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11-07 - Peace - Christian Spirituality

We have been exploring Christian Spirituality through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christian church Paul founded in the city of Ephesus.  And today I wanted to begin our conversation on Christian Spirituality with a contrasting view of spirituality.  While the person drawing the contrast is a modern person, her thoughts parallel the thoughts of the people Paul addressed.

The modern person is a 22-year-old college student named Lindsey.  Lindsey was stopped for an informal, person on the street interview.  Lindsey was relaxed smoking a cigarette.  She was comfortable speaking with the interviewer about spirituality and God.  The interviewer asked, “To you, what is God like?”  Lindsey replied, “To me, God is more like an energy than any sort of person. He is an energy that is like within everything, living, animated, not animated. It’s just everywhere.”  The interviewer, noticing the cigarette in Lindsey’s hand, asked, “So God is like in your cigarette there? Lindsey replied, “Yep. I am smoking God.”

          Lindsey’s view of spirituality is that God is an unrelatable energy force.  God cannot be seen, heard, or experience.  Instead, God is just there in the things that we can see, eat, or even smoke.  In Lindsey’s view there is no difference between you, a chair, a plant, a rock, or a cigarette.  Lindsey is not alone in her view of God nor is Lindsey’s view a modern view.  This view is called pantheism and it is part of the belief systems of Hindu, Buddhism, Christian Science, and Scientology. 

The Apostle Paul faced similar views as he planted churches in the ancient world.  As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, Paul, a follower of Jesus Christ, taught a very different view of God than the one to which Lindsey ascribed.  Paul taught that Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God is the Creator of all and that God values humanity about everything else in his created world, even above a chair, a plant, a rock, or a cigarette.  Christian Spirituality holds that God blesses people not because of our works.  This God and Creator, blesses us because God loves loving us.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever.  Paul taught and we have learned that being in Christ meant that Christ embedded within us the Holy Spirit to guide us, challenge us, comfort us, and correct us.  With the Holy Spirit, we can also see ourselves as changed by God’s love that redeems us and forgives us.  We see through the Holy Spirit that we can change our relationships and behaviors towards others by becoming for gracious, gentle, and loving.  In all these changes we then have hope and our presence to others becomes a source of hope.  This is the God of Christian Spirituality and, I can assure you, will not be found in a cigarette.

This same Christian Spirituality Paul taught is all about seeing that God works continually to remind us that the walls that create division among his people have been torn down.  This Christian Spirituality is all about seeing the paradox that the violence done to Jesus on the cross brought us peace.  Christian Spirituality is all about us coming together to encourage each other, to love each other, and to see that more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in building up this church in holiness and compassion the greater the sense we will have of God’s presence among us.

From this foundation of Christian Spirituality, we heard Paul’s words as he continued to encourage the people of the Ephesian church to fully embrace the God of love and peace.  Paul wrote, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:1-7).

          Paul, who explained that God loves loving us, and explained that God revealed his own nature in the person of Jesus Christ and that Jesus gives each person who follows him peace, turned his attention toward the behavior of individual Christians.  Paul said in response to God’s love and the peace from Christ, we ought to live a life worthy of God’s love and peace.

          I really like Paul’s words, “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  First thing we see in Paul’s words is that everyone responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ has received calling.  Paul means to include you and me in his words.  You and I have received a calling from God through Jesus Christ to be here this morning to be part of a Christian community. You and I are not here by accident or habit.  You and I are here because somewhere in time God moved within you to prompt you, to encourage you to be in worship.  We are here because we have received a calling from God.  Let that sink in for a few moments.

          Second, you and I have received a call from God to apply ourselves in this world.  Paul wrote earlier, “10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).  You and I each have a calling to be in Christ and to do certain tasks, certain work, that advances the blesses of God and the peace of Christ. The call on your life and the call on my life will overlap, there will be some similarities, and some uniqueness to each call.  Neither call is superior to the other.  Each call, the one on your life and the one on my life, complement and complete the others. I find that God would bring us together who were once strangers and unite us as a community to accomplish our callings together an amazing blessing.

          Our God is the same God who blesses us, Jesus is the same Lord who gives us peace, we have received the same call to follow Jesus, and we have received different callings to advance love and peace.  But…There is always the “but” in Scripture.  But in completing our different, complimenting callings, we must complete those callings in the same way.

          Paul said, “live a life worthy of the calling you received,” by being “2 Completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).  Paul was talking to the people of the church about their behavior toward the people of the church.

          I had a phone call a few weeks ago from a person who was angry, upset, frustrated, and exhausted.  For about 40 minutes, this person went on virtually non-stop recounting story after story of difficult interactions with doctors’ offices, merchants, and online support services all of which led to dissatisfaction because the people this person dealt with were cold, uncaring, and heartless.  This person said they were so angry they felt they were done.  When I had a chance to respond, I said, “You have told me about your interactions with the world which is as you experienced cold, uncaring, and heartless.  What you have not told me about is your interaction with the Christian community who are called to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving toward one another.  Tell me about your interactions with fellow Christians in worship, fellowship, and service.”  The person said there have been none.

          I think you can see that this person was, at best, dealing solely with Lindsey’s world of an impersonal God, some energy force found in chairs, rocks, and cigarettes.  This person was not dealing in the community of believers blessed by a God and Jesus Christ to be co-creators of love and peace by being shaped by God to be people who are humble, gentle, patient, and loving toward one another.  The differences between the God of the cigarette and the living God revealed through Christ could not be starker.  When we come together as a church this is our time to be refreshed, to refresh one another, to worship, to encourage, to receive grace and be gracious toward another. This is at the heart of Christian Spirituality.

          Paul said that in the presence of the Christian community, here, we can be brought to the fullness of Christ.  In the fullness of Christ, “14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).  It is in the loving arms of Christ made real in through his church, his followers, that we can be at peace knowing that God loves us and has surrounded us with gentleness and compassionate people.  To serve one another in this manner is part of the call on each of our lives and is part of living a worthy life.

          Paul then set out some behaviors to put aside and some behaviors to take on so that we can all express the calling on our life. Paul said:

  • “17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.”  “24 Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”  Allow the wisdom of God’s word guide your lives.
  • “25 Put off falsehood.”  “Speak truthfully.”  Speak the plain truth to yourself and to others.
  • “29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.”  Speak, “only what is helpful for building others up.”  Be encouragers of each other.
  • “31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  “32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Be willing to be made different from the world and be that beacon of light and peace to others.

Christian Spirituality then is about being a peace in Christ and living a life worthy of that peace by sharing the peace of Christ with other believers in Christ by imitating the characteristics of Jesus who was humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  This Jesus is the Jesus that had been promised to us in the Old Testament.  The prophet Isaiah saw the coming of Jesus and the depth of Jesus’ desire for our peace. Isaiah wrote of Jesus, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

          Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the paradox Isaiah saw of the violence done to Jesus that brought us peace.  Paul said, it is Jesus who reconciled us to God through the cross. (Ephesians 2:14-15).  It was on that cross that Jesus gave of his body and gave his blood.  Jesus called on his disciples to remember Him whenever they took the bread and drank from the cup.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are not some force we find in these elements as Lindsey might believe.  Jesus wanted his disciples, you and me, the church, to remember by taking the bread and the cup that through the cross we have peace.  So, the bread we eat is bread.  And the cup we drink is juice.  But…but the bread and cup remind us that we have a God who loves loving us and a Savior and Lord, Jesus, you gave us peace.  Jesus does not ask us to take his place on the cross and give our body or bloody. We are just asked to be humble, patient, gentle, and loving toward one another.  That is what the Christian Spirituality that Paul spoke passionately about to the ancient people of Ephesus.  That is the Christian Spiritualty that we desperately need to see and experience today.  To live in that manner, my dear friends, is a life worthy of the calling we received. I am glad we have answered the call together.  Let us pray.

10-31 - Unity - Christian Spirituality

          We started last week with the question, “What is Christian Spirituality?”  We found by exploring Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus that Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God blesses us not because of our works.  God blesses us because God loves loving us.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in Christ.  In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever.

We learned that being in Christ meant that Christ embedded within us the Holy Spirit to guide us, challenge us, comfort us, and correct us so that we could see ourselves being made holy and blameless by God.  With the Holy Spirit, we can also see ourselves as changed by God’s love that redeems us and forgives us.  We see through the Holy Spirit that we can change our relationships and behaviors towards others by becoming for gracious, gentle, and loving.  In all these changes we then have hope and our presence to others becomes a source of hope.  This is Christian Spirituality.

This is the Christian Spirituality that Paul introduced to the church at Ephesus.  But Paul’s message was a hard message because there were divisions among the people first hearing the message.  People coming into the church had lived divided lives in society.  There were Jews and non-Jews.  There were men and women.  There were Roman citizens and those who were not.  There were free people and slaves.  There were those who had believed in one God and those who had believed in many gods.  There were those who went to a temple to pray and those who had shrines in their homes. There were divisions in ancient society of all sorts and kinds.  Thank goodness that after 2,000 years of human development we modern people are so much superior to our ancient ancestors that we have been able to put aside all divisions among the peoples of the earth!

We can see, of course, that people remain as divided today as much or perhaps even more than they were 2,000 years ago.  We could spend a lot of time discussing why divisions exist today, but I am not sure that would be profitable for us.  The point I wanted to make is that Paul introduced Christian Spirituality to a divided world.  We live in a divided world.  Therefore, Paul’s words to this church in Ephesus remain very relevant to our life today.

What was it that Paul wanted to share about Christian Spirituality to the divided peoples coming into the common belief about Christianity?  Paul began by reminding his church about the formation of each Christian and the fellowship of Christians.  Paul wrote, “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Paul brought emphasis again that God was the initiator of any good standing people had before Him.  Paul wrote on Chapter 2, verse 8, “It is by (God’s) grace that you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God.”

By my count, this is at least the eighth time since the beginning of the letter that Paul has reminded his readers that their good standing before God was God’s doing.  Let’s look quickly at the other seven citations in before this one.

  1. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3)
  2. 4 For he (God) chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight (1:4)
  3.  In love 5 he (God) predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will (1:5).
  4. 7 In him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace (1:7).
  5. 11 In him (God) we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his (God’s) will (1:11).
  6.  4 But because of his (God’s) great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ (2:4-5a).
  7. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (2:6).

Either Paul’s readers were forgetful, so Paul repeatedly reminded his readers that God was the actor in this story.  Or Paul understood people do not hear or respond to a message the first time it is said, or even the second or even the third time.  I think Paul understood the need to repeat the core message in several different ways so that people who hear it.

          Regarding hearing messages, in 1885 a British businessman, Thomas Smith, concluded people need to hear an advertising message for a product 20 times before they would purchase a product.  Smith said the first-time people look at an ad, they don’t even see it.  By the fifth time seeing it, they will read it.  By the tenth time, they will ask their friends if they have tried the item in the ad.  By the fifteenth time, they will begin to have a desire for what is in the ad. By the twentieth time, they will make the effort to do as the ad suggests.  Paul understood the need for repetition.

          Paul wanted his readers to understand that Christian Spirituality is a creation of God not of people.  This makes Christian Spirituality different from other forms of spiritual thought because people who were once been divided are to be unified under God by the action of God.  ““8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9a). We are here as Christians formed into a church not because of our actions but instead because of God’s action.

          Paul wanted his church to be united and Paul went after the greatest division among the people at that time, namely, the division between Jews and non-Jews or Gentiles.  There was a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles with many subdivisions. Jews and Gentiles had different spiritual lives, separate places of worship, different foods, different hygiene practices, different views of politics, different occupations, and the list of differences could go on. 

In the Temple of Jerusalem, the Jews constructed a wall around the Temple itself and no Gentile was permitted past this dividing wall. “No Entry” signs were posted on the wall in three different languages which read, “No foreigner (Gentile) is allowed past this point on penalty of death”.  Segregation was part of the culture of Ephesus but segregation was not to be practiced by Christian.

          Paul wrote, “14 For he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his (Jesus’) flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His (Jesus’) purpose was to create in himself (Jesus) one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them (Jews and Gentiles) to God through the cross, by which he (God) put to death their (Jews and Gentiles) hostility. 17 He (Jesus) came and preached peace to you who were far away (Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (Jews). 18 For through him (Jesus) we both (Jews and Gentiles) have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:14-18).

          Paul has introduced another facet to Christian Spirituality.  That facet is peace.  Paul presented the idea of peace through a paradox. Paul said out of violence, “out of the blood of Jesus, his death on the cross”, comes peace and unity for humanity with itself and humanity with God.  Paul said Jesus brought peace two ways.

          First, Paul said Jesus “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14b).  Jesus, “through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (Ephesians 2:17b).  Jesus came to destroy.  We don’t often think of Jesus as a destroyer, but he was.  Jesus came to destroy hostility.  The Gospels are rich in examples of Jesus preaching to end hostility. In one sermon alone Jesus said:

  •  ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:21b-22). End hostility.
  •  If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them (Matthew 5:23b-24).  End division.
  • 25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary (Matthew 5:25a).  Reconcile, quickly.
  • 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Matthew 5:38-39).  Do not let hostility get a toehold in your life.
  • 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45).  Pray and work to end hostility.

Jesus was destroying hostility and called his disciples to do likewise.

          You know I have seen a lot of church signs but I do not think I have even seen one that said, “Join Us, Let’s Celebrate Destroying Hostility Together!”  But Paul said, “Listen to me.  Jesus destroyed the hostility you may have felt toward someone else, do not resurrect it.” 

          Having recognized that Jesus destroyed hostility, Paul made his second point.  Jesus is peace.  Paul wrote,

  • “Jesus is our peace; he made the two groups one” (Ephesians 2:14).
  • Jesus created “one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15).
  • Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far away (Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (Jews)” (Ephesians 2:18).

Jesus destroyed hostility and created peace for those within the church.  It is precisely because Jesus destroyed hostility and created peace between those who would follow him, that Jesus gave the command to his followers, “Now, love one another.”  Christian Spirituality then is recognizing that Jesus gave peace to all his followers.

          Paul was teaching his church then and us now that any prejudices, preferences, or divisions we might have toward other people have been resolved by Jesus.  In Jesus we can freely live a new life with other believers unencumbered by family beliefs, traditions, likes and dislikes because Jesus has destroyed the walls that made those divisions, and he made the peace for the new group.  Paul concluded by saying that this new, united group was “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).  It is by the Spirit of God that we are being built together so that we can more and more feel and experience the sense of God.

          Christian Spirituality then involves a combining of believers from all different walks of life, different colors, different traditions, different neighborhoods, and having them knit together by the Holy Spirit. Our role in that building process, is to follow the leading of God’s Spirit and allow the Spirit to take away from us any divisive baggage we may have once carried.

          Some years ago, my wife and I went to visit a church we had once been members and enjoyed a strong sense of the Spirit of God building that congregation.  It had been some years since we had been there.  When we returned, the individual members of the congregation were warm and welcoming toward us, but the spirit of the church was cold.  Divisions and walls Jesus had destroyed had been built again. Peace had been replaced by anxiousness. It felt like the Holy Spirit had left the building, you could feel its absence.  How and why did that church change so much so quickly?  The church had taken its eyes off God believing instead that they had unity because of their own good works and not because God had unified them in Christ.  A few years later, that congregation disbanded and the church building that was once spiritually cold is now also physically cold.

          Christian Spirituality is all about being blessed by God in Christ.  Christian Spirituality is all about being able to boast in God not in ourselves. Christian Spirituality is all about seeing that God works continually to remind us that the walls that create division among his people have been torn down.  We should not be building restoring them.  Christian Spirituality is all about seeing the paradox that the violence done to Jesus on the cross brought us peace.  Who then are we to put Christ on the cross again by breaking the peace?  Christian Spirituality is all about us coming together to encourage each other, to love each other, and to see that more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in building up this church in holiness and compassion the greater the sense we will have of God’s presence among us.  I don’t know about you, but I think being in the presence of God is an awesome and wonderful feeling.  And I am glad we are sharing that experience together.  Amen and Amen.

10-24 - Christian Spirituality - Ephesians 1

          We have spoken these last few weeks about Jesus’ formation of his church.  We saw that Jesus’ desire was and remains that the church be a group of people committed to following him.  Through his ministry, Jesus gave examples for his church to follow.  Those examples include being loving toward those in the church, being willing to give testimony about Jesus, and to give care and comfort to those outside the church.

          Jesus’ first disciples brought Jesus’ message forward and established churches throughout the ancient world.  That ancient world had a vast set of spiritual beliefs.  In fact, the notion of atheism, the belief that there is no God or gods was rarely held in the ancient world.  Virtually everyone had some belief in the supernatural or the spiritual realms.  We might think that after 2,000 years of human history that the modern expression of humanity would be vastly different from our ancient ancestors.  But we are not.  A survey of Americans in 2017 showed that the vast majority of Americans believe in some form of higher power.  At that time of that survey, about 56% of Americans believed in the God of the Bible, 33% believed in another type of higher power, and the balance, about 10% of Americans, believed in no God or no gods or no spiritual life.

          Despite all of our technological advances, spirituality, the belief in the existence of something other than that which is physical or material, remains central to human story.  I thought then it would be profitable for us to examine how Jesus’ early disciples began carving out a sense of Christian spirituality in the ancient world and how their experience informs us today.  Of the earlies disciples and church planters, the Apostle Paul was known for blending spirituality with practical counsel for living life as a Christian.  So, I would like us to begin our look at Christian Spirituality with Paul’s letter to a church he founded in the city of Ephesus.

          Ephesus was a city in ancient Greece but now part of modern-day Turkey.  The city was famous for its Temple of Artemis, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Artemis, in Greek religion, was the goddess of wild animals, hunting, and vegetation and of chastity and childbirth; she was identified by the Romans with the goddess Diana. Artemis was the daughter of god, Zeus and the goddess, Leto and the twin sister of god, Apollo. In just the briefest of introductions to Artemis, she is identified with four other gods and goddesses.  SI we can see that spirituality was very much alive in the city of Ephesus.

          Paul began his letter to the church this way, “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3).  Immediately, Paul began his letter to the members of the church at Ephesus talking about Christian Spirituality. 

Just look again at Paul’s opening three verses for words that are of a spiritual nature.  “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3).  Paul wanted to make sure his readers understood that whatever else Paul might have to say in his letter, Paul would be talking from a spiritual frame of reference. 

After reading Paul’s words again, I thought about letters I have written to people.  I have spoken of spiritual matters in those letters, but I cannot think of a single letter in which I started off the letter on a spiritual framework.  I can only recall starting letters talking about news of family or current events and then working my way up to spiritual topics.  Paul made clear that his spiritual perspective would inform everything he had to say including anything he might offer about news of family or current events.

Christian spirituality was, therefore, central to Paul’s life.  From that frame of reference, Paul’s first teaching of his Christian spirituality was given in verse 3, “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).  Paul wanted his church, Christians, to understand that Christian spirituality begins with an understanding that God is the God who grants unmerited blessings.  We do not have to do works to please God and hope that perhaps we can do enough to make God happy such that he will be persuaded to bless us.  Working to please God or to please the gods was and is a pagan view of spirituality.  The view of trying harder and harder to please a god or working harder to achieve a higher and higher level of self-improvement is also part of modern spirituality that nearly 1 in 3 Americans claim for their lives. 

Paul said that Christian spirituality is something completely different than works. Christian spirituality begins with a recognition that God is on his own and of his own well pleased to bless people with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

We know then that Christian spirituality is expressed by having Christ at its center.  In verse 3, Paul, in his various letters, used the two-word phrase “in Christ,” nearly 100 times to emphasis Christian Spirituality and to express that Christ was and is the source of God’s blessing to humanity. Paul also used that two-word phrase “in Christ,” frequently in his letters to emphasize the union Christians enjoy with Jesus.  So, Paul said that Christian spirituality causes us to say, ““3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

We might want to then ask, what are those “spiritual blessings in Christ?”  Paul began to explain those blessings in the verses that follow.

“4 For he (God) chose us (you and me) in him (Jesus) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his (God’s) sight” (Ephesians 1:4).  The first blessing we see is that God took the initiative to make us different than we would have been.  Our relationship with God is not an accident.  God always intended for us to be in relationship with him.  This means God is not uninvolved in the world. God is not as some believe a Creator who set the world in place and walked away from it saying, “I set things in motion, gave you everything you need to be successful. Good luck!” and then retired. God is the God who created and loves his creation.  In loving his creation, God chose to love humanity who he created in his own image above anything else in our created world.  God created us holy, meaning set apart for him, and blameless, without sin. Yet, we did sin and since that time, God has worked to bring us back to be holy, set apart for him, and blameless, without sin.  It is part of God’s plan to restore inner peace to us and God desires to give us such peace.  Why does God desire this for us?  God’s desire is based on the simple fact that He loves us.

The concept that God loves you and loves me is at the heart of Christian spirituality.  The idea that God loves people was radical to the ancient people and is still difficult for many people today to believe in.

Many people today struggle to believe God loves them because so many of their relationships with other people have turned out to be unloving.  That is a sad truth but we need to face the truth.  Love as God would have us know it has been corrupted.  People who should love one another too often abuse one another. People who should love one another often abandon one another.  People who should love one another often are indifferent toward one another.  When we see and experience hurt and pain in unloving relationships, it makes it difficult for people to believe God loves them.

Here is the good news.  God knows about the abuse, abandonment, and indifference many people experience in their relationships that should be loving. God knows the darkness of those experiences.  God knows the hopelessness of those experiences.  And knowing all that, God chose to speak and speaks to us into that darkness as a bright light saying, “I love you! I love you so much that I sent my Son, Jesus, to you. I know some will follow him out of the darkness and into genuine love, to a life lived in the light.  I know too that some will prefer the darkness and will kill my son with their words, doubting my love, and they will live in the darkness.  Even though I know all that, I am willing sent my son as a sign of my love for you.”

Jesus knew he came as an expression of God’s love for you.  That is why he said to those who would accept his love that they must love other believers. The heart of Christian spirituality is to know God loves us and we reflect that love, we reflect his bright light into the darkness of abuse, abandonment, and indifference.

Paul said, God desires a relationship with us as a spiritual blessing in Christ, and then Paul said, “In love he (God) predestined us for adoption to sonship (to make us his family) through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his (God’s) pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5).  We should think of what Paul was saying in this way.  “God loves being in love with us.”  Have you ever experienced that feeling on your own? You love someone.  It could be a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child, a friend.  You love someone.  As you think about loving them, you come to love the emotions you have because you love them.  In your love of loving that person you experience joy, happiness, and ecstasy. You love the idea of planning to do things that would express your love for them.  You love being in love with someone.  Paul was saying in verse 5, “God, in his love for you and me, decided to send his Son, Jesus, with an invitation to become God’s own child and sharing his love and that made God joyful, happy, and ecstatic.”

That “God loves loving you and me,” is at the heart of Christian spirituality.  That God loves loving you and me, is the bright light into the darkness of those human experiences that can leave us feeling abused, abandoned, and exhausted.  God wants you to see in Christ that he loves loving you.  That is a spiritual blessing.

In sharing spiritual blessings, Paul explained how God made his plan come together.  Paul wrote, “In him (Jesus), we have redemption through his (Jesus’) blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he (God) lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:7-10).  Paul’s words seem like a lot because they are.  I want us to begin with the end of verse 8 and all of verse 9. “With all wisdom and understanding, he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-9).  Said simply, “God made himself known in Christ.” 

The mystery about God and his ways were unveiled in Christ.  The mystery revealed about God is that to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  If we put that on a bumper sticker it might read, “No Jesus, No God.  Know Jesus, Know God.”  It is knowing Jesus and accepting he died for us that we will come to know all that can be known about God.  Christian spirituality then is that in Christ we come to know God, simply and plainly.

To be loved, to known, and to know someone simply and plainly is the desire of our hearts.  God knows that and God has provided for that desire to be met in Christ.  Knowing this desire is met in Christ, Paul concluded his opening thought to the church in Ephesus this way.  “When you believed (in Christ), you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14). 

Paul was pointing out two things here.  First, Christian spirituality involves embedding the Holy Spirit of God in us – now. When we accept Jesus, genuinely accept Jesus, then God enters out life to guide us, to comfort us, to challenge us, and to lead us.  God blesses us with a new capacity to live a new life guided and informed by his Holy Spirit.  Second, Christian spirituality sees a blessing in the present and for all time. Following the Holy Spirit is not just about getting into heaven, it also includes living a fruitful abundant life of grace and peace while in the body.

Christian spirituality is about abundant life in the present and for all time.  I have met people who want to believe Paul’s words, but they are unwilling to wait for the Holy Spirit to work in their life.  They are impatient and want a new life instantly and on their terms.  When they do not see their life changing into the life they want, they conclude that God is a myth.

Christian spirituality, the work of the Holy Spirit, is not about snapping one’s fingers and being changed. Christian spirituality involves real work to become more and more like Jesus.  We naturally resist making changes until we experience the blessings from those changes.  Paul said God’s Spirit works, “according to the plan of him (God) who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his (God) will” (Ephesians 1:11b).  God is patient with us in making us who we were always intended to be.  We must be patient with him as we cooperate with him in making those changes through the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is Christian Spirituality.

Spirituality remains central to our lives.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God blesses us not because of our works.  God blesses us because God loves loving us.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in Christ.  In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever. This is the start of our journey as Christians.  And I am so glad we are on this journey together.  Lets pray.


10-17-Baptism-Christ & His Church

          September 19th, just five Sundays ago, we observed National Back to Church Sunday by beginning a series of worship services focused on understanding what Jesus meant when He said he would establish His church.  That Sunday, we talked about church as being formed of people who would be committed to taking the plunge into a relationship with Jesus as one would enter a marital relationship.

          On the second week of our journey, we saw that Jesus established a command that the people of his church love one another. Being loving toward other believers was the singular criterion to the world to distinguish Jesus’ church from any other collection of people.

          On the first Sunday of this month, we saw that Jesus commissioned his committed loving followers to go into the world and bring the good news of the Gospel to all people.  In celebrating the Lord’s Supper that Sunday, we gave testimony to Jesus’ unconditional love for those who would follow him.

          Last week, we spoke about the Jesus’ examples that we were to servants to one another to build up the church, making the body of believers vibrant and healthy.  And with that strong body, we were to then love our neighbors giving comfort and care when others would walk past them.

          Today, I would like us to look at one more element of Jesus’ church and that is baptism.  With the differing Christian traditions about baptism, there is much confusion about baptism. What is baptism?  Does baptism do something to us or for us?  Should we be sprinkled with water or immersed in water as an act of baptism?  Is baptism symbolic of something?  If I was sprinkled as a baby, should I be baptized again as an adult?  Where should we begin with our conversation on baptism?

          Absent any other starting place, it is always good to start at the beginning.  So, let’s start our conversation with the earliest Biblical references to baptism. In chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark, we read, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’—‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’  And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:1-5).

          Baptism has no earlier use in the Bible than the Gospel of Mark.  Baptism, as we know of it, began with a man named John who God called to stir up the people’s attention to be aware that God was sending his Messiah, his messenger of great importance, to the people.  John called people into the wilderness to hear the message.  John called people away from the cities and town, away from the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues across the land and into the wilderness to hear a new message. The people who traveled to the wilderness and so they did not hear John’s message accidentally.  The people were of an age and mindset that they wanted to hear what John had to say.

In the wilderness, John said two things.  First, the Lord was coming.  Second, in preparation for the coming of the Lord, people needed to repent, turn from everything else in life, turn from sin, and return to God, just God.  To mark their preparation to receive the Lord and their decision to repent, John invited people to then be baptized in the River Jordan.  Baptized is an English word we get from the Greek word, bap-tid'-zo, βαπτίζω, meaning “to immerse.”  Those who responded to John’s message immersed themselves in the waters of the River Jordan.  John’s baptism was thus seen as a symbol of preparation in anticipation of coming Lord.

John understood that his time of calling people and performing baptisms would only be for a limited time.  John said, “And this was his message: ‘After me (John) comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I (John) baptize you with water, but he (the Messiah) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mark 1:7-8).  Some text say the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John knew that something more profound than his message and more profound than his baptism in the River Jordan was coming.

In fact, Mark informs us that, “At that time (when John was baptizing people) Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he (John) saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him (Jesus) like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You (Jesus) are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).  John knew then the Messiah, God’s chosen, had come as John had proclaimed.

We see here though that Jesus the Son of God, the promised Messiah, was baptized by John. Why did Jesus get baptized?  Jesus did not need to prepare for himself. Jesus did not need to repent and turn toward God.  Jesus was God!  So what is going on with Jesus’ baptism? 

The Gospel of Matthew gives us some insight, “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15 Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then John consented” (Matthew 3:13-15).  Jesus, who was God, humbled himself by becoming a man. Everything that Jesus did as a man served as an example for people to follow him.  Therefore, Jesus said it was proper for people to see Jesus doing all things that lead to righteousness, a right relationship with God.  And yielding of one’s spirit to the act of public baptism would become part of doing what leads us in the paths of righteousness by experiencing life in and by example of Christ.  Jesus, therefore, did not undergo baptism for himself but instead was baptized that you and I would follow his example.

Very shortly after Jesus’ baptism, the king imprisoned John the Baptist and had John executed while in prison.  The baptisms of John to prepare people for the coming of the Lord were over.  Jesus was revealing himself as the Lord and the necessity for John’s message had ended. But the death of John and the ministry of Jesus did not put an end to the conversation about baptism.

 Jesus, with his disciples, now well into his ministry talked about his pending arrest, trial, suffering, and death.  Jesus referred to this experience as a baptism that he had to undergo.

  • “But I have a baptism to undergo” (Luke 12:50a).
  • “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).

The baptism Jesus was talking about was not at all like the idyllic baptism in the gentle waters of the River Jordan.  Jesus’ drinking from the cup and baptism was going to be hard and difficult. We learn just how difficult the cup and baptism would be for Jesus though a private moment with Jesus and his disciples in a garden called Gethsemane.  “32b Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:32b-36).

          Jesus’ cup and baptism were upon him.  Jesus was about to experience the intense suffering of the cross.  That was the cup and baptism Jesus must undergo and through it his disciples, you, and I would come to see the very image of a baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire.

          Visualize the scene of Jesus’ baptism of suffering for the sins of the world.  It began after Jesus was arrested and the order given that Jesus be executed.  Luke shared it with us:  “32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left… 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’  40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’  42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 Jesus answered him (the second criminal), ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).

          Three crosses stood on hill.  Jesus, God in the flesh, sinless and righteous, hung on the center cross.  Jesus was undergoing a baptism of suffering for the world’s sin.  Jesus was selflessly giving to others.  To his left and to his right were two thieves.  Men who selfishly stole what was not theirs. They were sinners bearing witness to Jesus’ baptism of suffering.  One thief mockingly challenged Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  This thief did not believe in Jesus.  This unbelieving thief only wished Jesus would free him from judgement. 

The thief on the other side of Jesus was different.  The second thief acknowledged Jesus’ Lordship of Jesus.  The believer begged Jesus to remember him in Jesus’ kingdom. In that moment, the two thieves were baptized by Jesus.  The believer received words of comfort from Jesus, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  That was a baptism of the Holy Spirit bringing about salvation through Jesus Christ. The other thief received silence from Jesus.  He received a baptism of fire into judgement.  We can see John the Baptist words in the scene on the cross, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Jesus will baptize us in accordance with our wishes.  He will either baptize us with the Holy Spirit as our Savior or He will baptize us with fire as our Judge.  The choice is ours to make.

          After this baptismal scene of the Holy Spirit and fire on the cross with thieves, Jesus’ baptism of suffering came to an end. Jesus said, “It is finished,” and Jesus died.  Jesus’ baptism on the cross reflected the completed work of Christ suffering for all sins.  Jesus’ baptism does not and will not be repeated.

Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb.  Three days later, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and reunited with his disciples.  Jesus then commissioned his disciples saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).

          In Jesus’ commissioning, Jesus directed his church to teach the gospel to make disciples.  And of those who are disciples of Jesus, the church is to baptize them in the fullness of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ command to his church was not to repeat what John had done in the River Jordan.  Jesus’ command to his church was not to repeat what Jesus had done on the cross. Jesus’ command to his church was for a new baptism.  Jesus’ command was that his church baptize those people who had come into agreement with who Jesus and is.  Jesus is their Lord, Teacher, and Savior.  Jesus is the visible imagine of the invisible God and they want to follow him and do has he has done, and he would do.  Jesus’ command to the church was that people could be made new in him and to celebrate that newness with baptism.  This is the baptism of what we are now about.

So, if you are willing to commit to Jesus, willing to love other believers, willing to bear witness of Jesus, and willing to serve in Jesus’ name – then you should be baptized as sign that the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit of Jesus, is part of you and you are saved from all judgement.  Your baptism means God is central to your life and that you seek to live it your life of commitment, love, testimony, and service.

Your baptism does not mean you perfect and free from sin.  Your baptism means you agree with Jesus and that you are a different person seeking to follow him into a life that is free from sin.

Your baptism does not mean the water will wash away your sins. Your baptism means you have had your sins washed away by Jesus’ baptism on the cross.

Your baptism does not mean you are better than anyone else. Your baptism means you are better off than you were before because you are God’s child.

Your baptism as a thinking person does not mean your baptism as an infant was wrong or improper.  Your baptism now as a thoughtful youth or a discerning adult, means you want to personally follow every example set by Jesus.

The church is ready to do as Jesus commanded and baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Come and be baptized.  Amen and Amen.

10-10-Service-Christ & His Church

          We have been exploring together Jesus’ formation of His church.  A few Sundays ago, we talked about church as being formed of people committed to Christ as deeply and intimately as in a marriage in which the two become one.  A couple of Sundays ago, we talked about Jesus’ call that disciples love each other and that that love would be seen by the world as the hallmark of His Church. And last week, we saw that Jesus was not content with the accidental discovery of the church.  Instead, Jesus called upon the church to bear witness of Him, to give testimony, by words and deeds throughout all the world.  Church is not to be a secret.

          Today, I would like us to look at another element of the Church.  And that element is serving.  The idea of being a servant is hard for many people to grasp because the word servant in our culture has a very negative connotation.

          I remember some years ago, we took a family trip to Newport, Rhode Island to tour the magnificent mansions once owned by the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegie families.  One of the mansions, I think it had 70 rooms, was built with passageways concealed within its walls.  These passageways were for us by the servants.  The owner wanted the servants to be able to access the rooms of the mansion to care for the needs of the family, but the owner did not servants to be seen.  Being a servant, in that context meant you were not worthy to be seen.  That must have been a humiliating experience.

          Interestingly enough, Rhode Island, until about one year ago, was officially called State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  The word plantations elicit from our American culture a much darker sense of being servant with the enslavement of black people in plantations of the American southern states.  The slaves of the south were, of course, not employed on these plantations, they were considered owned as one owns property.  Being a servant in this context of an American slave was not just humiliating but also was an intentional effort to degrade the humanity of those entrapped by it.

          So, in the American culture, the words servant and slave carry some heavy and painful emotions.  Yet, we must confront the words, servant and slave, as both the word servant and slave appear hundreds of times in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. And we find that in those uses Jesus called upon his church to be servants and slaves.  What did Jesus mean and how are we to do with his words?

          Let’s first consider what Jesus faced with his chosen apostles, the nucleus of the Church.  One day, Jesus and the Twelve were on a journey to the town of Capernaum. After arriving and settling down for a moment in the house of their host, Jesus asked his disciples, “33b  ‘What were you arguing about on the road? 34 But they [The Twelve] kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who [among them] was the greatest.  35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

          The Twelve saw the formation of Jesus Church as a place through which they could have standing, status, and power.  Jesus said the greatest of church was in being a servant.  But…  But being a servant in church was not an employment status, like the servants who worked within the walls of a mansion, nor was it a forced status, as a slave who was considered owned property.  Being a servant in the church was a voluntary status arrived at by giving up one’s standing, status, and power.  This was a hard lesson for the Twelve because Jesus was saying something completely opposite to the teachings and experience of the world.  In the world, standing, status, and power is like the food chain. It is a “dog eat dog world,” and people generally perceive that it is better to be the top dog.  Jesus was saying that in the kingdom he was called to bring to light, the lower you voluntarily choose to go, the more you become a servant, then the greater you became in the kingdom.  The kingdom of God is inverted from the normal expectations of the world.  We are not told about the immediate response by the Twelve to what Jesus had said about servanthood but we will soon find out the disciples were set on being at the top.

          We see in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark, just some days after Jesus’ teaching, that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, approached Jesus when he was alone. James and John were brothers.  The brothers said to Jesus, “36b ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’  36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’” James and John appeared to be making a play for standing, power, and status.  So much for Jesus’ lesson that, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

          We might think, “Perhaps, Jesus’ other disciples understood Jesus’ teaching and it was only James and John who did not get it.”  Mark gave us the reaction of the other ten disciples to request by James and John for the two positions in Jesus’ kingdom.  “41 When the ten [other disciples of Jesus] heard about this [what James and John asked of Jesus], they [the ten] became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41).  Well, it looks like the other disciples were upset with the powerplay by James and John believing that the honor of being to Jesus’ left and right should go to one of them.  Understanding servanthood was a problem for the Twelve.

          “42 Jesus called them [the Twelve] together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus again preached to the Twelve on serving one another and that such service in the kingdom of God looks like the behavior of a voluntary servant or slave not that of a ruler or overlord.

          The lesson of serving through the church is a difficult one.  The Twelve struggled to see what voluntary servanthood looked like and the impact it could have on the development of the church.  Then, in John’s testimony, we read that, “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own [the men and women who followed him] who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his [Jesus’] power, and that he [Jesus] had come from God and was returning to God; so he [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet [the Twelve], he [Jesus] put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he [Jesus] asked them [the Twelve]. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:1-5, 12-16).

          I think that at this point the light might have come on in the minds of the Twelve.  In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples experienced an intimate encounter with Christ.  Their leader and friend chose to sooth their tired and dirty feet.  Jesus used the love language of touch to express his feelings toward each disciple, even Judas. 

In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples came to learn some important lessons about servicing.  First, serving in God’s kingdom must be voluntary.  Jesus, the leader, teacher, and Lord could not be commanded by anyone in that group to serve.  Instead, Jesus humbled himself and voluntarily served those who were before him.  Jesus was still Jesus, the Son of God.  Jesus was still the leader of the group, but he was also the servant doing the most menial of tasks by washing the dirty feet of the Twelve.  Servanthood in the kingdom is always voluntary.

          Second, Jesus showed that service in the church begins by serving those in the church.  Did you notice that?  Service in church of Jesus Christ began by serving those in the church.  Jesus did not interrupt dinner to go into the street and grab twelve people at random and wash their feet and tell the disciples to do likewise.  Not at all. Instead, Jesus served those in the church and said to the Twelve do likewise.  It might surprise us that as Christians the primary example of being a servant offered to us by Jesus is to serve other Christians, not those outside the church.

          Jesus’ example played out in the early church this way.  After Jesus returned to heaven, a church under his disciples formed in Jerusalem. We are told that, “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).  The church, the people, voluntarily served and saw its primary responsibility was to serve other believers.

          Again from the Book of Acts we would find, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).  The issue here was the distribution of food by the church for church members was unequal and needed to be fixed.  The church saw its primary responsibility as serving other believers.

          What does this mean to us? There are a couple of things. First, we ought to desire to volunteer to be in the service of the church.  Regardless of the task, voluntarily serving the church whether in worship or teaching or life assistance is one of the highest forms of service to the kingdom of God.  Why is that true?  First, it is true first because that is what Jesus did.  And second, service within and to other members of the church encourages and strengthens the church to present itself as a bright light to the world.

          We should be happy to serve the church and to do so in such a way as those within it are encouraged and the church, in all ways, looks as inviting as practical.  But as in anything that is good there is a risk that if we take that good too far it becomes its own problem.  We cannot simply serve only the church.

          Jesus taught his disciples to be warry of serving only themselves using a story found in Luke’s collection of witness statements we call the Gospel of Luke.  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest [a religious leader] happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, [another religious leader] when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’  36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’  37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’  Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:30-37).  And so, Jesus tells us to be careful not to be so focused on our kind that we do not see the needs of others regardless of their association to our lives.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, a United States Supreme Court Justice is credited with saying that we must be careful to avoid the criticism that, “Some people are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.”

          Service in the church means there are two types of service that must exist.  We must be active in the church body itself serving the members of the church itself.  This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of love for one another and our desire to imitate Jesus as his faithful disciples.  It does not mean that we must necessarily wash one another’s feet, but it means we serve on all the ministries of the church for the church to include the Trustees and Treasurers, teaching, preparing meals for one another, greeting, leading worship, giving a message, and the list goes on.  When we serve the church, we strengthen the body of Christ.

Second, we must also take that strengthened body of Christ and serve our neighbors as ourselves. This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of concern for all who are made in the image of God.

I will close today with the words of Apostle Paul who instructed the churches he established this way: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

          We do not need to humble ourselves into death.  Instead, we need to live humbly for the lives of others.  Amen and Amen. 

10-03 - Witness - Christ & His Church

          We have been exploring together what Jesus meant when he said that he would form and sustain His church.  Two weeks ago, we explored that church is a company of committed disciples of Jesus who had taken the plunge into faith.  Jesus and the earliest Christian saw the relationship between Jesus and the Church as a holy marriage.

          Last week, we explored Jesus’ first command for His church: Love one another.  Jesus said loving one another, believers loving other believers, was the sole criterion for determining whether we were genuinely disciples of Jesus.  If we cannot love each other, then we have no business claiming Jesus or sharing what Jesus means to us.  The Apostle John was so firm on this point that he said to share Jesus with another while not loving someone in the church would make us a liar.

          So Jesus asked his disciples to be committed and loving. And from this posture of being committed and loving, Jesus then gave the second command to his church, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).  Luke, in the Book of Acts, recorded Jesus’ words this way, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Jesus’ command to His church was to be a company of committed disciples who love one another and to bear witness of their beliefs and love to nonbelievers.  To be a witness in Jesus’ day is the same as they are today.  A witness gives truthful testimony about what they saw and heard someone do and say, as well as give truthful testimony about what they themselves said and did.  Jesus said, “Give testimony about me and let your lives be your testimony of me.”

          Jesus’ command to give testimony was given to His church and, therefore, Jesus’ command was given to this church, meaning everyone who claims to be a Christian seated here or listening today is a witness.  Jesus did not make this command to just pastors, or members of the choir, or any other subset of the church.  Everyone is to give testimony.

          Let’s look at what Jesus said we are to give testimony about.  According to Matthew, Jesus’ command was to “teaching other people everything I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a).  Last week, we read from the Apostle John’s letter to his church and John expressed his witness this way, “1-2 From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. 3-4 We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy! (1 John 1:1-4 MSG)

          John started his testimony by explaining who Jesus was and that John was able to share his testimony from firsthand experience. After writing those words, John gave his testimony by writing his witness statement totaling some 18,658 words in what we now call the Gospel of John.  Contained within John’s testimony are the commands of Jesus, things John wanted people to know and to follow.

  • Jesus drove moneychangers out of the Temple, Israel’s most sacred place of worship.  Jesus said, ““Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16).
  • Jesus spoke to one of the most learned members of Israel and said, “‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7).
  • Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman and said, “24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24).
  • Jesus spoke to a crowd of religious leaders and said, “24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”  (John 5:24)
  • Jesus spoke to his disciples and said, “27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:27).
  • Jesus spoke to a crowd and said, ““Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37b-38)

We could go on for many minutes culling out the commands of Jesus from the testimony of John through his gospel.  John was being a faithful witness of what he had heard Jesus say and reporting on what Jesus did.  John was a faithful witness because he was standing up to be counted by giving testimony about Jesus.

Now, as to John, we can rightly say, “Well, John was with Jesus in person.  John could speak personally about Jesus and what Jesus said and did.  We have not with Jesus in the flesh, what testimony are we to give?”

I think this is a fair question.  We cannot give firsthand testimony of what Jesus said because we were not present like John with Jesus said those words.  But… There is that word again, “but.”  But we who have believed that Jesus is the Son of God, and our Savior can testify about what Jesus means to us.  When we do, then what we are saying is our personal firsthand testimony.

Please allow me to illustrate.  Twenty years ago, our nation was attacked by madmen who commandeered aircraft killing thousands of people in New York City, Washington, D. C., and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.  That was September 11, 2001.  I lost a friend that day.  He was the pilot of the first airplane highjacked and crashed into the World Trade Center. The next week my daughter miscarried her first child, our first grandchild.  That same week, we learned my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He died three weeks later.  About a month after my father died, my wife, Becky, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  Two months later, my mother died of complications from Alzheimer’s.  It was a time of sorrow.  But…

But this is my personal firsthand testimony centered on what Jesus and his commands meant to me in and through that time of sorrow. I said then and I affirm now that Jesus blessed me in my sorrows because I was blessed with communion.  Because of communion with Jesus, my sorrow was turned to joy.

My testimony to others then was that I had communion with Jesus, an intimate fellowship with him as my Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.  From the testimony in the Bible, I knew of Jesus and came to know Him.  Because of this blessing of communion, I had access to all other blessings that God intends for us to experience.  I knew from John 3:16 that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. “ So, my testimony then and remains today that the first thing I experienced from God through these adversities, was a renewal of perspective - that if we believe in Jesus as our Savior though we may die a physical death - we do not perish for we have been given eternal life.  This sense comes from communion with the Lord.

Second, communion is as an act or instance of sharing.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28-29 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Each time we faced adversity during those difficult months, we experienced God blessing by turning to Jesus and saying, "Jesus - I cannot bear this event alone. I pray that you give me the strength - not strength to endure - but strength to let go - to turn over my burdens and my fears to you.  Let me do so - and find rest."  And it was my testimony then and remains today that it does take strength to let go - to give our burdens to Jesus.  It is part of trusting God’s word.  Now here’s some good news - it works.  There is in that act or instance of sharing - that communion with Jesus - an easing of the sorrow.  A knowledge that you whatever you are going through - you are not going through it alone.

Lastly, I participated in the in the act of holy communion - the Christian ordination - the eating of the bread and the drinking from the cup.  While we all love God and what communion means, we must recognize that familiarity and repetition in partaking the elements of communion can blotted out or blurred their significance or somehow make them seem a commonplace experience.  Communion - the partaking of the elements - is supposed to be anything but common.  In taking communion during those months of trial, I came to see that Jesus Christ had each and every one of us personally in mind when he went on the cross.  Think about that for a minute - He had you and me personally in mind.  It was my testimony then and it is now that recognizing and remembering true and personal dimension of the elements of communion helped me to experience God, by understanding that regardless of whatever we are going through in this world - Jesus has paid the price and through Him - we can have everlasting life.

This is part of my personal firsthand testimony of what Jesus said, even though I did not personally walk with Jesus in the flesh as John did.  Every one of us has a personal testimony about the meaning of Jesus in our life.  And every one of us is called, even commanded by Jesus, to share it with others.  We can and must share what Jesus said.

Secondly, Jesus said more broadly in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We can give testimony by how we live our lives.

Early in Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus explained how we give testimony through our living.  In a sermon giving on the hillside of Galilee, Jesus spoke to his disciples this way:

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 MSG).

We give testimony, we are witnesses of Jesus, when we season the world with the pleasant flavors of God.  We give testimony, we are witnesses of Jesus, when we bring the God-colored light into another dark world.  We bring flavor and light by living our lives like Jesus lived his.  Jesus was compassionate.  Jesus never looked away from the needs of people.  He always walked toward them.  Live compassionately.  Jesus was a servant.  He did for others, even the most menial of tasks.  Live by serving.  Jesus was forgiving.  He forgave when others would have cursed.  Live by forgiving.  Jesus was prayerful.  He prayed even though he was God.  Live by praying.  Jesus was gentle.  He took time to comfort others.  Live gently. Jesus was patient.  He quietly taught others and met them where they were. Live patiently.  Jesus was humble.  He did not demand from others titles and honors.  Live humbly.

No matter how we choose to live, we who claim Christ, will give a very personal testimony of who Christ is to us.  We want to make sure our testimony is a true portrayal of Christ.

We have been blessed to know Jesus through the testimony of others and through our personal relationship with Christ.  Now, let’s make our joy complete by being witnesses for Jesus and giving our testimony publicly and unashamedly by sharing the words of Christ and by the testimony of living like Christ.  This is Jesus’ command for his faithful followers who love one another.  This is his command for his church.  This is his command for this church.  Amen and Amen.

09-26 - Fellowship - Christ & His Church

                    Last week, we began exploring Christ’s formulation of His church.  We saw that the Biblical image of church was compared to the intimate relationship of marriage in which Jesus serve as the groom and the church as his bride.  As in the human experience of marriage, the two shall become one.  In the Biblical image, the same holds true, Christ and the church become one.  We saw the foundation of the Christ/Church relationship was established upon the unconditional commitment of Christ and the individual commitments of members of the church.  Jesus Christ’s commitment to the church was expressed throughout by his life on earth, but mostly by his death on the cross.  Christ held nothing back from His church.  The commitment of individual Christians, you and me, remains an open matter.  The image of marriage compels us to take the plunge and be immersed in all that Jesus has for us.  We must be committed to Christ to experience the intimate relationship God intends for us to have with Him.

          In that commitment to Christ, Jesus said that one behavior would evidence that we had committed our lives to Christ.  As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own arrest, trial, and execution, Jesus said to this disciples and to you and me, “33 My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.  34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 16:33-35).

          This is the only time in the four gospels we have recorded for us a simple command from Jesus to his church, to those who were and are his disciples, to “love one another.”  Moreover, Jesus said the presence of love between and among believers in Christ, was the only criterion necessary to evidence to the unbelieving world that Jesus was the Lord of the believers’ life.  Jesus’ command and criterion make sense.  If we claim Christ, but do not love another believer something is very wrong.

          Jesus’ apostle, John, understood this message and conveyed its meaning to his churches this way, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).  John was speaking to Christians about their behavior toward other Christians.

          There is an often-told story of a church that was searching for a pastor.  A pastoral candidate came to the church one Sunday and gave an inspired sermon on loving one another.  The congregation was thrilled.  They believed they had found their past and so they voted unanimously to call the preacher as their pastor.  The following Sunday, the new pastor came to deliver the sermon.  There was much anticipation about what he would say. But the new pastor preached the same sermon on loving one another he had the week before, word for word.  The congregation was pleased by the sermon but a little concerned that it was the same as previous week’s sermon.  The next Sunday, the new pastor delivered the sermon. He preached the same sermon on loving one another again, word for word.  The congregation was very concerned and wondered if this pastor had only one sermon to offer.  A group from the congregation decided to meet with the pastor to express their concerns. They told the pastor his sermon on loving one another was great the first time, good the second time, but troubling to hear the third time.  The group asked the pastor if he knew there were other commands and topics about which he could preach.  The pastor said he was aware of the other commands and could preach excellently on those topics.  But he said there was not point talking about other topics and other commands if they did not love one another.

          From the Biblical accounts and that story we come to learn that Christ intended for his church to be comprised of committed disciples who would evidence that commitment by loving one another.  The early Christians had a word for this type of love between believers.  It came from the Greek language, koinonia, which we translate into English as fellowship.

          Fellowship then is an essential character of the body of Christ expressed through and within the church.  It is a deep inclusive caring for those who are here.  Church should be a society of friends not a building of passing strangers.  The earliest expression of fellowship, koinonia, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. The church had just begun.  Luke described the behavior of the early Christians this way, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [committed] and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

          The early Christians, the founders of Jesus command for a church, practiced their belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, by loving one another was a bright beacon on the landscape.  They were committed to the teachings of the apostles.  People were committed to Christ.  They were hungry for Jesus.  They did not want the day to go by without immersing themselves into the word of God.  And these committed Christians were engaged in fellowship, koinonia.  They wanted to spend time with other Christians. They wanted to know their stories and celebrate the new life that each of them had in Christ.  Everyone was excited by the prospect of more people into the church because it meant more people were being saved and would be expressing their lives through koinonia, or Christian fellowship.

          The Apostle John saw the development of church and fellowship this way, “That which was from the beginning (Jesus), which we (his disciples) have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared (Jesus); we (his disciples) have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We (his disciples) proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus ChristWe write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

          John saw the gathering of the early church as the company of the committed coming together to be in fellowship with God through Jesus and in fellowship with each other.  John’s view was that fellowship with Jesus made possible fellowship with other believers.

          To John, joy in Christ became complete with and through the fellowship with other believers.  Sadly, there are many people across our communities who enter a church building, pray, perhaps sing, and leave without speaking to another human being or having another human being speak to them.  Why does that happen with such frequency?  I think this happens because there is no desire for genuine fellowship.

          In some cases, people enter a church and welcome the idea that they did not have to speak to anyone because too often those exchanges come across as judgement rather than welcome.  The visitor feels their past will be judged instead of their present life in Christ being celebrated.  This is not a new phenomenon. 

Consider the case of the Apostle Paul who was originally known as Saul from the city of Tarsus.  Saul was a devoted Jew who ruthlessly persecuted Christians.  Saul encouraged a mob to stone to death a Christian named, Stephen.  Saul went house to house dragging Christians from their homes and sending them to prison simply because they were Christians.  Then, Saul encountered Jesus and committed his life over to Christ, fully, unconditionally.  Saul had given up his former ways and had a new life in Christ.  But Saul wanted fellowship with other Christians to make his joy in Christ complete.

          But look at what happened to Saul when he tried to make that joy in Christ complete by engaging other Christians.  “26 When he (Saul) came to Jerusalem, he (Saul) tried to join the disciples (the other committed believers), but they (the members of the church) were all afraid of him (Saul), not believing that he (Saul) really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  The members of the church had reason to be concerned with Saul the Jewish persecutor.  That Saul was destructive and dangerous.  But the Saul who came to the church was Saul the committed Christian.  The church was not buying it, preferring instead to remember Saul as his was.

That might have been the end of the Saul’s story in the church of Christ if not for that all important word at the beginning of the next verse, verse 27.  “They were all afraid of Saul, not believing that Saul really was a disciple.  27 But Barnabas (a member of the church) took Saul brought him to the apostles. He (Barnabas) told them (the Apostles) how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him (Saul), and how in Damascus he (Saul) had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them (the church) and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:26b-28). 

But Barnabas took Saul.”  Barnabas, committed to Christ, took charge of Saul, and spent time with Saul to learn Saul’s new life in Christ.  Barnabas was not interested in Saul’s previous behaviors.  What Barnabas wanted to know was what God had done and was doing through Saul’s life now.  Barnabas then took the next step to make his joy, Saul’s joy, and the joy of the church complete by bringing Saul into the fellowship of believers.  Barnabas’ example teaches us that at any given point we might be called to serve as the “but” person who welcomes the stranger into the fellowship of the church.  We might be the person who says “but look at what is happening in this person’s life since they came to Christ.”

Saul, who would later change his name to Paul and establish many churches encouraged Christians to acknowledge the power of Christ’s forgiveness within a believer which made every new.  Paul wrote, “11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:11-14). Paul, who had been forgiven by Christ and brought into the Christian fellowship by the aid of Barnabas, encouraged others, you and me, to express fellowship with other believers through compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness and then to bind all those virtues in love. 

Paul’s words give a wonderful expression of Christian fellowship expressed between believers.  How could joy not be found in that image?  How could that image not express to the unbelieving world the power of Christ to change lives for good?  I think the answer is clear that to love in this manner would be convincing evidence of the Christ in our lives.

I want to encourage you this week to reflect on Christ’s purpose for His church to be a company of committed disciples and that that commitment would be expressed through fellowship.  Let the idea of Koinonia, that deep intimate belief that members of Christ’s body should be loving to one another sink into our conscious thinking. Examine what you do and how you express yourself to and about other believers.  Think about Barnabas and whether you are that “but in” person who needs to stand up and bring another person into this church.  Think about your opportunities to express compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness to another believer. Think about how you can bind all those wonder virtues by love so that church may be seen to the unbelieving world as loving society of friends.  Afterall, to love one another is the only criterion established by Christ to mark a genuine church.  Let us pray.