Trajectory

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

By Chuck Griffin

A few years ago on television, there was a show where a fictional senator and president discussed their discomfort with Christianity. The senator, played by Alan Alda, said, “I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for slavery. The Bible has no problem with slavery at all.”

Like all good fiction, this show dealt with ideas that trouble real people. Why doesn’t God say in the Bible, “Followers of Christ, it is wrong to own another person!”

The Apostle Paul’s words to an early Christian named Philemon are worth examining if we’re concerned about how effectively the Bible influences society. Philemon was a slave owner. Onesimus, his slave, had run away to Paul, converting to Christianity in the process. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon. 

Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his master hardly seems to condemn slavery. But Paul also gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon. And the content of that subtle letter is so powerful that we now call it a book of the Bible.

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood.

Nowhere in the letter will you find Paul saying, “End slavery now!” There’s one obvious reason. Such a direct attack on a central feature of the society in which early Christians lived would have invited terrible punishment.

Instead, Paul uses gentle coercion to change the situation. First, he speaks lovingly of the slave owner’s faith, found under Paul’s pastoral guidance.

Then Paul speaks of the slave’s faith, calling him “my child” and asking the master to receive the slave as a brother. The implication is obvious—how do you enslave and punish a beloved brother or sister?

As the television senator noted, there is no outright rejection of slavery in the letter to Philemon or anywhere else in the Bible. But we must learn to think of the Bible as more than a rule book from ancient history. It often works like a launching pad for ideas, ideas that God has shot like rockets through time so people are changed.

Now, we do have to be careful; some people would take a concept like scriptural trajectory and use it to argue the Bible says whatever they want it to say. We have to be certain that we go in the direction God first sent us. Otherwise, we will spin north, south, east and west until we finally hit the ground like an experimental missile.

God used Paul and his little letter to change the world dramatically over several centuries. Certainly, Paul wanted to free Onesimus from slavery. But more importantly, he wanted to free Philemon from any anger he might have been feeling toward his escaped slave and the wrongheaded notions that allowed the enslavement to occur.

If Paul had simply issued a rule for Philemon to follow, he never would have gotten to the heart of the matter. Was the Holy Spirit really changing Philemon? Could this slave owner find himself capable of loving Onesimus as a Christian brother?

And that brings us to the deepest lesson from the letter to Philemon. Christians change the world by changing hearts, not by rigorous rule making. Once hearts are changed, the rules for living become obvious and begin to fall in place.

Dear Lord, help us see the true trajectory of your great plan so we may conform ourselves to the holiness you offer your creation. Amen.

A Child Is Born

Luke 2:1-20

By Chuck Griffin

The story of the birth of Jesus is both marvelous and deeply important to the world. Even nonbelievers have been heavily impacted by it, simply because Christianity has been a key driver of human history for nearly 2,000 years.

For a complete view of Christianity, you have to understand Jesus as an adult, and in particular, you have to understand the importance of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ birth narrative, however, is the beginning of the description of Jesus as the promised Messiah, evidence that God has chosen to be with us in the most personal of ways.

News this important needs to be told. Luke’s spare, tight account of the birth is all about the telling, with voices declaring Jesus as Messiah from both heaven and earth.

Already, angels have punctuated the story repeatedly, prepping the key players for what is to come. The actual birth happens in a straightforward manner. Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem in answer to a census, and while there, Luke tells us, “The time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The formal birth announcement comes from heaven, with angels appearing before lowly shepherds, declaring the arrival of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angels tell the shepherds how to find this great miracle—look for something common. “This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

I find it instructive that while angels began the announcement, the proclamation effort quickly was turned over to humans, and quite common humans at that, at least in worldly terms. God’s good news spread from the bottom up, ensuring that the people usually left out of key events were the first to know about the most important event.

The shepherds went in search of evidence of what they had heard, finding it in a primitive barn. The baby in the manger was enough for them to begin to tell others what they had seen, causing amazement.

And here we are now, still celebrating what God has done for us through this incredible birth. Word has spread not because of angels but because of faithful telling and re-telling from generation to generation.

Have you told anyone lately? Have you amazed anyone with the story of how much God loves his creation? Have you helped the joy of Christmas seep into others’ souls so their joy may be eternal?

What an opportunity the Christmas season is!

I wish you a merry Christmas, and I pray that you will carry Christmas to those in need of good news.

A Lesson in Changing Hearts

Acts 28:23-31 (NRSV): After [the leaders of the Jews in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.

By Chuck Griffin

I’m going to use what some think is an ugly word, even a scary word: evangelism. Before ascending into heaven, Christ called us to evangelize, but we sometimes avoid the topic because it carries some negative connotations.

All that negativity stems not from use but from abuse of the basic mission Jesus gave us. Evangelism isn’t about ambushing people with difficult questions so we feel we have discharged our duties. It is about preparing ourselves spiritually and intellectually, and then helping people find the answers to questions they naturally have.

The end of Paul’s story as he arrived to house arrest in Rome serves as a good example. Through letters and representatives, he already had built a relationship with a small group of Christians there, and his reputation allowed him to draw leaders of the Jews to his guarded home. There they heard the message that Jesus Christ is Savior, a deeply controversial idea.

Here’s what Paul did:

  1. He met his audience as the people they were. In this case, they were Jews, and he used the two godly sources they most respected, the law of Moses and the words of the prophets, to make his case. Being an educated Jew who had studied Judaism on a deep level equipped him well, of course. In short, we have to know our audience and the details of our own faith.
  2. He found a way to hold their interest and keep them in an extended conversation. It’s hard to imagine keeping people in an all-day conversation today, but we need to have a similar willingness to spend extended time with those who care enough to keep talking. Instead of a whole day, we might need to be willing to commit regular chunks of time to those who keep wanting more.
  3. He persevered despite the fact that some opposed him. Paul did all he could to make a convincing argument that Jesus Christ is Lord, and he kept trying to win the hearts of all who would listen. Acts ends this way: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Our churches’ situations can seem very different than what Paul faced, but these basic principles of evangelism remain. What creative efforts can we make to be Paul-like to our unbelieving neighbors?

Lord, grace us with a deeper understanding of evangelism so more may enter your kingdom each day. Amen.

The Emboldening Truth

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “Investing In the Future.” It will be based on Jeremiah 32:6-9. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 (NLT)

But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.


By Chuck Griffin

When we fully understand what it means to follow Christ, Christians should, in theory, stop thinking of our interests as existing solely within the nine decades or so we hope to live.

We look back to Jesus hanging on a cross and then exiting a tomb nearly 2,000 years ago, and we see how our lives are changed now. We understand salvation because earlier Christians made great sacrifices to ensure the message of Jesus Christ spread from one generation to the next.

We also look forward to a day when the Redeemer will restore us from death in the resurrection.

Job expressed it well centuries before Christ was born:

“But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!” (Job 19:25-27.)

We should stay overwhelmed at the thought. And if others are to share that thought, then we may need to chase objectives that might seem irrational to the secular world.

When we reach that thought’s fulfillment, I wonder what we will regret more as we stand before the holy Savior. Will it be the wrong things we did, or the right things we failed to do? Sometimes we are so focused on sins of commission that we’re not thinking about sins of omission.

Often, I think, sins of omission are simply failures to be bold, to live bravely as citizens of a dawning kingdom.

I don’t know what your bold move might be. It may involve your time or your money. It may involve the direction of your life.

All we can do is ask God to reveal what seemingly irrational steps he may ask us to take, and then pray for the courage to take them.

Lord, once again root our souls in the truth of Jesus Christ, and let us see what you would have us do now as people who will live forever. Amen.

Essentials for Success

During this Sunday’s sermon, we will return to the theme of the Lord as shepherd, probably most familiar to us in Psalm 23. The sermon will be available on Holston View United Methodist Church’s website.

Today’s preparatory text:

Mark 6:34 (NLT)—Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.


By Chuck Griffin

When I first established the Methodist Life website, I had two basic intertwined purposes. One was to provide Wesleyan meditations through the “Life Talk” blog, and the other was to create a space for basic small group information. Both, I hoped, would encourage deeper, more communal discipleship.

The Rev. ‘Debo Onabanjo’s Monday LifeTalk contribution, combined with my preparatory work for this Sunday’s sermon, caused me to think about the basics of living as Methodists once again. Most of us are aware there are big changes coming—in a little over a year, we hope to see the activation of a denomination firm in its support of traditional Methodist principles.

As we consider our verse from Mark today, I want to reassert something, a forecast that frankly has annoyed or perplexed at least a few of my fellow conservative Methodists. This impending division, and all the strife surrounding it, will prove useless if we do not become a different kind of church than the UMC currently represents.

It is not enough to say, “We are traditional,” and then think everything is fixed once we’re operating under a new name and logo. Like the excited but confused crowd waiting for Jesus’ boat to arrive, we have to relearn how to hear the one true shepherd’s voice and function as a unified flock.

Early Methodists were good at this. First, they took the Holy Bible seriously, intelligently approaching it as the inspired word of God. They let it guide them in their understanding of the earliest church doctrines, and then they did their best to live their lives according to those principles. In particular, they met in small groups, holding each other accountable regarding their regular engagement with God and their pursuit of holiness.

Let’s remember that the current United Methodist Church already is traditional—on paper. If we were still living as people of God’s word, bound tightly in communal accountability, no changes would be required to our Book of Discipline. I believe we would be a force against the creeping secularism infecting parts of the global church today.

In a new denomination, we still can be such a force, but we who call ourselves traditional Methodists have to understand that most of us fail to live according to the Methodist model, at least in America. (We have much to learn from our more communal brothers and sisters in places like Africa and Asia.)

How many of us are truly immersed in God’s word, treating the revelations there as a life-or-death matter? How many of us find ourselves committed to a properly organized Christian small group, one determined to reach lost sheep and grow its members into reflections of Jesus Christ’s glory?

Restless sheep, gather into flocks to listen to the shepherd’s voice. Listen intently, as Christ still has great compassion for us. He will teach and guide us, and we will move as one.

Lord, as you do new works through the movement called Methodism, keep us rooted in your very biblical truths about community and holiness. Amen.

A Grand Tour

Acts 21:1-16 (NLT)

After saying farewell to the Ephesian elders, we sailed straight to the island of Cos. The next day we reached Rhodes and then went to Patara. There we boarded a ship sailing for Phoenicia. We sighted the island of Cyprus, passed it on our left, and landed at the harbor of Tyre, in Syria, where the ship was to unload its cargo.

We went ashore, found the local believers, and stayed with them a week. These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem. When we returned to the ship at the end of the week, the entire congregation, including women and children, left the city and came down to the shore with us. There we knelt, prayed, and said our farewells. Then we went aboard, and they returned home.

The next stop after leaving Tyre was Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed for one day. The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been chosen to distribute food. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

Several days later a man named Agabus, who also had the gift of prophecy, arrived from Judea. He came over, took Paul’s belt, and bound his own feet and hands with it. Then he said, “The Holy Spirit declares, ‘So shall the owner of this belt be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and turned over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

But he said, “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus.” When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

After this we packed our things and left for Jerusalem. Some believers from Caesarea accompanied us, and they took us to the home of Mnason, a man originally from Cyprus and one of the early believers.


By Chuck Griffin

These verses read like journal entries, written as Luke, the author of Acts, traveled with Paul on his third missionary journey. Along the way, people given the gift of prophecy by the Holy Spirit made it clear Paul would not fare well if he went to Jerusalem.

Events didn’t go well, of course, at least not in a worldly sense. The rest of Acts is an account of how Paul was arrested for preaching Christ crucified, and then as a citizen of the empire was carried off to Rome, where we know he was eventually executed. Along the way, he and those with him endured hardships at sea, including a shipwreck.

No doubt, working for the Lord can be a difficult task. Many of us might head a different direction when faced with repeated prophetic warnings about the dangers of going to a particular place. Paul’s friends and fellow travelers urged him to turn aside.

I deeply admire Paul’s single-mindedness. It genuinely seems that he did not care about his own welfare. He simply wanted to preach the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, taking word of salvation all the way to the heart of the Roman Empire, if possible.

Faced with far fewer impediments, I find Paul’s story to be a challenge. To what greater lengths should I be willing to go in order to reach people for Jesus Christ? Never has my freedom or life been in serious jeopardy while declaring Jesus’ lordship.

I thank God that I live in a time and place where the gospel can be preached so freely. But a question always remains before me: Do I use that freedom well?

Lord God Almighty, guide us to the places you would have us go, and give us new courage if we find those places daunting. Amen.

The Holy City

Revelation 21:22-22:5 (NRSV)

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.


By Chuck Griffin

Biblical visions of eternal life with God are highly symbolic. I do not say that to downgrade our expectations in any way—symbols point us toward an experience greater than what is described.

The images we are given in Revelation certainly lift me up, even knowing they fall short of what we will truly see. In our text today, we are granted a peek at life after a new heaven and earth have come into existence.

Our verses today focus on the vast city at the center of it all. This clearly is a place for those who have taken advantage of God’s unmerited offer of salvation, made possible by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. 

What particularly entrances me is that the holy light of God, shining through the “Lamb,” Jesus, is all anyone needs for seeing. Just as God penetrates our hearts now, the undiluted truth of God will be continually and eternally revelatory, washing through our resurrected senses.

I also love the way the river of life flowing from the throne of God connects this vision in Revelation to the descriptions of Paradise found in Genesis. In a refashioning of what was lost to humanity because of the first sin, multiple versions of the tree of life are there, complete with death-defying fruit and leaves for healing.

I am left asking myself this question: How much of this can we experience now? Even as part of this old earth, we can make the decision to put God as revealed through Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, asking that we see everything with his holy, illuminating truth.

We are not yet invited to eat the fruit that will give eternal life, but we can be bearers of the leaves, offering healing words and actions carefully crafted to draw the lost toward salvation and holiness.

If we choose to do so, perhaps the holy city will seem vaguely familiar when we visit it for the first time.

Lord, we thank you for visions of what is to come. What we will experience will be a beautiful expansion of the gift Christ already has given us on the cross. Amen.

Critical Growth

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NLT)

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.


By Chuck Griffin

At this point in Ephesians, Paul has been talking about salvation given to us through Jesus Christ and God’s follow-up to salvation, the provision of the Holy Spirit to believers.

This text takes me back to when I first began to explore “holiness,” that old Methodist concept that to some sounds really demanding, and maybe even highfalutin. It took me a while to figure out how simple and down-to-earth holiness really is.

An old Nazarene preacher helped. I never met him in person, but someone gave me a copy of an obscure book he wrote, and in it I read that holiness simply is a matter of growing in our ability to love as Jesus loves.

It didn’t take long to connect that thought to Paul’s “love is” verses in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

“Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!”

Love is very positive, of course, and we also see love is more than a fuzzy feeling. Love colors our response to all kinds of worldly events, and most importantly, love keeps us rooted in truth. We do have to search for truth, but Christians should know truth is found in what God consistently reveals to each generation regarding the divine plan for humanity, laid out for us in the Holy Bible.

Traditional Methodists find themselves living with a kind of spiritual tension, offering God’s love to all people but never shrinking from our duty to declare what God has first said via Scripture, regardless of how people may respond. We of course hope and pray for a very good response.

We know it actually is a very unloving act to ignore our basic mission. We declare salvation has come; we declare a pressing need to conform to God’s will in every aspect of our lives, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.

Let’s keep moving toward completeness.

Lord, may the work of the Spirit be something we allow to happen within us every day, and may our love be evidence of your presence. Amen.

Gracious Words in an Ungracious World

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.—Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

Normally, these devotions are based on Scripture from the daily lectionary readings. Every now and then, however, a verse that really speaks to me pops up elsewhere—in this case, on last Saturday’s front page for  the Bible Gateway website.

As the world around us seems to become less Christian, and consequently, less loving and forgiving each day, what are we to do? Some churchgoers seem to think the right response is to become more strident and defensive. That’s certainly the impression I get when I look at social media.

Paul would take us in a different direction, however. If the world is lacking grace, Christians are best equipped to inject this great gift of God into the veins of a sick society.

For people unused to grace, loving actions and words of forgiveness are downright perplexing. The daily lectionary readings have pulled us toward the concept of evangelism a lot lately; perplexing people with unexpected kindness and warmth is a great way to open the door to deeper conversations about the source of such behavior.

Paul is telling us to be winsome. Note what you get when you break that word in two: “Win some.”

I’m going to start this week right and look for opportunities to be a bearer of grace to those around me. Let’s all try it, and perhaps we can share some stories about what happens.

Lord, let us be the center of calm in the midst of the storms around us. Amen.

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.