The craft of preaching

This issue of Equipper examines the craft of preaching, concludes Cathy Deddo’s essay, and provides RCL-synced sermons for April.

From Greg: Preach with passion
Greg Williams urges us to preach passionate, Christ-centered sermons.

Key concepts in preaching
Dan Rogers offers advice on ways to faithfully preach the Word of God.

Preaching with the lectionary
Ted Johnston lists advantages of aligning our sermons with the RCL.

Resources for preachers
Here are links to various resources that help preachers grow.

Video for starting the church service
Here is a video for congregations to use in starting the worship service.

Videos for Holy Week
Here are videos that could be used for call-to-worship in services on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Wholehearted, part 2
Cathy Deddo concludes her essay on the Christian life.

Kid’s Korner: Children’s ministry resources
Georgia McKinnon recommends children’s ministry curricula.

RCL sermons for April 2018
Here are Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for April:
Sermon for April 1, 2018 (Easter)
Sermon for April 8, 2018
Sermon for April 15, 2018
Sermon for April 22, 2018
Sermon for April 29, 2018

In case you missed the sermons for March, here they are:
Sermon for March 4, 2018
Sermon for March 11, 2018
Sermon for March 18, 2018
Sermon for March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday)
Sermon for March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday)
Sermon for March 30, 2018 (Good Friday)

From Greg: Preach with passion

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders,

Greg and Susan Williams

This issue of GCI Equipper looks at the craft of preaching. Like many of you reading this, I love to preach—I love the challenge of taking a passage of Scripture and finding ways to share the gospel. I enjoy doing so in ways that make the gospel relevant—showing how God’s Word is alive; helping others grow deeper in their relationship with our Triune God.

As we think about the craft of preaching, it’s important to remember that we are called to preach, not merely teach. Whereas teaching involves imparting knowledge through instruction, preaching involves proclaiming the gospel with passion. As one author put it, preaching is “theology coming through a man who is on fire.” A sermon delivered with passion moves people to action by appealing to hearts as well as informing minds. Sure, some people teach with passion, but that’s not the same as passionate preaching that focuses people’s hearts and minds on Jesus and his gospel—the best topic in the world!

The apostle Paul preaching the gospel in Athens
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In a graduate homiletics class I took at Liberty University, the professor recommended that lead pastors not be out of their pulpits more than a couple of Sundays a year. Though we don’t have that requirement in GCI, even if you are preaching four out of every five Sundays, that’s 40+ sermons a year! It’s easy to see why it’s important to excel at preaching.

Whether you are a beginner or a veteran preacher, there are several aspects of preaching that this issue of Equipper addresses. I ask that you give them your prayerful attention and make growth in preaching ability one of your primary goals. To help you do so, I encourage you to ask yourself four diagnostic questions:

1) Do I spend adequate time wrestling with the text?
Good preaching flows from meaningful personal study of Holy Scripture. As you interact with the written word of God, ask God to teach you—to make things clearer to you. Doing so will make for much better preaching than merely studying what you perceive your congregants need. Good preachers are first good students of the Bible.

(used with permission, CT cartoons)

2) Do I understand what the text meant to the original audience, and how it applies today?
Hermeneutics is the study of biblical interpretation. In GCI, we begin by looking at Scripture, asking “Who is God?” and “What is he up to?” We then follow the scholarly practice of staying within context as noted in this statement from Focus on the Family:

Perhaps the greatest principle of biblical interpretation is context. The words used are important, as is the context of those words. Whenever seeking to rightly interpret the Bible, make sure you understand the immediate context. What is the passage about? What comes before the passage you are examining? What comes after? Along these lines, not only is immediate context important, but so is the broader context. In other words, given a passage that speaks to a certain topic, what does the Bible as a whole say on the subject? Don’t overlook the immediate context or the broader context.

It’s vital that we accurately present the text. We must avoid proof-texting, which means bending the text to fit our preconceived ideas. When we let God’s word speak for itself, we are using it to its maximum benefit. For more on this point, see Dan Roger’s article in this issue.

3) How is the Holy Spirit leading me through my study, sermon preparation and delivery?
You’ve got your text, you’ve listened to God, you’ve looked at the text asking, “Who is Jesus?” and “What is he up to?” Now ask the Spirit to help you answer this question: What is the best way to preach this text with passion to my congregation? You don’t want to merely convey information—you want to inspire your members, to help them see Jesus more clearly, to help them desire a more intimate relationship with their Savior, to desire to bear his image more clearly, and to participate more fully in what Jesus is doing in their world.

(used with permission, CT cartoons)

4) Who is the hero of my sermon?
Is your sermon focused on Jesus, the true hero of the gospel story? In your sermons, it’s fine to use various illustrations, biblical and historical characters, and personal experiences to achieve this Christ-centered focus, but don’t lose that focus through the use of your “props.”

(used with permission, CT cartoons)

Jesus is the Hero—he, alone, is the answer, the bread of life, the door, the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection. Jesus is the “I AM” that we are to proclaim. So, preach Jesus, and please do so with passion! Keeping these four points in mind will help you do that.

May God fill you with Jesus’ passion for his Word and his people,
Greg Williams

Key concepts in preaching

This article is from Dr. Dan Rogers who teaches a course in preaching at Grace Communion Seminary.

Dan Rogers

Why do people attend church? The reasons vary, but for many, the primary reason is to hear the Word of God. How is it that God’s Word is heard at church? Is it not through the Living Word, through the Spirit, through the Bible and, hopefully, through the preacher?

The preacher is called upon to preach and to be the mediator of “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). The congregants come hoping to hear words from God through the preacher that will somehow help them draw closer to God. They come to be edified, to be encouraged, and to find help with their hurts, trials, guilt, depression, or whatever their spiritual needs may be. What is required of the preacher is to preach accurately and faithfully the words of God, and to meet weekly the spiritual needs of the congregation in the sermon. How’s that for a challenge?

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

Preaching is a sacred responsibility and activity. It’s a complex activity involving body, mind and spirit. Those who take preaching seriously will always seek to improve. To help you do that, here are some key concepts to keep in mind:

1. Participate with the Holy Spirit

In the book of Acts we note the Holy Spirit is continually working in people’s lives ahead of the apostles and how they must hustle to keep up in order to participate in what the Spirit is doing (e.g., Acts 8:29-31; 16:14). In the same way, the Spirit is working in the congregation and the preacher must discern (spiritual disciplines are helpful) how the text to be preached can best be presented in order to participate with what the Holy Spirit is already doing in the lives of the members of the congregation. This can be viewed as exegeting the congregation as well as the text.

2. Preach Jesus

Whether your text (pericope) is in the Old Testament or the New, the lens through which it is to be understood is Jesus. Luke tells us that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” explained to his disciples “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). It is helpful to consider how the pericope speaks to the question “Who is Jesus?”

3. Preach the gospel

Today, many preach the “good advice” rather than the Good News. Their sermons are about improving your marriage, rearing teens, being more successful in life, how to be a leader, how to improve your finances, etc. Such topics may be fine in a class or seminar, but the are NOT the gospel! The gospel is not self-help; it is not keys to success in terms of worldly wisdom; it is not instruction on how to do things. The gospel is not something we do—it’s something done for us, to which we are invited to respond. The gospel is the good news (and news is something to be announced) that through Jesus Christ we have been forgiven, redeemed and saved from alienation from God and each other.

4. Preach expository sermons

Expository sermons explain the meaning of a pericope. Using the Revised Common Lectionary is helpful in determining pericopes and when to preach them. It also leads the preacher to preach through the entire Bible rather than just selecting topics the preacher wants to talk about.

The opposite of an expository sermon is a topical sermon. In a topical sermon the preacher has an idea or subject in mind and then goes through the Bible to find texts that seem to back up that idea. This approach, known as “proof-texting,” leads to the preacher substituting their words for the words of God. All Scripture must be presented in its context in order to be properly understood. The preacher should use a process known as “exegesis” in seeking the meaning of a pericope. To exegete a pericope is to draw out carefully the exact meaning of a text in its original context; to determine the author’s intent and purpose; to determine how its original audience would have understood it; and based on that, how it applies to Christians today.

5. Preach with purpose

What’s the point? This is a question every preacher should ask themselves in preparing their sermon. If the preacher is not clear about the point of the sermon, how likely is it that the congregation will receive anything other than general information? A well-known authority on preaching, Haddon Robinson, calls it “The big idea.” What is the main and most important thing the congregation should get and respond to from the sermon? Whatever it is, the entire sermon should revolve around that.

6. Preach with passion

Will your sermon be memorable or easily forgotten? How much do you care about getting across the word of God to a congregation that really needs to hear it? How stirred are you about the word of God and its significance in the transformation of people’s lives? Passion is not just reflected in volume–a whisper or even silence can convey great passion. Passion can be a laugh or a tear. The word of God, being “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” is fully “able to judge the thoughts and intent of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). How can we speak such a word without intensity and passion? Our sermon conclusions, in particular, should be delivered passion and, frequently, include a call for response.

7. Remember that preaching is performance art

Preaching is spiritual and mental, but it’s also physical. Preaching is done by a physical person addressing a congregation of physical persons. It involves the voice and, in some ways, the entire body. In this sense, a preacher and a theatrical stage performer have much in common. The best exegesis and clearest Bible teaching will have far less impact on people if it is not delivered in a way that engages physical people. An effective preacher has a good voice and good stage presence, which includes body movements that enhance the reception of the message rather than distract from it. Thankfully, there are a number of good books and videos available on this topic. Also, critique from trusted colleagues can be of tremendous help.

Preaching with the lectionary

This article is from GCI Equipper editor, Ted Johnston.

Ted Johnston

A challenge faced by all preachers is choosing the passage of Scripture (pericope) they will preach from. In GCI, we urge preachers to choose one or more of the passages specified for each week in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). An important and helpful feature of the RCL is the way it tracks with the Christian worship (“liturgical”) calendar. Here is a related comment from Fuller Studio (part of Fuller Theological Seminary):

The liturgical calendar spans the life of Christ in a single year—from anticipation (Advent), to hope (Christmas), to transcendence (Epiphany), to lament (Lent), to redemption (Easter), to the birth of the church (Pentecost), and through long, numbered days (Ordinary Time) back to Advent.

The liturgical year as followed in the RCL 
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Following the RCL in our preaching aligns our sermons with the liturgical calendar. It that way our sermons stay focused on Jesus as, through the course of the year, we look again at his birth, presentation at the Temple, baptism, temptation in the wilderness, transfiguration, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. In that way, our sermons are shaped by the story of Jesus, rather than by some other story. Our sermons then show our congregants how Jesus’ story is their story, and from that perspective then address their particular life situations.

Some preachers object that following the RCL would stifle their flexibility in addressing topics they see as more relevant/needful for their congregations. While their concern is understandable, it’s important to realize that the Christ-centered and gospel-shaped way to address individual-situational needs is to start not with the need itself, but with the truth of the gospel. This approach is seen in Paul’s epistles, where he begins by proclaiming the gospel and then (and only then) identifying a particular issue (challenge, problem, sin), showing how the gospel points to the solution. Following the RCL in our preaching leads us to, even necessitates, this approach.

Another advantage of following the RCL is that the preacher will have their preaching plan for the year (and beyond) laid out in advance. This is helpful not only to the preacher, but also to other members of the worship team—worship leaders, musicians, the folks who prepare the weekly bulletin, etc. Following the RCL also helps multiple preachers in a congregation follow the same plan, thus leading to continuity of message over time.

To assist preachers in following the RCL, GCI publishes RCL-synced sermons in each issue of EquipperFor some preachers, these sermons are a resource to inform the writing of their own sermons addressing the RCL passages assigned for that week. Other preachers use these sermons directly, adding illustrations and applications specific to their context. To learn more about following the RCL in your preaching, click here.

Resources for preachers

Here are resources that help preachers grow in the categories noted.

General issues

(used with permission)

Exegesis

Preparing and delivering expository sermons

Providing application and illustration

The preacher’s voice and stage presence

Video for starting the church service

The lead-in to the start of a church service is an opportunity for a congregation to do several things:

  • Communicate God’s love by being warm and welcoming.
  • Set expectations for the flow the worship that is about to begin.
  • Create a space for members and guests to participate, thus providing an invitation into the congregation’s worship life.

To help you take advantage of this opportunity, GCI-Media has produced a GCI-branded countdown video for use in transitioning from the fellowship time before church  into the worship service. The video comes in two formats that can be streamed below and downloaded from YouTube by following the links provided.

1. Countdown without introduction (at https://youtu.be/zsoCdtDaNes)

2. Countdown with introduction (at https://youtu.be/nDUSgihbd98)

If you use the countdown without introduction version, you’ll need to provide introductory words yourself. Here is a suggested script:

Good morning, welcome to Grace Communion __________. Thanks so much for spending part of your weekend with us. My name is _________. Thank you for bringing the church into this building. For us, church is so much more than a Sunday service, and we want you to know that there is a place for you here at Grace Communion. We are going to get things kicked off with Praise & Worship. The team will lead us in a few songs, and the lyrics will be up on the screen, so you can sing along and engage in worship however you feel comfortable. After that, our pastor will share a message about Jesus. All in all, we’ll be here for just about an hour and a half. If you have kids with you, we want to let you know that we’ve got fantastic kids programming. It’s safe, secure, and most importantly your kids are going to have a blast. [Explain when and how children will be dismissed]. Once again, thanks for being here. Let’s all rise for the opening prayer.

Videos for Holy Week

Throughout Holy Week (March 25 through April 1 this year) we will remember the events that led to Jesus’ horrific death on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the dead. Once again, we will consider Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the weight of his crucifixion on Good Friday, and the joy of his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To help us remember, the GCI Media Department has produced three short videos (embedded below). To download them, click on the small icon above each one. Below each video is a reading to be shared after each video is watched. Using these videos for the call to worship in Holy Week services would work well with the RCL-synced sermons provided in GCI Equipper for the Holy Week services.

Read this following the Arrival video:

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The crowds jubilantly welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, as their hoped-for Redeemer. They anticipated the building of his kingdom prophesied in Ezekiel 17:23-24, “On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” As the crowd joyfully welcomed Jesus—laying palm branches and their hearts at the feet of Jesus—so we welcome him into our lives today. Jesus, we praise your name and welcome you as the Lord of our lives.

Read this following the Atonement video:

Christ sacrificed his life’s blood to set us free, which means that our sins are now forgiven. Christ did this because God was so kind to us. God has great wisdom and understanding (Ephesians 1: 7-8). When Jesus died on the cross. He laid down his perfect life as an atonement for our imperfect lives. On the cross, God demonstrated his perfect justice and unending mercy. Taunted as he took humanity’s punishment on himself. Jesus asked his Father to forgive us. Because Jesus cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” we can cry out to God, “You have accepted me!” Because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, we have new life!


Note: If your congregation does not have a Good Friday service, consider inviting some friends and neighbors over for dinner on Good Friday evening. Show the film and read the message of forgiveness. Discuss these questions as a group:

  • What does forgiveness mean to you personally?
  • How has forgiveness changed your life?

Invite your neighbors and friends to attend your church’s Easter Sunday celebration with you!

Read this following the Resurrection video:

With the resurrection of Jesus we celebrate victory over sin and death, and the proof that Jesus is our Messiah. We celebrate the peace of Christ, and the joy of joining him in building his eternal Kingdom. Darkness has become light, and death has become life—Christ is risen! Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).

Wholehearted, part 2

Here from Cathy Deddo is part 2 of her two-part essay on the
Christian life, based on material Cathy presented at GCI's August 2017
Denominational Conference in Orlando. For part 1, click here. For a GCI.org article that includes both
parts, click here. 

Wholehearted, part 2:
Finding Personal Wholeness in Jesus

Cathy Deddo

In part 1 of this essay we looked at Jesus’ wonderful relationship with the Father and how he has enabled us to participate in that relationship. This fellowship with God is the telos (purpose, goal, end) of our lives. We have been created for full, life-giving, fruitful, ongoing interactive communion with our triune Creator and, in Christ, with one another. Growing up in this relationship, living in and enjoying it more and more, is what the Christian life is all about.

In this second and concluding part of the essay, we’ll look more closely at this relationship that Jesus gives us in himself by his Spirit—a life of personal wholeness (wholeheartedness). It’s a life of fullness, of integrity. I think we all desire this wholeness in our lives, but when we look at our world, we may not be sure what it looks like, or how to live whole lives. This is what I hope to explore here.

“The Way of Joy” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

In his incarnate life, Jesus reveals to us what it means to be a whole or wholehearted human being. He reveals what wholeness in life truly is. In studying Scripture, we learn that Jesus lives in true wholeness by living in wholehearted relationship with his Father in the Spirit. He wholeheartedly has his being and doing in that relationship (and the same can be said of the Father and the Spirit).

Jesus entrusts himself entirely and unreservedly to the Father in the Spirit. That is what wholeheartedness or wholeness is—Jesus lives in the wholeness of this relationship. All of who he is and what he does—every aspect of his life—flows from and feeds this joyous relationship that we looked at in part 1 of this essay. There is no division in Jesus—no part of him that is separate from this relationship. This is what it means to be pure or whole, to be fully integrated. This is not a static state of being, but one that is upheld, nourished and enjoyed in the relationship itself.

Our identity and wholeness are in Christ

As I’ve been emphasizing in this essay, being whole in Christ means undividedly receiving our identity (our being, significance, meaning, security, destiny) from him and nowhere else. Personal wholeness is about living today in the light of our hope in Jesus and our fullness in him. Finding personal wholeness in Christ is about sharing in the wholeness that Jesus has as the Son of God—a sharing that occurs in an ongoing relationship with Jesus by and through the Spirit. We were created to receive our very being and to grow and become ourselves in and through that relationship!

Sin has fractured our lives, so that we are lost, dead and entrapped, not free—the opposite of whole. The fallenness we see all around us, starting with Adam and Eve, yields broken relationships—people disconnected from their environment, from each other, from themselves. We see the results of sin in broken families and communities—relationships that are more about power, deception, taking advantage, or abusing others, than about freely giving and receiving. Daily, we see the evidence of fractured relationships in our countries, neighborhoods and individual lives. That evidence testifies to sin’s destructive power and enslavement.

The New Testament bears witness to this destruction, alienation and death, which is the result of humanity’s rebellion against God. The lists of sinful attitudes and acts that we are given in Scripture give us a good picture of the fracturing, destructive influence of sin—things like using our tongues to hurt, to slander, to abuse others, to lord it over others, to lie, deceive, and otherwise use and manipulate others for our benefit. Unrepented sin entraps us and makes us vulnerable to further temptation by the power of evil. In our sin, we cannot experience wholeness.

We belong to Christ

If we are so dis-integrated in ourselves, apart from Christ, how can we ever know in ourselves the wholeness that comes from sharing in the triune life? The answer is that Jesus is able to share his wholeness with us. He does so by making us belong to him in two ways:

First, as his creation, we belong to Jesus by nature. Colossians 1 tells us that everything was created in, through and for Jesus, and that in him all things hold together. As it says in Hebrews 1, Jesus upholds all things by his word of power. This means that all things have their being only in a connection with Jesus.

We often have static notions of creation and thus static notions of ourselves. We think that God made everything and now it all just sort of runs on its own. We take for granted that life will continue tomorrow because God started it going and it has its own “battery pack.” But this view is actually deism and not the biblical understanding.

The truth is that we all exist right now because God is choosing to maintain and sustain his good creation. We would cease instantly if he stopped his dynamic, ongoing work. T. F. Torrance speaks of an “interactionist” view of creation, noting that things are constituted what they are by their relations. Relationship is thus essential to what things are (their being). If they weren’t in relationships, they would be something else or not at all.

Second, we belong to Jesus by virtue of his having united himself to our fallen human nature. He did so to redeem us, to judge our sin, and thus to reconcile human nature to the Father in himself. Through the Incarnation, Jesus has taken all the fracturing, brokenness, alienation of fallen human nature that has resulted because of sin—not some generic sin, but actual sin: your sin and the sins against you—to offer, in our place and on our behalf, the response of perfect and complete repentance and trust in the Father that we could never offer on our own.

As Christians, we know we belong to Jesus undividedly, body and soul. His Spirit is working out in us what Jesus, already, has worked out for us in himself. Note this from the apostle Paul:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

As those who belong to Jesus, we are God’s beloved children—adopted members of his family. We have a new relationship with him and, in him, a new relationship with one another. We are members of his Body, the Body of Christ—those who come under and benefit from his rule and reign, his kingdom, his ways. All this is accomplished and given to us as a gift by the Son of God. It cannot be earned or bargained for, it cannot be deserved, it cannot be merited or unmerited, it can only be received or resisted.

Like Jesus, we are who we are in relationship. Jesus is who he is in relationship to his Father and the Spirit, and we are only who we were created to be in right relationship with the triune God. We can tend to think that the new identity that we have in Christ is a static state—some kind of “package” that is ours on our own (similar to how we mistakenly think of creation in a deistic fashion). But we are who we were created to be only in and by our relationship with the triune God—seated with Christ in the heavenlies, united to Christ, indwelt by the Spirit. There is no “us” apart from this relationship with Christ in and through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our identity, worth and value—our being—is in our actively belonging to Christ through the Spirit.

We can’t truly see ourselves, can’t know ourselves, apart from Christ. He has a relationship to all created things and a purpose and place for all things. As Paul explains in Ephesians 1, all creation is being re-headed up in Christ. We don’t see anything in its real being apart from its connection to Christ. However, without God, we can be tempted to think of our identity—of who we are—as a given that we either already know about, or discover through various means. We tend to equate our identity with things or conditions like traumas of our past, disabilities or illnesses, our desires, roles, education, longings, gender, income, personality, race, recurring sins, looks, occupation, or spiritual gifts. But we don’t gain our God-given identity (being) from any of these.

Our true identity is the being we have in our active and receptive relationship with Jesus in the Spirit. That identity overshadows and relativizes all other sources of identity that we may look to (or that others might try to impose on us). Our identity in relationship with Christ, the one in and for whom we are created and who is our Redeemer, is who we truly are! Finding wholeness in him is about undividedly receiving our identity from him—from the relationship he has invited us to share in, and from nowhere else.

Only God can tell us who we are. By seeing whose we are in our very beings, we come to see who we are. Our belonging in relationship to him establishes our being.

Our being in Christ is a becoming

Christ shows us to whom we belong and thus who we really are. We are now God’s dear children, dearly beloved, united to Christ at the core of our being. We are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. He unashamedly stands in our midst. This is who we are now, even though that might not be obvious.

The New Testament writers speak of our lives now as living “between the times” of Christ’s incarnation and his coming again at the end of history. Living in this in-between-time means that Jesus’ great completed work, the ongoing ministry of the Spirit to draw all people to Jesus, and God’s work of re-heading up all things in Jesus (Eph. 1:10) remain somewhat hidden to us. The fact that all things are created in, through and for Jesus (Col. 1, John 1) is not obvious when looking around us. Hebrews 2 speaks of God subjecting the world to Jesus, our great high priest:

In putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Heb. 2:8)

The reality that we belong fully to Jesus, and that our whole being is constituted by our relationship with him, is also hidden. Looking at our current lives, it’s not always obvious that we are the beloved children of God who share in Christ’s own sonship. Note this from the apostle John:

See what manner of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God and so we are…. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)

As the apostle Paul says in Colossians 3, “our lives are hid with Christ in God.” He also says that we now “see as through a glass darkly,” and therefore we know only “in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).

The fullness of what Christ has drawn us into will only be seen fully in the future. The whole triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) is committed to getting us there (Phil. 1:6). Our lives here and now are about growing up into the fullness of that reality and therefore this new being. What Christ has done for us in himself, the Spirit is now working out in us via a personal, particular, dynamic interaction with our spirits. The Spirit enables us to be able, more and more, to live into and out from the relationship we have with God in Christ.

As we actively grow in that relationship, the Spirit makes us more able and willing to turn to Jesus, to receive from him, to hear him again and again. It is in this way, participating in this relationship, that we are being changed, transformed—becoming more and more who we truly are in him. Finding wholeness in Christ thus means receiving my being, my identity, in him, over and over, day by day, letting his Word to us work its way deep into us and clearing out all other false words about us. We thus understand that our being in him is a becoming—we are not yet ourselves. This is vital to affirm for understanding what it means to find wholeness in Jesus.

God isn’t done with us yet! He is faithfully at work. Therefore, we must be agnostic about ourselves, though never about Christ and his faithfulness to us. Our response to the Holy Spirit’s work in us involves giving Jesus room to do, in his time and way, what he will on this side of death. We must yield to him as he conforms us to his image, unveiling who we really are in him.

In order for us to truly share in, enjoy, know deeply and live in the rest and out of joy that Jesus gives us, we need to be more and more fully healed by and conformed to (aligned with) this relationship. What has been made right for us in Jesus needs to be made fully right in us. God is intensely interested not just in declaring us whole, but in making us whole. He isn’t just interested in getting us across a line—he is committed to our wholeness in him.

“The Master’s Touch” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

Paul speaks of the maturing of each person as the goal of his ministry in Col. 1:28. God wants each of us know him in a deeply personal, dynamic and ongoing relationship—not generically, but particularly. He continually does this work in us, whether we are new Christians or long-time ones (even when we are in ministry!). He is intensely interested in what he is doing in us, not just through us.

It can be, and often is, a long, slow, and painful process to be made more whole in the triune God. Many of us have deep and painful wounds and unfulfilled longings. But, we can be assured that the triune God is committed to us and our transformation and healing–and so we turn again and again to him in great hope.

Hope of wholeness

While God’s work in us will not be complete on this side of our glorification, there is hope for experiencing in this life real growth towards wholeness in Christ. Jesus is Lord over our sanctification (our wholeness). In Jesus, by the Spirit, the Father sees and knows us. He knows all aspects of our brokenness. He knows all about, even more than we do, how we have been sinned against and how we have sinned against others and ourselves. He is working out in our actual, particular life the healing that has been stored up for us in Jesus’ glorified humanity. We share step-by-step in that perfection, in that wholeness, growing in our cooperation with the Spirit to live according to our new relationship in Christ—our new identities—rather than according to our old natures that are passing away, no matter what devastating evil we have experienced or what lies we have embedded deep in our souls.

We do not earn this sharing in Christ’s life, and we do not create it. Daily we receive it as God’s freely-given gift. Our part is to turn again to him, to hear his voice and receive his life and work in faith, in trust. That is how we share in what Christ has for us in his own glorified humanity.

We thus participate now in our transformation and maturing, though somewhat indirectly. For some things in our lives, the process of transformation is a long one—we may not think we see much progress. But Jesus knows all about us, and knows where he is taking us. We are healed and transformed in his presence, in and through our relationship with him. We are transformed by remaining in his presence, turning away from all that tempts us to look elsewhere, away from the other voices that attempt to tell us who we are. Note this from Paul:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

This is where dying to self is felt most directly. In turning to Jesus and receiving our true selves from him, and from nowhere else, we turn away and even denounce dependence upon all other sources. We may even need to acknowledge that we were deceived by some of these voices. We may need to repent of having relied upon those voices to tell us who we are. In listening more and more deeply to Jesus’ voice alone, we will need to let his voice speak over everyone else’s. This is the hard but freeing, life-giving lesson the apostle Paul learned:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor. 4:1-5, ESV)

As we grow in knowing the Lord, trusting him and seeing his sufficient grace in all areas of our lives, we are becoming more ourselves. And as we grow to be more ourselves in him, we grow more able to fully behold Jesus, live in his grace, share in his joy and peace and glory, to love what he loves, want what he wants, go where he is going and receive more fully and freely all he has for us. We grow in having empty, upturned hands before him so that we might receive what he is giving us.

This reality of being transformed in our actual living in relationship with God is witnessed to by recent studies of human development. Studies in Attachment Theory show that the primary influence in how our brains are wired in the first years of life is our relationship with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. The formation of our brains is affected by how much we are held, how peaceful and responsive our mother (or other primary caregiver) is, including their gazing into their child’s eyes. The mother’s and the infant’s brains are mutually affected by this gazing.

Perhaps one way to understand our relationship with Jesus, is that we are indeed being transformed as we know him face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Through that relationship, God is rewiring our brains, though the process takes time and is challenging and even painful. Though it is hard to fully stop hearing the lies and thinking or acting from them instead of from God’s grace, it is infinitely worth it!

Attending to Jesus

We participate in the Spirit’s work in our lives primarily by attending (yielding) to Jesus, not by primarily focusing on ourselves. As J.B. Torrance used to say, we “look away from ourselves to Christ.” And we can do this because Christ already has us, we already belong to him. But attending to Jesus is not easy or automatic. It is the real challenge of the Christian life in this already-but-not-yet, time-between-the-times. That is because there are so many things that cry out for our attention in this life, so many voices trying to tell us who we are or who we ought to become, tempting us to gain our identity from them. There are so many expectations to fulfill, so many dreams we want realized.

Our secular culture is often promoting the idea of realizing the ideal—whether it be the ideal relationship, marriage, new experiences, career, accumulation of wealth and things, avoidance of suffering, etc. For each ideal, ways are offered that promise to make them happen. Not all of these techniques, programs, products agree with each other—except in one way: they all rely on us making them happen—on our use of certain tools, techniques, methods and skills to achieve the ideal. They all depend upon our working to make ourselves into what we think we ought to be.

In contrast, the overriding concern of the authors of the New Testament is that we remain in Christ. We see this concern in Jesus’ words in John 15 where he commands his disciples to “remain” in him—to “abide” in him—to stay connected to him in a living relationship where they will continually receive from him like branches connected to a vine. Jesus said these words at the end of his earthly ministry, in the shadow of the cross. He knew that his followers’ greatest temptation would be to live as if they were not connected to him—to live not receiving continually from him. That is our greatest temptation as well.

The apostle Paul speaks of being steadfast or enduring. The Greek word he tends to use means to “remain under” or “abide under.” Paul also speaks of those living “in Christ” as being “rooted” or “grounded” in him. The author of Hebrews notes that while we don’t see the world in subjection to Christ, we do see Jesus “who for a little while was made lower than the angels… crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” In Hebrews 3:1 he tells us to “consider Jesus,” where “consider” means “consider exactly, attentively, fully; understand fully” or “concentrate by fixing one’s thinking.” At the beginning of Hebrews 12 he tells us to “throw off all that encumbers” us so that we might “run the race set before us, looking to Jesus.” The Greek word translated “looking” here means to “look away from all else, to fix one’s gaze upon.” This is why the NIV and many other translations translate it as “fix our eyes on Jesus.”

It is by our attending to Jesus that we most fundamentally participate in the life he has given us and continues to give us, because that is how we participate in the real relationship we have with him, and thus how we grow. Jesus came to share his wholeness with us. Growing in this wholeness primarily involves giving our full attention to Jesus—seeking to know him more fully, to see the depths of his goodness and glory, to rejoice in his faithfulness and assurance of completeness, justice, all things set right one day, to receive him and ourselves with thanksgiving over and over again.

Our relationship (communion) with Jesus is not automatic or static. Instead it’s ongoing, dynamic and transformative. This reality is mirrored in our human relationships, which, even though broken, grow through interaction and conversation. Relationships take real listening, giving and receiving.

As noted in part one of this essay, we can only come to know Jesus in truth as he is presented to us in the New Testament. There is no substitute for knowing him through the pages of the New Testament where we are given all we need to know about who  Jesus is. By hearing, reading and studying the New Testament witness to Jesus, any false images and imaginations we hold about him will be purified. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit we will find that we are not just learning about Jesus but getting to know him, and through him, getting to know the Father and the Holy Spirit. Out of that will come a growing faith, hope and love.

Attending involves repenting

Attending more and more fully to the God who wholeheartedly is attending to us, involves our ongoing repentance—a continuous turning towards and turning away. This is the biblical understanding of our relationship with God, which involves hearing him, then aligning ourselves with what we hear and turning away from other things.

This repentance involves sharing in Christ’s repentance for us by the Spirit. Christ repents in our place not so that we don’t have to. By the Spirit, he works in us so that we are able to say “amen” to his repentance on our behalf. We share in Christ’s receiving from the Father, attending to the Father and in his turning away from anything that would get in the way of his living fully as the Son of this Father. The Spirit brings to mind all that Jesus had said—he teaches, convicts, exhorts, comforts, prays and enables us to respond. We are never repenting, trusting, hoping, suffering, struggling on our own.

However, we can be tempted to act as if God is at a distance and that we shouldn’t need to hear again and again of his love and grace for us—that we shouldn’t need to receive him again and again. We are tempted to believe we don’t need to live in vital, ongoing fellowship with him. Or we are tempted to think we don’t have time for God. We may think that circumstances require that we put our attention elsewhere. At such times we are tempted to think of repentance as primarily for our bad words or actions and not from the deeper issues that are preventing us from living out of who we truly are in Christ.

When Jesus does not fill our field of vision, we can be assured it is because something or someone else does. When we are not attending to his speaking to us, it is because other voices, including our own, are filling our ears. The reality is that Jesus is continuously speaking into our lives—always attending and working. The Holy Spirit is actively seeking to interact with us, advancing his purpose of enabling us to more and more quickly turn back to the Father through and with the Son. The Spirit gives us eyes to see, and ears to hear as we, by his power, turn again to God in repentance. As we do, we join Jesus in continually turning to—continually attending to—the Father, receiving from him. Our sanctification in him involves growing in this joyous capacity.

In this attending it is important to know that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. Attending is not about just getting to the end of a to-do list with or for Jesus so that now we don’t need to interact with him any longer. Real relationship (attending) with Jesus means taking time to continue to hear his word to us from outside ourselves. Recognizing this reminds us of the importance of spiritual disciplines that help us deliberately live in the relationship God has given us with himself:

  • Prayer, by which we spend time in intimate conversation with God listening and speaking.
  • Bible study, by which we interact with God through his written Word. Such study involves asking the “who” question (“Who are you, Lord?”). It involves trusting the Spirit’s presence; wrestling with the text in the company of others (including reliable authors of Bible study helps).
  • Church attendance, by which we meet together as the Body of Christ to hear the Word of God proclaimed again and to share once more in the Lord’s Supper.

Growing in knowing Jesus

Finding personal wholeness in Jesus involves growing in knowing and receiving him in dynamic relationship. This is a life-long journey, which leads toward a fullness of relationship that will be realized when we are ushered into a new heaven and a new earth at Christ’s return. As I’ve noted already, the wholeness that Jesus has come to share with us will be fully manifest or completed only when we are glorified and living in the new heaven and new earth. The promise of that future fullness of knowing and relating is our sure and certain hope.

To live in relationship with Jesus now, entrusting to him our brokenness and the brokenness of our relationships, families, churches, and world, is to attend to him now in the light of our hope that he will finish the work he has begun (Phil. 1:6). It is to grasp enough of the hope that he is and that he gives us to see that it is glorious, whole, life-giving and joyous—much greater than any bliss we can experience now. Yielding to him now—letting go of all we think will satisfy apart from him—is infinitely worth it.

In hope, we now experience (even if imperfectly) some of that knowing and relating. In John 10:10, Jesus said he came to give us “abundant life,” with “life” (zoe in Greek) being a reference to the life that God is and has in himself. The verb tenses in this verse convey the idea of Jesus giving us this abundant life continually. Here is a literal translation: “I came in order that they might continuously have life, even that they may continuously have it all-around.”

Many other places in Scripture speak of God sharing this overabundance of life with us even now. We are told of Jesus changing water into wine, and of feeding crowds until they were filled (and there were leftovers!). Other words used to convey this idea of overabundant life are treasure, riches and glory.

John 17 says that the life Jesus shares with us is “eternal life,” which he defines as knowing (having a personal, relational knowledge of) the Father and Jesus Christ. Although this knowing comes to fullness in the future fullness of the kingdom, by the Spirit we can and do experience it now in meaningful, life-transforming ways, as we live into, share in, receive and give out from the uncontainable, life-giving, out-going, joyous, interaction that is always going on within the triune God. To grow in wholeness, to grow in our relationship with Jesus, means living in the present in light of our living hope for the future he has for us.

Basking in the light of the knowledge that one day we will made fully whole (new), we will experience now something of the joy and life that comes with full relationships—the sort of relationships we were created to enjoy and that we deeply long for. It is in light of that promised future that we are to live, think, speak and act today.

Living today in the light of our future hope

Christian hope plays a vital role in our present life, including our journey towards wholeness. The New Testament writers emphasize living in the present in light of the glorious and certain future that awaits us. Our future wholeness in Christ is not a pipe dream that has no relevance to our lives now. It is the deepest reality of our present lives, including our hopes, longings, trials, circumstances, relationships and sufferings. This perspective is beautifully illustrated by Paul in these words:

Our present afflictions might seem burdensome and prolonged, but they are in fact insignificant and momentary when compared with the undiminished load of glory that these afflictions are producing for us to a degree that is beyond all measure and proportions. (2 Cor. 4:17, translation from Murray J. Harris)

The apostle Peter, reflecting on the living hope we have in an imperishable inheritance, says this: “In this [hope] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). The word translated “grieved” means to experience deep, emotional pain.

Viewed in the light of the coming fullness in glory, Paul sees his present trials as “insignificant and momentary” and Peter admonishes his readers to rejoice despite the sufferings they are now enduring. They are not saying the present trials are easy—we know they are not.

Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul spoke of suffering to the point that he despaired of life. But he understood the glorious and faithful purposes of Christ, and that God is bringing about real and deep righteousness and life. He knew God was even using his trials to bring about a glorious completion. Because of Jesus, and the Father’s work to re-head up all things in Jesus (Eph. 1:10), Paul understood that his present sufferings, no matter how hard, were not the final word.

Living now in the wholeness of Christ involves the Spirit working in our lives and enabling our participation in that work so that we can view our present and our past, ourselves and our relationships, circumstances, trials, temptations and sufferings, even our present plans, feelings and dreams, in light of this glorious assured future. We can do this not because God doesn’t care about or see our present or our past, but because he does care, and, as we’ve noted already, is at work undoing evil and redeeming it all.

Unfortunately, we often turn that around and see and judge Jesus by our present and our past experience. We are tempted to think that he isn’t at work, doesn’t see us or care, because he is not dealing with the present in the ways or within the timing that we want. Learning to look forward and not back is part of the renewing of our minds—part of seeing ourselves and our lives in the light of Jesus and our future in him.

How do we live today in the light of our future hope? I suggest that instead of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good (as the saying goes), that we become more heavenly minded in a way makes us more earthly good! When we see the reality of our future hope as an anchor for our lives here and now, we are able to live today in patience and trust, turning to Jesus again and again, by his Spirit yielding ourselves wholeheartedly to him, receiving his sufficient grace again in this moment.

Let’s consider two points about our future hope:

  1. The life that God has created us for, which will be fully consummated in the new heaven and new earth, is not just a slight improvement on the life we now have in the already-but-not-yet. It is so much better that it is safe to say that we are barely alive now.
  2. The life that is our hope is what we most deeply long for. It is not anything less than we might experience here and now in this present fallen age.

The hope we have, as described in the Bible, is so rich and real and full that it is almost too hard to grasp. As Paul says, it is beyond all that we can ask or imagine. John puts it this way in the book of Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:1-5a)

When God brings all these to completion, when evil is fully destroyed, and when death is no more, we will be entirely whole—finally and truly ourselves. We will be transformed and glorified, perfect (whole) and complete. All the former anguish and trials, the hurts we gave and that we received, will be undone and remade. Every tear will be wiped away and there will be no more mourning, crying or pain. Paul put it this way:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)

Every part of us will be renewed and transformed: spirit, soul and body. We will finally know the glory of loving God fully and the glory of being his beloved children. We will know it in our souls and even in our bodies. In glory, we will be part of a whole church being presented “in splendor” (Eph. 5:27). Jude put it this way:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. (Jude 1:24-25)

In glory, we won’t just be given a life that is never-ending. We won’t just be given a new label or a new status. We will be made holy—whole, all the way down. But what about our flawed past—the deep wounds we have given or have received from others? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus is Lord of all! He is the one who redeems us and gives us a share in his eternal life—his relationship with the Father, in the Holy Spirit.

Yes, Jesus is Lord of all—even over time and space, as he, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, works to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. As it says in the passage we just read in Revelation, the whole God is making “all things new.” The triune God is victor over the past (including your past!) and the future. As Lord of time and space, he undoes and redeems even what is past. This is why every tear will be wiped away. There will be no more regrets. God our Father is re-heading all things up in his Son, Jesus Christ, by the Spirit. ALL THINGS!!

This fullness of life that awaits us is what we are created for—what we are wired for, what we most deeply long for, even though we don’t often realize it. What we see when we look at Jesus is that we are made for great joy. But the only one who can give us what we were created for is Jesus himself. He is the source of all joy, all love, all real and full life. No one else and nothing else can give us those things.

When we see Jesus face-to-face, we won’t think for one moment that we missed out on anything here on earth. We will see why our longings here were too deep to be satisfied ultimately by this life here. As C.S. Lewis says, we are made to run on God and, therefore, our deepest joy is and will be in him. C.S. also said this:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have desired anything else.

To live in the present in light of our future is to live as sojourners and exiles in this life. In 1 Pet. 2:11, Peter refers to those he writes to as “foreigners and exiles” and encourages them to abstain from the passions that war against their souls. His point is that this world is not our true home. In writing about our longings in this life, C.S. Lewis noted that they are not satisfied by anything on this earth—it seems we were made for more than this.

The reason this world so often doesn’t feel like home is because it isn’t. Even the best things fall short, disappoint, don’t last. In Jesus Rediscovered, Malcolm Muggeridge puts it this way:

The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens, we cannot forget our true homeland, which is that other kingdom.

In hope, we live waiting—resting in God and not in our circumstances or in ourselves. As Paul says in concluding his letter to the Philippians, we live in this world with contentment and the object of that contentment, grounded in hope, is Jesus.

In 1 Peter 1:13 we are told to “set your hope on the grace that is being brought to you.” In God’s own time and way, we will be made whole! In hope, we await that transformation with patience and contentment. However, our waiting is not passive—it involves actively pursuing Jesus, the source of our wholeness. We seek to know him, to live in him, to rest in and enjoy him each day, knowing that he will fully complete the work he has already begun in us, he will fully deal with the evil and the pain and will fully satisfy our longings for him.

With that confidence, borne of faith in Jesus, we let him lead in such a way that our focus remains on him rather than on our progress (or lack thereof). Whenever we stop trusting him and his Word and look away from him, we know that he remains faithful to us, and is still saying to us: “Look at me now—I have you, I have this situation.”

On receiving and giving forgiveness

Part of living in the wholeness of Christ and the hope of its fulfillment is dealing with the sins we commit towards others and with those that have been committed against us. Forgiveness, which is our participation in God’s forgiveness, is a central part of growing in wholeness. It is in the context of this sure hope in our Lord’s work to fully complete our redemption, that the Holy Spirit enables us both to receive forgiveness and to extend forgiveness. T.F. Torrance put it this way:

Forgiveness… is a stupendous act which only God can do, blotting out what is past and recreating what has been wasted by sin.… Forgiveness is not just a word of pardon, but a word translated into our existence by crucifixion and resurrection, by judgement and recreation. (Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, p. 222)

In Christ, we have been forgiven. Jesus forgives because he redeems. He has confessed our sins in our place and on our behalf, and by the Holy Spirit, he works this out in us, freeing and enabling us to say “amen” to his own confession and thus hand over the sins to him and receive the forgiveness he already has given. Jesus doesn’t confess, repent and forgive so that we don’t have to, but so that we now can do so, sharing by the Spirit in Jesus’ real and particular work in our lives.

Jesus’ word of forgiveness is not a blanket, static proclamation. We receive his forgiveness in the light of real hope that these things (sinning or being sinned against) will one day be no more and will be remade. It can be very hard for us to receive this forgiveness, because it involves freely receiving, not earning or deserving it.

In light of Jesus’ work of forgiveness and redemption, we embrace our ongoing sanctification—we grow in receiving the judging, sifting work of the Holy Spirit who helps us first acknowledge and then hand over to God all that gets in the way of our experiencing, enjoying and living out of the fullness of relationship with him. When the Spirit points out these places of sin in our lives, his goal is to help us see what is contrary to our true selves in Christ—to see (with rejoicing) what we are being redeemed from, what one day will no longer be.

This process of repentance necessarily reminds us of our fallenness and brokenness, but it also turns us towards what we are becoming—it points us forward, in hope, toward our final redemption. In repentance, our expectant word to God is this: “Lord, I want to see how you’re going to redeem this one!”

In every place that we are fallen and broken, Jesus works to turn our humanity back to God—bringing us to that point in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said to the Father, in our place and on our behalf, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” From there Jesus moved unwaveringly to the cross. He did all this for the joy that was set before him—the joy of enabling us to become his brothers and sisters who receive their being and their doing in relationship with him.

“Jesus in the Garden” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

In turning again and again to Jesus (repentance is a lifestyle, not a “one-and-done” event), we live again in the truth of who we now are. Jesus says to us as we look at our sin, “This is not you, it is what I am getting rid of— hand it to me once again.” It’s hard to do that, because it means dying to our own efforts to justify or excuse ourselves.

The Holy Spirit, in his sanctifying relationship with us in a personalized way, enables us to share in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. The Spirit brings us into a deeply personal relationship where Jesus shares with us his peace, love, joy and communion with the Father. Through the Spirit, Jesus is teaching us to receive more and more his life-changing, whole-making  presence. By interacting with Jesus, through the Spirit, we learn the joy of denying ourselves in order to receive more fully from Jesus what he has for us—even our whole being. Growing in wholeness in Jesus involves living in the bigness of the triune God, which means being okay with our smallness in him and yielding more and more to him as his beloved children.

When we extend forgiveness to others, we are saying “amen” to Jesus’ extension of forgiveness to that person. It means that we understand that Jesus has taken upon himself all the times others have hurt us, all the ways others have sinned against us, bruised, violated, abused, abandoned, manipulated or rejected us. Jesus knows all about all these things and has gone to the bottom of them all—taking them upon himself in order to judge and then redeem them. He refuses to let these sins have the last word.

Jesus has taken it all in, absorbed it, and turned it around in himself so that it one day can be fully turned around in us. That is his work of recapitulation. He makes it right for us and then shares it with us.

I know a young man who was sexually abused as a young boy by a trusted family friend. Like others in similar situations, he was deeply scarred and hurt by these experiences. In college he began cutting himself to cope with the abuse. I was invited to pray with him once in the midst of this difficult time. I went in feeling inadequate to the task. What could I offer? I decided to pray quietly for the Spirit to speak to the young man. After a period of silence, I asked if he had any word or image from God. He told me he saw Jesus before him and that Jesus had all the same cuts on his arms and legs. He had taken each one to himself. This is our Redeemer Jesus! Amen.

By the Spirit’s work, we can forgive others in hope of Jesus’ promise to truly make all things right—judging and destroying the sin, no matter how harrowing and despicable. No one is going to get away with anything. Evil has no future.

Our being hurt, even deeply hurt, by others, does not determine our identity (and the same is true for our sinning against others). Many times, we may need to hand over and entrust to Jesus, our Judge and Savior, our sins and our being sinned against. We can do so in light of the future complete redemption that is ours. Jesus is the only one who can undo what we and others have done. He is able to wipe away all tears—that is what his resurrection and ascension show us. He has conquered death itself, the ultimate consequence of all sin. He gives us salvation in union with him.

Hang on to hope!

Trials, especially long-term ones, can tempt us to cease placing our hope in Jesus. These trials come in many forms: illness, emotional or circumstantial struggles, difficult family relationships, unfulfilled longings, etc. We hope for steady progress, but when we don’t see it, we can be tempted to doubt that Jesus and his grace is sufficient. But when we place our hope fully in him once again, viewing our trials in the light of his all-sufficiency and goodness, we are freed to turn and yield to Jesus once again—to receive what he is giving at that moment rather than insisting that he provide what we want instead. This trusting in Jesus is, no doubt, a wrestling. It’s the wrestling of relationship—struggling to turn back to him and re-align ourselves with the deepest truth and reality about our whole lives—Jesus Christ himself.

I have a friend who has dealt with cancer in one form or another for the past ten years. I recently helped her into church. The pain in her legs was so great it was hard for her to walk. She said to me, “I am just not what I used to be.” I said to her, “Yes, but the more important thing is that you are not yet who you will be.” Jesus is our hope, not only for today, but for the long haul. We may not experience healing on this side of death, but we will on the other side. That is guaranteed.

Conclusion

Our wholeness is secure in Jesus, who holds our future. Through the Holy Spirit, he enables us to see and appreciate signs of his work now, while not mistaking those signs for the full reality yet to come. We allow these signs, incomplete though they be, to point us to Jesus and the ultimate fulfillment ahead. We rejoice over what is happening, even while longing and anticipating the future fullness. C.S. Lewis put it this way:

Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

Instead of focusing on how much we have progressed (or not progressed), we turn again and again to the one we hope and trust in, knowing in faith that he is meeting us fully today—in this moment. We know that he is more present and active and real than we are. We know he is seeing us and working with us as individuals. We know where he is taking us and we are confident in his ability to get us there.

Our turning to hear, see, and receive him once again is our participation in his lordship over our lives. We know he has a word for us each day—every day. He tells us that we are beloved and is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He is preparing a place for us, with him, in the presence of the Father (Heb. 2:11; John 14:2, 3). This turning to Christ is an active discipline. The most direct way to practice it is in prayer and in Bible reading, study and meditation, both privately and with others. Each day, we need to turn to him again because we live in a world that constantly pulls us away from Jesus. He told his first disciples that they would have troubles, nevertheless they could take heart because he, on their behalf, has overcome the world. That is Jesus’ daily word of assurance to us as well. Hearing and receiving this word from Jesus is an ongoing, interactive, dynamic relationship with him. This is the Christian life. Though it’s a struggle at times, it’s the right struggle, for it leads to joy and rest in him.

Hoping in and trusting in Jesus is fundamental to the shape of our relationship with him. Giving thanks is not the means to some other end—it’s not a matter of showing him I trust him, so now he can give me what I want, or that if I reach a certain level of trust in him he will work more in me or will be more pleased with me. The joy and peace of it is the relationship itself—being in his presence and communing with him.

Trusting Jesus also involves giving thanks, which is our response to his relentless grace. Thanksgiving puts us in a posture of receiving in a way that acknowledges that what we are receiving is a gift, not something that we have earned or deserve. To be thankful to God is to receive our lives and identities from him, to acknowledge our complete dependence on him. Giving thanks helps us grab hold again of the reality that God is good, generous, for us, and actively at work in us, and in the whole world.

An attitude of thanksgiving results from meditating on the Word of God—of turning to hear and remember and receive our Lord again. May God help us do so. The result, just as he has promised, will be a growing personal wholeness in Jesus. Amen.


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

On Youtube at https://youtu.be/AaBhzqU4PpY.


Here is a video in which Cathy gives examples of the wholehearted life:

On Youtube at https://youtu.be/OLVimUSTuXo.

Kid's Korner: Children's ministry resources

This issue of Kid’s Korner is from long-time children’s minister Georgia McKinnon who recently was appointed to serve as Registrar for Grace Communion Seminary, starting in April. 

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

I’m often asked, “What curriculum should I use for our children’s ministry?” While there is no one answer that fits the needs of every congregation, Kid’s Korner this month will share some resources that may be helpful for your needs.

Sunday School lessons are easier to find and access than they ever before, but this also presents the challenge of discerning between resources that point faithfully and accurately to who God is. Some resources are better than others in that regard. You will find resources that can be used as they are written, and others that may need some modifications to reflect a more faithful theology.

Before sharing the resources, here are a couple of disclaimers. Most importantly, as you work with children in your church, remember that God is already working with them, and with you as you teach. Any curriculum that we use is secondary to sharing God’s love with our children through our time with them. Loving, healthy relationships are the fertile soil in which kids grow and blossom. Curriculum is just a gardening tool that can help in those relationships. Children will remember the relationship that you have with them far longer than the curriculum you used. The second disclaimer is that inclusion on the list below does not imply a complete endorsement of all materials by the specific publisher or website. Look for tools that are fitting for your context.

Here is a list of resources that I have compiled, either through personal experience, recommendation, or research:

  • The Jesus Storybook Bible (www.jesusstorybookbible.com)
    This is a storybook aimed at sharing the central story of the Bible—the story of how much God loves all of his children. The book is delightful for children and adults alike. There is a curriculum available for purchase on the website.
  • Whirl (www.wearesparkhouse.org/kids/whirl/lectionary)
    This curriculum is built around the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which is helpful for congregations using the RCL in their sermons each week. The curriculum includes a video component, and you can purchase this curriculum in printed form or as a download.
  • Books/publications by Karyn Henley (http://karynhenleyresources.com)
    Karyn offers resources to use with infants through elementary age. The materials are solid in their presentation of Bible stories, but this curriculum requires more teacher preparation than some of the other choices. Karyn has written a Day-by-Day Kids Bible designed for children ages 7-10, an Easy to Read version of the Day-by-Day Bible for younger children, and several devotionals.
  • Ministry to Children website (https://ministry-to-children.com)
    This website has many free resources, including coloring pages and Sunday School lessons that are built around Bible passages. For their lessons that are in sync with the Revised Common Lectionary go to https://ministry-to-children.com/category/lectionary-lesson.
  • The Bible App for Kids (https://bibleappforkids.com) and related free curriculum (https://bibleappforkids.com/free-childrens-curriculum).
    (Note: I don’t have personal experience using this resource).
  • The Bible Project (https://thebibleproject.com)
    Though not written specifically for children, this highly visual resource would likely work for teens. Its mission is to show that the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus. It features animated videos that convey the message of each book of the Bible as well as videos that trace themes throughout the Bible. This is a great resource for getting grounded in the unified message of the Bible.

Sermon for April 1, 2018 (Easter)

Scripture readings: Acts 10:34-43; Ps.
118:1-2,14-24;
1 Cor. 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Sermon by Ted Johnston 
(from John 20:1-18)
Drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository
Commentary), Donald Guthrie (New Bible Commentary),
Michael Card (The Parable of Joy), and F.F. Bruce (The Gospel
of John).

The Dawning of the New Day

Here is a video from GCI Media that would make a good call to worship for this Easter Sunday service.On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/257629649.

Introduction

Biographies usually end with the subject’s death. But the book of John is gospel, not mere biography. It proclaims the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection. John’s purpose in writing is to invite us to believe—to place our trust in the resurrected God-man, Jesus—God’s own Son. A central focus of the Gospel of John is the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Why? Because the resurrection is the best evidence that Jesus is God’s Son, our Savior. The empty cross and the empty tomb affirm that our debt has been paid, that Jesus is alive, and that we are now alive in him! Glory to God!

“The Resurrection of Christ” by Coypel
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ enemies tried to conceal the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders claimed his body had been stolen by Jesus’ followers. But that can’t be true—the tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers.  Others claimed that Jesus’ disciples had visions of the risen Lord and interpreted them as evidence for the resurrection. But that theory does not hold up—Jesus’ disciples did not believe what Jesus said in predicting his resurrection. Their mindset was not the kind of psychological preparation from which hallucinations are made. Moreover, how could the 500+ people (who Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15:6, saw the resurrected Jesus) have the same hallucination at the same time?

Others claim that Jesus did not die, but only swooned and later was revived. This argument does not hold up either—many witnesses testified that Jesus was dead when his body was taken down from the cross. Later, he was seen alive by dependable witnesses.

The only logical conclusion is that Jesus kept his promise and rose from the dead, though that glorious truth was not understood immediately, even by Jesus’ closest followers. It gradually dawned on these grieving people that their Master was not dead, but alive! And what a difference it made when the full realization took hold! For most of them, it meant going from fear to courage. For Mary Magdalene it meant a three-stage journey of unfolding faith: 1) faith eclipsed, 2) faith dawning, and 3) faith shining. Let’s travel that journey with her today. It’s one that involves John and Peter as well.

1. Faith eclipsed (John 20:1–2)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2)

Out of their love for Christ, Mary Magdalene and some other women went to the tomb early Sunday morning to complete the burial preparations. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had been forced by circumstances to prepare Jesus’ body hastily, and these women wanted to finish the task. Their great concern was how to get into the tomb. Perhaps the Roman soldiers would take pity and help them.

“Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb”
by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What the women didn’t know was that, before arriving, an earthquake had occurred and the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back by an angel. It seems Mary Magdalene got to the tomb first. Seeing that it was open, she concluded that somebody had broken in and had stolen Jesus’ body. It’s understandable that she reached that conclusion—it was still dark, she was alone, and like the other followers of Jesus, she was not expecting him to return from the dead.

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

What ever faith Mary had up to this point was a mere shadow of what was now emerging. Peter and John were in the same spiritual condition, but soon all three would move out of the shadows into the light.

2. Faith Dawning (John 20:3–10)

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)  Then the disciples went back to their homes…. (John 20:3-10)

Apparently Peter headed out first, running to the tomb, but John arrived first. Both deserve credit for having the courage to run into enemy territory, not knowing what lay ahead. The whole thing might have been a trap to catch the disciples. When John arrived, he cautiously remained outside (perhaps waiting for Peter), though he was able to peer in. What did John see? The grave clothes lying on the stone shelf without any evidence of violence or crime. But the clothes were empty!

“Saint Peter and Saint John Run to the Sepulchre” by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Peter arrived and impulsively went into the tomb. He too saw the linen clothes lying there empty and the cloth for Jesus’ head carefully folded and lying by itself. Grave robbers do not carefully unwrap the corpse and then leave the grave clothes neatly behind. With the presence of the spices in the burial wrappings, it would be almost impossible to unwrap a corpse without damaging them. The only way the clothes could be left in that condition would be if Jesus passed through them as he rose from the dead. Entering the tomb and looking at the evidence, John “saw, and believed.”

In writing this paragraph, John used three different Greek words that all mean seeing. In verse 5 the word translated “look in” means to glace. In verse 6, the word translated “saw” means to look carefully. In verse 8 the world translated “saw” means “to perceive with intelligent comprehension.” There is a progression of understanding implied here—the resurrection faith of these witnesses was dawning!

What kind of faith did Peter and John have at this stage of their spiritual experience? It was faith based on evidence. They could see the grave clothes; they knew that the body of Jesus was not there. However, as good as such evidence is to convince the mind, it can never change the life.

Those of us who live centuries later cannot examine that evidence like Peter and John did. But we do have the record of these eye-witnesses in Scripture, and John confirms in John 20-21 that the record is true.

For the disciples, the Word of God was what we call the Old Testament. Those Scriptures foresaw the resurrection of Jesus in multiple ways. As recorded in Matthew 12, Jesus used the book of Jonah to illustrate his resurrection. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, saw in Israel’s Feast of Firstfruits a picture of Jesus’ resurrection. There are many other examples.

After his resurrection, Jesus revealed himself to only selected witnesses who would then share the good news with others. That witness is found in the New Testament; and both the Old and New Testaments agree in this witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is alive!

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

3. Faith Shining (John 20:11–18)

Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene deeply loved Jesus and came early to the garden to express that love. Peter and John had gone home by the time Mary got back to the tomb, so they did not convey to her the conclusion they had reached from the evidence they had examined. Mary still thought Jesus was dead, and her weeping at the tomb was the loud lamentation characteristic of Jews in mourning.

“The Empty Tomb” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Looking into the tomb, Mary saw two men dressed in white. Their position at either end of the shelf where the body had been lying reminds us of the cherubim overshadowing with their wings the mercy seat in the Temple. It is as though God is saying, “There is now a new mercy seat! By dying and rising from the dead, my Son has opened the way into my presence!” Mary was not disturbed at seeing these men—she apparently did not know they were angels. The brief conversation with them neither dried her tears nor quieted her heart. She was still determined to find the body of Jesus.

Why did Mary not continue her conversation with the two strangers? Did she hear a sound behind her? Or did the angels stand and recognize the presence of their Lord? In any case, she now knew that the Lord’s body was not in the tomb, so why linger there? And why did she not recognize the one for whom she was earnestly searching? Jesus aparrently concealed himself. Also, it was still early and perhaps dark in that part of the garden. Her eyes were probably blinded by her tears.

Jesus asked Mary Magdalene the same question that the angels had asked, “Why are you crying?” He then added, “Who is it you are looking for?” Jesus knew that Mary’s heart was broken and that her mind was confused. He did not rebuke her. Instead, he tenderly revealed himself to her. All he had to do was speak her name, and Mary immediately recognized him. As John wrote in chapter 10,  the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice as he calls them by name. What a blessed surprise to see the face of her beloved Master!

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

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus permitted the other women to hold his feet as well, so why say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me”? One reason was that she would see him again because he had not yet ascended. He remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection and often appeared to the believers during that time to teach them. Mary had no need to panic—this was not her last and final meeting with the Lord. A second reason is that she had a job to do—to go tell Jesus’ “brothers” that he was alive and would ascend to the Father.

Before this, Jesus had called his followers “servants” and “friends,” but now he calls them “brothers.” This meant that they shared his resurrection power and glory. He reminded Mary and the other believers that God was their Father and that he would be with the Father in heaven after his ascension. In his upper room message on Maundy Thursday evening, he had taught them that he would return to the Father so that the Spirit might come to them.

It would have been selfish and disobedient for Mary to have clung to Jesus and kept him to herself. She arose and went to where the other disciples were gathered and gave them the good news that she had seen Jesus alive. Mark’s account says these believers were mourning and weeping—and that they would not believe. Unbelief has a terribly deadening effect.

Mary not only shared the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and that she had seen him personally, but she also reported the words that he had spoken to her. Again, we see the importance of the Word of God. Mary could not transfer her experience over to them, but she could share the Word. As Paul tells us in Romans 10, it is the Word that generates faith.

Conclusion

What a blessing to learn of Jesus, the living Word of God, in the story recorded in the written word of God. But it is one thing to accept a teaching and something else to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord. Peter and John believed the testimony that Jesus was alive, but it was not until they encountered Jesus personally that true and lasting faith emerged.

Dear ones, today, on Easter Sunday, we are reminded of the powerful, transforming truth that Jesus is risen from the dead! He is alive forevermore! I invite you to believe that truth and in believing to encounter the risen Lord.

[Note to preacher: here would be a good time to extend to the audience an invitation to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, perhaps inviting those who do so to gather after the service for prayer and counsel concerning their next steps.]

Sermon for April 8, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 4:32-35; Ps. 133;

1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
(from John 20:19-31)

A Fantastic Story

Introduction

Perhaps you like fantastic stories—ones about UFO sightings, strange events in the Bermuda Triangle, the lost city of Atlantis, or the Loch Ness Monster. The word fantastic has a dual meaning in our culture. It can mean something that is made up and thus not to be taken seriously. It can also mean something that is exceptionally good.

Today, on the second Sunday of Easter, our gospel reading takes us to the story of the disciple Thomas’ encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. To Thomas, the story of Jesus’ resurrection told by his fellow disciples was fantastic in the sense of being unbelievable, too good to be true. In an increasingly skeptical world, Jesus’ resurrection is often viewed as even more fantastic than it seemed to Thomas.

Our Scripture readings today paint a different picture. They tell of a Christ-centered spiritual family, embracing together the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts 4:32-35 we read of that family sharing life together, and of the apostles proclaiming the story of Jesus and his resurrection to the world. In Psalm 133: 1-3 we read of the blessing of family unity and togetherness, and in 1 John 1:1-2:2 we read of the apostles’ witness to Jesus and of the reality of Christ. The people in these readings share a common belief in a story that outsiders tend to view as being fantastic. Today’s sermon from John 20:19-32 is about that story and its effect on one apostle in particular who begins doubting and ends up believing and worshipping.

Jesus’ astonishing appearance

The story begins in the evening, as the Sunday on which Jesus was resurrected drew to a close:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20)

You will recall that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty early that day, and reports of his appearances had circulated among his disciples, who now were assembled in the Upper Room where they had met with Jesus on Thursday night for the Last Supper. Since Jesus’ arrest late Thursday night and his crucifixion on Friday, they had lived with the fear that the enemies of Jesus might come after them. Now, as they were cowering in fear in the Upper Room, Jesus appears.

Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly, unexpectedly, appearing close by? The surge of adrenaline can cause sweaty palms, goose-bumps, and even hair standing on end. The sudden appearance of Jesus in the midst of these already nervous disciples might have drawn such a reaction.

Jesus acted quickly to calm them with his greeting, “Peace be with you.”  Just a few days earlier, these “friends” had abandoned him; one even denied him. Yet, the first thing Jesus said to them was full of grace and forgiveness. His next actions—the showing of the crucifixion wounds— would have reassured them that the person talking to them truly was Jesus. Instantly, they flipped from shock to joy!

Words are inadequate to describe this experience. Imagine someone you believed was dead, now standing before you alive! Consider the agonizing death of a loved one, now reversed into life! Visualize your joy when a devastating loss turns into an indescribable victory! All of these thoughts, feelings, and more were overwhelming the disciples at this moment. With emotions filling the room, Jesus spoke profoundly:

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

The repetition of “peace” was deliberate for emphasis. With it he quelled any uncertainties about his attitude toward them. He relieved them about their standing with God, despite the failures and fears of the previous few days. How gracious is our God! In the person of Jesus, he stood among them with a loving, patient and friendly tone. Then, he got to the point: they were to go on mission, just as the Father had sent Jesus on mission. Jesus had sent them out on mission temporarily before, but this time was different. They were now going on mission with the help of the indwelling Spirit.

Jesus had spoken to them about the Holy Spirit a few nights earlier at the Last Supper. He said,

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

The Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, who would be with them and in them forever, would provide the guidance and power they would need to fulfill the mission on which they now were being sent. In breathing on them, Jesus demonstrated that he was a flesh and blood, breathing human. At the same time, his breathing was symbolic—acting out what would be fulfilled almost 50 days later on the day of Pentecost, when the sound of a rushing wind would accompany them being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jewish words and thought depicted the Holy Spirit as the breath of God, which imparted life to Adam and prophetically to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. As recorded in John 14 and 17, Jesus had explained that the Spirit would come forth from the Father and be sent by Jesus.

What did Jesus mean by his statement concerning the forgiveness of sins?  Referring to Jesus, Paul wrote this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7, ESV). Paul was not contradicting Jesus’ words to his disciples. Jesus himself had said to his critics, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). Clearly, forgiveness of sins is through Jesus. Neither the apostles nor anyone since has been given that role. However, through the gospel, forgiveness of sin is proclaimed. Note what it says in Acts 13:

Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)

The mission on which the disciples were being sent involved proclaiming the gospel, which means proclaiming the forgiveness of sin in and through Jesus. If the message is not delivered or not received, the forgiveness is not experienced and thus has no power in the person’s life. Paul reiterates this in Romans 10:

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14-15, NRSV)

Thus we see the vital role of the proclamation and reception of the gospel.

The missing Thomas

For unexplained reasons, Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. Jesus knew he was absent, and remembered that Thomas, upon learning that Jesus was returning to dangerous Jerusalem, had pessimistically stated, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). John’s account continues:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)

Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples was dramatic, and he showed them the same evidence that Thomas demanded. Thomas knew that an unexplained apparition could deceive people into believing that they saw something else. But he took what might have been healthy skepticism all the way to cynicism, dismissing the testimony of his closest friends. As a result he was given the nickname Doubting Thomas.

Jesus confronts Thomas’ doubts

We now fast forward a week:

A week later [Jesus’] disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:26)

Jesus then addresses Thomas directly:

“Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:27, NASB).

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas must have felt like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Jesus gave him the evidence he demanded, taking away Thomas’ reasons to disbelieve. In doing so, Jesus rebuked Thomas for being overly skeptical and illogical as Archibald Robertson explains in Word Pictures of the New Testament:

The doubt of Thomas in the face of the witness of the others was not a proof of his superior intelligence. Sceptics usually pose as persons of unusual mentality. The medium who won Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to spiritualism has confessed that it was all humbug, but he deceived the gullible novelist. But Thomas had carried his incredulity too far. Note the play on ἀπιστος [apistos] (unbelieving) and πιστος [pistos] (believing).

How could Thomas have been disbelieving in the company of friends who believed? More importantly, how could he persist in being clueless about Jesus? You would think that all Jesus had said and done should have prompted at least a “hmm” from him. Whatever the case in the past, Jesus’ words and actions now broke through to Thomas who voiced his now-famous acclamation of faith:

“My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Not only did Thomas snap out of doubt and acute skepticism, his revitalized belief moved him to worship! Thomas’ dramatic turnabout shows the transformational effect of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas had been with Jesus for three years and witnessed the power of God in all Jesus did, but all that he witnessed and experienced did not compare to seeing Jesus, who Thomas knew had been dead, standing alive before him—wounds and all. Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection so convinced Thomas of Jesus’ divinity that he worshipped him on the spot!

So that you may believe

Thomas was chosen by Jesus to be an apostle—a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  But what about the rest of us? Do we need to see Jesus and feel his wounds to believe that he is the risen Lord? Of course not! Don’t we believe all kinds of things without seeing evidence first-hand? The earth is round; the sun is 93 million miles away; the oceans are thousands of feet deep. Do we need to personally witness these facts to believe them?

Most people believe such facts because they believe in the credibility of those who told or taught them. God our Creator graciously granted humanity the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection through 12, rather ordinary, witnesses. History tells us that these ordinary men gave their lives insisting that their witness was true. Theirs is not the only evidence; others also saw Jesus alive after his resurrection from the dead. Why wouldn’t these witnesses be believed?

Evidence notwithstanding, notice what Jesus said about all who believe him without seeing first-hand evidence?

Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)

For Thomas, the saying “seeing is believing” described the way he approached faith in Jesus. But as the author of Hebrews notes, real faith is believing what is not immediately visible: “Faith is… assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who believe without seeing (or touching) the evidence of the resurrection in the way Thomas did. What does that blessing entail? Peter answers:

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:8)

A blessing is a gracious outpouring of good from God. The recipients of this blessing are able to love Jesus, though they have not seen him. Their grace-endowed faith and love results in exuberant joy that expresses confidence in the salvation they have been granted. This is the blessing upon all who love Jesus and trust in him for their salvation.

Conclusion

Here is how John concludes the story of doubting Thomas, who became believing Thomas:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

All around us is a world that views the claims of Christianity with skepticism, even hostility. They defend their skepticism as being logical and scientific. But Thomas’ story reminds us that there is hope for skeptics. Just as Jesus confronted doubting Thomas in love, so too will Jesus confront a doubting, skeptical world. In fact, he is doing so all the time, and the evidence he presents involves us—the faith-filled testimony of our lives and words.

For all who love and trust in Jesus, the fantastic, yet true promise of eternal life awaits—life in communion with our triune God in the fulness of God’s kingdom—a life filled with love, joy and peace. And so we pray, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sermon for April 15, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 3:12-19; Ps. 4; 
1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Sermon by Linda Rex 
(from Luke 24:36b-48 and 1 John 3:1-7, 14)

In Touch with Jesus

Introduction

Many people go through life as though there is no reality other than what can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched. It seems that they don’t think much, if at all, about the things of the spirit. As Christians we do. We know God exists and we talk with him in prayer. But do we have spiritual eyes to “see” his presence and spiritual ears to “hear” him speak? To the extent that we do, we’re in touch with ultimate reality.

King David knew that reality. In Psalm 4, he asked God to hear his prayer and thanked him for his gracious response. David reminds us that when we focus on what is worthless and deceptive, we miss out on the spiritual realities. But when we live in humble recognition of God’s presence and are attentive to his voice, we find joy and peace. In Psalm 4, David mentions a “faithful servant” who God set apart. In the ultimate sense, that servant is the God-man Jesus Christ. To the extent that we see and hear Jesus today, we are in touch with ultimate reality.

In Luke 24 we learn of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. Fearing for their lives, they have holed up in a room in the city of Jerusalem. There they excitedly discuss whether or not what a few of them have experienced is real. Some say they have seen Jesus.

Several days before, a few of them witnessed Jesus crying out in agony as he hung dying on the cross. They saw his blood poured out on the ground. They saw him being wrapped in grave clothes and then placed in a tomb. They were crushed by the loss of their dear friend, the one they thought was the hoped-for Messiah. Now, experiencing grief and doubt, they sorely need spiritual vision and hearing. They need a dose of ultimate reality.

Addressing that need, Jesus appeared among them. Their first thought was that they were seeing a ghost, and they were terrified. But then Jesus said, “Look!” He wanted them to have spiritual sight. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he said. “It is I myself; touch me and see.” His language was emphatic, “It really is me!” he was saying.

Here was Jesus, the same person they had walked, talked, eaten and worked with. He’s alive! He’s no ghost—he’s flesh and bone. Yet Jesus was appearing to them in a way they had never seen—as a glorified human person. He entered the room without using the door. How did he do that? And how could he be with them if he was dead?

Jesus was opening their eyes to behold the miracle of his resurrection and opening their ears to hear his voice of comfort and challenge.

Jesus appears to his disciples. (source)

For a brief time following his resurrection, and before ascending to heaven, Jesus met multiple times with his disciples. Doing so enabled them to see what it would be like to live in a resurrected-glorified human body. Jesus patiently explained how everything in the Law, Prophets and Writings (what we call the Old Testament) spoke of him and his mission. This reassured and prepared them for the mission Jesus would give them—to tell the world his story, the story of God’s great love and grace. Concerning that love, one of these witnesses, the apostle John, would later write this:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1a)

John felt it was essential for his readers to “see” the spiritual reality of God’s love—a love so great that, through Jesus, God makes us his beloved children. John continues:

 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 1:2)

John exhorts us to look at Jesus and ourselves with spiritual eyes. We need to know we are God’s beloved children, and to realize that one day we will see Jesus in his glorified human body. Even more than that, on that day we will be like him, since our bodies will be like his glorified human body.

This will happen because of what Jesus did in both bearing away our sins and destroying the devil’s work. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus removed all the obstacles that stand between us and the glory that God created us to bear. In union with Jesus, we are swept up into the life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit for all eternity. Jesus defeated evil, sin and death, and brought us home to our heavenly Father.

John then tells us how we should respond to this glorious truth—this ultimate reality:

All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:3)

By the Spirit’s power, our life as followers of Jesus is to reflect the reality that we are made in the image of God, that we were created to live in loving relationship with God and one another. John goes on to say that it’s obvious when we’re either living that way, or not. Our lives show that we truly are God’s children when we are practicing “righteousness,” which means “right relationship” with one another:

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14)

How we treat each other shows what’s going on in our hearts. Are we alive in Christ, or are we dead? Given our fallen nature, apart from Christ, we are the walking dead. Our feeble attempts at saving ourselves end up as dead ends. We have no hope apart from Jesus and his life. That was a lesson the disciples in that room in Jerusalem learned.

God loves us so much that he not only forgave our sins, reconciling us to himself in Jesus, he also sends the Spirit by which Jesus, our High Priest, ministers to us—revealing himself to us and in doing so showing us our true destiny as humans. Jesus is alive forevermore so that, in him, we too may have real life.

You see, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s “Yes!” to humanity. God bound himself to the human race forever in Christ, and calls us to embrace that truth—the reality that we are God’s very own, made in his image, to share in loving relationship with him and with one another forever. God longs for us to believe this truth and to live into it. Jesus says to you and me, “Open your eyes, your ears and your hearts to the truth of who I am, and because of that, who you are. Trust in my love and grace.”

As we do, we die to our old ways of being. We die to trusting in ourselves, and in our ways of doing things. As we grow in our awareness of and attention to the true spiritual realities of life in Christ, we walk in newness of life.

Dear friends, Christ has come, lived our life, died our death, and has risen! He is alive forevermore. In him and by his Spirit we are saved! We are healed! We are delivered! Hallelujah!

Let us pray: Abba, thank you for your great love, demonstrated to us in the gift of your Son. Thank you for never abandoning us or rejecting us, in spite of how we have treated you and Jesus. By your Spirit, open our eyes to see you and our ears to hear you. And open our hearts to receive your embrace and to embrace you in return. Lord Jesus, make us aware of the ultimate reality and brings us into agreement with that truth—the truth of who you are and who we are in you. Make us effective witnesses of the miracle that you are Jesus—the miracle of your life, death, resurrection and ascension. Amen.

Sermon for April 22, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 4:5-12; Ps. 23;
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from John 10:11-15; Ps. 23; 1 John 3:16-24; Acts 4:5-12)

It’s About Sheep

Introduction

Rock, vine, lamb of God, bread of life, light of the world, many are the metaphors used for our Savior, but one of my favorites is that of good shepherd. The reference to sheep was used frequently in the Scriptures because the people of that time were familiar with sheep and shepherds.

Sheep are social animals. They get a little stressed out if they are separated very far from the flock. If a sheep does isolate itself from the rest of the flock the shepherd needs to be concerned because it might be lost or ill. Sheep are easily led, which can be good or not so good. If one sheep makes a move, the rest will follow. Back in 2006, in eastern Turkey, a sheep tried to cross a 50-foot-deep ravine and plunged to its death. Four hundred of its fellow sheep followed.

Domesticated sheep have a lot of needs. They need plenty of pasture for food. Two acres of good pasture, not rocky soil, can sustain six sheep. Sheep spend up to seven hours a day grazing. They need access to clean water and they need salt. They need to have that heavy coat of wool maintained as well as their hooves. They need some kind of shade in hot weather. If they injure themselves, they need medical help.

But one of the most important needs sheep have is protection from predators. If sheep are threatened they hover together. That’s the only protection they can provide for themselves against wolves, coyotes or sheep-killing dogs. They need the extra protection that comes from their shepherd.

“Jesus, the Good Shepherd” by Greg Olsen
(used with permission)

Jesus, the good shepherd

So when Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd who cared about his sheep, people knew what he was talking about. Let’s notice what Jesus says in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15, NRSV)

A good shepherd not only has concern for the sheep, but also is ready to face any danger to protect them. Jesus is the divine Shepherd who cared for us so much he gave his life for us.

Another scripture that comes to mind about good shepherds is Psalm 23, the beautiful psalm many of you have probably memorized at one time or another. Let’s look at it again, keeping in mind those needy sheep, and who those sheep represent. There are many spiritual analogies in this psalm. Let’s look at a few.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Ps. 23:1-3, NRSV)

We see the analogies right away. First, our Good Shepherd provides for our needs and second, we can know that wherever he leads is the right way for us to go. We can have absolute trust in him.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Ps. 23:4, NRSV)

We do not have to fear whatever we may have to face in our lives, even death, because our Good Shepherd is always right there to protect and comfort us through our trials. We have no doubts about his love. He’s already given his life for us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Ps. 23:5, NRSV)

Our Shepherd is very generous in his love and concern for us. Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed with all the blessings God gives? In this country, it’s not only spiritual blessings, it’s physical blessings as well. Most of us don’t have to worry about where we’re going to sleep tonight or where our next meal is coming from. And, we’re free to come here together to worship our God. Most of the people in the world don’t have those luxuries.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Ps. 23:6, NRSV)

Those blessings aren’t just for this life—they go on forever. What a promise from our Good Shepherd!

Our response

What should be our response to such unconditional overwhelming love? The apostle John tells us:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:16-17 NRSV)

It always comes back to this, doesn’t it—love, God’s love. That’s who he is. And God’s love is not just a sweet sentiment—love is expressed in action. The Good Shepherd doesn’t lie under a shade tree talking about how much he loves his sheep. He’s up and about watching over them, seeing what they need, searching for the strays, taking care of them. John continues:

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:18-22, NRSV)

There is so much in these scriptures to mull over, to think about, to pray about, for God’s love is so deep and so wide and so high it’s impossible to contain it. Yet love is what he’s asking us to do, even expecting us to do, to love as he loves, unconditionally and actively. Like the Good Shepherd, not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.

Peter’s mission and ours

As we read in John 21:15-17, after his resurrection, Christ asked Peter three times if he loved him. Peter answered yes three times. Jesus then gave Peter a command related to his mission: feed my lambs and tend my sheep. We read about the basis of that command in 1 John:

This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. (1 John 3:23-24, NRSV)

“Feed My Lambs” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

How could Peter do what Jesus commanded? What did Jesus mean? He had told him three times he loved him. Why did Jesus respond to him in the way he did? Maybe Peter was wondering what Jesus meant when he told him to feed and tend his sheep. The disciples weren’t always good at figuring Jesus out. Nevertheless, it didn’t take Peter long to work it out, as we see in our reading today in the book of Acts:

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:5-12, NRSV)

Did you notice that the rulers, elders and scribes of Israel asked the same questions of Peter: How are you doing what you are doing? How are you doing these miraculous works? Peter told them how: through one name and one name only. It’s through and by the same name, which means the same authority and power, that we are able to do what Jesus wants us to do—to take the gospel to the world. We do so through our close relationship with him, by his Spirit.

Conclusion

Do you ever think of the people in the world as lost sheep? That’s how Jesus views them—belonging to him, yet lost, vulnerable, in danger, needing to be saved. Those lost sheep might be in your own family, or some of your coworkers, or your next-door neighbors. Jesus loves them and wants them to be brought into his flock where there is hope, comfort, peace, salvation, eternal life with him.

Jesus sees these people as his lost sheep, his personal lost sheep. He has given his life for them. He wants them found. Jesus says to us: feed my lambs and tend my sheep.

Sermon for April 29, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 8:26-40; Ps.
22:25-31;
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Sermon by Cathy Deddo 
(from John 15:1-11)

On Being Branches

Introduction

What is the heart of the Christian life? That important question is answered in our Gospel reading today in John chapter 15, where Jesus is teaching his disciples concerning the vine and branches.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Having left the Last Supper in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. As they walk and talk, Jesus is preparing his followers for his death, which will occur tomorrow, Good Friday. The disciples had come to know and love Jesus as they lived with him, listened to him and watched him work. But what would happen when Jesus was no longer with them bodily?

Earlier that evening in the Upper Room, Jesus had talked about leaving his disciples, reassuring them that his departure would result in them having a deeper, more intimate relationship with him through the Holy Spirit. Now Jesus tells them more about that relationship using the image of branches attached to a vine. Understanding that image was important for those disciples. It’s also important for us today.

Abiding: the essence of the Christian life

The image of the vine and branches points to the reality that the relationship that Jesus (the vine) has with his followers (the branches), and thus with the church, is of a particular kind. First, it’s not symmetrical. Jesus is its Source—he gives the relationship to us. Second, it’s not static—we don’t share in the relationship passively. It is a real, reciprocal giving and receiving. Third, the relationship is not automatic, which is why Jesus commands his disciples—he commands the church—to abide in him. As they do, they will grow in that relationship, coming to enjoy, trust and love Jesus at progressively deeper levels.

When I consider how strongly Jesus emphasizes the need for his disciples to abide in him, I realize that he is revealing the essence of the Christian life, which is our active, deliberate and continual participation in our union and communion with Jesus, by the Spirit. All that we think, say and do—all our programs, relationships and plans are to be rooted in and come out of that relationship. Our abiding in Jesus means living as the branches that he has made us. It means participating in Jesus’ life and love as we are addressed and transformed by the Spirit as he works actively within us, Jesus’ friends.

“Friends” by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

But what does abiding in Jesus look like on a day-to-day basis? How do we as members of the church, the body of Christ, live as branches in the true vine? Let’s look at three aspects of that abiding: 1) knowing, 2) trusting, and 3) obeying. Though we’ll look at each separately, remember they are interconnected aspects of one relationship.

1. We abide by knowing

To abide in Jesus means to continually seek to know him personally. It’s not the same as merely knowing things about him. Think of your spouse or another very close friend. Knowing them involves real, ongoing interaction: doing things together, being together in different situations, conversing, giving and receiving. It’s far more than merely knowing facts about them. It means spending time with them, which leads to even deeper knowing.

Many years ago, I was talking with a young man who found the Christian life rather boring. As I was thinking about how to proceed in our conversation, I felt inspired to ask, “What do you love about Jesus?” After a moment’s thought, he replied, “Well, he died for my sins…” I said, “Yes, but what about his person do you love? What about the way he deals with others, what he is passionate about, the words he says to you?”  He had nothing else to say and I realized that it’s hard to love someone you really don’t know. It’s in a real, growing relationship of knowing that we come to love another person.

Knowing Jesus involves coming to see and perceive who he is and what he is up to—seeking to hear clearly what he is saying to us by his Spirit. Doing so takes effort, just as it takes effort to hear our friends clearly, instead of failing to listen, thinking we already know what they are about to say. Have you ever had that happen in an interaction with someone? You suddenly realize that you’re not getting their point because you haven’t been really listening? And when you finally do listen, you’re surprised at their actual point. Coming to really know someone tends to involve a certain type of repentance—setting aside our preconceived notions so we can listen more carefully to what is actually being said.

So how do we come to know Jesus? By learning about him, learning of his character and purposes, seeing who he is in relationship to his Father and the Spirit. We come to know him by meeting him and hearing from him in his written word and in prayer. It’s wonderful to know that God is a speaking God who blesses us with sustaining, life-giving, joy-filled relationship with him, and that we can actually grow in that relationship—knowing and loving him more deeply.

2. We abide by trusting

To be the branch is to have confidence in the vine—to trust that the vine really can nourish and sustain us so that we don’t need to be looking for other vines to plug into, or to try to be our own vine. Abiding in Jesus means actively trusting that he is good and for us all the way down. It means, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12, trusting that his grace is sufficient, and his power is made perfect in our weakness. It means actively trusting that Jesus made me, knows me, and knows who I am becoming in him. It means trusting that he is my true Source of life, joy, love and identity and no one else is. There is no other place to put my trust for life.

The reality is that we are always living and acting on the basis of either trust or distrust. When we are not living from a place of confidence in Jesus’ presence and work in our lives, it’s likely we are trusting in something or someone else. We might be trusting our own skill or expertise, or our own programs or plans. Or we might be acting from a place of conviction that Jesus is not here, not paying attention, not remaining faithful to his work in us. In such times of distrust, we are living as if we are not the branches in the vine that Jesus has made us to be.

How can we live in greater trust in Jesus? By coming to know him better. Trust in Jesus is a response to who we find him to be. This dynamic is true in our other relationships as well. My trust in my husband is shaped by who I am coming to know he is. As I know him better, I respond in greater trust that he will be and act according to who he is. I trust my husband Gary (who is a theologian) to help me work through understanding God better, but I don’t ask him to be my surgeon! I know what he is able to do, and what he is not able to do. Though he is able, Jesus does not do all things. We can trust him to help us grow spiritually, but we don’t expect him to wash the dishes for us!

One more thing about abiding by trusting. In uniting himself to us, Jesus shares with us his trust in God the Father—a trust grounded in his intimate knowing of the Father. Jesus shares with us his trust in his Father so that we may grow in the joyous conviction of his good Lordship over all—his faithfulness to bring to completion his good purposes for our lives.

3. We abide by obeying

As we grow in trusting Jesus, we want to act on that trust—to live as if he is the Lord of our lives that he truly is. Note in John 15 how Jesus connects loving him with obeying him:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11)

Jesus is saying that he has loved his disciples with the very love and in the very way he is loved of the Father. This is a further description of what he means by his being the vine and his followers being branches. As the branches, we are drawn into the triune God’s own loving, living communion. We are to abide (meaning to remain or to continue) in that loving relationship. But how do we do that?

Jesus tells us we do so by actively living in and receiving his love by keeping his commandments. In John 14 he spoke of loving him by keeping his word. Jesus’ commandments are his words to us—they are the shape of his loving purposes for our lives. These commands aren’t arbitrary tests of our loyalty, and they aren’t obligations we must meet to get Jesus to love us. They are the very shape of his love. We obey Jesus’ words to us because he is so wonderful, so good—why would we choose to live contrary to them?

We remain in communion with Jesus by obeying his commands to us, just as he remains in communion with his Father by obeying the Father’s commands to him. Unfortunately, however, we tend to view obedience as dull, even joy-denying. But look at Jesus’ next statement—he tells his disciples that he is giving them this instruction to keep his commands, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Jesus has great joy in obeying the commands of his Father, who he knows, loves and trusts. And he wants us to share in this intense and intimate joy with him—to the full!

Abiding involves repentance

Obeying Jesus isn’t always easy. We may see obedience as getting in the way of our desires, hopes and plans. Also, we may see our past experiences and current expectations and struggles as reasons not to be obedient. This takes us back to the point already made that obeying Jesus is connected to our knowing and trusting him. The Holy Spirit is at work to help us see more and more clearly how much better Jesus is than all our own ways of giving ourselves life and value. He is at work to enable us to more deeply live in the freedom of trusting Jesus with all that we have and are.

This process of growth involves repentance—active turning away from whatever is in the way of obeying Jesus out of trust in him and his work. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity,

[To trust Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.

Obedience flows from trusting Jesus and that obedience then feeds our trust in him. As challenging as it often is, obeying Jesus’ commands helps us see even more that he is the object of our deepest longings—the source of true joy. In an article entitled “God’s message on ‘Ash Valentine’s Day’: True Love Dies,” Tish Harrison Warren speaks of this fruit of obedience in the lives of her Christian friends who are single:

I have a number of very close friends who are [single and] celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.

Conclusion

Though we might be tempted to think that the center of the Christian life involves our efforts to preach the gospel, to have an ideal church, family, marriage, or life, Jesus’ words here in John 15 about the vine and branches help us realize that the center of the Christian life—the center of our life as a follower of Jesus—is our relationship with our Lord, which involves obeying his command to abide in him.

Note that Jesus’ command to us is not to bear fruit. Jesus says that when we obey his command to abide in him, fruit will result. The fruit that will come will be his fruit borne in us as we abide in him. By trusting in, staying in living communion with Jesus, remaining in his word, following his lead, and obeying out of that relationship in trust and love, fruit will result.

What wonderful news—Jesus has made us his own! We are and are becoming his beloved, holy children of our Father. He has made it so we can respond and receive—so that we can have communion with him, which is our sharing in the communion he has with the Father in the Spirit. Through that sharing we enjoy, again and again, the growing freedom of being the children of God that we are. Amen.


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