Grace, Love, Fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

2 Corinthians 13:14

I love this verse.

I love it because it is an establishing verse for the doctrine of the trinity. Herein are the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit all mentioned individually though we know with certainty that Paul taught that there is only one God. I do not want to spend too much time on this, but I love how casually Paul tosses the doctrine of the trinity out there and expects that his audience knows what he is on about.

I love it because it is a list of things I should experience as a believer and the list is in order.

First, I should experience the grace of Christ. Grace is getting what I do not deserve. If I deserve punishment and Hell and eternal damnation — and everyone does — then not getting that is mercy. But God does more, He restores my relationship with Him and permits me entrance into Heaven; He blesses me and works to not only wipe away the punishment for what I have done wrong but to expunge the presence of wrong-doing in me at all. He goes far beyond mere mercy and gives so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. That is grace.

Second, grace permits me to experience the Love of God. Not just to experience it as a recipient, but to begin to walk in it. God Loves every man, woman, and child on the planet. He made us. As a creator of things (art, music, story), I can state pretty conclusively that I love the things I create. Even — sometimes especially — the things that frustrate me the most. That is not, I think, what Paul has in min. Everyone experiences that Love, though they may not be cognizant of it. Not everyone is able to walk in the Love of God. In point of plain fact, no one is able to walk in the Love of God until they have met with the grace of God. There are loving people in the world, but their love does not get anywhere near the level of God’s Love. And God works that love into those who are His. There are those who claim to be His and do not evidence this Love increasing within them. I would question whether or not those individuals are truly God’s — including myself, if His Love is not increasing in me.

Third and final, God’s Love manifests in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The idea is that grace brings me to God Who begins to work His Love into and through me and this brings me into fellowship; intimate connection with God and with other believers who are also in God.

I have met with God’s grace and I have seen the moments when He works His Love into and through me — may those moments become more regular until they are the mainstay of my existence — and I have experienced those moments of being close to God and my fellow believers — may this increase, as well.

Father, let these things not only be with me, but also in me and through me. May Your grace and Love define me so that I may be close to You.

In Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3)

But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and the purity that is in Christ.

2 Corinthians 11:3

Too often, I over complicate things. I get so wrapped up in how convoluted something must be that I overlook how simple it really is.

This very thing was happening in my walk with Christ, in recent times. I was getting hung up on the Do this and the Do not do this statements and instruction that I lost sight of how I am able to do or not do things. My pastor was good enough to set the record straight.

The simplicity and the purity that is in Christ is precisely that: simple and pure. There is nothing complicated about walking with Christ and all the Do and Do Not statements that I got caught up in are not meant to be obeyed without His help. In point of fact, the Do and Do Not statements are more a description of the kind of behavior I should note as I draw closer to God in Christ. As I spend more time in His presence in prayer and reading and meditating on His Word and in praise and in thanksgiving, I should see more obedience. As the praise song says: Turn your eyes on Jesus; look full in His wonderful face and the things of Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

None of this absolves me of the responsibility to choose to obey or flee temptation, but fleeing temptation into the presence of God is the only way I am going to get away from temptation. Running away from a temptation and anywhere except into God’s presence is running right to a place where another temptation is waiting. The simplicity and the purity that is in Christ is precisely there: in Christ. If I want that simplicity and purity, I must press into Christ to get them.

Controlled by Love (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

I have often thought of this verse in recent times. The idea that God’s Love should control me preoccupied my thoughts. To know that it should and to know how to reach the place where it does are not the same thing. Sunday, I was reminded that being a believers is all about relationship; about getting closer to God so that He can get closer to me. The closer I get to Him, the more I will be controlled by His love. But what, exactly, does it mean to be controlled by His love?

The verb used can mean many things. It can mean that the Love of God holds us together. His Love can keep me from going to pieces. And there have been times when I have lived that. Circumstances were such that I felt I should be going to pieces — the death of my youngest sister and the dissolution of an engagement, to name two examples — yet everything held together. Everything held together because God’s Love held me together.

The verb can also mean that the Love of God constrains us. The imagery noted in the concordance is that of a ship being funneled into narrower straits or of cattle being herded into a place where the farmer can give medication. God’s Love will also lead me to places where God can do what is needful without me being able to run from it. When I was a younger man — a boy, even — I would wriggle and squirm away from inoculations. I still want to squirm away from the needles, but I recognize the necessity of the injections. Likewise, God’s Love brings me to the place where I sit still as God does what is needful in my life.

The verb can also mean that the Love of God holds us completely. The imagery referenced is various, ranging from the image of a prisoner who cannot escape to a person thoroughly engrossed in a particular business. There have been times when the work in which I was engaged was so consuming that I lost all track of time — even skipped meals. The idea is much the same. God’s Love is such as can capture my attention if I see it rightly. If I look at God’s Love for me as it is, then I will be enthralled; fascinated that such a Love can exist at all.

Let me look intently at the Love of God and become enthralled. Let me be held by God’s Love so He can do what needs to be done — even, and especially, when I would rather wriggle away. And let God’s Love hold me together.

Father, when circumstances threaten to shatter me, please hold me together in Your Love. When You must do something I find unpleasant, please catch me in Your Love so that I am held until You have finished Your work. When I am distracted and distractable; without focus or simply mentally listing, please enthrall me with Your Love that I may be focused on what is really important.

In Love (1 Corinthians 16:14)

Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:14

Yesterday, the pastor taught from John’s first letter and there was much said about doing things as Christ did them and still does them: in love. Now it may very well be that I simply heard that more emphatically because I am, like many, guilty of not acting in love as often as I should. This morning, I came across this verse in my reading and felt that I should pause and think about this for a moment.

The word that is translated all means precisely that: all. It can, when used of collective nouns, mean some of every kind, but it is here used of a singular, which the notes in my concordance say leads to it being rendered all. Every single thing I do should be done in love. Yesterday, I felt this concept as a gentle rebuke from God; a correction to my behavior that would likely be followed by disciplinary action from God if I ignored it. This morning, I feel it as an encouragement: Do everything in love.

John’s first letter includes the statement that God is love. Which means that this verse could also be understood as a rejoinder to do all things in God. A fitting understanding, since I cannot do everything in love unless I am first in God.

In between sentences of the previous paragraph, my daughter woke up and was asking for me. It was five o’clock in the morning and she should still be asleep at that hour, so I padded into her room and rocked her for a bit. When I told her it was time for her to get back into her bed and sleep, she replied that she wanted one more minute of rocking and burrowed into the crook of my arm. As I think of being in God and doing things that way, the image that comes to mind is of my daughter snuggling deeper into the crook of my arm; pressing into the warmth and security and presence of her daddy.

Let me press in to God that I might be near His heart and be secure in His love and presence and protection. Then let me act in that security and presence and protection and according to that beating heart. The same heart that saw me in my sins; an enemy to Him and wanted to save me anyway. The first part is to snuggle just a little deeper into Abba’s arms until I am at rest.

Earthy (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)

So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.

1 Corinthians 15:45-49

As I was reading this passage, it brought to mind that God cursed the ground; the earth for Adam’s sin back in Genesis. The curse is rather specific: Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it / All the days of your life. / Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; / And you will eat the plants of the field; / By the sweat of your face / You will eat bread, / Till you return to the ground, / Because from it you were taken; / For you are dust, / And to dust you shall return. And,while I am reasonably certain that what came to mind is not a doctrinal truth, I was reminded of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit.

From [earth men] were taken and in some measure, it feels as though we share in the curse on the ground. Sure, work is now laborious and difficult, but we were created to work. God placed Adam in the garden to tend it. What is more, men often find some of our best enjoyment in doing work and doing it well.

The image of the earthy that Paul mentions struck me as more than just being taken from the soil, but as a call back to the curse.The image of the earthy is to bring forth thorns and thistles, to cause us to toil and sweat and labor in order to get anything even remotely good out of it. So also is it with our flesh and anything virtuous. There are non-believers who labor and strive and by the sweat of their face and their heavy labor, they are able to bring forth something unobjectionable; palatable, even.

But the hope comes in when Paul notes that we will also bear the image of the heavenly. While I have to toil and strive to get anything good out of the flesh, I will have no such struggle when the image of the heavenly is fully formed in me. While the earthy produces thorns and thistles like anger and envy and strife, the heavenly produces the fruit of love an joy and peace.

While the connection is probably not doctrinal, the reminder that Christ is being formed in me and that my flesh is under a curse is an excellent reminder.

Both-And (1 Corinthians 14:15)

What is [the outcome] then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

1 Corinthians 14:15

I must admit to a weakness in myself: I am not comfortable with some of the gifts of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit offers some gifts that, frankly, confuse me or cause me discomfort. Since neither the gifts nor the Spirit Who gives them are meant for my comfort — though the Holy Spirit does want to comfort me in my affliction, but that is another thing entirely — the gifts will not cease on my account. That said, there is an obvious error in the church in America and it is connected with Spiritual gifts.

Some churches focus too heavily on the mind. They have awesome Bible teaching and their doctrine is bang up to the elephant, but they lack real power and dynamism. People get saved in these churches, sure, but they strive and struggle without ever really being empowered or gifted by the Holy Spirit. They might accept one or two gifts — teaching and administrations, maybe — but shy away from others like speaking in tongues.

Then there are the churches that focus too heavily on the gifts of the Spirit. These folks are different and not always in a Christlike way. Where the first group may be seen as legalistic, this group is often seen as having no rules to speak of — lawless or licentious. These folks mean well, but they, just like their counterparts, are out of balance.

Too often, I fear, we (myself included) try to shove God into our either/or thought structure. God cannot, in our view, be both a God of order and give gifts like speaking in tongues, because the gift of tongues is just plain disruptive. We think that God cannot give us a gift and not expect us to use it, so we speak out and interrupt the teaching of The Bible. We fall into these errors, because we fail to understand that God is the God of both either/or and both-and.

Certainly, God sees things as either right or wrong, holy or unholy. There are places where God makes these stark, either/or distinctions. Jesus says that anyone who is not with Him is against Him and Joshua, inspired by God, tells Israel to choose whom they will serve: either God or idols. There are plenty of places where God tells us candidly that we cannot have it both ways. There are others where God straddles lines that we have trouble reconciling in our very binary minds. How can God be both just and merciful? How can He be all-powerful and yet we have free will? I cannot always explain the “how” behind the both-and doctrines I find in scripture, I can only accept them.

God calls me, as His child, to be as He is: both-and in places where both-and is appropriate. Paul says that he will pray with the spirit and … with the mind also; … will sing with the spirit and … with the mind also. The spirit and the mind must work in tandem. He cannot merely pray in tongues, because that is not profitable to the congregation. In private, he prays however God leads him, but with the rest of the body he must have both mind and spirit engaged if he is to be profitable to God and the body of Christ.

This is where I note that I have a pet peeve: I do not like praise songs that are not well thought out. If a song causes dissonance between my mind and my desire to praise God, I am no longer able to praise. The lyrics, I presume, made sense to the author and probably to a great many people thereafter, but I see them and the English major in me starts analyzing the poetry and dissecting it and making sure that everything is kosher when viewed through a Formalist (school of literary theory) lens. When everything goes well, I have another praise song to enjoy singing out to God. When things do not go well, I find myself wondering who thought this song was conducive to entering into God’s presence. What prompts discussion of this pet peeve? The fact that Paul says that he will sing with the spirit and … with the mind also. Too many song leaders, I fear, fall into the trap of singing with their spirit and not with their mind also. In our own times of praise, we can sing however the Holy Spirit moves us — no one but God needs to understand us. Corporately, we need to engage our brains and make sure that what we are singing will be broadly understood and that the congregation, as a body entire, will be able to sing with both spirit and mind.

And this is true of each and every gift the Holy Spirit gives. Paul lists gifts of giving among the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives and Jesus gave direction that our giving be done in secret so that our Father Who sees what we do in secret can reward us openly. We do not want to shame our fellow believers who have less than us to give or are not gifted in that way, so we should give as God directed us to. Those who are gifted in evangelism need to get out and spread the word and not try to drag along those of us who are not gifted in that way. Yes, Jesus told all of us to make disciples of all nations, but there is more to making a disciple than conversion. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Teacher and His teachings. This means we need teachers to teach the converts and encouragers to encourage them to stay the course and those gifted in words of wisdom to help them understand God’s guidance and those who administrate to keep the rest of us organized. We need each and every gift that the Holy Spirit gives. As Paul writes elsewhere, each part is nurtured by what all of the other parts supplies. A body is an interdependent system of parts and sub-systems and all the parts are necessary — even if we do not know why (I am thinking here of the appendix).

We all, myself included, need to engage both our spirits — our spiritual gifting — and our minds. Our fellowships do not have a Brain Check by the door and this should give us some indication that our minds must be engaged. God gave us reason so that He might reason with us (Isaiah 1:18). Our spirits — our spiritual gift — must also be active. Let the givers give with gladness and the administrators keep us all organized and the teachers help us understand the scriptures and the encouragers spur us on to still greater devotion to our God and King. Let each gift be used to the glory of God and with our minds engaged and cooperating.

Endless (1 Corinthians 13:8)

Love never fails; but if [there are gifts of] prophecy, they will be done away; if [there are] tongues, they will cease; if [there is] knowledge, it will be done away.

1 Corinthians 13:8

The final item on the report card is that Love never fails. The first two words here are to the point and rendered exactly. But failing seems to be a much more complex idea. The word used could mean to descend from a higher place to a lower, to fall (either from or upon), to be thrust down; to descend from an erect to a prostrate position, to fall down, to be prostrated, fall prostrate; of those overcome by terror or astonishment or grief or under the attack of an evil spirit or of falling dead suddenly; the dismemberment of a corpse by decay; to prostrate one’s self; used of suppliants and persons rendering homage or worship to one; to fall out, fall from i.e. shall perish or be lost, to fall down, fall into ruin: of buildings, walls etc.; to be cast down from a state of prosperity; to fall from a state of uprightness; to perish, i.e come to an end, disappear, cease (of virtues); to lose authority, no longer have force (of sayings, precepts, etc.); to be removed from power by death; to fail of participating in, miss a share in. Some of that is obviously  not true of God — He definitely descended from a higher place to a lower when He was born in Bethlehem and Jesus certainly did not participate in our sin (until He became sin for us, but that was less participation and more substitution) — and some of it should be considered.

The meanings that seem to best comport with the rest of scripture are perish or be lost; fall from a state of uprightness; come to an end, disappear, or cease. And it is these that I will consider this morning.

Love never perishes or is lost. I might render this as Love never dies. And, while Christ did die on the cross, He did not remain dead. As for me, I will die in a physical sense. There really is no way around that. But I need not die in a spiritual sense. The point of Christ’s death and resurrection; the whole reason Christ came to Earth was to save souls like mine from the spiritual death that is our inheritance. Jesus said, when praying to the Father, that He had not lost even one of those whom the Father had entrusted to Jesus. If I have entrusted myself to Christ, then I also will not be lost.

Love never falls from a state of uprightness. God never compromises His perfection. He has never been anything but perfect and He never will be. This brings me to a challenge: When I am in right standing with God, am I making efforts to remain so or am I allowing my state of uprightness to slip? This is not to say that I should be self-righteous, but that I should seek to remain right with God.

Love never ends, disappears, or ceases. These are definitely true of God, but how can I apply them to myself? I should be relying on God’s resources — His strength and endurance and patience and love — so that the resources on which I am drawing are never exhausted. I should be present wherever and whenever I happen to be. Too often, I find myself disappearing into some electronic device or “checking-out” into my thoughts. I should be relying on God’s endurance so that I can be one of those God speaks of through Isaiah: those who mount up on wings like eagles’; who run without wearying; who walk without fainting.

May I regularly check back with this report card and see what progress God is making in and through me to conform me to the image of His Son.