Sermon for May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday)

Scripture readings: Isa. 6:1-8; Ps. 29; Rom. 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from Ps. 29:4-8; Isa. 6:1-5; John 3:11-17; Rom. 8:14-17)

The Triune God of Love & Power

Introduction

A friend of mine decided to read the entire Bible. As she started through the Old Testament, her first impression was that the God of the Old Testament was scary and harsh. It seemed to her that he would make promises and then change his mind. She was referring to the Israelites, including Moses, who were denied entrance into the Promised Land after all those miserable years wandering in the desert. She also noted that God got angry at times and would kill off a lot of people. She felt Jesus was the loving God, but that the God of the Old Testament was scary.

C.S. Lewis gives a more nuanced portrayal of Jesus in several of his books, presenting him as a great lion named Aslan who is both scary and loving:

“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Aslan the Lion (source)

Can the triune God—the God who is Father, Son and the Holy Spirit—be both scary and a God of love? Can we trust a God like that? Well, God assures us throughout his Word that he is love, and we also find there that God is powerful—note Psalm 29:

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. (Ps. 29:4-8)

God is powerful and almighty—a mover and a shaker. All he has to do is speak and things happen. The psalmist didn’t see God as wimpy. Let’s see another example in the book of Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:1-3)

Here, in Isaiah’s vision, God is attended and worshiped by splendid heavenly, spiritual creatures (some might say weird looking ones). It is obvious that God is worthy of great honor, even from spiritual beings. What was Isaiah’s reaction to what he saw?

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:4-5)

Isaiah was scared at what he saw—so scared he thought he might die on the spot. We can argue that God doesn’t really sit on a throne wearing an overflowing robe. No one has actually seen God—what Isaiah saw was a vision. But this vision was how God revealed himself to Isaiah at that time and in that cultural setting. God deals with people where they are.

When questions about God come up, we don’t need to try to apologize for God. He doesn’t need our help. We certainly can’t explain everything God did or still does. He is God, after all, and we’re not. But one thing we do know, because God tells us—God is love. That’s who he is and who he has always been.

When we read the Bible, we need to look at the historical and cultural context it was written in. It’s obvious in the Old Testament that God dealt with people in the culture they lived in at the time. The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures were people of that culture as well. They viewed the world through the lens of that time and place.

Throughout the Old Testament, we learn some basic truths about who God is. God is not only the almighty powerful Creator of all that is, he is a God of love—a God of redemption and salvation who is extremely patient. How many times did he save Israel, for example, before they finally were scattered among the other nations? He was even patient with Egypt, waiting 400 years before he lowered the boom, so to speak.

Rublev’s icon of the Trinity
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, when my friend gets to the New Testament, she will learn something surprising: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is that same God we’ve just been describing! Jesus said he came to reveal the Father and to send the Spirit. Along with redeeming and saving us, restoring our relationship with the Father was a primary purpose of his ministry. He wasn’t a vision; Jesus was a real human being. And, not only that, as he told Nicodemus, he had been in heaven with God.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee who sought out Jesus because he saw Jesus’ miracles and believed Jesus was from God. In Jesus’ explanation of spiritual rebirth, he referred back to the incident in the Old Testament when God saved the Israelites from poisonous serpents. This was something Nicodemus could understand from his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Using this analogy, Jesus taught Nicodemus about God’s plan to redeem and save the entire world:

Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:11-17)

Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, show us that our triune God whom we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday, is a God of redemption and salvation. He is an extremely patient God, and we can be happy and relieved that he is.

Aren’t there times in all our lives when we’re glad God didn’t give us what we deserved, right on the spot? If God were like that, our earth would be desolate, for we have all sinned.

Yes, our God is powerful and almighty—Jesus could get angry. Jesus is God and some things really set him off: hypocrisy, false teaching and defilement of his Father’s house. Yes, God is love, but, the Bible declares that God judges sin. Why? Because sin is the barrier between God and humanity, and Jesus dies to remove that barrier. God resists sin—he is adamantly and eternally opposed to evil and the resulting painful consequences for humanity. Why? Because God loves humanity.

God, in Christ, has judged all sin, and a day of judgment is coming when all sin and evil will be eradicated. But thanks be to God, the righteous and merciful God-man Jesus Christ is humanity’s judge, our advocate and our redeemer. Jesus came to restore a relationship between God and humanity that had gone very wrong.

In the Old Testament we see very few people who had any kind of a relationship with God. Noah, Abraham, Moses, the prophets and a few of Israel’s kings, are some examples. Christ came to rectify that. He came so all could have a loving relationship with the Father, in and through him, by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

As we conclude, let’s ask again, can this very powerful, perfect, sinless God be trusted? We look at ourselves and all our imperfections and sometimes we wonder—how can God love us? Well, he can, and he does. Note what the apostle Paul wrote:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:14-17)

Yes, the almighty, powerful God is a God of love, and he can be trusted. We don’t have to live in fear of God, for our Savior Jesus has come to our rescue and by the Spirit has freed us from our burdens of sin, shame and guilt so that we, as his children, can call God our Father—our Abba.

God, who is Father, Son and Spirit—the Holy Trinity—is a God of love; a God of salvation. Think about it! We are in a family relationship with the all-powerful Creator God of the universe! That’s what Jesus’ sacrifice is all about; that’s what the Spirit’s ministry is all about. That’s what the heart of the Father is all about. Thank God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit for their love and mercy! Amen!

Lead like the apostles

This article is from Equipper Editor, Ted Johnston.

Ted Johnston

Lead like the apostles? You’ve got to be kidding! After all, they were apostles, and we’re just ordinary folk, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, we who lead GCI congregations and ministries today are “ordinary folk.” But no, the original apostles were not extraordinary supermen. In fact, one of the remarkable things about them was that they came from humble backgrounds.

What was extraordinary about the apostles was who they served (Jesus) and how they, through the ministry of the Spirit who indwelled them, became devoted, capable leaders of the body of Christ, the church.

Jesus with the Twelve (source)

The Fall 2016 issue of Outcomes Magazine has an article from Kurt Nelson titled “Following the Apostles.” Nelson notes the compelling need for today’s church leaders to grow in leadership ability, for (citing 2 Tim. 3:1, 12) “we live in an increasingly spiritually dark and polarized world” where change is constant, persecution of Christians is on the rise, and Christianity is quickly losing its influence in the world. He then notes how the original apostles led the church in an equally dark, troubling time, and calls on us today to emulate five qualities that characterized their leadership:

1. Discernment (Act 1:21-26)

As Nelson notes, “to lead with discernment requires intentionally seeking God and distinguishing his direction for your ministry’s next steps.”  The apostles continuously sought God’s direction in prayer and so should we. Seeking his will is done best in community. Toward that end, I’ve benefitted by reading Pursuing God’s Will Together, a Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton.

2. Collaboration (Acts 2:42-47)

Nelson notes that “as we look back to the early church and its leaders, collaboration was a characteristic that marked believers.” They worked together, focusing on their shared calling to take the message of salvation to the world. As a result, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Such collaboration is certainly needed within congregations, but also between congregations in the same denomination, and even cross-denominationally. We are better together than alone. By being an active, cooperative part of the GCI team, we accomplish much more together than “flying solo.”

3. Humility (Phil. 2:3-6; 1 Cor. 3:7-8)

Pride kills leadership effectiveness. Why? Because it stands in the way of needed change—change in our own lives, change within our ministries and congregations. Humility is one of Jesus’ most outstanding qualities, and one very much needed by those who are called to be leaders in his service. According to Nelson, one of the ways this humility is exemplified in our lives as leaders is by acknowledging that…

…our ministries belong to God and yet are far from perfect. We should regularly reflect on what is and isn’t working, and humbly ask tough questions and respond honestly when our efforts are not bearing fruit.

4. Adaptability (1 Cor. 9:19-23)

In a rapidly changing world like ours, leaders must be willing and able to adapt quickly. This does not mean change for change’s sake, but change for the sake of the Great Commission to which we are called. Nelson comments:

The gospel we share never changes, but the ways in which we initiate spiritual conversations and access hard-to-reach places require constantly adaptable ministry plans…. Rather than asking people to adjust to our ministry methods, we must structure our ministry to meet them on their level.

5. Perseverance (2 Tim. 3:1-17)

Being a church or Christian ministry in the 21st century is a great challenge. The cultural landscape is rapidly changing, becoming largely post-Christian, even anti-Christian. “Success” in ministry (whatever that means) is increasingly hard to achieve. But we have been called to faithfulness, not to success, and so we need the perseverance of Christ himself—the willingness and ability to “hang in” in times that are tough (like the ones we are facing today). As Nelson notes, “regardless of the consequences, our call is to persevere in faithfulness to our mission and to allow the Lord to use our suffering to expand his kingdom.”

Conclusion

We are not called to be apostles in the way the original twelve were. Theirs was a unique calling and assignment, for which they were given extra-ordinary giftings. However, as leaders in the church today, we are to lead in the way of the apostles, which is the way of Jesus, our Lord. The five leadership qualities mentioned in this article are ones that Jesus and his apostles exemplified—they are ones we need as well. So let us pray that God will give us these qualities; let us study them and work to develop them; then let us exercise them for the benefit of those we are called to lead in this challenging time. As we do, our churches will be increasingly healthy churches, and that is the vision toward which we are working for God’s glory and the advance of his kingdom.

Sermon for May 20, 2018 (Pentecost)

Scripture readings: Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:24-35;
Rom. 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Sermon by Ted Johnston 
(from John 15:18-16:15)
(Drawing on Wiersbe Bible Commentary, New Bible Commentary, Parable of Joy by Michael Card, and The Gospel of John by F.F. Bruce)

The Holy Spirit’s Three-Fold Ministry

Introduction

Today is Pentecost and we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In today’s sermon today, we’ll look back to what Jesus said to his disciples about the Holy Spirit on the night before our Lord went to the cross. Jesus told his followers about the Spirit’s three-fold ministry as their Counselor, Witness and Teacher. What he said was vital then, and it’s still important today for our encouragement and instruction. Let’s listen and learn.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)

(source)

1. The Spirit as Counselor

On the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said this to his disciples:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: “They hated me without reason.”

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you…. John 15:18-16:4)

Jesus pulls no punches in telling his followers that their situation in “the world” (mankind’s system, cut off from God) will be dangerous. Opposition will increase—moving from hatred (John 15:18–19), to persecution (John 15:20), to excommunication, and even to death (John 16:2). These stages are seen in the early church’s history described in Acts. But why does the world, including the religious world, hate Jesus’ followers? Our Lord gives four reasons:

  1. That we are identified with him (John 15:18, 20).
  2. That we do not belong to the world (John 15:19).
  3. That the world is spiritually ignorant and blind (John 15:21).
  4. That the world is not honest about its own sin (John 15:22–24; 16:1–4).

How does the Holy Spirit, the Counselor (Comforter in the KJV) encourage believers when they experience such hatred and opposition? It’s primarily through the Spirit’s testimony in Scripture. He ministered to Jesus that way. In John 15:25, Jesus quotes Psalms 35:19 and 69:4 where he found assurance that he was not hated for anything he had done. Today the Spirit “counsels” us through Scripture, giving us words of encouragement and instruction.

The Holy Spirit also witnesses to and through us during times of persecution (John 15:26–27). He reminds us that what we are experiencing is “the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ’s] sufferings,” as Paul says in Phil. 3:10, and that it is a privilege to bear reproach for his name, as Peter says in 1 Pet. 4:12–19. The Holy Spirit witnesses to us so that we can witness to the world. Jesus told his disciples that persecution need not cause them to stumble (“fall away,” John 16:1). Indeed, as followers of Jesus we can expect some degree of persecution. In particular, Jesus warned of persecution from “religious” people who think they are serving God. The word translated “service” in John 16:2 means “priestly service.” This statement is applicable to Saul of Tarsus, who thought he was serving God by persecuting, even killing Christians.

As we face hardship (even persecution) in following Jesus, we can be assured that the Spirit, our Counselor, will minister to us just as it ministered to these first disciples.

2. The Spirit as Witness

…but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, “Where are you going?” Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:5–11)

For three years, Jesus had been with his disciples and had protected them from attack—but now he was leaving. He had told them this news earlier that evening, and Peter had asked where he was going. However, Peter’s question revealed more concern about himself than about Jesus. Also, his question centered on the immediate, not the ultimate. It was necessary for Jesus to explain why it was important for them that he return to the Father. The major reason is that the Spirit would come to empower the church for life and witness. Also, the ascended Lord Jesus would be active as High Priest, interceding for his people.

It’s important to note that the Spirit comes in this particular way to Jesus’ disciples, who are Jesus’ co-workers, his temple—and the Spirit works with and through Christians to glorify Jesus by witnessing to a lost world. The key word here in John 16:8 is prove —a legal word meaning “bring to light, expose, refute, convict and convince.” The Spirit convicts the world and does so through the testimony of Christ-followers. In accord with this legal metaphor, believers are the witnesses, the Spirit is the prosecuting attorney and the unsaved are the guilty. If that sounds harsh, we quickly note that the purpose of this conviction of the world is not to condemn it but to save it. Note that through the testimony of the church, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of three things:

a. Unbelief (John 16:9)
The law of God and the human conscience convict the sinner of their sins (plural); but it is the specific work of the Spirit, through the testimony of believers, to expose a lost world’s unbelief. This is the big sin of the world, and the sin that condemns lost sinners. A person could “clean up his life” and remain in unbelief and thus continue to be lost.

b. Righteousness (John 16:10)
Note that what the Holy Spirit convicts the world of is not unrighteousness but righteousness. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God. The world would not receive the Son of God, so he has returned to the Father. When he was here on earth, he was accused of being a blasphemer, a lawbreaker, a deceiver, and even a demoniac. The Spirit of God reveals the Savior in the word and in this way glorifies him (John 16:13–14). The Spirit also reveals Christ in the lives of believers. The world cannot receive or see the Spirit of God, but they can see what he does as they watch the lives of his followers.

c. Judgment (John 16:11)
Jesus is here referring to his judgment of Satan that was affected by his death on the cross. Satan is the prince of this world, but he is a defeated prince. Satan has already been judged and the verdict announced. All that must take place is the executing of that sentence, and that will occur when Jesus returns in glory.

When lost sinners are convicted in these ways, they see the folly and evil of their unbelief; they confess that what they do does not measure up to the righteousness of Christ; and they realize that they are under condemnation because they belong to the world and the devil. The only person who can rescue them from this situation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Conversion involves this conviction, which comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who uses the word of God, including the testimony of the children of God. Offering our testimony to Christ in the world is thus a great privilege and serious responsibility. We can depend on and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he creatively (and often unexpectedly) guides us to the right persons, gives us the right words, and enables us to patiently testify to Jesus Christ by our actions and words, thus glorifying him.

3. The Spirit as Teacher

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:12-15)

Jesus always gave his disciples just the right amount of truth at the best time. This is a mark of a great teacher. The Holy Spirit is our teacher today, and he follows the same principle, teaching us the truths we need to know, when we need to know them, and when we are ready to receive them.

Comparing John 14:26 with John 16:13, we see the wonderful process used by the Holy Spirit to teach these first disciples—a process reflected in the New Testament: The Spirit reminded them of what Jesus had taught them, reflected in the four Gospels. The Spirit guided them into all truth, reflected in the epistles. And he showed them “things to come”—leading them into what was, humanly, an uncertain and threatening future, as reflected in the book of Revelation.

The work of the Holy Spirit is never divorced from Jesus, the Living Word, or from Scripture, the written word. “He will testify about me” (John 15:26); “He will bring glory to me” (John 16:14). People who claim that the Spirit of God led them to do things contrary to the example of Jesus or the teaching of Holy Scripture are mistaken and are being led astray by Satan. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), and God’s word (personified in Jesus and conveyed through Scripture) is truth (John 17:17), and the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth.” Where the Holy Spirit is truly at work, truth prevails.

The phrase “He [the Spirit] will not speak on his own” (John 16:13) means that he does not speak apart from the Father and the Son; he does not have a different message. The entire Godhead is mentioned in John 16:13 because the Spirit of God does not ignore either the Father or the Son. They are one in doing, just as they are one in being.

The teaching of the Spirit through the apostles was not different from the teaching of the Spirit through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit communicated the truths found in the four Gospels, the epistles, Revelation, and Acts (where we see how he led the church into new territory and circumstances). Today the Spirit uses Holy Scripture (which he inspired) to enlighten us with God’s truth and to enrich us with God’s treasures.

One final note: the truth that the Holy Spirit guides us into is the truth that is Jesus. Some people study Scripture to argue religion or discover “new truth.” But such approaches are contrary to the intent of the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture—his ministry is to reveal God to us in the person of Jesus—the one who is the way, the life and the truth. Then he sends us out with that truth to bear witness to it to a disbelieving world. The Spirit then uses our testimony to Jesus to do what we cannot do—convict the world of unbelief and open their hearts to believe.

Conclusion

How blessed we are as followers of Jesus to be indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit of God! As our Counselor, he guides and encourages us (and how greatly we need that at all times, but particularly in times when we face persecution); as Witness to Jesus he leads us to testify concerning our Lord; and as our Teacher he leads us ever deeper in participating in the life of the triune God: from the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit.

May our hearts and minds—indeed our whole beings—be ever open and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Amen.

Sermon for May 13, 2018 (Ascension Sunday)

Scripture readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps. 47; Eph. 1:15-23;
Luke 24:44-53

Sermon by Lance McKinnon 
(from Acts 1:11)

When Jesus Goes Over Our Head

Introduction

[Note to preacher: in some nations, including the USA, today is Mother’s Day. If you are in one of those nations, you will want to add material, perhaps in the introduction, that pays tribute to mothers.]

In the Christian calendar, last Thursday (May 10) was Ascension Day. That means that today (May 13) is Ascension Sunday on which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension. This celebration then leads nicely into the last day of the Easter celebration known as Pentecost, which occurs next Sunday, May 20.

Ascension of Christ (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The story of the Ascension begins the Book of Acts and serves as our passage for this sermon. It’s curious that Acts, written as a history of the early church, chooses to begin with the story of Jesus’ Ascension, but most churches today give the Ascension little attention. Maybe it’s an attempt to avoid what we think is a goodbye story. Or maybe our pride is insulted by its implications, namely that Jesus is King and we are not. But the Ascension is not a goodbye story. When Jesus ascends to the Father he is not leaving us here as orphans but rather takes us with him as adopted children.

Jesus, as the God-man, has ascended back to the Father, seating us with him at the Father’s right-hand side. Jesus the superhero has accomplished our salvation for us. Thus there is not need for us to put on a superhero cape of our own and try to fly to heaven on our own power.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I typically don’t like it when someone “goes over my head” to accomplish something behind my back, even if it’s for my own good. But then, pride is a cape we wear that says we can fly on our own power, but in the end, it just chokes the life out of us.

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were both written by Luke as one connected story. When we look at them together, we see the story of the temptations of Christ and the Ascension as bookends to his whole ministry. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he spends 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan to live his life on the devil’s terms and timetable. Satan wants Jesus to use some divine power, turning stones to bread, cheating death and taking a shortcut to authority over all nations. Satan is tempting Jesus to put on a superhero cape. Jesus says no, and continues his life and ministry in his humanity, following the Spirit and obeying the Father’s will. After his resurrection and before the Ascension, Jesus spends another 40 days appearing to his disciples and followers and teaching about the kingdom of God. Right before he ascends, he is once again asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection we see the people wanting Jesus to continue his ministry on their terms and on their timetable. Jesus dismisses their question and tells them to wait to receive power from the Holy Spirit. After this, he just ups and disappears.

This abrupt departure may be too anticlimactic for us. Maybe we want to have a say in how Jesus wraps up his ministry. The Ascension is the final climax and ultimate completion of what Jesus came to do. There is nothing left for us to do to that end. We don’t get to flex our muscles or use any power to accomplish our terms on our timetable. Like the witnesses to the Ascension, we may be looking into the clouds, scratching our heads wondering what just happened. Jesus not only literally went over our heads but from start to finish, his ministry just doesn’t make any sense to us. We think in terms of power as a force to control others and circumstances to get what we want when we want it. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit, where we can receive the same power that fueled his ministry. This power is the power of grace. It’s the power to lay down our lives in obedience to the Father. It’s the power to forgive, sacrifice and love others with the same love Jesus has for us. It’s the power to lay down our capes and follow Jesus in the Spirit in the same trust he has in his Father.

Two angels dressed in white appear and tell the disciples to get their heads out of the clouds. They tell them that Jesus is going to come to them in the same way that he left. We see in our lives that Jesus comes to us “right before our eyes.” He is present in every task we take up and every relationship we engage in. But he also works in hidden ways. He works in mystery and we are to live in faith. He may be right before our eyes, yet hidden in clouds working out a far greater end than we could ever imagine. The Lord is ascended and has all authority given to him. He continues his ministry through us, as we live in the Spirit trusting the Father.

I pray that we recapture the story of Ascension Day and be filled with the renewing and empowering hope that comes from the message that Jesus is our ascended King, reigning in the Spirit with the authority of his loving Father.

Relate to your community

This article is from Grant Forsyth, GCI Pastor in Kenockee, Michigan. 

Grant and Kathy Forsyth

Last January, a member of the local farm museum event committee called. She said they were planning the museum’s annual late summer event (one that draws a couple thousand visitors to a celebration of the history of farming and rural life). She then said that the committee wanted me to conduct the event’s church service, held in the historic church on the museum grounds. I asked, “Are you sure you want me to do it again?” (I was glad to oblige, but didn’t want to deny the opportunity to someone else). She paused, then answered emphatically “I would love for you to do it!” So, I accepted.

Why was the committee asking me? The woman who called was the one recommending me to the committee, but, as I later learned, she had never heard me speak! I’ve been recommended for funerals by community leaders, who also had never heard me speak. How does that happen?

Think about how many times you have heard GCI leaders, writers and speakers tell us as churches and pastors to “get out there and get into your community!” What, exactly, does that mean? I can only answer what it has meant to us and tell you how we have taken on that challenge. It’s been a process for us that has taken time, care and persistence. Here’s what we’ve done:

  1. We’ve been intentional about getting involved in our community. As a congregation, we send volunteers to help at annual community events. They love it when we send people to sell tickets, set up and take down, staff concession stands, etc. We wear our church T-shirts (neon lime!) at these events—folks see us everywhere!

During those community events, I get to have one-on-one conversations with event coordinators and workers. They get to know you and you get to know them. You are no longer a fearful creature! They might even get to like you! Trust begins to build; you and the church receive a good reputation—maybe even to the point where you are invited to perform a church service when the need arises!

  1. We’ve taken steps to be known by our local government. Our township board knows us. The assistant pastor (Jimmie Meade) and I are known by name. Jimmie serves on township committees because he lives there. Our leaders know our church by name.  We have a good reputation and they tell us that we are the first ones they think of when a need arises where a church is needed. This is a great feeling!

I realize that each church and pastor will have different experiences when it comes to relating to their community. However, I have found that the above approaches have yielded amazing results. I pray that what I’ve shared here will help you and spur ideas and thoughts for you that result in you becoming well-known in your community.

Here is the historic church in Goodells Park, MI, where I was asked to preach.
Here’s a picture of the service underway.               

Kid’s Korner: Give your kids a lift

This Kids Korner is from GCI pastor Lance McKinnon.

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

As we celebrate the special days in the Christian worship calendar, we are swept up in the grand narrative of Holy Scripture and our thinking is transformed. That being so, I want to give you a “heads-up” concerning May 13, which this year is Ascension Sunday. That day gives us opportunity to share with our kids an important gospel story. I encourage you to rise to the occasion!

Pun aside, it is unfortunate that many churches overlook Ascension Sunday, failing to give it the focus given to other celebrations on the Christian calendar, like Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter. If you are leading a children’s program, you can avoid this deficiency by using Ascension Sunday to teach your children the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In doing so, you will help them become more familiar with the full scope of Jesus’ life and thus avoid some of the misunderstandings that come when the Ascension is neglected.

(source)

There is a good chance that as you grew up you weren’t exposed to a lot of teaching concerning the Ascension. I certainly wasn’t. If you don’t feel knowledgeable enough to teach the implications of the Ascension, don’t let that keep you from teaching the basic story. Stories have a way of working on us over time, helping us travel down thought-roads the Spirit likes to help us travel. If your children know the story, and know it’s part of the overall story of Jesus, they will be well-served. If you can go deeper with them, depending on their age, then please do so. In the story of our Lord’s ascension, there is wonderful, encouraging and exciting good news for us all. My prayer is that we will give our kids a lift in coming to know well the stories of Jesus, who in the Spirit lifts them up in his birth, life, death, resurrection…. oh, and his ascension.


Looking for some help in teaching kids about the Ascension? Click here for a sample Sunday school lesson. For some adult-level background, click here for a related sermon, and here for an article.

Sermon for May 6, 2018

Scripture readings: Acts 10:44-48; Ps. 98; 1 John 5:1-6; 
John 15:9-17

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
(from John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; Ps. 98)

The Circle of Love

Introduction

Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter, and Ascension Day is this Thursday. Today’s readings remind us of two truths related to Jesus’ ascension: first, that, in love, he remains present with us, and second, that as his followers, we are to live together, in love.

The Gospel reading today in John 15 is from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his 12 disciples. He had washed their feet as a symbol of self-sacrificing love, then explained his new command to love each other as he loved them. Their distress upon hearing of his imminent departure led him to console them by promising to send them another Comforter from the Father to be with them. In that context, he repeated his command that they love each other.

After leaving the Last Supper, Jesus continued the discussion by comparing himself to a vine with his disciples being the branches. Jesus used this metaphor to portray the intimacy of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus and their complete dependence on him. He urged them to remain in that relationship.

Jesus then described not only his ongoing presence with them, but how that presence would affect their relationships with each other. Branches attached to a vine don’t adequately portray that picture, so Jesus spoke of a circle of love—love emanating from the Father, then extending through him to his followers, who then return that love to God by loving each other. Today we’ll reflect on that circle of love, noting how it applies to us.

Jesus addressing his disciples in the Upper Room
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What is love?

Before going to our Gospel reading in John 15, we need to clarify what John means by the word love. Note this from The New Bible Dictionary:

The commonest Greek word in the New Testament for all forms of love is agape [noun], agapao [verb]. This is one of the least frequent words in classical Greek, where it expresses on the few occasions it occurs, that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object. Its use in the New Testament derives not directly from classical Greek so much as from the [Septuagint], where it occurs in 95% of all cases where [English versions] translate the Hebrew by ‘love’, and in every case of love from God to man, man to God and man to his neighbor.

The New Testament writers chose a Greek word not commonly used in Greek literature of the time—a word translated “love” in English Bibles. Although it was not used much in Greek literature, agape was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word was not about male-female attraction, family-friend affection, things people strongly like such as tasty food, or various ways people express their desire or preferences such as “I love football.” It applies, as the article states, to the “highest and noblest form of love.” This sort of love “sees something infinitely precious” in the object of that love. This is not religious commandment keeping, nor is it merely a mental expression of concern for others. Every sound-minded person who has a precious loved one knows by experience what this love means. Naturally, we limit such love to a small number of people.

The circle of love

John could have chosen other words for love, but in translating what Jesus said that night concerning love into Greek, he chose the words agape and agapao. Thus, in John 15:9a we find Jesus saying, “As the Father has loved [agapao] me, so have I loved [agapao] you” (John 15:9a).

Agape/agapao appears nine times in this short passage in John 15. Crediting the Father as the source of that love, Jesus made it clear that he extended the same love to his followers. What did he expect of them? “Now remain in my love [agape]” (John 15:9b). Jesus point was that the love in them did not originate with them—it came to them through Jesus, and he insisted that they continue (remain) in it. How were they to do so?

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:10)

Keeping Jesus’ commands is not the love itself; it is our response to his love in us. This diagram of an electrical circuit illustrates the point:

[Preacher: you can demonstrate this with a battery, wire and bulb. Or you can show the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS2uto2TCSg.]

As the light bulb is connected to a terminal of the battery, the light doesn’t glow until the bulb is connected to the other side of the battery – its return terminal. An electrical circuit starts at its source, and from its current flows out to everything connected, and then returns to its source. In a similar way, love flows from God to us and must be returned. Our obedience is a response to God’s love. The bulb glows and remains in the electrical flow as long as it remains fully connected to the source.

Though not perfect, this analogy illustrates the point. Actually, it is Jesus’ perfect love, not something originating in us, that returns to the Father. Jesus gives us that love and then re-presents our imperfect response of love to complete the circuit (the circle of love). Nonetheless, we are in that circle and our response of love, by loving each other, is essential.

Why was this matter of loving each other so important that Jesus kept on repeating it? Jesus answers: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Augustine of Hippo said that “the desire for happiness is essential to humans and is the motive of all our actions.” After our bodies are nutritionally satisfied, comfortable, and secure, our minds want to be at peace and in a state of happiness— a state of joy. Jesus lived in that state of mind and wanted his followers to experience it too. He knew they could do so only if they were in the circle of love with him, for the kind of joy Jesus experienced is the outcome of love. Like a reward, it is experienced by all who are in the circle of love. It penetrates into each one on that circle then radiates out to the others. Jesus modeled this love and joy and explained to his disciples the secret of its expression, intending that they share in it with him.

Though Jesus command to “love each other as I have loved you” is simple, it is beyond human capacity to obey. Why? Because Jesus never sinned. But we are sinners who are incapable of expressing the pure, selfless love that comes only from God. Consequently, loving each other in the way Jesus commands is impossible for us. In our human weakness we tend to mistake romantic attraction, affection and even lust for love—all these are more about self-love than the truly selfless love that comes from the triune God.

To clarify what Jesus meant by that sort of love, he added this statement:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

We often hear stories about battlefield heroism where a group of soldiers is spared from the shrapnel of an enemy hand-grenade by a soldier who falls upon the weapon to absorb its explosion. Heroes that live through such experiences repeatedly say that they acted in order to protect their friends. That is laying down one’s life for others. Jesus said that such selflessness is the ultimate expression of the kind of love he was talking about.

Jesus’ circle of friendship

Jesus showed selfless love in way far greater than a spontaneous act of loving sacrifice on the battlefield. He deliberately laid down his life through the Incarnation, through 30-plus years of living without sin, culminating in his self-sacrificing, willing submission to the horrible suffering of the cross. That is true agape love. And in that context, Jesus said this to his inner circle of disciples:

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)

In the song Friend of God, Israel Houghton picked up on those words from Jesus:

Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me, when I call?
Is it true that you are thinking of me?
How You love me.
It’s amazing.
[Chorus:]
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
I am a friend of God.
He calls me friend.

Yes, it truly is amazing! Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, calls his human followers his friends! As the entire New Testament makes clear, the Father, Son and Spirit love all of humanity. That is why the Father sent his Son and why Jesus laid down his life for all humanity on the cross. Everyone is loved—everyone, through Christ, has been reconciled to the Father, and so included in God’s love and life—but not everyone is called Jesus’ friend. That designation is reserved for those who, trusting in Jesus, pick up their cross and follow him, keeping his command to share in his love for others.

Jesus’ first disciples rightfully considered themselves servants of Christ, going forth to do what their Lord bid them to do. But Jesus explained to them that there is more to the relationship with him than mere servanthood. The relationship he has with his followers is far more intimate than that of boss to employee. Jesus said that he shares with his followers what he experienced in his relationship with the Father—his followers are his friends! But lest his disciples would misunderstand the point he was making, Jesus immediately explained that this love, this friendship, is not initiated by them:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16)

As electricity flows from the battery to the bulb and back, the battery is the source. So it is with the love of God. As a battery can also light other bulbs, so Jesus can extend his love wherever he chooses. This was an important point for these followers to understand because the Lord’s intent was that they share his love, extending it to others—many others. That is what he meant by fruit. These other followers would become Jesus’ friends, just like the first disciples.

The disciples who heard Jesus speak these words had no idea of how far the Lord expected that fruit to extend. As Psalm 98 joyously declares, a new thing would be done by the Lord—salvation would be extended to all people groups. The original apostles were all Jewish men, educated in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. They did not yet understand that the salvation Jesus brought would include all people groups. As we saw in our reading in Acts 10, the Lord later showed Peter this magnificent plan by granting the Spirit to Gentile believers, showing that Jesus’ command to love crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Thus the circle of friendship is enlarged to include all who follow Jesus. Our reading today in 1 John 5:1-6 shows how people, by believing in Jesus, become children of God who, by sharing the love of God with each other, participate with Jesus in overcoming the world.

The circle of love today

After saying all this, Jesus repeated, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). Do we, his modern-day followers hear our Lord loud and clear? How do his words look in our world, nations, communities, congregations, families? Are they being practiced faithfully by his followers—by us?

Sadly, something is missing between Christians worldwide in our relationships with each other. How did Christians in 1939 and early 1940s Germany rationalize their attacks on Christians in Poland and other countries? After WWII, during the Cold War, how did Christians in the East—mostly Orthodox—rationalize the possibility of nuclear war against Christians in the West—mostly Catholic and Protestant; and vice versa? How is it the United States today, racial division continues to haunt us, despite the fact that a large percentage of our population is Christian?

Jesus did not limit his command to love one another to small groups of his followers—the ones we happen to be close to. He commands that his agape love in us extend out to a much larger circle. But how do we do that, realizing that loving others as Jesus prescribed is humanly impossible?

Like his early followers, we must recall that Jesus is present, and that it is essential that we remain in him. We cannot extend the love of God without Christ living in us through the Spirit. Neither can we express the grace given us without our mental consent to do so. This was the challenge faced by the first-century Church that today’s readings address. Let’s consider those lessons.

The apostles were familiar with Psalm 98 and many related passages that reveal God’s salvation among all people groups. They heard Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in all the earth and make disciples of all nations, but somehow a barrier or blindness restricted them from applying these words to any group other than Jews. They seemed to be incapable of seeing the matter of eternal salvation through the eyes of people who were not Jewish. We can call this ignorance or blindness; either word seems to apply. Regardless, it took the wisdom, grace and uncompromising truth of God to prevail against it.

Acts 10 tells the story. A vision granted to Peter by the Lord impressed upon him the need to change his Jewish perspective and see the matter through the eyes of the Lord. Speaking to Gentiles, Peter said:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

Peter’s eyes were opened to see the truth! However, his newfound understanding did not impress all those who were supposed to look to him for spiritual leadership. Acts 10:44-48 tells of the Holy Spirit’s position on the matter, helping others accept this truth. Still, the first-century Church continued to wrestle with the issue of division between Jews and Gentiles. Even Peter, after this revelation, struggled with the idea of Gentiles being included in the circle of love.

Galatians 2:11-14 tells about Peter’s reluctance to eat with Gentiles, giving in to cultural peer pressure. Paul challenged Peter’s hypocritical actions, helping him and the church progress steadily toward becoming a community of love that crossed all barriers. Within a generation, the world could see the unity through faith in Jesus Christ of races, cultures and languages.

Now let’s consider the church today in countries with multiracial and multicultural groups. Does the circle of love extend to all? In the U.S., the most diverse of major Western countries, it has been 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ministry exposed the ignorance and blindness behind racial segregation and discrimination. Our nation observes a holiday in his remembrance, but are we making progress or are we retrogressing in embracing the truth he brought? Where is today’s Paul, the high-profile church leader who steps forward to confront our hypocrisy?

Like Jesus, the apostle John spoke so much about love in his Epistle that anyone squeamish about the subject might feel uncomfortable. In 1 John 5:1-5, he was direct: Everyone who… loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. When our behavior toward one another reflects this ideal, the outcome, according to John, is victory over the world’s darkness! No individuals or groups are better positioned to help resolve national and even global divisions than are the followers of Jesus!

Do we, despite our weaknesses, trust in and rely on the love of Jesus? Are we willing to seek to obey Jesus’ command to love one another—asking him for help us do so through the Holy Spirit in us? What about embracing each other’s cultural uniqueness: music, dance and other ways of expressing ourselves? No one’s cultural preferences are superior to others. What about sharing meals? Are we willing to cross cultural lines and eat together in each other’s homes? Are we willing to make changes in our congregational meetings to encourage others outside our races and cultures to feel welcomed?

Beware of the cultural dictates that come from the world, which tends to emphasize distinctives, personal preferences and differences—whether racial, cultural, generational or gender. Instead, let us listen to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who calls on us to remain in the circle of love from the Father, Son and Spirit. Loving each other is essential to that circle.

Conclusion

Abiding in Christ, emphasized in the first part of John 15, includes participation in the circle of love from the Father, the Son and the Spirit. To include others in that circle of love, requires that we realign our thinking to align with Christ’s—doing so is even better than seeing through another person’s eyes. This realignment is necessary to remove from our thinking the overshadowing effects of ignorance and blindness that get in the way of truly loving relationships. I pray that this message opens our eyes a bit, encouraging us to hear and heed the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to remain in him, obeying his command to love as he loves and, therefore, to return the love of the Father by loving each other. Amen.

From Greg: Pursue healthy church

Dear pastors of churches and facilitators of fellowship groups,

Greg and Susan Williams

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Though it has been 50 years since his tragic death, Dr. King’s influence for good in the world continues on. That’s how gifted he was in his leadership of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Gifted leadership is vital in all places, and that includes the church. I’ve had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with several internationally prominent church leaders at conferences. Though I’ve found them to be gifted strategic thinkers, what had impressed me most is the genuine humility they show as devoted servants of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A common theme I’ve heard from several of these leaders is that flourishing churches are led by people with the spiritual gift of leadership. They also frequently note that this leadership is provided by a team of brothers and sisters who prayerfully give their churches vision, strategy and inspiration. Together they see the big picture, then help the other members find meaningful places in the ministry of Jesus Christ in the context of that vision. That they embrace this approach to leadership should come as no surprise—it’s the same one the apostle Paul advocated in the letter he wrote from prison in Rome to the church at Ephesus:

Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift… He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ. (Ephesians 4:7b, 11-13, The Message Bible)

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Our calling as church leaders today is to equip all the members of the church, so that, in harmony with Jesus, we minister together in ways that reflect how the church functioned as it emerged on the Day of Pentecost:

That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved. (Acts 2:41-47, The Message Bible)

The Acts 2 church was a place (environment) where believers exemplified community at the deepest level—caring for one another, listening to each other, praying together. All this activity centered on their communion with the triune God, informed and shaped by the teachings of Jesus, transmitted by his apostles. This church was a powerful example of God’s transforming power, with new members being added daily.

What we see in Acts 2 is a vision for healthy church—one we desire for all our churches and fellowship groups. It’s a vision toward which we want all our pastors and facilitators to lead. Concerning that leadership, while we encourage the utilization of leadership teams within our congregations, it’s important to realize that each team needs a primary leader—a faithful, available, enthusiastic and gifted person who will:

  •  Keep the team focused on mission.
  • Make sure the right people with the right gifts and right talents are in the right positions.
  • Maximize the contribution of each team member.
  • Evenly distribute the load so that morale stays high and burnout stays low.
  •  Facilitate communication so that all team members remain in the information loop.
  • Assess and raise the level of community within the team.

To each of our church pastors and fellowship group facilitators I offer this challenge: Dear brother or sister, will you follow through on your calling to equip, empower and release the saints into the present-day ministry of Jesus through his body, the church? Will you own the leadership charge you have been given to help your members discover and develop their spiritual gifts? Will you then help them find meaningful ways in which those gifts can be deployed so that your congregation is making a difference in the world?

Please know that along with this challenge comes continuing high support from GCI’s Home Office staff and your regional pastor (in the U.S.) or regional or national director (elsewhere). We are committed to resourcing, encouraging and otherwise supporting you as you pursue your important leadership calling within the body of Christ.

May God bless GCI with many healthy, flourishing churches,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President

PS: For a helpful article from Lifeway Pastors on how to equip your members for their part in Christ’s ministry, click here. For the GCI Prayer Guide for April, click here.

Challenges for GCI church leaders

GCI is committed to giving its leaders high support and high challenge. This issue of GCI Equipper extends multiple challenges and offers help in meeting them. Also included are RCL-synced sermons for May.

From Greg: Pursue healthy church
A challenge to pastors and facilitators to equip their members for ministry.

Relate to your community
A challenge to church leaders to become known within their communities.

Lead like the apostles
A challenge to leaders to emulate the leadership qualities of the apostles.

Kid’s Korner: Give your kids a lift
A challenge to children’s ministers to teach about Jesus’ ascension.

RCL sermons for May 2018
Here are Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for May:
Sermon for May 6, 2018
Sermon for May 13, 2018 (Ascension Sunday)
Sermon for May 20, 2018 (Pentecost)
Sermon for May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday)

In case you missed the sermons for April, here they are:
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