Sermon for January 28, 2018

Scripture readings: Deut. 18:15-20; Ps. 111:1-10; 
1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Cor. 8:1-13
(drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and Bruce Winter in The New Bible Commentary)

Exercising Our Freedom in Christ, part 1

Introduction

Today is the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, which celebrates the revealing (epiphany) of Christ to the world. Let’s begin with a video of the song, Mary Did You Know?—it says a lot about who Jesus is as the one who brings light into a dark world.

On YouTube at https://youtu.be/ifCWN5pJGIE.

Our reading today in the Epistles takes us to 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul shows how we, through our actions, show forth (reveal) the nature of Jesus who came to give us true freedom.

Ruins of the Temple Apollo in Corinth
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In chapter 7, Paul answers questions from Christians in Corinth concerning being single or married. Then in chapters 8 through 10, he answers their question concerning whether it is permissible to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. I don’t suppose this is a question we think about on a daily basis, but Paul’s answer tells us a lot about how we appropriately exercise the freedom that we, by the Spirit, have in our union with Jesus.

To help us think about this issue with the mind of Christ, Paul provides four guiding principles:
1. Balance knowledge with love (1 Cor. 8)
2. Balance authority with discipline (1 Cor. 9)
3. Balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22)
4. Balance freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33)

Next Sunday we’ll look at the 4th principle. Today, let’s look at the 1st one, beginning in 1 Cor. 8:1:

Now about food sacrificed to idols…

If you wanted to buy meat in the ancient city of Corinth, you typically had two choices:  meat sold in the commercial markets (with high prices), and meat sold in the pagan temples (where meat that had been sacrificed to idols was offered at a lower price).

Spiritually strong Christians knew that idols, being nothing but the work of human hands, could not contaminate food. So they saved money by purchasing meat at the temples, and if non-Christian friends or family invited them to a meal at a temple, they felt free to attend and partake of the meat being served there.

But these practices were highly offensive to Christians who were not as strong in the faith—not as confident in the freedom they had in Christ. Many of them had come to Christ out of paganism and could not understand why fellow believers would have anything to do with meat sacrificed to idols. This situation had the potential to divide the church in Corinth, so the local leaders of the church wrote Paul asking his advice. In reply, Paul calls to their attention three vital factors: knowledge, love and conscience.

Knowledge

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. (1 Cor. 8:1-2)

In general, the Corinthians knew rightly that an idol “is nothing” (1 Cor. 8:4)—merely a man-made representation of a non-existent god. But according to Paul, such knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or it can be a tool to build with. If knowledge “puffs up” it cannot “build up.” In fact, a know-it-all attitude is evidence of underlying ignorance of what makes knowledge useful, namely love, the second factor to which Paul now turns.

Love

But whoever loves God is known by God. So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:3-6)

The greatest knowledge of all is to know the true God, who has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, “through whom we live.” In Jesus, knowledge and love are inseparable. The “strong” in the Corinthian church had knowledge, but they were short on love. Instead of building up the weak, they were puffing up themselves.

Paul wants for the strong, in love and according to knowledge, to help the weak grow in both knowledge and love. When spiritual knowledge is tempered with love, the strong take the hand of the weak and help them stand and walk so as to enjoy the freedom that is theirs in Christ. But, one cannot force-feed weak believers, for there is a third factor to consider, namely their conscience.

Conscience

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:7-12)

Conscience is where our actions are judged and then approved or condemned. Note how Paul makes this point in Romans 2:

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Rom. 2:14-15)

However, one’s conscience is only as reliable as the knowledge that informs it. The more we rightly know and then act upon, the stronger (and more accurate) our conscience becomes. Some Christians have weak consciences because they lack knowledge and other elements of maturity in Christ. But note a key point here—their weak consciences must be guarded carefully.

While it might not harm the conscience of a strong Christian to share a meal with non-Christian friends in a pagan temple or at home, it might harm the conscience of a weaker Christian who might decide to imitate a stronger brother or sister and thus be led into what would offend their conscience and thus be, for them, a sin.

Note that when the strong defer to the weak in such matters of conscience, they do so not to encourage their immaturity, but to help them grow in maturity. Thus the bottom line for Paul in a situation like this one is that we are all free in Christ to follow the lead of the Spirit in obeying the Word of the Lord in each situation as it presents itself—indeed, as Paul says in Galatians 5:1, It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. However, we must take care that our knowledge (and thus practice) of this freedom is balanced (tempered) by love, which trumps all else.

In the way we live out our freedom in Christ, we must be careful not to tempt the weak among us by leading them to run ahead of their consciences.

Where knowledge is balanced by love, the strong will minister to the weak, and the weak (unless they are obstinate) will grow and become strong. I say “obstinate,” because some who are weak use their weakness as an excuse, refusing to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, which is the very basis of our life in Christ. Paul elsewhere corrects such people, but here his primary focus is on instructing the strong to be careful not to offend the consciences of those who are weak.

Paul then goes on in the rest of this letter to note that the strong in living out the freedom that is theirs in Christ, must not only balance knowledge with love, but also balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22) and freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33; 11:1).

In these ways, Paul reminds those who are strong in the faith to not, by their behavior, make it difficult for other people (weak believers, in particular) to trust the Lord. As those who are mature in Christ—those strong in the faith—we  are not to seek our own good. Instead, we are to seek after the benefit of others, that they may be encouraged to trust in Christ and so grow in maturity, including a mature exercise of the freedom they, too, have in Christ.

It is in this spirit that Paul writes, “I try to please everybody in every way” (1 Cor. 10:33). By saying this, Paul is not suggesting that we should be people-pleasers. Rather, he is affirming the fact that his life and ministry were centered on helping others rather than on promoting himself and his own desires.

Conclusion

The way of Christ in which we are to live is the way of exercising freedom in order to love God and love others. Paul’s own way of doing so no doubt appeared inconsistent to some (the Judaizers were particularly critical of Paul). At times, Paul would eat what Gentiles were eating (including the meats that were unclean to Jews and meat that had been sacrificed to idols). But instead of being inconsistent, Paul was living consistently by the principles he lays down here in 1 Corinthians. Rather than selfishly asserting his freedom in Christ, he balanced knowledge with love. To do so he implied that if it would be helpful to his weaker brothers and sisters, he would become a vegetarian:

Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (1 Cor. 8:13)

May each of us follow Paul as he follows Christ by balancing our knowledge with love.

Remembering our journey of renewal

This December issue of GCI Equipper (articles and sermons linked below) looks back at our journey of renewal in 2017.

From Greg: A look back at 2017
Greg Williams takes a look back at our journey with Jesus as seen in the issues of GCI Equipper published this year.

Wholehearted, part 1: Finding Fellowship in Jesus
Cathy Deddo presents part 1 of a 2-part essay addressing the nature of the Christian life.

Kid’s Korner: Focus on the child
Lance McKinnon shares an encouraging message about the love the Father has for the kids we minister to as parents and youth ministers.

RCL sermons for January, 2018
Here are the Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for January:
– Sermon for January 7
– Sermon for January 14
– Sermon for January 21
– Sermon for January 28

In case you missed the sermons for December, here they are:
– Sermon for December 3 (Advent 1)
– Sermon for December 10 (Advent 2)
– Sermon for December 17 (Advent 3)
– Sermon for December 24 (Advent 4)
– Sermon for December 31

Wholehearted, part 1

Here from Cathy Deddo is part 1 of a 2-part essay looking at the Christian life. The essay compiles presentations made by Cathy to GCI's Denominational Conference in Orlando, FL, in August 2017. For part 2 of this essay, click here. For an article that includes both parts, click here.

Wholehearted, part 1:
Finding Fellowship in Jesus

Introduction

Cathy Deddo

What does it mean to be a Christian? Is it about believing certain doctrines? Behaving in certain ways? Practicing certain spiritual disciplines? Embracing certain purposes? Though all these have their place, as we’ll see in this two-part essay, the essence of the Christian life is fellowship—specifically, our participation with Jesus, by the Spirit, in the fellowship Jesus has with the Father and the Spirit, and our participation in the love that the triune God has for all people. This essay explores the nature of this fellowship and suggests ways we can grow in our participation as followers of Jesus Christ.

Created and redeemed for fellowship

We begin by being reminded of the biblical truth that God created us after his own image. But when humankind turned from God, evil got a foothold in God’s good creation, reaching down into the roots of human nature. As a result, our fellowship with God and with people—the very purpose for which we were created— was severed. Thankfully, God did not leave us there. God, who created us through Christ (John 1:3), also reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18) to restore us to the fellowship with him that we had lost. Now, in the “already-but-not-yet” period between Jesus’ first and second advents, the Spirit is at work growing us up in that fellowship, as God continues working to bring into final judgment the evil that destroys the fellowship for which we were created.

Jesus summed up the Law of Moses (with its 613 commandments) as being about loving God and loving people (Matt. 22:36-40). This is because love is the basis for the fellowship we enjoy with God and with one another. It’s what we’re wired for and, therefore, what we most deeply long for (even when we don’t recognize it). The “components” of the Christian life mentioned above are expressions of this love.

All my life in church, I’ve heard about a personal relationship with Jesus. But through my journey as a Christian, including my involvement in ministry, I’ve come realize that we can actually have, or at least be tempted to have, an impersonal relationship with Jesus. I didn’t always understand the connection between my fellowship with him and the rest of my life, especially my service to God. I tended to see my relationship with God through Jesus as one thing, and doing things for God as another. There was an unfortunate disconnect, one I often see in the way churches choose and articulate their goals. What they seek to do is sometimes (often?) disconnected from a personal relationship with Jesus.

That disconnect, I believe, is typically due to viewing Jesus, our fellowship with him, and the components of the Christian life, through the lens of our pre-understandings. The solution is to set our preconceptions aside and let Jesus tell us who he is, let him define the nature of our fellowship with him, and then let him shine that truth into all our relationships and agendas, including the programs of our churches.

The fellowship found in Jesus

The fellowship Jesus provides for us with God, is a share in his own relationship with the Father, in and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ intention in giving us this gift is to make us his sisters and brothers who are beloved daughters and sons of the Father, born of the Spirit and adopted into the communion of love he lives in. Note what John says in his Gospel:

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right [or authority, “exousian”] to become children of God who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

Rather than drawing near to us through the Incarnation merely to be like us, Jesus drew us up to himself, sharing with us the “us-ness” he has with the Father in and with the Spirit—to make us sharers in the life he has always had—a life in a holy communion of love. Indeed, Jesus says he came so that we can share in the same love the Father has for him! As T.F. Torrance put it…

God draws near to us in such a way as to draw us near to himself within the circle of his knowing of himself.

God has reconciled us to himself in Jesus so that we can live in, participate in, and grow up in this relationship in and by the Spirit—a relationship by which we live into, and grow up into, the Source of all love, life and joy. In Romans, the apostle Paul says the Spirit we received has brought about our adoption to sonship and by him we cry “Abba, Father.” He also says that as children of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. We have been created and redeemed to live in a deep, personal relationship with Jesus that is like the deep personal relationship Jesus has with God the Father. That is the main reason we exist! Relationship with God is not just a part of our experience—it is to be the center of our lives. But how can that even begin to happen?

What has Jesus provided for us?

Jesus is God come in our flesh—the Son of God come to share his Sonship with us as creatures. Jesus doesn’t come merely to show us how to get along with God, or to provide for us a free ticket into heaven. The fellowship Jesus gives us is, first of all, a share in himself, and through him a share of his relationship with his Father and the Spirit as it is lived out in our humanity, revealed in his earthly ministry.

In his incarnation, life, atoning death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is bringing this relationship he has enjoyed from all eternity with the Father, into our humanity—redeeming us, overcoming our resistance to his grace, and freeing us from evil in order to draw us up by his Spirit to be with him in the bosom of his Father.

In Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in the Spirit, clothed in our humanity, we see what it means to be fully human. We see what Jesus has provided for us, and thus where he is taking us in his Spirit. In the record of Jesus’ earthly life, we see something of what we have a share in now—of what we are in Christ, and thus what we are becoming (growing up into) as we live in the already-but-not-yet of our present existence.

The maturing (sanctification) of which the New Testament speaks, is our growing up into that relationship. This growing up “into Christ” (as Paul refers to it in Ephesians) involves personal transformation from the inside-out. It’s an ongoing transformation, that is not yet complete. We are a work in process, and as we move forward, we look not to ourselves, but to Jesus and his relationship with us and with the Father.

Though we are not yet fully enjoying the kind of relationship we see in Jesus, we seek to participate wholeheartedly in his relationship with the Father (and thus the title for this essay). Though our participation (on this side of glory) is imperfect, we participate trusting that what Jesus has already, in himself, accomplished for us, the Holy Spirit is continuing to work out in us. We live by the promise that the work God has begun in us, he will bring to completion.

Growing in relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit, is the heart and core of the Christian life. It’s the essence of that life—what it’s all about. This relationship is neither automatic nor static. It is a gift from Jesus that we enjoy through the daily, deliberate effort the Holy Spirit invites, enables and confirms in us over and over again.

Jesus’ relationship with his Father

With that background in mind, let’s now focus on Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in the Spirit. In the Gospels, we see that relationship directly, then in the Epistles we see how believers share in Jesus’ relationship with the Father through the indwelling Spirit. By sharing Jesus’ relationship, I don’t mean we somehow become Jesus, or that we somehow replace him. Nor do I mean that we experience a parallel relationship with the Father, somewhat like the one Jesus has with the Father. The reality of our sharing with Jesus in his relationship with the Father, in the Spirit, is expressed well in Matthew 11:27-30. There we learn that Jesus extends to us his yoke—the relationship he has with his Father, inviting us to share in that relationship with him. He invites us to learn from him and then enjoy the deep soul rest that is his because of his yoked relationship with his Father.

Yoked Wisconsin oxen (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As we expand on this key Gospel passage, we note that Jesus’ relationship with his Father is not accidental to Jesus’ being, life and identity. He is not Jesus first, on his own, who then develops a great relationship with his Father. As God the Son, Jesus’ reveals to us that his relationship to his Father, in the Spirit, is intrinsic and essential to his very being—no relationship, no being. Jesus thus has his being-in-relationship. His sonship is not a status, nor is it static (motionless). Rather, it is upheld and maintained in ongoing, dynamic love—interaction and communication between Father and Son, in the Spirit.

This means that all of what we can say about Jesus—all that he does and says, and all the titles we may give him—can only be understood in terms of who he is as the Son of the Father. “Son” isn’t just one of many labels we have for Jesus—it’s who he is most deeply and fundamentally. We can’t understand and know Jesus as “Son” apart from how he is the Son of this particular Father. Jesus has his being sustained and upheld in this real relationship, which is particular to his Father. In other words, this is not a generic father-son relationship.

Jesus is the Son only because he is Son of this Father, in this one-of-a-kind relationship. That particular, unrepeatable relationship makes him who he is from all eternity. He is Son only as he is continually, actively, dynamically receiving from and giving to his Father as the Son, in the Spirit, from all eternity. He is continually being the Son, as he is continually being in relationship with the Father, in the Spirit.

All this can also be said of the Father and the Spirit. The Father is the Father by being in relationship with this Son. The Spirit is the particular Spirit that proceeds from this Father and Son relationship. God is and remains God by being in this dynamic communion of love—a love between the three divine Persons who are not interchangeable with each other.

All that the Son does as Jesus, the incarnate One, he does as the Son that he is, out of his relationship with the Father. He serves as the Son, heals as the Son, loves and teaches as the Son, and judges and warns as the Son of this good and glorious Father. We see this in the way Jesus speaks of “my Father” and also in his referring to himself as the one sent from this Father. Their relationship binds them together in such a way that to know the Father is to know the Son, and to know the Son is to know the Father.

Since Jesus has his being, by being in relationship with his Father, how can we know Jesus without knowing his Father? To know Jesus personally, is to know him as the Son of this Father, for that is who he is. That is what he is all about. All that he is and all that he does, he is and does as the Son of the Father. Knowing the Father is thus to know him as the Father of the Son. There is no other Father except the Father of this Son.

When we say that Jesus has his being in relationship with the Father in the Spirit, we are not talking about a static relationship like one might see on a family tree (for example, you might technically have a relationship with an aunt you have never met). Instead, we are talking about an ongoing, actual relationship—dynamic interaction and communion. The being of all three parties in the tri-personal relationship we refer to as the Trinity is upheld and sustained in the ongoing, active moving towards one another in a relationship of holy, wholehearted love.

A relationship of “knowing”

Matthew 11 and several other places in Scripture speak of the Father and the Son as knowing each other and, in fact, knowing each other in an exclusive way (John 1). It makes sense that this knowing is exclusive, for as Jesus tells us, only the Son knows the Father and the Father the Son. Only the Son knows the Father as his Father. We can see the logic of this in human relationships where the relationship shapes the knowing. Think of the relating of spouses, of parents and children, or the knowing of close friends. In these relationships there is exclusive, insider-knowing, the knowing that takes place in these unique, one-of-a-kind relationships.

The biblical word for knowing is gnosis or its stronger form, epignosis, meaning intimate, personal, relational knowledge. This is knowledge that is only gained in real interaction (not a knowing about, not a list of attributes or characteristics, not even just spending time together). This knowing is present tense—knowing each other all the time, continually. It involves real exchange, real giving and receiving. The Father gives to the Son, Jesus receives and gives glory and praise to the Father in return. This is real, relational knowing.

There is thus a real exchange going on in this knowing—a real moving towards one another. This knowing is thus not static, not a repetition of the same thing. It’s dynamic interaction that goes out, brings forth, and grows deeper. It’s a relational knowing that involves face-to-face interaction—addressing one another, not just “hanging out” or working together on a joint project. Jesus prays to and thanks his Father. He hears the Father speak. They have real conversation. What one says calls forth the answering response of the other.

It is because of this personal, real interaction among the divine Persons that God is fullness—uncontainable, always going forth, always moving towards, always fruitful. We see this in Jesus, who is the eternal personal and particular “going forth” of God. Then we note that God designed us for this dynamic, interactive relationship, first with God, then out of that relationship, with each other.

Consider the way Jesus perfectly lived out the two Great Commandments: to love God and love people. Though we are imperfect in doing so, we see evidence of Jesus love in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. The deep pain we experience in broken relationships is a sign that we have been created by God for good and right relationships. We even see this in the way God has wired the human brain. The brains of babies develop in response to face-to-face interactions with the parents or other primary care givers.

Thus, we understand that a relationship of knowing involves a real presence one to another, characterized by ongoing loving interaction. The Father loves his Son. The Son loves his Father. In John 15:10, Jesus speaks of keeping his Father’s commandments and remaining in his love. In John 1:18 he notes that he comes from the bosom of Father. In John 10:38 he says, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

This love between the Father and the Son overflows into mutual glorification—shining forth, in and for love, the wonder and goodness of the other. This shining forth is ongoing—always being loved, always loving—not just remembering “I am loved,” and not just a new status or name tag, but the ongoing experience of being loved. Living in the joy of that love more and more is what is offered to us in wholehearted relationship with the triune God through the Son and in the Spirit.

Sharing in God’s tri-personal communion

Through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has enabled humanity to share, through the indwelling Spirit, in what C.S. Lewis referred to as God’s “tri-personal” love and life. How that inner communion of the three divine Persons “works” is somewhat of a mystery to us, but perhaps an illustration will help.

Picture the triune God at work in an office building. Each Person has a separate office, maybe on different floors. You enter the building and the receptionist asks, “Who do you want to talk to?” “Jesus,” you reply. “He’s busy, but the Father is available.” “I’ll wait,” you say. But where do you think the Father and the Spirit are? The reality is that they are present to each other at all times, but not just because they are in the same office. They aren’t just hanging out in proximity while the Son takes care of the appointment by himself. The Son is, at all times, in complete and “instantaneous” (if I can even put it that way, as if there is any distance between them) communication with the Father and the Spirit.

We cannot relate or interact with one Person of the Trinity without interacting with the other two. Though distinct in person, they are one in being. Their difference of person does not amount to a separation or a difference of nature, character, heart, mind, will and every other divine attribute. Our relationship with the Son is a relationship with his Father and with the Spirit. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, prayer involves the whole of the Trinity. We pray to the Father who is over us, with the Son who is with us, and by the Spirit who moves within us—all in the same moment.

The Father is the Father of the Son, and the Father is in real, continuous interaction with the Son in and with the Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity have their being (their very existence) in and with each other. In Jesus, the whole God is present, meaning the whole God is being the whole God at that moment. As you pray to Jesus, Jesus is presenting you to his Father, and the Spirit is speaking, leading, and thus guiding you in your prayer. Thus, in prayer, we are being brought up into the tri-foldedness of God!—joining an ongoing conversation. It is the delight of the whole God to include us in their tri-personal us-ness. We see this in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, where Jesus lets his disciples “listen in” to his conversation with his Father. The Father and the Son, in the Spirit, share with us all that they share between them, even though we are but creatures.

Jesus has his being in relationship

In his divinity, Jesus is eternally the Son in a dynamic relationship with the Father in the Spirit. In their eternal relationships, the Persons of the Trinity do not reside in an office building where each has a separate space, coming together only from time to time. The reality is that Jesus does not need a note from his Father to remind him that he is loved. Jesus is being the Son all the time because the Son is in relationship all the time with the Father and the Spirit. Jesus continuously receives his personal identity (as the Son of the Father) from the Father in this relationship in the Spirit.

In his humanity, which he bears on our behalf, we see Jesus yielding himself totally to the Father. We see him overcoming humanity’s sinful resistance to the Father’s covenant love and grace. We see him transforming our humanity to where it is able to receive all it was created to receive in relationship with God. During this earthly ministry, we see Jesus at work in this way when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4). To the first temptation, Jesus answered: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus lived out this truth throughout his earthly life and then in his death, resurrection and ascension, in our place and on our behalf.

Jesus has his doing in relationship

Jesus not only has his being in relationship with God—he has his doing there as well. There is never a time when Jesus departs from living in communion with God to “do his own thing.” Moreover, he doesn’t check a list of assignments given him by the Father who is off somewhere else. Jesus is not sent away by the Father on errands to then report on when he returns. All that the Son does he does as the Son of his Father. The Son of God is in ongoing, dynamic relationship with the Father. This is why Jesus said this:

Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing. (John 15:19-20)

In the same vein, Jesus says he judges according to his Father’s judgment: “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge” (John 5:30). He also said that he only speaks the Father’s words, not his own (John 14:10) and that his teaching is not his own, but the Father’s who sent him (John 7:16; 8:28). Jesus obediently follows where the Father leads. He does so on the basis of his continual conversation (prayer and communication) with and awareness of the Father. The Father and Son, in the Spirit, work together out of an ongoing intimate communion. Their doing together comes out of their being together—their belonging together.

What Jesus sees and hears from the Father, are not mere examples and instructions. The Father doesn’t just urge Jesus on, walking ahead with his back to Jesus to show him what is next. As the Father does his will, Jesus does it with him. Jesus knows his loved by the Father. He is always receiving from the Father, then giving out of the fullness of that relationship—acting, thinking, speaking, praying, responding as the Son of the Father in ongoing relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus exists and operates on the basis of his identity as the Son of the Father.

Jesus shares all this with us

The glorious truth of the gospel is that Jesus shares the relationship that he has with the Father, in the Spirit, with us! He gives us a share in his own sonship! By the Spirit, Jesus opens up this relationship to us. Only God can do that, and he has done it (and continues to do it) in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. We are given to share in Jesus’ glorified human nature and in all of his actions done in our place, and on our behalf, as our great high priest. This includes our sharing in the motives and purposes that underlie Jesus’ actions. By the Spirit, all our being and doing become related to the fellowship Jesus has always had with the Father, in the Spirit, and now has in his glorified humanity.

As we share in Jesus’ sonship, we are enabled to share in his delight to do the Father’s good will. You will recall that in John 4, after talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus says that his food is to do the Father’s will. This is not a contractual relationship—Jesus freely and continually, in our place and on our behalf, says “yes” to his Father’s good, life-giving will. He knows that “no one is good but God alone” and that God’s will—God’s desire—is for life; for all to be drawn to him. We see Jesus freely choosing to live as the Son that he is, not as a victim of circumstances, or as one being coerced into sharing in doing the Father’s will, but as one joyfully giving himself to the Father in the Spirit to accomplish with them the good and glorious work of the whole God.

It is by being the Son that Jesus bears witness to the Father and the Spirit. His obedience out of absolute trust in the Father is part of the logic of God’s tri-personal relationship. Indeed, Jesus is the very definition of sonship. By his doing-in-relationship, we see Jesus redeeming our fallen human nature so that it is turned back to God—now able to say in the Spirit out of complete trust in the faithfulness and love of the Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, we see Jesus wrestling on our behalf (from our side as fallen, distrustful humans) sinful human nature back to a place of hope and trust in God.

On our behalf, Jesus overcame our sinful inclination to not live in accordance with who we were created to be, thus enabling us to say “no” to everything that pushes us away from God onto ourselves, and instead say “yes” to God’s “yes” to us. Jesus’ obedience to the Father is his free affirmation of who he is. To obey the Father is to live in his own belovedness as the Son.

In redeeming us, Jesus judges and redeems our sinful desire to turn God’s covenant relationship with us into some sort of contractual relationship. Our disobedience is all a part of our seeking to keep him, the very Source of our life, at a self-protective distance—to have less love and less life than what he gives because we would not then remain in control. In contrast, the covenant relationship we have with God, in Jesus, by the Spirit, is a relationship of love that is abundant, uncontainable, outgoing, full of joy, peace and well-being. Jesus relationship with the Father and the Spirit is the fullness of this covenant love. Jesus is the most complete, secure, whole human being who has ever lived and he shares that love and life with us, through the Spirit. It is our calling to grow in experiencing that love and life—to have an increasingly wholehearted relationship with God.

When Paul speaks of the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus (Col. 1:19; 2:9) and prays that we will be filled with that fullness (Eph. 3:19), he is not thinking of a substance like water, but of the fullness of being in relationship. Jesus promises that, in the Spirit, he will do greater works in and through us because these works will be the fruit—the outflow—of this new relationship–this new interaction and conversation.

Jesus acts as one of us, on our behalf, from the place of peace in his Father. He does not act in accordance with mere circumstances. When the Pharisees asked him for a sign, Jesus didn’t give them one. He is not manipulated by others, and he doesn’t lord it over others. Jesus always gives out of the fullness of the relationship that he has with the Father, in the Spirit. He always gives what is best for the other, even when it is not what the other believes they want—even when they feel threatened by what he is giving them. Jesus always seeks to reveal his Father—to reveal himself as the Father’s Son, in the Spirit, inviting people to feed on him, to trust in him.

Jesus is not a victim. He was not haplessly caught up in having to be the Savior. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2). Jesus took up God’s judgment and determination to bring all our sin to an end. He took that sin (all of it) upon himself—all our brokenness, all our sinning against others (and our being sinned against), so that we can be made new in him. In this fellowship that we now have in Christ, whatever we have been through, or may yet go through, is not the last word. In Jesus, the whole God is always more present, active, and faithful than we are.

The particularity of this relationship

In Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see that the particularity of the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit issue an invitation into particular, personal, ongoing, dynamic relationships with us. In dealing with his disciples, Jesus revealed more and more of who he is. He did so in particular interactions with them. He didn’t take them through a class or have them read a pamphlet or book. He himself was the book—the Word of God, living, acting, interacting, communicating in word and deed. When he chose the 12,it was so that they would be “with him” (Mark 3:14).

We see Jesus dealing individually with various people in the four Gospels. It was not a “one size fits all” interaction. Note, for example, how Jesus dealt with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years (Mark 5). In that encounter, we see Jesus seeking out the woman who had touched him. Jesus was provocative in many other encounters with individuals. You’ll recall Zacchaeus up in the tree in Jericho. Though Jesus could easily have passed under, he “looks up” and calls Zacchaeus down from the tree, telling him that he will be coming to his home later that day. What can Zacchaeus do in response? Either receive or reject Jesus’ audacious invitation. Jesus addressed Zacchaeus in a deeply personal way.

“Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus” by Tissot 
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus initiates the conversation with her as well, asking if she will give him a drink. Through these face-to-face encounters, Jesus calls forth a response. His initiative makes non-response not an option. He can’t be evaded.

You’ll also recall the provocative way Jesus related to the Pharisees. There was the time when Jesus, in the synagogue on the Sabbath, called forward a man with a withered hand. Jesus did not have to heal him on the Sabbath, but he did so intentionally to make a point about who he is. He was equally provocative when he declared the paralytic forgiven.

Then there are Jesus’ parables, which he meant to be puzzling in order to draw people to himself to ask for more. Jesus is always calling people—the weary, in particular—-to “come to me” (Matt. 11:28). He calls them into a one-on-one personal relationship with himself. In doings so, he doesn’t give them a lighter yoke of their own, then send them on their way. Instead, he invites them to share his yoke (Matt. 11:29)—to be yoked to him, and in doing so to enjoy his rest as they walk together. Jesus thus calls people into a dynamic, interactive, intimate relationship—one he initiates—sharing with them the relationship he has with his Father, in the Spirit.

Called to share this relationship with others

It’s important to know that we are called to share the relationship we have with God with others. That sharing is the fruit of the relationship we have with the Father, in and through Jesus, by the Spirit. Our mission, as Jesus’ followers, involves inviting others into that relationship with us. Though we are imperfect in this inviting, (remember, we are a work in process!), God’s love motivates us to take the risk of reaching out to others with the gospel. We do so through our actions and words (living and sharing the gospel, is how we say it in GCI). Our motivation for doing this is not fear, guilt, anxiety, or obligation, but faith, hope and love—the identifying characteristics of the relationship we have with God, in Christ, by the Spirit.

After his ascension, Jesus poured out the Spirit as he had promised in John 14: “He who was with you will now be in you.” Jesus also promised that the Spirit would guide his disciples into all truth, growing a real relationship of knowing Jesus and the Father. The Holy Spirit brings us into dynamic relationship with the whole God, working in and with us through the dynamic relationship we have with God, in Christ. In that relationship, the whole God is present and at work.

The Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we truly are God’s children (Romans 8:16). All that God in Christ has done for us in Jesus, as a completed and finished work, the Holy Spirit works out in us personally, dynamically, relationally, through a life-long conversation and interaction with us by his Word.

The point here is this: we are given this relationship to grow up in it. This is what the Christian life is all about. Throughout the New Testament, we are exhorted to actively participate in this relationship. But that is not all—Scripture also makes it clear that God not only exhorts us in Jesus (Jesus being the Father’s Word to us) but he also (as our high priest united to our actual humanity), makes the response we were created to make, but cannot.

But don’t be confused on this point—don’t think that since Jesus makes that response for us, we don’t need to respond ourselves. The Spirit’s working in us now is not so that we don’t need to respond, but so that we can begin to respond—so we should respond as fully and freely as we can.

The Spirit enables us to respond to Jesus’ response—to give our responsive “Amen” to what he has done on our behalf. Desiring to hear this response from us, God releases us to praise and thanksgiving—to our real participation as whole persons in this wonderful, life-giving, fruitful fellowship.

Unfortunately, rather than understanding what our Triune God is actually bringing about, we can be tempted to revert to an impersonal, contractual view of our relationship with God—seeing God somehow at a distance from us. Succumbing to that temptation, we compartmentalize our Christian life, as if relationship with Jesus is in one compartment by itself, and other things we do are in other separate compartments. Or we can regard our relationship with God as merely being a means to some other important “work” we have of building the kingdom—of doing things “for God” (rather than “with God”). We can mistakenly think that God is there merely to direct us—to set us an example or somehow inspire or enable us to do things for him or for ourselves. When that split or disconnection happens, the real work of living out of a growing personal relationship with God takes a back seat to the other, seemingly more important duties, such as duties of ministry, parenting, evangelism, discipleship, or whatever.

We can begin to behave as if we need Jesus only to get us “in” or get us “saved,” then we need only occasionally check in with him to say hello, get some instructions, give him a few of our requests, and be on our way to attend to other things, including the things he wants us to do for him. By falling into the trap of this wrong-headed way of thinking, we are disconnecting our doing from our true being—from having our being in personal, daily and interactive relationship with Jesus.

While we are away from Jesus, doing things for him, we begin to trust in our own skills, doctrines, agendas, programs and concerns. We trust in these things as much, if not more, than we trust in Jesus—in his real, active presence with the whole God and with us. In doing so, we miss out on continually receiving from Jesus, yielded continuously to his dynamic leading through the Spirit, participating with him in his continuing ministry by his Word and Spirit.

Think about it this way—where is Jesus and what is he doing when we’re off doing things for him? Is he simply looking on? Is he depending upon us to do things for him? Is he only passively present? Or, perhaps we think he’s out front, leading the way, with his back to us as we observe him from a distance, trying to mimic what he is doing—following his example in our own tasks. Or perhaps we think Jesus is behind us, watching from the spectator stands—cheering us on or evaluating our performance. And what about the Father and the Spirit? Where are they and what are they doing?

While we know God is a speaking God and that he is acting in and through our lives today, we may act as if we are more present and active than he is. We may think, yes, he speaks but (again) from a distance. We may view his love for us and his attention over us being like a blanket—draped over us and everyone all wrapped up in it and included under it. In accordance with this view, we hear him speaking but only in general, generic ways, not aware of anyone in particular.

The glorious truth of the gospel is that the triune God, by the Spirit, is loving us as individuals, calling us in a deeply personal way to his side, reminding us of his faithfulness, helping us see places he is working with us, so we can let go of other things that keep us from fully receiving him.

God is calling forth our response—a response arising out of trust and hope—rejoicing in who he is, and who we are in relationship to him. He is saying to each of us: “I love you. I know you. I have you. I have your whole life and I am not going to be thwarted in healing and transforming you even as I am redeeming this world and everything in it. Look at me as I wholeheartedly attend to you.”

Conclusion

Dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is speaking to you today. Right now. He will be doing so tomorrow, and each day after that. The heart of our Christian life is this wonderful, dynamic, ongoing, personal, interactive, particular, life-giving, uncontainable relationship with our tri-personal God. He is calling you, inviting you, to share in his rest, to live by trusting in him—to participate wholeheartedly in what he is doing. Amen.


Here is a video of the presentation on which this part of Cathy’s essay is based:

On Youtube at https://youtu.be/32I5_RzOJvE.

From Greg: A look back at 2017

Dear Ministers of Christ,

Greg and Susan Williams

Hard to believe, but 2017 is nearly over! Before we dive into 2018 (and I’m excited about what lies ahead!), let’s take this opportunity to look back on some of the key messages we’ve addressed in GCI Equipper during 2017.

Our over-arching theme this year has been renewal—continuing our Spirit-led and empowered journey with Jesus both corporately (as a denomination and individual congregations) and personally (with a particular emphasis on the renewal of our pastors and ministry leaders).

“The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a look back at our journey as seen in the 2017 issues of Equipper:

  • The March issue addressed renewal through community outreach. This has been an important focus this year, one that will continue as God leads us “outside the walls” to impact unchurched people, giving them opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ. Click here for the index.
  • The April issue explored the vital topic of our theological renewal. It introduced an essay by Gary Deddo (published serially) titled “Clarifying our Theological Vision.”
  • The June issue stressed the importance of taking time for retreats and other spiritual practices as key to renewal. Click here for the index.
  • The July issue prepared us for our GCI Denominational Conference held in Orlando, in August. It emphasized the importance of our family unity in GCI. Maintaining these close ties (“We Are GCI!”) is a vital factor in our continuing renewal. Click here for the index.
  • The August issue was shortened to make room for our Denominational Conference in Orlando.
  • The September issue celebrated our transformation as a denomination—a transformation clearly evident at our conference. God has done (and continues to do) a marvelous work in our midst! Click here for the index.
  • The October issue continued celebrating our journey of renewal. I shared my observations (and Norva Kelly’s encouraging words) on GCI’s journey from trial to abundance.
  • The November  issue offered various resources that our churches and families can use in preparing for the upcoming Advent-Christmas season. Click here for the index.

This brings us to the December issue and our journey through Advent, which culminates in celebrating our Lord’s birth. My prayer for this Advent-Christmas season is that it will renew you in both spirit and body. Thank you for what you will be doing in this season to minister the grace of God into the lives of many as we enter into another annual cycle of Christian worship.

May God bless and keep you, and let’s meet again in 2018 as we launch into an exciting year of transition in GCI. More about that next month.

Your brother in Christ,
Greg Williams

Sermon for January 21, 2018

Scripture readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Ps. 62:5-12; 
1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Sermon by Josh McDonald from Mark 1:19-20

 A Lesson from Big Jim from the ’Burbs

Introduction

Let’s talk about boredom. A fourth century monk wrote this about it:

The demon of boredom—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack up on the monk at the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from lunchtime, to look this way and now that…. It instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the places, a hatred for his very life itself…

Then there are the words of the 18th-century French Queen, Marie Antoinette, who in describing her sense of boredom said, Noting tastes!

Then there are words concerning boredom from the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire:

In the disorderly circus of our vice,
there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine….

Finally, we have a profound observation concerning boredom from rock legend Kurt Cobain: Oh well, whatever. Nevermind

Boredom—the noonday demon, a tasteless existence, nevermind. Boredom is a common denominator in a culture where our needs are fulfilled we’re safe, fed, politically at rest, relationally connected, physically satiated. Yet our souls scream out: “What next?” “What’s life for?” “What’s the purpose of it all?” We ask ourselves, “Should I numb myself with pleasure?” “Should I keep acquiring stuff—doesn’t the one who dies with the most toys win?” “Do I now find some great issue to champion?” “Should I be pro-Trump or anti-Trump, pro-military or pacifist, protest cruelty to animals or protest abortion?” “What next?”

Christian author Kathleen Norris wrote about acedia—an ancient word that describes the mix of boredom and depression that seems to be the symbol of our time:

Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.

“Do more and care less”—isn’t that the painful description of the soccer mom as she drives to yet another PTA meeting and takes an anxiety pill so she doesn’t have to feel it? Acedia—boredom and depression—nothing new in the history of humankind. That which makes the sun seem to stand still and the day 50 hours long, and makes “nothing taste” (this said by the queen of France, who had more wealth and opportunity than all of us combined!).

Let’s think together about this issue by going to the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where we find Jesus beginning to call his first disciples—a hand-picked cabinet of 12 that included all kinds of people. There were con-artists, petty thieves, outdoorsmen, roughnecks, terrorists, cultural sell outs, all manner of weirdoes. However, the lessons we learn from their examples are invaluable—they bring the power of the gospel into high relief so we can see clearly what’s going on.

Yet among these 12 we don’t often see one thing—ourselves. Instead, we see people whose sins and heroism are obvious, who have powerful virtues and yet make great blunders. What we don’t see is the person like most of us—the suburbanite whose life is routine. We don’t see someone who is looking from his suburban manicured lawn to suburban manicured lawns every direction, dying of the modern sickness of apathy and boredom—the whole world at his or her fingertips like never before, yet their heart is gasping the words of Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow… life is a tale told by an idiot…”

But let’s look closer at Mark’s account—past the examples of the first disciples’ extreme lifestyles and exciting transformations to two brothers from a middle-class family who are unbelievably bored. Perhaps we can relate.

Going on a little farther, [Jesus] saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

Nothing extraordinary here. James was a common name at that time. In fact, we know of several James in the New Testament:

  •  James, son of Alphaeus. This one is an apostle we know almost nothing about. He is called James the Less, and it may be because he was shorter than James the Great. We might call him Little Jim.
  • James the brother of Jesus, also called James the Just. He is most likely the one who wrote the book of James.
  • James the Greater. He was the brother of the John mentioned here in Mark. James and John were known as “the sons of thunder,” a nickname Jesus gave them. This is who we are talking about today, or as I like to call him, Big Jim from the ’Burbs.
“St. James, the Greater” by Reni
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t know a whole lot about Big Jim—we know much more about his famous brother John. I call him “Big Jim from the ’Burbs” because he, more than any of the other original 12 disciples, seems to have the most in common with most of us. Matthew was a political traitor, Judas a terrorist, Peter a roughneck outdoorsman. All were interesting men, but we probably would not be hanging out with them in our day and age. However, we might find ourselves hanging out with Big Jim and his brother John—guys we might meet in the check-out line at the grocery store.

Big Jim and John were brothers in an economically comfortable family. Their profession as fisherman had been laid out for them when they were young. Their mother, Salome, was one of the first financial underwriters of Jesus’ ministry. John had enough money to take Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his home and care for her the rest of her life. Their dad, Zebedee, was in the rotary club and their mom was the secretary of the PTA. They were members of the bowling league and mowed their lawn on Sunday afternoon. More than any of original 12 disciples, James and John were like us.

And like us, they may have suffered from the listlessness of a settled life in a settled place. They may be in the time in their life when they’ve put together a profession and a future—a dull, grey, yet stable one—and their hearts are aching with boredom. They know there must be something more. I read an article this week that said the new epidemic in our Western world isn’t greed or lust or selfishness—it’s chronic boredom!

This is perhaps why we have Big Jim and John jump up so quickly in Mark  chapter 1:

And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

If we drill down on this statement, we see the brothers leaving two things right away: their family and their profession. They didn’t just jump out of a boat—they jumped right out of their routine existence. To leave their family and their future occupation means that they left everything. Society would have no way to define them anymore. Just look at our last names.

[Give examples here: McDonald—I am the “son of Donald” of the clan Donald. Nelson—“son of Nell.” Steward is a name taken from the house guardian—it’s a profession name—the “steward” of the house. Metzger is the German word for butcher. Miller is another profession name.]

Who our family is and what our profession is are all too often used to define who we are. Big Jim left this when he left the boat, although it didn’t leave him for a long time.

In the Gospels we see all 12 of the original disciples bumble along trying to understand what Jesus is up to. Their errors, as well as their great triumphs, are there for the viewing. Peter gets called Satan, Philip gets confronted (you still don’t understand?), and all of them run off and desert Jesus on the worst night of his life. One of the big misunderstandings between them and Jesus is in the understanding of the word “kingdom.”

As these disciples were growing up, they would have heard stories about the great and terrible day of the Lord—the time when God was going to intervene directly in history, restore Israel as the ruling nation and himself as the king. He would break the evil and reward the righteous.

Jesus’ slogan, over and over when he arrives, is that “the kingdom is among you.” But it sure didn’t look like it! People were still dying, wars raged on, rivers dried up and famines continued, all during Jesus’ lifetime when the “kingdom” was supposedly near.

But what Jesus was talking about was a kingdom not of this world. Not a political or economic kingdom, but a kingdom of love and restored relationships. An upside-down kingdom in which the last are first, and the weak are called the strong. Instead of aggression and force, Jesus’ kingdom is about humility and willingness. Instead of amassing and taking, his kingdom is about sharing and loving. This kingdom is what things look like when God is in charge.

This understanding opens up our world a bit, perhaps a lot. The kingdom is fundamentally expressed in relationship. Sure, you may be having a great conversation with God in your own head, but if you can’t also have a conversation with a neighbor or a difficult relative, the kingdom isn’t there in its full power. You may have a great time singing praises with the praise team at church, but if it doesn’t result in a deepened love for your spouse or patience with your kids, the kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness.

The kingdom breaking into our lives means that it breaks into every part, every action, every thought, and definitely into every relationship. The kingdom is what things look like when God is in charge.

In Jesus’ day, the Israelite people had their own ideas about what the kingdom was and how it was going to come. For them, it was a political, military kingdom, and thus we see constant confusion with Jesus because of how he defined the kingdom.

Big Jim had his own problems getting the picture. In the two vignettes we have about him, he shows some sin issues that we can all relate to. First, there is the issue of fear; and second, there is the issue of vanity. Fear and vanity, both exposed by conversations with Jesus.

Let’s look at Luke’s account:

When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:51-56)

This is Jesus heading toward Jerusalem—he set his face toward Jerusalem. Jesus knew his purpose and knew what had to happen for this kingdom, the one he kept talking about, to come. And these two sons of thunder start telling him how to do his job.

There’s a lot of speculation as to where their nickname came from—Boanerges in the original language. Scholars speculate it had something to do with their thunderous tempers, and that may be shown here. The Samaritan village wasn’t listening, wasn’t making way for the kingdom of God. James would have known the story of Elijah calling down fire on an army in the book of Kings. They wanted to be part of that kind of kingdom, so they acted in fear.

Their fear, manifested as anger, caused them to make this violent request of Jesus. Do you want us to call down fire? Surely now we are part of the kingdom that will eradicate haters like this? They considered the Samaritans to be half-breeds, heretics, cultists—a threat to what it meant to be God’s people. Hate and fear worked together in this request.

Just the sight of the Samaritan village on the hill would have disgusted them. Can we connect with that fear? [show pictures of a member of ISIS and then a member of the KKK]. Everyone of us can act out of this fear. We can all act out of hatred and anxiety, and wish that God would crush the evil-doers, and eradicate the Samaritan village so that we can finally rest easy. Surely Jesus wants to do that! We savor the day when he will finally give all these arrogant sinners their cumeuppance.

But what does Jesus do? He rebukes Big Jim and his brother John. We don’t have the words exchanged, but we know the context. People come to him immediately afterward and say “let me bury my father first” or “let me say goodbye to everyone at home” and then I will follow you. Big Jim and John are saying something similar—”Jesus, we’d like your kingdom to look like we want it to look. We only want to give a little—I’m willing to give up this sin or that sin, but I really like to keep this one.”

I’m reminded here of cancer. The most aggressive kinds respond the most dramatically to treatment. Cancer that is obvious and moving quickly often responds to treatment and shows quick results. It’s the slow-moving, deeper cancers that you don’t notice until it’s too late. Those are the ones that kill you subtly and silently—that’s why they are so dangerous.

Sin is like that. Sure, you may have found freedom from an addiction to alcohol or pornography, but what about being addicted to being the center of attention? You may have finally stopped cussing when you stub your toe, but do you use your clean words now to gossip or tear others down? Do you let fear run your decisions—not just disagreeing with those who live differently than you, but avoiding them, treating them like they aren’t made in God’s image? Treating them like Jesus didn’t die for them too?

Jesus exposes one of Big Jim’s besetting, suburban, “acceptable” sins in this short exchange. Jesus tells him that this isn’t what his kingdom is about—a temporary judgment coming out in military strength and supernatural violence. Jesus is not running that kind of operation. He’s not setting his face toward Jerusalem to go there and take over the government. He will be entering the city on a donkey, not the white horse and fanfare of a king—that has yet to come. Villages will continue to reject him, and us by proxy, and he will hold back the fires of destruction. Jesus’ kingdom is one of mercy, and the only cleansing fire that needs to come from heaven right now, will come in our hearts.

So Big Jim from the ’Burbs starts to see a little of what’s going on. Jesus isn’t going to be absorbed into their lives as usual. Just as he called them out of their father’s boat, their father’s profession, and their family matrix, so he calls them out of their long-held prejudices. He calls them out of letting fear run their lives.

The second vignette deals with a sin that might be a little easier to get our hands on. Let’s look at Matthew’s account:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matt. 20:20-23)

Ah, nepotism! We know from later on that their mother Salome is one of the financial supporters of Jesus’ early ministry, and of the early church. Here she is doing what any good suburban mom would do—looking out for her boys. Look, Jesus, it would be easier for me to increase my tithing, loosen up those purse strings a little if I knew that Big Jim and Johnny were gonna be comfortable when this all gets established. I scratch your back, Lord, and…well…?

Vanity, pride. First, we had fear and prejudice and cultural hatred, good old-fashioned racism and small-mindedness. Now, we have career advancement. Say, Jesus, just wondering who you’re going to pick for head positions when you come into this empire you’re talking about! James and John are good boys, maybe a little rough, but they learn quickly. I’d love it if they could have corner offices, maybe next to each other.

But this isn’t the kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about. The kingdom of God runs on higher laws and with better ends than the way things work in the world of business or politics. The kingdom of God is eternal; these other realms are temporary. The kingdom of God isn’t achieved by personal strength or clever intrigue, or by garnering favors—the kingdom of God is known through love. The kingdom of God was won by Jesus’ suffering and dying, not bullying his way to the top.

So we have Big Jim from the ’Burbs. Along with his brother John, he’s being called further and further from his old life and the old idols that sucked up his spirit.

What boat is Jesus calling you to jump out of today? For some people, that means a calling right out of their life and into direct, vocational ministry. Francis of Assisi is an example—a rich kid with a privileged life who left it all behind to go into ministry. But most of us aren’t called to something quite so dramatic. God gets a lot done through us doing our jobs and paying our taxes. It’s when we start defining ourselves by these things that the problems arise. When we start acting like the financial or occupational situation we’re in is all that we’re made for, we end up like Marie Antoinette saying, “Nothing tastes.” Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The cruel grey idols of our own selfishness and self-addiction.

Big Jim seems to finally get the picture at some point. Somewhere, we don’t have an exact record, he lets go of himself and puts his life fully in the care of Jesus, his Lord. According to early church tradition, following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, he heads west, taking the treacherous journey all the way to Spain.

Historians support this tradition, noting that his mission to Spain essentially flopped. The one who wanted to make connections in the kingdom and destroy the enemies of Christ like a prophet was, at least by our standards, a failure as a missionary. During the same time, Peter and Andrew were doing well in their missionary work in the West—winning people to Christ and planting churches. But it seems that Big Jim was selling something nobody wanted. He worked and worked, yet was only able to convert nine people after a few years, while his brothers-in-arms converted thousands. Nine. Not exactly victorious Christian living! A man who had been trained in ministry by the son of God himself fizzles out in hostile territory.

That, to me, is great encouragement. When I don’t think things are going well in my ministry or with the church, I can think of my older brother James having much the same luck. One day he was praying, laying out his frustrations and confusion with his present mission. The story goes that the virgin Mary, who was still alive at the time, appeared to him with a pillar. She told him that his work hadn’t been in vain and that God would bless him. Then she told him to build a church around that pillar she had brought. If you ever meet someone who is Latino and has the name “pilar” it comes from this story.

So he built the church as instructed, and finally found success. He returned to Jerusalem at some point, and we don’t know exactly why. There he was brought up on false charges and put on trial. Big Jim, the one who wanted to make all the connections and have a name for himself, the suburban kid who was going to climb the ladder and distinguish himself, is given a sacred ministry, and resurfaces in scripture one final time:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)

About the same time, Peter was also arrested by Herod. And yet Peter was freed by an angel and went on to have a fruitful, illustrious career and do great miracles. Big Jim was executed like a criminal by some soldiers, probably between their breakfast and lunch.

Tradition says that James was falsely accused, but Herod was only too happy to have him arrested, especially when he saw how popular it made him with the public. Soon Big Jim faced the sword—he’d seen beheadings before, he knew how these things went. And yet he who, in the past, was motivated by vanity, stood before his executioners with peace on his face. Seeing this, his accuser was so moved that he threw himself at James’s feet and asked his forgiveness. James forgave him, and they were then both executed by Herod.

Tradition tells us that Peter’s ministry was to found the church in Rome, Andrew’s ministry was to found the church in Greece, and Thomas’ ministry was to found the church in India. The ministry of James the Great was to be the first to prove that the kingdom of Christ, while in this world, is not of this world.

What, though of Big Jim? What can we learn from him?

  •  See yourself in the story. The Bible seems very far away sometimes. As if the only people God chooses are great sinners and great saints—comic book characters, to our minds. But Big Jim wasn’t like that. He was a middle-class guy with a middle class future ahead of him. He was connected, secured, and bonded, and Jesus called him out of that.
  • Jump out of the boat. Maybe Jesus won’t call you out of your profession and culture, but he will call you not to define yourself by these things. He will call you to hold these gifts—because they are gifts—with an open hand. Once you close your hand around them, they become idols. What boat is he calling you to jump out of today? Do you need to jump out of the boat of your own image? The boat of career advancement? Lining your bank account? What holds you back from allowing God to take care of you—from being prepared to let him be your only reward, your only recognition.
  • Understand that the kingdom is not of this world. The man who had his mom try to get him in good with the boss, was the first to lose his life. Big Jim was the first to show that this worldly kingdom, even accomplishments in ministry, weren’t where his identity came from. How would it change our lives if we were to embrace that perspective? If we were to see our success in the world paling in comparison to success in the kingdom?

Sermon for January 14, 2018

Scripture readings: 1 Sam. 3:1-10, 11-20; Ps.139:1-6, 13-18
1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Sermon by Martin Manuel from John 1:43-51

Our Journey with Jesus

Introduction

Today is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, which commemorates the revealing of Jesus. Our Gospel reading today is John 1:43-51. Let’s begin with an enactment:


On YouTube at https://youtu.be/bnb-8veFppQ

The Gospel reading on the day of Epiphany is Matthew 2:1-12, the story about the revealing of Christ to the Magi, and through them to King Herod and the residents of Jerusalem. On the first Sunday following Epiphany this year (last Sunday), the Gospel reading was about the baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist, which brought about another revealing of Jesus as the Son of God—this time to John the Baptist. The Gospel of John goes on to explain that John the Baptist then testified about his epiphany to some of his disciples. In doing so, he identified Jesus to a small number of disciples, who, in turn, embarked upon a journey with Jesus.

The flow of this story, starting with Jesus’ revealing, transitioned to his identification. What followed? The Lectionary readings today help us understand. In 1 Sam. 3:1-10, we read of God revealing himself to Samuel. In Ps. 139:1-6, 13-18, the Psalmist recognized God’s comprehensive knowledge of him and marveled at God’s handiwork in his body. In 1 Cor. 6:12-20, Paul reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Combining these readings, we see the transition from revelation to identification, and from there to a journey with Jesus—a journey we take together.

What did it mean to the first disciples to journey on earth with Jesus, the Son of God who is the son of man? And what does it mean to us to journey, by the Spirit, with Jesus today? We will learn the answer as we proceed.

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

Jesus calls his disciples

Just as God called Samuel, Jesus called his disciples:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 1:43)

The meaning of the Greek word translated follow conveys the idea of traveling on the same road together with one who is leading the way. The result is a journey together—the initiator leading the way and the invitee following. Philip did not initiate his journey with Jesus—Jesus found him then called him to journey with him. The Gospel of John does not explain how Jesus knew Philip. It does tell us in v. 44 that Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from Bethsaida, a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. Other followers of Jesus lived there too, including brothers James and John—the John who authored this Gospel.

“The Apostle Philip” by Rubens
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Disciples share the message

Philip did not keep the exciting news about Jesus to himself—he told his friend:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)

Previously, Andrew had done the same, seeking out his brother, Peter, and telling him the good news (vv. 40-41). Here we see a common thread in the natural response to recognizing and identifying an exciting revelation from God.  Samuel, pressured by Eli, repeated the message given to him. The Psalmist testified to what he observed. These disciples, called to journey with Jesus, shared their epiphany of Jesus with others.

As often occurs, Philip’s friend Nathaniel reacted with skepticism:

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. (John 1:46a)

To this response, Philip wisely extended an invitation: “Come and see,” said Philip  (John 1:46b). Not only did Philip share the message, he encouraged his friend Nathanael to openly and honestly investigate.

Jesus knows his disciples

Although young Samuel did not know God, God knew him. In the same way, God knew the Psalmist. The Holy Spirit, indwelling each member of the body of Christ, knows them. One attribute of the Father, Son, and Spirit is omniscience—complete, comprehensive knowing. So it’s no surprise that Jesus, though limited in his humanity, through the Spirit knew his disciples even before they met.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:47-48)

Nathaniel was stunned at this greeting. Instead of Jesus saying, “Hi, I’m Jesus, what’s your name”? Jesus introduced himself by declaring to Nathaniel that he already knew him. Not only did he know him in a general way, he knew of a specific incident that Nathaniel realized only God could know of! Jesus had done the same to Peter at their introduction, as recorded in John 1:42, not only knowing who Peter was but who he would come to be!

Disciples recognize and journey with Jesus

Not allowing himself to be confused by doubting thoughts about coincidences, Nathanael quickly recognized Jesus:

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” (John 1:49)

What a profound conclusion, arrived at so quickly! This was a rare occurrence, even for a disciple.

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” (John 1:50)

Like a parent taking their child on a sightseeing trip that exposes the child to sights that enrich the whole experience, Jesus promised Nathaniel and the other early disciples profound discoveries as they continued to journey with him. He then added,

“Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)

Jesus seemed to enjoy saying something to provoke deep thought in his disciples. This was one such statement. He was drawing on an experience in the life of the Patriarch Jacob, recorded in Genesis 28:11-16. Jacob, who previously had not encountered the God of Abraham and Isaac, had an epiphany in a place that he named Bethel, meaning “House of God.” Jacob was deeply impressed with his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder stretched between heaven and earth. He viewed Bethel as the gate of heaven. Jesus was wanting Nathaniel and his friends to realize that he is the true gate of heaven—not only as the Son of God but also as the son of man.

Heaven and humanity are linked through Jesus, and his followers are the immediate beneficiaries. The disciples would experience recurring evidences of this reality as they journeyed with him. Like this experience of Nathaniel’s, they each would come to see the glory of God in Jesus. What they would experience would cause their interest in him and reverence for him to grow.

As we know, Samuel eventually recognized and responded to God. The Psalmist understood about God through observing that God knows him. Mature members of the body of Christ, the church, experience the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the honor this brings. All these are outcomes of a journey with Jesus.

Our journey with Jesus

Our journey with Jesus is much more than a spiritual trip that occupies the passage of time in our lives. What takes place on this journey builds faith and inspires transformation.

Jesus began to signal the progression of experiences in the journey with his first disciples by telling Nathaniel that he would encounter amazing and miraculous experiences. The story of Jesus’ first-century disciples hanging out with the Lord, may seem to be an unachievable ideal. We may find ourselves sighing and thinking about how special it would be for us to experience the same thing. But is it possible that we could have similar experiences now? Does the Gospel account imply that, like these early disciples, we too can journey with—hang out with—Jesus and with the Father, through the Spirit?

The answer is YES! The living, risen and ascended Jesus, is today who he was then. We can count on him to lead us through amazing, encouraging, and transforming experiences as we journey with him.

Our journey with Jesus begins with his calling. We are not the initiators of that calling—it didn’t start with us deciding to give our hearts to him. We had no clue about him until he opened our minds and hearts to realize and respond to his call. Sometimes it may be difficult to recognize exactly when that call occurred, nevertheless it did, and it originated not with us, but from above. As we responded, a rich journey of learning ensued. Through those experiences, we grew in faith and in knowing the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Through this journey, we have opportunities to share our encounters and the knowledge they bring with others, telling them about this Jesus and the difference he has made our lives. When we share this good news, we receive all sorts of reactions, including resistance and skepticism. When that occurs, we may have to tactfully and wisely invite our friends to “come and see”—without pressure, giving them opportunity and time to see for themselves. Remember, the call does not come from us.

Also, it’s important for us to realize that our friends are already on God’s radar, so to speak. They are completely known by the Father, Son, and Spirit long before we enter the picture. The Holy Spirit is already at work within them, working to lead them to Jesus. We can trust him to do that work and trust that, in time, they will have their eyes opened. A challenge for each of us is to try to discern the current activity of the Spirit in their lives and participate with the Spirit at that point in our friend’s journey with Jesus. If there is no indication of interest, it might not be the right time. We should always pray for discernment.

John’s Gospel goes on in its remaining 20 chapters to detail the progression in the growth of Jesus’ disciples during their journey with him. We do not have time to read about it now, but if we jump ahead in the story, we find John, late in life, still musing on the journey with Jesus and its ultimate outcome, which is fellowship with Jesus and the Father through the Spirit. Note what John wrote in his first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

The early followers of Jesus, the original apostles, had a special role in the development of the faith and growth of all the followers of Jesus who would come behind them. They were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ; they learned from him first-hand; they were sent directly by him to proclaim his message, the gospel, to everyone else who would follow.

As they journeyed with Jesus, experiencing the many faith-building and knowledge-growing experiences that Jesus had promised, they served as the ears, eyes, and hands of each of those who would receive the gospel afterward through their preaching and writing. John told the readers of his Gospel and epistles that his intent was that the fellowship that they, the apostles, enjoyed with Jesus and the Father would be shared with many others. This is one reason why we should regularly study the writings of the apostles in the New Testament.

Fellowship is a word that today is rarely used outside of religious settings. An investigation of this word in Greek, as used by John, enlightens us to the awesome blessing that we are granted as an outcome of our journey with Jesus. That word is koinonia, which the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines as a term that describes…

… the living bond in which the Christian stands. Here, too, the word implies inward fellowship on a religious basis. To be a Christian is to have fellowship with God. This fellowship is with the Father and the Son. It issues in the brotherly fellowship of believers. The believer’s communion with God or Christ consists in mutual abiding, which begins in this world and reaches into the world to come, where it finds its supreme fulfillment.

Elsewhere, koinonia is defined as partnership. But living bond suggests an even stronger partnership that is deeply inward instead of just superficially outward (as in a business partnership). This living bond is between each Spirit-led human believer and God the Father through Jesus Christ. Together, these believers, by the Spirit who unites them, have a bond with one another—an experience they share with each other.

Koinonia is also translated communion in some New Testament passages, applying the word to the sharing of the bread and wine that are, for us as a congregation, the sharing in the body and blood of Christ. Referring to the Lord’s Supper as Communion helps us understand (and thus experience) the full depth of the relationship we have together with the Father, the Son and the Spirit, as we journey together with Jesus.

Conclusion

As we have seen today, the lessons about Epiphany in the Gospels do not conclude with the manifestation of Jesus. That appearing is a vital beginning of a process that leads to identification of Jesus and then a journey with Jesus that is full of faith-building, knowledge-expanding experiences that lead to life transformation. Each of us has been called to that journey. Each of us has an opportunity to share what we are learning on that journey with others.

So, hold on to your seats! What we will encounter as we journey with Jesus will be spiritually breathtaking as it expands into full fellowship—full koinonia (in the deepest sense of that word) with the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit! Enjoy the journey! Amen.

Kid’s Korner: Focus on the child

This Kids Korner is from GCI Pastor Lance McKinnon.

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

December and the Christmas season it entails has a way of focusing our attention on our kids in ways other months do not. Parents are searching for gifts that are fitting for their little ones. Pastors and children’s ministry leaders are searching for appropriate ways to include their youth in the Christmas celebrations. This added focus may also bring into sharp view the fact that we have one less year with the kids in our care. Add to that the approaching New Year and we are challenged with how we will parent and disciple our kids going forward.

It is here that guilt and fear can find an easy path into our souls. Did we do enough with our kids this year? Were our choices and activities with them fitting for their development? What about that nagging problem little Johnny is still struggling with? What about that kid at church who just can’t seem to connect? Are we making any progress or are we making things worse? Do we have enough time to prepare them to face the world on their own? What about their faith? Did we disciple them adequately? What if we haven’t? Can we make up time this coming year? Do we have them in the right schools? Are we using the right curriculums? Do we have the right youth program? Maybe we are in the wrong church—maybe we are the wrong parents/pastors/youth leaders? And on and on it goes.

Maybe you’ve set out on this introspective journey, fearful that it ultimately ends at a big green sign that says, “Welcome To Complete And Utter Failure With The Children Entrusted To Your Care.” Yeah, that can be a real bah humbug for your Christmas celebration. Not to mention a roadblock to enjoying your kids or your kids enjoying you.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by La Tour
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s consider another road we may travel down together this Christmas—the road to Bethlehem. Those who took this road did not find at its end the sum of all their fears realized and confirmed. Rather, they found hope for their souls lying in a manger repurposed for a cradle. They found a child—not just any child, but the Christ child named Jesus, the redeemer of all creation.

As we heighten our focus on our children in December, why not also heighten our focus on the one child the Christmas season celebrates? It is here that we find the ultimate right and fitting provision for all the children entrusted to our care, whether as parents, pastors or youth leaders.

Jesus came as a child. Have you ever thought through the implications of that fact as it relates to our kids? The Father didn’t send his Son as a fully—grown adult, keeping at arm’s length the Father’s redeeming touch from our babies, kids and youth. When Jesus was conceived as a baby, grew as a kid, then matured into an adult, he took every baby resting in its mother’s womb, every kid scurrying around daddy’s feet and every youth facing adulthood and lifted them up into his redeeming work.

Our kids are not at the mercy of our parenting skills or church programs. They, like the rest of us, find themselves resting on the abundant mercies of a loving Father. God has our kids. And he loves them far more than we do.

May this truth free us from those nagging fears that rob us not only of enjoying Jesus during Christmas, but from enjoying the kids God has blessed us with. In this freedom, we can participate with what Jesus is doing with our kids. Merry Christmas.

Sermon for January 7, 2018

Scripture readings: Gen. 1:1-5; Ps. 29:1-11; 
Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-5, 7-11
This Sunday (January 7) is the day after the Epiphany, which always occurs on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. The first Sunday following the Epiphany (epiphany means revealing) typically focuses on one of two great events in the life of Jesus that revealed his identity: the Magi's visit and Jesus' baptism. The Gospel reading this Sunday is from Mark's account of the baptism.

Life in the Spirit

What does it mean to live in the Spirit? Some people say it’s about doing good works all the time. But that’s not it—many non-Christians do good works, and though God loves them and takes note of their good works, they don’t have the Spirit of God. On the other hand, there are Christians who, by definition, have the Spirit, yet live by cultural rules I might not agree with or have habits I don’t like.

I’m not sure I have the discernment to tell if someone has the gift of the Holy Spirit, at least not right away. To help us sort out this issue, let’s go to the account of a time when the apostle Paul knew right away that some people who called themselves disciples of Jesus didn’t have the Holy Spirit.

“The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus” by Sueur
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paul’s third missionary journey included a three-year stay in Ephesus (c. A.D. 53-57). When he returned to Ephesus, he found 12 people who said they were believers in Jesus. But, Paul questioned their statement. The Bible doesn’t tell us why—perhaps it was something they said or didn’t say, or maybe even something they did.

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—altogether there were about twelve of them.  (Acts 19:1-7, NRSV)

Though they called themselves believers, Paul discerned something was still missing. Paul knew true faith in Jesus depends on having received the Holy Spirit. So Paul wanted to know more about their baptism. They said they had learned about Jesus through John the Baptist’s teachings and baptism. Had they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? No, they said they had not even heard about the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance is mentioned in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. But Jesus’ baptism experience was significantly different from John’s baptism of repentance. Here is what Mark wrote:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:4-5, NRSV; Mark 1:7-8, NRSV)

Though Paul realized these disciples in Ephesus knew about Jesus, they were more the followers of John the Baptist than of Jesus. Notice that Paul didn’t just accept their baptism and explain to them about the Holy Spirit. No, he went further—he laid hands on them and baptized them again, this time in the name of Jesus. Only then did they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin their new life in Christ.

Paul probably didn’t consider this a rebaptism. This was the baptism that mattered, the baptism of Jesus, which included the affirmation of his Father and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, the Father called him his Son and the Holy Spirit came to him like a dove. Let’s read that in Mark:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV)

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is the Spirit-filled baptism of Jesus that would make the real difference in the lives of these people. The same is true for us today. When we are baptized, we are sharing in the baptism of Jesus, which includes his receiving of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. It is our sharing in Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit that opens to us the close intimate relationship that we have with God and with people. Note what Anglican bishop and Christian professor N.T. Wright ways about this in his book, Simply Christian:

God offers us, by the Spirit, a fresh kind of relationship with himself—and, at the same time, a fresh kind of relationship with our neighbors and with the whole of creation. The renewal of human lives by the Spirit provides the energy through which damaged and fractured human relationships can be mended and healed.

What does it mean to “live in the Spirit”? We talk about it a lot. When we are in Christ, we live in the Spirit, not in the flesh. But our flesh is very real to us, isn’t it? We can give our arms a hard pinch and realize quickly we have flesh to deal with.

A Christian teacher described it this way: As she stood to speak, she would say, I’m now in the flesh. Afterward she would step over a bit and say, I’m now in the Spirit. Then she would give an example, perhaps when her husband did or said something she didn’t like. What should she do?

In the Spirit: it’s no big deal. If you correct him, he’s not going to like it, and it could affect your whole relationship today. Let it go. Forgive and forget.
Then she would step over in the flesh: But I’m upset and I want him to know I’m not happy. I don’t want him to get away with this.

In the Spirit: What kind of attitude is that? He’s your husband and you know you love him.

In the flesh: How will he know what I’m angry about if I don’t tell him? Besides, I’m kind of enjoying being mad!

Well, maybe this isn’t quite the way living in the Spirit while being in the flesh really works, but it sometimes comes close.

Let’s give some more examples. What about when someone cuts you off in traffic or is rude to you at work or gossips about you behind your back? Without the Spirit of God, we wouldn’t have these arguments with ourselves.

We often hear about road rage and its tragic consequences. People will shoot each other over parking spaces. It’s crazy.

We are called to live in the life of the Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. It may sound strange to us, but Jesus is fully God and yet also the perfect human. Sometimes we justify our bad actions by saying we’re “only human,” but that’s a fallacy. When we sin, that isn’t what true humanity is all about. When we live in the Spirit, through Jesus, we become more like Jesus and thus more truly human, not less. Jesus was the perfect human.

To sum it up, we cannot come to life in the Spirit on our own, and we can’t enjoy a close relationship with God on our own. Those 12 people in Ephesus had repented and were baptized, but Paul realized something important was missing—the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth put it this way:

When it happens that man obtains that freedom of becoming a hearer, a responsible, grateful, hopeful person, this is not because of an act of the human spirit, but solely because of the act of the Holy Spirit. So this is, in other words, a gift of God. It has to do with a new birth, with the Holy Spirit. (“Dogmatic in Outline,” chapter 21, last paragraph)

Yes, it’s a new birth—born again in the Spirit. And, as mentioned before, our new birth is just the beginning. We must be careful not to think that once we are baptized, God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit have done their part in our lives. Our sins are forgiven, we are saved, that’s it. Got to be careful now, we’re on our own.

No, God continues to work in our lives through the Holy Spirit. He won’t leave us to struggle on our own. This is what sanctification means.

We have been given the gift of freedom in Christ. As someone once said, Jesus didn’t just wipe the slate clean, he broke it up into pieces and threw it away. Living by the Spirit through Jesus our Lord means the law is written on our hearts. Our stony hearts have been softened. God isn’t making lists on whether we’re naughty or nice; he’s working with us every day to bring us into closer relationship with him.

We don’t have to worry about measuring up anymore. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we have real freedom—freedom from sin and guilt and shame, freedom to get our minds off ourselves and to love God and to be concerned about others. That’s what living in the Spirit is all about, and that is very good news!