Stake Your Claim
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. - 1 Corinthians 15:58
One of my favorite movies ever is the film Secondhand Lions. To me, this movie isn’t a classic because of Robert Duvall or Michael Caine, although they did play their respective roles of Hub and Garth McCann brilliantly. It’s a classic because of a pivotal, straightforward monologue. In a scene that took place in a roadside diner, Hub, Garth, and their nephew Walter are having barbecue pork as a group of rowdy teenagers come in, and one of them starts picking on Hub.
After Hub tells the teen to get lost, the young man gets indignant, which sets up a dominant moment in the movie. After the young upstart asks who Duvall's character thinks he is, the older man reaches up and grabs him by the throat and says, “I’m Hub McCann. I’ve fought in two World Wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and TANKS! I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, KILLED MANY MEN, and loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That's who I am.”
The first time I watched the movie, I paused the film right there. I was about as wide-eyed as the young boy in the film, Walter, played by Haley Joel Osment. I sat there and rewound it, replaying it, and letting it sink in each time. That definitive declaration made by Hub McCann speaks more powerfully than just the words he spoke. The character of Hub McCann is a man who knows who he is, his force majeure, and what he is capable of even as an older man. If you set a picture next to the phrase, “stand firm” it would undoubtedly be the stern face of Robert Duvall as Hub McCann, staring down a young kid who mistook him for an easy mark.
The Mountain King
At some point in our lives, I believe we all have experienced similar moments, measuring ourselves against something so much more important than where we were at that instant. Ultimately, I look at Jesus, this man on the mountain, this man teaching people, this man quietly exorcising a deadly storm as the man who is the pinnacle of ultimate power. Is it true that we can compare ourselves to Christ?
Honestly, that isn’t the question we should be asking. The question we should be asking is, why aren’t we comparing ourselves to Christ? I don’t mean as a way to flog our sense of self-worth into some false humility. I mean, as a life-long measuring stick of our personal growth.
Younger children invariably want to be like two people as they grow up. They hold a desire to be like their parents, their fathers or mothers, and like their older siblings. You test yourself against them regularly. You emulate how they walk or dress, or what they like, in an attempt to find out who you are. Whether it’s arm wrestling or baking, young boys or young girls, this is a fact. Even if you have no siblings or parents, you still look up to a parental figure as well as someone just slightly older than you are as a guide in your life. It’s only natural for a growing person to seek out a model for their growth.
In this world in which we find ourselves, we may follow that rule as we grow up physically, but we don’t usually follow suit as we’re growing up spiritually. We don’t copy Christ in the same way we would imitate an older sibling, even though Jesus is every bit our older brother.
Did that surprise you that I said that? Does it surprise you that I claim that? Jesus is as much my older brother as God is my good, good Father. That’s my identity. When I call someone in the church brother or sister, it’s not an idle thing to me. When I say that, I mean you are family to me in every sense of the word.
Own Your Opposition
At the same time that we don’t fully own who is with us, we don’t realize or own who we’re actually up against and why making a stand is difficult. It’s tough to claim that Jesus Christ is my big brother when the whole world and the Devil himself are telling me he's not. It gets even harder when they start rolling out the proof of this, through my past. I suspect it might be the same for you.
Understanding the two realities of who we are and what we are up against will make us more effective evangelists, even when faced with the proof the Devil presents. The concept here is about laying claim to not only the promise that our work has worth in the purpose behind it, but also that God will reward His children.
Our only other choice is to stay right where we are, useless and ineffective, as we are bullied around by forces that should be beneath us. Just some poor soul who is eating barbecue in a diner, getting pushed around by some punk. A pilgrim of no promise with no purpose and wholly without usefulness.
More to the Word
This scripture starts with the word, “Therefore,” which isn’t just a “consequence,” as defined in our dictionary. There is a significantly more meaningful definition to the Greek word Paul uses here. This word links the cause and effect of a result, emphasizing the result. The combination of both elements creates a relationship. Used in this passage, it shines a spotlight on the inevitable outcome of the paired cause and effect elements about which Paul was writing to the Corinthian church.
As fascinating as this is, you didn’t come here for a lesson on the English language and the explanation of a single Greek word, so I’ll break out for you what’s going on here.
Remember how I recently told you that the Corinthian church was a mess? The cause of their issues were all rooted in their lack of relationship. Nothing about them was firmly ensconced in a love for Jesus Christ, which is a blatantly sacrificial love. The effect of that shortcoming was that the Corinthian church was in disarray. The result of all this was that Paul needed to make multiple trips to try to sort their mess out. This situation caused Paul to bring the gospel yet again. All this was an attempt to bring about a unification of the church in Corinth.
Why was this such a big deal to Paul? Was it his ego? Was it his financial support? Nope. It was because they were his siblings. Every last one of them was a brother or sister of Jesus Christ under the blood our Messiah shed on Calvary. The promise that Paul received, the hope every last one of us can also claim, was that we are heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Matthew 12:50 shows us that Jesus said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
To be clear, what Jesus said means that if you are born again, you are the sibling of the creator of the universe. He is your brother. Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s like living your life thinking you were a nobody and suddenly finding out you are related to the most majestic human being ever to walk the face of this earth. In reality, it’s not like that; it is that. Did you ever think you could be that powerfully connected? Heirs to God through Christ. That's you!
Who Loved Who First?
Paul uses the phrase “agapetoi adelphoi.” You may recognize part of that first word. Agape is pure, divine love. Agapetoi means personally experiencing a two-way love relationship with God. Noted Greek New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest elaborated by saying that this word means “divinely-loved-ones.” That means the love relationship starts with God and His divinity, not us. That can only happen through the connection established at salvation through Jesus Christ. Our newfound family found us, not the other way around, and His choice to seek and save all of us is what defines you as a child of God.
If we want to go past the wide-eyed Walter phase and start our trek to the legendary status the likes of Uncle Hub McCann, we have to own who we are, whose we are, and that begins with how all this happened. It started with a goal.
Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
To use our cause and effect model, because we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, heirs to God, we are no longer powerless in any aspect of our lives. The effect is, when we are practicing our spiritual disciplines, we thoroughly move and evolve into the powerful and capable beings the Holy Spirit will make us into if we only let it. The result of this is that we get to be pretty fearless when we are working towards the goals of God in our lives. The reason for this is that we were given a new perspective during our transformation.
If you charge a worm and an eagle with the task of going 10 miles from one town to another, it’s not just going to be more difficult for that tiny, little invertebrate. Because it’s closer to the ground and cannot generally see where it’s going, or what obstacles it will face, it’s going to look difficult as well. The eagle has an entirely different perspective. Even if it encounters a heavy crosswind or a challenging storm ahead, the eagle can get past whatever is in front of it. This mobility and vision stem from the power of God in the purpose for which He designed the eagle. The eagle didn’t choose to be an eagle all of a sudden. It always was an eagle, from the moment it was born until the day that it dies. It was always an eagle.
In the same way, you were always a beloved creation of God. There has never been a moment in your life where God has abandoned you, left you, struck out on His own, and said, “You sicken me, I hate you, get away from me, I never want to see you again.” Never has been, never will be. Ever. He has always been there, will always be there, has never loved you less, and could not possibly love you more. His love for you, everyone around you and everyone you ever come in contact with, always has, and only ever been, perfect. He’s never wanted you to be anything less than what He designed you uniquely and individually to be.
We were never meant to be worms, but we were never meant to be eagles either. We were meant to be more than eagles. We were made just a little lower than the angels. We can stand in disbelief of that, like the psalmist in Psalm 8, but it's true. We were created "a little lower than the angels," and we are counted as siblings of Jesus Christ. We can only lay claim to that truth through Jesus, so we can’t boast on it, but oh boy, can we benefit from it. When you find your mountaintop to shout from, you need to stake your claim there based on that. Your basis for shouting is as a child of God, not in some nebulous fashion, but as an actual heir with Jesus.
The Same Father
Let me explain the other part of that agapetoi adelphoi comment that Paul made. Adelphoi means, brothers, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or the same mother. In Roman law, an adopted child had every single guarantee of sonship possessed by a blood-born child. Our salvation is a form of adoption by God, but it involves more because we are born again in salvation.
Our birth came from God through Jesus Christ’s renewing sacrifice on a cross. We are reborn of the same Father as Jesus. It doesn’t matter whose genealogy you use on your family tree. Jesus Christ is your big brother. That’s an essential point of unity, so let that sit with you for a moment. It’s meant to inspire a firm stand, a steadfast commitment, the words used here indicating that this commitment and stand won’t budge one iota. At least, not from God’s side.
All of this brings us back to the Corinthian church, who’d moved off point in their faith journey over only a couple years. When you lose sight of who you’re facing and who you belong to, this is precisely the type of mess that happens. Sometimes you end up like Elijah, needing a nap and a snack in the wilderness, and some reassurance from God that He’s got this. And sometimes you need a letter from an apostle bringing you back to the center. Realization and recentering do require some work on our part to stay on point.
The reality is that this “labor” we are called to do will not be smooth, and we may as well break this word "toil" out too. The Greek word here means work that is so difficult it almost kills us. What God calls us to will beat us up, knock us down, and leave us spent and exhausted. This weariness is the effect of our work.
This exhaustion comes because we’re supposed to be working hard, going above and beyond to meet the goal God has for us. God's goal is the cause of the work.
The result is all wrapped up in the being for whom we work. The Lord, who owns us absolutely, has assigned us this work, which is the cause of our exhaustion. So if you put all this together, we come up with “God causes us to work ourselves almost to death.” OK, and how is that fair? To answer this, we have to ask what we know of God that can help us sort this out. We know that God is a good caretaker of his possessions and that we are His possessions, heirs along with His son. We know His son modeled a degree of love and extremely costly sacrifice that we are called upon to show others. We know that His word doesn’t return to Him empty. We know that God always provides everything we need for the outcome He desires.
To sum all this up, we are His possession, His children, we have His provision, and we will have His reward as good and faithful servants. All of that existed before we ever knew of it. We have to own the simple truth of what He has wanted for us all along.
We aren’t going to stand firm on our own until we fully own that we belong to God. There’s a Thomas Merton quote that was shared recently by retired UMC District Superintendent Jerry Lee Jeffords. “I came with the notion of perhaps saying something for monks and to monks of all religions because I am supposed to be a monk … My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. And what we have to be is what we are.”
I’m challenging you today to own the inheritance Jesus gave to you. In the following weeks, I will challenge you to act on it. It’s up to you to face the challenge. Or not.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.