Stop Climbing Stairs and Sit

They are called the Scala Sancta. The Holy Stairs. You can find them in Rome near the St. John Lateran Basilica. They are believed to be the same steps Jesus climbed on his way to trial before Pilate. The 28 steps were moved from Jerusalem to Rome around 326 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. They are marble in construction but encased in wood to protect the marble.

They are protected because for centuries pilgrims have climbed these stairs for various reasons. Some out of devotion. Some to offer prayers. And some because they believe that if they do so they will be forgiven their sins—one year for each step. 28 years of sin removed. When the average lifespan was only 50, two trips to the steps could give a person assurance of entry into heaven.

But climbing the steps is not easy. The only way a person is allowed to climb the stairs is on one’s knees, stopping on each step to offer a prayer. Karen and I have done this once. We thought the experience would be a good one, like crossing off an item on your bucket list. It was an experience. A painful one. And we did not feel a need to have that experience ever again.

Martin Luther climbed them. The great Reformer struggled with his doubts as a young man. He said “my conscience would never give me assurance, but I was always doubting and said, ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’”

On a trip to Rome he learned that if he climbed the Scala Sancta he could free his grandfather from purgatory and maybe help his own cause along the way. And so he began on his knees to climb one step at a time.

Maybe you haven’t climbed the Scala Sancta but you’ve had doubts too. Some of you don’t, I know. Some of you have a gift of faith and like a rock cannot be moved. But others of us doubt.

  • “With all I’ve done, how could God ever love me?”
  • “I just don’t think I’ll ever be good enough.”
  • “If the message of Jesus is so clear, why do I have so many questions?”
  • “If God is love then why do unloving things happen to people?”

A lack of assurance is nothing new. John’s audience faced the same. “… for whenever our heart condemns us …” he writes (1 John 3:20). If you ever think the first century Christians had an easier road to faith than you, think again.

But John had a remedy for “hearts that condemn.” He said there is a place to find reassurance: “before him.” “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him…” Instead of listening to condemnation listen to the One who works for your transformation.

That is the other place John points us to: our transformation. Do you have a firm belief in Jesus as the son of God who came in the flesh (1 John 2:23; 4:2)? Are you growing in your desire to be more like the Father (1 John 3:19-20)? Do you love those who also love the Father (1 John 4:12)? If your answer is “yes” then you can find reassurance that the fellowship with the Father and the Son is having its effect in your life.

Reassurance is not found in some secret code. It is not found in something detached from the world we live in. It is not found in rule keeping.

And it is not found by climbing 28 steps on your knees. Martin Luther knew the promise. “If your heart condemned you” you could gain assurance of eternal life one step at a time. So dressed as a monk, with a shaved head and bare knees, he began creeping up the marble steps with the hope of his troubled conscience finding peace.

At some point he suddenly heard a voice like thunder say, “The just shall live by faith.” He got up to his feet, left the place, and was reassured of his place with God. Not because he loved God first through any action. But because God loved him through his action. (1 John 4:10).

You will be assured too. When your heart condemns you do what Luther did. Hear the voice of God and believe in Jesus. Just sit before him. It’s so much better than climbing steps.

Question: In what way(s) has your heart condemned you?

Loved People Love People

Our house was full of Karen’s family when our first son Kristofer was born. No sooner had he arrived into the world than it started. “He looks just like Karen.” Being a proud new father I was a bit miffed by this. I wanted there to be some resemblance of me in him. But no one seemed to notice. It was a Campbell clan celebration.

You can understand my anticipation when it was my family’s turn to visit Kris. As soon as they arrived and walked in the door, I quickly grabbed Kris and held him up to them. “What do you think?” I asked. With a smirk on his face my dad replied, “He looks just like you, Rick.”

I turned to Karen with a “See, I told you so” look. She leaned over and whispered to me, “Well, honey, that’s because you are holding Kristofer upside down.”

We should not be surprised to see a resemblance between children and their parents. We even have these common phrases: “A chip off the old block.” “The acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.” “Like father, like son.” “She’s the spittin’ image of her mother.”

Regardless of the phrase you might use, you’ve done as many have. Your neighbor has a baby and you say, “Oh, her eyes are just like yours.” “I can see a little of both of you in him.” As if any of this should surprise us. You’ve said those things.

And so did the Apostle John. He didn’t use the same phrases but he makes the same point. And whereas we might point to a nose, the eyes, the mouth, or ears as to where the similarity is found, John points elsewhere. The defining similarity we are to have with our Father is one thing: love.

John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Notice what he does not say. He does not list the things those “born of God” do not do. It’s unfortunate that God’s children are often known more for what they don’t do than what they do. John says what they do is they love. “Whoever … has been born of God…loves.”

But sometimes loving others is not easy. John knows this is true. He wants us to quit the sin of not loving our brothers and sisters. But he also realizes that becoming a person who loves is a process and takes a long time. That’s why he tells us to confess our sins. We don’t keep on sinning—that’s the goal of a child of God. But we confess our sins—that is the response of a child of God who is learning to love.

The way we learn to love is to first be loved. “We love because he first loved us.” How did God love us first? By sending his son who died for our sin. Love is active. And because he loved us this way we love others in the same way.

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” We love real people: our brother (and sister) who are in the fellowship with us. We love them in real ways: by giving of our resources to those in need.

An old song stated, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It’s true. Loved people love people. And when people see them, they see a resemblance to their Father.

When You Love Others Less It’s Time to Confess

It’s the first sin I can remember. A sin of commission. And I knew I was doing it.

My first grade year was not easy. As a child I had asthma and the harsh West Texas winters in Memphis, Texas knocked me out of a lot of school. Mrs. Newton, my teacher, wanted me to take a make-up test one day when I returned from a bout of sickness.

Mrs. Newton had me open my book. She showed me the questions I needed to answer. And then she left the room. They were simple math problems. Simple until I got to number eight: “Which number is the third number from the left?”

Sounds simple, right? I knew which was my right hand and which was my left. But I didn’t know if the question was asking for me to count from my perspective or its perspective. (Stop laughing.) I looked ahead and the next several questions were similar to this one. If I didn’t get my directionally challenged mind in gear I would miss them all and make a bad grade.

That’s when the temptation came. Mrs. Newton was gone. Her teacher’s book was on her desk. The one with the answers. All I needed was a peek at just one so that I could get my perspective corrected. I moved as quietly as a cat burglar to the book, stole a quick look, and headed back to my desk. Just as I was getting seated I saw Mrs. Newton through the windows coming back to the room to check on me. If she saw me she never said a word.

For several nights I couldn’t sleep. I just knew the test would come back with a note on it telling me where my eternity was going to be spent. Instead, she gave me an “A” and as far as I know she never knew what I did.

Maybe you can’t remember your first sin, but you can probably remember your last. You have some tapes that play in your head you wish you could erase. You have some words you’d like to take back. You have some actions you aren’t proud of.

And you call them all sorts of things: mistakes, bad judgment, poor decisions. And they are. But John calls them sin. And he thinks we should too.

In 1 John there is a specific sin he is concerned about. “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”  “But I don’t hate my spiritual brothers or sisters” you might say. Don’t be so quick to say you aren’t sinning.

The Greek word for hate, miseo, means “to love less.” Jesus used the word when he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus, who wants us to be known by our love, surely did not mean “hate” in the sense we typically use the word. He meant that if we want to follow him we have to love them, yes. But love them less. That’s what “hate” means here.

You may not feel the usual emotions associated with hate—things like anger, disgust, hostility—towards anyone in the fellowship. But you may love them less. Less than your own interests. Less than your own desires. Less than your schedule. Less than your personal agenda. The sin John is concerned with is not immorality or crime. Those sins need to be confessed too. But the sin he is concerned with has to do with missing the mark of a relationship with God that includes a relationship with others in the fellowship. You can’t have one without the other.

Loving those inside the church becomes a witness to those outside the church. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Let’s love each other more. And when we love each other less, confess it. And then leave that sin for love.

It’s as simple as counting three spaces from your left.

Question: What specific step can you take this week to love those inside the church more?

What You Believe About Jesus Matters

When I first met her she was more of a project to me than a person. My youth group was taking part in a 33-hour fast to raise money for relief efforts in Third World countries. Along with fasting and raising money we were to help someone poor in our community. I called Mrs. Anderson.

She sounded tired, the kind of tired that comes from a life of more “downs” than “ups.” More defeats than victories. And maybe one too many cold winter nights without a hot meal and a warm blanket. But a hint of hope surfaced in her voice as I began to picture for her how we wanted to help.

She answered “yes” and my project was underway. Something began to change, however, the day I drove up in front of her house. It was a bleak West Texas November. The steps up to the house were crooked and cracked. I knocked on the door.

“Come in!” “Mrs. Anderson?” “Yes, come in!” I turned the knob and took two tentative steps. The room was as unkempt as was Mrs. Anderson. Heavy-set, missing teeth, and “just out of bed” hair, she sat on the couch. Her left leg was noticeably larger than her right. She began to tell her story.

Her husband had passed away several years before leaving her with four children: one married daughter who was out of the house, a teenage boy and girl, and a fifth grade daughter. “Times have been hard,” she said. “I’m not able to get around to work because of my leg. Back in the 60’s I got bit by a spider and it got infected. The doctors say it isn’t getting any better and they may have to amputate.”

Insects scurried across the walls as she talked. The house would not have been so bad had it been clean. But what could she do? It was a chore for her to merely walk to the door. I began to lose sight of the project and see the person. And now, with a person within reach of me, I was faced with what kind of Jesus I believed in.

Maybe you’ve been there too. You’ve asked your questions about Jesus. If you’ve ever looked at him long enough you have. We’d rather him be spiritual and more tied to heaven than earth. That way we can worship him on one Sunday and not revisit him until the next.

But when you see that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” things change. They have to. The truth you believe about Jesus matters. In 1 John, John is dealing with the virus of Gnosticism in his churches.  A group had surfaced who said that Jesus did not come in the flesh, that he was a first century hologram of sorts. They taught that the world is divided into spirit and flesh and the only thing that mattered was spirit. Jesus could never—if he were truly God—be associated with things of the flesh.

Because of this belief their worship was focused only on spiritual things, disconnected from the material world. Their lives were disconnected from their flesh—their bodies could do whatever, whenever and with whomever—and they could still view themselves as righteous. Their love was disconnected from the hurting and sinful of their world.

This is not the Christ John knew. The only Christ John knows is the one who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The only Son he knows is the one who was God-in-the-flesh, the Jesus he had seen with his eyes, heard with his own two ears, and had touched with his hands. So he writes, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The truth we believe about Jesus matters.

It did to Mrs. Anderson. I had to come to grips with the Jesus I believed in. And when I began to understand more clearly what it meant that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, my need for a project disappeared into the West Texas sunset and my love for this person surfaced. My Jesus was one that would not let me retreat to my study. He led me into the mix of this messy world.

And that mattered to Mrs. Anderson. In the following months my youth group and I became friends with her. We brought canned goods and blankets during the fast. Turkey and trimmings at Thanksgiving. Tinsel and toys at Christmas. We held a “spring cleaning” and made trips to the hospital during the amputation. A “Jesus come in the flesh” will connect the spiritual and the material. He would bring heaven to earth.

That’s where Jesus would be. And that’s why we confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh.

Question: How have you experienced “Jesus in the flesh” in your life?