Tag Archives: Paul

Preparation

The Christmas season is now upon us and we can see decorations and other signs all around.  Our holiday to-do lists have heated up as various deadlines close in and we often find ourselves swept along by the hustle and bustle of the season.  There are gifts to buy, Christmas cards to mail, meals to prepare for, travel arrangements to be made, and many other things.  There have also been some changes at church as we have turned the corner into the end of the calendar year.  Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent and we have begun to anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth as well as his eventual second coming.  In the spirit of this anticipation, Advent is also a time of preparation.  As we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth, we also prepare ourselves and look to Christ’s return.

One of the ways that we prepare during Advent is by taking time for self-examination.  In many ways Communion is a good analogy to help us wrap our minds around the Advent season.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul admonishes the Corinthian church and us to examine ourselves so that we may eat the bread and drink the cup in a worthy manner.  (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)  Are we receiving communion with a heart that respects it for what it is or do we take it for granted?  This self-examination involves both repentance and thanksgiving as we ultimately seek to be spiritually realigned.

This is the same idea that guides us as we prepare during the Advent season.  One of the benefits of Advent being at the end of the calendar year is that we are able to look back upon the last 11 months and take stock of our lives and how we have been living for Christ.  We can reflect on the trials and the blessings we’ve experienced during the last year with the benefit of hindsight.  We are also able to see more of the big picture of our lives than we do when looking at it from day to day.  Both of these considerations help us as we ponder the question of whether we’ve been living our lives in line with the new life we have in Christ.

With all of the preparations we are making for the celebration of Christmas, it is easy for Advent to get lost in the shuffle between Sundays.  This is why having our daily time set aside for devotion is so important:  it protects and maintains a time in our regular schedule for God.  During these times we can offer prayers to God to guide us in our self-examinations and to give us clarity of vision to see where we have fallen short and to show us the ways in which we have been blessed.  It is also during these times that we converse with God and lay before him the contents of our hearts.  For we do not prepare ourselves solely through our force of will, but ultimately come to God so that He may continue to grow us and increase our faith.  Our self-examination is a cooperative process that we engage in with God and our improvement as Christians is a grace we receive from Him.

Just as we prepare a Christmas tree for gifts to be placed under it, we also, during Advent, prepare ourselves to receive the gifts of God’s grace.

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On Having a Positive Attitude

When we are told to have a positive attitude, we often consider it either a wishy-washy platitude or an apathetic dismissal.  While it is true that such an admonition is used in both of these ways, I would like to submit that there is more substance in a positive attitude than what these common uses would indicate.  What is it that makes a positive attitude more than just a nice thought or saccharine shtick?

Firstly, our attitude colors our outlook on everything.  It is a psychological lens through which information passes as it is formed into our perceptions.  As such, it can sharpen or distort our perceptions, either allowing them to be more accurate or skewing them (sometimes drastically) away from reality.  Our attitude is the difference between taking a passing comment as a passing comment and taking it as an insult; the difference between having an open or closed mind.  It is also key to the phenomenon known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  Our attitude affects how we treat people, which, in turn, affects how they treat us.

Second, our attitude makes a very real impact on the people around us.  As noted in the self-fulfilling prophecy example above, our attitude really is contagious.  It can be what helps someone else to, themselves, have a positive attitude which goes on to affect the people they come into contact with and who we may never see.  In this way, our attitude has a subtle effect on actions and interactions beyond our little sphere.  This wide-ranging influence is why the kind of attitude we have is a very important decision.

Third, in addition to having an effect on our perceptions and on others, our attitudes have an effect on our own lives and how we live them.  Paul touches on this idea in his letter to the Philippians:

“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound.  Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

-Philippians 4:11-13

Paul says that he is content no matter his circumstance.  This speaks to his attitude not as a passing feeling, but as a persistent disposition.  It is interesting to note the ideas Paul uses to convey his point.  He says that he has learned “how to” be abased, abound, etc.  This suggests that there is a better and worse way to undergo these things.  To bring this into better focus, consider the more mundane example of having a cold.  There seem to be two general categories into which people fall when dealing with this kind of disturbance.  One group accepts the cold for what it is and proceeds forward with life in anticipation that the annoyingly runny nose will eventually go away with the aid of proper care and rest.  The other group allows the discomfort and disturbance of the cold to take over their lives and dominate their attitude, inflicting undue strain and stress not only on themselves, but also on those around them.  Chances are that we’ve encountered both of these approaches to the problem of being sick.  In this case, it is clear that the first is a better way of addressing our cold and the second worse.  They do not change the fact that a cold is a bad thing to deal with.  Rather they speak to our disposition in a bad circumstance.  We can apply the same reasoning to a good circumstance; noting that we can have better and worse mindsets as we move through it.  This is the line of reasoning that Paul sets out as he addresses the Philippian Christians:  he has learned how to have a positive attitude in both good and bad circumstances.

As we unpack this further, we come to the foundation upon which Paul grounds his attitude.  He says that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Paul’s positive mindset is not based on his force of will when particular circumstances arise.  He’s not forcing himself to be happy or humble.  Instead, his mindset stems from a larger perspective in which circumstance forms a transient part.  This perspective is cultivated as we grow in our relationship with God and learn to live our lives with Him.  God, rather than being forgotten or relegated to a particular corner of our lives, is allowed to be a part of all that we say, think, and do.  We allow Him to provide comfort, to provide guidance, or to provide insight in the innumerable situations we find ourselves in.  Rather than being an escapist mentality, living our lives with God helps us to engage the people and situations around us in a healthy and constructive way.  Paul does not say that his positive attitude is based on ignoring his problems.  Instead, he says that he relies on Christ, who casts a light on the situation and helps him to proceed well.  Above all else, Paul (and we as Christians) has an unquenchable hope in the new life we have in Christ which surpasses anything that this world or Hell itself can throw at us.  It is this hope that strengthens us against the despair and cynicism inherent in having a bad attitude.

Although we often take having a positive attitude as a fluffy platitude anymore, I hope that the writing above has shown or at least helped you consider the idea that a positive attitude is something with substance that is worth taking the trouble to maintain.  It would be foolish to claim that it is easy to keep a positive attitude, especially when we are surrounded by a world bursting at the seams with negativity.  Nonetheless there is real value in this endeavor, for our attitude affects our perceptions and interactions with others as well as how we address ourselves to all manner of situations.  We make a difference in the world every day, whether we like it or not.  What kind of difference we make is very often the product of the attitude we have in life.


Afterword

With the election drawing to a close this week with heightened emotion and intensity for many, we now find ourselves pondering what the future holds from here.  It has oft been observed that this election in particular has been especially polarizing and, in affirmation of this, it has also weighed heavily upon many of our hearts and minds for some time now.  However, as the dust begins to settle, our attention must turn to the matter of how we are going to proceed.  For, though the presidential election is one of the most important events in the United States, which greatly affects and shapes the future course of the nation, it does not negate the numerous other moving parts of our lives.

As Christians, we must not lose sight of the fact that even something as big as the presidential election is ultimately a piece in the bigger picture.  It is a piece that we, as part of the stewardship given to us in our lives, are required to speak to through casting our vote.  Nonetheless, after the election is done, the votes tallied, and speeches made, there will still be evils such as hunger, poverty, corruption, and injustice in our world just as there were before.  Our Adversary, the devil, will still be tirelessly pursuing our spiritual ruin and the spiritual ruin of all humanity.

For these reasons, as we return our focus to our more routine cycles, it is paramount that we remain mindful of the eternal aspects of our temporal lives.  The words of Paul to the church in Colosse are poignant to us following the election:

Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.  But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.  And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

-Colossians 3:12-17

Paul’s words provide a gut-check that makes us look at who we are called to be as Christians.  It seems that this last campaign, perhaps more so than those previous, has tended to incline our hearts to hate and wish ill for others depending on who they did or didn’t support.  However, our devotion and obedience to Christ demands that we put off such wickedness and instead give grace and love just as we have received grace and love from Christ.  We are called to support and look out for one another for the greater glory of God, rather than give in to bitterness and hysteria.  This is an admittedly difficult task, given that our political views may not have won the election and that we are faced with sentiments all too eager to stir us to anger and fear whenever we do things like turn on the TV or log on to Facebook.  Sometimes we must take a deep breath and clear our minds of the clutter that so easily accumulates in it and distorts our perceptions.  We must not let fear or resentment govern our lives, for then we and we alone have robbed ourselves of faith, hope, and love.

Life goes on after this election, and so does our goal of living our lives with and for God.  As we move forward in our lives, we must keep our hearts and minds set on what is truly important and not lose sight of the God who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son so that, while we were still enemies to Him, we might be reconciled to Him.  Let us then, in keeping with His love, continue, as ever, to aim at and uphold the heart and spirit expressed in the greatest commandments:

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ this is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

-Matthew 22:37-40


Square One

There are times and stretches of time in our lives when it seems as though there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope of something better.  Or, even if we can envision something better, it appears to be forever out of our reach.  God seems distant and disinterested as we view our faith as more of a nice thought than anything of substance.  What do we do when everything seems so messed up and out of joint with both ourselves and the world in general?

What I wish to offer here is not any sort of quick-fix solution to magically solve all problems or a list of platitudes that just tell us to feel better, for hope is not built upon such things.  Instead, what I aim to do is present starting points, a series of “square-ones” as it were.  These are facts that help us to take our next step in the right direction and, just as important, help us to not give up.

1)  Jesus Christ is in Heaven.

 Yes, this seems like a rather vanilla statement, but we ought not to lose sight of what it entails.   Christ has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven:  He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world and was elevated to the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 8:1).  There, having returned to His place at the Father’s side and opened the way for us to be reconciled to our God, Christ makes intercession for us to the end that we share in the fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:25, John 17:20-26).  We are never so far removed from God that we cannot reach Him and He cannot reach us.  When we come to God and throw ourselves upon His mercy, we have Jesus Christ as our Advocate, to speak for us and support us.

2)  The Spirit dwells in us.

 Though Christ is in Heaven interceding for us, we have not been left alone.  He, Himself, promised that a Helper, the Holy Spirit, would come to us and abide with us (John 14:15-18).  Through the Spirit’s indwelling, God dwells in our hearts so that He is always near.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us in life to help and to guide us.  He is our advocate as we live on earth, reminding us of our true North and directing us closer to God.  In the midst of our weakness, in our hours of darkness, He also helps us by speaking on our behalf when we do not know what to say (Romans 8:26).  God is near to us even in the thick of the fray and is active in our lives even when we feel far from Him.  The Spirit helps us, speaks to us, and makes God known to us (John 16:13-15).

3)  We have the power to choose.

Because of what God has done for us, we are no longer slaves to sin or ignorance.  Instead, we have the help and tools before us to make meaningful decisions in our lives.  We can choose what kind of person we are going to be and what we are going to make of our current circumstances.  We can choose to remain faithful even when we feel so distant.  Even when we feel powerless, we are still able to make choices of eternal significance.  When we stumble and fall or are plain knocked down, there are always at least two options:  to stay down, or to get back up.  This is a choice that we and we alone can make.  We make it countless times throughout our lives and we make it especially often when we are struggling with sin or facing a difficult life situation.  No matter how many times we have to make it, it is always ours to make.

The points above remain constant, regardless of where we find ourselves in our Christian walk.  The worst thing that we can do is give up and succumb to despair, for then we have shut out hope ourselves.  However, if we can keep the above in mind, it will help us to remember the eternal hope we have and, in light of that hope, continue to put one foot in front of the other in our current situation.  This may be seeking out the help we need, it may be continuing in prayer despite being pressed by desolation, it may even be as simple as choosing to smile.

In spite of the darkness that may surround us and give us a bleak outlook on life, there is a light and power within us of great and eternal significance.  It is a light and power that is cared about by God and that He wishes to nurture and grow.  He has given us a key role in this process.  We can choose what to do with it at any given time and the hope that is thereby placed before us is a solid footing.


Living Art

It seems that many times our spiritual life falls into one of two extremes.  On one hand, we may shove it to the outskirts of our mind and hope that as long as we keep it happy with the weekly trip to church or Bible study it won’t bother us.  On the other, we may hold visions of using it to ascend to a veritable Christian utopia in which we have reached the pinnacle of spirituality and can at last bask in the warm glow of victory.  This utopic vision of our faith both drives and haunts us.  We feverishly pursue the glittering image of having the perfect spiritual life while also rebuking ourselves for not having already attained it.  Though this pursuit may have the appearance of being good and beneficial, its gently sloping path threatens to lead us to a very different destination than we expect.

But why?  Aren’t we supposed to seek to grow closer to God?  Aren’t we supposed to imitate Christ?  Yes, we are.  However, we must pause to reflect on whether that is truly what we are seeking to do.  This isn’t a question of checking our motives as much as checking our goals.  If our chief aim is to draw closer to God and live out the Gospel message, then we will find ourselves on the right track.  However, if we are seeking to achieve a state of spiritual utopia, we’ll find ourselves going nowhere fast.  In fact, the word “utopia” literally means “nowhere”.

The images we chase are just that:  images.  They do not exist in substance as something for us to grab and possess.  Rather, just like light streaming through a window, the more we attempt to hold them, the more they evade our grasp.  The more we try to be the person we are imitating, the more we find ourselves drifting from God.  This is because our relationship with God is between us and God, not this other person and God.  As we are shaped into Christ’s likeness, we grow into a unique reflection of Christ.  In trying to be someone else, we are fighting against God’s shaping of us.  He created us to be us, with our own personality, talents, and gifts.

Let’s use Ignatius of Loyola to construct an example:  he developed a spirituality that has influenced and helped countless people grow closer to God.  Following the path of Ignatian spirituality provides a way of proceeding that helps us to be shaped into Christ’s image.  It does not provide a way of proceeding that aims us at being Ignatius of Loyola.

In Christ’s example, we see how to live our lives with God.  He showed us what it looks like to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind as well as to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This example is given to us to the end that we grow towards Christ-likeness and that we become able to show others who Christ is, not that we should become Christ.  After all, we must remember that Jesus was fully God and fully human, living a sinless life to the end that He might offer himself as a perfect sacrifice for all.

It will be helpful to reflect on the words of Paul as we wrap our minds around this:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  -Galatians 2:20

Paul is writing about the new life he has in Christ, being justified by faith and not by works of the Law.  It is interesting to note the phraseology that he uses here, stating that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ lives in him.  Christ is the vivifying power which guides and directs his life.  When we were dead in our sins, there was no life in us and we were compelled as undead minions to serve our whims under the direction of our sinful nature.  In Christ, we have life and have it abundantly:  we are made free from the dictatorship of sin and are able to live and to grow and to give our lives, not as compulsory tribute, but as love offerings to God in a renewing, life-giving relationship.  Through this relationship we are shaped by God as His love works in and through us, forming us into the unique person we were created to be.

Consider an artist and painting as a metaphor:  a painting is given life and meaning by the artist acting through their brush and each painting is a unique expression of the artist’s heart, so that no two are the same.  Each life is a masterpiece which God has a vision for, a unique expression of love and beauty that He wishes to create.  What’s more, He includes us in the creative process so that we are not a passive canvas which is acted upon, but rather a fellow artist who works in cooperation with the divine maestro upon the canvas.  The end result is that the person we are is a unique work of art:  an expression of the heart of God that is unlike any other.  In attempting to be someone else, we try to become nothing more than a copy.  A copy is a lifeless duplicate of the original work:  the artist is unable to put any heart or expression into it because it is simply a retracing of lines.  Similarly, when we set out to live a utopic vision of picturesque Christianity, we are doing nothing more than sitting down to copy an image.  Because we are tracing lines, our focus is on attempting to recreate each stroke and we have no time for interaction or relationship with the artist Himself.  We do not allow God to have any input or to help us put any of ourselves into the work, and so our copy remains lifeless no matter how well we trace.  That enlivening and animating power of Christ which Paul wrote of is absent.

Rather than an empty duplication, our life and relationship with God is a vibrant work-in-progress during our time on earth.  It will only reach its completion when it becomes a part of the glorious mosaic in Heaven.  The life of Christ is a foundation to us.  The lives of our fellow Christians, both those who have gone before and our contemporaries, serve as influences and inspirations to us.  We work with God to have ourselves formed into a portrait of Christ that is uniquely ours, one in which our heart beats with God’s as they are both poured out onto the canvas.


Remembering the Last Things – Part 1

There are many things that we can think and meditate upon for the profit of our souls. One that is often recommended to us by the Christians of antiquity is our inevitable death and judgment before God. Granted, in a time in which we have seen and continue to see such topics handled with all the finesse and discretion of rusty cleaver, contemplating death and judgment is less than appealing and seems to be the purview of a rabid and thoughtless theology. However, what I would like to ask of you is to set those impressions aside as best you can and approach this idea on its own, for what it is.

Let’s start with a Scriptural precedent for such contemplations, for they do not have their origins in the desire of one person to control another. Rather, they spring from the desire that a person should control him/herself. (While I won’t touch on it directly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the entirety of the book of Revelation here.)

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

-2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Paul calls the church’s attention to the final judgment in order to give them perspective on their current condition; a perspective that includes eternity.

Peter also urges us to remain mindful of the Day of Judgment in light of the evils we encounter in life:

“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.”

-1 Peter 4:17-19

In both of these instances from Scripture, the final judgment is not presented to invoke mindless fear, but as occasion for thoughtful reflection and, in particular, introspection. It is such recollection that helps to keep us anchored to God as we navigate the seas of life.

Yet another instance in Scripture in which are urged to be mindful of the last things comes from Christ Himself. Throughout Matthew 24:45-25:46, Jesus provides us with four parables that we might meditate upon the final judgment; namely, the parable of the faithful servant and the evil servant (24:45-51), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). To whom is Christ telling these parables? His disciples. The meditation of judgment is presented to those following Christ that we should be careful to be prepared; that we should search our hearts and see to it that, insofar as it has been given to us, we live our lives in response to the grace we receive from God. Sometimes we may fall into overlooking our daily struggle with sin and become self-conceited. It is from such pride, I think, that a great many errors of churches spring. It leads us to veer from our calling to follow God and to instead serve ourselves and act as though we were self-sufficient, having no need of God other than as a mascot of our organization.

Now it bears mentioning where the idea of assurance of salvation/“perseverance of the saints” fits into this topic we’ve been discussing. If we trust in God to bring us safely to the port of heaven, what practical gain is there for us in contemplating His judgment? There is much that could be said of this concept, but here I will only provide a brief and pragmatically oriented response. First, when Scripture speaks to us of election, assurance of salvation, and so forth, a large portion of what is being communicated to us is that our trust in God in never misplaced. Second, concerning the intersection of our trust in God’s grace and our consideration of the fires of hell, I offer 2 Peter 1:10 where the apostle writes the following after a brief call to continued spiritual growth, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;”

So we can see that Scripture encourages us to pause and remember that God will judge all people at the appointed time. Such practice is good for our soul because it reminds us not to become complacent or careless in our Christian walk. Paul sums up well the purpose of the reminders of fearsome judgment and precious hope we see in Scripture when he writes the following concerning the instances seen in the Old Testament:

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

-1 Corinthians 10:11-13


The Great Commission Abridged

One of the core values of the Church and of Christianity as a whole is the Great Commission, Jesus’ command to the disciples just before He ascended into Heaven after the Resurrection: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) I think that much of our understanding of this passage boils down to something along the lines of “get people to join the church” or “get people to convert”. However, such an understanding is inadequate because it amounts to putting butts in the pews and nothing more. Other times we cut it down to the baptism part and even that we reduce down to formalities and bestowing certificates (never mind the schisms that have arisen surrounding the mode of baptism, i.e. immersion vs. anointing, discounting baptisms from different denominations, etc.). If we make the Great Commission strictly about winning converts we would do well to also consider Christ’s admonishment in Matthew 23:15: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”

There is much more to the Christ’s words than a mere numbers game. First we are told, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” Before equating disciple-making to adding to the church membership list, let’s reflect a moment on what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In basic word-sense, to be a disciple is to be a learner or a pupil. As disciples of Christ, we are His students learning from Him. We strive to follow His lead and to imitate Him, hence the term “Christian” (Little Christ). As it relates to sharing Christ with others, Paul sums it up well when he writes to the church in Corinth, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) For we are all fellow disciples seeking to be more fully conformed to Christ. Just as we are invited to share in the loving relationship that overflows from the Triune God, we allow that love to overflow from us and we invite others to join in this transformational journey of growing in God’s love and grace. To make disciples of all the nations is more than just handing out certificates or trying to increase Sunday morning or Bible study attendance, it is about inviting others to travel with us as we all follow Christ.

Next, we move on to baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.   Baptism is an important part of our Christian walk. It is a vital milestone in our spiritual development because it is in baptism that we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection. “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection,” (Romans 6:3-5) In baptism we are unified with Christ and, in Him, with each other. It is a public witness of our accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, but what’s more, it is a spiritual witness of our new identity in Christ, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and accounted righteous through the shed blood of Christ. With this in mind, we see that baptism is not something that we get, but it is an ordinance that we receive in harmony with the transformation that has already begun to take place in our lives by the grace and working of God. Baptism goes hand in hand with being a disciple of Christ: as imitators of Christ we identify with His death and resurrection. As such, we ought not to treat baptism as if it were a stand-alone event. We ought rather to keep it in a holistic perspective, recognizing it as a flower of grace, an outgrowth of our being in Christ and He in us.

Finally we come to “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.” We ought not to construe this as merely handing down and enforcing a set of rules. In John 14:15, Christ says “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Since our minds are conditioned to think in terms of “do this in order to achieve that,” it is often our first instinct to read Christ’s words as “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commands.” This, however, is to get the flow backwards. Our love for Christ is prompted by God’s love for us. (1 John 4:19) Our obedience arises as an expression of our love: it is a way that we go about loving God. Instead of issuing an ultimatum, Christ is helping us to respond to God’s love. (I don’t think it is an accident that in this passage He immediately proceeds to promise the coming of the One who helps us to abide in God, the Holy Spirit.) So when the topic of obeying Christ’s commandments comes up, it is not about exerting control or being controlled. It is about teaching and learning to love God as a way of life, to live our lives with God. To essentially give someone a set of rules and say “do this” is an immense disservice to the Gospel message. One might think of the giving of the Law in the Old Testament as God’s giving us a set of rules and saying “do this,” but even then God was with the people of Israel and was in relationship with them as they struggled to keep the Law and to remain in God by their own power. God is relational and teaching to obey Christ’s commands is an invitation to join in living our lives with God.

The Great Commission is much more than the missional boilerplate we often take it as. It is much deeper and something that we all take part in in various ways, beyond our typical picture of a missionary. It is Christ handing over to us, as His friends (John 15:15), His work of sharing God with others. As the commissioned, we invite and help others to be fellow pupils of Christ; with faith blooming into the flower of baptism which gives rise to the spiritual fruit of life lived with God. However, we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves or others for abridging the Great Commission. As we have seen (and speaking from my own, I believe, not uncommon experience), the Great Commission is a rather scary investment of time, effort, and, most poignantly, our heart. However, we can take peace and encouragement from Christ’s closing words, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Following Christ requires that we become vulnerable, so it is inevitable that we will get bumped and hurt. That is part of why it is so important that we, ourselves, remain anchored in and sustained by Christ. The other part is that what we ultimately share with others in fulfilling the Great Commission is our own relationship with God. Our abiding in Christ is the light that we share with others. As we walk with God together, our lights strengthen and rekindle each other, all fed by the Lord. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)

Chibi Abridged