golden nuggets from Sirach (1)

 

On of the things I’m about this year in my reading is working through the Apocrypha, paying special attention to the book of Sirach (aka: Ecclesiasticus). More and more so each year, Sirach becomes one of my favorite writings. It’s not a book for quick reading. To truly appreciate what’s being said in it, you must read it slowly and repeatedly, with reflection.

Following are five of the statements that have jumped out at me in my reading of Sirach this time through. Put them in your head and let them steep a bit.

“My child, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.” (Sirach 2.1)

“… conduct your affairs with gentleness, and you will be loved more than a person of good repute.” (Sirach 3.17)

“Don’t deprive a poor person’s life, and don’t avoid looking the needy in the eyes. … Listen to the poor, and reply with peaceful and gentle speech.” (Sirach 4.1,8)

“Don’t lower yourself before a fool, and don’t show partiality toward the powerful. Fight to the death on behalf of truth, and the Lord God will fight for you.” (Sirach 4.27-28)

“Don’t be preoccupied with your money, and don’t say, ‘I’m self-sufficient.’” (Sirach 5.1)

elders: a closer look at their qualifications (3)

 

A third vital question potential candidates for an eldership should be asked can be worded colloquially: do they play well with others? Consider the following Scriptures and you’ll see the basis for such a question.

a. Do they bully anyone?

“They shouldn’t be … a bully.” (1 Timothy 3.3a CEB)

“… supervisors [episkopos] shouldn’t be … a bully …” (Titus 1.7b CEB)

The Greek word translated here as “bully” is plektes and the two texts under consideration include all of the word’s occurrences in the NT. The word casts a large net, being descriptive of someone who strikes, hits, jabs, or shoves people, be it with their ways or their words. As Philip H. Towner wisely notes:

“The degrees and modes of violence that the word might express are numerous (bullying, verbal abuse, angry pushing and shoving), and the prohibition should be regarded as widely as possible.” (The Letters to Timothy and Titus, p.253)

The eldership is no place for a person who pushes people around, verbally or physically. Period.

b. Are they gentle in their dealing with others?

“… they should be gentle …” (1 Timothy 3.3b CEB)

Epieikes is the Greek word translated here as “gentle.” It refers to the giving of kindness and leniency. A person who practices epiekes knows when to extend grace and not stand on their rights or operate slavishly by the law.

Many years before the apostle Paul, Aristotle defined epiekies thus:

“To pardon human failings; to look to the law-giver, not to the law; to the intention, not to the action; to the whole, not to the part; to the character of the actor in the long run and not in the present moment; to remember good rather than the evil, and the good one has received rather than the good that one has done; to bear being injured; to wish to settle a matter by words rather than deeds.” (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, pp.83-84)

Epiekies appears only five times in the NT and a thoughtful reading of its occurrences aside from 1 Timothy 3.3 is helpful.

(1) Epieikes isn’t just for those we like or feel some natural affinity toward:

“Let your gentleness [epieikes] show in your treatment of all people.” (Philippians 4.5 CEB)

(2) Our speech should give ample evidence of epieikes:

“Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind [epieikes], and show complete courtesy toward everyone.” (Titus 3.1-2 CEB)

(3) Consider the company epieikes keeps:

“What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle [epieikes], obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.” (James 3.17 CEB)

(4) And notice epieikes’ opposite:

“Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind [epieikes] masters but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2.18 CEB)

A church with an eldership comprised of individuals full of epieikes (gentleness) would be a blessed church indeed.

c. And finally, are they peaceable toward all?

“… they should be … peaceable …” (1 Timothy 3.3b CEB)

The word is amachos and it appears only here and in Titus 3.2 in the NT. It originally had reference to the absence of physical fighting, as in hand-to-hand combat in wartime. However, through time it came to take on a broader meaning, meaning a complete lack of strife, quarreling, or jockeying for position of any kind. Inscriptions on ancient graves sometimes record the words of a loving husband praising his wife over her not being contentious or quarrelsome, but amachos.

Imagine what personal relationships within and without of the eldership would be like if amachos was the road always traveled.

A final note. The opponents of Timothy and Titus had none of these qualities, being given to the raising of “foolish and thoughtless discussions” that produced “conflicts,” “stupid controversies” and “fights.” (2 Timothy 2.23-25; Titus 3.9) As to confronting their opponents, Paul directed Timothy and Titus to not descend to the level of their adversaries, fighting fire with fire.

Elders after the model of Scripture follow the way of this directive, too, being peacemakers in the church, humble and gracious in spirit, actions, and communication. That is, they play well with others.

the wisdom of peace

NOTE: Following is a copy of the discussion guide that will be used in MoSt Church’s LIFE groups tomorrow (Sun., Oct. 30). This guide will enable your follow-up of the sermon that I’ll preach, God willing, that morning from James 3:13-18. You’ll find these LIFE group discussion guides categorized each week here on my site under the category title LIFE group guides.

Aim

To appreciate God’s peace as we live by his wisdom and how wise it is to live in his peace.

Word

“Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. … (17) What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. (18) Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” (James 3:13,17-18 CEB)

Open

Icebreaker questions are meant to simply get us all talking. Choose one of the following to discuss as a group.

1. Recount a funny instance of your knuckleheadedness when you failed to use “wisdom.”

2. One thing I do to try and bring peace in a tense situation is to __________.

Dig

These questions are intended to help us grapple directly with the sermon’s primary Scripture text.

1. We’re to have a humble lifestyle (vs. 13). In context, what would such a lifestyle look like?

2. How would everything change if the wisdom from above was not “pure?” (vs. 17a)

3. Compare the wording of the seven qualities of pure wisdom from above (vs. 17) in several different English translations. What variation in wording do you notice?

4. Pick a word from vs. 17 and explain how such is crucial to forming or keeping peace.

5. Substitute the phrase “right relationships between people” for the word “justice” in vs. 18. How does this help you understand James’ point with this whole passage?

Reflect

These questions facilitate our sharing what we sense God’s Spirit is doing with us through his word.

1. God is what he expects of us. Recount an instance in the life of Jesus Christ that depicts him living out each of the seven qualities mentioned in vs. 17.

2. Would you say there can be wisdom in a church without peace? How about real peace without wisdom? How do you think James would answer those two questions?

3. What sort of things would you expect to be common in a church that was well exercised in the seven qualities enumerated in vs. 17? What would you expect to be hard to find?

4. James points to the seven qualities in vs. 17 as distinctives of true heavenly wisdom. What would you say the church today tends to emphasize as her “wisdom distinctives?” How does the list you come up with differ from the list here in James?

5. James says the experience of peace among Christians doesn’t just happen, rather, it is the result of deliberate effort. It’s like the work of a farmer (“sow … seeds of justice;” vs. 18). What qualities must a farmer exhibit when planting seed and expecting a harvest? How are those qualities necessary for the work of planting seeds of peace?

6. As a group, recite and practice the last sentence of vs. 17 until you have it memorized.

7. Pick one of the seven qualities in vs. 17 that you would say best completes the following sentence: “If I was truly wise, I would personally work hard at becoming more __________.”

what of the wisdom from above?

What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. (James 3:17 CEB)

James is thinking out loud here.

“What of the wisdom from above?”

With these words you can see the reflection and thought in his eyes. You can hear the gears turning; you can see the wheels moving. What will come of his thought work? Whatever, it will be authentic, clean, and holy.

“First, it is pure …”

And so James chooses his next words with great care. It is no random list. Each word is handpicked, carefully selected from the many available.

“… it is … peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.”

With these words James now sets my mind’s gears to turning. My thoughts begin to race; random questions fill my mind.

You see, this is passage is nothing if it isn’t focused practicality. It’s anything but abstract; it’s work. It casts a vision that calls us to consider again our ways and what could, indeed must, be. It’s a call to personal repentance and deliberate activity. It’s a calling down of heaven’s glory to permeate the spirit of his people.

And so then what will I do with it?

I have to wonder …

What change might be wrought in my life if I memorized this Scripture and recited it to myself throughout the day and throughout the rest of my days? What sort of things might God’s Spirit work into my spirit and what sort of person might I become?

What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. (James 3:17 CEB)

Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist, often used this very passage in his speeches to critique Christian slave-holders. This is the word from God he used as he attempted to break the bonds that kept so many minds captive. He could hardly have chosen a better text for the task.

Me thinks this text remains up to the task today. The task, that is, of setting hearts and lives free. Free from the slavery of selfishness. Free from the imprisonment of living life “set on cruise.” Free from the restraint of merely doing what we think has always been done.

It’s all here in it’s purity, the pearl of heavenly wisdom. And it is here for us to behold and to become. Let us wisely do so. Let us bring heaven’s wisdom down to earth and live it out in our lives.

What of heaven’s wisdom? I tell you from its purity flows peacefulness, gentleness, obedience, fairness, a life filled with mercy and good doings. It is real. (James 3:17 DSV)

In the name of Jesus, Heavenly Father, let my life become these words. Amen.

ct: true gentleness

(Reflecting on Philippians 4:4-9)

Let your gentleness be known to everyone” – good advice, comforting advice, unremarkable advice. …

We [regrettably tend to] … hear Paul’s recommendation … as confirmation of the widespread assumption that what it means to be a Christian is pretty much the same thing as what it means to be a good person. Indeed we are a bit embarrassed by Christians who claim that being a Christian makes them different from those who are not Christian. … When it is all said and done, we believe that there is not that much difference between Christians and non-Christians. We all know, for example, people – oftentimes friends – who are not Christians but who live better lives than we do. …

There is just one problem with this way of reading Paul’s commendation of gentleness, truth, honor, justice, and purity: namely, that he is writing from jail. … [And] if the virtues Paul recommends are generally recognized as a “good thing,” how … did Paul get himself arrested? …

This suggests we need to reconsider our presumption that what it means to be a Christian is not all that different than what most people think it means to be a good person. …

… truth has sprung from the earth – from a cross planted in the earth – because our God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. That is the gentleness Paul believes has constituted Christians in the church … That is the truthful gentleness Paul commends. For it is surely the case that gentleness abstracted from the truth of the cross becomes but sentimentality, ready to compromise with the worst injustice in the name of a peace that too often only names an order built on violence.

Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, pp.105,106,107,108,109

fresh bread: the magnificent seven

Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts. (James 3.13-18 CEB)

Most of us own two Bibles: the first we access with our hands and the second we carry around in our head. The former is complete, but used so only rarely. The latter is very limited, but is always instantly accessible.

Realizing we all have quite limited memory and tend to act mostly on the basis of our engagement with that with which we’re already most familiar, it would be wise to choose, and to choose carefully, the passages of Scripture that we will carry in our second Bible. That is, knowing that we cannot carry all of Scripture all of the time, we will carry well what we can knowing that what we feed our head can only lead to a more deliberate way of living for God.

And if this course of action would speak of living wisely, then how could we fail to include in our second Bible some of what Scripture has to say about wisdom itself? But what specific verses to include?

I would nominate this passage from James. Why? Because it candidly identifies and steers us away from our “natural” misconceptions of wisdom and clearly defines for us how “supernatural” wisdom is expressed. We tend to think of wisdom in two ways: it’s something that happens in our head and only a gifted few attain it; it is purely reasoned and rare. But God’s Spirit speaks differently. God longs to give every Christian wisdom and his wisdom is nothing if it isn’t lived; his wisdom is intended to be pervasive and practical.

Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom … the wisdom from above. (James 3.13,17a CEB)

What I need to carry around with me and see lived out through me is this heavenly wisdom and a portion of this passage magnificently speaks of the seven facets of this gem called “wisdom from above.”

“… the wisdom from above … is (1) pure, … (2) peaceful, (3) gentle, (4) obedient, (5) filled with mercy and good actions, (6) fair, and (7) genuine.” (James 3.17b)

Imagine yourself meditating on one of those seven words throughout the day on each of the seven days in a week for a month. Imagine bathing those thoughts in prayer for their expression in your actions. What sort of change might the Spirit of God work in you, inside and out? Imagine an entire church family with minds not only so fixed, but their actions governed by such. Imagine the possibilities and the creativity of the expression of such wisdom and the harvest God might cause to grow from the planting of such seeds. Would it not be be magnificent?

Let’s pray.

Father of all wisdom, through the wisdom of your Word I pray, daily open my heart and habits to the wisdom of your Spirit. And having gifted me with your Spirit’s wisdom, Father, may I always show it in all of my ways. Amen.