James 3 – Deadly Tongues

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In Matthew 15, Jesus talks very specifically about the power of the tongue and what comes out of us.  He shows a contrast between the teachings of the Pharisees, who talk about unclean food as being that which makes us dirty and defiled and that which comes out of our mouth.  The things we say, Jesus points out, are the things that come from our heart and it is what which is in our heart that causes us to sin.

James picks up on this teaching as he continues to lay out a practical theology of living out our faith through what we do.  The tongue, he says, is one of the most powerful elements of our bodies and it can be what steers us into trouble or our of it as well.  He also points out the dichotomy (a contrast between two things that are completely opposite) in having a tongue that both speaks the praises of God and also curses the things around him or her.  These things shouldn’t exist together, but far too often they do.

Language is the very essence of civilization.  Nothing that humankind has already achieved would be possible without it.  How we speak, though, is not often taken into account when we talk about the direction of cultures and people.  Yet James points out that something as seemingly simple as this could change the course of a much greater group.  The ship is steered by the rutter, the forest burns because of one small spark.

Could it be that culture, ideology, even governments could change because of an intentional change in how we speak to each other?  The negative impacts of speech are certainly evident in our culture today, especially in this current election cycle.  I wonder what the world would be like if we chose not to engage in hateful, divisive rhetoric (true of all political parties and their adherents).  I wonder how our relationships with those that don’t think, feel, look, or believe like we do would change if we chose our words and actions carefully?

Philippians 4 – Think On These Things

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As Paul closes his letter, he returns to the subject of unity, once again encouraging them to be unified in their actions and thinking.  He even names a few people whom he asks the rest of the church to help in being more unified.  It is interesting that he doesn’t put them down here, but rather builds them up as those who are faithful in their work for the Gospel.  They have worked alongside Paul for the advance of the Gospel but struggle now with unity together.

How often does that ring true in our congregations?  We are all in this together, working to share the Gospel and Christ’s love for all people, but we cannot seem to get along with each other well.  Sometimes it’s because of current issues, but far too often it has to do with us holding on to things in the past that continue to divide us, even if the original issue has been solved or is no longer relevant.

How can we move toward greater unity in the midst of such struggles?  Paul says to think on things that are noble, pure, lovely, etc.  He encourages them to show gentleness to everyone as well.

Perhaps, if we are indeed looking for the good, seeking out what God is doing in our lives and all around us, and keeping the focus on the “peace of Christ” rather than on the abundance of negative things that are so prevalent around us.

The reality is that the Church is full of imperfect people.  We do things that end up causing hurt but we also have a choice in that moment, to focus on the negative and the injury to ourselves, or to share the same mind as Christ, identifying and forgiving sins committed against us, not allowing those things to cause division among us.

Philippians 2 – Be Like Jesus

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As Paul continues to encourage the community of faith in Philippi, he both encourages them in their walk of faith and warns them of some potential dangers that might crop up in the church.  The chief among them is disunity and division.

When we experience good times of prosperity and growth, our tendency is to want to hold on to them.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to selfish actions geared at personal gain, something that is antithetical to the message of the Gospel and the purpose of the Church.  Paul warns against this citing the benefits and encouragement from Union with Christ that are meant to be turned outward, not inward.

How we know this and see this is the example of Jesus Christ, His life, work, and especially His death.  Jesus, stepping out of heaven, humbled himself by taking on human flesh.  In this humility, not only did He put on the skin of a mortal being, He also submitted Himself to the will of the Father, fulfilling the Law by living the life that we could not and also dying the death that we deserved.  Paul writes that Jesus “took on the very nature of a servant.”

The cross was Jesus ultimate act of servanthood and humility. At the same time, it was also His greatest glorification.

The best way to avoid division and disunity is to take on these same traits, being like Jesus and turning all the benefits of being His child outward towards the world.  When we do this, we realize very quickly that it isn’t about us, it’s about God and showing His love and sharing His Good News.

As Paul continues in this chapter, he commends several people to the church in Philippi, all of whom are living out what Paul has encouraged the people there to do.  These are people who will encourage and strengthen the community when they arrive there, all because they are striving to be like Jesus.

1 Corinthians 1 – True Wisdom

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From the very beginning of this letter, Paul touches on the theme that will be repeated many times throughout his correspondence with the church in Corinth.  Ultimately Paul’s appeal to the Christians there is that they would have the same mind as Christ, who is the wisdom of God.  This wisdom transcends all worldly and human wisdom.  That, however, makes little sense to those who do not understand the nature of the Gospel.

God’s wisdom does not take the strongest, most eloquent, or the most powerful of humankind to further His message and love.  In fact, as is seen with Christ, God often chooses the weak, the seemingly foolish things by worldly standards to show His strength and love.

Paul takes this theme and applies it immediately to the divisions plaguing the church in Corinth.  There had been many disagreements about issues related to theology and the practice of faith, but it also seems that there was an issue of who people felt was best to follow as a leader of the church.  Each of the men listed were champions of the early church.  Paul, a theological giant, Peter, the Rock and Jesus “right-hand man,” and Apollos, an eloquent and passionate speaker.  All were solid choices for leadership.

Yet Paul cuts through it all, getting right to the point: Jesus is the head of His Church.  God’s strength and salvation will not be found in the following of one good leader or in the strength of theological knowledge or eloquent speaking.

It isn’t, however, that God doesn’t use these things, though.  Paul’s emphasis is on their place of importance in our lives.  When we look to these things rather than the cross, we empty it of its power, essentially saying, Jesus’ work is not good enough for us.

Romans 16 – Name Dropping

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Paul almost universally ends all his letters with greetings and commendations to those at or around the intended destination of his letter.  The book of Romans contains the longest list of such people.  One might wonder why exactly this has become part of what we know as Scripture, God’s inspired Word when it seems to be much more personal in nature.

Yet embedded in these greetings and commendations are some final thoughts, conclusions, and warnings to the reader.  They almost feel out of place amongst the lists of names here.

Perhaps though, without saying it directly, Paul isn’t his readers to greet these people, but is actually commending them as those who are trustworthy, warning against others who may not be.  Each of the people Paul names he refers to as being in the “family,” or being hard workers.  In essence, their ‘loyalty,’ as it were, has been proven and they are trustworthy people to seek out.  This might be some of the earliest Christian networking that we know of.

The warning that Paul gives here though is not something that we should lightly pass over.  We are warned repeatedly, throughout Scripture, against those who would seek to divide and obstruct the ministry of the Gospel.  While Paul commends several to those in the church in Rome, he is also commending to us those in the church who are faithful workers, Christ followers, and wise leaders.

Sometimes we fall ito the trap of listening to the loudest voice, or following the person or group with the largest numbers.  Notice, Paul says nothing about these things.  Instead he speaks of those who are battle proven, whose lives have reflected the change that the Holy Spirit has put on their hearts.  Are these the type of people we gravitate toward?

Mark 7 – Traditions

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The word “tradition” has become one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the church in recent years.  Some people hear this word and cringe, their minds rapidly moving toward visions of hymnals, organs, and hard wooden church pews.  Others hear it and are drawn by warm feelings to the “good ole days” where they sung familiar songs, had notes to read and music to follow, and sung in 4-part harmony.  While each group tends to have considerable disdain (though we wouldn’t necessarily name that) for the other,  neither inclination is, in itself, a bad thing.

However, as is often true, when our priorities get mixed up and we uphold the thing we cherish (musical style, way of doing things, etc.) over and above that to which those things point (namely: Jesus Christ), we fall into idolatry.  Indeed, much of the struggle with worship style actually falls into the label of idolatry, worshipping worship… or at least the way that we want to worship… which is actually worshipping ourselves.  Sadly, this has been applied more readily to the “traditionalist,” but is just as true for the “contemporary-ist.”

At the root of the problem for us and for the Pharisees here is where the heart is.  The Law was meant to be a guide for the hearts of the people, much like Sunday services are, in large part, meant to be a time to corporately direct our hearts toward God.  Yet we have a funny way of trying to make that time be more about us whilst making it sound like we are trying to make it about God.

Jesus’ words here are a gut check for Christians: when something we do to “worship” God is divisive, it may be “that which defiles” more than “that which honors.”