Grace & Faith

GFaith &Grace.pngrace is the overflowing and ever-flowing stream of God’s love, and faith is one of the things that enables us to experience that love more fully. Sometimes that experience comes at God’s initiation even without faith, as in moments of great crisis.

It’s important to distinguish between belief and faith –

  • I believe that a parachute can hold me and take me safely to the ground.
  • I don’t have faith enough in that belief to actually trust my life to it and jump out of the plane.

We can think similarly about belief and faith in relation to God –

  •  many people believe that God exists
  •  a different (smaller?) set of people act on that belief with their faith
  •  some people even have faith without much belief (content, doctrine) behind it
  •  If you have to choose between belief and faith, I think faith will take you further into peace and joy

Some people confuse faith & belief with fully understanding everything – “I won’t / can’t have faith because I don’t understand xyz about God, life, the universe” this often happens when people can’t reconcile ideas – such as the relationship between science and religion (which are compatible) or when bad things happen to good people, or when “believers” behave badly.

For Christians (and Jews and Muslims) faith is the active living of the relationship with the God in whom we have come to believe through our religious tradition (scripture, teaching, practices, etc). Followers of Jesus have the added blessing that our faith is rooted in Jesus, the Christ, who we believe to have been the full embodiment of God on earth, and also fully human. He is therefore at the same time (1) our object of faith, (2) our source of grace, and (3) our model for how humanity lives in faith and receives grace. One could say that Grace is God’s way of showing us love, and active faith is our way of showing our love to God. Yet even faith itself is a gift of God’s grace “so that no one can boast.” and we have received this gift of faith by grace because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2)

 

A brief word study from the New Testament (using www.BibleStudyTools.com)

Faith 

One of the translation difficulties lies in the fact that the Greek word “pistis” is sometimes translated “faith” and other times translated “belief”. Either way, in the biblical usage it is always to be understood as an active verb – as something one acts upon, or upon which one stands. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 1:1)

  • Galatians 2:20   20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Grace

Grace is the intentional and relational sharing of love that takes action and produces results in the recipient’s life. Divine Grace is God reaching out to us to bless us. Grace is sometimes defined as “unmerited favor – the giving of an undeserved gift” whereas mercy is “unmerited leniency – the withholding of a deserved punishment”.

Grace and Faith together

On the relationship between the two – Faith is one of the gifts that comes through God’s grace, and it only comes as a gift of grace.

  • Romans 1:5 NIV  5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.
  • Romans 4:16 NIV  16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
  • Romans 5:2 NIV  2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.
  •  Romans 12:3 NIV  3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
  •  2 Corinthians 8:7 NIV  7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you —see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
  • Ephesians 2:8 NIV  8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
  • 1 Timothy 1:14 NIV  14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

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Grace & Faith

 

Connecting the dots – Law, Freedom, Identity, Compassion

Connecting the Dots

Over the last few weeks we have been thinking about our identity in Christ. Because we are in Christ we are no longer living according to the written laws of God. Instead, we are guided internally by the Spirit of God, which guided those who first wrote down the scriptures. So we follow the spirit if not the letter of the law. This is more difficult, and requires more of us – it is harder, not easier, to live out this kind of righteousness. It requires that we seek continual fellowship with God in Christ – only then can the Spirit guide us. It also requires a community of likeminded people who are walking the same path and will agree to mutual accountability.

We then explored the way that Jesus calls us IN our identity, and respects who we are individually and culturally. When we call others to follow him, or come together with those who already are, we must do likewise. That means recognizing and respecting the background and experiences of each person – as a whole person. Christ will transform them. We don’t need to change them. We are created for wholeness. Our Identity can become our opportunity, but only if along the way we don’t try to remake other people in our image.

Compassion for others informs and energizes our ministry. We “treat others as we want to be treated.” We realize that we already “suffer with” (the meaning of “com-passion”) as co-humans. Life is difficult. There is plenty of pain and sorrow to go around without imposing more. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and that life abundant.” (John 10:10) If we, who are of one culture and heritage, are to reach, call and nurture people from another culture, then we must honor both our identity and theirs. Paul describes his attempts to do this: “I become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) That is precisely where he is leading us in this discussion about food, and having compassion for the uniqueness and weaknesses of others.


** NOTE: Reflections for a sermon – “Our Freedom is limited by Compassion” based on 1 Corinthians 8.

The New Law of Freedom

Perhaps you know the phrase, “Keep it between the ditches”. It has been used in popular culture, including in this song by Drive By Truckers:

Doug Kershaw also has a song titled “Keep Between Them Ditches” which was used in the Dukes of Hazard.   You can listen to a clip here.

On either side of the road there is trouble. In between, there is plenty of room to move. You can adjust your speed. And some ditches are deeper than others. In what ways are our attempts at finding a moral compass, in scripture or otherwise, reflected in the spirit of this phrase? The ditches do not control or determine behavior, but they do suggest some constraints. Of course you can drive into the ditch if you want, but you might damage your car, and worse.

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* Notes for Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Learning to Ask Questions

Notes for a sermon from 07152012

Mark 8:27-38

How many of us had a teacher in school who said, “There are no dumb questions”?

And yet, what percentage of our education was about asking questions versus memorizing answers or collections of information?

We learned who did what to whom where and when.

Did we learn to ask and explore why?

We learned that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at the Ford Theatre during a production of “Our American Cousin”.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No.

We learned that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 near Dealy Plaza.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No. Oliver Stone asked these questions in his 1991 movie JFK, but he was mocked by many as a conspiracy theorist.

Why do we mock someone who questions the predominant view? Why is the skeptic ridiculed?

I want us to think together about the role of questions in our faith, and how we might learn to ask questions.

Listen for the word of God in our scripture reading from Mark 8:27-38.

In this text we hear Jesus ask the disciples two questions. “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Why did Jesus do this? Why ask questions of the disciples, and why these questions?

Are we to conclude that Jesus did not know what people thought about him? Was Jesus doing what many of us have done – wondered what other people thought of him? Have you ever been in a group and wondered what the people around you thought of you? Have you secretly wished that you could read their minds and know what they thought? Or perhaps you decided you are better off not knowing what some of them think.

And then the focus shifts from the crowd to Jesus’ closest associates. “Who do you say that I am?” Never mind what all those strangers, groupies and hangers on think. What about you, my closest companions – what do you think of me? Who do you think that I am?

It is important to recognize that this question is not asked in John’s gospel – there would be no point, because by the time John is telling his story of Jesus, we have a messiah who is boldly standing in the market and in the temple making “I am” statements to anyone who will listen. John’s Jesus tells everyone who he is, so there is no need to ask what people are saying.

Not so with the Jesus of Mark. In fact, Mark’s account, likely the earliest written of the four biblical gospels, includes what is called the messianic secret. Here we see Jesus repeatedly heal people and then require that they tell no one what has happened to them or who has accomplished this work. Mark’s Jesus is determined to keep as low a profile as possible. So then it makes sense for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Because Jesus had been pretty vague and evasive about who he is. He kept talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man – 13 time in fact (8:31, 38; 10:33, 45).

But again, we are left wondering why he is asking the questions. Is it because he doesn’t know the answers? Perhaps, since scripture is clear that Jesus’ knowledge was limited – in Mark 13 we learn that only the Father knows the details of the consummation of history – the Son does not know. So it is reasonable to think that he lacked other information as well. Yet we also know that Jesus seemed able to know the thoughts of the Pharisees when they doubted him.

This line of our questioning is worthwhile in itself. It invites us into a deeper curiosity about Jesus and his ways, in which we are to walk.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus is not seeking information – either he already has it, or doesn’t really need it. Jesus’ interest is not to be told what others think about him. Jesus’ desire is to invite the disciples into a journey of reflection and discovery. Perhaps they had not really stopped to think about all of the different things that were being said about Jesus. “Some say John the Baptist” who by this time had been beheaded. “Some say Elijah” who it was said would precede the Messiah – which is why Jesus said that John came as Elijah. “Some say one of the prophets” – a leader after the example of the Old Testament prophets who came to call the people of Israel back to more faithful worship in their covenant relationship with God – to restore justice and lift up the downtrodden.

It is worth our stopping to note these three things that were said. Jesus’ behavior fit into some preexisting categories and familiar frames of reference – Prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Jesus was unusual, but not unique in the way others saw and experienced him.

As we think about who Jesus is to us, we might stop and spend some time asking Jesus’ first question for ourselves. Who do the people around us say that Jesus is? Who do our neighbors and coworkers think Jesus is? Who do the people at the mall or the ball field know Jesus to be? What can we learn about Jesus from asking this question humbly and really listening to the answers? Are we willing to do this, and then to listen to what other people say? We will talk next week about learning to listen and hear. For now, it is enough to learn to ask questions. The questions Jesus asks of his disciples, we might ask of ourselves.

It does not stop there though. Jesus also asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This is so important. Jesus has not said publically that he is anything other than the son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary from Nazareth. In Mark’s gospel we do not even have the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation at Jesus’ baptism, nor Jesus public proclamation as he reads from Isaiah 60 in his home synagogue. We have to figure out for ourselves from the evidence given – from watching and listening to Jesus. And after a while, he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is the only one we hear, and that answer is partial. “You are the Messiah.” In contrast to the answers of others that Jesus is one who would precede the Messiah, Peter has determined, perhaps in conversation with the other disciples, that Jesus is the Messiah. The messiah was to be a political revolutionary – we might liken him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled together – a wise military and political figure who would bring freedom and would become the next king of Israel, deposing both the Emperor and his todies – Pilot and Herod.

Mark’s Jesus also does not say, “Blessed are you, for only God has revealed this to you.” (Matthew 16:17)

He says, “Don’t tell anyone!” “Sternly ordered” is how Mark puts it.

That’s not really our point here, but it is interesting, how Mark handles the story of Jesus.

Anyway, back to questions.

If the questions are intended to prompt reflection on the part of the disciples, then Mark intends that we do the same – that we wonder about who Jesus is; that we learn to ask these questions.

Why not just tell us who he is? Why did Jesus approach his ministry in this way? Why did Mark tell his story in this way? What is with all of these questions? Would somebody please just give me a straight answer for a change?

Well, it won’t be Jesus. Did you hear how Jesus answered the question asked of him – by asking his own question? Granted, the Pharisees were trying to trick him, but still. Jesus certainly could have given a direct answer if he had wanted to. Again, there is something about questions.

We have one other question to consider.

Jesus calls a blind man to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Is he serious? The man is a blind beggar. What does Jesus think the guy wants? Though to be fair, Jesus does have a history of not meeting the most obvious need people have. Remember the paralytic on the mat who was lowered through a hole in the roof by his four friends (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus pronounces that his sins are forgiven first, and only later proclaims physical healing. Over in John’s gospel Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years whether he wants to be made well (John 5:1-9). That sounds like another crazy question, similar to the one addressed to the blind man from Mark’s story.

Why ask these questions?
Does Jesus not know what they need? Can he not guess what they want?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes. So what is going on?

Again, I’m suggesting that Jesus wants these people to think about what they want and need. Mark is asking us to do the same. We need to learn to ask ourselves these questions and make them the object of our meditation and prayer. What do I really want? What do I really need? Do I really want to be made well? Am I willing to accept the changes that will entail? If I pursue the dream that I have, if I pursue wholeness and vitality and a life lived fully for God, what will it cost me? What is at risk? Bartimaeus had only known blindness and begging for his whole adult life – he would have to completely relearn how to function in society. None of his old coping mechanisms or ways of relating to others will work any longer if he accepts healing of his blindness. So Jesus is right to ask him and us this question. Mark is right to ask us this question. We are right to ask ourselves, and one another. What do we want God to do for us? Do we want to be made well?

I want to suggest one final thing. I think that questions about God are the most powerful language we have. It is more powerful to ask someone a question about God than to make a statement about God. When we ask someone about what they want or need, or about who they understand God to be, we are engaging their own faith. When we tell them what we think they need, or what we think the right answers are, or even who we think God is, then we are not engaging the part of their brain where faith is formed. The part of the brain that takes in data is different from that which dreams, imagines, asks and discovers.