By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 8, 2020
Matthew 25:1–13 (ESV)
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Last week we discussed the concept of staying focused and remembering. John was and is the disciple that Jesus loved, which is funny because Jesus clearly had close friendships with all the disciples. But there was something about John that exceeded the relationship of the others, it was set apart from the others, and it was unique to such a degree that the when the works of the apostles were brought together to compile what we know as scripture, no one thought it was odd that John was known in this manner. I have a theory as to why this is the case. I believe that John, who was the youngest of all the disciples, did not have as many distractions and opinions concerning life and lifestyle already developed prior to meeting Jesus. John was in all likelihood just coming into the age of majority, or just becoming a social adult when he was called by Jesus so the training and instruction that he received from the religious leaders in interpretation of scripture would have come not from the established religious orders, but came from Jesus.
The other gospel writers were attempting to provide a testimony of authenticity to people from a Jewish or Gentile perspective. There are several theories concerning the how and when the gospels were written. The one most scholars accept is that Mark was written first, then Matthew, then Luke, and finally John. When they make this proposal because most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, so they assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a reference, but then there are things not included in Mark that are in the other Gospels where do these things come from? This has led the scholars to seek after a different gospel source that is not included in our cannon of scripture, a document known in academia as Q. The problem with Q is that people are looking at documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, which is clearly something that was written in support of Gnostic belief, and some over look things that are clearly not supported in the other Gospels with the hope that they would be the one to find Q. Maybe they will find it eventually, but there are other theories that can be considered.
Tradition gives a different perspective one that I think we should not discount. Tradition tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel account from a position like a scribe of the disciples, basically Matthew was the recording clerk. This means that church tradition suggests that Matthew wrote aspects of the gospel while Jesus was still walking among them and complied his notes together to form the Gospel message we read today. As the gospel of Christ was being shared to people outside the Jewish tradition of faith, Paul encouraged Luke to write the second gospel. This was written to give a broader testimony of Christ to those that did not fully understand the traditions of the Hebrew people. Now there were two gospel accounts being shared among the church. People were wondering, which was most accurate, so they asked to Peter to provide leadership and a decree. Tradition holds that Peter was the leader of the early church, that Peter was regarded as the first Pope. Peter looks at the writings of Matthew and Luke and begins to share his testimony of Jesus while he teaches out of both Matthew and Luke. This testimony is thought to have been a single sermon and Mark is thought to have taken a transcription of that sermon. Mark’s gospel account portrays Jesus as being constantly moving, because Peter was providing as many highlights as he could during one session of teaching.
This perspective leads us to consider Mark as a bridge between Matthew and Luke instead of the source material between the two. This also could answer why Mark does not go into much detail of the events after the resurrection because Peter felt that both Matthew and Luke together presented them fully. This bridge concept is why the Gospels are in the order they are in in scripture, if Mark were written first it would or should have been placed in the first position, but Matthew is placed first. This fourfold gospel theory says that Matthew is the first gospel, Mark is the bridge, then Luke.
Matthew was written to people of Hebrew influence, Luke was written to those more influenced by the Gentile world views, Mark was written to bring the two groups together. But what of John? John was not focused on the things that the others were focused on. He was not concerned with convincing people of different backgrounds; he was focused on Jesus because that was all he knew. And that is why the Gospel according to John has such a different tone than the others.
John encourages us to remember Jesus. Remember his life and what he taught. Remember his suffering and death. And most of all remember the hope that is given through his resurrection. All the gospels do this in their own perspective. They all tell us about Jesus’s life, suffering and resurrection. And that is what we have presented in today’s passage. Last week John encouraged us to abide, to stay undistracted, and to remain in the purity of Christ. And Matthew presents that same message in the teachings of Christ.
There were ten virgins, or bridesmaids, that took their lamps and waited for the bridegroom. We do not really understand much about the first century customs surrounding marriage. Often when we try to understand marriage customs through our own traditions and this skews our understanding. This is a problem because there are not many similarities between our marriage customs today in America and that of the ancient peoples. The first thing that comes to mind is that today we do not have dowries negotiated and paid, so at best we often see this as a wedding procession. If we were to study cultures that have dowries, we might have a greater understanding. In those cultures, the groom’s family will have a representative visit the bride’s family and this representative will negotiate for the groom. This process could take a great deal of time, and while those negotiations were happening, the bride and the groom were separated from one another in their proper houses waiting.
When the negotiations were finalized the families would make the proper transactions, and the groom would then call for his bride to be brought. He would send his men to the bridesmaids who were attending the bride and making sure she was cared for during the period of negotiation. The bride’s maids would then call the bride’s family together and they would then make their way to the groom’s house where the feasting and celebration would begin. The entire family would participate in this procession and once the doors were closed, they would not be opened again until the celebration had ended. This might sound odd to us that the gates would be locked and sealed, so to speak, but marriages were a big deal. Everyone wanted to participate in the festivities so they would secure the gate so that they could enjoy themselves without interruption.
I do not know if this is exactly what is going on in this story but there are aspects of this occurring in the story. And we do not really know how long these sorts of negotiations last, but once they start a union between the families happens directly afterward. There was not months of wedding planning, because that had already been taken care of during the negotiations.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like this. I do not necessarily think that Jesus is saying that these property transactions are occurring or are proper in marriage, but I think he is using this process to illustrate the value God has for the world. This passage is often considered to being a testimony of the future second coming of Christ. And by thinking of it in that perspective it would explain why that second coming remains a future event. God is yet negotiating for the bride of Christ. The largest portion has already been paid, but some fine details remain. God values the bride as does the bride’s parents, so the process will continue until all is set.
Have we ever really considered that aspect when thinking of the second coming of Christ? Have we ever really thought that there is a reason that it has not yet occurred, and that reason is not because God love the world so much that he will not settle for anything less than the best?
This bring us to the bride’s maids, or virgins as the English standard version translates. This is the same word that is used while describing Mary before the birth of Christ. It is true that in most cases this word is used to describe maidens, or young women that have yet to be married. The maiden translation is usually how the word is translated, but virgin is also accurate. These young women are the friends the bride, friends that are of the same age and most likely unwed, because if they were wed they would no long be able to attend the bride due to the fact they would have a household to manage.
These young women were brought in early in the negotiations. They had been there all day, and now the story says that the day has passed and night is upon them. This tells us that this marriage is important to all involved.
Jesus tells us that there were ten young women present, attending to the bride. Ten bride’s maids. I do not know if I even have ten friends that would be willing to attend to my needs during something like this. Five of these bride’s maid were foolish and five were wise. This tells us a bit about humanity. As I considered this passage in light of marriage negotiations, I personally would not consider any of these young ladies foolish in a human perspective. They probably made their way to the bride’s house at around dawn, meaning the sun was rising or already up when they left their house. And Jesus tells us that all ten had lamps. This tells me that they all fully anticipated that the negotiations would take an extended amount of time, and they all came prepared to have light just in case. But only five of the women thought enough in advance to bring extra oil for their lamps.
The bridegroom was delayed, the negotiations continued well into the night. The bride had clearly fallen asleep or the bridesmaids would be fussing over getting her snacks or making last minute adjustments to her attire. Everything has been taken care of on the bride’s maid front, and they fall asleep. Then in the middle of the night they hear the call. They hear the cry from the bridegroom, and the procession is about to happen. They all start to stir; the women find that the oil in the lamps are exhausted so the five wise women quickly refill the lamps so that they can safely escort their friend to the feast. But the five foolish women do not have any oil.
I have often thought that this was a terrible story. Why would Jesus present the kingdom in such an ungenerous fashion? If we look at most of his teachings Jesus is telling us to share all that we have, to go the extra mile, and to not even think twice about it. Why then would he say that the kingdom is like a bunch of selfish bride’s maids that would not share their oil?
I think there is more to this store than meets the eyes. An oil lamp functions because the wick is saturated with oil, and it is the oil burning that keeps the light bright not just the wick. If the wick is dry the lamps would give no light at all and would be smoldering. Often the picture that comes to mind is that these women were carrying around a jug of olive oil, but we forget that commodities like this were not as readily available in ancient times as they are now. When Jesus says that they brought extra oil, they did not bring an entire jug. If they brought the entire jug, how would their mothers manage the house? They only had a finite supply and that would need to be shared with the entire household, not just for their lamps but also for the cooking. These wise women had just enough oil to saturate the wick enough to make the journey. They could not share, because the most important thing at that moment was providing a light so that the bride would safely travel. And if they shared there would not be a light to walk by. The only option available was for the five foolish women to hurry to purchase or to procure oil in some other way.
We can pull a great deal out of this passage. Oil is often used to symbolize the Spirit of God. They used oil in the temple to keep the menorah lit and providing the ever-present light of God in the temple. It is the oil that is celebrated in the feast of dedication that we know as Hanukkah. The oil that should have only lasted a day lasted long enough for the priest to complete the temple dedication services and bless more oil. So, the oil has a great spiritual significance in this story, but the focus of the story. The bride’s maids are.
Scripture and church tradition often speak of the church as being the bride of Christ. The church is the bride that is at the center of this story. The church is who is being attended by these bride’s maids and it is the church that the bridegroom is seeking and having his representatives negotiate for. The church is the bride. Not the building, but all of us. We are all the church we are all the bride. But we are also the ones that serve and attend to the needs of the church. When there is someone in need within the church, we as the bride’s maids need to make sure that need is fulfilled in some way. Our ministry is to serve the church. But God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world, but to save it. The church might be the bride, but the entire world is involved in the negotiations. We as the church’s bride’s maids should not only be concerned with the needs of those in this building but also with those that have never stepped a foot in this building. We should be concerned and doing all that we can to help the marginalized, neglected, and hurting people throughout our society. It is a massive undertaking. There is so much need right here in this community that it is more than we can bear, and yet God has his sights on the entire world how can we make any dent in that?
This is where the oil comes into play. We cannot give what we do not have, and we need to use what we have in service. There were five wise women and five foolish women. The five wise women had oil for their lamp, and the five foolish ones let their lamps go dry. The oil is the spirit, but it is also everything that we have available to us that can help share and spread the light of Christ in the darkness of the world around us. All ten of these women were friends of the bride, but when the bride needed them the most only five had something to offer.
We need the Spirit of God to fill the wicks of our lives, so that we can shine bright in the world around us. We need the Spirit of God to encourage and direct our lives, but we also need the willingness to move and serve. We need the willingness of each person within our community to do everything they can with what they have, to shine light, and this begins by slowing down and listening. Listening to what those around us are saying, listening to what God is saying, taking time to let the Spirit’s oil soak into our lives so we can bear light instead of holding out an empty dry shell of a lamp.
As we enter this time of open worship, I want us to consider our words and our actions. Have the words we have spoken during this past week been saturated with the light giving oil of God’s spirit or have we been distracted by the things of this world. As we listen to God’s spirit this morning, are we willing to do the things necessary in our lives to escort the bride of Christ to her bridegroom?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 1, 2020
1 John 3:1–3 (ESV)
1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
The past few weeks, we have looked at several of the discussions between Jesus and the religious leaders near the end of his ministry. I think these discussions are deeply moving, and extremely relevant in our culture today. There are many layers in the answers that Jesus gives, because there is more going on beneath the surface of the discussions. The first thing we really need to consider is who is involved in the discussions. Too often we demonize the Pharisees because in the gospels we see them facing off against Jesus, and we tend to forget that there were good Pharisees. One of the deepest and most meaningful conversations in the gospels is between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. It is in this conversation that the most recognized verse of scripture is found. We see Nicodemus in a more positive light. These others come across as accusers, testers, or even demonic. They are quite literally antichrist.
These men were not necessarily evil men. They were righteous, devout, and scholarly. These were the teachers and encouragers. They were the sources and distributors of wisdom. Within every established organization there will be individuals that fill the role of the Pharisee because these are the people that preserve the heritage and the policies of that organization. Pharisees see themselves as the defenders of faith and truth.
What is the battle they are called to defend? This is where I have found myself over the past few months. They were devoted to their cause, they argued their points, and they stood up against their opponent. I find this honorable. I have great respect for those that are willing to stand up for what they believe in, to the point that they are willing to die for their cause. A few years ago, I read Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion. This book follows a Quaker family through their lives highlighting several humorous and challenging events. The wife in this family, is a recorded minister in the Friends Meeting, and her husband supports and encourages her in this. But they are a young family and have progressive ideas when considered against the elders within their meeting.
If people know the history of Friends in America there was a period called Quietism. This era of our history was often very legalistic. The elders within the meeting in many ways controlled the meeting. For example, people did not wed without first gaining the permission of the elders and if you were to wed without the approval you could be removed or written out of the Meeting. It sounds bad but these elders were generally good people, and it was not uncommon for the elders to come visit families to ask queries. They would come visiting to ensure that you were living out the faith and they would provide encouragement as well. In one of these visits the family in the story had just purchased an organ. At this time, music was not something Friends saw as a worthy pursuit, and because the wife was a minister they put the organ in their attic so that the presence of a musical instrument would not cause a Friend to stumble. One day the elders came to visit. The family along with the elders enter waiting worship and during this the husband heard the children walking in the attic he became nervous. And he could hear that they were getting close to the organ. He did not want the elders to think poorly of his wife or his family, so he began to pray verbally. And the kids began to play the instrument, so the husband would pray all the louder and more fervently. Eventually the kids were coxed away from the organ and the husband could stop praying, and the elders rose and said they did not realize how spiritual he was until he prayed, because they could hear the music of heaven while he prayed.
That is a funny part within the book, but their lives were filled with struggle as well. The story took place around the Civil War, and like most men their sons struggled with their religious faith and their citizenship of our nation. When war broke out the sons had to decide if they would be conscientious objectors or participate in the battle. There was one conversation that struck me in this interaction, the son was passionate, and he told his father that he was willing to die for his faith. Because in their understanding the war was being fought to abolish slavery. And the father said to him, “I am glad you are willing to die for you faith that is honorable, but are you willing to kill for it?”
This story has stuck with me and as I considered the conversations that Jesus had with the Pharisees I began to wonder about my life. I am willing to die for my faith and I know that the Pharisees are right there too. But the thing is that the Pharisees were not only willing to die, but they were willing to kill for their faith. When we think about our faith today, I wonder are the things we are arguing about with each other so important that we would kill those that oppose our faith.
I mention the story by Ms. West because she is a quaker author and she wrote about one of those times in our Friends history where changes were occurring. The world was dramatically changing as well. It was the beginning of the industrial revolution. And it highlighted the struggles that the younger generation had in living their faith in their daily life and speaking to their acceptance of change to those that often saw the change as being opposed to the true faith.
How do we live our faith? That has been a focus of Friends for most of our history. We do not have rites or sacraments that can be uses to demonstrate our devotion to God, only how we live. There is a danger of becoming like the Pharisees in this sort of expression of faith because our actions must reflect that. I both love and struggle with this. I love it because it is so free yet there are times where I fail.
Today we read 1 John. The letters John wrote are wonderful. I made mention that I tend to focus on the gospels while I preach and I approach the letters the apostles wrote with some hesitation. I love the epistles, but often the things they write are bound in cultural context that we must study more deeply to fully understand what is being said. When we do not take that time, we might develop a systematic expression of faith that could potentially be skewed from the truth that Christ may have intended. This could happen because some of the words in the letters are situational advice given for a certain time and place and not universal. But John is a bit different. John is the disciple Jesus loved.
Imagine that statement. Imagine writing that statement about yourself, and not having people dispute it. Imagine writing that statement about yourself and people agreeing with it for centuries. John was a bold individual if you ask me. He was one of the sons of thunder so bold is pretty much his family name, but he was bold and loved by Jesus. If only we could be so bold.
John lived an amazing life. He was probably the youngest disciple, and he was also the oldest meaning he was the only one to die of natural causes. If tradition is correct it was not because persecutors were not trying because John was imprisoned, exiled, and attempts were made on his life, yet he persisted. Probably because he was so bold. He devoted his entire life to following Jesus.
According to tradition John eventually took a step back from active pastoral ministry and became an encourager to the younger generation. He took a step back and allowed them to rise to the challenge, to participate in the adventure with Christ, and he became their mentor.
In John’s letters he reminds those that claim Christ to remember Jesus. Remember how Jesus lived, remember how Jesus died and to remember the hope Jesus provides. He reminds them to abide in Him. I love this word abide. It means to remain in a place, to tarry, to stay in the house, to stay overnight, to dwell. It means to stay alive, to stand against opposition, to hold out, and to not to waver or flee. It can also mean to remain undisturbed.
This word abide is something I feel our culture needs to focus on today. This concept is what the entire society of Friends is built upon. Remain with Christ, unwavering and undisturbed through the craziness of this world. Abide with him. And John goes on to say that those that abide with Christ will be more than servants, but we will be his friends if we keep his commandments. Friends because we will know what he is doing. Servants just act according to directions, friends abide. Friends have conversations, and friends willingly participate.
John encourages us to abide, and not to shrink from him in shame. He reminds us of God’s great love. It was John who first wrote “For God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.” God loves the world. He loves his creation to such a great degree that he came to redeem the world to himself after we rejected him. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us,” John says, “that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
This is a powerful concept. For those that have turned to Christ, for those that abide in Christ, we are not merely redeemed or saved from our own destruction, but we are adopted. We have been accepted into a family not because of the things we have done, but because Jesus has brought us. Have we ever really thought about this? We were like stray cats running around the neighborhood, and Jesus put out a dish of food. We ate that food, and we began to hang around, until one day we were no longer a stray cat, but we had a family. This is what Jesus has done for us. He brought us in. A stray cat’s life is short, but a cat that has a family is a cat that survives for years. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus removes that wage from us and allows us to abide. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, he has brought us in and has made us a part of his family.
The world does not understand this. God still loves every other person in this world, just as my little sister loved every cat, but it is only the cats that abide that become the pet. It is the pet that knows the love that the family has for them. The world looks at Christ as a threat, maybe as something that will cause them harm. They see the care as a potential trick, or as bondage. They do not understand the security and liberty within the family of God.
And we do not fully understand either. Have you ever tried to pet a stray cat? You might get close but if you get too close you might meet claws and teeth. It takes time to domesticate a cat. It can sometimes take months or years. But over the course of time something changes, we become accepted, and we find a place within that family or community. We might have different rolls within, some cats chase mice while others might be a companion. No matter what we are still accepted. This is why John says that what we will be has not yet appeared. We do not fully know today what we will be tomorrow. When I was a student in high school, the idea that I would be a pastor was no where on the horizon. It was literally the last thing I wanted to do. I did not like speaking, so speaking in front of people regularly was totally out. But as I remained with Christ, this became the thing I was drawn too. I was drawn not because of a desire for power or influence, but because I love God. I love God because of the grace that He has had for me. I know what it feels like to be forgiven. I know what it feels like to be restore, redeemed, and given a new opportunity.
God made me his child through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, his son. God made me his child and as I abide with him, I have become aware of aspects of myself that I did not know before. I am a child of God and through that relationship I have found or have been shown where I fit in a larger community. And this is what I am called to be.
There is still struggle. I am a leader within a religious organization. I love the Friends church. For me this is the greatest and most pure expression of faith because we take seriously the idea to love the lord with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I want to participate in keeping the religious expression of Friends going so that the next generation can experience the life that I have had. This can be a struggle, because at times I can think and live in the manner of Friends, instead of abiding in Christ. I can then become like a Pharisee. I can take on the role of defender and protector of the faith without see where God is at that moment. I can be distracted by my own ideas of God and be disconnected from him. When this happens, we displace God from his rightful place, and we attempt to fill that role ourselves. We begin to think that we or I have done this myself.
We look at the world around us, we look at the things the younger generations are doing, we look, and we may not understand what is going on. It may appear to be odd to us, but the question we need to ask is are they abiding in Christ? At times we as devout followers of Christ may get distracted and forget what it was like early in our faith. We forget how odd we were to the previous generations. We forget that we once struggled and eventually became acceptable because we were abiding in Christ. John encourages us to seek purity, which is to seek righteousness, or devote our lives first to Christ. If we do this, we allow God to direct us. We allow the Spirit to lead.
The question the father asked the son in Ms. West’s book remains. It is honorable to die for our faith, but are the things we see disagreements about something we should kill for? It is an extreme thought. A concept I doubt we have fully examined. The Pharisees were willing to kill Christ to preserve their religion, and they became the villain of scripture. Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, with all our body, and with all our mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let us today focus on that.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 25, 2020
Matthew 22:34–46 (ESV)
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 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 first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? 45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Throughout the history of the Church, those that follow Christ have spent a great deal of energy trying to determine who real Christians are. I am certain we have participated in this activity; I know I have. It is difficult to not be drawn into this activity. This week I posted a meme on Facebook that was created from someone that worked in food service that complained about the Sunday afternoon crowd. The complaint was that the people on Sunday afternoon are some of the worst behaved people of the week. The implication in that statement is that these people are those that would call themselves Christians. I have mentioned it before because I have had several friends that have worked at restaurants and they have mentioned how they received the worst tips of the week on the Sunday lunch crowd, while the people eating out demand the most. Many of these friends were so discouraged by those customers that when I invited them to attend church with me, they refused. Their entire knowledge of God was jaded by the manner they were treated while they worked.
The early Friends were confounded by these sorts of things as well. When George Fox was a young man, he eagerly sought spiritual direction. He met with several men of respected position. The direction the young Fox was given did not speak to the heart of his condition. One minister encouraged the young man to smoke tobacco, another encouraged him to get married. These men thought that George just needed a distraction to keep his mind or body occupied and the deeper question he carried would just go away. He visited a third man, and in this meeting, they walked in the man’s garden and talked. According to Fox this meeting seemed to be on the right track, until George accidently took a step off the garden’s pathway and crushed on the plants. This man went into a great rage over the minor offence and threw George out. The conversation was over. George was at a loss, everyone that he queried about life, pointed him in a different direction. Every person encouraged him to pursue something temporal when he sought to know God more deeply. George nearly lost faith, he finally took his book of scripture to a field and sat down alone in the wilderness. It was in that field that George reported that he heard the voice of God, telling him that Christ could speak to his condition. George then went out into the community to preach.
The early Friends did a great deal of preaching in that first generation. They would meet in silence waiting for Christ to speak to them, and when they sensed the Spirit of God speaking, they would be compelled to speak. The fact that they met in silence caused a stir in the community. How could they be Christian if all they did was sit there? No baptism, no communion, no ceremony, or sacraments? The early Friends spoke of this saying that all of life is sacred and should be lived for the Lord’s glory. All of life, not just Sunday morning, but Sunday afternoon as well as the rest of the week. Every moment you live, every journey you take should be lived as if it is a missionary journey appointed by God to expand his kingdom.
If you were to look at every denomination or revival movement within Church history you would find somewhere within a story like this. A small group of people sought to know God in a deeper more meaningful manner, and from that desire they were directed to reform the church in some way. The Franciscans left all worldly wealth and relied on God to provide all their needs as they walked around the European countryside, preaching the gospel wherever they would go, and when necessary they would use words. Martin Luther was so moved with a desire to adhere to the truth of scripture that he along with the early Lutherans would reject all church traditions that were not found in scripture. Each major movement had an aspect of faith that was being neglected, that neglect was causing a rift in the spiritual community, and the younger generation was called to minister in that area. And with each of those spiritual revivals there was opposition. This opposition caused division in the church, the first was the Coptic Church. Then the eastern churches were forced out. Then the Protestant reformations. Then within those protestant reformations, we began to see more and more division which became the various denominations that we see today. And these divisions continue because we are all trying our hardest to determine who is a real Christian.
Today the passage begins again with a conversation between Jesus and one of those religious groups within the Jewish faith. The people of the first century were also engaged in the debate of who had the true faith. The Pharisees and the Sadducees both had their theological ideas, and they were attempting to determine if Jesus as an enemy or an ally. Each group would send spokesmen to Jesus. Each group would ask questions that would test Jesus’ positions in reference to their own.
Jesus knowing that they were pitting him to the test provided answers that prompted deeper consideration. On the surface one could say he was in opposition, while at the same time he could be voicing support. This is unique, because the answers Jesus gives do necessarily give us a dualistic answer but instead engage those present in a deeper conversation.
The question the Sadducees asked dealt with the issue if whose wife a woman would be in heaven. The question we might not see as a great theological issue, but this was one of those points that caused division within the faith of Israel. Jesus answered in a manner that shook their understanding, no one is married in heaven. If God ordains marriage how can marriage not be present in heaven? The issue goes to the deeper meanings of marriage and intimacy, we do not need marriage in heaven because our identity and intimacy is found not in the acceptance of those around us but in God. This answer draws into question the very nature of human creation, and Adam’s fall. Adam desired companionship and a mate, this was the beginnings of the fall, Adam questioned God’s plan and execution of those plans. Humankind was created as a complete expression of love and grace, not man nor woman genders but a groundling in full possession of all humanity. Intimacy was found in God. When Jesus answered that there will be no need for marriage, he is saying that humanity will be restored to its proper place, we will be complete and restored.
Now the Pharisees come with a lawyer. This gives us a glimpse into the deeper expressions of this group. I mentioned last week that they were devoted to preserving the faith of Israel even when there was not a temple to provide devotional actions. Duty and legalism became the manner of religious expression and they were devout in this. When Jesus states that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he is speaking of the religious mantle that is being placed on the people attempting to participate in religious devotion. They labored vigorously to determine the proper lifestyle, yet they debated among each other as to which laws held the most importance. We might consider this odd because to most of us we think mainly of the ten commandments, but if you were to study Torah there are more than six hundred laws that these religious leaders are considering. Laws dealing with food, hygiene, social responsibility, dealing with immigrants, and much more. When they ask Jesus, what law is the greatest, they are expecting to enter a great debate.
Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor. If we were to focus all our efforts on these two things imagine the difference we could make? While I was attending Friends University, one of the books we worked through in class was called Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. This book was amazing because it opened my eyes to aspects of who I am in relation to myself, God, and others in ways that I had not encountered before. In this book Mr. Willard places the heart at the center of our soul. It is in our hearts or will where our deepest identity resides, who we truly are. Because the heart is where our most real identity resides that is why we should guard our hearts. Willard goes on to say that there are two forces that directly influence our heart, those two forces are our mind and our emotions. These two forces are the greatest things we use to guard and to encourage our hearts.
When Jesus says love God with all your heart, he is saying that love and devotion to God should be at the very core of our identity. It should be the starting point of every endeavor we make, and it should the place we come back to find rest and restoration. Jesus also says to love God with all our mind. Since the mind is one of those forces that relate directly to our hearts, we should focus our minds to God as well, through discipline. How do we direct our minds to God? The easiest answer to this question is Bible study. This is one discipline that will direct our mind to the things of God but devoting our mind to God goes much deeper than that. We need to treat our minds as things cherished by God. Which means we should pursue greater knowledge and wisdom in many areas both inside and outside what we would call church pursuits. We should pursue knowledge with as much passion as we pursue God. I say this because when we pursue knowledge with God, we can often find ourselves in a state of awe. When we look at the structures of cell, it is amazing how many details there are and how precise our creator was. When we look at the vastness of space, we can see the vastness of God and get a fuller sense of the reality of grace. Scripture tells us that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. That distance is infinite in theory, but when we look at celestial bodies at distances measure in light continuously traveling in years, that grace becomes massive.
Devoting our mind to God also helps temper our emotions. We struggle with emotions. The positive emotions are not so bad, the things like love and joy, but what about anger and depression? When we commit our emotions to God, this allows our mind to process those things through something that remains constant. At this moment I might have feelings of anxiety, why do I have those feeling? Right now, it is because everyone is looking at me, I am speaking, and I do not want to look foolish. These are emotional triggers that are affecting my core identity. How can I deal with these emotions? Study is one way. I do not want to look foolish so I do everything I can to make sure what I say is filled with as much wisdom as possible. But that does not prevent those around me from seeing me as foolish. I cannot know someone outside of myself unless we have a conversation.
This leads us to loving God with all our soul. For many we were taught that our soul is that area of our lives that I previously said was our heart. But Dallas Willard proposes that the soul is our entire existence, or every aspect of our lives. This includes our heart, mind, body, interpersonal relationships, and even our environment. Every person here is part of who I am and part of who you are. How we react to and with each other affects something deep within us and reveals our identity. This is something that science calls systems theory. Each part within a system has a purpose, and when one part is in distress the entire system suffers. The best example of this I can think of is empathy and grief. When someone close to us suffers, we suffer too. And if someone close to us dies, we still feel the sting of that loss even years later. I personally struggle during this time of year. I struggle because twenty-three years ago this coming week my little sister died. That death had a profound impact on my life, one that caused changes to my perception of who I am. In my attempt to process the emotions of that loss, I initially made decisions that changed the course of my life. From those decisions and how they affected others around me, my life is completely different than it was before.
A more positive example of how interpersonal relationships affect our core identity, is children. Things change in our lives when we become responsible for another life. And the decisions we make as parents can encourage or discourage the hearts of our children. I have said many times that my son James brought me to Christ. I identified as a Christian before James was born, but when I held him in my arms the first time, my understanding of God changed. I had a greater understanding of love, and I also had a greater understanding of my own limitations.
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the first commandment. And the second is like it love your neighbor as yourself. If one aspect of our soul is interpersonal relationships, the command to love your neighbor as yourself is included in the first commandment. Jesus repeats this part because it is important. We get the love God part. We often struggle with the love your neighbor as yourself. We struggle with this because we do not love ourselves. Consider for a moment something that annoys you about a coworker, or even one of your children. The things that annoy me the most personally are the things that I see them doing, that I do. And the more someone resembles you, the more annoyed you often get. Jesus once illustrated this by a parable saying, do not take the speck out of your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye. I get annoyed often by those around me, but it is often myself that I am annoyed with. And when we get into one of those places we need to step back and examine ourselves.
I began today by mentioning the amount of energy we often spend trying to determine who is a true Christian. The early Friends removed all the rites and rituals that are often associated with Christian practice, because they wanted to encourage people to make their lives a sacrament, holy and dedicated to the Lord. This means that every aspect of our lives is lived in a manner of worship and service. When we go to the store, it might be to make purchases for ourselves, but it is also a missions trip just as vital for the soul of the world as the missionaries that serve in Africa or Asia. When we eat at a restaurant, we are not only enjoying the food with friends and family, but we are making God’s joy complete by being a blessing to those that serve us. The religious lawyers wanted to know what the greatest commandment was, and Jesus told them to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself. He is saying live our lives completely dedicated to God in all we do. And that is our mission and our purpose to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and to live the love of Christ with others.