We all face seasons of change and movement. For my family, April of this year was one of those seasons. My brother Mark sold his house and set out to build a new one. My son Gatlin left his apartment to join his best friend from high school in a location new to both of them. Then Susan and I joined the happy throng of GCI Home Office staffers, moving 2,400 miles from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC. This personal and corporate move was a big challenge to us all—and now, whether we’re at home or at work, we are faced with boxes to unpack.
During this season of change and movement, I’ve found myself asking, How is our loving God speaking to us, both personally and collectively? In pondering that question, I recalled God’s command to Abram:
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen. 12:1-3)
Reading on in Genesis 12, we find that Abram, in trust, obeyed God—he and his wife Sarai pulled up stakes and moved. As they journeyed, they must have felt some of what my wife Susan and I felt during our move to North Carolina (though, unlike Abram and Sarai, we knew where we were headed). Abram and Sarai surely experienced a sense of loss, thinking about what lay behind, mixed with some fear thinking about what lay ahead. However, those feelings were likely counterbalanced by ones of hope and expectancy as they pondered the promises God had given. Through it all, God gave them both support and challenge—a combination that produced in Abram the faith that is celebrated in Hebrews chapter 11.
Abram’s faith grew as he first heard God’s word; then, trusting God to fulfill his word, obeyed. Along the way, Abram developed an intimate relationship with God like the one a beloved son has with a caring father. As a result, the Lord renamed Abram, calling him Abraham (meaning “the father of many”) , promising to raise up through him God’s chosen nation, the people of Israel.
Fulfillment of this promise to Abraham came in unexpected ways, often including seemingly crazy commands and promises from God. God commanded Abraham to pack up and leave his ancestral home to journey to an unknown location far away. God’s promise that Abraham would become the father of a great nation seemed crazy, for Abraham was 75 at the time, and his barren wife Sarah was 65 and the promise wasn’t fulfilled until Abraham turned 100 and Sarah turned 90! Then, years later, God told Abraham to take his miracle child Isaac and place him on the altar of sacrifice. As you know, Abraham obeyed, and the Lord saved Isaac. Through these events of high challenge (which included God’s high support), Abraham demonstrated that he would hold nothing back in obeying God.
In the GCI Home Office, we too have experienced support from God as we made our journey from Glendora to Charlotte. Our triune God, who always is present with us, speaking to us through his Word and Spirit, showed us his care—directing and blessing us in selling our Home Office building in Glendora and in buying our new building in Charlotte. Our Home Office staff can tell you many stories about how they too experienced God’s guiding hand in finding new homes for their families in the Charlotte area. The Lord also gave us some challenges during our move. We faced trying circumstances with contractors, building inspectors and movers. But in all the twists, turns and trials, we gave our concerns and needs over to the Lord. He is in control of us and our circumstances, even during times when we are perplexed and confused.
Whether you are in a season of change and turmoil, or in a “spacious place” of relative calm and tranquility (Ps. 18:19), know this: the Lord, who is ever faithful, is present with you. In and through your relationship with him, his faithfulness is becoming yours. It’s all about relationship and trust, and I’m grateful that, together, we have joined Abraham in a pilgrimage of the faithful.
— Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
June Prayer Guide
Click on the image below to download this month’s Prayer Guide.
Worship in Spirit and Truth
This article is from Santiago Lange, GCI pastor in Germany.
Controversy concerning how to worship God has raged since the Garden of Eden and continues today. This article addresses this important topic, but instead of offering a “one size fits all” formula, it offers three essential principles related to how we can worship God in spirit and truth.
1. Worship is theocentric
Several years ago, Donald Bloesch, Emeritus Professor of theology at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, wrote an article in Christianity Today titled “Whatever Happened to God?” Concerning the worship that occurs in many churches, he noted this:
Worship has become performance rather than praise… a spectacle that appeals to the senses rather than an act of obeisance to the mighty God who is both holiness and love. Contemporary worship is far more egocentric than theocentric. The aim is less to give glory to God than to satisfy the longings of the human heart. Even when we sing God’s praises, the focus is on fulfilling and satisfying the human desire for wholeness and serenity. (“Christianity Today,” 2/5/01, p. 54)
Irrespective of personal preferences in worship styles (I personally like contemporary Christian music), Bloesch’s concern ought not be ignored, particularly in an age when so much emphasis is placed on market-driven approaches to church growth. One church growth expert wrote that growing the church is fundamentally about “providing our product” (which he describes as “relationship”) as the “solution to people’s felt needs.” He then emphasized that it is the needs of the audience that are of greatest importance in Christian communication, not the message. Against this egocentric approach toward the church and its worship comes the word of God through Moses:
These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deut. 12: 1-7)
Though these instructions were given to the people of Israel in a particular cultural setting under the old covenant, they contain a principle that remains relevant for the church under the new covenant: The worship of God is not to be directed by our own desires—it is to be theocentric, not egocentric.
The worship practiced by the Canaanites in the land that Israel was about to occupy was shockingly gruesome and destructive. The Canaanites burned their children as offerings to their gods. In worship they had erotic rites that denigrated women through unspeakable sexual acts. Their worship was also quite pragmatic, designed to address their personal desire for security and prosperity. Desiring peace, they killed their own children in hopes that the gods would not harm them.
As Christians, we should heed what Moses told Israel on the edge of the Promised Land. Our worship of God must never be designed merely to satisfy our own needs and preferences. The Psalms of the Old Testament (which largely are lyrics to worship songs) focus primarily on two topics: 1) who God is, 2) what God has done.
We ought not imagine that we are capable of devising our own ways of approaching God in worship. Due to sin, our minds tend to produce “idols” fit only for destruction. When we seek to encounter God on our own terms, we reverse the order of true worship. We see this happen when well-meaning Christians make the audience, rather than God, the starting point of worship.
2. Worship is Christ-centered
As evangelical Christians, we believe that our guide in all matters of faith and practice (including how we worship) is the written word of God, the Bible, read through the lens of Jesus, the Living Word of God. From a new covenant perspective, the ultimate issue when it comes to worship is not the place, day or form of worship, but the who—Who is being worshiped. This was Jesus’ point in what he said to the Samaritan woman:
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24, NRSV).
When it comes to being a true worshiper of God, what counts is not the location of the worship (and, by implication, its form) but the object of that worship. Jesus, himself, is the Truth. If we are to properly worship God, Jesus must be at the center of our worship.
3. Worship uses the language of adoration
Unfortunately, some Christians shape their worship services with the primary goal being to attract unbelievers. With that goal in mind, they seek to use a language and certain forms of worship that would be familiar to unbelievers. But what is overlooked in that strategy is that the worship of God shown in the Bible uses the language of adoration, where God is the primary audience, not the people in the pews (believers or unbelievers). Worship using this language nurtures believers, forming them into the kind of people who reach out evangelistically, serving the non-believing world around them.
When we worship God using the language of adoration, our songs, prayers and sermons will focus first on God and his grace. Flowing from that will then be our grateful response. Note the order, for it is vital. Worship that is in spirit and truth focuses first on God before it deals with our needs as worshippers (including our needs for forgiveness, healing, restoration, etc.). In this way, our worship honors God first, leading to whole-life worship of the sort addressed in this quote from the ancient church father, Clement of Alexandria:
We are commanded to reverence and to honor the same One, being persuaded that He is Word.… We do not do this just on special days…. Rather, we do this continually in our whole life, and in every way.… For that reason, not in a specified place, or selected temple, or at certain festivals and on appointed days, but during his whole life, the spiritual man honors God. He does this in every place—even if he is alone by himself. He does this wherever he has with him any of those brethren who have exercised the same faith.
May all our worship, at all times and in all places, be theocentric and Christ-centered, using the language of adoration, to the glory of our triune God.
Note: For more information about worship in GCI congregations, including resources to use in planning services and ceremonies, click here.
Kid’s Korner: Fun in the Son!
Kid’s Korner this month is from Georgia McKinnon, a mom and children’s minister who serves as Registrar at Grace Communion Seminary.
It’s almost summertime here in North America, and with the onset of summer comes a flurry of activity for children’s ministry: VBS, pool parties, picnics, summer camps, movie nights, mission activities, and more! Before you know it, it will be time to plan a back-to-school bash! Whew!
Summer is a great time to intentionally engage children in ministry—at church and outside of church. But summer planning and activities can also be times of stress and anxiety, especially for smaller congregations, which may have unpredictable attendance. Anxiety creeps in as we ask questions of ourselves and others: Which families will be at church this week? Will there be someone to teach Sunday School? Will there be anyone to attend Sunday School? How do we plan our VBS when everyone is taking their vacation in a different week? Why won’t more volunteers sign up to help? Should I plan more activities, or should I take some off the calendar? Does anybody even care?
I don’t even pretend to have solutions to the logistical problems we often face as we participate in ministry. But I know the one who does! He is more interested in us and our children than we could possibly imagine! He is calling us to a deeper trust in him—a deeper reliance on his work in our lives and in the lives of our children and in our congregations. He is working deep within us, in ways that we often cannot see. He is far more concerned about us personally than about the quality of program we are able to pull off or how many people show up at our events.
Jesus is not calling us to be anxious. He is calling us to live in his peace. As we do so, we can minister in his strength, knowing that he is doing the work and providing the increase. We don’t need to be worried about too few (or too many!) kids showing up because we know that Jesus will show up! He is already at work, and we are invited to participate! Now that’s having fun in the Son!
Sermon for July 1, 2018
2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27; Wisdom 1:13-15 (NRSV); Wisdom 2:23-24 (NRSV);
Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Sermon by Martin Manuel from Mark chapters 3-5
Though King David said that we humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we don’t always function in accordance with God’s good design. The results can be painful. When we become less active due to injury or aging, we can feel a great sense of loss. Perhaps nothing is more heart-wrenching than the sight of an injured or terribly sick child, leaving us asking, Why does God allow suffering? Does he even care? Though answering those questions is beyond the scope of this sermon, the Bible does provide comfort by giving us snapshots of God’s perspective on human suffering. We’ll look at a few of those snapshots today, finding reassurance that our triune God does care, and invites us to share in that caring with him.
Snapshot 1: God created life full of vitality and good
God’s good intention for humanity is addressed in a book called The Wisdom ofSolomon. Though not part of Holy Scripture as defined by most Protestants, it’s of interest and value to us. Note this from chapter 1:
God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. (Wisdom 1:13-15, NRSV)
Understanding that God created the human body for peak performance, Solomon realized that death, preceded by decline and pain, was not God’s plan. Solomon placed blame for these unfortunate outcomes on the devil:
God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. (Wisdom 2:23-24, NRSV)
Instead of listening to God, Adam and Eve, exercising the freedom God gave them, chose to listen to the devil who led them into a deceitful trap. This, in turn, caused them and their descendants to experience the sorrows of death. God was not at fault.
You’ve heard the expression, “It wasn’t meant to be.” Usually, it’s spoken when something desired fails to happen. It implies that God manipulates everything that occurs. But that idea (a form of theological determinism) contradicts what the Bible says concerning the freedom God grants us to make choices. Because of our bad choices, we humans live in a world that gives free reign to evil, often negating the good results of the sound choices we do make. For that unfortunate outcome, we must not blame God.
Snapshot 2: God reacts compassionately
When our bad choices cause bad outcomes, how does God react? Does he say, “You reaped what you sowed”? Though that might be true at times, it does not portray how God feels about us, even when we rebel against him. Consider this: If you told your child not to ride their bike down a steep slope and, disregarding your instruction, they injured themselves, would you say, “I told you so… now suffer the consequences”? Perhaps some parents would say that, but I doubt that, even then, they would disregard their child’s injuries. Most parents would rush to the injured child’s side to help, only later reminding them of their disobedience. Do we think that God would do less?
In our reading today in 2 Samuel, we are reminded that David, a valiant man with a tender heart like God’s, grieved the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, even though Saul had been trying to kill David:
Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions….. “How the mighty have fallen in battle! (2 Sam. 1:23, 25)
In our reading today in Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah shows a similar heart in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Though Jeremiah warned the Jews of impending destruction if they failed to repent, Jeremiah did not gloat when that destruction came. Instead he grieved the people’s suffering, reflecting God’s own heart for his people:
No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. (Lam. 3:31-33)
In allowing Jerusalem’s destruction, God’s purpose was not to merely to inflict pain in order to punish—his purpose was to discipline in order to bring about restoration of the relationship with God that the Jews severed.
Snapshot 3: Jesus reacts the same way
God the Father showed his heart of love and compassion for humanity by sending his Son into the world as its Savior. Jesus is the definitive depiction of God’s compassionate disposition toward humanity. The Gospels give many examples of Jesus’ compassion for people. Let’s look now at a few of them in the book of Mark. We begin in chapter 2 at a time in Jesus’ ministry when great demands were being placed upon his time and energy. The way Jesus reacted shows his priorities:
When Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. (Mark 2:1-2)
Imagine going home for some rest and having a big crowd show up at the door demanding your time and attention! As the story unfolds, we learn that some in the crowd were so intent on getting close to Jesus, that they opened a hole in the roof above Jesus’s head and lowered a paralyzed friend to Jesus’ side. Instead of being perturbed, Jesus responded with compassion and healed the paralytic. Then in Mark 2:13, we are told that Jesus left the house to meet with another crowd of people at the seashore (so much for rest and relaxation!). Then in chapter 3 we learn that a few days later Jesus returned to the same seaside location and yet another crowd:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. (Mark 3:7-9)
The situation was becoming chaotic and people, including Jesus, might have been hurt. Yet Jesus stayed and ministered to these needy people. A while later, he entered a house, where another crowd gathered—one so big that Jesus had no time to eat (Mark 3:20). Serving people sacrificially was clearly a high priority for the Son of God. Then, in Mark chapter 4, Jesus returned to the seashore once again:
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. (Mark 4:1)
Jesus spent time with this crowd, teaching and compassionately healing them. Then, as we read in Mark chapter 5, Jesus left them and crossed the lake to help a demon-possessed outcast who was in desperate need of deliverance. Jesus healed him, then returned to the other side of the lake:
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. (Mark 5:21-24)
Any parent will relate to this father’s concern for a seriously-ill child. With compassion, Jesus graciously responded. On the way to the child’s side, another pitiful situation emerged:
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:24b-34)
Though on his way to do something quite important, Jesus stopped to lovingly respond to this woman in need. Not only was she healed, she learned an important lesson and became an example of faith in Jesus.
The story continues in Mark 5:
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:35-43)
Some think Jesus worked miracles merely to attract crowds so he could preach to them. But Jesus’ behavior here is inconsistent with that idea. If he was merely seeking attention, why travel to a remote location to heal a demoniac? Why quietly heal a bleeding woman? Why secretly revive a dead girl? Answers to these questions explain why Jesus healed the sick and drove out demons. Put simply—he cared. Jesus loved hurting people so much that he was willing to give of his time and energy, to forgo some of his own needs in order to serve. In doing so, Jesus was showing how God feels about people, despite their flaws and sins.
Jesus, sent by the Father, willingly entered into human tragedy and hopelessness in order, not to condemn, but to relieve, rescue, deliver, heal, comfort and save. Jesus knew very well that it was not his mission at that moment to turn this planet into a paradise where no pain or suffering exists. That is to come later in a new heaven and new earth. For now, humanity is in the “time between the times”—the time between Jesus’ first and second comings, when the good news is being proclaimed and people have opportunity to embrace it. Today is the day of salvation!
For those who embrace Jesus and his gospel through faith, the result is an intimate relationship with the Father, through his Son, by the Spirit. That relationship provides help to cope with the evils in this present world while living in the hope of the world to come. Living in this world now, in step with the Spirit, they are participants in what Jesus continues to do to share God’s love with a sin-sick, needy world.
Our triune God cares more for us than words can describe, though the apostle Paul was inspired to sum it up with these words in today’s reading from the epistles:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
The eternal Son of God, in becoming flesh through the Incarnation, divested himself of tremendous wealth. He did so in order to address the root cause of humanity’s problem through his atoning sacrifice. During his earthly ministry he acted out of compassion to alleviate suffering in the lives of people he encountered. Since his ascension, Jesus has continued his work of compassion—interceding on behalf of all humanity.
Snapshot 4: The Church participates
The ascended Lord Jesus, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, calls and equips the church to participate with him in his ministry of compassion and intercession. Note what Paul says in 2 Corinthians chapter 8:
Here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. (2 Cor. 8:10-11)
Paul is referring to the financial support that church members in Corinth were giving to assist impoverished people, including church members, in Judea. The point is that the caring, compassionate heart of our ascended Lord continues to be focused on the needs of people here on earth, and he invites his followers to share in his heart of love for all people.
Those who think God doesn’t look with compassion and love on people in their fallen, sin-sick state are sadly misinformed. God cares more for us than we can ever comprehend—he cares more for us than we care for ourselves. When people suffer, even as the result of their own sin, that suffering is not God’s doing. Rather than causing our suffering, God pities those who suffer and grieves with them, even while he refuses to remove from people the freedom to make decisions—even bad ones that lead to suffering.
Because God the Father does care, he sent Jesus who entered into human misery and suffered with us, and sent the Spirit as our Advocate to be in us now and forever. God’s plan is to deliver humanity completely from its troubles in a new heaven and new earth. Between now and the arrival of the fullness of his kingdom, God offers help, relief and deliverance to those who put their trust in him. As we experience his grace and mercy, we are invited, inspired and encouraged to share it with others in need. Amen.
Sermon for July 8, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Sam. 5:1-5, 9-10; Ps. 123;
2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Sermon by Ted Johnston
from 2 Cor. 12:1-10
(Drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Exposition Commentary and Colin Kruse in The New Bible Commentary.)
Encouragement for Those
Who Suffer in Serving Christ
As we saw in our Gospel and Epistle readings today, serving Christ often involves suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12, we find the apostle Paul suffering the ignominy of false charges leveled by his opponents within the church at Corinth. Chief among them are the Judaizers—false teachers who are tearing Paul down in order to promote themselves. In chapter 11, Paul counters their false claims by recounting his sufferings to serve Christ—a qualification the Judaizers cannot claim.
Now in chapter 12, Paul adds to his defense the record of three personal experiences with Jesus. Through his third-person account (a common rabbinic teaching device) we learn a great deal about Paul’s passionate devotion to Jesus, despite the sufferings he endured. There is much encouragement here for Christians who suffer in serving Christ.
1. Experiencing glory
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say… (2 Cor. 12:1–6)
Though the Judaizers boasted of their “letters of recommendation” (2 Cor. 3:1), Paul looked to God, not people, for his commendation. Paul notes how God honored him early in his ministry with a special vision of God’s glory. Paul had experienced other visions given to instruct and encourage him in his ministry, but this one was so vivid, he is not sure if it was a vision at all. Perhaps it happened to him bodily.
In any case, this marvelous experience took place about 14 years prior to writing this letter. Paul was transported to the third heaven (“paradise”) where God manifests his presence to angels and humans. Perhaps what is most interesting is that Paul kept quiet about that experience for 14 years! During that time span, he was buffeted by what he calls a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). Perhaps people wondered why this esteemed apostle had such a burdensome affliction. The Judaizers may have adopted the views of Job’s “comforters” and said, “This affliction is a punishment from God,” though, actually, it was God’s gift to Paul! Some of Paul’s friends may have tried to encourage him by saying, “Cheer up, Paul. One day you’ll be in heaven!,” to which Paul might have replied, “That’s why I have this thorn—I went to heaven!”
God also honored Paul by permitting him in paradise to hear “inexpressible things” (2 Cor. 12:4). Perhaps God shared with him certain divine secrets. Could the Judaizers relate any such experiences? This vision was one of the sustaining powers in Paul’s life and ministry. No matter where he was—in prison, shipwrecked in the ocean, in dangerous travels, suffering illness—he knew God was with him and that all was well.
Though the full glory of heaven lies yet ahead for all of us, we can be encouraged knowing that today we are seated already with Jesus in the “heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6). United to him, we have a position of authority and victory, in and with him, that is “far above all” (Eph. 2:21–22). While we have not yet seen the fullness of God’s glory as Paul did, we experience that glory now, and one day we will enter into its fullness through bodily resurrection into a new heaven and earth where we will behold face-to-face the glory we now share with Jesus.
Such an honor as Paul experienced through this event would make most people big-headed. Yet, Paul remained humble. How? Because of the second experience that God gave him—one that granted him the gift of humility…
2. Experiencing humility
…because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. (2 Cor. 12:7–8)
God knows how to bring balance to our lives and character. Were he to grant us only blessings, we’d likely become vain and self-assured; so he permits burdens as well. Paul’s great experience in heaven could have ruined his ministry on earth; so God, in his wisdom and goodness, permitted Satan to buffet Paul to keep him from becoming filled with pride.
The mystery of human suffering will not be solved completely in this life. Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human. The same body that can bring us pleasure can also bring us pain. The same family members and friends that delight us can also break our hearts. This is part of the human condition, and the only way to escape it is to be less than human. But nobody wants to take that route.
Sometimes we suffer because we are foolish and disobedient to God. Our own rebellion may afflict us, or the Lord may see fit to discipline us in his love. In his grace, God forgives our sins; but he still often permits us to reap what we have sown.
Suffering also is a tool God uses for building in us the character of Christ. Paul came to maturity in Christ, largely because he permitted God to mold him through the painful experiences of life, including his “thorn in the flesh,” which God gave Paul to keep him from the sin of pride. Exciting spiritual experiences—like going to heaven and back—have a way of inflating the ego; and pride is a sin that opens the door to many other sins.
We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. It was apparently a physical affliction of some kind that brought him pain and distress. Some Bible students, based on Galatians 6:11, think Paul had an eye affliction, but we don’t know for sure. What we can know is that no matter what our sufferings may be, we are able to apply the lessons Paul learned and get encouragement.
God permitted Satan to afflict Paul, just as he permitted Satan to afflict Job. While we do not fully understand the origin of evil, or all the purposes God had in mind when he permitted evil to come, we do know that God controls evil and can use it for his own glory. We also know that Satan cannot work against a believer without God’s permission, and Satan was permitted to “torment” Paul. The tense of the verb in Greek indicates that his pain was either constant or recurring. When you stop to think that Paul had letters to write, trips to take, sermons to preach, churches to visit, and dangers to face as he ministered, you can understand that this was a serious matter. No wonder he prayed three times that his affliction might be removed.
When God permits suffering to come into our lives, there are several ways we can deal with it. Some people become bitter and blame God for robbing them of freedom and pleasure. Others give up and fail to get any blessing out of the experience. Still others grit their teeth and put on a brave front, determined to “endure to the very end.” While this is a courageous response, it usually drains them of the strength needed for daily living, and after a time, they may collapse.
It’s normal that a Christian, like Paul did, would ask God for deliverance from sickness and pain. Though God has not obligated himself to heal every believer whenever they pray, he has encouraged us to bring all our burdens and needs to him. Paul did not know whether this “thorn in the flesh” was a temporary testing from God or a permanent experience he would have to learn to live with.
Some want us to believe that an afflicted Christian is a disgrace to God. “If you are obeying the Lord and claiming all that you have in Christ,” they say, “then you will never be sick.” This health and wealth teaching, sometimes called “the prosperity gospel,” is not biblical. It is true that God promised the Jews special blessing and protection under the old covenant, but he has never promised new covenant believers freedom from sickness or suffering. If Paul had access to instant healing because of his relationship to Christ, why didn’t he make use of it for himself and for others?
What a contrast between Paul’s two experiences! Paul went from paradise to pain. He tasted the blessing of God in heaven, then felt the buffeting of Satan on earth, yet the two experiences belong together. His one experience of glory prepared him for the constant experience of suffering, for he knew that God was able to meet his every need. Paul had gone to heaven, but then he learned that heaven could come to him.
3. Experiencing the sufficiency of God’s grace
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9–10)
The thorn in the flesh was Satan’s message to Paul, but God had another message for him in his suffering: a message about grace. The tense of the Greek verb in v. 9 is important. It could read: “But he [God] has once-for-all said to me.” God gave Paul a message that stayed with him. The words Paul heard while in heaven, he is not permitted to share. But he does share the words God gave him on earth—and what an encouragement they were to him, and to us.
This is God’s message of grace. And what is grace? It is God’s provision for our every need when we need it. It has been said that God in his grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in his mercy he does not give us what we do deserve. The apostle John put it this way: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). God’s message to Paul was of both sufficient grace and strengthening grace:
Sufficient grace. There is never a shortage of grace with God. His grace is sufficient for our ministries, our material needs, and our physical needs. If God’s grace is sufficient to save us (and it is), surely it is sufficient to keep us and strengthen us in our times of struggle and suffering.
Strengthening grace. God permits us to become weak so that we might receive and rely upon his strength. This is a continuous process: “My power is [being] made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9) is how Paul put it. Strength that knows itself to be strength is actually weakness (because it “knows” something that isn’t true), but weakness that knows itself to be weakness is actually strength.
When Paul prayed three times for the removal of his thorn in his flesh, he was asking God for substitution: “God, give me health instead of sickness, deliverance instead of pain and weakness.” But often God does not meet our need with substitution—instead, as was the case for Paul, he meets our need with transformation. Rather than removing the affliction, he gives us his sufficient and strengthening grace so that the affliction works for us, not against us.
Through prayer, Paul learned that his thorn in his flesh was a gift from God. There was only one thing for Paul to do: accept it as from God and thus allow God to accomplish his purposes. God wanted to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7) and this was his way to do that.
With Paul’s acceptance came an open door in his heart for God’s grace to do its transforming work in his life. It also gave him an open ear to hear God’s promise: “Paul, my grace is sufficient for you.” We are reminded that as Christ-followers we walk by faith—confidence in God’s promises to us—not confidence in detailed instructions or lengthy explanations. Reliance on God’s promises generates faith, and faith strengthens hope for the journey.
So Paul heard God’s word to him and drew on the grace that God promised. This transformed in his heart a seeming tragedy into great triumph. Indeed, God does “give more grace,” as James wrote (James 4:6). No matter how we look at it, God’s grace is sufficient for our every need. But understand that God’s grace is not given so we would merely endure suffering. God’s grace enables us to rise above our circumstances and feelings so that our afflictions produce positive good.
Above all, our trials are used by God to conform us to the likeness of Jesus. God transformed Paul’s weakness into strength. The word translated rest in 2 Cor. 12:9 means “to spread a tent over.” Paul saw his body as a frail tent (2 Cor 5:1 ff), but the glory of God came into that tent and transformed it into a holy tabernacle despite the physical infirmity Paul endured. Thus Paul was able to glory in his infirmities. This does not mean that he preferred pain to health, but rather that he allowed God to turn his infirmities into assets. Paul was thus able to “delight” in his trials, not because he was psychologically unbalanced and enjoyed pain, but because he was suffering to serve Jesus and, in that suffering was experiencing the sufficiency of God’s grace.
From Paul’s experiences with Jesus in the midst of suffering, we learn a great deal about God and ourselves as people called to God’s service. We serve him through many difficulties, but always with a vision of his glory, tempered by a humble appraisal of ourselves. In that way, we look to and trust in God alone. With Paul, we know that God’s grace is sufficient.
Thank you, Jesus. Our sufficiency is in you. Amen.
Sermon for July 15, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Sam. 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ps. 85:8-13;
Eph. 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Sermon by Linda Rex
from Eph. 1:3-4; Mark 6:14-29
When God Judges
One of the Bible stories I remember from my childhood is one about the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal meeting on Mount Carmel with the people of Israel. Elijah made fun of the pagan prophets and their futile efforts to get God to bring down fire on their altars. Then he dug a trench around the altar and poured water all over it and the sacrifice he had put on it. Then Elijah asked God to prove he was indeed the God of Israel by bringing fire down on the water-soaked altar. Apparently God was more than happy to do so, because he sent fire which not only consumed the offering on the altar—it also consumed the stones of the altar and the water pooled in the now-muddy ditch.
Who is Jesus?
Elijah was a great prophet the people of Israel held in great esteem. When Jesus came on the scene and began doing miracles, people would sometimes say that he was Elijah returned to life. Some people compared Jesus with other prophets of old. Others said he was the prophet Moses returned to life.
When a person encountered Jesus, they would come up against a question which they invariably struggled to answer: Just who is this Jesus? Now, many centuries later, you and I face the same question. Just as it was important back then, it is important now that we understand who Jesus is and what he has to say about who we are.
John the Baptizer and Herod
The tetrarch Herod Antipas (called “King Herod” in the Gospels) came up against this question when he began hearing rumors about Jesus and his disciples doing miracles, casting out demons, and teaching the people in his jurisdiction, which included the region of Galilee. His first guess was that Jesus was John the Baptizer risen from the dead. He figured that was how Jesus managed to have healing powers and do miracles.
John the Baptizer was not a happy memory for Herod. John had loudly criticized Herod’s adulterous and incestuous relationship with his second wife, Herodias. Herod had John executed in order to keep an oath he made to Herodias’ daughter while he was drunk in the company of religious, military, and civic leaders. Herod’s sense of guilt was the lens through which he viewed Jesus. He surmised that God was going to make him pay for what he had done to John.
The lens through which we view God affects our ability to see clearly who he is. If we view him through the lens of our guilt and shame, we will tend to see God as judgmental and condemning—a deity whose goal is to make us pay for every wrong we have committed.
Herod was a violent, murderous despot who was heavily influenced by his scheming wife. Herodias plotted to force Herod’s hand so he would have to kill rather than protect John. In many ways she was like queen Jezebel of Elijah’s day. Her evil, twisted efforts to manipulate and control Herod and thus the people he ruled, became more and more evident over time. Eventually, she influenced Herod to ask to be made supreme ruler of his portion of Roman territory. As a result, they both ended up in exile and eventually were killed for what was seen as treason.
What Herod and Herodias deserved was God’s judgment, right? They deserved to be punished for the evil they inflicted, correct? They should have had to answer to God, shouldn’t they? Perhaps God should have sent down fire from heaven to consume them. Maybe he should have sent them to burn forever in a fiery hell, right?
How does God judge evil?
Well, what about that? How does God judge evil people who clearly deserve condemnation and punishment? The gospel answer is that God’s judgment on such evil, such sin, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is God’s declaration of his Word to humanity—his declaration that he will allow nothing to stand between us and himself. In Christ, God has said to us that we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved. In Christ, God has declared that there is only one Way, one Truth, and one Life—and it is not us—it is his Son, Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. Jesus is God’s judgment on sin. Note what Paul says in Ephesians:
[God] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. (Eph. 1:4, NASB)
Before the foundation of the world, God knew of our fallen nature and its bent toward sin and evil. Knowing we would not be holy, nor blameless, before the foundation of the world, God chose us in his Son Jesus Christ. In choosing his Son to be our Savior, God chose us—each human being who has ever lived—to be holy and blameless before him. It was God’s judgment that there would only be one true human existence for you and for me, and it would be in his Son Jesus Christ. Paul continues:
In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:4-6, NASB)
God so loved the world that he gave his Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16), planning from before time to adopt each of us in and through his Son. It was preordained that Jesus, who is both fully God and fully human, would be the means by which we would be able to share in the perfect relationship that Jesus has with the Father. Our being included with Jesus in his family relationship with his Father occurs in a way that Paul refers to as our “adoption.” As adopted children of God, we are able to participate, in Christ, by the Spirit, in God’s own tri-personal love and life.
Jesus came to save, not condemn
Contrary to what Herod may have anticipated from God, Jesus did not come to condemn Herod or any other sinner. Jesus said that his Abba did not send him into the world to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). Jesus demonstrated his purpose for coming by freeing people from slavery to illness, to death and to demon possession. By his loving, compassionate care of each person he met, Jesus showed that his purpose was to love the world—to demonstrate in tangible ways the care, concern and gracious, compassionate love that God has for all people.
In Ephesians, Paul goes on to say that God freely bestowed on us great grace:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. (Eph. 1:7-8, NASB)
God was not stingy with his grace. He does not begrudge any of us his grace—not even evil people like Herod and Herodias. What God has done for us in his Son Jesus Christ, is to eliminate once and for all the power and control of sin and evil. In and through Christ, God has conquered sin, evil, and death itself. All these are defeated foes that no longer hold full-sway in this world. Yes, for the time being, they still impact us. But, they have lost their power and, ultimately, there will be no place for them in the kingdom of God. They will end up being cast into the lake of fire, which is symbolic of God’s final judgment on sin, evil and death.
We need to come to terms with who Jesus is. He is God’s Word expressed to us in a way we can understand. Jesus is the love of God in person. We must learn to view God through the lens of his Son Jesus. The Son of God incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended, is God’s Word of love and grace to us, expressed in a way we can grab hold of and trust in.
God in human flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ is the lens through which we should also view ourselves and one another. We are people who God loves and cares for. Jesus does not condemn us in our sin and frailty. Instead, he actively works, through the Spirit, to renew and transform us. He constantly intercedes for us in prayer, working to draw us deeper into the life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit.
God’s beloved children
As we come to understand, believe in, and receive the perfect love that God has for us—the love he has so clearly shown us in his Son Jesus Christ, we can begin to lose any fear of condemnation. Instead of viewing Jesus and the Father through eyes of guilt and shame, we can begin to see the truth that we are beloved of God in Christ, we are forgiven in the Lamb of God, we are adopted children of God in the Son. This is who we are, in Christ.
Secure in that truth, we can begin to live accordingly as the adopted children of God that we truly are. As we open ourselves to the guidance of the Living Word through the gracious Spirit, we will begin to experience the new life that is ours in our union with Christ. We will no longer be seen as we once were; instead we will be known for the new creations that we are. In Christ, God has made, and is making, all things new. We are part of that renewal of the whole creation.
As we walk with Jesus, in step with the Spirit (and not the flesh) we find ourselves experiencing freedom and renewal rather than shame and guilt. As we keep our eyes on Christ, we come to know him more fully for who he truly is. As we do that, we find ourselves being transformed. It is Christ, by the Spirit, who transforms our hearts by faith.
We won’t need to create a dramatic demonstration to prove that God is the Lord of our lives. God has already proven that in giving his Son Jesus and in sending his Spirit to burn away the stones of sin and unbelief in our hearts. It is God’s Living Water that we need flowing in and through us—and God makes his Spirit abundantly available to us, calling us to faith in God’s Son shown forth in our responsive obedience. We are Abba’s children, and he loves us. What more could we ask for?
Thank you, Abba, for the perfect gift of your Son Jesus Christ, and the outpouring of your Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to turn to you and to trust in your love and grace as demonstrated to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of your Son. Free us Lord, from shame and guilt, just as you have freed us from evil, sin and death. We confess our sin, trusting in your promise to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We trust you, Holy Father, to finish what you have started in us, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
Sermon for July 22, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Samuel 7:11-14a; Ps. 89:20-37;
Eph. 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Sermon by Lance McKinnon
from Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Rest for All
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6:30-31)
Mark begins today’s reading from the Gospels using the word “apostles” instead of his usual title of “disciples” when referring to the Twelve. The word apostle means “sent one.” Perhaps Mark wants us to read this story with an eye to the church.
What can we learn from Mark about being sent out in ministry and mission as representatives of the kingdom of God? First, we see that Jesus takes a keen interest in their activity—he listens to their experiences regarding what they are doing and teaching. He also is interested in their well-being—he notes that they are exhausted and needed rest.
When we find ourselves exhausted as “sent out” ones, we can know that Jesus is aware, actively bringing us to rest and wholeness. We can consider the possibility that what Jesus heard, regarding their doing and teaching, may have had something to do with their exhaustion. When our doing does not match our teaching, sooner or later, exhaustion and fatigue result.
What Jesus taught (his spoken theology) was never disconnected from what Jesus did (his working theology). Jesus “practiced what he preached,” and so should we. If the message we are sent to bring is the proclamation that Jesus is Savior of the world, as we do ministry we must trust him to be Savior, not ourselves.
Ministry and mission become a drain when our way of thinking places everything on our shoulders. Given the many demands that life throws at us as we participate in ministry with Jesus, we must not lose sight of who he is for us. It’s his ministry being done in the Spirit, not ours. Understanding this “teaching” can safeguard us from being worn out by our “doing.”
Whether this contributed to the exhaustion of the apostles or not does not change the fact that they needed wholeness and restoration in all their doing and being. Jesus takes them by boat to a place where they can be restored:
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. (Mark 6:32)
We can imagine that as they journeyed, they knew the end destination. Maybe they were singing hymns or just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. The trip in the boat, which traveled close to shore, drew the attention of many onlookers who also needed healing and wholeness. The crowd “recognized them” and ran to intersect them:
But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:33-34)
As the church worships and fellowships together with Jesus, knowing where he’s taking us, we will draw the attention of other weary travelers looking for rest. Our witness to the world becomes quite powerful when our teaching of faith, hope and love is matched by a fellowship that lives out that reality. Pointing to Jesus for rest is more effective when we are not yawning. It’s hard to convince people that Jesus is a source of rest when we ourselves are still struggling!
Now comes a catch in the story. Jesus is taking them to a place of rest and restoration. Before they arrive, they are met with a crowd of hurried and frantic people. Jesus is moved with “compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” So much for the needed rest the apostles were hoping for!
“Compassion” is what drives Jesus to continue his ministry of teaching and doing. It’s the Father’s love for all his children that energizes Jesus’ ministry and mission.
At the end of the story, Jesus and the apostles “got out of the boat” and this time the people “recognized him.” That’s the goal of ministry and mission. We are not trying to get onlookers to recognize us but rather to recognize the source of compassion and rest that we have found in Jesus.
The story doesn’t end with the apostles getting rest by themselves. It ends with people in all sorts of conditions, coming from all kinds of places, finding healing and wholeness in the Lord:
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:53-56)
True rest is found when the wholeness and healing Jesus brings is extended out to others. We are all connected as children of God and therefore our rest and wholeness comes to its fullness when experienced by others. May we faithfully participate in Jesus’ ministry and mission, fueled with his compassion, anchored in hope of where he is taking us.
Sermon for July 29, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps. 145:10-18;
Eph. 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Sermon by Sheila Graham
from 2 Kings 4, Ephesians 3 and John 6
When the Impossible Becomes Possible
The apostle Paul constantly encouraged the early Christians to have faith, and, as they went out into the world with the gospel message, to access the power of the Spirit, which, through Christ, was within them. That same message applies to us today. Jesus did not give us an impossible job when he said to take the gospel to the world, making disciples of all peoples. It may seem that way at times, but through him the impossible becomes possible.
Let’s look at what Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 3. First, he reminds his readers that we do indeed have the Spirit of Christ within us and he prays that we be strengthened in that faith. Then he prays that we will comprehend the love that God has for us and all people:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19, NRSV)
Paul then ends his prayer by saying we can’t, even in our wildest imaginations, comprehend the power the Holy Spirit within us has. Nothing we can ask for or imagine to do in Jesus’ name is beyond him.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I get down on my knees I’m pretty good at asking, and, as for imagining, I can imagine quite a lot. But Christ in us is far more powerful than yours or my limited imaginations. Let’s continue in chapter 3:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21, NRSV)
When we think about the great challenge of the commission Jesus gave us, we sometimes get discouraged. But let’s not forget that Jesus can do the impossible! Though he was human just as we are, he healed the sick, fed thousands with a few scraps of food, and walked on water! Note what it says in John chapter 6:
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:1-9, NRSV)
This was another one of those teachable moments for Jesus’ disciples. What did Jesus do? Let’s read on:
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:10-15, NRSV)
I’m sure the disciples were awestruck as they gathered up the remains of the feast Jesus had miraculously provided, but this memorable day was not over for them. We can’t be certain they saw where Jesus went to escape the crowds. Maybe he told one of them, but whatever the case, by that evening they had given up on him coming back, and headed back to their boat and took off without him to Capernaum. Continuing in John 6:
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6:16-21, NRSV)
OK, you might argue, that was Jesus, not me. Jesus is God; I’m not. I couldn’t feed thousands without taking out a loan and hiring a caterer, maybe a dozen or more caterers, and I sure can’t walk on water. Sounds like a disciple of Jesus, right?
Jesus is not asking us to produce food out of little or nothing, or to walk on water, but if he did, don’t you think we could? Peter was bold enough to take Jesus at his word, and for a little while anyway, while faith held out, he could walk on water. And as for someone other than Jesus feeding lots of people through faith, look at the example of Elisha, one of the prophets back in the Old Testament:
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.”’ But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD. (2 Kings 4:42-44, NRSV)
Peter and Elisha were both human, just like us. Yes, Jesus was God, but he was also fully human. His miraculous powers to feed thousands, walk on water and heal people came not from himself, but from the Father upon whom Jesus fully relied. And, just as with Jesus’ first disciples, he is asking us to participate with him in his ministry to the world.
With such a powerful spiritual source to draw from, how can we as Christians not go forward with Christ to bring the good news of the gospel to others? As much as we feel comfortable here in our little church with those of like mind, we should think of our church fellowship as a kind of spiritual recharging station. We are to come here once a week to be recharged, not to live here.
Christian author and preacher John Stott wrote about our life in Christ:
The Christian life is not just a private affair of your own. If we are born again into God’s family, not only has he become our Father but every other believer in the world, whatever their nation or denomination, has become our brother or sister in Christ. One of the commonest ways of describing Christians in the New Testament is “brothers and sisters.” This is a glorious truth. (“Basic Christianity”)
Unfortunately, we have a hard time caring about Christian brothers and sisters, let alone non-Christians. But, is it such a hard thing to listen, to pay attention to that grumpy coworker or sad-faced person serving you, or that aggravating neighbor, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you in developing a relationship with them that can lead to opportunities to share with them the truth of the gospel? Well, it’s not a hard thing with God’s help. Whenever we can, let’s be an encouraging light in the darkness of this world.
I’ll conclude with a story I heard about a church member who felt he was totally unqualified to answer people’s questions about God. Yes, he knew God’s Word, but trying to explain it to someone else? He felt that was beyond him. When the members of his church went out to serve the poor in the community, he would help but avoid getting into any kind of spiritual discussion with anyone.
At one place they went regularly, one man would always rush out and challenge the church members with questions about God. This particular church member was careful to avoid that man, but one day, his fears became reality. He was personally accosted by the angry man.
What happened? Did his fears come true? No, not at all! Afterward, this hesitant church member rejoiced with his brothers and sisters that the Holy Spirit had given him answers to the man’s questions. The church member’s faith was strengthened as he realized who it was that really does the work of the gospel.
Let’s go forth this week and share the all-encompassing, overwhelming love of God with our families, our friends, our neighbors and other people we meet. Let’s pay attention to others and to what they are saying. Let’s be encouraging wherever we go. People need to know, through the grace of God, that we really care. And as we go, let’s not forget Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21, NRSV)