This is a response to a book jacket blurb by Shane Claiborne recommending Mike Slaughter’s Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus

Shane writes on the cover “This isn’t your grandma’s Sunday school curriculum… this is a call to a holy uprising.” Shane Claiborne, Author/activist

I wrote the following and submitted it to Claiborne’s website and facebook page.  Whether he will ever read it, I don’t know, but since the book is out there and the above quote is on the Amazon page, I thought I would publish this response.  I hear and read too many pastors and author’s attempting to sell books or attract crowds by belittling or dismissing as quaint or worthless the faith, Christian lives and spiritual disciplines of our older generations.  These suggestions are unlike the Apostle Paul who commended the faith of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice and gave them credit for the faith residing in Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5).  It is a shame that this honoring of Christian ancestors has been replaced by attempts to bolster one’s status and image at the expense of our spiritual grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ model faith.  On this book cover, Claiborne’s blurb is published as a banner achievement. This response of mine might seem like an overreaction; however, this attitude reflected by Claiborne is a blossoming trend that I have noticed and despised among the contemporary Christian culture.
My response:

I may just be a pastor of a church on the corner of a corn field in a small town with two stoplights; however, I know Jesus and the Scriptures, too, to some extent. I also know several grandma’s who know and live the Bible better and more Christlike than anyone I know. To put it frankly, I am quite angered that Shane would disavow and belittle the faith practices of these women. It is shameful to so disrespect and repudiate faithful women who are today the models of faith, commitment to marriage and family. These grandmas in our church had and have Sunday school curriculums that are The Bible! They don’t study some man’s façade of an innovative look at Jesus. They study the revelation of God in the Scriptures and then go and live it taking care of adult parents, children, praying for others, sharing all that they have, because through their studies they have learned the kingdom of God and that all that is not of him passes away.

I’m sure that the Sunday School or small group curriculums Shane espouses are cool and edgy, but when his students know the Bible and live out their callings like these ladies, when they have been married to the same person for 50 years, when they have spent hundreds of hours on their knees in prayer for loved ones and strangers, when they have given more than the tithe through their careers and still give more to missionaries and those in need, then have Shane endorse a book by dismissing these ladies’ spiritual disciplines. Until that happens, Shane, the author and publisher ought to repent before the next Christian grandma they see and publicly apologize to the them all.

May God give the above grace to live like the Christian grandmas in my church!

Craig Stephans — Rector
Church of the Redeemer
Camden, NC

Father I come to you in the name of Jesus who by his death, resurrection and ascension defeated all of the powers of sin, death and Satan.  As I submit to you and resist Satan and all the powers of darkness I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit and your light.  I ask you to cover me with the blood of Jesus and to clothe me in the full armor of God.

I place upon my head the helmet of salvation by which I take my thoughts captive to the Lord Jesus Christ.  I submit my mind to the control and rule of the Holy Spirit that it would be full of life and peace. I reject the thoughts, accusations and lies of the enemy who comes to condemn and criticize.  I reject thoughts of self-hatred, failure, pride and other sinful attitudes.  I reject any thoughts and imaginations that contrast your loving and good thoughts.

I place upon my heart the breastplate of righteousness.  I clothe myself in the perfection of Jesus and reject any false images of myself that are contrary to the way that you see me.  I accept and declare that I am right with you, O God, in Jesus Christ.

I place about me the belt of truth and pray that your Holy Spirit would lead me into all truth.  I refuse to be led astray by the lies of the deceiver or my own sinful nature.  Help me to walk and to worship in Spirit and truth.  Help me to base my life on your word that is truth.

As shoes on my feet, I secure my footing with the readiness of the gospel of peace and of the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.  I choose to stand firm on your word against the storms and oppression of this world.  I stand on the rock of Jesus that cannot be shaken.  Help me to know your word and to base my life on your good news and not to be overcome by any bad news, anxieties of this life, fear of loss or by the temptations of this world.

I take in my hand the shield of faith by which I shall block all of the attacks of the enemy.  Grant me faith Lord to walk according to your promises and your eternal presence.  Remind me that you are an ever-present help to me and that your promises are all “Yes” to me through Jesus.

I take in my other hand the sword of Spirit, the word of God that is sharp and double-edged and shall never pass away.  Inspire me to speak your powerful, life-giving word into my circumstances, against the enemy, into my own mind and life.  Help me to speak blessings over my life and over my loved ones.

Father place upon me your garment of praise and help me to rejoice in the Lord always.  I receive the joy of the Lord that is my strength.  Lord send and empower your angels to minister to me and to be a shield around me.  Father protect me from evil and rebuke every messenger of evil from me.  Let the light of your face shine upon me and fill me with your Holy Spirit, his fruit and gifts.  Make my home a peaceful, secure, restful and godly dwelling place.  Bless and place your hand upon me and my family.

In the name of Jesus, I reject and resist Satan and every demon and command any evil spirits to leave my presence and my family.  The Lord rebuke you and send you away.  In the name of Jesus and by his blood, I break any and all curses spoken against me and my family.  I am healed by the wounds of Christ.  Father fill me with your healing presence.

Father I  am your beloved child who belongs to you.  Help me to love you, serve you, worship you and share your love with all around me, so that your name would be praised and glorified.  I pray in the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen

Attached is the December 2014 Lectionary Life App from Anglicans for Life.  The Lectionary Life App includes devotional reflections based on the Lectionary Readings for the time period.  This Life App readings are based on the Sundays in Advent and December.  I wrote these reflections to bring out the themes in the readings related to the Sanctity of Life.  You can subscribe to the Lectionary Life App here.  Fill in the contact form and request the Lectionary Life App subscription.

December 2014 Lectionary Life App

Heavenly Father, glorify your name in our lives and keep us blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, grant us alertness and sober mindedness that we will not be deceived or fall into temptation. Grant us wisdom and revelation to know Jesus and to hold onto his name and word in the midst of the trials of life. May your perfect love enfold us that we would not fall into fear. May your perfect peace guard our hearts and minds in the midst of the world’s troubles. Keep our hearts warm with your light and love even as the world turns cold. Ignite and enflame our hearts and make them all fire for love of you. Help us to remain steadfast in our faith even against persecution and oppression.

God, help us to hold out the gospel of the kingdom to the world, even to our enemies who hate us and revile us, to the apathetic and deceived. Let us be light in the darkness. Give us understanding of your will and the courage to keep it. We ask for your mercy and grace and the manifestation of your salvation in our lives.

Almighty God, may your kingdom come into our lives and establish us as ambassadors of Christ. Help us to walk in his authority to preach the gospel, to heal the sick and cast out demons. May we be vessels of peace and bring freedom wherever we go. Holy Spirit empower us, clothe us and place your words in our mouths that we might be effective witnesses to Jesus. Grant us words and wisdom that none of our adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. Lead and guide us as your children. O Creator of all things, we ask for your abundant provision for us and for all of your children.

Lord of Hosts, we pray that you send your heavenly angels with power into our lives for the sake of your Name. Commission your angels on our behalf and on behalf of your church worldwide, especially for those who suffer persecution and are in great need. Empower your angels against the spiritual forces of darkness in high and low places. We ask you to bind and rebuke the enemy of the kingdom of heaven.

Father, help us to turn our eyes heavenward and to seek Jesus who is the author and perfecter of our faith. May we seek your kingdom and righteousness first above all else. Lead us in holiness and truth and prevent us from being weighed down by anxiety, dissipation or weariness. Grant us the power and initiative to say “No” to ungodliness and sin. Help us to speak the truth in love and to rebuke sin in ourselves and others. Encourage us and strengthen us to work heartily for you and others and not to grow weary in well doing.

Help us, O Lord, to keep watch, fully awake, as faithful guardians. Help us to serve you, our Master, faithfully in love and obedience. Help us to stand firm that we might gain life everlasting. Fulfill your purpose in our lives, Lord, for your love endures forever. May we be ready at the return of the Lord. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Craig Stephans 11-27-14

jesus-the-angels-on-rapture-day

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

If there is any one word that more adequately than others can summarize the message of the New Testament, I think it is “Come.” From Jesus invited the disciples and the crowds to “Come,” to the Spirit and the Bride returning the cry to the exalted Jesus to “Come.” The message of the gospel is for all to “Come—Come and be reconciled.”

Jesus offers his invitation—indeed his command to “Come” in the context of a fallen world that makes people children of hell and misery. His immediate audience lived under the religious scrutiny of the Pharisees and Scribes who will later receive from Jesus a series of “Woes.” Jesus will rebuke these religious leaders for the burden and condemnation they lay on others.

Jesus describes the work of these religious by saying of them, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4) He rebukes them directly in the same conversation, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

So many of us live under these burdens that we accept from others, the world, the culture and that we place on ourselves. These are burdens that we are not able to bear, and in this world we find no help. We carry the burdens, fears and worries of expectations we cannot meet, standards we can never exceed, criteria that condemn, ideal lives that are unlivable and our doubts and despair. Whether it is in our schools, jobs, families, or the mirror or in our minds, we take on unbearable and ungodly burdens. These burdens make us children of are—children of misery who live according to vain pursuits and deluded imaginations or under constant despair and lopsided comparisons. This is what the world, Satan and any authority outside of Christ brings.

I’ve experienced this problem as a pastor. Like most pastors that I meet, I want to excel in serving God in my ministry, so I read and listen to experienced pastors and leadership experts offer guidance on leadership. I recently read a book by church leadership speaker and author Dave Kraft called Mistakes Leaders Make. In this book, he offered some good counsel; however, his book illustrates the worst mistake leaders make: tying up heavy burdens on people’s shoulders that are impossible to carry. On one hand, Kraft writes, “”A leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” (page 65) Then, on the other hand he writes, “The primary responsibility of a leader is to develop additional leaders.” (page 89) This is a blatant error and creates a double-bind for readers who are probably already stressed with trying to be the best they can be. Now the author has given us two “primary responsibilities.” Heaven help us. All of us are barraged with this type of “advice” of what we must be and do.   I can’t tell you how many women’s magazines I have noticed that share two emphases on the cover: losing weight and cooking great desserts or meals (not the kind conducive to losing weight either). This is the world’s pattern.

How refreshing to hear from Jesus his invitation to “Come.” Jesus promises us rest for our souls. He doesn’t set us down on a lounge chair and give us a cold drink either. He offers us himself as our Sabbath rest. We enter into him, and we are accepted and fulfilled in our Creator and Savior. This is why this verse is such a comfort and encouragement to Christians. Surely, this is one of the most well-known Scriptures, and for good reason.

Jesus promises rest, and he commands us to learn from him. He calls us to become his disciples. He commands us to take his yoke and his burden. We don’t come and sit; we come and follow; we walk in his steps. What his Jesus’ yoke? What is this burden? Is it more of the same? Is it unbearable and oppressing?

I think the simplest answer is to say that Jesus’ yoke is his grace. Grace. We are called to accept and to take his grace—his free gift of love, strength, wisdom, goodness, discernment and power. We are commanded to carry his burden. I think this is the burden of our calling and vocation—the good works that He has prepared for us to walk in by his strength and power that work in us according to his good will and purpose for us.

I think the Apostle Paul gets at this interaction with the Lord when he writes, “He said to me, ’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) We come to the Lord in our weakness to carry burdens and our weariness in the world. He gives us the yoke of his grace and strength to carry out our calling in the world by his power to his glory.

His yoke gives us the gift to hear his voice and to know his will, so that we can walk in the way he makes for us. He gives us the power and discernment to say “no” to what is not for us and to say “yes” to what is for us. He gives us the grace that takes away accusations and condemnation for being what we are and for not being what we are not.

When I was reflecting on the yoke of Jesus this week, an image came to mind. When my son Jack was 1-2 years old, I had a backpack carrier for him. We lived in Western PA near a large park full of hills and hiking paths. I could never comfortably carry Jack more than a 100 yards or so in my arms or even on my back at the time. However, with the backpack I would set him in it and strap him in and then lift the backpack and strap it onto my back with him in it. It was comfortable for both of us. With it, I could carry him for hours up and down the hills or wherever until he eventually outgrew it. I really enjoyed the bonding we shared with the backpack. I think that Jesus’ yoke is like the backpack. It is actually a resource of strength and comfort that helps us carry the gifts he has given us and fulfill the work to which he has called us. In this case, I imagine that Jack was the burden Jesus gave me and the backpack was the yoke I took upon me to help with the burden. Both were blessings and not curses; both were gifts of grace.

jack-in-backpack

Jesus does not lay the pressure on us to do everything or to be everything. I earnestly believe that what he does call us to accomplish he gives us the power and grace to do it. We must submit to him and walk in his ways with our initiative and striving, too. I believe that Paul puts it to the church this way, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

For the roles in our lives in our families, vocations, churches and communities, God gives us the gifts of grace and spiritual power to fulfill our duties and his calling for our good and the common good of those in the family of faith and among those that God is calling to himself. John the Baptizer said that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” John 3:27 As we learn of Jesus, we learn to accept what is given from heaven and to deny ourselves what is from the world, even what seems good. Learning of Jesus, taking his yoke and his burden contribute to our taking up our cross and following him and to denying ourselves, as we gain life in him. Our rest in our Sabbath includes active participation with the Lord of the Sabbath.

 jesus yoke is easy

*Picture link

 

 

Each month Anglicans for Life publishes a Lectionary Life App that includes reflections on the Sunday Lectionary readings that focus on the Sanctity of Life.  For July, I wrote reflections for each Sunday.  They are published below.  You can sign up to receive the Lectionary Life App each month here.

Sunday July 6th  Readings: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. Genesis 24:67

As a seminarian, I learned immediately from Dr. Erika Moore, my Old Testament professor, that “context is king.”  And as with my own preaching and teaching, I’m sure that lesson reverberates in your ministry of the word.  Each passage of Scripture we interpret has a literary, historical and theological context in which it has been weaved by its author. The context shines a light on the meaning and message of any text.

Each young woman who considers abortion has a relational, familial, spiritual and cultural context in which she lives that informs this seminal decision to keep or abort her child.  Similarly, each person and family facing end-of-life care decisions has a context for their hopes and fears.  Folks don’t come to these crisis-decisions in a vacuum, and I think God has placed pastors in positions to inform the larger context of people’s lives with a value on the sanctity of life.

A foundational building block of that context of life is inviting God’s presence and guidance in all stages of life and all of our relationships.  The hand of God in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah illustrates his thoughtfulness and passion for family and bringing a man and woman together for love, comfort and life.  We know in the Biblical stories that things are rarely sunshine and lollipops, but here is a moment of God revealing himself in initiating the marriage bond.  It gives Isaac comfort after saying “Goodbye” to his mother Sarah. The event of their union in marriage exists in the larger context of God’s story of redemption. 

This recognition of God’s hand in life is such a contrast to the circumstances that bring mothers to have abortions.  Abortion rejects the reality of the role God plays in life. The same ignorance of God’s presence and eternal purpose leaves people in despair without comfort in the face of suffering and/or death.

I believe that the peace and rest that Jesus gives comes not only from his presence in us but also from the relationships he develops between us and others in the family of God, especially our own families.  It is among the context of our Christian brothers and sisters that we are guided by his gentle, easy yoke into comfort, rest, wisdom, strength and hopefulness.  We promote the sanctity of life, as we promote relationships among believers.  We create the context for life-affirming decisions, as we encourage our congregations to invite the Lord into every relationship and activity of our lives.  This dynamic fuels a Christian imperative to continually invite the lonely and lost into this context of a loving Christian family that affirms life. 

Finally, the conclusion of this Sunday’s text from Paul’s letter to the Romans offers profound hope and promise for women and men who have chosen abortion and those suffering end-of-life challenges.  He writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a)  No matter whether we have been doers of evil and/or victims of evil…Jesus Christ saves us, redeems us and gives us new life in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Amen! 

Sunday July 13th Readings: Genesis 25:19-34 & Psalm 119:105-112 or Isaiah 55:10-13 & Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 

The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. Genesis 25:22

Rebekah voices her struggle of carrying twins in her womb.  Her plea seems relevant to so many who have an unexpected pregnancy or who face suffering from illnesses or injuries.  The answer that comes from the darkness often is something like, “It would be better to be dead.” Or, “Everything is ruined.”  Or, “There is no hope now.”  I wonder how many in our congregations are facing or will face a life dilemma that leads them to wonder, “Why do I live?” 

Rebekah responds by coming out of herself and inquiring of the Lord.  The Lord reveals the truth of the twins, Esau and Jacob, and shares a vision of their lives.  This prophetic insight from the Lord must have encouraged Rebekah with the awareness that God heard her cry and was aware of her plight.  She must have been strengthened to know God was involved in her children’s lives already and would be in the future.

There are two mindsets demonstrated in the story of Rebekah.  We see her mind—the mind of the flesh; we also see the mind of the Lord—a sovereign, loving and caring mind of the Spirit that gives a higher, eternal perspective.  Paul sums up this dichotomy by saying, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5-6)

Even in a person’s most trying, overwhelming moments, like when we face the consequences of a foolish decision or a terminal illness is diagnosed, the mind set on the Spirit will have “life and peace.” This mind of peace comes from the word God speaks to us.  Scripture tells us that his word is life to us.  He speaks peace to his people.  For those who come to him in Christ, no matter from where, he accepts them, because, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) What a great promise to offer those who feel like they have ruined their life or done something terrible.

Let us always be praying that those who listen to our preaching, teaching or counseling will have soft, fertile hearts that will accept and guard God’s word, so that it will accomplish its purpose and produce a harvest of life and peace.

Sunday, July 20th Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a & Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8 & Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) 

The Lord confirms to Jacob the promises that he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, including the promise, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  Jacob has seen the vision of the stairway between heaven and earth and recognizes that God is present in that place.  In the narrative of Jacob’s life, we will never see him abandoned by God, even though he later describes his life to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” (Genesis 47:9)  God continues to reveal his presence and providence in Jacob’s life.  Jacob experienced an ongoing connection between heaven and earth.

Through the work of Jesus by the grace of God, Paul assures us that those who have believed in Jesus and received him have received the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son.  By that Spirit, we know that we are his children, and we know he is with us.  Through the Holy Spirit, we not only dwell in the place of God; we become the place where God dwells.  Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:14-17) 

Jesus tells his disciples that evil will continue to exist in the world, and the evil one will sow his seed and grow his weeds.  Jesus suffers this evil for a while.  He promises that at the proper time, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:41-43) 

Paul informs us that the Holy Spirit and all of creation, including ourselves, groan for the coming of that time when evil is discharged from creation and all things are renewed for the glory of God.  This glory will overshadow any hardships we have suffered during our pilgrimage on earth.  In the meantime, we can have the assurance, as we go through any trials, that God is our “Abba, Father,” and he is with us to bring us into his kingdom.

I think we, as preachers, have a calling and anointing from God to encourage people to have courageous faith that overcomes the fears that can rise up to undermine the sanctity of life.  Too many members of our congregations are led by their fears and anxieties and a desire to avoid suffering rather than being led by the Holy Spirit.  The same is true for us.  I think it is important for us to demonstrate courage in challenging, even confronting, listeners about whom they follow—the Spirit of the Lord or fear.

 

Sunday July 27th Readings: Genesis 29:15-28 & Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 or 1 Kings 3:5-12 &  Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 

In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8:37

As we continue to read through Genesis, we come to the marriage of Jacob to Leah and then Rachel.  Jacob loved Rachel, and the seven years working to have her went by quickly.  When he awoke the morning after his wedding party, he found that he had consummated a marriage to Leah.  That for which he longed and worked seemed to have been taken from him and replaced with something he didn’t want. 

An unexpected or unplanned pregnancy is often referred to as an “unwanted” pregnancy that is another way of saying “unwanted child” in the womb.  The unwanted child may be something that threatens the desired path of the mother’s and/or father’s life.  It may seem like a hindrance to reaching their dreams or having “their best life now.”  Too often, the Western church’s message is that with God you can have your dreams and reach your goals and have all that you want.  If that is how we interpret God’s mission in our lives, then fulfilling that can justify getting rid of something that hinders its attainment—like an “unwanted pregnancy” or a debilitated loved one.

We see in the wonderful text of Romans that God’s goal is not making our dreams and wishes come true.  His goal for our lives is that we become conformed to the image of his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.  The image of Jesus Christ is self-sacrificial love.  Through self-sacrificial love, God fulfills his purpose of making Jesus the “firstborn within a large family.”  Therefore, God does not let anything stop him from loving people.  He desires to love them into his family through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.

Jacob accepted Leah as his wife, and then he received Rachel as his wife also.  He had to work seven for years for Laban.  Leah, the wife Jacob did not expect and did not want, gave Jacob six sons, including Judah from whose tribe Jesus was born.  He received blessings of sons from both Leah and Rachel. 

An unplanned pregnancy that becomes an accepted and loved child can become the best blessing of a mother’s and family’s lives.  God promises to be present “to help us in our weakness.” He gives the Holy Spirit to us, and Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  When we sacrifice our self-serving ambitions, dreams or treasures for the sake of loving and serving God and others, he will cause it to work for our good according to his purpose of conforming us to the image of Jesus. 

The gospel reading mixes metaphors for the kingdom of God that can also serve as analogies to babies conceived in the womb and growing.  Like the kingdom of God, at conception a baby is the size of a mustard seed, and like the kingdom it grows to life and can become a blessing to those who love it.  Jesus also compares the kingdom to a treasure in a field and a pearl of great price.  When it is found, it becomes the greatest treasure of the one who values it.  A child, planned or unplanned, can become a family’s greatest treasure—if accepted and loved, whether given for adoption for love’s sake or kept for love’s sake.  God is present to help us with the greatest force in the universe—his unconquerable love.

PRAYER FOR LIFE

 Lord God, thank You for creating human life in Your image.
Thank You for my life and the lives of those I love.
Thank You for teaching us through Scripture the value You place on life.
Help me to uphold the sanctity of life in my church and community.
Give me the strength to stand up to those forces
that seek to destroy the lives of those most vulnerable,
the unborn, the infirm and the elderly.
Today I commit myself never to be silent, never to be passive, never to be forgetful of respecting life.
I commit myself to protecting and defending the sacredness of life
according to Your will, through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Prior to his ascension, Jesus gives the disciples the command that we call the “Great Commission,” “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a mere formula to use in the Sacrament of baptism. This reveals the presence of the Trinity in the life of the church. The term baptize comes from the Greek word baptizo meaning “to immerse.” Jesus commands his followers to go forth into the world and immerse people in the Triune God. Christians enter God’s kingdom and become his children, as they are filled and enveloped by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are to experience God in his three persons.

In his benediction in his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14) Paul blesses the church with grace from Jesus, love from the Father and Communion with the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t just need to know about the Holy Spirit, we need to experience the Trinity of God.

It is important for us to understand that our God is one, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Our God is one, and he is three persons. The early church came to understand God as “one substance” and “three persons.” God has called us into a relationship with him in his three persons.

We can look at the baptism of Jesus to see the Trinity revealed in the world: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Jesus has been baptized by John, and as he comes up from the water, the Holy Spirit comes from heaven descending upon him like a dove. Then, the father speaks from heaven and affirms that Jesus is his beloved Son. Wow! The Trinity participated in Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. After the baptism, Jesus’ journey to the cross began with the first step not toward glory but testing in the wilderness.

We also learn from the baptism that the Father loves the Son. This is an indication of the loving communion among the persons of the Trinity. We know that God is love. For love to exist as a being and an active, expressed substance, there must be a lover and a beloved along with the love that is expressed. What is communicated at the Baptism reveals God the Father—the Lover, God the Son—the Beloved and God the Holy Spirit—the Love given and received. Each is God, each is unique, each is one with the other who is in substance and quality the same.

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This triune God is fully sufficient in himself as three persons. He has no need. He didn’t and doesn’t need creation and people in order to have an object of love or an activity to occupy himself. He is fully sufficient in the loving fellowship of his being.

I think the best answer to the question of “Why did God create us?” is that God has an abundance of loving goodness that overflows. He desires for more to love. God desires for the inclusion of creatures who can join in the communion of love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What we see in the creation story of Genesis shows that God’s love must be defined as a love that is willing to suffer for more to love. To truly include a creature in the fellowship of the Godhead, that creature must be able to not only give and receive love but to also reject love. Love requires the freedom not to love. Therefore, to experience the loving inclusion of his creature, God had to be willing to suffer the rejection of his love and the consequences of continuing to love infinitely that creature.

The creation of humans demonstrates God’s emphatic “Yes” to his willingness to suffer, so that the creature may experience inclusion in the divine love of the Trinity. Let’s look at the Genesis account of creation.

We learn of our creation, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

When God created us in his image and likeness giving us dominion, he committed himself to suffering self-sacrificial love. Our freedom and dominion has led to history being a history of tragedy—the suffering of all creation and the suffering of God. History is also a demonstration of God’s commitment to eternal, self-giving love—the same love that has existed forever in the midst of the Trinity.

Christians often desire and pursue experiencing God. I certainly want to experience God in my day-to-day life. I have come to realize that my natural tendency is wanting to filter the experience of God to him fitting into my life and blessing me in it. I think Christian maturity moves us from that way of thinking to pursuing entering into God’s experience of us. The grace of Jesus, love of God and the koinonia (fellowship, communion, sharing) of the Holy Spirit doesn’t just bring God into our life; it brings us into the life of God. Experiencing God entails entering into his experience of himself and his creation, including humans. That experience must entail the participation in God’s suffering, self-sacrificial love.

Of course, we want to have the Resurrection and Pentecost power of God to work in and through us. To really know God must also involve receiving the grace to enter into the suffering of the cross that is the pinnacle of the demonstration of God’s glorious love. To experience God and have koinonia with him fully requires becoming “crucified with Christ.” (Galatians 2:20)

According to the great theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God historically experiences humans in three ways of suffering. God suffers with people; he suffers from people; he suffers for people. To know God is to enter into and participate in his suffering.

God began suffering with people when Adam and Eve rejected his love and followed their will in sin. God suffered with them, as he slayed an animal to cover their nakedness, as he declared the consequences over them and creation, and as he exiled them from the tree of life and paradise. We may not be able to explain away suffering, but we Christians can confirm emphatically to all who suffer that God fully suffers with them. He suffers all the pain with humans. Many of us have watched a loved one suffer physical pain or emotional loss. It hurts us, and we want to rescue them if only we could. Imagine how God suffers that intensely, because his love for each human who suffers knows no bounds.

God suffers from us, too. Think about when you were rejected in your life. It may have been a loved one who rejected your relationship and love. You may think of a time when someone simply said “No” to you. If you have been betrayed by a friend, you know how hurtful that is on all levels. We suffer from that. Harsh words, cold treatment, ostracism, gossip about us, etc., all hurt us. God who loves perfectly suffered from the rejections of humans from the first people to the millions today who say “No” to God. He has suffered through history, as people continually ignore and reject him. We push him away. We say lies about him and have done our best to exile him from our lives.

The Creator suffers from how we treat each other. As Genesis tells us, each person is made in his image and likeness and is made for an eternal communion with him. God suffers from how those he loves cause each other pain and suffering. God suffered from the Abel’s blood that cried from the ground to him. “What have you done? Where is your brother?” God asks Cain. God suffers from our broken lives and relationships.

Finally, God suffers for us. On the cross, God demonstrates his love for us by suffering and dying for us. Jesus became sin for us. He died for us. He took our infirmities and iniquities for us, so that we might be healed and be restored to eternal life with him. His suffering for us does not exempt us from suffering. It does, however, save us from eternal suffering of sin and death—if we say “Yes” to him. For God, has reaffirmed his resounding “Yes” to loving people on the cross. His perfect love requires the freedom for people to continue to say “No” to him, and many people do. Those who say “No” to the end will not be relieved or saved from their suffering.

As we enter into the Christian ministry of loving others, as God has loved us, we live into the reality that Paul describes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” (Colossians 1:24-26)

Jesus commands his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

To love as Jesus loved must mean to love with the sacrificial, self-giving, suffering love he demonstrated on the cross. This is the love Paul describes and lives out in his ministry. He rejoices in the privilege to know Jesus in his suffering love. The Christian author and preacher George MacDonald once said in a sermon, “The Son of God suffered not unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his.”

Paul affirms the same thing in his letter to the Philippians, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

To know Christ, we share in his sufferings during the world’s history; that is not the whole story, though. We will also attain the resurrection of the dead, as we share in the power of his resurrection. This is the hope that we have. It is the same hope that and vision that inspired God’s creation of us—an eternal relationship with creature and Creator in paradise. One day, all that causes suffering will be removed from the people of God who enter into a new creation of God’s paradise where nothing evil will ever enter. All suffering, pain and tears will be wiped away!

Without this hope, the suffering would be to no end and without a redeeming quality. The truth is that God’s suffering with us, from us and for us has an end in the renewal of all things and the destruction of evil, sin and death. This is way we can joyfully enter into the suffering of the Trinity, because we know that any present suffering we experience cannot compare to the glory to be revealed and experienced in God’s presence for eternity.

This is the hope and promise that fueled Jesus’ mission to the cross. His thoughts on it are revealed in his “high priestly” prayer of John 17. Via the sufferings of the cross, He is returning to the glory he had with the Father before the world began, but he is not going to go home alone. He is winning the salvation of many offspring. Look at how he concludes his prayer, as we are given the privilege to listen in on the Beloved’s intimate communication with the Lover,

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)

Jesus’ prayer is that the very love between the Father and the Son may be in Jesus’ followers. This means his followers are to be included in the loving communion, the koinonia, of the Trinity. The glory of God and the Son is the self-sacrificial love that flows between them. Jesus prays that we might be in that love—in the Trinity. This is an unbelievable, indescribable privilege for a creature to become included in this eternal fellowship of the Creator. This is truly glory. This is why God suffers. This is why we must say “Yes” to him and follow him.

That’s not all. We live this out according to Matthew 28:18-20, so that the world may believe and know that it is all true. We live as witnesses to God’s suffering in history and as prophets and priests unto God point to God’s glory in heaven and the future of the renewal of all things that is coming.

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