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Archive for Postcards from the Edge

Mar
25

Laodicea: The Measure of Passion

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Passion is a word with multiple uses. We use it to describe the relationship of those who are romantically involved. There are also instances when passion is used to describe feelings so intense that it is implicated with our behavior, such as a crime of passion. We use passion as a descriptor of Jesus’ suffering and death. But most frequently the word passion is used as an expression of things we embrace with enthusiasm, such as a hobby or a favorite sports team. In this sense, I think of passion as the product of high commitment and high enthusiasm. Put those things together and wah-lah: passion!

Which seems to be the very thing missing from our last church, Laodicea.

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginninge of God’s new creation: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on his throne. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:14-22, NLT).

Jesus saw two basic problems in this final church. For one, they were luke warm. They had become acclimatized and assumed the temperature of their culture. When I was in high school I spent many a summer day in the hayfields of northeast Missouri. That was not only hard work, it was hot work. Farmer’s wives would provide ice water in rinsed out milk jugs which was good at the beginning of the day. But by mid afternoon the water had warmed in the afternoon sun and tasted like bath water. We like our drinks hot. We like our drinks cold. But room temperature isn’t very satisfying. What a word picture Jesus provided the church about their spiritual status.

But it wasn’t just that. Jesus noted that they were oblivious to their own spiritual state. Their self assessment was no where close to accurate. They thought they had it all together, but in reality were not unlike a public speaker standing before an audience not knowing his fly is unzipped. No matter how eloquent the speech, all the audience sees is the gaffe.

Jesus gave three wise words to help the church find their center and restore their passion.

1. Buy gold. Gold is an investment. Spiritual passion comes from investing in something worthwhile and lasting.

2. Buy clothes. In the New Testament, clothing is a metaphor for character. Spiritual passion is not sustained by activity, but from within. The Laodiceans were not literally naked. But no amount of external activity can compensate for lack of internal character.

3. Apply ointment to your eyes. Why? So you can look past yourself and see the broken world that Jesus sees.

Indifference is a tricky thing because it never happens all at once. Like a boat adrift at sea, it happens gradually. If we’re not careful we too can become like the Laodiceans and find ourselves in the midst of a church experience where Christ is standing at the door of his own congregation knocking and asking to come in. And worse, being so indifferent that we never knew he was missing.

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In 1271, Niccolo and Mateo Polo went to visit the great Kubla Kahn, who at that time was ruler of India, China and most of the far east. Kubla Kahn was so impressed with the message of Christianity that he requested 300 trained missionaries be sent to his kingdom to learn more about the Christian religion. Three years passed, then five. Eventually two or three missionaries arrived on the scene, but it was too late.

The message to the at Church at Philadelphia is about seizing opportunities.

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Philadelphia. This is the message from the one who is holy and true, the one who has the key of David. What he opens, no one can close; and what he closes, no one can open: “I know all the things you do, and I have opened a door for you that no one can close. You have little strength, yet you obeyed my word and did not deny me. Look, I will force those who belong to Satan’s synagogue—those liars who say they are Jews but are not—to come and bow down at your feet. They will acknowledge that you are the ones I love. Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take away your crown. All who are victorious will become pillars in the Temple of my God, and they will never have to leave it. And I will write on them the name of my God, and they will be citizens in the city of my God—the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven from my God. And I will also write on them my new name. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:7-13, NLT)

Jesus provided three clear images to help readers then and now understand how to interpret and act upon open doors of opportunity. First, the key of David. In Isaiah 22:21-22, Eliakim served as King Hezekiah’s steward. He possessed the “key of David,” which was sort of a master key, providing entrance to the Temple. We understand the importance of keys and will panic at the first notion that they have been misplaced. Keys represent access that allow one to enter through a locked door, but even more, are symbolic of authority as in who has the right to access what is behind the locked door. Jesus’ point is that God is sovereign. God has the master key, determining what doors are open and closed. We may identify opportunities, but only God can determine if the opportunity is really an opportunity or if its just another good idea.

The second image is that of the open door. Jesus was telling the church at Philadelphia that he had unlocked the door of opportunity for them. Even though they didn’t have a lot of resources, the door was standing open and they were expected to walk though it. Many times we evaluate opportunities on the basis of our resources and resourcefulness rather than trusting God to underwrite his calling. We cannot allow our own evaluations and assessments determine whether or not to proceed through open doors. It’s true: where God guides, he provides.

The final image comes from the promise Jesus gave to the Church if they would obey. He told them he would make them pillars. Pillars are symbolic of that which is stable and lasting. If you look at photographs of ancient ruins you’ll notice that though the walls and ceilings have collapsed into rubble, the pillars still stand. Here, I believe that Jesus is telling the Church that its future is secure in direct proportion to the opportunities we seize today.

What open door has God unlocked in front of you? Are you going to walk through it?

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Yesterday I shared two imperatives that Christ gave the Church at Sardis. Today I want to share the next two. If you didn’t read yesterday’s post you’ll want to catch up before reading further.

3. “Go back to where you started!” If you’ve ever lost anything, one strategy you may employ is to retrace your steps with hopes that you’ll find what you’ve lost. Once Christ had the attention of his church, he called them to retrace their spiritual steps back to the place they lost their way. Every now and then its helpful for us to remember why the church exists in the first place. Many churches, both emerging and established, began with a missionary mandate to make disciples in accordance to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). They begin with a fervor to reach out and help people connect with the gospel, and then a point of decision comes. Churches either determine to continue down their path of disciple making, or they look around and feel as though they have accumulated enough people to organize, shepherd, and have fellowship. We don’t know if this is Sardis’ particular problem, but it is clear that this problem exists today.

4. “Repent!” After hearing Christ’s words, he invited them to act upon them, forsaking their present state in favor of taking a new direction.

So what bearing do these imperatives have on our churches and ministries today?

First, we must rely on God’s Spirit to energize and animate our work. Do the ends justify the means? Not in the economy of the Kingdom of God. God’s work must be done God’s way. We may be successful in our own power, but we’ll never be significant (John 15:5).

Second, we must believe that God’s desire for our churches exceeds even our own desires. Much of our time may be spent chasing numbers and pursuing that elusive reputation of being a strong, growing church. Jesus asks us to trust him, to seek guidance from him, and to allow him to energize our work. The results may not be what we think they should be, but at least we wouldn’t have to settle for success. We could be significant.

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Mar
10

Sardis: The Measure of Vitality

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Write this letter to the angela of the church in Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars: “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again. If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief. Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine.
Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches”
(Revelation 3:1-6, NLT)

Do the ends justify the means? This is the dilemma that the believers in Sardis faced. By all standards of measure, the Church at Sardis was successful. They were growing numerically. Led by gifted leaders and talented communicators, this church was the talk of the town. Everyone spoke of the exciting things going on in Sardis. It was the place to be! By every metric available to the human eye, they were successful. Yet Jesus placed his finger on the pulse of the church and pronounced it dead. What gives? In Jesus’ postcard to the church, he offered four imperatives.

1. “Wake up!” This would have been a meaningful attention getter for the people of Sardis. The city itself was a citadel built high upon a hill. A 1,500 foot sheer cliff protected the city from three sides. The city looked like an impregnable fortress. Yet in 549 BC, Cyrus led an army against the town. He sent one soldier to scale the cliff, who climbed the wall and opened the gates from the inside. Again in 218 BC, Antiochus the Great led an army against the city, and under the cover of nightfall sent 15 men to scale the wall, drop inside the fortress, and unlock the gates from the inside. Imagine living in confidence that everything is safe and secure, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by centuries crying out, “Wake up!”

2. “Strengthen what remains.” The goal of any church should not be to be unique. The goal of any church should be to be biblical. The early church formed basic practices following the Day of Pentecost that have served the church for nearly 2,000 years. We find them in Acts 2:42-47. These early believers understood that worship was the ultimate priority of the church and responded to God as he disclosed himself to them. If worship is love on a vertical plane, the fellowship is love on a horizontal plane. They ministered to those in need, enabling them to return to their partnership in the gospel, not unlike an injured athlete is rehabilitated to return to the field of play. They had a grasp of the importance of discipleship and spent large quantities of time learning and being equipped. Finally, and perhaps most fascinating of all, they remained influential, even though 3,000 new members joined their movement all at once.

Tomorrow I’ll share the final two imperatives that Christ employed to this particular congregation is his postcard from the edge.

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What do we need to know about holiness? The Bible affirms time and time again that we are the holy people of God. But what does that mean? To be holy means to be consecrated or set apart for Gods special purposes. Let me explain it this way. When my wife and I got married, my mother gave us a set of china as a wedding gift. As I recall, she got them by cashing in her S & H green stamps. We use those dished for special occasions or when we have guests. China calls for special food and special people. We don’t use it every day, and when we aren’t using it we have it stored in a special place. At one time in our marriage we even had a china cabinet to display our china dishes.

When I was a kid, most of the meals I ate were served on melmac. If you know what melmac is, you’re showing your age. Melmac is a virtually indestructible, plastic plate that is barely one step above paper plates on the food chain. Lisa and I also have some of these unlovely but functional dishes dating back to our kid’s toddler years. We used those to serve kid friendly food like fish sticks, mac and cheese, canned ravioli, pizza rolls, chicken nuggets…you get it. The point is that you don’t put filet mignon on melmac and you don’t serve corn dogs on china. China dishes is the best metaphor for holiness that I know. As God’s holy people, we are fine china in a plastic plate world. Holiness isn’t about our behavior or keeping a long list of rules and regulations. It’s who we are.

Check out Peter’s call to holiness in 1 Peter 1:13-16: So think clearly and exercise self-control. Look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” Holy is who we are in Christ. Holiness has to do with the degree of consistency by which we live in accordance to our nature and purpose.

The problem is that sometimes we put corn dogs on our fine china plates. The good news is that God extends his mercy to us when we do unholy things. When we sin we are not only violating God’s commands, we are living inconsistently with our holy nature. When we sin, God’s Spirit nudges our spirit and convicts us of our sin.

Let me take a brief moment to explain the difference between conviction and guilt. Conviction is from God. It is merciful and invitational. His conviction draws us to return to him in a prodigal son welcome home kind of way. Guilt on the other hand, separates and isolates. Guilt creates shame and avoidance. You may feel guilt about something in your life, but that guilt that isolates is not from God. God’s goal for your life is not to drive you away, in his mercy his goal is to draw you close.

Holiness is important to God because as his holy people our lives are the platform by which we display his love to the world. Just as fine china serves as a platform to present a wonderful meal, your life and mine is the platform of presentation of his glorious love and grace. We are china plates in a plastic ware world. Its important that we are committed to give his love the best presentation we know how.

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Mar
09

Thyatira: The Measure of Holiness

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Holy Bible. Holy Spirit. Holy Ghost. Holy People. We use the word holy all of the time in Church, but do we really know what it means?

My dad grew up in the Great Depression. His mother died when he was five years old. Church was always a part of his struggling family’s life, and he can’t recall ever not being in church. He once told me a story about his religious upbringing. When he was a teenager, he and some of his church buddies decided to skip church one Sunday night in favor of going to the local nickel picture show. The next day his pastor showed up at his farmhouse to pay him a visit. The pastor asked if he had gone to the picture show instead of church the previous night. After my dad confessed to this venial sin, the pastor told him he was expected to respond to the altar call on the next Sunday morning to “rededicate his life to the Lord” and be restored to full fellowship of the church. Not attending the picture show on a Sunday night, among other things, was his first understanding of holiness.

The Church at Thyatira wasn’t all bad. In this postcard, Jesus commended improvement in the areas of love, faith, service and patient endurance (Revelation 2:18-19). But then we find the bind. Thyatira, like many communities of the first century, had trade unions and guilds that required membership in order to participate in the economic marketplace. These unions and guilds were filled with pagan people whose worship included sexual immorality and eating meat offered to idols. These Christians faced a moral dilemma: should they struggle to earn some form of living without participating in the trade guilds? Or should the go along in order to get along. It would have been a challenge then, and I suspect some of you have faced the same challenges to your faith in today’s economy.

In the midst of this struggle and prophetess spoke up with a theological loophole. This “Jezebel” taught the believers that it was okay for them to sin, because their sin proved the grace of God. If they sinned, God had to forgive, and when he forgave they would experience his grace. The more they sinned, the more grace they would receive. Jesus called this theology bogus, and sternly warned them to abandon it (Revelation 2:20-25).

In this series from Revelation, we have been learning about the measures that Jesus uses to evaluate his Church. From Thyatira, we find that holiness is an important matter to him. So what is holiness? What do we need to know about it? In tomorrow’s post I’ll share four important features of holiness that you need to know.

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“Grace, mercy, and peace, which come from God the Father and from Jesus Christ—the Son of the Father—will continue to be with us who live in truth and love. How happy I was to meet some of your children and find them living according to the truth, just as the Father commanded” (2 John 3-4, NLT).

Truth, as I define it, is a pure and reliable reality, created and revealed by God and embraced by faith. So how do we walk in truth?

1. Understand that in Scripture, truth is first relational. Jesus described himself as the embodiment of truth (John 14:6). In John’s prologue to his gospel, he claimed that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In order for us to understand truth we must close the proximity between ourselves and the person of Jesus Christ. He is truth, and to walk in truth implies that we walk closely with Him.

2. Understand that truth is revealed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that all truth is given by God and is revealed to us by our true teacher, the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Its like sitting in a dark room, where we can only make out the silhouettes and shadows of unclear images. The Holy Spirit is the one who comes and turns on the light switch revealing with clarity the objects before us. The light doesn’t change the objects in the room. It simply reveals them. When we can see clearly we are able to walk freely without stumbling or falling (John 8:31-32).

3. Understand that the purpose of comprehending truth is transformation. Truth carries moral, ethical and behavioral dimensions. To know the truth and live in truth is to be transformed by truth. In short, it changes the way we live. James emphasizes this in his epistle with statements such as “faith without works is dead” (James 1:17) and “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

That’s how we walk in truth.

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Feb
24

Pergamum: The Measure of Truth

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Pergamum was an interesting church. Located about 55 miles north of Smyrna, it was known for education, housing the second largest library in the world at that time. It was also a place of religious pluralism. There were six major temples in Pergamum, three devoted to the gods of Greek mythology and three dedicated to Roman emperors. In the midst of the ideas and ideology of this progressive center stood a band of believers faced with a unique challenge. Should they remain orthodox in their faith? Or should they synthesize the common cultural beliefs into their religious practice?

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Pergamum. This is the message from the one with the sharp two-edged sword: “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city. But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:12-17, NLT).

What is truth? That’s the question that first spilled from the lips of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus. If I may, let me offer a working definition of the word.

Truth is a pure and reliable reality created and revealed by God that is embraced by faith.

Let me unpack that definition. Truth is pure in the sense that it is unadulterated, unmixed, and absolute. In this sense, something is either true or it is not. Truth is reliable in that it is changeless. If truth is fluid or dynamic, it ceases to be truth in the sense of the definition. Truth is reality. This one is tricky because we have been educated to think of reality as limited to the material realm. We can comprehend material through our senses and verify its existence through the scientific method. But in God’s economy, spiritual reality is as real as matter, even though it cannot be measured or weighed.

The pure and reliable reality that I speak of is created by God. All truth is God’s truth. We do not invent truth; rather we discover it. For example, 2+2=4. We would agree that that equation is “truth.” But did we invent that? Or simply discover it? What about the law of gravity? Was gravity invented? Or was it discovered? The things that we hold as truths are not invented in laboratories. They are discovered as we venture through life.
The truth that God created is understood because God has chosen to disclose or reveal it to us. This is especially the case regarding spiritual reality. We may open our Bibles to seek spiritual truth, but we only comprehend it as the Holy Spirit of God reveals it to us.

Regardless of the truth, ultimately it must be embraced by faith. Much of life is lived by faith whether we choose to attribute it to faith or not. Suppose you were to walk into a restaurant. The server seats you at a table and offers you a menu. Perhaps the server explains the daily special. You take your time and look over the menu. The server returns and you place your order. After an appropriate amount of time the server returns to your table with your order and places it before you. You place your napkin in your lap and take your silverware and begin to eat, all the while assuming that the food is not spoiled and the meat has been cooked at the proper temperature. You enjoy your meal not questioning whether the chef has Hepatitis or your server washed his hands after using the restroom. You eat and drink, assuming the tableware has all been washed and sanitized to health department standards. Scientifically you are aware that there are health department standards for restaurants. But it is by faith you assume they have been followed.

So what do we do with this? Tomorrow I’ll give three ways that we are to walk in truth.

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Jesus never spoke of discipleship without referencing the cross. Perhaps the most familiar of these references is found in Luke 9:23, where Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (NLT).

Often I hear people apply this verse as a means of coping with an adversity. When describing a hardship, they tag it with “I guess that this is just my cross to bear.” Your problems are not your “cross.” Your cross is the cost of your daily commitment to live life in full obedience and surrender to Jesus Christ. When we choose to carefully follow Christ we simultaneously acknowledge that the decision to follow will be accompanied with a price. It’s not a one time cost, but an ongoing sacrifice. Paul called upon the Roman believers to make it a daily practice to climb on the altar as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). He further acknowledged that crucifixion is a daily part of our Christian discipleship (Galatians 2:20). So how does the cross and cross bearing help us understand discipleship?

Years ago I heard a person describe the three characteristics of someone on a cross.
1. A person on a cross can only face one direction.
2. A person on a cross is there at the will of another.
3. A person on a cross has no immediate plans that are his or her own.

Its impossible to unpack everything there is to know about discipleship in one simple post. But if you want to understand it at its most basic level, remember that Jesus always framed the conversation with the cross. If you center your discipleship on the cross you’ll follow faithfully.

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One of the reasons for the rapid rise of Hitler’s influence in Germany was his manipulation and use of religion. Hitler understood that if he could persuade the pastors of Germany’s churches he could increase the tempo of his plan for world domination. Playing upon the Jew’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, he convinced the pastors to use their influence and support. Pastors who did not cooperate with his agenda were imprisoned. One such pastor was a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer remained faithful even in the midst of great pressure to capitulate, a decision that would eventually cost him his life. He was executed in a concentration camp in 1945. One of the treasures that remains is a book he wrote titled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, he points out that following Christ is often a costly decision. The most famous line from his book is probably familiar to you: “When God calls a man to follow him he bids him come and die.”

The Church at Smyrna was acquainted with the cost of discipleship. The very name of the city implies suffering and sorrow. Smyrna comes from the same word that gives us the word “myrrh,” which you’ll recall is was one of the gifts presented by the Magi to the baby Jesus. It was an ointment used to prepare bodies for burial.

The message to the Church at Smyrna is brief. Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive: I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:8-11, NLT).

As Jesus evaluated the Church at Smyrna he observed the great cost of their discipleship and commended their faithfulness. Their suffering, literally the word thilipsis, is a word picture for one who has placed their shoulder to the grindstone. It connotes stress, struggle and strain to the point of exhaustion. In his remarks, Jesus pointed to four areas where they suffered.

First there was exclusion through poverty. These believers, like many in the first century, were trying to do honest business in a dishonest world. Both Jews and pagans alike would refuse to do any business with these Christians, excluding them from the marketplace, which made it difficult for them to survive. Second, there was aggression through slander and misrepresentation. Though the Christians did their best to live lives that were above reproach they couldn’t control what others thought or said of them. Then there was isolation through imprisonment and even martyrdom.

In antiquity, Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. In AD 156, some 60 years after John’s vision of Christ on Patmos, Polycarp was burned at the stake. As they prepared to light the flames Polycarp was given one final opportunity to secure his freedom by renouncing Christ. His response is remarkable.

“In 86 years Jesus Christ has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.”

What is the true nature of discipleship? What is your discipleship costing you? I’ll take that up the remainder of this week from the Church at Smyrna.

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