The Good Samaritan: Reflections on Luke 10:25-37, Part 2

The Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37, Part 2

      Good afternoon Canton community and welcome back to our reflections on Luke 10! In last week’s post, we focused on verses 25-28 and Jesus’s affirmation that the Jewish Law was meant to be centered on love rather than legalism. Insofar as it pointed one to loving God and others, God’s Law for the Jewish people was a good thing conducive to abundant-life-living. As Paul makes us aware, we have now outgrown our need for the specifics of the Law — but its heartbeat, to love God and people, remains. This can be a helpful reminder as we read through the Old Testament as Christians.

      Today we’ll be looking at the latter part of the passage, verses 29-37. Since the law expert means to test Jesus, he is not content with Jesus’s affirmation that eternal life is wrapped up in loving God and loving neighbor. He pushes the question a step further — “And who is my neighbor?” As he does time and time again, Jesus launches into a story to answer the man’s question. “A man was going down from Jerusalem. . .” Let’s take a look!

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

      One thing we notice right away is that Jesus, in telling a story and making it the point of reference, has slightly changed the lawyer’s question. The law-expert wanted to know, who is the neighbor I must love as myself?; yet Jesus displays what it means to be a neighbor, both answering the question of who and turning the question back onto the lawyer in a way that invites action. The implication of the lawyer’s initial question seems to be something like this: “I am an Israelite, one of God’s chosen people; how far must I extend my love for others? Declare here in front of everyone that we Israelites are in the right and worthy of love rather than our enemies!” Knowing Jesus, we might expect him to tell a subversive story in which an Israelite loves even one of the “bad guys,” the Samaritans or perhaps the Romans. But Jesus goes even further — he tells a story in which one of the alleged bad guys is the hero. Suddenly we are not only challenged to love our enemies, but we are positioned to see the enemy as the good guy. The point is not that we mercifully stoop down to grace our foes with our presence; rather, the lens with which we see the “bad guy” is shattered. Not only is he humanized, but we are humbled so much that we need his help. He is not only worthy of love but capable of providing us something we need. The enemy becomes the model of love.

      At the end of the parable, Jesus returns to the question of who is “neighbor,” but now he has radically changed the context. The law-expert must acknowledge that the Samaritan, the enemy, really is a neighbor to be loved, but also that being a neighbor means both being worthy of love and being capable of love. The enemy has been totally humanized, and the law-expert is left with an exhortation to be like the perceived enemy and to love those outside the normal social boundaries, even though he is currently like a wounded man lying in a ditch. Equally shocking to Jesus’s listeners is the subtle implication that Jesus himself identifies with the Samaritan — he is the loving neighbor who, though perceived as an enemy, has compassion on helpless Israel; he is not a priest or a Levite, and yet he finds himself on the road to Jerusalem determined to bind up the wounds of the broken. 

      The questions we walk away with are challenging and a little unsettling: can we see our enemies as not only worthy of love but capable of love? Can we view ourselves as potentially being helped by our enemies? Can we see Jesus in the face of the enemy? I challenge us to ask ourselves seriously: who is our enemy? What people or people groups have we discounted that really are neighbors? Who is worthy and capable of love that we have written off? And what can we do to love them?

      The Law, though often taken out of context and twisted this way and that, was always meant to be about love — a love that humbles itself and extends itself to God, friends, and enemies. This is the law of love with which Jesus challenges his listeners — not an exclusive system based on “works” and boundary markers (as Paul shows us), but a law of love that reaches out to every person regardless of behavior or social status. May we be challenged to love like this!

The Law of Love: Reflections on Luke 10:25-37, Part 1

The Law of Love: Luke 10:25-37, Part 1

      This week I’ll be doing a two-part blog on this passage from Luke 10. In the first piece we will look at vv. 25-28 and in the second vv. 29-37, the well-known parable of the “good Samaritan.” Let’s jump in!

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

      For those of us who are Protestants, we have often ascribed to a certain reading of Paul that gives us a healthy fear of that dreadful three-letter word: Law. Baptist DNA can be traced back to Martin Luther, the influential reformer who stood up to the Catholic Church over what were, in his view, legalistic ‘works of the Law.’ For Baptists, reformed England was still too “Catholic,” resulting in further denominational splits for the sake of freedom in Christ. We may think that this is all well and good until we hear the very Christ in whom we are set free say “What is written in the law?” in response to an inquiry about how one can inherit eternal life. What’s going on here? Was Jesus being sarcastic? Was he simply speaking on the wrong side of the resurrection, not realizing that the Law would soon be done away with? 

      We sometimes forget that Jesus and Paul, the two primary founders of Christianity, were Jewish. Jews typically believed that the Law was a good thing that God had given to his people in love. Jesus himself says that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it; and in his words, the essence of that which he came to fulfill boiled down to loving God and loving others as oneself (Matt 22, Mark 12). In case we fear that there is some major discontinuity between Jesus and Paul, we hear the Apostle say in Galatians 5:13-14, 

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

      We might be tempted to think that this view of the Law as being oriented around love was totally unique to Jesus and Paul and thus cannot really be considered “Law” in the same ways that the Jews viewed it. That Law must be very different and wrong, we might think. But, interestingly, it is not Jesus who provides this love-based interpretation of the Law in Luke; rather, it is the lawyer — the law expert trying to test Jesus -- who describes the Law as being based on love. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”, asks Jesus. The law-expert replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’s response is a simple affirmation, and lines up well with what we hear from Jesus’s own mouth elsewhere. “You’re right,” he says. “Do this and you will live.”

      We do not have space to tease out what aspects of the Law Jesus was comfortable disregarding, what Paul had in mind regarding “the works of the law,” or other relevant questions. What we can conclude, however, if we trust Jesus’s words, is that the foundation of the Law was good and always had to do with loving God and loving others, whatever people may have done (or failed to do) with it. If one doubts this, the prophets and the Psalms will quickly remind us that the Law was not about legalism but love (— Psalm 119 displays this nicely). Paul himself, despite his reimagining in what ways God’s Law is/is not applicable, asks, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31), and again, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim 1:8). Jesus too warns his listeners, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). This makes sense to us as we consider the real heartbeat of the Law, to love God and to love others. Of course we are no longer bound by the entirety of the Law — especially as non-Jews — but this essence of the Law, to love God and others, is something Jesus and Paul both supported whole-heartedly.

I’ll end with two points of practical application based on these reflections:

      (1) We should be wary of disregarding all Jewish people as “legalistic” merely because they adhere to something God gave them in love. We remember that, regarding the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt 23:2). Hypocrisy was a big problem then and continues to be a problem in the Church today; but this is no excuse to flippantly disregard an entire people or the Old Testament as a whole. However we read Paul’s apparent disregard for the Law (and more specifically, Paul’s two letters to the Romans and Galatians), we must also deal with the positive affirmations we have elsewhere that the sum of the Law is love. We may think the consequences of wrong ideology here are not actually too problematic, but we must remember that the events which caused WWII did not happen in a void; they were preceded by centuries of Protestants (including our beloved Luther) disregarding Jewish people.

      (2) We should not be surprised that the essence of God’s commandments to his people has always been about love. The author of 1 John reminds us, “God is love” (4:8). We will address the other side of the coin in our next post (love your neighbor as yourself), but we must not rush over the great commandment that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Too often we live as though we fulfill this commandment in a merely passive way. We might think that as long as we’re being kind to people, going to church, doing our jobs well, and so on, we’re loving God already. While those things are important and no doubt have to do with loving God, our love for God must be more intentional than this — after all, God is a person. God’s love for us is passionate; it is the kind of love that pours out blood, sweat, and tears for his beloved. The kind of love that counts every hair on our heads. The kind of love that listens closely every time we pray and whispers to us when we will listen to him. It is out of this loving relationship with God that we are empowered to love others. The love that the Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom 5:5) overflows, enabling us to love God and others with all that we are. Stay tuned for part 2!

Coming to God as We Are: Reflections on 1 Kings 19

Reflections on 1 Kings 19

      Hello Canton kingdom community! (If you’re not catching that reference, check out the manuscript of Sunday’s sermon below!) Since I was unable to post any reflections last week, today I am going to combine last week and this week’s Lectionary texts from 1 Kings 19. Though I usually include the entire biblical text in these posts, for the sake of space I invite you to get out a Bible or Google search “1 Kings 19” for reference. 

      The preceding chapter, 1 Kings 18, provides an exciting account of a classic showdown between God & his prophets and false gods & their prophets. A resounding theme of the Old Testament is the danger of idolatry and its detrimental effects on God’s people. Likely the most well-known passage featuring the prophet Elijah, 1 Kings 18 displays to us a confident man acting in God’s power against the tyranny of false religion — confronting kings, rebuking a nation, disproving false prophets and gods, calling down fire to consume wet altars and rain to water dry ground. This is the powerful prophet with whom we are comfortable admiring.

      But 1 Kings 19 introduces to us a much different side of Elijah. Upon hearing that Jezebel intends to kill him for his actions in 1 Kings 18, Elijah falls into terror and runs for his life. He finds himself in a literal and personal wilderness, starved of both food and courage. The tone of his conversation with the Lord changes — no longer is he calling upon God in faith, but rather he appears as a suicidal man lacking confidence in the future and asking God for death. “And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (v. 4)

      God, however, is not disheartened and has not lost faith in his servant even if his servant has lost faith in himself. An angel provides sustenance for Elijah, who, like Moses, is led on a 40-day and 40-night journey to Mt. Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai). When he arrives at the mountain, Elijah hides himself away in a cave, reminding us of Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock. God finds Elijah there, and Elijah gives him his string of complaints. God does not answer him immediately, but calls him out of the cave “onto the mount before the LORD” (v 11).

      There God passes by, and mighty displays accompany him — but God is not in these powerful acts of nature. Wind, earthquake, and fire manifest on the mountain, but the presence of the Almighty is reserved for something much more subtle. It is in the calm following the awesome storm that God speaks; it is with a gentle whisper in the silence that the Lord addresses his discouraged friend. While the mighty prophet of yesterday needed the cosmic God of fire and rain, this broken man fighting the will to live needs something different. Apparently Elijah had by this point retreated back into hiding, as God’s whisper prompts him to wrap his face with his cloak and go out again to the entrance of the cave. There the voice of God comes to him, not chastising or criticizing his weakness, but asking: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v 13). Elijah repeats his complaints, and the Lord gives insight and instruction into how he intends to make things right in Israel.

      Elijah departs from the mountain and finds Elisha, the one who will be his successor by the Lord’s instruction. The cloak with which he wrapped his face before God is thrown upon Elisha, who leaves everything he has to become the prophet’s disciple. 

      There is much we can learn from this chapter, especially as we consider it in its context following chapter 18. In the Apostle James’s words, “Elijah was a human just like us” (James 5:17). While we may have a hard time believing this while reading chapter 18, we are quickly shown in chapter 19 that experiencing the struggles of humanity does not disqualify one from being used mightily or being spoken to by God. We often downplay the likelihood that God would want to relate to us or work through us, either pointing to some hypothetical future when we will be good enough or doubting that God would ever want to use as at all. Yet we see in 1 Kings, centuries before the incarnation, that God’s heart has always been inclined to condescend to us where we are, loving and using people despite their weaknesses. God is not like the false god Baal of chapter 18, before whom his subjects torture themselves for attention. God is patient and kind, meeting us as we are, appearing powerfully in spite of and even through our weakness. 

      Again, we hear the Apostle James say: “Elijah was a human just like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” God can—and does—work miracles today through ordinary people like he did through his prophets. Elijah serves as a model for us to not be afraid to ask God for big things — but also to not be afraid to come before God honestly when we are discouraged and feeling broken. God can handle our honesty, and when we find ourselves in that place of hopelessness, he gives provision in the wilderness and invites us to hear his gentle whisper, asking us questions and guiding us out of the cave onto the mountain. To hear God in this way requires of us a certain kind of commitment — a commitment to show up and be honest, whether we are feeling bold with faith or whether all we have to bring before God is a helpless cry for death. God can handle whatever we bring before him, but it is our job to show up. We see this kind of commitment in Elisha, dropping everything and following Elijah, despite not knowing where he would be led. We aren’t told whether Elisha was excited about this new adventure or disappointed to leave behind his family and business. But this, perhaps, is part of the point, that our commitment to God’s way trumps how we may be feeling in a moment. May we learn from Elijah and Elisha’s example and draw nearer to the Lord as a result!

Kingdom Community (Sermon Manuscript)

Kingdom Community
 Sermon on  6/23/19

Hi friends -- below I have included a manuscript of my sermon from this past Sunday for any interested in revisiting points I made or scriptures I mentioned.
People Pray for What They Want
      This summer in children’s church I have been talking with your kids about prayer.
Prayer, among other things, is an ongoing conversation with God in which we bring our requests and concerns before him (Philippians 4:6). You can tell a lot about someone by what they pray. On a basic level, those of us who are sick want to be healthy, so we pray for healing. Couples struggling with infertility want children, so they pray that God would intervene and bring life. Naturally, people pray for what they want.
      As a little boy, I spent many weekends with my best friend Josh. Josh had a big front yard, and when the weather was nice we would throw football, taking turns being quarterback and trying to get the ball to the other side of the yard with as few passes as possible. After a couple of successful throws we’d begin to feel the pressure; we might just beat our record! But we both tended to choke under the pressure and might make a lousy pass or fail to catch the ball. Until(!) one day we realized that we had failed to consider something we heard about all the time at church: prayer. So after a successful pass, we would come together in a little huddle and thank God for our success and then pray for another good pass. People pray for what they want.
The Lord’s Prayer and What Jesus Wanted
      Every Sunday, thousands of churches say the Lord’s prayer together, a brief glimpse into one of Jesus’s conversations with his Father that we have the privilege of overhearing. When we look at Jesus’s prayer, we might ask ourselves: What did Jesus want? In Matthew chapter 6, verse 9, we see that he wanted his Father’s name to be made holy. In Verse 11, we see that he wanted daily provision from God. In Verses 12 and 13, we see that he wanted a lifestyle of forgiveness for his disciples and deliverance from evil, or the evil one. What I’d like to draw our attention to is verse 10, something special that Jesus asked the Father for that is worth looking into.

 “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When Jesus prayed, he wanted to see God’s kingdom on earth, for the coming renewal of God’s world to be a reality now. This is what Jesus wanted and taught us to want as we also pray this prayer. Since Jesus asked for this kingdom, for God’s will to be done on earth, I want to take a moment to consider what the New Testament says about God's kingdom.

The Coming Kingdom
       We know from Scripture that in one sense there is a coming kingdom. One of my favorite passages depicting this coming kingdom is Revelation 21:1-4:

      “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with humans. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
In Romans 8, another amazing chapter, Paul tells us that this future of the kingdom will mean the resurrection of our bodies and creation’s freedom from the bondage to decay. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells us that in this future, everything will be put in subjection to God, so that God may be all in all. (v 28) These are glimpses of the coming kingdom: A new Jerusalem on earth; God dwelling with his people; no more tears, no more death; resurrection and renewal for our bodies and creation; all things in subjection to God’s will, God all in all.
      Now, we know that when we pray the Father listens to us and that our prayers carry real power. I have thought before that if the Father was going to answer anyone’s prayers, surely it would be Jesus’s. In other words, if Jesus asks something, we can feel confident that his request will come to fruition. Thus, Jesus’s request that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven is not mere wishful thinking; it is a real request that will be made a reality. One question that comes to mind is, when do we come to know this reality?
The Kingdom Now
      We know that there is a coming kingdom that has not yet arrived in its fullness. Yet, Jesus also believed that there was a real sense in which the kingdom had already arrived with his earthly ministry. Jesus’s gospel proclamation was simple:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus says:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
In Matthew 12:28, a few chapters after the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says:
“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
We find, then, that there is a certain tension with the kingdom of God: it is here already, but it is coming in its fullness. It is now, but it is also not yet. What does this mean for a church community? How do we find those spaces where heaven and earth are overlapping now? Even more, how do we live in those spaces? How do we, on this side of the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit, yet waiting for the full reign of God, live consciously as a kingdom community?
Three P’s: Presence, People, Practice
      I would like to propose three qualities of a kingdom community of which we can be conscious. To make things easy, I’ve narrowed it down to three P’s: Presence, People, and Practice. These three P’s are rooted in an idea that I almost made the title for this sermon, although it’s not very catchy. The idea is anticipatory living. These three P’s touch on ways that we live into the kingdom reality now in anticipation of the kingdom in its full arrival.
       The first P that marks a kingdom community is Presence— and by presence, I mean the presence of God. Revelation 21 gives us a picture of a coming day when God will dwell with his people; the Holy of Holies descends onto the earth, and there is no longer need for a temple, because God himself will live with us. As we anticipate living in this holy city, we are reminded by Peter in 1 Peter 2:4-8 that even now we are like living stones being made into a spiritual house for God; while we anticipate a more tangible communion with God, we recognize that we house God’s presence now.
      In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul insists to his readers that their bodies are temples of God. Among other things, this means that we have access to God in a way that God’s people did not have for thousands of years. We host the very presence of God. As Baptists have rightly emphasized, we have the opportunity for real, personal relationship with God — a relationship which consists of love, conversation, and guidance. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes eternal life as “knowing the Father and the Son.” Being a kingdom community means seeking God’s presence now, even as we anticipate seeing him face to face.
      The second P I’d like to suggest as a quality of a kingdom community is People — and by people, I mean the people of God. The people of the church. Though we are each called into personal relationship with God, we remember that God is not only a me-God but a we-God. The New Testament authors refer to the church as the recipient of God’s grace far more often than just the individual. The New Testament uses different metaphors for the kingdom community — a temple; a body; a family. The imagery of “family” seems the most appropriate for our Canton kingdom community here at First Baptist. As I have met with several of you one on one, the overwhelming feedback I have gotten about this church is that you are a welcoming, loving, family community. The kind of family that is willing to drop whatever you have going on to be there for one another in crisis. The kind of family that cares for this building like it is your own home. The kind of family that has planted its roots deep in Canton and bears fruit as evidence. In Mr. Troy Mann’s funeral service, Court described him with the word “commitment” — from what I can tell it is a quality that characterizes this entire church community.
      It is for the upbuilding of the kingdom community that the Spirit of God moves among us: Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We find the Spirit moving among us in spiritual gifts, in mutual love, and in common purpose. As the people of God, we work together to share the presence of God with the world -- we the people are mediators of divine blessing. In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul touches on this when he says that we are citizens of heaven. This language of citizenship echoes a Roman strategy; Rome would give citizenship to other cities in the empire in order to create "little Romes"; to make little communities that resembled Rome, embodied Rome’s principles and prioritizes, and increased Rome’s power.
      Paul plays on this idea by asserting that though we live on earth, our citizenship is in heaven. Thus, as citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, we live as kingdom colonies now in a way that resembles God’s kingdom. Again we remember Jesus’s prayer: “On earth, as in heaven.” As God’s people, citizens of heaven and hosts of his presence, we embody the principles and the power of God’s kingdom now, largely by loving each other as a spiritual family. So, we anticipate full communion with God, but enjoy his presence now. We anticipate living in the holy city ruled by God, but live in kingdom community as his people now.
      This leads me to my third and final P: Practice. We look forward to reigning with Christ as co-heirs, but we practice a kingdom ethic now. As scholar Scot McKnight notes, we see Jesus’s idea of this kingdom ethic clearly displayed in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats, “You have heard it said, but I say to you” — in other words, there has been a common way that you know to live, but now there is a new way. There is a new calling on God’s people to embody now the kingdom that is to come. With the Spirit living in us and with the church supporting us, we are empowered to show the world a new way of living. No longer do we take revenge on our enemies, but we love them; no longer do we abuse and use God’s creation as a mere resource, but we steward it well in anticipation of the day that it too is renewed; we care for the marginalized as if each needy person were Jesus himself (Matthew 25).
      We partner with God and with God’s creation to shine as kingdom communities in the world and to the world through our kingdom practice. I see Canton First Baptist practicing this with things like the new garden project, involvement in the community kitchen, and VBS this coming weekend. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, we act like God’s children when we are peacemakers. I see Canton First Baptist practicing this in its cooperation with other churches in the area for the good of the city. As a kingdom community, we practice this counter-cultural ethic by going out and loving people without expecting a return, and we receive anyone into our congregation with open arms, as you all have done for me.
      Presence, People, and Practice. These three qualities are a good start for thinking about how we can embody God’s kingdom as a community. In these ways, we live now in anticipation of what is to come.
A Fourth P and Conclusion
      If I had to add a fourth P,  I think it would be prayer. What are we praying for? What are we wanting as God’s people? Jesus taught us to pray and to want — “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As God’s kingdom community, living in anticipation of God’s total reign, may we seek God’s presence now, may we continue to be a people bonded together by the Spirit, and may we practice a way of living that shows we are not just religious folks waiting for a rescue from earth, but God’s people reborn in the Spirit, living in a way that anticipates resurrection, renewal, and the full reign of God on earth.
I’d like to close by praying the Lord’s Prayer together:

Our Father, who art in heaven
            Hallowed be thy name.
            Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
            On earth as it is in heaven.
            Give us this day our daily bread
            And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
            And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
            For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever


Reflections on Psalm 8 (and 1 Corinthians 15)   

   Hello again Canton! I want to take a moment to thank those of you who have provided encouragement and feedback on these reflections. While writing these entries has been a helpful personal exercise, I have hoped that some of you might enjoy and occasionally benefit from reading them. I will keep doing my best to make these few minutes worth your time!

    It has been a hard week here at Canton First Baptist as that final, great enemy of God—death—has crept into our midst. While I am an outsider to the community, I have felt both the weight of loss on your behalf and the bittersweet relief that the suffering has passed for those now secure with God. We pray together for comfort in loneliness, for joy in memory rather than the sting of separation, and that the love of our community would be a salve to hurting hearts. We bring our requests to “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

    As we remember those lost to us, we remember too that God has promised a coming day when “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Today we turn to this week’s Lectionary psalm, Psalm 8, which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 to anchor his discussion of death, life, and God’s plans for our future. 

Psalm 8:1-9, NRSV:

1   O LORD, our Sovereign,
        how majestic is your name in all the earth!

     You have set your glory above the heavens.
2      Out of the mouths of babes and infants
      you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
         to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3    When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
           the moon and the stars that you have established;
4     what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
           mortals that you care for them?

5    Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honor.
6    You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
           you have put all things under their feet,
7     all sheep and oxen,
          and also the beasts of the field,
8     the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
           whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9     O LORD, our Sovereign,
          how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The preceding five psalms— Psalms 3 through 7—show the Psalmist wrestling with the anxiety of affliction. “Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing” (Ps 5:1); “The LORD has heard the sound of my weeping” (Ps 6:8); “O LORD my God, in you I take refuge” (Ps 7:1). It is out of this context of suffering and hope that the Psalmist turns his gaze to heaven and beholds the cosmic reign of God. From above the heavens down to the smallest baby, the rule of God is known and inspires confidence that God will defeat every enemy.

    Soaking in this grand display of God’s power, the Psalmist cannot help but feel bewildered by the mystery of humanity’s role in creation. What are these small, fragile humans that God would care so much for them? And yet God has not only cared for them but has gone so far as to delegate his reign to them. That loving dominion by which he orders the earth is entrusted in part to humans, who are made to be mediators of God’s rule, reflectors of his image to his world. We hear in this psalm echoes of the creation story: 

    “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion. . .” (Gen 1:26). 

    But doesn’t it seem at times that it has all gone wrong? God meant for humans to share in the loving rule by which God himself cares for the world; and yet we are surrounded by the exercise of prideful domination and the abuse of power. Rather than blessing, humanity has exercised violence on itself and creation. And worse still, we ourselves feel this terrible inclination towards violence deep in our bones. What is to be done?

    Thanks be to God that he never gives up on what he creates; the word that comes from his mouth never returns to him void (Isa 55:11). Since the garden, God has been on a rescue mission to restore the glory and honor of humanity so that they might rule over the works of his hands with holy justice. It began with Abraham and his family, those promised to be mediators of blessing to the world (Gen 12:2; 22:18), and continues now with Jesus and his church. 

    In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reimagines Psalm 8 in light of the new revelation of Jesus’s resurrection — 

    “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’” (1 Cor 15:25-27a)

    Jesus has appeared to us as the model human, silencing God’s enemies, crowned with glory and honor in his resurrection, and ushering in God’s kingdom until all things are under his feet. As Christians, our fate is now tied to Jesus’s. He is the first fruits of our own coming resurrection (1 Cor 15:20), the firstborn among brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29), the king and high priest running ahead of a royal priesthood of believers (Rev 17:14; Heb 4:14; 1 Pet 2:9). Furthermore, it is only through suffering death that Jesus has been glorified, and our own future glory depends on our suffering in solidarity with him (Rom 8:17). Like Jesus, we must face trial and death; like him, we will be raised to life in resurrection

    Creation itself is longing for the day of resurrection, knowing that the freedom which comes with humanity’s resurrected bodies—our final escape from the bondage of sin—will mean its own total freedom. Then Christ’s coheirs will exercise dominion with him as they were meant to, spreading their new freedom to creation as they rule with justice and peace. As we anticipate that day, we remember that the kingdom is at hand, both in our midst already (Luke 17:21) and yet to come in its full fruition. We know the presence of God now, though we anticipate seeing face to face; we love others in community now, though we anticipate living in God’s holy city (Rev 21); we steward the earth now in kindness, though we anticipate the day that it is set free from bondage (Rom 8:21). May we live in the reality of the kingdom at hand and find hope in the midst of our suffering that we—and all of creation—will one day know “the freedom of the glory of the Children of God” (8:21).

Listening to the Spirit: Reflections on John 16:12-15

Listening to the Spirit: Reflections on John 16:12-15

    Good afternoon, Canton family! Today’s Lectionary text comes to us from the Gospel of John, chapter 16. The Gospel of John provides for us a unique, intimate perspective on the night before Jesus’s death. Whereas the other Gospels focus more on the events of Jesus’s final hours, John dedicates several chapters to inviting us into these final conversations between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet after dinner (ch 13) and immediately begins telling them many things, things he refrained from telling them before because he was still with them (16:4); but now he is going away, even though he has so much more he wants to tell them (v. 12). 

    The disciples’ anxiety and confusion must have been overwhelming; their teacher, this Galilean who had wandered into their towns and turned their lives upside down, had become the center of their lives — and now he was going away? “What does he mean?”, they asked one another. “What is he talking about?” (16:18). Jesus provides for his disciples what must have seemed to be mysterious words of comfort: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (14:16). He continues, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). And again, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (15:26). Finally, in chapter 16, Jesus says something truly shocking about this Advocate: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). After describing the function of the Advocate for the world — to deal with matters of sin, righteousness, and judgment (vv. 8-11) — Jesus tells his disciples how the Advocate will function for those who belong to the Father:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-15, NRSV)

    We meditate on these words the week following Pentecost Sunday, living now in the future reality of which Jesus spoke; but perhaps we hear them with a similar confusion as the disciples — “What does he mean? What is he talking about?” As we should be, we are accustomed to reading the words Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry and listening closely for God’s whisper in them, discerning what he might be saying to us today through the words he spoke then. Yet, there is another one who speaks on behalf of the Father, declaring to us what belongs to Jesus — the Spirit of truth, who lives within us. If God wished only to speak to us through Scripture, surely the disciples more than anyone would have no need for an Advocate to lead them into truth — they had been listening to Jesus’s teachings day after day for years! But we find that Jesus does not intend to leave the disciples alone with only their memories — the presence of God will be with them in the Spirit, both reminding them of what they have heard (14:26) and giving them new revelation of truth (16:13). 

    As disciples of Jesus, we too were on Jesus’s mind and heart the night before he died — “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (17:20). Furthermore, as disciples of Jesus, we too have the Spirit of truth as our companion and Advocate. This summer in children’s church at Canton First Baptist, we are exploring the mystery of prayer together. Every week we have “Question Time” in which I, the ministry intern, ask the children questions in order to learn from them. Last week I asked the kids, “What is prayer?” One little boy answered, “It is a conversation we have with God so we know what to do.” Truly, as our Lord told us, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these! (Matt 19:14). May our devotion to the Lord this week reflect this conversational aspect of prayer. As we present our requests to God in thanksgiving (Phil 4:6-7), may we also listen for the voice of the Spirit, who guides us into truth and makes intercession for us (Rom 8:26). The Spirit of God is creative, speaking to us in many ways — through Scripture, through impressions on our minds and hearts, through God’s creation and his Church. May we listen intently and find God near in the presence of our Advocate!

Reflections on Psalm 104:24-34

Reflections on Psalm 104:24-34


     Hello again Canton! It has been a great week here at First Baptist, from celebrating our graduates on Sunday to preparing for our upcoming VBS event at the end of this month. As I better get to know your community, I will be including more updates about First Baptist in future posts. But for now, more devotion and reflections! In my post earlier this week, I advocated for the Lectionary as a useful tool for Christians, both as a guide in reading Scripture and as a way of maintaining unity within the big-C Church. Baptists—people of the Book—know already that Scripture is like oxygen for the body of Christ. God has breathed these words, invisibly moving the minds and hearts of human authors as an unseen breeze moves large branches. The rhythm of the Lectionary can help the ecumenical Church come into sync and breathe in unison as God breathes into us through Scripture; one thinks of that holy CPR by which God breathed life into Adam’s nostrils and made him a living soul (Gen 2:7). We celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit this Pentecost Sunday and remember that it is God’s Spirit, His breath, that animates and strengthens the Church, and, as we shall see, all of creation. As it is largely through Scripture that the Spirit speaks to us and encourages us, we look to the Lectionary as a helpful guide for reading Scripture with the rest of the Church.

    Of course we should also be wary of relying on a tool as though it were the Breath of God itself, for while the Spirit may move powerfully through the Lectionary, the Spirit also leads us to be discerning to assure that we read Scripture for all it’s worth. One crucial guiding principle to remember as we celebrate the Lectionary together is that no biblical passage is an island. Every verse finds its place within the context of a paragraph or poem, furthermore within a chapter or subsection of a book, and those pieces within a larger book in which God moved human authors to write with larger intentions, themes, and coherency — and those books in the even larger narrative of God’s story. By keeping these things in mind we avoid missing out on the bigger picture and the ways that context always sheds light on the smaller pieces. I encourage us to be mindful of this as we listen for God’s voice in our weekly Lectionary texts.

Today we’ll be looking at Psalm 104:24-34:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created; 
    and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.


    The preceding psalm, Psalm 103, shows the Psalmist launching into a lengthy song of praise for the Lord’s steadfast love, His unfailing mercy, His justice for the oppressed, and His faithful patience towards His people (103:4-12). The Psalmist’s gratitude can hardly be contained; blessings and thanks to the Lord are overflowing in response to how faithfully the Lord loves His children — Bless the Lord, bless the Lord, bless the Lord!, all of creation, bless the Lord for his perfect kindness! 

    In Psalm 104 this outburst of praise continues as the Psalmist’s gaze turns to creation — the Lord can be seen not only in his love for humanity but in every nook of creation. There are the heavens, stretched out as a celestial tent for the Lord’s dwelling, the beams of which reach down to the ocean; the chaotic waters themselves — a dangerous and untamed landscape, especially to ancient people — are subdued under the mighty hand of God. The interdependency of all creation is grounded in the Lord’s masterful guidance; he makes the water give life to things that grow, he makes the plants bear fruit for humans, and the forests serve as a home for animals. Verses 24-30 present an intimate perspective on God’s relationship with the created world — creation is fed from God’s open palm; when God hides his face, all living things mourn; when God breathes out his spirit, life springs into being; a glance from his eyes, and the earth starts shaking; a touch from his fingers makes the mighty mountains smoke. The Psalmist’s overflowing joy is a reflection of the Lord’s own joy in his masterpiece; “may the Lord rejoice in his works!” (v. 31). And like God in Zephaniah 3:17, who rejoices over his people with loud singing, the Psalmist cannot help but burst into song — “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live! I will sing praise to my God while I have being! May my meditation please him, for I rejoice in the Lord!” (vv. 33-34).

    We have much to learn from the Psalmist in these chapters! First we notice the Psalmists’ readiness to praise the Lord, to give him thanks through poetry and singing. This is no reluctant recitation of thanks; the Psalmist reflects deeply on the the goodness of God, a deep meditation that bubbles to the surface in exuberant song. 

    Second, this posture of praise makes the Psalmist aware of God’s kindness in very specific ways. The lens through which the Psalmist views the world sees God’s love from top to bottom, from the highest heaven to the depths of the sea. There is no facet of creation in which the Psalmist cannot find the grace of God. 

    Third, this pervasive grace of God is considered in very intimate terms. This is no distant God, disconnected from a world running like clockwork. Rather, we hear of God’s hand, his careful wisdom in creating, his face and his touch, his emotion and his breath, all in relation to his world. The combination of these intimate images with the Psalmists’ praise leaves no room for impersonal deism. Rather, God is working all around us! 

    Fourth, we notice that these cosmic reflections are concluded with “I” statements by the Psalmist. As we worship with these words, we can see God’s reign over the world reflected by the entire congregation praying the words together, as has been done for centuries; yet we also see that God’s specific intentionality in creation is reflected in the personal language of the Psalmist, crying out as one overwhelmed by a relational God - I praise you! I will sing to You as long as I live! Whatever others may do, this personal gratitude grounds the intimate connection the Psalmist feels with the Creator. May the Psalmist’s personal meditation be pleasing to the Lord! And so may ours. As we say the Psalm, we do so both as a body and as individuals. We are challenged to see the our-ness of God, that he is in all creation and relates to all of us; yet we are also challenged to meditate personally, to look for God in our lives and the world around us, to cry out in song when we glimpse the goodness of God, both within and without the congregation.

    May we be challenged by the Psalmist’s God-inspired reflections as we find God this week both in his loving mercy towards us and in his intimate connection to all creation. May we respond to God’s goodness with heart-felt praise, both on our own during the week and with the congregation on Sunday. Holy Spirit, help us to see you blowing through our lives and the world that you give life to, and to give praise when we glimpse the loving hand of our God at work. Amen!


Introduction & Reflections on Romans 8:14-17

Reflections from Lake Junaluska: Romans 8:14-17

     Hello Canton community! For those of you I have yet to meet, my name is Micah Riley and I am serving First Baptist this summer as a ministry intern. Pat and Linda Stewart have graciously welcomed me into their home at Lake Junaluska, and I am finding quiet evenings by the water to be a nice context for spiritual reflection. This blog will include those reflections, as I process the week’s Lectionary texts and the things I am learning from you all. And truly I realize more every day how much there is to learn from you, as I better get to know this beautiful little town tucked in the mountains with such rich history and community. While I'm not a Carolina native myself, I was raised just down the road in Knoxville and am currently living in Durham where I study at Duke Divinity School. For those of you who find this alarming, know that I’m not much of a sports fan and don’t care what shade of blue you might wear on game-days. Although, as a divinity student, I have caught on to a number of biblical references surrounding Duke's sports culture, whether it be people on the streets shouting “Zion!” or overhearing folks around UNC speculating that all blue devils will be condemned on judgment day. (I kid.)

    As one raised in a very Baptist home, I have had little exposure to the Lectionary until recently. After attending the Canton pastors’ Lectionary-based Bible study, I spent about an hour Google-searching how the Lectionary came to be and why in the world anyone would use it instead of just picking up a Bible. As it turns out, the impression I was raised with — that things like the Lectionary are dry and rigid — is far from the truth. Rather, it is a useful tool that helps the church read the Bible together across space, time, and denomination. As I am exploring the value of the Lectionary for myself this summer, I have decided to use the weekly Lectionary texts as a guide for these devotional entries; every week I will pick a couple of passages for the coming Sunday and provide some personal reflections. 

    The text I have chosen for this entry is Romans 8:14-17:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

    Readers of this passage have heard echoes of an old story that was clearly very important to Paul — the great exodus of Israel, God’s child (Exod 4:22), who was led out of Egyptian slavery and guided into the wilderness by God’s presence in the pillar of cloud and fire (Exod 13:21-22; 14:19). The narrative is now reimagined by Paul in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection and the new state of affairs effected by his salvific work. Those deathly, short-sighted ways of living — the slavery to the flesh — once held God’s people captive; but now they have become free sons and daughters, brought into the sonship of Jesus and promised a glorious inheritance. That inheritance, which includes at least the redemption of creation and the resurrection of our bodies, lies somewhere in the future (Rom 8:19-27); until then, God’s Spirit guides his children through this present wilderness until the day that we finally see the promised land. 

    We may come to face seemingly impossible circumstances that tempt us to fall into fear, like those Israelites who began daydreaming about slavery when they approached the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his army hot on their tail (Exod 14:12). But our doubts crumble under the weight of God’s faithfulness, and we find that God never fails to part the sea before us. This does not mean, of course, that we will not suffer; in fact, suffering in solidarity with Jesus is the only way forward into eternal life. But suffering never gets the final word. The apparent dead end that stirred fear in the hearts of the Israelites was split wide open; the dark night of Jesus’s death which inspired fear in the disciples was made bright with the rising of the Son. So, while the path on which the Spirit guides us often involves pain, we are guaranteed that our end will be glory — and it is in this bold hope that we cry out “Abba! Father!”, an intimate call which indicates trust for our loving parent who has graciously welcomed us into his family and who surely will not forsake his children even in the darkest night. Even then, the Spirit resides within us and beyond us, guiding us like a pillar of fire until that day when everything is made new and all tears are wiped away (Rev 21:4).

    As we pray for those suffering in Canton this week, we suffer with them knowing that their pain is very real and not delegitimized by the good news of the kingdom — yet we remember too that suffering will not have the last word. This pain must not lead us to hopelessness or the bondage of fear, but rather inspire a deep groaning within us as we long for the day that those weak ones whom we love are restored to strength, those sick are restored to health, those dying are restored to life, and those mourning are restored to joy. Jesus, the firstborn son who runs before us (Heb 12:2), is both the one weeping at the graveside (John 11:35) and the one ruling on the throne, promising us that he will make all things new (Rev 21:5). May we carry this hope with us this week!

John Wesley's Prayer

I ran across this in my devotional. It is a prayer by John Wesley and is called The Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own, but yours.  Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, praised for you or criticized for you.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and fully surrender all things to your hope and service.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine and I am yours.  So be it. And the covenant, which I have made on earth, let it be made also in heaven. Amen!
This prayer is about our journey with God. It is about surrendering everthing, and most importantly, it is about faith.  Even in our darkest ours of suffering or our time on this earth, if we trust in Jesus Christ, He will be with us.  Knowing that the pain and suffering we are going through at times on this Earth leads us closer to Christ. It is our Covenant with Him.  Read Jeremiah 29:11