God’s Answer to Suffering

By Gary Deddo, President, Grace Communion Seminary

Sadly, some Christians embrace the non-biblical belief that if they have sufficient faith, God will not allow them to suffer severe trials. This erroneous belief is part of a false gospel called the “prosperity gospel” or, sometimes, the “health and wealth gospel.” It not only places huge burdens on believers who suffer (sometimes even overthrowing their faith), it badly misrepresents God and his plan for his people.

Perhaps there have been times in your life when you were suffering and asked, Why is God allowing this to happen? Where is God? We all relate with the feelings that accompany those challenging questions. To answer them, it’s vital that we understand what God tells us in Holy Scripture.

Scottish pastor and theologian George MacDonald (pictured at right) summed up the New Testament teaching on the suffering of God’s people by noting that God has not promised us a life free of suffering. Instead, God has promised that he will make our sufferings to be like those of Christ. By that he meant that, in the end, our sufferings will be redeemed and will lead to eternal life. Because that is so, when we, or a beloved family member or friend, suffer, we can be reassured by the words of Scripture, including these from the apostle Paul:

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:8-11)

Though none of us enjoys suffering, as believers our suffering is a place where we come to know Christ in his sufferings, and where we are able to witness to the reality that, because of Christ, our suffering is not the last word. For us, the last word is the resurrection that Jesus has promised.

By God’s grace, in suffering we experience intimate fellowship with our Lord—sharing in both his suffering and in his new (resurrection) life. It’s thus terribly wrong-headed to think that God’s will for us is that we never suffer, and that he has promised we won’t suffer so long as our faith in him is strong enough.

God’s answer to the questions that we understandably have concerning suffering does not come in the form of an explanation of the why of suffering, but as a promise that God will be near to all who suffer. Similarly, God does not explain why he allows evil in the world—in fact, he makes it known that there is no good reason for what some theologians call “the mystery of evil.” What God tells us is that evil is something that simply ought not be, and so he promises that, in the end, it will not be. In the new heavens and new earth that is coming following the resurrection, evil (and the suffering it causes) will have no place (2 Peter 3:13).

“Crucifixion of Jesus” by Gustave Doré
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus is the ultimate end of suffering and evil. Born into this fallen world, he suffered here with us, was crucified for us, raised to new life, ascended and, in the end, will return to make all things new. In the meantime, we offer him our sufferings, trusting that the one who intimately knows us and our sufferings will lead us through such times, including when we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, KJV).

Christ in the Desert (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As we journey with Jesus, the reality of his reassuring, compassionate presence is sufficient for our need. By faith, we are reassured that our triune God will redeem our times of suffering, making them, somehow, serve his glorious purposes for us and for all people. We see how this works out in the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.

Whether we find ourselves in a “wide space” of peace and tranquility (Ps. 18:19) or in a time of suffering and sorrow, there is no way around trusting in God. Though faith does not assure us that we will be delivered immediately from all suffering, it does reassure us that God is with us and using what we are going through to accomplish his good purposes in our lives. We are reminded that Paul and Barnabas told a group of believers that it will be through “many tribulations” that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Paul also said this: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

Let us remember that it was for the joy that he saw ahead that Jesus willingly endured the suffering of his crucifixion (Heb. 12:2). Because he trusted that all he was going through was worth the pain, so too can we—joining Jesus in fighting the good fight of faith. Exercising the faith that Jesus shares with us, we return again and again to our faith in God—entrusting to him every aspect of our lives, the times of suffering included.

Our prayer for all who suffer (perhaps including you at this time) is that in the midst of their trials they will not be overwhelmed, but discover that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain them in all they are going through.

On Leadership: Power Test

By Rick Shallenberger, GCI-USA Regional Pastor

This is number 9 in Rick's series on leadership. For other articles in the series, click a number: 1, 234, 5, 6, 7, 8.
Rick and Cheryl Shallenberger

I’ve had some great bosses in the many jobs I’ve had over the years. I’ve also had some not-so-great ones. Some seemed to bend over backwards to help me succeed; others seemed bent on making me look bad. As a result, in some jobs I’ve done well and been given more and more responsibilities, in other jobs I couldn’t wait to leave and spent much of my time looking for work elsewhere.

I’ll never forget the time I was called into the office and chewed out for goofing off on the job. I was working in production at the time, and was the supervisor of a small crew. The boss shared the many times he came on the floor and my crew was laughing about something, or sharing a story or seemingly having a good time, and he yelled at me that we were there to work, not goof off. I listened for a while and when he stopped his rant (and that’s what it was) I said, “If you check the records, you’ll find my crew is outperforming most of the other crews in the plant.” He snorted, said that was impossible, and called in the floor supervisor, who verified my comment.

The boss huffed and told us to get back to work and told me to stop having fun at work. I just looked at him and said, “Really? How am I supposed to tell my crew to not enjoy their work?”

He just glared at me. I shouldn’t have said anything—from that point things got worse. It seemed no matter what I did, he wasn’t happy. I felt like I was working with a large target on my back, and had no idea what to do about it. He found fault with all kinds of things and eventually wore me out. I began an earnest search for another job.

Years later, I ran into that boss and he asked me to join him for coffee. It was the last thing I wanted, but he persisted and I agreed to meet him. Imagine my surprise when he apologized: “Rather than encourage you and support you,” he said, “I let my pride get in the way and I lost one of my best employees.” He continued, “My problem was I was jealous of you and other crew leaders who had good teams. Your teams liked you, and I knew most people didn’t like me. Rather than learn from you, I made you my enemy. I was the boss, but I was full of arrogance rather than humility.” It was a conversation I won’t forget.

GCI’s ministry development consultant, GiANT Worldwide, provides a very helpful leadership development tool called Power Test. As illustrated in the diagram below, it makes a profound point that all leaders (pastors and denominational supervisors included) need to understand: You may be in charge, but to truly influence those you lead, you must answer their most basic question: “Are you for me?”

(used with permission from GiAnt Worldwide)

Many leaders get so focused on the outcome, they forget they aren’t there just to accomplish a production goal—they are there to influence and empower others. For that to happen, humility is required. Power plus humility leads to true influence.

When those you lead see you using your power to help them, to resource them, to empower and encourage them, they want to follow. The best example of this is Jesus—the one who has all power and authority, and who is always with us and for us. The Son of God took off his robe of light and might and entered the womb of a young Jewish girl—talk about humility! Following his gestation and birth he lived life filled with both power and humility (Heb. 2:9; Phil. 2:7; Matt. 11:29; Zech. 9:9).

The bottom line is this: true leaders are always for those they lead.

Challenges in leadership and life

This issue looks at challenges church leaders face at church and in their personal lives. Also included are the July Prayer Guide, articles on leadership and suffering, and RCL-synced sermons for August.

From Greg: Mind the Gap
GCI Vice President (and Incoming President) Greg Williams urges GCI leaders to take action now to close the gaps between what we say we value and what we actually do.

Prayer Guide: July 2018
Here are topics from our GCI family to pray about each day in July.

On Leadership: Power Test
Rick Shallenberger examines a primary source of a leader’s influence.

God’s Answer to Suffering
Gary Deddo addresses the question: Why does God allow us to suffer?

Kid’s Korner: We Believe
Lance McKinnon reviews GCI’s new tool for discipling kids.

RCL sermons
Here are the Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for August:
– Sermon for August 5, 2018
Sermon for August 12, 2018
Sermon for August 19, 2018
– Sermon for August 26, 2018

In case you missed them, here are the sermons for July:
Sermon for July 1, 2018
Sermon for July 8, 2018
Sermon for July 15, 2018
Sermon for July 22, 2018
Sermon for July 29, 2018

Kid’s Korner: We Believe

Kid’s Korner this month is from 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)

Last month’s issue of Equipper highlighted GCI’s newly launched website, GCI Resources. This website provides a wide array of discipling tools, including We Believe. This new publication from GCI provides a comprehensive review of the core beliefs of our Christian faith. There is an edition for adults and older teens, and another for youth (younger teens and older children). To download a PDF of the youth edition, click here.

If you are in a role where you could use some help in walking children through the core beliefs of our Christian faith, I think you will find the youth version of We Believe a welcome tool. The heavy lifting is already done for you by providing a list of questions and answers along with supporting scriptures that illustrate the point. The scriptures provided can be memorized by the students, giving them a strong biblical foundation in their journey.

Whether you want to use this tool in a church youth program or if you are looking for a way to lead your own children to a fuller understanding of the Christian faith, We Believe is an easy and accessible tool that allows you the flexibility to set a pace appropriate for your students.

Here is a sampling of some of the questions and answers you will lead your children to learn using We Believe:

Question 3: What makes you a child of God?
Grace: God’s gift of love that I do not deserve and cannot earn.

By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Question 27: Is Jesus just another human being?
No. Jesus is fully God and fully human. As “Immanuel” (meaning “God with us”), Jesus is God just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are God. Jesus is also human, just as we are.

The virgin will conceive and gift birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:23)

Question 59: Why do we pray to God?
Because we were created to live in close relationship with God, who wants to hear from us, his children. Our hearts long for God, for we need God’s presence, help and guidance every day.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Many questions like these can give you the confidence that you have exposed your students to the essential beliefs of our faith. I encourage you to take advantage of this resource in your efforts to disciple the children in your care.

Sermon for August 26, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ps. 34:15-22;
Eph.6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Sermon by Lance McKinnon 
from Ephesians 6:10-18

Take Your Stand

Introduction

Ever feel up against more than you can handle? You might feel that way when reading what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 concerning formidable “powers of the dark” and “spiritual forces of evil.”

Though it’s a bit of a mystery, we realize that evil is all too real. Thankfully, Jesus tells us of a deeper gospel reality—through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has defeated all evil forces, the devil included. So we need not fear, though we should do what Paul exhorts in the second half of Ephesians chapter 6. Let’s begin in v. 10.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Eph. 6:10)

Here Paul is wrapping up his letter. Prior to this he has presented the gospel and addressed our calling to live into that reality. He refers in v. 10 to the Lord’s mighty power, which is on display in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s in this power that we can do what he exhorts in v. 11:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph. 6:11)

Here Paul uses the metaphor of putting on armor to speak of receiving and living into the reality of Jesus and his victory over the devil. In other words, Jesus himself is the full armor of God. Paul is exhorting us to understand who Jesus is and what we already have been given in his resurrected life. Paul is telling us to arm ourselves by participating in Jesus’ resurrection life. The devil doesn’t have any weapons that can fight against that. All he has are schemes—lies and deceptions—to try to keep us from doing so.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of his dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph. 6:12)

Paul is clear that our fight in this life of faith is not against “flesh and blood” but against spiritual forces of evil. It’s good to keep this in mind when we face relational conflicts. In Jesus, all men and women are brothers and sisters. Therefore, our struggles are not against one another. The devil would love to deceive us into taking shots at each other as enemies rather than living in the reality of our reconciliation in Christ. Because the devil is out of ammunition, friendly fire is his best strategy.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Eph. 6:13)

Jesus faced the day of evil on the cross. After the dust had settled, we found him still standing in the resurrection. That’s the reality that we cling to in the spiritual assaults we encounter every day. In the end, Jesus’ victory is our victory.

Then in Ephesians 6:14-18, Paul addresses putting on Christ by describing the various pieces of armor commonly worn by Roman soldiers. This imagery was close at hand for Paul—he likely wrote this letter while imprisoned, with Roman soldiers a common sight.

Roman Centurion (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paul first mentions the soldier’s belt as a metaphor for truth (Eph. 6:14a). Jesus is the truth and everything is held up in him.

Paul then uses the breastplate that guarded a soldier’s heart and vitals to picture “righteousness” (Eph. 6:14b). When we see Jesus as our righteousness, the devil can’t inflict mortal wounds of guilt.

The sandals worn by the soldiers was chosen to represent the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). Maybe Paul had in mind walking forward in the finished work of reconciliation in Jesus. Jesus is the gospel and he gives us his peace.

The shield of faith is our trust in the Lord (Eph. 6:16). This trust will quench thel doubts the devil raises in our experiences of sorrow and pain. Jesus, on the cross, experienced plenty of sorrow and pain. But he did not waver in his trust of his Father. Jesus expressed the human feeling of forsakenness, but he also expressed a continuing trust in his Father (“into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

The helmet of salvation protects our mind (Eph. 6:17a). Being saved means we needed saving. This is an affront to our pride. Salvation brings to bear our need for repentance. We must change the way we think about God, ourselves and others. Jesus is our salvation who transforms our way of thinking.

The sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17b) is the only offensive weapon mentioned in Paul’s metaphorical list. That sword is the word of God. This can be a reference to Holy Scripture and we’ve seen Jesus wield it against the devil. But deeper still, this metaphor can mean Jesus who is the Word of God that all Scripture points to. As we take our stand in Jesus we never move on the attack unless it is where he is leading. When we lead the charge instead of following the Spirit, we may be turning our backs on the real battle.

Paul concludes his list of the elements in our spiritual armor by stating the need we have to pray for one another in taking our stand (Eph. 6:18). Roman soldiers had to help each other put on their armor, as it was too difficult to do alone. Praying for one another is linking arms together in the communion Jesus has brought us by the Spirit. As we do so, we take our stand together, proclaiming the “mystery of the gospel” that victoriously moves forward despite all obstacles.

Sermon for August 19, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 2:1-12; 3:3-14; Ps. 34:9-14;
Eph. 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Sermon by Linda Rex 
from John 6:51-58

Our Living Host

Introduction

I have a relative who spent years studying bats in many different parts of the world. Someone who knows a lot about bats knows that most of them eat only insects and fruit. But some people associate bats with drinking blood, so they are afraid of all kinds of bats.

The only bat that drinks the blood of animals is the vampire bat, which apparently got its name from stories about vampires who would transform into bats. The concept of a blood-sucking creature or person developed out of folklore and mythology, as well as fears people had of death and disease epidemics, along with misunderstandings about the dying process.

It is instructive that the nation of Israel was told by God to not drink the blood of any living thing. In Leviticus 17 we read, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood… as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life” (Lev. 17:11-14, NASB). God had breathed life into human beings—it’s that breath of life that keeps us alive. We know from studying the human body that blood carries life-giving oxygen throughout the body, along with nutrients and many other things necessary for life. If any human being or animal loses blood in large quantities, they will likely die.

Something as simple as God’s command to not consume the blood of any living thing can point us to the gift God gave us of his Son. In our Gospel passage today in John 6, we read that Jesus was telling the crowd of Jews that unless they were to eat his body and drink his blood, they would have no real life. In their mind, Jesus was asking them to do something expressly prohibited in the Law of Moses. How could Jesus insist on them committing such an abominable act? This eating a human body and drinking its blood was an act that led to death, not life!

Communion Table (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus told them they needed to eat of his flesh in order to live. The Jews also knew that cannibalism was forbidden in the Law of Moses. Why in the world would Jesus insist that they eat his body? They could not see how Jesus was going to give them his body to eat.

Jesus also called himself the bread that came down from heaven. The Jews automatically assumed that this referred to the manna that God provided his people in the wilderness. It was a special gift from God for his special people—what did it have to do with this man who claimed he came from heaven and was God’s Son? He was just another human being like themselves.

The Jews focused on a literal interpretation of what Jesus was saying. They had literal flesh and blood in mind. They could see only the physical Jesus in front of them—they had no idea who Jesus really was. They did not understand or accept his true identity as the Son of God in human flesh.

But Jesus knew who he was. He understood that he drew his life from his heavenly Father. He knew he was the living Word of God in human flesh—the One through whom and for whom all things were made. He was the One who has always lived in loving relationship with Abba in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father…” He knew the source of all life is in our heavenly Father. The living Word had taken on a human body and while in that body on earth he drew his life from his Abba by the Spirit. The Father of all remained in close relationship with his Son, in the Spirit, even though his eternal Son had taken upon himself our broken, sinful human flesh.

Jesus lived in total dependence on his Father, just as we are to live in total dependence on the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit. Jesus trusted his Abba completely, and whatever he saw his Father do, he did. He did the will of his Father at all times—so completely and perfectly that when you saw Jesus, you saw the Father.

Jesus also knew that the reason he took on our humanity was so one day each human being could share in his eternal life. We humans were created for that purpose—to dwell in close, intimate relationship with God forever as those who were uniquely made in his image to reflect his likeness. As human beings, we were designed to draw our existence from the life-giving, life-sustaining love and goodness of God. We were never meant to be self-sufficient or self-determined.

Sadly, since the beginning, we humans have taken the gift of free-will given to us by Abba and turned it into license to do as we wish. We have considered ourselves to be self-sufficient, not realizing our decision to turn from God consigned us to death—to return to the nothingness from which we were made. God never meant for that to happen to us—his heart has always been to deliver us from the judgment we would bring upon ourselves through our stubborn, willful turning away from him.

Throughout his life on earth in mortal human flesh, Jesus slowly but surely took a steady path toward the culmination of his earthly mission—to deliver us from sin, death and Satan—from all the things we have surrendered ourselves to in willfulness and rebellion.

Jesus knew he was headed to the cross. The cross would be the place where human beings would come face-to-face with the depth of the evil, which had twisted and corrupted their beings. Humans would have to face the reality that when God came face-to-face with them here on earth—they crucified him, subjecting him to the worst torture and death known to humanity at the time.

Christ at the Cross (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus willingly faced the cross for our benefit. He was the complete expression of the love of God presented to us in a way in which we as human beings might begin to apprehend a little of God’s abundant goodness, grace and love. Jesus did not run from the cross, but “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb 12:2, NASB). Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, is the full expression of the love of the Father for every human being with no exceptions.

In the giving of his body and through the pouring out of his blood on the cross, Jesus offered himself in our place. He was the perfect sacrificial Lamb—for us. He poured out his life’s blood so we could and would have life in him. He freely offered himself in his humanity for us, so we would not need to be offered for our sins. Jesus stood in our place—his life for our life; his body for our body. This is the gift of life given on our behalf by Jesus Christ our Savior.

Jesus made this self-offering with joy, sharing the Father’s heart of love in the Spirit for us. The Incarnation—God taking on human flesh—was necessary for our humanity to be redeemed and transformed. The atonement—God in Christ taking our place—was necessary for our redemption and transformation. And Christ in our place was necessary for our intimate relationship with Abba to be redeemed and restored, so that we could share forever in the love and life enjoyed by the Father, Son and Spirit.

But that is not all God gave us in Jesus. Having ascended to the Father after his resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that everyone could have life in him. The Spirit is the breath of God, who breathes new life into each of us as we trust in the saving work of Jesus. Jesus calls us, by the Spirit, to trust—to believe in the truth of who he is and what he has done. As the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:18, we are to be intoxicated with the Spirit, not with anything that would steal our life away.

The life God calls us to is life in the Holy Spirit lived in obedience to Christ. We seek God’s face through spiritual disciplines—practices such as worship (with a focus on Holy Communion), praying in the Spirit, reading Holy Scripture, meditating on God and his Word, and fellowshipping with other believers. In all these ways we feed on Christ by the Spirit—eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood. As we do so, we are led by the Spirit to trust Jesus and follow him wherever he leads us.

Living in and participating in the divine fellowship that exists in the Holy Trinity is what we were created for. This knowing and being known is what Jesus said eternal life—real life—is all about. We have this life as we walk with Jesus, through the Spirit, by faith, trusting in Jesus as our living Lord. As we feed on Christ by the Spirit, God breathes this eternal life into us and we respond with humility and gratitude through acts born of faith.

Instead of being shocked by Jesus’ statement that we must eat his body and drink his blood, we can open our hands and hearts to receive this gift and begin to share it with those around us. The beautiful gift of Jesus’ body broken for us and his blood poured out for us brings us life, not death.

All the fears we have of disease, death and dying are swept away in the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing on our behalf. Because of Christ, we have nothing to fear. No one and no thing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Abba has set a table for us in his Son that meets all the deep longings of our souls. As we turn to Christ in faith, by the Spirit we feast at the Communion table on our living host, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our life. He is our breath. He is our sustenance—the real and living bread and drink of our existence.

As we come to the Communion table, we are reminded again of the gift of life in Christ Jesus. He offered his body and blood in our place and on our behalf. In offering the bread and the wine to remember him by, Jesus turns us away from our self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and calls us to himself. Take, eat—this is my body broken for you. Drink all of it—this is the cup of the covenant. We are reminded anew of the precious gift of Abba’s love expressed to us in Jesus and in the giving of the Spirit. And we are grateful.

Closing prayer:

Thank you, Abba, for drawing us to yourself with your two hands of love—your Son Jesus Christ and your Holy Spirit. Thank you for giving us real life—the life of your one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you for giving us your breath—the breath of life, the Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to trust in and receive these gifts and to respond by living in the truth of our existence each day—through Christ and by the Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Sermon for August 12, 2018

Scripture Readings: 2 Sam.18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ps. 34:1-8;
Eph. 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from John 6:35-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The Bread of Life

Have you noticed that bread is mentioned a lot in the Bible? That’s not a surprise—bread was the main part of daily meals in the Mediterranean world. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary grain “provided most of the proteins and carbohydrates for humans for centuries and even millennia.” The word “bread” in the Bible can also mean food in general as a sustainer of life. In John 6, Jesus refers to bread symbolically:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35, NRSV)

Here Jesus was speaking to a mixed crowd of people, some he had miraculously fed with five barley loaves and two fish the day before. Those people had followed after him hoping he would feed them again. He used their physical hunger to teach a spiritual lesson:

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48-51, NRSV)

The bread that Jesus had miraculously supplied the people the day before sustained them for a few hours. They were already hungry again. Jesus reminds them of manna, another source of miraculous food, which also kept their ancestors alive, but only temporarily. Jesus compares these breads, both miraculous feedings, to the bread he offers—the living bread from heaven—himself. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread. Those who eat of this bread will live forever, he said. That’s the bread they should be seeking, instead of following him around hoping to be fed and entertained with another miraculous feeding.

Some in the crowd knew Jesus’ family. They knew Joseph and Mary, perhaps personally. They were offended by Jesus’ often-repeated saying that he “came down from heaven.” Here was a man they knew, whose parents they knew, who claimed to have personal knowledge and authority from God. Jesus also seemed to be putting himself before their prophet Moses and the giving of manna in the wilderness.

The people began to mutter and complain among themselves. Who does this young upstart think he is!

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I have come down from heaven?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:41-47, NRSV)

They were taking Jesus’ statements literally, not understanding the spiritual analogies he was making. But bread and flesh used in spiritual symbolism was not new to them. Countless animals had been sacrificed over the millennia for the sins of the people. The flesh of these animals was then cooked and eaten. Bread was used as a special offering in the Temple. The Bread of Presence, which was also eaten by the priests, was a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel (Lev. 24:5-9).

But what they heard was Jesus saying that the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood was the key to eternal life. Without the discernment given by the Spirit, it was impossible to understand what Jesus meant. The drinking of blood was especially revolting to people long taught that it was a sin. When Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, it was a very difficult saying. It had to be spiritually discerned. Even some of his own disciples (the Bible says “many”) turned away and followed him no more at this point.

When Jesus asked the 12 disciples if they would also leave him, that’s when Peter famously asked:

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are Holy One of God. (John 6:68-69, NRSV)

Perhaps the 12 were as confused as the others; they didn’t usually catch on too quickly. Yet they believed in Jesus and trusted their lives to him, even their eternal lives. By faith, they stayed.

Perhaps they remembered Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood when he later instituted the sacrament of Communion at the Last Supper. They certainly did following Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It all became clear then.

Christ with the Chalice
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

We learn from the writings of the apostle Paul that Holy Communion was a sacrament performed regularly in the early church—apparently every time they met. What happens when the bread and wine of Communion are consecrated and ingested has been debated over the centuries, though most Christians agree that these elements somehow are presenting to us the body and blood of Jesus. By partaking of the elements, we are partaking of Christ—he is feeding us with his own glorified humanity. As this occurs, we are told in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is forming us to be the body of Christ on earth.

Henri Nouwen (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henri Nouwen, Christian author and professor, was also a priest. When he would offer the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Communion to his congregants, he would often think deeply about what he was doing. Here is what he wrote:

These words [spoken in serving communion: taken, blessed, broken and given] summarize my life as a priest because each day, when I come together around the table with members of my community, I take bread, bless it, break it and give it. These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given. Most importantly, however, they summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving are happening. (Life of the Beloved)

Though none of us, Nouwen included, can fully understand all that Holy Communion entails, and how all that it conveys “works,” he clearly understood that, somehow, eating the bread and drinking the wine makes us one with Christ and with each other. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. We truly are the body of Christ. As we learned in the sermon last week, this is the indicative of grace. What then is the imperative of this grace—what is our response to this, the greatest of all gifts to humankind?

The answer is that, just as the 12 disciples did, we come to Jesus believing in him, accepting his forgiveness and love. With gratitude, we embrace and celebrate the gift of our salvation. In receiving, we experience the freedom from sin and guilt and shame that are ours in Christ—gifts that are ours, not just today, tomorrow, next week or next year, but forever. What greater gift could there be? It’s only through the Holy Spirit that we are coming to more fully comprehend what Jesus has done for us.

As part of the body of Christ, how then should we live as Christians? How should we respond to this greatest of gifts? The apostle Paul tells us:

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 4:25-5:2, NRSV)

According to Paul, through these virtuous acts, we do something quite profound—we imitate Christ, who offered himself up to God for our benefit. The Greek word here translated “offering” refers to the grain offering in the Jewish sacrificial rites (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). In Christ, we identify with God himself, and through Christ our lives are an acceptable offering and sacrifice to God.

Now, we could make a list of these virtues, and stick it on our refrigerator, or tack it on our bulletin board. Doing so might be a good reminder. However, just to be clear, these aren’t new rules and regulations Paul is giving to replace those we’ve set for ourselves in the past. Don’t forget, living out these virtues will not bring anyone closer to Christ and to his salvation. Living this way is our response to Christ’s sacrifice already given. Our obedience doesn’t save us—it’s our response to Christ’s sacrifice for us. Paul is writing to people who are already Christians, and calling forth their response (the imperatives of grace) to the reality of who they already are in Christ (the indicatives of grace).

In conclusion, let’s not make rules for ourselves where they weren’t intended. We are set free by Christ’s sacrifice for us to love God and love people. These aspects of the Christian life that Paul writes about here in John 6 reflect that love. And, even the ability to do join with Jesus in that love is a gift of the Holy Spirit—we are not able to love like that on our own. As Christians we don’t look to rules and regulations; we look to Jesus, who says this:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51, NRSV)

In Christ, we identify with God himself, and through Christ our lives are an acceptable offering and sacrifice to God.

Sermon for August 5, 2018

Scripture Readings: 2 Sam. 11:26-12:13a; Ps. 78:23-29; 
Eph. 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
from Ephesians 4:1-16

Living Into Our Calling

The indicatives of grace

The epistle of Ephesians was sent originally to Christians in Ephesus and surrounding towns. In the first half, Paul declares what theologians call the indicatives of grace—the gospel truths that by grace, in Jesus, we are the adopted children of God and by grace, through the Spirit, we are being transformed into the maturity of Christ.  These realities do not become true if we do such and such, but are true, in Christ, by God’s grace.

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

The imperatives of grace

In the second half of Ephesians, Paul addresses what theologians call the imperatives of grace—our grateful response to the indicatives of grace. Today’s reading from the epistles is from that section of Paul’s letter, and we will consider it as we consider how we live into our calling in Christ.

The recipients of Ephesians already had begun to do so by believing the gospel and committing themselves, through baptism, to Jesus Christ. Now in Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul urges them to continue their journey of faith by responding to God in ways that are consistent with the grace of God that they have received:

As a prisoner for the Lord… I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (v. 1)

Paul, who wrote Ephesians from prison, used the fact of his incarceration to strengthen two points: 1) that his readers have been called, and 2) that they need to live into that calling. The life that is theirs already in Christ is a “calling” because they did not seek it; it was not the result of their choice—it was something God initiated. God, appealing to them through the Holy Spirit, called out to them, beckoning them to respond. In issuing that appeal and calling forth their response, God used human servants—including Paul in their case. And now Paul urges them to live in ways that are “worthy” of that calling. The Greek word translated “worthy” does not mean “deserving,” as though they could somehow earn their calling. Instead it carries the idea of living in a way that is consistent with (in line with) the indicatives of grace. How were they to do that? How are we to do that today? According to Paul, it begins with our attitude:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (v. 2)

Though we are the chosen of the King, we are not to act like aristocrats. Instead, we are to show forth the virtues Paul lists here (and v. 4). These virtues typify people who are down-to-earth rather than high-minded; helpful to others rather than hurtful; accepting of setbacks rather than demanding immediate gratification; putting up with faults in others rather than expecting perfection. A primary virtue according to Paul is living in a way that promotes unity among Christians:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (v. 3)

Note that it is not a unity we create, but one created by the Spirit, which we then maintain by how we treat each other. It’s a unity that reflects the tri-unity of God who is three in Persons yet one in being. In similar fashion, the church is diverse with many members, yet united by the Spirit in one body—the body of Christ:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (vv. 4-6)

Unity pervades every aspect of the body of Christ—a unity grounded in the one faith and baptism that are centered on the one Lord, Jesus Christ. In order that this unity be preserved, the Spirit gives the body of Christ a diversity of grace-gifts:

To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave [the church] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers… (vv. 4-7)

The gifts noted here are leadership offices. The men and women who fill these offices are called by God to serve the church in a way that maintains its essential unity as the one body of Christ.

The many members that make up the one church are like the myriad cells of a human body. Note this from the article “Cells” in the Merck Manual:

The body is composed of many different types of cells, each with its own structure and function… Some cells, such as blood cells move freely in the blood and are not attached to each other. Other cells, such as muscle cells, are firmly attached to one another. Some cells, such as skin cells, divide and reproduce quickly. Other cells, such as certain nerve cells, do not divide or reproduce except under unusual circumstances. Some cells, especially glandular cells, have as their primary function the production of complex substances, such as a hormone or an enzyme. For example, some cells in the breast produce milk, some in the pancreas produce insulin, some in the lining of the lungs produce mucus, and some in the mouth produce saliva. Other cells have primary functions that are not related to the production of substances. For example, muscle cells contract, allowing movement. Nerve cells generate and conduct electrical impulses, allowing communication between the central nervous system… and the rest of the body.

How truly marvelously we are made! Scientists have calculated that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each carrying out an assigned role. In the same way, the church consists of many members who, though diverse in their roles, function together under the superintending care of its leaders who work to preserve the health of the body of Christ. Indeed, the role of these leaders is…

…to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (vv. 12-13)

Each of us in the body of Christ has been gifted in a particular way to contribute to the unity of the church. As we utilize those gifts in works of service, the church grows in maturity—it becomes more like Jesus, the head of the body. Paul says that as that happens…

…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (vv. 14-16)

As the church grows into the maturity of Christ, weird spiritual notions, haunting guilt, legalistic practices, misapplication of grace, uninspired predictive prophecies and negative reactions against different people drop away. Instead, the church lives more and more in a unity where each member, in love, utilizes their God-given gifts to  reach out in love to all people, while never compromising the truth that is in Jesus.

But how can this happen?

Is this beautiful picture of the church “pie-in-the-sky” idealism? Well, if it depends on mere human ability, the answer would be yes. But as our Scripture readings today show, with God it is possible. Indeed, it is the plan God is working out, despite human weakness. We saw that in our reading in 2 Samuel where David, through human weakness, failed to live up to his calling as Israel’s king. Yet, through Nathan, God led David to deep repentance, and David was restored and went on to serve Israel faithfully for many years. No matter how colossal our failures might be, God’s grace is greater. As we receive and respond to the grace of repentance, the Holy Spirit renews and restores us. That is true for us as individuals, and it’s true for congregations and even entire denominations, as our experience in GCI demonstrates. Praise be to God!

The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Our Gospel reading today in John 6 also gives us insight about living into our calling. There we find Jesus saying these words:

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” …Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:27, 35)

The people Jesus was addressing were largely concerned about satisfying their physical hunger. Though Jesus was not unconcerned that their bellies were empty, he was even more concerned that their lives were spiritually empty. He has the same concern for people today. As the body of Christ, we are called to join Jesus in providing to people something that will nourish their souls—the “bread of life”—Jesus himself. We must feed on Christ ourselves (and we do so, in part, through the Lord’s Supper) and we then enter with Jesus into the work of evangelism—a work for which the body of Christ is gifted by the Spirit.

Conclusion

Dear friends, members of the body of Christ by grace, we have every reason and every resource we need to live into the calling we have in Christ. Christ in us, by the Spirit, enables us to be and do what otherwise would be impossible if we had  to rely on our own resources. Like cells in the human body, each of us has been given particular gifts in line with a particular role and responsibility in seeing that the body of Christ is built up in love. To help us do so, God gifts the body with leaders called to oversee, to preach and to teach, so that together in unity we might live into the calling that we have been given. May we, by God’s grace, do so.

From Greg: Mind the Gap

Dear ministers of our Lord, Jesus Christ:

Greg Williams

If you’ve visited England and traveled on the London area trains, you’ve likely noticed the ever-present “Mind the Gap” signs in the city’s “underground” (subway, called the “tube”). These warning signs tell travelers to mind their step as they stand nearby or enter and exit the tube, lest they fall into the gap between the platform and train. When these warnings go unheeded, a what seems like a minor gap can lead to a major catastrophe!

(source)

I want to draw your attention in this letter to a gap in our practice of ministry that needs minding. We say we value being a healthy expression of church, actively following the Spirit in participating with Jesus in seeking the lost and making new disciples, but that is not what we always do. There is a gap between our aspirational values (what we say we value) and our actual actions. We need to close the gap, but how?

Adaptive leadership needed

It starts with us—the leaders of the church. If we don’t close the gap in our own lives and ministries, it will widen in the lives of those we lead (as go the leaders, so goes the church). Closing the gap in a congregation between what it aspires to do and what it actually does requires…

…adaptive leadership [that] consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. (Ronald Heifetz, Founding Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government)

Here are four steps you can take to become an adaptive leader—one who helps your church turn aspirational values into concrete missional action:

1. Practice intentional listening

By listening deeply over long periods of time, adaptive leaders discern the deeper systemic realities at work within their congregations. They then use those discoveries to develop strategies and plans to close gaps between aspirational values and actual practices. Listen deeply to discern what the “music” is that keeps your congregation on the “dance floor.” Then compare how that music resonates (or fails to resonate) with non-believers in your congregation’s target community. Through intentional listening in both your congregation and the surrounding community, you can learn new “tunes” that will bridge relationships between these groups.

2. Include the people most affected

Are you the only one losing sleep over the challenge of becoming a healthy, disciple-making church? A common misconception is to think that if we as leaders initiate a strategy, others will automatically fall in line. Rather than “flying solo,” we need to identify others who share our angst and are willing to join us in doing something about it. This means collaboration—helping others join with you in identifying and sorting out the issues, wrestling with you in dreaming, planning and executing. You accomplish more as a team!

3. Engage the mature and motivated

A lot of your work as a leader in the church involves putting out fires, dealing with the resistant, attending to the cantankerous, and trying to placate the complainers. Though people are our greatest joy in ministry, they can also be a burden. But when it’s time to get serious about turning aspirations into consistent action, more and more of your energy must be invested in those motivated to share with you the responsibility for the life of the congregation. Do you recognize who those people are? How will you engage the mature and motivated?

4. Invest in growth

One of our core values in GCI is stewardship—protecting and preserving what we have. Though stewardship is praiseworthy, when given too much importance, it can get in the way of progress. To be frank, many of our congregations are sitting on large sums of money in their financial reserves. Yes, it’s better to sit on money than to spend it frivolously. However, given that the money in your reserves was donated for the purpose of preaching the gospel and making new disciples, should it not be put to work in advancing that gospel mission? We recommend that churches following steps 1 – 3 (above) budget at least $10,000 annually to fund evangelistic outreach executed by the congregation. However, if you are a small, aging group that simply is unable to focus on local outreach, and you are stewarding a large bank account, our recommendation is that you have a conversation with your Regional Pastor (or Regional Director outside the U.S.) to determine where you can invest those funds in the evangelistic outreach being conducted by another GCI congregation.

Do it now

The reality is that if we in GCI merely maintain what we have, we will gradually decline. Though you might view this letter as an effort to “rally the troops” to rescue GCI, that is not its purpose. This letter is my plea to GCI’s congregational leaders to remember that they are called and commissioned by Jesus to join him in making disciples (that’s our mission). Fellow leaders, it’s time for us to rise up together as adaptive leaders to lead our congregations in making the changes necessary to close the gap between what we say we value and what we actually do. Please join me in praying about this, and in taking sustained action to close the gap.

Your brother in Christ,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President