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skeleton keys

Skeleton Keys (Photo credit: peatbogyeri)

Most of us learn the Sermon on the Mount as a random, disconnected collection of sayings from Jesus. But that’s not what it is.

It’s a comprehensive action plan for new life, presented in a specific order for maximum results, and recorded in three full chapters of Matthew (5-7).

Following it is how one follows Christ to seek his kingdom. To use Paul’s words, it’s how you put off the old self and put on the new (Eph. 4:22), continually working out your salvation (Phl. 2:12).

The Sermon is where Jesus has “hidden” the keys to the kingdom of heaven, God’s system of goodness and well-being at hand. Even the spiritually destitute can unlock it and enter, provided they’re not merely hearers of the Word, but are also doers of the Word. (Jas. 1:22)

How Did I Miss This New Life From Above?

I used to wonder why, having been a “believer” all my life, the presumed new creation in me never actually showed up, and Jesus’ words and ways still seemed ridiculously unrealistic. Yet they must be crucial to grasp or he wouldn’t have said them.

But the Christian books I read and radio shows I heard insisted that Jesus’ primary value is in his blood. Whatever he taught was back-burner stuff—either too random or too profound to make sense of in real life, and in any case, was separate from deliverance.

This conclusion shows in the lives of multitudes of sincere Christians (including the old me) who nevertheless have no idea how to love their neighbors, themselves, or do what Jesus says to do. We’ve been taught that getting our doctrines correct—the Trinity, justification, atonement, baptism, etc.—takes priority.

However, the new me has learned that doctrines, although helpful, don’t produce the radical, long-term changes that God is looking for. No wonder genuine new creations in Christ are as common as three-legged cats. There’s more to Jesus than his blood!

A Brilliant Savior

The sequence in Jesus’ Sermon is a divine strategy for life to the full. Before he delivered it, he had already provided incentive and hope for scores of people trapped in the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (ROTSAP) by announcing his good news of an alternative system available for new life, i.e., his gospel of the kingdom of heaven at hand.

So here’s a quick run-down of his plan that invites even the most spiritually impoverished people to follow him into the kingdom of heaven in the life they’re living now. It’s a matter of “yoking” with him, through practice and grace, to eliminate the following habits of mind, heart, and behavior.

1. Willful, retained, “righteous” anger and contempt. The Pharisees were constantly angry at Jesus. The more he went on about God’s kingdom, the more offended and contemptuous they became. People rarely say, wow, my anger is wrong. It always seems right, so we cherish it and hold it dear, refusing to let go. This leads to:

2. Adultery and divorce. Individual human affairs/divorces aren’t Jesus’ direct target here, although they are micro-reflections of the systemic target he’s aiming at. This is primarily a spiritual adultery “in the heart” and a collective divorce from God. It’s about lusting for substitute ways of life, both religious and secular. Together, they become the “harlot” we embrace, which leads to:

3. Swearing oaths. This addresses stubborn insistence, pride, and proving things by swearing this or that, which often backs us into disastrous corners. Recall that Peter swore on oath that he didn’t even know Jesus. So Jesus advises that anything beyond simple Yes or No comes from the evil one. Swearing progresses to:

4. Score-keeping, returning evil for evil. This stems from a greedy sense of fairness that turns revenge into something righteous (eye for eye). It demands “payment” from people who owe anything from apologies to favors to money. If they don’t pay up, pay-back’s a bitch, and a sworn enemy is born. Compounded by anger, it manifests as anything from spiteful insults to mass shootings. Score-keeping leads to:

5. Obsession with outer appearance and reputation. The old fashioned term is vanity, and the Pharisees were experts at it. This is about egotism, looking down on others with contempt if they don’t measure up, or about envy, admiring people for superficial qualities. Both finally create:

6. Judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Here’s the finished product of all the previous habits. It manifests as a compulsion to correct everyone else, whatever it takes, up to and including abuse. Whether it’s snobby social practices, political character assassinations, or “holy war,” the full-grown beast destroys others in self-congratulatory “correctness.”

This is sin and spiritual death in a nutshell, to which everyone falls prey. It’s important to realize that these are not only sequential, but also cumulative. Each new habit is built on the previous one, creating a less and less Christ-like heart.

Getting rid of these habits one by one is what “dying” to self is. Jesus knows that if you start by knocking the legs out from under willful anger and contempt, the rest of the structure gets wobbly and almost falls apart by itself. It’s precisely how you repent, surpass ROTSAP, and seek and enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus’ well-defined “narrow gate.”

Re-boot

If the forgiveness-only view of life from above purifies the human mind and cleanses the heart, why do we still have obnoxious, forgiven Christians? Wouldn’t these destructive thoughts and behaviors vanish? Forgiveness cleanses guilt, but has no transformative power over sin, the cause of guilt. Wouldn’t it be smarter to aim for the root, as Jesus does, and let the result take care of itself?

If we plan to someday rule the earth with Christ, it’s best to follow his plan and practice. God can hardly entrust dominion to people who can’t or won’t live in His system of total well-being.

So Jesus’ complete package to restore God’s system to humanity consists of his gospel of the kingdom of heaven, his Sermon on how to unlock and live in it, and his death and resurrection to ensure safe passage for those who choose to practice. Faith alone in Christ alone.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jhn. 1:4)

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Town Crier Billy Clark

Town Crier Billy Clark

First, let me suggest that faith is not the opposite of work or action. It enables it. And work is not the same as “works.” Works are deeds done just to look good or earn kudos.

For example, you can run a ministry, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or be a peace activist and still be the nastiest person on the block. This was the Pharisees’ problem because their inner qualities remained untouched. “Whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones,” as Jesus put it. (Mat. 23:27)

Work, by contrast, is God’s idea. He placed Adam in the garden specifically to work and care for it (Gen. 2:15). By God’s design, and when it’s not abused, work brings some kind of gain in experience (knowledge) and skill.

More Than Agreement

Which brings me to the phrase, “faith alone in Christ alone” for salvation and deliverance. It’s one of the most misused verses among well-meaning Christians today. If you’ve been a Christian for many years (maybe your whole life), and wondered when the “new creation” in you would kick in, the following might make more sense to you.

Generally, Protestants have been taught to see the phrase as “mental agreement alone in Christ’s forgiveness alone.” But that alone doesn’t deliver us from the myriad lingering effects of evil on our inner being—like constant anger, anxiety, contempt, performance, hurry, the need to lie to save face, or a devastating sense of self-worthlessness—because there’s more to deliverance than atonement alone.

Salvation also includes the quality of character that can safely rule and serve the earth with God, His original and ongoing purpose for mankind. “Let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26) The ability to govern, without ourselves being governed by sin, is precisely what Christ redeems in human beings.

But it doesn’t happen to you. It takes work. Intelligent work partnered with his, and vastly different from works. So let’s look at the first half of the phrase. “Faith alone,” as Paul used it, means you don’t have to:

  • Be a Jew
  • Be male
  • Be circumcised or say the right prayers or eat the right food
  • Have  money, education, social status, or a “respectable” job (tax collectors and prostitutes come to mind)

Faith isn’t just mental agreement or acceptance. It’s to act as if something were true, and that alone is all you need to start. But act as if what were true, specifically? Yes, it’s faith in Christ, but what does that actually mean? His divine pedigree and resume? His character? Atonement?

All of these are true, but faith in Christ means faith in him, the person, and his ability to lead us into a better quality of life. New life. Maximum life. Not after we die, but the life we’re living now. It can be lived with confident joy, self-worth, love, and other qualities within the kingdom of heaven at hand, i.e., among us.

You Can Actually Do Something: Work With Jesus

So the second half, “Christ alone,” simply means:

  • No one else
  • Not Peter, Paul, or Mary
  • Not me
  • Not friends, family, or celebrities
  • Not science, academia, political groups, or religious dictates

Faith alone in Christ alone is to act as if what he says to do is reliable and true. You put his words into practice—not because you ought to, or because he wants you to (although he does), but because you want to. You figure he’s the most competent expert on life and well-being, so you venture on him and his ways by seeking and practicing. Forgiveness is only one component.

If you want to become an electrician or a musician and enter those “worlds,” you need to learn and practice certain skill sets, right? I did that when I wanted to be a pilot. Likewise, if we want deliverance from evil, and the strength and finesse of Christ in his world among us, we need a certain skill set that he teaches and manifests. That’s the only way it becomes safe for people to rule anything, let alone the whole planet.

Next week, we’ll look at Jesus’ gospel and the words he specifically wants us to practice for this goal, deliverance, and maximum life. And it might make more sense of Paul’s other phrase, “continue to work out your salvation.” (Phl. 2:12)

 

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Stack of old leather books

Stack of old leather books

Information can be seen as a set of ideas, propositions, or data. For example, this blog contains information.

Knowledge, however, as portrayed in Scripture, is experiential and involves a learning curve. It’s common to have a lot of information, but no knowledge.

Through good and bad experience, knowledge is what you gain when you act on information—whether the information is true or not.

When God told Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit, all they had at that point was information or “head knowledge.” Same thing when Satan said they wouldn’t die, only that their eyes would be opened. Some of the information was true and some was false. But Adam and Eve’s knowledge of good and evil didn’t come until they actually experienced it.

Mary asked Gabriel how she could become pregnant without “knowing” a man. Obviously, she had information about men, so she meant her lack of sexual experience.

There can also be a body of knowledge gained by other people’s experiences, but until you yourself experience it, it’s still just information. For example, the body of aerodynamic knowledge says that for an object to fly, thrust must overcome drag and lift must overcome weight.

Anyone who wants to become a pilot must gain this knowledge for himself by putting it into practice. So he “believes” by venturing out and taking flying lessons. He finds a competent instructor, studies the aviation “word,” does what both say to do, and discovers knowledge. Otherwise, although it’s knowledge for other pilots, it remains head knowledge for him.

Now, he could just steal a plane and try to figure it all out for himself, but he faces slim odds of coming out safe and sound. And he’d certainly be a danger to others.

Active vs. Static

Belief or faith, as Scripture means it, isn’t just mental agreement. It means to act as if something were true. So, Christian faith is about venturing on Jesus and his kingdom instead of trying to figure it all out on your own. It’s about trusting him enough to act as though his first-hand knowledge, and what he says, is competent and true.

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he’ll find out whether my teaching comes from God or not.”  (Jhn. 7:17)

To act appropriately on his information, we need faith, i.e., to believe. Yet faith isn’t the same as knowledge. For example, I can be aware that my car will get me to work each day. That’s a static kind of belief.

But if I never get in, start it up, and put it into gear, I don’t have active faith in my car’s ability, which doesn’t bring me to act in partnership, which doesn’t bring me the knowledge I need for the journey.

Truth and Knowing

It’s interesting that Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God. Many people know about God, but don’t know Him even if they call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever.

Jesus offers knowledge of life and the kingdom of heaven. He doesn’t just present awareness of, or information about, how to live, although he does do that. But he also invites experience through practice and knows that mistakes are part of the process.

To gain Jesus’ knowledge, I partner with him, become his student (“like a child”), and act on his information. Salvation is an active journey of learning to live safely in a community of love, racking up experience today that simply carries over into the next life. With Christ, I can know the truth, and the truth sets me free.

It’s not about getting my doctrines or atonement theories correct in order to get to heaven. I realize that’s contrary to popular Christianity, but it’s dangerous because doctrine is information, not knowledge, and doctrine doesn’t save.  Jesus does. And God designed us so that not even He can simply hand someone knowledge, even through flawless information.

Bottom line? Despite today’s Information Age, people still perish for lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). And, someday, Jesus will shock even Christians with, “I never knew you.” (Mat. 7:23) So whenever I read about salvation, wisdom, and knowledge, it helps me to think—aha!—experience.

 

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Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty

Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty

Until the other day, I had only heard about the uproar over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and A&E’s decision to suspend him from the reality show he stars in. I hadn’t read the actual article in GQ magazine that started it all.

The uproar is over Phil’s apparently raunchy, gay-bashing remarks. Having watched the show several times this year, I knew that he can be a colorful character, so I braced myself for a real doozie.

Well, first of all, and to my surprise, it was the author who struck me as raunchy. From the opening paragraph, I thought, wow, this guy’s like a kid trying to impress people with big-boy words (F-bombs and other language)—long before Phil made a peep.

When I read what Phil actually said, my second thought was, that’s what everyone’s freaking out over? That Phil finds it illogical for some men to prefer men over women? He specified that it was just his opinion, and I detected no ill will, bashing, or ridicule. And his raunchiest words were “vagina” and “anus.” For Phil, I think clinical terms were his best attempt at maximum sensitivity.

Shrug.

Now A&E certainly has the right to react and run their business as they see fit. If they didn’t like what Phil said, or more likely, feared advertiser repercussions and grief, that’s their choice. Personally, I think it’s a bit cowardly, but I’m not running their business.

Phil Robertson also has the right to express his opinion, although there may have been something in his contract stating that his on- and off-camera remarks were subject to approval. Who knows? But he strikes me as having more courage than A&E execs do, and whatever happens from here, I think Phil and his dynasty might even be better off while A&E may have shot themselves in the foot.

As for the gay community, they have as much right to God’s love as anyone else. They certainly have some legitimate challenges here, what with crazy, hateful people running loose who call themselves “real” Christians yet haven’t a whiff of God’s spirit in them. Like the Pharisees, they’re the same sort of self-proclaimed, but clueless “experts” for whom Jesus had more than a few sobering words. But Phil doesn’t strike me as one of that breed and I think people are, honestly, overreacting.

Here’s my bigger point: In America’s culture war and identity crisis, both sides fear they’re being mowed down by a relentless machine that will stop at nothing to wipe the other out. And both sides have a point. So people love drama and are perpetually poised, like cobras, to turn anything into a fight—the nastier, the better.

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...Perpetual alarm, anger, and mistrust are hallmarks of a deeply unhealthy society of unhealthy individuals, and ours is definitely sick no matter how Christian or non-Christian it claims to be. By contrast, authentic Christian faith is marked by, among other things, a pervasive sense of unrattled-ness. Jesus was never rattled. Neither are his strongest followers.

But human beings are funny. We keep stabbing ourselves in the eye with a sharp fork. We ask the doctor why there’s such terrible pain in the eye, and when we’re told to simply stop stabbing ourselves with the fork, we grab it even tighter and look for a different answer.

So the way I see it, everyone is given the opportunity to contribute to Jesus’ vision of self- and neighbor love. If more people on both sides learned to stop feeding the drama, it would stop feeding on us and making chumps of us all. Seriously, who wants to be a chump? 

Blessings, peace, and a happy drama-free New Year to all! 

 

The binding of the UK edition of Star over Bet...This is a modified re-post from last year that seems appropriate again:

I propose that we Christians stop hyperventilating when people say something other than “Merry Christmas.” I’m always sadly amused (if that makes sense) when I see on Facebook, in all-capital letters, stuff like:  PUT CHRIST BACK IN CHRISTMAS!!!!! RESPECT OUR FAITH!!! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!!!!!

I understand that Christians feel threatened by the equal and opposite hyperventilating from those who seek to wipe out every public nativity scene or reference to Christ.

But can anyone really take Christ out of Christmas? Is Christian faith so fragile that all it takes to knock us on our butts is a greeting like “Happy Holidays”? Should we behave the way the “other side” does, all fearful and agitated and snippy? How Christians answer this in their heads says a lot about what’s in (or absent from) their hearts.

Who cares what other people say? If we’re rooted in Christ, a simple holiday wish shouldn’t be our undoing. If you can’t take a generic greeting graciously, how will you ever come to “bless those who curse you, do good to those who mistreat you”? A secure, assured, at-peace spirit is the mark of Christ in you. So if that isn’t there, Christ isn’t there.

Assuming that we take Jesus seriously and genuinely want his kind of class and character, I propose that we wish our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and strangers a heartfelt Merry Christmas, and smile sincerely when they wish us Happy Holidays. Then say, “Thank you.”

What a concept.

A stuffed turkeyWhile most Americans give thanks for their blessings this time of year, I’d like to look at a different side of the coin using Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus often aimed his stories straight at the spiritual elitists of the world. In his day, that would be the Pharisees. They (not the Roman Empire, as is commonly believed) embodied the worst of God’s enemies because they, unlike Roman/Greek/Gentile societies, were supposed to know better. After all, didn’t they constantly proclaim themselves the experts?

The Pharisee mindset isn’t unique to them and is still alive and well among scientific, academic, religious, social, and political elitists of all parties and cultures, including many Christians, who regard any group but their own with contempt. So Jesus’ illustration is as relevant today as it was then:

To some who were confident of their own rightness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

I disagree with the idea that God rejected the Pharisee’s prayer because he was insincere. I believe he was totally sincere. In his mind, he’s perfectly right, and therefore more than acceptable to God, for which he’s genuinely grateful. The Pharisee’s problem is precisely that he meant every word, which demonstrates a heart of condescension and contempt, a clueless heart. He not only doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know God.

At the root of this problem is the relentless human habit of comparing oneself to others, which nearly always leads to judgmentalism and one of two extremes: self-degradation or self-superiority. Judgmentalism is different from simply making observations, i.e., discernment. It’s one thing to be aware of differences (discernment), but it’s quite another to use that to make yourself superior or inferior (judgmentalism).

The tax collector doesn’t compare himself to anyone. He’s not looking around, not obsessed with what others say and do, not distracted by how others look. I also disagree with the idea that beating his chest equates to beating himself up in self-hatred. I think he was simply discerning, which demonstrated a clean, honest heart. Aware, not clueless. Despite sin, he knew himself and God well, and that’s why he went home justified.

Now wouldn’t it be the grandest irony to miss Jesus’ point and conclude, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee”—or liberals/conservatives, gays/homophobes, atheists/Christians, Americans/rest of the world!

Isn’t that just how hypocrisy sneaks up on us like rust on a hinge? Speaking from experience, it’s a booby-trap that backfires mentally and spiritually, turning even the most sincere person into a blind, ridiculous expert. It’s why Jesus said to be careful and “watch yourselves!” (Luk. 17:3)

So I’m grateful for the usual biggies: life, laughter, family, friends, employment, enough to eat, a roof overhead, and a sound enough mind and body to enjoy it all. But I’m especially thankful for spectacular failures on my part over the years that were proverbial blessings in disguise. These are what seasoned my faith like pepper and onion in Thanksgiving Day stuffing.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone! May you live, laugh, and love (even through tears), knowing yourself and God more richly each year.

swordI’m fascinated by the repeated Biblical pattern of separating, dividing out, and setting apart, then of a returning, re-uniting, and putting back together. All things come from God, divided out from Him. And all things go back to God.

Mankind

I see that Adam was divided out from God. Some might argue that Adam came not from God, but from the dust of the earth.  However, while this is technically true, Adam had both the breath and image of God in him. Dust was simply a physical means to “house” them. (Besides, didn’t the earth come directly from God?) At any rate, Eve was then divided out from Adam, from his rib.

Then I read that the two are to separate from their parents and come together as one flesh. The specific reason given is that Eve was “bone of [Adam’s] bones, flesh of my flesh.” (Gen. 2:22-25) Adam and Eve don’t merely unite, they reunite. So marriage, I believe, is actually a prophecy of the human race reunited with itself, and of a restored world wholly reunited with its Creator.

Then I see that Israel was set apart, divided out from Gentile nations, hand-picked by God much the way Adam was handmade by God. Yet the coming new world depicted in Revelation consists of all nations, peoples, and languages—Jews and Gentiles—worshipping God. Here is Adam and Eve’s prophetic union on steroids, the great wedding of the Lamb. (Rev. 19:6-10)

Community

And I see that Jesus says he came to bring a sword, i.e., division, to set “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Mat. 10:34-36, where Jesus is quoting Micah 7:6-7 from the Old Testament)

I can’t imagine that his purpose is grief and chaos. He aims to ultimately bring people together, healed of dysfunctional relationships, self- and neighbor hatred, and destructive life-styles. The great exodus from evil ways is ongoing and must occur even in family units when necessary.

Contrary to human ideas, Jesus and the original Christian faith didn’t put marriage or family on a pedestal, but also didn’t trample them in abuse. It simply placed them within the larger context of harmonious community. Don’t love only those who love you, such as friends and family, but love all neighbors, even enemies, as yourself.

Those who practice this seriously are indeed set apart, divided out. But when the rest of humanity “catches up” according to God’s plan, even if they go through hell first, the result is a vibrant, healthy, restored and righteous world.

Nations

Jesus knew that he came from the Father and would go back to the Father. (Jhn 13:3) I also see that he’s the first-fruit of multitudes who follow him, and that those followers are then the first-fruits of “all he created.” (1Cor. 15:23, Jas. 1:18) Mankind, the earth, and everything else comes from the Father, and, like the Son of man, goes back to the Father.

I’m not sure I have a solid point to this week’s musings. But yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and I see that our country is again deeply divided today. I wonder sometimes if it’ll end in Civil War #2 with Left against Right instead of North against South.

Then I regain perspective, knowing that division is fascinatingly related to creation, birth, and harmony that’s ultimately bigger than any one nation, including the U.S. I’m as patriotic as the next person, but in the sweep of history, I know that God has everything well in hand even when His plan unfolds, in my opinion, at the speed of a glacier.

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

 

 

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