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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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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Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” [Matthew 13:33 (NLT)]

Immediately after the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to the yeast a woman added to “three measures of flour” when making bread. While “measures” seems vague, the original word used wasn’t. It was seah (about a peck and a half of flour) and three seahs were over 167 cups (nearly 50 pounds) of flour. This was an enormous amount of flour for just “a little yeast” and, as He did in the previous parable, Jesus used hyperbole to emphasize the power of something very small. The question in this parable is whether the yeast is a metaphor for a bad or a good thing.

This is the first mention of leavening in the New Testament but, by the 1st century, yeast had come to represent sin. Sticking to yeast’s traditional symbolism, some commentators liken the story’s yeast to false doctrine that can sneak into the Kingdom and see this parable as a warning about the dangerous power of false teaching in the Church. Enekrupsen is the Greek word used to describe the woman’s action in adding the yeast and this is its only use in Scripture. From egkruptó, which literally meant to bury within, enekrupsen has been translated with different meanings. Some translate it as hid or concealed (which implies she did something sneaky and devious in adding yeast) while others merely translate it as put, blended, or mixed in. Since enekrupsen is used both ways in other Greek literature, we can’t be sure which correctly communicates Jesus’ meaning. Considering that bread was being made, it seems that burying yeast in the dough would be expected rather than sneaky.

I find it hard to interpret this parable in a way that associates anything sinful or evil with the Kingdom of Heaven. Although His listeners may have expected yeast’s power to represent something bad, Jesus’ parables rarely fit his listeners’ expectations. When they anticipated one thing, He usually gave them another! That a Levite and priest had failed their fellow Jew while a hated Samaritan was the hero of one parable was as surprising as a beggar ending up in Abraham’s bosom at a heavenly banquet when the rich man ended up tormented in Hades. Jesus threw society’s expectations out the window when telling of a father who’d been offended and hurt by his wastrel son. Upon the boy’s return, rather than rejecting him as the law required, the father ran to welcome him home, restored him to the family, and even had a festive celebration in the boy’s honor. Equally unexpected was the story of vineyard workers getting the same pay regardless of how long they worked and the prayers of a tax collector being heard when the Pharisee’s were not.

I agree with the commentators who take this parable at face value. Believing Jesus simply is speaking of the pervasiveness and power of yeast, they see this analogy as a continuation of the lesson in the mustard seed parable. Rather than a corrupting influence, the leaven, like the mustard seed, illustrates that great things can come from small beginnings. Yeast is even smaller than the tiny mustard seed and yet both are powerful enough to expand and effect change. While both parables illustrate the extensive growth of the Kingdom, the second parable emphasizes the Kingdom’s transformative power. Just as yeast changes dough, the Kingdom will transform the world! In both parables, the message is clear—the Messianic Kingdom comes from small beginnings, operates quietly, but has the power to accomplish great things! That God’s Kingdom would start from small and humble beginnings to grow and change a much larger entity (the world) would have been reassuring news to Jesus’ small band of disciples.

Like the Kingdom of Heaven, yeast is a living organism. Like the Holy Spirit, yeast is invisible once in the dough and yet its effect, like that of the Spirit, becomes obvious as it permeates the mixture. Just as leavened dough grows from inside out, the Kingdom moves from our hearts into our actions and from our actions into the world. Yeast transforms what it mixes with and, as we are transformed, we transform those with whom we interact. Just as yeast needs certain conditions to grow, so does the Kingdom and, just as there are 1,500 different kinds of yeast, God’s Kingdom is made up of a wide assortment of people. Yeast is found everywhere—from the bottom of the ocean to the Arctic and from flower nectar to the lining of our stomachs—and God’s Kingdom should be as pervasive! Indeed, the Kingdom of Heaven is alive, it’s everywhere, it takes attention and patience to grow, and it transforms all it touches.

What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t understand was that the Kingdom already had arrived. But, like a tiny mustard seed, a bit of yeast, or a baby in a manger, it entered the world quietly without fanfare. Like a small yellow flower, a lump of dough, or an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, the Kingdom didn’t look that impressive at first. Appearances, however, can be misleading. Like a mustard seed that grows 1,440 times its original size or the more than fifty loaves of bread leavened by that bit of yeast, the Kingdom will increase and prevail. In the end, when Christ returns as a conquering king, no one will be able to miss its arrival. Until then, like a small amount of yeast, God’s Kingdom will transform the hearts and lives of all it touches! May we always remember that little things become great when God is at work!

When the dough is leavened, then to the oven with it; trials and afflictions commonly attend this change; but thus saints are fitted to be bread for our Master’s table. [Matthew Henry]

I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. [Matthew 16:18 (NLT)]


black mustard - Brassica nigra
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches. [Matthew 13:31-32 (NLT)]

Following the Parable of the Four Soils and the Parable of the Weeds, Jesus told a third parable of growth by comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. I know little about farming and soil but I’m familiar with black mustard, (Brassica nigra), the kind of mustard grown in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Its clusters of bright yellow flowers are a common sight in the meadows, thickets, vacant lots, and fallow fields in my home state of Illinois.

Both times Jesus mentioned the mustard seed, He referred to its small size. When comparing the size of our faith to that of a mustard seed, He told us even if our faith were as small as a mustard seed that, “Nothing would be impossible.” When comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, He called it the “smallest of all seeds.” Having admired the mustard seed charm my sister had on her bracelet, I questioned His statement. While it was small, I knew other seeds are even smaller. Surely the One who was there at creation’s beginning knew that the almost dust-like seeds of orchids and begonias are smaller. Additionally, while the mustard plant can grow as tall as 10 to 12 feet, it’s not a tree!

Jesus, however, wasn’t teaching botany, He was telling a parable and hyperbole (an exaggerated statement not taken literally that’s used to emphasize a point) was a common technique in rabbinic teaching. Jesus used it when speaking of recognizing a speck in our neighbor’s eye but not seeing the log in ours, Pharisees straining the gnats out of their water while drinking a camel, and trying to put a camel through a needle. When we look at the original Greek, however, we find less exaggeration. Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the smallest seed which a man sows in his field. While not the smallest seed in existence, mustard was the smallest seed that would have been sown in a Palestinian field. Jesus says it grows larger than a lachanōn (a garden herb or vegetable) and, indeed, black mustard does seem like a tree when compared to most herbs! That a seed measuring less than a tenth of an inch can grow 1,440 times its original size into a 12-foot plant in just one season is impressive and that was His point!

While most of America’s farmers consider this pervasive plant a noxious weed, it’s been cultivated as a crop for thousands of years in the Holy Land. Its seeds were powdered or made into a paste for medicinal and culinary purposes. Unlike most of us, Jesus’ listeners were familiar with mustard’s characteristics. As I describe those qualities, consider how they might apply to God’s Kingdom here on earth.

With its narrow clusters of small yellow flowers, mustard isn’t a showy flower—one might even call it a humble little thing. Nevertheless, a golden field of mustard is a thing of beauty. For a variety of scientific reasons, black mustard has a competitive advantage over most other plants. It’s one of the first plants to spring up after a fire and can out-compete anything else growing in the same field. It produces thousands of seeds every season and mustard’s long-lasting seeds can survive underground for as long as 50 years. An annual, while it dies at the end of a season, it regenerates at the next rainy season.

Although mustard was welcome as a cash crop in Palestine, because of its characteristics, black mustard is considered invasive in 44 of the 48 contiguous states. Nevertheless, in spite of the Midwest’s farmers’ persistent efforts to eradicate it, black mustard returns every year. Nature Collective describes it as “an ornery guest that refuses to take the hint.” In spite of persecution from Jewish leaders and Rome, the early church was just as defiant, determined, and persistent as black mustard!

Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the plant’s beauty and ability to self-seed, lay down a deep root system, and grow almost anywhere, along with mustard’s knack of surviving and thriving in less-than-ideal conditions. Jesus’ point was that from small and humble beginnings, the Kingdom of Heaven—Jesus’ domain as Messiah—would gradually grow into a large and beautiful entity. Once seeded, nothing seems to stop mustard and the same goes for the Kingdom!

May our faith be as persistent, hardy, determined, steadfast, and as difficult to destroy as the mustard seed!

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” [Matthew 17:20 (NLT)]

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Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others.” [Mark 4:13-14 (NLT)]

The Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all repeat Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils. As the farmer sows his seeds, some lands on the packed soil along the footpath. The birds steal the seeds so nothing takes root. Some seeds land on a thin layer of dirt over underlying rock. Although the seeds quickly sprout, without deep roots, they wither and die. Other seeds land among the thistles and thorns. Although they take root, the fast-growing weeds crowd them out. Only the seeds that fall on fertile soil take firm root, grow into maturity, and bear fruit. Rather than teaching Agriculture 101, by comparing those soils to the various ways God’s message is received, Jesus was teaching about evangelism.

The parable’s farmer scattered his seeds without determining beforehand which soil would be most receptive. In the same way, when we sow the seeds of God’s word, there’s no quick way to determine if or when that seed will take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds might lie dormant for years until conditions are optimal for them to take hold. For example, lodgepole pine seeds actually need the intense heat of fire to explode their seed cones before they can germinate. In the same way, the seed of God’s word may lie dormant until a person’s life goes up in flames.

As for the seeds on the footpath and the birds and other animals who might eat them—when they deposit their feces, those seeds may end up in a more receptive environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble. Even if our testimony is rejected, it may inadvertently get passed on to a more receptive person!

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying. Having seen trees growing out of mountain sides and wildflowers peeking up through sidewalk cracks, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. Just as it’s possible for seeds to grow in adverse conditions, it’s possible that the word of God can soften even the hardest of hearts! As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Beautiful flowers can grow in the midst of weeds!

Even in good soil, some seeds might never germinate. While the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth should have been fertile ground for Him, it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to meet Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of pagan gods, 1,000 prostitutes, temple to Aphrodite, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, didn’t seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a successful church there. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

While Jesus knew how people would respond to Him, we don’t. None of us can accurately predict if, how, or when the seed of God’s word will be received. In 2005, without knowing if the seeds would germinate, scientists planted thirty-five 2000-year-old date palm tree seeds excavated from Israeli archaeological sites. Even though it took those ancient seeds two millennia to sprout, against all odds, seven of them took root and are now producing fruit!

Rather than trying to analyze the soil or waiting for optimal growing conditions, our job as God’s farmers is to continue sowing good seeds whenever and wherever we can. Eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

The Parable of the Soils tells us that, regardless of hardened hearts, superficiality, competing pressures, and even failure, the promised harvest is “a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Without a doubt, in spite of setbacks and challenges, God’s Kingdom will prevail, but only if we continue to plant those seeds!

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

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