DEVOTIONAL REFLECTIONS – For the week of September 14-19
God Work, Our Hands
We continue in the season “after the Pentecost.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America designates the second Sunday in September as a day to explore the theme, God Work, Our Hands. Not only is this a Sunday theme but it is a “branding” phrase for the ELCA. In reality the phrase describes our way of life as followers of Christ.
Devotions this week ask you to ruminate on this way of life, God Work, Our Hands. Below are statements, Bible texts and questions. Use them as you desire during the week ahead. If you want to share some of your reflections with others, call a faith friend and have a good discussion.
GWOH Sunday provides an opportunity to explore serving our neighbors in new ways and with new partners. It also provides an opportunity to gain new insights, to be renewed in faith and to gain fresh strength for serving in all our daily callings. Loving, liberated service to others is more than a one-time or even ongoing activity. Being baptized into Christ’s life creates a whole new world of relationships — with God, with others and even with ourselves — that is characterized by loving, liberated service.
- “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Name a skill or gift you bring to your day just by being. Consider a gift you need from others and name who is likely to bring that gift to you. Pray thanks for the blessing of being gifts to each other in Christ’s one body.
- “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Much popular religion talks as if we were the primary actors in our lives and God is mostly the passive object of our religious actions, either directly (worship, devotions, prayer) or indirectly (service to others, etc.). This biblical word turns it around: God is the primary actor “in you.” Examine your own faith story in response to some of the following questions. 1. When have you been aware of God at work in you? 2. Was God’s work in you or enabling you more controlling or more liberating? 3. Looking back, what do you see was God’s “good pleasure” that was at work in you?
- “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … [who] emptied himself” (Philippians 2:5, 7). What is God up to with your life when you have been joined to Christ in baptism? The apostle Paul called it being poured out for the life of others. Again, ponder your own faith experience. 1. Where do you pour yourself out most freely to others because Christ’s life is overflowing in you? 2. Where do you sometimes (or often?) end up feeling drained in your service to others? 3. Have you ever experienced “accidental spillage,” when you ended up serving others without intending to do so? 4. Where do you sense the mind of Christ is leading you to pour yourself out for others now?
- “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). A whole life of service flows freely from confidence that God’s baptismal promise of life in Christ will be made complete. 1. When God’s promise is made complete in your life, with whom will you have been a partner in service? 2. When God’s promise is made complete in your life, where will you have gone in service? 3. When God’s promise is made complete in your life, what will have been your greatest joy in serving?
- One of Martin Luther’s most influential writings, “On Christian Freedom,” includes this famous two-part assertion: A Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all. Later he summarizes this essay’s message in a single sentence: A Christian “is lord of sin, death, and hell but, at the same time, servant and obedient and beneficial to all.” (Luther’s Works 31:343-358; Tranvik translation, pp. 49-70; Wengert translation, pp. 487-510) The promises that God makes in God’s Word call to life “a spiritual, inner and new creature” in Christ who trusts God and enjoys freedom. Consider a story or example of when you have experienced the freeing power of God’s Word most powerfully and memorably. What continues to make this liberation you experienced memorable or meaningful for you today?
- To uphold this freedom in God’s promises, Luther clarifies the differences between God’s commandments and promises (or law and gospel): “God’s promises give what the law demands, so that everything may belong to God alone, both the commands and their fulfillment.” Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand … .” (Ephesians 2:10). Where do you most often experience God’s promise working a good work in you? • In your family life? • Among your friends? • At school or work? • In a church activity like worship or a small group for study or prayer? • In a community activity, hobby or service project with others? • When you are with your own thought or in an activity by yourself ?
- In a remarkable image, Luther says that the faith that trusts God confidently is not simply united with God’s promises but “fully swallowed up by them.” What language or image do you use or find most helpful for describing how God’s promises in Christ affect you?
- Luther describes the benefit in terms of three “powers” that faith has: liberation from the demands and condemnation of God’s law; a right relationship with God that trusts God to be truthful and worthy of honor; and a joyous, intimate union with Christ, like the union of marriage partners. In this union with Christ, Christians are the beneficiaries of a “joyous exchange” where Christ bears the burden of their sinfulness, and in return Christians receive the astonishing and undeserved gift of Christ’s mercy and love. Which of these “powers” or benefits do you experience as most liberating? Which have you found to be most empowering? Which brings you closest to where you believe God wants you to be? As a result, Christians have a standing in spiritual matters like “kings and priests.” None of the spiritual “powers and principalities” that oppose God and threaten God’s people (as described in Romans 8:37-39) will prevail against those who are united to Christ.
- “On Christian Freedom” also deliberates on “the outer person.” (Luther’s Works 31:358-377; Tranvik translation, pp. 71-96; Wengert translation, pp. 510-538). Luther continues his exploration of Christian freedom with a discussion about the source and purpose of “good works.” In short, “just as faith makes someone a believer and righteous, so also it produces good works.” For those united to Christ these works are the “fruit of the Spirit” and flow freely and spontaneously from faith, not from any compulsion or demand. Reflect on a story about a time when you discovered yourself acting generously or compassionately in a way you did not plan or expect. Do you associate these experiences with the Holy Spirit?
- When Luther turns to the purpose or goal of a Christian’s service, he writes, “We should be guided in all our works by this one thought alone — that we may serve and benefit others in everything that is done, having nothing else before our eyes except the need and advantage of the neighbor.” A famous parable that Jesus told turns on the question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37). Whom do you consider to be your neighbor?
- Here is another way of asking about neighbors. List the people whom you serve in your various activities throughout the day. Do you see those people as your neighbors? Whose needs do you think you are best prepared to serve? Are they your neighbors? Whose needs make you feel most helpless? With whom can you partner to serve those needs?
- Which of the following statements best expresses what you think it means to serve the “advantage of [your] neighbor”?
- Giving your co-workers opportunities to develop and use their best abilities
- Working with others to remove barriers of exclusion, prejudice and hatred that limit your neighbors’ freedom and full participation in public life
- Sacrificing or deferring an advantage or privilege you have so that your neighbor has the opportunity to use it
- Working for “the common good” — what benefits and improves the whole community, nation and world
- Helping your neighbors to “improve and protect their property and income” (Small Catechism, Seventh Commandment)
- In an interesting passage Luther talks about the service of self-discipline as a Christian. He observes that some become so obsessed with their vain attempts to use their service in self-justification that they come to the point of “injuring their [own] minds and destroying, or at least rendering useless, what makes them human” (Wengert, 512). We serve ourselves best when we simply allow Christ to be our righteousness and Christ’s life to flow through us to our neighbors, so that “we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors what Christ does for us” (525). Think of some of the situations, times and places when you are most vulnerable to making defensive self-justifications. Are those also times when your self-discipline gives way to angry, hurtful words or actions? List some times and places when you have observed Christ’s love flowing through you to a neighbor. Is self-discipline more like planning for and choosing these times and places or like getting out of the way when you sense Christ’s life moving through you?
- God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah is also a baptismal promise to you in Christ. “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Name three to five parts of your body you use in service. What are some physical abilities in which you have some degree of skill or expertise? Where else can you use these abilities? Don’t forget that your body includes voice. How can the words you use honor everyone involved as members of one body of Christ? Offer a brief prayer of thanks for the blessing and joy of a body you can use in service.
- Martin Luther once wrote that “We receive our blessings not from other human creatures, but from God, through them. Creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings.” (Large Catechism, First Commandment) Take several minutes to list the people who have held you in their arms or held your hand. 1. What blessings from God have come to you from those hands? 2. Whose hands have invested the most in bringing God’s blessing to you? Take some time to write or remember a story of when an especially important blessing came to you from God through that person’s hands.
- Close your eyes and visualize what you do with your hands on a typical day, beginning with when you awake, continuing until you go to sleep at the end of the day. When you have visualized an entire typical day, reflect on the following questions. 1. Pay attention to the things you handle during the day. What are some ways you can use those things to bless others? 2. Do you use your hands to touch or hold others’ hands during the day? Are there others who could benefit from responsible touch from your hands? 3. How do you use your hands for expression when you communicate? How do you communicate blessing with your hands? Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have invested your life with blessing, for God’s promise that you will be a blessing to others in Christ, for the blessing that others are for you.
In Jesus Christ, all of life – every act of service, in every daily calling, in every corner of life –
flows freely from a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.