GCI Equipper

Behind the Missio Dei

When people talk about the church’s mission, they refer to what is called the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV). I used to read this with more than a bit of apprehension. How was I to go and make disciples? How was I to go teach others to observe all Jesus commanded? I didn’t know where to start, and the whole concept of a Great Commission seemed ominous—a huge amount of work I didn’t feel qualified for. I’ve since learned I am not alone in how I viewed this passage.

Like you, I’ve been taught this is the Missio Dei—the mission of God. I’d been taught that God is a sending God and an important part of his purpose to call us was to send us. While all of this is true, I felt like he was sending us out like a lamb to a den of wolves. I could not possibly do what he asked me to do, and it frightened me that God was putting this responsibility on my shoulders.

I did not realize my apprehension was due to reading this verse out of context. I was missing what I now see as not only the most important part of this Great Commission, but what would qualify me to participate in making disciples. Notice the word, “Therefore.” Therefore means “for that reason,” “consequently,” or “that being the case…” It is raining; therefore, the grass will get wet. I broke my arm; therefore, I need to see a doctor. Seeing the word “therefore” points us to something stated earlier.

Reading the Great Commission passage, we need to ask what precedes this “therefore?” Then we will realize we are quoting only part of the Great Commission. Jesus began by saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Muse on that statement for a moment.

How much authority does Jesus have? All authority in heaven and earth. Is there anything, then, that Jesus does not have authority over? No! It’s important to get this in heart and mind. The King James translates this as “all power.” The point is, Jesus knows all things and is in complete control.

So, when Jesus tells us to go and make disciples, we should listen, not just because he has the authority to tell us what to do but because he has authority over everything—circumstances, systems and resources. The point of his statement is to encourage us that he knows what he is doing. Everything is subject to his authority—including the enemy. Nothing can stop what Jesus has started. And in Christ we have everything we need.

But there’s more. At the end of the Great Commission is another powerful statement: “And behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Who is with us always? The one who has all power and authority over heaven and earth. How long will he be with us? To the end of the age. So, the one who has all power and authority promises to be with us always as we go and make disciples.

Suddenly, the Great Commission doesn’t seem so ominous or frightening. In fact, if you allow me a bit of “literary license,” I suggest reading it this way:

“Friends, I’ve got some news you want to hear. I have been given all power and authority over heaven and earth. Think about it, nothing can stand in our way. This gospel will be preached, and guess what, I’m inviting you to join me. That’s right, I’m inviting you to participate in this incredible journey of bringing many sons and daughters to glory. I’d like you to walk right alongside me as I live in you through the Holy Spirit. Let’s make disciples, let’s tell them they are forgiven and let them share in my baptism. Let’s teach them the New Commandment I taught you—you know, to love one another as I have loved you. Let’s walk together in communion to bring about kingdom change in this world. I’ll never leave you alone, it’s you and me all the way to the very end of the age. Are you with me?”

God sends us by inviting us to join him in his Missio Dei. He sends us because he wants to share his life with us and experience the joy of watching sons and daughters come to glory. He sends us because he loves us, and he loves those he sends us to.

This is the “rest of the story” of the Great Commission. This also starts our next series of articles unpacking the Love Venue of healthy church, that aspect of church life that entails outreach to others. I pray our response to Jesus’ call will always be: “Here I am, send me!”

On a journey with Jesus,

Rick Shallenberger

Missional or Missionary

Churches often use the terms mission, commission, missional and missionary. While the words are related, we need to know the difference between missional and missionary as we participate in the Great Commission.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus commissioning the 11 disciples. Have you ever noticed that Matthew begins his Gospel in a similar fashion that he ends it? In the first chapter we find the angel of the Lord telling Mary that Jesus was being sent to be the Savior. He is the missio dei (mission of God). Then, at the end of Matthew we find that Jesus, by sending the 11 and the church, is inviting (sending) us to participate in that mission. (For more on this, see Rick Shallenberger’s article “Missio Dei.”)

The Gospel of John brings further clarity to this concept, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Our understanding of mission lies solely on who God is. He is a missionary God who has always been sending. He is the one who was sent by the Father to restore, redeem and reconcile humanity to himself. As stated by missiologist Christopher J. H. Wright, “It is not so much that God has a mission for His church in the world, but that God has a church for His mission in the world” (The Mission of God, 62).

The praxis of missio dei revolves around Jesus—he is the posture—the reference point—for our participating in mission. The mission is to make disciples—and I believe that disciple-making has a lot more to do with relationships than information. It is often said that the incarnational model of Jesus for disciple-making is life-on-life, sharing life with each other and carrying our burdens in unity with Jesus. If this is true, then we must be willing to go deeper and share our lives with those who Jesus has called us to disciple.

With this understanding, it is crucial for us to make a distinction between the different environments in which we do mission—both individually and corporately. I like to think of mission in the following two ways:

Missionary environments: a missionary environment is one where there is a great culture divide. There could be language barriers and drastically different life rhythms. People live and act different—it’s a crossover space that requires drastic change.

While most of us think of missionary environments as going to do mission in a foreign land, we can find ourselves in missionary environments in our own back yards. I am often reminded of the most difficult and frightening funeral I had to perform. It was for an 18-year-old young man who was viciously murdered by gang violence. He had a loose affiliation with a gang and came from a family with that sort of history. It was difficult because I had the privilege to journey with him as Jesus was transforming his heart, but it was frightening because I had never been in the same space with so many gang members as I was that day. As the clergy doing the funeral, I was made aware that LAPD had an undercover presence in the crowd. This knowledge did not put me at ease—on the contrary—I became more nervous. This was not the only funeral that I had to be a part of. A couple of years later I was doing another funeral for another young man. Soon after, I figured out that I was in a missionary environment where I was not willing to share life, and therefore disciple-making was hindered. It was not a missionary field I was being called to.

Not many are called to domestic missionary environments. If disciple-making is truly life-on-life, then we must ask ourselves if we are willing to share life with those who have severe addictions, those without homes (homeless), those involved in a gang life? These tend to be crossover environments that require calling and giftedness. Please don’t misunderstand the point that I am making. God is for all, but we have all been gifted differently.

Missional environments: this is discerning Jesus movements in our everyday spaces and engaging in those movements. It is activating the missional mind, heart, and hands for gospel proclamation and demonstration in everyday life. In living missionally, we purposely create missional spaces where sharing life can occur, and discipleship can flourish.

We all live in missional environments in the everyday rhythms of our lives. Most of us travel daily to a workplace, a school, a grocery store or a similar environment where we engage people in a marketplace-type setting. Some of us like to visit what are called third spaces—like a coffee shop—where we hang out or get some work done. These become part of our life rhythms. In these environments the Holy Spirit often creates opportunities for us to go into deeper conversations. We tend to befriend people with whom we share a lot in common; as conversations and relationships go deeper, we share life. It is easier to become more intentional in these environments. We can even create intentional spaces for missional living. Shared interests—like playing sports and creating book clubs—provide space where life sharing can go deeper.

I believe we need to give thought to these concepts as we plan outreach for our congregations. I would rather mobilize my congregation to sponsor financially and participate with a kid’s soccer team in my local park than participate and sponsor a prison ministry. When we plan mission, we want to be sure we are aligning our values and our calling and we are making connections back to the local church – the body of Christ where people can be discipled. Church leadership carries the responsibility to create spaces for missional living for the church body; in doing so, it is healthy to consider our posture in the love venue and what kind of missional environments Jesus has already created for our participation.—Heber Ticas, GCI pastor, Superintendent of South (Latin) America and Church Multiplication coordinator.

The Beatitudes

This article is written by GCI pastor Mark Mounts.

My wife, Debra, and I recently had the opportunity to visit the “Holy Land” with a group of GCI church leaders. It was a life-changing journey we will never forget. The geography and the sites we visited gave us a new perspective into the ministry of Jesus Christ. We were particularly moved by the place where Jesus shared the Beatitudes with his disciples. (For a bit more on the geography, see my accompanying short feature: “Magdala and Capernaum.”

For the record, the speculation I will make in the remainder of this article is based on ideas expressed by our guide, and what I have personally considered since returning from the trip. So, for the sake of this article, please “play along.”

Jesus arrived during a time when Jewish residents in the Galilean area were expecting something big. In spite of the Roman rule, they had jobs, they were involved in trade and production of food and usable goods, but they expected more. They were expecting a leader—a Messiah—to rise up and start a political and religious movement that would eventually overthrow the Romans. Jesus had already performed a number of miracles, and many who were aware of his “great wonders” were asking, “Is this him?” “Is he the one?”

Jesus knew their expectations and they wanted immediate, as well as long-term intervention. The problem is, the intervention that Jesus was about to offer was not going to fulfill their expectations in any way.

I suggest a main purpose of the Beatitudes was because Jesus was preparing the disciples for what they would face three years later and during their ministry. So, let’s start there, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Just a few hours before he is to die, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to Gethsemane to pray. There he pleaded three times with his Father that if there was another way, let it be seen. In spite of this overwhelmingly emotional experience that caused Jesus to sweat blood, he accepted his Father’s will.

Jesus knew what he was about to face. He also knew what his disciples would face—that Peter would want to fight in hopes of possibly starting the war that will overthrow the Romans. (Peter tried that very night and Jesus rebuked him for this attempt.) He knew that before the day was through, almost all the disciples would abandon him in fear. He knew he was about to be tortured, rushed to the cross, and quickly buried—and he knew the disciples would have no idea regarding what just happened or why.

That is part of what Jesus was telling them when he gave the Beatitudes three years earlier. He told them he knew there would be “trouble in their hearts” and they would “mourn”—but something miraculous was going to happen and they would be comforted. He told them they would become meek, but not weak. He told them this change would be so miraculous that it would be all they want, and they would begin to understand that it was the only thing that really mattered in life. They would become people of mercy, not judgment, because they would know and accept what it felt like to have none of their expectations met in the way they wanted them. He assured them they would be messengers of peace in spite of the persecution they would face. He told them they will be treated the same way he was treated, and indeed they eventually were.

This is not what the crowd wanted to hear. They wanted a physical, religious and political savior—one who would lead them to victory over the Romans—now. His words didn’t make a lot of sense until after his death, resurrection and ascension. When the Holy Spirit—the comfort he promised—arrived, things became to be made clear.

I believe the whole point of the Beatitudes is summed up in a statement Jesus made later in Matthew:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11: 28-30).

When we read the Beatitudes, are we looking to Jesus? Is there something troubling our hearts? Are we mourning? Do we think we have this “meek” thing down, only to realize that pride is still burning in our hearts? Do we become resentful and afraid because what we are hoping for—maybe even expecting—is not happening? Guess what, someone knows exactly how we feel; Jesus felt that way too. The difference is, of course, he fought the fight for us and won. Because of his victory, we can find a bit of hope in the middle of our fear, confusion, doubt and sorrow. We shouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves “poor in spirit,” or mourning. Jesus told us he knows there are times we will feel all is lost and no one understands.

He told his disciples—and us—what we will experience in the “Beatitudes” (Matt. 5: 2-14), and then he told them and us where to go to find comfort and rest—where we find salvation (Matt. 11: 28-30). Yes, Jesus knows exactly what we are going through. As the Son of God, he also accepted the realities of experiencing the Beatitudes. The difference, of course, is that he knew the Comforter and he knew the Comforter would come to us. He knew the Comforter would give us new life—we would be born again. We are now in Christ, and he is in us.

Jesus was preparing his disciples and us to understand that in this life we will suffer and hurt just as he did, but he offers us love, comfort and rest—in him, we inherit the kingdom of heaven. The Beatitudes tell us Jesus really does get it.

Magdala and Capernaum

The location for the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes—is between the ancient cities of Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene and Capernaum, the fishing town on the northern shore of Lake Gennesaret.

Magdala is a recent archeological find that has great significance. The population of the town was around 10,000 people and it was the place where archeologists believe most of the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee was processed for consumption and/or salted for storage. It is reasonable to consider that this was a town of some affluence. This site also contains the remains of one of the few undisturbed synagogues from the first century. It is very likely that Jesus himself taught and studied at this synagogue.

The Magdala stone is a carved stone block unearthed by archaeologists in a Galilean synagogue, dating to before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Capernaum was where Jesus lived when he moved from Nazareth. This is also where archeologists found many millstones (see Matt. 18:6). In fact, there were so many millstones in the ruins, archeologists concluded they were likely manufactured in Capernaum.

So we have two towns, both possible locations that provided a highly needed service or industry in the first century. Jesus likely spent a lot of time with residents from these two towns in the first thirty years of his life as he worked with Joseph and others. Most of us refer to Jesus as a carpenter, which we’ve interpreted from the verse, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Mat. 13:56). The Greek word, tekton, is more accurately rendered as craftsman or builder. Looking over the cities we visited, it’s clear Jesus could have been a stonemason as well as someone who worked with wood. Which job he held is irrelevant; the point is Jesus had likely done work for many of the people in Magdala and Capernaum before he started his ministry. Due to his trade, it is also likely he was known and respected.

Somewhere in between these two cities, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus shared the Beatitudes. —Mark Mounts

Kid’s Korner


This issue of Kid’s Korner is written by Jeffrey Broadnax, GCI Generations Ministry coordinator.

In this month’s issue of Kid’s Korner, we would like to make you aware of a fantastic Children’s church resource shared with us by Pastor Mike Urmie of Crosswalk Community Church (our Grace Communion congregation in Surrey Hills, OK). You will find that the items on this website work hand in hand with the RCL-based sermons shared in GCI-Equipper.

The site is called  www.sermons4kids.com

You will find coloring pages, word-finders, mazes and other activities for children to complete that can offer an age-appropriate connection to the same message being giving in the sanctuary to the adults.  Imagine the conversation on the way home from church when all heard the same teaching about Jesus.  There are also songs and stories included that could be taught to the children to aid in their learning.


Why not check it out for your children’s church this month.

Sermon for May 5, 2019

Readings: Acts 9:1-6, 7-20 • Psalm 30:1-12 • Revelation 5:11-14 • John 21:1-19

This week’s theme is A Higher Calling. Psalm 30 is a parallel between David praying, “I will extol you no matter what I face,” and Jesus in the Garden praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus became the worthy lamb who was slain (Revelation 5), fulfilling that calling. John shares the story of Peter being redeemed by Jesus’ calling, “Feed my lambs.” The sermon focuses on Ananias’ response to his higher calling.

Pick Me!

Introduction: Share a time when you (or perhaps your child) were chosen for something and how good it made you feel.

Who doesn’t love the enthusiasm of a child, who, when the teacher asks for a volunteer, shoots their hand up in the air and squirms with excitement saying, “Pick me. Pick me.” When it comes to something we enjoy doing, or something we know a lot about, and we are asked to participate, we are often more than willing to say, “Count me in!” Other times our response is a bit more reluctant.

Ask the congregation for an example of a time when they excitedly said “Yes” to something they were asked to do. Or when they volunteered for something and it turned out to be an amazing experience.

Through God’s story in the Bible, we find times when God specifically calls someone by name. Some responded positively at the get-go; others were more reluctant. There are eight times when God called someone’s name twice. We may be familiar with the stories and the responses.

  • Abraham, Abraham—when he was ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He was relieved to sacrifice a ram rather than his son. He had passed a test proving he feared God.
  • Jacob, Jacob—when he is preparing for his journey into Egypt. He is told to not be afraid and that his descendants would become a great nation in this foreign land.
  • Moses, Moses—when he is called from the burning bush and told to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses gave excuses to get out of this calling before surrendering and leading the nation to the land of Promise.
  • Samuel! Samuel!—At first Samuel thought he was hearing Eli’s voice and ran to him. This happened three times. The next time he heard God call he responded as Eli instructed, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:1-10). Samuel went on to bring God’s word to the nation.
  • Martha, Martha—when Jesus tells her she is worried about so many things. Become more like Mary, learn. We believe Martha learned that lesson.
  • Simon, Simon—when he is told he will deny Jesus. He did, but then Jesus restored him by asking him three times, “do you love me.” After Peter affirmed his love, Jesus told him to “Feed my sheep.”
  • Saul, Saul—on the road to Damascus. Saul is struck blind, healed, and later given the name Paul. He then became the apostle to the Gentiles and a prolific writer we still learn from today.

We can tell stories of Aaron, Joshua, Samson, David, the prophets, the apostles—all people whom God called and gave a mission. How do we respond to God’s call? Do we respond like Jonah, who ran and then spent three days in the belly of a fish, or do we respond as Isaiah responded when called? “Here I am Lord, send me.” No clue what he was in for, but he knew who he was in to—God.

Isaiah wasn’t the only one with that response—Ananias responded in the same way. Let’s look at the story in Acts 9.

A bit of background

Acts 9 starts off talking about Saul’s persecution of early converts:

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

This was a tough time for the disciples and the early church. Saul was a Pharisee and there is a good possibility that he was part of the Sanhedrin—the supreme council, or court of the Jews. And he wasn’t putting people into jail to spend a night or two, these prisons were horrific places to be. Many early Christians were horribly tortured—so Saul was not someone you wanted to mess with. You avoided him at all costs.

Here he is heading to Damascus to persecute more Christians. On the way, a bright light from heaven flashes and he falls to the ground. Let’s read the story:

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything” (Acts 9:4-9).

Now the story really gets interesting for one man—Ananias.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered (Acts 9:10).

Here I am Lord, ready to do your bidding—the response each of us believes (hopes) we will give to God’s calling.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight” (Acts 9:11-12).

We don’t know if Ananias had a minor heart attack at that moment, but we can surmise this request scared him to death. Notice his response: “No way, Lord, this guy is trouble.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13).

Have you ever prayed this way—as if you are talking God into something or acting like God isn’t already aware of the situation? But God, let me share the facts with you. You must have forgotten who this guy is and what he has done to you…

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

I can’t help but wonder if Ananias had a little smirk on his face when God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer…” But God also said, “This man is my chosen instrument…” I imagine Ananias had conflicting emotions. Still, God said Go, so Ananias went…

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength (Acts 9:17-19).

We know the rest of the story. Saul becomes Paul and after more training begins his ministry to the Gentiles. He wrote more letters—turned into books of the Bible—than the rest of the apostles combined. Because Ananias meant what he said when he said, “Here I am, Lord,” he was a big part of the gospel being spread throughout a large part of the Gentile world.

This story reminds us of some important things about God calling us to go…

  • God already knows all the details. We don’t have to remind him, but when we do, he patiently works with us. “But God, this does not look safe.” “Go anyway because I am with you.” “But God, do you know who this person is you are asking me to serve?” “Yes, it is a beloved child of mine who needs to know my love and who needs to enter relationship with me.”
  • God does not ask you to go outside of his presence—ever! Remember the promises, I will be with you to the end of the age. Nothing can separate you from my love. Nothing can snatch you out of my hands.
  • Not only are you never outside of his presence, you are never outside of his power. Remember what Jesus said before he gave the Great Commission? “All power and authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” This is the one who is with us always—even to the end of the age. Wherever Jesus sends us, he is in the lead. He does not ask us to do things for him, but with him. His calling is an invitation to participate.
  • God does ask you to do things that are beyond your ability—but never beyond his. Again, it’s an invitation to participate, not a job to do for him.
  • We’ve all been called to go… Go and make disciples.

Most of us won’t see a vision from God giving us a specific place to go, but our calling to go is just as meaningful. Our calling is to go—make disciples—share God’s love and life with others—show others who their Father is.

When we say, “Here I am, Lord,” and are willing to follow him and go with him and minister with him, we are joining something that will change us. We are participating in what Jesus is doing—bringing many sons and daughters to glory. We are giving people hope by telling them their sins are forgiven, they are loved and God wants to live in them.

We are walking alongside them as Jesus helps them see why their way of life leads to such discontent. We help them see that God always has their best interests in mind. We help lift people when they are down, hold them up when they are falling, give them a shoulder to cry on, give them someone to lean on, and share life with them. We also share our hope, our joy, our faith and whelp them know the one we call Papa and the one we know as Jesus.

God has called us to go—to partner with him in sharing good news others need to hear. What are you doing with that call?

Ask God to place a name or names in your heart and mind—people he wants to draw you to and share life with. And when those names come to mind, my prayer is that your response to God is, “Here I am, send me.”

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how willing would you be to volunteer for something where you didn’t know all the details? (i.e. someone from ‘up front’ saying, “I need a volunteer.”)
  • Do you know anyone who would say, “Pick me! Pick me!”?
  • Has there been a time when you "heard God’s voice" with a prompt to do something and you didn’t do it? (An “I’m not here, or I can’t hear, Lord” response.) Please share.
  • Has there been a time when you "heard God’s voice" with a prompt to do something and you did it? (A “Here I am, Lord” response.) Please share.
  • Read and discuss John 21:1-19.
    • What do you think the apostles were thinking in the morning before they went fishing?
    • What do you think Peter was thinking as he left the boat and swam to Jesus?
    • Why did Jesus ask Peter the same question three times?
  • Read Rev. 5:11-14 and share what this verse tells us about Jesus. Compare this to the promise Jesus gave of never leaving or forsaking us.

Sermon for May 12, 2019

Readings: Acts 9:36-43 • Psalm 23:1-6 • Revelation 7:9-17 • John 10:22-30

This week’s theme is The Shepherd gives life. Psalm 23 is the Shepherd’s psalm, he leads us to still waters, we dwell in his house forever. In Acts 9 we see life restored as Peter prays for Tabitha (Dorcas) – who is raised from the dead. In Revelation we see that the Lamb of God is our shepherd. The sermon focuses on the passage in John where we see Jesus identifying his sheep as those who hear his voice and follow him.

God with Half the Heart

Suggestion: Have someone read John 10:22-30 prior to the sermon.

Introduction: Some of you may have seen the necklaces girls sometimes share. Each necklace is half a heart. One necklace says “Best,” and the other necklace says, “Friends.” The girls feel more complete when they are together. If you give me a bit of license, think of the two halves of a heart, with you having half and God having the other half. We are not complete until our heart is aligned with God’s heart. Thus the title, “The God with Half the Heart.”

Let’s discuss the passage from John.

At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:22-24 NASB).

This passage takes place during Hanukkah—the festival of lights—celebrated each year by many Jews. About 150 years before Jesus, Greek armies had overtaken Israel and one of the Greek leaders desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig and putting pig blood throughout the temple. (Pigs, as you know, were unclean to Jews.) The Greeks also filled the temple with pagan idols and practices. Eventually there was an insurrection against the Greek leaders, and the Jews were able to get their land and temple back. It’s an interesting story about the Maccabees you may want to read some time.

The Jewish leaders scoured the temple of these things and renovated it, rededicating it to God. Part of the rededication was to light the Menorah—a sacred lampstand with seven branches used in the temple. However, they found only one day’s worth of oil that had not been contaminated by the Greeks. As the story goes—the light burned miraculously for eight days. Thus, you have the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, the feast of rededication.

Hanukkah is a bit like our celebration of Fourth of July, which is a celebration of America’s declaration of independence. Hanukkah looked to the past for the most part because, during Jesus’ time as well, they were an oppressed people. It was a look to the past to see that God had been faithful in delivering them, and an act of hope for the future that God would deliver them again and give them independence again. It was two-sided—joy to celebrate God’s past deliverance and longing to look for God’s final deliverance.

Thus, you understand the Jews surrounding Jesus and asking, “Are you the deliverer?”

I believe it’s important to note here that Jesus would have grown up with this festival and participated in it as part of his Jewish identity. He interacted with Jewish institutions and festivals. He didn’t destroy or disdain them; rather, he showed how they point to him. If you allow me to bring the analogy in again, it’s like the Jews are holding up half a heart and waiting for God to bring the other half—to restore the relationship.

Jesus is showing he is the restoration. He is showing that God entered our world through a real person, and who lived right in the midst of Jewish traditions. Note how he answers their question:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:25-26 NASB).

In Hanukkah and other ceremonies, the people of Israel were holding up their half heart to say, “we are waiting for you.” We are longing for you. Jesus comes through in the Gospels to say, “I have the other half. I am the other half. I am what you’ve been looking for. Come and be complete in me.”

He is the fulfillment of their special days.

  • Sabbath—Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. The work of God – such as healing someone – is more important than keeping to ceremonies and cultural identification. He is our Sabbath rest.
  • Passover—celebration of God’s deliverance from Egypt. The sacrificed lamb spared the first-born among the Israelites. Jesus, the sacrificed lamb of God spared all of humanity.
  • Feast of Tabernacles—everyday during this festival, a priest would take a pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam. He would pour this water in a large basin while everyone sang psalms about God’s salvation. The water was called—the waters of salvation. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me, out of him will flow rivers of living water.” He is the fountain; he is the water-source; he is our salvation.
  • Feast of Hanukkah—dedication of the temple. Jesus is the Holy of Holies, we are his temple.

Jesus is showing that these different trappings of being Israel point not just to a national identity, nor just to religious tradition, they point to HIM. They are about him.

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28 NASB).

Illustration: The following illustration will need to be adapted to your own memories. Be aware that some people’s memories of their parents are painful; you may want to extend the illustration out to grandparents and guardians.

We all have our memories of home and how we knew Mom and Dad were home. In my house, it was the sound of the car on the gravel driveway. As a teenager, I may not have admitted it, but I was actually glad when to hear the sound. Dad was home! Order and peace had returned; we were taken care of. We are thrilled when we hear Daddy’s voice.

I believe this is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “My sheep hear my voice…”

Jesus comes and says: Papa is home. Abba is home. You don’t have to identify yourself by what you survived; you don’t need to celebrate what you did or what happened to you when you thought I wasn’t listening or aware. I am here! You are more than your history or your special days; you are the sons and daughters of God. You’re in my hand, and the heart is complete. Our heart-halves are put together now. I am here.

Jesus uses I AM statements to show all is pointing to him: I am the gate, I am the bread, I am the water, I am the shepherd, I am the sabbath. And at this flashpoint, Jesus says, “I am HERE.”

Then Jesus goes even further in his statement:

My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10,29-30 NASB).

He uses some even more inflammatory language, as usual, in this exchange. This is reminiscent of the Hebrew shema: shema israel adonai eloheinu adonai echad. Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is ONE. That word ONE meant one being, just one being of one substance. But it also meant UNIQUE. God is unique, there is nothing like God, there is no one like God. There is only one. And in saying these words over and over, we are the unique people of a unique God. There is no one like him, and we are his, so there is no one like us.

The Lord our God is one. Jesus and the Father are One. This is the deepest nerve that Jesus can strike here. They knew what he was saying, and many of them leaned down to get their stones at that point.

But others heard his voice and believed. They heard what he meant. The longing is over, the waiting is over—God’s deliverance is here. The heart is complete. Daddy’s home. We don’t have to be survivors anymore, because the King is on his throne.

The completed heart

Our heart joins with the Father’s heart and for the first time, it becomes whole. What does it mean to live with a completed heart? To live as a loved person?

Like the Jews Jesus was talking to, some of us still find our identity in what we were—in our traditions and special days. We still find our identity in what we do—good or bad, in what others say about us—good or bad, and in the things we have. But this is not where our identity comes from. We are the children of the King who could never love us any more or less than he does right now. We are sons and daughters of the One who created all things. We know he is the one who completes us—who has the other half of our heart.

Rest in that completeness. The two halves of the heart have come together.

Let me leave you with three charges:

  • Spend time this week asking God to help you see how he has made your heart whole. Spend time in prayer and praise.
  • Ask God to reveal to you someone who needs to know that God can and does make our heart whole. Share this truth with them.
  • Listen—listen to the voice of the Shepherd, hear his words of affirmation and follow his direction. Doing so will fill your heart.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • We all have memories of home. Most of us remember some sign that Mom or Dad were home: a hat on the hook, boots by the door, the scent of a certain perfume. Discuss these memories. Do you think of God being “home” in the same way? (Note: if memories of parents are painful, this also works with a guardian, grandparent, or trusted friend.)
  • The setting of John 10 is the Feast of Dedication, which in modern times is called Hanukkah. This feast commemorated a time from what is called the “four hundred years of silence” between the Old Testament and New Testament. Have you ever felt that God was silent? How did you know he was “home again” and the silence was broken?
  • What is the difference between living life as a survivor and life as a fully-loved child of God? Do we identify ourselves by our scars or by our relationship with God? How?
  • We talked in the sermon about Jesus upending or re-casting several Israelite institutions (Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, Hanukkah). What institutions of our culture do you think he would overturn or make us see differently? What would happen if Jesus showed up at the Super Bowl or the World Cup?
  • What does Psalm 23 say to you personally?
  • Read Revelation 7:9-17 and describe a time you felt you were led to springs of the water of life, or when God sheltered you.

Sermon for May 19, 2019

Readings: Acts 11:1-18 • Psalm 148:1-14 • Revelation 21:1-6 • John 13:31-35

This week’s theme is God removes barriers. The story in Acts reminds to not put up barriers, which can prevent people from relationship with God. Psalm 148 talks about all creation praising God without barriers or limitations. John reminds us of the new commandment to love as Jesus loves—this is the opposite of putting up barriers or stumbling blocks. In Revelation we are reminded that God became flesh to remove the dreaded barriers of sickness, worry, fear and death. This sermon will use two passages of Scripture to show that God wants us to build bridges, not barriers.

Bridges Before Barriers

Note: This sermon builds off the Speaking of Life video “Hinderance.” If you cannot play the video, download the text so you know the point of the video.

Introduction: This is my story; you should put this into your own words and use your own examples.

I used to be rather legalistic, believing I had to follow a set of specific rules in order for God to see me and to love me. I also believed others needed to follow the same set of rules. I kept a 7th day Sabbath and believed anyone who didn’t wasn’t really a good Christian. I judged people for their lack of diligence, as if I was the example they should follow. I was strict in what I believed and quick to share what I did not like. Sadly, I was known more for what I was against, than for what I was for.

Many people view Christians as people who are against a whole bunch of stuff. Churches are often known more for what they are against than for what they are for. It wouldn’t take long for most of us to put together a list of things most people believe Christians are against. Historically, it seems we’ve built better barriers than we have bridges. We’re known more for our animosity against sinners than our love for all people. We are thought of as just another religion with a set of rules that varies from church to church. Is it any wonder Christianity is being marginalized and many people, especially young people, are turned off to Christianity?

As was mentioned in the “Speaking of Life” video, we often hinder others in their relationship with God by imposing barriers on people that prevent them from knowing God as he truly is and experiencing fullness of life with him.

This is what Peter was dealing with in Acts 11. He was giving a report in Jerusalem about how God had revealed to him to reach out to the Gentiles. The initial response was not favorable:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (Acts 11:1-3 NRSV).

Peter wasn’t following the rules. Circumcision was a clear barrier to keep others out. If you wanted to be in, you had to become a Jew and be circumcised.

Peter then recounted the story of his encounter with Cornelius the centurion to his friends and fellow disciples:

I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’

But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 9:5-18).

This vision cut through some pretty significant signs of distinction for Jews—unclean meats and circumcision. All Jews were bound by the Old Testament laws of clean and unclean meats, and all male Jews were to be circumcised. This was a sign of their calling—their relationship with God. And now God was telling Peter neither were necessary for Gentiles. These items were barriers—getting in the way of Gentiles developing relationships with God. Peter’s vision was about breaking down those barriers and building bridges.

The apostles and believers praised God for giving Gentiles repentance that leads to life—in other words, for including them. God was much bigger than they anticipated—Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension was much more meaningful and powerful than they imagined. God was for all.

It makes you think, doesn’t it, about barriers vs. bridges? It makes you wonder how many things we put in the way of people’s progress in their relationship with God. It makes you wonder if we are creating barriers, when we are called to build bridges—to lead people to the One who redeems all and then trust him to work in their lives.

Let’s talk about some potential barriers:

  • Inviting someone to church: Barriers might include questions about their beliefs, their lifestyle, their habits, or their hang-ups. Jesus came to save sinners—and all sinners need Jesus. We need to build bridges to church, not barriers.
  • Baptism: What barriers do we put up for baptism? Age? How long someone has attended? Their beliefs? Their giving record? Who is qualified to determine if someone is ready for baptism? 3,000 were baptized after Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Philip baptized men and women in Acts 8. Many were baptized in Corinth. There were no barriers to baptism. It was a personal choice.
  • Communion: Is age a barrier? Are they “ready” or “worthy? Do they know what it’s all about? Again: barriers or bridges? We should welcome all to the table, not find reasons to keep them away.

These may seem obvious examples, but Christians have been putting up such barriers since the early church. It’s almost like we are more interested in keeping people out, than leading people in. Perhaps being followers of Jesus makes us a bit prideful or gives us a feeling of one-upmanship. Maybe it’s fear – we aren’t sure we want others in because that may mess up what we have.

This leads to the next passage of Scripture, which shows us what the real problem is.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).

When Jesus says there is a new commandment, we should pay attention. The new commandment is to love others as he has loved us. Jesus spent his entire ministry breaking down barriers. He called out the Pharisees time and time again for their many rules and regulations that kept people focused on everything except a relationship with God. He became human to show that humanity was worthy and valuable to God. He endured the most despicable death, reserved only for the lowliest of people, to show that no one was beneath his attention and his love. He ate with sinners, calling a number of them to be his disciples. He changed the way women and children were viewed—showing their value to God. He destroyed barrier after barrier to build the bridge to the Father.

If we love as Jesus loves us, we will be just as diligent to build bridges, and much more aware of any barriers we may be constructing. We want others to know Jesus as their Savior, their redeemer, and their friend. We want them to understand that God came and made his home among mortals and that he is dwelling with us until the day comes when tears will be wiped away, death will be non-existent, and pain will be gone.

We want others to understand that God loves them just the way they are; and he loves them so much he won’t leave them just the way they are. He is the one who will bring about change in their lives as they get to know him. We want to build bridges enabling others to worship together, pray together, share in communion, build relationship and love as he loves.

The only way we can do that is to break down barriers and build bridges. We want everyone to see that there isn’t anything that will keep Jesus from being our God, and us from being his people. We are his and he is ours.

Three things to ask yourself and pray about this week:

  • What barriers do I face that are preventing me from believing that God loves me just as I am and that he calls me his beloved?
  • What barriers have I built preventing others from seeing God as he really is?
  • What bridges am I building for others—enabling them to see God and build a relationship with him?

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • What are some things the church/Christianity is known to be against?
  • What are some things the church/Christianity is known to be for?
  • What are some things others know that you are against?
  • What are some things others know that you are for?
  • How can/has making it known what we are against become a barrier?
  • How do we stay true to what the Bible says, and still build bridges for sinners?
  • Can you share how someone built a bridge for you?
  • What barriers has this congregation built---or what impression of barriers is there of this congregation?
  • What bridges do we need to build? How do we build them?

Sermon for May 26, 2019

Readings: Acts 16:9-15 • Psalm 67:1-7 • Revelation 21:10, 10:22-22:5 • John 5:1-9

This week’s theme is God makes us whole. Acts shares the story of Lydia’s conversion. Lydia, from Thyatira, is regarded as the first baptized convert in Europe. In Psalm 67 we are reminded that all are invited to praise God for his universal mercy. He brings us to perfection as all are ruled with equity. Revelation reminds us that Jesus is the temple. Through him God restores our heath and makes us clean. All are given access to the water of life. The sermon is developed from the story of the healing at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus tells us to stand up before God and receive the blessings he provides.

Stood Up by Jesus

Read John 5:1-9, NRSV, before sermon:

 Have you ever felt stood up by God? And when we say “stood up,” what we mean to say is that we have been let down. Maybe that’s how the person with a disability felt “who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” That’s practically a lifetime of being down on the ground. Enough time to convince us that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know our situation and basically doesn’t care. Have you been there? If so, maybe this little story told by the apostle John can lift your eyes to see a different perspective.

The story begins with John telling us “Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” John has used this “up to” language many times in his stories of Jesus. The word in Greek is “anabaino” which simply means to ascend but it’s the word used to translate many ascensions in the Old Testament—stories like Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai or the ascent to Mount Zion or to Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem the same language is used in going up to the temple, and then within the temple there is a further ascent into the holy of holies. More examples could be listed, but in essence, when John uses anabaino, he is using a word that points back to God’s presence in Israel’s history. God is the one Israel’s priests and leaders have historically ascended to. So, when Jesus enters the story by going up to Jerusalem there is more than a change in physical elevation taking place, the story has to do with Jesus ascending in order to stand us up in the presence of God. Let’s look at the text:

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha [Bethesda], which has five porticoes, (John5:2 NRSV). 

John gives us some details to ponder in the story. The setting is at the pool of Bethzatha or Bethesda depending on translation. Bethesda means “house of mercy,” so you will see a number of hospitals named Bethesda.

Until the 19th century, there was no evidence of this pool and people believed John was creating a metaphorical illustration. However, archeologists later discovered the remains of the pool fitting John’s description. It is in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem.

John also wants us to note that the pool is next to the Sheep Gate, which was the gate sacrificial lambs were brought through. As the story unfolds, John is creating a picture of contrast between the rituals of sacrifice—along with the superstitious waters of “healing”—with Jesus himself, who is both our true sacrifice and our living water. John was a good storyteller.

In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:3-4 NRSV). 

We are introduced to our poor cast- down soul as “one man” who was among “many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” This description of disabled people serves as a rather poignant pointer to life in this fallen world.

This refers to a life without direction, a life with distortion and pain, and ultimately a life that is hopeless. Like this one man, we can find ourselves among many people with disabilities, people who are paralyzed and unable to find any healing or wholeness for their lives. We can feel there is no one to help us when we forget that we are made to walk with the Lord.

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NRSV). 

Jesus enters the scene. Keep in mind that John is primarily concerned in his Gospel account of showing us that Jesus is the full revelation of the Father. The first thing we see Jesus do is take notice. He “saw him lying there” and he also “knew that he had been there a long time.” No matter what our lifelong experience has been, the Father sees us and he knows our situation. It’s out of this deep personal knowing Jesus asks the man the question “Do you want to be made well?”

At first glance it sounds like a “tongue-in-cheek” question. Of course, he wants to be made well; who wouldn’t want to be well. But good questions are grounded in personal awareness. Jesus must have known that this man would need to wrestle with that question. Thirty-eight years of anything is a lot of undoing. The man’s healing would amount to a whole new life of change for him.

  • Who has been bringing this man here for the past 38 years?
  • Who has been caring for him and feeding him?
  • Are you ready to do things on your own?
  • Are you ready to stop depending on others and learn a skill to earn an income?
  • Are you ready to enter society in a new way, with all its blessings, and all its requirements?
  • Are you ready to start showing personal responsibility?

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (John 5:7 NRSV). 

The man’s answer didn’t tell us explicitly if he wanted to be well. But it did tell us that he had been trying to make himself well for a long time. His description of all the reasons he couldn’t make it to the pool was placing blame on others who refused to help. This is what happens when we are working a program for our own healing, or what we may call legalism.

When you can’t live up to the program—and you never can—you can always look down at others. It’s easy to put the responsibility elsewhere—to blame others—to get the attention off ourselves. Jesus knew this about this man, and he knows this about us. And his response is one of grace.

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8 NRSV). 

Here’s a man who has been let down for thirty-eight years by legalism, a man who is unable to stand up, and Jesus’ response to him is a powerful word of grace: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” These weren’t empty words. They were words of power that created a new reality. The man only needed to believe and to respond.

At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk (John 5:9a NRSV).

Jesus gave him legs to stand on and told him to take the mat home—he no longer needed his mat to protect him from the ground. He no longer needed to wait for others to take care of him; his healing was complete. Jesus stood him up. The story doesn’t end here:

Now that day was a sabbath (John 5:9b NRSV).

This lectionary selection cuts the story in half by ending with “Now that day was a Sabbath.” What? Why this little bit of information from John?

It’s not another example of a story culminating into a nasty showdown between the legalistic religious rulers of the day and the Lord of grace and healing, but John has a significant point to make. In this story we are given this little twist to aid us in our understanding of what the Sabbath rest is all about. Here, on the Sabbath day, Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and walk. He wasn’t trying to goad the religious leaders—he was helping this man and us understand that resting in him is not lying around all day; resting in him is experienced as standing and walking in the presence of God. Jesus is our Sabbath rest.

We all face times in our lives when we feel like the man at Bethesda. We are waiting and waiting for someone to help us—for someone to come and fix the problem. We’ve all had times when we’ve blamed others for the situation we are in—there is no one to help me get to the healing water.

This week, ask God to help you see that he is the living water—in fact, the living water came to you. Ask him to help you see you need to pick up your mat and enter his Sabbath rest. Ask him to help you remember that he has stood you up—that is, he has helped us stand.

Jesus has forever stood us up in him, and in him we will never be let down.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of experiences in your life where you felt that God had let you down? How does the story of the man who was “down” for thirty-eight years help you reflect on your own story?
  • Reflect on Jesus taking notice of the person and knowing his situation. What does this tell us about the Father’s heart toward us? Does this feed your faith or leave you with more questions?
  • What do you think about Jesus asking the man if he wanted to be made well?
  • How does the detail that this healing took place on a Sabbath inform us what true rest is?
  • Read the passage from Revelation and talk about what it means that Jesus is your temple and that you have been given access to the water of life.