells us. We are made family not by blood, but by faith.

When we hear we are to have faith like Abraham, however, the idea can sound a bit daunting. After all, Abraham, called “Abram” early in his story in Genesis until God changes his name, is one of the great characters of the Bible. He lived to be 175, and is critical to the backstories of three major religions on the planet, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

When we look closely at the stories of Abraham in Genesis, however, we actually should find hope. I sometimes get the sense that people who don’t read the Bible have the impression it is about people who were impossibly perfect, maintaining standards of piety we could never hope to achieve. But those of us who read it regularly know differently—the Old Testament and the New Testament consistently tell tales of people failing repeatedly as they learn to trust God.

Let’s look at three places in Abraham’s story that help us see this truth more clearly.

Did the Father Fail?

It may be that Abraham is considered a great patriarch of the Bible in part because his father, Terah, failed to follow through on his own calling. This prequel to Abraham’s story is sparing in detail, but Genesis 11:31-32 says Terah was first to head toward the Promised Land.

For unknown reasons, he instead pulled up short in a place called Haran.

Once Terah had died, God told Abraham to finish the journey. We can never be certain Abraham ultimately finished a task his father was first called by God to complete, but it’s not difficult to read such a possibility between the lines of Terah’s story.

If so, struggling with how much to trust God was a family problem. Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, certainly continued the tradition themselves.

Really, She’s My Sister!

In Genesis 12, we see Abraham appear weak-kneed in the face of adversity for the first time, and this not long after God had promised him that his descendants would be a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.

Shortly after entering Canaan, a great famine struck, forcing Abraham and all of his relatives to go to Egypt. While there, he became concerned the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his very beautiful wife. His wife was about 65 at the time, but people seem to age at a different rate in these stories, living much longer than we do now.

Rather than trusting in the promises he had recently heard from God, his solution was to lie, telling his wife to say she was his sister. It was sort of a half-lie, or maybe a lie of omission—we learn later in Genesis she actually was his half-sister. Pharaoh himself was the one who wanted her, but he sent her back to Abraham in haste when plagues struck his household and he realized the deceit that had occurred.

Even then, Pharaoh didn’t kill Abraham, but instead sent him away enriched. We can presume Pharaoh feared offending God further. But still, none of Abraham’s plotting seems appropriate for a man of great faith.

My Two Sons

As the narrative of Abraham proceeds, God makes more promises regarding descendants, but Abraham continues to hedge his bets. His unwillingness to let God be fully in control led to the whole Hagar incident. Remember that one?

Now about 75, Sarah figured there was no way she was going to be able to have a baby, so she convinced Abraham to instead make one with her servant, Hagar. Ultimately, Ishmael was born, and if you’ve ever heard the story in Genesis 16, you know that nothing but jealousy and trouble ensued.

Faith as a Process

These stories show us Abraham wasn’t born faithful. God went so far as to speak great promises to him, visibly showing up and sending angels his way. And yet, Abraham often fell short when it came time to demonstrate he believed God would always take care of him and his descendants.

All of those earlier failures bring a particular poignancy to the story where we do see Abraham demonstrate great faith. He finally had the son he had always wanted from Sarah, Isaac, a miracle boy, born to a 90-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father.

Befitting its time, the story is Bronze Age primitive. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham, take your son Isaac and sacrifice him. Lay him on an altar, slaughter him and burn him up. And this time, Abraham, didn’t connive. He took no half measures. Horrible as it seemed, he was ready to do it, stopped only by the intervention of an angel at the very last second. This is the moment when God recognized Abraham as being truly faithful.

Yes, Paul says we have to have faith like Abraham to be part of his spiritual family. As Christians, we have to have faith that the promises made to Abraham ultimately are fulfilled in the world through Jesus Christ. We are to have faith that Christ’s death on the cross is enough. All who believe are incorporated into that spiritual family God will care for forever.

We may not have a powerful faith all at once, however. Remember, Paul knew these stories of Abraham well. He knew the story of Abraham’s faith is a story of falling short in behavior and of trying again. When we doubt or connive, we are very much like Abraham sometimes was well up to age 100.

How do we grow in faith? We try to be more conscious every day of our need to trust God’s plan for the world, a plan being brought to fruition by the work of Christ. We act in faith, trusting God’s scriptural guidance even when our actions may scare us a little, or a lot.

I’m reminded of another story, one of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. After failing as a missionary in North America, he returned to England with his tail between his legs. Despite being an ordained Anglican priest, he realized his faith was somewhere between weak and nonexistent.

He asked a Moravian missionary friend of his, Peter Boehler, if he should give up preaching altogether. Certainly not, Boehler told him. Instead, his advice was, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Most of you don’t literally preach from a pulpit, but if you’re struggling in matters of faith, the principle remains the same. Live each day as if you have faith. Make decisions as if you believe God is on your side, that the cross matters, and that Christ’s kingdom grows stronger each day.

Eventually, you will have a powerful, indefatigable faith, and because you have it, you will show it to others, drawing them to a life of faith, too.


The Featured image is Phillip Medhurst’s “Abraham and the Angels,” circa 1795.

Conquering the World

1 John 5:1-6

This sermon may sound a little old-fashioned.

Talking about the basics of Christianity will do that to a preacher. Lately, a lot of us are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important the converted remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said later. He just knew when he saw that cross. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, period.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone; if momma ran off when you were a baby and daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

Look at it this way. If you had a bad family experience growing up, you can always learn about God from the negative example. How would you have liked your family to behave? Through belief, God is offering you such a family, in this life through a spiritually healthy church and in the next life in God’s full presence.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians in downtown Kingston, Tenn., last week. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching the scene, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring a careful balance of law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—in our Discipline, we call sin a sin, and we recognize unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Abortion is another example. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and a few other writers have helped me understand how we should stop thinking we’ve dealt with the contentious issue just because we’ve entered a voting booth or courtroom. A mother responding to her pregnancy by considering abortion is a mother experiencing deep fear—fear of family, fear for her future, fear about something.

Here’s a basic question for any church: If abortion is such a serious matter in God’s eyes, what are you doing to eliminate that fear so the mother will drop abortion as an option? Have you told her she has people around her who will help? Are you willing to put the time and money in place to help her rear the child? Can you make her part of the family of Christ, too?

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We join with God in conquering the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its original, holy state. That opportunity in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.

Let It Be with Me

Cranach, "Madonna Under the Fir Tree," 1510, public domain

Cranach, “Madonna Under the Fir Tree,” 1510, public domain

The mother of Jesus should fascinate us. I know Protestants sometime feel Roman Catholics go too far in their devotion to Mary, but in our reaction to that devotion, we can fail to pause and really appreciate Mary.

Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.) After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the Messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.

So, what made Mary so special?

Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or John the Baptist, or great historic figures?

If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list, and Mary seems to have been full of both. In addition, God asked Mary to take on an astonishing task, one many older women would resist. She responded with one childlike question about process, and then made a simple statement, “Let it be with me.”

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, but Luke 1:46-55 records her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help us establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all. As the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.

And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.

The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.

First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot compare their lives to Christ’s and remain convinced they are somehow superior creatures.

Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.

If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life potentially made whole by Christ.

Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.

“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”

Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.

Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season; may we learn to say, “Let it be with me.”

A Mighty Prayer for a Mighty Church

Ephesians 1:15-23

Some people want to declare Christianity a dying part of our culture here in the United States. Our Ephesians text today reminds me of how quickly any local church can move back toward life and vitality, and the simple step to make such a reversal happen.

The Apostle Paul, who many scholars believe was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote this letter, described the church at Ephesus in a way most churches would like to be described. The Ephesian Christians first of all had faith in Jesus. It almost sounds like a “duh” statement—the Christians had faith in Christ.

But is it? It’s not unusual for churches to lose track of why they exist. Perhaps this was also a problem in the early days of Christianity. So much has to be managed on a daily basis, even in a small church. In Acts, we see the early church in Jerusalem struggling with an administrative matter, how to ensure proper, fair care for all the widows in the church, and division ensued. Such day-to-day concerns can cause us to forget why we cluster together in the first place, and likely were as much a danger to churches then as they are now.

The Ephesians, however, must have been keeping their eyes on Christ—on the stories they had learned about their Savior, on the evidence and miracles provided by the apostles and other leaders of the church. This is what any healthy church must do. Want to know the most important way to hold pastors and teachers accountable? If you’re not hearing from them regularly about Christ’s work on the cross and the power of the resurrection, call them on that omission.

Paul also described the Ephesians as being loving “toward all the saints.” This is usually interpreted to mean the church at Ephesus was involved in supporting Christian congregations and ministries (Paul’s, for example) in other parts of the known world. The church was what we Methodists call “connectional.” We know we have to go beyond our own communities. There is strength in unity with Christians, even the ones we may never meet in person in this life.

The Ephesian Christians sound like what we would call a strong church. They also sound like a lot of churches I know today—committed to Christ and loving and caring for one another. But what Paul described was not the be-all and end-all for church life. Something much greater was and is possible.

Paul began to outline his prayer for the Ephesians, a prayer best described by one word: “ongoing.” Now, there’s no doubt the Christians at Ephesus already had received wisdom and revelations from God regarding their particular role in the growing kingdom of God. But there was more, Paul said, an ongoing growth in understanding.

He spoke of the kind of growth in understanding that comes from a long-term relationship, growth similar to what you see in a holy marriage or a decades-long friendship. No matter how much Christ is known, he is eternal and can be known more and more.

As we know him more, the “eyes of our hearts” are enlightened, and we better understand the hope we have and the true riches that are ours, changes in our lives given to us in ever-increasing quantities by the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, how does a Christ-centered, loving church seek more? Paul modeled the method, saying he would pray for the Christians at Ephesus without ceasing. By this, he certainly meant he would incorporate them in his regular prayer time. He also could be pointing to the incorporation of prayer into the heart, along the lines of what we see in the Christian classic “The Way of a Pilgrim,” where every breath becomes a prayer, a connection to God.

We have to ask ourselves, as a church, are we praying enough? Are we praying deeply enough as a group? Are the eyes of our hearts open wide enough to truly see and trust God’s power?

God, may your Spirit guide us and teach us to pray. My the vitality we find draw others to us.

Simple Act of Faith

In this Lenten season, we’ll call this “Back to Basics Day.” Let’s begin by considering exactly what Abram (later to be called Abraham) gave up when he listened to God and moved toward an unspecified land.

This initial call in Genesis 12:1-4 is written in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but the risk must have seemed huge for an aging man. He had property and people around him, including slaves, the mark of a comfortable, wealthy man. We don’t know how long Abram had been in Haran—we only know his father Terah had moved the family from far-away Ur some time earlier—but as the family had been able to grow their wealth while there, we can assume life in Haran had been good to them.

Now Abram was to pack his family and possessions and make a journey that ultimately would prove to be more than 500 miles, about the same distance as the drive from Kingsport, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla. Except they had no cars. For them, it was a dangerous month-long one-way trip, assuming the animals in their caravan were in good shape. A return visit to Haran or the true family homeplace, Ur, might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps when someone needed a bride of proper bloodlines.

And yet, Abram went, without question, without comment. He would have questions later, but not in this initial act of faith, this huge, trusting leap toward God.

It’s easy to get caught up in what Abram did rather than focusing on the importance of what was simply in his heart. The Apostle Paul uses Abram in the fourth chapter of Romans to illustrate that it’s the trust that saves us, not any work we do. When God sees we trust him, he goes ahead and calls us righteous, even though we don’t deserve it. Paul made clear he was talking about the God we know best through Jesus Christ, the one who made all things and then restored all things to holiness despite sin.

All we have to do is believe the God who promised all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram ultimately walked among us as Jesus Christ, working great mysteries on the cross so we do not have to die forever. I know, I just leaped across hundreds of pages of Scripture to make that connection, but it’s the connection the Bible, Old and New Testaments, strives to make. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that initial, broad promise offered to Abram, a promise grand enough to set a very comfortable man and his people to packing.

So, we’re invited to a simple act of faith. But at the same time, we’re also called to remember that it’s so simple it can be confusing, particularly for the uninitiated. When we’ve turned away from God and are caught up in sin, we feel like we’re trapped in that Harry Potter hedge maze, the one where the turns and dead-ends seem endless and the roots and branches grab at us. We have to figure the maze out, right? To survive, we have to beat back what entangles us, right?

Wrong. All we really have to do is look up and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you can pluck me out of this.”

In the third chapter of John’s gospel, we see the Pharisee Nicodemus desperately wanting to follow Jesus, but at the same time struggling in his rigid, legalistic mind with how to do so. Accept what is from above, Jesus told him. Trust God. Trust God’s love for his creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” Jesus said. And then came the real kicker, particularly for a legalist striving to make himself righteous: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What, God doesn’t seek to punish us first? I don’t have to clean up my act to accept God’s gift of salvation?

We have Nicodemus types around us, perhaps even among us. They want to make that first step toward God much more difficult than it is, trying to resolve personal angst and the global problem of evil in one fell swoop. Often, they expect a requirement to crawl at least halfway back toward the one they’ve offended before being accepted.

As Christians, our job is to keep simple what can be misunderstood as complicated. The God of Abraham, the God who walked among us and died for our sins, loves us. He’s been reaching down to humanity for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Sure, once we accept God’s offer, there’s more to do. It’s only natural that we want a developing, continuing relationship with the one who gives us eternal life in place of death. We pray, we study, we joyfully respond to his simple requests, the first being, “Go and tell others.”

That initial act of accepting God’s outstretched hand remains simple, however.