GCI Equipper

“Where is Your Faith?”

Many sincere questions have been asked by Christians during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Have we failed to trust God to protect us?” “Didn’t Jesus promise the gates of hell would not prevail against his church?” “Why did we allow government to shut our church down?” “Aren’t we going overboard with safety concerns—requiring masks and gloves, and not hugging each other?

There is a lot of information in the news and on social media about Covid-19. Depending on where you are in the mix, you can believe this pandemic is a conspiracy from a foreign country to show our weaknesses, that the pandemic is being used as a political tool, that we are treating the disease wrong, that masks cause more danger than good, that wearing a mask is the true answer, that social distancing is going to make more of us sick in the long run, that social distancing is the best way to stop spreading the virus, that some available drugs can help, that those same drugs are dangerous, that this is all about some billionaires wanting to make more money off the next vaccine, that the whole thing is a farce—more people die of (name the disease or cause) and we are all worked up over nothing.

How are we to provide a message of hope in this myriad of opinions—and very strong opinions at that? It’s not as difficult as one might think.

First of all, let’s be honest. I don’t have the answers to the cause, effect, and treatment of this virus and neither do you. I’m not a scientist, physician, immunologist, or conspiracist. I have opinions and theories, but those are just that, opinions and theories—not based on science or research. Therefore, they aren’t as important as I’d like to think they are. I’d suggest the same for the majority of our membership and leadership. God didn’t call us to be experts in virology or in conspiracy, he has called us to be disciples. So let’s address some of the sincere questions people ask.

Do not neglect to meet together

Didn’t God tell us to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together? Why are we closing our churches? Shouldn’t we be getting together to pray for our country, our leaders, those who are sick, etc. The answer is yes, we should be getting together to pray, and to worship, and to fellowship, and to search the scriptures, and to celebrate Jesus. We don’t need a building to do that. We have phones, we have social media, we have Zoom and other social media platforms where several of us can get together.

The quote about assembling ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25) was not about whether or not we meet in a church. The new testament believers stayed connected in ways available to them—meeting in homes and in some public areas. The author was giving a call to persevere in faith by focusing on the “great priest over the house of God”—Jesus. It’s true, it is much easier for us to stay connected through technology in the 21st century, but the context is not about meeting places, the context is holding on to the hope we have and encouraging love and good works in each other.

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25 NRSV)

In this context the author pointed out the tendency of some to not meet together. How do you encourage each other without communicating with one another? Nothing is said about meeting at church on Sunday, it’s about fellowship, relationship, sharing the hope we have in Christ, encouraging each other to love and doing good deeds for others. This is how we are identified as disciples. This greater love and care is being seen today in most churches—despite the inability to be at our church building.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church

I loved a meme I saw on Facebook. Satan was bragging to Jesus that all it took was a virus to shut down the church. Jesus responded by saying, all it took was a virus to bring the church into people’s homes. The doors of our buildings may be shut, but the church is far from being prevailed against. In fact, it is expanding faster and farther than any of us could have imagined. As I read monthly reports, I’m astounded how many of our congregations with average attendance of 25-50 are reaching hundreds each week via their online services. The churches weren’t shut down, they were redeployed. Our great challenge will be to continue to reach out to our local online viewers after the doors of our churches reopen.

Remember the statement, when you are given lemons, make lemonade. This is what the Home Office team is seeing happen around the world. Rather than the gates of hell prevailing against the church, the door to heaven has opened wide to many who have not had exposure to the truth of God as Father, Son and Spirit. This is new territory for us and we are proud of our pastors and leaders who have been reaching far more people with the Gospel than they ever imagined.

Aren’t we going overboard with safety requirements?

It broke my heart to read the story of the church in Calgary who had a birthday party for one of their members. 41 people attended, they practiced social distancing and used gloves for all the food service. 25 people came down with Covid-19 and two died. The pastor said she’d love nothing more than a do-over. We’ve had GCI pastors and spouses, and some in the Home Office team come down with Covid-19. The virus is real, and for some who have weakened immune systems or pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, there is cause to be extra careful. Is it a lack of faith to be overly concerned? Shouldn’t we all just trust God? I trust God that my sins are forgiven, that death is no longer the great enemy, that my future is secure, and yet I still take my prescribed medicines, I see my doctor, I lock my house, I use smoke detectors, I make sure the grandkids are buckled in and I put my money in a bank or safe. Using wisdom and caution and loving others is not an indication of a lack of trust in God.

We absolutely trust God As our GCI Reopening Guidelines say:

As believers, we live by faith and do not operate in fear, but we also remember the New Commandment to love others as Jesus loves us and therefore we agree to be proactive and to act in wisdom towards our members and guests, especially those among us who are most susceptible to becoming infected with COVID-19.

There are many considerations as we reopen the doors to our congregations. For some of us, that will not be for awhile. But we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose faith. God is doing something we never expected. He has taken the church out of the building and into people’s homes. The gospel is being preached, the gates of hell have not prevailed, and the body of Christ is sharing Jesus’ life and love with others. In other words, the faith of Jesus is being expressed through the church during the pandemic. Maybe it is Jesus who has his hold on us, and not so much our clinging to him? The real upside is that he never lets go and it works best when we participate by grasping him.

Holding on to Jesus,

Rick Shallenberger

Hope In Three Movements

By Charlotte Rakestraw, GCI Social Media and Graphics Coordinator

For almost two years, we have been emphasizing the three Avenues of our Team-Based, Pastor-Led ministry at Grace Communion International. The Love Avenue embodies external outreach; the Faith Avenue encompasses our internal life groups; the Hope Avenue focuses on gathering together as a church through worship services. This year’s focus is the Hope Avenue with our motto: Focused on Hope. We are all probably thinking it, so I am just going to say it, how ironic is it that our focus this year happens to be the worship service, which we cannot physically attend because we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic? How are we supposed to focus on the Hope Avenue, when it traditionally consists of a gathering of the people?

Part of the answer is focusing on three keywords of the Hope Avenue: inspirational, inclusive, and intentional.

Hope is Inspirational

Have you ever stopped in wonder and awe at the glow of the moon at night? Contrasted with the dark velvet sky, its presence demands attention and has inspired many a lonely soul. Not only is Jesus the light, he calls us to be a radiant light to others. So we can look at the inspirational aspect of the Hope Avenue in two ways—Jesus inspiring us, and our inspiring others.

As many of us stay in our homes, we have been forced to pray about and rethink what our worship services look like when we cannot come together in person. The results have been inspiring, and we at the Home Office have been impressed with and grateful for the creativity and determination we have seen borne out of this season from our pastors and leaders around the world. Jesus is inspiring the church to reach out in ways we never imagined, and the numbers we are reaching is incredible. Churches with a normal attendance of 25-40 people are reaching hundreds via Facebook Live or other social media platforms. And this is only the beginning. We are seeing more and more pastors, leaders and members take this time to dig deeper into what it looks like to be a believer. We have all seen the need for hope.

So let’s get practical. As we participate in the promise of Jesus’ hope, we too, can be a light in the darkness, inspiring others simply by continuing to radiate his light. In practical ways, perhaps you are inspiring your members and friends through encouraging communication—sharing praise reports and devotionals, going through your neighborhood writing inspirational quotes in chalk. The very things we do at church, we can still do—through social media, phone calls, cards, text messages, etc. I’ve seen others using their gifts and talents to make masks for their community, inspiring a trend in these volunteer acts through social media in other communities. This is a time when the Faith, Hope and Love avenues intersect.

Hope is Inclusive

Consider those you know who are in complete isolation. While writing this, I am ending my 2nd month of self-isolation, wondering how I can possibly write about hope when it sometimes feels so far away. Shouldn’t someone more qualified write this article? Someone who hasn’t spent 60 days straight without hugging, talking face-to-face with, or even standing nearby another person? As someone with a chronic illness and compromised immunity, it is possible I may be in isolation for a while yet. I am writing this article for myself as much as I am for you, because I have felt hopeless at times during this season of uncertainty, but that feeling doesn’t change the truth that there is Hope and his name is Jesus. Not only does he give me hope, but he reminds me I’m included in the love and life he shares with others. He does this in many ways in my quiet times with him, and by inspiring relational connections—prodding me to reach out to others and inspiring others to reach out to me.

There are many practical ways to make people feel included during “shelter in place” guidelines. Write a list of the names of those who are still in isolation, hang the list on your fridge, stick it to your computer, find ways to remember and honor them in the day-to-day. Something as simple as planning a virtual game night for family and friends could make a big difference. As one of these such people, I can confirm that the days blur together, and if not for technology keeping me afloat, I wouldn’t know what day or hour I was living in at any given moment. Being isolated has ways of playing tricks on the mind, and as creatures made for relationship, it is easy to sink into feelings of loneliness, despair, and hopelessness. In these last two months, the inclusivity of my friends, colleagues and church members has renewed my sense of hope, and to a greater extent, my purpose and identity. If not for them remembering me and calling me up just to say they were thinking of me and missing me, I would likely be in a very different state of mind right now.

All of us need friends and a church family that is lovingly inclusive, making sure people are not forgotten and reminding them Jesus will never forget them and that is why we place our hope in him. To the shut-ins, the ill, the family members who have lost loved ones, no matter how broken we feel, we are included in the hope of Christ, and though we cannot remind people of this each week in our normal worship environment, we are still called to bring them to hope and remind each other of this hope through our actions and by living out the inclusivity of Christ to the best of our ability.

Hope is Intentional

Jesus is intentional—nothing he did was unplanned. The Incarnation was planned before the foundation of the earth. His death, resurrection, ascension and return were all part of an intentional plan to bring us into intimate relationship with Father, Son and Spirit. Placing our trust in Jesus, we hope for better, hope for healing, hope for redemption. If our present reality were perfection, we would have nothing to hope for. As Christians, we know our hope lies in Christ. This means we trust that he is working all things together for our good. Just because we’ve not been able to meet at church these past several weeks does not mean Jesus hasn’t been intentional and active.

Practically speaking, what does this look like on our parts? While many of us are patiently waiting to meet together in person—and very thankful for Zoom and other social media platforms that enable us to see and share with each other—we are still focused on the hope we have in Christ, and we look for ways to share that hope. During this worldwide pandemic we have been given a season of waiting—in our daily lives, as congregations who had plans to explore the Hope Avenue and start making changes, and as a denomination waiting another year to reunite in celebration. It could be argued that patience is the hardest practice for many of us. I agree with this. We often mistake patience as a roadblock when it really is a retreat.

During this time of waiting, some of us have gotten some much-needed rest and have used the time to recharge. Others are using the time to reevaluate every aspect of the Hope Avenue, to ask God for his direction, to listen. As the Psalmist said, to allow ourselves the luxury of slowing down a bit, to listen, to “be still and know that I am God.” I believe one of the things God is reminding us is that we are participating in the living hope. Taking this time to abide in God’s presence enables us to trust that he is in absolute control.

How can you help people realize the hope they have in Christ? Intentional phone calls? Zoom Bible studies, chats or game nights. Sending cards to neighbors in the one square mile telling them you are praying for them and looking forward to finding new ways to serve the community. Being intentional about finding ways to reach out to others during this time. One of my pastors recently started a life group for our fellowship. While this online meeting sounds more like part of the Faith Avenue, it has been a source of hope during this time of shelter-in-place and has become a welcome space for sharing Scripture, prayer requests, and intentionally connecting with each other.

We aren’t sure what the new “normal” will look like, but we do know this: God has called us to share hope that is inspirational, inclusive and intentional. The result will be healthier churches.

The Focus of Our Worship

Whether worship is individual, collective, or in our GCI Worship Calendar, it’s all focused on one thing—Jesus.

By Hector Barrero, Pastor Bogota, Columbia

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” Col 3:16-17.

The apostle Paul wrote to believers in Colossae to respond to the many heresies the church members were exposed to at that time. Paul does not describe in detail what those heresies were because he is focused on telling the church how to protect themselves from so many false teachings: to keep the centrality of Jesus in all of their Scripture reading, praising, and teaching. Notice some highlights of Colossians:

  • Christ is our sure hope in heaven. (Colossians 1:5)
  • Through Christ, we’ve been rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into his kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:13)
  • In Christ we are forgiven and redeemed. (Colossians 1:14)
  • Christ is the Creator of everything that exists. He is the perfect image of the Father. In Christ, everything was reconciled to the Father. (Colossians 1:15)
  • Christ is before all things, and holds everything together. (Colossians 1:17)
  • Christ is all and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)

The church is united in Christ because he is our Savior and the church is his body. The church is to focus on the above truths and not on any other thing or idea. The best way to protect us from heresies is to keep Jesus in the center of our teachings and practices.

This is the foundation of our personal and congregational worship and the GCI Worship Calendar. Christ is the center of the center—nothing changes that. We can’t make him the center because he already is. We can, however, continually make sure our worship and our worship calendar is centered on nothing but Jesus. Every worship day is centered on Jesus—his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return. We can also focus ourselves on him—thus acknowledging that he is the true center of our individual and corporate lives.

We come together at our worship services to talk about all that Jesus is, all he did, and all he is doing for us. Children’s Bible lessons, youth Bible lessons, the sermon, everything that happens at church is centered in him. That is why the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is helpful. Every week it brings teaching based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

As disciples in whom Jesus dwells, it is our desire to be living testimonies of him. It is our desire that all we have studied and learned about Jesus is shown in the way we speak, teach, and treat people around us. By edifying and loving each other, we are applying the teachings of Jesus—practicing them. Further, we seek to live our lives outside the church in a way that reflects the message of Christ. We are, after all, Christ’s ambassadors.

Sounds like quite a challenge. But here’s the good news: Jesus helps us with his Spirit in us. Our personal testimony shares that any good others see is the result of knowing him personally, of being in a close relationship with him.

So let’s get practical. How do we see Jesus as the center of our personal lives?

  • Spend time with him. Walk with him, allow him to do his works in us. The more we study Jesus and understand his teaching, the more we know how to live as he did. And as we understand more about who he is, our response is to worship him and praise him
  • Make sure our worship music—the lyrics especially—exalt Jesus. Many worship songs are about us and who we are, and not about Jesus and joining in his worship of the Father. There are times to sing about our relationship with him, but the bulk of our worship should be to him rather than about him.
  • Celebrate and commemorate days associated with his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Make these days worshipful and meaningful. Put aside any “holy” days that are not focused on Jesus.

Let’s close with another verse from Colossians:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Whether worship is individual, collective, or in the GCI Worship Calendar, it’s all focused on the centrality of Jesus—his birth, life (mission and ministry), death, resurrection, ascension, and return.

The Gift of Decentering

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34-35

By Elizabeth Mullins, GC Hickory Love Avenue Champion

Anthony and I love inviting people into our home. Whether they are old friends, or people we’ve just met and want to get to know better, we both value building friendships. He and I will discuss what we know about our guests’ preferences and plan in advance to serve their favorite foods and discuss topics that matter to them. We enjoy preparing the table together, greeting our guests and making them feel welcome, and then the best part, sitting around the table having good conversation during the meal. Of course, our goal is not to merely feed our guests, but to develop relationship.

As I think about the three avenues, I see a lot of similarities in how Anthony and I work together sharing our home with others and building relationship. If the Love Avenue can be likened to meeting new people in the marketplace or commons, then the Hope Avenue would be inviting them into your home for the first time. Your desire is that the invitation leads to a deep, lasting friendship—the Faith Avenue. So, you would be singularly focused on your guests’ comfort and hospitality with the hopes of making a good first impression. If the first time you invite people to your home, it goes poorly, the relationship won’t take root. The same is true for inviting others into our worship service. Think of the Hope Avenue as inviting someone into your home (congregation) in the hopes that a lifelong relationship develops—part of which we call discipleship.

So, what do others experience while visiting your home (congregation) the first time? If we’ve been churched all or most of our life, it can be difficult to take the perspective of a new guest, and we may be unaware of things that would feel alienating. How can we make our Hope Avenue accessible to new people and make a good first impression?

Making Room – Decentering Ourselves

Healthy churches are more focused outward than inward. Norman Wirzba, author of The Ground of Hospitality, described God’s creative power as “a hospitable power that constantly makes room for everything else to be and to flourish.” To make room for another to flourish, often we first must decenter ourselves. This is the life we are called to, as we’re being conformed to the image of an other-centered, self-emptying God of Love.

As the Love Avenue Champion, I’m often the point of connection for our guests, and I’ve received very helpful feedback from them. Consider the following ways to make room and center newcomers:

  • Logistically, expect guests every time and adjust your facility accordingly. Rather than locking your doors for security, consider placing someone near the door at all times. Imagine the courage it takes to go to a new church, only to arrive a few minutes late and find the doors locked. Watch for latecomers and greet them warmly. Set up extra chairs each week; bringing out more chairs after guests arrive signals to them that they are at best, unexpected and at worst, unwelcomed. Communicate to regular attenders to leave open the last row and some aisle seats for visitors.
  • Expect and plan for differently-abled guests. Reserve a spot for a wheelchair. If your building isn’t accessible to a wheelchair, be in prayer and discernment about finding another space. Always have speakers use a microphone to include listeners with hearing loss. Making an effort to include and accommodate every hearer must outweigh any discomfort a speaker feels over having their voice amplified.
  • Expect children every week. If you don’t have a children’s program, there are resources in Equipper to help you develop one. In the meantime, you can provide a welcome gift that includes toys and activities to use during the service.
  • Plan ahead for an accessible message. Expect guests who have no knowledge of the Bible. Don’t make fleeting biblical references, like, “Everyone remembers the story of Noah.” If you mention Noah, at least briefly explain who he was and the flood. Save the difficult theological terms for the Faith avenue. Your listeners include those who read on different levels and have a variety of learning styles. If you pass out Bibles, don’t assume guests know where to turn to find the passage. It’s more inclusive to print the Bible passage in a program and include it in PowerPoint slides.
  • Plan ahead for an organized, meaningful worship service. From the perspective of new visitors, a lack of preparation will feel chaotic, unsafe, and alienating—and it conveys a lack of credibility. The audience feeds off the energy of the leaders involved in the worship service. We must take responsibility for the energy we bring. Simply put, feeling prepared will lower your own anxiety and by extension, help everyone present to feel calmer.

With some planning and intentionality, we can help our guests feel welcome and included. May we love one another, laying down our lives for the sake of fellow human beings, just as Jesus loved us!

GCI Creative Community Best Practices

GCI Creative Community Best Practices

One opportunity we have during this pandemic is to reflect Christ’s love for the world and make decisions with our neighbors in mind. Here are some Best Practices shared in our GCI Creative Community Facebook Page for being the church during these novel circumstances. We hope to share best practices from this Facebook page quarterly.

While gathering virtually:

  • Make time for fellowship creating watch parties through Facebook or going into breakout rooms in Zoom.
  • Consider pre-recording and streaming software. This helps create smooth transitions and avoid internet issues. There are free options like OBS or Restream.
  • Incorporate your children’s ministry, create videos, share coloring sheets that tie in with message, have a Zoom breakout for the youth to meet as a class.

For re-gathering:

Church Hacks 003 | How to Customize your GCI Microsite

Many seekers and guests will visit your website before setting foot on your facility. Your church’s website is your virtual front door. Having an up to date website is a great way to make a good first impression and communicate who you are and what you believe. The GCI Microsite is a resource we provide to help you have a professional and easy to customize a website. Check out this month’s video Church Hack for a step by step tutorial on how to customize your microsite.

Gospel Reverb – The Struggle Bus w/ Greg Williams

The Struggle Bus w/ Greg Williams

Video unavailable (video not checked).

Program Transcript

The Struggle Bus with Greg Williams

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Greg Williams, unpack these lectionary passages:

Romans 7:15-25 “The Struggle Bus”

Romans 8:1-11 “No Condemnation”

Romans 8:12-25 “No Pain, No Gain”

Romans 8:26-39 “No Separation”

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!


The Struggle Bus with Greg Williams

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Greg Williams, unpack these lectionary passages:

Romans 7:15-25 “The Struggle Bus”

Romans 8:1-11 “No Condemnation”

Romans 8:12-25 “No Pain, No Gain”

Romans 8:26-39 “No Separation”

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!


Sermon for July 5, 2020

Psalm 45:10-17 • Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 • Romans 7:15-25a • Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

This week’s theme is Discerning God’s provision and salvation. Genesis recounts the story of Abraham’s servant trusting the Lord to reveal to him the provision of Isaac’s wife. Psalm 45 invites a daughter to pay careful attention to what the Lord is providing. Romans 7 sees Jesus as the perfect provision for the conflict of sin. In Matthew Jesus shares how God used John the Baptist to introduce God’s ultimate provision, Jesus himself.

Inner Conflict

Romans 7:15-25a (NRSV)

When we think of conflict, we usually picture two people arguing or fighting. Or maybe we will picture a battle scene where many soldiers are battling one another. We know there can be no conflict unless there are at least two people or things opposing one another. In our passage today we have the apostle Paul writing about a conflict every believer is involved in.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-25a NRSV)

Notice something odd about this passage on conflict. Paul uses the singular “I” 24 times. The conflict he is speaking of does not involve two or more people. It is something raging in the individual believer. This is a very difficult conflict to wrestle with. We can walk out on conflict with another person, but you can’t really leave yourself. This conflict is unavoidable.

You may also notice that Paul is a bit repetitive in this passage. In fact, he basically repeats three points three times. First, he acknowledges his own sinfulness. Second, he confirms this knowledge by his actions. And third, he draws a conclusion from these two observations. We will look at each point in order.

But first let’s make sure we understand the context in which Paul is writing. This passage is part of a longer and more involved discussion about the law. Paul’s understanding of the law is complex and therefore people have different views of what he means. For our purposes we will not need to work through all that. But we can list five things that Paul is clear about in how he views the law:

  1. The law is holy.
  2. The law is the measuring stick for behavior in line with God’s will.
  3. The law does not free us from the power of sin but rather is also held captive by it.
  4. Held captive by sin, the law incites sin.
  5. Held captive by sin, the law is powerless to free us from sin and instead condemns us to death.

That’s a lot to chew on regarding the law, but in today’s passage, Paul is making clear that we are not to look to the law to fight this inner battle he is speaking of.

To understand the conflict Paul sees raging in himself and in each believer, we need to take Romans 6 and Romans 7 together. In Romans 6 we come to see that the believer has been freed from sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the reality established in Christ. But it is a reality that comes to us from the future even as we live in the present. Another way of saying this is to say that the kingdom of God is breaking in. We see signs of this future reality, this kingdom, as the Spirit works in the life of believers. So, our present life is infused by the power of the future kingdom. That’s what Romans 6 tells us. But our present life is also pulled by the power of the past. That’s the content of Romans 7. Although defeated, sin still has a grip on us in this present evil age. And there lies the conflict. The fact that there is a conflict shows that the Spirit is working in us.

So, let’s start with Paul’s first point. He makes this point three times with verses 15, 18 and 21:

  • 15a – “I do not understand my own actions.”
  • 18 – “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.”
  • 21 – “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”

This is a battle of identity, of self-knowledge. Have you ever experienced the conflict of knowing yourself? Can you relate to Paul’s statement, “I do not understand my own actions?” As a believer there are many times when we shake our head and think, “Why did I do that?” “I know better than that; what was I thinking?” Statements like this reveal that there is a conflict in our identity as defined by our past over our future. Which identity do we believe in? Are we really who we are becoming in Christ? Or does the old man of sin have the final word? We are conflicted over our “want to do what is good” and our inability to do it.

From Paul’s observation, we can take some comfort even in our conflict of not understanding our own actions. The fact that we want to do the good that the law points to, means the kingdom is breaking in. If we were still dead in our sins, we would have no desire to live without sin. This is a sign in the believer that our future selves are taking form. We are becoming like Christ in our thoughts. It may be a struggle in the present, but it’s a struggle because the future is putting up a fight.

Let’s look at Paul’s second point that he makes in verses 15b, 19 and 22-23.

  • 15b – “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
  • 19 – “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
  • 22-23 – “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Here in this repetition of Paul’s second point is a conflict of power and ability. It’s not enough to just want to do something if we are in fact unable to do it. It seems that our present ability is not up to the task of our future identity. This power and ability must also come from the future. This does not mean we do not strive to live out of the identity we have in Christ. In fact, we take seriously that the kingdom is breaking into the present, a reality that we are called to participate in. As a believer, have you ever had a moment when you realized your actions have changed? Perhaps a pattern of complaining has been replaced with contentment. Or a short fuse of anger has lengthened into patient forbearance. It may be a small change or may be even a large one. But something has changed. And the change is in the direction of our future hope. There is evidence that God is working in us by the Spirit to make us more like his Son. This is not a work we have done of ourselves, but rather a work Christ has done in us, and that the Spirit is working out of us.

Here is something to keep in mind when we experience the conflict of not being able to do the good we are made for. God is not done with us. We can still turn—again and again if necessary—to him to receive the power he makes available to us by the Spirit. The Father will never throw up his hands in disgust and say, “This old sinner will never change. I’m done with him or her.” God is far more faithful than we are. He never turns his back on us when we fail. He knows his Son has already done all that is needed for our completion. Jesus has made us whole through his life, death and resurrection. It’s just a matter of time for the believer to see that reality to come to fullness. Our heavenly Father is overjoyed with each step we take in his direction. When we fall, he once again opens his arms to us in Jesus and calls us to himself.

Now Paul is going to present his conclusion as his third point, which he presents in verses 16-17, 20 and 24-25.

  • 16-17 – “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells with me.”
  • 20 – “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
  • 24-25 – “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

In these verses Paul is essentially concluding from his first two points that the believer is identifying with who they are becoming in Christ. The sin we wrestle with in the present is going away. It does not have the final word on who we are and will be. Sin is not the final word—Jesus is. This conclusion frees Paul to make confession by declaring “Wretched man that I am!” This is not self-loathing by Paul. This is a freedom to let go of the past and embrace the future that comes to us in Christ. There is no fear to call sin what it is. It’s wretched and has no part in God’s coming kingdom. However, we have a Savior who has rescued us. We now live in thankfulness in the present as we live out of hope for the future. Jesus has rescued us, and he will rescue us. He will liberate us from the body of death and bring us into a world and life where sin no longer tempts us, no longer misleads us. Sing for joy, all you righteous! Your Savior lives; your Savior reigns, and we will reign with him!

Small Group Discussion Questions

Speaking of Life Questions
  • What did you think of using the experience of our foot falling asleep to the experience of believers still struggling with sin? Was this helpful? In what way was it helpful? In what way is it not helpful?
  • Do you become discouraged when you “do not do what you want, but do the very thing you hate”? How do you typically respond? Do you despair or dig in and try harder?
Sermon Questions
  • Paul’s first point is to acknowledge his own sinfulness, which was identified in the sermon as conflict over identity. Can you relate to this conflict of identity where you don’t understand your own actions? Can you imagine what it will be like when there will be no conflict raging inside us about our identity? Does this feed your hope in what Jesus is doing in your life?
  • Paul’s second point was highlighted in the sermon as a conflict between desire and ability. Can you relate to times where you seemed to lack the power to do what you wanted to do? Can you imagine what it will be like for there to be no conflict between our desires and our ability to carry out those desires?
  • Paul’s conclusion from these two points is that our true identity is in who we are becoming in Jesus. How can embracing this truth free us from self-loathing or works-based righteousness? How can this orientation help us go through inner conflict with hope rather than despair?

Sermon for July 12, 2020

Psalm 119:105-112 • Genesis 25:19-34 • Romans 8:1-11 • Matthew 13:1-9. 18-23

This week we talk about God the unrelenting storyteller—he makes his promises and keeps them. First, Genesis 25–the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob the heel-grabber hustler who God still makes the father of Israel and ancestor of Jesus. Psalm 119 is a hymn to the Law—the keeper of Israel that prepared them for the Messiah. Matthew 13 talks about the dissemination of the gospel message—it won’t always be easy, but it will take root! Romans 8, on which the sermon is based, tells about the un-condemnation of all of us in Christ and the promise that even our imperfect bodies will be resurrected on a day like Christ himself.

“We, the Uncondemned”

Romans 8:1-11 (ESV)

Read or have someone read the text prior to the sermon.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. This statement apparently originated with Calvin Coolidge, telling people how to conserve resources for the war effort in World War I. It became a motto through the Depression, encouraging people to darn socks and patch jeans to keep going. Don’t toss it away—keep it and make it work.

Sometimes I can’t help but think God has a similar motto for humanity. Of course, his motivation is not to help us survive a calamity, but to continually remind us he will finish the work he has begun.

Let’s give some background theology before we get into Romans.

After the flood, God made a promise that remains true today.

I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.  While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:21-22 ESV)

God promised that humanity would keep going, that he would sustain us—no matter what. He made a covenant with humanity that he would make it do.

Post-flood humanity got back into their old habits rather quickly, and what followed was a long dysfunctional line of humanness—self-centered, beautiful, broken, greedy, wild and all the rest. But God would “make it do,” he would see this Adam and Eve story all the way to its end—there was no “throwing out” this creation.

Fast forward through the centuries. God chooses one man and promises him he will be the “father of many nations.” Through that man, Abraham, he brings the legacy of Israel—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his 11 brothers—which became the 12 tribes of Israel. He brings Israel through slavery, through the desert and into the Promised Land. Hit fast forward again—through kings and prophets and wars and good and evil—and we get to a teenage girl who’s given birth to a baby boy in a stable.

We have to remember that it’s all the same story—his story, which we call history. This was God’s intention from before Eve reached for the fruit in the Garden of Eden. He knew what was going to happen, and he knew the story would be long and winding and confusing, but that it would finally lead to victory.

Too often in our tradition, we have made a patchwork of the history of redemption and come up with a false narrative. Something like:

  • People sinned
  • God gave them the Law
  • They couldn’t pull it off
  • He had to send Jesus as a plan B to finally get it right.

This is a fair summary of the story that many of us grew up with: the Law was like humanity’s “college try” and God had to fix the mess we made. It’s as if God’s original story doesn’t hang together, as if God doesn’t keep his promises to see a story all the way through. He tried something, it didn’t work, so he changed his mind. This story was passed on from generation to generation until the apostle Paul, never one for polished ceremony, crashes into the middle of the story with his letter to the Romans. Just as Karl Barth’s book on Romans was described as a “bomb dropped in a playground,” Paul’s letter to the Romans can be described in a similar manner.

Paul is steeped in OT history, and connects the story of Israel with the story of Christ with complex elegance all through his letters, but especially Romans. In this passage, and through the whole book, we see that Jesus wasn’t plan B of the Israel story—he was the crescendo of it; he was the satisfying ending—the resounding affirmative that the story had been kept and with his sacrifice, “It is finished.”

Paul gives this to us in a tightly-woven story here in chapter 8—each layer reveals another layer. The infection of sin began with Adam. The Law located and diagnosed that sin problem—suddenly these horrible things (lying, murder, adultery) all had names. As the keepers of the Law, the Jews represented God’s connection to humanity—the temple was called the “navel of the world.”

The Law highlighted sin in their community—now they knew what it was and what caused the corruption and death in the world. But the disease was just named—it wasn’t cured. The divine blood transfusion came in Jesus. All of the world’s sin that had been brought up in Israel by the Law was then placed on him—the Messiah King, and therefore the representative of Israel. But even the worst of sin—all the disease that had been concentrated—wasn’t enough to keep him dead.

Okay…deep breath. The theology did get a little thick there.

I share all that to show what Paul was showing here: the gospel isn’t God’s “second try” on humanity—it is the natural culmination of the saga of redemption. Jesus did what the Law couldn’t do—was never meant to do. He was the cure who was always on his way.

Think of it this way. Your knee gets crushed in an accident. You try to walk on it, but the pain is vicious. You go to a physical therapist who helps you do stretches and exercises to lessen the pain, even tries to figure out what’s really wrong. You get some movement back, even have some muscle healing, but the real need the whole time is a knee replacement. You need something new in there to start the whole process over. The problem with going back to the Law, as Paul is constantly warning against in his ministry, is that you can’t fix a demolished knee with physical therapy.

Paul starts this section so strongly:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1 ESV)

This where it starts: basement floor, ground zero, in the business world you might call it “table stakes,” the minimum needed to get started. The fact of “no condemnation” is the foundation that all the rest of this builds on.

You could never be any more or less loved and accepted than you are by God right now. His signet ring is on your finger; his seal is on your heart.

That is a vitally important message for us today.

We live in a world where almost every meal, interaction and event has to be photographed and broadcast. A third of the richest young billionaires on earth run social media companies! Have we ever needed validation so badly?

We live in a world where there’s a hotel in Japan where you can stay for a dollar a night. The catch: you have to livestream your whole stay—not private stuff, but just regular life. People will tune in on YouTube to watch you put on your socks and floss. Have we ever been so lonely and connection-starved?

Fashion trends change by the minute. The celebrities at breakfast are old news by lunch. One comedian described it well a few years ago: “Everything is perfect, and no one’s happy.”

It is in this world that we need to know we are “not condemned”! If we don’t keep up on the fashion trends, if we take a non-filtered Instagram photo, if we fail completely—we are not condemned—the unconditional love is where it starts.

No condemnation.

The reason we feel like royalty, why we have these colossal, insatiable egos, is because we are royalty! We are the sons and daughters, the sacred bloodline of God. By transplanting himself into us, he makes us who we truly are. Without that connection, we are lost kings and queens who set up our miserable little warring kingdoms all over the place.

Jesus has become like we are so that we can become like him. Paul says he came in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3). He became like us so that he could draw the infection of sin to himself and let it take out all its fury on him—so much so that he died. But sin’s great mission failed. Sin’s masterwork of destruction—to uncreate the Creator himself—was a complete failure.

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3 ESV)

That’s where the condemnation went! “And death shalt be no more; death, thou shalt die,” said the poet John Donne. Death imploded on itself trying to defeat Jesus.

Back to verse 2:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2 ESV)

Here is the transplant—God’s Spirit in us. He ushers us into the family of God. This is the beginning of God’s re-creating purpose in the world, and it starts with us, the uncondemned.

Paul echoes Deuteronomy in the next verses, drawing on an intensive Old Testament background. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses reminds the people of the Law and lays it in front of them with the memorable verse:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19 ESV)

He lays out the moral and ritual law in front of them, essentially telling them that this is what it looks like to be the people of God. This is the law that describes life.

Paul echoes this here in Romans 8:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:5-11)

Life and death. Flesh and Spirit. Peace and disharmony. He lays out the this-and-that like Moses did centuries before.

The underlying fact here is important. When Moses lays out the way of life and death in front of them, there is no question that they are God’s people. There is no discussion of them earning or losing their status as the people of Israel. They are just invited into deeper life with God by following his ways.

The same is true in Romans 8. Paul lays out the way to fully live and live best, and that is the life of depending on God’s Spirit. But it starts with the declaration of “no condemnation.” it’s the declaration that we in Christ are part of God’s family, just as Israel was. We are the continuation of that one, long story of redemption. There is no earning that status and no changing it; there’s only the invitation to go deeper into the life, joy and freedom.

A few points to leave with you today:

  • The status of God’s children doesn’t change. There’s not some sin you can pull or mistake you can make that he doesn’t already know about and that wasn’t already demolished on that cross.
  • God loves your story. He brought Israel through the millennia-long epic of redemption. He even used all the ugly parts and the less-than-great people along the way. He’ll do the same with you—there’s no part of your life that he can’t use to redeem you. He doesn’t want you to be someone else, but you—fully and completely and authentically as he made you.
  • Jesus is the way to life. Just as Moses laid out the way of life, so did Paul—the life of dependence on God’s Spirit, not our own strength. God didn’t put morals, ethics and standards in place so we could “earn” his love. He also didn’t put those standards there to kill your joy, but to call you into it; the joy of loyalty instead of rivalry and back-biting; the joy of sharing and harmony rather than brutal competition and one-upmanship; the joy of purity and commitment rather than promiscuity.

In Christ, you are a new creation. He cleared your connections to God. Let his Spirit flow through you today to heal the world and bring you home to who you really are.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life "Come Drink" Watch video to start
  • Have you ever been to the desert? Have you spent time in a place (ocean, desert, mountain peaks) that doesn’t naturally sustain human life? What’s the experience like?
  • We talked about the “thorns and thistles within” that we experience sometimes in the present day. Our external needs are met, but internally we are dying of thirst. Do you agree? How do we counteract this?
Question for sermon “We, the Uncondemned” Begin by reading Romans 8:1-11
  • This passage begins with the promise: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (v. 1, ESV). That is the foundation of the Christian life—that we can’t be loved any more or any less than we are right now. Does this change or enhance your perspective on what it means to be a Christian?
  • We talked about how the morals and ethics that God lays down for us have nothing to do with whether we are loved and accepted by him. They are the path to living the best life and being the best human beings. Do we think of God’s laws in this way? The gospel says to know Christ is to know life (John 10:10 and elsewhere), not just to “go to heaven” or to “be good.” Does that change our perspective?
  • Christ was not God’s plan B, but was the completion and crescendo of the story. How does that theological fact help us to further understand the Gospels and the character of God?
  • Do you believe God can redeem your story? Have you seen this happen
Quote to Ponder: “If I have a hope, it's that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.” ~~Don Miller

Sermon for July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19a • Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 • Romans 8:12-25 • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The theme for this week is “Where is God?” In Genesis 28, we read the story of Jacob and how he found God where he least expected it. Psalm 139 affirms that God is within us always. Our sermon outline titled “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” features Romans 8, where it discusses how God has chosen us and that suffering is not an indication that we’ve lost that “chosenness.” Last, Matthew 13 uses the parable of the wheat and the tares to show us that God can still be in the midst of a situation even where there is suffering.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Romans 8:12-25

If I say the phrase “Signed, sealed, delivered,” you probably will respond with….”I’m yours.” Many of us are familiar with the song, and some of us might even like to dance to it. But do you know where the phrase “signed, sealed, delivered” came from?

It comes from the process of transferring property where a legal deed was validated by being signed by the seller, then sealed with a wax seal, and ultimately delivered to the new owner. This was before digital signatures and public records, so having a proper legal deed meant these steps had to be taken.

This idea of an official legal commitment can apply to our Scripture reading for today. God is committed to us, though sometimes we allow circumstances to make us doubt that truth. Let’s take a look:

[Read Romans 8:12-25]

What are the key takeaways from this passage? Let’s focus on three:

  • Our choices don’t have to come from our human selfishness.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:12-13)

We don’t owe our fleshly egos anything because we know (from experience, unfortunately) that the choices we make from our human selfishness negatively affect us and anyone around us. We “put to death the misdeeds of the body” by understanding how the choices we make impact ourselves and others. And this is key; if we follow the new commandment to love as Jesus loves, we view people differently. We pay closer attention to how our responses, words and actions affect others. And we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, who will help us choose a more loving path.

  • Our relationship with God enables us to choose wisely.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:14-18)

We have been adopted and chosen by the Father through the Son (i.e., signed, sealed, delivered), so we don’t have to succumb to our selfish and fearful tendencies. The Spirit in us helps us choose differently and affirms our relationship with God. Jesus suffered when he chose love over hate, and we may also. But choosing love over hate will ultimately bring glory to both God and us. We will never lose our chosenness through suffering.

  • We are connected with each other and that connection impacts creation.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

Creation waits for us to fully embrace the new commandment—to love others as Jesus loves us—a way of love that is led by the Holy Spirit. Our love for others impacts creation—we don’t overfish the seas, we don’t deforest the landscape, we don’t pollute the waters because of our love and concern for others. We suffer now as human beings, and creation also suffers. Paul’s point here is not to get us all to be tree huggers, but to see the relationship between what we do and how we treat each other and creation itself. What we do and how we treat each other matters.

Hope gives us patient endurance.

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24-25)

Our hope in God gives us patience when we’re faced with difficult circumstances. It’s this same hope that helps us endure suffering even as we do our best not to cause others to suffer.


  • Know you are chosen and loved by God, and this truth undergirds your life. It is unchanged by your circumstances, your health, your relationships, your struggles. God is for you and wants you to believe that you are never alone.
  • Accept life’s pattern of loss and renewal. Everyone endures seasons of suffering, but we also experience love, beauty, and joy. Sometimes, if we’re paying attention, we will find love, beauty, and joy in the midst of great suffering. That love is the presence of God, affirming that we are never alone. Even Jesus suffered, but as we know from scripture, he was never alone.
  • Look for evidence of God’s presence. While we might think that evidence of God’s presence should look like a miracle where our problems are removed and our situations are healed, often God’s presence appears in small ways: the kindness of a stranger, a call from a friend, a sense of comfort and peace. This evidence is no less impressive despite its lack of pizazz. In fact, developing an awareness of God’s presence transforms us and deepens our relationship with God much more than an instantaneous miracle ever would. Remember how quickly the Israelites forgot how God parted the Red Sea. That’s us, too.

You are “signed, sealed, delivered” by God. Your position of being chosen is not reduced or diminished by the suffering you experience as a human being in this world. Jesus’ example of suffering helps us understand how we can approach pain in this world by knowing—as a deeply held truth—that our loving God is with us through all of it.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you share a short story about how you found God in a place or situation where you would not have expected it?
  • Read Genesis 28:10-19. Sometimes we might not think we “deserve” God’s presence and blessing, as Jacob’s story illustrates. What does this say about our view of God’s character and love?
  • As we experience suffering, we often are surprised to find a greater awareness of God’s presence and blessing in our lives. Why do you think that is?
  • Have you ever considered the cycle of loss and renewal (or death and resurrection) in nature and in our lives? Where have you seen this evidenced in your own life?

Sermon for July 26, 2020

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b • Genesis 29:15-28 • Romans 8:26-39 • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The theme this week is God’s promise story. Our God has entered our story and keeps his promises through to the end. Genesis 29 tells the story of a broken promise by a person and a kept promise by God that brought Jacob and Rachel together, continuing the lineage of Israel (and Christ). Psalm 105 is a hymn of praise reiterating God’s covenant with his people. Matthew 13 talks about the in-breaking of God’s promised kingdom into the world through Christ. Our sermon, “All Things Together” looks at the promises of Romans 8. The crescendo promise is that God works all things together to make us like Christ.

“All Things Together”

Romans 8:26-39 ESV

Read or have someone read Romans 8:26-39 prior to the sermon.

We know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham had been waiting for years—and made his share of mistakes along the way—to be given a child of promise. Isaac was the chosen one through whom God would finally bring his promise to Abraham to fulfillment: he would make him a great nation. Just in time, when all hope seemed lost, God made good on his promise.

And then he asked Abraham to sacrifice the boy! The barbaric tribes around them practiced human sacrifice, but that was one thing that distinguished the God of Abraham. Followers of God sacrificed animals, but the sacrifice of humans—the image-bearers of God—was never done. It was forbidden.

Think of the trust that Isaac displayed. He was a young man, more able-bodied than his father, who was an elderly man by this point. For three days they travelled— Abraham, Isaac, and a few servants.

Finally, they see the mountain where Abraham will make a sacrifice. Isaac finally points out the obvious, “Dad, we have wood and fire, but we don’t have a lamb for the offering. What’s the deal?”

I can’t help but wonder if Abraham was barely able to say the words, “God will provide a sacrifice.” Isaac doesn’t know what’s going on, but he follows along. Abraham builds the altar, still no lamb for the sacrifice. They put the wood up on the altar—still no sacrifice. He gets the rope to bind the animal—still nothing.

Here we see the willingness, the trust, of the relationship of father and son. Isaac lets himself be bound, lays down on the wood, knowing what happens to sacrifices. He’s seen his father do this a hundred times—a frightened innocent animal, a raised knife, a quick movement and then suddenly silence. The heavy smell of blood. He closes his eyes.

Suddenly light—a flash, like someone flipped on the lights when you’re in a deep sleep. A voice from somewhere all around them. He opens his eyes and his father is there, collapsed with relief and weeping. They hear the sound of a ram caught in the bushes next to them.

The story of Abraham and Isaac. God provided a ram in the last moment to be the sacrifice that Isaac was meant to be. God stopped Abraham’s hand as he was about to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Centuries later, another sacrifice was being made. There was wood, there was rope, and there was a lamb, but not one on four legs. There was pain, blood, and a cry of abandonment we can’t even begin to understand. It was as though the heart of the universe was broken.

The hammer is raised, and no one stops it. This time there is no ram caught in the brambles to be a replacement sacrifice. A lonely cry echoes through the air, and there is the smell of blood and the silence of death.

Paul brings these two events together when he says:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32 ESV)

I believe this leads to a great truth: it hurts to really forgive. To forgive someone, to ultimately let their offense go, hurts you. In the end, it will heal you, but in that moment all of you is crying out for justice. This person insulted me! This person left me! They have to hurt for it! Forgiving them means we let that crying out go, it means we choose not to hold onto our need to see justice done. We let them go, and that isn’t easy to do—it’s painful.

We offended God, we sinned and broke our relationship with him. Yet instead of raining that justice down on us, instead of taking it out on us, he took it out on himself. It hurt him to forgive us. This is what happened in Christ.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 ESV)

In the midst of that suffering, that hurt to forgive, Jesus groaned, “Eloi, Eloi….”

It is interesting that today’s Scripture reading begins with a reference to groaning.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26 ESV)

Creation groans, we groan, the Spirit groans—what’s the promise there? That God is with us, groaning as we are. He hasn’t left us alone with just the vague, abstract promise of heaven—he walks with us, his presence is with us.

C.S. Lewis describes it beautifully in his book Mere Christianity. He talks about how God conforms us to the image of Christ, as he calls it, “dressing up as Christ”:

You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretence into a reality. This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result; if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one…

The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 7)

So, here we are continuing to be in the world, continuing to be in the time between the times. And in some way the world itself is here as well—droughts and storms, death and decay. All of creation has been affected by sin; touched by its corruption.

The promise, the great release of Romans 8, is that this painful, isolated time is no longer meaningless, no longer lonely. As creation groans, as we groan, so the Spirit groans with us. God has not taken us out of our suffering but has joined us in it. Just as Christ was resurrected, so will we be resurrected, and so will the universe. Yet in this time of decay and death, even then he is with us.

God is conforming us into the image of Christ. He has taken us into his program—as Lewis says it, “He is beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man.”

One of the most famous verses in this passage here is 8:28. Most of us have memories of this on cross-stitch samplers at grandma’s house:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)

What is this “good” Paul is talking about? Does this mean that your hardships now are going to help you get worldly success in the future? Does this mean that if you get robbed today, you’ll find a million dollars in a suitcase tomorrow? No! “The good,” as Paul writes it, means the good of being transformed into the image of Christ. You might get robbed today, and God will turn even that into good by helping you not to be attached to material things or put your faith in money, but to be more like Jesus.

Painful at times maybe, but this conforming is ultimately our healing. Have you ever seen this poem before? Another cross-stitch sampler for you:

I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to solve.
I asked for prosperity and God gave me brawn and brains to work.
I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome.
I asked for patience and God placed me in situations where I was forced to wait.
I asked for love and God gave me troubled people to help.
I asked for favors and God gave me opportunities.
I asked for everything so I could enjoy life.
Instead, He gave me life so I could enjoy everything.
I received nothing I wanted, I received everything I needed.

When we are conformed to the image of Christ, when we come at life the way he does, life is as it was meant to be. Through the Holy Spirit’s involvement in our lives, God is conforming us to live life as it was meant to be lived.

This is the promise of Romans 8, that we have been adopted into God’s inheritance, and invited into his program. Our old enemies of decay and corruption—even Satan himself—can’t remove us from God’s gracious leading.

The Roman church Paul was writing to was undergoing persecution. They were being socially ostracized and financially pressured, and sometimes worse. Paul wrote to encourage them that all those things—all these stresses they face, could not separate them from God’s love and God’s program of redemption.

That is the crescendo at the end of Romans 8. Paul has sketched out the fact that God himself through the Holy Spirit is in us. We are justified, awaiting resurrection, and in this time, God is forming the image of Christ in us. All of creation waits with us, the entire universe touched and corrupted by sin—groaning.

The final word here is that God’s program will not fail. Nothing will get between us and the love of God—his work in our lives. Nothing is lost! Every detail of our lives can be used by God to redeem us, to bring us further into relationship with him. All of our pain, our fear, our loss, our brokenness can be redeemed, and nothing can get in the way of that happening!

For I am sure that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 ESV)

There’s a lot going on here. It’s one of Paul’s signature lists. “Neither height nor depth” may refer to some astrological symbols that people believed in at the time. It’s Paul’s way of saying fate—specifically people’s superstitions about fate—cannot separate us from the love of God. Even the way things are “supposed” to work can be overturned by his miraculous love.

A lot of this list is pretty abstract to me. I’ve never seen angels and demons, I don’t believe in astrology, I don’t know what it’s like to experience this kind of extreme persecution—some of those things may be more concrete for some of you than they are for me. The one word that has always stayed with me in this passage is LIFE.

“Neither death nor LIFE.” Life seems like it is separating us from the love of God a lot of the time, isn’t it? Friendships lost, kids growing up and leaving home, losing our parents, mental illness, traffic jams, bodies breaking down—yes, life seems to be separating us from the love of God.

No one knew this better than Paul. Paul’s life, especially after his ministry started, was full of these life circumstances. Even as he wrote these words, he seemed to sense that life was going to be very hard for him soon. Soon he would go to Rome, and it might be his last trip, his final journey.

A decade later, the last words Paul wrote are in the end of 2 Timothy. These are the last recorded words we have from Paul. Listen to these words, think of Paul writing them in his prison cell as they’re sharpening the sword for his execution.

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. … When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. … The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen. … Do your best to get here before winter. (2 Timothy 4:9-11, 13, 18, 21)

You can hear the plea. “Come to me, my friend, come to me… remember to give this to someone, to bring this with you… please come to me soon.”

And yet there is at the end a word of triumph: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” All of the harsh, jagged details of his life and his ministry—none of them were lost! None of the pain, none of the losses, none of the loneliness—NONE of it separated him from God’s gracious plan!

Paul could have had it a lot easier—gotten a lot more done, been more effective in our minds—if he hadn’t spent all that time in prison. Instead, he was imprisoned, beaten, kept from seeing most of the people he had pastored. Yet nothing is lost! God used all that happened to him to shape him into who he was, and to shape the church into what it became.

He lived and died knowing that God’s will was being done, that the Lord was with him, that he was right in the middle of God’s hand. And so are we.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “Slow-Release Truth”
  • Have you ever heard a great object lesson that stayed with you for a long time? (i.e. “life is like a box of chocolates” or “the economy works like a waterfall”). Why did it stay with you?
  • Have you ever found it frustrating that Jesus taught in parables? Why do you think he did?
Questions for Sermon: “All Things Together”
  • We talked about C.S. Lewis’ famous quote on “dressing up as Christ” in which Jesus is pointing out things in our lives that need to change as we become more aware of him. Have you ever had this experience? Was it painful or liberating or both?
  • Is it a surprise when we read the famous verse, rendered in the NIV as “God works all things together for the good of those who seek him” (Romans 8:28), that it refers to all things shaping us into the image of Christ? That “the good” doesn’t mean our understanding of good, but God’s understanding? How does that change your understanding of this verse?
  • Romans 8:38 reminds us that “neither death nor life” can separate us from God’s love. Have you ever felt that life itself might separate you from God? Or that you’ve been abandoned by God in life? If your faith was restored, how did that happen?
Quote to Ponder: “Human beings are creatures with a mystery in their hearts that is bigger than themselves.” ~Hans Urs Von Balthasar, theologian