GCI Equipper

Ordinary Time?

In the GCI Worship calendar, we are now under what is called “Ordinary Time”the time between Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday. It’s a time that celebrates the mystery of the church and the mystery of Christ living in us.

The word ordinary can sound boring, simple, and non-energetic, yet most of our days would fall under the category of ordinary time. We don’t celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and special events every day; most of our year is spent living a rather ordinary life—however that looks to each person. This doesn’t imply the rest of the year is less important, less effective, or less essential. It is during this “ordinary time” that our work is done, our projects are completed, our day-to-day life is lived. This is the key to our Christian walk during Ordinary Time.

Let me back up a bit, and then explore “Ordinary Time” in the GCI Worship Calendar.

Ordinary time begins with the beginning of the church at Pentecost and ends with celebrating the anticipation of Christ’s return on Christ the King Sunday. Both of these events would be considered far from ordinary. During Pentecost God showed up in a powerful way through wind and fire and the miracle of tongues. We can only imagine the powerful return of Christ. Other events during this time include Trinity Sunday—where the church gives special attention to the doctrine of the triune God, and All Saints Day—a special day some congregations hold honoring those who have been called home the previous year. Ordinary Time takes up more than half the year—a long time between the major events in Christ’s life and the church. But ordinary doesn’t mean less meaningful. Ordinary time reminds us that God doesn’t just show up in extraordinary ways. God is always present, always working in and through us. And though we may call it ordinary time, with Christ, nothing is ever ordinary. But imagine if it was.

What would the church be like if we really were 24/7 365 day participants with Jesus? What if “ordinary” for a church would consist of that church being a light of Jesus’ love for others all the time, and well known for doing so? What if it would be viewed as unnatural (not ordinary) for a congregation to not have an open door policy, or for a congregation to not have provisions for the poor, or for a church building to not be the gathering place for a community? How cool would it be if we changed what ordinary looks like for the church? How amazing will it be when a GCI healthy church is considered the norm—a new ordinary? Too high an aspiration? I don’t believe so.

I think we also need to look at ordinary time on a personal level. How would my life change if I was so in tune with Jesus’ heart that I wasn’t surprised every time God did something miraculous. Perhaps I wouldn’t call something a miracle because seeing God’s involvement was normal—ordinary? What if my day-to-day life, my work, my projects were all centered around my relationship with Jesus—or more importantly—his relationship with me? What if sharing the love and life of Jesus with others was my ordinary? And this, I believe, is one of our aspirations for Ordinary Time in our GCI Worship Calendar.

The heart of ordinary time is sharing the love and life of Christ with others—it is participating in the mission and ministry of God. It is the time “we reveal his light, we exhibit his life and we embody his love.”[1] This can be said in many ways—it is walking the walk, putting ministry and mission to practice, being the church, being deployed, being the hands and feet of Jesus, being Christ to others, living and sharing the gospel.

At Pentecost, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and were sent out. This was not a one-time event. Jesus lives in us through the Holy Spirit and sends us out to “lose our life for his sake.” He calls us to walk with him to the point it is ordinary. “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

He calls us to be his ambassadors of reconciliation. Every believer is called to love others as Jesus loves us—to give ourselves to others, to enter their place, to share God’s love and life and make disciples. “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:5). Ordinary Time is given to us to reflect on all that Jesus does, is doing, and will do and how being in relationship with him impacts us and others. This is a time of discipleship—focusing on who we are called to be and what we are called to do. It is a time of focusing on the mystery of Christ in us, our hope of glory.

Jesus poured himself out in love, and we know what it is like to be a recipient of that love. We know what it is like to live in the good news! We know what it is like to be forgiven, adopted, loved and included. We are reminded of who Jesus is, what he has done and what he is doing through the rest of the worship year. During Ordinary Time, we focus on how to share the truth of his love with others every day. We want others to be in relationship with Jesus to the point that knowing Jesus’ love becomes ordinary—and yet always extraordinary.

Looking forward to a new ordinary,

Rick Shallenberger

 

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 227.

The Door of No Return

Our Superintendent serving Europe, James Henderson, writes an informative and inspirational letter from his personal experiences. In April 2019 I, along with Kalengule Kaoma and Mat Morgan had the opportunity to tour two of the slave castles in Cape Coast, Ghana. The Atlantic Slave Trade lasted for 300 years, from the 16th through the 19th century. It is estimated that 70,000 slaves per year were trafficked out of West Africa and some 40 castles participated in this inhumane enterprise. Former President Barack Obama was exactly right when he said “it reminds us of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil.”  (GCI President Greg Williams)

Jesus took on the guilt of our evil, and not once did he say, “I didn’t do it.” Protesting my innocence about racism is not the point. Feeling sorrow for the suffering that people who looked like me caused and can still cause is the point.

Written by James Henderson, Superintendent, Europe

Some years ago I visited a few of the infamous slave castles along the coast of Western Africa. These are where captives were “stored” prior to being shipped to the New World (the Americas and the Caribbean) and to other places. I went to see one of the most famous of the castles in Ghana. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and everything seemed right with the world. As my friend, Gabriel, and I entered the gates, children were playing in a carefree way and street vendors tried to sell us richly colored cloths and African souvenirs — it was just like walking into one of the typical Ghanaian markets. I was not prepared for what lay ahead.

The sun was so bright, making everything look clear and the white stone whiter, masking the horrors of the past. We went down to the windowless slave quarters where human beings were locked away in appalling squalor while up above them the governor and his guests were wined and dined. We saw the lightless holes where offenders were kept prior to execution, we promenaded along the ramparts with the cannons facing seaward and we visited the women’s quarters where mothers and daughters had huddled together in abject misery and in fear of rape, death and disease. Then we walked silently to the “Door of No Return”—once slaves passed through this dark heavy door, they boarded the ships, never to return to Africa. Some say that even today the sharks follow the same trails of the slave ships as if instinctively waiting for their human prey to be cast overboard. Slavery was not new to Africa. The Arab slave trade had been in place for centuries before then, and the Africans themselves had also been guilty of selling rival tribal members into bondage. But in sheer numbers, this was much worse. “Between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans” crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century[i].

The ghosts in my mind cried out as I imagined the screams of the women being raped callously by the guards, of the old people being beaten to death because they had outlived their commercial worth, of the helpless children snatched violently from their parents, and of the young men getting their spirit broken by the whippings, the torture, and by the hopelessness of it all. In my mind’s eye I could see the slaves crushed together in the gloomy chambers without natural light and sanitation, frightened, sobbing, praying to gods that did not deliver. I could see them walking slowly to the Door of No Return, some being dragged and kicked there, and then the door closes and they are gone forever from their roots.

“I’m sorry”, I thought—in a way, because of man’s inhumanity to man, I did this. The reality is that I am still capable of doing it. I believe all of us, no matter what our ethnic or gender background, are capable of enslaving and mistreating others. We can all be tyrants: in the home, at work, wherever. Do you suppress your partner, your children, those who don’t look like you, those who don’t think like you? Left to our own devices, each of us is capable of being cruel and of victimizing others.

As I turned back into the main courtyard, I saw a woman, who turned out to be an African American. She was sobbing uncontrollably. She looked at me and I felt accused. Doubly accused, because I am white and male. Suddenly I became defensive. I wanted to tell her I didn’t do this. I didn’t put my fellow men into servile chains and sexually exploit their women. I didn’t do it. I was not even born. The woman stared at me, no words, and I tried to look away, but couldn’t. Maybe this was her grief of a people lost, and I was intruding. “I DIDN’T DO IT!” I screamed in my head.

I’m a Christian, and ­I thought of Jesus. The theory is that Jesus took on the guilt of our evil, and not once did he say, “I didn’t do it”. Protesting my innocence was not the point. Feeling sorrow for the suffering caused by people who looked like me is the point. People who look like me can still cause such suffering. I didn’t do it, but I could have, and there but for the grace of God go all of us, no matter what race or tribe we are.

Probably all of us would like to think that we humans have learned lessons from slavery, in the same way that we could have learned from other atrocities such as genocide. Sadly, history indicates that we don’t learn the lessons. Genocide is still with us; slavery—and racism—have not gone away. Why not? Is it that we do not really change? Behind slavery is the evil of racism, and what really needs to be toppled and laid to rest is racism in all its guises and forms. Racism is just one variant of “my group”ism, which stems from me-ism, which afflicts us all.

Do we still feel an instant prejudice within when we see someone of another race or skin tone, or who dresses in a different way? We react negatively and keep them at a distance. Without spiritual transformation, men and women may progress technologically and scientifically, but human nature does not change without the indwelling presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Because of Jesus, a change in our—yours and mine—human nature is possible now. It’s possible by turning to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and asking him to save us from ourselves, asking him to open your heart to see others as he sees them. No matter your ethnic background, be honest about your racism and other prejudices, and ask him to change how you think so that you think in a loving and inclusive way just like Jesus did. That would make a difference in this uncaring world—to have another Christ-like person walk in it.

It may seem a small start, but that’s how miracles begin. It’s time to close the door on racism, and don’t let it come back. Let’s close that Door of No Return.

[i] https://www.britannica.com/topic/transatlantic-slave-trade

One Blood

That we might be brought to complete unity

By Jeff Broadnax, Regional Director — East U.S.

Picture 1,000 dimes ordered neatly on a table. See yourself lifting the last dime from the bottom right hand corner. Hold it between your thumb and index finger. Look at it against the backdrop of the other 999 dimes arrayed on the table as you consider this finding of the Human Genome Project:

“All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup.”[i]

Science has proven that only one tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up accounts for every difference we see among human beings (things like eye color, height, susceptibility to disease and skin color). Why then do humans choose to divide, devalue, and destroy each other over a dime’s worth of difference?

The apostle Paul pierced the understanding of the thought leaders in Athens by teaching them about the God who, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, NRSV). Through their own poets, he taught these learned people that in God, humans “live and move and have our being” because we are “his offspring.”

As Christians, we accept that all humanity came from one ancestor. We were created by God as one human family, yet with differences we should appreciate and be fascinated by. However, our regular human pattern is to seek racial and cultural superiority over each other. In America, it shows up in black and white racial tension, but Pastor John Perkins offers this insight in his book titled, One Blood:

“The truth is that there is no black race – and there is no white race. So, the idea of ‘racial reconciliation’ is a false idea. It’s a lie. It implies that there is more than one race. This is absolutely false. God created only one race – the human race.” (p.17)

Wow! That initially raises some hairs on the back of my neck. But then the Holy Spirit tells me to not miss the profound truth to this. Absolutely, God does want us to recognize that there are differences among us as human beings. He created us in diversity because of his love for us—after all, everything he does is in love. To not recognize that truth is to deny his supernatural design. He simply wants us to appreciate and keep our diversity within the context of our greater unity.

Our world has neither learned nor embraced our God-ordained oneness. For millennia we have divided, enslaved, brutalized, oppressed, marginalized and dehumanized each other. America today has come face-to-face with centuries of individualized, localized, and systemic mistreatment of people of color.

The problem started in the Garden of Eden with the first brothers and has continued to this very day. This is why Jesus came in the flesh, and through his shed blood redeemed and reconciled humanity’s brokenness, animosity and enmity with God and each other. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul addresses the “us-vs-them” divisions when he writes,

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Eph 2:14-16)

The problem of healing broken human relationships is and always has been beyond our capacity. As Perkins added,

“The problem of reconciliation in our country and in our church is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin in the minds of men.  This is a God-sized problem. It is one that only the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide. And it requires us to make some uncomfortable confessions.”

Repentance and forgiveness are critical to healing deep wounds of racial and societal brokenness. Whether overt or covert, intentional or accidental, active or passive, we each must confess and seek forgiveness for our role in the sin of human separation.

On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed that we “may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23b).

Are we showing the world that Jesus has come as Savior to reconcile all things?

As we navigate the racial and social divisions that seem to infest our culture and our collective journey, may we not simply seek racial reconciliation or even social reconciliation. Let us seek what Perkins called “biblical reconciliation.” He defined it as “the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of loving relationship” (p. 17).

Jesus called it being “One” as he and the Father are one. He made it possible through his shed blood, which is a whole lot more than a dime’s worth of difference.

[i] https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Genetics-vs-Genomics

Time to Break the Silence

It is time to stand up and declare that all people are made in God’s image, all people are redeemed and reconciled to the Father through Jesus, and Jesus is the cure for the evil of racism.

 By Charles Young, GCI Pastor, Atlanta, GA

Have you ever come to a place of decision? A place where the consequences of remaining silent in the face of evil are far greater than standing up and speaking out? There are times in our lives when something happens in our world, or situations occur that are so bad that you cannot and must not remain silent. Such a time is occurring in our nation regarding the issue of race, and the answer is the gospel.

The apostle Paul found himself in that place of decision in Galatians, chapter 2. He either had to remain silent in the face of a very serious concern in the church, or he needed to stand up and get everyone focused on Christ and the gospel. In this letter we are told that Paul confronted Peter, his brother in Christ, over an issue that Paul perceived as being detrimental to the witness and unity of the church. Something that was so bad that Paul could not remain silent. This event occurred in the city of Antioch.

At that time Antioch was the center or base of the new Gentile or non-Jewish Christian church. Some of the churches in Antioch had made such an impact by their witness for Jesus that the Bible tells us in the book of Acts that “in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.”

Politically and socially, Antioch was the perfect city for Jews and Gentiles to enjoy fellowship together in Jesus Christ. When Peter first arrived in Antioch, he discovered Jewish and Gentile Christians fellowshipping together and eating meals together (presumably without regard to Jewish dietary laws). So, Peter joined in and shared meals with the Gentile Christians. However, when some Jewish friends of James came to Antioch from Jerusalem, Peter stopped hanging out with the Gentiles and stopped breaking bread with them.

Why? Peter didn’t want to face criticism. Many Jewish Christians held to the idea that Gentile Christians had to keep the Jewish traditions (Acts 15:1, 5). They believed that circumcision (from the Law of Moses) was still a requirement to be a Christian, so therefore Jewish Christians who had been circumcised could not fellowship (sit down, eat, drink and be merry) with the Gentiles who were not circumcised.

That may not seem like a big deal to us today.

Table fellowship was very important in that society. You didn’t just sit down and eat with people who were racially and religiously different from you. A common meal in the church became “God’s table.” Eating together made people brothers and sisters, and the Jewish Christians were not willing to risk being spiritually contaminated by eating with people whom they believed shouldn’t even be at the table.

There are two important issues to consider here. Two dynamics were at work; two very big issues have divided folks for centuries: religious tradition and ethnicity. These two things are still at the root of many of humanity’s problems today. Religious tradition and ethnic superiority were at work trying to disrupt the unity that the Spirit was forging in the early church.

God never intended for any group of people to think that they were in any way superior to another group of people, or that one group was inferior to another group. When people think that they are superior to, or better than, another human being—when a person refuses to acknowledge that another human being is created in the image of God and should be shown honor, dignity, and love—they allow the sin of racism to reign in their hearts. The result of that thinking is broken relationships, which leads to a broken society or culture. Paul saw how damaging Peter’s actions could be for the wellbeing of the new, thriving church. He felt compelled to confront his brother.

Our country is presently reeling from the effects of systemic racism. Protests in the streets of many of our cities against racial injustice have been taking place for weeks. I hold to the opinion that what we need in this moment in our current place and time in history is a bigger focus on Jesus and more Pauls in the pulpit.

What happens when we don’t confront racism in the church—and yes, unfortunately it does exist within the body of Christ—and in the culture? If racism is not snuffed out it will spread like leaven. Peter’s actions led other Jewish Christians—even Barnabas—to follow his lead and separate themselves from the Gentile Christians. When church leaders are silent, this influences other Christians, and the good news of Jesus Christ is not proclaimed as it should be.

As Christians, when we see things that have the potential to do harm to the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to stand up and speak out! When we see things that do harm to our neighbor, to the poor, the least of these, our fellow man or woman, we need to stand up and speak out!

The truth of the good news is that all people, black, white, brown, and yellow are accepted by God not because of anything they have done or can do, but solely on the basis of God’s grace shown in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. All are made in his image and all are equal in him. There are no superior people and there are no inferior people. No one is excluded from the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Peter’s conduct compromised this principle, for it implied that there could be a superiority in some Christians based on religious tradition or race. The situation had affected the whole church at Antioch and had to be addressed publicly and decisively in order to resolve the church’s disunity.

We are at a similar crossroad today. If Christ followers don’t stand up and speak out about issues that need to be addressed, our silence only adds to the problem.

On a personal note: When I was a child, my family lived in Birmingham, AL, in the early 1960s. It was at the height of the civil rights movement, a time of severe racial strife in our country. Back in the 60’s, Birmingham was known as “Bombing-ham” because of all the black businesses, black churches and black homes that were being bombed by white racists. I often ran home from school with my sisters and classmates in fear, because of early dismissal because the school received another bomb threat.

When I was a little boy, my family spent many nights sleeping on our living room floor huddled together, instead of sleeping in our bedrooms and in our beds, because my dad wanted all of us to be in the same space, the same room, in case we had to run out of the house if our house or our neighbor’s house was bombed.

We didn’t live far from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little black girls, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Carol McNair, and Cynthia Wesley, were killed when the church was bombed. Every now and then I say their names out loud, to keep their memories alive for me.

It took that horrific church bombing and the death of those four precious little black girls for some people to finally break their silence regarding systemic racism in America.

As I think about the protests that we have seen the past few weeks, my heart hurts. There is a lot of pain in my community. We hope against hope that this will be the turning point in our nation. That we will finally have some serious conversations around race in this country followed by taking serious action to make the necessary changes that are desperately needed. But if we don’t focus on Jesus and the good news he brought, we have no hope.

I can’t help but be disappointed by the silence from the voices of so many people of influence. I am disappointed that many spiritual leaders in the body of Christ have chosen to remain silent. Systemic racism and racial injustice is rampant in our country, partly because of a failure in our churches to preach the message of Jesus—that all are created equal, that all are loved, that all are forgiven, that all are included and race should never be a factor in that.

It is past time for all of us—black, white, brown, red and yellow—to be united in standing up and sharing the good news of Jesus, and by doing so, speaking out strongly in the face of systemic racism and racial injustice in our country! It is especially important that the message be heard from our white pastors and church leaders.

It is time to stand up and speak out against racial injustice.

It is time to stand up and declare that all people are made in God’s image.

It is time to stand up and proclaim that in Jesus Christ all people are redeemed and reconciled to the Father.

And it’s time for all of us to stop being silent and stand up, show up, and speak out proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the cure for the evil of racism.

It’s time to break the silence!

Gospel Reverb – Stand Firm in the Lord w/ Josh McDonald

Video Transcript

Stand Firm in the Lord with Josh McDonald Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Josh McDonald, unpack these lectionary passages:

October 4      Philippians 3:4b – 14            “Christianity is for Losers” October 11    Philippians 4:1-9                  “Stand Firm in the Lord” October 18    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10      “Imitation Formulation” October 25    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8        “Declaration in Opposition
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!

Stand Firm in the Lord with Josh McDonald

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Josh McDonald, unpack these lectionary passages:

October 4    Philippians 3:4b – 14       “Christianity is for Losers”

October 11   Philippians 4:1-9              “Stand Firm in the Lord”

October 18   1 Thessalonians 1:1-10   “Imitation Formulation”

October 25  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8    “Declaration in Opposition

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!

Re-gathering w/ Mat Morgan & Pam Morgan

Video Transcript

“You need to have a group of people who are working with you through that process (regathering) ... That is why we are Team Based- Pastor Led, because we want that team to be a part of the process. It gets everyone on board for whatever is going to take place – when and how you will re-open.” -Pam Morgan, GCI Operations Coordinator   Main Points:

  • How have you seen God at work amid this pandemic? (2:19)
  • What role do local government guidelines play in a church’s decision to resume in person worship services? (4:39)
  • What factors should pastors consider before regathering? (6:36)
  • What may be different when we gather in person? (15:00)
  • How might accommodations be made for children’s ministry? (23:10)
Resources:

 

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Pam and Mat Morgan who both serve in the GCI-Home Office and in the Grace Communion Hickory congregation. Together they discuss best practices for navigating this pandemic and re-gathering strategies.

“You need to have a group of people who are working with you through that process (regathering) … That is why we are Team Based- Pastor Led, because we want that team to be a part of the process. It gets everyone on board for whatever is going to take place – when and how you will re-open.”
-Pam Morgan, GCI Operations Coordinator

 

Main Points:

  • How have you seen God at work amid this pandemic? (2:19)
  • What role do local government guidelines play in a church’s decision to resume in person worship services? (4:39)
  • What factors should pastors consider before regathering? (6:36)
  • What may be different when we gather in person? (15:00)
  • How might accommodations be made for children’s ministry? (23:10)

Resources:

Sermon for September 6, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2041 | Putting On Christ Greg Williams If you spend any time in the letters of Paul, you see a pastor’s heart. Paul spends long periods of time in all the places he went as a missionary—sometimes months, sometimes years—and then he spent more years discipling them through his letters. His connection to the churches reminds me of the bonds I shared with the congregation I pastored for 15 years. When they were sending me off with an appreciation lunch one of the leaders said, “We are not only losing a pastor but a friend as well.” Paul became their friend. And sometimes as their friend, Paul was the gentle guide, encouraging almost any amount of progress. Other times he was the football coach telling folks to lead, follow, or get out of the way! He sometimes used stern words to encourage these fledgling churches toward transformation. In Romans 13, among several other places, he touches on this theme: But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:14 (ESV) Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Put on the Lord Jesus’ thoughts. Put on his actions; put on his love. This was a constant theme for Paul: you are in Christ, nothing is going to change that, now BE who you already ARE. It isn’t something you work up on your own power. It is saying yes to the one who first said yes to you. It is returning love to the one who first loved you. Then Paul, through the presence and power of Jesus in him, coaches, encourages, prods, and pokes them to transform into the image of Christ by imitating Christ as they walk in relationship with him. It reminds me of the scene in The Shack where Jesus and the main character, Mack, walk on water. At first, Mack is tentative, even holding onto Jesus, and then together they vigorously run across the lake. When they are preparing to return, Mack presses his foot against the water’s surface and Jesus glances over and says this powerful phrase “It always works better when we do it together, don’t you think?” Later, Jesus adds to the conversation, “If you try to live this without me, without the ongoing dialogue of us sharing this journey together it will be like trying to walk on the water by yourself you can’t! And when you try, however well-intentioned, you’re going to sink.” How can we continue the ongoing dialogue in our friendship with Jesus? How can we imitate him and begin to see transformation in our daily lives? Start by seeing others as God’s beloved and yield to the Spirit’s encouragement to always respond in love. Then watch a change happen in your own life. What habits, addictions, and unkind behavior are being healed as you “put on Christ”? It is in the daily walk and relationship with Jesus in which we are formed. May you enjoy your walk with Jesus today and every day forward. And don’t try walking on water without him. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 149 • Exodus 12:1-14 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20

The theme for this week is the God who passes over. The first reading, Exodus 12, describes the literal Passover, when God liberated Israel and passed over them and crushed Egypt. Psalm 149 describes this gracious God taking pleasure in his less-than-perfect people and “adorning the humble with victory.” In Matthew 18, Jesus gives instructions for restoring someone in sin to the community. Romans 13, on which our sermon is based, centers on the gracious ways of a gracious God.

Putting On the Lord

Romans 13:8-14 ESV

Read, or have someone read Romans 13:8-14 ESV.

Daniel Day-Lewis is an English actor best known for his role in Last of the Mohicans and Lincoln. He’s considered one of the greatest actors of all time and is known for being a method actor. In his acting practice, he immerses himself so deeply in a role that he essentially “is” the person—in dress, speech, habits—the whole time the movie is being filmed. For months, he basically “puts on”—lives as his character.

This led to some interesting anecdotes from people who worked with him. Among the highlights:

  • He played a paraplegic and had to be carried around the set or used a wheelchair.
  • He got pneumonia playing a 19th-century character because he wouldn’t wear a modern coat in the cold.
  • He sent text messages to Sally Field as Abraham Lincoln.
  • He taught himself to speak Czech so his character would have a believable Czech accent.
  • He built canoes by hand and trapped and skinned animals for his role as a Native American.

…and there are many more. Over his career, he became so at one with his characters that he would take on their attributes, live in their skin. This led to some of the best acting in history, and some of the most memorable roles of the last fifty years.

Twice in this passage from Romans 13, Paul tells us to “put on” something:

  • Verse 12:  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 

  • Verse 14: But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Like Daniel Day-Lewis puts on the characteristics of the person he is to portray, we are to “put on” the armor of light and the attributes of Christ until it becomes who we are. This is a central theme for Romans and all of Paul’s writing: identity. But this is to be a permanent change, not a temporary “put-on.”

Let’s look at our identity in Christ as it is described in Romans 13. Paul describes our change in position with God bringing us to our change — like Day-Lewis with his amazing acting career— in character.

Let’s look at three ideas today:

  • the terms of salvation
  • The time of salvation
  • The task of salvation.

But before that, we need to discuss the word “salvation.” For Paul and the rest of the New Testament, salvation didn’t only refer to the transactional discussion of going to heaven or hell. Salvation is a lifelong process, involving our “saving” on ethical, moral, emotional and spiritual levels. Salvation works through us over years and culminates in our union with Christ after death or at his return.

Reading salvation in this holistic, three-dimensional understanding helps the New Testament—and life itself—make more sense.

First, the terms of salvation. 

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8 ESV)

Earlier in the chapter Paul goes into his famous discussion of how the government is appointed by God. He ends that, transitioning into our passage with a discussion about paying taxes: “owe nothing to anyone.”

This discussion led to centuries of debate over how to react to and live under authorities, especially when they are immoral and oppressive. I won’t discuss that here, but it’s an important conversation no matter which time you occupy in history.

The most important undercurrent in this discussion is that the government is appointed by God, controlled by God, and entirely at his mercy. This was an extremely scandalous thing to send in a letter to Rome—the epicenter of Caesar’s rule. Everyone in the empire was required to not only obey Caesar, but also to worship him in the emperor cult as a god.

Paul pulls the rug out from under this by saying not only that Caesar is not a god, but that he is entirely the instrument of God. He is simply God’s tool. Whether or not he knows it, God can give and take the empire to Caesar as he sees fit.

Paying taxes was an issue for those under the Jewish law. It was a point of contention with all occupied people (still is!), but especially for Jews who tried to distance themselves from Roman culture. Paul ends this discussion of politics with almost the throw-away statement: pay your taxes, owe nothing to anyone.

That’s because it doesn’t matter. The empire doesn’t matter. None of these trappings of human striving that seem important matter in the end. Pay your taxes here, but your real citizenship is elsewhere.

Paul then goes into this section about love:

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10 ESV)

Love your neighbor, love God—this sums up the Law. Does that sound familiar? Paul is quoting Jesus. He’s saying that LOVE sums up the law and covers the law. He could write a dictionary sized volume on how to treat your neighbor (don’t lie, cheat, steal, ridicule, cut off in traffic) or he, like Jesus, could simply say love your neighbor.

Paul is continuing, subtly, his undercutting of Roman authority and the cult of the empire. One of the titles they gave Caesar was Lord, sometimes calling him “Lord of Lords,” and Paul ends this section by reiterating the full title: the Lord Jesus Christ. He also tells them that Caesar is God’s plaything and then gives the rules for the true city where they are true citizens: Love God, love neighbor.

He undermines the authorities of the day and quotes what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments: Love God, love others.

This is a discussion of identity, our identity in Christ. Paul takes the corner pillars of their lives—the Roman empire and the Jewish law—and says that Jesus is greater, stronger and better than these things. They are only instruments in his scarred hands.

What are the pillars of identity in our world that we need to look past? How do we need to look beyond these powers that be to the Lord behind them who holds it all in his hands?

Your true identity is not an American. You are not a Republican. You are not a Democrat. You are a Christian, a child of God, adopted into his royal family. You are all those other things second; you are a child of God first.

Adjust for your own country, obviously, using citizenship or political affiliation.

You are not identified by your job or any of your relationships, and you are certainly not identified by your past. This fundamental shift in WHO you are will lead to changes in HOW you are. When you come to Christ, your first question shouldn’t be “What do I do now?” but “Who am I now?”

So, the terms of salvation: your cosmic identity has changed fundamentally, you are no longer your own, nor anyone else’s, but Christ’s.

Second, the time of salvation. 

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11-12 ESV)

The Greeks had two words for time. Chronos—from which we get the word “chronology,”—which simply means the passage of time—second by second and day by day. The other word, kairos, refers to the moment of decision, the time for action—it means time in which we should be moving.

This is the word Paul uses here, “Besides this, you know the kairos.” You know that this is the time of action, the time to get going. So, not only has knowing Christ changed our identity, he has changed our timeline.

The night is far gone; the day is at hand. (verse 12 ESV)

The kingdom is here and now, the kingdom is on its way as well. It is already, but not yet. Paul is calling them to realize that even Rome won’t last forever, the Lord himself is in charge of the times. We are in the time of promise, and we wait for the promise to be fulfilled as well.

What does it mean that even the most powerful and imposing of our accomplishments, our trials and our tribulations, is temporary? How can we wake up to that reality—the fact that the moment, the kairos, is now and not somewhere far off?

Think of Howard Hughes, one of the most famous billionaires and richest men in history. He made millions into billions; his fortune in one-dollar bills would cover 28 square miles! Yet his mental health collapsed. At the end, he cowered in hotel rooms unable to even look out the window. We can’t judge the state of his soul, but it seems that he, and so many of us, don’t look beyond these towers and palaces we build to the powerful realities behind them, and the fact that all of them will fall eventually.

Wake up. You live as a child of God in a world that will pass away when his kingdom is fully established. He is already Lord, and we live in the time between the first coming of Jesus and the second.

Third, the task of salvation 

So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:12-14 ESV)

So, the terms of salvation discuss our change in identity. The time of salvation is now, calling us to wake up because the day has dawned. We come to the task of salvation—we did the WHO and the WHEN and now we come to the WHAT.

We always get jumpy about “tasks” when it comes to our faith because it sounds like “works.” We get worried that we are referring to working our way into heaven.

But we are already past that. Our identity is changed by our faith in and connection with Christ. Nothing can change that. We are invited to live the deeper and better life of knowing Christ.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10 ESV)

Jesus calls us to this life—he knows how life works and human beings work best. It was all his idea. He became like we are so that we might become like he is. He put on sin and loss and even death so that we could put on him.

As we act like him, we become more like him. But it’s not a matter of earning salvation—it’s a matter of experiencing the deeper life in Christ.

May God help us “put on the Lord, Jesus Christ.”


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon: 
  • Have you ever acted in a play? What was it like to pretend to be someone else? (Share stories)
  • We talked first about how knowing Jesus is a change in identity. What does it mean to focus first on who we are before we focus on what we do?
  • We talked about how knowing Jesus changes our timeline. Does it change daily life to know that everything—good or bad—is temporary? Does that give us a kind of freedom?
  • We talked about the task of salvation being to “put on” Christ like a character in a play, until it changes who we are. What does this mean? Do you have an example of this in your own life?
Questions for Speaking of Life:
  • Paul always encourages us to BE who we already ARE in Christ. How do we do that in our everyday life? Will it make a difference in our lives over time? Has it made a difference in yours?
  • “Putting on Christ” is a mix of discipline and God’s uncanny grace. Have you ever seen this connection—your own efforts being multiplied in his hands?
Quote to ponder: “Jesus has now many lovers of the heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of the cross.” - Brother Thomas a Kempis, German monk, 15th century 

Sermon for September 13, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2042 | Ripples in the World Cara Garrity Have you ever skipped stones across a body of water? If you do it just right, the stone jumps across the water a few times before it finally sinks. When it does sink, the stone sends ripples through the surface of the water. I like to think about my words as stones that I’m throwing out into the world. In this day of social media, we can think about our words (or our posts) as stones that we are casting out into our communication world—both in and out of the social media “lake.” It might seem funny to start a lot of ripples with a witty judgmental post or two, especially if you’re feeling bored and out of touch. Or to spread some juicy gossip as some real-life cyber warfare. But the Bible encourages us to consider how offhand comments might be a form of judging others; and can certainly be interpreted as judgmental. When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, they were struggling with judging each other based on what they were willing to eat. Some preferred vegetarianism and others would eat meat. Here’s how the apostle Paul addressed their issue with judging each other: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Romans 14:1-4 (NRSV) Paul makes an important point that the issues we often tend to judge others on are not that important to God, and if they are important, the truth will be revealed to them in God’s time. What type of ripples are you sending out into the world with your words—either spoken or written? Let’s consider the intent and impact of our words, and may we send out ripples of positive communication full of gentleness and joy, reflecting the great love of Jesus for all human beings everywhere. I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 114:1-8 • Exodus 14:19-3 • Romans 14:1-12 • Matthew 18: 21-35

The theme for this week is living grace fully which encourages us to move through the world with more thoughtfulness and kindness. Ex. 14:19-31 and Ps. 114 tell the story of the parting of the Red Sea, and we can see how recognizing God’s grace in our own lives can strengthen our belief. This week’s sermon outline is based on Rom. 14:1-12, where the issue of judgmentalism is dealt with squarely by Paul, convicting us to hold our personal preferences and opinions lightly and leave the bigger issues for God to correct. Lastly, Matt. 18:21-35 talks about extending grace to others and what real forgiveness looks like.

Living Grace Fully

Romans 14:1-13

If you have a young child available to participate, you could act the following scene out.

I recently watched a video about a father who held up two apples at snack time before his five-year-old girl and asked, “Which one would you like?” His daughter reached out, took both apples, and bit into each one. He couldn’t believe it. He was thinking, “This isn’t like her. She usually shares with others. Where did she learn this selfish behavior?”

The father was jolted out of these thoughts when his little girl said, “Here, Dad. You take this one,” handing him one of the apples. “That one is sweeter and juicier,” she said. “You’ll like it.”

Have any of you ever made an assumption about someone else that turned out to be incorrect? I know I have.

Share a time you made a wrong assumption and ask members to share some examples of when they made a wrong assumption, or one was made about them.

It seems we are often quick to see any idea that falls outside what we are used to as “wrong.” Wouldn’t it be better to reframe that idea as simply different from what we are used to? The church at Rome had this issue over whether to eat meat or only vegetables or whether to observe or not observe certain holy days. Let’s check out our Scripture reading in Romans 14:1-13. [read scripture]

What can we observe about the text?

  • Paul’s use of the words “strong” and “weak” can give us the impression that eating meat was better than not eating meat and not observing special holidays was better than observing special holidays. In this context, the people who were not eating meat or who may have been observing certain holy days were doing so because they thought God wanted them to and they saw those practices as an expression of their devotion. Those who had no problem eating meat or not observing certain holy days recognized that God was OK with them as they were and didn’t feel the need to take part in such practices. it was an issue of conscience in devotion to God. Each person would be “accountable” to God (v. 12), and while the word “accountable” might sound ominous, it is Paul’s way of teaching us that God looks at things according to our intention more than the actual practice.
  • By judging each other for those expressions of devotion, or the lack of them, believers were creating division, “stumbling blocks” to transformation, and forgetting that all brothers and sisters are in Christ—which is far more important than the foods we eat or the days we worship “to the Lord.” The center of the discussion here is Jesus Christ—not judging how others center their lives around him. By comparing themselves, they were creating a false ranking system rather than seeing that in Christ, we are all equal in righteousness, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who Jesus is.

Application:

  • Examine your own motives and intentions: Why do you do certain practices in your worship of God? Do you do them because you think God will be displeased if you don’t? Or do they draw you closer to God by making you more aware of the Holy Spirit residing in you? We all think our view of God and our preferred way of worship is the “right one,” without considering that everyone else thinks the same thing, too. If our practices are an expression of love and devotion rather than a fear-based legalism, we should understand that others’ practices probably come from their unique self-expression.
  • Recognize that we make assumptions about others’ behavior, and they aren’t always accurate. Think back to the story at the beginning and notice how the little girl’s actions were interpreted negatively as a first response, but later those assumptions were revealed to be false. The next time you find yourself judging another person in a negative way (and we all do it), try to stop and think of an alternative that is more positive yet feasible. For example, the father in the story could have asked the girl what he should eat for a snack, opening up the discussion for her to explain what she was doing.
  • Seek to understand rather than persuade. Instead of trying to persuade others to worship God in your preferred way or view God as you do, seek to understand their unique point of view without assigning labels of “good” or “bad.” Challenge yourself to listen, and rather than stating your own opinion or preference, ask questions to encourage the other person to share or make statements that encourage more detail, such as “Tell me more.” Become curious about others and how they view or worship God, recognizing that God is magnified when your own views are expanded enough to hold in loving acceptance what is worshipful to another.
  • Look for things that might be stumbling blocks or obstacles for others. As we build relationships with others, we become aware of sensitivities that could become stumbling blocks. In order to not cause offense, and to avoid building obstacles, we determine to give up some of our own “rights” for the sake of others.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (Romans 14:13)

It takes humility to recognize our biases, and sometimes we are hit in the face with them, just like the father in the opening story. By understanding that we have this tendency to judge and judge negatively, we can choose differently. We can decide to hear about others’ worship practices and devotion to God without needing to share our own. As we do this over time, we will develop more compassion, which is the very mind of Christ. Further, we learn to love others as Jesus loves us.

For reference:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAfq6yLdXLU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji5CB0UDFLQ


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the Speaking of Life video, it compares the power of our words to ripples created by a stone dropped in water, and sometimes our words can be perceived as judgmental, particularly in the case of unasked-for advice. What strategies do you have for avoiding negative communication and keeping communication positive, either in person or online?
  • Have you ever had a humbling experience where you made an assumption that turned out to be wrong? If so, tell us about it.
  • Have you noticed that certain words, like “strong” or “weak,” can have connotations that might be hurtful to others? If so, what other words can you think of that people might use in conversation without realizing that they might be hurtful?
  • Not only does judging others cause division or hurt feelings in the church, but how might judging others hinder your own transformation?
  • Why do you think that people, including Christians, are always trying to persuade others to embrace their personal opinion about God, politics, etc.? Why do we need that validation of our personal beliefs?
  • What are some stumbling blocks or obstacles Christians might use?

Sermon for September 20, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2043 | Belly of the Whale Greg Williams In 1891, in the black, cold waters off the Falkland Islands, a whaling boat was attacked by a giant sperm whale. One of the sailors went missing. A day later—or a few days depending on who you ask—the whale was captured and its stomach cut open. Here’s a report from one of the sailors on deck: “Out came a boot on a trousered leg and there was James Bartley….” His skin was bleached white and he was nearly blinded by the digestive acids in the whale’s stomach. He went on to live another 18 years and now rests under a tombstone which reads, “James Bartley – a Modern Day Jonah.” Well, whatever you might think of this fascinating story, it certainly sticks in your mind. There’s been plenty of doubt cast on it, as well as several retellings that don’t quite add up, and yet it’s still an image that stays with us. Almost everyone knows the story of Jonah and the whale—a story that should make us think and rethink about the way we look at God and the way we look at our place in the grand narrative of the world. Jonah is unique because it is essentially a story of a story. Most prophet books are about the words the prophet brings. This book is about the prophet who brings the words. The wider context is important: Jonah was sent to Nineveh to tell them to repent. Nineveh was a sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah didn’t want to see them repent and be saved from destruction, so he fled to sea. When a violent storm arose, he told the sailors he was to blame and they should cast him overboard. He was swallowed by a whale and regurgitated on land three days later. He fulfilled the mission he was given and then got angry when the city repented and God forgave them. He screams out at God at the end of the book: But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Jonah 4:1-2 (ESV) Even after Jonah tried to commit suicide, God turns the whole thing on its head to get his merciful will done. The underlying message here is that God will use anything—even a lost whale with indigestion—to bring us, and others through us, to himself. That’s good news! Have you ever been swallowed up? Spat back on the sand with your skin bleached white and your eyes nearly blinded? God can use every one of our belly-of-the-whale circumstances: addiction, challenging relationships, sickness, to meet us again and again. He can use anything to fulfill the purpose he has in you. So where and how is God meeting you? I’m Greg Williams. Speaking of life.

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Exodus 16:2-15 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16

The theme this week is the God who sustains us. In Exodus 16, we see Israel liberated from Egypt, sustained by God in the desert with the gift of manna. Psalm 105 is the hymn of praise about this exodus, retelling the story. Matthew 20 is the parable of the rich landowner who provides payment and sustenance to whomever he wishes. Philippians 1, on which our sermon is based, tells about God’s refreshing strength for us in a tired and broken world.

An Open Door in a “No Exit” World

Philippians 1:21-30 ESV

Read, or have someone read the text prior to the sermon:

Jean Paul Sartre, French atheist existentialist philosopher, wrote a play on the human condition called No Exit. This terrifying absurdist tale is about three people who end up in hell, but hell ends up being a locked room in which they can’t leave. There is no torture, no fire, but there’s also no change, no windows and no explanation as to where they are or what’s happening. They slowly drive each other crazy.

Each of them is escorted there by a mysterious valet who, chillingly, never blinks and provides only esoteric answers to their questions:

VALET: Can’t you see? The lights are on.
GARCIN: Ah, yes, I’ve got it. It’s your daytime. And outside?
VALET: Outside?
GARCIN: … you know what I mean. Beyond that wall.
VALET: There’s a passage.
GARCIN: And at the end of the passage?
VALET: There’s more rooms, more passages, and stairs.
GARCIN: And what lies beyond them?
VALET: That’s all.

{Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit, Act 1, Opening Scene}

That’s all. And that, for Sartre, is hell and also the human condition on earth. No exit. No release. Every time we try to find release from this world in which everything gets old, everything tarnishes and frustrates, we just end up back in that locked room. Back in that place where there is no rest, and no one blinks. And outside of that room it’s just more of the same.

Paul is in prison as he wrote these words to the church at Philippi. He’s not necessarily in danger or being tortured, he’s even allowed visitors, but he cannot leave. Just like Sartre’s brutal metaphor for the human condition, Paul is in a place where his life might not be in danger, but he is deprived of his freedom.

It’s here that Paul writes what has been called “the happiest book of the Bible”! In a few chapters, he writes some of the most joyful encouragement in the New Testament, lifting up a small, disoriented community and calling them to God’s greater plan outside of their circumstances.

Let’s look at three points today from this passage and how we can learn from the imprisoned Paul, who was really free:

  • True freedom
  • True citizenship
  • True perspective

True Freedom

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 ESV)

First, let’s look at Paul’s true freedom. The terror of Sartre’s play is not that they are tortured and even bothered by their captors—they simply don’t have their freedom. There is no relief. As Saint Augustine, one of our most well-known church fathers, said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts don’t find rest until they rest in you.”

This play brings into sharp focus the unease of being human—we are driven to look for fulfillment and relief from the sameness of life but can never find it. New careers, new relationships, new intellectual pursuits—they all eventually get old and tired and we have to look for a new distraction. We can end up like Marie Antoinette, a princess who had more riches and power than any of us ever will, who said about her lavish world, “Nothing tastes.”

But true freedom is what Paul, and saints throughout history, have celebrated in Christ. It’s the freedom that we know we aren’t going to be fulfilled by this world and are made for another world. This is the key to the deeper, better, freer life we have in Christ that we cannot achieve by looking for relief in the No Exit world in which we live.

Knowing we will be complete only in Christ, and fully complete only when he comes again, allows us to live with a true freedom in this world. Further, this frees us from expecting our children, spouse, or job to completely fulfill us and deliver us from the “dailyness” of daily life. We can let these experiences and people be what they are.

C.S. Lewis describes our freedom in Christ: “A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain” (The Weight of Glory). The door has opened in the terrible No Exit world.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36 ESV)

Paul experiences this kind of freedom even more deeply. He’s come to the place where he’s completely free, even from the fear of death:

For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21 ESV)

Paul is truly free. Even death holds no fear for him, and life means the company of the Lord. In the end, he’s even free of his own desires. He wants to depart and be with Christ, but he stays there so he can serve others.

Do you know this freedom? This freedom from the windowless passage after passage that Sartre describes? And then to so live in the freedom that even death itself holds no fear?

The world offers it, telling us that a new relationship, a new look, a new pair of shoes will finally free us. But each time we end up back in that locked room. Christ is the key, the door and the only one who can open it.

True Citizenship

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27, ESV)

To grasp Paul’s point here, we need to look at citizenship. It’s helpful to know the context in which Paul was writing at the time. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia, and a community known for Roman nationalism. Retired Roman soldiers were a big part of the population—the symbol of their power, living on their pensions.

Roman citizenship, as we see in other places in Paul’s life, was a sought-after commodity. It meant better treatment by the soldiers, less taxes and other privileges and protections. It was also universal, at least in the ancient world. You could be a Roman citizen living or temporarily dwelling hundreds of miles from the city itself, and yet your citizenship rights would still hold.

Because of Paul’s interaction with communities occupied by Rome, he often used citizenship language. In Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and other letters, he uses metaphors of citizenship. Paul reminds us that we are “citizens of heaven,” essentially a colony here on earth awaiting the return of the true emperor and king Jesus.

Early Christians used Roman language and imagery to convey the truth of the gospel regularly. Think of the title people gave Caesar as “kings of kings” and “lord of lords.” This title was taken by the Christian community to express the true power of Christ.

One of Paul’s main themes throughout his writing is this: “be WHO you already ARE.” He encourages us to fully embrace our royal strength and heritage in Christ, and to conduct ourselves as citizens of heaven on earth. His use of the term “citizen” here would be as scandalous as it was familiar. Even though we are citizens far from home, our rights and privileges are still in place. No matter where we are, we are to live as citizens of heaven, in a manner worthy of the gospel.

The verses preceding this section speak to the citizenship metaphor as well:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:18-20 ESV)

Paul says here that he rejoices “with full courage.” This is a Greek phrase talking about the free, open speech enjoyed by citizens. He speaks with the confidence of someone who knows his true citizenship, despite being a prisoner and part of a small religious minority that no one had ever heard of at the time. His citizenship is in heaven. His job, his focus, is to honor Christ—now in this life as a citizen of heaven, and even by death, where he attains his full citizenship.

What does it mean to speak and live with this kind of confidence and freedom? What does it mean to live as citizens of heaven in our world? Do we embody a different set of values and navigate by different coordinates than those outside the gospel?

Here’s an odd example from the world of American fast food—not usually a place we think of as gospel-centered. The fast food chain Chick-Fil-A is famous, not just for good chicken, but also for being closed on Sundays. Founded by Christians and on Christian values, they felt called to close Sunday as a day of rest for themselves and their employees.

Some of the largest chains that compete with them, on every corner in the U.S., have commented that their business would have been devasted if Chick-Fil-A was open on Sundays. They wouldn’t be able to compete.

So even in the cutthroat world of capitalist food service, there is a simple witness for Christ. Despite a chance at more money and less competition, they have decided to use Sundays for rest and consequently allowed these other restaurants to continue to exist, showing the love and gentleness of a heavenly citizenship.

True Perspective

Finally, let’s look at true perspective. Again, Paul is in prison here, a Roman prison, which was no picnic. The prisons we have today look like four-star resorts compared with those in Paul’s day. You would imagine that Paul would rather be anywhere except prison. Yet he keeps things in perspective, and I believe this is one of the main points of this passage.

If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:22-26 ESV)

It would be a lot easier to go to Christ—to be free of all the burdens of this life and to live fully in the kingdom and thus experience all the blessings of our true citizenship. However, Paul realizes what is best for him is not best for others. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Paul realizes God has called him to remain so that others will have “cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” He also realizes this is not an easy road—for him or for others who chose to follow Christ. So he tells them to live a life worthy, and then he tells them to not be frightened as they face suffering.

This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:28-30 ESV)

Knowing your citizenship is in Christ, knowing your freedom is because of Christ, don’t allow your opponents or your fear to guide you. Yes, you will suffer for his sake, “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had.” In spite of Paul being in prison and often suffering at the hands of those opposed to him, he never lost perspective. He realized his suffering was for the sake of Jesus. Because he loved Jesus, he suffered. Because he loved others, he suffered. His suffering was not just physical—it was primarily a heart issue. He grieved for others.

It’s a mistake to assume all references to suffering refer to dealing with physical harm. Suffering can be physical, we are quite aware of this, but Jesus’ suffering was not limited to the physical suffering he endured prior to his death. Jesus didn’t weep over Jerusalem because he was in physical pain, but because his heart hurt for those he loved. He felt the pain of desertion when the disciples fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, and he grieved over Peter’s denial, but it wasn’t grief just for himself. Jesus never lost the true perspective that he came for others. He grieved because he knew the guilt and shame Peter would feel. He grieved and suffered over the lack of faith he saw, knowing what the disciples and others would face in the days, weeks and years ahead. His heart broke over the lostness he saw in others, the searching and not finding. He suffered because he loved.

How many times have we shed tears over our children because we know the decisions they make and the paths they choose will cause them pain? How often do we cry over the suffering of others because they believe there is no hope and no help—because they have placed themselves in a metaphorical No Exit room.

Paul reminds us to keep a true perspective on things. This is not our world. The suffering we face is temporary. We can’t save or fix ourselves, and we can’t save or fix others—only Jesus can.

When you find yourself in Sartre’s No Exit room, put your mind back where it belongs. Of course that new job isn’t fulfilling every last dream you’ve ever had; of course your spouse occasionally has bad breath and tells boring stories; of course your church is full of broken, imperfect people—nothing in this world is perfect! Nothing was ever meant to be! Our only fulfillment, our only relief and release, is in Christ. Said another way, our only freedom, our only citizenship, our only perspective is in Christ.

Paul’s word to us is to keep this reality in focus. Keep your mind, which you can control, on your heavenly citizenship despite your circumstances, which you can’t control.

I’ll repeat C.S. Lewis’s image for us from his sermon The Weight of Glory: “A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain.” The world will take you from locked room to locked room, never a break in the wall. As tempting as many escapes look, each one will just bring you back there.

But with Christ, there is a knock and the lock is finally turning. With Christ there is relief. An open door in a No Exit world.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life:
  • Has God ever used a circumstance or a person you didn’t suspect to draw you back to himself? To help put your feet back on the path?
  • Jonah never repents of his anger toward God; at least we have no account of it. What can his short, strange story tell us about ourselves?
Questions for Sermon:
  • Read again the chilling passage from Sartre’s play No Exit. Does it resonate with you at all? How does it make you feel?
  • “For me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). This theme of LIFE appears over and over in the gospel. What do we make of it? How does this respond to the suffocating image that Sartre presents?
  • Only Christ brings true freedom. Our citizenship is not of this world. How does this change of perspective, not necessarily circumstance, change us as people? How does it rewrite our story? How does it change the way we look at others?
Quote to ponder: “People tethered to God by faith can let themselves go because they know they will get themselves back.” Cornelius Plantinga, American theologian    

Sermon for September 27, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2044 | Open Hands Close Eyes Jeff Broadnax If someone told you to “hold out your hands and close your eyes” what would you do? I know what you might be thinking. “Well, it depends on who told me to hold out my hands and close my eyes.’” Right? In fact, you may remember an experience of this in your past. Maybe you were that schoolgirl on the playground who was tricked into having a slimy toad placed in your hands by the schoolyard jokester. You probably didn’t find it very funny. Or maybe after complying to this request someone took advantage of you by taking your wallet, or jumping in front of you in line. Again, not very funny! Such jokes are hard to pull off twice. If they tried it again you probably responded with folded arms and eyes wide-opened. Trust and obedience go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, there are people in our lives that have proven over time that they love us, are for us and would never do anything to trick or harm us. If one of these persons told you to “Hold out your hands and close your eyes” you would jump to compliance—maybe with anticipation—knowing you are likely about to receive something wonderful. Again, trust and obedience go hand-in-hand. Now, ask yourself this question. What if God the Father told you to “hold out your hands and close your eyes?” He’s asked it before. In fact, this is what the Father asked his own Son to do. On the cross, Jesus held out his hands to share his father’s love with the whole world. Jesus had an eternal history with the Father. In that history, Jesus knew the Father to be good, trustworthy, and full of grace. Even in stretching his hands out on the cross and closing his eyes in death he knew his father would not trick him or leave him hanging. In the end, he knew he would receive something wonderful. And he did. He received the Father’s own hand lifting him up in glory. And now in Jesus, the Father extends that same open hand to you, promising to lift you up in his Son to a wonderful glory beyond anything we could possibly imagine. Here’s how one Psalm speaks of the faithfulness of the Father: “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.” If you are searching for one to be faithfully near to you, might I suggest you simply open your hands and close your eyes and ask Jesus to show you his Father. He’ll hear your cry and save you. I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.  

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 • Exodus 17:1-7 • Philippians 2:1-13 • Matthew 21:23-32

This week’s theme is the obedience of faith. In Exodus Moses is told to strike a rock for water in response to the Israelites questioning whether the Lord was among them. The companion Psalm for this Old Testament selection recalls this story among others with a focus on God’s faithful acts among Israel. The sermon from Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi enlists an early Christian hymn focused on Christ’s obedience, and the Gospel reading in Matthew uses a parable to contrast a response of faithful obedience with that of unfaithful disobedience.

Grasping Our Identity

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s text presents us with three notable insights into one of the earliest expressions of a healthy and mature church—the church in Philippi. First, we get a picture of what was being experienced. Second, we read the content of a hymn used in its worship. And third, we see how its leaders confront conflict. We will discover that all three flow out from one common center—Jesus Christ!

Let’s take a quick look at this church and why Paul writes to it. The church in Philippi was located on a plain in Macedonia along the Egnatian Way, which was a major road serving as the primary connector between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire. This road played a significant role in spreading Roman religious and cultural views. This would place the church in Philippi in the middle of cultural and religious influences that would often conflict with the gospel. The church in Philippi wasn’t just a healthy church—it was a church established in hostile territory. We are not told how many people or churches make up the Philippian congregation, but the intro of the letter Paul and Timothy write to it indicates that it is an established church with possibly many leaders and strong organization. Also, it is clear that this flock was a source of joy for Paul. They were a church that gave him support and not trouble. Paul speaks to them as “partners” and never needs to appeal to his authority. Sounds like a dream church for any pastor or church leader.

But this healthy church was not immune to challenges. For starters, Paul, their beloved partner in the gospel, is in prison and is unable to visit them, so he writes them a letter with the help of Timothy. Paul’s primary reason for writing them is to thank them for their continued support especially during his difficult situation. But he also takes the opportunity in the letter to prepare them for what will likely be further persecution coming their way. He encourages them to work together. In this encouragement Paul will also have to address a current issue within the church. They have been experiencing some division among themselves, so Paul exhorts them to unity.

Perhaps this snapshot of the church in Philippi can encourage us today in own churches. It is clear that a faithful church is not determined by some prominent standing of its leaders among the surrounding populace, but rather by their commitment to the gospel. Also, the church is not qualified as a mature congregation simply by an increasing acceptance in its community, but rather by walking in the way of the Lord, even when that leads to increasingly being out of step with the dominant culture. Isn’t it encouraging to know that even Paul’s favorite church wasn’t devoid of challenges? Sometimes there are movements built around the idea that the early church was an ideal expression of how a church should operate and if we could only replicate it, we would then have the perfect church. But any fair reading of the letters addressed to these churches will reveal that they had many, if not more, of the same issues our church may be facing now. Karl Barth once said, “There are no letters in the New Testament apart from the problems of the church.” Therefore, we do not need to place our hope in some secret formula hidden in the early churches. Like them, our hope is in the same Lord Jesus Christ, who is present with his grace in our century as he was in theirs.

Now we will look at how Paul addresses a particular problem in the church in Philippi.

Read the text – Philippians 2:1-13.

This section begins with “Therefore,” which sends us back a few verses where Paul tells the Philippian brothers and sisters to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What follows is Paul’s exhortation to do just that. Notice how Paul confronts the internal conflicts in the church by exhorting them to the unity they have in Christ. Paul will begin by laying a foundation presented in four “if” statements. He is going to point his gospel partners back to a shared experience in Christ that serves as a foundation to build on. Basically, he is telling them that “if” they have experienced these four things, then they have a solid foundation for unity. He wants them to focus on their unity in Christ to help them not be divided over their differences in the church.

Let’s look at each of these four “If” statements with an eye towards seeing our own foundation in Christ for unity within our churches today.

  1. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…”

This is listed first and is the most important. Paul is bringing them to remember what it is to be a Christian. Our true identity is found only in Christ, or as Paul puts it here, “united with Christ.” That’s foundational. If you are ever asked what makes you a Christian, what is the first thing you think of? Is it that you go to church? Maybe it’s because of your behavior, what you do or don’t do? Is it because you read the Bible and pray? What comes to mind? Paul is saying here that the fundamental and foundational answer to that question is that we are Christians because we are united with Christ. Everything we do or don’t do flows out of that. This should be the most encouraging reality we could ever imagine. This secures our identity in the very being of the eternal Son who has his identity in his relationship with his Father.

Paul is calling on his church to remember who they are in Christ—to be encouraged by the tremendous good news of who they belong to and the permanence of that belonging. Perhaps this will bring the church together to remember a time before their divisions when they would encourage one another with this reality. Unity will flow out of such encouragement. If we each point to the same belonging we have in Christ, then we are sharing something that is foundational to our identity. Unity will flow from such sharing. Can you think of any times in the church where there has been an experience of Christ being present? While many of us may have stories of when we experienced the reality of our union with Christ, others of us never thought of our experience in the words of “union.” Our union is in Christ and therefore our unity with one another is found only in Christ.

  1. “If any comfort from his love…”

The second “if” statement Paul provides is to bring to remembrance their shared experience of Christ’s love for them. Maybe we should emphasize the word “his” love. Today there are many distorted views of what love is. For the Christian, love is found, defined and experienced only in Christ. Paul wants the church to recount their comfort that comes from this love. Jesus’ identity was secured in knowing he was the beloved Son of the Father. All he did and went through was sustained in this love. In Christ we are not given some sentimental feel-good story of “love” but rather, we are given a share in the reality of love the Father has for his own Son. We are given a share in the love the Son has for his Father. This is not a love we could produce on our own. It is an eternal love that is shared with us as we are “united with Christ.” This is a foundational comfort that can smooth over any differences a church may be experiencing. Loving others tends to flow naturally when we are secure in being beloved. This is a love we pray for and God provides.

  1. “If any common sharing in the Spirit…”

Or in other words, “fellowship.” Paul wants his church to also remember when the Holy Spirit brought about fellowship among them. Fellowship in the Spirit is much deeper than anything we can accomplish on our own. The fellowship the Spirit shares with believers is the same fellowship the Father and Son have been sharing for all eternity. It’s a fellowship that is received, not achieved. True fellowship is not some ideal of our own making. We can cease our grasping and our attempts to control and shape our church community to fit our ideals and instead receive the fellowship in the Spirit. This can bring about freedom and wholeness in our relationships as we relax our controlling grips on shaping “fellowship.” Ask God to help you recognize and experience this freedom and wholeness in relationships. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t sense that softening of grace toward another. Some experiences are more powerful, some are so subtle you don’t even notice it. But here’s the key, we can trust God to guide our relationships.  The Spirit does not leave us to our own devices to create the bonds of fellowship we so long to enjoy.

  1. “If any tenderness and compassion…”

Notice Paul qualifies this by saying “any” tenderness and compassion. Any at all is evidence that the Spirit is working among them. The church in Philippi may not be experiencing much of this “tenderness and compassion” as they are divided against each other. So, Paul wants them to remember a time when they did once share such warm-heartedness towards one another. Where does that come from? We, too, may need to recall warmer days in our fellowships if we are struggling in the present to get along. It is not the warm feelings in the past that we are trying to use to rekindle a fire in the present. Rather, it is remembering the presence of Christ and his tenderness and compassion toward us manifested in our past relationships with others. It’s one more indicator that we are indeed “united with Christ,” which is our unifying identity.

After four “if” statements, Paul delivers one “then” statement to draw his statement to a close.

Then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and one mind.

There is joy in unity. But not just any unity, but the unity that comes by sharing in our identity in Christ. It’s an identity marked by sharing in the Lord’s mind, heart and spirit. This presents the church with a choice. They can choose to lay down their “right” to have things their way or they can continue to hold onto their own way of thinking. Paul goes on to tell them not to go down that road.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

This is the orientation of life that destroys unity. Paul has succinctly summed up the sinful inward condition. We are not made to exist for ourselves as if we are detached, self-sufficient creatures. The Triune God has created us to share in his life that is other focused and experienced in unified relationship. Paul says it like this:

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

We may think, yeah right! That sounds impossible. And it is!

But remember what Paul is trying to do. He is trying to remind them of who they are as people “united with Christ.” Jesus’ identity is wrapped up in the life of Father, Son, and Spirit. For all eternity Jesus has existed in this circle of knowing and being known. It is the Triune circle of perfect, holy and righteous relationship. This is the mind of Christ that Paul is encouraging us to have in his letter to the Philippians. Jesus shares his mind with us. It’s not a mind or attitude that we must create or get on our own.

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

Since Jesus shares his life of identity in the Triune God of love with us by the Spirit, we are encouraged to share in what he is. We can do it in our relationship with God and with our relationships “with one another.”

Then Paul turns to a hymn that may have been circulated and sung in the churches of his day.

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Paul wants us to become like Christ, and he uses this hymn that sings about Christ becoming like us. This is a powerful hymn full of deep Christology. How often can a hymn lift us into the encouragement and comfort that comes by being reminded of who Jesus is for us? If a hymn is good, it will remind us of the goodness of him. After giving the tall order to be like-minded, to put aside self-focused living, to live in humility where others come first, Paul needs to pull out his big guns by reminding them of who Jesus is. He picks the hymn to do the heavy lifting for him. This song would remind the members that everything he has told them to do has already been done for them in Christ. He is not calling on the church to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but he is telling them in song form to remember once again that their identity is “united with Christ.”

Through this hymn Paul is able to tell us that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Although Jesus is God, he lives out his life in the flesh as a man. In contrast to Adam, Jesus is not living by grasping to be God. He lives out his humanity by receiving his identity from the Father. He is not grasping, controlling or manipulating in order to secure his own identity. He rests in receiving from the Father by the Spirit.

We see Jesus living a life of humility, obedience and sacrifice. Jesus shows us what it means to truly be human. As fallen creatures, we are unable to truly live in this humble life of obedience and sacrifice, but Jesus has lived it for us and now is sharing that life with us by the Spirit. What we see on the cross is the Triune God destroying the Fall. Jesus has made peace by taking all death and sin, all our controlling and grasping ways for identity, to the cross and destroying it. As a result of this, the Father exalts him. Even Jesus’ exaltation is something to be received. Jesus does not crown himself.

Now Paul concludes with the same word he started with in this section, “Therefore…” Only this time he is now referring back to all he and his well-chosen hymn have said about Jesus Christ. On this ground he can call them forth to faithful obedience, not determined by Paul’s presence but on the basis of Jesus’ presence in them by the Spirit. Paul states it like this:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Paul is not telling them to “imitate” Jesus as if Jesus were just a role model or ideal. No, he is encouraging the church to work out in the Spirit what Jesus has already worked in by the Spirit. In other words, they are called to participate in a reality, not create one of their own. We can’t just seize our identity in Christ. So, Paul is calling them and us today to embrace our identity as the one body “united with Christ.”


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Discuss the connection between obedience and faith. How does knowing the Father is faithful to us enable us to more fully obey him?
  • Can you think of times where you “held out your hands and closed your eyes” in obedience to the Father? Share your experience.
  • What parallels did you take from the description of the Philippian church and your church today? Did you see anything encouraging? Discouraging?
  • The sermon defined being a Christian as one who is “united with Christ.” Has this been your usual understanding of what it means to be a Christian? What are some typical ideas of what defines the identity of being a Christian?
  • Using the four “If” statements in the sermon, can you think of times you experienced these in the church? Any examples from the following that you can share?
    • “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…”
    • “if any comfort from his love…”
    • “if any common sharing in the Spirit…”
    • “if any tenderness and compassion…”
  • Can you think of Christ-centered hymns that you find are rich sources of comfort and encouragement like the one Paul uses in Philippians?
  • Can you think of ways we may be tempted to create our own fellowship and unity in our churches apart from focusing on our identity in Christ?