How do we discover and develop spiritual gifts—(1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

Once Paul has established and clarified that the gifts are various Spirit-shaped, Grace-expressive enablings by which the Church community equips one another with Christ-like maturity, in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, he states a conundrum—not every believer has the same gift. Not every follower has the same function. It’s a conundrum that can create some concern within one’s soul. Do I have a spiritual gift? How can I discover it? How might I develop it?

Paul’s solution is to cut through the confusion with a simple, but excellent way forward. It’s called Love.

“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. 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. If 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.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

In these sledge-hammering comments, Paul clarifies that if the giftings are not expressed in and through Love, the gifts will not facilitate the common good the Spirit meant to manifest. If our gifts are not channeled by Love, the Spirit will be unable to use His graces-in-us to shape a Christlike community. With the efficiency of the giftings appearing to depend on whether Love is present, it would then seem that Love is both the way of discovering our giftings and the means of disciplining ourselves for their use.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

A careful look at Paul’s famous Love passage here suggests at least two aspects of Love that relates to the discovery and development of our spiritual gifts.

One, this Love is interactive. “Patient…kind…not boastful…” are things that require interacting with others in order to be properly practiced. Since spiritual gifts are interactive by nature, Love gets us to where we need to be, both spatially and maturely, to use the gift. People won’t be blessed by the Spirit’s gifts in us if we’re not willing to interact with them, and we won’t interact with them if we aren’t willing to Love them. Love shapes in us the willingness to interact with one another so the Spirit can shape through us His Grace in that other.

Second, this Love is holy. This Love does not bend to whatever wind it’s blowing in; this Love remains rooted in the deliberately distinct and disciplined nature that brought it forth. Holiness seeks to use interactions as transformative encounters that yield “the common good” the Spirit desires to manifest. One might have the gift of godly knowledge, but if they don’t teach with patience and kindness, they cannot affect the “the common good”. If Christlikeness is the destiny, holiness is the fuel that makes Love go.

How might this all be generally applied? Look around your congregation. What people, situations, services, or needs are opportunities to practice this list of Love? Start small and simple; experiment and go from there. Over time, pay attention to how your maturation and ministering efforts overlap with the encouragement and growth of others; within that overlap may very well be an enabling by God’s Spirit to express His Grace.


Why the Church needs to elaborate on love

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jewish people’s relationship to the Law had grown complicated. Since they returned to their land from exile, they made such a concerted effort to avoid the lawlessness that had led to exile that they not only pledged to keep the Mosaic law, but they also erected additional traditions as a fence around the Law. As dedicated an effort it was intended to be, it ultimately resulted in a congestion that not only wound tightly around the neck of the people’s life of worship but also undermined it with hypocrisy. There was no clear line of sight into the heart of God.

So when he was eventually and, appropriately, asked by a lawyer which commandment of the law was the greatest, Jesus’ reply provided welcomed clarity. He answered “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt22:37-40).

So impactful was Jesus’ statement here that Paul echoed it in his own writings (Rom13:8-10, Gal5:14,). Jesus and Paul were both comfortable summarizing the Law as love because they knew their audience possessed an abundance of detailed knowledge of the Law; so much, in fact, that a summary was necessary. To this day, Jesus’ love summarization is one we have rightly come to rely on in our attempt to understand God’s demand on our lives.

A summary is only useful, however, as long as knowledge of what is being summarized is retained and appreciated. When the summarization becomes so constantly used that the specific details being summarized are no longer remembered or esteemed, it has become a generalization. Such is the situation I believe may be facing the Church today.

Many churches and ministers are so grateful for whatever attention span their congregations give that instead of spending it fixating on complex topics requiring explanation and nuance, they opt for simplicity, hence the appeal of the love summarization. Similarly, as Scripture’s complexities raise issues of holiness, communal obligations, or dealing with political ideologies and allegiances, the love summarization quickly provides much less tension and divide. Therefore, the desire of simplicity and the summarization of love are understandable avenues for maximizing one’s message in a short amount of time. Having said that, however, an over-reliance on the love summarization can inevitably lead to liabilities.

One, as Bible reading and literacy decreases, so does knowledge and understanding of its vast but critical narratives and theologies. Like a high-schooler’s preference for Wikipedia entries instead of reading the original material, the summarization of love becomes preferred to the appreciation of God’s Scriptural revelation.

Second, the love summarization, in and of its abstract self, carries no explicit moral impetus. During my freshmen year at a Christian college, I went to a store with another ministry student. He stole an item in front of me. When I objected, his response was that I needed to be more loving because God is love. When the concept of love becomes an enabler of lawlessness, what harmony or good does it or can it claim to represent or promote?

Finally, “Love” in its popular usage doesn’t necessarily require an acknowledging of the person and priorities of King Jesus. Consider the COEXIST bumper sticker; while every group featured there would uphold or celebrate “Love”, they are philosophically indifferent or opposed to King Jesus and what he demands. So, while in the Church “Jesus=Love” (maybe), outside of the Church, “Love” doesn’t carry the same gospel distinction, and is, therefore, insufficient as a tool in conveying the comprehensive reality of Jesus.

The summarization Jesus and Paul employed to demonstrate how love is the sum of the Law was a helpful and necessary one at the time. It provided much needed clarity into the heart of God. But if the Church’s use of that summarization begins to nurture an ignorance of Scriptural reality, or an indifference to its demands on our lives or to King Jesus himself, that summarization then requires a thorough unpacking. Churches and Christians would thus benefit greatly from education of a more developed quality. A kind that moves away from the inspirational pop theology characterizing many pulpits today, and instead digs into the texts, examines and discusses the hard topics, expanding upon the simplicities and the love summarizations to allow for an appreciation of the inherent details, complexities, and nuance to take root and flourish. Jesus and Paul’s love summary was a gift; it only remains a gift when there is an appreciation and allegiance to what it was summarizing.

Do you know you are loved?

In Oliver Stone’s epic biographical interpretation Nixon, the controversial filmmaker makes much of Nixon’s personal insecurities as the driving force behind most of his professional decision-making. There is a scene near the end where, as Richard Nixon’s presidency is imploding, one of his last remaining advisors, Henry Kissinger, is watching a televised speech in which the president again denies having any knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. Exasperated their president has lost touch with reality, Kissinger comments to the chief of staff “Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved? It’s a tragedy, because he had greatness in his grasp”.

Historical accuracy aside, the comment stands out as a reflection of a narrative with which we all struggle—knowing we are loved and living from out of that awareness. For many people this struggle stems from growing up in an environment where they never were actually shown any love at all. For many other people, this struggle is the result of never having actively embraced the love they were actually shown. In such cases, the grounded assurance of being both loved and lovely is lacking. This deficient awareness of love seems only to fuel futures filled with fearfulness, distrust, bitterness, isolation, loneliness, and, ultimately, the withholding of love towards others, thus perpetuating the cycle.

I can do nothing about the environments that create such a poverty of love, but I can try bringing to your attention that love exists and is abundantly available and accessible. To do so, please allow me a well-worn platitude that is also very true: God loves you.

My father and pastor, Charles Robinson, recently preached a terrific sermon wherein he referenced Nebuchadnezzar’s casting of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace. Citing Daniel 3:25, Pastor Robinson commented “God didn’t rescue them from the flames; God joined them.”

This arouses the deep awareness that God has not left us alone to the environments and moments in which we feel so often abandoned. Though they seem bereft of our preferred expressions of love, they are not without God’s presence. The totality of place and time is permeated with the presence of God. I refer of course to the incarnation of Jesus Christ: God with us, God amongst us, God for us. Through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the presence of God fills the present of every believer’s person, place, and period and expands across their past and future. When pains of the past and fears of the future come stealing in, Christ is already there to absorb every ache and anxiety, redemptively molding your memories and moments into a grace that emits his majesty through you. When time and life feel fractured and fragmented, Christ fills the cracks and the voids, the emptiness and brokenness, so that all may be restored to wholeness. We then shall find we need not resent the past nor fear the future, for they are becoming the planes upon which God’s salvation has and will play out.

In Christ, God conveys upon us love without end. Christ awakens us to what throughout this world lies dormant—the rich assuring awareness that we are lovely and loved.

Do you know you are loved? Has knowing Christ enabled you to accept that truth? If your mind was constantly attuned to this awareness, how might you imagine living?

“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of enemies | Matthew 5:43-47

As Jesus moves to conclude his commentary on the surpassing righteousness his disciples shall embody, he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

The first part of Jesus’ statement is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 where the Israelites are commanded to not hate their brethren, countrymen, or the sons of their people, but to love their neighbor as they love themselves. What did this love look like? They were to leave certain sections of their crops for the poor to pick during harvest; they should pay wages when and to whom they were due. They were to act with complete integrity without lying, stealing, or showing partiality instead of fairness. There was to be no mockery of the disabled or any slandering or standing against a neighbor. In these ways and others, each Israelite was made personally responsible for the corporate harmony of the covenant community.

The second part of Jesus’ statement, however, is no Law quote. But considering Israel’s unique sense of heritage and how the land of the people had long been occupied territory with the Roman Empire’s presence creating an atmosphere thick with tension and hostility, it’s easy to see how the circumstances may have helped nurture a resentment or hatred for their enemies that was deemed generally acceptable. While “hate your enemy” was not commanded or explicitly taught, the sentiment was pervasive and everybody generally understood it and acknowledged it’s “when the chips are down” mentality. Jesus did not.

Speaking much to the culture’s contrary, he said “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Love your enemies. The Leviticus 19 text Jesus referenced had already established what loving their neighbor looked like; Jesus extends its content to be applied also to enemies. That means using our resources to be hospitable or giving them needed sustenance. It means treating them fairly, not getting back at them. It is likely the Jewish community, much as we often do, limited their definition of neighbor to their sphere of likeminded individuals; but as Jesus later conveyed in his story of the good Samaritan, neighbor is determined by proximity, not preference. Even if those in our proximity are enemies.

Pray for those who persecute you. When we tell enemies “I’ll pray for you”, we often say it smugly as something of a retaliatory attempt to seize moral high ground, a sort of self-vindication; if we actually do take time to pray for them, it’s sometimes done with hope they will feel our pain or repent of putting us through it or that they will “see things our way” or that “justice be done”. The Leviticus 19 love was to shape within the individuals of the covenant community a sincere desire to see and effort to make each of their neighbors prosper in holiness and harmony with God, each other, and creation. The same desire and effort for our enemies is nurtured by praying for them. Love and pray; to do for our enemies what we would do for ourselves. But why?

Jesus continued “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier peacemakers beatitude, but how or why does loving our enemies and praying for their peace reveal us to be the Father’s children? Jesus explains “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, are creatures who live within and benefit from God’s blessed creation. Creation is a context that connects us all, a familial framework of lifeforms. If we all live beneath the Father’s sun and receive the Father’s rain, we are revealed as sons or agents of the Father by being a brother to creation, evil though it may be. When we love and pray for our enemies, we are participating in the Father’s redemptive work to bring his estranged sons back into the family fold. Love and prayer, for neighbors and enemies, is the work of witnessing redemptive reality.

We all understand the difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do; in many ways we’re often incredulous to these words. I think Jesus understands that. So he proves his point with some provoking questions: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

If Christ’s kingdom community only loves cliquishly, we neither proclaim nor produce redemptive reality; “what more” are we doing than perpetuating a standard that possesses no cross-shaped magnanimity for bringing humanity into redemptive reality? Participating in redemptive work requires from us a love and prayerfulness that goes the distance, suffering long the hostility of our fellow creation for their sake. When we consider the weight and vastness of eternity, loving and praying for our enemies is not too much to ask. What’s more, when we begin to perceive our enemies as fellow creatures whose redemption Christ is pursuing, we stop seeing them as enemies.

Love and pray. Jesus would do both of these for his enemies while hanging upon the cross. This way of love and prayer for enemies is a cross-shaped lifestyle in which we constantly crucify our “Us vs. Them” prejudices in order to bear witness to what brings us together and restores us as children to the Father’s blessedness.

Introduction to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’

IMG_4556 - CopyHaving set the stage of Jesus’ redemptive reality, Matthew now begins to share the substance of Jesus’ redemptive reality.  The “Sermon on the Mount” is the first of five discourses Matthew records throughout his book.

The context for Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is created by three preceding moments: (a) Jesus’ proclamation to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; (b) Jesus’ healings which demonstrate his kingly authority to establish God’s kingdom reality on Earth; (c) Jesus’ discipleship call for the fishermen to follow him by participating with him in his kingdom reality.

The context for the “Sermon on the Mount” is the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven; the contents for the “Sermon on the Mount” reveal how we participate in and give witness to that kingdom reality.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them…”

As he speaks, the redemptive reality of God’s reign begins to be formed in their minds.  The words that flow from his mouth form a way of life afresh with the freedom of his grace and the healing of his holiness; upon this path is a King who reigns over us, a Messiah who walks with us.

In this sermon, Jesus speaks with us, reveals the blessedness of his reality, teaches us to pray, calls us to trust, implores us to forgive, shows us how to live and love.  We learn how to perceive ourselves in relation to the redemptive work he is doing in the world, how we are to redemptively interact with all people, how to live out a righteousness that consists of the character of Christ.

In this sermon, Jesus reveals what life as a citizen of God’s kingdom actually looks like and how our participation gives witness to what will bless the world.