Our theme this issue is congregational leadership. Though a large topic, it’s vital to our ongoing journey of renewal. The old adage is generally true: “As go the leaders, so goes the church.” By definition, leaders are influencers, thus who they are as people and how they exert their influence, have a significant impact on their congregations, for good or for ill. In GCI, we highly value our pastors and other leaders, and this issue is devoted to equipping them for their high calling. In this letter, I focus on a particularly important aspect of congregational leadership, summarized by the phrase team-based and pastor-led.
Team-based and pastor-led, what is that?
I’m privileged to teach the Polity of GCI course at Grace Communion Seminary (GCS), where in lectures and online discussions, I often use the phrase team-based and pastor-led to describe GCI’s system of governance within congregations. But what does that phrase mean? Rather than defining it with sterile statements of policy, let me provide some insightful and helpful responses from my students when I asked them to describe what they understand team-based and pastor-led to mean.
GCI’s modified-Episcopal polity makes our churches pastor-led, but our Trinitarian theology exalts those pastors within a model of community leadership. Our emphasis on how the Father, Son and Spirit perichoretically lead together creates a framework for team-based leadership. I sometimes struggle figuring out how being led by one pastor fits within our understanding of Trinitarian leadership, but in this imperfect world, I totally understand the need for a pastor to lead the way. I think the team-based, pastor-led model is the best one for us—it’s the one we’re following with our church plant. A team creates a network of checks and balances, a wide array of gifting, and the critical ability to share burdens and workload. But being pastor-led provides direction, focus and unity for the team that, without that leadership, may wander in 100 different directions.
I understand it to be a model that reflects the God we believe in. The Father does nothing without the Son, and the Spirit, and vice versa. This system is one of protection and growth. I recently learned that a little pessimism is sometimes required because the eternal optimist may try to make things go that need to be stopped. We need other people that are different from us to see things differently and to use the gifts and talents that they have. When we put all of these things together we have a balanced approach. Lead pastors should help build a team of ministry leaders and have an advisory council in place to make sure that the congregation is being equipped, listened to and going in the right direction, joining Jesus in ministry. The lead pastor should support the congregation and they should support him as they both are accountable to the denomination and even more-so to Jesus Christ.
It’s a model that reflects the God we believe in. It blew my mind when I first thought of that! It is very true that God as Father-Son-Spirit work as a team and are led by the constant unity and fellowship of pastoring each other and completely serving the other at all times. This beautiful system of relationship truly is a system of protection and growth. That is why the Body of Christ is such a great example because we each play an integral part in what the Head, Jesus Christ, already has planned for us.
As my classmate noted already, “We need other people that are different from us to see things differently and to use the gifts and talents that they have.” If we only look for people who are like us (who have the same viewpoint, come from the same cultural/political/social background, etc.) we wouldn’t have a very balanced approach to life in general, let alone church governance. So it’s good to be reminded that joining Jesus in his ministry work means that we acknowledge the God-given strengths we have and use them for God’s glory. In the words of Morgan Freeman, we should each “do what you’re made to do.” God created each of us to be in relationship with him, thereby fulfilling his purpose for us to love him and in turn, love one another.
Team-based and pastor-led is an operational style that puts emphasis on outside accountability and trust in a divinely appointed/trained pastor to ethically lead a congregation within GCI under the Headship of Jesus and with the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I thank God for my GCS students. Who they are, and the abilities they exhibit, give me tangible reason to be hopeful about our future. Their insights point up the fact that effective congregational leadership is both team-based and pastor-led. This is important food for thought as we ponder how to exercise our leadership within the beautiful expression of community that we refer to as church.
It’s a relational art
Executing a team-based, pastor-led model of leadership is more an art than a science. It’s not about merely implementing rigid rules in a one-size-fits-all system. That’s because this model, as a reflection of the triune being of God, is fundamentally relational. It’s about being a community where strong, meaningful relationships are forged over time. Journeying together in community will often mean going through adversity together. But rightly approached, this can be beneficial, leading to healthy self-examination, working together to come to solutions, giving up our own ideas for the overall good. It can lead to more carefully listening to others (thus empowering them to share ideas), submitting to one another (in love), and growing together.
Leaders who know and lead themselves, then work in teams
This relational, dynamic approach to the art of leadership calls for leaders who both know themselves (are self-aware) and thus are able to lead themselves (on this point, see Rick Shallenberger’s article in this issue). Leaders who possess these self-governing qualities are then able to come together in teams to discern where and how the Holy Spirit is guiding them and then, under the lead pastor’s overall direction, shepherd the community of believers forward as it, together, follows the Spirit on mission with Jesus, to the glory of the Father.
I thank our triune God for you, and for your leadership. I encourage you to take some time to evaluate your own leadership style along with your congregation’s leadership system. Is that system, in a balanced way, both team-based and pastor-led? For related food for thought, I encourage you to study Gary Deddo’s essay on the church and its mission being published serially in GCI Weekly Update (click here for part 1).
Director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development
On leadership: Know yourself to lead yourself
This article is from Rick Shallenberger, a GCI-USA regional pastor and a contributing editor and feature writer for Equipper.
This is part 2 of a series on Christian leadership. For other articles in the series, click a number: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
Do you know what it’s like to be on the other side of you? That question, raised to the GCI-USA regional pastors in a training session with Tom Nebel (a GiANT Worldwide consultant), set me back on my heels. I’d never thought about it before. Tom said it’s like “having broccoli in your teeth—everyone knows it’s there, but they won’t tell you, so you have no idea.”
Tom’s point was that a lack of knowing yourself leads to being what he refers to as being unconsciously incompetent. In order to effectively lead yourself, you must first know yourself. Those who do (and act accordingly, with emotional intelligence), possess a vital competency when it comes to being able to lead others. This “know yourself to lead yourself” dynamic was illustrated by Tom using the diagram below.
As the diagram shows, the core of who we are as persons and leaders is a mix of our skill-sets, emotional intelligence, and innate wiring. As a leader, understanding this mix is like holding up a mirror and asking, “What is it really like to be on the other side of me?” Tom helped me grasp the importance of knowing myself in order to be more effective in leading myself and others. Allow me to provide an illustration.
Some of you may be surprised (said tongue-deeply-imbedded-in-cheek) to know that I have a tendency to talk too much, bringing the conversation back to me. If someone is telling a story, I’m thinking of a similar one that shows I may not only understand the experience, but have a better illustration from my own life (at least in my own mind!). This tendency (in the language of Tom’s diagram, above) creates an undesired pattern of focusing on the self and a subsequent action of interrupting or otherwise not listening effectively. The consequences do not lead to good relationships.
We all have certain tendencies that, being hardwired into our character and personalities, tend to create patterns of behavior. Those patterns can be good or bad, but over time become so ingrained that we simply are unaware of them (thus the importance of the proverbial mirror). These tendencies and resultant patterns of behavior not only impact our reactions, but also our decision-making processes. And our actions, as we are well-aware, have consequences, for good or for ill. These consequences then shape our reality.
So the reality of the environment in which we lead is heavily influenced by the tendencies we have as leaders. Again, What is it like to be on the other side of you? The more self-aware we become in answering this question, the more emotionally intelligent we become. This then leads to becoming even more self-aware, enabling us to make better choices concerning our actions. So rather than being defined by the ingrained repeating patterns of unhelpful habits, we choose to react differently.
Becoming aware of my tendency to talk too much, and to interject too many personal stories into conversations, made me more aware of the ones I’m involved in. More and more I’m choosing to remain silent because I don’t want that old pattern to be reinforced, or to define me. Because I want to hear what everyone else thinks, I choose at times to be quiet—to bite my tongue and simply listen to others.
As we grow in knowing ourselves and leading ourselves, we will find that our actions have consequences for good. Then the reality out of which we lead will become more healthy, enabling our influence as a leader to grow in the many opportunities we have to shape the church and the other leaders we have been called to love and to serve.
Team-based leadership resources
Below are links to inexpensive or free resources that address key aspects of congregational leadership. We don’t necessarily endorse the full content of each one, but all of them provide helpful food for thought and discussion.
Discerning God’s Will As a Group. This training pack from Building Church Leaders teaches ways for a leadership group to seek together God’s will for a congregation or ministry. It costs $14.99.
Decision Making. This training pack provides a helpful method for team-based decision making. It costs $14.99.
Training New Leaders. This training pack gives instruction about recruiting and developing new leaders. It costs $19.99.
Kid’s Korner: discipling children in small churches
God uses churches of all sizes to accomplish his purposes, yet many churches, in multiple denominations (GCI included), are quite small. This small size, no doubt, presents many opportunities, yet it also presents significant challenges—particularly when it comes to discipling children.
How does a small church provide a meaningful children’s ministry when only one or two children show up on any given Sunday morning, and the number of adults available to disciple these children is quite limited? According to Greg Baird, in an article at discipleblog.com, instead of giving up, you implement strategies he appropriately summarizes in the acronym S.M.A.L.L. Want to learn more? Click here.
RCL sermons: February 12-March 12
In keeping with our commitment to equip pastors and others for preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), we provide this month five sermons that sync with the RCL Gospel lections for February 12 through March 12, 2017. We welcome your comments, additions and questions (use the "leave a reply" feature below).
Sermon for February 12, 2017
Deut. 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
We’ve been looking at the Sermon on the Mount—last week we saw in Matthew 5 how Jesus says he fulfills the Law (the Old Testament). He then shows that, under the new covenant, our lives are not lived under the Law of Moses (the old covenant), but in the presence of Jesus, the King of the kingdom of God that has broken in in the person of Jesus. Through his life and teaching we learn about kingdom living—the ultimate righteousness and perfection of heart and behavior found in him. Through the Spirit, we share in his righteousness and perfection as we participate with Jesus in his living and loving. But what does kingdom living look like for us?
In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus describes kingdom living by comparing and contrasting his teaching with the common wisdom of his day as expounded by the scribes and Pharisees in an amalgam of teachings from the Old Testament and other sources. Jesus contrasts their teachings (“you have heard it said”) with his (“but I tell you”) in matters pertaining largely to ethics (murder, adultery, divorce, etc.). In some cases, Jesus overthrows their teaching, in others he upholds it, in still others he amends it. In all cases, Jesus’ teaching is authoritative for his disciples, and so for us today. Our passage today begins with what Jesus says about anger.
Note to preacher: depending on how much time you have in your worship service for the sermon, you can cover all the points in this sermon or just one or two. In preaching the RCL, you don't necessarily have to preach the entire passage in the reading for that day.
1. Avoiding anger (Matthew 5:21-26)
21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “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. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 Therefore, 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; then come and offer your gift. 25 Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Here Jesus notes what his disciples understood from the sixth commandment of the Torah: “Do not commit murder” (NEB). But his command goes deeper, prohibiting what is behind murder: human anger. Not all anger is evil—there is a “righteous anger,” but Jesus is here addressing the unrighteous anger that springs not from love but from pride, hatred, malice, and a spirit of revenge—attitudes that might lead us to call others raca (meaning “empty-headed”) or fool (meaning a rebel or outcast). The common denominator in both insulting epithets is contempt, which according to Jesus, is tantamount to murder. As John would later write: “Any one who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
In Matt. 5:23, with the phrase, “therefore, if…”, Jesus applies this principle using two illustrations, the first from temple worship, and the second from the law courts. Let’s translate these into our modern context:
If you are in church, in the middle of a worship service, and you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave church at once and put it right. Do not wait till the service has ended. Seek out your brother or sister and ask for forgiveness. First go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your worship to God.
If you have an unpaid debt, and your creditor takes you to court to get their money back, come to terms with them quickly. Even while you are on your way to court, pay your debt. Otherwise once you reach court, it will be too late. Your accuser will sue you before the judge and the judge will hand you over to the police, and you will find yourself in prison. You will never get out till you’ve paid the last penny. So payment before prison would be much more sensible.
In both cases, someone has a grievance against us and the basic lesson is the same: There is a necessity for immediate action to set things right. To reconcile quickly is the way of Jesus—and as we share in his living and loving, we share in his work to bring reconciliation between people. Will we be perfect in doing so? No, but we will be participants in Jesus’ perfect and perfecting work.
2. Avoiding lust (Matthew 5: 27-30)
27 You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day attempted to narrow the issue of lust to the seventh commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not commit adultery.” In their view, they obeyed this command if they merely avoided the act of adultery. But Jesus’ way is radically different—not only does he not commit adultery, he does not entertain lustful thoughts. Indeed, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We also note here that “lust” includes more than sexual lust. For example, if a married woman desires another man merely for the imagined relationship, it can also be lust—emotional adultery.
It is the relation between the eyes (which speaks to the operation of our brain) and the heart (the seat of our emotions) that leads Jesus in the next two verses to give practical instruction about how to maintain sexual purity in particular. Jesus’ point is that we fall victim to impurity (immorality) when we open the gates of our imaginations (and thus our passions) through our eyes. Similarly, self-control in sexual matters begins with controlling the eyes and thus the imagination. This principle brings us to Matt. 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” On the surface this is a rather startling command. A few Christians, whose zeal exceeded their wisdom, have taken it literally and mutilated themselves. But this command is an example of Jesus’ use of a dramatic figure of speech. What he was advocating was not self-mutilation, but ruthless self-denial—a “taking up the cross” to follow him (Mark 8:34).
But what does this mean in everyday life? A paraphrase of Jesus’ words might help:
If your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes, then pluck out your eyes. That is, don’t look! Behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: Don’t do it; don’t go there! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin.
Will following Jesus’ admonition make us morally perfect? No, only Jesus is perfect. But as we deny ourselves to follow Jesus, he “rubs off on us” and by the power of his Spirit we become more and more like him. As we share his life and love, we find that we’re eliminating certain things from our lives, which either are, or could become, sources of temptation. It’s better to forgo some things in life to fully experience kingdom living.
3. Fidelity in marriage (Matthew 5:31-32)
31 It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
In Jesus’ day there was a controversy about divorce between the rival rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. Shammai taught from Deuteronomy 24:1 that the sole ground for divorce was a grave matrimonial offence, something “indecent.” Hillel agreed, but interpreted “indecent” in the widest way possible to include a wife’s most trivial offences, such as burning her husband’s food, or causing him to lose interest in her due to her plain looks. The Pharisees seem to have embraced Hillel’s viewpoint, which explains their question to Jesus in Matt. 19:3: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce, but Jesus’ concern was for the institution of marriage. For what cause might a man divorce his wife?, the Pharisees ask. Jesus replies (in Matt. 19:4) with a counter-question (Matt. 19:5-9) that refers them back to the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 and the institution of marriage in Genesis 2. His point is two-fold: First, the married couple is “no longer two but one flesh,” and second, “what God has joined, let not man put asunder.” According to Jesus’ exposition of its divine origin, marriage is an institution by which God makes permanently “one flesh” of a man and woman who leave their parents to form a new unit of society.
Though the Pharisees treat Moses’ instruction about divorce as a command, Jesus here treats it as a concession to the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8). The Pharisees emphasized the giving of the divorce certificate as if that were the most important part of the Mosaic provision. But a careful reading of Deut. 24:1-4 reveals the conditional nature of Moses’ provision of certain procedures if a divorce took place; and therefore at the very most a reluctant granting of permission to divorce. But Jesus implies that such provisions, rather than being God’s ultimate will for us, are concessions to the hardness of people’s hearts.
Jesus’ point is that since God instituted marriage as an exclusive and permanent union, to divorce and re-marry, or to marry a divorced person, would be to enter an adulterous relationship. Why? Because the person who has secured a divorce in the eyes of human law is still in God’s eyes married. However, Jesus here (and Paul later) notes certain exceptions to this principle. Jesus refers to the exception of sexual immorality, which is tantamount to adultery. Under the old covenant, adultery was punishable with death, and though by Jesus’ day the death penalty had fallen into disuse, an adulterer was considered as one dead, with the innocent party thus freed from their marriage vows as though the offending mate had died.
What did Jesus mean by sexual immorality? In Greek it’s porneia, a comprehensive word that seems to include not only adultery/fornication, but any act of gross sexual immorality. With that in mind, we might summarize Jesus’ teaching about divorce this way:
You have heard the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24:1 in the interest of substantiating a policy that permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives—simply by providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction. But I say to you, such irresponsible behavior on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and their second partners into unions that are not marriage, but adultery. To this general principle there is an exception—a situation where divorce and remarriage is permissible because the marriage bond has already been broken by serious sexual sin.
Jesus’ reluctant permission to divorce and remarry in certain circumstances should be seen as God’s continued accommodation to the hardness of human hearts. Moreover, Jesus’ statement must be read both in its immediate context (an emphatic endorsement of the permanence of marriage in God’s purpose) and in its wider context of the Sermon on the Mount and the whole Bible, which proclaim the gospel of reconciliation.
It is significant that in the book of Hosea, the Divine Lover was willing to woo back his grossly adulterous wife, Israel. So we must never begin a discussion on the topic of divorce by enquiring about its legitimacy. To be preoccupied with legalistic grounds for divorce is to be guilty of the very Pharisaism Jesus condemned. His emphasis is positive, namely on God’s original institution of marriage as an exclusive and permanent relationship of a man and woman (a union that humans must not break), and on his call to his followers to love and forgive one another, and to be peacemakers in every situation of strife and discord, including within marriage. Chrysostom justly linked this passage with the beatitudes:
For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own? From this divine ideal, purpose and call, divorce can be seen only as a tragic declension.
We should also note that the New Testament gives us further instruction about the grounds for permissible divorce and remarriage, as in the case of a believing spouse being abandoned (in fact or in spirit), by a non-believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). We should also keep in mind that if a person sins by divorcing and remarrying, that sin, like all sins, is forgiven by God who, in Christ, says, “Go and sin no more.” In GCI it is not our teaching that a remarriage that might have been consummated in sin, should then be terminated upon conversion.
4. Honesty in speech (Matthew 5:33-37)
33 Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The rabbis in Jesus’ day were permissive in their attitude toward making vows. It’s another example of their misuse of Scripture: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” This is a summation of several Old Testament precepts requiring people who make vows to keep them. The vows in question are oaths in which the speaker calls upon God to witness his vow and to punish him if he breaks it. Moses often emphasized the evil of false swearing and the duty of performing to the Lord one’s oaths. Thus what was prohibited was perjury (a dishonest pledging of one’s word). But the Pharisees tried to restrict such prohibitions by shifting people’s attention away from the vow and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. False swearing, they concluded, meant a profane use of the divine name, not perjury. So they developed elaborate rules listing permissible formulas, adding that only those formulas that include the divine name make the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name is not used.
Jesus’ response to this convoluted reasoning is to argue that the formula of the vow is irrelevant, and in any case, you can’t avoid making reference to God, for the whole world is his. If you vow by heaven, it’s God’s throne; if by earth, it’s his footstool; if by Jerusalem, it’s his city; if by your head, it’s God’s creation and under God’s control. You cannot even change the natural color of a single hair, black in youth and white in old age! For Jesus, the bottom line is this: A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. However, if we are people of our word, vows are unnecessary: “Do not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34), but rather “let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matt. 5:37). As the apostle James puts it: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (James.5:12). “Anything more than this,” Jesus adds, “comes from evil”—either the evil of our hearts, or the evil one whom Jesus described as “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Though divorce and vows were permitted by the Law of Moses (as concessions to the hardness of the human heart), neither were commanded, and for followers of Jesus, neither should be necessary. However, let’s remember that Jesus is recounting the way he thinks and acts, and inviting us to join in. He knows our weakness, he knows we’re unable to follow him perfectly, and so he obeys for us. Thankfully, we’re saved by his perfection, not our own. But as his followers, our desire, motivated by love, is to share in Jesus’ living and loving. And so we conclude with a prayer:
We confess that we are sinners, and rejoice that we are saved by grace.
Come Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of Jesus, to the glory of the Father. Amen.
Here is a fitting closing song and benediction, reminding us that this sermon is about Jesus and our trust in him, not in ourselves:
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Sermon for February 19, 2017
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23; Matt. 5:38-48
JESUS’ CALL TO NON-RETALIATION & ACTIVE LOVE
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
Nowhere is the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount greater than Jesus calling us to share his life of non-retaliation and active love. In the sermon today, we’ll look at both.
1. Jesus’ call to non-retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)
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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Here Jesus quotes the Law of Moses where it addresses the judges of Israel (Deut. 19:17-18), defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibits the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud. By the time of Jesus, literal retaliation for damages had been replaced in Jewish legal practice by monetary penalties. But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade that: “Do not seek revenge or bear any grudge against anyone among your people” (Lev. 19:18). The principle of judicial retribution was being utilized as an excuse for the very thing it was instituted to abolish: personal revenge!
In his reply, Jesus did not contradict the principle of retribution, for it is a true and just principle. Later in the Sermon on the Mount he states it this way: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). What Jesus affirmed was that this principle, though it pertains to the law courts, is not applicable to personal relationships, which are to be based not on tit-for-tat justice, but on unconditional love.
Our duty to individuals who wrong us is thus not retaliation but the acceptance of injustice without revenge or redress: “Do not resist an evil person,” said Jesus (Matt. 5:39). But what is the meaning of this call by Jesus to non-resistance? Whom or what are we forbidden to resist? The Greek word for resist is used elsewhere in the New Testament concerning resisting God, the state, and the devil. So how is it possible that Jesus told us not to resist evil? We cannot possibly interpret his command as an invitation to compromise with sin or with Satan. The first clue to a correct understanding is to recognize that the Greek words for evil person are masculine, not neuter. What we are forbidden to resist is not evil as such, evil in the abstract, nor “the evil one” (the devil), but an evil person—“one who is evil” (RSV), or “the man who wrongs you” (NEB). Jesus does not deny that the person here is evil. He asks us neither to pretend that he is not evil, nor condone his evil behavior. What he does not allow is retaliation: “Do not take vengeance on someone who wrongs you” (GNB).
Jesus then gives four illustrations of the application of this command. Each introduces a person (who in context is in some sense “evil”) who seeks to injure us, one by hitting us in the face, another by prosecuting us in court, a third by commandeering our service, and a fourth by begging money from us. In each example, Jesus says our duty as his followers is so completely to avoid taking revenge that we even allow the evil person to double the injury.
It may seem incredible or at least impractical to us that we should offer our left cheek to someone who already hit our right, especially when we recall that striking the right cheek (a blow with the back of the hand) is still today in the Middle East an expression of great insult. Yet this is the way of Jesus—the standard he perfectly fulfills. Concerning Jesus, the Old Testament prophesied: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” The night of his arrest in the Garden, the Jewish police spat on him, blindfolded him, and struck him in the face and the Romans followed suit. But Jesus, with the infinite dignity of self-control and love, held his peace, demonstrating a total refusal to retaliate by allowing them to continue their cruel mockery until they had finished.
Before we become too eager to evade the challenge of this teaching as either unpractical idealism or a form of legalism, let’s remember that Jesus called his disciples to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “a visible participation in his cross.” Here’s how the apostle Peter addressed this in 1 Peter 2:21-22:
Christ…suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.
Jesus’ non-retaliation (and ours as we share in his living and loving) is not the action of a weakling. He was a strong man, who in control of himself extended love to others so powerful that he rejected every conceivable form of retaliation. This is Jesus’ kingdom living—his way, which we share as we, by the Spirit, share in his kingdom life.
Note here that we should not interpret these illustrations with wooden literalism. They are not given as regulations but as illustrations of a principle. The principle here is the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to take revenge. Instead they seek the highest welfare of the other person and of society. Such a person will not hit back, will not return evil for evil. Instead, they will seek to return good for evil. In doing so they give to the uttermost—body, clothing, service, money—insofar as these gifts are required by love. True love (for both individuals and society) does take action to deter evil and to promote good. Jesus teaches not the irresponsibility that encourages evil, but the forbearance that renounces revenge.
Perhaps you’re asking at this point, How does this command to non-retaliation relate to the work of police or soldiers in war? The answer is that we must understand Jesus’ teaching here in the context of what the New Testament tells us about civil justice. When we do, we find that we cannot take Jesus’ command resist not evil, as an absolute prohibition of the use of all force (including by police and soldiers). The New Testament teaches that the state is a divine institution, commissioned by God both to punish the wrong-doer and to reward those who do good (Romans 13:1ff). When the state exercises this God-given authority, it is “the servant of God to exercise his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The New Testament thus makes a distinction of the action of individuals and of the state. The individual’s responsibility towards a wrongdoer was laid down by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Like that of Jesus, Paul’s prohibition of vengeance is not because retribution is in itself wrong, but because it is the prerogative of God, not humans: “It is mine to avenge,” says the Lord. So we conclude that Jesus was not prohibiting the legitimate administration of justice by the state, but rather forbidding individuals to take the law into their own hands. It’s not for us to seek or to desire personal revenge. Rather than repaying injury, we suffer it and so overcome evil with good. Jesus does this perfectly and bids us share in non-retaliatory living and loving—over time becoming more and more like him; or to put it another way, we become more and more like our true selves as we are “in Christ.”
2. Jesus’ call to active love (Matthew 5:43-48)
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. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In Jesus’ day, most Jewish rabbis took the command “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and perverted it to mean, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” In doing so, they narrowed the command by defining one’s “neighbor” as including only fellow Jews (thus granting themselves permission to hate non-Jews). But in this rationalization, the rabbis ignored the instruction in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).
When Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), his point is that our neighbor is not only a person of our own race, rank or religion. He may not even have any connection with us. He may even be after us with a knife or a gun. Thus our neighbor, in the vocabulary of Jesus’ kingdom, includes our enemies. What makes such people our neighbors is simply that they are fellow human beings in need, whose needs we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve.
What, then, is our duty to our neighbor, whether they be friend or foe? Jesus says that we are to love them. Moreover, if we add the clauses in Luke’s account of the Sermon (the same one or a similar one on another occasion), our love for them will be expressed in our deeds, words and prayers (Luke 6:27, 35).
Jesus’ point is that true love is not mere sentiment, but practical, humble, sacrificial service. Our enemy seeks our harm. In response we seek their good. Why? Because this is how God treats us. Indeed, while we were his enemies, Christ died for us to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10). This is who Jesus is, and, therefore, what he does. Our calling is to share in his self-sacrificial loving and living—becoming who we truly are in Christ.
Words matter. They can express our love, and therefore we are to “Bless those who curse you.” If they call down disaster and catastrophe on us, we are to call down heaven’s blessings on them. Finally, we direct our words to God: “Pray for those who persecute [or abuse] you” (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:28). As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”
Having indicated that our love for our enemies will express itself in deeds, words and prayer, Jesus says that only then will we prove conclusively whose sons we truly are, for only then shall we be exhibiting a love like the love expressed by our heavenly Father, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Jesus’ point is this: God’s love is indiscriminate and unconditional—shown equally to good and bad.
But what about us? It is true that bad people (like tax collectors and gentiles) “love those who love them.” Human love, due to our fallen nature, is contaminated by self-interest. So how can we as Christians (still human) love our enemies, in which love there is no self-interest? The answer is we can’t—but Jesus can and does, and by his Spirit who unites us to Christ, we are enabled to participate in his loving. Said another way, by the Spirit, we love with the love by which Christ loves us and others.
Note in Matt. 5:47, Jesus’ penetrating question: “What are you doing more than others?” It is not enough for us to resemble non-Christians—our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and our love is to surpass that of the unbelievers.” This is the “more than,” that Christians are to display. We cannot generate this love from within—it is God’s own love, who in common grace gives the sun and rain to all, including the wicked. “Therefore” says Jesus “you [Christians] must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 KJV). This ideal that God’s people will imitate God rather than other humans is not new. Leviticus repeats some five times the command, “I am the Lord your God… you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Yet here Christ’s call to us is not to be “holy” but “perfect.”
Unfortunately, some holiness teachers have built upon this verse great dreams of the possibility of reaching in this life a state of sinless perfection (John Wesley called it “entire sanctification”). But the words of Jesus cannot be pressed into meaning this without causing discord in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already indicated in the beatitudes that a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a perpetual characteristic of his disciples who confess their spiritual poverty. And then he teaches us to pray constantly, “Forgive us our debts.” Together, these give us clear indication that Jesus does not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the “perfection” he is referring to relates to love—the perfect love of God, which is shown even to those who do not return it. Scholars tell us that the Aramaic word Jesus likely used here meant “all-embracing” rather than “perfect.” The parallel verse in Luke confirms this: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). We are called to be all-embracing in love, that is, to love even our enemies with the merciful, inclusive love of God.
Christ’s call is new not only because it is a command to be “perfect” (all-embracing) rather than “holy,” but also because of his description of the God we are to imitate. In the old covenant it was, “you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” But now in the new covenant it is not the unique Redeemer of Israel whom we are to follow and obey but “your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). Our obedience will come as his love emanates from our hearts as the manifestation of the new nature he has placed within us by the Holy Spirit. We are children of God through the faithfulness of Jesus, and we demonstrate that sonship as we exhibit the family likeness—when, like Jesus, we are peacemakers; when, like Jesus, we love all people with a lavish, all-embracing love.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount ends with a progression of two commands. The first is negative: “Do not resist one who is evil,” and the second is positive: “Love your enemies,” seeking their good. The first is a call to passive non-retaliation, the second to active love. As Augustine put it, “Many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they were struck.”
As Christ-followers, we are called to participate with Jesus in going beyond a refusal to repay evil, to a resolute commitment to overcoming evil with good. One commentator summed up the alternatives this way: “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.” May the third be our practice as we, though far from perfect, share in the perfection of Jesus’ kingdom living.
Sermon for February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration Sunday)
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matt. 17:1-9
NO ONE EXCEPT JESUS (Matthew 17:1-9)
by Lance McKinnon
The sermon this week has one point: No One Except Jesus. This singular focus is found in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, pointing us to the only one we are to listen to. Let’s read today’s Gospel passage, Matthew 17:1-9:
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The story begins with language and imagery reminiscent of Old Testament history. After six days, Jesus takes three of his companions, Peter, James and John, up a mountain. This trio, as well as the intended audience of Matthew’s account, would connect these details to the story of Moses and his three companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, being led up a mountain where God speaks to Moses after six days of cloud covering (Exodus 24).
It is in this setting that Jesus is transfigured: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” As we see Jesus transfigured, we see God’s glory—a revelation of who he is. In the Old Testament, glory was presented in terms of both a person and a light (Ezekiel 1). These two images come together here in the person of Jesus. Jesus radiating light reveals to us that our God, his Father, is quite unlike the pagan gods who need their worshipers to bring them glory as if they are lacking in certain ways. The God revealed to us by and in Jesus is self-sufficient and self-sustaining—like the sun. His life is a life of giving, going out, and bringing warmth and life. The God we see revealed in the transfigured person of Jesus is not a God who is turned inward—not one who needs the praise of humans, but rather a God of love who radiates life outward to his creation.
As this transfiguration takes place, Moses and Elijah appear on the scene “talking with Jesus.” In response, Peter declares: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” Quite an understatement! Peter, seemingly befuddled, then suggests that they build three shelters—one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Note how Peter’s words contrast with the revelation of God as light. Peter’s suggestion falls short of God’s purposes revealed in Jesus in at least two ways:
Peter seeks to control the experience. He wants to remain on the mountain with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. By building shelters, Peter apparently feels he can extend their time on the mountain, thus capturing this “mountaintop experience.” He is thinking only of how this experience benefits him and his circle of close friends.
Peter sees Moses and Elijah as equal to Jesus—each deserving a shelter of their own.
Peter’s suggestion is interrupted when “a bright cloud covered them.” The Father does not scold or reprimand Peter; he does not negotiate with Peter, or even entertain Peter’s suggestions. Instead, he goes right on with his purposes.
While Peter wanted to provide cover for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, God ends up providing cover for the three disciples (Peter, James and John). The word covered picks up the language in the Old Testament of God’s Shekinah or presence. In spite of Peter’s intentions to the contrary, God’s outward movement of love is not thwarted. God covers them with his grace and love.
Then the Father’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” At the sound of this voice, the disciples are “terrified.” Like the Israelites with Moses, they are afraid to hear God directly.
Jesus then provides the means to obey this voice that commands them to listen to his Son, as he “came and touched them.”
In this encounter we have a profound and beautiful picture of the Incarnation. Jesus comes and touches us—he comes to be with us. He does so by assuming our humanity, while remaining God. It is in this provision from the Father that we are able to listen to God face-to-face. Jesus’ first words to them are “Get up” and “Don’t be afraid.” These are the words we are to listen to.
After Jesus touches them, the disciples “looked up” and “saw no one except Jesus.” No Moses, no Elijah, only Jesus. The implication is clear: there are no other words of life to listen to other than the words of the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who has spoken to us, by the Spirit, in his written Word. His words to us are words that both lift us up, and bring us out of fear.
After seeing “no one except Jesus,” the disciples are led back down the mountain. As they descend, Jesus instructs them. He is the one constant in the story. Jesus leads them up the mountain, he is with them on the mountain, and he is with them as they descend. This is why he can command us, “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus is Emmanuel—God who always is with us, whether we be on the mountain, or in the valley—even in the valley of the shadow of death. May we attune our ears to his voice and his voice alone. Let us listen to “no one except Jesus.”
What are some of the other voices we need to tune out? Is it a voice related to a fear-laden past? Let that voice disappear with the old covenant law-giver Moses. Is it a voice related to worry about the future? Let that voice disappear with the prophet Elijah. Let Jesus speak to you—let him have the final say. Hear his word to us all: “Get up… don’t be afraid.”
Comments concerning Lent
This is a timely word as we enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, March 1—it’s called Ash Wednesday in many traditions. Lent lasts 40 days, which in most Western traditions excludes Sundays. So with Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, it ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
The 40 days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness (and we’ll look at that next week), during which he endured temptations from Satan, preparing to begin his public ministry. For us, Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection in preparation for the joy-filled celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. In the early church, Lent was a time in which new converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday. Today during Lent, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others in special ways.
In keeping with our sermon today, perhaps a good discipline for us during Lent this year would be to focus our hearts and minds on setting aside the voices that war and compete with the words of light and life spoken to us by Jesus: “Get up… don’t be afraid.” During Lent and throughout the year may we listen to “No One Except Jesus!” For some help in doing just that, click here for free Lenten resources for member homes or the whole congregation.
Here is a song that might make a fitting conclusion to this week’s sermon:
For some helpful articles on the Transfiguration, click here and here.
Sermon for March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matt. 4:1-11
by Ted Johnston
(drawing on John Stott’s commentary)
To get some context, let’s look at Matthew 3:16-4:1:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
In the Old Testament, God “led” Israel in the wilderness where they were tested (the meaning of tempted in Matt. 4:1). In Matthew 4 we find our Lord, representing Israel and all humanity, being led by the Spirit into “the wilderness” for a time of testing that will involve encounters with the one known as “the devil.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Old Testament rarely mentions the devil, though concern about his activity as “the tempter” had become prominent among Jews in Jesus’ day. The surprising feature in this account for Matthew’s original Jewish-Christian readers would not have been that the devil tempts, but that he does so in person. Now Matthew 4:2:
After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness begins with 40 days and nights of fasting. Matthew, no doubt, intends we see a parallel to Moses, for Jesus is the prophesied “new Moses” (Deut. 18:15). Jews at the time were hoping that this promised Messiah would lead them out of bondage via a new exodus—complete with new manna (bread from heaven). Matthew shows us that Jesus is all of these: the new (and final) Moses (the new law-giver, as we saw in Matthew 5), the new exodus for Israel (and all people), and the new bread sent down from heaven. Jesus is the Messiah.
And now comes the devil, the tempter, with three tests attempting to call into question the recently declared status of Jesus God’s Son, the Messiah (Matt. 3:17). Each test examines an aspect of that status, tempting Jesus to misuse his status in ways that would ruin his ministry. Jesus must be ready to accept privation in fulfilling his God-given task without “pulling rank” (Matt. 4:2–4); trusting his Father’s care without the need to test it by forcing God’s hand (Matt. 4:5–7); and to reject any “short cut” to the fulfillment of his mission, thus compromising his loyalty to his Father (Matt. 4:8–10). In each case, Jesus rebuts the devil’s temptations with a quote from Deuteronomy 6–8, which relates Israel’s experience of testing in the wilderness (“as a man disciplines his son,” Deut. 8:5, 2). The verses quoted focus on the lessons Israel should have learned by that experience. Now a new “son of God” is being prepared for his role, and the same principles of obedience, imperfectly learned by Israel, become the basis of the ministry of Jesus, the ultimate and “new Israel of God.” As the one who stands in for us all, Jesus undergoes these tests on our behalf. Let’s examine each one:
1. First test (Matthew 4:2-4)
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus, who is famished, to turn stones into bread. Such feats in the ancient world were attributed to magic, so the devil tempts Jesus to be a magician rather than the Son of God that he is. In doing so, the devil panders to human pride and calls into question Jesus’ divine sonship (thus challenging God’s earlier affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son). But Jesus knows who he is, for he knows his Father and he knows Scripture. So he counters Satan’s temptation by quoting Deut. 8:3, which declares that God alone is our true provider, with the implication that Jesus truly is God’s Son (Deut. 8:5).
2. Second test (Matthew 4:5-7)
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus by taking him to a part of the temple in Jerusalem overlooking a deep valley. A fall from there would have meant certain death. Here the devil cites Psalm 91:11–12, but out of context—this passage makes clear that God’s angelic protection is for events that befall his servants, not an excuse to seek out danger. In response, Jesus cites Deut. 6:16, which refers to how the Israelites tested God at Massah by refusing to accept that God was among them until he did a sign for them (Ex. 17:7).
3. Third test (Matthew 4:8-10)
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
Here the devil tempts Jesus by giving him a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” This realm does not technically belong to the devil (Daniel 4:32), who owns human hearts only as a usurper. The best the devil can do is make Jesus the political, military sort of Messiah most Jews were anticipating. Jesus counters by citing Deut. 6:13, which prohibits idolatry (and see Deut. 6:14), a commandment anyone who worships the devil would violate.
Note in these four tests the following key points:
Though the devil seeks to tempt Jesus to misuse his position as God’s Son, God uses Satan’s devices to advance his own purpose: preparing his Son for what lies ahead.
Jesus’ fasting and hunger show that the Son of God is not free from real human suffering. He is fully human, while also being fully divine.
Through this path of obedience to his Father, Jesus receives all authority not only on earth but also in heaven.
Our Gospel lesson today closes with Matthew 4:11:
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Jesus defeats Satan in each test, and is cared for by angels who lovingly prepare him for the next step in his journey on mission with God. We’ll examine that step next week as we continue in the season of Lent.
Here is a video that could be used as a sermon illustration:
And here is a video that could be used to teach this message to children:
Sermon for March 12, 2017 (second Sunday in Lent)
Gen. 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
WIND OF THE SPIRIT
by George Hart
Note to preacher: At times the passage referenced in the RCL will be too long to cover in a single sermon. Because that is probably the case this week, we've provided a sermon covering John 3:5-8. You might begin by reading the full assigned passage (John 3:1-17), then focus on verses 5-8. As an alternative to the reading, you might show one of the videos embedded below (the first follows the KJV, the second the Good News translation).
Let’s begin with Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:5-8
I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
In much of North America, March is a month we typically associate with wind and kite flying. Note this quote from a kite enthusiast:
A kite is not a kite until it has been flown. Even if it is just for decoration, it should be flown at least once. A kite has no spirit until it has been flown. It is not until it is lifted and taken up by the wind is it truly a kite.
Consider how these words about kites relate to our experience as Christians. Note what Paul declares in Romans 8:13-14:
Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Here Paul is addressing our regular, consistent and steady movement toward God. We call this movement conversion. It’s movement away from self, the world and sin, and toward God.
In order for kites to do what kites are supposed to do, and be what kites are supposed to be, they need to be caught and lifted by the wind. Likewise, for us to do what we are supposed to do, and be what we are supposed to be, we need to be caught and lifted by the Wind of the Spirit.
How many of you remember your conversion to Christ? I remember mine like it was yesterday. The reason is, it actually was yesterday. It also was a hot summer night in 1972 when I “gave my life to Christ,” only to get up from prayer and continue to sin. My point it this: my conversion has taken place over a period of 44 years, and it continues today.
The word “conversion” means “to alter the very nature of something; to change it from one form or function to another.” The Spirit leads us into regular, consistent, and steady conversion to God.
In our text for today, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus who is a Pharisee, meaning that he had memorized the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), and was practicing rigorous religious rituals like fasting twice a week, bathing three times a day, frequent prayers, etc. He also was a member of the Sanhedrin, meaning that he was a religious and political ruler among the Jews. As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus was also a rabbinic scholar—he likely had mastered mathematics, history, politics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy.
Nicodemus apparently had some insight into who Jesus was. He said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (is this the origin of “Nick at Night”?!). Jesus interrupts Nicodemus and says, “Nicodemus, let me tell you something, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.'”
Born again is, perhaps, more accurately translated as born from above. In any case, it’s a reference to being born of the Spirit—to the Spirit at work in us, converting us to Christ. For Nicodemus, these words of Jesus were a paradigm-buster. Jesus is telling him that our standing with God is not about our race, ethnicity, gender, culture, place of birth, education, intellect, Bible memorization skill, prayer, or any form of human effort. Instead, it’s about God’s work in us—it’s about being led and guided by the Spirit; being transformed (converted) by the Spirit. It’s about a regular, consistent, and steady movement toward God.
This was such a major paradigm shift and reorientation for Nicodemus, so radical and complete, that Jesus likens it to the radical (and painful) transformation of physical birth. Jesus is telling this important religious and civic leader who would have been recognized as such by anybody, that he needs to start all over again!
Jesus’ questions for Nicodemus were these:
Can you let go of your preconceived ways of being and doing?
Can you stop being in CONTROL?
Are you open to receiving the NEW things God has for you?
Are you willing to start all over again?… To be BORN AGAIN?
I think Jesus has similar questions for each of us:
Are we open to change?
Can we let go of our preconceived ways of being and doing?
Can we stop being in CONTROL?
Are we open to receiving the NEW things God has for us?
Are we willing to start all over again?… To be BORN AGAIN?
Are we willing to follow where the Spirit of God leads?
The typical reaction to such questions is to hunker down and hang on to the familiar—to grab hold of our hats in the presence of the wind, seeking not be blown off course, away from what is comfortable and familiar. In that way we tend to be like Nicodemus. Yes, we recognize Jesus for who he is, but we just want him to give us some pointers—advice for how to live a better life; one we think will be pleasing to God. That’s all. But Jesus has more for us than behavior management. He says to us, You need to be born again!
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the wind in three ways:
1. The wind blows. There is a ceaseless action, movement, and effort of the Spirit in the world and in our lives. There never has been a moment in the history of world when he was not blowing. And there never has been a moment (good or bad) in your life when the Spirit was not blowing.
The Holy Spirit blows things in and it blows things out. Sometimes the wind comforts like a nice gentle summer breeze that feels so pleasant; and other times he blows with gale force, ripping things apart. Note Ephesians 6:12:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Think about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was a work of the Spirit ripping things apart. Ask yourself this: Is it possible that the thing that is the most troublesome to me right now is connected directly to what the Spirit wants to do in my life? Something to think (and pray) about!
2. The wind blows wherever it pleases. This speaks to the sovereign will and divine freedom of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing you can do to control the wind, and nothing you can do to control the Spirit.
ILLUSTRATION: Roman Catholic Pope Francis captured the imagination of the world with his unpredictability. At his installation, instead of wearing a Pope’s blood-red shoes, he wore black orthopedic shoes. He stooped to see older cardinals, rather than expecting them to kiss his ring according to tradition. As he stood on the balcony, he humbled himself, asking the assembled crowd to pray for him.
If your life is always explainable and understandable by the world around you, you might ask yourself: “Am I being led and empowered by the Spirit?” The world around us should be confounded by us—not because we are weird, but because of several things:
Our love: reaching across boundaries (as in racial reconciliation).
Our empathy: “I want to understand you.”
Our generosity: Exceeding what is considered typical.
Our forgiveness: How can you offer that grace to others?
3. You hear the wind’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. For some that is a scary thought. We can become so fixated on our routine that we fail to see what it is that God wants to do in us and through us. For example, by being fixated on our calendar, we may not be allowing the Spirit to intervene in “our” schedule.
To be converted means to have a new and radical openness to the Wind of the Spirit. Consider four things that means:
It means that newness is possible at any moment. At any moment God can heal, provide, change the unchangeable. This is why we pray, study, worship, come to church. These spiritual disciplines birth in us a holy expectation.
It means we say “yes” to the unfamiliar.
It means living with a posture of openness. When we are well-supplied and satisfied with answers of our own, we are not open to the Spirit’s lead. Conversely, when we are open to the Spirit we begin to see interruptions differently. We begin to see setbacks as Spirit-moments. We can become so disappointed with setbacks that we fail to ask, “What might God want to teach me here?” As Thomas Merton wrote, “What appears to us as a setback is often a blessing and what appears to us as a blessing is often a setback.”
The Holy Spirit is always blowing through our lives and at any moment he may bring a gentle comforting breeze, or he may bring a strong wind to move and challenge us. Whatever the case, know this: God will not destroy your life, but he will disrupt it. As we close, let’s reflect on two questions:
How is the Spirit moving in my life today? How will I respond?
Here is a video that could be used to teach this lesson to children: