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Category Archives: Discipleship 101

Exploring how we learn to follow Jesus; what it means to “do life” with him.

Philemon. It’s a short, simple letter written by Paul. He probably wrote it from prison in Rome; around the time he wrote Colossians and Ephesians. Twenty-five verses in total. Not nearly as powerful as Romans or as strongly worded as Galatians on 1 Corinthians. But it is Scripture . . . and that leads me to ask: What’s with this letter? What’s the point in having it in the New Testament? What value could it be to me?

So, I’m thinking through this little letter. It starts the way most of Paul’s letters do–an opening greeting:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)

The “great apostle” sends a simple letter to Philemon . . . who is . . . well, just an “average believer.” There seems almost nothing to mark Philemon out–except (as we’ll see in this letter) that he was slave owner. Paul is in jail “for the sake of the Gospel,” Philemon is apparently living at home, in the comfort of his own house.

And I notice. Paul doesn’t breathe a rarer air than Philemon. At least that’s now how Paul describes himself. He doesn’t lead with “I’m an apostle.” He’s a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” And Paul identifies Timothy as a “brother” and Philemon himself as a “brother” as well as “fellow worker.” Sure, it makes sense to identify Timothy as a “brother” in the ministry and a “fellow worker” (as in 1 Thessalonians 3:2); after all, Timothy was something of an “apostolic delegate” sent by Paul on official apostolic important “stuff.”  But Philemon? “Fellow worker”?

It seems that Paul doesn’t seem himself as “all that.” He’s just “another brother,” a “fellow worker,” one member of the larger community of those who follow Jesus. And he writes to Philemon in such a way that suggests he doesn’t see a gap between himself and this simple home owner and slave keeper.

To me, that’s refreshing! When it is necessary (as when correcting doctrinal error in the letter to the Galatians), Paul might refer to himself as “an apostle.” But Paul doesn’t seem to parade that around–when writing a simple letter such a claim doesn’t matter.

Is it wrong for a church leader to identify himself as “The Right Reverend Doctor Pastor Smith” or “Apostle and Presiding Bishop Jones”? Maybe not . . . maybe not. But if those titles–particularly if leveraged by the claimants to such titles–end up creating distance between the “average saints” and the “saintly leaders,” something is amiss.

The best of saints, the prominently gifted, amazingly used apostle Paul could freely refer to himself as “brother” and “fellow worker,” humbly connecting with an “regular” Christian. And in those opening words in his letter to Philemon I see a “great man of God” modeling for us real and “great” humility.

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Augustine, in The Confessions, addresses a profound and simply prayer to God: “O God, command what you will, and give what you command.”

I think what he captures in that short cry is becoming increasingly more important to my understanding of how God intends to draw us into a full and rich experience of intimate life. And I think it is when I miss the simple insight of Augustine’s short petition that keeps me faltering in my journey with Jesus.

Where do I see this? In the response that arises in my soul when I hear Jesus speak–through his Word, by his Spirit, to my soul. For example.

Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-22; Mark 11:25). And I hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me to. And I often respond, “I can’t do that! I don’t feel ‘forgiving’ toward that person. That’s not in my heart.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to forgive and I resist.

Jesus calls husbands to love their wives and wives to respect and value their husbands (Ephesians 5:33; Titus 2:4; 1 Peter 3:7). And we hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me into in my marriage. But it is easy to respond, “But she (or he) isn’t loving me. I’m not getting from my spouse what I deserve. It doesn’t feel right to just love without reciprocation. I just can’t do that.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something of me that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to my role as spouse and I resist.

And behind all such resistance is the thinking that something has to happen in me before I give into the call. And it is there that my thinking might just be a bit off.

Maybe Jesus issues such calls and extends such commands because it is in the command that the empowerment comes. In other words, it is because it isn’t me to live that way–it isn’t in me to love or forgive the way he intends–that Jesus commands it. He commands what he does in our lives so as to make possible our living the way he wants us to. For apart from the command it just won’t ever happen.

Perhaps we can picture it this way.

Why does Jesus command Lazarus to arise and come out of the tomb? Yes, Lazarus is dead. But why the command? Jesus is not suggesting Lazarus consider “becoming alive.” Jesus is commanding what Lazarus needs. Lazarus needs to live, so Jesus commands, “Lazarus, arise!”

Why does Jesus call the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand? Because the man’s hand is withered. Jesus is not suggesting that the man think about whether he wants his hand restored. Jesus is commanding what the man needs. In such instances, Jesus commands what cannot happen apart from his command–the very command is Jesus’ means of bringing about the end he intends.

Maybe it is in hearing and responding to Jesus’ call that the very thing I think I lack will be found. Maybe it is in the giving in to the call of Jesus that I will discover that what he is commanding he is also providing. Maybe it is in the inclining of my heart to affirm what he is calling for that I will realize that the reason he commands such seemingly impossible things in my life is that without the command I will never be different.

I catch myself in the middle of the day realizing that I am disappointed or feeling some anger towards someone else because they haven’t responded to me “the right way.” And when the Spirit calls my attention to that, I am forced to reflect on just what kind of reciprocation I was expecting. (For, after all, if I did not expect any reciprocation and if I had not expectation of “payback,” then I would not be bothered at all by not being responded to “the right way.”)

Previous posts explored this idea of non-reciprocal living. And I am still thinking it through, trying to embrace this Biblical call (anchored in Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-36). Although I do catch glimpses of this kind of life, I am still seeking to fully lean into living non-reciprocally.

Peter helps me with my thinking, reflecting on what he wrote in his first epistle. In describing how servants are to live, he offers some insight into the foundation for all non-reciprocal living:

This finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps,  who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth, and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to [God] who judges righteously.  (1 Peter 2:19-23)

There are a number of things that leap out of this passage, calling for my attention. And all seem to point to this non-reciprocal kind of life.

  • Suffering in life might just be unjust, unwarranted. If we expect to be treated well because we are seeking to live well, we will be disappointed when we are not reciprocated.
  • Suffering unjustly when doing what is right “finds favor with God.” This doesn’t mean that our suffering is meritorious; that we earn or merit favor with God. But is does mean that God is glad for our living well in the midst of suffering. (It makes him look good, because we are saying by our living well that we value life with him over being treated by others the way we expect they should treat us.)
  • When I revile (that is, speak disparagingly of another) or when I threaten (affirming my desire to get even, to get back at someone), it is an indication that I am more interested in being reciprocated than I am with living Christ-like. Those response are like gauges on my soul that can show me what I really am living for.
  • Our calling in Christ is not a call to be treated well by others, but a call to suffer along with Jesus. (Why didn’t someone tell me that when I first responded to the Gospel? I thought the invitation in the Gospel was an invitation to get life on my terms with God’s help. Seriously–and sadly–some do seem to think that the invitation Jesus extends to us to participate in his life is an invitation to ease and comfort and increased admiration by others. But this is clearly not the case.)
  • The way forward in living non-reciprocally with others is to entrust ourselves to the one who judges righteously. Like Jesus, we can rest in the certainty that the Father above is watching, discerning, determining, weighing, and he will ensure that the outcome of our lives, our loving, and our suffering will be “judged” appropriately. We do not have to fight to have others see it, reciprocate us, or even affirm us.

Jesus invaded our world to rescue us. He clothed himself with human nature to reach and redeem us through his life and death and resurrection. Even those who don’t fully “get” the Gospel, have some grasp of the idea of Jesus “coming to earth” to do something. And seeing that, helps us understand his non-reciprocal kind of living–and how that kind of life that he lived is to be our example.

Paul calls our attention to this in his letter to Philippians:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

When read honestly, the language here sounds pretty extreme. Specifically . . .

“Do nothing from selfishness.” Selfishness is simply “self-interest.” So, Paul says don’t ever do anything out of self-interest. Really?!? Never do anything from self-interest?

“With humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Come on, Paul! Why not “regard others as important as you regard yourself”? Isn’t it a little over the top to insist on considering others as more important than we regard ourselves?

“Do not look out for your own interests.” (Here I have an issue with the translators. The word “merely” is just not in the text that Paul wrote. I think the translators are toning down Paul’s seemingly extreme language.) So we are called to not look out for our own interests. Period. (And the same translators add “also” to the next phrase: “. . . but also for the interests of others.” Paul simple wrote “Do not look out attentively for your own interests but look out attentively for the interests of others.”)

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” Now we’re really sounding extreme! Paul suggests that we should have the same attitude, same way of thinking about ourselves and our lives, that Jesus did in the incarnation.

“[Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant . . . he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Paul brings this not-thinking-about-oneself to a climactic point in helping us see Jesus clearly. The attitude we need to “have in ourselves” is just like Jesus’ attitude where he set aside his own rights, embraced servanthood, and humbled himself to the point of death. Now that is extreme.

So here’s the root of non-reciprocal living. It’s found in Jesus. And we’re invited into Jesus’ own heart-attitude.

He settled into living as a servant of others, humbly laying down his life for the good of others. He did this not looking out for his own interests. What was good for those he came to love took precedence. He wasn’t looking for them to reciprocate. He was intending to lay down his life for their good. He didn’t do this selfishly, for his benefit. He regarded others as more important than himself . . . to the point of dying.

That’s pretty extreme. And that is the life we are invited into.

I spoke with a number of friends–all followers of Jesus–over the past week. We all share a common longing. We want to grow. We want substantial change. We want to be closer to Jesus, to know him better, to live more fully in his grace, to depend more fully on the Spirit. We want to be able to look back and see evidence that we grown in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18).

In an earlier post (“Transformation”) I was reflecting on some of how Gospel transformation happens in our lives. And I am still trying to think well–to think Biblically–about such transformation.

The leading edge in Gospel transformation must be grace. The Gospel is not good advice we need to put into practice nor guidelines for how to get our acts together so as to live pleasing to God. The Gospel is about how God has invaded our world in Jesus to rescue and redeem and bring us into life. He is the one who began the good work in us, and he is the one who will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t to lean into what God is doing in our lives. He transforms us, in some sense, in drawing us into what he is doing in our lives and making us active participants in this work of grace.

The Lord addressed Abraham while he and Sarah were childless and calls him a father of many nations (Genesis 17). God speaks to Gideon and calls him a “valiant warrior” while Gideon is hiding in a wine-press, threshing a handful of grain (Judges 6). Jesus gives unstable and impulsive Peter the nickname “Rock” before there is any evidence of his “solidness” (John 1:42). These are just a few of the examples that could be multiplied time and again throughout Scripture. And in each case, those “called” by God grew up to be what God called them into by grace–and they gave themselves to that call and experienced that grace.

The leading edge is what God says about the person. The participation comes in giving into what God is saying. And I think that is the way forward for our life-change as well.

We listen for, we hear, we look for, we grasp, what it is that God is calling us to be by grace, by the Spirit, because of Jesus. And then we give ourselves to that.

So what is it that you are hearing, what are you seeing, what is God saying, how is he calling you in the Gospel, by the Spirit, through his Word, because of Jesus?

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