Clean and Unclean

Acts 10 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Today’s reading is an extended narrative from Acts. I would encourage you to spend a few minutes reading the story of Cornelius, Peter and a rooftop vision, either by using the link above or finding it in your personal Bible.

From there, let me simply provide you with a guide to meditating on this important story.

Most of you raised in church likely have at least a rough understanding of what Jews meant by “clean” and “unclean.” As a people set apart by God, it was the Jews’ role to demonstrate ritually their separateness by avoiding activities and objects the non-Jewish world might find normal. Certain actions unique to Jews at the time—circumcision, for example—also were required to set them apart.

This story in Acts is critically important because it demonstrates that the Jewish messiah’s death on the cross has made it possible for all people to be restored to God. A common theme of the New Testament is how difficult it was for Jewish Christians, Peter included, to let go of this separateness in order to spread the Good News. Many were reluctant to go among Gentiles, and some demanded the Gentiles adopt Jewish behaviors in order to follow Jesus Christ. A council of Christian leaders finally had to settle the matter.

We who are of non-Jewish descent should be particularly thankful for the expansive nature of God’s grace. “For God so loved the world ….”

This story also should challenge us now, just as the Jewish Christians were then challenged.

  • How do we let our own ideas about cleanliness and uncleanliness impact where we tell the Good News?
  • Can people be so different from us that we ignore their need to hear about Jesus Christ?
  • To be Christian, people need to reject sin and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. But do we sometimes try to impose additional burdens?

Let’s always be watching for a good-hearted Cornelius who awaits word of salvation.

Lord, thank you for your ever-expanding grace, which is capable of penetrating all cultures and all individual circumstances. Amen. 

Methodism 101

Galatians 5:16-26 (NRSV)

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.


By Chuck Griffin

When it comes to living by the Spirit or succumbing to the desires of the flesh, most of us find ourselves being pulled back and forth. Our hope is that over time, we get so close to the Spirit that the desires of the flesh lose their grip on us.

The fancy Methodist term for the process is “sanctification.” More and more each day, we should grow in our ability to love as Jesus loves. We show God love by seeking the divine will and following it. We show other people sacrificial love, in part hoping that they find God through what we offer them.

Welcome to Methodism 101. This emphasis on sanctification is what largely distinguishes us from other denominations, at least historically. If you’re in a United Methodist Church and are saying to yourself, “Haven’t heard that in awhile,” you’re not alone. Institutions have a tendency to slip from their moorings over time.

The coming new, traditional Methodist denomination likely will move us back toward an emphasis on sanctification, as well as other important related concepts like small-group accountability. That denomination may take a little time to develop, however, and there’s no reason we cannot get started living as true Methodists now.

Don’t be afraid to explore your Methodist roots, which simply are expressions of what God calls us to do in the Bible. Look for books that are helpful; explore websites designed to get you started.

In short, seek the fruit that only the Holy Spirit can place in our lives.

Lord, bless and empower our efforts to be more like what you created us to be. Amen.

Faith Made Effective

Galatians 5:2-6 (NRSV)

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.  You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.


What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not my vocation as an elder in the United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  It is not that I grew up in the United Methodist Church, baptized as an infant; confirmed in middle school; and a member of the global United Methodist Church that counts for anything.

What is my claim in Christ Jesus?  The only claim I have in Christ Jesus is himself.  It is the hope of righteousness that is in Christ that counts for everything.  The importance of Christ in my life is to be found in faith.  Both the faith that God gives through Christ and the faith that I have toward Christ counts for anything and everything.  By faith Jesus is known in my life as I love as Christ first and continually loves me.

For what Jesus did for me by taking away my sins and giving me the Holy Spirit, I am able to have faith being made effective through love.  Yes, a translation of “working through love” is being “made effective through love.”  This faith in Jesus is what counts for everything.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be a Christian, even a United Methodist.  For by faith in Jesus, I can be an elder in the United Methodist Church.  It is through these expressions of faith that faith made effective through love is lived.

What about you, what counts for anything in your life?  May we be found to have righteous lives, marked by faith that is made effective through love.

Almighty God, thank you for Jesus.  By his work on the cross, we can live.   It is faith in Jesus, enabled by the Spirit, that prepares us for all righteousness in this world and the world to come.  During our days on this world, our faith in Christ Jesus accounts for everything.  Thank you for preparing good works to do that show our faith is working through love.  All praise and glory are given to you, the Righteous One who makes us righteous.  Amen.

Joy

Yesterday, I mentioned how biblical peace describes the current relationship between God and humanity, a state made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Bliss is a perfectly appropriate response to that peace.

There is a more exuberant emotion, too, the third theme of Advent. There is joy! It is so important, many churches use a pink- or rose-colored candle to mark the third Sunday of Advent. In some traditions the clergy even wear matching vestments, like these:

Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t want to wear that.

I do, however, want to celebrate joy! And when we talk about biblical joy, we mean an emotion that resides in us in all circumstances, even when we are experiencing what otherwise might be thought of as “bad times.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice,” Paul told the church at Philippi. (Philippians 4:4.)

Why? Think what we have been given:

Eternal life!

The promise that all that has gone wrong, is going wrong and will go wrong will be made right.

The experience of God in this life, now.

Therein lies our joy. We are able to look at any negative situation and say, “You know what? That has already been defeated.”

Lord, may our experience of joy be as emotional as it is intellectual. And again, may others see in us what you are offering them. Amen.

‘Loves To Be the Leader’

By Chuck Griffin
Methodist Life Editor

3 John 9-10

I wrote to the church about this, but Diotrephes, who loves to be the leader, refuses to have anything to do with us. When I come, I will report some of the things he is doing and the evil accusations he is making against us. Not only does he refuse to welcome the traveling teachers, he also tells others not to help them. And when they do help, he puts them out of the church.


Even the early church had to watch out for people who wanted leadership roles for the wrong reasons. Because of this ongoing danger, healthy churches still need to understand the concept of servant leadership.

As the author of John 3 set pen to parchment, it’s unlikely he thought, “I am now going to write what will one day be Scripture.” The letter is personal, written by an experienced Christian to a friend named Gaius. This friend obviously was struggling with developments in his church in Asia Minor, located somewhere in what is now western Turkey.

The letter isn’t long—I would encourage you to take time to read it all. It has memorialized for all time the dangerous leadership of a man named Diotrephes.

Most of us have experienced a Diotrephes at some point. Certain people simply crave power for the sake of power, perhaps to bolster a bruised ego, gain personal glory or benefit materially in some way. They do not understand that leadership, particularly Christian leadership, requires a surrendering of self.

Diotrephes went so far as to drive away people he perceived as a threat to his power, particularly traveling teachers who moved about Asia Minor in a state of poverty. They depended on Christian communities to support them as they preached core truths about Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. Diotrephes even threw out church members who supported these itinerant Christians.

Not only was Diotrephes proving to be a self-centered leader, he also was violating a basic rule of Christian living, the mandate to show love and hospitality to others.

Diotrephes reminds modern Christians that we should always have some sort of litmus test for potential leaders. It can be difficult to fully understand another person’s motives, but we do have scriptural guidance about qualifications for leaders,* and praying to God for discernment certainly helps.

Boiled down, this discernment could involve questions like, How well does this person seem to know Jesus and the word of God? Have we seen this person bear spiritual fruit? Does this potential leader seem overly eager? Will this person submit to some sort of accountability? Is this person’s call to leadership confirmed by others, and by a willingness to surrender some worldly advantages?

If we see a knowledgeable, committed Christian giving up a lot in order to lead, we can feel more confident we have found a leader with a servant’s heart. 

Only a true calling can make a person say, “I must become less so Jesus can become more.”

Lord, we find ourselves in a crisis of leadership in churches and in so many other institutions. Raise up more humble servant leaders so your work may be done. Amen.


*Regarding the 1 Timothy text linked above: Some denominations, citing the patriarchal language here and in other texts, restrict women’s leadership roles, while other denominations do not. I see this as an example of Paul being very context-specific about a situation very different from our present day. In other writings, Paul asserts the equality of men and women and even addresses some women as leaders and vocal bearers of the Good News.

Hellish Behaviors

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Galatians 5:15 (NLT): But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

As painful as it is to consider, let’s take a few moments to imagine what life in hell must be like. I’m not going to deal with all the fire-and-brimstone imagery—while there are some fiery biblical images associated with Satan or hell in the Bible, much of what we imagine is rooted more in secular literature.

Here’s what I suspect is really painful about hell. It is a place where souls are cut off from the grace of God. (Grace simply is unmerited love, given freely to the undeserving.) In hell, God no longer gently tugs at people to make them aware of his existence; God no longer provides a way to escape the power of sin; certainly, God no longer works as the Holy Spirit to grow us toward a state of holiness.

And of course, if God is not present to inject grace into people’s broken existence, then people cannot possibly show grace to one another. If there’s any kind of society in hell, it is a nasty, backbiting, hateful, grudge-holding, vengeance-seeking kind of culture.

I fear some people are trying to develop a little microcosm of hell in our own culture right now. Popularly, it’s called cancel culture. If you’ve ever tripped up, letting poor judgment lead you to say or do the wrong thing, you’re liable to pay, big!

Criminal behavior needs to be dealt with, of course—under the rule of law. A lot of the criminal events triggering our current social unrest, such as the killing of George Floyd, will be settled under the rule of law. And if the rule of law needs to be changed, we have a process for that to happen. You go to the polls and you vote for representatives who will make that change.

What strikes me as strange are the efforts to destroy people for decades-old poor judgment, when the cultural context for what they may or may not have done was very different. We saw a glimmer of this when Neil Gorsuch was being vetted for the U.S. Supreme Court, as opponents went as far back as his high school years in an attempt to discredit him.

Such deep, unforgiving vetting is now a bizarre extension of the social unrest we’re seeing. It has gone so far that statues of brilliant-but-imperfect historical figures are being torn down. The basic complaint: People living in the 15th through the 20th centuries didn’t have 21st century values.

Well, duh. We honor most of these people with statues not because they had it all figured out, but because in difficult times they figured out important pieces of the grand puzzle, helping us see the clearer picture we have today.

Back to the need for grace from God and grace for each other. In the Galatians text above, Paul makes clear what happens as we begin to bite and devour one another—destruction! In Romans 3:23, he also notes another important fact: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”

There do seem to be important developments that show the Bible to be right. Some of the people who might have initially supported much of this divisive behavior are now finding themselves bitten as their shortcomings become public, be it over the wearing of blackface, insensitive tweets or some other sin of speech or action. It helps when we remember the “everyone has sinned” part.

Perhaps we will soon get to a place where we all take a breath, rub our painful bite marks, and say, “Let’s show each other a little grace. Let’s try to work together as the people we are now, rather than fighting over who we used to be.”

In an environment like that, we will better deal with both our history and our current crises. God might even bless us anew.

Lord, give us the long pause we need to overcome animosity and rebuild our nation, trusting the scriptural truth that your forgiving grace is always available and can be imitated. Amen.