Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Colossians: Full-Blooded Love

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/27/2011

3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all his people— 5the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true word of the gospel 6that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world— just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

Colossians 1:3-7

The true word of good news arrives – and once it is received and understood as the truth of God’s grace (favor), it gives birth to love.


Messenger of emperor would arrive with news of military victory (euangelion - good news / god-spell) and it would give birth to fear. Fear that things would never change. That the power of the oppressor was growing. That those out of favor had less reason for hope. That the oppressors would now be even wealthier, and the subjected would be even more disposable.


Jesus’ took this word – good news – and turned its meaning upside down for the oppressed.

The true word of the euangelion has come to you - good news arrives at doorstep (remember life before the internet?) - that the true king has defeated the oppressor. That favor for the oppressed is here. And when that good news was received and understood, it would be experienced as grace. And hope would come. And love would take root. Most of all love. Because threat was gone, and the breath that breathed the news was love among us.

Imagine, where fear had taken hold all over the known world, now love was growing up in its place. Before, people afraid of the future, of one another, shrinking, petty, bitter, cowering. Now, they are anticipating and welcoming God's good future into their present, embracing one another as brothers and sisters - even those who had been enemies. Growing, generous, thankful, confident.

Paul, the author of this letter, is in jail because his whole life is about this euangelion of Jesus business. So his eyes are peeled for evidence that the good news is having an impact, evidence that the seeds of God’s words are being planted and taking root. How does he know? What is he looking for?


The thing that tips Paul off that something real is happening is love in the spirit. Not knowledge or wisdom or the holiness or obedience to a new moral code or religious fervor or anything else. That stuff shows up all over the world all the time. Whatever. But Love? Not necessarily good feelings about one another, but acting towards one another in the way that we do when we are neither afraid of one another nor afraid for our own futures. Lust, anger, lies, bitterness, jealousy, rejection, etc. being replaced by kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, acceptance. Love in the spirit. That’s the real deal. That’s new creation breathed by King Jesus.

“love in the Spirit” = “agepen en pneumati”


We hear spirit and think “Holy Spirit.” Your translation probably even capitalizes “Spirit” to indicate this. But we miss something when we see this as religious language. The author of Colossians is using non-religious words to communicate something that is happening because of Jesus’ good news landing on their doorstep, being brought into the kitchen, and poured over during breakfast. Pneumati is a word that means spirit, yes, but also breath, and wind. It is a concept that has its earliest roots in the ancient observation that when people died, their breath went out of them. That their breath contained some kind of animating life force, some kind of spirit. (wind as that which animates nature…)

And so present in this idea of love in the spirit is the idea that the animating force at work in the Colossian church is love herself. That every action is love-breathed. Breathed by the Holy Spirit, yes, of course. But more than that, that the animating life-force of God – the breath of him who is love himself, the love out which creation was first breathed and that raised Jesus to new life, inaugurating a new creation through the good news breath of Jesus, that breath of that love, that spirit – has been breathed into the lungs of the Colossian church, and is now animating their lives. Now carrying the life of the age to come to every cell of their body, empowering movement and action and words that cooperate in the new creation purposes of King Jesus. Movement and action and words laced with love in the spirit.

[Shelby’s story… “That’s all because of you, Shelby.” “No, Mom, that’s because of God working through me.”]


Great commission: “Go into all the world and announce good news to all creation…” There is sometimes a fervor about this that results in a watered down form of love. Stems from the idea that the main point of the good news is securing eternal destinies, and because death may visit at any hour, unexpectedly, we must vigorously win souls. And so we bear witness to the saving love of God in Jesus with a pointed sense of urgency about the person’s response to our message. Turn, or burn. It is motivated by love. It is a loving act. But it can produce an anemic form of love. And when an anemic form of love is set up on a pedestal as the highest form of love, we are shooting for the wrong target, and we fall short of love in the spirit.

What do I mean by anemic? Anemia is a condition where someone doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to the body. So the blood is pumping, but it’s not fully accomplishing its life-giving goal. (Fatigue, pale skin, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, cognitive problems, cold hands and feet, headache…) It’s possible for our love to be that way. It’s still love, but it’s not fully accomplishing its life-giving purpose.

Think about the most fully developed kinds of love we experience naturally in life. Let’s call it full-blooded love. Love for our family, our spouses, our children, our parents, sometimes our closest friends. It’s ever-present love that motivates loving actions across the spectrum of loving actions. You are inclined to act in love towards those people regardless of your concern for their eternal destiny, aren’t you? If they are hungry, you want to feed them. If they are sad, you want to comfort them. If they are hurting, you want to care for them. If you discover something joyful or helpful of life changing, you want to share it with them so that they can share in the benefits. You care about the little things in their lives – enough to sacrifice your own concerns to bless them in the little things. And of course you care about the big things, too. You might risk your life and well-being for them, if needed.

In fact, if the only thing you cared about for your children was their eternal destiny, you might hope they would die in birth so as to avoid concerns about them rejecting Jesus when they got old enough. They’d miss out on a lot of good stuff in this world, but in the grand scheme it would be the safest bet for them, right? (clearly, this is an absurd way to look at it, but it does shed some light on something off, doesn’t it?)

Now consider the less developed kind of love we tend to have towards strangers, towards the other, towards those who are not “us.” [the us continuum: self / immediate family / extended family / closest loving community / those who share our values, perspective, objectives / those whose fate is tangled up with ours / those who we could lose without losing much immediately / those who are strange and inscrutable to us / those directly opposed to our values, perspective, objectives / those we view as evil…]


Outside of the first two levels, day to day struggles, challenges, hurts tend to be of little concern to us. If our paths cross, and they are in some form of grave danger, or have experienced a tragedy, we will sometimes be moved to anything from self-less kindness to great acts of heroism on their behalf. Especially if they are on the nearer end of the “us” spectrum. This is a form of love, but it is ultimately anemic. Once the tragedy passes, or the grave danger relents, our love tends to slip away too.

And so what love can become in some “Christian” settings is trying to keep before people the pressing danger of eternal torment (or tragic stories) so that we don’t turn inward, but stay outward-focused in love. This is why anything that threatens this motivation is perceived as a threat against love (Controversy about Rob Bell’s Love Wins, for example). If we aren’t sufficiently worried, what will motivate us to announce good news, to make disciples of Jesus? As if love for Jesus that leads to obedience isn’t enough of a beginning motivation. As if obedience to Jesus won’t lead us into love in the spirit. As if John 3:16 should have read, “For God was so afraid for the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever would share his fears might still get hit by a bus, but not without first getting a ticket to heaven.”

But in Colossians, or anywhere else for that matter, love is not pictured like a dying fire that needs stoking, like some kind of fervor. No, not at all. In Colossians, love is pictured as something growing, like buds on a tree, like the first shoots in a garden. All it needs is the regular rain of the good news of God’s grace to be soaked up in the ground.

Fervors are usually fueled by some form of fear, not love. But a garden is a patient thing, tended with love.

If we must have a fervor, let it be spring fervor. Spring comes after winter with inviting, inevitable warmth, not fearful fire. Spring is new creation we can’t wait for, that gets our blood flowing, our pulse quickening with anticipation. Spring makes us delight in the sun with wonder afresh. Spring brings us out of our comfortable houses and into the weary world full of new possibilities.


Full-blooded love, love in the Spirit, shrinks the “us continuum” with a loving embrace. Wouldn’t love that is mature see everyone like we naturally see a member of our family? Or as Jesus says, like ourselves? Wouldn’t full-blooded love have concerns for the day to day concerns of life for every person whom we are called to love? Isn’t that how God loves? Wouldn’t full blooded love see the “good news of truth” as good news for every situation, for every person in every setting? Wouldn’t we be compelled to love by that kind of love, effortlessly and naturally, by the animating love within us and among us and around us, without the need for impending crisis or devastating tragedy?


Think how this might even change the way we love someone in the face of impending death

Anemic: Turn, so you don’t burn after you die – double fear, fear of dying ratcheted up, fear of hell after that. Man, I was already scared of death, and now you’re telling me that fear was not only justified, but that it should have been much worse!? Oh, but you’ve got a solution for me – thank goodness! Wait a minute…isn’t this the way people get people to buy things? Are you just trying to sell me something!? I’m dying, and you’re trying to get me to buy something? Love’s there, but it can get buried under all that fear.

Or, another approach, fueled by love in the spirit: Impending death may be unsettling you, producing fear. Jesus has overcome death; trusting him frees you from that fear, let me offer you this good news as an antidote to your fear. That’s the loving thing to do, is it not? Perfect love driving out fear.

May the good news of Jesus bear fruit among us. May love in the spirit burst forth among us like spring after a long winter.


Practical Tips:

1. Take a blood test. Determine if you’re becoming anemic or full blooded in your love. Think about the last person God brought into your life or to whom he called you to go who perhaps had not yet heard and truly understood the good news of God’s grace. In what ways did love animate you towards that person? Did you think, “If I were in their shoes, what would I experience as God’s grace towards me” – and then endeavor to do or be or say that? Or was it something else, something less? Were you distracted from that kind of love because you were afraid for them, or afraid of them? Or did you ignore them, out of concerns for your own future?

2. Take a good news supplement. Anemia is always a result of some sort of deficiency. Love anemia comes from a good news of grace deficiency. If you think your love might be getting anemic, consider meditating on Ephesians chapter 1. Memorize it if you can. Don’t worry about understanding it all, at least at first. Just let the good news of grace contained in it wash over you. When that love has driven out some of your fears, lift up your eyes to the people around you and see how you might love them, buoyed by and with confidence in that love.

3. Encourage one another to full-blooded love. We must tend the garden of grace by giving voice to the good news that we don’t need to be afraid. Of anyone. That we don’t need to be afraid for the future. That we can act like even our enemies are our brothers and sisters. That we can act like a good future awaits. That we can act like love is going win.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Colossians: Grace & Peace

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/13/2011

Invitation to turn to Colossians…

Colossae, a small town in Phyrigia, one of the Greek states under Roman rule. Previously an important city, but had diminished in significance. Probably founded by a pastor named Epaphras, who it seems traveled to visit Paul, imprisoned in Rome. Paul wrote this letter from prison, and sent it with Epaphras to encourage the church in this rural town.


Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

Col 1:1–2

Grace to you and peace from God our Father. (prefer translation that places “to you” after “Grace”)

Grace. Charis. A variation on the Greek greeting, “Chaire,” meaning “Greetings.”

Grace meaning favor. A heart inclined towards. That which affords joy, pleasure, sweetness, delight, charm, loveliness. That which a mother has towards her newborn child as he is placed upon her chest. Grace. What the local Olympic hero feels from the town when every place he goes, he is told, “Your money is no good here.” Grace. The way the bride’s gaze lands upon the groom as he receives her from her father. Grace. The light that comes to your friend’s eyes when you visit her in the hospital room, a light that says, “I’m glad you’re here.” Grace. The unexpected and hardly conceivable thing sometimes communicated in the unforced words, “I forgive you.” Grace. That which is present in every freely given gift. Grace.

Coupled with the Jewish greeting, “Peace.” Eirene, the Greek word standing in for the deeper Jewish word, “Shalom.” Everything right between and within persons. That which is experienced (in its most concentrated form) in a welcoming embrace, in a true homecoming. It’s like the embrace between the Father and the prodigal son. It’s a husband and wife reunited in long lost love after being estranged from one another. It’s a bear hug between brothers. Shalom. It’s Han and Chewie exchanging the look that says no matter what kind of hard time we give each other, I’d die for you in a heartbeat. It’s the feeling you get when you walk into a home filled with a family’s love, and you’re a part of that family. Shalom. It’s the kingdom of God at work in the human heart, it’s mercy triumphing over judgment, it’s the forgiveness of sins, it’s swords being beaten into ploughshares, it’s lions lying down with lambs, and it’s the new heavens and the new earth, fully integrated in God-breathed new creation. Shalom.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Charis and Eirene.

Favor and Shalom.

Paul, a delegate of King Jesus serving at the pleasure of God, has a message to deliver to those others who are set apart as belonging to King Jesus, those who are made family together, brothers and sisters, by their faith in the King. This is an authorized message, bearing the seal of the King. It is a blessing, the weight of the Holy Breath behind it. It is the agenda the whole letter seeks to further.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Paul is in prison for his service to the wrong King. Unwilling to declare that Caesar was Lord, and holding fast to his allegiance to Jesus as Lord, the Romans imprisoned him. Grace and peace are the furthest things from him in this world. He is out of favor. He is the one those in power have their heart inclined against. He is in forced exile, cut off, isolated; Shalom, it might seem, put out of reach.

And yet,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Charis and Eirene.

Favor and Shalom.

Of all that could be said, of every hope that could be offered, why this brace of blessings? Why grace to you and peace from God our Father?

Because the very things stripped from Paul in the natural world are the very things God is doing on the face of the earth in and through his growing family. And Paul will gladly suffer the loss of what this world has to offer if it shines a light on what the light of the world has to offer. (Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.)

Grace is the essence of the good news of Jesus the King. And Peace – the Shalom kind of peace – is the salvation that it brings. If the grace of which Jesus conceived is truly received, and grace in its turn is announced by its recipients in every conceivable way, then the heavens will grip the earth with unshakeable shalom, and unshackled love will have its way once and for all.

Grace and peace. This is the salvation unique to Jesus among all other figures in religious and spiritual history.


Consider: What if the universe is fundamentally relational in nature? Quantum physicists even suggest that, at the very core of matter and energy, are mysterious and unexplainable relationships. That particles can maintain relationship with each other over vast distances of space, despite having no mechanism to communicate with each other. And that every observer has an impact on what is observed, simply by engaging in observation. If the basic building blocks of the universe are relationally charged, might that not be a sign pointing to a deeper reality?

What if what matters, ultimately, is how we stand in relation to the gifts and responsibilities we have been given, how we stand with one another, and how we stand with God?

Imagine I have wronged you. Imagine I thoughtlessly cut you off in traffic, causing you to spill hot coffee all over your freshly detailed car, and perhaps even burning your hand. And imagine you pull up alongside of me, and give me a “hey, dude, what’s up with that!?” look. And imagine I attempt to show you my ring finger, but instead its neighboring and longer finger takes its place. And then you wave me off, disgusted. And then we both arrive here at the church parking lot, getting out of cars, face to face. Something has happened to our relationship. It has taken a hit. Whatever Shalom might have been present when our alarms went off is disrupted. Something stands between us and embrace, does it not?

Things of this nature, less severe and more, less ill intentioned and more, happen across the face of the earth, day by day, year by year. Shalom between us and one another is disrupted – we have hurt one another by sins of commission and omission. Shalom between us and our gifts and responsibilities is disrupted – we have not stewarded them well, or abandoned them, or exploited them for selfish purposes, or failed them. Shalom between us and God is disrupted – we blame him for things we cannot control, or we’ve cursed him to free ourselves for other pursuits, or we’ve gotten bad information about him and turned our backs on him for one reason or another. And grace, grace seems in short supply. Bitterness, anger, judgment, envy, hate, jealousy, disappointment – there is plenty of that to go around.

Now back to you and me standing outside our cars.

The Koran suggests an image of the scales of justice. That what matters, in the end, is the sum total of our actions, good and bad. And that if, in the end, the scales tip towards the good, all will be well. We will be received into Paradise to enjoy our reward. Which is a notion that holds a great deal of intuitive appeal to us.

But in a relational universe, it falls a little flat. What if I recount to you some of the wonderful things I’ve done…? Is that enough to restore Shalom…? Not likely. And if Allah lets me through the pearly gates, you perhaps might take issue with him and his scales.

What about Buddha? Here’s a story of Buddha’s approach to sorting out broken Shalom. [read story of the spit…]

There is, no doubt, great wisdom and challenging perspective present in that teaching. But it doesn’t set things right in a relational universe. It does eliminate a whole heck of a lot of sin – the sinful responses to sin sin. But part of the reason that Shalom is broken is that I am broken, and in my brokenness, I caused a rupture in Shalom between you and me. You may not have made the tear worse, but the tear is still there. Buddha gives a way forward, but Buddha’s way – at least, as best as I can understand it – doesn’t seem to attend to the disrepair left behind. And disrepair is a difficult foundation upon which to build an incorruptible new creation. Which is what we are all longing for, is it not?

Enter Jesus.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father.

Charis and Eirene.

Favor and Shalom.

Grace, Charis, Favor. This is the good news Jesus announces to us, demonstrates for us, embodies. Our present circumstances and condition do not indicate the Father’s heart towards us. Nor can we project his posture towards us by our posture towards him. The kingdom of God is near, at hand, here. In Jesus, he is inclined towards us, with goodness and mercy. Even in our distress, our mourning, our pain, our sin….

When Jesus is incarnated... (peace on earth, goodwill towards humankind…)

When Jesus heals…

When he invites…

When he dines…

When he blesses…

When he dies… (no greater love has anyone than this, than he lay down his life for his friend…)

This is the grace available to me in the nearness of God’s kingdom announced by Jesus, standing outside of the car. Grace that I trust by repenting… And this is the grace available to you in the nearness of God’s kingdom announced by Jesus, standing with me outside of the car. Grace that you can trust by extending forgiveness.

Grace, Charis, Favor. This is what we receive by trusting it. By trusting Jesus. This is what we place our faith in as we follow Jesus in giving it away to others. By repentance. By forgiving. By serving. By generosity. By practicing self-giving love. By loving our enemies. By speaking words of encouragement. By healing the sick. By casting out demons. By serving the poor. By working for justice. And on and on.

And what grace makes way for is peace. Eirene. Shalom.

First with the Father, of course. As we receive the grace of Jesus, we are delivered from exile. We become his brothers and sisters. We become adopted children of his Father. His Spirit is deposited in us, testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children. That all is right between us. That we are at home at last in his Kingdom.

And as we give grace away, expressions of exile all around give way to peace as well. To Eirene. To Shalom.





Just to name a few.

And this is how the Kingdom comes. This is how the heavens establish a foothold on the earth. This is how the gospel takes root. This is the good work begun in us that Jesus will bring to completion.

Peace. Eirene. Shalom. In every incarnation. Jesus, all in all, holding all things together, reconciling to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.


Practical Tips:

1. Repent to somebody. Do you perceive a lack of Shalom in a relationship? Perhaps you sinned. Perhaps you had a sinful response to sin. Own your bit and repent. It will be a step of trust in the Grace of God. Watch the kingdom come and make new foundations for shalom.

2. Forgive somebody. Perhaps somebody sinned against you. Perhaps somebody had a sinful response to your sin. Recognize the debt you are owed, and cancel it, in your heart at least. Watch the kingdom come and make new foundations for Shalom.

3. Give the Prince of Peace a chance. Trust the salvation Jesus offers for the disrupted Shalom between you and God, and you and yourself… Take note of the absence of peace in both of those areas, and decide to surrender your best attempts to make those things right and instead become his follower, responding to his invitation to come to him so that he can give you rest…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hebrews 12: An Exercise in Receiving Gifts

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/27/2011

[to Zion video…]

4In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as children? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,and he chastens everyone he accepts as his child.”

7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate children at all. 9Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10Our parents disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

12Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13“Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

14Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.

18You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

22But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:4-24


Running underneath this whole passage is a powerful truth. For the student of Jesus, in light of Jesus’ good news of the kingdom, life is an exercise in receiving gifts from God’s hand (and then going on from there). Jesus is a gift to us, and so we receive him, and we run with him to receive all the gifts that he is showing us the Father is pouring out on the face of the earth. Our brothers and sisters are gifts, and so we receive them, and we run with them to receive all of the gifts that they are showing us the Father is pouring out on the face of the earth. Our enemies are gifts, and so we receive them, and we run together with them. Now, and because Jesus is risen from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God, when he is our Lord, Life is gift, and blessings of every sort are gift, and even discipline is gift if it’s from the Father, and even redemptive suffering is gift, if it joins us to our savior in his suffering. And so we receive the gift, and we run. Our new lives in Christ have begun as a gift, and so we run freely, as those for whom it is true that everything we have is gift we have received. We run freely, as those for whom it is true that more gift than we can possibly imagine awaits us. We are free to risk, because what we are risking is gift that we were given in the first place. And we are free to risk, because even if we should lose everything, what awaits us is a gift beyond even the gift we lost.


This truth is at the heart of why the passage says “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Discipline is the tool we use to teach our children how to live so that they will thrive in the world they are entering as they grow up, is it not? They take something unauthorized, and we discipline them so that they will trust us to give to them what they need when they need it, and even to give them more than that, plenty to enjoy. They try to manipulate with tantrums and charm and deception, and we discipline them to teach them that they don’t need those tools in relationship with them – we love them and will provide for them out of that love. They get bitter and pout and complain, and we discipline them to teach them to control the storm that rages in them, because that storm will run their lives if they let it, and because that storm is stirred up by an ill-informed understanding of what is theirs by right, and what is gift. [Colin example…?]

As you may remember, the big theme in Hebrews is encouragement for us to join in the forward movement of God. Regardless of the risk, to run, like Jesus, with Jesus, the race set before us. The race that takes us out of comfort and safety and into deeper, more personal, more intimate, more vulnerable relationship with God. And with one another. And with the hurt and brokenness of this world. Because of the joy set before us. Because, through faith, we can see God’s good future ahead of us. Because, through faith, we see the heavenly Jerusalem. Because we have confidence in the promises of God’s kingdom, enough confidence that we welcome the beautiful reality of his rule and reign into the present every time we are faithful to Jesus, every time we forgive, and love our enemies, and pray for healing, and offer thanks in difficulty, and give generously, and sacrifice selflessly, and worship wholeheartedly, and pour ourselves out without demanding anything in return.

Here, towards the end of the letter, the author is holding twin realities in hand, offering them both to us as encouragement.


Reality 1: the race is hard, and that’s good, not bad. The hardness does not mean you are running the race in vain, or running the wrong race. Just the opposite! You are beloved children of a Father who is training to run this race so that you can know the joy set before you. The discipline you are experiencing is love, not punishment. So be encouraged. Go after it. Fix your eyes on Jesus, don’t give up!

Reality 2: every step of this race is gets its energy and power from the place the race started, and by the place the race ends. Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. It is a place of joy, of love – not of fear. And since we are sent on our way by love and with joy, and since we are heading, with joy, towards love, every footstep can be different.

Background: Two mountains, Sinai vs. Zion. Love at a distance, leaving room for fear, vs. Perfect love, which drives out fear.


Israel is set free from slavery in Egypt, receives the law at Sinai, and from there enters the promised land. All of which was a good thing, but ultimately not enough. Ultimately something pointing towards something better that was coming in Jesus. And the response of the Israelites to Sinai was fear and trembling, which God used to ultimately work his purposes, but which was not enough to open the door to new creation. And fear gets in the way of running this current race of joining in the forward movement of God. [stage 2…]

Now, we have been set free by Jesus from slavery to sin, and we have received his Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion – the upper room an open doorway to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place of God’s dwelling that will be joined to the earth when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God come close in love made complete in Jesus. And now we are running the race that leads to that new promised land, not a land to be taken by sword, but by forgiveness. This race leaves from a place where perfect love has driven out fear, and leads to a place where fear serves no purpose, so we can run this race generously, with no fear. [stage 4…]


We are not used to a life founded on love, on receiving, on gift. We are used to a life founded on fear, on taking, on something owed to us. What happens when life is founded on fear, taking, something owed to us? We become aggressive, manipulative, bitter.

Think about the garden of Eden. The whole garden provided as gift. But we feared we were missing something. Something that should have been ours by right. So we took. And the peace was broken. Death entered. Shame. Fear. Cain killed his brother Abel, and Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. What did it cry out for? For vengeance. Something had been taken from him, and the blood draining from his fallen body wanted someone to take it back. All of our training is how to live in a world where we must take what we can, and where we must defend what we have from others who want to take from us. It is a world full of fears. Fears that someone will take from us. Fears that drive us to take for ourselves. Fears that leave us bitter.

Apart from the work of God in our lives through the gospel, our whole orientation to the world around us is fundamentally corrupted by the desire to take. It leads us to have expectations and demands, and when those expectations and demands are not met, we go off the rails of love. Everybody owes us something. We want something from everybody. Respect, maybe. Attention. Consideration. Loyalty. Favor. Support. Ego stroking. A whole host of practical things. And when we inevitably don’t get it, we have one of two sinful responses. Response 1 is that we try to take it, either through coercion or manipulation. We get aggressive, show our power, leverage the other’s weakness. Or we try guilt trips, or the silent treatment, or passive aggressive behaviors.

The problem with all of this is that it’s rooted in fear, not love, so it chokes out the life we are meant to receive from God and one another as a holy gift. No matter what God or your spouse or your kids or your friends or your neighbors or co-workers give you, if you take it from them as something you are owed instead of receiving it as a gift, the love is stripped from it. If you take it through coercion or manipulation, the love is stripped from it. And with the love stripped from it, it has no capacity to give you true life. And it won’t, therefore, be enough. So you will demand more. And take more. [examples…] Or, if you can’t get any more, or you give up on the possibility of getting what you need from them, you are in danger of response 2.

And response 2 is that we get bitter, and out of our bitterness, the relationship sours.

That’s what the root of bitterness is all about that this passage warns us to avoid. What is bitterness but our response when we fail to take what we think belongs to us, or when someone takes something from us, or when we think someone has been unjustly given more than we have? We are afraid that our perceived lack will, in the end, cost us something that matters, that we will lose out because we do not have what we are supposed to have. And so we are bitter.


That is not how life works in God’s good future, in the kingdom of God, in the new creation, when life is founded on love. What happens when life is founded on love, joy, gift? We become generous, free, risk-takers. The life of faith is the life of a person who receives everything and takes nothing, because everything good is a gift, and the giver of the gifts loves us and is not stingy with his gifts. The life of faith is the life of a person who recognizes that all that they have is a gift to be generously given away to others for the sake of God’s kingdom. For the sake of being like the giver. For the sake of demonstrating that the giver can be depended on. For the sake of opening the universe’s door to the gifts that have been stored up since the dawn of time. Because the gifts come from love, and the joy in them can only be unlocked when they are received as gifts, but never when they are taken as something owed.

“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God…that no one is sexually immoral, or profane like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son…”

The race is all about the grace of God, the gifts freely given to his beloved children. Notice this exhortation about sexual immorality right here in the middle – so many forms of sexual immorality are about taking something that hasn’t been given as a gift; so much of having one’s sexuality consecrated to God is about receiving from God as good gift what he has given you, and giving yourself freely to that gift. That’s why there is this comment about Esau, the eldest son of Isaac, who had the gift of the birthright in his hand as a gift, and let it go to take a single meal he desperately wanted.

Every taking robs from you the possibility of truly enjoying a gift – tapping into the kind of joy that comes from the heavenly Jerusalem. When we take anything or anyone as ours instead of receiving as a gift given in love, even a good thing loses its power to bring life and joy.

Money, for example…take any amount and it won’t be enough. So you strive for more. And more. And more. And it is never enough. But receive any amount as a gift from God, and it is always more than enough…

Any relationship, for example…take something from the person as a demand, and you will always be left wanting more – and therefore becoming aggressive, or manipulative, or bitter. But receive what is given as a gift, seeking to give what you are called to give in love, and whatever is received as gift will be a container of joy. [we see this in parents of children with great difficulties so often, do we not? And how often is just the opposite the case in parents of children with great possibilities…?]

The life of the kingdom of God is all about enjoying the grace of God so that we are free to run, and risk, and give, knowing that the gifts will never run out.

This is why the author of Hebrews fixes our eyes on Jesus. He is the one who came to take nothing from us, who received everyone his Father gave to him as gift, who risked everything and gave away everything for the joy set before him, and who now has become our joy, the gift given to us that frees us to never need take from anyone, anywhere, ever again. His blood does not cry out “vengeance!”, but rather, “forgiveness!” Forgiveness to all of us who have taken from him. Forgiveness to all who have taken from us. Because this is the age of grace, of gift, of the kingdom of God.

This is why the author of Hebrews fixes our eyes on Mount Zion, the city of God, the future coming Kingdom that has already come near in Jesus. We need not be concerned with any outcomes with respect to our relationships with others, with respect to our work in this world, with respect to our service to God. The ultimate outcome is already in view,

You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

All that remains for us is to fix our eyes on Jesus, receive the gifts of grace abounding around us, and run, and receive, and run, and receive, and run, and receive, and while we run, give generously, forgive, risk, join God’s forward movement in the world without fear, full of faith.


Practical tips (to be done 1 step at a time):

1. Find the pain. Identify a painful relationship or role. Maybe look for one that sometimes inclines you to bitterness. Your spouse? Child? Parent? Friend? Work situation? Ministry?

2. Note the gain. Identify what you feel entitled to from that relationship or role, or if not entitled to, what you were hoping to gain from it, or want to get out of it; those things you are tempted to find a way to get from it, whether through aggression or subtler manipulation. Recognize that some of the pain you feel in that relationship or role comes from not getting what you “should” get out of it. Writing these things down may be helpful.

3. Trade the gain for the gift. Resolve to receive the person or people in that relationship, or the challenges and struggles of that role, as a gift. A gift to be received with joy, regardless of its current capacity for blessing. (Remember, Jesus received us as we were, with joy, as gift – even when we brought him, mainly, death.)

4. Lace up your shoes. Recognize that all of those things you have written down are already secured for you in Zion, from which your journey has begun, and to which your race is leading you. And that the one standing between you and them (mediating them) is Jesus, no one else. And that he will ensure you have what you need, when you need it, because he loves you. So run, and receive, and run, and receive, and while you run, give generously, forgive, risk, join God’s forward movement in the world without fear, full of faith.