Kids Korner: resources for children’s ministry

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

Got extra time and a room full of kids — but you’ve used up your teaching material for the day? Children’s Ministry Magazine offers assistance in an article titled “13 Ways to Turn Extra Classtime Into Extraordinary Learning Time.” To read it, click here.

Also note that there is a treasure trove of children’s ministry resources posted on the Pinterest children’s ministry pages: click here and here.

Community outreach resources

A significant aspect of our renewal as congregations is developing “healthy habits” related to reaching out to and engaging the unchurched community. For help, read Sam Butler’s article in this issue on community assessment, and check out these articles on various related topics:

How to conduct a community assessment

In order for a congregation to participate actively in what Christ is doing in the community where it meets, it must get to know that community well. There are multiple ways to do so with a particularly effective one being the nine-step community assessment process detailed in the article below by GCI pastor Sam Butler who draws on his ministerial experience and relevant literature.
Sam and Denise Butler

Conducting a community assessment is a great way for a congregation to get to know and engage its community—vital first steps in advancing a balanced and thus effective disciple-making (Great Commission) ministry process. In my experience, an effective community assessment process involves these nine steps:

1. Gather demographic information

By gathering demographic information, a church is able to gain a quick insight into some of the defining characteristics of their community. Those characteristics include things like population, ethnic/racial and generational makeup, levels of education, incomes, etc. Obtaining this data helps a church frame its process for further information gathering. For places to go to get demographic information, click here.

2. Conduct surveys

Surveying the community is a useful way not only to gather information, but also to initiate conversations with community residents. I recommend two types of surveys. The first, which is the most detailed, involves surveying community leaders—folks who have a good understanding of what is going on in the community. This survey works best face-to-face, which facilitates relationship-building and provides opportunity to share the congregation’s purpose while addressing their concerns. When community leaders hear of a congregation’s interest in their community and its desire to be of help, nearly all the leaders interviewed will be open to sharing relevant information, including valuable contacts. At the end of the interview, it’s good to ask the individual for the names of two other people they would recommend for an interview, thus broadening the base, increasing the likelihood of obtaining more detailed information.

Here are some sample questions to ask in this type of survey/interview:

  • What are the greatest assets and strengths you see here?
  • What gives you hope when you think about this community and its future?
  • What are your main concerns about life in this community?
  • What do you see as the major social, economic, cultural or spiritual challenges here?

Note that these are open-ended questions, allowing for the individual to talk and express how they feel.

The second type of survey involves the use of a written survey instrument handed out to a sampling of people in the community. The idea is to distribute enough of the surveys to get a representative number back. The questions on the survey should be open-ended, brief and to the point. Here are some sample questions:

  • What do you like best about this community?
  • What makes it a good place to live?
  • What are one or two changes you would like to see that could make life better in this community?

There are a number of ways to distribute this survey, including going door-to-door, or setting up a table in a public gathering spot (Walmart, in front of City Hall, at a park, etc.).

3. Complete a community walking/gathering exercise

One of the best ways to get to know a community is to get out into it, taking notes about what is observed/experienced. A group of members can do this together (it’s fun!). It’s preferable to walk, but for those who are unable, riding in a car is fine. The main idea is to get as many members involved as possible. Doing so helps buy-in, setting the stage for further engagement down the road. As you walk, watch for people groups, places of activity, signs of change, signs of hope and signs of need.

4. Build networks

A vital part of engaging a community involves collaboration. Because one person or group cannot have a full grasp of all the details of community, tapping into a community’s existing knowledge base is essential. Working collaboratively with people already engaged in the community yields multiple benefits, including gaining information from knowledgeable people who will help you in your planning, building long-term relationships within the community, and the potential for forming partnerships.

There is a wonderful Trinitarian flow to such networking. When we ask the question, “Lord, what are you up to and how can I get involved in what you are already doing?” the concept of networking comes up. God is already involved in the community in the lives of all the people, so it makes good sense to tap into this resource.

In seeking to build networks, don’t overlook existing ones. Our experience shows that many church members are somewhat unaware of the networks they already are part of. There is a good example of this in Scripture in Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac healed by Jesus. After his healing, he wanted to travel with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to “go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.” That’s what he did, and as Mark writes, “everyone was amazed” (Mark 5.19-20). Commenting on this account, one author wrote this:

The restored demoniac went back to his family and friends. The newest Christian will always be the most effective evangelist. Usually we attribute this to the person’s newfound zeal, and that’s part of it. But the real reason they’re most effective is because they have the largest network of non-Christian friends…. He could share Christ through his relationship of trust, through his network of friends, relatives, associates and neighbors.

5. Identify “people of peace”

The concept of a person of peace comes from Luke 10, where Jesus sends out the seventy. A person of peace is described as one who opens up their home and receives a disciple as a full guest, and then introduces the disciple to a network of friends, family, business associates, etc. Thus a person of peace is someone who is well connected in the community, who is willing to come alongside the Christian evangelist and offer help and advice, as well as refer the evangelist to others who may be able to help. This person of peace may or may not be a believer. Often they will surface during the surveying step noted above.

6. Walk the community in prayer

According to LifeWay’s Transformational Church research and resultant services (used by GCI in its church consulting), one of the elements consistently present in churches that are transformational is prayerful dependence. The general concept is that since all ministry is the ongoing ministry of God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, it makes sense that we talk to God about his ministry and our part. Matthew tells us in his Gospel: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7.7-8). As we engage in the discernment process of community assessment, we need to be in prayer about it before, during and after—asking God for the wisdom and discernment necessary for success. Next we need to go out and explore our community, observing, absorbing, praying. Finally, we engage as we go, interacting with people we encounter.

Prayer walking embodies all these elements, making it an essential part of community assessment. Prayer walking is the process by which we seek God’s will in mission by prayerful engagement. The prayer focus is one of conversation with God while actively listening through observation and engagement. By walking through the community, we can talk with God about what we see. As we casually interact with the people of the community, we can begin to converse with God about them, seeking his will for them and offering to pray with and for them. Engagement and relationship building is the result.

A street that is prayer walked in this way is no longer just a street on a map, or one we drive through to get somewhere. We make connections. We talk with God about what we’re observing. The people and the community become more important to us… we are becoming engaged.

7. Process the gathered information

It is essential now for all active participants in the assessment process to come together to review the data and insights gathered. Each of the six steps that have led up to this moment have much to contribute. It’s important during this step to pray for the Spirit’s guidance. Here are three questions from Heidi Unruh that can be asked to spark discussion:

  • How have we seen God at work in the community?
  • What needs or problems diminish God’s desire for the community?
  • How would our church participate in God’s vision for the community?

Answering these questions helps identify where God is already working and how the congregation might join in. Maybe the decision will be to partner with another organization, joining what they already are doing. Or maybe the decision will be to launch a new community service initiative using the particular gifts and resources of the congregation. Either way the focus must always be on community engagement leading to disciple-making.

8. Identify the congregation’s focus group

As shown in the diagram below (from community engagement expert David Mills), a careful and thorough assessment of the community will enable the congregation to take a vital step in engaging its community—identifying a focus group. This is the group that lies at the confluence of three things: 1) the needs of the community (that suggest opportunities for service from the congregation), 2) the congregation’s resources and gifts (that can be deployed in serving the community), and 3) the congregations sense of calling (God-given passion for ministry).

Mills calls this confluence a “strategic match,” which provides a systematic way to determine a congregation’s focus group. It’s a vital issue, where “the rubber meets the road.” Everything in the assessment process detailed above leads to this—identifying people in the congregation who will begin to actively reach, as we say in GCI, “Outside the Walls.” These are the unchurched people the congregation will seek to connect with—serving them in Jesus’ name, building relationships, sharing the gospel, making disciples.

Note that a focus group may be defined in terms of ethnicity, geography, generational composition, socioeconomic factors, similar interests (forming affinity groups), etc. With the discernment of the Spirit, a congregation can evaluate the data collected, the community conversations and observations, and make a determination as to who their focus group will be. As they then move forward, adjustments can be made, but this assessment process is a great place to start.

9. Intentional gathering

Once the focus group is identified, the next step is to engage that group in meaningful ways with “the end in mind”—seeing people from within the focus group become followers of Jesus (disciples). For that to happen, the congregation must be intentional about gathering people from the focus group (we call this “intentional gathering”). There are many ways to gather folks. Examining some of them will be the topic of future articles here in Equipper. In the meantime, here is a video that details the intentional gathering work in GCI’s San Francisco congregation.


On YouTube at http://youtu.be/QIRRBEMxqyM

Forward in 2017!

Through the articles and sermons linked below, the March Equipper addresses various issues relevant to GCI’s journey of renewal in 2017 and beyond.

From Greg: Trends for churches in 2017
GCI Vice President Greg Williams looks at ten trends likely to impact the ministry of our churches in the year ahead and beyond.

Used with permission from “Leadership Journal.”

How to conduct a community assessment
GCI Pastor Sam Butler outlines a nine-step process congregations can use to assess and thus engage their community.

Community outreach resources
Here are links to articles that helpfully address various aspects of community outreach, engagement and assimilation.

Kid’s Korner: Resources for Children’s Ministry
Here are resources that address various aspects of ministry to children.

RCL sermons: March 19—April 16
Here are six sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), including three for Holy Week:
Sermon for March 19
Sermon for March 26
Sermon for April 2
Sermon for April 9 (Palm Sunday)
Sermon for April 13 (Maundy Thursday)
Sermon for April 16 (Easter)

For sermons for February 12 through March 12, click here.

If you would like to receive Equipper automatically each month by email, you may subscribe by emailing Ted.Johnston@gci.org (put "subscribe to Equipper" in the subject line of your email message).

Sermon for April 16, 2017 (Easter)

Sermon for April 16, 2017 (Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 10:34-43 or Jer. 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Col. 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matt. 28:1-10

THE DAWNING OF THE NEW DAY (John 20:1-18)
By Ted Johnston (drawing on commentary by Michael Card)

Biographies usually end with the subject’s death. But John’s recounting of the story of Jesus is not merely a biography of Jesus. Rather, it’s gospel—the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection. Its purpose is to help us believe—to help us place our trust in Jesus as God’s Son. A central focus of John’s Gospel is the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, which is the principal evidence that Jesus is indeed God’s Son, the promised Messiah, and that his atoning work on the cross is complete and fully effective. The empty cross and empty tomb are God’s receipts affirming that our debt has been paid, that Jesus is truly alive, and that we are alive in him.

Jesus’ enemies tried from the beginning to deny the historic fact of his resurrection. Jewish leaders claimed that his body had been stolen from the tomb. But if that is true, how did it happen? The tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers and the stone sealed by an official Roman seal.

Furthermore, Jesus’ disciples did not believe that he was to be raised from the dead; it was his enemies who remembered his words (Matt. 27:62–66). These enemies certainly would not have taken Jesus’ body. The last thing they wanted was anyone believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. If his friends could not steal the body, and his enemies would not, then who took it?

Others claim that Jesus’ disciples had visions of the risen Lord and interpreted them as evidence for the resurrection. But this theory does not hold up—his disciples did not expect to see him, and that is not the kind of psychological preparation from which hallucinations are made. Moreover, how could 500+ people have the same hallucination at the same time? (see 1 Cor. 15:6).

Others claim that Jesus did not die, but only swooned and was later revived. But this argument does not hold up either—many witnesses testified that Jesus was dead when his body was taken from the cross. Later, he was seen alive by dependable witnesses. The only logical conclusion is that he kept his promise and rose from the dead.

Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection by Ivanov
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The glorious truth of Jesus’ resurrection was not understood immediately, even by his closest followers. It gradually dawned on these grieving people that their Master was not dead, but alive! And what a difference it made when the full realization took hold of them! For most of them it meant going from fear to courage (John 20:19–23). In the case of Mary Magdalene it meant a three-stage journey of unfolding faith: faith eclipsed; faith dawning; faith shining. Let’s travel this journey with Mary. It’s one that involves John and Peter as well.

1. Faith eclipsed (John 20:1–2)

Mary Magdalene and several other women agreed to go to the tomb early Sunday morning, so that they might show their love for Christ in completing the burial preparations. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had been forced by circumstances to prepare his body hastily, and the women wanted to finish the task. Their great concern was how to get into the tomb. Perhaps the Roman soldiers would take pity on them and give them a hand.

What they did not know was that an earthquake had occurred and the stone had already been rolled back by an angel. It seems that Mary Magdalene went ahead of the other women and got to the tomb first. When she saw the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, she concluded that somebody had broken into the tomb and stolen the body of her Lord. We may criticize Mary for jumping to conclusions; but when you consider the circumstances, it is difficult to see how she would have reached any other conclusion. It was still dark, she was alone, and, like the other followers of Jesus, she did not believe that he would return from the dead.

She ran to give the news to Peter and John, who must have been staying at a place known to the others. Perhaps it was the Upper Room where they had met with Jesus Thursday evening. Mary’s use of the pronoun “we” is interesting, for it included the other women who at that moment were discovering that Jesus was alive (Mark 16:1–8 and Luke 24:1–8). The women left the tomb and carried the angels’ message to the other disciples.

It is significant that the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. Among the Jews in that day, the testimony of women was not held in high regard. “It is better that the words of the Law be burned,” said the rabbis, “than be delivered to a woman.” But these women had a greater message than that of the Law, for they knew that their Savior, the fulfillment of the Law, was alive.

Mary’s faith was not extinguished here; it was only eclipsed. The light was still there, but it was covered. Peter and John were in the same spiritual condition, but soon all three would move out of the shadows and into the light.

2. Faith dawning (John 20:3–10)

John 20:3 suggests that Peter started off first to run to the tomb, but verse 4 reports that John got there first. Both deserve credit for having the courage to run into enemy territory, not knowing what lay before them. The whole thing could have been a clever trap to catch the disciples.

When John arrived at the tomb, he cautiously remained outside and looked in. Perhaps he wanted Peter to be with him when he went into the burial chamber. What did John see? The grave clothes lying on the stone shelf without any evidence of violence or crime. But the grave clothes were empty!

Peter arrived and impulsively went in, just as we would expect him to do. He also saw the linen clothes lying there empty and the cloth for the head carefully rolled and lying by itself. Grave robbers do not carefully unwrap the corpse and then leave the grave clothes neatly behind. In fact, with the presence of spices in the folds of the clothes, it would be almost impossible to unwrap a corpse without damaging the wrappings. The only way those linen clothes could be left in that condition would be if Jesus passed through them as he rose from the dead.

John then entered the tomb and looked at the evidence. “He saw, and believed.” When John wrote this paragraph, he used three different Greek words that all mean seeing. In verse 5 the word translated “look in” means to glace. In John 20:6, the word translated “saw” means to look carefully. In verse 8 the world translated “saw” means “to perceive with intelligent comprehension.” Here is a progression of understanding—their resurrection faith was dawning!

It seems incredible that the followers of Jesus did not expect him to come out of the tomb alive. After all, he had told them many times that he would be raised from the dead. Early in his ministry Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). After his resurrection, the disciples remembered that he had said this (John 2:22), and his enemies remembered it too (Matt. 27:40, 63–64).

Jesus compared himself to Jonah (Matt. 12:40), and on two occasions clearly announced his resurrection after three days (Matt. 16:21; 20:19). On Maundy Thursday of his last week of ministry, Jesus again promised to be raised up and meet them in Galilee (Matt. 26:32, Luke 24:6–7).

What kind of faith did Peter and John have at that stage in their spiritual experience? They had faith based on evidence. They could see the grave clothes; they knew that the body of Jesus was not there. However, as good as evidence is to convince the mind, it can never change the life. Those of us who live centuries later cannot examine the evidence, for the material evidence (the tomb, the grave clothes) is no longer there for us to inspect. But we have the record in the Word of God (John 20:9) and that record is true (John 19:35; 21:24).

After his resurrection, Jesus did not reveal himself to everyone, but only to selected witnesses who would share the good news with others (Acts 10:39–43). This witness is now found in the New Testament Scriptures; and both the Old and New Testaments agree in this witness. The Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Apostles together bear witness that Jesus Christ is truly alive!

Peter and John saw the evidence and believed. Later, the Holy Spirit confirmed their faith through the Old Testament Scriptures. That evening, they would meet the Master personally! Faith that was eclipsed has now started to dawn, and the light will get even brighter.

3. Faith shining (John 20:11–18)

Mary deeply loved Jesus and came early to the garden to express that love. Peter and John had gone home by the time Mary got back to the tomb, so they did not convey to her what conclusion they had reached from the evidence they had examined. Mary still thought that Jesus was dead and her weeping at the tomb was the loud lamentation characteristic of Jewish people when they express sorrow (John 11:31, 33).

When Mary looked into the sepulcher, she saw two men in white. Their position at either end of the shelf where the body had been lying makes us think of the cherubim on the mercy seat (Ex. 25:17–19). It is as though God is saying, “There is now a new mercy seat! My Son has paid the price for sin, and the way is open into the presence of God!” Mary apparently was not disturbed at seeing these men, and there is no evidence that she knew they were angels. The brief conversation neither dried her tears nor quieted her mind. She was determined to find the body of Jesus.

Why did Mary turn back and not continue her conversation with the two strangers? Did she hear a sound behind her? Or did the angels stand and recognize the presence of their Lord? In any case she now knew that the Lord’s body was not in the tomb, so why linger there any longer?

Why did she not recognize the one for whom she was so earnestly searching? Jesus may have deliberately concealed himself from her, as he would later do when he walked with the disciples to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32). It was still early and perhaps dark in that part of the garden. Her vision was probably blurred by her tears as well.

Jesus asked her the same question that the angels had asked, “Why are you crying?” And he added, “Who is it you are looking for?” (He had asked the mob the same question in the Garden—John 18:4.) The Savior knew that Mary’s heart was broken and that her mind was confused. He did not rebuke her; tenderly, he revealed himself to her.

All he had to do was speak her name, and Mary immediately recognized him. Jesus’ sheep hear (recognize) his voice and he calls them by name (John 10:3). Apparently Mary had turned away from Jesus, for when he spoke her name, she had to turn back to look at him again. What a blessed surprise it was to see the face of her beloved Master!

All she could say was, “Rabboni—my Master, my Teacher.” “Rabbi” and “Rabboni” were equivalent terms of respect. Mary not only spoke to him, but she grasped his feet and held on to him. This was a natural gesture: now that she had found him, she did not want to lose him. She and the other believers still had a great deal to learn about his new state of glory; they still wanted to relate to him as they had done during the years of his ministry before the cross.

Jesus permitted the other women to hold his feet (Matt. 28:9), and he did not forbid them. So why did he say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me”? One reason was that she would see him again because he had not yet ascended to the Father. He remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection and often appeared to the believers to teach them (Acts 1:1–9). Mary had no need to panic; this was not her last and final meeting with the Lord. A second reason is that she had a job to do—to go tell Jesus “brothers” that he was indeed alive and would ascend to the Father (see Psalm 22:22). Jesus had called his followers servants (John 13:16) and friends (John 15:15), but now he called them brothers. This meant that they shared his resurrection power and glory. He reminded Mary and the other believers that God was their Father and that he would be with the Father in heaven after his ascension. In his upper room message, he had taught them that he would return to the Father so that the Spirit might come to them.

It would have been selfish and disobedient for Mary to have clung to Jesus and kept him to herself. She arose and went to where the other disciples were gathered and gave them the good news that she had seen Jesus alive. “I have seen the Lord!” (Note John 20:14, 18, 20, 25, 29.) Mark reports that these believers were mourning and weeping—and that they would not believe her (Mark 16:9–11). Mary herself had been weeping, and Jesus had turned her sorrow into joy. If they had believed, their sorrow would also have turned to joy. Unbelief has a terribly deadening effect on a person (see Heb. 3:12).

Mary not only shared the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and that she had seen him personally, but she also reported the words that he had spoken to her. Again, we see the importance of the Word of God. Mary could not transfer her experience over to them, but she could share the Word; and it is the Word that generates faith (Rom. 10:17). The living Christ shared his living Word (1 Peter 1:23–25).

Conclusion
What a blessing it is to learn of the Living Word of God in the written Word (Scripture). But it is one thing to accept a teaching; it is something else to have a personal encounter with the Risen Lord. Peter and John believed the testimony that Jesus was alive, but it was not until they encountered Jesus personally that true and lasting faith emerged.

Faith based on historical evidence says, “Christ lives!” Saving faith based on a personal encounter with the Risen Lord says, “Christ lives in me!” May we encounter Jesus personally and may that encounter change us forever. Amen.

Sermon for April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)

Sermon for April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Scripture readings:
Ex. 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:12, 12-19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

WHOLEHEARTEDLY FOLLOWING CHRIST (John 13:1-17)
By Cathy Deddo

In this Maundy Thursday sermon we’ll look at the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. In doing so, we’ll see what it means to wholeheartedly follow Jesus. Let’s begin by reading our Scripture passage: John 13:1-17.

This passage begins a long section of Jesus’ teaching at what is referred to as the Last Supper and then following. It occurred on Thursday evening, the night before Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, then resurrected on Easter Sunday.

In Jesus’ day, foot washing was part of the hospitality offered to guests. Everyone wore sandals and one’s feet would get very dusty and dirty as a matter of course. The task of foot washing was considered a very menial one—only fit for slave or servant to do. It was the one thing a disciple would be exempt from doing for his master or teacher.

The incident in this story occurs during the meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples. The group was reclining around a low table, propped up on their elbows with their feet out behind them. Notice that John goes into great detail about Jesus’ actions at this point: He rose from the table, took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and then wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. These details emphasize the initiative and deliberation of Jesus here. He consciously, deliberately adopts the stance and dress of a menial slave.

This was, no doubt, an absolutely shocking event for the disciples. It would have been shocking even if one of them had gotten up to do this foot washing for the rest. But to have Jesus—the One they were following, the One for whom they had left their trades and homes, everything—their Lord—be the One who now stepped aside from that position and took up the role of slave to wash their feet would seem intolerable. I think we see some of how they reacted by the interchange between Peter and Jesus that John includes in the narrative. To help us see how shocking this would be, imagine the Queen of England or the president of the United States cleaning your bathroom!

The narrative concludes with Jesus teaching after the event. He tells them that he did this as an example and that they should wash one another’s feet. Then he makes what seems like an obvious statement—that the servant is not greater than the master, nor he who is sent greater than he who sent him. He concludes: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

When I first became familiar with this passage, I walked away with the conclusion that the primary point of it is that I need to be willing to serve others in menial and lowly ways. This is the kind of service that is what it means to wholeheartedly follow Christ. After all, if Jesus could lower himself to do the job of a slave, then certainly I was not exempt as his follower. I thought this is what it meant, or at least a large part of what it meant to be a Christian—to follow the example Jesus gives of how to care for others.

Because I thought this way about being a Christian, I tended to get somewhat tied up in knots on whether I am loving enough, giving enough. Do I follow Christ’s example well enough? My focus was on myself and my efforts or on others’ needs. I was trying to “give it all” for God. I thought I needed to place all of my effort into stepping out for Jesus, loving difficult people for Jesus, taking any and all unpleasant tasks on for Jesus. My identity as a Christian was that I am always a poor and distorted imitation of the One I follow and that being all out for him was dealing with the never-ending needs of others.

But, just in looking over this passage as much as we have so far, we see that what Jesus is actually doing is more than just giving an example for us to try to imitate.

First, the Greek word translated “example” here means pattern, way of doing things, structure. That’s not exactly what we usually mean by an example to try to follow. This idea of a pattern is a larger, more comprehensive idea. The idea of being given a moral example may be too limited or small a point. I believe Jesus is offering more than that.

So we should look to find if Jesus offers here more than simply giving us a task to do. Perhaps he’s offering some larger pattern or approach to following him.

Second, Jesus tells them to wash one another’s feet, not just go and wash other peoples’ feet out there—so it seems what he is talking about involves both washing and being washed—giving to others and receiving from one another.

If Jesus was just giving an example of something to do for others, why did he not go out on the street after supper with the disciples, find someone randomly, and have the disciples watch him wash that person’s feet to demonstrate what they were to do? Or why not just demonstrate on one disciple? Why wash the feet of all of them? One demonstration would have been enough, it seems, to make the point.

Finally, why does John, in this story, relate to us so much more than telling us about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet? There is an introduction talking about Jesus, the mention of Judas, and all the details about the interaction between Jesus and Peter. If we put all this together, what does John want us, his readers, to understand?

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons0

To consider these questions, we will look more closely at the interaction between Peter and Jesus. We’ll come back after that to what John tells us about Jesus at the beginning of the chapter.

Peter probably watched in horror as Jesus worked his way around the table, knowing his turn was coming. When the moment finally arrived, Peter asks, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” “Lord”—the one who has authority over me—you, would you do for me what only a slave would be required to do because it is such a shameful business?

Jesus replies “yes”—he is going to wash Peter’s feet. Notice that Jesus also lets Peter know that he understands that this makes no sense to Peter now but he assures him that the meaning of his action will become clear to Peter later on. Jesus is saying that this action serves as a sign that points beyond itself. Ultimately, we know that it points to Jesus’ pouring out of his life to cleanse our deepest, most shameful broken and twisted lives to be made right, to be made his brothers and sisters.

Jesus is inviting Peter to trust him—to allow Jesus to do this, to receive this astonishing gesture, even though it doesn’t make sense to him right now. And Jesus gives Peter a kind of promise—you don’t understand now, but there will come a time when you will, and you’ll have to wait until that time. Jesus is directing Peter to trust him now in the present and for the future, when he will come to understand.

But Peter rejects this. It doesn’t matter to him that he will need to wait to possibly understand later. He is convinced he already knows enough of what this action means. Peter thinks that if Jesus was to wash his feet, he would be humiliating himself for Peter. And this, Peter will simply not allow Jesus to do. He isn’t sure he wants to be given such a great gift—one he could never repay. Peter uses a double negative in his answer, which shows complete rejection of the whole idea. “No I will not ever let you wash my feet!” He will not have Jesus humiliating himself.

But Jesus rejects Peter’s rejection. “If I do not wash you, you have no share (or part) with me.” If Peter wants to continue being a follower of Jesus, continue being with him, he will have to be willing to receive this from Jesus now and be willing to wait to understand. Peter needs to die to his current understanding. Jesus makes it clear that it is crucial that Peter receive this act from him – that this is what it means for Peter to follow Jesus, to have a part with Jesus.

Now, Peter swings in the other direction—okay, if you have to wash me in order for me to have a part with you, then how about you include my hands and my head? All of me, then! Maybe Peter thinks this solution would be easier for him to accept from Jesus. Or maybe he hopes to show himself as more zealous than his fellow disciples. Either way, what we see here is Peter offering a counter proposal to Jesus.

Why does John include this interaction between Jesus and Peter in his story? Peter is not refusing to wash another person’s feet. He is objecting to Jesus washing his feet! Jesus is not insisting here that Peter wash another’s feet. Rather he is insisting that Peter allow him to wash his feet. If the whole point of the story is that we need to be willing to wash other people’s feet, then this part of the story contributes nothing to Jesus making that point. Peter isn’t wrestling here with having to wash John’s feet, but with having to receive Jesus washing his. That’s the problem!

When I thought of this passage being primarily a story about my needing to serve others, I tended to start the passage at verse 4 where Jesus gets up and begins to serve the disciples by washing their feet. But the passage actually begins with the three verses before that and John has a lot to say in those first three verses before he gets to telling us what Jesus started to do. We probably need to consider how he begins the story if we want to know what John wants us to understand.

We learn several important things about Jesus from these three verses (read John 13:1-3):

  • These verses begin and end with what Jesus knew. Jesus knew his hour to leave this world and return to his Father had come. Jesus also knew that the Father had given him all things and he knew where he had come from and where he was going.
  • We learn that Jesus had loved his own while here on earth and now “he loved them to the end”—meaning to completion, or fully (telos).
  • John mentions Judas, who was at this moment preparing to leave in order to betray Jesus. It looks like Jesus washed his feet, the feet of his betrayer as well, not just those disciples who would not betray him.

Knowing that the Father had given him everything, and that he would soon go back to his Father in heaven, Jesus rises and washes the disciples’ feet. In doing so, he performed the task of a slave out of the fullness of his relationship with his Father.

What does all this add up to for us? First, we have a clearer idea of the pattern that Jesus is giving here for us to follow. Second, we learn that wholeheartedly following Jesus involves needing to receive what Jesus is giving us.

Note again that Jesus acts from the relationship he has with his Father. Jesus has received from the Father what the Father has given him, and he is counting on the Father receiving him back on the other side of his death. This pattern of receiving from his Father and acting from this place of receiving is seen throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus states in other places that he only does what he sees the Father doing and he only says what hears his Father saying. He does not just do what he saw his Father do in the past or follow instructions he was given earlier. Jesus did not just follow the example the Father laid out for him earlier, but rather he participates in the Father’s work on earth from the place of dynamic relationship—continually enjoying living in the loving relationship he has and has always had with the Father, every moment. He is living, speaking, acting from the place of being loved by the Father. And he lives in confidence as to where he will return—to the Father. He knows where he came from and where he was going in relationship with his Father. Jesus knows who he is—the Son of the Father.

In the first three verses of chapter 13, John tells us about Jesus and the Father and also about Judas. John wants us to see that Jesus is keying off of his Father and does not key off of the imminent betrayal of Judas. The love he shares with the Father and the Spirit is the deepest reality of his life, his work, his purposes. That is what moves Jesus, what propels him. He is always receiving from the Father and then giving and serving on the basis of what he is receiving from the Father—and not on the basis of what he receives or doesn’t receive from others, even from his disciples. Because of his relationship with his Father and what he receives in and through that relationship, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, including his betrayer. Because of the love of the Father for him, he can love his disciples to the end, even Judas.

So that’s the pattern Jesus gives his disciples and thus to us. To wholeheartedly follow Jesus, we are to be those who are wholeheartedly receiving Jesus’ love. That is the first part of the pattern. And that first part is the foundation for what follows. As we receive what Jesus gives us, we then pass on what we have received to others. The love I give to others is the love I have received from Jesus as his beloved one. We are not sent out alone, apart from God, at a distance, with nothing but an example to try to copy. What we do in loving and serving others is the fruit, the outgrowth, of trusting Jesus and receiving from him what he first has to give and continues to give to us. That’s the pattern: first receiving, then giving to others what we have received.

Back to Peter. John tells us in verse 1 that Jesus, having loved his own, now loves them to the end, or fully, completely. What does it mean for Jesus to love Peter fully or to completion? The story tells us. Jesus’ intention is to help Peter fully receive what Jesus is giving him. This is fascinating. For Jesus, to love us to completion means enabling us to become very good at receiving from him. We may think that he has loved us fully when he makes us good servants, but he can only enable us to serve by enabling us to receive from him as his beloved.

Peter, in both refusing and then trying to make additions to what Jesus will give, is struggling with receiving from Jesus. He is trying to call the shots, be in control of how he will receive—which really means he is not willing to receive what Jesus is actually giving. But Jesus won’t allow this—he loves Peter too much to allow him to receive less, to stay stuck in trying to run his own life, trying to control the pattern of his own following of Jesus. What we see is that there are various wrong responses to Jesus and only one right one—Peter needs to receive what Jesus was giving him.

It’s easy to understand why Peter struggles. To be loved by Jesus, to simply receive from him, from the One who is Lord, the washing of what was a shameful part exposes for Peter and for us that this receiving calls on us to die to our pride, do die to our desire to not need or receive from anyone, including God. It requires us to give up our sense that we are self-sufficient, self-justified. It requires giving up all of our own sense of who we are and allowing Jesus to tell us who we are. To let Jesus be Lord is to let him tell us who he is, and who we are, our true identity, in him, and what we really need to receive from him. But receiving grace takes great humility. We come to realize that all we can do is receive. But we often want to rush right on to giving and gaining our value, our identity in what we do.

This passage points ahead to the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. As Jesus told Peter, it was a sign that he would only understand later. It points to the wonderful self-giving of God in the person of Jesus. In the cross of Good Friday, we see most clearly that Jesus has taken on far more that our dirty feet. To share his astounding love with us, he takes all of our unloveliness, brokenness, sin and pain and makes it all his own to redeem, heal, make whole and raise us up to eternal life.

The footwashing points ahead to the giving of the Holy Spirit to live in us. By giving the Spirit, Jesus unites himself to us at the level of our being. In doing so, he gives us our real identity in him. We belong to him. We trust in him. We receive Christ and his work, his extravagant love all the way into those places where we most clearly see and recognize our need, our shame, our complete inability to give ourselves life.

We come, like Peter, again and again with empty hands to Jesus, letting him give to us what he knows we truly need, not what we think we need or what we think he should or shouldn’t give us. This is the wholehearted following of Jesus that this story is about—fully receiving from Jesus and from that place of receiving, giving to others.

In Jesus’ teaching at the end of the narrative, he says that “the servant is not greater than his master.” I wonder if Jesus’ point here, following his interaction with Peter, is that the servant who won’t receive with empty hands from the master is actually acting as if he is greater than the master. Peter, in at first refusing Christ’s love because it wasn’t the way he wanted it, was in danger of separating himself from Christ by acting as if he were greater than Christ. By refusing to receive exactly what Jesus was giving him, he was placing his own judgment above that of Jesus. Peter’s pride was getting in the way and he was having difficulty trusting Jesus. So he was tempted to hold his own understanding above that of his teacher and Lord!

To receive from God is our Christian posture. We receive what he gives with thanksgiving, and we remain in that posture. We are recipients of grace. We don’t switch to a place of earning grace or seeking to condition God to be gracious. God gives himself by grace to us in Jesus Christ. We can only receive or resist.

Why is it so hard for us today to receive the incredible work of God in Christ for us? Is it that we don’t want to surrender control? Is it that we want to preserve our pride and our desire to be independent, even from God? Maybe we only think of actively receiving from Christ at the beginning of our Christian life, or when we run into problems too big to handle on our own. We may think of our relationship with Christ as something that, once started, just goes on automatically. We may think that to grow as a Christian, we become more able to obey, minister, etc. “on our own”—we have the tools now to do the job. Or we may think that there is not time to listen to Jesus’ speaking, to empty my hands to receive him again. I have my church service to prepare, my neighbor to see, my work to accomplish, my frustrations to deal with. We may be more willing to receive in great trials, but we want it to be a temporary state—this being so dependent on Jesus. We want to get back to being that person who can get along without receiving.

When we are reluctant to receive, we might be tempted to think that what is in front of us is the deepest, closest reality of our lives today. My eyes and ears are focused on myself and my circumstances rather than the giving Jesus. I can be tempted to act as if Jesus is not present and actively working in these situations and that I just need to get on with doing the best I can on my own. What happens is I start trusting mostly in my own abilities. The problem is, what I give to others is qualitatively different when it is not out of the fullness of what I am receiving right now from God. This doesn’t mean that God is not at work, but we are tempted to work less out of the hope, joy and the peace of Christ that he is seeking to give us now. We are not following wholeheartedly.

I think we often resist receiving what Jesus is actually giving in any certain time and place because he is not giving us what we most want or hope for. We are tempted to refuse the grace given to hold out for the grace hoped for. If we do receive from God, we have to give up what we may think will force or put pressure on God to do our will.

This resistance to receive can be fueled by expectations. When we hold onto expectations of how God should be working in our lives, our relationships, or our ministries, we make it hard to receive what he is actually doing in all these areas and most especially what he is doing in us. To wholeheartedly follow Jesus now is to fully receive what he is actually giving us in the midst of our afflictions and trials and in the midst of our temptations and weaknesses. We don’t wait until the weaknesses are gone. Isn’t this what Peter was struggling with? Having to receive into his own weakness, have to sit in his need and receive? This is how we follow our Lord, recognize his authority—receiving all the way into our weakness.

We receive each day, each moment, his real presence and work now to transform and to perfect us, to know again that his grace does indeed suffice. Jesus’ work of perfecting us is not to make us eventually not need to receive, but to receive more fully and continually. In the new heaven and the new earth, we will receive and therefore give perfectly and with our whole being.

Jesus is here, in this moment fully. He is speaking, comforting, leading, redeeming, and transforming. God doesn’t require that we live off of yesterday’s grace. His mercies are indeed new every morning. We forget, but he is committed to reminding us, drawing us close, helping us see what we are holding onto instead of receiving from him.

So, by God’s grace, let us turn again and receive our union with Christ, our identity in him, his loving work to make us whole and through us to care for others. Let us empty our hands again, like Peter, of whatever is making receiving from Christ difficult. Let us trust anew in Christ to enable us to do this, both today and tomorrow. Let us, once again, surrender to his love, suspended in his grace. Amen.

Sermon for April 9, 2017 (Palm/Passion Sunday)

Sermon for April 9, 2017 (sixth Sunday in Lent—Palm/Passion Sunday)
Scripture readings (Liturgy of the Passion):
Isa. 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Phil. 2:5-11, Matt. 26:14-27:66

On this, the last day of Lent, the RCL has two liturgies---one for the liturgy of the Palms and one for the liturgy of the Passion.  The sermon below is related to the latter. As to why the RCL has two liturgies for this day, click here.

THE END OF GRACE (Psalm 31:9-16)
By Lance McKinnon

Today is Palm/Passion Sunday, which begins Holy Week, which includes Good Friday when we focus on the crucifixion of Jesus. As we do, there is a question that may rise up in our souls: Does God’s grace come to an end on the cross? And if Jesus is the Son of God, what assurance do we have that God’s grace will not at some point come to an end for us? During Holy Week, headed toward Easter, let’s ask and answer an important question: Is there an end to grace?

One of the lectionary Scripture readings for Palm Sunday is Psalm 31, which helps answer our question. This was a Psalm Jesus must have been praying during his crucifixion—the language clearly mirrors his own experience. The language also mirrors our experience as we find our need for deliverance from sin, death and darkness. As Jesus hung on the cross, he quoted Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” So if this Psalm was on Jesus’ lips and heart on the cross, what answer do we see the Father giving to the prayer in Psalm 31:9 (ESV), “Be gracious to me, O LORD…”? Was God gracious to Jesus on the cross? As Jesus identifies with us as our brother, the answer he receives from the Father is the same answer spoken to us. So again, is there an end to grace?

Christ Carrying the Cross by Titian (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As we read further in the Psalm, we find a running list of all that Jesus was seeking grace in, including relief from distress, grief, sorrow, sighing, weakness, misery, sickness, death, being unknown, emptiness, hearing words that tear us down, and fear. Reading this Psalm, it doesn’t take long for our souls to say amen to Jesus’ experience on the cross. His prayer is also ours. “Lord,” we pray, “be gracious to us in the time of our suffering.”

How will God answer that prayer? Is there an end to his grace?

After making this list of our sufferings, we long to hear the answer to Jesus’ prayer for grace. Our souls and body call out for deliverance from the mess we find ourselves in. We are wrapped up in the cross with Jesus and we know that if grace runs out for him, certainly we are without hope. So we wait and listen. Then Jesus breathes his last.

After all the suffering, sorrow and scorn, praying for deliverance, praying for grace, the answer to Jesus’ prayer was resounding silence.

Jesus died. Is there thus an end to grace? The answer is clear. YES! But if our hears are sinking at that answer, let me explain.

Think about a woman who has just delivered her baby. Referrring to her situation, we might say, “Ah, the end of labor!” By that we mean that the pain of her labor in childbirth had ceased. But what if we were to take that baby in our arms and lifting her high in the air exclaim: “Ah, the end of labor!” By saying that we would not be referring to the cessation of pain, but to the goal—the final result of herlabor, the newborn baby!

This is what we see at the cross. Was there an end to God’s grace there? Absolutely—not that his grace ran out there, but that the goal of his grace was fulfilled. At the cross, God was gracious to his Son, and through his son, to us.

The “endgame” of grace was the death on the cross of the list of sufferings articulated in the Psalm that Jesus quoted. The end—the outcome—of grace was deliverance from our distress and grief. The end of grace was the wiping away of our sorrow and sighing, replacing our weakness and misery with Jesus’ own strength and joy. The end of grace was to restore us from sickness and death. The end of grace is for us to be known and filled, hearing words of affirmation from the Father of his great love for us, setting us free from all fear.

The ultimate end of grace is found in the final verses of our passage. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God'” (Psalm 31:14 ESV). Also, “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love” (Psalm 31:16 ESV). This was the endgame of the Father, Son and Spirit on the cross. Jesus took all that stood in the way of our face-to-face trust relationship with the Father and utterly destroyed it on the cross. His death was the death of all sin, death and darkness. The cross can be seen as the mighty “NO” of grace the Father speaks to all that is against us. It is on Easter, with the resurrection of Jesus, that we hear the thunderous roar of God’s definitive “YES” to all that he created us for. Yes, there is and endgame of God’s grace. And to that we say, hallelujah!

Sermon for April 2, 2017

Sermon for April 2, 2017 (fifth Sunday in Lent)
Scripture readings:
Ezek. 37:1-14, Psa. 130:1-8, Rom. 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

WAKING THE DEAD (Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)
By Linda Rex

Here’s a question for us all today: Where is our life? Asked other ways: From where do we draw our life? What is it that we build our life around? What is it that is at the depths or core of our life? What has captured our heart? On what is our mind set? Today’s Epistle reading from the Lectionary (Romans 8:6-11) addresses these questions, and we’ll also look at this week’s Gospel reading (John 11:1-45), which tells of the time Jesus’ disciples and dear friends, Mary and Martha, sent our Lord a desperate message: “Our brother, the one you love, is sick and he’s dying. Come, lay your hands on him and heal him.” They knew if Jesus would come, and just say the word, or touch him, that their brother Lazarus would be healed. But for whatever reason (and Jesus had his reasons) he waited. He did not go immediately to Lazarus’ side. Can you imagine the sisters’ despair?

Jesus waited and Lazarus died and was buried. Then, eventually, Jesus said to the disciples who were with him, “Lazarus is dead, so we’re going to go there.” I’m sure this was very confusing to those disciples. They probably figured the reason he didn’t go was because he was in danger from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. But Jesus said, “No, we’re going. And this is all for God’s glory.”

So they went. On the way, Martha came out to meet Jesus and said, “Lord, if you’d been here, he would not have died. You could have healed him.” Jesus’ reply was short and confident: “Your brother will rise again!” Though Martha didn’t have a problem with that statement (many Jews at the time believed that all would be resurrected from the dead on the last day), his next statement was a real shocker:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even if he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Dear ones, that is the question for us today—Do we believe this? Do we believe that in Christ we have life? Not just life someday, not just at the last day, but life today—now. Do we have life in Christ right now?

In Romans 8, we read of the difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. First-century Greek philosophers told people that the soul was immortal and would live on beyond death, but that their body would die. I’m not sure whether the soul would just float around or what, but that’s what they taught and what many believed when Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Rome.

The truth Paul proclaimed was that the breath of life in each of us is the breath of God himself. God gives us life by his Spirit, and the only reason we exist is that God continues to breathe his life into us. We are “embodied spirits,” that is, we have a body and a soul (spirit), so interconnected that we can’t have a one without the other. God gives us both, for as Paul also said, “In him [in God] we live and move and have our being.”

Unfortunately, because of our bad choices, we brought the sentence of death upon ourselves. Nevertheless, God continued to sustain us. Rather than making us simply disappear because of our sin, he said to humanity: “You will live, yet I will limit your life to a certain number of years, and then you will die.” But God did something else—something truly marvelous—he gave us himself in the person of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ—the “I Am,” who is life, came to give life to us by his Spirit.

In Ezekiel 37, we read about dry bones and how the Spirit of God breathed life into those bones so they lived. Into dry, dead bones, God through his Son and by his Spirit brings revival—new, never-ending life. This is the life that is ours in Christ. He gives us life beyond death—life everlasting that transcends this mortal life in an earth-bound, mortal body.

God does something amazing when he breathes into us his life, through his Son, and by his Spirit. Note Paul’s words in Romans 8:5-6:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

So I ask again, Where is our life? On what are our minds set? On the physical life we’re living every day? A life that one day will be gone? Or are our minds set on the life that God has breathed into us by his Spirit—the life of his Son that revives us, that makes us truly alive?

From where do we draw life? What occupies our thoughts? On what do we spend our time and energy? Physical needs? God said when we seek his kingdom first, these things will be added. So what do we seek first? Where is our focus? On self? On the flesh? Or is it on Christ, who is our life?

By the Spirit, Paul declared in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ.” Holy Week begins next Sunday. During that week we are powerfully reminded of Jesus’ crucifixion, of the reality that in union with Christ, we are crucified with him. In Christ, our old way of being, our old life, is dead—crucified, as it were, with him. Paul continues in Galatians 2:20: “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Think of that—the “I Am” who is the Resurrection and the Life lives in us! Paul continues: “The life I now live in the body, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Amazing! Transforming!

Back to the story of Lazarus. We find Jesus standing there, having spoken to Martha when Mary arrives and says pretty much the same thing to him: “If you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” Jesus was grieving—both the death of his dear friend Lazarus, and now the deep sorrow of his dear friends Martha and Mary. Perhakps he was also grieving (a bit perturbed, it seems) their lack of understanding.

In his great love for these people, and for all humanity, Jesus got to work. He gave the command: “Remove the stone.” Jesus was in charge—he was calling Lazarus back to life, but note that he was engaging others in this event. He let some bystanders participate in his life-giving miracle. Jesus instructed them to remove the stone that sealed Lazarus inside the tomb. He could have removed it himself, he could have called out “Lazarus,” waved his hand, and a hole would have opened in the rock face of the tomb. But he didn’t do that. Instead, Jesus said, “Remove the stone!” He let them participate in what he was doing—giving life.

Martha, watching all this, said, “Jesus, by now he’s stinking. Don’t do that!” But Jesus replied, “Martha, if you believe, you will see the glory of God.” How often God calls us to belief—“just believe,” he says. But believe what? Believe that there is something beyond this life—beyond the every-day-just-trying-to-survive-stuff. There is a life that is much more than that—so much greater. Yes, today’s sufferings can be painful, difficult, frustrating—but there is life through all that and beyond. It’s Christ’s life in us. It’s the life we live with and in him. It’s the life in which we are never alone.

Sure, sometimes the life we face here and now is tough. Perhaps we can’t pay our bills, perhaps we battle debilitating health problems. But God, who loves us, makes a way. Don’t ask me how. He just does. And part of the miracle is the way we participate with one another in bringing such life-giving deliverance to pass.

Back to Lazarus. Jesus prays, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know you always hear me.” Then in a commanding, loud voice, Jesus calls out: “Lazarus, come forth!”

Raising Lazarus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paintings of this scene typically portray Jesus with his hands extended, calling Lazarus out. In like manner, Jesus is calling each of us out, saying to us, “Wake up!—awaken to the life that is yours in union with me. Live into that life, it’s real life—eternal life.” He says to us, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Indeed, he, the Great I Am, is our life! Believe it. Receive it. Live into it.

Thus Jesus called Lazarus forth from death. It’s interesting to note what Jesus then said to the people observing all this: “Unbind him and let him go.” Again, Jesus had them participate in his miracle of deliverance from death. And so it is today as Jesus calls us to participate in what he is doing to give life to others—to unbind their burdens, to set captives free to live in, with and for Jesus.

In his epistles, Paul often mentions “putting on” Christ—putting on his kindness, goodness and mercy. This is the new life of Christ that, by the Spirit, we have been given and are led to embrace. Putting on is not about faking—it’s like donning a costume that defines a particular role. It’s about sharing Christ’s own life and character.

In this new life in Christ, we don’t focus on the old ways, the ways of the old person that, in Christ, is dead. Instead we focus on participating with Jesus in loving God and our neighbors—on serving God and serving our neighbors. We’re living life “in Christ,” by his Spirit, with his mind, sharing his heart, participating in his works. As Paul said, it is “I, yet not I, but Christ who lives in me.”

We don’t have our heads buried in the sand—we are realists, we acknowledge our inability to do what we need to do to save ourselves—be that physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Confessing our weakness and sin, we draw upon God’s life—his healing, his hope. And we do so together, in community. That’s why God calls us together as a church. The evil one likes to remind us of our weakness and confuses us by saying good is evil and evil is good. He tempts us to do things that feel right, but are terribly damaging. But in relationship with Christ-followers in the community of the Spirit, we love, help, exhort and even correct one another. Always in love. Always caring for one another, praying for one another, helping each other shed the graveclothes that continue to bind us. The unbinding is a process of healing, of changing. We help each other take off the old and put on the new.

So the questions for us today are these: Where is our life? Where is it centered? Who is the center of our life? Is it us? Does the world revolve around us, or someone close to us? Or does it revolve around Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life? Today, right now, Jesus is calling each of us to join him in the work he is doing to wake the dead and then see that they are unbound so that they might fully live. Let’s end with prayer:

Father, thank you for giving us your Son Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, that you are the Resurrection and the Life, and that by your Spirit, we are made new. Lord, speak to us now and show us how in each of our lives, as we listen in our hearts, how you are the Resurrection and the Life. Thank you Jesus for coming to be in us, with us, and for us in real ways. Thank you Father, that through Jesus and by your Spirit, we have life not just in the world to come, but now—a new life, a new way of thinking and being. Even though we are weak in our flesh, you love us faithfully. We thank you; we give you all the praise and glory, and we ask you to continue to live this out in us by your Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

From Greg: Trends for churches in 2017

Dear pastors and ministry leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams

LifeWay Resources President Thom Rainer is pretty good at predicting trends in the North American church. He’s been analyzing those trends for years, and recently shared his take on what lies ahead in an article titled “The Top Ten Major Trends for 2017.” I’ve reproduced his list below (with minor edits) and then provided comments concerning how these trends might impact us in GCI. I encourage you to discuss these with your leaders as you consider together how they might impact the various ministries in your congregation.

Used with “Leadership Journal” permission.
  1. Renewed emphasis on evangelism. Many church leaders want to know how their churches can better reach non-Christians where they are. An emphasis on the “Jerusalem” of Acts 1:8 will result in more intentionality in evangelism and, thus more people becoming followers of Christ.
  2. Renewed emphasis on practical ministries. Many of our churches have gone through a period of theological recovery for which I am very grateful. Now the leaders want to know the “how” along with the “what.” They are looking for practical solutions built on biblical truths.
  3. Increased frequency of allegations of child sex abuse in churches. Sexual predators see churches as places of vulnerability and opportunity. Too many churches are not prepared or equipped to deal with these issues.
  4. Increased financial fraud in churches. Some of those with ill intent see the church as a place of opportunity to commit theft.
  5. The multi-site movement becoming a neighborhood church movement. The next extension of this movement is an intentionality to start or acquire campuses to reach and minister to residents of specific neighborhoods.
  6. An acceleration of church closures. The death rate of churches is sadly increasing in America. I do not see that trend abating.
  7. Church acquisitions becoming normative. I am surprised how quickly churches and denominational entities have become strategic about acquiring churches that are declining and dying. While the trend of church closures is not encouraging, it is encouraging that more churches are becoming intentional about saving these churches from total extinction.
  8. Worship center downsizing becomes normative. The millennials are leading the way to attend worship services that are small to mid-size. As a consequence, the huge worship centers have lost their attraction.
  9. Longer pastoral tenure. This trend is being led by millennial pastors who do not desire to climb the ladder to larger churches. They are more desirous to stay and make a long-term difference in the community.
  10. The remarkable shift toward continual learning. Our research is showing that pastors and church staff tend to have greater success in their roles if they are intentional about continual learning. Some go the path of greater formal education, but more are receiving coaching and intentional programs of continual learning.

Let’s now consider how these trends might apply within our GCI context:

  1. Evangelism. Does you congregation see evangelism as a fundamental part of its primary Great Commission (disciple-making) work? With all the energy and resources being expended, are unchurched people being introduced to the gospel? Are they experiencing God’s lavish grace and love within a church community into which they are invited and warmly welcomed? To help you focus on this important issue, we’ve published in this issue an article from Pastor Sam Butler on a community assessment process. I encourage you to implement what he suggests.
  2. Practical ministries. In GCI we begin with the questions, Who is God? and Who are we in relationship to God? This leads us to ask, What is the Triune God up to and how might we participate? Concerning that participation, do our ministries help people, in practical and sustainable ways, to participate actively in the stunning reality of the love and inclusivity of Jesus Christ? Are people drawn to the community of our congregations because the love of Jesus made evident through our ministries? Sam Butler’s article is also highly relevant in this area.
  3. Protection of children and youth. In the midst of our inclusivity, do we have in place proper procedures for vetting our children and youth workers? Are we growing in our understanding of the threats and what we must do to counter those threats so that our children are protected?
  4. Financial stewardship. Are the treasurers and other members of our financial teams up to speed in sound financial management practices? Do our lead pastors (and other primary leaders) consistently review all financial statements to provide accountability?
  5. Neighborhood churches. In GCI, “multi-site” means a network of organic small groups in areas where we have connections and influence. Are we committed to hosting such sites? Will we carve out time from our busy schedules to include others into the community of the church through small groups that are neighborhood oriented?
  6. Church closures. GCI in the US has 96 Fellowship Groups (very small congregations) and 200 churches ranging from 15 to 120 in average attendance. Some are growing, many are not, and thus we are very much a part of the national trend that includes church closures. This trend does not demoralize us because we know the Lord’s promise to the church in general that, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” We need not fear the closures that are a “natural” part of the cycle of church life. Moreover, our focus, instead of merely “surviving” is on “thriving.” Toward that end, we challenge all our churches to do what they can to help advance our forward movement as a denomination—we’re all part of one church family, and we’re optimistic about our shared future. Each congregation, no matter its size or potential for longevity, can make a positive contribution to that future.
  7. Church acquisitions. We’re grateful that a percentage of our churches are experiencing renewal both in spirit and in numbers. This gives us hope, and we anticipate these renewal churches sparking new life in places where some of our older churches may be nearing the end of their life-span. Indeed, this has already happened in a few spots.
  8. Worship center downsizing. It seems that the big concert-type worship era is behind us. This trend is a good opportunity for worship venues to become more authentic, relational and thus intimate and family-like. We are well positioned to join in this trend.
  9. Longer pastoral tenure. It is exciting to see the next generation of GCI pastors having a deep love and commitment to the community where they feel called to serve. This trend points to the reality that not all pastors can be employed full-time by the congregations they serve. That’s okay. Many of our pastors will likely need to take jobs within the community where they serve, becoming an integral part of the daily rhythm of community life. Could this be the direction the Holy Spirit is taking us (along with the rest of the Body of Christ)? If so, how are we responding?
  10. Continual learning. This trend is certainly embraced and advanced in GCI. We are blessed to have two online educational institutes: Grace Communion Seminary (master’s level) and Ambassador College of Christian Ministries (for anyone with a high school education). We are also blessed with a ministry coaching component that provides what we refer to as “wrap-around support” for our new pastors, church planters, interns and pastoral residents. Life-long learning is a part of the GCI culture that we plan to continue and strengthen in the years ahead.

Let’s conclude with Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 16:2-4 (RSV):

When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

I pray that God will help us interpret well the “signs of the times,” in our day, including the trends noted above. It is important that we comprehend these trends, following the Holy Spirit as he leads us in negotiating the “winds of change” that are impacting all aspects of life in North America (and all the world), your church included.

Thank you Lord for giving us visionaries like Thom Rainer to help us understand what lies ahead and make adjustments accordingly. Thank you most of all for giving us Jesus to be the Head of the Church both in 2017 and beyond! Amen.

Greg Williams
GCI Vice President, Superintendent of U.S. Ministers, Director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development

Sermon for March 26, 2017

Sermon for March 26, 2017 (fourth Sunday in Lent)
Scripture readings:
1 Sam. 16:1-13, Psalm 23: 1-6, Eph. 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

THE MIRACLE OF SEEING JESUS (John 9:1-41)
By Ted Johnston

Jesus performed many miracles by which he met human needs while conveying truth concerning his identity as Son of God and Messiah. One of the biblical signs of the Messiah was the healing of blindness, and in John 9, Jesus fulfills that sign. John also is using this miracle to say something about the human condition, for in John “to see” physically is a metaphor for understanding spiritually. And so John 9 is about spiritual blindness as well as physical blindness, and about how Jesus heals both.

The man we meet in John 9 was both physically and spiritually blind from birth. But Jesus changed both conditions: The healing of his physical blindness was instantaneous; but the healing of his spiritual blindness unfolded in stages as he progressively came to “see” Jesus for who he truly is—the Son of God. Let’s walk through those stages of unfolding vision with him. May we too see Jesus more clearly!

Jesus Healing the Blind Man by Bloch (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

1. Jesus: man (John 9:1–12)

About the only thing a blind man could do in that day was beg, and that is what this man was doing when Jesus passed by. No doubt there were many blind people who would have rejoiced to be healed, but Jesus selected this one. Apparently he and his parents were well known in the community. It was on the Sabbath when Jesus healed him (v. 14), thus Jesus, once again, was deliberately challenging the religious leaders.

The disciples did not look at the man as an object of mercy but rather as a subject for theological discussion. They were confident that his congenital blindness was caused by sin, either his own or his parents’. But Jesus disagreed as we see in John 9:3. Contrary to popular Jewish belief at the time, not all disability is punishment for sin (of the person or their parents). Sometimes bad things just happen.

Jesus’ method of healing in this instance was unusual: He combined his spit with dirt and made clay; then smeared it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash. Why this method? Perhaps because God made the first man out of clay, then sent his eternal Son in the “clay” of human flesh. Note also the emphasis on the meaning of “Siloam”—“sent,” and relate this to “the works of him that sent me” (v. 4). Perhaps Jesus is enacting a mini-drama about his own incarnation as a man (clay) sent by the Father to bring healing to all humanity.

In any case, the healing meant not only deliverance for the blind man; it also meant a crisis of identification surrounding both the blind man and Jesus. Was this really the blind beggar? And who caused him to see? Throughout the rest of John 9, a growing conflict takes place around these two questions. The religious leaders did not want to face the fact that Jesus healed the man, or even that the man had been healed.

Four times in this chapter, people asked the man how he was healed (vv. 10, 15, 19, 26). First the neighbors asked the man, and then the Pharisees asked him. Not satisfied with his reply, the Pharisees then asked the man’s parents and then gave the son one final interrogation. All of this looked very official and efficient, but it was really an evasive maneuver on the part of both the people and the leaders. The Pharisees wanted to get rid of the evidence, and the people were afraid to speak the truth.

When asked to describe his experience, the man simply told what had happened. All he knew about the person who had done the miracle was that he was “a man called Jesus.” Though he had not seen our Lord, he had heard his voice. Not only was the beggar ignorant of Jesus’ identity, but he did not know where Jesus had gone. At this point, the man has been healed, but he has not experienced salvation. The light had dawned, but it would grow brighter until he saw the face of the Lord and worshiped him.

At least 12 times in the Gospel of John, Jesus is called “a man.” John’s emphasis is that Jesus Christ is God, but the apostle balances it beautifully by reminding us that Jesus is also fully human. The incarnation was not an illusion!

2. Jesus: prophet (John 9:13–23)

As custodians of the faith, the Pharisees appropriately investigated this claim of healing. The fact that they studied the miracle in such detail is only further proof that Jesus did indeed heal the man. Since the man was born blind, the miracle was even greater, for blindness caused by sickness or injury might suddenly go away.

That Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath was cause for great concern among the Pharisees. It was illegal to work on the Sabbath; and by making clay, applying it, and healing the man, Jesus had performed three unlawful “works.” The Pharisees should have been praising God for a miracle; instead, they sought evidence to prosecute Jesus. They were judging on the basis of one conclusion: nobody who breaks the Sabbath could be a true prophet of God. The Pharisees did not realize that Jesus was offering something far greater than the Sabbath—he was offering the true spiritual rest that comes from God (Matt. 11:28–30).

But the beggar was not intimidated by the threats of the Pharisees. When asked who he thought Jesus was, he boldly said, “He is a prophet!” Some of the Old Testament prophets, such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, did perform miracles. But the religious leaders did not want to see Jesus given that kind of high designation. “This man is not from God,” they said (9:16).

Perhaps they could discredit the miracle. If so, then they could convince the people that Jesus had plotted the whole thing and was deceiving them. He had craftily “switched” beggars so that the sighted man was not the man who had been known as the blind beggar.

The best way to get that kind of evidence would be to interrogate the parents of the beggar, so they called them in and asked them two questions: (1) “Is this your son?” And (2) “How is it that now he can see?” If they refused to answer either question, they were in trouble; or if they answered with replies contrary to what the leaders wanted, they were in trouble.

They answered the first question honestly: he was their son and he had been born blind. They answered the second question evasively: they did not know how he was healed or who healed him. They then used the old-fashioned tactic called “passing the buck” by suggesting that the Pharisees ask the man himself. After all, he was of age!

Behind all this evasion lay human fear. People were seeking the honor of men and not the honor that comes from God (5:44). To be sure, it was a serious thing to be excommunicated from the synagogue, but it was far more serious to reject the truth. “The fear of man brings a snare” says Proverbs 29:25 (NASB). The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus, and the parents were trying to avoid a trap; but all of them were only ensnaring themselves!

The Pharisees could present a “good case” for their position. After all, they did have the Law of Moses as well as centuries of Jewish tradition. What they failed to understand was that Jesus had fulfilled all of this law and was now bringing something new. Moses was preparation and Jesus is the consummation (see John 1:17).

3. Jesus: man from God (John 9:24–34)

Anxious to settle the case, the Pharisees called the man in and put him under oath. “Give God the glory” is a form of Jewish “swearing in” at court. But here the judges prejudiced everybody from the start. “We know this man is a sinner,” they said of Jesus. They were warning the witness that he had better cooperate with the court, or he might be excommunicated. But the beggar had experienced a miracle, and he was not afraid to tell them what had happened. He did not debate the character of Jesus Christ, because that was beyond his knowledge and experience. But one thing he did know: now he could see!

For the fourth time, the question is asked, “How did he open your eyes?” (9:10, 15, 19, and 26). I imagine the man got impatient at this point. After all, he had been blind all his life, and there was so much now to see. He did not want to spend much longer in a synagogue court, looking at angry faces and answering the same questions.

We admire the boldness of the man in asking the irate Pharisees if they wanted to follow Jesus. The man expected a negative answer, but he was courageous even to ask it. Unable to refute the evidence, the judges began to revile the witness; and once again Moses is brought into the picture (5:46). They were sure about Moses (though in actuality they misunderstood Moses, who pointed to Jesus), but they were not sure about Jesus. They did not know where he came from. He had already told them that he had come from heaven, sent by the Father (6:33, 38, 41–42, 50–51). They were sure that he was the natural son of Mary and Joseph, and that he was from the city of Nazareth (6:42; 7:41–42). They were judging “after the flesh” (8:15) and not exercising spiritual discernment.

It seemed incredible to the healed man that the Pharisees would not know this man who had opened his eyes. How many people were going around Jerusalem, opening the eyes of blind people? Instead of investigating the miracle, these religious leaders should have been investigating the person who did the miracle and learning from him. The “experts” were rejecting the stone that was sent to them (Acts 4:11).

The beggar then gave these “experts” a lesson in practical theology. Perhaps he had Psalm 66:18 in mind: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” The leaders called Jesus a sinner (9:24), yet Jesus was used of God to open the blind man’s eyes. He added another telling argument: Jesus healed a man born blind. Never, to their knowledge, had this occurred before. So, God not only heard Jesus, but enabled him to give the man sight. How, then, could Jesus be a sinner?

Again, the leaders reviled the man and told him he was born in sin and then officially excommunicated him from the local synagogue, meaning that he was now cut off from friends and family. But not only did not reject him, he embraced him. Indeed, Jesus came for the “outcasts.”

4. Jesus: Lord and God (John 9:35–41)

The Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. And now Jesus, knowing that the formerly blind beggar had been excommunicated, sought him out and opened his spiritual eyes to now see him for who he truly is: the Son of God his Lord and Savior.

It is not enough to know that Jesus is a man (though he is), or a prophet or man of God (though he is both). “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1). John wrote his Gospel to prove that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and Messiah. Here Jesus proclaims to the beggar that he is “the Son of Man” (v. 35). Son of Man, as John 5:27 shows, is a designation associated with the role of judgment which the Father has committed to the Son. And here the Son of Man is acknowledging before the Father that this formerly blind beggar is his true follower—which the beggar affirms by proclaiming “Lord, I believe” and worshipping Jesus (v. 38).

“My sheep hear my voice” says Jesus in John 10:27. And here the beggar hears and believes. Not only did he trust his Savior, but he worshiped him. Only God is to be worshipped, and Jesus accepted this worship. Indeed Jesus is God as affirmed by John the Baptist (1:34), Nathanael (1:49), Peter (6:69) and now this healed blind beggar.

Wherever Jesus went, some of the Pharisees tried to be present so they could catch him in something he said or did. Seeing them, Jesus now closes this episode by preaching a brief but penetrating sermon on spiritual blindness.

As we see in John 3:16–17, the reason for our Lord’s coming was salvation, but here he reminds us that the result of his coming was condemnation of those who, though seeing Jesus, refuse to believe. These religious leaders were willfully turning a blind eye to the reality of Jesus’ identify. Therefore, the light of truth only made them blinder. The beggar admitted his need, and he received both physical and spiritual sight. No one is so blind as he who will not see—who thinks he has “all truth” and has nothing more to learn about God (9:28, 34).

The listening Pharisees heard what Jesus said and it disturbed them. “Are we blind too?” they asked, expecting a negative answer. Jesus had already called them “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14), so they had their answer. They were blinded by their pride, their self-righteousness, their tradition, and their false interpretations of Scripture.

Jesus’ reply was a paradox: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (v. 41). Blindness would at least be an excuse for not knowing what was going on. But they did know. Jesus had performed many miracles, yet they ignored the evidence. Jesus is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5) and only those who are blind or refuse to look cannot see the light. The beggar was willing to see and chose to respond and was healed. The Pharisees could see, but were unwilling to believe in Jesus—they made the wrong choice and remained spiritually blind.

Conclusion

We never meet the healed beggar again in Scripture, but we assume that he became a faithful witness to others about Jesus. Life was probably difficult for him because of his excommunication from the synagogue. But perhaps he found a new place—a new and eternal identity in Christ. Perhaps he led his parents to Christ. Perhaps many others.

Like his call to the blind beggar and to the obstinate Pharisees, Jesus calls people today to see the evidence and to decide to believe in him. The choice is often one between Jesus and family; or Jesus and religious tradition. The blind beggar made the right choice, even though the cost was great. But his reward in heaven is also great—a reward he began to experience on earth as he followed the light of Jesus the righteous one.

“The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). Amen.