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Peter Chrysologus: Fast of simplicity

Today’s post is admittedly long, but worth reading. I enjoyed this sermon on fasting and almsgiving so much, that I have decided to share a large excerpt of it as today’s post. Read, be inspired to undertake a fast of simplicity in the fortress of your heart, and store up your treasures in heaven to show you believe, lest you too, like too many, be found a hypocrite. God, help us be found faithful.

“Whoever flees hypocrisy conquers; whoever runs into it does not escape. Let us flee hypocrisy, let us flee it, my brothers. May ours be the fast of simplicity; may it be holy from our innocence, pure from our purity, sincere from our sincerity. May it be hidden from people, unknown to the devil but known to God. Whoever does not hide his treasure flaunts it; virtues that are flaunted will not remain. Just as virtues desert those who flaunt them, so they work hard at shielding those who shield them. Therefore, fasting, which is the first virtue against vices, should be placed in the fortress of our heart, since, so long as it presides within us, vices will not be able to disturb us from without.

In order for a Christian to be able to possess it, this is what Christ urges when He says, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, in order not to be seen fasting by others, but only by your Father who is hidden; and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matthew 6:17-18). When He says, Anoint your head and wash your face, the master is not enjoining His servants to have the hair of their heads saturated with seductive ointment, nor does He want their faces to gleam with habitual washings, but He does want a Christian to hide the fact that he is fasting by looking as he does when he is eating, and since he does not want Christian fasting to be characterized by an artificial sadness. But let us resume what we have begun.

Anoint your head and wash your face (v. 17). He is not hereby endorsing sensuous appearances, but is prohibiting looks that are pretended. A face downcast in sadness professes a hunger against one’s will, not a voluntary fast. If a person is willing, why the sadness? If unwilling, why the fast? One deserves to live in such pain who creates for himself a vice out of a virtue, a lie out of truth, a loss out of gain, a sin out of forgiveness. If the farmer does not push the plow, if he does not dig a furrow, if he does not cut down the briars, if he does not root out the grass, if he does not place seeds in the earth, he deceives himself, not the earth; he does no harm to the earth, but he produces no harvest for himself. And if the one who deceives the earth with his fraudulent and empty hand so deprives, so cheats, and so attacks himself, what will one do, what will he have, what will he find who lies to God with his flesh starving but brimming over with hypocrisy?

And since we have made mention of the farmer, let him know that he engages in an empty labor and he will have nothing if he pushes the plow of fasting, plucks out the weeks of gluttony, and roots out the briars of luxury, but sows no seeds of mercy. This is what the Lord wanted to reveal when during His teaching on fasting He added these words: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where robbers break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes, where thieves do not break in and steal (vv. 19-20).

How fatherly, how deeply rooted in love, what a far-seeing counsel of charity! He wants you to lose nothing, he who wants your property to be stored in heavenly treasure chests. How securely does one sleep who has deserved to have God as guardian of his goods! How liberated from care is he, how much anxiety has he cast aside, how tranquil is he, what arrogance from his slaves does he avoid by entrusting his goods to be kept safe by his Father. Paternal affection preserves goods in a way that servile fear cannot. The Father who gives his own goods to his sons does not embezzle what the sons have entrusted. He does not know what a father is nor that he is a son who does not believe his father.

Door-bolts do not shut moths out but shut them in. They produce them rather than repel them. Things kept in storage invite rust rather than prevent it. For what takes its origin from the thing itself is unavoidable. Where there is need, thieves cannot but be present. Therefore, whoever deposits his goods amidst moths, rust, and thieves exposes his goods instead of protecting them. Just as a moth originates from clothes, rust from metal, and a thief from need, so avarice arises out of wealth, covetousness out of acquisition, greed out of having possessions.

So, let whoever wants to conquer avarice, to stamp out covetousness, to extinguish the burning fire of greed, give away his wealth and not store it up. Brothers, let us send our treasure chests ahead of us to heaven. The poor are the transports who in their lap can carry to the heavens what is ours. Let no one have any hesitation about the qualifications of these porters. Safe this is, this transportation through which our goods are carried to God with God as the guarantor.”

Peter Chrysologus (c. 380 – c. 450) in Sermon 7.3-5 in St Peter Chrysologus: Selected Sermons Volume 2 (The Fathers of the Church-A New Translation; Washington D.C.; CAUP, 2004) 37-39.

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Leo the Great: Lenten inspiration

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4

“The self-restraint of the religious should not be gloomy, but sincere; no murmurs of complaint should be heard from those who are never without the consolation of holy joys. The decrease of worldly means should not be feared in the practice of works of mercy. Christian poverty is always rich, because what it has is more than what it has not. Nor does the poor man fear to labour in this world, to whom it is given to possess all things in the Lord of all things. Therefore those who do the things which are good must have no manner of fear lest the power of doing should fail them; since in the gospel the widow’s devotion is extolled in the case of her two mites, and voluntary bounty gets its reward for a cup of cold water. For the measure of our charitableness is fixed by the sincerity of our feelings, and he that shows mercy on others will never want for mercy himself.”

Leo the Great (c. 400-461) pope and doctor of the church, in Sermon 42 on Lent.

How is your Lenten journey going? I found three points of fresh inspiration today from this excerpt of Leo the Great’s sermon on Lent. With each one I leave you with a question to ponder.

Firstly, consider this statement. “The decrease of worldly means should not be feared in the practice of works of mercy.” Obedience to the hard teachings of Jesus on money does not leave you empty, but rather, enriched. Don’t fear the decrease of worldly means. Do you give as though God is your Provider?

Secondly, think on this idea. “Christian poverty is always rich, because what it has is more than what it has not.” Jesus only celebrates when you give out of your poverty because only then do you show the world that having Christ is having all you need. Do you exhibit Christian poverty?

Thirdly, and this comment may be the most powerful. “He that shows mercy on others will never want for mercy himself.” If you want to guarantee that God looks after you, spend yourself and the resources in your stewardship on those God cares about. Do you live trusting God to sustain and reward you?

I’ve been working for days on a research project for Asbury Theological Seminary. It’s in process. God help me finish it in the next few days.

Tonight, we are headed to the fish fry at the local Catholic church with our neighbors, Ken and Carol Sharp. It brings back memories of going to get fish on Friday nights when I grew up, back in Ohio on Lake Erie.

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Ambrose of Milan: The command of mercy

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:35-36

“The command of mercy is common to all walks of life, is necessary for people of all ages, and is to be handed down by all. The tax collector is not exempt, nor is the soldier, nor the farmer, nor the city dweller, rich or poor. All are admonished in common to help the one who does not have.”

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) as recounted in On Almsgiving by by Martin Chemnitz (St. Louis: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2004) 12.

“The command of mercy is common to all.” Why are we all commanded to give to others what they do not deserve? That’s precisely what Jesus did for us. Only when we go and do likewise do we exhibit Christian generosity. It’s countercultural, for sure, and applies to every follower of Christ, everywhere.

Ambrose was a regional governor who was appointed bishop. In his community service role he connected the sacred and secular worlds into one way of living. The people appointed him bishop because they appreciated how he made sure God’s love and mercy were made known to everyone, everywhere.

What about you? As the command of mercy is common to all, how are you helping those around you who do not have?

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Basil of Caesarea: True fast

“Isaiah has taught us the grace of fasting, rejecting the Jewish manner of fasting and showing us the true fast. “Do not fast to quarrel and fight, but loose every bond of iniquity” (Isaiah 58:4, 6). And the Lord adds: “Do not be gloomy, but wash your face and anoint your head” (Matthew 6:16-17). So let us acquire the disposition that we have been taught, not looking gloomy on the days of fasting we are currently observing, but cheerfully disposed toward them, as is fitting for the saints. No one crowned is despondent; no one glum holds up a trophy. Do not be gloomy while you are being healed. It is absurd not to rejoice in the soul’s health, and rather to sorrow over the change in food and to appear to favor the pleasure of the stomach over the care of the soul. After all, while self-indulgence gratifies the stomach, fasting brings gain to the soul. Be cheerful since the physician has given you sin-destroying medicine. For just as worms breeding in the intestines of children are utterly eradicated by the most pungent medicines, so too, when a fast truly worthy of this designation is introduced into the soul, it kills the sin that lurks deep within.”

Basil the Great, (330-379) bishop of Caesarea and doctor of the Eastern Church in First Homily on Fasting.

I did not add a Scripture to today’s post as Basil astutely connected two key biblical texts on fasting for us in his homily. At least three wise insights surface for me from my reading that are worth sharing widely.

Firstly, caring for your soul surpasses pleasing your stomach. I am finding that praying the Psalms at the divine hours has been food for my soul this Lent. As life is really full, we must attend to soul care over dietary needs.

Secondly, don’t be gloomy but be cheerful when you fast. Basil declares the reason for this reversal. “The physician has given you sin-destroying medicine.” And, the best part about sin-destroying medicine: we can’t overdose.

Thirdly, when we put that which is better in us, “it kills the sin that lurks deep within.” I pray your times of fasting this Lent are shaping you into a new person for life after Lent. Transform us as we feast on you, Jesus.

Together these insights inspire us to pursue a true fast so that we attend to the care of our souls, so that we appear as glad rather than gloomy, and so that God forms us into new people in the process.

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Clement of Rome: Better than both

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:42

“Seeing then that we are partakers of so great kindness, let us not grudge ourselves the obtaining of so many good things. For in proportion as the pleasure is great which these words bring to them that have performed them, so also is the condemnation great which they bring to them that have been disobedient.

Therefore, brethren, since we have found no small opportunity for repentance, seeing that we have time, let us turn again unto God that called us, while we have still One that receiveth us. For if we bid farewell to these enjoyments and conquer our soul in refusing to fulfill its evil lusts, we shall be partakers of the mercy of Jesus.

But ye know that the day of judgment cometh even now as a burning oven, and the powers of the heavens shall melt, and all the earth as lead melting on the fire, and then shall appear the secret and open works of men.

Almsgiving therefore is a good thing, even as repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving better than both. And love covereth a multitude of sins, but prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every man that is found full of these. For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin.”

Clement of Rome (c. 35-100) in 2 Clement 15:5-16:4 or the Second Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, also know as one of the earliest Christian sermons still available to us today. The edition was translated by J.B. Lightfoot.

I have been looking for fasting, prayer, and almsgiving in sermons through church history and really appreciate how the early church fathers present these spiritual disciplines. I also liked how my word for the year, kindness, appeared in this one. Consider four thoughts today in response.

Firstly, obedient living must always be understood as a response to God’s kindness. Clement says we are “partakers” of both “His great kindness” and of “the mercy of Jesus” and that comes with a challenge to forsake fleshly enjoyments and desires.

Secondly, almsgiving is likened to repentance. It’s like taking a u-turn in the way we spend God’s money. Instead of holding it or squandering it on ourselves, we spend it on others.

Thirdly, Clement tells us that fasting surpasses prayer and that almsgiving tops both. With this he teaches us that prayer often aims at asking God to fulfill our desires for us. With fasting we set aside our desires. But with almsgiving we do both of those things. We surrender our will and our resources to those God cares about, and in so doing, we place our trust in God to sustain us.

Fourthly, almsgiving lifts the burden of sin. How does it do this? I know too many people that have been destroyed or enslaved in sin because of their wealth. When we deploy our surplus to help someone else have enough, we take resources that could be used for sin and use them for righteousness.

These are beautiful words from Clement, which add depth to our Lenten journey. Turn again unto God in response to His kindness and mercy. Pray, but add to your prayer, fasting. Set aside your desires in surrender to God. But be sure to give alms, which is “better than both.”

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Augustine of Hippo: Place and Time

Love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 22:39b

“Although you cannot help everyone, you can be of assistance chiefly to those who are connected to you by the opportunities of place and time or some other matter. They have become joined to you, as it were, by some chance.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in Concerning the Teaching of Christ, book one.

Because we cannot help everyone, many resolve to help no one. Don’t let that be you. Instead, be of assistance to those by whom God has put you in place and time. Part of almsgiving is noticing and ministering to the needs of those around us. Who has God placed around you?

It may seem like it is by chance, but Augustine, by his language, reminds us that these people have been joined to us. God place us together. One day, we get to help them, and the next day they assist us. It can be in big ways like helping in a crisis or in small ways like opening a door.

Don’t try to save the whole world, as Jesus already did that for us. Just focus on those that God has connected you to in place and time. Pause to pray about who those people might be. Ask God, in silence what you have been resourced to do for them. Now make this a part of your Lenten almsgiving.

I’d appreciate your prayers today as I speak twice at a conference in Orlando on generosity to local church stewardship champions on the topics of “Towards a Theology of Money” and “Connecting Gratitude, Accountability, and Generosity.” Pray for Spirit-filled teaching and receptive hearts. Thanks.

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Josh Reid: Refocus

When you give…When you pray… Matthew 6:1-8

“I am intrigued by the way Jesus ties our giving and our praying together in this passage. He almost says the same thing twice; first speaking about charitable giving and then in the next breath, about how we should pray.

Jesus gives us the following instructions on both our giving and our praying:

  • Don’t do it to be seen by them … if you do that’s the only reward you’ll get!
  • Do do it in secret … then your Father who sees in secret will reward you!

Pretty simple and straightforward. But why does Jesus apply these same instructions to both giving and praying?

I think it has to do with the reason God wants us to give. Christian givers are not philanthropists; we don’t do it for a plaque on the wall. We acknowledge that all we have is God’s and we are but mere stewards. As we give, we are confirming God’s goodness, relying on His promises, remembering who we are in Christ.

When we give, we must also pray because giving, when done in faith, is an act of worship. And when we pray, we should consider what we can give because these actions help us to trust Him more.”

Josh Reid in “Refocus our thoughts – Giving and Praying” posted in March 2019 by Generate Ministries.

Josh is an Aussie mate who ministers down under and faithfully enjoys and shares my Daily Mediations. He shared a recent post he wrote with me, and I loved it, so I pray it blesses you. I like that he emphasizes that our praying and giving are connected and should look different from the world.

In your situation, does your generosity look different from the world?

Christians should abandon “philanthropy” as that form of giving follows human rules and promises earthly glory. Alternatively, New Testament giving uses “grace” language to ensure that all glory goes to God now, and while we can expect rewards in the eternal kingdom, we must not look for them here.

Let us connect our praying and giving during Lent as a basis for our living, giving, serving and loving in life after Lent.

It’s been an great weekend with my brother and his wife, seeing their daughters, and one son-in-law, while spending precious time with my parents for my dad’s 80th birthday. The new header photo captures the Scriptorium at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando. I got to visit there with my parents.

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John Chrysostom: Dispensers

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?'” Luke 12:20

“God wanted us to be dispensers, not lords, of His riches.”

John Chrysostom (347-407) as recounted in On Almsgiving by by Martin Chemnitz (St. Louis: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2004) 6.

Sometimes the smallest posts make the biggest splash.

We live in a society that celebrates comfort over contentment and accumulates wealth disobediently rather than dispensing it according to God’s design.

If this post convicts you, change your ways while you have time. Jesus labeled the man a fool who stored up wealth for himself instead of dispensing it.

Not only that, he relieved the fool of his dispensing duties. All that he stored up for himself would be shared without his assistance.

The paradox, or at least what we are learning on our journey, is that obedience does not lead to destitution but rather distribution according to God’s design.

It has been so special to spend a few days with my parents in Florida. They continue to serve as faithful dispensers of the spiritual and material blessings God supplies.

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Ambrose of Milan: Are you guilty of robbery?

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Ephesians 4:28

“Perhaps someone will say, what injustice is it, if I do not meddle in anyone else’s property, but diligently take care of my own? O impudent statement, what are you calling “your own”? Do you mean those things which you brought down with you in this world when you entered into this light, when you left your mother’s womb? With what property and with what provisions were you accompanied when you entered this world? Let no one call “his own” what is common to all. That which more than suffices for one’s expenses has been violently obtained.

You do not think, do you, that God is unjust, so that He does not distribute equally the provisions of life so that you are wealthy and in abundance, while others are in want and are needy? Do you not rather think that He wished to confer proofs of His kindness to you and to crown your poor neighbor with the virtue of patience?

When you have received the gifts from God and drawn them into your bosom, you do not think that you have done anything wrong, if you are the only one to have obtained the sustenance of so many people’s lives? Who then is so unjust and so greedy as he who uses the livelihood of many other people not merely to satisfy his own needs, but to have an abundance and ingratiate his delights?

…You should be reproached for nothing less than robbery when you are wealthy and can be of assistance and yet reject the requests of the poor. It is the bread of the hungry which you hold back. It is the widows’ covering which you hide away. It is the money to redeem the wretched that you dig up in your treasure chest.”

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) as recounted in On Almsgiving by by Martin Chemnitz (St. Louis: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2004) 5.

Three thoughts this morning from sunny Florida.

Firstly, when Ambrose asks “What you are calling your own?” he smartly reminds people that they brought nothing into this world but were blessed with abundance because of God’s kindness to be a blessing to others. That’s what almsgiving is all about. If you have more than enough, there is likely someone you know who has less than enough. They are struggling to get by. Their work is not making ends meet. Their crisis situations are overcoming them financially. Help them.

Secondly, Ambrose contrasts those with material wealth as having “proofs of His kindness” and the poor neighbor as having “the virtue of patience”. This is a profound thought. At times when we have experience lack, we have found ourselves on our knees, waiting. Patience is something that you can only learn in a place of dependence on God. The rich want everything and expect it right away. The poor have learned to wait. When the rich share, they too learn patience while the poor experience a taste of delight. What a deep truth!

Thirdly, and most Americans think culturally rather than Christianly on this point, not to share abundance is robbery. We work to have resources to enjoy and share. To stockpile for ourselves before God is thievery. God sees it as such. As we have learned, a key reason for almsgiving is to bring about justice, equity, or fair balance as the Scriptures call it. Help others if you have been resourced to help. Do this during Lent and beyond. God sees and will bless you for it. Living this way reflects biblical generosity.

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Augustine of Hippo: Give alms with your right hand

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:3-4

“The left hand of the spirit is material greed, the right hand of the spirit is spiritual love. So if, when you give alms, you mix in some greed for temporal advantages, hoping to gain some such thing from that good work, you are mixing the left hand’s knowledge with the right hand’s works. But if you come to a person’s help out of simple charity and with a pure conscience before God, with an eye on nothing else but to please the one who enjoins such acts, then your left hand does not know what your right is doing.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in Sermon 149.15 “On Four Questions: First on Peter’s Vision in Acts 10 and then on Three Questions Arising from the Sermon on the Mount” in Essential Sermons, translated by Edmund Hill, edited by Daniel Doyle (New York: New City Press, 2007) 214.

If I could recommend only one book of sermons from the early church fathers, it would be this book. Each sermon provides priceless perspective on texts, and many of them bring social and cultural realities from antiquity into view that are difficult for us to understand as we read the Bible in modernity.

For example, consider today’s Scripture which references the right and left hand. In the Middle East in both biblical times and present day perceptions, the left hand is viewed as devilish or dirty while the right hand is thought of as clean for eating and greeting. So what might Jesus be saying that we may be missing?

Augustine suggests that our giving must be pure and free from any dirty motives. Undoubtedly, if we look at literary and inscription evidence, the top impure motive linked to giving was “love of glory” or recognition. So, the idea of not letting your left hand know about your giving is to avoid giving selfishly to gain glory.

As you give alms this Lent, do it in secret with pure motives with your right hand! What do I mean? Do it in a manner that avoids recognition or acclaim for you in public, but instead, in a manner that is private, because you are really giving before God and to God. He sees and will reward you.

This morning I fly to Orlando, Florida, to see my parents and my brother’s family for a few days to observe my father’s 80th birthday and then to speak at a conference. I’d appreciate your prayers for safe and uneventful travel, continued good health, and Spirit-filled teaching to receptive hearts. Thanks.

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