By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. [1 John 3:16-18 (ESV)]

great blue heronIn Acts 6, Luke writes about a problem with the Hellenistic Jewish believers. Meaning “to speak Greek” or “to make Greek,” Hellenism describes Jewish assimilation to the Greek language, manners, and culture. The process started in the 4th century BC with Alexander’s conquest of Palestine when Greeks settled into the land and, at the same time, Jews dispersed throughout Greek empire.

By the 1st century, there were two distinct groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. The first, the “Hebrew” Jews, were those who prided themselves on the fact they’d always lived in the land of the Patriarchs. (By that time, Babylonia and Syria were considered an extension of that land.) Having been born in Palestine, these Hebraic Jews spoke Palestinian Aramaic and/or Hebrew, used the Hebrew Scriptures, lived in or near Judea, observed Jewish customs, and regularly worshipped at the Temple. The other group, referred to as “Hellenized” Jews, consisted of Jews who once lived among Gentiles in Greek cities or Roman colonies. Coming from places like Crete, Cyrene, Alexandria, Cicilia, and Asia, they spoke the Greek language, were more influenced by the Greek philosophers, and used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint. Less observant of the Jewish customs and oral traditions that had developed over the centuries in Judea and Babylonia, Hellenists often were clean shaven. Like many immigrants, they settled in areas populated by others like them and had their own synagogues in which they worshiped.

While no less Jewish than their brothers, these Hellenists were looked down upon because they came from other parts of the world. Customarily, pious elderly Jews who were not from Judea would come to Jerusalem so they could die in the land of their people. Although these newcomers came to Judea out of devotion to Jehovah and the Torah, the Hebraic Jews  suspected them of being more Greek than Hebrew and considered them outsiders. The Talmud says the Pharisees considered any Jew not native-born a “second-class Israelite.”

The vast majority of Jesus’ first followers were Hebraic Jews and the new church was led by them. Nevertheless, both Hebraic and Hellenized Jews would have been among the 3,000 who became followers of Christ on Pentecost. In Jewish law, a woman did not receive an inheritance and, if widowed, became dependent on relatives and the community for support. Because so many of the foreign Jews returning to Jerusalem were elderly, there was a disproportionate number of Hellenist widows in their community. Strangers in a new land, the widows had no relatives at hand to care for them as would the Hebrew widows of the longtime residents. Moreover, by choosing to become Christ followers, they may have lost any assistance they might have received from their Hellenist synagogue.

Although the Torah commanded caring for widows and Jesus instructed us to care for the needy, the Hellenist Jews in the new church complained that their widows were being neglected in the food distribution. While the slight may have been the result of the church’s rapid growth, it was deeply felt and threatened the message and unity of the new church. In an example of godly wisdom and Christian unity, the church quickly addressed the problem and commissioned seven men to meet the community’s needs. The standard Greek names of all those chosen indicate the church intentionally chose Hellenists to right the wrong that had been done.

The early church’s neglect of those widows may have been inadvertent but it also may have indicated a larger conflict between two groups with vastly different cultural backgrounds. I wonder if the Hebrew Jews’ long-held contempt for the foreign-born Hellenists (“second-class Israelites”) truly ended when they became Christ followers. Could some people have carried their pre-conversion bias into the church when they became believers? With all of the prejudice, stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, and animosity we have in today’s world, I must ask if we’ve brought any of that into today’s church, as well.

Do we truly love our neighbor and welcome the stranger no matter what their citizenship standing, economic level, political viewpoint, nationality, race, sex, language, or background? We should!

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26-28 (ESV)]

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Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. [Ephesians 2:20-21 (NLT)]

We believe in…the holy catholic church. [Apostle’s Creed]

dayflowerWhen reciting the creeds as a youngster, I wondered why I said we believed in the catholic church when we didn’t go to one. My family didn’t attend the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our priest was married, and our service was in English, so why did we attest faith in the catholic church? It wasn’t until my confirmation class that I clearly understood that the creeds weren’t referring to the Roman Catholic church. Coming from the Greek katholikos (derived from kath holos, meaning “throughout the whole”), catholic simply means universal! The term originates from the first century and the words of Ignatius of Antioch: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

The catholic church wasn’t founded by Peter, James, Paul, Clement, Ignatius, or Polycarp. It wasn’t founded by Augustine, Emperors Constantine or Theodosius, or Patriarch Michael Cerularius nor was it founded by reformers like Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, or John Calvin. The catholic church was founded by Jesus! The “catholic” in the creeds simply confirms the universality of the entire Christian church—a church that is not confined by ethnicity, race, geography, language, culture, or time. The catholic church shares a common confession of God’s redemptive work in Christ and our necessary response to it.

While we Christ followers may disagree on a number of secondary and minor issues like celibacy for the clergy or the day to worship, we agree about the essentials of faith and are united by the beliefs stated in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. It is this unity that transcends our various denominational differences. Our brothers and sisters in Christ may belong to different churches and worship in different ways, but we all are members of the holy catholic church.

Nevertheless, some still mistake catholic with the small “c” for (Roman) Catholic with the capital “C.” To avoid any confusion, some Protestant churches prefer to say “holy Christian church” when reciting the creeds but it’s the same thing. Regardless of the term used, the catholic church is what remains when all the Christian church buildings burn down and the priests and ministers all leave town.

Sadly, however, Christians sometimes forget that we’re in the same family. A friend attended the same church for nearly two decades and, as one of the parish’s “prayer warriors,” she received a weekly list of prayer requests. Within a week of her quietly changing to another Christian church, she stopped getting the list. She contacted her previous pastor and, after pointing out that her love for her brothers and sisters in Christ did not stop when she changed her place of worship, she respectfully asked to keep receiving the prayer list so she could continue offering prayers for their needs and praises for their blessings. Unfortunately, her request fell on deaf ears. Perhaps, just as I did when a child, the pastor confused one’s place and manner of worship with what it means to be part of the catholic church.

Indeed, wherever Christ is, there we find the church. Without a doubt, Jesus tells us to pray and why anybody would arbitrarily decide who is allowed to pray for someone or whose prayers God will hear is beyond me. I’ll gladly welcome any prayer sent on my behalf, regardless of who offers it or where they attend church. If they believe in and worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, they are my brothers and sisters and members of my church—the holy catholic church—the body of Christ!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God.  [Hebrews 12:28 (MSG)]

big cypress fox squirrelCan worship be fun? In various translations, Hebrews 12:28 tells us to worship God with reverence and awe, honor and respect, or deep reverence. No where is there any mention of fun. In fact, except for the somewhat cynical and world-weary words directing us to eat, drink, and be merry in Ecclesiastes 8:15 Scripture uses the word “fun” in a negative way—that of “making fun” of someone. Hagar was sent away after she and Ishmael made fun of Isaac, Delilah accused Sampson of making fun of her with his lies, and the fertile Peninnah made fun of Hannah because of her barrenness. So, if, by “fun,” we mean mere amusement (especially at another’s expense), it doesn’t seem that fun and worship go hand in hand. On the other hand, if by “fun” we mean something deeper than light-hearted entertainment or diversion, perhaps it does.

When using fun in its broader definition of enjoyable, pleasurable, and joyful, it appears that worship can and should be all that and more! After all, there are well over 300 instances of joy, joyful, or joyous in Scripture, many of which are associated with worship. 2 Chronicles 30 tell us that the people of Judah enjoyed the seven-day festival of Passover so much that “they celebrated joyfully for another week” and “there was great joy in the city.” Although having fun should never be our primary purpose for worship, we often find that worship gives rise to enjoyment, pleasure, and joy! Indeed, worship can be fun!

Worship, however, is more than an act; it is an attitude not limited to Sunday mornings and church. Since God’s Holy Spirit lives in us, we should live in a way that corresponds to His nature at all times. Colossians 3:23 tells us to work as though we were working for the Lord, perhaps we should play the same way—as if we were playing with the Lord! Just as we worship in our work by serving, witnessing, honoring and glorifying Him as we labor, we should do the same in our leisure time and fun.

But, does the way we relax, play, and spend our free time honor and glorify the Lord? Do we choose our reading material, movies, or TV shows with Him in mind? When socializing with our friends, do our words and actions give evidence of God’s presence in our lives? Do we honor God and His children with our humor or does it consist of mockery, sarcasm, or ridicule? As for sports—does the way we compete and react to the coach’s decisions, the umpire’s call, another player’s error, or our defeat honor God? Do we bring Him to Bible study and choir practice but leave the Lord behind when going to the gym, pickleball court, golf course, yoga studio, bridge table, or book club? Is Jesus invited when we dish with our friends over coffee, watch our child’s baseball game, or relax at the 19th hole with our golf buddies? Do we pack God in our bag when we go on vacation or is He left home with the work clothes and computer? What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas but whatever happens in Vegas is how we’ve chosen to worship the Lord!

Worshiping God in spirit and in truth means we worship with our entire lives, at all times, and in all places—whether at church, work, or play. Regardless of what we’re doing or where we’re doing it, our words and actions always should bring glory to God. The question really isn’t whether worship can be fun; the question is whether our fun is worship!

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. [Romans 12:1-3 (MSG)]

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A little yeast works its way through the whole lump. [Galatians 5:9 (NTE)]

CAMPFIREWhile baking banana bread, I decided to add in the last of the walnuts I found in the refrigerator. After pouring the dough into the prepared pans, I spotted a few walnut pieces that hadn’t made the mixing bowl and popped them in my mouth. One taste told me they were rancid! Not only are rancid nuts horrid tasting but, if enough are consumed, they can make you sick! Just as there’s no way to get a little bit of yeast out of a lump of dough, there was no way to get every last bit of nut nastiness out of the bread. A mere cup of nuts managed to turn more than eight cups of what should have been sweet and delicious into something bitter and sour. As I emptied the pans into the garbage, I recalled a sermon illustration about a thirteen-year-old girl.

The young teen tried to convince her mother that she should be allowed to see a certain R-rated movie. Explaining that there was only a little inappropriate material (such as casual sex, violence, bad language, nudity, and drugs) in the movie, she promised she’d take none of it to heart. Although the teen begged to be allowed to view it with her friends, her mother denied the request. Saying she couldn’t understand, the girl left in a snit to sulk in her room. Meanwhile, her mother set to work baking cookies in the kitchen. A wonderful aroma filled the house and, when the cookies were baked, the mother asked her daughter if she’d like to taste a special new recipe. Although they looked like regular chocolate chip cookies, her mother said something extra had been added. As the girl greedily reached for the tasty looking cookies, she asked about the new ingredient. Her mother explained that she added a small scoop of leavings from the cat’s litter box and mixed it into the batter. Since it was just a small scoop, it would hardly be noticeable and she was certain her daughter could ignore it while enjoying the rest of the cookie. It was then that the girl understood why her mother had prohibited the movie! Like the little bit of R in the movie, the incest in the Corinthian church, the false doctrine in Galatia, the rancid walnuts in my batter, and the cat poop in the cookies, even a little bit of sin is more than any of us should consume!

As adults, we consider ourselves wiser and more discerning than teenagers and, as Christ’s followers, we like to think we’re able to withstand the negative influences of today’s world. Let’s not fool ourselves. Temptation is all around us. While it may look as harmless as did that R-rated movie to the teen, we can’t step in the muck without getting a little dirty. When David, a “man after God’s heart,” snuck a quick look at the naked Bathsheba, he never intended it to grow into adultery and murder, but it did. Like David’s voyeurism, even a little bit of nastiness, corruption, vanity, revenge, arrogance, prejudice, spite, smut, hatred, deceit, or immorality has a tendency to produce something far worse.

Think of Solomon—supposedly the wisest man who ever lived. When he ignored the law by marrying Egyptian, Moabite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, the king probably thought himself impervious their pagan beliefs. After all, with 1,000 women in his harem, what was the harm of a handful who worshipped idols? Solomon, however, wasn’t as wise as he thought! In his old age, those women “turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the LORD his God.” [1 Kings 11:4] The one who so wisely warned others to avoid the path of sin foolishly walked right onto it!

Sin is deceptive and, sometimes it looks as harmless and enticing as fresh-baked banana bread or chocolate chip cookies. But, like a little scoop of cat poop or some rancid nuts in a bowl of batter, no matter how small, every little bit of bad we allow to enter our lives affects us. Solomon warned that, when we play with fire, we should expect to get burned. Sadly, he didn’t heed his own words. Let’s not make the same mistake!

The temptation once yielded to gains power. The crack in the embankment which lets a drop or two ooze through is soon a hole which lets out a flood. [Alexander MacLaren]

Can a man scoop a flame into his lap and not have his clothes catch on fire? Can he walk on hot coals and not blister his feet? [Proverbs 6:27-28 (NLT)]

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Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. [John 3:18-19 (ESV)]

As Christ’s followers, we look forward to our heavenly home. On the other hand, we also cherish life here and now and, unless severely incapacitated or wracked in pain, we aren’t in a rush to depart. Nevertheless, our faith in what lies ahead keeps us from wanting to prolong the inevitable or fearing the unknown. As beautiful as life is on earth, we know that what awaits us is far better than anything we could envision. As the Apostle Paul told the Philippians, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” [1:20-21] Whether living or dead, it’s all good for a believer!

While Christians should have no qualms about death, one Christian friend is approaching her departure date with misgivings. It’s not because of fear; as a follower of Christ, she knows she holds a ticket on the train to Heaven. Her reluctance is because many of her loved ones are unbelievers whose train won’t be bound for glory. Imagining she will eternally mourn their absence in the hereafter, she can’t picture any joy in heaven without them.

Entrance through the pearly gates isn’t earned by good works because even our most righteous deeds fall short of God’s glory. Moreover, no one gets into heaven just because they were baptized as an infant, attended Sunday school, or can recite the Lord’s Prayer, the books of the Bible, and the Apostles’ Creed. Works, water, knowledge, and words mean nothing without the change of heart that comes with faith in Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. It is faith in Christ that saves us and, unlike traits such as brown eyes or curly hair, faith isn’t in people’s DNA; it’s in their hearts. While our example and message may influence our loved ones, ultimately, each person has to make a personal decision whether or not to believe in Jesus. As believers, all we can do is pray, share, and continue to witness with our words and lives—the rest is up to them.

Since our Good Shepherd does not want to lose any sheep, we can be sure that He will offer our loved ones every opportunity to come into the fold. Moreover, it’s impossible for any of us to know what someone else truly believes. We are neither judge nor jury; only God knows what is in people’s hearts and only He will determine their final destination. We may be pleasantly surprised on the other side of those pearly gates!

Nevertheless, it’s a painful reality that not everyone we love will choose Jesus. The good news is that some eventually do! Several years ago, a friend expressed distress that her unbelieving and skeptical husband was not destined for God’s kingdom. Without nagging or whining, she encouraged him to join her at church, read Scripture, and to freely seek answers to his many questions. Like St. Augustine’s mother Monica, my friend also prayed for him relentlessly. Not long ago, her husband professed his belief and was baptized!

We know that God is perfect and everything about him is perfection—His judgment, His plan of salvation, and His dwelling place. Yet, how could heaven be perfect if the people we love aren’t with us? While Scripture doesn’t give us the answer, it does tell us that God is compassionate, merciful, and “filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.” As such, He would never condemn his faithful children to an eternity of sorrow in His heavenly home. Wiping every tear from our eyes, He promises “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.” [Revelation 21:4]

Let’s remember that being reunited with loved ones isn’t the best thing about Heaven. The best thing about Heaven is being in the presence of God and face to face with Jesus!

It is not darkness you are going to, for God is Light. It is not lonely, for Christ is with you. It is not unknown country, for Christ is there. [Charles Kingsley]

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. [John 14:1-3 (ESV)]

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The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense. Never abandon a friend—either yours or your father’s. When disaster strikes, you won’t have to ask your brother for assistance. It’s better to go to a neighbor than to a brother who lives far away. [Proverbs 27:9-10 (NLT)]

Novelist Salman Rushdie said, “In the cookie of life, friends are the chocolate chips.” I agree. Granted, life can be as pleasant as a plain sugar cookie but, when you add chocolate chips to the batter or friends to the mix, it becomes something extra special.

Today happens to be National Chocolate Chip Day. (We can celebrate again on August 4—the official National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.) Although she didn’t invent friendship, Ruth Wakefield invented both chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies when she added pieces of a Nestlé chocolate bar to her “Butter Do Drop” cookie recipe in 1930. It wasn’t until 1939, however, that Nestlé actually started manufacturing those beautiful teardrop-shaped morsels.

Fortunately, God didn’t wait until 1939 to invent friends! Knowing it wasn’t good for “man to be alone,” He created us for connection and gave us friends. He blessed Adam with Eve, Lot with Abraham, Moses with Aaron, and Joshua with Caleb.

When Satan took away Job’s family, wealth, and health, Job’s friends remained. Even though their theology was flawed, they kept Job company and tried to comfort him in his pain and sorrow. When Joseph was imprisoned, he was blessed by friendships with the warden and Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker. David was blessed by good friends like Jonathon, Nathan, and even the loyal Philistine Ittai. Naomi was blessed by Ruth’s friendship as was Elijah by Elisha’s. During the Babylonian exile, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were united in their friendship and faith. Matthew invited his friends for dinner with Jesus and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus welcomed their friend Jesus into their home. Even though they didn’t always agree, Paul’s good friends included Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Epaphroditus, Timothy, Priscilla, and Aquila.

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold,” goes the old song. Indeed, old friends are as precious as gold and, next week, we hope to spend a little time with some golden ones. We met 45 years ago while skiing in Michigan and continued our friendship on the mountains of Colorado. Although 2,000 miles separate us and we no longer ski, our friendship remains. Love, laughter, faith, and a heap of great memories connect us. We’ll treasure our brief reunion as we thank God for the chocolate chips He scattered through our lives.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the people who befriended us—the ones who taught and inspired us, encouraged and challenged us, laughed and cried with us, and taught us how to laugh at ourselves and life’s uncertainties. Thank you for the friends who daily provide examples of how life should be lived and for the friends who answer our questions and question our answers. Thank you for those who sought us when we were lost, provided directions, and welcomed us back when we finally returned. Thank you for those who recognized what was wrong in our lives (even when we didn’t) and gently opened our eyes to what we needed to see. Thank you for blessing us with friends who have openly shared their lives and who, in turn, have listened and loved and prayed for us. Thank you for the friends who continue to walk with us, steady us when we stumble, lift us when we fall, and carry us when we think we can go no further. Thank you, Lord, for the best friend you have given each and every one of us: your son Jesus Christ.

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. [Marcel Proust]

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. [John 15:12-14 (NLT)]

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