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Unveiled Faces: A Reflection on Galatians 4:8-20

This week at New City we heard about Galatians 4:8-20.  In this passage Paul writes, “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again…?”

Paul describes not knowing God as being enslaved to things outside of God. He is concerned that the people of Galatia will turn back to these old ways which he calls “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). When Paul describes where the Galatians are now, he does not just say that since they know God they should know better than to go back to their old ways but he says that God knows the Galatians. For Paul, God knowing people is the primary reason to not turn away from faith.

Why does Paul make this distinction between knowing God and being known by God in Galatians 4? Paul’s image in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 helps us grasp what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  In 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 Paul writes,

but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit

In Galatians we see language of enslavement, and in 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of freedom. Where does this freedom come from? Paul says it comes from the Holy Spirit. How do we learn about the Holy Spirit?  When we pray and worship we can see the Spirit working in our lives and other’s lives and we come to know the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. These are great ways to see the Spirit of God at work. However, in this passage to the Corinthians, Paul seems to offer another way to know the Spirit of God and the freedom it offers.

Joao Zeferino de Costa, Moses Receiving the Law

The first line of this passage offers the first step: “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” When you see the word “veil” maybe you think of the veils women wore in this time that covered their faces. Or maybe you think of a veil worn at a wedding. Both of these images can add to our understanding; however, what Paul has in mind can be found in the verses right before this passage when Paul describes Moses putting a “veil” over his face after going into the presence of God in Exodus 34:34. Moses would go before the Lord with his face unveiled and, when he returned to the people, his face was shining.  Because his face shone so brightly, Moses would then veil his face when he spoke to the people in order to protect them from the sheer glory of the Lord.  In the same way that Moses got to speak with God with an unveiled face, Paul says here that the Corinthians too can have “unveiled faces” before the Lord.

However, Paul’s concern in his letter to the church in Galatia is that some people are approaching God as if they have veils over their hearts. The people want to get to know God without letting God get to know them. Psalm 139 tells us that God already knows us because he formed us from the start. Maybe it is scary to let God in on the pieces of ourselves we do not like or we do not think He would like; but Paul assures us that there is freedom in the presence of God’s Spirit. Just as Moses was invited into the presence of God despite his unworthiness, we too are invited.  On our own we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, but as Paul says, “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”

This is not freedom to do what we want. This is a freedom to stand before God unveiled, to not hide our shame from God. When Adam and Eve hid and clothed themselves in Genesis, God looked for them and made a new covering for them (Gen 3:8-21). And God has made a new covering for us today in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul says that if we are in Christ we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Because of Jesus and the coming of His Spirit, we do not remain in our sin, but “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18).

We do not have the enslavement of sin anymore, because Christ took the sins with him on the cross and he came back resurrected with new life. This is something we know about God, that he loved the world so much that he sent his son to die for us (John 3:16). Do we know that, because of Christ and his righteousness, we can now have unveiled faces before God? Do we know that when we are known by God he transforms us into his image? This is why we do not only seek to know God, but we rejoice in being known by God. This is why Paul begged the Galatians to not turn back to their old ways of enslavement, because they have freedom already in Christ Jesus. Instead of reaching for our veils, for our coverings for sin, we go into the presence of God and reach out to Him. We trust that Jesus really did take our sin to the grave, and returned with new life and freedom for all of us to be transformed.

May we live with unveiled faces, and invite others to do the same.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue says “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story…do I find myself a part?'” (216). The church in Galatia had forgotten the story they had once received with joy, which was the Gospel story.  This is why Galatians is known as Paul’s angriest letter. You can just hear the frustration and disappointment in Paul’s writing:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)

The problem with forgetting our story as Christians is not just that we lose sight of what is true and what gives us life, but that we are also taken over by rival stories. Our culture promotes a story of self–self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-satisfaction.  A rival gospel in our own day is one of individualism where we can only find “freedom” if we do what we feel is right for ourselves. It wasn’t so different in Galatia. The Christians in Galatia were slipping back into the “law,” believing that they needed to be the ones to earn their salvation.  The primary way this manifested in the Galatian church was by their trying to force Gentile believers into circumcision, which signified entrance into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). While this story they had fallen back into had all the trappings of piety and religion, it was really a gospel of self. They had forgotten their new and better story, a story where Christ provides a way to freedom for all through him and him alone (John 14:6).

This “gospel of self,” both in our day and in Paul’s, cultivates a kind of fear. It places the burden of salvation, joy, contentment, and freedom on us.  We shift our reliance from an unlimited God to our limited selves.  It is in this state of fear and worry that we begin to take measures into our own hands. We make lists, we read self-help books, we try to go to bed earlier, we listen to TED talks, we volunteer our time, we do our best to pray and read our Bibles, we go to work early and stay late, we make sure we attend church and small group, and we expect the same from others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any one of these “rules.” They have value so long as they are operating in the right story.  We need to take a serious audit of our lives and ask the question: Are we operating in the right story? Is our list-making, self-help following, people-pleasing, five-minute-a-day praying blueprint for our lives producing any growth?

Many of us Western Christians have smuggled the story of the world–a story of individual achievement, social status, self-sufficiency, productivity and consumerism–into the Church.  We have tried to baptize a way of life that is totally foreign to what God intended, Christ inaugurated, and the Spirit inhabits. We sing “Take the World, But Give me Jesuswhile carrying the story of contemporary culture in our back pockets.

I know this because I struggle with the same thing. I find myself always battling anxieties about my future. These anxieties force me to ask “I” or “me” questions.  “What if I fail?” “How will I know what to do next?” “What if I’m not accepted?” “How will my gifts be utilized?” “What if my calling is never realized?” Notice that these questions–the questions many of us wrestle with every day–are totally centered around the self, the I. Of course, these kinds of worries are natural to us, because we are natural sinners born into the world’s story. Unfortunately, it draws us into a way of life that is marked ultimately by “anxiety for tomorrow” and leads to us trying to control every aspect of our lives (Matthew 6:34).

This is one of the primary reasons why Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so important for us today.  Of course we aren’t demanding circumcision for those who want to be a part of the Church; however, we do find ourselves capitulating to rival gospels all the time, often bringing them into the church.

Paul responds to this backwards gospel in Galatia by sternly (read: angrily) reminding his fellow believers that Christ has ushered in a new stage, a new covenant. Trying to apply the old paradigm (which had an important place in the story of God!) onto the new becomes “works righteousness” and is antithetical to the Spirit of God and His mission in the world (Galatians 3:28).

But how does Paul do this? How does he prove to them that this law and taking matters into their own hands is no longer necessary and assumes the wrong story? He reminds them of their story– a story that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.  After all, Paul mentions Abraham eight times in Galatians 3 alone, so it should be obvious to both the Galatians and us that our story encompasses the whole of Scripture.

Genesis 15 tells the story of God’s sacred covenant with Abraham, and in Genesis 15:8, right after God has reminded him of the promises of offspring and land He has in store for him, Abraham, who has been wandering and surviving and stumbling in the wilderness for years, often taking matters into his own hands, desperately asks, “How am I to know?” a question we are all too familiar with when anxiety creeps in and we feel as if our calling may never materialize. Notice, again, that it is a question centered on “I.”

God answers this question not with a time-frame, not with a seven-step plan, not with a to-do list, but with a promise. He makes a covenant with Abraham.  

To enact this promise, God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9).  He then told him to cut in half the cow, goat, and ram (but not the birds) in half. In Ancient Near Eastern treaties, which this covenant between Abraham and God certainly draws upon, the halved animal carcasses communicates that if either party violates this sacred promise, they will end up like these animals. Death is to come upon the one who doesn’t uphold the sacred covenant.

But, as we read a few verses later, Abraham does not pass through. He doesn’t participate in the covenantal ritual. Instead, Abraham only saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the animal carcasses (Genesis 15:17).  Because the fire and the smoke represent the presence of God, the narrative is telling us that only God passes through.

The significance of this cannot be understated. This means that God Himself–the One whose Word can never fail and whose promises are eternal–takes the penalty of a failed covenant upon Himself. This is the beginning of God’s story with His wayward people. A story about a God whose mission it is to bring all things into His love, even if it means giving up His own life.

Now let’s return to the Church in Galatia.  Paul, in responding to their false gospel, reaches the climax of his argument when he states:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14)

Paul is saying that Christ himself, who is the Word of God incarnate, took on this “curse” and became like the slain animals of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Christ, who is fully God and fully man, becomes the curse that was meant for us–not because God’s promise failed, but because ours did. By doing so, Christ fulfills the original promise made to Abraham and, if we have faith in Christ like Abraham had faith in God, we too become “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

This faith is a deep trust in the God who passes through on our behalf. This means that if we continue to try to pass through ourselves, if we continue to attempt to earn God’s promises by laws and rules and plans, we are participating in the wrong story, a false gospel.

Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the promises of God to redeem creation, inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s story that began with Abraham.  If we forget this story, it means that we have forgotten that God is a God who passes through.  A God who passes through the animals on our behalf to take the burden of the promise on Himself.  A God who passes through the spiteful and vindictive crowds, carrying that heavy tree, getting tortured and mocked on His way to become a curse for us.  

When we remember the story that centers around God and His redemptive work, we avoid the burden of attempting to tell a story that we never could.  We move from the story of limited self to the Story of unlimited God, whose promises are both sure and true. And when we do this, when this faith overtakes our hearts and we participate in God’s story, we can set up “rules” for our lives, but these rules are now an expression of our salvation, not an attempt to earn it. They become the means by which we enter into deeper communion with a God who has already achieved freedom for us precisely because he has already passed through death on His way to life. He invites us to do the same.

A rigid matter was the law, demanding brick, denying straw,

But when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly and gives me wings

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Meditation on Transition: What Jesus’ Teaches Us About Being Sent

“…and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” Matthew 6:33

My wife and I love the mission of God. In hindsight, it has fueled so many of our life choices and endeavors: where we will live, what jobs we will take, the friends we will make; you name it. It is so much the bedrock of who we are that, before we could ever even articulate it, we were drawn to it in the form of a community called New City Church in Lexington, Kentucky, a church whose vocabulary simply oozes mission and purpose. I mean, their core values, the lenses through which they primarily make decisions about what stays, goes, and gets created, are love, rest, risk, and send. Send, meaning that we are committed to the commissioning of the people of God for the purposes of God both near and far in our communities. It was a no brainer. People who knew us well might have seen it coming a mile away.

What we didn’t see coming is that we would be the ones who would be sent far. Far, as in 3 hours away from the community that was sending us. Far, as in, no longer close enough to visit and encourage our friends on a daily basis. Far, as in, leaving our jobs, ministry entrustments, favorite restaurants, known roads, neighbors, and everything else in Lexington, Kentucky for the unfamiliar in Delaware, Ohio. In short, my wife and I are in transition. What makes this transition hard is not necessarily the amount of time we have spent here (it’s the shortest amount of time we have lived anywhere), but the intensity of the life we have lived here. It’s led to what feels like an equally intense transition process.

If you have uprooted yourself before, you know a lot of stuff comes up in transition: insecurities, fears, second-guesses, questions, vulnerabilities, lies, and the like. My wife and I went all in in our relationships. We invested heavily in our community. We sacrificed, in the moment, what felt like a lot in almost every area of our lives, and had been experiencing the good and tangible spiritual fruit of those decisions. Yet now we are committed to leaving much of it behind, being vulnerable, and venturing out into the unknown.

In this season, perhaps a great source of peace has been looking at the most intense time of transition for Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4). Jesus has just finished a 30 year stint as a physical laborer in relative obscurity. Aside from his training in the scriptures, which all Jews received in some form, he has no degrees, assessments, strengths conditioning, strategic plans, demographics, or denominational support to make his ministry a “success.” Regardless, he has just been commissioned by his Father and his community through the baptism of John and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the overall narrative of Jesus, we know that he is about to step into an intense life of spiritual warfare, teaching, healing, and multiplication that will literally change the face of the world – but there must first come transition and temptation in the wilderness, and his responses have encouraged me.

His first temptation is to turn stones into bread (v. 4). Jesus has been fasting (as in, no food) and is hungry, his physical needs surely pressing in on his faith and conscious as he thinks about and prepares for what is to come. I’ve found the question of physical need always sneaks up on me in dark times. I get so excited about the call to a new opportunity that reality strikes when people ask questions like, “Where will you work? How will you live? Who is your support? How will you put food on the table?” When these questions come, Satan stokes the flames of my scarcity mindset. I quickly become terrified of running out of money. I begin to guard my resources and am tempted to become bitter about the call. I lash out at my wife for what seems like “frivolous spending.” This was not Jesus’ response. Instead he says, “’Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (NIV, v.4). I wonder if this is where Jesus learned the lesson he taught his disciples in Matthew 6:

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (vv. 30-33).

Jesus’ second temptation is to throw himself from the top of the temple, so that the Father can prove his loyalty and faithfulness to him by saving his life. It’s a question of trust. So much of my transition has been long periods of excitement and planning, punctuated by a few intense days of emotional doubt and frustration. I begin to doubt and ask questions, “Am I really cut out for this? Did God really call us? Am I hearing God correctly?” or “Did I hear him at all?” The confidence disappears and saps every ounce of momentum and energy from me. However, Jesus replies to Satan in this moment: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7). This is not blind acceptance or masochist-looking obedience. This is Jesus, a mature son of God, likely looking back at the faithfulness of God throughout his life and asking the question, “Has the Father failed me yet?” I’m certain the answer for him is, “no.” It is for me too.

Finally, Jesus is taken to a high point and shown all of the nations of the world, his for the taking, if he would simply compromise his mission and heart to worship Satan. It’s a question of glory and priority. My internal pride and willingness to compromise on what I know is right can at times be overwhelming. As a person gifted with vision who often looks to the future, at times I can become overwhelmed with thoughts of personal glory and influence. I’m confronted with  the very real question, “In my leadership, is my desire for people to worship me or worship Jesus?” Sometimes the answer is obvious; other times it is less clear. However, Jesus’ words ring clearly into my confusion, “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (v. 10). I pray for the strength to make this the truth of my heart.

It’s possible this might seem like a bleak picture of transition. It is true that you lose a lot when you uproot yourself. But remember, you also gain a lot: courage, patience, faith, a desperation for God’s still, small voice. I have not been perfect in this season or any other. Sometimes all I can talk about is what the Lord will do with our new opportunities, while other times I am overwhelmed with anger or sadness at the thought of leaving. I don’t know how a perfectly humble man like Jesus felt in this moment of transition, but I am inspired by his example of faithfulness. May we also look to him in whatever season we are in and present our hopes, fears, emotions, and desires to him, the one who withstood all temptation.

Blessings all!

 

Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

Featured Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness, by Briton Rivière (1898); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Risk: The Faithful Response to Our Rescue

At New City we talk a lot about being thankful for our rescue. Even outside of a Christian context, the word “rescue” has implications of risking, preventing, saving, or going out of one’s way for someone else. To rescue is “to free from confinement, danger, or evil” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. The Israelites experienced this rescue physically and spiritually when God freed them from slavery in Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments. In this rescue, God brought his people out of bondage and then began creating them into a new people. He led His grumbling people the long way, with a reluctant leader, but God knew the risk would pay off.

When we think about our personal rescue stories, it can be easy to forget that our rescue came with a cost.

And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” (Matt 27:30, 31).

No matter if your rescue story comes from growing up in church, or coming to faith in a desperate place, this was the cost for all believers.  God risked to rescue us and continues to risk by pursuing His children. This is why risk is a core value at New City–it is a core part of our story.

Not only did God risk to rescue us, but we are called to risk for others. We read in scripture that, “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Risk stems from love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe might have life, life everlasting.” (John 3:16). Risking is not about making your schedule more full to check the “love your neighbors box.” Risk involves seeing God’s heart for your neighbors, for people in need, for people who do not look like you, and taking on that heart of love yourself. When you start to see people how God sees them, your schedule, reputation, and comfortability dwindle and finding a way to help others becomes more important.

In Acts 10 Peter has the vision of a sheet with unclean animals coming down and repeatedly hears, “do not call what is clean unclean.” Peter’s first reaction was confusion and rejection because his understanding of what he could eat had been set for years. However, God uses this vision to lead Peter into a risky call; namely, to invite outsiders into God’s story. Through visions and the Spirit’s leading, God gives Peter not only an image of the coming risk, but a person.

The Spirit led Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman soldier, to call for Peter to hear about this vision. This is bold for Cornelius to do because of his position in the Roman army and because of the fact that Peter was a Jew. After a vision warning Peter that Cornelius will call for him to come, Peter cannot help but notice the Spirit’s working. When Peter sees God undoubtedly at work, the risk becomes less of a fearful experience, and more of a faithful call. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). After this encounter between Peter and Cornelius, Peter preached the Good News to Gentiles and they received the Holy Spirit. Peter and Cornelius both listened to God, stepped out in faith and took risks, which in turn resulted in the salvation of many.

The Gentiles were not Jewish, which means they were not considered in the family of God’s people. For most of us, this means Peter and Cornelius are a part of our rescue story. This week reflect on your rescue story or on seasons when you ran from God. What did God bring into your life to bring you back to Him? How can you be that person for others this week? Pray for the person after you in line, start up a conversation with someone who doesn’t look like you, be the first to apologize in an argument, pray for opportunities to risk for God. Risking is what Jesus calls us to when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Risk is not just a core value of a church; it is the call of following Christ.

Reflection Questions:

  • What resource(s) to you have excess of (food, money, time, clothes, etc.) and how can you give it away to people in need?
  • What keeps you from stepping out of your comfort zone to help, to encourage, or to share your faith with others?
  • Read Luke 18:18-30 and reflect on where you see risk in this passage.

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman,  New City Stories Contributor 

Diving into the Easter Story: Good Friday

Good Friday

Although it is called “good,” Good Friday is a solemn day for the Church. It commemorates the betrayal, unjust trial, and brutal crucifixion of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  As Christians in the 21st century, we know the rest of the story and understand that a huge celebration is coming; however, we encourage you to enter into this time of grief, uncertainty, and deep sadness so that you may experience what the earliest followers of Jesus went through.

John 18:28-37 NRSV

Christ in front of Pilate by Mihali Munkacsy

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

 

 

Psalm 22:1-2, 12-19 NRSV

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest…

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”…

14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!   

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

John 19:38-42 NRSV

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.  

  • Questions: 
    • Have you ever felt distant from God, especially in times of deep stress and anguish?  Do you know of others who have had this experience? How does Jesus’ experience, all the way from his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion at Calvary, comfort and sustain us during these moments?
    • Why do Joseph and Nicodemus, who are experiencing both fear and grief, spend so much energy, time, and precious resources to properly bury Christ’s body?  What does this burial teach us about faith and worship in times of grief and anxiety?
  • Challenge: 
    • If you are experiencing distance or isolation from God’s presence or know of someone who is, we encourage you to pray through these passages and reflect on the reality that even Jesus Himself, the only begotten Son of God, experienced deep pain and that he is with you in your suffering.
    • Even when we enter into seasons of grief, fear, and waiting, the example of Joseph and Nicodemus shows us that we are still called to tend to our relationship with Jesus and lavish him with our worship.

New City Writing Team

 

Theology of the Workplace

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might…” Ecclesiastes 9:10a NRSV

Is our work just for money and are we living from clock in to clock out? Does everything we do from day to day mean anything? Are pastors the only ones out there that do ministry for a living? These questions have been discussed repeatedly and will always be discussed on this side of eternity. When we think about these big questions about our work, it is important to remember that the Lord is inviting us into even the remedial tasks.

Ecclesiastes 9:10a says “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” God is inviting us to work, and to work well. If we read on, the verse says, “there is no work, knowledge, planning or wisdom in the grave.”  This means that we have work to do on this earth that is fulfilling and full of purpose.

But how is this work to be done? Are supposed to just put our head down and forget the others we work with or are we to work with one another towards common goals?

I believe God created us to work in community with others. Think about it, our jobs are all about connections. I used to have a ritualistic response to my mom when she would ask me about studying.  As quick as I could, I would respond, “It’s not about what you know mom, it’s about who you know.” Even though I was using this as an excuse to run from my responsibilities, there are elements in this statement that are true. For us as Christians, there is more to the phrase “it’s about who you know” than just collaborating, it’s about an opportunity for the gospel.

In our work we develop networks, networks that the gospel can be shared through. A good example of this is “The Poverty Cure Project”, which pursues different solutions to help the world’s economic issues as a Church body. To explain their approach to doing collaborative work, they use the illustration of a table and how so many people’s hands have assisted in helping create the table: from the farmer, to the man at the lumberyard, to the man who makes the saw blades that cut the wood. “Every product is a result of collaboration” and we get the opportunity to engage in those collaborations.  As Christians, God is inviting us to combine the skill of our bodies with the fruit of our labor and as we do this with others, our work has meaning both practically and spiritually. We can share the gospel through our work.

Networking is another term for these collaborations. Networking, when done often, creates a community and we as humans are made for community. Dr. Steve Seamands says, “A reflection of the Trinitarian imprint is that we were made for community.”  In other words, we are made to be in network with others.  When we live and work in community, we are reflecting the image of God in us and are fulfilling God’s design for our lives.  Community is how we survive and how we work and arguably how we spread the Good News of Christ.

So, don’t just look at work as something you do to survive. Work is something that gives us purpose and defines our lives, by allowing us to fulfill our callings and meet the needs of others. Work is an opportunity to enter into networks and community so that the Gospel can be spread into all the world. In that exchange the value of work is created.

Here are some questions to reflect on this week as you work:

  • What part of our work have we neglected because we see it as meaningless?
  • What can we do to change our mindset and find purpose in the small things?
  • How has a working community given you the opportunity to share the Gospel?
  • With “fresh eyes” how can you now see how those doors have been open all along and how can you now actively step into those situations to fulfill your call to spread the gospel in your work?

Kendall McKee, New City Stories Contributor 

Sticks and Stones

John 8 begins with Jesus teaching in the local temple, as he often did. The gospel helpfully tells us in verse 2 that “all the people” were present. We do not know how many people were there, but we do know that Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, on a popular Jewish holiday, at the height of his ministry. Safe to say there were a good number present.

The Pharisees bring a woman in front of the crowd, and make three claims: 1) this woman has committed adultery, 2) we (the Pharisees) follow the Law of Moses, and 3) according to the Law of Moses, this woman should be stoned. They then ask Jesus, “What do you say?”

The Pharisees’ attention, and even the attention of the author of John, is on Jesus at this point. The woman isn’t even addressed until the end of the whole ordeal! However, as I read this story recently I was struck by the position of the woman. She had been kidnapped, put in front of a massive crowd of people, and had her deepest and darkest secrets announced for all to hear. As I was praying about what this story meant for the church today, the Lord pointed out is how we consistently do this when speaking about others.

I am not a subtle person. Sometimes I can use that as an excuse to be a little edgy in what I bring up for conversation. It can be fun to bring up controversial topics about celebrities, politicians, acquaintances, or, in the right situations, people I call friends. We can use the excuse of being concerned, or having an “intelligent conversation” about the state of our country, or that it can be a lesson for ourselves or others.

Unfortunately, what I am really doing is stripping people made in the image of God of their dignity.

Much like the Pharisees, I have made a value-based decision that a person’s worth, reputation, and image in my own eyes as worth less than the joke I am about to make or the story I am about to tell. I have taken a person, dragged them before the crowd, and sentenced them as guilty. In the process I’ve even goaded others, innocent bystanders, into the stoning of the other person.

Now, obviously, we are not actually stoning anyone. And there is no reality where we could never talk about another person ever again.

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

However, I wonder if the same spiritual principle Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:21-22, where the hatred of another person is equated with murder, is not applicable here. When we throw another person under the bus, even people who we don’t know, are we condemning them as irredeemable or less than human, much like the Pharisees did to this woman?

I think Jesus’ response offers two redeeming options. The first option is to not engage. In verse 6, Jesus’ first response is to make himself busy. He simply does not acknowledge their charge. Sometimes this has to be your response, especially with people you don’t know well or with folks who are not Christians. Refuse to pollute your mind with the lack of dignity given to another person.

The second option is confrontation. In John 8:7, when ignoring the Pharisees wasn’t good enough, Jesus responds with a charge of his own. Now, I am not suggesting we throw our sins in each other’s faces, but I am suggesting that the way we treat and talk about one another matters enough to get personal.

If you have a brother or sister in Christ who cannot stop talking about other people, whether they are talking about someone in culture, your family, your friends, or your church, be willing to confront them on this issue. Paul deals with gossip extensively in his letters, naming it along with other horrific things which cause division amongst Christians. Proverbs addresses those who gossip and slander twelve times, calling those do so a “fool.” It even say that someone who does gossip sets snare for their own downfall (Proverbs 18:6-7).

At the end of this story, Jesus and the woman are alone. He’s face to face with the one who has been accused. But, instead of condemning her, he gives her grace and dignity. He acknowledges her humanity and sets her free, not just from her situation, but from sin itself! What opportunities are we missing out on to love one another? What does it mean for us to be people who spread grace instead of hatred? Can we lift one another up instead of tearing one another down? Can we make it so that our words “build others up according to their needs?” (Ephesians 4:29). Lord, make it so.

 

By Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

(Featured Image Artwork by Gustave Adore)

Faithful To

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  Matthew 21:43

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor