community

A Place To Call Home (Insights From Philemon)

God has placed within us all a longing to belong. Sometimes we feel it in our families; sometimes we don’t. The same goes for school, work, social circles, and church. We long for that place that will always take care of us and never leave us.  A place where we don’t have to wear make-up, and we can wear sweats until supper time. In this sense, home is something bigger than “house” or “family” or “what I know.” Home is a place we want to go, and when we leave, we want to return.  

When Paul writes to Philemon about how Philemon was to welcome Onesimus back, he’s talking about building a home, a koinonos, a community of  people with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive, solo or selfish.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community. And in order for that life to be a meaningful reflection of God's heart for the world,several key things must be in place.

Equality (in Christ)

 Paul wrote to Philemon, “Open your heart to [Onesimus] as you would welcome me…accept him as a brother…” There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We all bear his image. Christ died for all of us. We all are made righteous because of what Christ has done, not what we can offer. None of us can earn our way into heaven or grace. True church community doesn’t elevate men or women, rich or poor, extroverts or introverts, blue-collar or white-collar, single or married, pastor or parishioner.  True church community doesn’t put people on a pedestal based on background or education.

 This can be hard. We might want to be noticed. We might want to believe we simply are better than others. We might want to be able to rule… but that’s not communion. That’s not self-sacrificial, broken living for the sake of those around us. We give up our right to pride, to be noticed, to be seen. We give up pointing out our background or degree or importance. We give up our expectations that others serve us. We give our claims to power. 

In a church community of genuine communion, we will do our best to make sure the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.  When we look up, all we should see above us is Christ.  When we look down, all we should see below us is dirt. All around – those whom Christ loves. That, I think, would feel like home.

Trust (in Christ)

Paul noted that God may have been at work in this situation in ways that Philemon did not understand: “Perhaps that is why [Onesimus] is parted from you.”  The verb in Greek indicates that God parted Onesimus from Philemon. In other words, God is often at work in ways we don’t understand. We should be actively looking to see what good God is bringing out of situations that look bad – which also means actively looking to see what God is doing in even those who have hurt and offended us.

This is not easy. It’s one thing to look for how Christ is working in the beautiful people who make you happy, but the ugly ones who tick you off? Really? The person who gossiped about me? Overlooked me? Said some things that really hurt me? Shamed me? Who betrayed me? We must give up our right to anger, judgment, bearing a grudge, giving excuses, getting even, hoping for something bad to happen. 

Trust reminds us that God might be working in their life too. This good news for all of us. For every time I trust God in the midst of a situation like that, someone else is trusting God about me in the midst of a situation that I cause. We are all in this together. This doesn’t mean that God causes every situation.  And trusting that God is present and working is different from not speaking truth or enabling ongoing bad behavior around us. But I think we would be surprised at the things that are redeemable.

In a church community of genuine communion, everyone will be looking to see God at work in the lives of others in the midst of their sins and imperfections. That, I think, would feel like home.

Love (from Christ)

 The Greeks always had a pragmatic reason for doing loving things:

  • hospitality made trade and travel safer
  • self-sacrifice in war helped create military machines
  • the love of children or parents kept households together
  • male friendships were the basis of politics and business.

 Paul had a different approach. He says, “I choose to appeal to you on account of love” and then shows Philemon what the love Paul was talking about looks like. “And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me. Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything.”

 “Charge it to me,” is a commercial term of paying the debt of another. When Paul “wrote with his own hand” (v.19), it was a legal promissory note that Philemon could use in a civil suit and sue Paul for the money (or Paul’s estate, if Paul died).  Who would show love for the sake of showing love? Who would embrace someone else as part of their family if there was no practical payoff? Where did Paul get the idea that a third party could pay the debt of another? From Christ, or course, who died for us all while we were sinners, dead in our trespasses and sins.

One sign that we understand the gospel is that we don’t simply know about it – we live it. We try to find ways to embody Christ’s commitment, love and sacrifice for those around us.  We are committed to a life that imitates Christ’s death by being broken and spilled out so that others may live. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he had quite a bit to say about love. Among other things he wrote, “Love patient, love is kind; love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does insist on its own way, and it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

But there’s an interesting twist when it comes to translations. In 1 Corinthians 13, there are no adjectives in the Greek. We translate them that way (“Love is patient”), but in the Greek it’s a mass of verbs, things love does and does not do. At one point Paul even takes what would normally be two Greek adjectives and makes a new verb. It should read something like this: “Love patients; love kinds; love does not envy, boast, act arrogantly or rudely. It does not insist on its own way; it does not act irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

 That’s the kind of love where people are breaking off a piece of their heart constantly for others. It’s not a place where you show up and take and absorb and simply accept the sacrifice of others. It’s a place where you accept and give.  You receive to pass it on. It’s a church community where we seek to bear burdens that are not ours, to pick up the pieces when we didn’t break it.  It’s a church community where we say, “Charge it to me. I will spend time in nursery with kids that aren’t mine, and bring food to a potluck when I know others don’t, and mentor someone who should have known better.”

It’s a church community where we choose to bear the weight of grace not because there is something in it for us, but because Christ bore the ultimate weight of our sins and gave us the greatest grace of forgiveness and salvation – and we have opportunity to do what we can in remembrance of Him. 

That, I think, would feel like home.

Of Food and Freedom

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The Apostle Paul often used real-life situations to highlight the unchanging truths hidden beneath the surface.  In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses an issue that, while not sinful on the surface, was still causing harm to members of this fledgling church.

“Now let’s talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols. You think that everyone should agree with your perfect knowledge. While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.  But the person who loves God is the one God knows and cares for.” 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NLT) 

Corinth was filled with pagan temples. It was common for worshipers to offer animals to the god as a sacrifice. After a tiny part was burned on the altar, the remainder would be given to the temple priest, servants or local magistrates who then sold the surplus to the town butchers. If you lived in Corinth, there were several ways that you might come in contact with meat that had been sacrificed to idols: 

  • Buying meat in the marketplace. At the end of the day, a lot of meat was taken from the temples and sold.  Christians who was shopping always encountered the possibility that they were purchasing meat previously offered to an idol. (1 Corinthians 10:25).
  • Eating dinner at the home of friends and neighbors. If your neighbors invited you to dinner, there was no good way to know if the meat they served had been sacrificed to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27).
  • Eating in the pagan temples themselves. Some of the pagan temples could accommodate huge crowds for public affairs or community social functions.  The subject had nothing to do with the idol worship, but often the meeting would include a meal. If you were a Christian attending one of these public meetings, the meat served at this banquet had probably been offered to the temple god earlier that day.

 Two different views arose in the church at Corinth about how a believer should handle this. One group considered the food to be defiled by its association with the pagan idol. This group refused to eat the food, and they were offended by other believers who did eat.

The other group claimed that the food itself was not defiled in any way.  Since these idols were not gods at all, the meat was not really defiled. It could be eaten guilt-free. Paul goes into great detail as to why this belief is better than the other – but he doesn’t stop there.

This second group of believers looked down on other believers who abstained from eating the meat sacrificed to idols. The first group thought those eating were traitors to their faith. Predictably, the church was full of confusion, tension, arrogance, and probably a lot of gossip.

 This tension is bigger than just meat offered to idols, though. It’s really about relationships in the community --- and that community is the church of Jesus Christ.  

 “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge.  Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Paul isn’t saying that knowledge is unimportant.  Having correct knowledge is crucial!  Rather, he’s saying that knowledge alone tends to create pride. But when knowledge is joined with love, it becomes a much better guide to righteous behavior.

"If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" …" (1 Corinthians 8:2) 

We use factual knowledge in much the same way a building uses a foundation. I’ve been watching the construction of a drugstore here in Traverse City.  It is a very well built structure – cement blocks covered with a brick veneer.  There is nothing flimsy about that building!  But before any of that construction began, they spent over a week digging and pouring massive foundations, wide and deep. The building will be secure for a long, long time.

I think we use knowledge is a similar way – to substantiate our worth and position in a world where we are often timid and uncertain of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a tool to establish ourselves as worthwhile individuals among others who are obviously less well-informed.  Remember, the foundation isn’t wrong or unimportant to that drugstore that is being built.  Nor is knowledge bad or unimportant in the relationships we’re building.  It is a tool - and like any tool, must be used properly.

So, the first step in making knowledge useful is to know its limitations. Christians are fallen creatures with limited knowledge – being saved doesn’t miraculously turn us into all-knowing beings.  God alone has unlimited or complete knowledge!  Humility is precious, and nothing tempers our knowledge like humility. The true purpose of knowledge is to promote the welfare of others. Knowledge must be accompanied by and delivered in love.

 Those who have the greater knowledge and spiritual maturity are the ones who should accommodate the less mature. They should abstain from activities that might harm the faith and life of those who are weaker.  Paul already said in verse one that the whole “eating thing” doesn’t make believers better or worse in God's eyes, but that this sense of superiority can cause harm to others. It’s a stumbling block to the weaker brother or sister and it can lead them into confusion…and possibly even lead to sinful behavior in the young believer’s walk. So, rather than causing a brother to sin, it was better for them to forgo their Christian liberty (change their behavior) in these cases.

Our choices and our behaviors should be motivated and characterized by self-sacrificing love for those around us, rather than by knowledge (or freedom) alone. 

Conquering the Course of Life (1 Corinthians 7)

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In some ways, life is like a slalom course. There are sudden turns that come too fast, rough water, fatigue, sharp turns, wakes that can send you flying or flailing. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts. 

So how do we successfully navigate the slalom course of life? Rough waters show up in many ways: the death of a loved one, sickness, employment changes, relational breakdowns. Our lives taken sudden turns when our children get in trouble, or our friends let us down. Fatigue sets in when our ministry is unappreciated or ineffective. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts.

A common mistake is to use all our energy to change our circumstance. When we encounter rough waters and sharp turns, we look for a different job, a different car, a different town, a different husband or wife, a different church. If we are unhappy single, we look for a spouse. If we are unhappy married we look for a way out. We’re sure that if we can just change our circumstance our lives will change for the better.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses people who are having trouble on the course of their life. While his message is aimed toward several particular groups, Paul has a common message for all of them: no matter the water, the weather, or the twists and turns of life,  pursue undistracted devotion to the Lord (v. 35). 

First, he addresses those who are unhappy with their relational status, and he begins with those who are married:

 “But because of immoralities let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband give his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. “ (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)

    Paul is not saying sex is the only or most important reason for marriage. He is answering a specific questions Corinthians had about marriage at that time and in their circumstances. Considering the culture in which they lived, it’s no surprise they had some questions about sex.

As noted earlier in 1 Corinthians, some of the Christians thought it was okay to hire prostitutes, and now others were wondering if it really spiritual spouses should have sex at all. Paul says no to the former and yes to the latter, but he moves the subject beyond just sex – affection matters too. (For what it's worth, Paul may have been married at one time. He was an exemplary Jew (Philippians 3:4-6). Jews believed that an unmarried twenty-year-old man was sinning by not being married. Paul was likely a member of the Sanhedrin (as he “cast my vote” in Acts 26:10), and only married men could be members of the Sanhedrin). Basically Paul says (and I am, of course, paraphrasing):

“Here’s what you need to navigate the slalom course of marriage. Self-sacrifice is the rough water; responsibility the fatigue. Your body isn’t yours alone. It belongs to God first and your mate second. The entire relationship - including sex -  not just one person’s duty and the other one’s privilege. You need to meet each other’s sexual and emotional needs, and you need to hang in there even when you want to drop the rope and call it quits.

‘But he/she brings out the worst in me!’  Yep. That’s one way God reveals who you really are. Don’t change mates - change yourself by the grace of God. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, part of the “body” of Christ on earth. Like Christ, you are called to be a loving servant, blessing when cursed, forgiving, interceding, confronting in love, and sacrificing. Don’t serve with expectation of earning something in return; it will only lead to resentment. You are trying to please the Lord and your spouse, not get something from them.”

Next, Paul addresses those who are single:

“(vs. 7-9) I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, but I say to the unmarried and the widow that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. (Vs 28) But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (Vs 32-34) But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided."

If I may paraphrase Paul again, I believe he is saying something like this:

Here’s the reality. You are on the slalom course of the single life. There’s basically one thing you need to know in order to navigate that course, come rough waters or fatigue: Marriage is a challenge. It’s hard. Staying single will free you from the relational challenges of marriage and free you to serve God with undivided attention. Sexual temptation is the rough water; loneliness the fatigue. If God has given you the ability to stay the course, stay the course. The slalom is not necessarily easier on the other side of the lake.”

On the slalom course, you can’t change the course – but you can learn how to navigate in such a way that the challenges become the very things that bring you joy. Paul says in verse 7 that successfully navigating both marriage and singleness is a “gift,” and he uses the same word he uses in 1 Corinthians 12 to describe spiritual gifts that God gives believers. Some are able and willing to please God better while being single, others while being married. Paul summarizes his teaching on singleness and marriage with this line in verse 17: Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches."

If you read the entire chapter, you will see that Paul applied this principle even more broadly:

"Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave." (vs. 18-21)

That may seem like an odd list to include with marriage and singleness, but all of these "stations" in life were a big deal at the time. Marital status played a huge factor in social standing in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew culture; circumcision was such a contentious issue that the first church council in Acts had to deal with it (and there was a method to reverse a circumcisions); slaves were scorned by everyone.  Jewish men routinely thanked God for not making them a woman, a Gentile, or a slave.   

In the cultural context, Paul tells people that in the midst of their circumstance - no matter how dire - they were to live as a believer, not because their situation was perfect, but because God was present.  Meanwhile, Paul gives advice on how to make that circumstance better (or in the case of slavery, a hope that it will end). Husbands and wives, give affection and show submission to your spouse; Gentile Christians, don't feel obligated to get circumcised; Jewish Christians, don't feel the need to reverse a circumcision; slaves, Christ has made you as free as anyone else - and if there is a way to make your physical reality match your spiritual one, that's ideal. And while Paul does not address slave owners directly, surely there is an implication for them as well. 

The bottom line? Live devoted to God, no matter how dire the circumstances.

To Paul ,the most important thing was not changing circumstances (though he offers a path of hope). The most important things was changing our stance in the midst of our circumstance.

 - Based on the sermon notes of Scott Norris, 9/16/12

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.

What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica

(Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex, Purity, and Justice) 

     One of the most popular ads right now promises us a world in which we can do some incredibly stupid and maybe even fun things in Vegas, and not have them effect us at all. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Expense tabs, debt, compromises of morality, memories, and hotel towels seem to find their way back home, even in the movies.

    As much as we may want this to be true, wanting something to be true doesn't actually make it so.  I'm sure sky diving instructors don't comfort nervous jumpers by saying, "Don't worry?  This event is totally separate from the rest of your life! What happens in the air stays in the air."  For that matter, ask employers if what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

    What we do even in Vegas matters.  The Hangover was a raunchy movie, but even it had the decency to point out that what happened in Vegas had a ripple effect. Skydivers have to land; the words we post in social media are words we say in the real world, and they stay with us.

     We can’t segment our lives. Our experiences are all connected.  TV is episodic; life is not.  What happens in Vegas become one small story in the bigger story of my life, and that narrative does not stop.  Ever.  What happens in Vegas will stay with me the rest of my life.

    We can’t separate the physical part of us from the spiritual part of us, either.  I've talked to many people who have been determined to believe that “What happens on the outside of my body stays on the outside.”  Once again, this is not the way the world works.  What we do on the outside effects the inside.
    
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 2,000 years ago, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica.  In the first several chapters he noted:
  • they were full of faith (they had turned from idols to the living God);
  • they loved each other and seemed to understand community well; 
  • they were enduring persecution well; 
  • their reputation had spread far and wide. 
   In spite of all these good things, there was a problem to address. Apparently, there were a number of people who were convinced that “What happens in Thessalonica stays in Thessalonica.”  
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  This is the will (desire, purpose) of God: your sanctification  (purity): You should avoid sexual immorality." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)

     For Paul's readers, the word he chose for "living"would have invoked an image of walking about in an ordinary day. Paul starts this section by saying they are pleasing God (two thumbs up!) but there is more they need to know.  In this case, they needed to focus very specifically on an area that causing them to stumble:  sexual purity.

     The word translated as “sexual immorality” provides an umbrella under which a lot of sexual activity fits: promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, pornography… The list goes on.  Basically, their sex lives needed the purity of sanctification.

     At the time Paul wrote this, the Gentiles in Thessolonica lived in a culture saturated with distorted views of marriage, sex, and family. Historians recorded upper class Roman ladies identifying years not by chronological numbers, but by the names of their ever-changing husbands. One Greek writer noted: ”We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”

     Paul was writing to a church with people who had this lifestyle embedded in them. They had to learn a new way of viewing sex.
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    “ The most crucial theological truth about sexuality is that God loves sex and evil hates it.  God made us sexual, and He glories in his plan for our union and joy.  Evil hates what God loves, and it has found that more harm can be done through sex then perhaps any other means.  Often the chief battleground for the human soul is the terrain of sexuality.”                                    - Dan Allender

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  Here in an important biblical truth:  sex is holy and sacred, and act of self-sacrifice, intimacy, commitment and trust.

    That's why Christians make such a big deal about it. Sex is not just another thing we do, like shopping.  Sex effects our souls. And because it's such a big deal, God has provided pretty clear instructions about how we are supposed to live in this area.

   First, he sets a boundary: sex is to be experienced only within marriage.  This may seem restrictive, but because of God's purposes for sex, that boundary is necessary.  Rivers need banks; cars need roads; stock markets need regulation; my blood needs veins and arteries.  In every area of life, we see how boundaries maximize the ability of things to flourish. Sex is no exception.
 
     Second, God intends sex to fulfill at least four key purposes: procreation, unity, personal formation, and pleasure.  While some of these can clearly be experienced out of marriage, understating how all four work together to fulfill God's purpose is important.

    Procreation: Sex brings babies.  This is not a secret. That fact that we can avoid the consequence of children does not negate that this is a key reason we have sex.  Children are a blessing, a gift from God. Not only do we ensure the continuation of humanity, but we have an opportunity to experience a glimpse of the kind of love God has toward us. God is our Father in a spiritual sense; how important is it, then, that earthly fathers embody that type of fatherhood God gives us - loving, committed, just, pure, holy?
     Unity: Sex is meant to seal bonds of trust, love and commitment.  That's one reason God sets marriage as a boundary line: during sex, we communicate with our bodies that we have made a covenant; we can now give each other everything, baring body in soul in mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It's no secret that sex within marriage might not fully fulfill this design.  Sex outside of marriage simply cannot.
     Personal formation: Sex refines us. Two very different people, with different levels of desire, different schedules, different libidos, different love languages, different personalities. different....everything.... must make this funny, embarrassing, awkward, intimate and beautiful act become good and meaningful for both people.  That's not necessarily easy. It will require patience and selflessness.  Within the safety of covenant, we have the freedom to explore sex without worrying that our marriage partner will leave because we don't do everything just right. Over time, we become better people as we learn to understand, appreciate, and whole-heartedly embrace our spouse completely.
     Pleasure:  Some may argue this is a very nice side effect, and it may well be simply a nice perk.  But if pleasure is one of the characteristics of life in eternity with God, I'm not sure why He wouldn't purposefully give us glimpses now.    

 “And ‘control your own vessel’ in a way that is holy and honorable, not overpowered by lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians  4:4-5)

    "Control your own vessel" is not really bumper sticker material.  It's a phrase that seems archaic, but seeing how writers use it other places in the Bible can be helpful. Based on its placement elsewhere, "vessel" can be read two possible ways:
  • "Control yourself sexually in a way that is holy and honorable." (See a comparable example in 2 Corinthians 4:7)
  • "Relate to your spouse sexually in a way that is holy and honorable. (See a comparable example in 1 Peter 3:7)
   It's a brilliant word choice.  No one in the Thessalonican church could honestly read the letter, then look around the room and say, “The rest of you should really listen up!!!”  Married or single, there is a holy and honorable way to handle your sex drive.
    Then Paul makes an important distinction: those who know God are supposed to know the purpose of sex; those who do not know God don't have the same advantage.  Those who know God are supposed to know why sex matters; those who do not know God have fun but ultimately aimless sex, unhooked from deeper notions of design and purpose. "Just do it!" would have been a relevant slogan 2,000 years ago.
     Here's an analogy: If someone gave you a car and taught you to drive safely, but didn’t tell you why you should drive, would that be enough?  Sure, driving is fun; the GPS is really cool; the leather seats are nice; learning safe driving tips is helpful.  
    But at some point wouldn't you say, “What’s the point?  This is great as far as road trips go, but where am I going exactly?  My GPS shows me where I AM, but not where I’m going or where I should be - or why I'm even on this road heading to that place. I might be having a lot of fun going somewhere bad. Wait - is this Michigan Stadium?  Ahhhhh!”
  In Thessalonica they had nice, shiny cars, and they knew how to drive, but they didn’t know the purpose. They didn't know where they were going, or why.  
     Following our desires for sex is not necessarily wrong any more than having a car and driving somewhere is bad.  The vehicle and the road are not the problem; problems arise when we follow our God-given sexual desires in a way that the roads we take break God’s will and take us to the wrong destinations.  
     We can engage in sex just for fun, or just to ease loneliness, or just because we feel like it, or because we truly love someone.  We drive the car for a lot of reasons, and the journey is nice, but we separate the act from the purpose at our peril.  God has a purpose for everything we do.  What we do with our skin effects our soul. When we have sex (or do anything, really) something is happening to our character, priorities, view of pleasure, view of people, and relationship with God.
    What we do forms us into a people of increasing or decreasing holiness and honor.
    Paul phrases the verse in a negative sense: "They don't know God so they don't understand the purpose of sex."  There is an assumed message here that is far more positive: “You understand the purpose because you DO know God.”
   But how many Christians who claim to know God actually know the purpose of sex?

 “And that in this matter no one should exploit or violate a brother or sister.” Thessalonians 4:6) 
In Paul's time, Thessalonica was the hub of a lot of commerce.  The Thessalonians understood in economic terms what it meant to exploit or violate people:
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (a merchant who knows what ought to be done and constantly pushes the boundaries of the law)
  • Cheating and defrauding in trade and business (merchants who used weighted scales – taking more than they should at the expense of others)
  • Increasing or lessening the value and prices of goods by the buyer and seller (they would cheapen something valuable in order to profit at the expense of the seller)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they didn't understand - or didn't care about - the importance of commitment)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they could spot those easily manipulated and take what they wanted from them)
   To an audience that understood exploitation and fraud, Paul explains that sex outside of God’s design and purpose does the same thing.  The stakes are higher, though, because now they are trading in dignity, respect, honor, and people, not merely things. Like the merchants, they are: 
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (they know what kind of respect ought to be shown,  yet they constantly push the boundaries)
  • Cheating and defrauding (they take more than they should at the expense of the other person)
  • Lessening the value of sex (they cheapen purity, sex, intimacy and trust)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they you don’t understand the importance of covenant)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they spot those easily manipulated and take what they want from them)
     On the one hand, this is a depressing list that reveals a treatment of people that not only damages others but damages society as well.  On the other hand, treating people with honor and holiness brings about the opposite effect: a society in which both individuals and communities flourish as honor, dignity, and value are returned to one of the most intimate acts we can do.  How is this accomplished?
  • Enforcing the bounds of justice (we know what proper sexual boundaries are,  and we protect them.)
  • Helping others flourish (if the scales are going to tip on question of sex and purity, it will be in favor of purity.  The question is not "How far can I go?" but "How pure can I stay?")
  • Attaching the proper value to people and sex (increasing the value of sex and intimacy by treating it like the precious gift it is, and helping others guard their purity) 
  • Keeping and honoring covenants (understanding that every relationship trains people how to flourish or flounder in an eventual or existing covenant. This involves treating someone else’s future or present spouse like they want others to treat their future or present spouse.)
  • Protecting the weak and vulnerable (in a world where so many people are vulnerable in this area for a lot of different reasons, honorable people stand out because they protect those most in need of a hero). 
That the kind of world purity and self-control offer. 
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Between Crucifixion and Resurrection: Two Kind of Roads

(Read Part 1: "Between Crucifixion and Resurrection: A World Without God")   
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  In Luke Chapter 24 we see an event that takes place in the time between the death and the resurrection of Jesus

A time without hope. 
A time where it looked like they had been the prophets of a failed Messiah. 
A time when they tried so hard, but in the end it looked like nothing they really mattered.

Luke 24:13-27
     Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days? “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him;  but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel...  Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 

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     There is a world of hurt in this statement: “We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Can we all be honest?  There are times when Jesus feels GONE, and even if Jesus were standing right next to us, we wouldn’t be able to see him.
      There are times in life in which we feel abandoned, alone, and hopeless.  The Bible’s honest about it – there’s no shame in acknowledging what we all know to be true.  But those times didn’t last.  They are just seasons the Christ redeems.   
      There was always hope;  a God of Resurrection know how to bring life from death.  I didn’t see it at the times I was struggling, but Jesus was always there, on my Emmaus Road, walking with me. It just took me a while to see Him.
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     So what is the solution? Are there things we can do to get out of these times of despair? I don’t have a magic formula, but the Bible gives us basic principles: 

Psalm 121:1-2
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— 
where does my help come from? 
My help comes from the LORD, 
  the Maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 123:1-2
Unto you I lift up my eyes, O God who dwells in the heavens… our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.”
"My voice you will hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto you, and will look up.”  Psalm 5:3
    I hear the language in the Bible over and over again about directing our sight toward God, toward Christ. “I will lift up my eyes…”  We even see this imagery embedded in the story of the Emmaus Road in Luke 24:30:
 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.
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     How do we look up and find Christ in the midst of despair?  I notice three things in the Emmaus Road story that are instructive.
1)     A community of Christians.  Cleopas was with a friend on the road to Emmaus. Even in the midst of his despair and disillusionment, he walked life's road with a friend. So often, we want to retreat and not let people in to the areas of our hearts and lives that seem desolate.  But we need the company of others!
2)     A study of the Bible.  Among other things, Jesus explained the Word to them.  He opened up the Bible and showed them truths that had always been there, but they had somehow missed.  The Bible is given to us so that we meet the Way, the Truth, and the Life through a message He has preserved for our hope. 
3)     A conversation with our Savior.  It's one thing to read about the Way, the Truth, and the Life - it's quite another to speak to Christ and experience his presences.  We see on the the road to Emmaus that the travelers fellowshipped with Jesus himself.  They talked; they shared supper and communion with Him. We can't talk to Christ like this, but we can pray - we can speak to God, knowing He hears, and that He is near.

The Path to Peace

James 4:4-5 “You have committed spiritual adultery against God!  Don’t you know that the love of this world’s pleasures is an act of hostility against God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the corruption of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Do you think that the Scripture was lying  about this, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us wants us to envy others instead of being contented with the provision of God in our lives?”

Envy is an ugly thing.  It eats away at our should while tearing apart our community.  It manifests itself in mean gossip, destructive whispering, and petty complaints.  We want and want and want more - often specifically what someone else has.  More often than not, envious people are pretty sure the problem is that they just haven't received what should have been coming to them.  "I deserve better!" may not be spoken aloud, but it is certainly believed.

Here is a transformative principle:  Our community life is connected to our spiritual life. The way I treat people reflects they way I view God.The way I view God will be expressed in the way I treat others. If there is ongoing tension and disruption in church life, perhaps the issue is a spiritual one.

Let’s be clear: some conflicts are genuine and needed.  If there is disagreement about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, or  if clear issues of moral behavior are right or wrong, then conflict can be necessary and hopefully redemptive. In fact, sometimes the phrase “I deserve better” is true; abuse victims truly do need saving.

This is not what James is talking about when he writes about envy and the role it plays in destroying communities. He is talking about:

the petty bickering,
the simmering undercurrents of hostility,
the unresolved, unending tension that keeps cropping up in church
   life,
the feuds that fester,
the rumor that someone won’t let die,
the reputation that keeps coming up to the embarrassment of the one
  who once failed,
the muttered remarks meant to shame those blessed by God with
  obvious success….

We don’t have to actually steal stuff and kill people to take from them what is rightfully theirs and destroy their lives.  We can do it with words, attitudes, and emotions too. James’ words on this subject are hard and demanding: You have a tough time living well in community because something bad has happened to your relationship with God.

But there is good news:

James 4:6-10 “God’s lavish grace enables us to resist the temptations and bear the trials of life with humility and trust, knowing that God’s Holy Spirit has said, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  So, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil (who would tempt you to envy) and he will flee from you; walk closely to God, and God will be close to you.

If you want inner contentment and community peace, there is a way:  resist temptation, repent, live a life of humility, and remain in submission to God.

A couple weeks ago Madonna sang during half time of the Superbowl.  As the last notes faded, the phrase "World Peace" appeared on the field. That's a great goal, but I wonder: does her plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?

We want peace in ourselves, our families, our church.  That's a great goal too. Does our plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?

If not, peace will remain elusive. If we are willing to do these things, “The Lord will lift us up.”

FREEDOM

 But whoever studies and knows God’s perfect law of liberty that brings true freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard and seen about themselves, but actually changing because of it—they will be blessed as a result of their honesty and obedience.  Real faith, the kind that honors God, expresses itself: it reaches out to the homeless and alone, and works to keep itself pure in the midst of a godless world.         (James 1:25-27)


   Ever watch kids play when one of them makes up the rules as they go along? Their freedom with the rules has robbed the others of the freedom to enjoy the game, and usually of their good attitude.  This in turn robs us parents of the freedom to talk with little Bobby’s mom or day while the kids play.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Ever driven with someone who apparently has no sense of the rules of the road?  Stop signs are pause signs, speed limits are silly, merging is an opportunity to show people you aren’t scared, double yellow lines are mere suggestions, maybe even blood alcohol levels are irrelevant.  Their freedom is robbing others of the ability to drive free from the worry of accidents.  It might rob their family of money if they have to pay a fine.  It might even rob somebody of their life.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Or perhaps you know someone or have experienced yourself what happens when addictive behaviors result from freely chosen decisions.

   When your freedom destroys you and hurts those around you, you need a different definition of freedom.  A true exercise of freedom simultaneously brings life to us and brings life  others.

    As followers of Christ we are freed from the bondage of sin. We are released into the “perfect law of liberty,” not into the perfect lawlessness of liberty.James’s perfect law of liberty does not mean, “Do what you want.  You now have free access to the world without having to think about anybody but yourself. ”  It means you had once been a slave to things that were breaking you down and ruining you and those around you, but God in his mercy has shown you how to be released from that bondage and live in such a way that God is seen in and through you.