Strength for the Faithful

Do you have something in your past that you would rather forget? I know I do.

Paul’s letter to Timothy reveals an uncomfortable truth about his past. He reminded Timothy of the time when he was Saul of Tarsus and he violently persecuted Christians for their beliefs. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and was “extremely zealous” and famously violent for persecution “beyond measure” (Galatians 1). He was a Pharisee, a Roman citizen, a tent maker by trade, and yet God used all of his sinful past to convert the world after he first converted Saul on the road to Damascus.

I think it is easy to forget Paul’s violent beginnings as we study his many letters and his theology. Paul brought the Gospel to the modern world in a stunning series of missionary journeys that included imprisonment, shipwrecks, great personal cost, and eventually death.

This passage in 1 Timothy talks about his appointment to ministry in spite of his past:

1 Timothy 1 (Common English Bible)

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 

15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.

What a remarkable reversal! The persecutor became the proclaimer. The sinner became the saint. The faithless one became the leader of the faithful. The Lord’s favor was poured out over Saul, and he received the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus.

What do you have in your past that either enables or hinders you from sharing the gospel? Paul’s story is a powerful reminder of the power of forgiveness of sin to wash away all of our transgressions. It is also a good reminder to us that God loves every sinner and shows mercy and patience to all. When we sit in judgment of other people’s sins, we sit outside of God’s great plan to bring Jesus into the world to save sinners. All the doors of redemption must be left open for the Sauls to come in.

If the “biggest sinner of all” can be made new and whole through the mercy and grace of the Lord, so can the rest of us.

Do you have a story of a past that was changed? Go and tell.

The Lord’s Favor by Michelle Robertson

Big Favor

Have you ever had to ask someone for a big favor? It’s hard, isn’t it? You have to screw up your courage and be ready for a big “no” to your request. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself in that place, I rehearse my request over and over in my mind. I try to have an articulated proposal ready, and I always appeal to the person’s good and kind nature first.

The strange little book of Philemon in the New Testament records a time when Paul asked his friend Philemon for a big, big favor. This favor would not only benefit Paul but also Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. In a set of circumstances that only God could arrange, Onesimus fled from Philemon and ran to Rome, where he met Paul. Paul converted him, just as he did Philemon years earlier.

Paul wrote this letter from jail and used that situation to appeal to Philemon’s better nature:

Philemon 1 (The Message)

8-9 In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.

The word “ambassador” is also translated “old man.” In Hebrew, these two phrases are one letter apart. So, by putting himself in the light of an old man in jail, he hoped to butter Philemon up. Notice also that he stated that he could command Philemon to do his bidding but decided to make it a personal request. In other words, he based his appeal on their mutual love for one another.

What a marvelous concept. Where would we be if we appealed to people’s better nature and then asked for favors based on love, rather than demand?

Paul went on to set the stage for the big ask:

10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.

Paul cleverly suggested that since Onesimus was helping Paul with his ministry, the runaway slave was useful to both of them because he was working for the gospel, something that Philemon himself supported.

What came next is groundbreaking. Paul suggested that a man who had been a slave should be considered a brother because of their shared faith in Christ. This was a common theme for Paul. You may remember that he took down all the barriers between people who are gathered in the faith community of Christ followers:

Galatians 3:28. (Common English Bible)

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Equity would balance out these scales and perhaps persuade Philemon to allow Onesimus to be emancipated. Surely a man cannot deny a brother in Christ the freedom that he enjoys.

15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.

Finally, Paul laid down the big favor. Would you welcome him back as you would me? The law permitted slave owners to kill runaway slaves, or at least enslave them again upon their return. Paul asked that Philemon welcome Onesimus “as you would me,” meaning as you would a brother and friend in Christ.

17-20 So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.

Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians next, and in the fourth chapter we learn what happened:

Colossians 4 (Common English Bible)

9 I sent him with Onesimus, our faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you. They will let you know about everything here.

Onesimus went on Paul’s behalf with Tychicus to Colossae, indicating that he did indeed receive his emancipation from Philemon as Paul had asked.

This a great reminder of what our grandmothers told us when they said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Do you need to persuade someone to do you a favor? Are you arguing with someone to the point where neither of you is listening to each other anymore? Do you yell at your spouse and kids to do things rather than appeal to their better nature and make the request based on mutual love?

Take a page from Paul’s book next time you find yourself needing a favor. Use the honey.

Sweet Things by Michelle Robertson

Compelled

I continue to be constantly amazed at how the lectionary reaches deep into our lives and teaches us lessons that are timely, accurate, and humbling. I have said before that I went years without giving the lectionary much attention because I was serving in churches that chose not to follow it. (The lectionary is a three-year program of assigned scriptures for every week to be used in preaching and Christian education.) I once worked with a senior pastor who liked to preach either in a series, or as “the spirit led.” He was a wonderful preacher and his methodology certainly blessed the congregation.

But today’s lectionary speaks so closely to my heart and my current situation, I could have penned it myself, though clearly not with such eloquence. But every word in this passage resonates with me about why I get up early every day and slog through writing At Water’s Edge. I have been criticized, praised, supported, and dismissed. None of that matters. When Paul says, “I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t!” I rise up in my chair, raise my coffee cup and yell, “PREACH IT BROTHER!”

I apologize if this is somewhat self-absorbed, but I bet there is something in here for you, too.

Are you in a family situation where your beliefs have separated you from your loved ones? Do you struggle with those who discredit you for your faith? Are you surrounded by meticulous moralists? Paul GETS YOU.

1 Corinthians 9 (The Message)

15-18 Still, I want it made clear that I’ve never gotten anything out of this for myself, and that I’m not writing now to get something. I’d rather die than give anyone ammunition to discredit me or question my motives. If I proclaim the Message, it’s not to get something out of it for myself. I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t! If this was my own idea of just another way to make a living, I’d expect some pay. But since it’s not my idea but something solemnly entrusted to me, why would I expect to get paid? So am I getting anything out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact: the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you. You don’t even have to pay my expenses!

When we accept the call to be witnesses for Christ in our lives, it is necessary to do exactly what Paul describes: to enter the world of those who haven’t encountered Christ yet, but to not take on their way of life. To keep your bearings IN Christ while trying to experience things from other people’s point of view. To become whatever sort of servant God can use to lead others to him.

19-23 Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

The lesson today is to be like Paul. Don’t just talk about it…get in on it! You too will be criticized, supported, praised, or dismissed. So be it. If God is for us, nothing can harm us. NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus.

Don’t just read the message…be the message.

A New Day by Michelle Robertson

A Love/Hate Thing

I hate running. But I love the way running makes me feel when it’s over.

I hated practicing my bassoon. But I loved being able to play all the right notes in a concert.

I hate math. OK, that’s where it breaks down. I still hate math.

I think Paul may have had a bit of a love/hate relationship with his church in Corinth. He desperately loved them, but he hated their sin. When they were sinful, he acted like a betrayed father who has just discovered contraband in his favorite son’s bedroom. Disappointment abounds when someone or something you love lets you down. The people in that church often let Paul down.

But he never stopped giving thanks for their faith, their ministry, and their testimony.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving for the Corinthians

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. 

The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Think about your own love/hate relationships. Maybe you hate cleaning but love a clean house. Perhaps you hate cooking but love to sit down to a well-prepared meal. Do you hate the way your in-laws voted, but love the way they feel about your kids? Do you hate your adult child’s reckless behavior in the midst of a pandemic, but love him with all your heart?

Do you hate the sin, but love the sinner?

Give thanks for it all. Give thanks in spite of the things you don’t like. Focus on the good and be grateful. God is faithful to us in spite of our many failings. May we be that faithful to one another, and may love and thanksgiving abound as we gather around the table or the ZOOM call tomorrow.

I thank my God always for you.

Thankful by Michelle Robertson

People-Pleasing

How many of you struggle with an addiction to people-pleasing? You may have grown up in a household that taught you this. Pleasing mom and dad meant peace at the dinner table. Displeasure brought different levels of grief.

Folks who have a bent for people-pleasing find themselves in all kinds of trouble. For example, there is the trouble that comes from not being able to say no. Come on now, you know who you are! If you are over-committed to your family and every community and church volunteer opportunity, you are probably a people-pleaser.

Then there are the people-pleasers who can’t stand up for themselves. When others who don’t give a fig about people-pleasing encounter them, they get walked all over and used as door mats.

It is hard to be in a relationship with a people-pleaser because you never quite know where you stand. They will agree with everything you say, laugh at your lame jokes, and tell you that you look good in those jeans that add 15 lbs. of visual weight to your frame.

Beware of the people-pleasers!

In his letter to the newly formed church in Thessalonica, Paul is assuring the congregation that his efforts are completely void of any such nonsense. He states that his words to them have not been based on false information, wrong motives, or deception.

1 Thessalonians 1 (Common English Bible)

2 As you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, our visit with you wasn’t a waste of time.On the contrary, we had the courage through God to speak God’s good news in spite of a lot of opposition, although we had already suffered and were publicly insulted in Philippi, as you know. Our appeal isn’t based on false information, the wrong motives, or deception.Rather, we have been examined and approved by God to be trusted with the good news, and that’s exactly how we speak.

In his work with the church, he and the other apostles have endeavored to do one thing…please God. They have been trusted by God with the good news and they only want to please him.

We aren’t trying to please people, but we are trying to please God, who continues to examine our hearts. As you know, we never used flattery, and God is our witness that we didn’t have greedy motives. We didn’t ask for special treatment from people—not from you or from others— although we could have thrown our weight around as Christ’s apostles.

The integrity of his efforts shines through. The message of the gospel can get out because people know that Paul isn’t just telling them things they want to hear and buttering them up with flattering words. Instead, he is speaking words that convey love, hope, and TRUTH.

Instead, we were gentle with you like a nursing mother caring for her own children. We were glad to share not only God’s good news with you but also our very lives because we cared for you so much.

As we make our way to the polls in America, ask yourself these questions. Does your candidate speak to please God, or to butter up voters? Is he or she operating from selfish motives, hidden agendas, and deception, or is there a sincere desire to serve the public? Are they humble or self-aggrandizing? Do they have integrity like Paul?

The ranks of leadership at every level are filled with people-pleasers. Let’s find the God-pleasers this time.

Rays of Hope by Bruce Winterstine

ONE thing

Many of you know that I have a dog named Georgia. She is a big yellow lab, and by big, I mean 110 pounds big. Georgia loves many things….long walks, swimming, any kind of food, and anything that smells. She can be a real challenge to walk.

Often when I am walking her, my arm suddenly gets yanked out of the socket because she has found something good to smell. I keep explaining to her that we came out for a walk, not a sniff! I spend the whole walk telling her to lift her head up…more than once she has walked smack into a mailbox post that she never saw coming. She has amazing focus….just on the wrong thing!

Philippians 3 (New International Version)

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.

But ONE thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This scripture is a beautiful portrait of Paul, the Jesus-follower. The fact that Paul had such a passion for following Jesus is amazing, considering where he started. Remember that before he became Paul the apostle, he was Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Jesus-followers. Paul’s credentials were impressive: he was circumcised eight days after his birth, was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, was a Hebrew among Hebrews, a Pharisee, and a zealous advocate of the Jewish faith until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. 

From that point on, he was a zealous advocate of only one thing: Jesus. Look again at vs. 13 and 14: “But ONE thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Did you notice Paul’s focus? “But ONE thing I do…” Not ten things, not a hundred things, but ONE thing. 

I would bet that if we were to hire a consultant to look at our lives and advise us on how we can be more successful, the first thing that consultant would say is, “You’re trying to do too many things.” Henry Ford once said, “A weakness of all human beings is trying to do too many things at once. That scatters effort and destroys direction. It makes for haste, and haste makes waste.” The key to a successful life is to have one goal, and to pursue that with all your heart, might, and focus.

What ONE thing is Christ calling you to focus on right now? Is it healing your marriage, forgiving someone who has hurt you, releasing a grudge and moving on, starting a deeper, intentional commitment to your discipleship…where should your focus be?

Paul invites us to join him in his ONE thing. Forget the old baggage of what lies behind. Strain forward to what lies ahead. Press on toward your goal. Pursue the upward call of God….and find Jesus.

Focused Fishermen by Michelle Robertson