gratitude

Authentic Imitations

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

When Paul and other epistle writers challenged Christians to exhibit certain behaviors, they were seldom trying to be comprehensive. It was more like they were providing a series of examples to think about, hoping the general principles of the Christian life would shine through.

Paul’s examples in today’s text are broad, though, giving insight into the inner and outer life of the spiritually healthy Christian.

Leading up to the text we are exploring today, Paul spoke of unity among Christ’s followers through the power of the Holy Spirit. He also compared the pre-Christian to the post-Christian life, calling the old life “false.”

“Stop telling lies” is one way to translate Paul’s initial exhortation. Specifically, I think Paul wanted all Christians to inject the truth of Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s ongoing transformation of the world into everything we do. Never let the false worldview of the old life overwhelm the new.

When Paul moved on to the subject of anger, his approach was more pragmatic than Jesus’ hyperbolic “anger equals murder” statement. Paul was straightforward about the fact that Christians will continue to get angry. We are reminded that anger at times can be healthy, if it is the kind of anger we feel when we see sin and the damage it does. It is especially healthy if if we are moved to correct the wrong in a holy way.

The trick is to not be blinded by anger, to not react in a way where we begin to sin ourselves. Beware of anger that provokes action before thought and prayer.

In verses 28 and 29, where Paul said thieves should stop stealing and the foul-mouthed should become encouragers, we see how transformative a relationship with Christ should be. In a relationship with Christ, change should occur—sinners receive the power to walk away from the old life.

It’s a struggle at times. One of the problems with having been around journalism culture as a young man is I picked up some words and phrases I need to be sure I have put aside permanently. And yet, I keep slipping into them from time to time, like a pair of ratty shoes hiding in the back of my closet. I don’t want those words, phrases and negative ways of thinking to affect others, however.

Much of the rest of what Paul wrote serves as a reminder of why we change. We’re not trying to live up to some kind of new set of Christian commandments; we’re not earning our salvation. We’re responding with humility and great joy to the gift of eternal life Christ has given us.

We look at the God-man Jesus, the power he had, the rights he had as one carrying within his holy flesh the essence of the Creator, and we realize how he rendered himself powerless so as to redeem us from the deadly effects of sin.

We are called to imitate his sacrifice as best we can. We contain ourselves, lower ourselves, and make ourselves radically available to others so they, too, can find eternal life. In doing so, we simply are thanking God.

Through imitation, we become as authentic as human beings can be, knowing Christ makes us authentic enough to last forever.

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Grateful to the End

Luke 17:11-19

The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.

They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.

And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.

That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.

As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.

And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.

They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.

They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.

They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.

In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.

Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.

We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.

From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.

And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?

Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.

Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.

It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.

Four Parts of Worship: Celebrate!

So, we’ve talked about what it means to gather ourselves in search of God, and we’ve talked about how God is consistently revealed in Scripture. What is an appropriate response to God’s presence?

A celebration! The third part of worship is like a thank-you, praise-you party thrown for God, where we declare our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer the jolly good fellow, the one worthy of honor.

Again, it’s one of those reasons I like to put the declaration of God’s word up front as much as possible in a worship service. I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time rejoicing, and it’s hard to celebrate until we’ve really heard from God. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian, a joy available to us regardless of our circumstances.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. Poor? Sick? Lonely? Broken by sins committed? Victimized by another’s sin? Those aren’t ideal situations to be in, but our current circumstances brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of this life becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

The joy of the resurrection—first, Christ’s, and later, our promised own—is something God offers us whenever we immerse ourselves in his story and praise him.

You see such celebratory worship in the Old Testament. One example would be the story in 1 Chronicles 16:1-6, when David returned the Ark of the Covenant—Old Testament evidence of God’s presence—to Jerusalem. Even before these verses, there are recorded acts of worship on the way to Jerusalem: sacrifices, singing, dancing and music, most of it quite exuberant. It all continued once the Ark was in place, with people appointed to keep it going.

Celebratory worship continues in the New Testament, particularly after the victorious nature of Christ’s work on the cross is made clear in the resurrection. We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. We can rejoice in such ways during appointed worship times, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, for example. We can rejoice when gathered in small groups. We can rejoice in our one-on-one time with God.

I know not everyone rejoices and celebrates in the same way, just as people will enjoy a party in different ways. I’ve always been more of a wallflower at a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy parties; it just means I’m not necessarily going to put a lampshade on my head.

You may be a fairly laid-back, reserved person in worship. Not everyone wants to jump up and shout “Amen!” while holding their hands up in the air. (Thank God for the worshipers who do such things; they are great help to a preacher and to worship in general.)

But if you’re reserved in nature, ask yourself this: Am I celebrating? Does that joy regarding Christ’s gift wash over my soul, at least as a quiet, tender experience?

Do I let the music take me back to the revelation of God I’ve just heard, connecting my emotions to my logic? Do I understand the prayers we lift up corporately as an open door to heaven? When I come to the table for communion, am I expecting to meet the one who will feed me for all eternity?

God calls you to such celebratory experiences whenever you stand before him in worship.