Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Liberty, Grace, and Freedom

A very timely and correct subtitle could be "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."
An even more succinctly clarified title might be, "Man, I'm tired of being politically correct."

Pull up a chair and let's have some honest dialog. Peter was one kind of a disciple, and Paul was another. One was part of the original crew. One walked with Christ daily, sat at His feet, learned from Him directly, and heard the actual voice of God come from what has to be the single most polarizing human to have existed. That human, Jesus, and the polarization, being that he was also the first and only completely divine human that existed. Paul, on the other hand, didn't have all of that in his back pocket. He was Jewish. He was raised right. He had means. He worked on the wrong side of Christ. Wait... what? Yes. He did. He had means and he assisted the Romans, concerned for their longevity, in securing their interests. He did that by "innocently" persecuting Christians. You have to remember that Christians AND their surrounding local governments thought that Christ was raising a physical army and that He was bringing about a worldly revolution in government and in direct royal power and position. These people saw the God-Man walk, talk, preach, perform miracles, be incorrectly and illegally tried, judged, found guilty. They saw him whipped, further beaten, crucified, die, and be buried. Then they saw him walk into a room and confront them with his life. They were ready right then and there for a kingdom to be set up. They were ready right then and there for the balance of power to shift, and for Judaism to be fulfilled, bringing about centuries of promises from God. So, I mean... naturally, the local representatives to the big central powers were concerned. They'd be foolish NOT to be. And that's how we meet Paul. He works for Big Power, and he is concerned and persecuting this crazy, faith-filled "fringe" Jews.
--Fast forward, Paul is struck down on the road to Damascus.
--Fast forward, Paul is rebuked and shown a vision from God that allows him to preach to all of the humans, not just Jews.
--Fast forward, Paul sees a lot... and I mean, a lot, of miracles. He is in the thick of the action with this whole movement. And that means his faith is naturally bolstered. He has lots of faith, because he's seen countless miracles every day - INCLUDING those that give him complete freedom from Roman and Jewish superstitions, religions, and customs. He was free.
--Now, that is where we begin here today: 

1 Corinthians 8:9: "But take heed, lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak." 

That ONE scripture nails it home, but you need to know the context. Paul is educating LEADERS and people that are already Christians on how to act, how to love, how to show Christ, and how to avoid silly and pointless conflict that arises out of ignorance and ego. The entire book is a great "How To" set of instructions to Corinth. (Assuming we believe this was truly Paul and not one of the pseudoepigriphal books that cause so much angst!) However, I digress... that's a hair I'll split with my scholar friends. For the purposes of this writing, focus on the lesson and the emotion behind it: Paul leads us to know several important things in Chapter 8:

--Idols are still rampant. That means, by following common sense that food, incense, and other things are still offered to those idols. (Some newer Christians still held Jewish law. They still had Roman idols. They had "believed" the good news of Christ, and they WANTED a revolution. But they hadn't "seen" anything. They were learning and growing, but they were not miraculously imbued with the experiences and faith of the disciples and the original crew. They still had their idols, and the beliefs and "comfort" of the ritual of those idols.)

--New Christians are still weak-minded and may still hold some superstitions (Gee... that's true today, too. People have to grow in the Lord, and in faith. I still have to grow. I still flinch if I see a black cat. Does that mean I practice witchcraft and really thing broken mirrors will haunt me? No. But there are decades of ingrained belief and practice in EVERY human. Don't exploit that, taunt that, or even worse, IGNORE that. Ignoring someone's lack of knowledge and ignoring them to flounder while you mature and follow God in ways that are too deep for them, can be just as damaging as watching your toddler try to follow you into the deep end when they can't swim.)

--We ONLY have to answer to God. (Nowhere does Paul say that because of the confusion that we are do hold our personal standards to those that need special attention. That's why they are called personal. He was herding cats here, and it's odd to say, I'm going to do this thing, like eating meat offered to idols, that some found so offensive that it turned them off from hearing further truths about God. He had the foresight to learn and to train other church leaders in this matter. You can be as "right" as you want to be, and you may even be truly correct. But... and hear me... if you turn everyone off around you, who is hearing your message? Who are you reaching? You have to actually reach folks to get the message of Christ crucified to them.)

--These things may not be Heaven or Hell issues to US as believers. I mean, those of us that have had the experience, the tangible, and the revelation of exactly who Jesus is... we have a lot of privilege in knowing exactly who that makes us. We have been given countless, unfathomable grace to be pulled "from the miry clay." But what about those baby Christians or even Christians that are just weak in faith and not on a solid ground of understanding WHO God is? They may not be mature in understand exactly what Jesus accomplished in dying, grace, mercy. There are those that think you can still earn grace - that mercy is a word that evokes weakness and sentimentality. There are those that may have lived their entire life in a dead relationship... know about God, but not knowing God, and never grasping the life application of a true "pick up your cross, and follow me" mentality. Be very careful... something you do may not be something that is Heaven or Hell for you, but it may be for those watching you to determine if your witness is something that they believe or if you serve a God in which they are interested. You may be the only representative or ambassador that God ever puts in their path.

--Don't flaunt your liberty, and your grace is not very graceful when it offends and hurts the spiritual well-being of another, weaker person. People that need Christ always say that they love the idea of Jesus, but not the people that are the loudest in claiming to be His followers. People that are the loudest cheerleaders of grace, are usually the ones that (forgive me for seeming to judge) look like they abuse grace. Grace is there for us, an endless fountain of forgiveness. We do have liberty, but that doesn't mean we throw that in the face of those that don't understand it.

That is where the lesson ended in Corinthians. Can you think of situations today, in your life that this might apply to? Are you a church leader? Are you a Christian witness? Do you claim to have knowledge of Christ and share that with others? Do you walk in love? Love bears all things, you see. Here are examples that I know have burdened my friends and myself. Review them and ask yourself how you would handle them. How would you best represent Christ to others?
--You go out with a group of mixed church and secular friends. Do you drink? Why or why not? Your secular friends will be drinking. Your Christian friends may or may not agree with drinking. What's your answer? Would it matter if they were new converts? Would it matter if they had been delivered from alcoholism before they came to Jesus? Would that change your actions?
--You have decided that cutting your hair is not a heaven or hell issue for you. Do you tell your pastor? Do you balk about church participation?
--You disagree with other's liberty. You know your relationship with Christ is strong. Do you bother yourself or argue with them over what you think they are doing wrong? I have stricter moral codes on how I deal with finances than many veteran UPC ministers I know. They have lots of wiggle room when it comes to money. Just not sleeve length. Now, don't misunderstand me. I THINK STANDARDS ARE IMPORTANT. I believe in holiness. I believe in modesty. But let me put it this way, I have been to churches where little old ladies and men will not raise their hands, will not dance, will not shout, will not get excited when you proclaim that God came down in flesh, died for them, and his blood will cleanse them. It will save the reprobate, heal the sick, and will cause miraculous changes of heart. But if you talk about clothes or hair, you can't keep them on a pew. That's backwards. I also believe if that is your ONLY claim to Christ, then you have missed the entire purpose of Jesus. Jesus wants your inside to be right, your mind renewed, and your spirit to be knit with His. He'll clean up the outside.

--You know that certain words hurt certain groups of people. You may not have any sympathy or love for them. God does. You may not agree with them. God can handle that. You know that words only have power if you give them power. Do you use those words anyway? They don't hurt you, they are not offensive to you, they don't affect you. They hurt someone you know. They affect someone you know. They turn away someone you know. Does that change your attitude or use of words?

At the end of the day, you are the only person you can be responsible for. You can only control your actions. But your actions, and your responsibility reach far. The ripples you create, and the people you reach, or conversely turn away can be a sobering thought. It is VITAL to understand grace and the liberty that God gives us by saving us. We can never earn it. We can't be good enough, we can't be holy enough, and we can't have enough standards to EARN salvation. That' is God's gift to us. And, technically, we could have liberty for anything... but we would also create huge rifts in church, in society, and ultimately, ourselves. Is it that hard to love enough to not say misogynistic words? They may not offend you, but what about those you offend? Do you use racial slurs? Is it because that's your heritage? It's not hate? It's just taking the power out of the word? But if it hurts someone and causes a situation where they no longer respect or believe your witness to Christ, what good have you done? What about words for gay people? What about words for transgender people? You may not be offended by saying "that's so gay." But it hurts someone to have something so vital to your core being equated with being stupid. Or even the huge ordeal right now over the word "tranny." What about the recent shootings? Which Pentecostal crossed his path numerous times and never heeded God's urging to say something, do something, or just be there for someone that needed it? Or which Christian had the chance to delve deeper about God with that person, clearly needing something, and used grace or liberty to go their own way?

You have liberty to say and do as you please, but the pain it may cause someone may also be the very thing that makes them never listen to you. The ego and your walk with Christ have to be very strong to take some of this in... it's not about YOU. You are already a Christian. You are already a witness. You are already a leader. Your liberty has been secured. Your soul has been pardoned and you have been delivered. But your liberty may be preventing others from enjoying that same experience. Be aware. It's so critical in this day and age. Love is never the wrong answer, even if you don't understand the question. Kindness is never the wrong choice.

#JustBeingMichael ツ

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