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The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Tuesday): Something Special From The Ordinary

When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), …

John 2:9

(This is a part of my Bible Study series “A Pursuit of the Spirit of Christ)

A Stream (© John Gresham)

Though we can see it as an embarrassment, to run out of wine at a wedding party was no major catastrophe.  Miscalculations and over-indulgences are typical factors of life.  Having special vessels or other objects set aside for religious ceremonies is nothing new either.  Nothing lives without water.  And when the good wine is gone, the prudent will stop drinking while the foolish will drink the worst of the beverage.  Jesus came to save our souls.  Rescuing wedding receptions from disaster by misusing holy things with a common element so people can keep drinking doesn’t seem to fit his mission.  “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”

The woman who brings this problem to Jesus is his mother, Mary.  Despite his words, the Son heeds the intercession of his mother as written in the law of his culture.  As he is Holy, he uses the jars of purification to house the miracle.  The material for the miracle is water no different from for drinking for sustenance.  But, because Jesus gives directions to the servants and they follow them, what was ordinary has now become extraordinary.  Not only does the ordinary become extraordinary for the sake of it’s making.  This best wine is given when there was no hope for anything better.  When guest would have either exercised prudence or wallowed in drunkenness.  And it was the obedient servants who were the active participants in this change.

Yes, we should have others to pray for us as we seek Jesus for ourselves.  Our Lord is merciful in our times of miscalculations and over-indulgences.  He can use the best and the base of what we are to enliven us in ways that are unexpected.  Something greater can be made from us that will give new hope and direction to those around us.  All we have to do is obey his uncomplicated directions.

 

The Flaw of Faith Alone: (Part one) Lack Of Evidence

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James 2:26

Flight with Two Wings (© John Gresham)

This is the first of 3 sermons I will preach about our need for good works to show that we have faith in God.  My next sermon will come from Matthew 25:31-46 and the final from Acts 2:42-47.  I am grateful for the lectures on “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” from Father Andrew Stephen Damick for inspiring me to preach on this topic.  I pray that I  will correct myself by the grace of the Holy Spirit and lead others to correction as well.

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE:  (PART ONE) LACK OF EVIDENCE

James 2:14-26

(Introduction)  The Protestant Reformation leaders were right in pointing out the abuses of Medieval Catholicism, including the sale of indulgences and stressing works as a means to salvation.

(antithesis) In many of our doctrines, we ignore the point that good works are necessary as they are evidence that we have faith in Jesus Christ.  As a result of our lack of this sound evidence, we run around looking for false ones.

(thesis) We must commit ourselves to good works as well as having our faith secured by believing in the Gospel.

(relevant question)  Why are good works important?

(points)

  • evidence of compassion (vv. 15-17)
  • evidence of distinction (vv. 18-20)
  • evidence of awareness of God’s will (vv.21-26)

(conclusion)

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Saturday): His Peace

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

John 14:27

Parrot Island Sunrise (© John Gresham)

I imagined the disciples were troubled in their hearts and minds.  They knew that Jesus would be violently taken away from them.  They heard their Lord predict their coming cowardice, even that of the most outspoken of them.  And if the enemies would dare come after and have victory over the Master, what hope was there for the servants?  Yes, Jesus did tell them that he would rise again.  But, in times of imminent danger and suffering, words of eventual victory are hard to hear.

In his wisdom and mercy, the Lord left his disciples with the gift of His peace.  A peace that is His light that overcomes the world’s darkness.  In John’s account of the Gospel, we don’t find Jesus expressing anguish and resolve in Gethsemane.  He tells of a Lord who calmly goes forth to meet his fate.  Before doing so, he gives the gift of this peace to his weak and fearful close friends.  He gives something of great value to those who can least afford it.  He gives His rock in the midst of a storm while he is about to go through his own storm so they could overcome theirs.

The peace of Jesus Christ is here for us today.  The ability to face hardship with an overcoming sense of calm is available to all who follow and rely on him.  Just as John, the Theotokos, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene found strength to remain at the cross; so can we find strength to withstand the heartbreaking sorrows of life.  Just as He endured his brutal and torturous death, we can also go through hell on earth.  His peace makes this possible.  His peace has no price tag and is offered to all who follow and believe.

Accept the gift.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Thursday): Do I Have To?

‘ But,  I want to do this.’

Rita Madden from the podcast, “Fasting Is Medicine” 

The answer to the question is obvious.  No, I do not have to fast.  I am a Baptist.  Our doctrine and dogma does not teach a need to refrain from any food any time of the year.  Our radical reformed denominational position is that ritual fasting is a tradition of man that Jesus did not teach and, therefore, should be ignored as some Roman Catholic superstitious practice.  In my African-American heritage, our people were deprived and suffered much under slavery.  So, why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating what we want, when we want it, as often, and as much as we can?  No, I don’t have to fast.  According to doctrine and culture, “I ain’t got no business fasting.”

Wake Dawn (© John Gresham)

But, I want to fast.  First of all, Jesus did it and did not speak against the practice.  The only guideline he gave about fasting is that we don’t make a boastful show of it and act on fast days as any other day.  Read Matthew 4:1-11 and the corresponding stories in Mark and Luke.  As a result of his fast, Jesus was able to withstand the temptations Satan tried him with and God sent angels down to minister to him.  I ask, who doesn’t want the ability to withstand temptation and have God’s mercy on us?  While Jesus does not make his fast a requirement, the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food for a period of time does have positive benefits to our souls, when applied to faith and aided with prayer ( Matthew 17:19-21; see my previous article).  It makes sense to fast.

It makes sense to fast as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.  We Protestants may give up one or two things we shouldn’t indulge in for Lent.  For pregnant and nursing women and those whose diets are directed by a physician, such limited fasting makes sense.  But, for the rest of us, “giving something up for Lent” falls short of the point.  Refraining from food should produce a hunger and the hunger should drive us to prayer and reliance on the Father who adopted us as his children through his Only Begotten Son with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Substituting huge portions of chicken for beef doesn’t do it.  The early church fathers were wise enough to see that we needed something to sustain us and suggested eating only simple foods such as vegetables, legumes, and bread.  We need some oil (fat) as well and a little fish for animal protein.  Rather than indulge in  vegan food substitution, they taught that we should stop eating while still hungry and never eat until we are full.

As I said in a previous post, the calendar of Orthodox fasting and feasting is just like hiking a trail.  When the Apostles Fast is over on the Feast of the Apostles.  After these major points, I continue to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord) until the next major point (the fast and feast of Mary).  And there are a couple of feast days thrown in the midst of those fast (the Nativity of John the Baptist in June and the Transfiguration in August).  The Christmas Fast (Nov. 15th thru Dec. 24th) will be tough to cope with because of Thanksgiving and those holiday food temptations.  But, there is the feast of St Nicholas  in early December and no weekday fast between Christmas and Epiphany.  Then, it is Lent and Easter again (with a couple of other feast and fast to observe).  It may seem like a lot to keep up with for most of us Protestants.  But, I think following such a cyclical pattern keeps me looking forward to God’s grace and mercy all year-long rather than waiting around for Christmas and Easter.

So, as one Orthodox mother told her neighbors, “But, I want to do this.”  Bishops and priest can’t judge their parishioners on whether or not they do it.  Surely, no officers in the Baptist church will threaten to remove my ordination for grilling some pork chops this evening.  This is a choice I made on my own free will.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Wednesday): How?

Because of your unbelief, for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.

Matthew 17:21,22

Moss, Stone, and Water (© John Gresham)

And here is the problem.  We are called to confront issues of darkness that cannot be overcome easily.  Our passions overcome us and those around us to a point when all seems out of control.  The quick cures that we learned when we began our walk with the Lord aren’t working.  Passages of scripture recited as if they were magic words don’t penetrate the heart of our struggles.  Imitations of what we see in televised ministries or read in popular devotionals are equally ineffective.  Lack of our expected timely results lead us to doubt and disbelief.  When these two impostors take root, nothing can be accomplished.

Overcoming the forces that throw us into fire and flood requires three elements; and without the first, the other two are meaningless exercises.  Faith the size of the insignificant mustard seed is the foundation of victory.  This sort of faith is not something that is easily held on to.  It takes far more attention to maintain a mustard seed in one’s hand than a coconut or even a pecan.  Faith requires watchfulness and discipline to hold on, especially when things are not easily obtained.  Indeed, if one is watchful and disciplined to hold on to hope, almost nothing can stand in his way.

Our Lord suggest that there are times that faith needs the practical assistance of prayer and fasting.  We must be in constant communication with God to exorcise our demons and those of others.  We must practice tangible control of our own desires before we can successfully overcome the intangible wickedness that fights against us.  With these two tools forged with the one necessary element, we cannot be overtaken in sin nor swallowed up in the despairing situations around us.  Even when we stumble, we are able to rise again in repentance and not fall as easily nor deeply as before.  With this sure-footed walk with the Savior, we can reach down and help others come on the journey with us.  Have faith above all.  In faith, pray and fast.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Tuesday): What?

… “Follow Me.”

Matthew 9:9

 

Flight of Three (© John Gresham)

 

Not a glaring and loud advertisement for a life changing mega church conference.  Not a boastful and vainglorious promotion of an empowering series of DVD lessons for $59.99 plus tax.  No appeal to sow a sacrificial seed offering by popular power preachers to keep the television ministries reaching people all over the world who may not be able to receive such programing in the first place.  Jesus approaches a sinful man in his sinful practice who is friends with sinners with two simple words, “Follow Me.”

To follow is to walk away from where one is and make deliberate steps behind the one accepted as ahead.  As long as the leader is in motion, the follower must also move.  Every day the world turns, plants cycle the air, creatures follow instinctive patters.  Every day the one who was with and was God moves.  We should be likewise place our steps behind his.

Note that his steps are not sporadic.  There may be moments of significance.  But, he walks in consistency as life is consistent.  Our walk must not be limited to unique pauses nor can it be built on infrequent commemorations.  For if we follow only on those moments, what is there to prevent us from losing sight of the leader?  We are most likely to lose sight of who he truly is and where he is going.  Conditions can distort our vision and enemies can distract us if our footsteps are too far away from his.

No, we must have the discipline to follow and follow closely.  Even if we lack the nerve to see him nailed or the hope to see him at the rising moment, even if we don’t get an early glimpse of his glory; we are called to follow.  If we are diligent and obedient, we will be blessed in the here and here after.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Monday): Why?

Question:  Why does Christianity have such a bad name today?

Archbishop Puhalo:  The hypocrisy and bigotry of Christians.  The hypocrisy and bigotry we have is, first of all, to think that we have a special righteousness or holiness as Christians automatically simply because we are Christians without any real sincere work to transform our hearts and to transform our inner persons, to transform our being so that we come into accord with the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ rather than the moral laws that people have super-imposed on Christ.

From the documentary, “A Pilgrim’s Way” (0:32-1:10)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhQ98qolWTE

How sincere is the work we do to “transform our being?”  Do we simply look forward to baby Jesus on Christmas and observe the resurrection on Easter Sunday?  Or, does the Christian calendar have other special observances and practices to help guide us in our pursuit of God? The Apostle Paul taught that whether or not we observe particular days of worship is a matter of conscience and faith.  We Baptist observe the well-known holidays of Christmas and Holy Week.  Other than that, we feel the individual believer should be led by the Holy Spirit daily and that calendar observances are not required of anyone.

It is good to know where you are (© John Gresham)

As an avid hiker, I know the value of a good guide and well-marked trail.  Sure, GPS coordinates accurately give starting and destination points.  But, most units don’t include maps.  Maps point out scenic views, switchbacks, stream crossings, and other features on the trail.  Well written guides give info about wildlife, seasonal conditions, photos, and advice from those who have hiked the trail before.  Trail markers let you know that you are still on the right path.  Some indicate distance and if there are any other paths nearby.  Combine the guide and markers and the hiker has a better sense of where he is, what to expect, how to deal with it, and is better prepared to handle the unexpected.

I am using the prayers, feast, and fast of Orthodox Christianity with the Holy Spirit as my guide and trail markers.  I am not abandoning the church I was brought up in and serve as a pastor.  But, I recognize my need for clearer directions in my life’s journey.  The Orthodox calendar gives me greater indication of the value of the days and weeks of the year.  Fast are like those gruelling switchbacks along a mountain.  We’d rather not deal with them.  But, they help keep us from the risk of steep slopes of gluttony and over-indulgence.  Feast are like those wonderful summit views or valley streams to rejoice in the God that leads us in the journey of life.  Yes, I do lift up my own prayers.  It is also good to read those of saints who have successfully made the same journey.  It is also good to read the shared prayers of those who are also walking the same path.

I am embracing the Apostle’s Fast remembering the faith they spread throughout the world despite the horrific persecution and death that they suffered.  While God does give blessings, we should keep in mind that there can be no crown of glory without a cross of great suffering.  We should also note that the Gospel of our Lord is to be spread beyond our own communities and comfort zones.  The Holy Ghost empowers us to speak “someone else’s language.”  I pray that my fellow non-Orthodox Christians will join our brothers and sisters of the ancient faith and ether give follow the fast or pray for us who are on this leg of the journey as we all seek the same waters and summit.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Roots of Discipleship

The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus

John 1:37

Vewing the Valley (© John Gresham)

Two of John’s disciples heard their teacher proclaim the presence of the Greater One.  Rather than stay with the one who had led them, they sought the One he constantly refered to.  Following Jesus, they went to the place where he stayed.  No crowds were present, just the two men spending time with the Lord.

What good is it for the roots to simply rely on moisture from the drops of rain and dew dripping from the leaves when there is a greater source of water?  Do roots do any good staying in a ball when there is fertile ground to find firm establishment?  Such roots do nothing productive for the tree and are only fit to rot so that new roots can find the nourishment to go forward as the predecessors should have.

Too often the faithful put their faith in the preacher and not the One that is (and MUST BE) proclaimed.  Even when the preacher speaks truth, there is a tendency to uplift the human rather than seek out the greater truth of the divine.  This is the realm of “Sunday Christians.”  They stay in the root ball of the weekly worship without penetrating the rich soil of the Divine Savior nor drinking from the ever flowing fountain of His Spirit.  Perhaps others will learn from their erroneous existence and seek something better.

Let us not make such an error.  Sermons from even the best pastors are mere drops of water from leaves.  Take the drops, but search out the Spirit of Truth that cleanses and restores us.  Grow deeper in solitude and only another or two spending time in God’s presence.  When discipleship takes the path of such a root, it attracts others to come and grow.