GCI Equipper

God’s Great Saving Act

A triduum is a religious observance that lasts three days. The best-known example of this is the three days from the evening of Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Called Paschal or Holy Triduum, this one event is the not only the center of the Christian year, it commemorates the great saving act of God.

The Bible is full of mysteries; the story of Jesus is full of mysteries. How did God become human? What does it mean to be fully human, and fully divine? Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Why did he have to spend time in a grave? What did God accomplish in Jesus’ death? What does it mean that death has been conquered? These are mysteries that humanity will continue to ponder, to research, to discuss. The apostle Peter said of these mysteries: “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).

The great saving act of God came at an incredible cost—the cross. But the act is more than just the crucifixion. Just a few days after Palm Sunday Jesus was in Jerusalem sharing a meal with his disciples on Passover. During that evening, he changed Passover from being a reminder of a historical event, to showing the disciples what it means to be a shepherd leader. He introduced what we now call the Lord’s Supper. Let’s take a brief look at each part of this “center of the Christian year”—the Holy Triduum.

Maundy Thursday

Several things occurred in the Upper Room on this night.

  • Footwashing: The first thing the disciples might have noticed was the missing servant. There was no one there to wash their feet. Rather than wash their own, or (gasp) lower themselves to wash each other’s feet, they reclined at the tables with their feet dusty and they started eating. In the middle of the meal Jesus stood, put aside his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing their feet. As Jesus finished he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (John 13). He showed them that true leaders are true servants. He told them to follow his example by serving others. The lesson was not about foot-washing, it was about having an attitude of servant leadership.
  • Eucharist: Jesus didn’t change Passover, he fulfilled it. He revealed that he was the bread and the blood of the lamb. He introduced a ritual for his disciples throughout time to repeat as a memorial. He changed the meaning of the Old Testament “cup of God’s wrath”—which is God’s wrath against sin and anything that hurts his beloved—to a “cup of thanksgiving.” (See Psalm 73:8, Isaiah 51:17, and 1 Corinthians 10:16.)
  • New Commandment: “Maundy” is thought to be an English corruption of the Latin Mandatum, referring to the New Commandment. The New Commandment is to love others AS Jesus loves us. This is the sign of a disciple, to love as Jesus loves.

Good Friday

One might wonder why this day would ever be called “good.” Good here carries the idea of Holy and the day is also called Holy Friday and God’s Friday. This day starts the evening before (Maundy Thursday) and goes from the Upper Room to the cross. The cross was a despised symbol that Jesus turned to a symbol of hope, reconciliation, redemption, and salvation. It’s a day that marks the arrest, torture, and crucifixion of our Lord. It’s a day of reflection. Tim Sitterley’s article reminds us the resurrection is coming, but we should never lose sight of Good Friday.

Some churches set up “the 14 stations of the cross” for members to reflect and pray at each station.

  1. Jesus in Gethsemane
  2. Jesus betrayed and arrested
  3. Jesus condemned by the Sanhedrin
  4. Jesus denied by Peter
  5. Jesus judged by Pilate
  6. Jesus scourged and “crowned”
  7. Jesus takes up his cross
  8. Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  10. Jesus is crucified
  11. Jesus makes a promise to the good thief
  12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to one another
  13. Jesus dies on the cross
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Holy Saturday

Also called “Silent Saturday,” this day represents Jesus’ “rest” after finishing his great work of redemption. Anthony Mullins writes that Holy Saturday reminds us God is alive even when we feel the silence and are unaware of his presence. This is a day of quiet reflection—perhaps thinking through God’s plan from the beginning. How does creation, the flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, the exodus, the promise in Ezekiel of a new heart, or the prophecy of the valley of dry bones fit into God’s overall plan? It’s a time to reflect on a bit of history and see how God has always been about fulfilling his story. What did God do in the background of the story of Israel? The story of David? The prophets? What is he doing in the background of your story?

Easter Sunday

He is risen! Easter is a time of triumph, a time of victory, a time of hope. It is both a day and a season of 50 days of celebrating the resurrection, culminating in the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Easter reminds us that death has been destroyed, the grave has been conquered, hope is eternal, and love is the reason for everything Jesus does. Easter reminds us the center is and always has been our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Rick Shallenberger

The Holy Triduum is God’s great saving act—for you.

May God bless you as you reflect, hope and celebrate the loving sacrifice of our Lord.

Rick Shallenberger

The Power of Belonging

A Faith Avenue Overview

By Michelle Fleming, Media Director

Belonging is a primal human need to be a part of something bigger than yourself; it is positioned right at the center of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When I think of what it means to belong, I think of acceptance, my unique qualities being seen and appreciated, the insta-bond that often happens in dorms, soaking up the joy and laughter that permeates any kind of reunion, and being with my Connect Group.

Belonging does not develop from finding a group with whom you have everything in common; it occurs when we experience acceptance for our authentic selves. I believe we can experience this most richly in our relationship with God—a God who created us, rescued us, and call us his very own. As Romans declares, we have received a Spirit of adoption:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:16 ESV)

If I had to summarize the Faith Avenue, it would be the ministries that help members and seekers experience belonging in Christ. In the Team Based-Pastor Led model, the focus of the Faith Avenue is discipleship. Christian discipleship is the disciplined habit of thinking and acting in Christ. Discipleship is growing closer to Christ, becoming more like Christ, and going deeper into Christian community with other believers.

The Faith Avenue is about the life of the church in between Sunday services. This is where discipleship occurs, growing in faith as we live out and allow Christ to express his faith in our lives and relationships.

Considering our relational God, we know that relational gatherings are crucial for discipleship. We are sanctified in community. The Faith Avenue is the Avenue where community is built through relational and spiritually formational activities. As the graphic displays, there are three sub-categories that constitute the Faith Avenue:

  • Church Life: this is the relationship building that happens inside the church community between Sundays.
    • For example: camps, retreats, game nights, etc. We have recommended an “Activities Coordinator” to facilitate these events.
    • Other relationship building might include creating meal trains for new moms or taking communion to those who are unable to attend worship services. These responsibilities would fall under the Practical Support Ministries role in the model.
  • Connect Groups: weekly, small gatherings that create a safe space for seekers and members to connect with God and one another.
    • In each connect group we recommend having a host to create a welcoming environment and a facilitator to lead the discussions. This allows both to focus on a key element of connect groups.
  • Cross-Generational Care: creating ministry rhythms that engage, equip, and support all generations.
    • In the model, Family-based Youth Ministry and Elder Care Ministry are both represented to reflect the entire spectrum of ages being engaged by the congregation.

The multi-faceted Faith Avenue will take time and intentionality to build out. The expanded reflection questions found in the model can help you and your team discern your next steps for growing your Faith Avenue. Whether it is starting a connect group or planning a few game nights, remember the goal of the Faith Avenue—that the participants will experience belonging in Christ. Click here to download additional Faith Avenue Tools

New Connect Group Curriculum


On Being is a four-part interactive connect group curriculum, designed for biblically-based, dynamic discussions around being a disciple. We will be rolling out a different curriculum quarterly throughout 2021. The four curricula are: Being a Neighbor, Being the Church, Being with Jesus, and Being with the Bible. Each curriculum has a Facilitator Guide and a Participant Workbook.

For additional GCI curricula, visit our discipleship pathway and click on the “believe” section 

Discipleship: When Is Enough Enough?

The relational side of being and making disciples.

By Anthony Mullins, U.S. Southeast Regional Director

One of the better recent inventions for my personal health has been smartwatches that also act as a pedometer. There is something about seeing my step count climb upwards to propel me toward a daily goal of walking at least 10,000 steps (approximately 5 miles). Since COVID-19 became an ever-present reality in early 2020, I have consistently walked 30 miles each week. It has been an important step, pun intended, toward better overall health.

However, as wonderful as walking has been to my personal revitalization, it occurred to me that I needed to add cardio for a robust and holistic exercise plan: cardio is good for an elevated heart rate. Studies have shown that revving up your heart rate each day trains your body to move oxygen and blood to your muscles more efficiently. Elevating your heart rate daily for 20-30 minutes quickens the burning of calories which fuel the body. In other words, it is good for you! With that in mind, I recently purchased an exercise bike, which is now in my home office. Twice per day, for at least 10 minutes each session, I rev up my heart rate by cycling-in-place.

Walking is good, but I needed more for sustainable healthy living. Pastors and ministry leaders, in a similar way, gospel proclamation through preaching is an important element of discipling the congregation, but more is needed in each congregant’s faith journey with the Lord Jesus Christ. By its inherent nature, a sermon is relationally one-sided, whereas healthy discipleship should include mutual relationship and reciprocity. An inspiring Hope Avenue sermon may be well situated to declare the truth of the gospel and our identity in Christ, but by the very nature of one speaking to mostly passive listeners, the format lacks relational reciprocity, which is a key component of healthy discipleship.

In the Faith Avenue, when we disciple others in smaller relational spaces like a Connect Group or one-on-one, a good approach for pastors and ministry leaders is one of curiosity. When we deliver the Hope Avenue sermon, we often see ourselves as preacher/teacher—the dispenser of information. What if we took the posture of student in the flow of discipleship relationships? With curiosity and discernment of the Spirit’s work, we study the other for signs of where God is already at work in his or her life. We will find ourselves amazed at how much we can learn from others and their understanding of Scripture, and their personal relationship with the Triune God. And then—and this is very important—study for signs that he or she is inviting us into that divine work through relationship.

Timothy Keller, retired pastor and author, recently wrote, “Often it is not through listening to preaching but listening to friends that brings us home spiritually.” Keller’s statement feels about right. Preaching clearly matters, but it is often faithful, Christ-honoring relationships that are the catalysts for ever-maturing children of God. Let’s continue to be intentional in emphasizing relational discipleship in the Faith Avenue!

Big Sandy Avenue Champions

The Faith, Hope and Love champions are leaders I can trust to take responsibility for the work of an avenue without a lot of management by me.

By Jerome Ellard, Pastor

As a pastor, I used to think that I needed to be the sparkplug for everything that was going on in the church. Of course, I had good people who could handle worship leading, conduct Bible studies, and handle the day-to-day finances, etc., but I felt that I needed to be the one to think up the next event or to organize the next special service, potluck, outreach or meeting. Sounds like a recipe for burnout, doesn’t it?

Thankfully, Grace Communion International has discovered what we call the Avenues—Faith, Hope and Love Avenues, to be specific. Maybe “inspired” would be a better word than “discovered”! Plus, the names of these “avenues”—Faith, Hope and Love—are biblical (see 1 Corinthians 13). More importantly, these avenues are the healthy spheres of ministry that the body of Christ has always been involved in as it has participated with Jesus in his mission to our world down through time.

  • The Love Avenue is the way we participate with Jesus in showing his love to others in tangible ways. This could involve such things as firing Halloween candy into cars with a “candy cannon” during a drive-thru Trunk or Treat event, visiting elderly people in the neighborhood or delivering a meal to someone. Love isn’t just a word, it’s an action, fueled by Jesus’ love flowing through us!
  • The Hope Avenue is the area concerned with our worship gatherings, primarily our Sunday service. We desire that our gatherings are inspiring and draw us closer to one another and to God as we worship together.
  • The Faith Avenue is the sphere concerned with discipleship—that process of being formed in the image of Christ through participating with the Holy Spirit through smaller, relational settings, such as small groups.

Our GCI website has a lot of information and guidance on these Avenues, and our denomination is spending a lot of time in sharing the value of these structures for our churches.

Avenue Champions

I like the word Champion to describe the leaders of these Avenues—they are called to “champion” or promote the work of a particular Avenue! What this means is that I, as the pastor, have leaders that I can trust to take responsibility for the work of an avenue without a lot of management by me. This is very freeing! I can be, as we say in GCI, “eyes on, hands off.” This arrangement also demonstrates another goal GCI has for our congregations—to be “Team Based, Pastor Led.”

I lead by equipping and encouraging my three Champions and being available to help them if they need it. They are learning how to express Jesus’ heart through their particular avenue, and they are working to build teams that can assist them in the work and responsibilities of each avenue. Having these teams responsible for their area of ministry allows me to be their cheerleader and frees me from being involved in so many decisions. Instead, I get to share responsibility and trust the Holy Spirit’s work in my Champions and their teams. Another benefit to adopting these intentional Avenue structures is the multiplication of spaces for others to serve in areas of their gifting.

This pandemic year has given us time to think through how we can implement and adapt the Avenues to our context here in Big Sandy. Rick Peterson is our Love Avenue Champion, George Strub is our Hope Avenue Champion, and his wife Sarah Strub is our Faith Avenue Champion. These champions are all elders (not a requirement by any standard) and were prayerfully chosen to lead their Avenues. In March 2020, I took them all to a Hope Avenue training in Cincinnati so they could hear more from others about the Avenue concept. This was a valuable time of training and fellowship. Upon our return to Texas, these Champions started to work.

Following our return to in-person services, George began overseeing our Hope Avenue—our Sunday service. I had been doing a Facebook Live message using my iPhone. George upgraded our technology and is working to obtain a more robust system that will allow us to share not only our messages, but our worship music as well. We are seeing that an online presence will be essential in the future. He has developed a Ministry Action Plan for 2021 to make our worship service better. One thing I asked George to do last year was to oversee the preparations for our observance of Advent during the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the past, I would have come up with the weekly readings and selected readers for each week, all in addition to preparing my messages for each Sunday. George sees his role as the Hope Avenue Champion to be like being a store manager— he doesn’t have to stock the shelves or make sure the produce department has enough tomatoes, he just makes sure those things are taken care of by those working with him (check out the GCI podcast interview with George for more of this!). George enlisted the assistance of one of our members, Carlos Gutierrez, and entrusted him to come up with the readings and the readers, and Carlos did a great job! This is a great example of how an Avenue Champion can oversee his or her area by inviting others to participate in the blessings of serving! As a pastor, it’s wonderful for me to be able to delegate responsibilities that I had previously considered mine to others and see them successfully exercising their gifts and talents in the church!

As we approached Halloween, Rick Peterson and his Love Avenue team came up with a unique and safe way to show love to our community by creating the “candy cannon” I mentioned before. They bagged candy and prizes in ziplock bags and “launched” the bags through a 10-foot PVC pipe into the windows of the cars of families that drove through our church parking lot Halloween evening! The kids and their families enjoyed this fun way of doing a “Trunk or Treat” event, and it was a lot of fun for us, too! And again, I didn’t have to think up the idea or organize it—this is pastor heaven! Rick and his team then prepared a wonderful float sponsored by our church for the Big Sandy Christmas parade, and they packed Christmas cookie bags to hand out along the parade route. He and his team also prepared special care packages and, with our love, delivered them to a number of our members who have not been attending due to the pandemic, as well as some other individuals in our community. Also, one of our youth teachers, Carrie Campbell, prepared and had “goody bags” delivered to the teens who attended our Wednesday Night Gathering prior to the pandemic. I’m looking forward to seeing how our Love Avenue team will continue to share creative, tangible expressions of the love of Jesus Christ with our members and our community!

Sarah Strub, our Faith Avenue Champion, has been busy, too. She prepared and facilitated a successful four-week Advent study on Zoom that several participated in. She enlisted tech-savvy member David Ferguson to work out the details of helping people use Zoom to attend. David continued to use his talent with the Faith Avenue by helping Sarah conduct a four-week Zoom gathering of our Wednesday Night Gathering teachers to connect with one another, to discuss how we can improve our discipleship practices, and plan for a hoped-for resumption of our youth outreach gatherings this year. Sarah is also thinking of ways that all our members can participate in opportunities for discipleship.

One thing that has encouraged me is how each of our Champions have been joining in coaching calls with other Champions who are involved in their particular Avenue. They share best practices with each other and are being mutually strengthened and encouraged. This is iron-sharpening-iron, and I’m looking forward to seeing how each of them will grow in their positions. These Avenues will be great spaces to invite others in our community to join with us as we “Live and Share the Gospel.” They are a blessing to our church, our community, and to me, their pastor!

Palms and Colts

 A reflection for Palm Sunday

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

Back in February 2010, my wife, son and I had the opportunity to be in Vancouver Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics. We were there on a whim. We hadn’t planned on going, but at the last moment called some old friends who lived there and asked what they were doing during the Olympics. They told us that they had tickets for some of the events but at the last moment their oldest daughter couldn’t get away from work to attend with them. So they had a few tickets available if we wanted to come and stay with them.

The Vancouver Olympics was one big celebration. The downtown core of the city was closed off to traffic and we spent many hours just walking around enjoying the crowds, eating from street vendors and looking at the various storefronts or visiting the various international teams’ pavilions.

One of the highlights for us was the evening when Team Canada was playing a qualifying hockey game. My son was lucky to be able to attend with our friends, while my wife and I wandered around the streets of Vancouver ending up at the Olympic flame at the harbour waterfront. Each time Canada scored a goal, you could hear the distant roar from the hockey arena, and the roar spread out in a crescendo through the entire city as people outside the area heard the news and shared it with others.

I reflected on that week, when I read the following passage:

“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee”’ (Matthew 21:1-11 NIV)

Matthew’s account describes Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem before the grim events that will lead to his death. For Christians, Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, that ends with the glorious resurrection of our Lord early Easter Sunday.

Why my Vancouver Olympics story?

To me it reminds me about what I once read about what Jerusalem was like at the time of Jesus during the Passover season. Estimates are that at Passover Jerusalem went from being a town of 50,000 to a town of 500,000. During the Olympics in Vancouver, an estimated 500,000 people attended the events there.

It was into this hubbub of the Passover that Jesus came into Jerusalem riding this colt, in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9-10.

Certainly, the action of Jesus that day was not lost on those disciples who made up the crowd of disciples who were at that spot where the Mount of Olives begins its descent. In addition to placing their coats on the road, they took branches from palm trees to put before him, all the while recalling the words found in Psalm 118:25-26 (NIV): “Lord, save us (hosanna)! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord, we bless you.”

While this event is front and center to the Gospel writers’ story of Jesus, we have to place this event in the larger context of what was happening in Jerusalem that day—the excitement, stress and energy involved in the preparations for the Passover.

I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was a side-show to the larger event of what was going on in Jerusalem, and it makes sense. Just like my experience during the Vancouver Olympics, although the city was in the grips of Olympic fever, a variety of events were playing out at the same time. There was that hockey game at GM Place, but further down the road there were some speed skating events and figure skating at the Pacific Coliseum along with skiing at Whistler Mountain.

The words of that small group of witnesses to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day give a hint to who this Jesus is and what will be revealed at the end of the week.

They called him a “prophet”, and they may have recognized him as a type of king by his arrival on a colt (or even one who they hoped will remove the Roman oppressors); they were going to honor him with their plea of “hosanna”.

At the end of the week, he would truly become their living Saviour and ours.

The Cross Before Me

A reflection for Good Friday

By Tim Sitterley, U.S. West Regional Director.

Many years ago, while visiting a small New England church, I was somewhat taken aback by the odd arrangement of lectern and cross on the raised pulpit. Crosses of all sizes are a common image in a Christian church adorning walls, stained glass windows, hymnals and lecterns. But in this church the cross that immediately caught your eye was an eight or nine-foot-tall, roughhewn timber cross mounted directly in front of the lectern. To see the congregation, the speaker would have to look around the massive upright beam…as was also the case for the congregants to see the speaker.

As one who often finds himself standing behind a lectern preaching to a room full of people, this arrangement struck me as less than ideal. While there have been a few times I’ve said things that made me want to hide behind something, I usually want to be able to clearly see those whom I am addressing. I would probably go so far as to express concern that a visual barrier such as this would interfere with both my focus, and that of the congregation.

Which is exactly what the founding pastor of that small New England church had in mind when erecting the large cross directly in the line-of-vision between speaker and listener. His recorded statement was that he never wanted anyone to look to him as he expounded the Word of God without them first focusing on the author and perfecter of that Word. And he never wanted to look upon those God had called him to serve without being forced to see them as his Lord and Savior saw them.

During the days leading up to Easter, and the day of celebration itself, the cross will come more and more into focus. Hymns like Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” will become frequent additions to our worship. Lines like “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down” will ever remind us of the sobering reality represented in that ancient Roman execution device. The bread and wine of the Eucharist, framed in the final actions and words of Jesus, will be bittersweet. Good Friday will drive home that ultimate sacrifice of love…willingly made on our behalf…by God incarnate. The cross will be shrouded, and the True Light will be overshadowed by death…for a time.

The Baptist pastor S.M. Lockridge penned an incredible Easter poem many years ago entitled “It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Comin’.” If you are not familiar with the poem, I would suggest Google. It powerfully speaks of the transition from the suffering and sorrow represented in Good Friday to the utter joy and celebration of Easter morning. It is a transition in focus we are all happy to make. And the quicker we can reply “He is risen indeed” to the declaration “He is risen!” the better.

Yet in that declaration there is a risk. We must always be careful to never lose sight of how we arrived at that glorious morning outside an empty tomb. We want to quickly erase the vision of nail-scared hands and spear wounds. But never forget that Jesus chose to keep those very reminders of his ordeal on a cross…an ordeal he willingly endured on our behalf (John 10:18).

The cross was an embarrassment to the early followers of Jesus. It was a form of torment and execution for the lowest of criminals. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23 and speaks of the curse of those hung on a tree (see Galatians 3:13). With rare exception there are no artistic representations of the cross until the late third century, and as one historian aptly put it, “No one painted a picture of a crucifixion until the last person who had witnessed the horror had died.”

And yet the Apostle Paul will write often of the importance and power of this symbol. He recognized the confusion caused by reflecting on the brutal execution of Christ. He tells the Ephesians that we are reconciled to God “through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). And to those who see this symbol as more of a stumbling block than a source of inspiration, he writes “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The power of God. There is a short, repetitive hymn that speaks to that power. The story behind this hymn attributes it to a martyred Garo tribal man from Meghalaya, India (then a part of Assam) named Nokseng. Having witnessed the murder of his wife and child, and facing his own death if he refused to give up his Christian faith, Nokseng is said to have crafted the hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Though the self-determinate nature of the three short verses of this song might give pause to our Calvinist brothers and sisters, it speaks deeply and simply of Nokseng’s foundational faith. “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.”

The third verse of this hymn is this. “The world behind me, the cross before me; the world behind me, the cross before me, the world behind me, the cross before me; no turning back, no turning back.”

Nokseng understood the power of the cross. A pastor in a small New England church knew this truth as well. May we, as we celebrate Holy week, keep the cross ever before us as we grow deeper in our relationship with the one who once occupied that cross. We keep it not as a barrier or obstacle to our faith, but as an ever-present reminder that all barriers between us and our heavenly Father have been removed, once and for all.

No turning back, no turning back.

The Quiet Mystery of Holy Saturday

A reflection for Holy Saturday

By Anthony Mullins, U.S. Regional Director, Southeast

The silence was deafening. The Messiah was dead and enclosed in a tomb. How could this possibly happen after the awesome display of divine power in his life?

Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter, is a time of mourning and quiet disbelief on the liturgical calendar. Holy Saturday is a day of uncomfortable silence. The Word of God become flesh is dead. For his disciples and friends, it was a day of confusion and fear. Wasn’t Jesus the Holy One of God? John the Baptist pointed to him as the Lamb of God and then Jesus himself invited us to follow him. Were we misled?

On this side of history, we know Holy Saturday eventually gives way to Easter Resurrection Sunday. However, before we rush to the shouts of celebration that “He’s alive,” I invite you to sit in the quiet mystery of Holy Saturday.

Why? Many think God is still stuck in that dreadful Saturday. Their perception tells them he is still quiet and unavailable to the circumstances of the day. Where is God in this pandemic that has been raging for more than a year? God seems so very silent in the political division and rancor that dominates much of public discourse. Churches are still struggling with whether to conduct in-person worship gatherings. Where is God in all of this?

Holy Saturday teaches us to live in the real and present tension that God is very alive even though it can appear he is silent and unaware of the disturbing circumstances. Holy Saturday can feel like today—a day of loneliness and isolation. Ultimately, it is a day of compassion that teaches us to comfort the hurting and disillusioned who feel all hope is lost.

The narrative of our Lord Jesus Christ does not end with Holy Saturday.  Therefore, we can embrace the truth that the narrative of our lives does not end with Holy Saturday. Death is not the final word!

Mourning will last for a night, but joy comes in the morning!

Church Hack: Social Media Schedule

Your church social media page creates a presence within your community and may be the first point of contact for guests. A well thought out content schedule for your page can help with community and member engagement. Posting at least two to three  times a week is suggested in order to maintain a presence. We suggest taking a couple of days of rest, when you don’t post anything. Remember, your content is about connecting with your community and the quality of your engagement is more important than quantity of content you are creating. Click on the image below to download the guide.



It’s Time to Talk About Trauma

An important step in helping youth deal with trauma is to be a listener like Jesus.

One day while Jesus was addressing a crowd, a synagogue leader named Jairus begged the young rabbi for help. Although he had status in the Jewish community, he unashamedly pleaded with Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus agreed to go with Jairus and the crowd decided to go as well. The spontaneous parade plodded along until Jesus brought the procession to a screeching halt. While dozens of people pressed in on him on every side, he turned around and asked who touched him. The disciples were incredulous because there were people everywhere. It was soon learned that a woman who suffered for 12 years with a bleeding condition touched Jesus’ garment with the hope of being healed. Jesus stopped when he felt the power leave him, and he would not stop looking until he found who touched him in faith. We pick up the story in Mark:

Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 55:33-34)

Why did Jesus stop to find the woman? Why did Christ need to meet her and hear her story? One reason is her story was a testimony of Christ’s power to those in Capernaum with Jesus, and to those who would hear the tale. Additionally, I believe the woman’s bleeding condition was only the most obvious condition that needed healing. For the previous 12 years the woman had suffered. She spent all her money on doctors and the emotional strain must have been tremendous. In fact, it must have been traumatizing. Therefore, Jesus’ healing, to be complete, had to address her emotional wellness.

In a recently released study by The Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute called “Gen Z Volume 2: Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience,” the researchers found that 82% in Gen Z (those between the ages of 6 and 24) reported experiencing a traumatic event. This is compared to 61% of adults who reported having at least one traumatic event, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The significant trauma Gen Z is experiencing requires those who care for them to intentionally help them develop resiliency.

In many communities, issues related to mental health are often stigmatized. We often do not talk about the importance of mental health in our congregations. However, if we want Gen Z to live and share the gospel, they need to develop the mental and emotional resources to cope with their life experiences. The most powerful positive influence on children and youth is a loving, authentic relationship. Adults who truly listen and selflessly share life with Gen Z can help them build their resiliency. What specifically can adults do? The Barna study suggests four strategies for families and those who care for Gen Z:

  1. Make mental health a discussable topic.
  2. Understand the things that trigger Gen Z.
  3. Help Gen Z develop critical thinking skills and a Christian worldview.
  4. Focus on Monday through Saturday spiritual well-being.

We will go into greater detail about these strategies in subsequent articles. I will also stipulate that some young people will need to see a professional counselor, and we should be ready and willing to help Gen Zers find the help they need. For now, I encourage you to pray for God to help you be a listener like Jesus. Jesus made time to listen to the woman’s story, because he knew that some healing would come just in the telling. As a parent, I understand to the temptation to tell young people what they should do and feel. Listening leaves too much to chance! However, Jesus’ example and current research agrees that listening is the best place to start, and sometimes it is enough.

Dishon Mills, U.S. Generations Ministry Coordinator

Gospel Reverb – I Have Seen the Lord w/ Tim Sitterley

I Have Seen the Lord w/ Tim Sitterley

Video unavailable (video not checked).

Program Transcript

I Have Seen the Lord with Tim Sitterley

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins, and guest, Tim Sitterley, unpack these lectionary passages:

April 4
John 20:1-18 (NRSV)       I Have Seen the Lord”

April 11
John 20:19-31 (NRSV) “Peace Be With You”

April 18
Luke 24:36b-48 (NRSV) “Startled and Terrified”

April 25
John 10:11-18 (NRSV) “The Good Shepherd”

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!

I Have Seen the Lord with Tim Sitterley

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins, and guest, Tim Sitterley, unpack these lectionary passages:

April 4
John 20:1-18 (NRSV)       I Have Seen the Lord”

April 11
John 20:19-31 (NRSV) “Peace Be With You”

April 18
Luke 24:36b-48 (NRSV) “Startled and Terrified”

April 25
John 10:11-18 (NRSV) “The Good Shepherd”

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!

Faith Avenue in the Philippines w/ Aron & Joyce Tolentino

Faith Avenue in the Philippines w/ Aron & Joyce Tolentino

Video unavailable (video not checked).

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Aron & Joyce Tolentino. Aron is the Lead Pastor of the GCI church in Manila, Philippines and Joyce is an exceptional Christian leader you should get to know. Together they discuss our GCI Healthy Church Vision and the Faith Avenue in their local context.

That is community, that our lives are intertwined with one another, that our lives are connected with one another. I remember, Dr. Andrew Root’s term, indwelling. In those moments, it is not programmatic we are not seated shoulder to shoulder with everyone facing the pulpit, listening to the pastor. This time we are face to face, and get to hear the stories of people. And what we see is how God is moving in the lives of each and every person, and that edifies other people and edifies the community.
-Pastor Aron Tolentino on the Faith Avenue

Main Points:

  • How does the Healthy Church vision get translated and embedded in your local context? (7:00)
  • How would you define the Faith Avenue and how it supports the Healthy Church movement? (16:04)
  • How has small group ministry supported the vision the Lord has given you for the congregation? (20:50)
  • How does the Faith Avenue provide a connecting point for new members and seekers? (47:10)



  • GCI-Asia Online Worship Services: check out the GCI-Asia online worship services Aron & Joyce mention in the episode.
  • On Being: GCI’s new Connect Group Curriculum
  • We Believe –  a comprehensive tool for teaching all age groups the core beliefs of our Christian faith.


Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcasts.

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Aron & Joyce Tolentino. Aron is the Lead Pastor of the GCI church in Manila, Philippines and Joyce is an exceptional Christian leader you should get to know. Together they discuss our GCI Healthy Church Vision and the Faith Avenue in their local context.

That is community, that our lives are intertwined with one another, that our lives are connected with one another. I remember, Dr. Andrew Root’s term, indwelling. In those moments, it is not programmatic we are not seated shoulder to shoulder with everyone facing the pulpit, listening to the pastor. This time we are face to face, and get to hear the stories of people. And what we see is how God is moving in the lives of each and every person, and that edifies other people and edifies the community.
-Pastor Aron Tolentino on the Faith Avenue

Main Points:

  • How does the Healthy Church vision get translated and embedded in your local context? (7:00)
  • How would you define the Faith Avenue and how it supports the Healthy Church movement? (16:04)
  • How has small group ministry supported the vision the Lord has given you for the congregation? (20:50)
  • How does the Faith Avenue provide a connecting point for new members and seekers? (47:10)


  • GCI-Asia Online Worship Services: check out the GCI-Asia online worship services Aron & Joyce mention in the episode.
  • On Being: GCI’s new Connect Group Curriculum
  • We Believe –  a comprehensive tool for teaching all age groups the core beliefs of our Christian faith.

Service for April 2—Good Friday

The Seven Last Statements

This service is based on the Seven last statements Jesus made from the cross. It is suggested to have seven different readers for the seven statements and the prayer following each statement and explanation. We give a short prayer, but readers should feel free to pray up to a minute or two. Avoid long prayers.

Suggested worship songs: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; At the Cross

  1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Reader: Jesus is praying for us. He’s praying for our forgiveness, not for vindication. He is praying for all his executioners and for all of us. In doing so, Jesus is revealing the heart of the Father. Jesus isn’t begging the Father to give something from a begrudging heart. This is the will of the Father made evident at the cross—forgiveness. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” as the famous scripture reads.

Prayer opening: We give thanks, loving Father, for your merciful love on such vivid display in your Son at the cross. We confess our sins and receive your forgiveness with grateful hearts.

2. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43

Reader: The request of the thief on the cross was “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To be remembered by Jesus, to be known by him: this is salvation. And it goes beyond being kept in Jesus’ thoughts. Jesus said, “you will be WITH me.” Emmanuel, God with us. Along with the thief on the cross, you are with God, and you are saved. Whatever else we find in paradise, we will find Jesus, and we will be with him. Not even death can separate us from his love.

Prayer opening: We give thanks for your constant, abiding presence, Jesus. We receive your presence with us, whether we walk through paradise or we walk through death.

3. “Woman, here is your son…here is your mother.” John 19:26-27

Reader: Jesus is concerned about others, in this case his mother. He is a faithful, loving son even to the end. Jesus is also showing us a new covenant community—an expanded family that transcends all the normal human bonds of blood and kinship. The family is the Body of Jesus in which our congregation belongs.

Prayer opening: We give thanks that we belong to one another in you, Lord Jesus. We receive with love these sisters and brothers you have given us in your body.

4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46

Reader: It was high noon, but the sun refused to shine into this dark hour. Some would say it shows God’s displeasure and the whole cosmos joined in grief. But there’s another way to think of this deep darkness. Jesus, the Light of the Cosmos, is at work in the darkness. It’s hard work, arduous labor. Hammer and nails; bone and flesh; blood, sweat and tears…and pain; agonizing pain. Jesus is laying down the ransom for our reconciliation with the Father. In this dark hour, the Father and Spirit are not absent to Jesus. Though Jesus is feeling our feelings of abandonment, he is crying out the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the song found in Psalm 22, which ends with these words, “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Psalm 22:31).

Prayer opening: We give thanks that the dark can never overcome the Light. We receive you, Jesus, the Light of the World, into our darkness.

5. “I am thirsty.” John 19:28

Jesus is thirsty because of his humanity, and his suffering on the cross. Jesus reminds us in this moment that he is human and remains at the Father’s side, as our God with skin on. He knew hunger; he knew thirst; he felt the emotion of death when his friend Lazarus died; he understands what it’s like to be wrongly accused, to be betrayed by close friends and to be doubted by his own family. “I am thirsty” may seem like the most insignificant of his statements on the cross, but it reminds us that he is a God who took on our flesh. It’s no small matter that he understands us.

Prayer opening: We give thanks, Lord Jesus, that you did not avoid our pain and suffering; rather you entered into it willingly for the joy set before you. We receive you and worship you as a God who did not stand back at an antiseptic distance from pain but came intimately close to it for our salvation.

6. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Luke 23:46

Reader: The hands of the Father, how safe a place is that? Jesus said he committed his spirit, his being, into the safest place beyond creation. From the savagery of the cross, in a sea of agony, Jesus was filled with confidence that the Father had him “in hand.” With so much danger, anxiety and fear in the world, this is where we are, safe in life and death, in the kind and tender hands of the Father.

Prayer opening: We give thanks that you demonstrated how to be human when you trusted your Father, Jesus! We receive your grip, Father, and rejoice that nothing can snatch us from your hand!

7. “It is finished.” John 19:30

When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” it was a declaration of good news. It ushered in a new covenant relationship with God and his people. The old was gone and the new had come. “It is finished” proclaimed God’s presence would no longer dwell in a building made by human hands but he would live in all of us. “It is finished” was a cry on behalf of all of God’s children in recognition that the Lord’s atoning work in Jesus was good, binding, final and complete. Grace is the finished work of Jesus, made visible at the cross, for our sakes. We no longer have to hide our sin and shame, for it is finished. We no longer have to pretend to have it all together, for it is finished.

Prayer opening: We give thanks, Father God, that we no longer have to wonder or doubt about our salvation, for it is finished. We receive the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we no longer need to question, for it is finished.


Sermon for April 4, 2021

Speaking of Life 3019 | Rolling Stones

Life often feels helpless and discouraging when we have a boulder-sized obstacle blocking our way. During these situations, let us be reminded that no problem is too big for our God. Our loving father will always make a way even if it seems impossible.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3019 | Rolling Stones
Michelle Fleming

YouTube has videos that can help you solve almost any problem, from cutting your own hair to moving large boulders. That’s right–there’s a video that shows how to move a large rock by using a lever. But YouTube wasn’t available back in Bible times, so on that very first Easter morning, the women walking to Jesus’ tomb they were facing a boulder-sized challenge. Let us read what happened:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?”

Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back—it was a huge stone—and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished.

He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.

Mark 16:1-7 (The Message)

Notice that the women were worried on the way to the tomb. They didn’t know how they were going to move the stone. All the disciples had fled. But here is what we might overlook in reading this passage: the women went to the tomb anyway.

They didn’t know how they were going to move the stone. They didn’t have YouTube do-it-yourself videos to show them how to move a boulder. They didn’t have the physical strength to move a boulder, but they went. And when they showed up, they found that God had already moved the stone and Jesus had been resurrected.

We’re lucky enough to have YouTube to help us with many do-it-yourself projects, but sometimes we’re faced with large obstacles that are beyond our control, just like the women at the tomb. God did what they could not do. On this Easter Sunday, we can rejoice that God is still “rolling away stones” in our lives.

May you believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ who loves you and won’t let you face any difficulty alone.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 • Acts 10:34-43 • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 • John 20:1-18

The theme this week is Grace = love no matter what, juxtaposing God’s loving acceptance with our human conditional love in celebration of Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord. The call to worship Psalm recounts God’s steadfast love and assures readers of God’s constancy even when circumstances are difficult and maybe even our fault. Acts 10 tells one of the times that God transformed Peter’s mind, helping him see that tradition had to be changed when love demanded it. 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us of Paul’s transformation from a murderer of God’s people to a leader and preacher of the good news. Finally, John 20 is our sermon text that takes us back to the empty tomb and encourages us to stick around even when things don’t make sense because love often shows up when we least expect it.

Visiting the Tomb

John 20:1-18

Today is Easter, and we know that we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The book of John shares the story of the resurrection through the eyes of two disciples, and Mary. There are some interesting differences. Like he does so often, even at the tomb Jesus turns things around and chooses an unlikely person to be the first one to share the message, “He is Risen!” Let’s take a look:

Read John 20:1-18.

What can we observe about the text?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. (John 20:1 NRSV)

Mary went to the tomb when it was still dark. In John’s Gospel, he uses the themes of darkness and light frequently. Remember that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). The fact that it was dark, and that this information was included in John’s account, might be suggesting an unveiling of truth, as the gentle light of daybreak slowly begins the day.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:2 NRSV)

Mary Magdalene noticed the stone was rolled away, but she didn’t go in. Instead, she ran to tell Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” Many scholars understand this to be John, the author of the Gospel. In verse 2, Mary assumes, without having looked, that Jesus’ body has been taken or moved. Jesus had told his disciples that he would be raised, but they didn’t really understand it.

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. (John 20:3-10 NRSV)

So Peter and John ran to the tomb. John doesn’t go in, but he looks in and sees the linen wrappings. Peter goes into the tomb and sees that the cloth that covered Jesus’ head was rolled up and placed to the side. John apparently saw that as significant, and the scene caused one disciple to believe, although we are not sure how much he believed or understood. John explains that before this, the disciples had not understood what Jesus was talking about. Now the light was beginning to break through. What could it mean? Verse 10 says the two disciples turned around and went home. They were not searching the grounds for clues about who took the body, or where. They just went home, and whether they knew it or not, they were waiting for further instructions.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:11-13 NRSV)

Mary stays at the tomb weeping. Notice that in verses 11-15, it mentions weeping or wept four times. Her intense grief is part of our human experience. Jesus was a friend and teacher to Mary. Verse 13 tells that two angels appear and ask Mary why she is weeping, and without thinking it strange, she answers again that she is looking for Jesus’ body.

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:14-17 NRSV) 

Before Mary can realize that she’s talking to angels, she turns around and mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. Symbolically, the garden in the Bible is a reference to Eden, and in this case, Jesus is bringing forth new life into being again. When Jesus says her name, she is able to see him for who he is. In her joy, she embraces Jesus. To our ears, Jesus saying, “Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (verse 17) sounds cold. But Jesus was not telling Mary not to touch him, but that he couldn’t stay with her, that things were going to be different. Mary wanted life to go back to the way it was; Jesus was there to offer a new way of being and connecting with him.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18 NRSV)

As a result, Mary becomes an apostle or messenger to the apostles. Jesus honors women in the biblical patriarchal culture by showing himself first to Mary after the resurrection and sending her to tell them not just that he will ascend to the Father, but that his disciples have the same relationship as he does (i.e., “my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” in verse 17).


  • Recognize we all have “stones” that need to be rolled out of the way because they inhibit us from seeing Jesus more fully in our lives. Like the disciples, we often do not understand everything right away. It takes time for the truth to sink in. We need to ponder these things in our heart, like Mary the mother of Jesus did. Consider the ways that you expect God to work in your life. Have you ever looked with fresh eyes at other situations where God might be working with you, and you dismissed them because they were outside your typical normal? Jesus chose to show himself post-resurrection to Mary in a culture that viewed women and children as unreliable witnesses. How do we limit God by the cultural views we hold?
  • Remember that we can miss valuable lessons when we refuse to see hidden assumptions we make about how God works in the world. Just as the disciples and Mary initially thought Jesus’ body had been taken, so we also assume God works in our lives in prescribed ways, forgetting that he uses many methods and people, and experiences to teach us.
  • Take the message Jesus offers us: we have been invited into relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. Like Mary, sometimes we are caught in grief and loss, and we don’t see how any life or resurrection could come out of a situation. Then Jesus appears and makes himself known through comfort extended by a friend, the peace of nature, or a gentle knowing that you’re not alone. Our lesson for today is knowing that we are pleasing to God, that this relationship is not based on us getting it right, but rather, it’s because humanity has been forever linked with God through Jesus Christ.

The resurrection story ends in a garden, but this time it’s not Adam and Eve being sent away from the garden. Instead, it’s Mary who is triumphantly leaving the garden as the messenger of good news: Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the “Speaking of Life” video, it talks about how “people pleasing” can keep us from realizing that we are already pleasing to God, no matter what we’ve done. Have you ever experienced a clash between wanting to please others and being true to who you are, to who God created you to be? If so, please share how you handled that situation.
  • What have you been given that required you to wait on God, and if you would have done something different, you would have missed it? Like Mary, how have you shared that good news of God’s faithfulness with others?
  • Why did the disciples not understand what Jesus had taught about his own resurrection? What limiting beliefs might you be holding that are in need of removal?
  • If you are loved by God despite your shortcomings, how does this make you feel? How can you share this feeling with those who cross your path every day?

Sermon for April 11, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3020 | Life in a Handful of Dust

Throughout the Bible, God uses dust to reveal how he can transform something lifeless into something wonderful. Even now, God continues to breathe life into us and he can restore what is broken and change it into something amazing.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3020 | Life in a Handful of Dust
Greg Williams

John starts his gospel work “In the beginning.” Later Jesus creates sight for a blind man with a handful of dust. After his resurrection, he meets Mary in a garden on Easter morning. In the Upper Room, he breathes on his apostles. Notice John’s words:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

John 20:21-22 (ESV)

Throughout the gospels, most vividly in John, we see the familiar images of dust, gardens, and breath. History started this way, in the garden, where God first breathed life into Adam. Here at the start of the New Testament church, Jesus begins the whole process again, by breathing the Spirit into us.

There’s that Hebrew word for breath—ruach—the word for Spirit.

Instead of destroying us for our rebellion and for turning from him, instead of starting over with a scorched earth policy from the ground up, God came here himself to re-create. These echoes of creation remind us that God always kept a remnant, Noah, the Exodus, the people brought back from exile. And then he brought forth his Son from one family, one woman, one womb.

He kept the remnant because that was his plan all along. He is the God who re-creates. He takes the dust and waste that sin has turned the world into and starts his kingdom here and says, “It is good.”

Has he breathed life into the dust of your life? Has he taken what is lifeless and dry and made it live? Think of the addict who is healed and goes onto support other addicts. Think of a mother who was hurt and abused as a child, but was then given her own children to cherish and break that cycle of pain.

We live in a world of death and resurrection with a God who, over and over, breathes life into a handful of dust. How is he breathing life into you?

I’m Greg Williams Speaking of Life.

Psalm 133:1-3 • Acts 4:32-35 • I John 1:1-2:2 • John 20:19-31

The theme this week is the God we touch, touches us. The call to worship Psalm talks about the miracle of God among us. His bringing us together is celebrated in all its healing reality. In Acts 4, God is present in the fellowship of the new church and the gritty reality of navigating relationships and generosity. In 1 John, John talks about touching Jesus himself, and then touching him again through the spiritual fellowship of the church. Our sermon is on John 20, and explores the kind of people Jesus chose to touch, revealing himself to weaklings, doubters, and cowards after the resurrection.

A Woman, a Doubter, and a Coward

John 20 and 21

The resurrection appearances of Jesus are some of the most famous and most strange of the Bible stories. Jesus dies a brutal death at the hands of the authorities—absolutely no question what happened to him. He’s put in a donated grave and the mourning process begins.

…but it doesn’t.

First there are strange rumors. Somebody saw something, we’re not even sure. As Mark writes his last fragmented line:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8 NRSV)

Then Jesus is showing up in the middle of locked rooms. He’s walking on paths with people who’ve know him for years and they don’t recognize him. Then as soon as they pray over a meal, they do recognize him—then he disappears! Then he’s gone—he’s back—he’s cooking breakfast. He’s talking to hundreds of people—then he’s gone again.

They watched Jesus die and, just as surely, he stands there right next to them. How one thing is connected with the other, no one quite knows.

…but it happened.

And even the Gospel writers seem at a loss. These controlled, intricately woven narratives end in fragmentary stories that feel like someone is trying to describe a nuclear blast.

John goes into more detail for more time than anyone else. Typical of his narrative structure, he provides us with one-on-one conversations with Jesus. He interweaves these with the stories the rest of the Gospels give us after the resurrection.

Let’s look at three stories—Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter. Let’s notice what kind of people Jesus chose to have these post-resurrection conversations with. Who did he get close to? What does that tell us about him?


Easter Day—Mary, the Woman

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. (John 20:1 NRSV)

Here’s a woman walking by herself in the dark to a tomb. Women by themselves in the half-light isn’t a good idea now and it wasn’t then. The atmosphere is already tense and lost—this small, sniffling shadow stumbling her way through the tombs on a cold morning.

We don’t know much about Mary, other than the fact that she was confused with a few other Marys in the story. No, she wasn’t Lazarus’s sister. No, she didn’t wash Jesus’ feet with her hair.

One of the only details we have about her is that “seven demons” had been driven from her (Luke 8:2). We have to frame that as well within the first-century mindset. They would have thought not only of demonic harassment (a very real thing), but also would have put physical and mental issues under this category.

Other than that, we know very little except that she was always there. Always. She shows up in many places as “also appearing.” No doubt she followed along with the growing entourage of Jesus and was determined to follow him despite all costs.

So we have a lady who has no great lines so far, and seems to have nothing else going on in her life other than following around this eccentric savior character from Nazareth.

Complicate this with her gender. As a woman she was nearly powerless and non-existent in the world at that time. In Jewish society she had some rights and some voice, but in Greco-Roman society she was hardly noticed. The acute irony for Mary, as we shall see, is that her testimony didn’t count in legal matters, the word of a woman was no good.

And yet, in every Gospel, she’s the first one to witness Jesus risen from the tomb…

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? (John 20:14-15 NRSV)

Mary, a woman whose testimony would be dismissed out of hand, is the first witness of the most important event in history! Throughout history, Mary has been nicknamed “the apostle to the apostles”—she was the first to carry the message, the first to sound the alarm. “Umm….Peter, John—guys, you’re not gonna believe this…”

The slapstick exchange in which she mistakes Jesus for the gardener is one of the funniest moments in literature. Here’s Jesus grabbing the first clothes on hand which happen to be the landscaper’s apron and floppy sunhat, and he walks up to this woman. Here is the Lord in a world in which sin is defeated—playful, just out of the corner of your eye.

And just as the great tragedy of humanity was born of a conversation with the first woman in a garden, so the great rebirth of humanity begins in this garden. This time it’s with a woman who is anything but the perfect Eve, and who is alone and despondent and lost, and doesn’t even know who she’s talking to.

And then there’s the moment that she recognizes him:

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16 NRSV)

He says her name. The absolute intimacy of that moment as contrasted with the alienation of the Genesis story in which God says, “Where are you?” Here God is the one doing the seeking, even when he’s not being sought (he’s even the one doing the hiding for a moment!), and he speaks her name, and she knows him.

John can’t even help himself here but has to describe the exchange exactly as it was spoken: Rabbouni! She yells in Aramaic. Rabbouni! The one I know! The one who speaks my name!

This is the person that Jesus seeks out to show himself to first. This is the bell tone of the new world after the resurrection. No longer will people whom society deems a burden be left out of the party. They will be at the seat of honor. Their testimony will be heard.

A Week after Easter—Thomas, the Doubter

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. (John 20:24 NRSV)

Thomas wasn’t with them. This is an itchy, mysterious detail that John includes. We don’t know why Thomas was missing or where he was. His brief moments in the story previously show us a thin thread of character development.

Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16 NRSV)

Here we see the early Thomas. The man who says esoteric, emotional things about dying with this Rabbi. But the more he has to wait, the more Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t look like he wants it to, the more cynical he gets.

We see him again later:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5 NRSV)

Some time has passed. Thomas the young idealist is a little more hesitant. His voice has an edge to it. We see this confusion much of the time through Jesus’ interactions with the disciples. But Thomas is the only one that seems to show some development, this hardening from innocence to bewilderment.

And that’s the Thomas we catch up to in the end. The one who wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. Was he out somewhere on a drinking spree? Was he drowning his worries somewhere—watching his people lose yet one more Messiah?

And yet he’s back the next week.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. (John 20:26 NRSV)

He’s gone, he’s back. He’s almost between two worlds, like Jesus himself. He’s confused and uncertain, doesn’t know what to think. One week he’s off the ranch, done with the whole thing. The next week he’s there with them because, despite it all, he’s got nowhere else to go.

Thomas has already told them that unless he can touch the wounds himself, he will “in no way” believe. He’s emphatic, he’s not getting taken again. At that time in history, Messiahs came and went with the desperate, occupied Jewish people. They started movements, made promises and then ran off with the money or ended up on crosses themselves. Thomas may be thinking that’s what’s happening here, and he wants no part of it.

Thomas the doubter is an important figure for our age of dogmatic doubt. We live in a time when ideologies and life philosophies come and go quickly, promising us release and satisfaction. Through media, these “Messiahs” appear and disappear even faster—political figures, movie stars, pharmaceutical fads, all angling for attention. It is no surprise that humanity is cynical and caustic. Many of us, no doubt, wouldn’t have been with them in the upper room when Jesus made his first appearance either.

But on the eighth day…

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:26-27 NRSV)

Jesus, who made a special stop for the woman, now makes a special stop for the doubter. In that moment, Jesus even condescends to the test that Thomas demanded. Put your finger here, place your hand here. Notice the contrast to Mary Magdalene, who Jesus appeared to first, apparently while he was still between the world of heaven and earth—“don’t cling to me yet.” But here, even to the disbelieving and upset, he commands that his wounds be touched.

And here Thomas the doubter, the eighth-day believer, last on the scene, makes the clearest theological declaration in John:

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28 NRSV)

John’s Gospel has come full circle. The story that began in the ether of the Logos—who was with God and was God, has now found its conclusion with the great doubter declaring: “My Lord and my God!”

These are the one-on-one interactions that Jesus chooses to have. With Mary, who wasn’t anything special and wouldn’t be anyone chosen to lead a movement. With the doubter, Thomas, who was cynical and upset and thought he had Jesus figured out. Here we see Jesus, the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 to find the lost one. We see the world of grace and mercy which makes no “sense” as a math equation but is the only world that has room for us imperfect humans to live.

Epilogue—Peter, the Coward

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. (John 21:1 NRSV)

Maybe you can’t identify with Mary. You don’t know what it’s like to live in her circumstances. May you don’t see yourself in Thomas—you believe and you pretty much always have, it’s just you are.

But many of us can resonate with Peter! Some of us can relate to this emotional, capricious, infuriating and ever-endearing character in the New Testament? He opens his mouth to declare some of the most substantial, clear theology, and then immediately puts his foot in his mouth. When the voice of God speaks out of a cloud on the mountain, he proposes they build booths for everyone to hang out in! When a garrison of trained soldiers accosts them in the night, he cuts a guy’s ear off with a small sword!

And in that moment when Jesus was the most alone, the most vulnerable, Peter says he doesn’t even know who Jesus is.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. (John 21:9 NRSV)

Again, John provides important atmospheric detail. A few weeks before, Peter denied Jesus while sitting by a charcoal fire. This would have been an everyday sight and smell for Peter when cooking meals, etc. It would have been a constant, painful reminder of his cowardice and betrayal.

Jesus knew that. Jesus also knew Peter had denied him three times, and so for each of the three, he asks Peter: Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Jesus appears to the woman walking through the empty garden in the morning. He appears to the doubter, looking through cynical eyes. And he appears to the braggadocio coward, who flat-out denied he knew Jesus at all.

This is the grace of the post-resurrection world, the upside-down kingdom. Where people who are disrespected become the heralds of good news, where the doubters declare the highest theology, where the cowards become the Rock on which the church is founded.

There are some beautiful traditions about where these heroes of the faith lived out their days. These stories are edifying, but the history is murky at best and doesn’t have near the authority and clarity of Scripture. We’ll have to ask them the details ourselves someday!

Mary Magdalene—Tradition holds that she travelled with Lazarus and others to what is modern-day France. She lived out her years in an alpine cavern in the mountains, praying for and supporting the churches there. The woman goes out to rugged country and carries the weight of new churches on her shoulders.

Thomas—Tradition holds that he went to India, after the Lord told him to do so in a dream. India was the edge of the earth in their minds; no one ever came back from there. Finally, he who touched Jesus’ spear wound was killed by soldiers with spears while praying.

Peter—After having his false starts and blunders recorded for all of history, Peter went on to become one of the greatest church leaders who ever lived. He served in Rome and finally was crucified at the hands of the authorities, upside-down at his insistence because he said, “I’m unworthy to die as my Lord died.”

The woman, the doubter and the coward. These are the people Jesus chose to have intimate conversations with after the resurrection. By the Spirit, he turned them into the saints and heroes we know today, but they started as nobodies.

This is the kingdom, brothers and sisters, where the last shall be first and the low are made high. Next time you think of yourself as useless, as unworthy, think about who Jesus chose to talk to first when the new world started and the tomb was empty.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon
  • We talked about Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter as the first people Jesus has close conversations with in John. Do you identify with any of these characters? Which one and why?
  • What does it tell us about who God is that he chose these “losers” to appear to first? How does that change our view of ourselves, and of others in the church?
  • Each of these unlikely heroes went on to be great leaders in the church. Has God ever turned something “upside down” like that in your life? Used your mistakes and shortcomings to bring in the kingdom and heal the world?
Questions for Speaking of Life “Life in a Handful of Dust”
  • Can you think of any parts of the gospel story that sound like Jesus re-creating? Echoes of the Genesis story? Or the Israel story?
  • Think of a marriage. This is a relationship that takes a lot of work, false starts and patience along the way. Have you ever thought of God relating to us this way? Instead of starting everything over, he worked within what was there to heal it. Do you believe God relates to us this way?
Quote to ponder: We're blind men, sad men, dreamers with wishes Paralytics, lunatics and the back-street fringes All find a place in Your home, at Your table And You make them well 'cause You're willing and able. —Bill Malone

Sermon for April 18, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3021 | Jesus Goes Viral

Have you ever seen a video go viral? The video spreads rapidly through online sharing and is watched by thousands or even millions of people around the globe! Like watching that interesting video clip, knowing Jesus makes us want to share with others about who he is. The more we come to know him, the more compelled we are to share his love with the people around us.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3021 | Jesus Goes Viral
Jeff Broadnax

Have you ever seen a video that moved you so much or made you laugh so hard that you just had to share it with someone else? If so, you may have participated in making that video “go viral.”

When a video “goes viral” it spreads exponentially with little effort or expense. This is a dream come true for advertisers or artists. In fact, many try to produce this phenomenon by implementing various strategies or tactics but there is no sure way of guaranteeing a video will “go viral.” It only happens when the video connects with people in a significant way and it is shared.  A particularly moving video can get shared around the globe and viewed by millions in a very short time.

We could say this is similar to how the Gospel gets spread around the world. It’s not that someone came up with some brilliant marketing strategy–or perhaps some ONE did–but rather it happens when a person has seen and been moved by Jesus. That personal encounter, I call those divine appointments, leads to a natural sharing of the Good News of who Jesus is and what he has done. Like seeing that amazing video, seeing Jesus compels us to share with others in hope that they too will see Jesus. He’s just too good not to share.

Unlike a video that goes viral, seeing Jesus is not a short-lived experience. It’s a lifelong relationship of seeing and coming to know him and his Father by the Spirit, day in and day out. The more we turn to him and come to see and know him the more our witness of him will naturally flow out of us. We won’t need any fancy marketing campaigns. We will just tell that epic story as we experienced it.

Listen to the interplay between experiencing God personally and witnessing to him publicly in this Psalm:

Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.
Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord.

Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?”
Let the light of your face shine on us.
Fill my heart with joy
when their grain and new wine abound.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:1-8

When we see Jesus, we will also see that Jesus is the true Witness in the World. He has known the Father for all eternity and knows just how good he is. Since Jesus sees the Father, he is compelled to share him with us.

We could say that Jesus is the Someone who shared the “visual” of his relationship with the Father. Let’s celebrate the One who shines the light and love of the Father and join in on Jesus going viral.

I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 4:1-8 • Acts 3:12-19 • 1 John 3:1-7 • Luke 24:36b-48

This week’s theme is being witnesses of the Lord. The call to worship Psalm starts off with a plea and ends with the assurance that the Lord hears our calls to him. The text from Acts follows the healing of a crippled beggar in Jesus’ name, which gives Peter the opportunity to witness to many people. The epistolary text explores the concrete reality of being children of God, which sets us out to be like Jesus. The Gospel text finds the disciples being confronted with the reality of the risen Lord who calls them to be witnesses to all nations.

Talking about Jesus

Luke 24:36-48 (NRSV)

Have you ever been with a group a people who were talking about another person when suddenly that person walks into the room? It can be an awkward moment, depending on what was being said. That is roughly the situation that is taking place to begin our sermon today. Today’s text follows immediately on the heels of the story of Cleopas and an unnamed disciple who are encountered by Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. They were talking about Jesus and all that took place in Jerusalem leading to his crucifixion. As they were talking “Jesus himself came near and went with them.”

Now, at the beginning of our text for today, we have these two disciples gathered with other disciples sharing their experience and discussing the strange reports that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Notice Luke’s words:

 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. (Luke 24:36-37 NRSV)

There seems to be a pattern developing. When you gather with others to talk about Jesus, he has a tendency of showing up to join the conversation. But he doesn’t come to us to shame us or catch us in some awkward conversation to embarrass us. He comes bringing peace. These disciples needed to hear these words of peace from Jesus as they responded to his appearance by being “startled and terrified” as they thought they were seeing a ghost. Although they have been talking about the testimonies of those who encountered the risen Jesus and even though Jesus was standing in front of them, these disciples were fearful that it was not true. They may be thinking that whatever they are seeing looks a lot like Jesus but surely, it must be something else. This can’t be real. It doesn’t make any sense from all we know of dead people. A ghost maybe…but Jesus in the flesh. Impossible.

Notice how Jesus responds to their fears.

He begins by asking them a probing question: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” When Jesus stands before us and gives us his peace, why do we still fear? This may be a good question for us to take up today. The peace (shalom) that Jesus has brought to us is real. It’s not a suggestion or a sentimental nice thing to say. Jesus has brought peace and that is a reality. As we look around us, we may be tempted to think Jesus’ pronouncement of peace is a mirage. We may not see a lot of peace in our world and therefor draw the conclusion that Jesus’ peace must be some vapory form of peace, shallow and “ghost-like” but nothing of substance. So, we remain in our fears. What lies at the heart of our fears? Is it not a lack of trust in God’s Word to us in Jesus? What is more real to us, what the world presents to our eyes or what the Word speaks to our ears? We are called to faith, to believe and cast our full trust on the One who loves us, who came to us as Lord and Savior. If he brings peace, you can rest assured that it is a real peace to be received, not an ungrounded allusion to doubt.

Notice the next thing Jesus does after getting the disciples to ponder the reason for their fear.

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39 NRSV)

He moves to help them see the reality. He doesn’t chide them or throw up his hands in frustration. He simply takes them where they are and works to grow their faith in him. Jesus is content to work with their present fears and culturally conditioned responses. In that culture, it was not an uncommon belief for a dead person to appear as a ghost. In fact, they had some tests that could be used to validate whether a person was a ghost or not. First, you could check the person’s feet to make sure they touched the ground and were not floating like a ghost. Second, the hands could be examined to see if they were solid with flesh and bones. Also, you could check to see if they had teeth and could eat. Jesus, apparently, is taking the disciples through this template of testing to show them he is indeed Jesus himself.

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (Luke 24:40 NRSV)

Even as Jesus puts himself through this “ghost test” we can see that the disciples are struggling “in their joy” to believe. We would say, “It seems too good to be true.” But Jesus is committed to bringing them into the reality of the good news that he was coming to them as the risen Lord. This seems to be the thrust of Luke’s telling of the story. He does not mention the nail scars on Jesus’ hands or has anyone touch the hole in his side, like other accounts of Jesus’ appearances. Jesus is simply trying to establish for the disciples that he is real, not a ghost. He is Jesus in the flesh, risen from the dead.

This account of Jesus appearing to his disciples can bring us great comfort in our times of fear and doubt. We can know that Jesus wants to move us beyond our fears so we can embrace his peace. He takes us where we are and moves us beyond our limited capacities. He doesn’t come to us with disappointment or annoyance at our weakness of faith. If that were so, he would not be living in the peace he is holding out to us. But Jesus is living completely in the peace he promises. He does not fear our fears and doubts, and he is not anxious about our culture’s influence on our ability to trust in him. Rather, he moves in peace toward us, calling us further to himself.

The last test Jesus applies to himself is eating.

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:41-43 NRSV)

Notice how he involves the disciples in what he is doing. Not only does this present evidence that Jesus is not a ghost, but it may connect with them on a personal level as their memory may return to the time they handed Jesus some fish and Jesus used it to feed thousands. Now they were giving him fish that he is using to open their eyes to who he is.

Jesus is being consistent in how he relates to the disciples. He takes what they give him and uses it to reveal himself further to them. And Jesus is still doing that today. Have you ever experienced the Lord asking you to give him something that he then turns into a means of revealing himself to you in a deeper way? Maybe he asked you to give over some stinky fish of complaining only to find that God shares with you his overflowing joy. Maybe he asked you to give him that offense from another you have been unable to forgive only to find that God has forgiven you completely, setting you free to forgive others as you have been forgiven. Or maybe he has asked you to give just a little more in the offering basket than you were comfortable with only to find that God is a generous God who gives all things without compulsion. In this way, our giving becomes a form of receiving. God takes what we give him and uses it to further his blessing to us of knowing him.

After Jesus presents himself to the disciples in this way, he then reminds them of what he told them about Scripture—it’s all about him.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48 NRSV)

He wants them to know who he is beyond all their fear and doubt and he directs them to the Scriptures to do just that. But he goes further: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Let that sink in. When we read the Scriptures, we can trust that Jesus is right there with us by the Spirit, opening our minds to understand further who he is. How important it is to continually be searching the Scriptures, reading along with Jesus who is opening our minds to understand who he is as revealed in them.

Not only did Jesus open their minds to understand what the Scriptures are saying about him, but he used the Scriptures to open their eyes to who they are in Christ—his witnesses. When Jesus appeared to them and brought them to see that he was real, and not a ghost, he was also preparing them for their calling of being a witness. Sometimes when we talk about being witnesses or about evangelism, we do so as if we are on our own. But Jesus is the true Witness, and he calls us along to join him. He is preparing us for this calling by witnessing to us who he is and who his Father is.

There is no way we can be witnesses outside of his witness to us and his continuing witness to the Father by the Spirit for the sake of the world.

Jesus also makes them more than “eyewitnesses” of Jesus after the resurrection. He links their witness with the Scriptures as they are to be “witnesses of these things”—the things that he just opened their minds to in the Scriptures. The calling to proclaim the gospel will entail being “ministers of the word.” Also, notice that Jesus said the proclamation “to all nations” would begin “from Jerusalem.” In other words, they will first witness from where they are. Jesus links witness to relationship.

He prepared the first disciples and us today to be witnesses by having us come to know him personally for who he is. We are to share that first with others we are closest to. We begin where we are, with our families and friends. Our sights are not set only on some distant land to reach with the gospel, but as witnesses who have been encountered by the risen Lord, we naturally want to share with the closest person within reach. Being a witness will be a natural response of seeing the Lord. So, our text has come full circle. It begins with disciples talking about Jesus who, after being encountered by the living, risen Lord, are set out to talk about Jesus.

As you go out today, back to your families, your neighborhood, your work and wherever you find yourself, I hope you go encouraged by the reality that Jesus comes to you. He comes to you to bring you into his peace. He comes to you to reveal himself to you further, so you can know him and his Father more deeply. He comes to you to build your faith in him so you can go into your world living in the reality of God’s love for you, living in the repentance and forgiveness of sins that has been proclaimed in the name of Jesus. In this name, may we go out talking about Jesus, sharing with others who Christ has revealed himself to be to us in the Scriptures.

Jesus has come to you. May you see him more clearly and hear his words of peace. And in his name, may you go out and share his words of peace with others.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of a movie you saw that you couldn’t help but share with a friend or family member? Discuss how this can be analogous to sharing the gospel with others.
  • The “Speaking of Life” video stated that Jesus was the true Witness in the world. What do you think of this statement? How does that inform our calling to be witnesses?
  • Put yourself in the circle of disciples when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection. How do you think you would have responded? Can you identify with the fear and doubt the disciples experienced, even though Jesus was standing right in front of them?
  • Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” How would you answer that question today? Discuss together possible answers to this question.
  • The text brings out that Jesus asked the disciples for something to eat and the disciples gave him some broiled fish. Then Jesus ate the fish as a way of showing them that he was not a ghost but was real flesh and blood risen from the dead. Can you think of examples in your own life where Jesus has asked you to give something to him that he in turn used to help you see him more?
  • Discuss the importance of Scripture for our calling to be witnesses to Jesus.

Sermon for April 25, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3022 | The Green in Rugged Pastures

In Psalm 23, we hear the promise that God gives us rest in green pastures. The “green pastures” the Psalmist referred to are nothing like the bountiful tall green grass landscape that others might think of. In reality, the landscape where the Psalmist lived is actually a desert. Just as the Psalmist could see God’s provision beyond his desert circumstances, we too can rest in the truth that God will lead and care for us, even in the desert.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3022 | The Green in Rugged Pastures
Greg Williams

One of the most famously quoted Psalms is Psalm 23, and if you don’t understand the countryside in Israel, you can miss part of the meaning of the Psalm.

You know the Psalm, which begins like this:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Psalm 26:1-2 (NRSV)

If you go to the countryside in Israel, you can see what the psalmist looked at as he penned the words “green pastures.” Even today there are teenagers from shepherd families out walking their charges on grazing trails carved into the land since the time of Abraham. But the “green pastures” the Psalmist referred to are nothing like the luscious midwestern landscape this may bring to mind for a westerner.

The landscape is rugged semi-desert, not the waist-high grasses that we may think of. The first time one biblical scholar saw the sheep out grazing here, he thought they were eating rocks! But yet this is the place that David calls “green pastures.” Look closer, and there is just enough moisture in the air and scarce rainfall to grow the smallest shoots of vegetation around the rocks.

There’s just enough for a few mouthfuls every few steps, and the sheep have to keep moving, they must keep following the shepherd to find sustenance. There’s no lush green pastures to sit and get fat in, but there’s enough to make it through and keep going, and when the grass runs out, the sheep trust the shepherd will bring them to more.

This changes our understanding of Christ. While the pictures of a very Caucasian Jesus walking his sheep through waving pastures are nice and comforting for many, they are wholly inaccurate. What David saw was the much more true-to-life picture of a rugged landscape in which the sheep’s only chance of survival is the shepherd’s guidance and love.

One of the greatest questions of our Christian life is: Do we trust the shepherd to give us enough?

Most of the time in life, we’re not flooded with spiritual, physical, or relational bounty, but if we keep moving, we find that Jesus guides us. A mouthful here, a mouthful there. A kind word from a stranger, an unexpected gift from a friend, a favorite meal made by your spouse.

This is how our Lord Jesus leads us to green pastures. Our shepherd gives us all we need, and the point is to trust him and keep following.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 23:1-6 • Acts 4:5-12 • 1 John 3:16-24 • John 10:11-18

The theme this week is the strength of the shepherd. Throughout our Scriptures, we see people following the good shepherd and sharing his strength. Our call to worship Psalm contains the well-known words of comfort that we are walking in the leadership and guidance of the strong shepherd. In Acts 4, Peter, the roughneck fisherman, is given strength to speak boldly before a collection of powerful, sophisticated leaders. In 1 John 3, the community of Jesus, who often called himself the “good shepherd,” is encouraging each other in the strength of their faith. John 10, on which our sermon is based, gives us the “good shepherd” dialogue of Jesus, rich with Old Testament imagery and huge implications for Jesus’ identity.

The Shepherd’s True Measure

John 10:11-18 ESV

Read John 10:11-18 ESV

“The true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good.” This quote, from Samuel Johnson, is basically the definition of kindness—being kind and caring to the person who can do you “no good.” The only thing they bring to the table is their helplessness, their innocence. How you take on that enormous responsibility tells much about who you are.

We meet plenty of people we “don’t need” to be kind to. That demanding panhandler who is conning people out of money. That thankless relative who ruined yet another family dinner. Even those who are relatively innocent: a disabled person who depends on the system without putting anything in, an elderly dementia patient, a psych patient who will never “get better.”

How we treat these people, as individuals and as a society, tells more about us than them. They can give nothing back. Helping them won’t advance our career and certainly won’t give us a “return on investment.” Many of these folks may never get better, may never change their ways and/or are permanently disabled (physically or mentally).

We show kindness to them, when we do, because of kindness itself, and because of who we are in Jesus.

Jesus seems to be describing the same thing in his analogy about the “good shepherd.” He’s talking about what it means to be not just the person who leads—the “hired hand”—but the person who loves.

He gives an example from the universal world of work. Shepherding then was about as dull and common as fast food or “cubicle work” might be today. And in that profession, there was no need to be “kind” to the sheep. They were a product to be exploited, and that was an acceptable perspective.

It is in that atmosphere that Jesus speaks this metaphor of the “good” shepherd. He is good to those who can do him no good. In this case sheep, but it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for people. He defends and cares for the sheep not because of what they can do in return but because of who he is. He acts kindly because he is kind, he does good because he is good.

Let’s look at the characters in this micro-parable Jesus tells. Though first-century shepherding may seem miles away from our modern, digital world, there is truth for our age here, as there is with everything Jesus said.

We’ll look at:

  • The Shepherd
  • The hired hands
  • The sheep

The Shepherd

We come to this passage in the middle of tense conversations with the Jerusalem rulers about who Jesus is. The physical and spiritual violence of Jesus’ torture and execution will follow here in a few pages, but at the moment we’re in the middle of controversial words.

He’s making shocking statements left and right here. He’s declared himself:

  • I am the bread of life (and you have to eat me!)
  • I am the resurrection (the Jewish view of the future)
  • I am the Light of the world (like the pillar of fire that led Israel)
  • And, most point blank, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

These are among what is loosely called the “I am” statements of Jesus, and the phrase itself is particularly potent. When Moses was confronted with the burning bush in Exodus 3, he asked God his name, and the definitively mysterious statement rang out: “I AM.” God said “I AM” is his name – he is who he is, the self-existent One; there is no one and nothing like him, we can’t imagine his depths and we can never comprehend him other than what he chooses to show us.

He is the great I AM, “Yahweh,” the One from which everything comes. This name isn’t even spoken by faithful Jews to this day because it is considered too holy and sacred to cross human lips.

“I am the good shepherd” is one of the “I am” statements of Jesus. Our English word “good” is a little flat. The original word means something more like “beautiful” or “attractive” or “faithful”—all of those realities in one.

At the time, a shepherd like any other job, could be done to the bare minimum. Sheep were food and clothing—the relationship was entirely practical. The shepherd never needed to be kind or particularly conscious of any of the animals, just turn them into whatever product was needed. But a “good” shepherd, like a “good” nurse or craftworker, had a special relationship with the sheep. He saw worth in each of the animals, and he tried his best to care for them all.

Again, this told you more about him than it did about the sheep. He’s a good shepherd because he is good, not because the sheep are worthy, or because the work is glorious. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

Jesus is drawing on imagery from thousands of years before, in Ezekiel 34.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4 ESV)

It goes on to say…

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16 ESV)

There’s a lot going on here, but the main thing is Jesus’ astounding claim. God says in Ezekiel that the human shepherds have failed and that he himself will be their shepherd. Then Jesus echoes that passage and says, “I am the shepherd!” “I am living out the role that God has.”

Hired Hands

The description of the human shepherds isn’t flattering in Ezekiel:

Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3 ESV)

Nor in John:

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. (John 10:12 ESV)

Jesus has established himself as the shepherd—who cares for the sheep even when he doesn’t have to. He’s contrasted here with the hired hands, the human shepherds who care the most for themselves.

The tension between Jesus and the religious authorities is not theological news—it’s everywhere. But Jesus’ word here and everywhere is that their time is up. The paradigms are shifting.

God’s purpose for the old covenant was completed in Jesus. He has no patience for clinging to the old ways, to the point that he exposes their negative motivations and lack of character. He says their motivations are self-protective, self-promoting, more worried about their own skin than the people’s spiritual health.

Jesus comes to the sheep not as some new improved hired hand, but because they are his own.

It can be easy for us to judge the Jewish authorities sometimes, to separate ourselves from them. But as sure as the followers of Jesus are an example for us in the modern day, so are his opponents.

Do we ever hold onto old paradigms of doing church just because it’s “how it’s always been”? Do we miss the ways God is moving because we want to stay with what’s comfortable? Do we have power structures and social status in church that are sometimes threatened by the One the church is worshipping?

Would we be those hired hands?


Have you ever had much experience with sheep? They are decidedly not the fluffy clean puffballs you might see in a Sunday school mural. Domestic sheep are often covered with mud (and worse!) and wander about aimlessly. They are self-focused (if they have a focus at all), of limited intelligence—animals who inspire pretty much nothing but pity.

Like many dialogues in John, this discussion is framed and set up by a story. Just before this, Jesus heals a blind man, and the Pharisees threw the man out of the synagogue for his association with Jesus.

John includes an odd detail here:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him… (John 9:35 ESV)

The formerly blind man has been cast out from the center of cultural life in his community. He is wandering and helpless. He and his family have already been under scrutiny because of his disability, because the religious authorities think he or they must have sinned to bring on his blindness.

Now he’s fully cast out. Fully exiled from his culture, disconnected from his community. Until the good shepherd, the merciful shepherd comes and finds him. The text implies that Jesus was seeking him, looking specifically for him. There is no advantage, no return on investment for Jesus seeking out this man. He’s not a good networking connection. And yet Jesus seeks him out.

The sheep. Lost, helpless, unimportant. And this is who Jesus looks for.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 ESV)

This is the shepherd who cares, even for sheep who aren’t “useful.” The true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good—Jesus saves us not because of who we are but because of who he is.

The hour in which he lays down his life will come soon enough. Jesus knows this. He knows that he will soon die for a world that will be, for the most part, ungrateful, confused and stuck in their ways. He will seek out those who aren’t seeking him. Always.

What do we take home from each of the actors in this very short play?

The Shepherd—Jesus draws on a powerful passage in Scripture to get his point across. I am God and this is who God is. Do we live in the reality that at the center of it all is a merciful shepherd? Do we believe that the ultimate reality is mercy, kindness and love?

The hired hands—The human shepherds are described as exploitative and uncaring, holding old paradigms so they can hold onto power. Do we do this in the church today? Do we miss out on what God is doing because we want church to look the way we want it to?

The sheep—Jesus sought out the (recently) blind man. He will seek you out to. You don’t have to offer him some great works or a perfect life—all he wants is you. In our lives, do we seek out those Jesus seeks out? Do we only make time for “important” or “connected” people?

Jesus is showing us not a new world, but the real world. He’s showing us that the center is mercy, the center is unconditional love. Let’s live in that center today.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life
  • Have you ever been to Israel? Does it surprise you that much of the landscape is rugged and dry when you read Psalm 23?
  • Is it a paradigm shift to think of God sustaining us along the path rather than plopping us down into knee-deep grasses? What does that mean to us as Christ-followers?
Questions for Sermon {Start by re-reading John 10:11-18}
  • Have you ever interacted with sheep? Have you seen them at the zoo or on a farm or worked with them? What was your impression?
  • Jesus’ dialogue here is part of the famous “I am” statements of Jesus, which scandalized his original audience. Why do you think he used this phrase?
  • What do you make of the sacred name “I AM”—why did God give himself this name?
  • We talked about how Jesus sought out the blind man in the proceeding chapter, showing that he’s the good shepherd who seeks out the lost and rejected. Do you feel like Jesus sought you out? What does that mean in your life?
Quote to ponder: “God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place.” ~~Frederick Buechner, author and Presbyterian minister