Tag Archives: love

New Sermon: Who is my neighbor? Who is my enemy? by Rev. Chris Rice

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

Dear Friends,

There are few things more difficult than being opposed, especially when we are trying to follow the will of God. When you were a child, did you ever find a set of blocks and build a tower with them? And when you were just about to set the last block on the top of your tower or wall or house, can you remember another child coming over and knocking down your handiwork? How did that make you feel? Really angry, really sad, right?

I remember one Sunday sitting with a child in children’s church who just wanted to play by himself. We took a lot of time setting up a building together, and there was this other boy that made it his mission to come and destroy it. No matter how hard I tried to stop him, he found a way to come over and knock the blocks down. His fun that morning was in ruining our work.

As we set out to do the will of God, Jesus makes it clear, we will be opposed. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And what are we told to do in response? Love our enemies. On one level this doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t it just arming the devil to love those opposed to the work of God?

Why set out to do anything for God if someone can come along and attack and destroy that work? Then Jesus says I’ve got to love that enemy? Love for enemies is at the heart of the redemptive work of God in Christ. And Jesus means for us to take him seriously on this point. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer:

Heavenly Father, we come to you and ask that you make us eager to listen and obey. You know that we live in a world that is opposed to the Light of Love. Jesus promised that in this world we would have trouble. But then He said, “Be of good courage. I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) So we ask that you grant us courage this day. In you we are overcomers! And your Love abides in us to accomplish this. Have your way in us completely. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Our Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Let us take his words and let them sink deeply into us. In Leviticus 19:18 the Bible says, ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And in Psalm 139:21, 22 it says, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”

As we consider how to love our enemies, first we have to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor and how do I love them as myself?” Or, in other words, the people that I share the land with, who are they to me? Am I “my brother’s keeper”? We cannot love our neighbors without careful, deliberate intention. We cannot just be alive, caring only for ourselves, and think that because we are not at war with our neighbor, we love them.

The second consideration in loving our enemies is, “Who am I in relation to my enemy?” Am I doing the will of God? Everything that God requires, He provides. The question is, am I seeking my own interests or the will of God? If I’m serving Jesus than the only enemies I have are Jesus’ enemies. Jesus loves his enemies and died for them to redeem them into the Kingdom.
I dare say that our first problem in loving our enemies is actually in defining our neighbors and then our enemies.

When I was a kid growing up I used to say to my sisters and to other kids in the neighborhood, “Jesus says I have to love you, so I do. But he didn’t say I had to like you, so I don’t.” It is often easy to set the hard teachings of Jesus aside, like this one, for our own comfort. Some people are more difficult to be around than others, we might say, so I’ll deal with them the best I can, but I don’t have to like them. That sentiment shows just how far we still have to go in loving Jesus.

Jesus didn’t say we’d always feel like loving. That’s not what love is all about. He said,
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

I’m a firm believer in “greeting” all people because they have in them the image of God. What did it mean to greet or “salute” someone in Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s day? It meant addressing them with respect and honor by name. For Jesus’ disciples it meant that he knew them well and even gave them new names, like Simon, whom Jesus called Petra, or Rock. Paul would start and finish his letters like this, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And Jesus said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (vs. 47) This is why it is wrong to pick favorites among the people we serve. This is why it is wrong to treat others only the way they treat us, instead of “as we would want to be treated”, as Jesus said.

It is wrong because my neighbor is the person God has placed before me to humanize and greet. The image of God in them, as difficult as it may be to see, is a gift that I must not meet with derision. When I mistrust someone made in God’s image, the stranger, the alien in the land, my neighbor, I offend God, and it offends the image of God in me!
George MacDonald, the fiction writer, poet and pastor, said, “But the question must be put to each man by himself, “Is my neighbor indeed my enemy, or am I my neighbor’s enemy, and so take him to be mine? — awful thought! Or, if he be mine, am not I his? Am I not refusing to acknowledge the child of the kingdom within his bosom, so killing the child of the kingdom within my own?” Let us claim for ourselves no more indulgence than we give to him. Such honesty will end in severity at home and clemency abroad. For we are accountable for the ill in ourselves, and have to kill it; for the good in our neighbor, and have to cherish it. He only, in the name and power of God, can kill the bad in him; we can cherish the good in him by being good to it across all the evil fog that comes between our love and his good.”

So when you look someone in the eye and call them by name you are performing a great service for them. You are acknowledging the power of their presence, and acknowledging their very existence. Don’t you understand that we live in an age where people are afraid to look each other in the eye for fear of their safety? As vulnerable people, especially poor people, we need and yet are afraid of eye contact. We’re afraid of people getting too close to us. We’re certainly afraid of being touched or hugged. This is why it is so important that we do this for one another in church. Our strength comes from building each other up in the Lord.

When Jesus said that our Father in Heaven is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we can rest assured that the Love of God is stronger than any evil system that perpetuates bitterness, hostility, and animosity. Our God delights in redeeming people from their sin and transforming them into loving persons who cannot become overcome by fear, suspicion, resentment or bitterness. He does this in us, not through heroic sentiment or the example of godly individuals, but through believers in community who demonstrate confession of sins, repentance, and healing forgiveness every day.

Left to myself I can never love my enemies, and neither should I. As a child of God I am not meant to be alone or do anything alone, and neither are you. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19, NIV) and “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (5:30) I have learned from other followers in Christ, including my Father and Mother, how to love my enemies. I’m not saying we’ve been perfect at it, but together we’ve learned not to be overcome by bitterness. My mother, Penny Rice, in an article she wrote for the New Life Zoa Free Paper, told her story:
“As 1990 came to a close, I found myself dealing with public criticism of our ministry by community leaders, financial setbacks personally and in our work, close friends who seemed to turn their backs on me, tragic disappointments among co-workers and the increasing problems of so many who had nowhere else to turn. The Grace of God that I had enjoyed swimming in during 1989 was abandoned as I allowed myself to succumb to fear and resentment…oh, how this bitter, weary heart of mine longed for a cure for its life-destroying disease…Fortunately for me, and all those who are sick with bitterness towards circumstances or people who have hurt them, there is a powerful cure for this deadly cancer. And this cure is effective even in the final stages of this disease. Here is the prescription:
‘Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive].” (Col. 3:13, Amp.)
Jesus Christ, the One who paid for our sins by offering up His sinless body as a sacrifice on our behalf, said this: “For if you forgive people their trespasses [their [a]reckless and willful sins, [b]leaving them, letting them go, and [c]giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, Amp.)
Wow! It would be better to die from organic cancer with a clear conscience and forgiveness from God than to let my soul forever be tormented because of unforgiveness! How foolish it is to allow bitterness to fester inside for even one day. Many, who now reside behind prison bars because of one reckless act stemming from bitterness, are learning how true this Scripture is: “But if you have bitter jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry, selfish ambition) in your hearts, do not pride yourselves on it and thus be in defiance of and false to the Truth.
This [superficial] wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual (animal), even devilish (demoniacal). For wherever there is jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry and selfish ambition), there will also be confusion (unrest, disharmony, rebellion) and all sorts of evil and vile practices.” (James 3:14-16, Amp.)
Having been an observer throughout my life of the destruction that cancer can bring, I now rejoice that God has provided to all of us the cure for the most devastating of all cancers. If we forgive all the hurts in our hearts and rest in Jesus’ loving arms of forgiveness, you and I can truly say, “Ravaged by cancer….no more!”

She didn’t know as she penned this, that sixteen years later she would face another battle with bitterness and separation in marriage. She didn’t know that she would face cancer that would end in a holy Christian death. What she did know was that Jesus would lead her all the way—and he did! After much hard travail she and my father were reunited in their marriage and rededicated in their vows. She ended her life on this planet in love surrounded by her family who loved her. What more could any of us ask for? She faced our final enemy, death, with courage and gratitude.

For my part, I look back on that time as a touchstone for me. If God brought us through that, what can’t he bring us through? What won’t he bring us through? This was Paul’s confidence in Romans 8:31-39. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In 1980, while performing the Mass on live radio, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in San Salvador. The year before he wrote: “If I have the joy of possessing heaven, I would not mind being in that heaven near to those who today declare themselves my enemies, because there we will not be enemies. I am never anyone’s enemy. But let those who without cause want to be my enemies be converted to love, and in love we shall meet in the blessedness of God.”

We have to face the fact, as Jesus did, that evil cannot be reasoned with. Our love and obedience to Jesus pose a threat in this world because they remind all those blinded by the devil that their rule is temporary. Their hatred cannot last forever. Their pride, money, fun, games, and popularity are as shallow as their memory. What really endures is love.

Let us pray: Lord, make me aware of neighbors, friends and enemies. Grant me the capacity to love my neighbor as well as my friends, but also give me the strength to love my adversary. Teach me to love myself so I can learn to love my enemy. Teach me to love without compromising my faith and principals. Help me to understand that there are those in this world who do not love me, do not respect me, do not care for me, and want to hurt me. Bless me with the wisdom to understand why my enemy does not love me. Grant me the ability to love my enemy without letting my enemy hurt me. Bless me to beat down my enemy, but to beat them down in love, without becoming my enemy! Teach me to respect my enemy even though they may not respect me. Teach me to be gracious and good, yet wise as a serpent with the gentleness of a dove! Help me to work to bring my enemies around to the table of peace. Encourage me not to settle for evil when good is what I should strive for. On that day when my enemy becomes as David would say, “My footstool”, help me not to gloat with insults and derision, but to welcome them as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen (by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood, III)

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Love and Sin

My dear friends,

I am so blessed today to be able to share with you by the Spirit of God the grace and love God has poured out for us all in abundance. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35) and I have no greater way of showing you love than to share with you the way God has changed my life and is making us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. I don’t know what I’m going to be yet, but I know what I was and I’m so grateful I’m not that anymore. He led me through a lot yesterday, today, and by faith he will lead me tomorrow. I’m here to assure you today that there is a way of life that works. It comes by trusting in, believing in, and clinging to Jesus in faith.

 

Romans 6:28 tells us that “the wages of sin is death”. I can tell you that when I rebelled against God again and again it came with consequences. I had to live through those consequences and I don’t want to have to do that ever again. I was not ignorant of sin, I was ignorant of the goodness of God. I did not really trust God, if I had really trusted him I would have become truly honest with myself and I would have confessed my true state before God and come to Christ in true repentance. Instead, for many years I tried to apply religion and intellectual learning to my life in order to find a quick easy solution to why I found more pleasure in sin than in God’s love. I kept turning to people to fix me, and they would try, but I still loved my sin more than God because I believed that God could not love me, my heart was too dark, I was too bent, and I was not worthy of anyone’s love.

 

I had people come along and try to tell me, “Awww Chris, you’re not that bad. It’ll get better. Buck up little guy.” And I wanted to believe them, I really did. But every time I sinned I proved to myself anew again that shame was my master, that self-pity was my bitter choice of drink, and that anarchical pride was my god. Now all of us are different. There are so many variations in the ways we talk, move, think, and express ourselves. But the human condition is the same. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

 

Many people get hung up over what that means. They hang on the idea of little innocent babies going to hell for not being baptized. So they don’t like that word sin anymore or what it implies. They want to believe that people are basically good. That the human condition at its core is a blank slate, and that with the right amount of positive cognitive stimuli and productive environmental conditions anyone can arrive at their full human potential.

 

We have two centuries of scientific progress and pursuit of learning to prove that the human condition is sound. So I ask you, where are these perfect human beings? What nation can we turn to on earth that has successfully rid itself of all poverty, all sickness, all suffering, all fear, all fatigue, and has also opened its doors so that the rest of the world can immigrate there?

 

I tried to free myself from the notion of God after repeated attempts to get God to give me a wonder drug that would keep me from destroying myself. I spent hours alone in the recesses of my mind. I had a little cave in my head that I hid in. On the outside I would go to college, go to work, go to church, go to the beach, go to the park, walk down the street. But between my ears I was lost inside myself. I was bound by self pity, resentment, rage, anger and fear. I was in and out of counseling, therapy, and support groups.

 

I did the right things over and over for a while, but then it was back to my cave. I had friends that tried so hard to help but they just couldn’t understand. “Chris is a Christian, what’s wrong with him? He knows the truth. What’s wrong with him?” So inside, between my ears, I was on the run from God, and was planning my ultimate escape.

 

My problem was that I was too much of a coward to do on the outside what it was I did everyday on the inside. I was never a cutter, someone who uses a knife on themselves. But in my mind I hated myself. I had so much faith in how awful I was, and I was living by that faith. It hurts to talk about it now, but I believe it might help someone here who can identify, to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there too.”

 

“So how did you move out of it?” you ask. I should begin by saying that when I describe what I went through I am not identifying myself with any particular 12 step fellowship. I can only refer to some experiences and allude to material, but I have never been in Alcoholics Anonymous. So let me begin. At first I tried the 12 steps of AA self-styled. I got myself a copy of the Serenity New Testament that is like a companion to 12 step literature and I worked through the steps in an afternoon and thought, “This is simple. I can write my first and fourth step right now.” All the other steps I knew I already believed, so I just fast-tracked it, audited the course, wrote myself the diploma and felt better.

 

Stupid. I was right back into anarchical pride and the same old behavior within a short time. But the thought of the first step (“I admitted that I was powerless over x, that my life had become unmanageable”) stayed with me. Am I really so self-centered? I didn’t want to think about that. So for many years thereafter I dodged the question. Then one day, I just couldn’t dodge the question anymore. I knew after a lot of pain and heart-ache, after putting the people I loved through hell and getting to the point that no one could trust me anymore, I realized, yes, I am truly that selfish. I wanted to BE God that badly. And so finally, instead of agreeing that maybe a recovery program was helpful for some really messed up people, I started into recover for myself. I made it through the door.

 

For a while that’s where I stayed. I admitted I was licked. It took a while for me to come to believe that God was greater than my sin and that he wanted to restore me to sanity. And it took an even longer time for me to turn my will and life over to God’s care as I understood him, because I wasn’t convinced He wanted my will, and my life or that He CARED, and I certainly didn’t understand Him. It was all I could do to keep coming back. I kept listening. I finally learned to shut up an listen. In time I had fewer and fewer excuses and more and more resolve to admit how selfish I was. Then I came to the place where I listened to an agnostic tell me about how the God that worked for him really loved him and had his best interests in mind. I finally reasoned that if a guy who didn’t claim to understand God perfectly was willing to just do what it took to get sober and learned along the way that a higher power loved him, what was wrong with me? I wanted that God too! I wanted the God that was for me as sick as I was.

 

And then I remembered this passage from the Bible, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man ;though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

Immediately the devil came along and told me, “Nawww, you’re a hypocrite. A liar! A con! No one will trust you ever again. You can’t sin and go to church and repent as many times as you did and have God trust you. You’re too much of a sinner.” But then I started reading the Bible again. It says that as sick as I was, God showed how much He loved me because Christ died for me.

 

And I will call heaven and earth and God himself as my witness that the same is true for you! Christ died for you! God is for you! God even loves back-stabbing, rumor mongering, crooked liars who go to church and then go home and spread all kinds of hateful gossip. Why? Because he sees them at their worst, all soaped up and in their best hats on Sunday morning. And he desires that they repent and come to stop playing God and playing church and get off the sick little throne between their ears and accept His LOVE!

 

After a few years, the God who loved me, who was for me, did something I would have never thought to hope for. See, when I got into recovery I considered that my calling. I was content to go to meetings and work the steps and pray each day to help the next person who’s still sick. But God started calling me to be a pastor in the very ministry I had run away from years before. I said to God, “If this is really your will you’re gonna have to help me, because I don’t really see it. You got to show my wife and my family. You got to show my pastors and my sponsor.” I thought that would keep Him off my back. But then he did all that.

 

Everyone gave me the green light. And I wanted to tell God, “Naw you’re crazy. I can’t work with my family in full time ministry down there.” But then God asked, “Do you trust me?” And I knew that I had learned through trial and error that God loved me and that He had a purpose for my life. I knew that I loved homeless people and people in recovery and preaching the gospel and praying for the sick, and there was this great need down here. So we trusted God and stepped out in faith with no PLAN B. There was no retirement plan. No benefits package. No insurance. No hedging my bets. Just God’s question, “Do you trust me?” It was a funny question, because before recovery I was always angry that I couldn’t be trusted. I wanted people to trust me but I knew I couldn’t trust myself.

 

My whole life has become one of trust in God. That was how he intended it all along. It’s one thing to say, “Yeah, I trust God.” But when I’m living in my head with all kinds of resentment, anger and shame I don’t trust him. So learning to trust God means, even when we’re scared of bed bugs, TB, running out of gas, that guy looks like he wants to kill me, those drug pushers on the corner, those property owners that consider us a nuisance, those bills that are too big and the donations that are too little, my security, my confidence, my trust is in God!

 

God IS everything that He requires. He wants me to be full of his love because He is all the love I need. Look again at 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV). Let’s read this aloud together:

1 “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

 

If sin is rebellion against God in big and small ways, trying to BE God ourselves, then love is its opposite. Galatians 5:23 tells us “there is no law against” the fruits of the Spirit, the first of which is love. Matthew 22:36-40 gives us the secret of a life that works, and its all about love! Jesus was asked:

36 “Teacher,  which is the great commandment in the Law ?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

 

No one but God can command that we love Him with such totality. No one but God can command that we love our neighbor as ourselves. His commands are in keeping with his intention in creating us. We were meant to love. Now if I went to the inventor of the first athletic shoe and I said, “I love to use your product as a bowl for potato salad”, he might say to me, “But why would you do that? It’s a shoe. Meant to be worn on the feet. Why not just get a bowl and spoon?”

And when we go to God and say, “Humans have been around for a while. They’re great for making money, growing food, pleasuring themselves, building tall buildings, for staring into electronic devices, and for using as targets for drone strikes,” we are reminded that this is not what humans are really for. We’re made for loving God. We’re made for loving each other.

 

Dr. Kent M. Keith penned “the Paradoxical Commandments,” and they were hung on the wall of Missionaries of Charity in CalcuttaIndia.

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

I used to ask all the time, “What’s the use!?!” Why would we do anything of these things “anyway”? I can only tell you why I do them now. It’s because Jesus Christ died for this hypocrite to show him the love of God. To live for anything else but the love of God is a wasted life indeed.

 

Some good things are very hard, but they are worth doing, so don’t quit. Don’t get distracted, don’t lose heart, and don’t give up. These good things may not win you honor, and in fact they may cause you to be dishonored. Don’t give up. What you do for Christ lasts. So do all things for love of Christ. Christ’s love will help you do this good for Him. His love will envelope you and make you what he desires.

 

Love in Christ,

 

Rev. Chris L. Rice

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Give me love but don’t tell me what to do

“Give Me Love But Don’t Tell Me What To Do.”

Sermon for Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

 

Dear Friends,

 

One of the central questions of my life is in the issue of authority. “How can I love and serve Jesus when I don’t like being told what to do?” I grew up in a very loving home with both a mother and a father active in Christian ministry. Just like every child does, I tested the boundaries with my parents. If I was told not to wander far I would wander to the very edge of what was considered far, so as to be called back. Like my own children do now, I loved the art of being contrary. My grandfather would tell me that I could argue that the sun rose in west and set in the east. And just to test whether he really knew I pressed him on that point. I learned how to get under the skin of someone in charge so that they knew I was there, and so that as long as I did the bare minimum of what they asked, they’d not bother me anymore. I never thought that I’d be the on the receiving end of that behavior one day. But now it comes to my wife and I every Saturday as we press our children to spend hours doing their chores.

When it comes to following Jesus, many people who have no problem saying their prayers and reading their bibles have a BIG problem with this issue of submitting to another believer out of love for Jesus. They don’t mind the rules, they’re just very bothered by the other troublesome personalities who also know the rules and want to remind them of them. It’s said over and over again, “I love Jesus, it’s just other Christians I can’t stand.” We could probably go around the room and list the things about authority that have always bothered us, giving examples of employers who used and cheated us, preachers who spiritually manipulated us, politicians who lied and stole money. Each of us have different reasons to not trust authority. But I think at root what we really want to know is that the people in charge are completely trustworthy. We want leaders who don’t need to be questioned because they’re perfect.

In real life I started to suspect by about age three that my parents were not going to give me everything I expected in return for obedience. Things happened to me and to my parents that were outside of our control. Cars broke down, money got low, tempers flared, and in general life threw us things we didn’t like. I started to suspect that maybe mom and dad were not the superheroes I thought they were and maybe I was not really the center of their world anymore. Let me tell you what I did learn from them though. It’s very simple. Whenever we had a need I watched my parents pray to God for it and expect that He heard and cared. When I needed something they couldn’t afford they’d encourage me to pray for it. When I lost something in my room my mother taught me to stop and pray and ask God for help finding it. In this way they instilled in me a trust in God. A trust that God was personal and powerful. That no matter what happened to us in life, God was our source and determined our very existence itself.

I had no idea how silly that seemed to many people. I remember driving a couple of classmates home in high school one day. We got in the car and as I adjusted the mirrors and started the car I bowed my head and quietly prayed for a safe journey. The girl sitting next to me thought that was the funniest thing she could think of. “Don’t you know how to drive?” “Why would you need to pray?” And that sentiment is the prevailing one in this world today. Why would anyone with the skills to drive and a means going places need to ask God for anything? And with all that America provides for her citizens, why does anyone need a heavenly deity? It’s fine to practice your religion personally. Do whatever gets you by, let Jesus be your personal drug of choice. But don’t dare take that out into public. Don’t dare presume that anyone else should care. In this way privatized religion poses no threat to the wheels of progress. So long as God stays out of the way of making our money and doing with it what we want, religion in America can continue to be useful in blessing our way of life.
But what does the Bible say? Matt 28:18-20. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

When Jesus said, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” he was saying he is the ultimate authority. Not just over religious individuals but over all the known world. Over every high authority that can be named. And all authority in our lives comes through Jesus Christ. How did Jesus’ authority come to Him? His authority came through submission to death. Authority and leadership in the Scriptures always flow out of worship, love and gratitude. This gratitude demonstrates itself in hospitality. Real authority has learned self control and mutual submission. It is others focused; service oriented. Leaders begin with listening and rely on God for wisdom and discernment.

Common Views and Practices regarding Authority

In our world authority and power are words often used interchangeably. Authority is imposed by force of arms or force of argument. It usually involves some form of compulsion or persuasion. Real authority is in the power to influence someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Along these lines we could argue that the world’s greatest influence is in capital. The power to influence markets is what everyone follows. People are far less impressed with what you say you believe than by your power to spend money and influence other’s power to spend money. So when we talk about Jesus’ power and authority many people think they understand this. Every US President in history has acknowledged his membership or involvement in some particular Christian denomination, because this is what many of his voting constituents wanted to hear. Jesus can have all our prayers, but he’s left the power over the movement of money to others.

Many people want nothing to do with organized religion because they’ve been manipulated and conned against their wills in the past. In the 1970s the issue of brainwashing and authoritarian religious cults was everywhere in the news. We were warned that there are certain predisposed personalities who can easily be brainwashed. We’re told such people need to be taught to think for themselves. As a culture we’re repelled by the lure of cults but are far less afraid of how controlled we are by other message systems like advertisers and infotainment sources.

Today people don’t want to feel like they’re being told what to do, but they respond well to the idea that a website is most visited and most popular. They come to believe that something must be right for them if it’s right for most people. If a video or type of software has over a million page views it is a sensation and many other news outlets will beat a path to their door. One morning a young teenage girl may have “Good Morning America” call her on the phone about a Youtube video of her playing in front of the mirror when she was three because it’s what everyone wants to see.

Now, through the power of social media, every individual has the power and freedom to choose to do what every other informed person has done. For many people this has become true autonomy and unquestionable authority. But, truthfully, something’s utility to most people may not make it worth everyone’s time. Just because one million people age 14 to 44 were online watching a teacher sprawled on the floor punching his student over and over does not mean that everyone else needs to. Just because “cutting,” that sick form of self mutilation, has become popular to share with others online, doesn’t mean it is something everyone needs to do to feel noticed.

Fruit of World’s Values related to Authority

What the world wants from its authorities is in constant flux. Persuasion, influence, money, and the desire to know what is popular and change quickly are what’s most important. In the name of national duty leaders use their authority selfishly. One day’s servant revolutionary is the next day’s cruel tyrant. We watch the news and see one country’s people use social media and protest in the streets to topple a dictator. The next day we see the people in a different country attempt the same thing only to have their dictator turn anti-aircraft missiles on his own people. This world is in decay and is passing away, the Scriptures warn us: “15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2: 15-17) Do not spend your love on this world. Do not fall prey to wanting what this world wants. If you do the Father’s love is not in you.

God’s Vision of Authority

We are all frail creatures made in the image and likeness of God. For this reason all humans are worthy of our love and respect. We are not meant to be alone. We are social creatures. If there is anything we can see from all government institutions it is that their authority is important and it is never enough. No government can remove hate from the heart of its people. Every ruler comes into office to inspire hope that he or she can restore confidence and hope. But God’s vision of what authority is and does has something else in mind entirely. 1 Kings chapter three recounts he way Solomon received authority from the Lord:

“5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”6 Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.7 “Now, LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (NIV)

Solomon’s authority came through confession and humility. “I am only a little child. . . I don’t know how.” He asked for a discerning heart to govern and distinguish right and wrong. Finally he asked “who is able?” This is a very different posture for authority. It lacks assumption, and instead challenges human action, asking, “Who can?” It knows that God is all powerful and wise and knows human hearts better than any leader. God’s reply is to give him more than he asked for, everything he didn’t ask for. Wealth, honor, supreme power, and long life if he walks in obedience like his father David.

Now what happened to Solomon? He did get wisdom and authority. The Holy Spirit used him and his words and is still using them today in the Bible. But as an authority he fell short. He serves as a witness to the Son of David yet to come, who we believe is Jesus Christ. Solomon began in humility and deference but his heart turned from the Lord and he left a wicked legacy for his own son and a broken kingdom. He married many foreign wives who spread his influence, but took his spiritual devotion as payment. And his story serves as a warning for us today. There is no authority so God-given to men and so great that it cannot become corrupted and taken away. This story has been repeated for thousands of years in the lives of countless individuals.

Jesus Christ is the true Messiah in David’s line, the true King. And with his appearing we await a new heavens and a new earth full of righteousness and justice. He has conquered hell and death and is Lord of all creation. The apostle Paul leads us through how this happened:

5Let this same attitude and purpose and [humble] mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus: [Let Him be your example in humility:] 6Who, although being essentially one with God and in the form of God [possessing the fullness of the attributes which make God God], did not think this equality with God was a thing to be eagerly grasped or retained, 7But stripped Himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity], so as to assume the guise of a servant (slave), in that He became like men and was born a human being. 8And after He had appeared in human form, He abased and humbled Himself [still further] and carried His obedience to the extreme of death, even the death of the cross! 9Therefore [because He stooped so low] God has highly exalted Him and has freely bestowed on Him the name that is above every name,10That in (at) the name of Jesus every knee should (must) bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11And every tongue [frankly and openly] confess and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-13, Amplified)

As followers of Jesus no less is expected of us than can be seen in the example of Jesus. By God’s Holy Spirit we are being made into the image of Christ. We are drawn into the love of the trinity. And that love began with total sacrifice. We can never know the same kind of sacrifice God has made for us because we’re not God. But by His Spirit we are being made willing to empty ourselves. Now emptying ourselves involves total trust. We trust, as Jesus did, that God is in control. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But with his final words he breathed, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” We may feel as though God’s love is not present with us. Fear and ego at times cause us to panic. But we must remember that Jesus took all that on the cross for us so that we never have to fear God’s abandonment. The same Jesus who said “All power is give unto me” says “I am with you always.”

With authority turned upside down, coming to us through trust, service, and suffering, we give up the right to personal unquestionable authority. We learn not to be offended when our reasoning is questioned, when our decisions are questioned, and when we face resistance and hostility. We learn through mutual submission that time and space are gifts not to be taken for granted. Gradually, we learn that obedience is a part of love. Jesus said to his disciples, Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21, NIV) So we know we have to be careful when we go on about how much we love Jesus. It is better to let people see our love for Jesus by our obedience to him. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)

By this measure instead of telling you I am a Christian, it would be wiser to say, “Ask my wife or my children. Ask my church.” The credibility of my witness can be seen in the people I am called to serve. Regardless of what I say, can you see by my actions that I obey Jesus and am filled with His Spirit? The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a matter of polite talk, but of power to save. Can those who know you say of you that the power of Christ in you is alive? Do you speak and act with an authority not of yourself but of Jesus Christ who is your determining ground of being?

In this book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigen wrote, “The idea that the gospel is addressed only to the individual and that it is only indirectly addressed to societies, nations, and cultures is simply an illusion of our individualistic post-Enlightenment Western culture.” The strength of this illusion can be seen in how Christians speak of Jesus as though he were the path to self-actualization. “Jesus wants you to be the best and have the best of everything. There’s no reason you can’t have your best life right now.” Personal bibles, personal quiet times, personal devotions, and now with the internet, personal teachings delivered to your phone, allow us to feel like we’ve got God at our fingertips. Some preachers make it sound like God will move heaven and earth to give you more money than you need just to prove He is God. God doesn’t only care about you. And He is not an extension of your wants.

We can never become a people willing to obey Jesus and serve each other so long as we see God as our personal “bless-me machine.” The closer you get to Jesus the more He will reveal to you what He knows of the pain this world. He will give you His love for all those broken and suffering. Your mind will be renewed and you’ll begin to be marked by suffering, humility, and dependence on the living God. Let’s return to Philippians 2. Paul makes his appeal for obedience in light of Christ’s self-emptying. It is clear that Paul has no personal right to demand such obedience of this church. His appeal is in light of God’s work in their lives.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12-13, NIV)

Authority in Christ’s body, the Church, of which all believers are a part, is not imposed by manipulation. It is not created with threats and accusations. God’s Holy Spirit is working in us to will and act to do His will.

That power to act together in mutual submission, serving and obeying in divine love is a wonder to behold. To an outsider it seems too good to be true. But the Christian life is not an ideal, it is a life given by God’s Spirit. In Christ’s authority the Church is making disciples of all peoples. A disciple is not simply a religious convert. A warm body to fill a pew in a church. A disciple uses her freedom to serve. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Gal. 5:13-15, NIV) That word “servant” makes some cringe. It brings to mind harsh treatment, slavery, shackles, being bought and sold like an animal. That’s certainly not what the family of God is like. “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out all fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18, NIV)

God knows that if we do something because we’re forced to do it we can’t do it with our whole heart. He wants our whole hearted obedience. There are times when we do things from mixed motives until we get our hearts right. But God can’t use us at all if we’re totally resistant to doing his will. What God is bring about in us is the fruit of His Spirit: “. . . love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV)

 

In second grade I had a crush on two little girls at the same time who were twin sisters. Now in second grade I was hardly old enough to want to have a girlfriend. But I just knew it felt good to be around them. Every day I hung out with and held hands with Amy. She was a cute little Vietnamese girl. She talked constantly and so fast that I could barely hang on to what she said. We stood in line under the flag pole together before recess. When the class crossed big bad Grand Avenue to play in Tower Grove park all I wanted was to walk beside her. But she set new rules every day for the things I should like so I would look good being with her. The way I dressed, the way I stood, the way I spoke, all these things were questioned and closely scrutinized. So after a while I started to notice her sister Ann. Ann was quieter if I remember correctly.

So one day I didn’t show up at the normal spot under the flag pole near Amy but instead met Ann on the other side of the building. Ann was shy and quiet, a lot more like me. And she was harder to get to know, which I liked, so without any real commitments I was free to follow Ann around—until Amy found us together. Amy pulled Ann aside and spoke to her in Vietnamese. They giggled and Amy asked me who I wanted to be with. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “with” someone. All I knew was that I just wanted to be liked for who I was. I didn’t want to be an outsider, but I really didn’t want to have to worry about how to dress and stand and talk. I also had the strong feeling that if this was what it meant to be popular, which is all Amy talk about, then I had no desire to be popular. Of course I wanted to be liked, but not at the high cost of losing myself. The next morning when Amy and Ann strolled by together I’d made a clear decision. Girls were just not worth it.

Now of course I changed my mind about girls later. As a young adult I even invested in a few bad relationships where once again I cared more about being noticed then being known. Did you know there’s a big difference? Getting noticed is relatively easy. Really being known is something many aren’t sure they even want. Being known takes time and commitment. It’s very important to be known by a few people who really love you for you. A few people who are committed to walking with you, praying for you and holding you accountable. When I talk about authority I’m talking about trust. When I say trust I’m talking about love and yes obedience.

My little story about a second grade crush is humorous in hindsight. But the desire to love and be loved is truly serious. The need to have an anchor for our souls, to hold tightly to something and be held onto tightly, that is in all of us. We also need to be part of bringing the light. It is not enough to know the love and warmth of Christian community. The grace and love we know is ever being tested by human pride and hostility. But giving up is not an option. The love I know is not mine to steal away and keep to myself. The love of Christ is shared love. It belongs to all of us.

At just the point where we beg God to take away our weakness and pain God reminds us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul said, ”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NIV) This glory in weakness will never make us popular. We will ever be surrounded by other broken people in need of love. And though foolish to many, we know the Source of the richest love anywhere.

Like it or not this gospel of Jesus is a threat to those who desire the world’s pleasures. They want their piece of the promised pie, their ticket in the grand lottery as they see it. To relativize money’s power by giving it away to the poor, to take in those who’ve been cast away, is a reminder to them of the futility of their striving. That is threatening indeed. Our authority in Christ enables us to overcome in this world. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4)

Our authority to overcome is in our new story. The story of how God redeemed us from striving to be noticed and accepted, only to be used up and left spiritually dead. Our desires have changed. Our minds are being renewed. We now finally want what God wants for us. Our purpose is to glorify God and serve Him wholly. “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Rev. 12:11)

We face death knowing that we are not alone. We are witnesses. Remember that word for witness in Greek is martus, where we get the English word martyr. To die as a witness in the first centuries of the church was a believer’s crowning glory. With John the Revelator as the only exception, tradition tells us that all the apostles were executed as martyrs. When you die will those around you know what you lived for? Do you have a story worth telling?

 

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris L. Rice

 

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Violence makes me sick

I heard yesterday that the most commonly reported form of violence in my neighborhood is battery. I don’t think about it much, but I must confess that I am prone to rage fantasies when pushed into a situation that I find untenable. When I can’t see a way forward part of me reverts to wanting to hurt someone. That is quite scary to me, especially when I consider all the times I’ve witnessed the aftermath of serious violence. Homelessness, hospitalization, surgery, recovery. When it touches someone you know it makes you sick. To be near an assault, or to be threatened with assault is to feel your very world as you know it threatened with extinction. Some of the blogs I’ve recently read regarding pacifism remind us that Christians are called to suffer. I wonder whether or not this suffering of violence in the abstract is not in itself a retreat. I agree with them, and I certainly don’t wish suffering on anyone, but just today I got word that someone I know was near fatally beaten and hospitalized by a mentally ill person who they were trying to help. This news saps me of all energy and makes me feel downright sick. I can’t help but think that anyone I know could be next. When you reach out to wounded, desperate people, there is really no protection from violence in this world. I spoke similar words to my friend whose wife works with a family with a history of violence. He has to block the possibilities out of his mind. For my part, I am chastened that I must deal more quickly with my own inner violence. Resentment and inner rage is the seedbed for violent action. I often think of those words from Alcoholics Anonymous “taking the actions of love to improve our relations with others.” 

Violence is always what is possible, but how much more is love? Fear and hatred are very real things, but so are gratitude and generosity. I think back on life in the believing fellowships where I grew up and now serve. Thousands have been sheltered, comforted, and enriched by this family of God. There were terribly fearful situations at times, but all in all, the life of sharing all things in common was often simply boring. You get used to living a certain way, you know? You get used to strange and wonderful people sharing your food and home. When someone acted out in a profoundly disturbing way it hurt us, like the time I saw my mother’s face slapped hard in our front yard by a woman mom had to ask to leave. I stood there powerless to do anything. But by being close to the poor for a short time you realize that you only have a taste of their daily fears. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus knows this pain and fear and calls me to know it too. To be the Church is to drink the cup of pain Jesus drinks. We are not immune.

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