Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Heavy Lifting

1 John 5:1-12
Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Occasionally, I go through fits of exercise mania, usually for the purpose of losing weight. For as little as a few days or as long as a few weeks, I faithfully build stamina and strength by applying myself to a regimen of physical activity. And even though I struggle to maintain that regimen over time, I still learn or re-learn something crucial about working one's body, namely, that pushing oneself builds strength. Raising the standard incrementally leads to the wondrous blessing of greater stamina, flexibility, and strength. I can always go farther, stand straighter, and lift heavier things when I build up.

Perhaps the most radical assertion of 1 John is found in today's lesson when the writer informs us not only that our love for God is demonstrated in our obedience to God's commandments, but also that those commands do not constitute a burden for us. Much of the time when we think of God's commandments, we recognize our duty to obey them but we miss much of the joy that comes through that obedience. We assume that God's laws are the curfew meant to disrupt and cut short the party of our lives. In reality, we only think that because we have not been in the practice and habit of obeying God. If we were, then we would realize that God's instruction builds us up, increases our stamina, and enhances our flexibility. In obedience, we become overcomers and victors.

Human life is filled with trials and burdens. Obedience to God's commandments functions as the exercise regimen that tones and hones us so that we can do the heavy lifting of life. Loving God with our obedience builds us up and makes us victorious. Indeed, it is through faith-filled obedience to Christ that we discover what life is really about. For whoever has the Son has life.

Sing, "Trust and Obey"

Let us pray:
We confess, Lord, that we do not always remember that your commandments are for our good. Like unwise children or lazy adults, we drag ourselves along lamenting that your "rules" inhibit our "fun." Forgive us for our folly. Lead us into obedience to your word and way, and thus to the victory that overcomes the world and to abundant and eternal life, in Jesus' name. Amen

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How Deep is Your Love?

1 John 3:18-4:6
Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Many of the worst things that can happen to a car's mechanics happen slowly and silently. By the time the oil gauge lights up on your car to tell you that you're low on oil, most of the time you have been low for long enough to cause real damage to the engine. The same is true for our relationships. By the time the red light appears in them, neglect has already undermined the foundations, and it is often too late for repair. Look under your hood; check your oil. Look into your heart; check your relationships.

Reading 1 John 3, one notices that the church's significant concerns have not changed much in the last two millennia. The relationship with God and with other believers remains at the center. The instruction jolts us. Let us love in truth and in action, not just in word and speech. Much is at stake in this instruction, since the well-being of our entire spiritual life is determined by the depth of the love that we have for each other. If we do not love in action, then our hearts are condemned. If we do not love in action, then our prayers are hindered. If we do not show love, then our spirits are wrong. Only through a life of love can we have the power to discern false spirit. Only when we live in love do we have the confidence that the One who is in us is greater than all that is in the world.

Too often we allow a good show or an eloquent speech to turn our heads. We forget that the test of spiritual vitality is found in our actions not in our words. What we should be asking of ourselves and others is not "how deep is your voice" or "how deep are your pockets" but "how deep is your love"?

Sing, "Bind us Together with Love"

Let us pray:
Loving God, your command that we should love one another is clear. Our failure to live in that love continuously is also apparent. We confess that we have not love one another as we ought, and, therefore, that we have not love you as we ought. Forgive us, Lord, and allow that the power of love in us will show itself to be greater than the power of hatred that is in the world. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, whose love is unfathomable. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Now What?

Matthew 28:16-20
Sunday, 18 May 2008

Life is filled with climactic, mountaintop moments that are followed by anticlimactic or underwhelming aftermaths. I remember when I finished my doctorate and after all of those years of hard work, they gave me a piece of parchment. I wondered, "Now what?" Then there are the people who pray for years to get married and have the wedding of the year only to wake up a couple weeks later and look at their spouse and say, "Now what?"

Earlier in Matthew 28, the greatest feat in human history is accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Now on the mountain, his disciples are wondering what comes next. Jesus' words to them remind us of the continual, perpetual purpose of the believer. First, "Go." You cannot stay where you are. You cannot even remain where you are comfortable. Second, "Make disciples." You cannot remain with the group you're in or even with those with whom you are comfortable. God is commissioning you to reach out to every kind of person and to entreat them to follow the Christ. Third, "Baptize." God wants everyone to be initiated into the family. Thus, you are not to baptize them in your own name, nor in the name of your church or denomination. They are to be baptized into the name and the authority of the Godhead. Fourth, "Teach." Everything you have learned from Christ, you are to teach others. Most importantly, "Remember." Remember that Jesus the Powerful One is also Present. Wherever you are, wherever you go, Jesus goes with you, before you, and behind you - even to the end of the world.

The spiritual life is filled with high moments, singular and memorable moments. Baptism, ordination, joining the church, becoming an officer, to name a few. But high moments are often followed by the question, "Now what?" Now that I am saved, what? Now that I am a church member or officer, what? Now that I am ordained, what? The good news is that the what never changes. Better even than that, is the news that Jesus is always the same.

Sing, "If Jesus Goes With Me"

Let us pray:
In the intense moments of your presence, O Lord, everything seems clear to us. But when we leave the mountaintop, we often forget what we are supposed to do and who we are supposed to be. Unsettle us from our places of complaceny and from our comfort zones. Remind us that as we go, disciple, baptize, and teach, we live fully in your call and commission. As we go, make us to remember that you are with us. Amen

Friday, May 16, 2008

What We Shall Be

1 John 3:1-10
Friday, 16 May 2008

There are lots of reasons to love babies, and anyone who knows me knows that I do. They are for our families both the continuation of what has been and the expression of possibility of what we will be in future. Parents hold their children and look into their lovely little faces and project decades into the future, imagining them in their 20s and 30s and on, seeing them as doctors, lawyers, and other noble professions. We don't know what they shall be, but we love it that they exist.

John's epistle focuses on the love of God that we experience in Jesus Christ and the victory it brings. In today's lesson, we are reminded of three matters that should bring us comfort and compel in us righteous service. First, we are God's children. Since 1 John 1 discusses universal human sinfulness, the fact that chapter 3 asserts that God has bestowed on us the love of a Parent and the privileges of being God's children should leave us grateful and in awe. Second, we are not all that we will be and we don't even know yet what that is. We are a work in progress. Finally, whatever we become when Christ is revealed, we should be comforted by and confident in the fact that we shall be like him.

Although we are far from being babies and most of us have become most of what we imagined ourselves to be, it is needful for us to embrace the reality that in Christ we are still becoming what we shall be. That we have not yet arrived, as old as we are and as hard as we have tried, should not discourage us. Even in our journeying, as we recognize that we have not yet reached our destination, we are always fiercely and wonderfully loved. We always have an enduring hope in Christ. And that love and hope are actually reproducing in us the image of Christ as we consecrate ourselves.

Sing, "Jesus Loves Even Me"

Let us pray:
Amazing and Wonderful God, how privileged we are to be called your children. How grateful we are that you see in us more than we see in ourselves and that you are making us over into what pleases you. As we consider the blessed hope of your glorious appearing, renew in us a commitment to pure and faithful living, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Share the Spirit

Numbers 11:24-30
Pentecost and Mother's Day
Sunday, 11 May 2008

Pentecost is for me one of the most important days of the year. It was on Pentecost Sunday in 1997 that I was ordained and the authority to preach and preside over the holy ordinances, such as communion and baptism, was invested in me through the laying on of hands. In that service, other ministers and even lay members extended their hands to signify their belief that God had called and gifted me for ministry. In that service, they share the Spirit.

For many, the text from Numbers may seem an obscure choice for Pentecost. Acts 2 with its description of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the 120 disciples who gathered in Jerusalem following Jesus' ascension is the obvious choice. But the Old Testament lesson expresses something important about the underlying meaning of Pentecost. Moses the servant of the Lord has spent time in God's presence. And the Lord decides to spread the anointing of the Spirit to other elders and they prophesy. Eldad and Medad prophesy in the camp, and some supporter of Moses reports them. Moses in a moment of prophetic utterance expresses his desire and God's desire simultaneously: I wish that all of God's people were prophets and that the Lord would place God's Spirit on all of them. At Pentecost, that is exactly what God did. They were all filled. They all spoke.

Although we do not all share the same offices in the church, we are all supposed to share in the same Spirit. Each of us should drink of the Spirit and be filled. All of us should be clothed in the Spirit and covered. When I see you moving in the Spirit, I know that the reach of God's power is being extended. And I rejoice!

Let us pray:
Holy Spirit, we invite you to work in us and in all who surround us. Pour out you anointing so that we might be filled. Let your power overflow so that even our environment is transformed. Let your glory fill us, in Jesus' name. Amen

Today, I want us to sing "He Looked Beyond My Fault" in tribute to the late gospel singer Dottie Rambo, who was killed this morning in a bus accident on her way to do a Mother's Day performance.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

And I Mean It

Ephesians 4:17-32
Thursday, 8 May 2008

Most of us grew up in homes where our parents' instructions were not in any way optional. When we were given orders, we knew that we were expected to comply. Still, the intensity of the expectation varied from circumstance to circumstance, such that while all commands were to be followed, some of them had a greater urgency. My mom signified this by adding the words "and I mean it" to the most serious of her rules.

While the tone of the letter has be instructive and cajoling up to now, in today's text the message is firmly given. This firmness is indicative of the seriousness with which we ought to take the insistence that the believer must not live any longer in the former way, the way of people who do not know God. Whether we understand all of the intricacies of the theology of redemption or not, we must endeavor earnestly to put off the old way of live, even the old self, and to embrace the renewal of the mind and the new self, which God created in holiness. This theme has dominated Ephesians since chapter 1, which informed us that God chose us to be holy and blameless. Although the grace of God extends abundantly to us, God employs grace as a tool to lead us to the righteous, new life not as an excuse for our remaining as we always have been.

Change is never easy, especially when the change seems fundamentally to alter us. Nonetheless, it is impossible to live as a believer and please God if we are unwilling to be transformed. God is not playing with us. God means it.

Sing, "He Brought Me Out"

Let us pray:
Gracious God, we invoke your holy presence in our lives to effect the work of transformation in us. And we gratefully yield ourselves to the reordering of our priorities and the re-forming of our characters. May we never return to who we once were, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Take Some Steps

Ephesians 4:1-16
Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Some of the most significant moments of childhood occur when children's mental faculties prevent them from remembering; they are left only with pictures, video, and the recounted memories of their elders to show them when they learned to do what grew to be second nature, such as walking. But even if the children themselves do not remember, their parents certainly know the joy of watching the child take their steps, first halting, then sure.

In Ephesians, as in any reasonable argument, each successive point builds on the last. Here in chapter 4, the writer is finally hitting on the practical implication of the theological explanations in the first 3 chapters. God chose us, gave us grace, saved us, and empowered us with the divine Spirit. Now God is looking for us to take some steps. And most of the steps God wants us to take in the process that will end only when we have grown into the full stature of Christ involve our relationships with the rest of God's people. Although Jesus announced in John 4 that God is looking for people to worship God, it is equally clear that God is looking for God's children to love one another. There are leaders in the church to watch out for us as we begin the walk, and even as sisters and brothers in Christ, we act as conduits of blessing for one another.

Unlike the experience of learning to walk as small children, the walk of faith is a conscious one for us. Although we began as babes in Christ, the goal is to grow up and to be no longer children. There will be a time when our walking will become second nature. But just as a child's walking begins with unsteady steps and progresses to sturdy strides, we also have to start somewhere. We may not be all that we should be or want to be, but we can take some steps.

Sing, "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me"

Let us pray:
Grant, O God, that we may be so led by your Spirit and by taught your messengers that we learn to walk worthily. May we grow up into the fullness of Christ, who is our peace, our freedom, and our victory. Amen

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Ephesians 3:14-21
Tuesday, 6 May 2008

When you pray for the people you love, what do you ask God to do for them? Oh, I imagine that there is the usual list including food, clothing, shelter, protection, good grades, a job with benefits, companionship etc. When I think of my younger relatives, especially, I pray for all of these things. But I also know that all of those things could be present in abundance and the person still might not be truly blessed.

The text today is one of the most incisive and poetic in the whole of scripture. I hear it almost as the voice of a parent to a child as well as that of a spiritual leader to a congregation. The leader prays that God will strengthen the saints, that Christ will dwell in their hearts by faith while they are rooted and grounded in love. Most importantly, on bended knee the leader asks that God's people will plumb the depths, embrace the width, reach the lengths, and ascend to the heights of God's love, thereby being filled with God's fullness. But even in this prayer, a leader always commends the church to God, whose power at work in us can accomplish abundantly more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God!

Although the word is used at the end of the service, "benediction" does not mean ending so much as blessing. And while we are not at the ending of our transition into Pentecost (and Ephesians isn't over either), reflection on these words of blessing is instructive. Beloved, whatever else you may have or lack, please know that God's power is at work in you, doing far more than you can ever ask or think, for this knowledge is the greatest and most important blessing.

Sing "Sweet Hour of Prayer"

Get out your prayer list and pray that prayer for all on the list. 1. To be strong in God's power 2. To have Christ in their hearts 3. To be rooted and grounded in love 4. To know that Christ loves them. As you close your prayer, don't forget to give God the glory.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Worrying about Worrying

Ephesians 3:1-12
Monday, 5 May 2008

I have known what it means to be loved as a pastor. I say this with humility because it astounds me, but I know what it is like to have someone see my struggle and suffering and then struggle and suffer themselves on account of it. I know how it feels myself to be standing strong in the faith and to have others observe it and wonder how I can do it. And I know what it is like to worry about people worrying about me.

The suffering experienced by the pastor in the text is much more intense than any I could even imagine, but his entreaties to the saints suggest that he too knows what it is like to worry about people worrying about him. The whole reading for today demonstrates his encouraging assertions to the Ephesians that the troubles he endures for the gospel's sake are worth it for him and will lead to glory for the saints. What Paul understands is that the mystery of the gospel that has been revealed to and entrusted in him is far more precious and valuable than the conveniences of this world and life that he has given up. Consequently, he can write from jail to people on the outside and tell them, "Don't worry about me." Indeed, he says that his prayers are not for himself but for them, that they will not lose heart.

As difficult as it may be for us to watch anyone we love suffer, we must always remember that the responsibility for protecting the child of God is God's alone. The call of the gospel includes a cross for everyone, a challenge for everyone, a sacrifice for everyone. So, when you see a godly person suffering for righteousness sake, don't worry about them. God's got them. Instead of worrying, follow their example and give yourself more wholly to the glorious gospel.

Sing, "A Charge to Keep I Have"

Let us pray:

Loving God, we give you thanks for the ties that bind us to one another. More than that, we praise you for entrusting your glorious gospel to us. Help us to trust you with our own lives and the lives of those we love, including our leaders. Allow those of us who are leaders to be filled with passion for your work, such that your people may be built up and your name glorified in us. We pray, in Jesus' name. Amen

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Easter's Fullness

John 17:1-11
Easter 7
Sunday, 4 May 2008

I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the significance of biblical numbers. But even without such esoteric knowledge, I am aware that the number seven (7) signifies completion or fullness. And it is the awareness of today as the seventh week of Easter, the last week before the change of seasons represented by the feast of Pentecost, that is the object of my reflections this week. What does it mean to experience Easter's fullness?

John 17 almost seems out of place as a text for the last week of the Easter season, since the scene recounted in it occurred before Jesus' crucifixion. The other text, Acts 1, seems far more appropriate to this time of year. Yet I submit to you that the Lord's prayer in John 17 actually teaches us much that we need to know about the purpose of the resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit whose power we will consider in next week's reading. In John 17, Jesus' themes are glory and unity. He asks his Father to restore the fullness of the glory which he shared with God from the beginning. Jesus also intercedes for the disciples, praying for unity. How powerful it is to observe that as Jesus prepares himself to endure suffering and condemnation, his prayer is not for his own strength but for his disciples' oneness. Jesus knows that his death has a purpose that can only be fulfilled when and as his disciples unite.

As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we would do well to remember that the goal is never for us to one-up each other in Christian community. We are not called to compete with one another to show who sings, preaches, or prays "the best." Rather, our goal and calling come to fullness as we unite and grow closer. God knows that this is not possible apart from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God pours out the Spirit which acts as the seal of our salvation and the cord that binds us in love. Celebrating the Spirit and the bond seems a fitting and full conclusion to the Easter season.

Sing, "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" or "Somebody Prayed for Me" (remember that Jesus prayed)

Let us pray:
Thank you, Lord, for the blessings of this Easter season and for the freshness with which we have received it. Thank you for lifting us up in prayer before your Passion and for the Spirit which constantly makes intercession for us. Grant us, we pray, the unity of the faith so that we your church may aptly fulfill all that you desire. May we show our faith in the resurrected Christ by living together in a spirit of unity, in Jesus' name. Amen

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Blood Ties

Ephesians 2:11-22
Saturday, 3 May 2008

Blood is thicker than water, or so the saying goes. Of course the meaning of this adage is that no matter how close or how distant relatives may seem from the outside, the genetic bond should never be underestimated.

This section of Ephesians 2 begins with the reminder that at first all of the odds were against us. Earlier in the chapter, we learned that our actions, our trespasses and sins condemned us until grace found us. Today, we learned that our bloodline was wrong too. We were hopeless, godless aliens and strangers. But the same grace that redeemed us from our sinful actions also provided for us the missing blood link that would bring us near and into the family of God. This time the blood is not from a human progenitor, but it is the spiritual sacrifice of Christ's blood that brings us to God and that joins us together with one another. Christ is our access; Christ is our peace.

The more I interact with church members, that is, members of the body of Christ, the more I marvel at God's ambitious intentions for us. God brings us together from all directions, persuasions, attitudes, affiliations, and inclinations, and then expects us to be more connected to each other than to anyone else, even the people with whom we have more in common. With human eyes, it looks impossible. But Christ's blood is thicker than our differences. And when we focus on Jesus, we discover how true it is that he alone is our peace. He is what makes our relationships with one another possible and positive. Without him, we will always remain strange and alien to one another. In him, the hostility is gone, and we recognize each other as family.

Sing, "I Know it Was the Blood"

Let us pray:
In this moment, O God, we acknowledge how much you have done for us, how often you have provided for us, how consistently you forgive us. And our gratitude leads us to open our hearts to love and fellowship with all of your children. Grant that we may know the peace of God and live in peace with one another, recognizing always that we are one family through the blood of Jesus Christ. Amen

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wanted: Alive

Ephesians 2:1-10
Friday, 2 May 2008

When I think of the word "wanted" two images come to mind. The first image is of the "most wanted" posters that hang in the post office. The other is of "help wanted" signs in the window of businesses. While the circumstances of the two uses of "wanted" are different, they have in common the fact that the one posting the sign is earnestly seeking to fill an opening.

The most remarkable aspect of our new life in Christ is, according to today's reading, the fact that we have any life at all. Although we did not realize it, when we were in sin, we were actually dead. Now we have been made alive. Just as Ezekiel saw the dry bones in the valley come to life when the four winds blew into them, we too have come to life as the Spirit of God has blown into us. But there are two crucial things that we need to know about the new life we have. First, we didn't earn it; it is a gift of God's grace. Second, our new life has a purpose. Although our works could never merit God's life-giving Spirit, when God chose us God planned for us to produce good works.

Isn't it interesting, sisters and brothers, that we went from the condemned ("most wanted) to the valuable ("help wanted"? By God's grace, we have gone from being bound for judgment to bound for glory. Now God is processing us so that God can get a return on the investment that God has made in us.

Sing, "Amazing Grace"

Let us pray:
Gracious God, to be wanted, loved, and redeemed by you gives us life and gives our lives meaning. To be used in your service is our dearest desire. To live in your presence is our sweetest joy. Grant us the grace to fulfill all that you have in mind in creating and re-creating us, though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Ephesians 1:15-23
Ascension Day
Thursday, 1 May 2008

This week classes ended. Most of my students are seniors and for them the ending of this semester very well may mark the end of their formal schooling, at least for a time. But often the ending of one season marks the beginning of another. My students leave Penn with the hope that this ending (graduation) truly is the beginning (commencement) of their productive and successful adulthood.

The text from Ephesians continues the theme of God's purpose in choosing us. As is always the case, we are instructed to turn our vision fully on Jesus Christ. The scripture invites us to see Jesus descending into the grave and then ascending triumphant into heaven. Observing this, we come to know our hope, the riches of our inheritance in Christ, and the immeasurable greatness of his power. Our hope rests in Christ, whom God raised from the dead and who reigns supreme over every other force and power we will ever encounter.

Today marks the church-wide commemoration of the ending of the Lord's earthly ministry with the Ascension of our Lord. Having secured the believer's salvation and hope, Jesus was taken out of his disciples' sight. With the Lord's ascension, we join the disciples in the Jerusalem, where they are instructed to remain during the transition between Christ's ascending and the Holy Spirit's descending 10 days later at Pentecost.

With this first devotional of the 10-day transition period, I am inviting you to join me in reflecting on what we have known of God before and where God would carry us in our next season.

Sing, "My Hope is Built"

Let us pray:
God our Hope, on this day and in the midst of these transitions, we stretch forward with expectation concerning the power that is to come. Help us to release what is past, to be freed from all the things that tether us to this world. We offer our thanksgiving for what we have survived so that we could approach the new beginnings you are offering. Help us likewise to survive this transition and land safely in the glory that is to come, through Jesus Christ our Rock and Redeemer. Amen