Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 4

Here is part 4 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.

addressing the christian life

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo

How does what we have addressed so far in this series inform our understanding of the Christian life? In this part of the essay, we’ll seek to answer that question in a biblically faithful way that aligns with and clarifies GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian vision. In doing so, we’ll address a related question: Why do believers often struggle with temptation and sometimes fall into sin?

It’s about relationship and becoming

We begin with the reminder that all humanity was created for a relationship of union and communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit. Rather than fixed, determined beings, we humans are becoming beings, created to become primarily in and through relationship with the Triune God. We thus understand that the Christian life is a becoming life—becoming, in Christ and by the Spirit, who we truly are in Christ.

“Jesus and His Disciples” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A journey of transformation

Our becoming through relationship is a life-long journey of growing up in Christ. We participate in this process of transformation, renewal and maturation through our relationship with the Triune God. Though the New Testament is decidedly optimistic about the ultimate destination of this journey, it indicates that different people begin at different points and move forward at different rates. Though it is not possible to pinpoint anyone’s exact location on the journey, there are indicators along the way that God is faithful to his promise to “sanctify” us “through and through” with Christ’s own sanctity (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23-24). He has promised to complete the good work that he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6).

God’s work, complete in Jesus Christ

From start to finish, our salvation is God’s work of grace—one that is complete in Christ. Jesus is our whole salvation—the Source of our wisdom (especially about God), our righteousness (justification) and our sanctification (transformation) (1 Cor. 1:30 NRSV). We are not justified by grace then sanctified by our works. We do not “qualify” for any aspect of our salvation, which in all its “parts” (including sanctification) is a work of grace of the whole God: Father, Son and Spirit.

The Christian life is thus about living in dependence upon the Triune God of grace, and as we’ll see, it has largely to do with the work the Holy Spirit does to unite us to and conform us to Christ through what we’ve addressed previously in this essay as the “spiritual union.” It is through this union (our relationship with God) that we have access to and are able to possess all the blessings of grace. We trust Jesus to give us these blessings through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Moved by the Spirit, we receive these blessings through repentance and faith. Though never earned or deserved, we receive them deliberately, using whatever capacities we have at our disposal (capacities that differ from person to person). Because our transformation (sanctification, maturation, growth) is God’s gracious work in us, it follows God’s timetable, and God is not anxious or impatient about the pace.

Living by the Spirit “between the times”

To understand the Christian life, we must account for the New Testament teaching that, as believers, we do not yet have the fullness of the Holy Spirit. As we receive and respond to the Spirit, living in fellowship with the Spirit, we must regularly be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). In this life we are given the “first fruits” (Rom. 8:23) or “deposit” (Eph. 1:14, also translated “down payment” or “earnest”) of the Spirit, having been “sealed” (Eph. 4:30) for a greater future with the Spirit yet to be unsealed. We thus understand that our relationship with the Spirit is not fixed, static, mechanical or impersonal. It is dynamic and personal.

Perhaps the most illuminating image in the New Testament that speaks to this is that we are told that an “inheritance” has been “stored up” for us (Eph. 1:18; Col. 1:5; Col. 3:24). Thus we understand that we cannot, in the here and now, participate, through the Spirit, in the fullness of all that Christ has accomplished for us. We can grow toward that fullness, we can be transformed, we can mature, we can go deeper, but we will not, until we are glorified, “arrive.” Though we should expect and be hopeful about our growth, we should not expect to experience (participate in) in this life, the fullness of Christ’s perfection (all his holiness). To say that is not to diminish our potential for growth—we will always have access to the source of fullness, the completeness of Christ, by the Spirit, even if we never reach that fullness before we are glorified.

There are obstacles of various kinds to our transformation. That is because Christ has not yet returned and so we live “between the times” in what the Bible calls “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). We await the fullness of the kingdom of God and the gift of our glorified bodies. We have yet to “put on immortality,” and so we still “groan” (2 Cor. 5:4). Nevertheless, we press on! Despite the obstacles in our path, we “strive to enter” God’s “rest” (Heb. 4:11). As we journey forward, we resist the devil and flee temptation (James 4:7-9). Rather than using our freedom to fall back into slavery, we put off ways inconsistent with God’s grace and purposes for human life. We die to our old ways, considering ourselves “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11). We live in ways that indicate all the worthiness of Jesus Christ himself. We live as if joined (united) to Christ, for, indeed we are!

What we have said so far is generally accepted by Christians, yet there are some terminological issues that need to be addressed as we seek to clarify how we in GCI teach and preach on this important topic of living the Christian life “between the times.”

Our identity as believers

In clarifying the terminology related to the Christian life, we need to return to what we’ve already said in the earlier parts of this essay concerning our identity as believers. We belong to God, body and spirit. We were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). Jesus is our Lord and Savior and there is no other. He alone has eternal life for us. He is the fullness of life. We are adopted into his family to be his sons and daughters and live as members of his family (Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). We are his people, Christ’s body, the church (1 Cor. 12:27). As such, by the personal, particular ministry of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ and live in communion with him daily.

In that spiritual union and communion, Christ, by the Spirit, shares with us all that he has for us, and by the Spirit we are freed and enabled to begin receiving what he has completed for us. That is who we are! But how do we remind ourselves and encourage each other of that identity as we struggle with temptation, as we, despite our identity in Christ, succumb to sinful deeds, words and thoughts?

No dual identity

In a few places in the KJV, the New Testament speaks of an old man and a new man (Rom. 6:6 KJV; Eph. 4:22-24 KJV; Col. 3:9-10 KJV). Unfortunately, some Christians wrongly interpret these pairings as meaning that all people (or at least all Christians) have within themselves two opposing identities (persons or wills). Lacking a critical understanding of these verses, they mistakenly take this anthropological dualism to be the Bible’s explanation of why Christians struggle with temptation to sin. In doing so, they embrace an idea that conflicts with the New Testament’s insistent, overwhelming proclamation of a singular renewed self—a singular identity that believers have as a gift of the Holy Spirit who unites them to Christ. In embracing this dualism, they are adopting an idea that arose in Greek mythology, spread into existential philosophy, and from there into some schools of modern psychology. The idea is seen today in popular contemporary culture, as in cartoons showing a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering dueling messages into the person’s ears.

The false idea of humans having two competing wills/identities has been adopted by certain theologies, relying largely on ill-informed interpretations of the aforementioned New Testament old man-new man pairings. This mistake has been made because a dualistic view of human nature seems to explain the inner battle experienced by believers, particularly as it relates to the temptation to sin. This inner battle can feel like two opposing forces at work—two selves or persons (or perhaps two wills) at war. Certain Bible translators, embracing this dualism, have selected the word “man” (KJV) or “self” (NIV) in translating the aforementioned verses. Some Christian preachers and counselors have adopted this dualism, viewing it as a helpful way to explain why believers struggle with temptation. However, this dualistic explanation for a believer’s struggle with sin is in error—it cannot be upheld biblically and must be rejected because we do not want to build a theology of the Christian life on a concept that undermines our trust and hope in our identity in Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit in us.

Scripture does not address the issue of temptation and sin in a believer’s life by positing two internal aspects or parts of a person, or the idea of an internally divided person. Instead, Scripture refers to a struggle that persons have with that which is external (alien) to human being and nature, but one that does encroach and work within the person. In the New Testament, that external influence is called sin or the power of sin. The New Testament goes on to encourage (and expect) believers to resist sin as part of their journey of transformation. The biblical exhortations to resist temptation do not call into question our singular identity or Christ’s completed work. In fact, our identity in Christ serves as the basis for continuing to resist temptation.

A singular identity (Romans 7)

While we must be realistic about our weaknesses and struggles as believers, we must do so without calling into question our identity—the truth of who we are in Christ. Unfortunately, some promote an understanding of the Christian life that seems to make that mistake. Examples are those theological formulations that speak of the Christian (a person who is in union and communion with Christ) as having two selves (or two natures or two subjectivities). These two selves are portrayed as being in unresolvable conflict with one another. While such a view may avoid stirring up false guilt or shame (since nothing can be done about this inner conflict in their experience), it offers what amounts to a counsel of despair. With this viewpoint, little or no change in the inner battle can be hoped for—it’s part of the human condition. When union with Christ and his objective work are viewed in a way that pulls them apart from our personal involvement (thus setting up a dualism), any hope of experiencing that participation in the finished work of Christ here and now is ruled out. That mistaken view posits the idea that we have one identity in Christ, but not one that we are able to experience—we can only experience a dual, conflicted identity—two split selves or subjectivities.

According to some versions of this mistaken theology, Jesus Christ remains at a distance from our experience, but accomplishes things for us that we can’t join in on. Our subjective experience is thereby split apart from Christ’s objective work done on our behalf. We’re caught between a single objective identity on the one side and a dual subjective identity that apparently cannot be resolved, on the other. According to this mistaken view, this duality in us cannot be resolved in this life since it is built in, intrinsic to us.

This mistaken view of humanity contrasts starkly with formulations that, being faithful to Scripture, speak of one self, one nature, one subjectivity in tension with something that is alien to the self or our nature, namely, the power of sin or evil. That “something” we find ourselves in tension with is not essential to our humanity. It is not intrinsic to or built into human nature. No matter how seemingly influential or how strong a pull this sinful power has, it is alien to us as believers. This is what Scripture (particularly the New Testament) teaches and we should stick closely to the biblical language and patterns of thought in our interpretations and syntheses, not losing sight of the larger truth that we are in union with Christ, who has our whole salvation complete in him and in which we share (participate) by the Holy Spirit.

We should affirm a single identity of the Christian and not a dual identity, even if it might seem that way in an individual’s experience. We should avoid speaking as if our experience of opposition with the power of sin involves two equals of the same strength and determination. Whatever is resistant to our living in Christ is not an equal to Christ and the Spirit at work in us. Instead, the opposing forces are radically unequal.

The most faithful way to speak of this tension between us and what tempts us in the Christian life is to follow what Paul says in Romans 7, which is foundational to this topic. Rom. 7:16-17 puts it this way: “If I do what I do not want to do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Note that Paul is free to differentiate between himself, “I…me…not myself” and the sin working within him. The internal tension or opposition that Paul experiences is not between two selves (persons, subjects), but opposition between the “I…me”—between the person of Paul and the sin (presented as a force) working within and against him. What opposes him, what influences him, what pulls him off base, what tempts him, is not himself (or an alternate false self) but something other than himself. In other words, Paul maintains his singular identity even while admitting that he sometimes does what he does not want to do. Paul takes responsibility for sinning—he does not divide his identity (who he is) into two persons or two subjectivities. Rather, there is something in him that is not him. This alien power tempts him, leading him to sin—to do what he (as a believer) does not want to do.

This way of thinking is not isolated to a few verses in Romans 7, though the repetition of certain key phrases there gives significant interpretive weight to this understanding that Christians have one person and one nature, not two. Paul is sorting through his experience for the sake of his listeners. All that he writes earlier in Romans 6 and 7 leads up to his conclusion just quoted. Paul has various names for what is tempting him, for the alien thing at work in him. In Romans 7, he identifies that power or influence as “sin,” showing how sin “seizing an opportunity… deceived me” and so “killed me.” He then speaks of being “sold into slavery under sin” and refers to sin as an “evil” that “lies close at hand.” According to Paul, sin is a “law” (principle or power) that is “at war with the law of my mind” (Rom. 7:11-23 NRSV).

Only one identity

Paul’s emphasis on the power of sin and his conclusion concerning his experience with it, lends strong weight to not understanding our life “between the times” in terms of a battle between two selves or even between two natures (which we’ll address below). The unity of identity of the human person is further backed up by how Paul ministers to those he is writing to—by how he addresses the dilemma of believers experiencing temptation and falling into sin. He appeals to the fact of who they now are (their identity in Christ) as the basis upon which they are to be hopeful and thus continue to resist temptation. That singular identity is based on who Jesus is and what he has done for them. On that basis, he is confident that Christ will deliver them (Rom. 7:25), knowing that they have been set free from the “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) through what God accomplished in Christ—that which the old covenant could not accomplish (Rom. 8:3-4). On the basis of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, Paul, in Romans 8, addresses his readers (Christians) as people who have a singular identity. In particular, he exhorts them to:

  • “walk [live] according to the Spirit” not “according to the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:4-5)
  • set their minds “on the Spirit” which brings life and peace and not “on the flesh [sarx]” as those who, in contrast, are “in the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:6)
  • view themselves as “in the Spirit” and “indwelt by the Spirit” not “in the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:9)
  • understand that Christ is “in” them and that they have “spirits” that “are alive because of [Christ’s] righteousness” (Rom. 8:10)
  • understand that they are indwelt by the Spirit of the Father, who raised the Son from the dead and whose Spirit dwells in them (said two times in Rom. 8:11)
  • understand that they are “not in the flesh” and are “not debtors to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12) but are “led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14)
  • understand that they have “received the Spirit of sonship,” not slavery—they are “children of God” and so “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” so that they will be, in the end, “glorified with [Christ]” (Rom. 8:14-17)

As these and other verses attest, the basis on which to live the Christian life is a singular coherent identity, not a dual one. This understanding serves as the truth behind every exhortation given to believers in the New Testament. It is on the basis of who they are (as one person) in union with Christ that they resist temptation and participate in the life of Christ by the Holy Spirit.

A common human nature in transition

But why or how does sin and the power of sin have continuing influence in the life of a believer? If we have a singular identity (self), how is it that we are vulnerable to sin and the power of sin? The answer seems to lie in the fact that individual human persons are understood in the New Testament as having a common (shared) human nature that is not yet perfected, strong and complete. In theological terms, we can say that our human nature (although in communication with Christ by the Spirit) is in the process of being sanctified and is not yet glorified in us. Our human nature is thus in a dynamic transition as we live out our lives “between the times” in daily relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

In Christ the transformation of our corporate human nature, at the head of humanity, is completed, fulfilled. But now, in our individual selves, we participate in what is completed in Christ by the Holy Spirit from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3: 18). What is completed in Christ is ongoing in us while we are living between the times. So we are “being transformed”—sanctified by sharing in the Spirit in Christ’s completed work of sanctifying our human nature.

The New Testament speaks as if human persons have a nature. Persons have a common or corporate nature, but persons are not simply this nature. The New Testament distinguishes between the individual person (the “I”) and their common human nature. Our shared human nature renders Christians vulnerable to temptation and sin. In our current state “between the times” (living in the present evil age before our death and before Christ’s return and our glorification), our common nature has remaining weakness—ones that sin and the power of sin take advantage of. As Paul says, sin “finds opportunity.” We share in human nature, and because of that, we are in transition—in a state of becoming, of being sanctified, transformed, maturing. In this transition time, we are tempted and we sin.

The explanation for our struggle is not that we have a divided self (man/person). Instead, the explanation is that we have a nature that is in transition, which the power of sin can take advantage of. The tension we experience is not between two “parts” within us, but between us (our persons) with our natures in transition and an alien and externally sourced power of sin. We experience this tension “within,” but that is not because the self is divided into two, but because the power of evil can address us at a deep and internal level even after the completed work of Christ. This explanation seems to best sum up our current already-but-not-yet situation and is the New Testament’s understanding of why persons who acknowledge their total allegiance and dependence upon Jesus Christ in repentance and faith can still be tempted and commit sin.

What then shall we do?

How then do we deal with a nature in transition, making us susceptible to temptation and sin? The biblical answer (and admonition) is that we “fight the fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). We are not to be passive, regarding ourselves as helpless victims. Instead, when we sin, we are, with hope and determination, and by the power of the Spirit, to take these steps:

  1. Confess the truth to God and repent. We offer our sin up to God for destruction, thanking God that one day we will see this temptation no more and no longer fall into its trap. By confessing and repenting, we are trusting God to be forgiving, and we receive (not earn) God’s forgiveness and so are restored. God is happy to receive this confession and renew our communion with him.
  2. Realign our thinking and resist sin. As the New Testament states (especially Paul’s writings) based on who we are in Christ and our present and ongoing daily relationship to him by the Spirit, we are to take some initiative for what should have the greater influence upon us and our not-yet-fully-participating human natures. By the grace of God we can begin to align our thoughts, choices, actions and attitudes toward the future of our human natures already transformed in Christ. We can begin to resist the influences that play upon what is passing away or “former” of our human nature. There is one human nature but, we can say, it can face in two directions. The power of sin would have us living in the past, according to what is passing away. But Jesus Christ and the Spirit would have us, with them, align ourselves toward the future that is there for us in Christ—our inheritance laid up for us (Eph. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:4). We participate with the Word and Spirit’s moving us in the direction they are taking us, and that involves trusting that Christ is at work in us by his Spirit. He who began a good work in us will, indeed, bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).
  3. Surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit. Rather than surrendering to the power of sin, we are to surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit within, in hope of the inheritance completed and laid up for us in Christ. We are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is,” setting our minds “on things that are above, not things on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). This translates into action so that we “put to death what is earthly”—those practices in which we “once walked.” We are to “put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” different actions and attitudes (Col. 3:12-14).

Notice how Paul is calling forth a new pattern of living. He points out several times that believers “have put off the old nature [anthropos] with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9-10, RSV). Paul then offers hope: “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4, RSV).

But this hope of the future is not a basis for passivity or hopelessness. It is the basis for Paul’s exhortations to “put to death” (Col. 3:5) “put away” (Col. 3:8) and “put on” thoughts and actions corresponding to who we are in Christ (Col. 3:12, 14). Paul regards this as a process being worked out on the basis of Christ’s completed work: “which is being renewed” (the present participle “being renewed” indicates continuing action, Col. 3:10).

This pattern, which sets forth both the basis and the outworking of it in our lives, is consistent throughout the New Testament. The completed work of Christ is the foundation for our acting on it as we trust in Christ and the foundation he has laid. That is why Calvin emphasized that our whole salvation is complete in Christ, not just part of it. Calvin did so not to encourage passivity and hopelessness, but rather to encourage hopeful, joyful and deliberate participation here and now. Paul put it this way: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness [justification] and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). All this is done for us—not so that we do nothing, but so that we might live into it, grow up into it, participate or share in it starting here and now.

“The Lord’s Prayer” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After pointing out in Eph. 3:20 the “power at work within us,” Paul goes on in Eph. 4:1-16 to exhort us to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (RSV). We show the value of all that Christ has done and who he is as we are “built up” as his body, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood [humanity], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” But “rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” Paul continues by speaking of our human nature (anthropos), exhorting believers to

put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22, 24 RSV)

Because of the finished and completed work of Christ, we are to exert ourselves in hope of it. Paul recognizes that we are involved in a process—which we might liken to a journey—the result of our trust relationship with Christ who has finished his work for us.

Though these passages depict two incompatible patterns of life, there is no sense that these represent two principles internal to us. There is no sense here of a split self, person or nature. Paul is speaking of two paths our human nature can travel, and exhorting us to make the right choice. Jesus Christ is taking us in only one of these directions, and we are called to participate with him in journeying in that direction—the one he has trod and has set out for us to travel in fellowship with him, receiving from him daily by the Holy Spirit.

In Romans 6 Paul brings up for a third time in his writings the idea of an old nature (anthropos). He says it is being “crucified” with Christ so that the “sinful body” might be destroyed and we might “no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). On that basis, Paul gives exhortations, not to passivity, but to active participation. He tells his readers to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). On the basis of who they are in Christ, Paul, hopeful of the outcome, exhorts them with these words:

Let not sin…reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as [those] who have been brought from the dead to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you. (Rom. 6:12-14)

In Romans 7 and 8, Paul goes on to more explicitly show that the tension or opposition lies not between two (divided) selves, persons or natures. He makes his point by bringing to our attention the essential, ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 7 he is clear that it is “sin” or the “power of sin” at work in him that tempts and kills him (Rom. 7:8-11). He sums it up in Rom. 7:17: “So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me, that is, in my flesh [still fallen and weak human nature]. In Rom. 7:20 he reiterates that understanding: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” In Romans 8, Paul spells out most comprehensively the implications for our daily lives:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 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, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:1-17, NRSV)

The opposition revealed here is between us and sin (or the power of sin). It is not between multiple selves or parts of a divided self. As humans, we are not stuck in a hopeless unresolvable existential bind—our participation is not a matter of acquiescing to the power of sin as it plays upon the weakness of our human nature still in transition. Rather, it is a matter of deliberately and hopefully siding with Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit by exerting our lives in the direction that the Spirit wants to take us, to share more fully in the new human nature that Christ has for us. Paul addresses his readers as persons, exhorting them to direct their natures in the direction that Christ has opened up for them and in which they by the Spirit can share. As believers (those in union and communion with God, in Christ, by the Spirit) we can do this only because of our singular identity of being those who belong to Jesus Christ and who live in and by his word and Spirit.

So this is Paul’s description of the dynamics of the Christian life—our life here and now “between the times.” This is what our spiritual union with Christ looks like as it is lived out. We live out our spiritual union with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit on the basis of Christ’s completed and finished work. By his Holy Spirit at work in us, we align ourselves (our own persons) with Christ and against the power of sin that is opposed to us and to God’s intention for us that has been worked out already in Christ’s human nature.

Sin attempts to take advantage of our human nature that is in transition on this side of glorification. Through the weakness of our human nature, sin attempts to lead us in a direction away from Christ instead of moving in the direction that Christ by the Spirit has opened up to us. But through the revelation of Christ and what he has accomplished for us in our human nature, the deceit of sin is exposed. We have a single identity in fellowship with Christ. Though not yet completed in us, the future of our fully sanctified and glorified human nature is complete in him.

Because the full transformation of our natures has been completed in Christ in every dimension (justification, sanctification, glorification), we can deliberately and purposefully begin receiving some of those benefits of Christ’s completed work here and now. Because the Holy Spirit is now at work in us in a way and at a level far deeper than the power of sin can reach, we can participate in our sanctification by faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the whole God.

Christ’s completed work does not result in leading us to passivity or a hopeless bind. Instead, it leads us to repentance and faith and so to an increased capacity to actively receive from God by the Spirit all that Christ has accomplished for us. The fact that we find ourselves living in a time of transition, of becoming, in no way calls into question the singular identity given us by God’s gift of grace, namely that we are his, and all that he has for us is ours in him.


Notes:

Here is additional detail related to the issues addressed above.

  1. The old and new nature

Paul speaks of the “old” nature (anthropos) three times and of “new” nature (anthropos) two times, pairing them twice (Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22, 24). In the third incidence of “old nature” (anthropos) the contrasting idea of newness is brought up, but what is “new” is not “nature” (Rom. 6:6). Doesn’t this way of speaking mean there are two simultaneously existing natures? In short, the answer is no. To explain, we need to understand what exactly is meant by the biblical contrast of old and new in reference to our human nature. There is a contrast here, but not one that affirms the idea of the existence of two natures existing simultaneously in one person, nor one that affirms the idea of the existence of a divided self (two selves, persons, or wills). Old and new describe something about a single human nature that we share here and now between the times. The qualifications of old and new indicate two opposite directions our human nature, in this time of transition, can be directed or guided.

Anthropos, is qualified by Paul in these three passages as being old, which means it is from the ancient past, original or even worn out. New indicates a different quality of that nature—renewed, but not brand new or never before existing. To think of the new nature as being brand new would necessitate thinking that humanity has been given a separate, entirely different kind of human nature created out of nothing (ex nihilo), and then inserted into human existence alongside the old. But that is not the case. That Jesus is said to be “born of a woman,” “under the law” (Gal. 4:4) is to say that he is of human lineage like us, thus indicating that in assuming our human nature, Jesus has fulfilled the promise of coming from the seed of Eve. The New Testament gives no justification for thinking that a second human entity (nature) has been created by God through Christ or by the Spirit—one that is ontologically separated from the first kind of human nature that we possess by birth. Old and new do not indicate two natures. Rather, they characterize one nature in two contrasting ways.

If an absolutely new nature had been created, then there would be no need and no sense for the Son of God to become incarnate or to transform anything. In that case, God would simply create an absolutely new human nature and substitute it for the one we possess. Taking new in such an absolute sense eliminates the need and thus the rationale for the Incarnation, which involves the hypostatic union by which the eternal Son of God assumed our human nature. Without the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, there would have been no redemption of human nature. Instead, the old would simply have been cast off and a new, completely different version of human nature substituted. These theological objections to the idea of a dual nature are significant, conclusive and vitally important. The idea that there are two selves or two natures in the believer at war with one another undermines the nature and significance of the Incarnation and atonement—this is a very serious matter.

The word new is not the only way the New Testament talks about the outcome of the work of Christ on our human nature. It also speaks about our one (human) nature being regenerated (palingenesis), renewed (anakainao—as in Titus 3:4-7), or “reheaded up” (anakephalaiosis as in Eph. 1:10). These words indicate continuity between the old and the new nature. The old nature is not cast aside to be substituted by another brand new version. Instead, the old nature is renewed. Speaking of old and new natures is a metaphor, while speaking of a renewed or regenerated nature is a more literal description. Human nature is not literally old or literally brand new. Rather, certain characteristics of the original nature are fading into the past and will one day be entirely gone because that nature is being renewed, restored, newly conformed to Christ’s perfect humanity, thus possessing different (new) characteristics, namely those of the resurrected (sanctified) life. The idea is that there is one human nature that is being transformed—not one newly created nature being substituted entirely for an old one (thus positing the existence of two natures).

There are many passages that speak of the nature of the Christian life being like this: growing (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 1:10; 1 Pet. 2:2), transforming (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18), becoming conformed (Rom. 8:29), maturing (Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:28; James 1:4), becoming blameless (Phil. 2:15), being sanctified (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23), pressing/running forward (Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 12:1; 1 Cor. 9:26), leaving behind (Heb. 12:1). These all assume a continuity, not a duality of natures (selves, persons, subjectivities, wills).

In accordance with what Paul says in Romans 7, we should think of the transformation of the old nature in such a way that that those characteristics that make it subject to temptation and thus prone to being taken advantage of by sin and the power of sin, are being done away. This old nature is being renewed—a renewal that can be experienced in an anticipatory way in this “between the times” as we participate by the Spirit in Christ’s perfected human nature, looking forward to the day of our glorification when our nature will be perfect and we no longer will be subject to temptation and sin.

The concept of two co-existing natures residing in a single individual is shown even more clearly to be wrong in the Colossians 3 passage, which contrasts old and dead not with new but with resurrected life. Death and resurrected (eternal) life cannot be literally grasped as being simultaneously true of one individual or of two separate realities in tension. Thus, there is no reason to conclude that Paul is thinking about humans as having two literal, co-existing natures.

Unfortunately, several New Testament verses (in some English translations) have given the impression to some that there are two different natures at work in us. But that impression is erroneous, based on false inferences behind loose English translations of the Greek word sarx, which in some versions of the Bible is translated sinful nature (Rom. 7:18, 25; 8:3, 4-13; Gal. 5:17; 6:8; Col. 2:11; 1 Cor. 3:3; Eph. 2:3). Though sarx can legitimately be translated as nature, adding the qualifier sinful, which is not in the text, gives to some the impression that there is also a righteous or holy nature existing side-by-side this sinful nature (though such coexistence is never stated in these passages).

Most English translations do not make the mistake of translating sarx as sinful nature. Instead, they translate it flesh. This closer, and in context preferred, translation does not as readily suggest that there is another kind of flesh (nature) coexisting with this one. When placed in immediate context, there is simply one kind of nature, which is called sarx (flesh).

This is not to deny that the flesh is prone to sin, and so is sinful in that sense. Romans 8 indicates that the flesh we bear is the “flesh of sin”—this is the flesh (nature) that Christ assumed in order to overcome it on our behalf. However, the translation sinful nature seems to leave for some an erroneous impression that the word flesh does not. When we stick with the translation flesh and then see what it is contrasted with, in every passage where a contrast is made, there is no impression left of two natures co-existing in one person. In every instance, flesh is not contrasted with some other kind of flesh (like old flesh with new). Instead, the contrast is with the Holy Spirit. What is being shown to be in opposition in these verses is flesh and Spirit, not one kind of flesh with another kind of flesh.

  1. The nature of the opposition

If the idea of two persons (selves/subjects/subjectivities) is ruled out, does the New Testament account for why believers fall into temptation and sin by teaching that we have two natures that exist in opposition—one waring against the other? The answer is again no, as we’ll see by noting Rom. 7:5, Rom. 7:18 and Rom. 8:13, where humans are said to be “in the flesh” or living “according to the flesh” without using the terms nature or sinful nature. In these verses, flesh is contrasted not with a different or new flesh, but with the Holy Spirit. We find the same thing in 13 other New Testament passages that speak of this contrast or tension.

The understanding throughout is that the single person (agent, self) is either under the influence of the (sinful) human nature that is old in the sense of passing away, or is under the influence, guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit (who is renewing our nature into the likeness of Jesus’ glorified human nature). While the word sinful is not present in any of these passages except when speaking of the flesh that Christ assumed, the fact that he is said to have taken on the “flesh of sin” (Rom. 8:3) means that being sinful can be attributed to our flesh. But even in connection with Christ assuming sinful flesh, the contrast is not made with another opposing co-existing flesh. Rather, Christ assumed our human nature, our sinful flesh, “so that we might have the mind of the Spirit that is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The contrast is still between the sinful flesh and the Spirit, not between two kinds of flesh co-existing in opposition.

In Romans 7 Paul also speaks about our flesh both before (Rom. 7:5) and in the middle (Rom. 7:18) of sorting out how to think about his experience of wrestling with temptation and failing. After announcing his conclusion that it is sin that dwells in him, he says (for the first time): “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Here he distinguishes between himself and his flesh, his nature. But this sin that dwells in him, that is not him, dwells in his flesh, that is, in his human nature. The power of sin takes advantage of or finds opportunity in his flesh (Rom. 7:5, 18). Paul distinguishes between himself, his nature and the power of sin, or simply sin, and that is consistent with all the passages we have surveyed. The opposition he experiences is not between a divided person or two selves or even between an old and new nature. It is sin and the power of sin that is in opposition to him and takes advantage of his fallen human nature, his flesh, his mortal body.

Looking back then, the metaphorical sequence of time in those other three verses (old vs new) is meant to allow for a difference that has to do with the change in the character of the single nature of flesh, not with the distinction of two co-existing natures. There is no ontological duality in humanity of either two selves/subjects/persons or of two opposing human natures.

  1. Only one human nature

Though some Christians (including some theologians) embrace a divided person (man) or nature theory, it should now be clear that that this theory has little, if any, biblical support. New and old do not describe two separate entities in opposition— instead they describe the one human nature that can now in each person be prompted to move in two opposing directions. One direction is “passing away” or is a “former” pattern of living. It is old in that sense—made obsolete, worn out, even though there is still a way in which it is operative. But Christ has opened the door to a new future of human nature completed in him for us.

As T.F. Torrance often stated, Christ, on our behalf, has put human nature on a whole new basis. Human nature has a whole new future that moves in the opposite direction from where it formerly was headed under the power of sin. By the Spirit, we can begin here and now to benefit from that new direction—that new future held out for us in Christ. By the Holy Spirit we can resist the old direction that leads to final death. By the ministry of the Spirit, we can turn and use our natures in a new way, headed in a new direction towards the new future Christ has for us.

This participation by the Spirit in the redirection of our nature according to its renewal in Christ involves a process, a journey. We cannot and will not reach the end or goal (telos) in this life, which already is complete in Christ. However, the Bible teaches that we are to expect some manifestation of that renewal in our lives “between the times.” While we cannot predict the rate and cannot locate the exact extent of our progress, we are meant to be hopeful and optimistic about some transformation in our becoming conformed to Christ. But because the working of the Holy Spirit is personal, individual and dynamic and spans a lifetime, the exact pattern and pace will be individualized—it is a “custom” ministry that does not allow for straight-line predictability. However, the overall pattern of the journey will be one that Calvin described as mortification that leads to vivification, dying with Christ and being raised up with Christ. It will involve repentance and renewal in faith, hope and love, and it never leads in the direction of self-righteousness or self-justification.

Because, as believers, the power of sin is still somewhat operative in our lives, our spiritual union will involve facing opposition to the progress and manifestations of the Spirit’s renewal. This situation, which is related to the weakness of our human nature, calls for engaging in the “fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). There will be setbacks. We will need to confess our sin and failings. But that should not undermine our hope or our efforts to follow Christ and trust in his working in our lives by his word and Spirit. It is a fight worth fighting!

The journey of transformation involves the fight of maintaining faith in the completed working of Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit so that by our spiritual union we, as God enables, can share in the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us in his hypostatic union in our place and on our behalf.

  1. The meaning of anthropos

There are two words in the New Testament that mean the common nature shared by all human beings: phusis and anthropos. These both can and should in some contexts be translated human nature. The word anthropos usually indicates characteristics shared among a class or group of persons. Anthropos describes what makes human beings the same, human. It includes men and women. As such, anthropos could often be translated humanity or humankind, or as we have said, human nature. What Paul describes as old or new is human nature, not an individual self, person or man.

In contrast, the New Testament refers to individual persons, or personal entities primarily by using the word aner, translated most often a man. Aner indicates an individual human being, usually male, but the plural may sometimes include females—some particular individual who is human, that is, a person who shares in the common human nature (anthropos). The use of I (ego), as we saw Paul doing in Romans 7, also indicates an individual person. And finally, the New Testament indicates a unique individual by the words soul or spirit (psuche or pneuma). An individual person (ego, aner, psuche) is a created being and is mortal, yet unique. These three Greek words indicate the central core of who an individual person is. They are used to indicate a particular human being, not what human beings have in common, not their human nature (anthropos).

No human person can be separated from their nature, even though an individual, a subject or self, is not reducible to their nature. Human nature is what we have in common, one with another. Our persons are joined to our natures, but our personhood (I, soul, spirit, subjectivity) is what makes us different from one another—not interchangeable with one another—it is what makes us unique and irreplaceable, one of a kind. The two are distinct but inseparable. Consequently, in some cases the best translation of anthropos would be human nature, which in context means human nature in transition and so prone to sin, or still able to sin. In no case is there good reason to translate anthropos as self.

In Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22-24, old and new are contrasted by translating anthropos as self (NIV) or man (KJV). This mistranslation leads to the false understanding that two selves or persons somehow co-exist alongside each other, either as a divided person or as a person who is internally divided into two separate and opposing parts—the old self (man) and the new self (man). But as we have seen, anthropos does not mean an individual self or an individual human (human being, person, subject). Anthropos is a reference to what human persons have in common, whereas ego (I), aner (a man), and psuche (soul) are used in the New Testament to convey the meaning of distinct individuals or personal entities and thus are rightly translated self or man. There can be multiples of these distinct, separate selves (but not multiple natures) that can co-exist in opposition, since individual selves are external to one another, but human nature is not, since it is what all human have in common.

It does seem that when Paul couples anthropos with old and new, he is, in a way, personifying human nature (anthropos). However, by mistranslating anthropos as man or self, what is meant to be taken metaphorically (as a personification of the generic, shared human nature) is turned into a description of an individual person or self. Such mistranslation or misinterpretation of a personification reverses what is meant. What is particular and individual (self, person/man) becomes substituted for what is generic and common among all human beings. But that’s the rub. There is no literal man or self there, alongside another subject, person, self.

What is characterized as old and new is what all human beings have in common, not what makes them individual persons, selves, subjects, agents. Anthropos does not mean a literal self, a literal human subject (an “I”). So we are not being told in these verses that there are two selves, or two persons. Translations that indicate otherwise are in error and are misleading. A more accurate translation would be that all human persons share a human nature that can be headed in two directions, towards what is passing away or is obsolete, or what is new and is being renewed.

Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22-24 do not say that the human nature being described as old and new are in tension with one another, or struggling against one another. There is a tension and opposition going on that is being addressed in the larger contexts, but it nowhere indicates that there is a tension between old and new natures. The struggle is actually between the person (with their human nature they have in common with all other humans) and an alien party, namely, sin or the power of sin. Every place Paul speaks of our nature being old and new, there is no mention of a tension between them. Everywhere he does mention a tension, it is between a person with their fallen nature (most often sarx or flesh) and sin and the power of sin.

The theological idea of a divided self or of a self that is experiencing an internal division, seems to depend on a conflation of passages that speak of opposition and tension in a person’s life (e.g., Romans 7) with passages that talk about human nature that has a past that was heading in one direction and now has a future in Christ, heading in the opposite direction (Col. 3:9-10; Eph. 4:22-24). This conflation, which is unwarranted, violates the meaning of the words used in each context and confuses two different points being made in those two different contexts.

The words for self, person or individual are not used in any explanation of why Christians are tempted and sin. Rather, human nature (anthropos) is used in such discussions to explain it, and in those contexts the reason given is that sin is able to take advantage of the lingering weakness of our human nature on this side of our death and resurrection. That is why Paul, in those explanations, addresses our subjects, our I’s, our deepest self, our subjecthood, with their single identity, and exhorts us to side with Christ and the Spirit and thereby direct our human nature to act in a way that points towards its new future created in the image of Christ and held for us as our inheritance. Paul is thinking of a single subject with a single identity that can direct and express its life by means of a single common human nature which, at this point in time, can be made to head in two different directions, only one of which aligns with our new identity in Christ and thus with the movement of the Holy Spirit.

  1. The meaning of flesh and body

Other words besides anthropos are used in the New Testament to explain why we can still sin (and thus need to repent and confess and receive forgiveness) although we have a new identity in union with Christ. Those words are flesh (sarx) and body (soma). They are used synonymously with human nature (anthropos) and are sometimes translated nature. Individual human persons with their singular identities are said to have flesh (sarx) and bodies (soma) and to have or share a common humanity (anthropos). All three of these words can be translated common human nature.

The New Testament declares that the power of sin takes advantage of the weakness of human nature, of human flesh (corrupted human nature) and of our mortal (subject to death) “bodily” natures. In that regard, it should be noted that flesh and body do not mean in the New Testament simply being physical, having flesh and bones. They represent human creatures who have “corrupted” natures that are subject to death and prone to sinning.

Having bodies or flesh is not evil in and of itself. They were created good. But our creaturely natures have been corrupted and therefore need to be renewed from the bottom up by God’s grace and intervention through Christ and his assumption of our human nature, flesh or bodies, for sanctification and glorification in him and ultimately in us. This is how Jesus’ incarnation is described in the New Testament. He is said to assume our human nature, our flesh and our mortal body. These are synonymous descriptions. And what he assumed, he sanctified. What was crucified was raised up for us, in our place and on our behalf.

When speaking of flesh (sarx) or body (soma), mistranslation does not occur since it makes no sense to think of them being multiple, divided or set in opposition to one another, flesh against flesh or body against body. Given that anthropos means a common human nature, and that sarx and soma are synonymous with it, anthropos should be translated in a way consistent with sarx and soma. Such consistency rules out the idea that what is being spoken of (fallen human nature) is a divided self (two selves) or an individual person who has some kind of internal division involving two simultaneously existing natures in opposition to one another.

The New Testament authors address those who are believing and who have been incorporated into Christ (are in union with Christ) as having a single identity. They are who they are and who they are becoming in relationship to Jesus Christ. The identity of believers comes from their relationship with Christ and not from their human nature. The believer who (by definition) is united to Christ has a human nature that is in transition from when it was alienated from God to what it is in Christ, sanctified and redeemed. On the basis of that identity given by grace, the believer is to side with the Spirit so that their weak human nature is not controlled by sin, which attempts to take advantage of its lingering weakness and turn it away from the direction Christ is taking it.

For people who have their identity in Christ, though sin is not necessary, is possible due to the weakness of their human nature. This means that believers, to receive forgiveness and so be rid of guilt and shame, need to confess and repent when they sin. But they do so as those who belong to Jesus Christ, who has promised never to leave or forsake them. They do so on the basis of the sure hope of their eventual total participation by the Spirit in who they truly are in Christ—fully sanctified and glorified children of God.

Sermon for August 27, 2017

Scripture readings: Ex. 1:8-2:10 and Ps. 124 
(or Isa. 51:1-6 and Ps. 138) 
Rom. 12:1-8; Matt. 16:13-20 

Sermon by Dustin Lampe from Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12:1-8

TOTAL SURRENDER (part 1)
GIVE IT UP!

Note: this is part 1 of a 2-part sermon with the overall title "Total Surrender." Part 2 (Give It Away!), covering Matt. 16:21-28, will be published in the August issue of Equipper.

Introduction

Common wisdom says surrender is for fools:

  • It’s the antithesis of strength and control
  • It’s what wimps do
  • It’s the last resort after you’ve tried everything else
  • Common wisdom says you must “hold the rope or die”—do not surrender to weakness!
  • It says never give up on your dreams and your goals—never surrender them!

Well, that’s what the world says. But according to Scripture, surrender is for the truly wise:

  • It’s not an act of the will, but a letting go of willfulness
  • It’s the calling of every Christian
  • It’s the final letting go of the idolatry of self
  • Scripture says that surrender to God is the only way to freedom
  • Ultimately, surrender is about letting go of attachments
  • It’s more than just a one-time act—surrender is a way of life

Let’s face it, we will all surrender to something or someone, but to what (or who) do Christians surrender? In this sermon I’ll assume we all have surrendered to Christ—but can we learn more about what that means and how to live it out more fully?

What is Surrender?

Perhaps a story will help answer this important question:

A man was traveling and found a precious diamond, previously undiscovered. He put it in his pocket and kept it. One day another man comes up and asks the man for the diamond. Upon request, the traveler gave the beggar the diamond. The beggar departed overjoyed that he had been given the virtually priceless diamond. However, after a few days, the beggar returned in search of the traveler and gave him back the diamond. He entreated him: “Give me something much more precious than this rock. Give me that which enabled you to give the diamond to me.”

That, my friends, is what surrender looks like. Both the traveler and the beggar surrendered. Like the traveler, we all have accumulated a certain amount of precious things, be they material, emotional, academic, etc. Like the beggar, we all have grasped these things, holding them tightly. But perhaps like the beggar and the traveler we have learned to surrender to the greatest gift of them all—the gift of surrender itself.

Today, let’s think about surrender in light of three questions raised and answered in today’s Gospel and Epistle lections:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. To what are we clinging?
  3.  How do we see people?

Let’s take them one by one.

1. Who is Jesus?

Let’s reread our Gospel passage, Matthew 16:13-20.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Here is a call to awareness. We all need to be aware of who Jesus is and the authority he possesses. There are various theories about the identity of “this rock” Jesus mentions here. A likely explanation is that it’s Peter’s confession as to Jesus’ identify as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. This confession is the “key” that opens access to the kingdom, and Peter is leading the way.

“St. Peter” by Besenzi (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What is clear from this passage is that Jesus, as Messiah and Son of God, is in charge—he is the key and Peter’s calling (one we share) is to loosen his grip on the things of earth so he will be set free to grab hold of the things of heaven—Jesus himself.

We have a tendency to want to make things difficult. Unlike Peter, we don’t just confess that Jesus is Messiah and Master and leave it at that. We want to go out and conquer. We want to win and we want to be right. Therefore, at times we need to pull back and realize the bottom line: Our principal calling is to surrender to Christ, to his perfect will; to confess who he is: “Lord, you are God and I am not!”

But we don’t like letting go of the things we hold tight to. We cling to man-made ways of achieving salvation, deliverance, happiness. Chief among them are man-made religions, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. It almost always includes the idolatry of self. We like to tell Jesus that we have thing under control—“I’m my own Messiah, thank you Jesus—you need not worry about me, I can take care of it.” No spirit of surrender here—just self-protective, self-justifying idolatry!

2. To what are we clinging?

What are we holding in our tight grip? A desire for acceptance? A desire for control? Permission to harbor unforgiveness (it sometimes feels good to refuse to forgive others, it keeps them indebted to us!). But to the extent we hold onto things like that, we will lack the ability to hold onto Christ, our true source of spiritual power, deliverance, healing, salvation.

Let’s read again the first part of today’s lection from the Epistles:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Rom. 12:1-3)

The command here is to “be transformed.” But what does that mean? Sometimes (often?) this passage is used as a call to effort: “Work hard at transforming yourself!” “Get to work, be more disciplined.” Well, we are called to participate in the work the Spirit is doing in us to both call us to Christ and conform us to Christ. And so our will, our effort is involved. But just as we are justified by grace, so too are we sanctified (transformed) by grace)—both are gift of God that we receive by surrendering to Christ—letting go of what we’re holding on to and grabbing hold of him!

The gift of transformation by the spirit comes to those who surrender to the Spirit. This is made clear in Rom. 12:4-8 where the Spirit, as part of what is he doing to conform us to Christ, gives us gifts for ministry. Note also in Rom. 12:3 -5 the emphasis on surrendering self in order to love others, and that leads us to our third question:

3. How do we see people?

As we know, the greatest command is to love God and love people. The question now is this: How do we see people?

God, who is a triune communion of love, has created us in his image. Therefore we, like God, are relational beings—wired for relationship. We are in constant relation to other people, whether we are near them or not. Agree with them or not. Love them or can’t stand them (and sometimes we feel both ways about the same person, amen?).

If we are to understand surrender and how we’re doing with it, we must take a step back and look at how we see people, because this most definitely ties in with how we see God and his call for us to surrender.

There is a Chinese story of an old farmer who had an old horse for tilling his fields. One day the horse escaped into the hills and when all the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
 
A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”
 
Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later the army marched into the village and enlisted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they passed him by.

Was that good luck? Bad luck? Many things that seem to be evil may be good in disguise and vice versa. Thus we are wise when we leave it to God to decide what is good luck and what is bad, and thank him that “all things turn out for the good for those who love him.”

Think about this story of the old farmer—I hope you find it greatly freeing. We can get caught up in all kinds of complications, scruples, legislations. Sometimes it’s good to shake all that off and hear the simple command from Jesus: “Love God and love people.” And when we think about the consequences related to this command (obedience or disobedience) once again we are set free, because in thinking of ourselves soberly and realizing our humble limitations, we aren’t being asked to do it perfectly. We aren’t called to solve the problems of mankind. That is not our burden. We are called to do our best and leave the results to God.

How will things turn out from there? Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

In our relationships with God, people and self—we are most fortunate when we surrender the consequences of our decisions in our relationships with others and don’t cling to any preconceptions about the results.

Conclusion

What do stories about diamonds being held loosely, and farmers walking simply, mean for us today? Is this just rhetoric to throw on the flames of the fires of contemplative people? Is this mere philosophy? Or do these things matter in your real, everyday life?

Many of the basic cycles you are caught in whether you are aware of them or not (cycles of worry, anxiety, fear, anger, unforgiveness, seeking control), hold us prisoner if you cannot look at them and address them asking the three questions our readings today has bid us ask:

  1. Who is Jesus? Will you run to him, confess him, trust him!
  2. To what are you clinging? Will you loosen your grip on the “stuff” of life and binds you to be free to grab hold of Jesus?
  3. How do you see people? Do you see them as complicated messes outside of God’s superintending care. Will you surrender to him and to his will and join him in loving people unconditionally, the way he does?

A final thought here: you cannot surrender by an act of your own will. Surrender too is a gift of God’s grace. It’s one often received in stages. So take a deep breath, ask God for the gift, and receive it with an open heart. And don’t be in a big hurry—surrendering typically means being “actively passive.” Grace and time are essential. God is not in a hurry.


You may wish to close by leading the congregation in a prayer of surrender. Below is a sample (perhaps it could be printed in your bulletin so people can read it with you then take it home).

Loving Father, I surrender to you with all my heart and soul. Please come into my heart in a deeper way. I say “yes” to you today. I open all the secret places in my heart to you and say, “come on in.” 

Jesus, you are the Lord of my whole life. I believe in you and yield to you afresh as my Lord and Savior. I hold nothing back. 

Holy Spirit, bring me deeper conversion to the person of Jesus Christ. I surrender all to you---my health, family, resources, occupation, skills, relationships, time management, successes and failures. I release it all to you and let it go. I surrender my understanding of how things ought to be---my choices and my will. I surrender to you the promises I have kept and the promises I have failed to keep. To you, Holy Spirit, I surrender my weaknesses and my strengths. 

In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

 

On Leadership: Toward team-based leadership

Rick and Cheryl Shallenberger

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

This is part 4 of a series on Christian leadership. For other articles in the series, click a number: 123, 5, 6, 7, 8.

In the first few months of being employed full-time as a GCI pastor, I had a wonderful idea of how to get the entire congregation into small groups. I shared my idea with the congregation’s leadership team, believing I had their full support. I spent months working on charts, figuring out who would attend which group, who would be the facilitators and what topics would be covered. Each time we met, I shared where I was in the planning process and tried to get the team as excited as I was.

A couple of weeks before I planned to announce the plan to the congregation, I had one more meeting with the leaders to get their input. I quickly realized that the team was not as enthusiastic as I was. I asked what was up. After some hemming and hawing, one brave soul spoke up: “Well, it’s a nice idea, but it’s not going to work.” Others chimed in with reasons the plan was not going to work and added that trying to implement it could damage the congregation. I was in a bit of shock. I asked why hadn’t anyone said anything earlier? The response: “Well, you are the pastor, we are supposed to follow you. And honestly, you didn’t ask for our advice.”

That was a learning opportunity for me and the team. I had assumed the team knew I wanted their input and that they were free to disagree. But based on their previous experience, they were assuming things would be done my way, because, after all, I was the pastor. As time progressed, and we learned to work together, we had some good laughs about how our first few months went. It was a learning opportunity for us all.

(used with permission from Christianity Today)

CORE process

Some of us on the GCI-USA Church Administration and Development (CAD) team, with the help of GiANT Worldwide consultant Tom Nebal, have been learning about what is called the CORE process of leadership. Here’s what it looks like in chart form:

As explained in an earlier Equipper article, the Core process involves knowing yourself to lead yourself. The leadership process that syncs with this journey has four steps: call it, own it, response and execute. Reflecting on the learning opportunity described above in light of this process led me to the following observations. I hope what I share here will be of help to you and others on your leadership team.

Call it

What was my learning opportunity? In this case I had failed to establish meaningful parameters for making decisions as a team. Those parameters should have included the following:

  • Understanding the difference between an idea and a decision (I’ll address this issue further in a future Equipper).
  • Letting the team know you want their honest opinion (no matter how enthusiastic we are at presenting something, our team won’t know of our desire for their input unless we ask for it).
  • Letting the team know they are free to disagree, just not be disagreeable.
  • Explaining to the team the concept of a congregation being pastor-led and team-based. Many people do not understand team leadership.

Own it

It might have been easy for me to try to turn this situation on the team: “You guys were just going to let me fail?” But it’s important for a leader to take personal responsibility in each learning opportunity. So I had to own it: “I apologize for not being clear on how I see this team working. I want to hear your thoughts, even if you disagree with mine. That’s how we work together.”

It’s unfortunate that some leaders don’t understand that their role is to lead, not demand. A good leader owns the learning opportunities, though, admittedly, it’s not always easy to do so. If you’re like me, your first reaction might be defensive. But work past that defensiveness, listen to others, then own the learning opportunity.

Response

Once you call it, then own it, the next step in benefitting from the learning opportunity is to determine the right response. Here’s something I learned: just because you’ve taken personal responsibility doesn’t mean you’re alone in determining the response.

When I got over the shock that none of the team members believed my plan would work, I asked for their advice. In order for us to work as a team, I knew I needed their input. As we talked, I realized some steps I could take to be more effective as the team’s leader. I asked them to help me be a better leader by reminding me to ask for their input, thus helping me stay accountable to the team. We worked out our responses together.

Execute

After determining the right response(s), the next step is to execute—to put the selected response into practice. It’s easy to fall back into old (sometimes bad) habits, so others are needed to keep us accountable so that we can move forward as a team.

The example I gave above was not the last time I got over-enthusiastic about a plan that would not work. Thankfully, the team knew I wanted their input and felt free to share it as we worked together as a team.

Call it, Own it, Response, Execute—these are the steps in the CORE process and key elements in effective, team-based leadership.

Four leadership types

We all work best when given clear expectations (challenges) along with strong support. In CAD we refer to this as “high support with high challenge.” Most of us have worked in environments where these two elements were not present in balance. Perhaps you’ve worked where there was high challenge but little, if any, support. Some have experienced high support with little, if any, challenge. And some have experienced little support or challenge. These experiences point to the reality that there are four basic leadership types/approaches (as shown in the matrix below): abdicator, protector, dominator and liberator. Let’s look at each, asking two questions: 1) What type of leader am I? 2) What sort of environment exists in my congregation or ministry team?

1. Abdicator (low challenge-low support)

When we as leaders provide little support or challenge, we are operating as an abdicator—taking no responsibility for what needs to be done. The result of that sort of leadership is apathy. When expectations are low, results are low as well.

2. Protector (low challenge-high support)

When we provide high support but no challenge, we may be implying that we do not trust those we lead to fulfill their responsibilities. Enablers are often found in this category—ones who might initially give a challenge but then, feeling the challenge is too much, withdraw it and do the task themselves. A protector may be more focused on affirming you and making you feel special than on helping you perform and thus grow. A leader who is more concerned about being liked than being effective will likely give high support but low challenge. This approach tends to yield mistrust and an atmosphere of entitlement.

3. Dominator (high challenge-low support)

The leader who gives high challenge but low support comes across as more interested in tasks than in people. Dominators often micro-manage. They give lots of responsibility (often they are good delegators), but rather than empowering the person to accomplish the task his or her way, they insist that the task be done their way. Because the dominator is not always clear about what their way entails, an atmosphere of fear and resentment results. Instead of feeling part of a team, people feel like pawns being manipulated to do the leader’s work the leader’s way.

4. Liberator (high support-high challenge)

Effective leaders empower people to lead others. Liberating leaders give team members challenges and then ask, “How can I help you, or resource you, to do this task?” A liberator doesn’t tell you how to do the task and doesn’t want you coming back to them with all the details. She trusts you to do what needs to be done using your gifts and talents. As a result, you feel liberated, empowered and you start looking for more opportunities to serve.

Conclusion

This is only a brief synopsis of the CORE process and the four leadership types. If you’d like to learn more, your Regional Pastor is happy to review this material with you in greater depth, helping you develop the leadership team within your congregation.

Let me close by offering a challenge. Each of our Regional Pastors take their responsibilities seriously. They spend a lot of time praying for guidance and direction, asking God to help them be leaders who are liberators. I challenge you to spend a few minutes each day praying for your RP. I believe that, with Christ as our guide, as we pray and work together as teams of leaders who are liberators, we will see more and more leaders emerge to serve both the present and the future of GCI.

Sermon for August 20, 2017

Scripture Readings: Gen. 45:1-15 and Ps. 133 
(or Isa. 56:1, 6-8 and Ps. 67) 
Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matt. 15:10-28

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matthew 15:10-28

Mega-Faith

Introduction

This sermon looks at a powerful example of faith from an unexpected source. The backdrop is what we read in Matt. 15:10-20, along with the history of Israel’s conquest of those living in the Promised Land.

In our Gospel passage today Matthew tells of Jesus confronting the Jew’s spiritual concept of clean versus unclean—both things and people. The Jews had misinterpreted the ceremonial laws written by Moses, thinking that people were made spiritually unclean by the introduction of contaminants in their food. Their idea of clean was not like our modern understanding of good hygiene. They thought that there was some spiritual effect to exposure to uncleanness. Jesus debunks that notion, explaining that spiritual uncleanness is rooted in sinful human thoughts.

Considering Gentiles to be unclean, Jews refused to enter the home of a Gentile and would not eat with them. Of all the Gentile peoples, to the Jewish mind there were none worse than the Canaanites, the former inhabitants of the Land promised to the descendants of Israel. Canaan was Noah’s notorious grandson. His descendants were the people that the Israelites were to displace at the end of their exodus and migration from Egypt. Moses explained that it was because of their sinful and degenerate practices that God had determined that they had to be expelled from the Land lest they influence the Israelites into adopting their corrupt and idolatrous ways. During his travels, Jesus encountered a descendant of the Canaanites and in the process set the record straight about the notion of unclean people and the role faith plays in the grace of God.

The Canaanite woman’s request

Jesus spent most of the years of his ministry within the borders of Israel. He served the people who lived in the provinces of Galilee and Judea and on occasion those who lived in Samaria, which was between Galilee and Judea. Only rarely did he travel outside these three provinces. In Matthew 15:21-28 we have an account of one such occasion.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. (Matt. 15:21).

Perhaps this was a short getaway to rest and refresh away from the antagonistic religious leaders from Jerusalem as well as the massive crowds that showed up everywhere Jesus went. But even in the regions of Tyre and Sidon he could not avoid being recognized.

“Christ and the Caananite Woman” by Drouais (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (Matt. 15:22)

This Canaanite woman’s request was unusual. She did not call Jesus “Rabbi” or “Teacher” as others (including Jesus’ disciples) often did. Instead, she called him “Lord, Son of David.” The leaders of the Jewish religion would never have called Jesus that. The term “Son of David” was one of the highest titles that could be conferred upon a man—it literally implied Messiah.

Why would this Gentile, this woman, this Canaanite, call Jesus “Lord” followed by such a title? Her choice of words give away the answer: she was a long-distance believer. Somehow she had come to learn about Jesus and consider him the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish faith. Although she was not a Jew, she was like many Gentiles who, living near Jews, were influenced by their religious beliefs. Such people were referred to as God-fearers. And here was Jesus in her city! Here was her opportunity to be delivered from the demonic torture she was experiencing through her troubled daughter. She did what a believer would do: ask for divine help.  But she did not casually ask. Instead, she “cried out” to Jesus, pleading for mercy.

Jesus did not answer a word. (Matt. 15:23a)

Jesus had encountered people before who, through demonic influence, recognized him, calling him Son of God and the like. He was not impressed by a flattering greeting. We do not know what he was thinking when he did not respond. But it did not matter: the woman would not let go. She followed Jesus and his disciples, repeating her request, pestering them with her calls.

So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Matt. 15:23b)

Perhaps they wanted Jesus to react as they felt. After all, they knew she was a foreigner, and their Jewish revulsion of Gentiles might have been showing. Or maybe they just wanted Jesus to satisfy her request so that they could be rid of her.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24)

This answer reveals a specific detail of Jesus’ mission that might not have been obvious. Matthew had written that among those who welcomed Jesus’ birth as son of David (Matt. 1:1), Messiah (Matt. 1:16), and king of the Jews (Matt. 2:1) included the Magi, who were Gentiles, but nonetheless had travelled far to worship him (Matt. 2:2). They seemed to realize that his coming had implications far beyond the Jewish people, and they were correct. Although Jesus was well aware of the covenant with Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed, and knew that he, Jesus, came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17), he  had a target audience for that phase of his earthly ministry, a target that excluded ministry outside of the people of Israel. His target was not based on preference or discrimination. It was purposeful in concert with God’s plan, and it was practical in consideration of his limitations as a single human being.

It was important that his disciples understand this target audience, and he had clearly told them that they had the same target audience in their earlier temporary evangelistic ministry (Matt. 10:5). Later Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) as God’s plan intended, but for that moment he focused on his immediate target. Apparently, the woman heard Jesus as he mentioned this target audience to his disciples.

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.” (Matt. 15:25)

Showing unusual understanding, persistence, and faith, the woman did two extraordinary things: she knelt in worship and asked for help. Kneeling demonstrated her humble and worshipful spiritual posture. In her mind, the Messiah—sent by the God of Israel—was sent for her too. Her simple request for help echoed the humble trust of the Psalmist, who wrote, “My help comes from the Lord” (Ps. 121:2). This faith that she expressed was simple. She believed that the one to whom she was speaking had the power and grace to answer, so she put her whole heart into her petition.

Dogs?

[Jesus] replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:26)

Why would Jesus respond in such a seemingly derogatory way? Did he literally think of her as a dog? Was he deliberately trying to offend her? The text does not convey such details as facial expression or tone of voice that could give meaning to the words. But a careful examination of the Greek version of Matthew’s words softens what seems a harsh statement. The Greek word translated dogs is accurately translated little dogs (as in the NKJV). The word we might use today is puppies. In a figurative word picture the woman would have understood, Jesus portrayed children with their puppies in a household setting. Snatching a child’s food from its mouth and giving it to a puppy would be inappropriate. The God-fearing woman realized that the Israelites were the covenant people—the children—and that the puppies, though in the household, were not. She accepted that fact.

To some people, Jesus’ statement might have been offensive. It certainly tested the woman’s sincerity. Although she understood the word picture, she could have seen such a portrayal from a Jew visiting her homeland as disparaging. If she was inclined, she could have reacted angrily. Anything other than a humble response would have exposed her as a hypocrite for calling Jesus by such a high title, and asking of him such a serious favor.

One who truly trusts Jesus as the Anointed One of God sent for the deliverance of humanity will put him above everything else that otherwise would be important: personal pride, race, nationality, culture, religion, ideology, gender—everything! Jesus gave her permission to show what she truly thought about him and she did. She showed that she really believed that he was all she had uttered.

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matt. 15:27)

This statement, far from being just a quick-witted response, exposed her inner thoughts and motivations. Humble, yet insistent upon calling him Lord, she turned Jesus’ word picture into a true presentation of her faith and fervent desire for his favorable response. As she saw it, the children of Israel were being fed by their Master, and some of the goodies that fell from their plates were appropriate game for a hungry puppy standing by.

The grace of God

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt. 15:28)

Jesus’ hesitancy, along with everything he had said so far, seemed unfavorable to this woman. Suddenly, his surprising words revealed his true heart toward her. In the Greek text, the word used for Jesus’ characterization of the woman’s faith was megas. The English word mega is derived from this Greek word. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is also translated loud, high, large, strong, and mighty. Jesus acknowledged her faith that shouted as if amplified by a megaphone! What a compliment! But even more awesome were his words that followed: “Your request is granted.” Her request was for deliverance and healing, a divine act that could not possibly have been earned. Jesus said it was granted. That’s another way of saying it was a gift—the essence of grace. The result was the instant deliverance and healing of her daughter. Glory to God!

Application

What does this mean to us?  This powerful example was written not to applaud one person’s exceptional faith, but to show Jesus’ followers what mega-faith looks like. Please do not look at it as a standard to measure up to. Instead, consider it an invitation to express similar faith, and a pattern of trusting in and believing in Jesus for us to emulate.  Let’s consider that pattern.

Mega-faith starts with knowing who Jesus really is. Knowing that he is not just another prominent religious leader or great teacher, but the Son of God and High Priest, shapes our reaction to him, encouraging us to boldly approach him, acknowledging who he is, and humbly presenting our requests. Because of who he is, we can trust that he will faithfully respond (Jesus always does who Jesus is). Even if there seems to be an abnormally long silence before his response; even if there seems to be an indifference to our need or insensitivity to our suffering, we know better than to give in to discouragement because we know Jesus!

At the same time, realize that mega-faith does not originate with us. It’s natural for us to have feelings of weakness. Jesus is the author of real mega-faith, so don’t be reluctant to ask for it—he shares his mega-faith with us! Like the Canaanite woman, simply kneel and ask him for help.  The sheer act of praying for faith is an expression of faith.

Because we are not fault-free, we may experience reality checks that confront us with unpleasant facts about ourselves. Resist prideful reactions. Instead, humbly admit the truth, accept the facts, and objectively consider who we really are—sinners, broken, in need!

Remember to take comfort in the word of God, its covenant and promises.  Knowing the plan that the triune God has for us heartens and reassures us to press forward, without withdrawal, knowing that faith requires patience, persistence and endurance.

And then, we wait for our Lord’s gracious answer.

Conclusion

The Gospel accounts do not suggest that many followers of Jesus had mega-faith. In fact, Matthew records more than one conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which he described their faith as “little” (Matt. 6:30; 17:20). Jesus wanted his target audience to believe strongly, but it seemed that the extraordinary examples of faith, even those that astonished Jesus, came from Gentiles such as the centurion at Capernaum (Matt. 8:10) and this Canaanite woman. Those considered marginal or outsiders by the more religions types can take courage—Jesus sees them through different eyes.

The Holy Spirit inspired two of the Gospel writers to include this story as an example of faith and God’s grace. As we grow in knowing Jesus, and in that knowledge expect the grace of God to be generously poured out upon us, we will increasingly open ourselves to that grace that comes to us from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit.

Amen!

Sermon for August 13, 2017

Scripture readings: Gen. 37:14, 12-28 (or 1 Kings 19:9-18; 
Ps. 85:8-13) Rom. 10:5-15; Matt. 14:22-33

Sermon by Josh McDonald from Matthew 14:22-33

Watch While You’re Walking 

Introduction

Our Gospel lection today tells of Jesus defying the laws of physics by walking on water. This story has fascinated people for centuries. Three Gospels record it: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Today we’ll look at the account in Matthew 14:22-33.

“Against the Wind” by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

Jesus: like none other

There are folks who try to discount or even get rid of Jesus’ miracles to make the Bible more palatable to modern sensibilities. They say the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:15-21) was merely a miracle of sharing. They say the exorcisms performed by Jesus were merely the way he approached mental illness—giving those who suffered counseling then restoring them to community, thus healing them. They say other miracles of healing are merely about Jesus being a great person who people looked to for strength and comfort, thus getting better.

“Christ Feeding the Multitudes,” Coptic Icon
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Well Jesus was a great, charismatic person—he did many things that were marvelous, yet not miraculous. However, Matthew and the other Gospel writers were not apologetic about Jesus being a great miracle worker. Tellingly, we have not found a single ancient manuscript of the Gospels where the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is found apart from the story of Jesus walking on water. Together, these two stories demonstrate that Jesus was quite unlike anyone else. He even exceeded the prophets, who sometimes performed miraculous feedings and healings. However, you don’t find the prophets defying space, time and gravity the way Jesus did in walking on water.

The cultural setting

To give you the cultural context of this story, we need to understand how the culture of that time viewed the sea. It terrified them! It symbolized all that was dangerous, mysterious, untamed in the world. To them the ocean was like nuclear energy is to us today—something that can be useful, but is unspeakably dangerous. One of the promises in Revelation 21 when the new heavens and new earth are created is that there will be “no more sea.” To the mind of its original readers, this would be a comforting image, whether it means there would be literally no more water or something else. They looked forward to the time there would be no more sea because the sea was chaos and disorder and the ONLY one—the ONLY person who controlled the sea—was God.

So, earlier in Matthew, when Jesus calmed the sea by his word, the disciples wouldn’t have reacted with, “That was cool!” They would have jumped to the other side of the boat to get away from him! Who is this guy! What is he doing!!!

So we have to see what they saw in their time, in their cultural context. For them, what Jesus did was humanly impossible, so he must be a ghost.

Unpacking the story

Let’s look at the passage closely:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. (Matt. 14:22-24)

This is an emotional time in Jesus’ ministry. His cousin John the Baptist has just been executed by the king. We see Jesus spending time alone more than once, and he seems pretty emotional. “You give them something to eat!” he says to the disciples. And here he “made” them get into the boat. The original wording is very strong—get in the boat and get out of here! He compels them to get in the boat.

Hard to know exactly why Jesus did that. The crowd was pretty unruly, and in Mark it says they were forcibly trying to make Jesus king—the conquering Messiah who will finally lead them to political victory. Who knows, maybe the disciples were taking part in this. Perhaps they wanted to join the riot, stir up the crowd like so many “Messiahs” and revolutionary leaders had done before.

Or maybe Jesus was trying to keep them from pride. They’d just been part of a huge miracle, and there was a crowd waiting to adore them. Who can resist that? The moment was theirs and they were in the spotlight. They were ready for the post-game interviews. They were ready to sign some autographs and get some attention. Isn’t that always the temptation? We might be involved in some great work of God or glorify him in some way and the Spirit says to us, “Get out of here! You can’t handle this—and your pride is going to get the best of you!” Come away to where only God is glorified—that is the best reward.

Jesus goes away by himself again. I wish we had a recording of his prayer at that time. He is still hurting about his cousin’s death—how could that happen? He’d known John since before they were born, when John jumped within his Aunt Elizabeth’s womb.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. (Matt. 14:25-26)

So here they are on the sea—which they’re already pretty afraid of, and now it’s getting worse. They are at the mercy of whatever spirits control the sea, and the spirits are upset! Suddenly, one of them has broken through! Suddenly, the spirit world is touching their world directly. The spirits are so upset that one of them is now coming across the water toward them!

They “cried out in fear.” The Greek word is ekrazo. It’s a word that sounds like what it’s supposed to be—like “splash” or “crunch.” They didn’t sit there saying, “Oh look, there’s a ghost…” No, they ekrazoed! One translator says, they squawked! If you had this experience, you’d be squawking too!

In Mark 6:48, Mark writes that Jesus “was about to pass by them.” This small detail says a lot. In Exodus 33, God reveals himself to Moses. He says to him, I will cover you with my hand while I “pass you by.” Thus we have a hint here of who Jesus actually is—of what’s going on.

So the disciples are on the sea going nuts! And the sea is so angry with them it’s sent somebody to take them out? Have you ever been walking around in the dark and all those horror movies you shouldn’t have watched back in the 80s come back to haunt you? You’re thinking, Man, I really shouldn’t have watched The Shining so many times in college! Then all of sudden a cat or dog or something jumps out from behind a tree and you have a small heart attack. That’s what we’re talking about here, only it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity.

Finally, Jesus talks to them:

“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matt. 14:27)

In saying “It is I,” Jesus was, in essence, saying “I AM”—thus hinting again at his true identity. We see God the “I AM” throughout the Old Testament. Every time God appears to someone or approaches someone and they fall on the floor groveling, he says, “Don’t be afraid, I AM.” I am is God’s name. Moses asked God, “Who should I say sent me?” And out of the bush God replied, “I AM.”

We’ve all been there many times: When the storm comes in—our finances fail, or we get a bad diagnosis, or a relationship crumbles. We feel alone—life is a storm and we are sometimes tempted to say, All there is, is the storm, there is no center, there is no logic. Then Jesus comes to us—right in the middle of the storm. We don’t recognize him until he’s right there next to us and says, “Don’t be afraid, I AM.”

I think of the time my dad was in the hospital. He had a mental breakdown some years ago—had to go on disability and was in the psychiatric unit at the hospital for a while. I had just started seminary and flown home for an emergency trip as we all sat around and worried, trying to figure out what was going on. He called the house one night, raving about something. I answered the phone and let him talk, knowing that it would upset someone else in the family to hear it. I took that into myself in a way, and I felt very alone, very unprotected. Years later, I was reading the biography of a great Christian from this last century—Thomas Merton. He had a story in there about his father having a brain tumor and going in to talk with him. Then his father saying something that made no sense—deep confusion because of his illness. Then this man walked back home and felt very alone, very unprotected.

Reading Merton’s story ministered to me. It showed me that I wasn’t alone in the storm. Nobody knew about that conversation with my father except me and God. Years later, God showed me that He was there—even in the storm. “Do not be afraid, I AM.”

And then there was Peter. The endearing, impulsive one—always the first one to fly off the handle and do something silly or dangerous. Always the first to jump out in faith. This is where the pictures come in. One of the great church fathers suggested in reading Scripture we try to see where we are in the story. Who are we as we read this account?

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” [Jesus] said. (Matt. 14:28-29)

Though Jesus was perhaps far from the boat at the time, Peter boldly cries out to him, “Tell me to come!” Sometimes that’s where we are. We see what looks like an opportunity to be part of God’s kingdom coming into the world. Thirty years ago, Joe Tkach, Sr. saw some places where he would have to admit mistakes and change some ideas—talk about a storm! And to our eternal gratitude, he said, if it’s you, Lord, tell me to come out to you! And he did.

“Jesus Walks On Water” by Aivazovsky
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When you found your spouse. You saw a person who you wanted to be around all the time. You saw someone who seemed to share the other half of your soul. And you asked, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come out to you! My wife Heather and I met on Christiancafe.com. We both had our share of rough drafts on our way to meeting each other, and suddenly there was this person. For me, my heart had finally found rest: someone who loved Jesus, loved others, loved the arts, and somehow fit me in there. I was home, and so I took a chance. “If it’s you, Lord, tell me to come out to you!”

Then there are the times God calls you to give up a bad habit, just a small sin. Maybe you never even noticed before that a certain decision or attitude wasn’t glorifying to him. But suddenly one day, he starts coming across the water, indicating to you that it’s time to grow beyond that—time for something new. “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come out to you!” And he says to you, “Come!”

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (Matt. 14:29)

Where are you in this part of the story? Are you still in the boat—one of the 11 who held back? Well, not Peter, the crazy one who walks out there and embarrasses himself.

As for me, I’m probably watching from the sidelines. Isn’t that where we often end up? We have all kinds of opinions for those who are actually getting the work done, but we’ve never done the work ourselves.

I’ve been in that boat before. I watched my friends and both of my siblings get married before I did. I’ve watched people step out and sink and step out and walk on water while I held back and kept safe.

So there we are, watching over Peter’s shoulder, watching life and life with God, go by.

When [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matt. 14:30)

Peter looked away from Jesus—he saw the terrifying wind over the mystery of the sea and lost his faith for a moment. What had been the Lord’s face became his feet and finally he was looking up at Jesus from under him. Have you been there before? God calls you into a different chapter in life, you finally get out of the boat, and then lose your nerve?

Here’s one of life’s guarantees: when you take your eyes off Jesus you’re gonna see storms. Peter knew the storms were there. They didn’t suddenly get worse. He just changed his perspective. Instead of focusing on the person he had seen change the weather, he focused on the weather. Don’t we do that as well? God calls us to a different perspective, a different way of acting, and we worry about the details he is taking care of: Well Lord, if I stand up for that ethical choice, what will people think? If I give to that person, will they take advantage of my kindness?

Peter falls, then sinks. It’s his worst nightmare. Someone from his culture falling into the sea—at night, no less! Darkness overwhelming him, the freezing cold water, and who knows what is swimming up to meet him?

At times like these we might think Jesus has left us. We couldn’t work up enough faith, couldn’t make the grade, and so we’re done, we’re sunk. Sadly, some strains of Christianity believe that if we don’t have enough faith, don’t do enough good works to make God happy, we’ve fallen from grace; lost God’s favor.

Is that what happened here to Peter? No, Jesus came to his rescue.

“Do Not Be Afraid” by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

You see, when you get out of the boat at Jesus’ command, one of two things will happen: either you’ll walk with Jesus, or you’ll falter and Jesus will come to your rescue. It’s grace either way. You may fail, but God’s grace never runs out. He reaches down to us in mercy, with what one theologian calls God’s “infinite condescension.”

Jesus not only knows about the human experience, he created it, lived it and now, by the Spirit, directs it! Jesus knows what we’re going through and knows how to reach us, to rescue us.

Here’s a question to ponder: did Peter have the choice not to grab Jesus’ outstretched hand? Could Peter have let himself sink? Well, Matthew’s account of the event says Peter “cried out.” There’s that Greek word again, ekrazo—Peter squawked! No formalities, not complex theology, no grand strategy, just a cry for help.

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31)

The Greek word translated doubt means literally to be in two minds. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter—Why were you in two minds? You were doing so well. Why are you limping after two opinions? Choose to trust me.

Matthew doesn’t tell us how Peter got back to the boat. Did Jesus carry him? Did Peter start walking on the water again, his confidence in Jesus restored? We aren’t told.

Application

Let’s put ourselves back in the story. Where are we? What is our perspective?

Are we still in the boat? Are you not walking forward in response to God’s invitation to go forward? Are you not trusting that God will care for you as you step out in faith? We’ll we’ve all been there—given an opportunity that seems to be God’s will, yet we’re comfortable where we are (even if we might be miserable), inside the boat that is so familiar. As they say, “The certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.”

I started my ministry career working as a hospital chaplain. I remember talking with a mentor years ago when I was starting in chaplaincy. I told her my worst fears of getting a call to the ER for the death of a child. She said, “God has called you here. He will give you the strength for whatever you are called to.” Six years later, I held the hand of a four year old and the hand of his mother as he left this life. I prayed for her to put his little hand in Christ’s. It was one of the tensest moments of my life. I could have stayed in the boat. I could have checked charts or gotten coffee. There were times I did that. But, thankfully, not that time.

Have we stepped out on the water? Have you taken a step of faith—walked out into the wind and rain to see how God will walk with you? How he will give you strength? I think of those who are battling addictions. I’ve worked with addicts throughout my career, once at an addiction treatment center and several times in hospital ministry. Addiction is an unbelievable battle—those who are having to trust that God will take care of them rather than caring for themselves in an unhealthy way. It can be a struggle just to make it from bed to the bathroom to the front door, staying on track out of addiction.

Most of us have less dramatic examples. Christ may be calling you to reach out to someone in love who you’ve been avoiding. You wonder what will happen—will that person accept my friendship? How will they react? Yes, it may be stormy weather to step out in faith, but don’t turn away. Focus on Christ, let him take care of the details.

Are we down in the drink? Yes, you stepped out of the boat onto the water (good for you!), but seeing the storm, you lost your way. But don’t despair, look up! Jesus is there, reaching out to help you. He is always doing so, you can never go too deep. So change your perspective. Look away from the wind and waves and toward him again.

Conclusion

The Bible is the story of God working with humanity, which makes it a story not only of great heroes but of great failures. David—adulterer and murderer though he was—became “a man after God’s own heart.” Abraham—liar and philanderer though he was—became known as “the friend of God.” Paul the violent religious zealot; Peter the bar-fighter; John the confused mystic—all these men stepped out of the boat but fell, then stepped out again and fall again. Not one of them made it to their destination dry!

One of the most important things Jesus ever said to Peter—one of the most important moment’s in Peter’s life (and for the church)—is found in the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 16:18: “I tell you this, you are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my church.” “Peter,” says Jesus, “you are petras” (petras being the Greek word from which we get the word petrified). This impulsive man Peter, who walked out on the water, was the one who told Jesus he would never die, who cut the ear off the soldier in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who denied Jesus three times. He is the one Jesus chose for a unique and important work related to forming and leading the early church, the body of Christ.

At times, Peter played the roll of the fool, the court jester, in the story, but he was no loser. Yes, he fell down, and several times at that. But each time Jesus reached out to him and Peter, trusting Jesus, reached back and was helped up.

The losers in this story are those who stayed in the boat and never even tried. What’s our story?

GCI: We are family!

Looking forward to our “family reunion” in Orlando in August, the July issue of “Equipper” (articles and sermons linked below) celebrates the blessings we have in GCI as an international family on mission together with the Triune God.

From Greg: Celebrating our family
Greg Williams tells about his recent trips to the Philippines and Mexico where he visited members of our GCI family on mission with God.

On Leadership: Toward team-based leadership
Continuing our series on the characteristics of effective leaders and leadership teams, this article from Rick Shallenberger looks at leadership processes and styles that support team-based leadership.

Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 4
Building on what he has covered in this series so far, Gary Deddo looks at the nature of the Christian life.

Kid’s Korner: Building relationships
GenMin National Coordinator Jeffrey Broadnax shares insights about starting conversations that lead to the building of relationships with kids.

RCL sermons for August
Here are four sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary, covering the 9th through 12th Sundays after Pentecost (in “ordinary time” between Pentecost and Advent).
Sermon for August 6
Sermon for August 13
Sermon for August 20
Sermon for August 27

In case you missed the June Equipper, here are RCL sermons for July:
Sermon for July 2
Sermon for July 9
Sermon for July 16
Sermon for July 23
Sermon for July 30

Kids Korner: Building relationships

This issue of Kid’s Korner is from Jeffrey Broadnax who pastors GCI congregations in Ohio and serves as National Coordinator for GCI Generations Ministries.

My nine-year-old daughter Kassidy and I recently shared a road trip to North Carolina where I conducted a wedding. I had purchased a DVD player so Kassidy could pass the time in the car watching videos. To my surprise, she brought along my set of Schoolhouse Rock! videos. If you’re not familiar with Schoolhouse Rock!, you’re likely younger than 40.

As I was growing up, kids all over America would sit in front of their televisions on Saturday morning watching cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, and the Justice League of America. In commercial breaks, instead of ads for Palmolive soap or Oscar Meyer wieners, ABC would show an educational cartoon from the Schoolhouse Rock! series.

Jeffrey and Kassidy Broadnax (picture used with permission from Ariel Kuhn Photograpy)

Schoolhouse Rock! segments covered topics like science, multiplication tables, parts of speech, American history, politics and even religion. Using a cartoon format, each featured a catchy song. “I’m just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” were two of my favorites.

What was so special about this particular road trip was that it gave Kassidy and me extended and uninterrupted time for conversation, singing, and for me to share with her stories from my childhood, including the impact Schoolhouse Rock! had on my life and education growing up.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Our road trip brought to mind an important insight related to ministering to children. The time spent together is precious—it provides opportunity to build relationships with children by sharing something about our life, leading quite naturally to sharing our faith story—the difference Jesus has made in our life. If we are intentional, we can have life-changing conversations with children (and people of all ages) within our relational networks—family, church and the places where we live, work and play.

Let me challenge you to spend time today or this week paying attention to the children in your networks. Look for opportunities to start conversations in which you share an important part of your own story—perhaps including an aspect of your relationship with God when you were growing up. Then tell them you’ll be thanking God in prayer for what he used them to do in your life.

My prayer for you is that these conversations open doors of communication that will foster intergenerational relationship-building, thus setting an example for others to do likewise with younger and older people. Though it doesn’t take a road trip, doing so will grant you an experience to remember.

Sermon for August 6, 2017

Scripture readings: Gen. 32:22-31 and Ps. 17:1-7, 15 
(or Isa. 55:1-5 and Ps. 145:8-9, 14-21) 
Rom. 9:1-5; Matt. 14:13-21 

Sermon by Dustin Lampe from Matthew 14:13-21

A Call to Contentment
(feeding of the 5,000)

Introduction

Recently, I spent the evening at the home of a neighbor who had recently returned from a trip to Nigeria, his home country. He told me that Nigeria is one of the most corrupt places on earth. He told me how the government manipulates the people and the general hopelessness that has swept the nation. He told me about the struggles of his family in Nigeria and how he was blessed to be able to help them. Interestingly, his main complaint about Nigeria was the noise that comes from mosques, churches and businesses. It seems they want to make the loudest sounds possible! They do so for one reason: advertising—trying to get people to be discontented with the calm of their ordinary lives in order to lure them in their direction.

Though advertising here in America is generally not as noisy, it has essentially the same goal—making us feel discontented with our lives so we will buy whatever goods or services they are selling. If we’re not careful, we can become so consumed by this “noise” that we lose the quiet—the contentment—so important to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

Today I want us to think about living a life of contentment in the midst of the noise that tells us we need more. Contentment is about accepting that what we have is enough. To help us learn that lesson, let’s return to a well-known event in the ministry of Jesus—the feeding of the 5,000.

Contentment involves solitude

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matt. 14:13a)

Here is a call to solitude. All humans need it. Rather than an end in itself, solitude is an aid to healthy living. It’s the time and space we need to celebrate our relationship with God, one-on-one. Solitude is thus a great gift. Sometimes it feels good, though sometimes it feels like a waste of time. Regardless, it’s a calling for us all. Why? Because solitude is the place where God helps us release attachments that wrongfully are part of our core identity. It helps us build fortitude to do so, because God’s voice (or his silence), heard in solitude, is a refining fire.

As we know, Jesus was a “people person”—he gave himself in service to others. However, here in Matthew 14, he steps away from people for some time alone with God—a time of solitude. Doing so was an important part of his life’s rhythm. He knew that to bless people, he needed time away.

If you want to find contentment in life, you will, like Jesus, need to get alone with God—away from the “noise” of busy tasks, social media, TV, life’s preoccupations and distractions. Just you and God, at ease, together.

Contentment involves saying “yes” to Jesus

Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. (Matt. 14:13b-18)

Note Jesus’ command: “Get them something to eat.” We are called to obey the voice of Jesus—to do what he tells us to do. We can do so confidently, knowing he provides all we need to obey. That’s true for us individually and as a congregation.

“Christ Feeding the Multitudes” (Coptic Icon)
public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Church—to what is God calling us? Will we do it? This passage is a reminder not to look to ourselves, but to God—not to our own resources, but to his, for he has all the needed resources.

Sometimes God calls us to do things that make no sense (to us). Five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 men plus women and children (Matt. 14:21)—what’s that, 10,000 people? But Jesus’ command to his disciples here was not about understanding—it was about obedience borne of trust. Well, they did obey, though at first they doubted. Notice, though, that they didn’t say, “Let’s test God and see if he can turn these meager provisions into enough food to feed these people.”

Sometimes we just need to do what God says. Listening to God and then obeying, with faith, is key. We won’t always understand the whys and hows and the details of God’s plan for us. God often bids us act with very little information. It’s about depending on and trusting in him, and in that dependence and trust (faith) doing what he says.

Contentment, you see, involves listening and obedience. Hearing and obeying what God says is fulfilling, regardless of the outcome. As we obey, God provides abundantly—a provision that sometimes is seen outwardly, but sometimes only inwardly. In the West we like to think of abundance in terms of how “successful” we are. In the East it’s about how “renounced” we are. But God defines abundance not as what we accomplish—it’s about our consent to the will of God.

Churches are pursuing a fool’s game when they define success in terms of “nickels and noses” (donations and attendance). To do so is to fall into the trap of our materialistic culture and its vice-like grip. Doing so means trying to live up to unhelpful (often impossible) standards. Our concern as a church should not be success on worldly terms, but as God defines it—hearing and obeying his voice.

Here in Matthew 14, the disciples were thinking too small: “We have only enough food for ourselves, so let’s get rid of this crowd.” We should think big, but let’s not fall into a materialistic trap in that thinking. The “big deal” is happening wherever God is moving and that’s what we need to be attentive to. And hear this: God has a much bigger perspective than we do!

Conclusion: lessons learned

[Jesus] directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.

They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matt. 14:19-21)

Here Jesus disciplined his disciples. In essence, he was telling them to “be quiet and do what I say.” Discipline is God walking with us and telling us to say “no” to some things and “yes” to others so that we stay on the good path he has laid out for us. Discipline by God is always good, though it may include leading us through seasons of desolation or hard times.

At times, God may rebuke our misguided ways by saying “no” to our ideas of how we should use our “loaves and fishes.” But these hard times in our spiritual journeys are opportunities to grow deeper, to dream bigger. We won’t always see material results soon, if ever. But God will always be at work, inviting us to let go of what we’re holding onto so tightly, so that we can then grab hold of him—forsaking our mis-guided trust in things that don’t matter to trust in him alone.

Jesus calls us to consent to who we truly are in him—our fully sanctified humanity in him—our sharing in his perfected, glorified humanity. Jesus, in his humanity (which continues) is the definition of what it means to be fully human. And that’s what God wants for us—that is where he, by the Spirit, is leading us, disciplining us, directing us.

So let’s listen for he voice, and as we hear it, let’s do what he tells us to do—always with trust, dependence and faith in the one who alone is worthy. In that way of life—that mindset—there is contentment.

May the grace of God be with you as you journey on with contentment.

Amen.

From Greg: Celebrating our family

Dear pastors and ministry leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams

As I travel in my responsibilities as Director of Church Administration and Development and GCI Vice President, I’m blessed to spend time with GCI leaders and members throughout the world. We truly are an international family, and that is something to celebrate! I recently had the pleasure of visiting our GCI family in the Philippines and Mexico. Let me share some of what I experienced.

GCI Philippines

GCI’s congregations in the Philippines, scattered throughout that nation’s 7,641 islands, are served by a wonderful group of pastors, pastoral teams and ministry leaders who volunteer to serve (only two of our Filipino pastors are employed by the church!). Given the financial challenges and the fact that many had to travel long distances, I was amazed that so many attended one of two recent ministry development conferences. Both were hosted by Mission Developer Eugene Guzon, who invited me to facilitate discussions concerning our ministry with Jesus Christ.

The first conference was held in Tagaytay, 37 miles south of Manila. This beautiful tourist city has a marvelous Christian ministry center often utilized by our Filipino brothers and sisters. I was encouraged by the eagerness shown by the 150 participants, and impressed by a strong representation of millennials and professionals (doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, engineers, etc.).

Tagatay conference

Following the Tagaytay conference, Eugene and I flew to Cebu in the Central Visayas where we held the second conference with 80 in attendance. I heard stories of long journeys to the conference including overnight boat rides. What a wonderful, deeply committed group!

L to R: Audie Santibanez, Greg Williams, Eugene Guzon, Rex Dela Pena

We have an amazing group of leaders in the Philippines! I was particularly moved by their high level of commitment to ministry development and the joy they experience learning in community. I left with positive feelings about their future as they live and share the gospel.

GCI Mexico

Heber Ticas (from the U.S.), Hector Barrero (from Colombia) and I joined forces in Mexico City to support GCI Mexico Pastor Nata Cruz for an “Outside the Walls” weekend event. This was the first time that Heber, who is National Coordinator for GCI USA Church Multiplications Ministries, offered Outside the Walls consulting outside the U.S.

Heber Ticas (left) training church leaders

The event began on Friday as a group of GCI pastors from the region around Mexico City gathered for training in outreach strategy. That instruction was followed with a community outreach block party on Saturday. It was impressive to see the small street adjacent to our church’s place of meeting blocked off and a tent set up to house a trampoline for the kids, a mechanical bull (yes, it was a chance to check this off of my “bucket list”), and several other games. The block party also included various community services, including medical and dental exams, free haircuts, free massages from a licensed masseuse, and some of the best tacos I’ve ever enjoyed. More than 100 guests attended. Highlights of the event are presented in this short video:

(on YouTube at https://youtu.be/27xUbGqHBXM)

I could tell many stories about the Mexico City event, but for the sake of space, let me tell you about Natalie. She lives three blocks from the church and her mom brought her to the block party with her cousin (who lives with them because his mother is not well). Natalie wore a dirty pink sweatshirt and her broad smile stretched cheek-to-cheek. She played tirelessly on the trampoline and I believe she ate three tacos. She and her family then returned to the church for Sunday worship services. She was still wearing that dirty pink sweatshirt and broad smile. She shared with me that this was the first time she had ever been to church and noted how much she liked the children’s class that was provided.

Pastor Nata and his loving congregation created an event filled with fun activities, music and food, but more than anything else, they shared the gospel of Jesus and the power of healing that comes through prayer. Yhere was fun and laughter, but there also were tears and prayer as many participants felt comfortable talking about their trials and deep personal needs. The last report I heard is that 11 people have becomed members of the Mexico City congregation as a result of the event. Our members are continuing to reflect the light of Christ into the neighborhood!

Our family reunion in August

If stories like these encourage you, I think you’ll be greatly encouraged by what you’ll experience at We Are GCI—our Denominational Conference coming to Orlando, Florida, on August 2–6. The Spirit is guiding our churches around the world along similar “outside the walls” paths, and the stories we’ll hear from GCI leaders at our triennial “family reunion” will be a highlight. I look forward to seeing many of you there as, together, we worship our amazing Triune God and celebrate what the Father, Son and Spirit are doing in our midst. For additional conference information, click here.

Pre-conference session for pastors

On August 1, GCI pastors will attend a pre-conference session in which Dr. Gary Deddo will facilitate a discussion on GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theology as it pertains to the nature of the church, its ministry and the Christian life. Gary has been laying the groundwork for this discussion with a series in GCI Weekly Update titled “The Church and Its Ministry” and a companion series here in Equipper titled “Clarifying Our Theological Vision” (you’ll find part 4 in this issue, and click here for a compilation of the first four parts in booklet format). I encourage our pastors to study these two series before arriving at the conference.

See you in Orlando!
Greg Williams, CAD Director and GCI Vice President