IMITATING CHRIST

Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires. [Romans 13:14 (NLT)]

rue anemoneBecause of the Jewish prohibitions about images, I understand why no pictures of Jesus were drawn by His followers. Nevertheless, any decent author gives a minimal word picture of his characters but the gospels’ writers give us nothing. With Melville’s description of Captain Ahab’s gray hair, scarred face, and whale-bone peg-leg, we know more about the fictional whale hunter’s looks than we do about the real Jesus! The most we know about His exterior is found in Isaiah’s prophecy: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him,” [53:2] which describes most of us! Adjectives are few and far between in Scripture but the Bible isn’t a novel and its words were God-breathed not writer created. If God wanted us to know about Jesus’s appearance, He would have told us. After all, if we knew what Jesus looked like, wouldn’t we focus more on His looks rather than His words? Rather than wanting to emulate His character, we’d probably want to match His features—after all, He was God!

When Paul told the Romans to “put on” or clothe themselves with Christ, he wasn’t speaking of robes, sandals, beard or haircut. He was speaking of spiritual clothing—to take off our “dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living.“ [13:12] While we know nothing of Jesus’ physical appearance, the New Testament writers gave us more than enough description of Jesus’ words and behavior to clearly picture the “shining armor of right living.” When we put on Christ, our minds and behavior transform so that our lives imitate His—so that, when people see us, they should see Him.

Below is an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus. While not part of the Christian canon, it is a valuable document. Written around 130 AD, the author calls himself Mathetes (meaning “disciple” in Greek) and claims to be a student of the apostles. Yesterday, I wrote of the misconceptions surrounding the early followers of Jesus. In Mathetes’ letter, he defends the doctrines of Christianity and describes Christian behavior to the “most excellent Diognetus.” In one chapter, Mathetes explains that, while Christians follow the ordinary customs of clothing, food and conduct, “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” The lifestyle to which Jesus calls us has not changed since Mathetes’ time and yet, when reading his words, I wonder if anyone would describe today’s followers of Christ in the same way.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.  [Epistle to Diognetus – translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson]

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. [Colossians 3:10 (NLT)]

Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:24 (NLT)]

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JUST DO IT (Part 3)

“Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” [Matthew 22:36-40 (MSG)]

IMG_2710awDecades ago, I found an interesting article in a parenting magazine having to do with negative and positive commands. Because our brains tend to best process the end of a sentence rather than its beginning, when a mother says, “Don’t tease your sister,” the child tends to hear “Tease your sister!” Moreover, telling children not to do something requires them to double process. First, they have to figure out what it is they’re not supposed to do and then they have to figure out what it is they’re supposed to do instead! While there are an infinite number of alternatives to not doing something, there is only one alternative when told what to do! Since vague instructions like “Behave!” leave a lot of gray area, a clear course of action should be given.

I recalled that advice when writing about the 615 Old Testament mitzvoth. 365 of those laws were negative commands, one for every day of the year, and that’s a whole lot of “don’ts” and “shalt nots” to remember. Any reading of the Old Testament tells us the Israelites weren’t any more successful in obeying them than were my children when I told them not to do something.

Perhaps those psychologists were familiar with the Bible and the way Jesus put a positive spin on things when he summed up the law in the one word—love—and the two commands—love God and love your neighbor. Two direct laws, stated in a positive way, with no need to split hairs because there are no exceptions. Love—it’s what we do and the power of the Holy Spirit is how we do it

For years, I misunderstood Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about taking on his yoke. Always anxious to unload my burdens and get some rest, I was happy to dump my problems on Him. This verse, however, isn’t about the burdens of our troubles and fears; it is about the burden of the law laid upon the Jews by the scribes and Pharisees. When following a set of laws is considered the path to salvation, it does, indeed, become a heavy burden. In contrast, Jesus’ yoke is easy because his teaching equips us to live our lives in God’s will. The yoke of discipleship is a light one; it is simply walking with Jesus and allowing him to teach us moment by moment how to live His way. Even though my initial interpretation was incorrect, that verse continues to give me comfort. If love leads my actions, I don’t have to worry about doing the wrong thing. Instead, when led by love, I become the right person—the person God wants me to be.

Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love. [Romans 13:8-10 (MSG)]

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RENDER UNTO GOD (PART 2)

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV)]

Yesterday was tax day: the day we rendered unto Washington what is theirs. In case we weren’t sure how much that was, we had 1099s, W-2s, 1040s, TurboTax, various receipts, H & R Block, and accountants to help us figure it out. Since Jesus told us to give God what is His, how much is that? God doesn’t send out W-2s listing our year’s many blessings, supply us with 1040s to fill out, or give us deductions for medical expenses, charitable donations, mortgage interest, property taxes, or gambling losses. Rather than a CPA or the IRS, we need to consult our Bibles for the answer to that question.

“Tithe” is an Old Testament term for the 10% gifts the Israelites were required to pay to support the Levites, provide for the Temple, and relieve the poor. A series of complicated rules regarding which tithes were made in what year and the amount tithed ended up making the tithe more like 23.3%. Although the New Testament never commands (or even recommends) a tithing system, Christians often refer to a tithe (or 10% of one’s earnings) as being the right donation to the church. In reality, for some, 10% would be unwise and for others, 10% is hardly enough!

Rather than a fixed percentage, the New Testament calls us to give regularly, according to our means, generously and joyously (even sacrificially at times), and out of love for God and others. While this requirement is vague about the actual amount, it actually is stricter than a fixed 10% because it is a matter of obedience and trust. What we give is a matter of prayer. It is an issue between God and us and we must be willing to give whatever it is He asks—be it time, talents, or finances—in the amount he desires.

Because Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to him. Let’s not forget that we are made in God’s image and it is His face that is stamped upon us. We belong to Him and whatever we give to God already is His. We simply are returning it to the rightful owner. Moreover, the list of what we should render unto God goes far beyond money. We should give Him our worship, service, obedience, praise, love, respect, gratitude, and fidelity. In short, we owe Him everything and not just on Sundays—we owe Him everything all of the time.

As John Wesley said, the question isn’t “how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” Although there is no need to worry about a letter from God questioning our deductions or demanding an audit, we must remember that one day we will be called in for an accounting of how we used His gifts.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. [Matthew 25:34-36 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12: 2 (ESV)]

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WHEN FACED WITH A CHOICE (LIES – Part 3)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)]

coreopsisWhile writing about lies these last few days, I recalled Mark Twain’s Was it Heaven? or Hell?, a short story in which the principle of absolute truth is challenged by that of Christian love. The widowed Margaret and her 16-year old daughter Helen live with their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. When Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie, the aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed.

It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn that both Margaret and Helen have typhoid fever. When the doctor asks the sisters if any situation could be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie to shield a person from injury or shame—not even to save someone from pain or grief. Positive that any lie would cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.

Not knowing that her daughter is sick in bed, Margaret assumes Helen’s absence from her side is to prevent her from getting typhoid. When Margaret asks about the girl’s well-being, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that Helen is well when, in fact, her health is rapidly failing. Learning of Hester’s deceit, Hannah reprimands her sister for lying but, the following day, when Margaret asks Hannah about the youngster, she also lies that Helen is well. Not wanting to give Margaret the cruel truth that her daughter is dying, the sisters regularly reassure her that Helen is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health further deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure her sick mother. When Helen dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of the girl’s well-being and, to explain the noise during her wake, they even tell Margaret they’re having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree that she was blessed never to have known of her daughter’s death.

At midnight, an angel of the Lord appears and says, “For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!” The women fall to their knees but, rather than repent, they say they’d tell the same lies again. The last words of the story ask this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”

Mark Twain was not a Christian so he can be excused for not understanding that the sins of a Christian already are forgiven. Nevertheless, the underlying question remains—is every lie, no matter its reason or purpose, a sin? Were the sisters’ lies a sin or did their act of love trump the sin of a lie? After three days of writing about deception, I still don’t know the answer. While we have a God of truth, truth is not god! The Apostle Paul asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” adding, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Galatians 1:10] If we come to a time when we have to choose between truth and deception, perhaps we should ask whose approval we are seeking and who we would be serving with our actions.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”… The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:13-14,22-23 (ESV)]

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ACT YOUR WAY INTO IT

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. [John 13:34 (NTE)]

As the thunder echoed across the lake, my mother-in-law and I looked out the window and watched the lightning flash, the wind rage at the trees, and the rain pour down. Summer thunderstorms at the lake were an impressive sight and, while viewing it from the safety of the cottage, my mother-in-law confided that she used to be terrified of thunderstorms. She told of the panic she experienced as a child whenever the thunder boomed, lightening flashed, and rain pelted the roof and windows of her house. Even as an adult, she’d flinch at every crack of thunder and cower in a corner during storms. Once she became a mother, however, her behavior changed when she saw that her fear was infectious. Not wanting her boys to catch her unfounded terror, she decided to put on a brave face for the youngsters and soon discovered that, by acting unafraid, she’d actually become unafraid. Instead of feeling her way into a behavior, she’d behaved her way into a feeling!

Jesus told us we are to love one another but, let’s face it, there are an awful lot of people out there who are unlovable—people we don’t even like so we really don’t want to love them. We certainly don’t feel like forgiving them, bearing their burdens or praying for them. Given a choice, we’ll even go out of the way to avoid them. Jesus, however, didn’t make an exception for the disagreeable difficult ones and certainly not for the ones who don’t look, talk, think, or act like us! With the story of the Good Samaritan, He made it clear that everyone—even our sworn enemy—is our neighbor and someone we must love!

Although that storm and our conversation took place many years ago, whenever I question how I can possibly love certain people, I remember it—how by acting brave, my mother-in-law worked her way into feeling brave. If she’d waited until she felt brave before acting fearless, she would have been afraid of storms until her dying day. She couldn’t force her feelings, but she could force her actions!

Is it hypocritical to act with love when we don’t feel love for the person? Acting with kindness and consideration, however, is not comparable to toadying up to someone or fawning over and flattering someone falsely. When we act with love, we’re not trying to curry someone’s favor; we’re obeying the Lord. When we act with love toward our neighbor, we are doing it for God. We can’t always muster up affection for someone but Christian love isn’t a feeling of affection; it is merely a wish for the other person’s good.

As followers of Christ, even when we don’t feel love, we can act with love because we love God! The Apostle John tells us that “anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister,” and they’re all our brothers and sisters! Love for God and love for our brothers and sisters are inseparable—we truly can’t love the One without loving all the others!

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

We love, because he first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates their brother or sister, that person is a liar. Someone who doesn’t love a brother or sister whom they have seen, how can they love God, whom they haven’t seen? This is the command we have from him: anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister too. [1 John 4:19-21 (NTE)]

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WASHING THE FEET – MAUNDY THURSDAY

If any of you wants to be great, he must be your servant. If any of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. That’s how it is with the son of man: he didn’t come to have servants obey him, but to be a servant – and to give his life as “a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:26b-28 (NTE)]

tri-colored heronWhile the accounts of the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8 are similar, they are different events and different people were involved. Luke tells of an unnamed woman and John tells of Mary of Bethany. Although both women wiped Jesus’ feet with their hair, the unnamed woman, a notorious sinner, was an uninvited and unwelcome guest in the Pharisee’s home. Mary was a well-respected and devout friend of Jesus and welcome in her sister’s house. Pharisees were present at one and Christ’s disciples at the other. Where the Pharisees saw a sinful woman’s bad character, Jesus only saw a repentant sinner. Where the disciples saw an extravagant waste of money, Jesus saw a woman who offered a gift of love. He defended one woman’s actions by pointing out that she’d done what His host had failed to do. He defended the other woman’s extravagance by reminding his disciples that she was preparing Him for burial.

They were different times and different places but both women humbled themselves at Jesus’ feet. Both women took on a job that belonged to servants and, while most people chased after Jesus because they wanted something from him, neither woman asked anything of Him. Instead, they offered all they had. One woman’s old life died as she washed His feet and the other woman’s brother, who died, now lived. Their generous acts declared the women’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah. We may come to Jesus as a repentant sinner or we may come to him with praise and thanksgiving but, like both of these women, we must always come with a humble heart that is ready to serve.

The most radical act of humility and service, however, occurred shortly after the disciples argued over who among them was the greatest. That night, in the room where they’d gathered for their Passover meal, Jesus (the greatest of them all) knelt at the feet of His disciples. Knowing full well that soon one of them would betray Him, another would deny him, and all would desert him, Jesus humbly washed their feet. That was God incarnate kneeling in front of them and washing their feet but we don’t read of any of the disciples offering to wash His!

Today is Maundy Thursday and several Christian denominations will have communion services in remembrance of that last supper. As a visual reminder that loving Christ means service and there is dignity in serving others, some churches also will observe a religious rite called Washing of the Feet. As members of the Body of Christ, we are to follow His example by serving one another in humility and love. Like the unnamed woman, Mary of Bethany, and Jesus, we must have the heart of a servant.

One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

“Do you know what I’ve done to you?” he asked. “You call me ‘teacher,’ and ‘master,’ and you’re right. That’s what I am. Well, then: if I, as your master and teacher, washed your feet just now, you should wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you a pattern, so that you can do things in the same way that I did to you.” [John 13:12-15 (NTE)]

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