Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 3

Here is part 3 of an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. The essay is being published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click on a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here.

the HOLY spirit’s ministry, The Christian life, believers & non-believers

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Throughout our journey of theological renewal GCI has, appropriately, emphasized the objective aspects of our Lord’s Incarnation, vicarious humanity and ministry. Though always acknowledged, less emphasis has been placed on the subjective aspects of Christ’s ministry and the related ministry of the Holy Spirit. As we’ve looked further at the relationship of our incarnational Trinitarian faith to the ministry of the church, we’ve seen the need for greater clarity and some adjustment concerning these less fully-developed topics. Toward that end, this part of the essay examines the Holy Spirit’s ministry, the implications for the Christian life, and the distinction Scripture makes between believers and non-believers.

The Holy Spirit and our participation

One area where clarification and adjustment are needed pertains to what we teach concerning the relationship of the Holy Spirit and our participation (response) to all Jesus has accomplished for us. We now see that some of the terms we’ve been using to describe the completed (objective) work of Jesus and his ministry are more appropriately and directly applicable to the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit and our related personal (subjective) participation. In that regard, the terms (which we want to use as they are used in Scripture) “union with Christ,” the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit, and being “members of the Body of Christ” all make reference to the believer’s response to the freely-given gift of God’s grace by the working of the Holy Spirit. These terms refer to the quality of relationship that arises out of our participation as persons (subjects) being formed and transformed into conformity with Christ by the Holy Spirit.

“Dove of the Holy Spirit”
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In part 2 of this essay, we noted that we must account for both the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ, as well as the spiritual union that we as believers have with Christ—a union brought about by the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit. Though not separated (as if disconnected), these two “unions” are properly and rightly distinguished as two moments (aspects) of God’s one saving work—a work involving the ministry not just of the Son, but of the Holy Spirit (who is sent by the Father and the Son). Though related, these two moments are distinct aspects of the one (whole) saving work of God. Consequently, we want to avoid the potential error of thinking of the Christian life in ways that collapse the spiritual union (our “union with Christ” by the Holy Spirit) into the hypostatic union, particularly as it pertains to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit, promise and fulfillment

The New Testament shows that the Christian life cannot be understood apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which takes place after the ascension on the basis of the completed earthly ministry of Jesus. Recall that the ultimate covenant promise of God being our God, and of we being his people, was prophesied to be fulfilled with the sending (pouring out) of the Holy Spirit. This pouring out, which is like water in the desert or breath to dead bones, raises persons up from their graves, gives them new hearts of flesh, and writes on those human hearts what formerly was written only on tablets of stone. Though Israel had the Word of the Lord in certain ways and the Law (the Torah), the Holy Spirit’s coming was the high point of Old Testament prophecy. Looking back, we now see how the coming of God’s Messiah fits into the plan—the Word of God comes in Person and sends the Spirit to work intensively (personally) within individuals, drawing God’s people together. He then works extensively to bring the blessing to all peoples of the earth.

Jesus’ own person and ministry is essentially tied in with that of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived, baptized and anointed by the Sprit. He dealt decisively with evil by the power of the Spirit, he rejoiced in the Spirit, and he offered up his life through the Spirit to the Father on the cross. Likewise, Jesus’ ministry towards his people is inseparably tied in with that of the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed, Jesus is the one who, uniquely, baptizes with the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling the covenant promises and related Old Testament prophecies. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit along with his breathing on the disciples while commanding them to wait for the Spirit after his ascension, demonstrate how essential the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit is in bringing about the fullness of God’s saving work. Indeed, Jesus’ own teaching consistently highlights the interweaving of the Spirit’s ministry with his own. Note this declaration from Jesus:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (John 15:26 NRSV)

Paul affirms this interconnection of the ministries of Jesus and the Spirit:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3 NRSV)

The tandem ministry of Jesus and the Spirit

This interconnection of ministries is taught definitively in the New Testament’s accounts of the Incarnation of the Word of God (Jesus Christ) and of his sending of the Holy Spirit. There we find the “tandem” ministry of the incarnate Son with the Holy Spirit first unfolding, then reaching a new phase following Jesus’ ascension.

Then with the rebirth of the people of God at Pentecost, which brings about the formation of the church, the New Testament writers give intensive instruction, exhortation, encouragement, commands, correction and even warnings to those who are gathered as the body of Christ (the church). All these things specify aspects of our participation as members of the body. Throughout the New Testament, we find that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always is related to these responses and thus the sanctifying-transforming of the people of God.

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka
(used by permission, Creative Commons)

The vast majority of the more than 100 New Testament references to the Holy Spirit indicate that his ministry is responsible for our participation in myriad ways: speaking the word of God, hearing the word of God, revealing, being guided, sent out, forbidden, justified, sanctified, sanctified to be obedient, declaring Jesus to be Lord, living and being led, putting to death sin, praying, sharing, worshiping, loving, being convicted, having new life, being renewed, expressing joy, proclaiming the good news, being witnesses, given gifts and fruit, being full or filled by the Spirit—all of these (and more) in, with and by the Holy Spirit. Thus we understand that the entirety of the Christian life is bound up with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who engenders all these means of our participation in the life of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit’s personal, particular, freeing and transforming ministry

The Holy Spirit frees and enables us to receive and live into the truth and reality of all that God has accomplished for us in Christ. Since salvation is essentially a relationship (a gift of reconciliation between God and humanity), Scripture does not depict the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being impersonal, causal, mechanical or automatic. Having been freed by the Spirit, our corresponding response in relationship to God is dynamic, personal, particular and life sanctifying. Accordingly, Jesus encouraged his disciples with these words:

When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say. (Luke 12:11-12 NRSV)

The book of Acts also provides examples of the Holy Spirit working in individual, highly personal ways: with Cornelius, Philip and the Ethiopian in the chariot, with Stephen, then later with Paul under many different circumstances, and in the many incidents involving other apostles and other groups of people, some who were ready to receive the gospel and some who were not.

The Gospels give many examples of Jesus’ personal encounters with people. He extends a personal call to James, John, Andrew and Peter. He speaks privately with Nicodemus. Though some encounters begin in indirect, impersonal ways, they typically turn highly personal—“face-to-face.” An example is Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus finds him in a tree and ends up sharing dinner with him. Another example is when Jesus calls back to himself the woman with the flow of blood who had only wanted to touch his robes. The point here is that there is nothing generic and thus impersonal about the ministry of Jesus (and the same can be said concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit). What we find in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament is what TF Torrance referred to as the “personalizing” ministry of Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

As is true of Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s work is not causal or mechanical. He is not an impersonal power or force-vector. Nor is he merely a universal principle. Given that salvation is the gift of a reconciled relationship for us to participate in, the Spirit’s way of working is highly relational and therefore personal. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. It warns us not to quench the Spirit but to be filled with the Spirit. So there is a real, dynamic interaction between persons and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit faithfully ministers.

Though not everyone has this personal, relational understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work, it is clear that his ministry does not result in a general effect that indiscriminately causes everyone to react the same way. This can be seen, for instance, at Pentecost, where some people observing what was taking place by the Spirit scoffed, claiming it was nothing more than persons being drunk (Acts 2:13). In other incidents in the book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Spirit and Simon the sorcerer attempted to buy the power of the Spirit for his own purposes. In the book of Hebrews, we are told of people “who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” but who have then fallen away and now “are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:4-6 ESV). Then we have in the Gospel of Mark the sobering warning about those who are in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit with the result that they will never “have” forgiveness (Mark 3:29 ESV). They have repudiated the One who is delivering this forgiveness personally and thus directly to them (to their spirits). This does not mean that the Holy Spirit cannot or will not resist someone’s resistance, or object to their objection, but it does indicate that the Spirit can be resisted—an act of human will for which there are consequences.

The Holy Spirit, maturity and sanctification

By observing that the Holy Spirit works in the church in ways that are not causal or deterministic (thus not “even”), we learn that there are degrees of maturity within the body of Christ, even though God’s goal (aim or purpose) is for all to reach maturity in Christ. Paul puts it this way:

It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:28 NRSV)

With the goal of maturity in mind, Paul distinguishes between those who are spiritual and those who are unspiritual, meaning not yet mature in response to the ministry of the Word and Spirit:

We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. (1 Cor. 2:12-15 NRSV)

Not all are spiritual (spiritually mature), even though that is the goal, not only of Paul, but of the Holy Spirit and his ministry. Such maturity is also referred to in the New Testament as being sanctified. But that too is regarded as a process of growth that involves the personal and personalizing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The outcome is that not all are sharing to the same degree in Christ’s full sanctity, though all are to continue in faith, by the Holy Spirit’s ministry, to grow (mature) in that direction since no one has fully arrived at the ultimate goal. Note, for example, what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification…. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thess. 4:3 NRSV; 1 Thess. 5:23-24 NRSV)

Because Paul did not expect the results of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to be instantaneous, he wrote this to the Christians in Corinth:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18 NRSV)

The Christian life is not a self-help program—the relationship we have with Christ through the Holy Spirit, that like all real relationships is personal, particular, dynamic and interactive. Our relationship with Christ, by the Spirit, occurs over time, resulting in personal transformation that conforms us to Christ. However, those who continually resist or reject the Holy Spirit will not experience most of the benefits of Christ. So the author of Hebrews explains the difference between those who believe and enter God’s rest and those who do not:

For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Heb. 4:2 ESV)

The finished work of Christ’s earthly ministry accomplishing all that is needed for salvation (wisdom, righteousness, sanctification) is never questioned but affirmed (1 Cor. 1:30). Likewise, the Holy Spirit’s faithfulness is stressed and never questioned (Phil. 1:6). The author of Hebrews both assures us of Christ’s finished work, but at the same time also indicates that this puts in motion a dynamic process: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14 ESV). We are sanctified in Christ, but we are also being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in Philippians 2:12, we are to “work out our salvation” (live into it) because God is at work in us. Paul also says that we are to “press on” to make Christ our own, because he has made us his own (Phil. 3:12, 14). All obedience then is the obedience that belongs to, or is the product of faith in God’s faithfulness (Rom. 1:5; 16:26, Heb. 11:1-40).

The point here is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is personal and personally transforming—it is dynamic and interactive, bringing about receptivity, responsiveness and participation. And the result is that we are on a journey towards spiritual maturity and full sanctification, being changed into the likeness of Christ. But this journey is not automatic, causal, or impersonal. It is not mechanically imposed on all believers, much less on all human persons (including non-believers). Since personal (subjective) receptivity and participation do make a difference, much of the New Testament indicates the differences it makes and encourages, exhorts and even commands us to be receptive to the Word of God and the ministry of the Spirit out of trust in God’s faithfulness through the Son and in the Spirit. As Paul exhorts in Ephesians 5:18, we are to “be filled with the Spirit.”

These personal distinctions related to personal participation should not be taken to mean that God is faithful to some but not to all. The difference our personal responsiveness makes does not condition God into changing his purpose and aim for us and all humanity. It does not make God for some and against others, and it certainly does not lead him to want to see those who are unresponsive perish.

Our personal response (or lack thereof) to God cannot undo the fact that Jesus is and remains Lord and Savior of all. The character and purpose, mind and heart of God remain just as they have been revealed in Christ. The finished work of Christ is never undone—God remains, in Christ, reconciled to all people, no matter their response. He has and holds out forgiveness for them, is ready to receive them back into fellowship with him, and in that sense accepts them. However, while God accepts them, he does not accept their rejection, their sin, their rebellion, but accepts them in order to do away with what is against them and against their participation in the reconciliation accomplished for them in Christ. Nothing changes that reconciliation (with all it means), not even a person’s complete or partial rejection of God’s gift. However, our personal response (participation) does affect the quality of our lived relationship with God and thus our personal experiencing of the benefits of Christ.

God’s omnipresence and the Holy Spirit

Another question often raised about the person and work of the Holy Spirit pertains to God’s omnipresence: Is not God’s Spirit at work everywhere all the time upon all people, since God is Spirit and thus is not absent from anywhere in his universe? While this is true, the biblical depiction of the working of God’s Spirit and the nature of his presence is that God can be present and active in a wide variety of ways. God’s presence is not impersonal, static, fixed or constant, as a law of physics might be.

This can be seen in the Old Testament wherever God particularly speaks a Word and where particular prophets receive God’s Word. We note as well that certain persons were gifted to contribute to the construction of the Tabernacle. Some were (temporarily, it seems) filled with the Spirit of God for a certain task. We also note that the temple was filled in a particular way with the glorious presence of the Lord—a presence not found elsewhere.

In the New Testament we find a similar dynamic of presence. Jesus said this to his disciples:

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14:17 NRSV)

Note how Jesus makes a distinction between the Spirit’s being “with” them compared to being “in” them. Notice also that Jesus understands that the world in general, rejecting the truth, cannot on its own “receive” the Spirit, and therefore the Spirit will not be dwelling in them compared to those who are receptive. In like manner, Paul makes these statements in his letter to the believers in the churches in Rome:

You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Rom. 8:9 NRSV and see Gal. 6:1)

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Rom. 8:15-16 ESV)

Though God is indeed present to everything that exists, the nature of his relationship with all that he is present to is not static, fixed, impersonal, non-relational. God, by his Spirit, is present and active in a whole range of ways, forging personal relationships with persons and even transforming them to become more truly the persons God intends for them to be in his image. Speaking more colloquially, God’s presence is not like a blanket spread out over everything. God’s presence is not like having an electrical switch being in the “on” or “off” position—either 100% present or completely absent.

It is only as we give full account of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as interconnected with the ministry of the Son, that it becomes clear why so much of the New Testament is dedicated to giving particular instruction, encouragement, explanation, exhortation, correction and even warnings. All these have to do with our participation—our involvement in real relationship with the present, living, acting and speaking Triune God. Only by seeing our participation in light of the Holy Spirit (whose ministry takes place entirely on the new basis of a reconciled relationship to God, brought about by Jesus’ finished earthly ministry) will we not end up either back in the place of an external and legal relationship with God or a life that ignores or makes largely irrelevant so much of the New Testament teaching concerning the nature and shape of our joyful participation. Even more than that, there is the danger of losing track of God’s great interest in having us enjoy a growing, maturing relationship with him that yields repentance, faith, hope and love—a relationship with him of children with a loving and gracious Father.

Life in the Spirit (personal response)

Given these considerations, it is imperative that we understand (and communicate as best we can) how the moments of our responsive participation in personal relationship to God are due to the ministry of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the finished earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Our complete salvation (with its past, present and future moments or aspects) is the work of the whole Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). We gain this fully Trinitarian approach by accounting for the scriptural testimony indicating that the Person and earthly work of Christ alone do not automatically, mechanically, impersonally, causally or necessarily result in our spiritual union with God, even though that is the aim (goal, purpose) for Christ’s life and ministry.

All Christ accomplished for us provides the absolutely necessary basis (ground, foundation) for the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the one who frees and enables our receiving of, participation in, and benefitting from the work of Christ. By the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ as we enter into a personal relationship with him. And in and through that relationship, we share in all that he has done and is doing for us as our Lord who shares our human nature.

Our participation in the reconciled relationship forged by Jesus Christ in his assumption, redemption and sanctification of our human nature throughout his earthly ministry is brought about through the further ministry of the Holy Spirit. We rightly preach and proclaim the Person and work of Christ for all (and here we rightly proclaim that “all are included”), which by the ministry of the Holy Spirit calls forth a particular response to receive (and thus live into) that gift—to thus participate in the relationship. By the Holy Spirit, we are personally addressed and involved in a dynamic interaction with God through Christ and are transformed into Christ’s image or likeness. Who we are in Christ becomes more and more manifested in us as we participate by the Spirit who unites us with Christ. We could say that the finished earthly work of Christ is fulfilled in us, personally, by the freeing and transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit.

What does life in the Holy Spirit look like? In the most comprehensive sense, it looks like conformity to Christ—mirroring in our lives the kind of relationships he had with the Father, the Spirit and with others. That life is often summarized in Scripture as receptivity of and positive response to the revelation and reconciliation achieved by Jesus Christ. Those responses are often summed up by the biblical words repentance and belief (or faith). It can also be summarized as having faith, hope and love for God because of and through Jesus Christ.

Most particularly, life in the Spirit of Christ looks like a joyful, free “obedience of faith” in God through Christ that works itself out in following the many commands, imperatives and exhortations and correctives addressed to the church found throughout the New Testament. It involves a deliberate and purposeful participation in ministry as worship and witness that follows the patterns and priorities set out in the New Testament as enabled and gifted by the Holy Spirit. We can summarize all this under the heading of the Great Commandments of love for God (with all we are and have) and love for our neighbors (as God’s representatives).

Excursus on Jesus’ assumption of our human nature

How should we understand Christ’s assumption of our human nature via the hypostatic union in a way that fits with a full recognition of our spiritual union and participation by the Holy Spirit via the spiritual union? A clarification is needed at this point---one that though in line with the historic, orthodox and biblically founded faith, and contained in the writings of leading incarnational Trinitarian theologians, has perhaps not been highlighted sufficiently by GCI in addressing the kinds of questions we find ourselves needing to answer at this point in our ongoing renewal.

Down through the ages a longstanding and essential distinction has been made in Christian theology between person and nature. The importance of this distinction arose in the Ecumenical Council of AD 680 (the third meeting in Constantinople) in seeking to understand and communicate faithfully who Jesus Christ truly is. With that starting point, nature has come to be defined as that which consists of the characteristics, functions and abilities that a class of things (or persons) share---what they have in common. Members of the class that we refer to as "human" share "human nature." Humans have matching physiologies and senses; they can think, feel, know, remember, will, love, appreciate beauty, make moral judgments, seek justice, communicate in language, and respond to God’s revelation and interact with God, etc. 

Giving consideration to the nature of a person only, one is not able to distinguish one human being from another. Rather, persons are distinguished not by their natures but by their unique personal identity: who they are. Persons have (possess) these characteristics, abilities and functions, but that is not who they are. As personal subjects or agents, they use these capacities and faculties to live out, express or communicate themselves and so live in meaningful relationship with the surrounding environment, including with other persons. A person constitutes what makes someone distinct from all others. It is what gives them unique individuality. A person has functions or abilities, such as mind and will, but cannot be reduced to them. No person could live and express themselves in the world without these functions, since all persons have natures. But their persons, their being subjects, or who they are, are not the same as their natures. 

The words “soul” or “spirit” are often used in Scripture to refer to the essential personal, individual identity of someone. They indicate what is irreducible and therefore not to be confused with another, no matter how much they may have in common with another of the same kind. Also, speaking of human beings as being created according to "the image of God" can be used to point to what all human beings have in common. Being created according to the image of God may also simultaneously point to the fact that human beings also are subjects---unique human persons who cannot be reduced to their abilities, faculties, functions, in a way that reflects the ultimate personhood of the Triune Persons and of God being personal, a subject, an absolutely one-of-a-kind God.

The Person of Jesus is what makes him distinct, unique, a one-of-a-kind personal subject or agent. He is eternally the divine Person of the Son, personally distinct from the Father and the Spirit. And, we can say, he shares with them a divine nature. He is one with the Persons Father and Spirit because he has a divine nature in the same way they do. The human nature Jesus assumed is what he has in common with all human beings; it is what makes him related to all human beings at the level of our being. Thus we say of Jesus that he is "fully human." There is no aspect of human nature that he did not assume: a human body, a human mind, will, emotional capacities, etc. Early on it became the consensus of the church that had Christ not assumed some part of human nature, that part would not have been redeemed, healed, reconciled to God. But God in Christ regenerated human nature itself so that we might share in that redeemed nature by his Spirit. That’s what was involved in and accomplished by the “hypostatic union.”

Via the Incarnation, God in Christ did not assume all human persons to himself. Had that been the case, the distinction between Jesus and all others would have been obliterated---Jesus would be all persons and all persons would be Jesus. As a result, all persons would be identical to the divine Son of God and thus members of the Trinity as Christ is. But that is not what happened at the Incarnation---that is not what the gospel declares. Jesus Christ assumed human nature---that, which all human beings have in common, not what makes them unique individuals or subjects---that which gives them personal identity. 

By the hypostatic union, which took place at the ontological level of human nature, all human persons are not fused with the person of Jesus. But Jesus Christ did become Lord and Savior of all by his saving assumption of human nature, and he did so in order that all persons might live according to that reality as human persons who, as subjects, receive and participate by the Holy Spirit in that new and regenerated human nature Christ has for them. 

Thus we understand that the word “humanity,” when used in the context of the Incarnation or hypostatic union, is speaking specifically of human nature, which is common to all human persons. It is not speaking of their individual, unique persons, though we do understand that Jesus assumed human nature for the sake of all human persons (with their natures). 

Since the hypostatic union does not bring about the fusion of human persons with the human-divine Person of Jesus, we do not worship human beings. Paul and Barnabas rejected completely the worship of those at Lystra who mistakenly thought they were gods in human form, declaring that they were of like (human) nature with those people (Acts 14:8-18). God’s reconciliation and redemption does not mean God turned a created human being (Jesus) or all human beings into a divine being, fusing our persons. Rather, God in Christ reconciled, regenerated and renewed human nature at its very root (Titus 3:5). He reconciled and sanctified human nature in himself (John 17:19). He did that so that we, by the Spirit, might share in Jesus’ sanctified and glorified human nature and so become fully (or perfectly) human.

The Christian life: participation in Christ’s humanity by the Spirit 

Having been permanently joined to the Person of Christ via the Incarnation (with its hypostatic union), human nature was sanctified, transformed, renewed, regenerated and glorified in Christ. We could also say, as does T.F. Torrance, that the human nature Jesus assumed was personalized in who Christ is (as the God-man) and in what he has done.

As we, by the Holy Spirit, participate in the vicarious, perfected humanity of Jesus, we are able to have, in and through Christ, full fellowship with God. This participation in Christ’s sanctified and glorified humanity is possible because Christ’s humanity is now at the root of all humanity and because the Holy Spirit, through his ongoing ministry, sets us free to receive from and to participate with Christ. It is on this two-fold basis that we have union and communion with Christ (what the New Testament refers to as “union with Christ” or being “in Christ,” or being “indwelt” by the Holy Spirit).

This spiritual union with Christ does not fuse or confuse our persons with the Person of Jesus (nor does it fuse our spirits with the Holy Spirit). One the contrary, the spiritual union establishes our true individual personal identity, which is able to enter into real dynamic personal relationship with God, who is the source and measure of all personhood. The hypostatic and spiritual unions thus do not eliminate human personhood. Instead, through the ministry of the Son and Spirit, both human nature and human personhood are confirmed and perfected.

A renewed (recreated) human nature (found in the vicarious humanity of Christ), is the basis for the new phase of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to all humanity post-Pentecost. That basis, completed and thus established on behalf of all, is a work of grace that is absolutely necessary for anyone to receive the gift of participation in the new relationship established for humanity in Christ—a relationship realized in individuals by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament refers to this relationship as “union with Christ” (what we refer to generally as the “spiritual union”). This union is brought about by the Spirit, and so is concurrent with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

With these thoughts in mind, we can now draw some conclusions about the Christian life:

  • The union (not fusion) of the eternal Son of God and our human nature is called the hypostatic union, which results from Jesus Christ bearing and personalizing human nature on our behalf (thus we speak of Jesus’ vicarious humanity).
  • To maintain the distinction of persons between Jesus and human individuals, and the importance of our participation (via the ministry of the Holy Spirit), we cannot think (or talk) as if the vicarious humanity of Christ is all there is to God’s salvation.
  • Though we are not fused with Christ (we remain distinct persons), yet we benefit from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who personally unites us with Christ in a way that we are able to personally participate in the relationship that God has forged for us in Jesus Christ and thereby receive all his benefits.
  • Through the hypostatic union in Christ, which unites (without confusion) God’s divine nature with human nature in the Person of Jesus, and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (who unites us to Christ’s vicarious humanity), we are set free as distinct human persons to participate in the gift of a personal and personalizing relationship in which we, by Christ, have been included.

We should emphasize at this point that the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit (including the call for our ongoing participation in union with Christ) does not nullify or set aside what Christ accomplished for all humanity (believers and non-believers) and what God intends for all. What God has done in Christ places everyone in a new situation—a new, reconciled relationship with God. The ministry of the Holy Spirit then builds upon that, bringing to fulfillment what God intends.

As was explained in part 1 of this essay, God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ. In that sense, we declare the wonderful gospel truth that all are included. As also noted in part 1, this relationship of reconciliation calls for, invites, even demands the response of participation in the relationship that has been established for all in and through the God-man Jesus Christ.

Related but not equal in relationship

The relationship we are given with the triune God in Christ and by the Spirit does not require that there be exactly mutual, equal exchanges between God and us. In fact, these exchanges cannot be equal, for we all stand in need of God’s free grace—we all must be freed from bondage to even begin to respond to God. Though the exchanges we have with God are not between equals they are, nevertheless, reciprocal (dynamic, interactive). What we are given by God the Father, in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, involves a real relationship—one of personal interaction that is subject-to-Subject.

Speaking of our participation in this relationship (which is the essence of the Christian life), we declare rightly that this participation (like all aspects of salvation) is a gift of grace—one freely given so that it might be received. We are dependent upon God to free and enable our personal response, which is what his grace accomplishes. But we are not thereby eliminated or obliterated as persons (subjects) who personally respond. Indeed, this personal (subjective) response is what we were created and redeemed for. But how do we go about receiving this gift of personal response? Note these points:

  • We do nothing to establish the basis or ground or foundation of our response/participation.
  • We do nothing to earn or deserve or make the response possible.
  • In responding, we are not exercising a freedom to respond to him that we somehow possess apart from God.
  • All our responses to God are enabled by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to receive a share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses and thus for us to share more and more fully in his responses, made for us—that is, in our place and on our behalf.
  • Our responses are thus gifts of sharing in the Son’s responses on our behalf through the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. That is why repentance and faith are called gifts of God’s grace.

Admittedly, these points fall short of exact explanations of how the Holy Spirit (mysteriously) works, by grace, in bringing about our response (participation), but that should be expected. The gracious working of the Triune God involves more than just a little mystery for creatures to comprehend. But we do our best to account for what has been revealed to inform our understanding, though we must leave open the “hows” of God’s workings. In the end the best explanation as to how we participate in our spiritual union is to say, “by the Spirit.” And if we take into consideration all that we come to know about the Holy Spirit in Scripture, that should be sufficient.

What about believers and non-believers?

In the New Testament, belief (faith) is the most often-used indicator of those who are receptive and positively responsive to the Word of God and to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament is clear that not all are believers—not all are responding in faith to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The New Testament assumes a strong distinction between those who are believing and those who are not, or at least not- yet, believing. It assumes that there may even be some who are persistently and actively resisting God (the Holy Spirit in particular).

“Christ and the Rich Young Man” by Mironov
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Belief is the chief way of indicating a person’s participation or fellowship with Christ by the Spirit. Unbelief and refusing to repent are indicators of resistance to participation, to receiving the gifts of God’s grace. These two responses to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ lead to other correlating differences variously described in the New Testament. As developed above, theologically we can say that not all are in spiritual union with Christ, not all are then incorporated into the Body of Christ, not all are participating in the life of the Holy Spirit. And so not all are maturing in Christ, not all are sharing in the new life found in Christ, not all are sharing in his sanctified human nature by the Holy Spirit.

There are other ways the New Testament consistently makes a distinction between believers and non-believers (not-yet believers). Concerning believers, it says this:

  • They are open to and are receiving Christ and his Word, responding with repentance and faith.
  • They are united with Christ (via the “spiritual union”).
  • They are members of the body of Christ (incorporated into his body, the church).
  • They are brethren (brothers and sisters).
  • They are saints, being indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
  • They are adopted children of God.
  • They are “in Christ.”
  • They have been “born from above” (born again).
  • They have the mind of Christ.
  • They are children of the light.

These phrases and terms are used in the New Testament exclusively of those who are open, receptive and responsive to the Word of God (both Living and written) as the Holy Spirit ministers in their lives on the basis of who Christ is and what he has done for all humanity.

Concerning non-believers, the New Testament says this:

  • They have not yet yielded to the Holy Spirit.
  • They are resisting the Holy Spirit.
  • They are not yet repentant—they do not admit they need a Savior, need forgiveness, require God’s freely given and unearned grace.
  • They continually defend and justify themselves in such a way as to attempt to insist they do not need grace or can somehow earn or deserve God’s grace as if they, by their own efforts, can place God in a situation where God owes them favor, mercy, grace such that if God did not give them that favor, he would be in the wrong.
  • They go on living in conformity to the particular practices of the surrounding culture that are God-dishonoring. They heedlessly disobey the ethical standards of the New Testament that contribute to life-enhancing, God-glorifying relationships.

Why make these distinctions?

Why distinguish between believers and non-believers (not-yet believers) when it is so unpopular in our day to distinguish between people on any basis? There are several important, biblical reasons:

  • The Bible clearly distinguishes between believers and non-believers, and we must assume it does so for good reasons, even if those reasons are not readily apparent at first sight.
  • We maintain the distinctions that Scripture does because we believe that they serve a very good (God-honoring) purpose.
  • These distinctions are made by the Triune God who has distinction of Persons in his own Trinitarian being. Though the Creator is distinct from and other than his beloved creatures, he loved them and gave his Son for them and their salvation—at his own (very great) cost.
  • Making distinctions is not inherently wrong or evil. We make them because the New Testament makes them, but never in abusive or condemning ways. For example, the New Testament never makes distinctions to justify hatred, alienation, injustice or even unkindness. It never uses them to feed self-righteousness, self-justification, pride, arrogance or any form of superiority. Following this example, we should never use such distinctions in God-dishonoring ways. Instead we must always uphold the New Testament usage.
  • Positively speaking, the New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers in order to show the fullness of God’s saving work and not truncate or diminish it. The whole God is involved, each Person of the Trinity making a distinct contribution. God’s purpose is to bring people into the fullness of right relationship, which involves a reciprocal relationship wherein there is real participation (response, receptivity).
  • The distinctions made in Scripture between believers and non-believers show the way forward for every person by showing the depth of our need. Our solidarity with all human beings, whether Christian or not, is in the need for grace, for forgiveness, for the work of Christ and for the gift of the Holy Spirit and God’s written Word. We all stand under God’s judgment of having fallen short. We all stand on common ground at the foot of the cross. We all, by the grace of God’s Spirit, need to hear about, receive and then respond as fully as we can to the gospel of God’s full provision and our deepest need.
  • Pointing out the distinction shows the way forward, whether we have been dominated by our own patterns of sin (non-participation, non-communion) or have been sinned against. Christ, by the Holy Spirit working deep within us, can set us free from the bonds of sin, one way or another. That is truly good news!
  • The distinction also is used to prevent us from presuming on the grace of God and not participating or actively receiving from God all his provision for us. The distinction is used to encourage and give hope to those who are participating in the relationship leading to healing, growth and transformation in and through that relationship. God is not finished with any of us yet! Our relationship with him is living, dynamic and transforming. We are not stuck, we are not hopeless, we are not victims of ourselves or of our circumstances. He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion! Of that we can be sure.
  • The distinction is used to show that God is faithful in transforming us in relationships (we are no longer where we were) and to encourage and even warn us of falling back into old patterns and old ways, which we used to practice and which others currently practice.

These, then, are some of the good and loving ways the New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers. There is no good reason for us to not follow this biblical pattern of terminology and application. By God’s grace, making the distinction as Scripture does can serve as an impetus for those who are resisting repentance to begin participating by the Holy Spirit in the life God has forged for them in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. In this way, they may personally and individually live in fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, and thus begin to experience all the benefits of Christ, now and into eternity.

Sermon for July 30, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 29:15-28 and Ps. 105:1-11, 45b or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Ps. 119:129-136
Rom. 8:26-39; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM (Matthew 13:31-33)
By Josh McDonald

Introduction

In defining the exercise of power in the world, some distinguish between “right-handed power” (which tends to be confrontational and even violent) and “left-handed power” (which often is indirect and always non-violent). Though Jesus occasionally exercised right-handed power (as in throwing the money-changers out of the Temple), for the most part he used left-handed power. Though doing so might seem counter-intuitive to us—and it certainly seemed that way to many of his peers, including his followers—no person in history exerted as much power as Jesus.

To some degree, Jesus’ story is the story of an obscure country boy who spoke with an uneducated accent, but nevertheless shaped history more than all the kings, politicians and soldiers put together. His words, often advocating non-violent, left-handed power, caused kingdoms to rise and fall. Jesus’ power is the power to save—the power to advance the kingdom of God. It’s the kind of power to which Jesus refers in many of his parables. We’ll look at two of those parables today in our gospel passage:

[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is liken a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matt. 13:31-33)

“Jesus Teaching by the Sea” by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In these two parables, Jesus shows how the kingdom of God effects the world. His audience at the time likely wanted him to exert some right-handed power to restore the kingdom to Israel. Yet, Jesus’ message to them, and to us today, is this: “My kingdom is not of this world!”

Using the illustrations of a mustard seed and yeast, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as “buried” and “hidden,” and so working in often unseen, sometimes slow ways in the world. While Peter and the other disciples were sharpening their swords for the coming conflict and practicing signing their autographs anticipating coming fame, Jesus told them about being buried and hidden.

“Parable of the Mustard Seed” by Luykene
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As we look at these two parables, we’ll see three guiding concepts:

  1. The kingdom of God. Jesus talks about the kingdom often, but what is it?
  2. The kingdom both now and then. We’ll see what it means to be God’s “already, but not-yet people” during the “time between the times” when Jesus is king, but heaven and earth haven’t yet come together.
  3. In, but not of the world. This concept comes from Jesus’ words in John 17 where he asks God not to remove his people from the world, even though they aren’t to be of the world.

Before looking at these concepts, let’s fiirst ask, “Why does Jesus speak in parables?” One reason is that when you tell people things “straight out,” they have a tendency to either get their defenses up or merely ignore you. Knowing this tendency and knowing that his words about the kingdom were going to be heard as radical, Jesus frequently taught using parables. If you wanted to know what Jesus meant, you had to “hang out” with him to get “the rest of the story.” As Emily Dickinson put it, “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.” Like so much of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching using parables exemplified the exercise of left-handed power. Though subtle, his parables were truth “time bombs” that have been exploding (and thus “blowing” people’s minds) for centuries!

1. The kingdom of God

Both parables in our gospel passage today begin with the phrase, “The kingdom of God is like….” Theologians agree that the “kingdom of God” is central to Jesus’ ministry, but they don’t always agree concerning what Jesus is saying about the nature of the kingdom. Is it the church? Is it social reform? Is it what will be set up after Jesus returns? Is it heaven? Well, in some ways, it’s all these things… and more.

The Greek word for kingdom usually used in the New Testament doesn’t refer to a place as much as a fact. It’s not so much about a territory, as it is about God’s rule. It doesn’t mean only some far off time when God is in charge, but the fact that his rule has already begun on earth, though it often is unseen. You will recall that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This part of the Lord’s Prayer is about the kingdom here and now, and in the future.

The nature of the kingdom’s coming both now and in the future includes many things—often things, especially now, that don’t look much like the exercise of right-handed power. I’m reminded of what Paul said: “Do all things, whether you eat or drink, to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). From the pre-school teacher to the barber to the plumber, all things can be done to God’s glory—in ways that reflect the reality that the kingdom of God truly is “among you,” and even “within you.”

What is the kingdom of God? Let me offer a short-hand definition: “The kingdom of God is what things look like when God is in charge!” And what do things look like when God is in charge? As one author noted, it looks like “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” The kingdom of God, the power of God, the rule of God—all are at work in our lives—right now and forever—encompassing the church but not stopping there—spreading out to encompass the whole cosmos in a new (renewed) heaven and earth that will reach fullness when Jesus returns.

I remember when I got my first “real” job following college. I would bring my Bible to work to show that I was a Christian. Kind of an in-your-face, “I’m a Christian and I ain’t afraid to say so” attitude. I worked there for two years with people whose worldviews and lifestyles were very different than mine. I soon found I could be the best witness not by arguing about theology, or by wearing Christian t-shirts, or by making sure my Bible was on my desk, but by trying to be like Jesus to those I worked with—loving and listening as Christ always did with people. As I shared life with these people, they knew I was Christian and (I hope) saw Christ in me. I didn’t need to accost them with the gospel, instead I tried to let the kingdom of God—the rule of God—work through me in my job. As I saw it, I didn’t work for that company, I worked for the glory of God, which meant doing my best and most ethical work, and doing so with love. When I screwed up, which I did regularly, I tried to fess up with honesty, and certainly without blowing my top.

People don’t remember the Bible on your desk, or the Christian t-shirts you wore, of even your theological arguments. What they remember is you—your behavior and attitude. I hope by what I did among those people they were touched by the kingdom—by the rule of God.

Yes, you can use the right-handed power of theological debate. You can toss around gospel tracts seeking to get evangelistic notches on your belt. Or, you can use the left-handed power of living out the mystery of the kingdom of God through acts of love, kindness and respect coupled with gracious words that testify to the goodness of God in Christ.

So, in these two parables we learn this:

  • The kingdom is like the smallest of all seeds—a seed that grows into a big tree, a plant that provides life-giving shade and shelter to those who rest beneath it.
  • The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast mixed into a huge pile of unleavened dough. You can’t see the yeast, it makes no noise, but eventually it works its way through the dough and changes everything!

Years ago, my dad was driving on a freeway and saw a semi-truck pull over to the side. A woman got out and the trucker left her alone on the side of a busy road in the middle of winter. Dad stopped and rolled down his window, asking if he could help. She said, “Oh, you’re a pastor. You won’t like what I do.” It was clear that she was a prostitute. Dad replied, “I’ll give you five bucks just to warm up in the car for a minute. It’s freezing outside.” She accepted his invitation, sat in the car, and he proceeded to tell her about the Lord who loved her just as she was. She talked to him about her life and the pain of having to do what she did to get money. He assured her of God’s love and she left, five bucks in hand.

In that moment, did this woman need someone to tell her that what she was doing was an abomination? No! She already knew that! Did she need someone to give her shelter for a moment, to show her kindness? Yes, and that is the kingdom present and at work—that is God’s kind of love at work. That is what it looks like when the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.

What is the kingdom of God? It’s what things look like when God is in charge. It’s God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.

2. The kingdom both now and then

Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom is now present, though not yet fully. It’s the kingdom now and the kingdom to come.

To understand the two parables in today’s Gospel reading, we need to see the context that precedes them, which is the parable of the wheat. In that story, a man plants a field and his enemy comes at night and plants a bunch of weeds in the field. The weeds grow and the farmer’s servants ask if they should tear out all the weeds. He replies that they should not, for doing so would tear out the good stuff too. He then notes that the final harvest will bring about a separation of the weeds from the wheat, and at that time of separation (judgment) the tares will be burned up and the wheat bundled and carefully stored away. This parable is about the kingdom to come, with a strong focus on the final judgment at Christ’s return.

For some, this judgment part of the kingdom story appeals to our darker appetites. They want to hear about the moment when the enemies of God finally get what they deserve. Jesus’ original audience wanted to hear about the Romans getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Perhaps Jesus detected this bloodlust, and so he suddenly changes tone to offer two more parables telling about what we should be like as the kingdom of God here and now:

  • In the first parable, he talks about a mustard seed. This is the smallest seed they would know of, and he pictures it as growing into a mighty tree-like plant (a large shrub).
  • In the second parable, he talks about three measures of dough—that’s about 100 pounds! And then he points to the mystery of the kingdom—the mystery of God’s power represented by the yeast which proceeds to “infect” the dough.

The mystery here is that tiny little seeds usually grow into tiny plants, and it’s hard to conceive of a tiny bit of yeast impacting a huge quantity of dough. Jesus’ point it this: when it comes to the kingdom as it now is in the world, big things come, over time, as the result of seemingly insignificant, even hidden, little things.

In Jesus day, 12 men, mostly of a young age, and from all different walks of life, joined a new religious movement following an unknown rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus taught these men (and some women who were part of their traveling company) about the future—about the eventual separation of weeds from wheat. In other parables he told them about the separation of good and bad fish when the catch is brought in. But almost as if he is wanting to temper these parables of separation (that look toward a future event), he reminds them with these two parables that the kingdom (kingdom life) is right here and right now.

It’s important to understand both perspectives. Sadly, some Christians pay attention to only one, to the exclusion of the other. Some wait around for the next life, forgetting the place and calling that is theirs here and now. As the evangelist Dwight Moody once said, “Sometimes we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” If you’re just watching the sky, waiting for Christ’s return, or waiting around to get snatched up to heaven in a secret rapture, you’ll miss those who are hurting and so in need of help here and now.

Conversely, some have an over-focus on this world and the good they can do here and now. With good works as the sole focus, the community of Christ becomes what one author called, “a social work agency with an underqualified staff.” Yes, it’s good to help the poor, love the broken, and work for peace in the world—but sometimes the good can become the enemy of the best. Yes, we are citizens of the kingdom of God now, but we also are part of the kingdom’s fullness yet to come. We know heaven can’t be found or built on earth—it must come to earth at Christ’s return when earth and heaven become one at last. It’s good to work for reform on earth today, but God tells us to hold action and love in one hand and mystery and anticipation in the other: The kingdom now, the kingdom yet to come. Not either/or but both/and.

3. In but not of the world

“In but not of the world” is a phrase distilled from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where he presents us to the Father, praying that we would not be of the world, yet not taken out of the world. Instead, Jesus sends us into the world, just as God the Father had sent Jesus into the world. Toward that end, Jesus gives us the parable of the mustard seed, which grows into a large shrub that provides a gift of shade and shelter to the vulnerable.

In a church I used to attend, a young man decided to live the gay lifestyle. His father was an angry alcoholic who threatened to kill his son because of that choice. Though that small church didn’t agree with the young man’s lifestyle choice, and did not participate in his sin, it did protect the young man from his violent father. They took him in and he lived from house to house, kept secret until his father got sober and stopped threatening him. It was the kingdom at work here and now—showing Christ’s love even to someone who was in a broken and confused time in life.

Also toward that end, Jesus gives us the parable of the yeast in the dough. What does yeast do? It “infects” the dough, causing it to rise. You can’t see it in the dough—that’s why Jesus says it’s “hidden”—but as a living organism, the yeast actively (though quietly) alters the makeup of the dough. It chemically changes the dough at the cellular level. The yeast doesn’t separate itself from the compound it creates, instead it changes it—it lifts it up. The yeast thus represents Jesus, in our midst, bringing salvation. As his representatives, are we life-giving yeast in the dough?

Conclusion

Two parables: mustard seed and yeast in dough—two “time bombs” set off by Jesus during his earthly ministry that are still exploding—changing the world, one person at a time. These parables tell us about three things:

  1. The kingdom of God—the term Jesus uses throughout his ministry. Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven” because the Jewish people didn’t use the name of God out of reverence. As we’ve defined it, the kingdom is “what things look like when God is in charge.” So this doesn’t just mean your church life—your devotions, your study of the word, your prayer time. This means your whole life—all parts of it. Do people know you as the person with the fish on their car, or do they know you as the person who loves their neighbors? We are called to show Christ just as much as we are required to tell people about him.
  2. The kingdom, both now and then—the kingdom here already, but not-yet. The kingdom in our midst, yet in the future. We see now only the shadow of the fulness yet to come. Again, this is a tricky balance to keep. We don’t sit around doing nothing and watch the sky so we can be snatched away to heaven. We also don’t try to work within the world to create heaven on earth. It can’t be done. We live in the time between the kingdom now and the kingdom then. God’s kingdom can break in through us now to change the world, but only comes fully when Christ returns and takes his rightful throne over a renewed heaven and earth.
    3. In, but not of the world—Jesus tells us about the mustard seed, which becomes the large shrub that gives shade and shelter. He tells us about the yeast, which changes the dough for good and makes it rise. Jesus, by the Spirit, is working us into the world right now to be that yeast—to be as Christ in the world. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He disagreed with them, he prayed for them, and yet he shared the table with them. He shared life with them. He didn’t run away, seeking to be only with people who thought and acted like he did. He was in the world but not of the world.

Keep in mind the old saying: “You’re the only Bible some people will ever read.” Let us be the metaphors that Jesus keeps on speaking. Let us be his ambassadors, his agents of grace wherever we go! Amen.

Sermon for July 23, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 28:10-19a and Ps. 139:1-12, 23-24
or Isa. 44:6-8 and Ps. 86:11-17
Rom. 8:12-25; Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

LIVING IN THE ALREADY BUT NOT-YET KINGDOM (Matthew 13:24-30)
By Josh McDonald

Introduction

Perhaps you recall the televangelist couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They set out to build heaven-on-earth in a Christian theme park named Heritage USA. It was designed as a refuge from the world, offering the gospel through entertainment. Unfortunately what they built was quite unlike heaven. Grounded in lust for prestige, power and wealth, it came crashing down after only a few years of operation. Jimmy went off to prison and Tammy Faye became the laughingstock of the country.

In our gospel passage today, we find a parable from Jesus about a kingdom quite unlike the one the Bakker’s sought to build. Instead of a kingdom of wealth and prestige designed to stand aloof from the world, Jesus tells us of a kingdom that resides in and among the people of the world, bringing blessing and healing.

Background

The Matthew 13 account occurs at a time when Jesus’ ministry was polarizing people. Some said he was the Messiah. Some Jewish leaders, fearing loss of prestige, power and wealth, said he certainly was not. Others close to Jesus—his disciples and his cousin John the Baptist—were saying to Jesus: “If you truly are the Messiah, why do you look so different than what we thought the Messiah would look like? Are you really the guy?” Everyone had an opinion about Jesus, and those opinions were all over the map.

It was at this critical point that Jesus delivered some of his most well-known parables—ones about the spread of the Word in the world, about people’s reactions and the judgement that results. The overarching theme is the kingdom, which is about God’s rule—his way of doing things—and how that rule invades and so changes the world. In these parables of the kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven) the kingdom is described as already and not-yet. The kingdom is portrayed as already present (though not-yet visible to most), and as yet to come, in the sense of coming in its fullness when it will be visible to all.

“The Parable of the Weeds” by Fetti
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The parable of the weeds

In the parable we’ll look at today, the emphasis is on living in the already kingdom. It’s often called “the parable of the weeds.” Let’s read it:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” “An enemy did this,” he replied. The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matt. 13:24-30)

The time between the times

We live in what can be called the time between the times. Christ has come, has died, rose and ascended. Now now await his return to earth from heaven. When he comes again, the kingdom will be visible to all, for it will encompass, and so rule over, all things. At that time, the kingdom won’t be a place you visit then go home—all of heaven and earth will be remade as the kingdom of God.

But right now we are in the period of the kingdom invisible, the kingdom hidden, the “not-yet” kingdom. Throughout Jesus’ parables, he talks about what it means to live in this time. He compares it to yeast in the dough, seed in the ground, being the salt of the earth, being servants of a master who is away (though one day will return). During this time between the times, we, as Jesus’ followers, are citizens of the kingdom already, but not-yet—invisible, but someday visible—hidden, but some day in plain sight. What is it like to live in this already but not-yet kingdom? Today we’ll note three things:

  1. The church’s role
  2. What it means to be the kingdom invisible—wheat among tares
  3. What happens when the kingdom becomes visible to all

Consider the original audience

We need to remember that the original audience hearing this parable was primarily Jews living under the thumb of Rome—not a comfortable place to be (especially if you were a proud, outspoken minority). Jews at that time could not participate fully in the Roman lifestyle because they refused to worship Roman gods. As a result, they typically were ignored by the Roman rulers, though it was not illegal or even frowned upon to mistreat the Jews and other religious minorities. If the local Roman ruler didn’t like your group, he could make life very difficult for you.

As a result of the pressure, some Jews “sold out.” Some sects of Judaism changed their theology to better fit with Rome. Other Jews turned to terrorism and rebellion, seeking to restore the kingdom to Israel through violence. As a result, there was great tension in the air, and people were constantly asking Jesus (who they thought might be the Messiah) is he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel soon. By that they meant a Jewish political kingdom that would kick the Romans out. Jesus constantly corrected them, saying that the kingdom of God is a spiritual, not a political kingdom. According to Jesus, the kingdom is not a group of buildings, nor is it a group of people who separate themselves from the rest of the world.

Because of their situation in life, Jesus’ audience, especially those who had lost family members along with their Jewish identity to the powers of Rome, perk up when Jesus talked about “the end.” And yes, Jesus does mention final judgment in this parable—the time when the accounts will be balanced, the wrongs righted. But, again, he disappoints—he is not discussing when Israel will triumph and Rome will fall, nor is he discussing (in our context) when Hollywood and San Francisco will burn and we’ll have a Christian president and Christian governors and a Christian chicken in every pot. In this parable, Jesus throws all of us off our presuppositions and expectations concerning the kingdom.

Jesus’ parables of judgment and the kingdom

I think we need to look again at the tone of this and other of Jesus’ parables of judgment. The first thing to note is not how fierce the judgment will be, not how many heads will roll, but how wide and gracious the Master (the Judge) is. In the parable of the weeds, we learn of a man sowing his field. Note the generosity—he sows liberally, even indiscriminately. Then note that when the servants want to start weeding, he says to them: “Let it ride.” He is much more concerned about harming the good seed than about getting rid of the bad.

Note also that the context here is Jesus’ kingdom theme. A short-form definition of the kingdom is “what things look like when God is in charge.” The kingdom is made up of God’s people and the church is thus part of the kingdom, but the kingdom is much wider than the church, and only God knows just how wide. One author calls the church “the sacrament of the kingdom,” meaning the vessel where the kingdom is the most visible right now. To be the church, then, does not mean to be all of the kingdom, but to be an integral part of it—a vital expression of God’s kingdom, present in the world, for the sake of the world.

Remember, Jesus was speaking this parable to people who had a strong sense of “us versus them.” They knew who was in and who was out, and they wanted Jesus to help them draw the boundary lines. Instead he tells them a bunch of enigmatic stories and this parable of the weeds is a particularly strange one. As was his practice, Jesus used everyday items to talk about eternal realities. In this parable he describes something that actually happened at times—a primitive form of bioterrorism. You’d sow your field at planting time, then an enemy would come at night and throw in a bunch of weed seeds. When the wheat and weeds grew up, the weeds would crowd out the wheat and the harvest would be ruined.

The word Jesus uses here for weeds is darnel—a weed that looked very much like wheat. Thus, this was a particularly sneaky trick—it would have been difficult to tell what was what, and so they probably would have killed a lot of wheat trying to remove the darnel.

And here we come back to the Bakers and Heritage USA—it’s a rather extreme example of the church trying to build its own kingdom—trying to carve out some land to say, “This is ours, not yours—this is our little piece of earth.” But Jesus says, the kingdom between the times does not operate like that. He promised that wheat and tares would grow together, and he would separate them at harvest time, but not now.

This parable, like some of his others, likely elicited a few snickers from the audience. Jesus was using metaphors from their daily lives, but in highly unusual (even comical) ways. No farmer in his right mind would let weeds grow up with the wheat. He’d have them pulled out before they caused any problems. But Jesus’ concern is not perfect farming. Nor is he worried about having a perfect kingdom here on earth. Jesus is well aware that the best and the brightest, the strongest and the tallest, and the smartest and the squeaky-cleanest aren’t the ones he’s after. And Jesus puts off to the future the “great comeuppance.” Instead of telling a story about the unrighteous being destroyed by the armies of God, he tells of a lowly farmer with questionable agricultural practices.

What does all this mean for us?

So what does it mean to operate in this time period when the weeds and wheat are mixed? Hugh Halter, one of the most insightful commentators on what it means to be church right now, made this comment:

Christianity has lost its place at the center of American life. Christians must learn how to live the gospel as a distinct people who no longer occupy the center of society. We must learn to build relational bridges that win a hearing.

He reminds us that we live in a post-Christian culture where Christianity no longer dominates the conversation; no longer defines the culture. It used to be that you couldn’t shop on a Sunday morning because everyone was in church. You might run across references to Genesis or Moses and definitely to Jesus in the daily news. Prayer in schools was the norm and Billy Graham was as big a star as Elvis. But Christianity no longer occupies that center place on the cultural stage. Christianity isn’t the dominant influence it once was. Recent studies show that only 20% of Americans attend a Bible-believing church with regularity.

We are living in a different world than the one most of us grew up in. We no longer dominate the culture, and let me be the first to say, “Praise God!” Thank God we no longer have the kingdom of this world in which to get fat and comfortable. We were never meant to. Jesus’ words were spoken to comfort and strengthen a small group of believers who didn’t hold political power, didn’t have cultural influence, didn’t occupy anything close to the center of society. Sound familiar?

The church in the early years was small and a bit scared, yet fully ALIVE! Even with persecution on every side, even being ostracized from society—the church grew like crazy. Today, our brothers and sisters in China face constant persecution for their faith, and yet China has one of the fastest-growing, most vibrant churches in the world.

Once again, particularly in North American and in Europe, Christians are becoming a small minority whose only weapon is love. God is cleansing us of our idols of power, prestige and wealth so that we can be his people without spot or wrinkle.

Through this parable, I hear Jesus saying to us today: “Christians, I am not removing you from the world. Don’t be troubled or discouraged, the weeds will grow with the wheat.” Now, someone might ask, “But what if someone is just starting out as a baby Christian? What if they are just learning what it means to live in Christ? You wouldn’t send a newly sober alcoholic to a bar, or a child into battle, would you?”

No, you wouldn’t. There are seasons in our Christian lives, especially at the beginning, when we need to be a little separate from the sin that so easily entangles. God has given us the church as a shelter and way station and such stages. And even when we are mature Christians, we still need some solitude at times away from the world—times to withdraw for prayer. But Jesus is NOT calling us to abadon the world. In that regard, it is signficant that just after Jesus got done telling the parable of the weeds he tells the parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast in the dough.

As followers of Christ in a post-Christian world, we might be tempted to hunker down, to withdraw from the world around us, which grows increasingly secular and even hostile toward Christianity. But if Jesus’ figurative language tells us anything, he means for us to be right in the midst of the world—right where he, by the Spirit, is working among the wheat and the weeds.

I attended a fundamentalist Bible college about 20 years ago—a loving place, but a bit naive. At one point, our chapel speakers got us all excited about bringing the gospel to Washington DC. The wisdom of taking a bunch of soft suburban kids and dumping them on the streets of the murder capital of the world was a bit questionable—we were armed with nothing but tracts and our ideals. We walked the streets trying to talk to people about the gospel. I’m not sure how many times I got cussed and screamed at. We came at the people without relationship, without helping them at all, we came at them as if we could walk straight out of the chapel and into their lives. We were looking at the world from the outside, not the inside. And this is what Jesus warns against. He warns against coming at the world as if we aren’t part of it, trying to conquer it when we should be working within it, sharing his love, all for his glory.

But we fundamentalist kids were on a mission—something like the Bakers building their empire instead of being part of Christ’s kingdom as it breaks into the world as it is. Jim and Tammy Faye sought to build their own kingdom. The result was that they pulled themselves out of the harvest field and thus away from the work Jesus was actually doing.

I remember leaving Washington DC feeling frustrated and confused. I was supposed to see lives changed, to see big things happen. What I saw was a lot of people ignoring me, or screaming at me to leave them alone. A year later I returned to DC, but with a different group. We came with no agenda, just armloads of lunches to give to homeless, hungry people. Our only weapon was love. We came not as the conquering few holding the truth out to the lost masses, but as Christ’s people bringing Christ’s love to fellow human beings. People accepted and appreciated us. We prayed with them, talked with them about their lives, and talked with them about Jesus and his gospel. We met them where they were instead of trying to define ourselves against them. Did we put notches on our evangelistic gun belts by coercing people to say a short prayer? No. Did we show the love of Christ by giving spiritually thirsty people a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name? Yes. Were we in the world, but not of the world. Yes. Did we make a difference for the kingdom that day by meeting people where they were, instead of where we wanted them to be? Absolutely.

Some day the kingdom of God will be visible to all. Some day “the roll will be called up yonder.” If we’ve learned anything, it’s the fact that we can’t know the day or the hour. All our predictions of when Jesus would return were proven wrong. And so we don’t make such predictions any more.

The story is told of Martin Luther, the great theologian and reformer, planting a tree in his garden. Some people came to him asking questions. One asked, “Brother Luther, what would you do if you knew Christ was coming by sunset today?” Luther wiped the dirt from his hands, took a good belt of his German beer and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His point? Live as Christ-followers in the world were he put you. The Master will weed the garden when it’s time. We aren’t to hide away or isolate ourselves waiting for the visible kingdom to arrive in its fulness. Instead, we are to be joyfully engaged in the kingdom as it already is—planting love wherever we go, and thus participating with Jesus in the advance of his kingdom now on earth.

Let us be about our Father’s business. Amen.

Kids Korner: Discipling through storytelling

Parents and others who minister to children have the challenging responsibility and privilege to disciple children, which means teaching them about our triune God and the life that is theirs in union and communion with God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. What is the best way to convey these vital, biblical truths? A Children’s Ministry Magazine article recommends storytelling—the method Jesus used in teaching children and adults. To read this helpful article, click here. For some instruction on effective storytelling, click here.

Sermon for July 16, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 25:19-34 and Ps. 119:105-112 or Isa. 55:10-13 and Ps. 65:9-13;
Rom. 8:1-11; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23

CULTIVATING GRATITUDE (Matt. 13:3-9; 18-23)
By Michelle Fleming

Introduction

“The kingdom of God is like _________________.”

How would you fill in the blank? Jesus gives us clues in his teaching where he compares and contrasts human experience with God’s kingdom ways—taking something familiar and adding a surprising twist to reframe how we think of the kingdom. In doing so, he helps us wrap our finite minds around the majesty of an infinite God.

An example of such teaching is Jesus’ provacative statement to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” This statement was provocative, even shocking, because the Pharisees (like Jesus’ own disciples) held a very different view of the kingdom–both as to its nature and timing. Jesus elaborates further in a parable recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13:3-9)

Like the sower (farmer) in this parable, God is always investing in us—reaching out to us, thinking of our good first. God plants seeds in our lives to grow fruit, tangible evidence of his kingdom being present now—in our midst. But in saying “whoever has ears, let them hear” (v. 9), Jesus alludes to the fact that how we respond to what God is doing in our lives, has a direct bearing on the quantity and quality of the kingdom fruit that God is producing in our lives.

“The Sower” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The explanation

A few verses later, Jesus explains how the types of soil in the parable speak to the human condition:

Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matt. 13:18-23)

Like thorny, rocky soil, we can allow the burdens, busyness and distractions of this life to drown out God’s voice and so rob us of the abundant life he has for us. Some see the seed in the parable as Jesus who has been sown throughout humanity. Present in the lives of all people (the kingdom among us), Jesus, post-ascension, works by the Holy Spirit to call, transform, equip and thus point people to the Father. We can participate in (yield to) what the Spirit is doing in our lives to transform us (and thus bring forth kingdom fruit) or we can resist. We can be receptive soil or we can be hard and barren soil.

Cultivating gratitude

One of the ways we can participate with what Jesus, by the Spirit, is doing in our lives, is by incorporating spiritual practices into our lives—ones that help us yield to what the Spirit is doing to remove the thorns and rocks, thus providing deep, rich soil in which spiritual seeds can take root and grow.

Light is critical for plants, giving them the energy needed to change carbon dioxide to oxygen. Jesus describes himself as the light of the world, promising that “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:22). Trying to transform ourselves by our own efforts is exhausting. But the more we get to know Jesus through spiritual practices, the more our trust in him and in God’s goodness will grow. As we surrender more and more, we realize a life of dependence on Jesus is life- and energy-giving.

Water is also critical for plants, just as it is for us. In one of his psalms, David compares communing with God to life-giving water:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (Ps. 42:1-2)

As light illuminates the land, a chemical reaction occurs in which water splits apart and creates sugar molecules giving a plant the ability to carry out activities even when the light is not present. In the same way, God’s Word sustains us and gives us the strength we need to survive and even thrive in the dark seasons of life. By making it a habit to spend time with the Father in Scripture, we hide the word of God in our hearts, thus storing up truth about who God is and hope in what he has for us.

Soil is important to plants because it stores nutrients and serves as a medium for growth. It is an anchor for roots and holds the water that plants must have to survive and grow. God’s love is the “soil” we need to flourish. That love (which is the eternal love shared by the Father, Son and Spirit) is experienced in Christian community, as Paul notes:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)

Just as soil nourishes and strengthens, so the community of the people of God (the church) provides for each member a medium in which there is mutual accountability and a spurring on to spiritual growth as the community experiences together that the kingdom truly is among them.

Oxygen results from a dynamic bio-chemical process involving light, water and carbon dioxide. When we fix our eyes on God, allowing his word to minister to us, and are grounded in his community, the result will be gratitude to God. In that regard, note what Thomas Merton wrote:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.

To be grateful does not mean ignoring difficulties and struggles. It does mean trusting that God will redeem those times for our good. In practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, we go on a daily treasure hunt looking for God’s hand and provision to get through the day. Sometimes to do so we will have to uproot the “weeds” of distraction, and cast aside the “seeds” of doubt and bitterness that try to choke out our gratitude, thus stealing our hope and joy.

Gratitude is loving, thankful response toward God for his kingdom presence with us and among us, and within the whole world. Though blessings can move us into gratitude, the root of gratitude is not material blessings but a thankful heart that delights in God and his good will.

Ending your personal devotional time, or our corporate worship service, expressing gratitude to God is a great way to encourage the germination in us of the seeds of kingdom fruit. In such times we take a moment to prayerfully consider if there is something preventing gratitude from manifesting in our life. If we find something, we address it with God in prayer, asking him to uproot it and replace it with gratitude.


A concert of gratitude

Note to preacher: in concluding this sermon, you may wish to lead the congregation in a time of prayer focused this way. Set it up by giving the instructions below (projecting them on a screen will be helpful). While the members are individually meditating on these three questions, you might provide some quiet background music.

  1. God what are you calling me to uproot?
  2. Lord I ask you to uproot _________in my life and replace it with gratitude.
  3. What three things are your most thankful for today?

Once members have had time to reflect individually, end with a chorus of praise, noting to the congregation that when the chorus ends you will say a brief prayer that verbalizes something you are personally thankful for, then you will invite them, if they feel so moved, to verbalize something they are thankful for, leading to a chorus of praising and thanking God. After members have shared, say “Amen” to mark the end of the service.

Retreating to advance the kingdom

The June issue of “Equipper” (articles and sermons linked below) continues our 2017 focus on renewal, noting how the kingdom of God sometimes is advanced by retreating and other counter-intuitive, even counter-cultural tactics. 

From Greg: Retreating to charge forward
Greg Williams encourages pastors to advance renewal in their congregations by going on a spiritual retreat with their leaders.

Greg tells about retreating to the Smoky Mountains
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On Leadership: Navigating through life: the 5 Gears
Rick Shallenberger shows how leaders can be more effective by achieving balance in life’s “5 gears,” including taking time to recharge.

Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 3
Gary Deddo looks at how the Holy Spirit’s ministry shapes the Christian life and at the distinction between believers and non-believers.

Kid’s Korner: Discipling through storytelling
A helpful article in Children’s Ministry Magazine explains why and how storytelling is a highly effective way to disciple children.

RCL sermons for July
Here are five sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary. They cover the 4th through 8th Sundays following Pentecost.
Sermon for July 2
Sermon for July 9
Sermon for July 16
Sermon for July 23
Sermon for July 30

In case you missed the May Equipper, here are sermons for June:
Sermon for June 4 (Pentecost)
Sermon for June 11 (Trinity Sunday)
Sermon for June 18
Sermon for June 25

On Leadership: Navigating through life: the 5 Gears

This article is from GCI-USA Regional Pastor and Equipper Feature Editor, Rick Shallenberger.

This is part 3 of a series on Christian leadership. For other articles in the series, click a number: 124, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Do you sometimes suffer from insomnia—unable to put aside the ideas, projects, plans and worries filling your mind as you struggle to go to sleep? That happens to me, and I know I’m not alone. Many pastors and ministry leaders are overachievers, even workaholics. A desire to achieve sometimes gets in the way of what we need most in life—to connect with others. Busyness easily leads to disconnect—or said differently, when work becomes more important than people, disconnect results. One of the reasons for disconnect, as noted by Greg Williams in his letter in this issue of Equipper, is not taking sufficient time to recharge.

During leadership training last year with GiANT Worldwide consultant Tom Nebel, GCI’s U.S. Regional Pastors (RPs) and the CAD director were asked, “What do you do to recharge?” Most mentioned going on walks, working on hobbies, vacations, etc. Tom then asked, “How often do you recharge?” The RPs said they don’t do so very often. The reason? Too busy! Tom responded by saying, “As leaders, you’re too busy not to!” To make his point, he introduced us to a teaching tool called 5 Gears:

When starting out on a drive in a car with a manual transmission, you begin in first gear, then progress through the other gears as you navigate through town into the surrounding hills. Makes sense, right? But as we navigate through life, it’s common to get stuck in one “gear” or another, as the 5 Gears illustration (above) suggests. Tom helped the RPs understand that they spend most of their time in the task mode and the focus mode (4th and 5th gears), and that is not healthy.

What about you? To help you think about how you’re navigating through life, let me summarize each of the 5 Gears and offer a caution related to each one. I’ll take the gears in reverse order, starting out where many (most?) of us spend our waking hours (and sometimes our time in bed unsuccessfully trying to sleep!).

  • 5th Gear – Focus Mode: This is the hyper-focused mode where time flies by in maximum productivity. We are so focused on the task at hand we might not react kindly to interruptions from phone, email, or others—even spouses and children.
    • Caution: Spending all your time in this gear will leave you exhausted, even ill. The result can be relational issues, because others know that with you, work always comes first. Perhaps family members don’t even complain anymore. Invitations to outside events become fewer and fewer and you’re eating more meals in front of the computer.
  • 4th Gear – Task Mode: This is where the RPs said they spend most of their lives—multi-tasking for much of the day. They might have two or three emails they are responding to, while attending to phone calls and text messages. All the while, they are planning events, answering questions, filing reports and reading pastors’ reports. 4th gear is busy time.
    • Caution:  Be concerned if every day starts with email and if you feel constantly drained and never fully recharged. Change is needed if you feel anxious when you’re away from email or your cell phone, or if you struggle to get consistent sleep and your mind is always problem-solving. There is cause for concern if you are often physically present with family and friends, but mentally absent.
  • 3rd Gear – Social Mode: This is when you spend time with others—at a meeting, dinner party, in the foyer after church, or at a social event. Conversations can quickly slide us up or down into other gears. A question may put you in 4th or even 5th gear, or you might slide down to 2nd gear.
    • Caution: You may get stuck here and avoid 4th gear work. You avoid social settings because of shyness or fear of what to say to others. Or, you actually need a party to make life exciting. You rarely go deep enough in relationships, many of them are superficial. You are reluctant to share with others. These are causes for concern.
  • 2nd Gear – Connect Mode: This is the gear of deeper conversation. It’s when you share a meal and put the phone away. It’s about authentic connection. This is a time of active listening, of being truly present.
    • Caution: You may be talking too much or too long and not listening well. Your unrealistic expectations of others may be getting in the way of your ability to connect and you end up isolating yourself. There is cause for concern if you spend more time caring for people at work than actually working, or if you’re more focused on key relationships in your life than on a relationship with the person you’re currently talking to.
  • 1st Gear – Recharge Mode: This is when you personally recharge, when you spend time alone or with God. You might read, walk, or write in a journal. You might exercise or sleep, or watch a movie. In this gear, you are completely unplugged and not worrying about the things you need to do. This can be devotion time, or time on the golf course. It can be time in the hot tub, or time talking with God.
    • Caution: You can spend so much time recharging that you ignore work and other obligations. In recharging, some devote more time to self than to others. Don’t allow your personal recharge routine to dictate everyone else’s schedule. You can get so focused on recharging—things like diet or exercise—that it becomes a barrier to relationships.

Understanding what each of these gears (modes) entails will help us put in place healthy, life-giving priorities and practices. Toward that end, here are some challenges to consider (one for each gear):

  • 5th gear: schedule 5th gear time on your calendar for an upcoming month; practice shifting in and out of that gear intentionally.
  • 4th gear: avoid e-mail before breakfast for a month; replace that time with a devotion or something that inspires and charges you for the day.
  • 3rd gear: choose three relationships you want to deepen and create a plan to make it happen.
  • 2nd gear: practice 3rd and 4th gear before jumping into 2nd; value others.
  • 1st gear: ask someone you trust to help you schedule recharge time and keep you accountable for taking it.

When you are navigating smoothly through life with a balance of all five gears (modes), you will find yourself healthier, happier—more connected—and thus more able to take on tasks that arise unexpectedly. We all have a lot to do, so let’s make sure we are constantly recharging, keeping our lives as leaders in a healthy balance.

Sermon for July 9, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Ps. 45:10-17 (or Song 2:8-13) or Zech. 9:9-12 and Ps. 145:8-14; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

THE JOY OF TAKING JESUS’ YOKE (Matthew 11:27-30)
By Cathy Deddo

Introduction

Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

When I was a child, I loved the comfort of these words, even if I didn’t really understand them. When struggling in some way or anxious, I liked the picture they gave me of gentle Jesus wanting to help me when life got overwhelming. I liked the idea that Jesus, somehow, wanted me to rest.

As I got older and encountered greater challenges and more painful trials, I often was drawn back to these words. What did Jesus mean when he said them? Maybe he wasn’t just trying to sound encouraging or letting me know he wished I would be at peace. I began to wonder if there was more to the meaning of Jesus’ words than just “there, there” or “it’s okay.”

As I considered this passage more deeply, I found, and still find, myself challenged by the command I came to realize Jesus gives in this invitation. With these words, Jesus extends to us a real call to come to him. He not only directs us to come, but also to take up his yoke. And he addresses us with the assurance that in doing so we will find rest. What does coming and taking Jesus’ yoke involve? Let’s take a closer look at this passage.

Who is the command issued to?

Jesus issues this command to all who are weary and heavily burdenedall who find the burdens they are carrying in their lives to be weighing them down and thus a source of weariness. The word translated “weary” means to labor until one is worn out. We could say that when someone is weary, they have come to the end of their resources and so realize the limits of what they can accomplish on their own.

So Jesus is giving his invitation in the form of a command to all who are worn down in some way in their lives due to various concerns, challenging circumstances, past hurts or sins, difficult relationships, etc. He is addressing them in such a way that they have come to recognize their need for rest and their inability to give it to themselves. Their lives are engendering weariness and while they long for rest, they are unable to supply it for themselves.

 What does Jesus command?

Jesus commands three things:

1. “Come to me.” He calls the weary and burdened to come to him—to let their longing for rest lead them to Jesus. He invites them to draw near to him—to be in his presence. He is opening a door for us all to grow into deeper relationship with him—to be in communion with him. We are to enjoy being with him and staying with him. He is inviting us to have a growing fellowship with him—to get to know him in deeper ways where we enjoy knowing him and trusting him for who he is.

2. “Take my yoke and learn from me.” Jesus tells his listeners not only to come to him, but also to take his yoke. He then shows that taking up his yoke involves learning from him. Let’s consider what Jesus means.

First, Jesus notes that his “yoke” involves his “burden.” The word for burden is related to the one he uses in speaking of those who are burdened in their lives. The verbal form of burdened has a prefix giving the idea of being overloaded, weighed down, which is why some English translations have it as “heavily burdened.” The noun form, which Jesus uses for his own yoke, simply indicates a load one is to carry. His yoke, his burden, are thus described as “easy” and “light.” Jesus is drawing a sharp contrast between the burdens we already carry and the one he is calling us to take up. Let’s look carefully at all that Jesus says to describe that yoke.

First of all, he calls us to take up his yoke, his burden, not “a”, or even “the” burden he has for us, but the one that is his own (whatever that is). By speaking of yoke, and not just burden, Jesus is indicating that his intention is that we share with him what he possesses.

Yoked Wisconsin oxen (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As seen in the picture above, a yoke was a wooden bar placed across the necks of a pair of animals, usually oxen, to enable them to pull a load together. Thus, in inviting us to be yoked with him, Jesus is inviting us to share in bearing his “load.” He isn’t wanting to give us something and then leave us with it. The burden he has for us is his, and being yoked to him involves a relationship—sharing with him, being with him, walking with him, being joined to him.

Then, yoked to Jesus (in a relationship with him), we are to learn from him. This changes the image we may have at this point of a pair of animals struggling to pull a heavy load together. There is asymmetry here, and the primary goal of being yoked to Jesus is not to help him to do his work, but to be in a relationship with him such that we are learning from him. The picture is of being tethered to Jesus as a learner—gazing at him more than being side-by-side with him and looking ahead.

Yoked to Jesus, we are to walk with him, continually learning from him—gaining our perspective, our cues, from him. The focus is not so much on “the load” being borne as it is on the One to whom we are yoked.

Hand in Hand by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

See how intimate and personal this command is? Jesus isn’t calling us to join a large class, but into a personal, one-on-one relationship with him that is so close and daily that we can say we truly are yoked to him!

I have gotten some idea of what being yoked to Jesus looks like in training our dog Samantha to heel—to walk next to me with a loose leash. Not long ago we decided to adopt a dog from a rescue shelter. As I worked on training her, I came to realize that I am not merely teaching Samantha certain behaviors or dog tricks—I’m training her to attend to me first as we walk, and to decide how she should respond to other stimuli (e.g. other barking dogs) by first learning from me, that is, by taking her cues from me. Samantha is easily distracted and startled by various sights and sounds when we are outside. In teaching her to attend or attune herself to me, I want her to trust that I will help her know how to handle whatever she encounters. If I am not upset by the garbage truck, the jogger, or the roller-skating child, she doesn’t need to be either. In getting her to “take my yoke,” I am teaching her that I can be trusted to take care of her. I want her to see that she can make my “mission” her own because mine truly is greater, better than hers and she is safe with me.

Taking Jesus’ yoke means having our whole lives oriented to him. Jesus calls us into an ongoing, dynamic relationship—one closely connected to him, growing in knowing him, the one to whom we are yoked. Being yoked with Jesus for life means that we will learn more and more about him. We’ll learn to know him for who he truly is.

What sort of yoke is this?

Notice that Jesus describes his yoke or burden as being easy and light.

Easy

We often think of “easy” in contrast to what is “hard,” but the word in Greek means excellent, useful, pleasant or kind, well-fitted. It conveys the idea of what is kind and good at the same time. In other places in the New Testament, the word is used to describe the kind and gracious action of God. In Luke 6:35, God is described as “kind to the ungrateful” and 1 Peter 2:3 speaks about tasting “the kindness of the Lord.” Jesus is not going to jerk us around and pay no attention to who we are. He will give us what we really need (not just what we want) and take us where he’s going—but he’ll be patient and gentle in doing so. He will not indulge us but will give us the very best he has for us as we walk with him, day-by-day.

Light

Jesus’ yoke or burden also is “light.” This is perhaps a strange word to use. Isn’t a burden, by definition, heavy? If light, how can it be a burden?

Jesus calls all who are weary and burdened down to share his good, fitting, kind yoke—his light burden, which is about  continually learning from him, the One who is willing to be yoked with us and so to teach us, share life with us.

A yoke and burden that brings deep soul-rest

Jesus assures us that in sharing his yoke and burden, and thus in learning from him, we will be given rest. For emphasis, he repeats this idea two times, and the second time says we will find “rest for our souls.”

The idea of rest in the Bible involves far more than merely ceasing from our labors. It’s connected with the Hebrew idea of shalom, which is God’s intention for his people to have goodness and well-being, knowing the goodness of God and his ways. Think about this—what does Jesus want to give those he calls to come to him? The answer is deep soul-rest—refreshment, wholeness, healing.

The implication is that the burdens we are bearing when we come to Jesus are leaving us rest-less. In great contrast, Jesus’ yoke, his burden, which we share with him, is one that uniquely and supernaturally brings about rest for our souls. Being with Jesus and learning from him is, indeed, our true Sabbath rest—a rest that reaches down to the core of who we are—to our very souls.

From this passage, we thus learn that there is more than one kind of burden to bear. And the nature of the burden that we are bearing has everything to do with whose burden it is.

Jesus is gentle and humble

Jesus assures us that in being yoked to him and bearing his burden with him, we will indeed find deep soul-rest, precisely because he is “gentle and humble in heart.” How can that be? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jesus to tell us that he provides an easy yoke and rest for our souls because he is powerful? But that’s not what he says. To grasp the paradox here, we must look at the verse that precedes our passage:

All things have been committed to me by my Father and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt. 11:27)

It is this statement about Jesus’ relationship with his Father that leads to Jesus’ call to the weary and heavily burdened. He states that his relationship with the Father is one of real giving and receiving. Jesus has received all things from the Father because the Father has given them to him. And he describes the relationship with the Father as one of mutual, personal, intimate knowing. It’s an exclusive relationship—there is no one who knows the Son this way except the Father, and there is no one who knows the Father this way except the Son. Their deep, eternal intimacy involves mutual knowing.

How is Jesus’ description of himself as gentle and humble in heart related to this description of the relationship he has with his Father? The word gentle can be translated meek as it is in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” A meek person does not use evil for gain, not even to gain what is rightfully theirs. The word humble or lowly describes someone willingly dependent on another, so that person is looking away from themselves in order to trust fully in the other. Both words indicate a person who is yielded to another—open-handed and so receiving from another. In Matthew 11:27, Jesus says he has received all things from his giving Father. Jesus is thus the “receiving one”—receiving from the One he deeply knows. He is not just externally bending to the Father’s will to give, but freely receiving what is freely given. Jesus enjoys living in the rest that comes from living in the knowing, loving, giving relationship he has with his Father.

I don’t think it is too much to say that Jesus is yoked to the Father and this yoking is dynamic and continual, from eternity. He has existed from eternity in a real relationship of giving and receiving from the Father. In the Gospel of John, Jesus notes that he does only what he sees the Father doing and says only what he hears the Father saying. He notes that he and the Father are one. Jesus is gentle and humble because he is yielded to the Father, secure in his Father’s love.

Jesus says that the only ones who can know the Father are those to whom he chooses to reveal him. And then he calls out to all who recognize that they are weary and burdened. Notice it is to all who are weary, not just some. Why are these the ones Jesus calls? Because Jesus is seeking those who are willing to receive.

Let me make a couple of points here:

  1. It is this relationship—the one Jesus is enjoying all the time with his Father—that is his burden or yoke. It is this relationship he has come to reveal and enable us to share in. His whole life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, was to make it possible for him to issue this call, to open up this relationship to us, to offer to share his yoke with us, his yoke with the Father.
  2. So his burden is not easy, good and light because it amounts to a shorter list than ours, but because it is for us to partake in this loving relationship he gives us, to share in his communion with the Father.

In taking Jesus’ yoke, we are not trying to earn his grace, but growing in our ability to receive it from him. Jesus’ yoke is different from every other burden or yoke we may have taken on or are being tempted to take on. All other burdens or yokes will, in the end, engender weariness and not give deep soul-rest. All other ways of seeking life and identity are not about, first and last, receiving all that God is giving us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the one true receiver, gentle (meek) and humble of heart. And in relationship with him, he enables us to share in his receiving from the Father. That’s the light and easy burden of being yoked with him.

Put down your burdens

Implicit in Jesus’ command to come, to take up his yoke, and learn from him is the command to put down the burdens we come to him with. We put them down and thus hand them over.

Jesus doesn’t offer his burden and yoke to add to the burdens and yokes we already are bearing. He doesn’t offer advice on how to more efficiently or effectively carry our burdens so they seem lighter. He is not giving us shoulder pads so that the straps of our burdens don’t cut into us quite as much.

By speaking on the one hand of our burdens and on the other of his burden, it seems that Jesus is calling us to a “burden exchange.” We can’t easily receive what Jesus is giving us when our hands are already full—when we are focused on the various burdens weighing us down. He’s not interested in loading us up with another burden that’s just a bit lighter than the ones we already are carrying.

As he calls us into a relationship with himself, Jesus calls us to put down (and so hand over to him) all that is weighing on us, because when we try to carry them, we forget who God is and we are not looking at Jesus anymore, not listening to him, not knowing him. The burdens we are holding onto get in the way of receiving what Jesus is actually giving us.

In this call to the burdened, Jesus says that the triune God is the One who has found a way to share with us his wonderful relationship of love and the rest that is the fruit of that love. Jesus wants to share with us his receiving gentleness, his Father-minded, self-forgetful meekness. In that way, seeing what he has to offer, we can live receiving from him.

A continual coming to Jesus

Jesus’ command to come to him is in the present tense, which means a continuing action. We don’t just come once, we continue to come, over and over. Why? Here are two reasons:

  1. Living yoked to Jesus is what the Christian life is all about. It’s like the command to abide that Jesus gives his disciples in John 15. They are to abide because they are his branches, and he is their vine. So he calls us to purposely take up his wonderful life-giving yoke again each day. Jesus is committed to enabling us to live in his soul-rest all the time, not just when we are aware we need it. To enable us to share his yoke, then, he will be showing us more of what we are still carrying that is actually engendering weariness and so keeping us from living in his rest.
  2. Jesus command to come to him and rest is a continuing one because we are tempted, over and over, to pick up old burdens or find new ones to carry. We are tempted, as new challenges and situations arise, to think that this situation, this relationship, this trial, is the deepest reality, and is too big or pressing for us to let go of, so that we can live out of being yoked to Jesus instead. Or we may think we will take his yoke and live in his soul-rest later after we have this situation fixed, when things have calmed down a bit, been put in order, when it is more practical to live in and act from a place of receiving from Christ our daily rest.

In considering handing over our burdens to Jesus, it’s vital we understand that he is our High Priest—the one who already knows all about our burdens and has taken them on, sharing in what is ours. He has taken our broken lives—our trials, struggles, sins, fears, etc. and made all these his own in order to heal us from the inside-out. We can trust him—we don’t need to be afraid to hand over to Jesus all our old burdens, all our new struggles, our seemingly trivial burdens and the ones that seem crushingly large. He is already and always faithfully at work—we are yoked with him and he with the Father, all in the Spirit.

This process of growing more accustomed to being fully yoked to Jesus—of turning away from ourselves to him, of living in his rest—continues and deepens all our lives. No past or present struggle or concern is more immediate than his call to us. To what is he calling us? To himself—to share in his life, his love, his rest. There is only one burden we are called to carry and that is Jesus’ burden. We want to grow in our being aware of when we are picking up and carrying the wrong burden.

Conclusion

Each morning and through the day, let’s all hear Jesus inviting us to himself again—inviting us to come to know him more, to trust him more deeply with all of our lives. We glorify him in doing so—in responding to his Spirit’s work in our lives, freeing us to turn and receive again his trust in, his communion with, the Father.

Trusting in Jesus in this way will, no doubt, involve some wrestling, since being yoked to him is not an automatic and fixed state—it’s a real, dynamic relationship. But as our faithful Lord and Savior, he will continue to speak to us, drawing us to himself. We hear again in this passage the delight in his voice calling us to his side—his invitation to share his yoke with the Father and so to live in his rest by the Spirit.

What other burden would you want to have compared to that one?

Sermon for July 2, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 22:1-14 and Ps. 13:1-6 or Jer. 28:5-9 and Ps. 89:1-4, 15-18;
Rom. 6:12-23; Matt. 10:40-42

RECEIVING AND REPRESENTING JESUS (Matthew 10:40-42)
By Martin Manuel

Introduction

Let’s begin with a video that illustrates the power of hospitality. [The video shows the work of a Peace Corps volunteer in the Asian country of Timor-Leste.]

[On YouTube at https://youtu.be/NhRIUxsNPIQ . Although the context of this video is not the gospel, per se, it illustrates the kind of welcoming response that Jesus speaks of in the passage covered in this sermon.]

Jesus sent his disciples out on a mission to towns in the region of Galilee. He gave them instruction on where to go and what to do when they got there. He told them that some would accept them but warned that they would experience resistance and hostility from others. These disciples went out as messengers of the kingdom, sent by the King. Their message was straightforward and true, and the desired response was wholehearted acceptance of the message.

In addition to specific instructions about the mission, Matthew adds Jesus’ warning concerning the persecution his representatives would face and their reaction to it. Matthew also includes what Jesus said about individual and group responses to the gospel. The last few verses emphasize the reception of those sent to proclaim the gospel. Let’s read the passage together:

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matt. 10:40-42)

Although Jesus spoke these words to his original disciples, they apply to all who follow him, including us. His instruction addresses two different, though related issues: representing Jesus and receiving Jesus (which includes receiving his representatives). Both issues apply to all disciples of Jesus in all times as they engage in the mission of God.

“Come and See” by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Representing Jesus

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Matt. 10:40)

The word “welcomes” is dechomai in Greek, which means receive, accept or welcome. Though all these definitions apply here, in modern English “welcomes” seems warmer than “receive” or “accept.” I might receive an insurance salesman into my home to explain a plan that I wish to consider. If I like it, I might accept it. But I welcome into my home a friend who visits. For that reason, I prefer “welcomes” in the context of Jesus’ words, because as we read in Matthew 10:11-16, Jesus had spoken of being welcomed in homes and towns as well as being listened to.

The disciples went out as representatives of Jesus. They had authority to speak to everyone as if Jesus himself were speaking. One who would welcome them because they were sent by Jesus, would be welcoming Jesus. And because Jesus spoke with the Father’s authority, welcoming Jesus was the same as welcoming the Father.

As we read the words of Jesus, we can be assured that they are the words of God, and as we read the writings of the apostles—the New Testament—we can be assured that they are God’s word—words often spoken by Jesus, and always ones inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. (Matt. 10:41a)

A true prophet is God’s representative. I emphasize “true” because it is of utmost importance. Jesus was talking about a true prophet, not a false one, whom he had warned about in Matthew 7:15, “Watch out for false prophets.” Anyone with a prophetic message not sent by God is a false prophet and the world has always had plenty of them! False prophets misrepresent God, saying things God has not said. The office of prophet is given exclusively by God—no one has the right to claim it for themselves. The true prophets, whose writings are part of the canon of Scripture (in most cases, Old Testament prophets), wrote with the inspiration and authority of God the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to welcome (receive) a prophet as a prophet? It means simply that the prophet is not considered as just a notable person, but as one sent to speak for God. It means respecting the authoritative office that the prophet has been given by God, and welcoming them as a respected representative of God.

Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. (Matt. 10:41b)

In Matthew 9:13, Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” It may seem contradictory to speak well of a righteous person in Matthew 10 but negatively in Matthew 9. However, if we note that in Matthew 9 Jesus was talking to Pharisees who considered themselves righteous, we recognize that to think of oneself as righteous leaves out Jesus, whereas to realize one’s sinfulness and need for Jesus receives him as the Physician who has come to bring the spiritual healing that makes one righteous. You’ll recall that in Romans 3:10, quoting Psalm 14:3, Paul declares that “there is no one righteous.” Therefore, the “righteous person” in Matthew 10 is one who is not righteous in themselves, but a person living in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That is how a sinful person can be said to be “righteous.” The statements of Jesus in Matthew 10 about welcoming thus include all who represent God—all who bear the word of God.

Receiving Jesus (and his representatives)

Let’s now return to the idea of receiving, and thus welcoming. Before the disciples could represent Jesus, they had to first receive (welcome) him themselves. They listened to his message, believed, and became his followers. According to the New Bible Dictionary, “A disciple is basically a pupil of a teacher.” Jesus said that by receiving him they were receiving the Father. Their acceptance of Jesus became personal and relational—by receiving his message they were welcoming him into their lives.

Being a disciple of Jesus was thus about much more than becoming the follower of a rabbi. There are many ways to learn that do not require personal relationship and devotion. Today, a student can learn through a printed course or online. Even in a classroom, a student can learn without a relationship with the teacher. But not so with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ message, the gospel, is itself about a relationship. Believing that message (the content of Jesus’ teaching) results in a relationship with the teacher.

A similar dynamic occurred as the first disciples went out to share the gospel. Those who received their message welcomed them as representatives of Jesus. When the message was received and so believed, more than the transmission of information occurred. Though they could have gained some of this information in by reading Scripture in the Synagogue each Sabbath, from the followers of Jesus they were receiving far more—they were entering into a relationship with the disciples (their teachers) and through that relationship entering a relationship with the Triune Godt. Thus not only was information transferred, a relationship was forged. Dr. Gary Deddo referred to this relational dynamic in a GCI Equipper article titled “Clarifying our Theological Vision Part 1”:

The God-given purpose of this relationship [between God and humans], established through reconciliation, cannot be fulfilled in us as long as there is little or no participation in the relationship—if there is resistance to and rejection of the relationship that has been freely given to us. The full benefits of the relationship cannot be known or experienced by us if we do not enter into it—if we are not receptive to it and its benefits.

The Lord Jesus Christ did not come to earth merely to pass along information, or to merely make an announcement. His first coming was so earth-shattering that it’s impossible to ignore him—we must respond! But that response is never coerced or mechanical—it comes about through human-to-human relationsips that encourage and so enable the response. That is why Jesus sends his disciples into the world.

Welcoming a representative of Jesus is not the same as cheering on a  concert performer (where the talent or charisma of the performer stirs the emotions of the audience) where there is no enduring relationship. Shouts, chants, and “amen” affirmations do not constitute a relationship—the sort of relationship Jesus and his representatives came bearing. Jesus calls upon people to welcome the one being represented (himself) and also the ones (his disciples in this case) who come bearing his message.

The Jewish residents of Galilee were being invited to welcome Jesus as the promised Messiah. Doing so took faith, particularly since, at first glance, Jesus did not have the right credentials. Yes, his miracles and message established a certain credibility, yet faith was needed. But what accounted for the faith some exhibited? Jesus hinted at the answer in instructing the disciples in Matthew 10:11 to “search…for some worthy person.”

In their travels, the disciples were not to put out a general announcement seeking hospitality. Instead, they were to search for a worthy person. To do so, they would have to discern who was “worthy”—who would be receptive to what they would have to say. Though the word worthy implies merit, as if the person had earned the right to be chosen, the context says otherwise. It was not the most educated or most capable who became followers of Jesus. Instead, as Matthew 9:10-12 makes clear, it was “tax collectors and sinners” who Jesus chose, not those considered “healthy.” The key difference here is the grace of God within the person chosen by God at that particular time—a grace that prepared that person to receive, believe and welcome his representatives who have come bearing Christ’s message, the gospel.

In addition to responding to the message of Jesus’ representatives, welcoming included taking action. Jesus continues in Matthew 10:

If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matt. 10:42)

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person is nothing exceptional—it’s a normal act of hospitality. So why does Jesus include it in his instruction about welcoming his representatives? The answer is found in his words, “my disciple.” A “little one” is usually a child, not a person considered important. Humanly, it’s easier to disrespect a child than a grown person. So in speaking of “little ones,” Jesus is using the figurative language of Zechariah 13:7: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” These “little ones,” like unattended sheep, are poor, weak, needy and vulnerable. This is echoed in Matthew 25 where Jesus spoke these words:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt. 25:34-36)

When asked when such gracious, hospitable things were done for him, Jesus answers with the words recorded in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus said that his brothers and sisters were among the hungry, thirsty, alien, unclothed and sick. Giving such “little ones” food, drink, clothing and support is to give them “a cup of cold water.” It’s showing compassion and extending mercy. It’s a form of welcome. Such hospitable behavior brings the rewards that Jesus speaks of.

Rewards

Three times in Matthew 10:41-43, Jesus mentions rewards. In modern usage, a reward, typically money, is offered in return for an accomplishment, or as compensation for participation. The original Greek simply means “payment.” In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus spoke of God-given rewards for sincere works of piety. Now at the end of Matthew 10, he uses the same word for being a willing recipient that welcomes godly acts in humble people.

Often, the emphasis on hearing and obeying God’s word and paying attention to those who proclaim it, focuses on the consequences of failure to do so. Jesus spoke at times of the consequences of such rejection, but here he speaks of rewards for being willing—willing to be his representative and willing to receive his representatives. In both cases, a reward is given for acts that might be deemed insignificant. But that’s the way God’s grace works—it exceeds expectations. God highly rewards what most (looking through worldly eyes) see as insignificant.

Conclusion

The two conditions that Jesus speaks of here in Matthew 10, representing and receiving, apply to all who follow Jesus. As we know, God has, in Christ, reconciled all humanity to himself, opening wide the door for all people to have a saving relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit. Those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith enter into a relationship with God, by the Spirit, as followers of Jesus. As disciples of Jesus we participate in that relationship with God by grace, first by receiving (or better, welcoming) it, and second, through the grace of God, by representing God to other recipients. The outcome of this ministry, with Christ, by the Spirit, is rewarding for all concerned.

From Greg: Retreating to charge forward

Dear pastors and ministry leaders:

We each have unique “wiring” (personality). One of the personality assessments I’ve taken identifies me as a “socializing director” with a “pioneer voice.” That means I tend to attract people, though I like winning even more. Being wired that way, I tend to work long hours and push others to do likewise. Thus to shut down normal operations to go on retreat with part of the GCI-USA Church Administration and Development (CAD) team for three days was outside the norm for me. Yet that is what I did. Near the end of April a group of CAD leaders (including the U.S. Regional Pastors) retreated to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains.

In the military, to retreat is to “move back or withdraw” as a tactic of warfare. In a spiritual context, to retreat is to “charge forward” by withdrawing from everyday activities to focus on prayer and other spiritual practices. One might retreat alone or, as was the case with my CAD team, go on retreat with others.

Jesus often went on retreats—withdrawing to the desert or another “quiet place.” Sometimes he went alone, sometimes with his disciples. On one occasion he issued them this invitation: “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He knew they needed to. So many people were coming and going that they didn’t even have time to eat (Mark 6:31).

I hope you and your team will take time occasionally to “retreat to charge forward.” Here are some things I’ve learned about successful retreats:

1. Find a quiet place with natural beauty

Calling “time out” and getting away from the “noise” of everyday life is greatly needed (even by Jesus, God in the flesh). Jesus’ retreats were often to the quiet beauty of the hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee in the region north of Jerusalem. Years ago I spent a summer in Israel, and I understand why Jesus went there—the lake and surrounding hills in that region are the most peaceful, beautiful and relaxing in all Israel.

Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee (1842)  (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Our team on retreat in the Smokies was mesmerized by the beauty of the fog rolling in and settling on the ridges and into the valleys below. In that setting, Psalm 121:1 (KJV) came alive for us: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

View of the Smoky Mountains (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

2. Focus on rest and rejuvenation

The pace of Jesus’ ministry had greatly escalated, but instead of sucking it up and leaning in even harder, the better part of wisdom was to take time away, and that’s exactly what he did, often retreating with his disciples. The focus on these times away was eating and resting. There is something quite rejuvenating about being with close friends and colleagues, especially in the group project of preparing a meal, then dining together at a leisurely pace. In the Smokies the CAD team shared good food and even better conversation. The shared laughter was as nourishing as the food.

Eating dinner at the RP retreat.

3. Reflect, then refocus

Early in Mark 6, Jesus sends his disciples out two-by-two to participate in his kingdom ministry (Mark 6:7). They follow Jesus’ instructions, calling people to repentance, healing those who were sick (Mark 6:13). Later, they return to Jesus to report on their trip (Mark 6:30). Though Mark does not give the details of these reports, it’s safe to say these experiences dominated the conversations at the retreat.

During our time in the Smokies, the Regional Pastors shared what has been occurring in their regions. It was inspiring to hear how the retreat was helping them through a process of group-thinking that included times of open discussion and spontaneous prayer. It was extremely helpful for us to hash over where we are on several ministry projects, making sure our work is aligned with our “Healthy Church” vision. It’s our deep desire that GCI-USA congregations be the very best expression of church they can be. Our work is focused on that vision and mission.

4. Recharge

The space and time provided by a retreat to rest, laugh, bond, and re-focus, adds up to a powerful time of encouragement that recharged us all. We truly did “retreat to charge forward.” That’s far more than a mere slogan—it speaks to the real benefits that a retreat provides. For more about the need to take time in your busy life to recharge, read Rick Shallenberger’s article on the 5 Gears.

A toast to the kingdom.

Conclusion

The Gospel of Mark records the rhythms of Jesus’ life and ministry. On nine occasions, Mark shows Jesus either going on retreat alone (with the Father), or in the company of his disciples. If this was part of his life’s rhythm, wouldn’t we be wise to make it part of ours?

Retreating on a regular basis is how we rejuvenate, refocus and recharge, so that we can charge forward, participating with Christ, by the Spirit, in the Father’s kingdom-expanding mission. Regarding that kingdom and God’s mission, be sure to read the sermons in this issue.

One final thought: I challenge our pastors to go on retreat in 2017 (and each year) with their leadership team (pastors, ministry leaders, etc.). I encourage them to budget for this retreat, and if they would like some coaching on what a retreat might look like, their RP is happy to assist.

Kingdom forward!
Greg Williams, CAD Director and GCI Vice President