2 Corinthians

Your Body Follows Your Mind (2 Corinthians 10:36)

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“I went to high school on the other side of town—to the Booker T. Washington High School. I had to get the bus in what was known as the Fourth Ward and ride over to the West Side. In those days...whites were seated in the front, and often if whites didn’t get on the buses, those seats were still reserved for whites only, so Negroes had to stand over empty seats. I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, ‘One of these days, I’m going to put my body up there where my mind is.’”  - from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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In an article entitled “Ironman champ: Train your brain, then your body,” Chrissie Wellington, a four-time World Ironman champion, noted: “If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. Keep your head up, and your body is capable of amazing feats... All the physical strength in the world won't help you if your mind is not prepared.” In order for Chrissie to keep her head up, she does a number of key things.

  • She has a mantra and/or a special song to repeat, because what you repeat you believe. She has “Never Give Up” on her water bottle and on her race wristband; she carries a copy of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem ‘If’ everywhere she goes.
  • She keeps a bank of positive mental images, because what brings you joy or hope matters. For her it is family and friends, previous races, of beautiful scenery, or a big greasy burger. These help when she thinks,  "I am tired. I want to stop. Why did I enter this race? I must be mad!"
  • She run the race beforehand, because thinking about her game plan matters. She goes through each stage of the race one step at a time -- mentally imagining performing at her peak and overcoming potential problems.
  • She break the race up into smaller, more manageable segments, because believing she can succeed matters. She thinks only about getting to the next aid station, or lamppost or Porta Potty. Once she achieves it, she sets another goal.
  • She trains until it hurts, because she needs to know she can handle adversity. She pushes her physical limits in training sessions so she knows she can successfully endure pain and discomfort.
  • She gets people to support her, because she needs to believe that other people are for her. She advises: “Invite friends, family or pets to come and cheer you on. Have them make banners, wear team T-shirts and generally behave in a way that would get them arrested under normal circumstances.”
  • She remembers inspirational people, because she needs to remember that transformation awaits on the other side. She recalls people who have all fought against adversity to complete the Ironman. They prove that anything truly is possible.
  • She races for a cause that is bigger than yourself, because knowing her role in the bigger picture matters. She runs for charitable causes. It puts the race in perspective and inspires her.

Our bodies follow our minds. What we think matters.

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The Apostle Paul recognized this mind/body connection. In Chapter 10 of 2nd Corinthians, Paul begins talking about a battle taking place in our minds. It’s what we often call a battle of worldviews: ideas, opinions, and philosophies opposed to God.  It's a battle for truth in the minds of people – and because the mind is so important, it’s also about hearts, souls, and lives.  Some false teachers are lying about Paul, but that’s not Paul’s main concern. They are lying. They are not servants of truth. And that’s a problem. In this context, Paul writes:

“Although we are human, we are not contending for the faith based on flawed human standards . We use God's mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of flawed human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. Our battle is to bring down every deceptive idea and every imposing argument that people erect against the true knowledge of God. We capture every thought to focus on our purpose:  understanding and acknowledging the authority of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

Something will capture our minds. Our bodies follow our minds.  

As I was reading the list from the Chrissie Wellington, it struck me that just as Paul used a lot of analogies from sporting events, perhaps the principles that help IronMan champions succeed are (in a sense) biblical principles as well. They provide a practical way to take our thoughts captive for the sake of our understanding of and relationship with Christ. 

  • Have a verse or lyric you memorize, because what you repeat you believe. When Jesus was tempted, he quoted Scripture. Persecuted Christians often mention verses or songs that sustained them. When E.V. Hill preached at his wife’s funeral, he came back to: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Oh, bless His name.” It’s important that we fill our minds with repeated truth.
  •  Have positive images, because sources of hope and joy matter. Chrissie said there were times when she wondered, “Why did you enter this race?" Perhaps there are times we think this as well. What do we think of to bring us hope or motivation? The Bible says that Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:12)  
  •  Plan ahead. Having confidence in your game plan matters. Are you purposeful about prayer, worship, and reading the Bible? If you know you have an area of sinful weakness, do you have a plan for times of temptation? What will you do if someone challenges your faith? If you know you have an area in which you struggle emotionally at times, are your preparing for times when you will become depressed, or lonely, or afraid? Are you seeking to prepare yourself ahead of time? 
  • Do the next do-able thing. Break the challenge up into smaller, more manageable segments. Believing you can succeed matters. Do the next thing right, not everything. Everything happens one step at a time. You may not THINK you can overcome an entire sin or temptation because it’s so overwhelming. So, just win the next battle. You can’t run the whole race at once, but you can run one step at a time. If you know your goal, every step in that direction counts. 
  •  Practice thinking hard, because knowing you are prepared matters. If you are struggling with sin, listen to challenging and convicting things that hold up a mirror to you. Embrace conviction. Don’t dodge yourself and your emotions just because it’s hard. If you are wrestling with questions about Christianity, absorb deep Christian truth. Read and listen to discussions about faith that might at times be boring and at other times be hard. 
  •  Get people to support you, because you need to know other people are for you. Let people into your life. YOU invite them; don’t wait for them to ask. What do you do when no one shows up for a banquet? You go out and “compel them to come in.” If you are going to be getting out of your comfort zone, you need a group around you to encourage and stabilize you. 
  •  Be inspired by others, because you need to remember that transformation awaits on the other side. The Bible calls them “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Because we are surrounded by them, we can run the race with perseverance. You can learn about them in the Bible, in books, movies, podcasts… Some of them are even here in your church. Learn about them; there is strength in unity.
  •  Remember you are part of a cause that is bigger than yourself, because knowing your role in the bigger picture matters. You are a part of the Kingdom of God. You are not doing the hard work of preparing for spiritual battle just for your sake. You are doing it for the sake of the Kingdom, and that includes your family, church, business, school, community, and city…

Permanent, Invisible Things

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The year was 1951. It was Valentine's Day and I (Ted Smith) was 3 ½ years old. My two brothers, Dick (11 yrs old), and Gary (7 yrs old), had just come home from a Cub Scout Party. Our family farm situated on the west shore of West Grand Traverse Bay, about five miles out from town. The frigid February temperatures had just put a thin film of ice over the whole bay. My two brothers, and a neighbor boy, were excited about the new ice and without saying a word to my parents; they left the safety of the farmyard and headed across the road to the bay. When my dad discovered they had gone down to the bay he went running after them.....but it was too late.

My dad nearly drowned that day! He searched desperately for the boys, repeatedly falling into the frigid water as the in the hole in the ice got larger and larger. The three of them were gone….forever. As I grew up in our home I heard many stories about the boys, about that horrible day, about “loss,” and what life was like from mom and dad.

The life of the Christian has many blessings. It’s important to have a thankful heart. But, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that the even though we’re endeavoring to follow Christ in this life, we who have placed our hope and trust in God also have our share of pain, grief and loss. Unexpected events can arise that shake us to the core and leave us wondering what happened. Was God asleep? Am I a crazy? Did I miss some important bit of instruction about life?

I suspect that every one of us could tell of events that have shaken our world. I’ve known more than one believer who has turned away from following Christ because they could not regain their sense of stability following the pain or loss that came their way.

 For my parents, their faith in Christ and the support of their local church family  kept them "putting one foot in front of the other." What  my sister Judy and I witnessed, first-hand, was not not “running from God,” but a purposeful “running to God.” From what I observed, my parents did just what Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians.

 Paul gives a perspective for handling this earthly life while waiting for the promised, eternal life. He draws on his own experience of suffering, and gives them answers to questions that still arise. We’re followers of Christ…but we still live this earthly and sometimes painful existence. How do we handle the difficulties and disappointments that arise?

Paul has just finished saying that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) After establishing the trials they faced, he adds:

“Therefore we do not lose heart; though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

The “eternal weight of glory” refers to the splendor, the magnificence, the honor, and the happiness of the eternal world, the world that has been promised to those who have been reconciled to God through forgiveness of sins and faith in Jesus Christ. There is an eternity in the presence of God that is prepared for those who love Christ. Something about this “looking at things not seen,” looking at God in the midst of -- and in spite of -- the pains and sorrows that come our way, opens the way and brings us into an “eternal weight of glory.” The Bible captures the beauty of this promise in the next chapter:

 “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-7 )

The Fragrance of Life

I like a well-ordered world. I don’t like problems. I don’t like unfinished business. I don’t like unsettledness. I don’t like the feeling of being out-of-control. I do not like disorder. I’ve noticed, in my nearly sixty-six years, how infrequently life cooperates with my need for order, and how often my desire for a well-ordered plan is met with confusion and turbulence. Perhaps things seem fine for a spell, and then “a situation arises” (a phone call, an appointment, an event) and I’m experiencing some degree of internal turmoil again. A problem has surfaced, and once again, God is out-of-control!

Well, O.K. He’s not out of control, but that’s exactly how I feel in those moments. I can become shaken because I have allowed my security to be measured by my ability to control my world --- something I supposedly gave up when I accepted Christ as my Savior and established Him as Lord of my life. The turbulence I feel is in direct proportion to the loss of control that I feel in my own little world. To feel this way at times is understandable, so I’m not chiding myself, or others, for these feelings. Rather, I’m seeking to grow in this area, and Paul’s words in these few short verses help me immensely.

“Well, when I came to the city of Troas to preach the Good News of Christ, the Lord gave me tremendous opportunities. But I couldn’t rest because my dear brother Titus hadn’t yet arrived with a report from you. So I said good-bye and went on to Macedonia to find him.” (2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

Life was happening! And it was a mixture of good stuff and not-so-good stuff. A mixture of joy and encouragement…together with a serious concern for his friends in Corinth and a bit of anxiety about their future. The “report” that Paul was waiting for was regarding what Titus found when he was in Corinth: a serious sinful situation that was going on in the church. Paul couldn’t rest because he hadn’t heard from Titus yet! Has the difficult situation in the church in Corinth been resolved? Has the openly sinful behavior stopped? Are they mad at him for sticking his nose into their affairs? And are his friends there still following the Lord, or are they wavering in their faith?

In spite of Paul’s unsettledness; in spite of his eagerness to connect with Titus and hear about the church in Corinth; in spite of existing in a world that he cannot control, listen to what Paul says in this letter: “But thanks be to God…” (2 Corinthians 2:14) Notice how quickly Paul shifts focus! With the simple word “but” he goes from expressing genuine concerns to lavishing praise on God. One author has said it this way:

“Being thankful is not telling God you appreciate the fact that your life is not in shambles. If that is the basis of your gratitude, you are on slippery ground. Every day of your life you face the possibility that a blessing in your life may be taken away. But blessings are only signs of God's love. The real blessing, of course, is the love itself. Whenever we get too attached to the sign, we lose our grasp on the God who gave it to us.” - Ann Voskamp, “One Thousand Gifts”

“But thanks be to God…who always leads us.” (2 Corinthians 2:14) I miss my dad. Next month it will be 27 years since my dad died. If he were alive today he’d be 101 years old. I remember the feelings I had those first months after his death. I remember what it felt like to lose that sense of protection that came from knowing he was there, and “tucking under” his covering. Following a strong figure is comforting. God is not passive when it comes to us, His children. When we submit our selves to His Lordship he takes an aggressive leadership role in our lives.

“But thanks be to God…who always leads us in His triumph in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:14) The old King James translation confuses the powerful truth of this verse ~ It reads, “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ…” That is not a helpful translation, and it has lead many into confusion and disappointment by leading us to believe that we win every battle, always coming out on top. In reality, there are many times in life when we lose a battle, experience a wounding, endure a pain, etc.

  • For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life…” (2 Corinthians 1:8)
  • “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” ( 2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

The accurate translations of verse 14 (as given by NASB, NIV and many others) say, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His (God’s) triumph in Christ…” It’s interesting that the word triumph is only used twice in the entire New Testament; here and in Colossians 2:15.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

When a Roman General had won a really great victory he was allowed to march his victorious armies through the streets of Rome. Behind him followed the kings and the leaders and the people he had defeated, together with the plunder or spoils that the he had taken in the victory. There would be incense burning throughout the city as the victorious General and his army marched in the parade. It was said that you could not escape the smell (fragrance).

Paul thinks of Jesus as a conqueror enjoying a triumph of the greatest magnitude ever, and in his triumphal procession, the “spoils” are all the powers of evil, which are beaten forever, and are now on display for everyone to see. The death (or triumph) of Christ satisfied the sin problem. This is the “triumph” that we’re encouraged to enter into. To the conquering army and people, the fragrance was the sweet smell of victory. To those who were conquered, the captives who were in chains, it was the smell of death, because they knew that their fate was cast. That’s the context for the next several verses in 2 Corinthians 2:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life." (v. 14-16)

We’re not simply the container of that incense. We are the incense. And as we go through life full of trials and challenges, it’s those very trials that cause the fragrance of Christ to be released from our lives. I’m attempting to reeducate myself. When things seem to be swirling about (and let’s be honest…they often are doing just that) I remind myself that God is working in a multitude of ways, and more often than not, in ways that I cannot see. I’m attempting to live in the truth that my life is not my own. I have gladly given my life to Christ and He is entirely able to lead and guide me in a chaotic world.

The Best Kind of Glory

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Paul makes a remarkable claim in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He writes that we are able to see and reflect the glory of God in such as way that we can increasingly display His splendor throughout our life. Considering what I know about myself - and what I've seen in others - that seems like a very counterintuitive observation.  But if Paul is correct, there is a principle here that can take us from merely what we are to what we can be.

Paul made this claim after talking to the early Christians about the difference between the Old Covenenant (as see in the Old Testament Law) and the New Covenant (as seen in Jesus). 

The administration of the Law which was engraved in stone (and which led in fact to spiritual death) was so magnificent that the Israelites were unable to look unflinchingly at Moses’ face, for it was alight with heavenly splendor. Now if the old administration held such heavenly, even though transitory, splendor, can we not see what a much more glorious thing is the new administration of the Spirit of life... ? The present permanent plan is such a very much more glorious thing than the old.

With this hope in our hearts we are quite frank and open in our ministry. We are not like Moses, who veiled his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing its fading glory... But all of us who are followers of Christ do not have veils on our faces as we see and reflect the glory of the Lord. We are transfigured by the Spirit of the Lord in ever-increasing splendor into his own image. (2 Corinthians 3:7-18)  

     The Law was glorious because it was a teacher, a guide to show us how God wants us to live. Paul wrote elsewhere,

“The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.” (Galatians 3, as written in commentary by The Message)

 If someone asked the Israelites, “What does God want me to do?” they had an answer – 613 answers, in fact.  When God gave His Law, He gave something of Himself to His people. The will of God could be known. Do this, not that. If you are successful, you will be blessed.

 That’s a “glory” I can wrap my mind around.  I understand cause and effect; I see it all the time.  I can lose weight or build muscle or make money or hit a softball or graduate or expand my vocabulary or play an instrument or get really good at Wii bowling if I know the rules and try hard enough. 

I know how to earn glory.

 But the Law also made it official that we the people (as seen in the Israelites) are never spiritually going to be good enough.  God can tell us exactly what He wants us to do, and on our own we will just not do it. The law unfortunately offers a resounding "no" one of life’s most important questions: Can I be good if I try hard enough? Whatever glory we achieve by trying our hardest will inevitably fade.  

Moses did not want them to see his fading glory. 

If I am generous with Moses, I can see how this was a way for him to make sure the Israelites did not become enamored with a temporary glory. After all, it’s so easy to make a big deal about how we have managed to live well because of our self-control, willpower, external obedience to all the right rules, dedication to every obligation (real or imagined), and sacrifice of time, money, energy, emotion.

 What we have is better than no glory (so that's good, right?), but in spite of all the hard work we have done, we will suddenly find we don’t have a reservoir of patience, or self-control, and emotion, and we can in a moment fail completely and utterly. Maybe part of God’s revelation to Moses included a clear picture of its temporary, frustrating nature of the Law. Maybe.

 If I am not as generous with Moses, I can see how this was a way for him to make sure the Israelites did not see that he was not, in fact, perfect.

 A glory that is so obvious to everybody – and then fades -  is a great way for others to gauge just how well we are doing.  Perhaps Moses was ashamed of his inability to be a good enough leader, no matter how hard he tried.  Ron Ritchie writes,

 For Moses the veil represented a false sense of competence, power, authority, glory, and pride. He used it to cover his fear and inadequacy… he sought in his own strength to compensate for the glory that had faded from his face.”

Pride makes us hide the parts of our life that shame us. This less kind assessment of Moses seems more in line with how Paul describes the Law:

 “The Law’s purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God, and therefore to show us the futility of devising some religious system for getting by our own efforts what we can only get by waiting in faith for God to complete his promise. For if any kind of rule-keeping had power to create life in us, we would certainly have gotten it by this time.”  (Galatians 3, as written in commentary by The Message)

 Paul would know. He was a "Pharisee of the Pharisees."  His credentials were impeccable. Paul would certainly have created life in himself by that time - if the Law had that kind of power.  It didn't, obviously, but in the next verse Paul explains why it didn't have to:

"By faith in Christ we are in direct relationship with God." (Galatians 3:25)

 Our life with Christ is meant to be an ongoing transformation in which we increasingly behold the person and work of Christ, increasingly become changed deep in the core of who we are, and increasingly become filled in such a way that we display the glory of God by His presence and work in our lives. 

We remove the veil of shame and secrecy because it’s not about us.  It's okay if the glory we earn ebbs and flows. When the true glory of Christ is displayed by our lives, it won’t be because we were awesome. It will be because “we are transfigured by the Spirit of the Lord in ever-increasing splendor into his own image.” 

This glory from Christ does not fade.

If this is the case - this glory will not fade - then this can't be just another way of saying that we will be awesomely impressive. That's painfully obvious; we all have times when what we reflect is not glorious at all. So what is this glory that just keeps on increasing?

I believe it is the glory of the Grace and Forgiveness of Christ’s Salvation. The way in which Jesus intends for the world to see his glory is not through our ability to live perfectly. It is through our willingness to be transformed by Him to become more like him.  That's when the Glory of God is fully seen. 

These are process words. Those are not words of arrival. We don’t have to display the temporary glory of our own ability or hide the times when we are unable to keep it up. 

When we take the message of Christ to others, we don’t need to wait until our testimony is that we are perfect. We aren’t offering ourselves to other people. We are offering a Savior who takes us with all our impurities and continually cleans us up and makes us new. 

We are meant to, without shame over the visible gauge of our (in)ability to be good on full display, let God display what real glory is like.

Understanding Forgiveness

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At the time I wrote my last letter, I was suffering terribly. My eyes were full of tears, and my heart was broken. But I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I only wanted to let you know how much I cared for you. I don’t want to be hard on you. But the man who caused all the trouble hurt you more than he hurt me. Most of you have already pointed out the wrong that person did, and that is punishment enough for what was done. When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them. I also wrote because I wanted to test you and find out if you would follow my instructions. If you forgive someone, so do I. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did in the presence of Christ for your benefit. I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not unaware of his intentions. (2 Corinthians 2:4-11)

The man to whom Paul is referring ( see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2) had damaged his relationship with God, his family, the community within the church, and the witness of the church in the city of Corinth. The church’s discipline had accomplished the purpose of humbling him and bringing him to repentance. Now, Paul gives them the ultimate goal: forgive, comfort, and keep him from the despair of a broken spirit.

As an idea, the idea of forgiveness sounds really good. It’s a principle that we really want other people to grasp. But what if we are the one damaged by sin?

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” -C.S. Lewis

What is Paul actually asking of Christians here? Is this "forgive and forget"? Do we have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do we have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Are we supposed to move on and act like nothing happened? Let’s look at some principles of forgiveness as we see in this situation and in the rest of Scripture.

1) Forgiveness of those who repent is mandatory. The Bible is clear that if you want to be forgiven by God, you must forgive those who wrong you.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.” (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)

2) Forgiveness comes from the forgiven. Paul wrote elsewhere, “For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)
I was in the dominion of darkness. So were you. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us so that forgiveness is available to us. We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis

3) Forgiveness requires honesty. We have to be honest about the nature and depth of the offense. Sin leaves a mark on individuals and communities, and we minimize its true nature at our peril. Those who harm others need to understand the price they are asking others to pay in order to forgive them.

If someone says, “I’m sorry,” we don’t have to just say, “That’s okay. It was nothing.” It wasn't okay (though it might be eventually); if it were truly nothing, it would not need forgiveness.

4) Forgiveness does not cancel accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and forgiveness are not enemies.

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like. 
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the promised land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

We have a tendency to think that the offended person should just get over it and move on, as if somehow the fact that our actions had consequences has now become the other person’s problem. But life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We hurt them. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture. Consequences are a gift; they make our path clear. Circumstances may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.

5) Forgiveness does not delete history. Paul didn’t unwrite his first letter to the church in Corinth; I don’t get the impression that anyone in the church was trying to act as if nothing had happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a biblical command for us. Have some survivors of the Holocaust forgiven the prison guards? Of course. Have they ask for the Holocaust Museum to close? Absolutely not.

Forgiveness is meant to fully bring repentant people back into fellowship with Christ and healthy fellowship in church community. If this process requires memory loss, we will not fully appreciate the power of forgiveness and grace.

Ambassadors for Christ

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A Labor Foreign Secretary (1966-68) named George Brown got this response from another guest at a diplomatic reception: “I shall not dance with you for three reasons. First, because you are drunk, second, because this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem and third, because I am not a beautiful lady in red; I am the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.”

Barbara Bush once attended a lunch with Emperor Hirohito at Tokyo's Imperial Palace. In spite of her best efforts to start a conversation, the Emperor would only smile and give very short answers. She finally complimented Hirohito on his official residence.
"Thank you," he said.
"Is it new?" pressed Mrs. Bush.
"Yes."
"Was the palace just so old that it was falling down?"
“No, I'm afraid that you bombed it."

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It’s embarrassing when a leader or an ambassador makes a fool of themselves, especially when they represent something of which we are a part. Politicians are not the only ones who do this. It could be someone who is trying to convince people all over the world to take up bicycling….or to root for Notre Dame football

The Apostle Paul wrote to the first followers of Christ:

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20

We are His ambassadors to a world that is not our home. We represent another King and another Kingdom. We are going to the Kingdom of the Earth on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven, and things of eternal import are at stake.

We represent Jesus whether we like it or not. We don’t stop representing Christ … ever. We will be an ambassador – for better or worse. People can’t see God, but they can see us. They can be drawn to or pushed away from the One we represent based on how we, as ambassadors, represent God. Here is the broader context for Paul's message about ambassadorship:

“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17- 21)

I am indebted to Grek Koukl at Stand To Reason for a lot of teaching on three characteristics of a good Christian ambassador: KNOWLEDGE, TACT, and CHARACTER.
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First, an ambassador must have some basic knowledge.

When then Vice-President Cheney was in town to campaign a number of years ago, I went outside the civic center to meet the picketers. I talked to a guy holding a sign showing his opposition to multi-national corporations, and two girls holding a sign that said, “I hate Bush.” None of them could give me an articulate reason for their protest.

An ambassador for Christ must seek to know the character, mind, and purposes of Christ. This means being equipped with not just the knowledge, but the experience and wisdom that comes from understanding God, His Word, His world, and His people.

Second, this knowledge must be deployed in a skillful way with wisdom and persuasiveness.

It isn’t possible to never give offense as an ambassador for Christ, because the message can be offensive (Luke. 6:26; 1 Corinthians 1:23). But we must do our best to “put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…” (2 Corinthians 6:3)

The message is difficult enough without us giving people additional reason to turn away. Paul notes all the ways in which he “becomes all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 “so that I may save some . . . ”  It’s not good when the biggest barrier for people to overcome is Christians. You may have heard this famous quote from Ghandi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

We must pray for the wisdom to know how to connect and genuinely enter into the lives of those around us without compromising our morality or faith. It’s part of being “in the world but not of it” (John 17:15-16). We “put no stumbling block” in the way. We ”commend ourselves in every way.” We “become all things to all people.”

The third aspect of a good ambassador is character.

Because ambassadors bring themselves along in everything they do, their presence can either make or break the message. Paul tells us how we can embrace the transformative grace with which God heals us in such a way that we come effective ambassadors:

“in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with the armor of righteousness…” (2 Corinthians 6:5-7)

“Purity” is used here probably to refer to sexual purity, but has a broader meaning that encompasses all of life. We are called to be pure from the inside out – morally clean, able to live without fear of what others may find out about us.

“Understanding” refers to an in-depth understanding of the Christian worldview (2 Timothy. 2:15). It’s first-hand experience; applied knowledge. It doesn’t mean we have to have all the answers, but we are constantly seeking in some way to understand our faith and our experience better. We study… listen carefully… think and pray and talk with others about our life…. learn to process our walk with Christ so that when others ask us to talk about what it means to be a Christian, we can draw from past experiences.

“Patience” is staying power; being long tempered instead of short tempered. We can listen to or see things hostile to our faith without getting immediately angry and defensive. If someone says, “I think Christianity is stupid,” and starts to rant, can we listen patiently, trying to understand what they are saying? Or do we get angry and tense and lash back as soon as we have an opening? When someone posts a comment that challenges our faith, do we start a fight, or do we patiently engage for the sake of their salvation?

“Kindness” refers to cultivating a high view of other people and treating them with respect. It’s meeting real needs – not just spiritual, but relational, financial, emotional. It’s treating people in God’s image as if they actually bore God’s image. When someone skeptical of Christianity asks us a tough questions, do we respond with anger and defensiveness? Do we quote, “The fool has said in his heart there is not God” and stomp away, content to have struck a blow for the Kingdom of God?

No!!! We need to relate to others with patience and kindness. It’s how God treats us, and it’s intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). I’ve realized over the past number of years that people skeptical about my faith expect me as a Christian to attack or belittle them. Whether fair or not, it’s the impression that's out there. We need to change that impression one person at a time.

“Truthful Speech” does not compromise on reality, and we must be boldly proclaimed even if it is offensive. God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and neither should we. But our bold proclamations should be kind. Treating people badly does not serve the purpose of spreading the good news. Our goal is to see them saved, not shamed.

Too often, I have seen Christians be unnecessarily offensive towards others, then when they are ridiculed they very humbly say, “Well, Jesus said the world will hate us. I must be doing something right if non-Christians are angry at me.” That’s not necessarily true. They may be angry because you are a jerk. Speak truthfully – but kindly. Commend yourself in every way!

“The Holy Spirit” gives us the power of God to take God’s word, our words, our lives, and point people toward Christ. We don’t have to force the issue. We “plant and water” (1 Corinthians 3:7), but God brings the harvest. Be content to be faithfully present, looking for opportunities to plant and nourish God’s truth. At the right time, speak up. At the right time, challenge and encourage.

Be patient. Be present. Be faithful.

A lot can be accomplished with sincere love, and with the power and protection of the righteousness of God.

The Potter and the Clay

Several months ago, I preached a sermon about the imagery of the Potter and Clay in the Bible. Lately, I have been talking with Amy Gilmore, a friend who actually makes pottery (I offer that in sharp contrast to my complete inability to do anything artistic).   Amy has been explaining to me how the Biblical imagery has come alive for her because of her experience.  What follows is the well-rounded perspective from one who both both potter (as an artist) and clay (as a follower of Christ).
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When searching for clay, the Potter has to reach into the ground (unless he or she is fortunate enough to have a ready-made bucket) and pull the clay loose.  In the same way, Christ reaches down into the dirt of our life and pulls us out. This as our salvation. David wrote in Psalm 40:2, "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."

God forms what was once a lump of earth into an object of design and purpose. 
It isn't about God making us into something we think is great; it is about letting God make us into something He loves and uses. When God offered encouragement to Jeremiah, he noted, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Most of us want to know what God is going to make us into before we allow him to begin his crafting.  This is not submission, or faith. 


 At this point in our life we are helpless, in need of a Savior, someone who can pull us out of all the dirt that traps us.  And when we surrender to His salvation, we also surrender our purposes, plans, hopes and dreams.  As the Apostle Paul noted,  “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:21)
Next, the clay is "wedged" in preparation for throwing.  Air bubbles are removed: pride, greed, lust, envy, gossip, meanness, unforgiveness. It’s pockets of our life we want to keep to ourselves - our checkbook; or our sex life; or our entertainment; our resentments that we nourish; our self-justification;  friends that we know are bringing us down.  Air bubbles are the secret sins from which we need to be delivered. 
After the wedging, the potter "throws" the clay onto the wheel head with a force that makes it stick. Ever had a time in life when you just crashed into something?  Job loss? Marriage failure? Sickness?  Depression?  Sometimes, that’s just life; sometimes, it's Satan trying to tear us down.  In those cases, the crash we feel is us “hitting the wall.” When that happens, God can redirect our momentum so the crash happens on his wheel instead of Satan’s wall.
When God is involved, the moments in our lives when we feel like we’ve hit a wall are times we are actually hitting the wheel. The wheel is the foundation of the faith, the core truths at the center of God’s will is the place to be.  The Potter will make sure you are centered, because an unsteady center brings about a lack of symmetry. 
Now the Potter begins to work on the clay -  our heart, our attitude, our emotions, our willingness to be molded for His purpose.   Water is applied to reduce friction between the hands of the potter and the clay. Now, our purpose, our design, our beauty begin to emerge as we allow the Potter to achieve His purpose. Think of how Ephesians describes Christ's work in our lives: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…” (Ephesians 5: 25ff)
We were pulled out,  we were de-air bubbled (?) and centered – and none of this has been easy.  But now the Potter is ready to begin work – His Word is watering us, refreshing us, baptizing us into new life and truth, making us a workable element in the Potter’s hand.
 As the clay spins in the hands of the potter, the particles come into alignment as well.  This alignment - think "submission" -  happens through repentance and belief.  It takes both. We cannot only repent, nor can we only believe.  Only the two together will produce fruit in our life.

Potters and Vessels: Jars of Clay

The potter/clay image is used through the Bible to describe our relationship with God.  Jeremiah talks about God as the potter and the nation of Israel as the clay; in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about how we as Christians hold the treasure of Christ’s presence “in jars of clay” so that we can’t  boast about how awesome we are.


There were plenty of potters reading the biblical texts when they were first written; they knew how pottery worked.  It could be pliable and workable in the hands of the potter, or it could be hardened and unworkable.  If the clay was hardened and dried (but not yet fired in a kiln), revitalizing it was possible, but the process required time and patience.  The clay had to soak up water to make it malleable enough for the potter to make - or in this case, remake - something beautiful.

We, the “jars of clay” that can become spiritually parched and unworkable, require the same solution, but with a different kind of water.
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In the Bible, we see a “water” image used for:

  • ·      the Word of God (Deuteronomy 32:2; Ephesians 5:25-26)
  • ·      the power of God (Isaiah 59:19)
  • ·      the cleansing presence of Christ (Hebrews 10:22-23)
  • ·      life that flows from the throne of God (Revelations 22:1-2)
  • ·      the faithful presence of God’s people (Proverbs 18:4; Psalm 133:3)
  • ·      the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33)
 God is the Potter; all of us are clay. God keeps us moldable through his presence, his Word, his Holy Spirit, and his people.
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    According to Acts 17, when Paul was in Thessalonica his presence instigated riots.  He went to the synagogue and preached the gospel of Christ, and a lot of people were converted.  Those who were unconvinced caused such a tremendous riot that the Roman authorities made Paul’s friends pay a security deposit to guarantee there would be no more riots. 
     So when Paul wrote to the Thessolanicans about how to live well in their town, it’s interesting that he did not say, “Go and preach like I did in the Jewish temple.  If they riot, it’s a sign that you are doing God’s work!  The more the hate you, the more blessed you are.”  He often says a version of "imitate me as I imitate Christ," but not in this case. No, Paul has an entirely different bit of advice:

“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.” Thessalonians 4:9-12

        Thessalonica was a tough place for Christians to live.  It was full of hardened people and souls.  What should have been beautiful and moldable had become parched.  People were a  shell of what they could have been, easily shattered, in desperate need of the spiritual water that would bring new life.

     In this arid place, Paul gave the church the plan for how God’s people in Thessalonica could bring water to their friends and neighbors so that they could become workable clay again in the hands of God.

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“Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you. Work with your hands so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.”
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Step One:  Love one another.
     Tertullian (ca AD 192) wrote that the Gentiles had noted this: "Behold how these Christians love one another."  The "badge" of Christianity is not an icthus bumper sticker or a cross necklace: it’s love.  True community love was one of the outstanding  evangelistic features of the early Christian church.
Step Two: Lead A Quiet Life
       Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of Paul.  He contrasted the “quiet” person in Greek culture with someone who was evil:
“Besides, the worthless man whose life is one long restlessness haunts market-places, theatres, law-courts, council-halls, assemblies, and every group and gathering of men; his tongue he lets loose for unmeasured, endless, indiscriminate talk, bringing chaos and confusion into everything, mixing true with false, fit with unfit, public with private, holy with profane, sensible with absurd, because he has not been trained to that silence which in season is most excellent.
     No wonder Paul says, “Hey – don’t be like that. Be different.”  We, of all people, ought to display an inner peace that only comes from Christ.
     There is a lot of fear and restlessness about the economy… the elections…the Middle East…gas prices…doomsday scenarios…terrorism…the housing market…the cherry crop… If Paul were writing to us, he would say, “You should be the calm ones.  If anybody is taking a deep breath and offering stability, it should be you – you have Christ.”

Step Three: Mind your own business
      This carries the idea of focusing your time and energy on being the best “you” you can be.  There are strengths and gifts and opportunities unique to each of us. Instead of wondering why our neighbor is not a better person, worry about yourself.  You can’t control your neighbor’s attitude or character or morals or lawn; you can control yours.
  • I can’t make my neighbor parent well…but I can parent my kids well – and model the love God the Father has for his children.
  • I can’t make my neighbor and his wife quit fighting…but I can treat my wife well – and model the love Christ has for the church.
  • I can’t make my neighbor be generous with his money…but I can be generous with mine – and model the generosity of God.
  • I can’t make my neighbor embrace the same family values that I have – but I can raise my family with the family values of the Bible, and show how God’s design for marriage and parenting is a foundational blessing to the world.
Step Four: Work with your hands
      In Paul’s time, The Gentiles regarded manual labor  as degrading. The Jews upheld the dignity of all forms of labor: every Jewish boy was  taught a trade, and even the rabbis learned a trade. Christianity agreed with Judaism:  work is a holy occupation.
(This is not a verse about those who can’t work, by the way.  There are things like sickness, a bad job market, and injury that can make it hard or impossible to work.)
Step Five: Walk properly  
     This is "having good form.”  If you have ever seen Michael Jordan shoot, that’s good form.  If you are a basketball fan, you can’t help but notice. Even if you don’t like Jordan, you grudgingly admit, “The dude can shoot.”  It's that kind of form in ordinary life. This language is very specifically about how Christians should relate to non-Christians

·      Be honest
·      Keep commitments
·      Be kind and courteous
·      Show respect
·      Go out of the way to do good
     The non-Christian Thessalonicans might not like the fact that followers of Christ had made that decision, but it was going to have to be in spite of their lives, not because of their lives. Your life and your testimony are connected.
Step Six: Be dependent on no one
     In 2 Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear: if you can work, you should work. But this command carries a much broader idea of contributing to the community.
     It’s basically saying, “Contribute as best you can to the flourishing of the community around you.  Don’t rely on others to pick up the slack when you are able to.”  I think it’s within the spirit of this verse to say you can do this by trying to make sure the community benefit because you are there.  Contribute, don’t just take.
    The church has had its greatest opportunities historically when in the midst of hardship, they were ready when people turned to them for help. This isn’t simply a command about “rugged self-reliance,” a concept which is embedded in the American dream.  It’s about purposeful preparation with the goal of helping others.
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     David once wrote of God, “My soul thirsts for you, my whole body longs for you, in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.”  (Psalm 63:1)
     I was at the check-out line at Meijers last night, and on the cover of all  the magazines I saw story after story, and picture after picture, of dried out, shattered shards of clay.   We live in a dry and thirsty land. 
     There are some Paul’s in the world who will go on TV and radio and newspapers and “cause riots” as God equips them to bring the water of life to this land in that particular way.  For most of us,  our calling is not so spectacular, but is equally as powerful. 
     We are called to bring the Water of Life to our community, to join with the Word, the Spirit, and the presence of Christ to immerse parched, broken friends and neighbors so that God can revive what once seemed hopeless and mold something beautiful.