GCI Equipper

Easter — A Day and a Season

Easter is more than a memorial of the resurrection; it is a 50-day celebration focused on triumph and victory.

The wonderful phrases of Easter never cease to remind us of the wonder and power of Jesus, the Christ.  Religion could not limit him. Sin could not control him. Evil could not defeat him. The cross could not stop him. Death could not hold him. The grave could not keep him. He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Oh Glorious Day!

But it’s more than a day. Easter is a season of 50 days—50 days of celebration that lead to the ascension and end on the eve of Pentecost. Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year, said this about the 50 days:

Why 50 days? First, because the enormity of the resurrection invited a lengthy celebration. Second, Easter lasted until Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”), the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out. Third, the period corresponded to the Jewish spring harvest festival, which began with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the barley harvest) and ended with the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot (the wheat harvest). … Fifty suggests liberation and joy, as in the Year of Jubilee called for every fifty years in Leviticus 25. (p. 108)

Easter gives great hope as we not only focus on the resurrection of Jesus, but we see there is more. Paul tells us the greatest fear has been destroyed: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:52). In the Easter event Jesus overcame sin, death and evil. He replaced religion with relationship. He demonstrated love over law. He confounded the wise and brought glory to the lowly. And he gave us the promise of a transformed body. Because of the resurrection, we believe in and look forward to our own resurrected bodies. We now can join Paul in declaring the old has gone, the new has come. We are a new creation.

Paul referred to the resurrection of Jesus as the significant message to share.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:2-5 NRSV)

He then went on to say that if Christ was not resurrected, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins.

But he did rise. We are no longer in our sins. We are no longer bound by our fear of death. Sure, death still hurts, but we see it as a transition to something better, something glorious, rather than the end.  The resurrection gives us hope in the present and in our future. The present because it reminds us we are called to participate in that resurrection and in the mission of Jesus. The future because we know the physical pains we bear, the trials we face, the suffering we go through, even the loneliness and depression many are facing during this pandemic, is temporary. We have a glorious future because of Jesus rising from the grave, appearing to the disciples, teaching them how the Old Testament was fulfilled in him, and then ascending to the Father and taking us with him.

The early church wanted the Easter season to be a season of celebrating. Unlike Lent, which was a season of fasting, they wanted the Easter season to be a season of feasting. Bobby Gross says this about the Easter Season:

In these earliest centuries, the church observed Easter by increasing the use of “alleluias” in worship and correspondingly suspending all fasting and the practice of kneeling in prayer. These gestures emphasized the standing of believers as those raised in Christ. (p. 190)

I love that visual. Standing as believers who know they have been raised in Christ. Joining Jesus in worship of the Father. Standing in celebration, songs of joy, prayers of praise. You can almost sense the spirit of celebration that went on for 50 days as the church heads toward Pentecost.

During the Easter season followers of Jesus are reminded of our invitation to participate with Jesus in his mission to share the gospel—the good news about himself—with the world. Prior to that invitation to join him—which we read in Matthew 28:18-20—he reminds us that all power and authority has been given to him, and that he is with us always. In between those two statements is the great invitation to participate with him. How can we not celebrate the invitation as we join him in bearing witness—to his life, his teachings, his death, his resurrection—so that people everywhere can know him and learn that they are known by him.

During the Easter season we also celebrate the Ascension, in which Jesus returned to the Father, and took us with him. As the group Casting Crowns said in their song, it’s a “Glorious Day.”

Living he loved me
Dying he saved me
Buried, he carried my sins far away
Rising, he justified freely forever
One day he’s coming
Oh glorious day, oh glorious day

The Easter season is a time of celebration. May God bless you as you celebrate these 50 days with your family, with your church, with your neighbors, and with your triune God who made it all possible and whose greatest desire is to live in intimate relationship with you for eternity. All

possible because of the resurrection.

Standing in celebration,

Rick Shallenberger

Team Based- Pastor Led Videos & Resource Page

GCI’s vision for Healthy Church is focused on healthy ministries and healthy leadership. The three avenues of the Team Based-Pastor Led model are foundational to the thriving of healthy churches. As we continue to build on the model, we have produced short videos that explain the recent additions and updates to the model. Click on the image below to watch the introduction video.

Along with the video updates we have also updated our Avenue Resources webpage and curated a resource page for each Avenue that includes the video and PowerPoint for each avenue. Click on the images below to explore the new pages.

 

 

 

 

Ascension: He Is Risen, He Is Risen Indeed

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

Every time I preach during our Easter service, I recall the emails I used to get when I woke up Easter morning. They were from an acquaintance living in Romania. The emails would read something like this: “Dear Pastor Bill, Blessings on this day, He is risen, He is risen indeed!”

This electrifying proclamation is based on Luke 24:34, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (ESV).

For me this is the basis or foundation of my Christian faith. The apostle Paul said this succinctly:

And if Christ has now been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (1 Corinthians 15:17-18 ESV)

No one wants a futile faith, but I submit there is more at play than just the fact that without the resurrection, we are just following some good moral teacher, or a philosophy promoted by some first-century rabbi.

One of the phrases that keeps coming back to me as I reflect on the life of Jesus includes the two words: “For us.” We see it in the Incarnation when Jesus took on our humanity, “for us.” At the waters of Jordan where he was baptized, “for us.” When he suffered a terrible death on a cross, counted as a traitor, “for us.” And finally, in his resurrection and later ascension, “for us.”

I love how Hebrews puts the “for us” declaration:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, not to appear for us in God’s presence. (Hebrews 9:24)

That is a powerful statement.

I can never get used to the wonderful thought that the Triune God was willing to take on our humanity and then bring it back to a relationship with the Godhead. But not only that, we have a place with Jesus as he lives in us:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-6 ESV)

While we still have to live this human life, because of God’s grace we have received the gift of eternal life. Those in Jesus are a new creation, part of a new dominion, a new reality.

Reflecting on the Feast of the Ascension, Canadian singer and songwriter Steve Bell makes this observation:

Whether through actual teaching or Sunday school songs or some other inexplicable misinformation, I grew up thinking that the incarnation, with all of its appealing drama of divine rescue, was at its core God’s “Plan B” after “Plan A” was spoiled by human sin. This assumption suggests that God was “pushed,” as it were, into unappeasable wrath until a radical transaction of horrific proportions would occur to satisfy a righteous rage.

But what if this picture is inaccurate? What if, from all eternity, God’s plan had always been to unite, through incarnation, with his creation, drawing it into the mutuality and joy of his own triune being?

Indeed, if Jesus had come to earth to execute a legal transaction securing our salvation from a terrifyingly ticked-off God, then we may be happy for his descent. But his ascent is still a loss, and we are left without him. However, if the descent of God as Christ into our midst was meant to penetrate the fullness of our existence (including our death), and unite us to him, then indeed, his rising is our rising, his fellowship (Father, Son and Spirit) is our fellowship, and their joy is our joy. (Steve Bell, Pilgrim Year-Easter [Novalis, 2018], 59-60).

The gospel is good news.

He is risen, he is risen…indeed!

Intergenerational Community Building

What creative opportunities might God be preparing for intergenerational community with your church?

By Cara Garrity, Development Coordinator

In GCI we see a well-balanced Faith Avenue being expressed through community building, connect groups, and cross-generational care. When it comes to community building, it is easy to focus on building community with our peers. While it is meaningful to gather and build close community with peers, it is also meaningful to build an intentionally intergenerational church community.

Intergenerational community will take on a unique flavor in each church setting. Here are some questions that may help you explore what intergenerational community can look like in your church.

Take some time to observe, consult, and discern.

  • What is the state of intergenerational community with your church?
  • What opportunities with unexplored potential already exist within your church to build intergenerational community?
  • What ideas do church leaders and members have for intergenerational community building?
  • What opportunities and ideas align with what God is doing in your local church?

Be intentional about the leadership of intergenerational events.

  • What would it look like to have an intergenerational team of leaders plan a community event?
  • What would it look like to include youth in the planning of intergenerational events?

Because the Avenues do not exist in isolation from one another, consider the opportunity for intergenerational community building through participation in the Love and Hope Avenues.

  • What would it look like to have intergenerational teams serving together in the Love and Hope Avenues?
  • How could this meaningfully contribute to intergenerational community within the church?

Allow me to share one example of an intergenerational community event that I participated in with my local GCI church. As we developed the local young adult ministry, we asked ourselves a number of questions. Two of these questions were “what do young adults need?” and “how can we meaningfully connect young adults with other generations in our church?” We observed that there were several seasoned adults in our congregation who had a desire to pour into younger generations and who were well practiced in practical life skills. We also observed that these practical life skills were some that young adults expressed they lacked experience with. The intergenerational event called Adulting 101 was born. This event created a space for seasoned adults to share knowledge and skills such as sewing, crafting a resume, changing a tire, and preparing taxes with young adults. This event was more than a life skills class. It was a creative, practical, and meaningful way to facilitate intergenerational community. To this day when I have questions about any of these topics, I know that there is someone in my church community who is ready and willing to help. That is a fruit of intergenerational community. What creative opportunities might God be preparing for intergenerational community with your church?

Here are some ideas to consider as you get started:

  • Intergenerational game nights
  • Church BBQ/picnic/potluck – spice it up with activities/games that promote intergenerational community
  • Team competition event with intergenerational teams (think church Olympics event)
  • Storytelling/testimony sharing event with intergenerational participation
  • Intergenerational talent show
  • Fun holiday celebrations and activities
  • Informal intergenerational activities or field trips (apple picking, hiking, museum tour, aquarium, etc.)
  • Intergenerational connect groups (Bible studies or interest groups such as crafting, musicians’ group, gardening club, board game enthusiasts, etc.)

Remember that an idea is good only if it facilitates participation in what God is doing in your midst. Building intergenerational community is not a plug and play of event ideas. Take your time to discern, try some things out, reflect and discern some more, be open to trying new things, reflect and discern, and repeat. Participate in consistent rhythms of intergenerational fellowship.

My prayer is that you would be richly blessed as you participate in a robust intergenerational community as a witness to our inclusive and loving God who brings all people into unity.

Jumpstarting Faith Avenue Teams

Aron and Joyce Tolentino, Pastor, Metro Manila, Philippines

Sometimes, one of the most challenging aspects of a project is that of getting started. Whether it is embarking on a fitness journey, shifting career paths, or in some cases developing an inspiring sermon, we may have an end in mind and some creative ideas on how to get there, but initiating the process of realizing such a vision can be daunting. The matter of how to start may initially overwhelm, but a few steps in the right direction can help overcome inertia and build momentum.

Context

In the Philippines, we are excited about the denominational vision of Healthy Church through healthy leadership and healthy ministries; it is a meaningful and relevant vision. The question we were faced with was, how do we begin? While there is no single formula, especially in a context where local churches are coming from different starting points, with varying “fitness levels,” demographics, needs, and capabilities, there are some general principles that could be built on.

When it comes to the experience of our own local church in the Faith, Hope, and Love Avenues, we have traditionally found the Faith Avenue more challenging to roll-out and embed more broadly in the congregation. We are a small local church, inter-generational, and with a good mix of old-timers and attendees who are newer to GCI. Some mentoring relationships exist, and there are a number of members consistently participating in equipping opportunities, but the challenge was how to engage more members to experience, come to know, and become more like Jesus Christ and grow in koinonia (fellowship) with each other.

Teams as Building Blocks

The Bible often mentions the wisdom of building on a solid foundation. For us, a key starting point was the formation of Avenue teams and strengthening these as building blocks for healthy Avenues. This affirms our denominational approach of team-based ministry. For the Faith Avenue in particular, this also has several benefits. The establishment of a Faith Avenue team provides an opportunity for representation. By having a cross-section of members on the team, they are able to relate with different individuals at various points in their faith journey. This can help make Faith Avenue programs more relevant and inclusive. The team members are also part of different affinity groups – in our case youth, single adults, and women – which allows for firsthand insight, as well as natural influence when encouraging people to participate in discipleship and community-building.

The process we undertook in forming the Faith Avenue team in our local church can be summed up in the 3-stage G.E.M. process.

  • Grouping (G)

While striving for inclusiveness, the drafting of team members was done according to discernment of best fit using FATE criteria (faithful, available, teachable, enthusiastic). Part of the grouping stage is also facilitation of strong working relationships and rapport in the team. As with other relationships, this takes time as the group develops its dynamic, and trust and collaboration are formed. This stage also involves an organizational element in terms of establishing communication channels and basic administrative processes to facilitate orderly interaction with other Avenue teams and the senior pastor. This may be less relevant for a smaller church, but it would still be good to agree on basic structure to help guide the workings of the group.

  • Equipping (E)

While forming the team may be an organizational exercise, it is also an equipping endeavor. In our experience, this involved going back to the fundamentals of the nature of the church with Christ as the cornerstone and head, as well as the church’s mission to participate in God’s work of redemption, and the roles of the Avenue teams in this process. Integral to the equipping stage is educating the team on the meaning of healthy church and more specifically, the components of the Faith Avenue. Also included were practical tools on team-based ministry, consensus decision-making, and basic strategic planning, which provided handles to help enable a well-functioning team.

  • Mobilizing (M)

The third stage involves mobilizing or activating the team. Team building is not just about people receiving knowledge but also their being given room to put concepts and tools to use. Strategic planning principles taught were soon applied as the team assessed where the congregation was in terms of the Faith Avenue and began to design program directions and activities to fulfill the Avenue’s emphasis.

There was likewise value in giving the Faith Avenue team a more public and formal mandate, especially since this is a new initiative. We launched the vision of Healthy Church and the concept of Faith, Hope, and Love Avenues over a series of video conferences for our congregation to start the year. Rather than having the pastor explain everything, representatives from the various teams were chosen to share what their Avenues were about. This “launch” stirred general interest while helping promote ownership and accountability among the Avenue teams, and as well as a level of authority in taking things forward with the congregation.

Getting on with Faith Forward

Building functional teams requires time, effort, and patience on the part of the pastor and the team members, but it is a worthy investment. While the team is an important building block for a healthy Faith Avenue, the formation process is already part of making disciples – of nurturing people to the point that their ministry as part of the Faith Avenue team is really the outpouring of God’s life and work in them that is flowing to the congregation. The catching of the vision, the character formation, and the relationships cultivated as the team comes together are wins worth celebrating.

The pandemic offers us unique opportunities to build Faith Avenue teams. People’s activities are limited, freeing up time for training and planning. Virtual meetings remove the inconveniences of a commute. Online prayer meetings and small groups are platforms for piloting discipleship programs and for avenue team members to apply concepts and frameworks, whether on group facilitation or Bible teaching methods. That people are learning together helps meet the need for connection in the midst of extended lockdowns.

We are seeing an increasing national and local focus on intentional discipleship. Faith Forward for us is very much a work in progress. We are learning from the generous sharing of others across the GCI global community, as well as from our own experiences. We are also learning by allowing people the space to develop and try new things, calibrating when these do not work out, and also by sharing lessons, which is the aim of this article.

There are multiple paths to the vision of Healthy Church. Our prayer is that our experience from the first few steps we have taken can somehow help others as they take theirs. It will be a wonderful convergence as God fulfills this vision for our denomination, but it is also beautiful to see what he is doing in the process of getting us there.

New Diploma Award for GCI Ministry Avenue Champions

Grace Communion Seminary, in partnership with Grace Communion International, is happy to announce new diploma options designed for GCI members who lead the ministry avenues of faith (discipleship), hope (worship), and love (witness). We plan to develop new courses for each of the three avenues.

The GCS Diploma of Christian Ministry involves seven classes. For this new diploma, six of the requirements are the same no matter which ministry a person is involved in; one class will be different based on the avenue of focus. The courses may be taken in any order, and at any pace, as fast as one course each semester, or only one course per year. Students are welcome to take one course without a commitment to take any others.

 

Here is a basic sketch of the package:

  • One Bible course, either Hermeneutics (Biblical Interpretation) or New Testament Survey (both taught by Mike Morrison)
  • One theology course: The Holy Spirit, the Church, and Last Things (Gary Deddo)
  • Either an additional course in Bible or an additional course in theology
  • Three ministry courses: Practice of Ministry (Ted Johnston), Church Planting and Development (Randy Bloom), and Polity of GCI (Greg Williams and Mike Rasmussen)
  • An additional ministry course chosen based on the ministry avenue:
    • For the faith avenue (discipleship): Pastoral Leadership, Trinitarian Youth Ministry, or a new course already designed and pending approval
    • For the hope avenue (worship): Trinitarian Youth Ministry or another applicable future elective
    • For the love avenue (witness and outreach): either Pastoral Leadership or another applicable future elective

All courses are taught at a graduate level, and students are required to read several textbooks and to write papers. Each course will entail about 140 hours of work – about 12 hours each week for twelve weeks. Students who want to audit (to sit in on the class, but without academic credit) are still expected to read the textbooks and participate in the discussions.

Since the courses are at a graduate level, applicants should have a bachelor’s degree. For an application, see https://www.gcs.edu/admissions/. To talk with our Registrar, Georgia McKinnon, phone (980) 495-3978 or email registrar@gcs.edu.

We cannot publish the names of the new courses until they are fully developed and approved by our accrediting agency. When each is approved, we’ll announce it in the Update. We hope to see you soon!

Book Review – Gospel Fluency

Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus into the Everyday Stuff of Life, by Jeff Vanderstelt

Reviewed by Daphne Sydney, Superintendent Australia

A Christian man once asked his pastor to please teach him how to evangelize. The wise pastor replied—tell me about the time you first met your wife to be. The man told his story with amazing detail of his first date, quite animated and joyful, and 20 minutes later… the point had been made. He was able to share fluently about the love of his life. He knew her so well, he did not have to stop and think about the words. His whole-hearted love for her flowed generously. This is the starting point for sharing the gospel—that we talk about what we love, or perhaps better put, we talk about Who we love. The author puts it this way:

People need heart change – not just once, but over and over again… What affects you greatly creates in you great affections. And those affections lead you to express verbally and physically what you love most, because you talk about what you love…

When you come to know and experience the love God has for us in Jesus; when you realize that God loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for our sins; when you meet Jesus and experience his pouring out his Spirit into your heart, filling you with himself and his love, you can’t contain it. (pages 95-6)

As the gospel shapes us, how does this “Gospel Fluency” happen in our conversation with others?

Vanderstelt likens it to the process of learning a new language. Anyone who has done this will be familiar with the process and the time that it takes until the language is truly understood and embedded. After some time of immersion, listening and learning, the words begin to flow with ease. This is analogous to God’s people needing to immerse themselves fully in the gospel message, from the beginning of Creation (Gen. 1:1)—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth”, to the Fall, Redemption and the New Creation. The “knowing her so well” in the earlier narrative resonates with our willingness to know Jesus so well, to take the time to prayerfully study, to read the Gospels or take up a course.

When we were learning Tagalog in the Philippines, one of the best experiences was living with a Filipino family for a weekend, where the hosts kindly said, “We won’t be speaking any English.” It was a total immersion into their language, hospitality and culture. We learned some of the basics very quickly!

Likewise, “Gospel Fluency” happens not just with formal training, but through immersion in a gospel-speaking community where we have the continual sharing of the life of Jesus in our lives, referred to as absorbing the gospel into oneself, then sharing it within our faith community, then bringing the gospel to others. This highlights the value of regular church attendance and fellowship, and also the possibilities of Connect groups during the week—where we have a shared life and we communicate to one another what Jesus is doing in our lives. This is fitting with our current focus on the Faith Avenue, where we are exploring more of the plans and purposes for connect-type groups.

Vanderstelt notes that the most important thing is helping people come to know the love of Jesus—“Gospel Fluency” is not just about talking, it’s also about listening, which requires love, patience and wisdom. In other words, it is about building relationships. Jesus shows us how to grow to be a person of understanding and able to listen well. When Jesus encountered the woman at the well, he began with a humble posture of receiving water from her. Vanderstelt comments on this:

I have found that starting with a posture of humility, standing in a place of need and having a heart that is willing not only to give answers but also to receive insight, creates a welcoming place for people to open their hearts. The more open we are to listen and learn, the more likely people are to be open as well (172)

The apostle Peter makes the point that when we are living out the hope that is in us, leaning into the Spirit, living the Jesus life, it may result in an opportunity to share the gospel message—and when it does, it is to be done with gentleness and respect. It is like our Lord engaged the woman at the well, gently asking for her help, drawing her out and listening to her. The gospel is, by its very nature, relational. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

There is much more to be found in the book, Gospel Fluency, and some parts we may not fully agree on, nevertheless, the book holds some very helpful points to ponder.

What Mr. Peters Taught Me

What would youth ministry look like if we helped youth and young adults identify and use their gifts?

I love working with young people. Prior to becoming a pastor, every job I’ve had from the time I was 16 was working with or for young people. Serving youth is a passion and one of the main ways I have participated in the work of Jesus Christ. The seed of this passion was planted in the fourth grade by an extraordinary educator. My teacher, Mr. Peters, made learning fun. He put his all into his lessons and made every student feel known. He was the first teacher to show an interest in me, and he placed me in the Gifted and Talented Program (as an adult, I have concerns about the equity of Gifted and Talented Programs, but I am thankful for my experience). It was the first time I believed I could achieve at high levels academically.

Mr. Peters was also the coach of the middle school basketball team. He would allow me, an elementary school kid, to practice with the middle school students, which greatly accelerated my development. Prior to Mr. Peters, I was neither a standout student or basketball player, but he saw something in me and he took the time to cultivate it. Even as a child, I could see what he did for me and I decided I wanted to do that for other people.

Mr. Peters saw my gifts, and intentionally helped me cultivate them. Is this what comes to mind when we think about the discipleship of children and youth? Often, we think youth ministry is about teaching young people about the foundations of our faith, and instruction is certainly a part of child and youth discipleship. However, helping young people identify and use their gifts is also a vital part of discipling young people.

Recently, I had the pleasure to meet with a team of college students who were planning activities for teens at the GCI Denominational Celebration. The three young adults grew up in church and had valuable insight on youth discipleship. In my role of championing youth discipleship for our denomination, I asked them what my focus should be. They unanimously shared that I should help young people to find kingdom work they love. They advised me to help create spaces where young people can try lots of things in order to find their passion. Their message was heard and received.

The paradigm for youth discipleship is the Sunday school format. Perhaps it is time to incorporate mentorship and apprenticeship strategies based on the young people’s gifts into that paradigm. Notice what Paul says:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:6-8)

For most of my life, I only applied this passage to adults. But what if we applied it to children and youth? What would youth discipleship look like? What if all Christians discovered and operated in their gifting before adulthood? What would the church be like?

Starting down this exciting discipleship path begins by simply initiating a conversation with your young people. Ask them, “What helps you feel close to God? Is there anything our congregation does that you want to learn more about?” Let their answers help guide your discipleship work with them. Pray with them for discernment — for God to reveal the gifts he placed in them. Create space for them to use their gifts to participate in the work of Jesus Christ. Invite church members with similar gifts to mentor your young people so they can develop.

Young people are not just the church of the future, they are the church of the now. As adults who care about them, let’s help them be the church.

Dishon Mills
Generations Ministry Director

Discipleship through Mentoring w/ Dishon Mills

Discipleship through Mentoring w/ Dishon Mills

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Dishon Mills. Dishon is the newly appointed Gen Min Coordinator. He is also a GCI Pastor, who along with his wife Afrika, is embarking on planting a church in Charlotte, NC later this year. Together Anthony and Dishon discuss discipleship through mentoring, specifically through the Orchard Program.

Video Transcript

“I believe the Holy Spirit is wild. I believe the Holy Spirit is described as a wind that blows wherever he will blow. And I believe that he has given each person gifts that he has cultivated, and they take the church in a new direction. Every person is key and important, because they have the ability to do something, and present Christ in a way that is going to reach people that we could not reach otherwise. And that we could see Jesus in a way that we could not see him otherwise. So, I really like the Team Based-Pastor Led model, because I believe it helps our congregations be wild in the same way the Holy Spirit is wild.  Where every person feels like they belong, that they are connected, that they are being poured into, that they have an opportunity to participate in the work that Jesus is doing. “ – Dishon Mills, GCI Pastor
Main Points:
  • What excites you about discipling emerging generations? (4:19)
  • How does The Orchard fit within the Faith Avenue? (6:52)
  • Who would be a good candidate for a pastor to invite into The Orchard? (10:10)
  • What advice would you give to a pastor or church leaders who are discipling young people? (24:38)
  • How has your own experience with the Church informed the way you engage, mentor and pastor the emerging generations? (28:45)
  • What advice would you give to our listening audience about engaging young people with topics like politics, race, and evil in the world? (35:35)
  Resources:
  • The Orchard Program - The Orchard is a project-based mentoring program that participates in the work of the Holy Spirit by helping emerging Christian leaders discern God’s voice in their ongoing growth.
  • Youth Vision: a column dedicated to the adults who are actively participating in the discipleship of children and youth.
  • Types of Mentors: A Church Hack about the mentoring relationship.
  • The ABCs of Healthy Mentoring: An Equipper article outlining mentoring best practices.

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Dishon Mills. Dishon is the newly appointed Gen Min Coordinator. He is also a GCI Pastor, who along with his wife Afrika, is embarking on planting a church in Charlotte, NC later this year. Together Anthony and Dishon discuss discipleship through mentoring, specifically through the Orchard Program.

“I believe the Holy Spirit is wild. I believe the Holy Spirit is described as a wind that blows wherever he will blow. And I believe that he has given each person gifts that he has cultivated, and they take the church in a new direction. Every person is key and important, because they have the ability to do something, and present Christ in a way that is going to reach people that we could not reach otherwise. And that we could see Jesus in a way that we could not see him otherwise. So, I really like the Team Based-Pastor Led model, because I believe it helps our congregations be wild in the same way the Holy Spirit is wild.  Where every person feels like they belong, that they are connected, that they are being poured into, that they have an opportunity to participate in the work that Jesus is doing. “
– Dishon Mills, GCI Pastor

Main Points:

  • What excites you about discipling emerging generations? (4:19)
  • How does The Orchard fit within the Faith Avenue? (6:52)
  • Who would be a good candidate for a pastor to invite into The Orchard? (10:10)
  • What advice would you give to a pastor or church leaders who are discipling young people? (24:38)
  • How has your own experience with the Church informed the way you engage, mentor and pastor the emerging generations? (28:45)
  • What advice would you give to our listening audience about engaging young people with topics like politics, race, and evil in the world? (35:35)

Resources:

  • The Orchard Program – The Orchard is a project-based mentoring program that participates in the work of the Holy Spirit by helping emerging Christian leaders discern God’s voice in their ongoing growth.
  • Youth Vision: a column dedicated to the adults who are actively participating in the discipleship of children and youth.
  • Types of Mentors: A Church Hack about the mentoring relationship.
  • The ABCs of Healthy Mentoring: An Equipper article outlining mentoring best practices.

Gospel Reverb – What a Rush! w/ Cherith Fee Nordling

What a Rush! w/ Cherith Fee Nordling

Video Transcript

What a Rush! w/ Cherith Fee Nordling

            Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and theologian, professor, and author, Cherith Fee Nordling, unpack these lectionary passages:   May 2 - 5th Sunday in Easter John 15:1-8 (NRSV)  “The True Vine” (12:16)  May 9 - 6th Sunday in Easter John 15:9-17 (NRSV)  “No Greater Love” (37:16) May 16 - 7th Sunday in Easter John 17:6-19 (NRSV)  “Protect Them” (01:07:30) May 23 - Pentecost Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)  “What a Rush!” (01:27:04) May 30 - Trinity Sunday John 3:1-17 (NRSV)  “Born From Above” (01:52:35) 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! Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcasts.

What a Rush! w/ Cherith Fee Nordling

 

 

 

 

 

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and theologian, professor, and author, Cherith Fee Nordling, unpack these lectionary passages:  

May 2 – 5th Sunday in Easter
John 15:1-8 (NRSV)  “The True Vine”
(12:16) 

May 9 – 6th Sunday in Easter
John 15:9-17 (NRSV)  “No Greater Love”
(37:16)

May 16 – 7th Sunday in Easter
John 17:6-19 (NRSV)  “Protect Them”
(01:07:30)

May 23 – Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)  “What a Rush!”
(01:27:04)

May 30 – Trinity Sunday
John 3:1-17 (NRSV)  “Born From Above”
(01:52:35)

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!

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

Sermon for May 2, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3023 | Plugged In

We rely on our devices for most daily activities, even our relationships. A trip of a circuit can leave us disconnected and isolated. Electricity can fail us. The internet can fail us. Our gadgets can fail us. But one thing is for sure. Our relationship with God will always be there even if everything else fails.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3023 | Plugged In Michelle Fleming The worst power outage in US history happened on August 14, 2003. It’s called the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and it affected 45 million people in eight states from Ohio to Connecticut. Though it lasted just a little over a day, much of the affected area was in the middle of a heatwave, which meant no air conditioning or fans. For people stuck in New York subways when the power went out, it took two hours to safely evacuate them. The same was true for people who were stranded mid-ride on roller coasters at amusement parks. Water service was also affected because the water pumps were electric. It's when we experience a power outage that we realize how much we rely on electricity to live and work, how much we need a strong connection to have a consistent flow. Otherwise, we experience what people in the Northeast Blackout faced: discomfort, delays, and loss. When we think about our connection with God, we might see some similarities. We need a strong connection with God to experience the reality of how deeply we are loved, and how that love--like electricity­­--flows through us to others.  The apostle John writes in 1 John 4 that God is love and that the love we have for others comes from God. Here’s what else he says: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us… We love because he first loved us. I John 4: 11-12, 19 (NRSV) His love--like electricity--flows from him, through us, and to others. It’s his love that we share with others. That’s why the connection to God is so important. John also talks about when that connection feels weak, or when we choose to prioritize other connections over our connection with God. That’s when fear creeps in, and we doubt God’s love for us: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. I John 4:18 (NRSV)  God loves us and doesn’t stop loving us. We experience blackouts when we doubt God’s love for us, we start to look for connections elsewhere, weakening our experience of our connection with him. When we don’t feel loved, we don’t have love to pass on to others. Just like the Northeast Blackout, there’s discomfort, delay, and loss. Power outages can happen due to weather events and human error. But our connection to God is never in jeopardy. Fear in our hearts can weaken our ability to let God’s love flow through us, but the connection will never let go. His lavish love is readily available to us, whenever we turn toward him. May you know and abide in the understanding that you are held and deeply loved by the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life. For reference: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-blackout-in-us-history/

Psalm 22:25-31 · Acts 8:26-40 · 1 John 4:7-21 · John 15:1-8

The theme for this week is Connected to God, which emphasizes how we are already connected without doing anything based on our inclusion in Jesus Christ. The call to worship Psalm talks about our dependence on God and offers praise for God’s faithful presence. Acts 8 tells the story of Philip baptizing the eunuch, affirming his connection with God. John’s letter expands on the interrelated ideas of love and abiding connection. We draw our sermon from the Gospel of John, which helps us understand that the idea of abiding doesn’t require us to do something, but it does require us to live the abundant truth of who God says we are in Christ.

Abbondanza

John 15:1-8 NRSV

Does anyone know what the Italian word “abbondanza” means? Can you guess? [Ask for guesses.] I see something like the word “dance” in it; what do you see?

Before you grab your phone and type it into Google Translate, it means “abundance” in Italian. Don’t you like how that word rolls off your tongue? Say it with me: abbondanza. Can you picture the lush vineyards in Italy (even if you’ve never been there)? Do you see a table laden with all kinds of grapes, cheese, wine, and delicious pasta dishes? That makes me think of the word “abundance.”

Jesus told his followers (and that includes us), that his goal for us is to bear fruit—today’s passage says, “bear more fruit.” I believe this ties in with an earlier statement Jesus made about us having an abundant life (John 10:10). Do you feel like you’re living an abundant life? I think we all go through difficult periods when we feel short on time, on money, on patience, on everything. If you are like me, you’re wondering, “Where is this abundant life where I am bearing more fruit? How do I get there?” Our sermon text John 15:1-8 has two big ideas—“bearing fruit” and “abiding,”—and these ideas can help us understand what Jesus meant when he said we could have life more abundantly. Let’s take a look:

Read John 15:1-8 NRSV

What can we observe about the text?

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (John 15:1-3 NRSV)

Jesus begins with a metaphor. The Father is the vineyard keeper, and Jesus is the vine. As we go on, there is some wordplay among the words for “prune” and “removes” in verse 2, and “cleansed” in verse 3. The root verb for both prune and remove is the same and is related to the word used for clean/cleansed. The idea of pruning/removing doesn’t mean God kicks anybody out. It means “making clean.” The same word used for “clean” appears in John 13:10-11 at the Last Supper, where Jesus says to the disciples that “not all of you are clean.” In verse 3, Jesus says that the disciples (and believers like us) are already cleansed, and the idea in verse 2 is that God the vineyard keeper continues cleansing us by his love with the goal of making us stronger and more fruitful.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4 NRSV)

Jesus says to abide in him as he abides in us. Too often we interpret this as something we have to do, rather than thinking of it as something we are. We know that we are completely forgiven, loved, accepted, and included in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relationship because of Jesus—the way he lived a life of love and complete connection to the Father even when humanity’s hate demanded that he die. And he did it, so that hate and death would be put to death once and for all. What if abiding in Jesus means living in who we are in God—completely forgiven, loved, accepted, and included? He abides in us, so there’s nothing we need to do to get him to abide in us more, other than abide in knowing that we are who he says we are. We live knowing that he is with us, and we are with him. This enables us to bear much fruit, this leads to a life that is abundant.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 NRSV)

Here’s an “I am” statement. Jesus declares himself to be the vine; we are the branches of that vine. Apart from him, it says, we can’t do anything. Most of the time, I hear this interpreted as “without staying close to Jesus, we can’t produce any good fruit.” But have you considered this also means that there is no way we can escape our connection to him? Branches are connected to the vine. Apart from him, we would cease to exist. “In him we live and move and have our being” is how Paul described our relationship with Jesus, sharing a quote from a poet (see Acts 17:28). Jesus abides in us, and as we learn to live in the light of who God says we are, we experience that abundant abiding and fruit-bearing Jesus talked about.

 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:7 NRSV)

This verse can be problematic because it seems to contradict what we know to be true about God. God doesn’t throw anyone away. No one is a hopeless case. If we view God as a harsh judge, we might think that as vineyard gardener, he’s chopping off branches all the time. While most gardeners will know this is what vinedressers do every year, as part of their routine to get rid of unhealthy branches and shoots, we also know God’s will is that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9). So we realize this metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors do, when we talk about God’s work with people. His goal is the opposite of cutting us off to perish. What is the answer? To stay connected to the vine.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:7-8 NRSV)

As we rest in the truth of who we are, our prayers become different. They become more in tune with what God is doing in a particular situation. Jesus himself prayed in the garden, “yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39, NRSV). As we get used to being confident of who we are in Christ, and that God loves us so much that he sent Christ to die for us even when we were his enemies, the way we live and pray aligns with that truth, and as this happens, we “bear much fruit.” Abundant life comes from embracing the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

Application:

  • Recognize that we are inextricably connected to Jesus because of his death, resurrection, and ascension, and as a result, we are part of a dynamic relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. With Jesus as our vine and God the Father as our vineyard gardener, we never need to worry that “we aren’t growing enough.” This does not mean that we don’t care, but it means that we don’t worry. If we are fearful, then we do need to grow.
  • Participate in abundance by resting in the truth of who we are in Jesus and then letting our actions come from that same truth. When we believe we are loved and valued for who we are, we treat others differently. We look for ways to collaborate and bless others, and we realize that every decision we make must spring from love, first and foremost.

Staying connected to the vine enables us to bear fruit—much fruit—leading us to that abundant life. It begins with knowing our identity—our birthright—when it comes to our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The vineyard gardener and the vine himself are determined that we should grow into fullness, knowing the truth of who we are and living the abundant way of that truth.

For reference:

https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/john/15.htm


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the “Speaking of Life” video, it discusses how being without power leaves us unable to function in a number of ways, both spiritually and physically. We all go through periods of spiritual dryness where we feel as if God is far off, even while knowing the truth that God has never moved from our side. How have you rekindled the spark of re-engaging with God when you’ve gone through a low period?
  • The sermon discussed the truth of who we are in Jesus. Let’s list some truths of who we are in Jesus. How do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit view humanity?
  • Many have viewed the word “abide” as something we must actively do, but the sermon redefines it as more of a lens through which we view ourselves and the world. If we look at the list of truths we made in the previous question, how do they inform the decisions we make? For example, if one of the truths of who we are in Jesus is that we’re valuable no matter what we can do, how does that truth inform the way we treat someone who is disabled?
  • Thinking again about the list of truths we made to answer a previous question, how does embracing these truths influence the way we pray? For example, if one of our truths is that we are never outside the presence of God and that God is always with us, even when we don’t feel it, how does this truth inform our prayers when we feel alone or lonely?

Sermon for May 9, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3024 | The Divine Irony

Instead of grasping for power, Jesus conquered the world through love. He came and flipped the world upside down to usher in his kingdom.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3024 | The Divine Irony Greg Williams No other writer in the New Testament uses metaphors of combat and conquering more than the gentle Apostle John. Notice this passage: For whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  I John 5:4-5 (NRSV) After reading about the conquests you can almost hear a chorus from the rock band Queen singing - “We are the champions, no time for losers, because we are the champions of the world.”  These kinds of words—conquer, overcome—hit our modern ears in a strange way when applied to Jesus. Normally, the words love, forgiveness, and gentleness come to mind when we think of him. We think of Jesus as the great comforter and healer, and redeemer, before we think of him as a conquering King.   Add to that, in the modern dialogue, the trend is toward celebrating all worldviews and faiths as if they are all equally valid and equally coherent. But the Christian calling is different—Jesus isn’t one savior among many, he isn’t just another dish at the smorgasbord of philosophy and religion. He is king! He is conqueror! And he is the supreme revelation of God.   And while he is the supreme example of love, he is also the source and end of logic, wisdom, and philosophy. The universe without him doesn’t exist, Paul said when he reminded us that Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)  As Christians, we hold that there is one answer for the human condition and one response to the ultimate question: Jesus. The same Jesus who conquered the world by love.   In a world where strength and ruthlessness seemed to be what got you ahead, Jesus came to change the equation. The great irony of Christ was that he conquered by surrendering; he was declared king through forgiveness.   And he has conquered all--and that’s why we are committed to the exclusive truth of the gospel and we accept the challenge of how to convey this truth with grace and love to those outside of conscious faith.   The fact is that all roads don’t lead to Rome and all world views are not different ways up the same mountain. The center of reality is not a round table, it’s a heavenly throne room where Father, Son and Spirit eternally dwell, and one day all crowns will be laid at the feet of Jesus.  Queen almost had it right - “We are the champions, but only because Jesus is the Real Champion!”  I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.     

Psalm 98:1-9 · Acts 10:44-48 · 1 John 5:1-6 · John 15:9-17

The theme for this week is the loving authority of Jesus. The call to worship Psalm describes the cosmic authority of the Lord over every creature and all the earth. Acts 10 shows us the universal authority of Jesus, bringing Jews and Gentiles together as the movement started. 1 John 5 tells us about how Jesus “conquered the world” through love, demolishing the old structures of power and authority. In John 15, which we use for the message, Jesus makes the radical choice to graft himself into the human story forever, using his authority to take on a position of helplessness in death.

The Radical Choice of Jesus

John 15:9-17 ESV

Have you ever grown something yourself? A garden or a houseplant? You get your potting soil; you get a special pot picked out with just the right colors. Or you work on that square in the backyard in the hot sun. You put the seeds in, and you wait.

Add an anecdote here about gardening or planting or have a discussion with your congregation. Remember, the funnier stories the better—the Styrofoam cup with the seed in kindergarten, the time you accidentally dug up grandpa’s rose garden, etc.

Somehow, between water, sunshine, fertilizer, and the power of life, a shoot breaks through the ground one morning. Soon enough, that small shoot grows branches and leaves and eventually becomes a full-fledged plant.

Even the most experienced farmer will tell you there’s an X factor here—there’s always a bit of doubt that maybe the seeds won’t sprout this year. There’s always a small catch of breath when, once again, the brilliant green breaks through plain old soil.

It’s this X factor, this connection, that Jesus describes in John 15. Let’s read the passage:

Read John 15:9-17

Just prior to this passage, Jesus introduced himself as the “true vine” and his followers as his branches who will bear fruit. That connection is an indecipherable mix that experienced Christians rely on. We know it is Christ’s power in and through us, and yet we present ourselves every day and take up our cross. In short, we “abide.”

Just as the plant’s metabolism works somehow to make dirt, sunlight and rainwater into corn, so God works with us to bring forth fruit, sometimes more than we could ever imagine. A small, drab-colored seed goes into the ground and becomes a glorious tree. So God works through the small, drab-colored group of people he calls the church to bear fruit in the world.

In this passage and right before it, Jesus uses two important words to describe us, and that’s what we’ll look at today.

Jesus calls us:

  • Branches
  • Friends

Branches

 I am the vine; you are the branches. (John 15:5 ESV)

When looking at John 15, you have to pay close attention to the details of the wording. First, this is one of the powerful “I AM” statements of Jesus, along with I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth, the life, and several others.

The vine was an important symbol of Israel, used throughout the Old Testament to describe God’s blessing through them to the world. In the brief Jewish independence after Christ, 68-70 AD, Jewish coins were minted with a picture of a vine on them. This was imagery deep within the Jewish consciousness.

So for Jesus to say “I am the vine” was phrasing rich in symbolism. Jesus was saying, as he did in so many other places, that he was the true Israel-in-person and that God’s purposes for Israel found their completion in him.

Chapters 14-17 of John, called the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, is his last prolonged dialogue before his death. Here he reveals more theology verbally than anywhere else—most of the time he reveals it by action and miracle. But here he is essentially giving us all a peak at the blueprints, a nose behind the curtain, a glimpse of the map.

So he calls himself the vine and us the branches, and he uses a certain word over and over again: abide.

He uses this word 11 times in this chapter in John. It’s a word that means to stay, to not become separate, to be held, kept continually. As one theologian said it, “not the holding of a position but an allowing oneself to be held.”

Abiding is an action and yet somehow something that happens to you. It’s holding on and letting go at the same time. It’s like the strange X-factor of the measly seed that somehow becomes a colossal sequoia tree.

Action words like this make us Protestants, especially in the evangelical tradition, a little nervous. Is Jesus talking about us “earning” God’s love? Somehow meriting his favor or blessing and staying in his good graces? Didn’t Jesus take care of that? Absolutely, consider this:

Our identity is set by Christ even before we become a Christian—we can’t change that fact; we can’t make God go back on his promise. It’s after this that we get down to the work of abiding, of allowing ourselves to be held.

To abide is to live in our destiny as Christ-followers. Our destiny isn’t just a far-off “I’ll fly away” reality for when we die, but it is the daily activity of “being held” by Christ. It is abiding in his strength and love as we go about life.

Think of a down-to-earth example: getting along with a difficult co-worker. It’s something we’ve all faced before. You’ve tried avoiding them—impossible. You’ve tried blowing off steam by gossiping about this person at happy hour—diminishing returns. You’ve tried confronting them—deaf ears.

And so you approach the situation with prayer. You approach it asking Jesus to let you see this person and these circumstances through his eyes, setting your mind to “abide” in the Lord who loves and pursues that person. You approach with forgiveness and the knowledge that the resources to “win” the situation are beyond your grasp.

Will this magically make this person less annoying? Probably not. Will he/she continue to eat the labeled yogurt in the shared fridge and get their work in past deadline? Probably. But the change will come to you. You’ll find yourself with more patience, more peace and more centeredness in this situation. You’ll find yourself seeing this situation, and more importantly this person, as Jesus does and always has.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide. (John 15:16 ESV)

This is that work of bearing fruit. Maybe it’s not dramatic, but in a world of increasing negativity and dog-eat-dog cynicism, the small fruit of kindness can be like an oasis. Add up these small fruits over time and the harvest is rich.

You are not trying to please God by your works—you are joining him in his work.

Friends

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15 ESV)

C.S. Lewis described philia, or friendship love:

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

This “exquisite irresponsibility” is unique to friendship in relationships. Children have a physical need for their parents and their parents a duty to them. Business partners have a relationship that helps them both make money. Lovers are united by physical attraction and procreation.

Friends, well, they’re just friends. They either meet as peers or there is a peer element to the relationship. There’s more choice involved in friendship than any other relationship.

The theme of friendship in the Gospel of John is very strong—all the way through to the end where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philia me?” (21:17). John is fixated on friend love—philia, in the Greek. And we see that here.

Slavery or servanthood was a tragic part of daily life in the ancient world. These people had no knowledge of the master’s plans because they were machines used for a certain purpose; they are rarely informed why.

And here is Jesus informing his disciples in this long dialogue of how it all works. He’s showing them how he relates to the Father and how they now relate to him. He has called them friends.

He then expands the depth of this friendship with one of the most famous lines:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 ESV)

Look at the theme of friendship here. Laying your life down for your friends. You would lay your life down for your kids or for your spouse—that’s family. You’d lay your life down for your country—that’s patriotism. But laying down your life for your friends—for those who should be able to defend themselves and don’t “need” you in the physical sense—this is a choice that goes beyond social expectations. As Jesus said earlier:

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. (John 10:17-18 ESV)

Jesus chooses to do this, to lay down his life for his friends. He lays down his life for those he doesn’t need, for those he’s not depending on in any way, for those who might not even recognize or appreciate what he has done.

This is his radical choice: to have branches grafted into him that will hurt him and drain him; to reach out to friends that may never reach back. To write himself into the chaotic patchwork of the human story.

And so he calls us branches…

What does it mean to abide? It means to fully embrace the identity you’ve been given in Christ. This means worshipping, meditating, and praying; it also means serving, obeying and being part of the kingdom breaking into the world.

The kids’ song “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow-grow-grow!” isn’t too far off the mark!

And so he calls us friends…

Are you friends with Jesus? Sure, you love him, you obey him, you trust he’ll be standing there “when the roll is called up yonder.” But do you fellowship with him? Do you speak to him, as best we can in this life, face-to-face? Do you have an “unnecessary friendship” with Christ? He offers it freely.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life

  • Do you think of Jesus as king? How does this reality of his identity give dimension to your understanding of the Lord?
  • In a pluralistic world that claims to celebrate all world views, how do we present the exclusive, “one-way” gospel with grace?

Questions for Sermon

  • Have you ever grown something yourself (flowers, garden, etc.)? What was the process like? Was there a certain mystery and satisfying moment when the buds finally showed?
  • What does it mean to abide in Christ? Did you resonate with the description that it’s like “allowing yourself to be held”?
  • Have you seen this connection of Christ’s power working through to bear fruit, like the vine and the branches in John 15?
  • Jesus calls us “friends” in verse 15. Do you think of Jesus as your friend? How does that give dimension to your relationship with him?

Quote to ponder:

“That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone—a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.” ~~Henri Nouwen

Sermon for May 16, 2021—Ascension Sunday

Speaking Of Life 3025 | Eyewitness Testimony

Like the stories of Jesus in the Bible, the courtroom drama that we see on TV is based on eyewitness testimony. Our human biases can cause us to misremember or unconsciously give false testimony. The Bible may have been written by man but every word is inspired by God himself. John reminds us that God never lies and his testimony is that he gave us a new life through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3025 | Eyewitness Testimony Jeff Broadnax Many movies and TV shows feature dramatic courtroom scenes where a surprise witness gives testimony that shocks the courtroom. The witness is so compelling that there is no doubt that his or her testimony is true. In real life, however, eyewitness testimony is frequently unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, since the 1990s, around 350 people have been exonerated due to DNA evidence. In 75% of those cases, innocent people were convicted primarily due to mistaken eyewitness testimony.* The possibility of false testimony can make it hard to take people at their word. It would be wonderful to live in a world where we can believe everything people say, however, even eyewitnesses can get things wrong. This does not mean that all firsthand sources are untrustworthy. For example, the accounts of Jesus in the Bible are based on eyewitness testimony. But if we are not careful, we can transfer our distrust of people’s words onto God and question the truth of the things he tells us. In 1 John 5:9-13, the apostle John addresses this problem: We accept human testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:9-13 God is not a liar and he does not give false testimony. What he says is true, and the truth he wants to share with us is that by grace we have life in Jesus Christ. We have evidence of the veracity of God’s testimony in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  There is never a need to doubt God’s word. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us: leads us into all truth, is the guarantee of our eternal future, and it also serves as proof of a new life in Jesus today.  Jesus is alive with us, and he guides us as we join him in bringing his light to our families, churches, neighborhoods, workplaces, and world. He helps us offer a reliable and true personal testimony about Jesus.  We can confidently trust what God says and how he leads us because we know his testimony is, was, and always will be faithful and true. I am Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

  • In case it is needed, here are three sources for the statistic:
https://www.innocenceproject.org/in-focus-eyewitness-misidentification/ https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/7758 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/                

Psalm 1:1-6 · Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 · 1 John 5:9-13 · John 17:6-19

The theme for this week is the Lord who guides us from the right hand of the Father. The call to worship Psalm discusses the blessings on those who follow the Lord’s ways—to love God and to love each other. In Acts 1, shortly after Jesus’ ascension, we find the apostles moving forward and seeking God’s guidance regarding a new apostle to “become a witness” of the resurrection. In 1 John 5, we learn that whoever has the Son has eternal life. Finally, in John 17 we read a poignant prayer of Jesus speaking about his ascension and our relationship with him and the Father.

The Ascension

John 17:6-19 NRSV

What led up to you following Jesus? Some of us had parents who were Christians and taught us about Christ from infancy. Some of us may have had miraculous experiences that suddenly revealed the reality of God. Others went on a journey for truth and Jesus found them at the end of the road. Whatever the story, we often tend to think about how we started following Christ by looking at things that happened in our lives that guided us toward Jesus.

What if we could ask Jesus that question? What if we could each ask Jesus, “What did you do to get me to follow you?” Do you think his answer would be different from our answer? I believe the answer is “yes.” I would focus on things that happened in my life, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, Jesus would talk about things that he personally did to draw me nearer to himself. Jesus’ answer would be far more intimate and personal. His answer would reveal his deep love and commitment to me long before I knew him.

His answer would include his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. His answer would be to remind us that if he hadn’t ascended and taken us to the Father, we would still be wandering around in our own helplessness. We would not be participating in the relationship and communion of the Father, Son and Spirit.

In John 17 Jesus prayed about and for the 12 disciples, and this exquisite prayer reveals the immensity of the promise of bringing us into the presence of the Father. Let’s keep in mind that Jesus prays this prayer in the shadow of the cross, on the evening of his betrayal. With his death so close at hand, he made sure this prayer gave us hope, sure promises, and a view into the things most important to him.

An exercise you may want to try at home is to read this passage and think in terms of what the disciples initially heard and what thoughts might have come to mind. Then read it and ask how they came to understand even more after the resurrection. Finally, I suggest you read it a third time and ask how this prayer has meaning to us as we think of Jesus’ ascension.

Let’s begin with verses 1-5.

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. (John 17:1-5 NRSV)

While it might be fun to guess what the disciples were thinking, it’s more important for us to read this passage through the lens of the ascension and see what Jesus was praying for them and for us.

Four key observations:

  1. Jesus is asking God to glorify him so that he can glorify the Father—a reciprocal and mutual relationship. Glorify means to give honor, to show a person’s greatness.
  2. Jesus lets the disciples know that he has been given all authority—specially the authority to give eternal life.
  3. He defines eternal life—to know (be in close relationship with) the Father and the Son.
  4. Jesus is finishing the work he was given to do.

Let’s continue:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. (John 17:6-10 NRSV)

Four more key observations:

  1. Jesus makes clear his purpose was to make the Father known to us.
  2. Jesus makes clear that we belong to the Father already and he gave us to Jesus. “All mine are yours and yours are mine.”
  3. Jesus emphasizes the unity between him and the Father once again: everything is from you… the words I gave them are from you… they know I came from you… they know you sent me.
  4. Jesus is glorified in his relationship with us.

You see the emphases on our connection to the Father through the Son, and our connection to the Son because of the Father. The Father knew us before the incarnation and gave us to Jesus.

Let’s continue:

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:11-19 ESV)

Another four key observations:

  1. Jesus makes it clear he is leaving this world and returning to the Father. He had used similar language previously, but the disciples did not know what he was saying.
  2. We are under the Father’s and the Son’s protection. Earlier Jesus had said nothing can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.
  3. The world will hate us because we do not belong to the world. We are not held in bondage by the ways and means of the world.
  4. We have been sanctified by the truth, and truth has a name. It is Jesus.

Let’s finish the prayer:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20-25 ESV)

Final four observations:

  1. This prayer isn’t just for the 12, it is for all who believe in Jesus.
  2. Jesus tells us we are not only one with him and the Father, we are also one with one another—including the original disciples. We are all in communion with each other and with the Triune God.
  3. This unity helps others believe in Jesus, that he was sent by the Father, and that they are loved.
  4. Jesus’ desire is that we are with him—where he is—so we can participate in his glory and share his love with others.

And this leads us to the importance of the Ascension.

When Jesus ascended…

  • He received his full glory. Recall he told Mary to not cling to him because he had not yet ascended.
    • That glory was also given to us in order that we might participate in the communion shared by the Father, Son and Spirit.
  • He was given all authority in heaven and earth. Recall before giving the disciples their commission in Matthew 28, he reminded them that he had been given all power and authority. After giving them the commission, he reminded them he would be with them always.
  • He took us with him. Yes, we are still here, but Jesus asked the Father that we could be where he is—at the Father’s right hand. We are already citizens of God’s kingdom.
  • The promise of eternal life became a reality to all who are in Christ.

Jesus’ prayer makes clear that the goal of Christ’s work was to unite us to the triune God and each other, but that is not all. In John 17:13, Jesus says that he spoke his prayer out loud so that the hearers may have “the full measure of joy within them.” John later stated in 1 John 1:4 that he detailed his witness of Jesus to make his readers’ “joy complete.” These two passages help us to understand that knowing the details of our reconciliation and redemption brings us joy. When we see the extent of God’s love and care for us, joy bubbles up.

The ascension completed the work God gave his Son. When Jesus returned to the Father his work of rescuing and redeeming us was complete. Salvation is a done deal for all those who believe that Jesus is who he says he is, and we are in him. Forgiveness is past tense. The ransom has been paid. Hope is restored. God’s plan to bring us back into relationship with himself was enacted. Because Jesus ascended, we have access to the throne of God, to the very presence of the Father, who loves us and desires to be in intimate relationship with us.

We can only imagine what the disciples thought as they listened to this prayer. We can only imagine how many times the words of this prayer came back to encourage them in the years ahead. What we do know is the words of this prayer were answered at the ascension. God’s greatest joy is to be one with his children. The ascension brought about that joy.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In “Speaking of Life” we talked about eyewitness testimony. How do you think the disciples felt watching Jesus ascend?
  • How would you explain to someone that Jesus is alive in you?
  • What are some personal highlights in Jesus’ prayer in John 17?
  • What life circumstances or experiences led to you following Christ?
  • Using your sacred imagination, what do you think it was like for John to hear Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17?
  • What does Jesus’ ascension mean to you personally?

Sermon for May 23, 2021 (Pentecost)

Speaking Of Life 3026 | The Groans of Our Heart

We sometimes find ourselves out of words when we are overwhelmed with emotions. This is similar with our relationship with God. We often find it difficult to talk to him or even fail to express the entirety of our emotions. God tells us in Romans 8 that he knows our deepest thoughts and even our worst heartaches. Let us be assured that when we feel like all is lost, God is always there to listen to us and ready to embrace us with arms wide open.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3026 | The Groans of Our Heart Greg Williams Sometimes words are not enough. When a child is born, it is hard to put into words the joy that comes from the miracle of a new life coming into the world. When we lose a loved one, words fail to convey the depth of our grief. Oftentimes, the beauty of creation is so overwhelming, our only response is silent reverence. In these moments, words fail to express the depth of our emotions. The same is true in our relationship to God. Not only do we have difficulty finding words to express the depth of our need for God, but we also often find ourselves struggling with words when we talk to God. Fortunately, we have help. Notice what Paul tells the believers in Rome: [Look down] We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:22-23 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God. Romans 8:26-27 Our need for God is so great that we groan inside for him. Words cannot express how much we need the redemption that is found in Jesus Christ. We need the Holy Spirit to intercede for us. And that’s one of the reasons we celebrate Pentecost. It was the day when the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples, launched the church, and began the church’s mission to the world. With spectacular signs and wonders, Pentecost revealed God’s desire to dwell in the hearts of his people. He wants to live inside us because that is where we need to be healed — that is where we groan. The amazing thing is that the Holy Spirit understands the groans of our heart. He understands the words we cannot express. Not only does he understand, but he takes our wordless prayers and brings them to the Father on our behalf. The Holy Spirit groans with us, expressing the depth of our need for God as only he can. Even when we do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit knows, and he intercedes on our behalf. Because of the humanity of Jesus Christ, God understands us completely, and the Spirit uses that knowledge to pray for us perfectly. So, when we turn to God, we are turning to a Father who already knows what we need and, to Jesus Christ, our big brother who fully identifies with our human experience. When our words are not enough; when words fail us, it is good to know that God never will. He is always with us and he always understands. I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b · Acts 2:1-21 · Romans 8:22-27 · John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The theme for this week is transformed by the Holy Spirit. The call to worship Psalm is a celebration of creation, which was created by sending the Spirit. Acts 2 speaks about the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which launched the church and announced its mission to the world. Romans 8 explains that the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf and teaches us how to pray. Jesus taught in John that the Holy Spirit is our advocate and leads us into all truth.

The Fire Starter

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the birth of the church by the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is also a day that launched the church’s participation in Jesus’ mission to the world. While these things are true, Pentecost was started well before the disciples gathered in the upper room. We are going to talk about the origin of Pentecost in order to understand in more depth what this day means for us. Let us look at the Pentecost story in Acts 2.

Read Acts 2:1-21

There is a lot of symbolism in Pentecost—a day that celebrated bringing in the first harvest of crops. Viewed through the historic meaning of Pentecost, what happened in Jerusalem was supposed to spread and signal an abundant harvest of people who are born of the Spirit.

The wind is significant. The wind is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who hovered over the disciples on this day hovered over the void at the dawn of creation. In both cases, it was almost like the Holy Spirit was anxiously and joyously anticipating the new thing God was getting ready to do. The wind signaled that the Spirit was there, and he was about to bring about a new creation—a new type of human made in the new humanity forged by Jesus Christ.

The speaking in different languages is also significant. Pentecost was the great undoing of the Tower of Babel. Back then, humans wanted to advance themselves and create a world apart from God. If left unchecked, the entire world would be united in evil and determined to reject and ignore the redemptive plans God had for humanity. In his mercy, God confused their languages to disrupt their ill-fated plans. At Pentecost, God used languages to bring people to himself. No longer would languages be used to divide people. Now, God would use language to bring people together.

Finally, the fire is vital, and this is what we will spend the rest of the message on. This fire burned on the disciples signaling that the age of God dwelling in a physical location like the tabernacle and the temple was over. At the inauguration of both the tabernacle and the temple, fire was a symbol God used to signal his presence. So, when the tongues of fire settled upon the disciples, God was announcing a new era. No longer would God’s presence rest in a house made of leather or stone. Now, God’s dwelling place would be in the hearts of his people. We are his temple, the place where heaven and earth meet, the place where God interacts with humanity.

To properly address the topic of the fire, we need to go back to the spark that caused the fire. Pentecost did not just happen—rather, it was ignited years prior. Before he began his ministry, John the Baptist foretold of a coming Fire Starter, and he told us the kind of ministry he would have. Luke writes:

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)

As John predicted, the Fire Starter did come, and his ministry was as John predicted. During his ministry, this Fire Starter spoke of his work and how anxious he was for his fire to be lit. In Luke, he states:

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)

As you have likely already guessed, Jesus Christ is the Fire Starter. He is the origin of the fire that blazed on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. It was Jesus’ fire that burned in the upper room and signaled the beginning of a new age. Peter, in his message, echoed the voices of the Old Testament writers and called this new era the Day of the Lord, and this new age was ushered in by wind and fire.

But, what does this mean? Is not fire destructive? Does Jesus’ fire bring punishment, judgment, and death? If you listen to how some portray the gospel today, you might conclude the answer would be “yes.” There are some who believe and preach that the gospel is about fear. They portray God as angry and vengeful, and we are to obey him to avoid harsh judgment. They teach we should be afraid to disobey. To those with this view, the gospel is not “good news” but rather a warning of impending doom. Thankfully, this view of the gospel and the Fire Starter do not line up with what we find in Scripture. They don’t realize our obedience is a byproduct of our love for him. In the Bible, the qualities of fire are purification, presence, and power. Understanding these three aspects of fire from a biblical perspective will help us understand what the Holy Spirit unleashed on the day of Pentecost.

The fire of Jesus is a purifying fire because it cleanses us of sin. The cross dealt with humanity’s sin once for all time. However, because sin still causes pain, God works in each of us to help us turn away from the things that hurt us or cause us to turn away from him. The fire is not violent, burning our sin away and harming us in the process. Rather, Jesus is a warm hearth fire inviting us to shed our sin like someone in the Northern Hemisphere would shed a heavy winter coat when sitting in front of a cozy fireplace. We gladly give up the parts of us oriented away from God in response to his goodness. We lose our taste for sin as we experience God’s love, mercy, and grace.

The fire of Jesus symbolizes the enduring presence of God. When God called Moses to shepherd his people out of Egyptian slavery, he appeared to him as a burning bush. Later, when the Israelites were leaving Egypt and did not know where to go, God appeared in a cloud by day and fire in the sky at night. When they arrived at the place in the desert where God wanted to interact with them, God revealed himself as a mountain on fire. From the earliest seeds of our faith, God has used fire to symbolize his presence. The fire that appeared on Pentecost signaled that God was with his disciples now and forever. Every flickering flame declared God’s words captured in the book of Hebrews, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 NIV).

Finally, the fire of Christ represents the power of God to save and restore. Those on whom Jesus’ fire fell were not the ones a respectable rabbi would choose. At best, they were unremarkable. But something happened to them after they encountered Christ. They were not the same. Jesus made them new—not just a cleaned-up version of their old selves, but something entirely different. God equipped them with power to be his witnesses throughout the world. They boldly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and their words were confirmed by awesome miracles. These formerly mediocre men defied the greatest empire the world had ever seen. These unnoticed and underestimated men confronted the spiritual forces of darkness without flinching. The sign God gave that he was going to use these men to turn the world upside down was the fire of Pentecost.

The qualities of Jesus’ fire work together in everyone who follows Christ. When God gives us faith in Jesus, he purifies and burns away the things that are not him so we can see him clearly. Then, he kindles the fire of his enduring presence, drawing us nearer to him and reminding us continually that we are children of light. Finally, he uses his power to make us new—to refine us into who we are supposed to be—and empower us with gifts to participate in his work. Each believer has had his/her own personal Pentecost experience and Jesus’ fire burns in us.

The fire of Pentecost was not just an individual experience, it was also communal. Those on whom the fire fell immediately went out and boldly proclaimed who Jesus was in various languages because fire spreads. Jesus, the Fire Starter, shared his fire with the church, and the church, in turn, should work to share that fire with others. We should carry the fire of Jesus into every corner of our society so it can burn away injustice, prejudice, oppression, despair, and unbelief. Jesus’ fire can never be contained. Praise be to God who invites us to participate in his work to spread his fire to all humanity.

What started in the upper room on Pentecost continues today. The fire that fell on the disciples is kindled in us as well. May God bless us to burn as brightly. May he cause us to spread that fire in our communities. May that fire purify us, remind us of his presence, and fill us with his power all for his glory.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • To you, what does it mean to be transformed by the Holy Spirit?
  • How does it feel to know the Holy Spirit understands the groans of your heart?
  • Several symbols of Pentecost were mentioned in the sermon — the harvest, wind, tongues, fire. To you, which is the most compelling?
  • Why do you think God uses fire as a symbol of his presence?
  • What are some ways we can spread the fire of Jesus Christ?

Sermon for May 30, 2021—Trinity Sunday

Speaking Of Life 3027 | Freed from Shame

Have you been ashamed before that you did not want to share your gifts with the world? Have you ever felt that you are just not good enough?  You are not alone. Even the prophet Isaiah had to struggle with shame and self-uncertainty when God was calling him. Michelle reminds us that sharing God’s love with others does not require us to be perfect. Loving others is simply the result of God’s love overflowing through us.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3027 | Freed from Shame Michelle Fleming When I was growing up, I was extremely shy. I would avoid being the center of attention to the point that I even hid in the bathroom during multiple award ceremonies to avoid the stage. My dad was a pastor, and the first time he used a story about me in a sermon illustration, I burst into tears. My shyness and self-consciousness kept me from sharing my gifts with other people for a number of years. I think it’s kind of ironic that I now frequently speak in front of crowds. It makes me think about how we all can let shame and self-consciousness keep whispering in our ears, “You’re not enough. Who are you to stand up in this situation?” Has self-consciousness ever whispered in your ear, saying, “You’re not enough?” Has shame kept you from stepping up to share your gifts with the world? We’re not alone in this struggle. Even the prophet Isaiah wrestled with shame and self-doubt. He writes about a vision he had where he saw God on his throne with an altar surrounded by seraphs or angels. Isaiah’s first reaction is to say, I don’t deserve to be here; I’m not good enough. Let’s see what happened next: Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” Isaiah 6:6-8 (NRSV) The vision shows the cleansing of Isaiah by the angel touching his mouth with a live coal from the altar of God. This is a metaphor that shows the shift from Isaiah focusing on himself and all his perceived shortcomings to focusing on God’s love and how he could share that love in his own unique way. The vision pointed to Jesus Christ cleansing us. Thanks to Jesus, we know that our sins and shortcomings have been taken away from us and we have been made new. In his second letter to the Corinthian church Paul says this: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV) Just like the prophet Isaiah, our shame has been removed and we are freed to serve others and share the gifts that God created in us. My younger self didn’t realize that sharing the love of God with others doesn’t require us to be perfect. Sharing God’s love with others simply asks us to show up and love with the same love we’ve been given by the Holy Spirit.  Rest in the gift of freedom from shame that is God’s gift to you and freely share God’s love with others. I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 29:1-11 · Isaiah 6:1-8 · Romans 8:12-17 · John 3:1-17

The theme for this week is freed from shame, and our scriptures this week discuss how being freed from shame and sin enables us to love and serve others. The call to worship Psalm reminds us to ascribe glory to God who blesses us with peace. Peace is an attribute of living under God’s grace. Isaiah 6 recounts Isaiah’s vision of God and how he was cleansed of his shame and set free for service. In Romans 8, Paul encourages us to break free of shame’s hold and embrace our adoption as beloved children of God.  Lastly, John 3 is our sermon text that uses Nicodemus’ story to illustrate how we move from darkness to light. This is a good illustration to help move us from bearing shame and shortcomings to sharing God’s love freely with others.

Moving from Darkness to Light

John 3:1-17 NRSV

It seems you can test for almost anything online. I recently came across a Shame Test enabling you to self-diagnose whether or not you struggle with shame. Here are some of the questions, and if you answer “Yes” or “Sometimes,” then evidently you have had an encounter with shame:

  • It is relatively easy for me to criticize members of my family, people at work or school, or myself.
  • I have a hard time believing that someone can fully love and accept me.
  • I get defensive when others criticize me.
  • I don’t accept compliments well.
  • When I’m lost, I find it difficult to ask for directions or help.
  • When things go wrong, I have a hard time accepting blame.
  • I find it hard to rest or relax without feeling guilty.
  • I feel things must be done my way.
  • I feel embarrassed or humiliated by certain things from my past.
  • I rarely reveal my feelings.

Basically, based on how we answer these questions, all of us struggle with shame. Before we continue, let’s define shame. Author and researcher Brene Brown says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Brown goes on to say that shame is often the source of hurtful behavior and that it can make us dangerous. Most of us have faced shame and felt unworthy of love and belonging at some point in our lives.

Add to that, for Christians, shame can come when we don’t fully grasp how deeply loved and forgiven we are or that the most appropriate response to our inclusion in the relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to love and share our gifts with others. In other words, shame can come when we fail to embrace our true identity and we begin to compare ourselves to others or even to Christ. The irony is we can feel shame even when we feel blessed—because the enemy likes to see us in the darkness of shame rather than in the light of our true identity.

The issue of shame is not new. We can learn a lot about how we let go of the darkness of shame and move into the light of who we are in Jesus Christ by considering the example of Nicodemus in John 3.  Let’s take a look:

Read John 3:1-17 NRSV

What can we observe about the text?

On this Trinity Sunday, John 3 offers the chance for Jesus to talk about all three persons of the Trinity. Verses 5-8 talk about the Holy Spirit, verses 13-15 discuss Jesus as the Son and predict the cross, and verses 16-17 go back to the foundation of the Father’s great love for all humanity and the lengths he would go to break the bonds of shame so all might know their worth in God’s sight.

Now let’s focus on Nicodemus.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:1-2 NRSV)

The Gospel of John has a recurring theme of darkness vs. light. Notice that Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus at night. Though we can only speculate, we can assume that he was moving toward believing that Jesus was sent by God (i.e., from unbelief or darkness to belief/light). Notice his words: “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4 NRSV)

Jesus takes advantage of the dual meaning of the Greek word translated “from above” which can also be translated “again.” He lets Nicodemus’ confusion grow; he doesn’t resolve the tension or misunderstanding. Sometimes God lets us sit in our lack of understanding, knowing that as we continue to wrestle with truth, it will change us.

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8 NRSV)

Jesus explains the Holy Spirit. Specifically, he contrasts our fleshly, human response (which is often shame-based, and thus confining) with the Spirit’s freedom, moving “where it chooses.”

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15 NRSV)

Jesus makes a reference to his crucifixion by talking about Moses “lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.” This goes back to Numbers 21:9, when the Israelites were traveling to the Promised Land and they were sinning by speaking against the Lord. Many were bitten by poisonous snakes. The way they were healed was to look upon a bronze snake statue put on a pole. Jesus compares the healing of the snake bites to the healing of our feelings of shame and separation from God. We look to Jesus for restoration and peace.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 NRSV)

Verse 16 is one of the best-loved verses, yet it isn’t complete without verse 17. Jesus came so that we could be included in the relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Verse 17 tells us that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn or shame the world, but to break the feelings of shame and separation that make us feel far off from God.

Though we all struggle with shame, as we grow in our understanding and belief in God’s great love for us, we can let go of feelings of unworthiness and embrace ourselves—imperfections and all—as beloved children of God.

Application:

  1. Recognize that shame affects us all and it can keep us from sharing our gifts and God’s love with others. Researcher Brene Brown says that speaking about shame helps to decrease its power, and when we focus on the high value God has placed on each individual, we can see we are all growing in grace and knowledge. Comparisons among ourselves are harmful and only lead to judgment and shame. God has freed us from shame’s hold.
  2. Remember Nicodemus’ story. Moving from darkness to light, from shame to freedom to love, doesn’t happen all at once. After this passage in John 3, we don’t hear any more about Nicodemus throughout the remainder of Jesus’ ministry, so we might assume he just ran off into the night. But Jesus had given him a lot to think about, and while we don’t know exactly what happened, we can see by Nicodemus’s actions that he did believe Jesus enough to honor him with Joseph of Arimathea by bringing a large number of spices to bury Jesus’s body (John 19:38-42). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus took quite a risk by doing this, given the culture of his day, so we might see this as evidence of his move from disbelief, shame, and cultural constraints to a life of love and freedom in Christ.
  3. Remind yourself of your true identity. Consider taking this approach when any shaming or negative thoughts come up: respond by replacing the shaming or negative thought with a biblical affirmation. For example, if you have recurring thoughts of past failures, think on 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (NRSV).

Though shame is a struggle for all of us, the story of Nicodemus shows how we can move toward a greater understanding of God’s love for us and the inherent value and worthiness he has placed on us as beloved children. By embracing the freedom we have to be imperfect-yet-loving human beings, we gift others with permission to do the same.

For reference:

https://www.angermanage.co.uk/shame-test/
https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the “Speaking of Life” video, it discusses how shame keeps us “small,” afraid and unable to love others by using the gifts God has given us. Can you think of a time when shame kept you small and afraid to step out to use your unique gifting to love and serve others?
  • Since this is Trinity Sunday, have you thought about how the Trinity, with its focus on relationship and love, helps us as Christians learn how to love one another better? If so, how do the unique persons of the Trinity reveal that everyone has something to offer?
  • In the context of shame and believing in the worthiness that God has given each human being, how do you view the conversation as an example of how we move from the darkness of shame and separation from God to a wholehearted belief that we are God’s beloved children? Do you see the process of moving from darkness to light in your own life as you grow in your understanding of God’s great love for you?
  • What are your thoughts about biblical affirmations as a replacement for negative or shaming thoughts? Have you ever used them before? If so, tell us about your experience. Feel free to share an affirmation that you’ve found to be meaningful.