GCI Equipper

Where is the Good News?

Healthy churches are known for what they are for, not what they are against.

Most people know what churches preach against – sin. Depending on the pastor, certain sins are preached on more than other sins. It quickly becomes clear to a new believer that there are all kinds of things God is against, and it can be discouraging. A new believer can easily conclude they may never be good enough to experience God’s love. I grew up in a church environment like this.

I could easily tell you what my church was against, but if someone were to ask me what my church was for, I’d struggle to answer. The correct answer was, we are here to make disciples who make disciples. Another answer would be, we are for sharing God’s love. However, the messages rarely focused on God’s love—they often focused on God’s anger toward sin and sinners. Sermon topics mentioned the good news of salvation, but with the focus on things we needed to “overcome” in order to “qualify” for salvation, the gospel didn’t seem like good news. There was a lot of guilt, shame and angst for those of us who wanted to do good, but didn’t do what we knew we were supposed to do. We resonated with the struggle Paul shared in Romans 7, but we failed to understand the significance of his concluding statement: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” How could I focus on making disciples when I felt like such a failure? It’s no wonder many of the people I grew up with no longer attend church and many have distorted views of who God is.

By God’s mercy, he opened my eyes (and yours) to see the good news of his gift of grace. Scriptures I’d read many times showed me a different side of God and gave good news. Here are a few:

  • John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
  • John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
  • John 5:22-23: “The Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.”
  • Romans 8:1-2: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
  • Romans 8:9: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
  • Romans 8:38: “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17-19: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

All of this sounds like good news to me, and it’s good news I want others to hear. There are many more verses telling of God’s love and mercy. Am I saying God is soft on sin? Absolutely not. That’s why he came and went through the suffering and death he endured. God hates sin—but not because it makes him angry, or frustrated with us.  Allow me to suggest two reasons: One, because sin causes us pain. We live under the consequences of the fall, which separated us from God. And keep in mind, we turned our back on him, but he never turned his back on us. Two, because sin breaks relationships. Because of sin, we believe God is mad at us or doesn’t like us. Because of sin, we hurt those we love and they hurt us. Because of sin we don’t love others as Jesus tells us to. But the good news is God loves us so much that he took on the ultimate penalty for sin—death. We still suffer consequences, and some of those consequences are much more painful than others. But the good news is still good news. We are forgiven and redeemed and reconciled through Jesus.

Therefore, GCI pastors and fellowship group facilitators don’t spend a lot of time focusing on sin in our preaching and facilitating—we focus on Jesus. Rather than continually point out the different sins we are caught up in, we preach about the One who has never met a sin he has not redeemed. In other words, we preach the gospel.

So how do we deal with sinners? A few years ago I was in an argument with one of my elders who insisted our job was to point out people’s sins and confront them. I asked him how many people needed that done; don’t most people know what their sins are? His response was that some didn’t realize what sin was and we needed to point it out. I asked if he was referring to some sins, or all sins. He said all sins. I asked if he was referring to new believers or all believers. He said all believers. So I said, “OK, may I start with you?” As you can imagine, he did not like that question and what I was inferring.

Let’s be honest. None of us are sin free. And most of us know what our sins are, and if we don’t, we trust the Holy Spirit to reveal things to us. That’s part of growing in grace and knowledge. But God does not identify us by our sins. He calls us children—his children.

Yes, but what about the obvious sins that are pervading our society? When someone comes to our church in an obvious sinful lifestyle, isn’t it our job to “help” them by pointing out the error of their ways? There are a couple problems here. First, we can be in danger of elevating some sins over others—and that’s not our job. Second, we are in danger of identifying a person by their sin rather than by who they are in Christ. Third, this leads to confirming that we are more concerned with what we are against than what we are for.

So how do we help sinners? Let’s start with the truth of Christ’s gift of grace and let our starting point be good news. Start sharing these truths…

  • God loves you…period.
  • He loves you just the way you are.
  • He sent his Son to take away all your sins and die for you because of his intense love for you.
  • Because Christ died for your sins, he wants you to live in the gift of his righteousness.
  • The only thing to “do” at this point is to believe God is for you.
  • God loves you so much, he will constantly encourage you to live more and more in his image.
  • This might mean some changes in life – just like he made many changes in my life.
  • It’s not up to me to determine what those changes will be, it’s up to him. He created you, he knows you, he knows what will truly make you happier and filled with his peace.
  • At some point in your journey, you will have to answer the same question I answered, “Am I willing to follow Christ and do what he asks me to do?”
  • Regardless, I will always love you, respect you, and do my best to support you.
  • Having a relationship with Jesus is the best thing you could ever seek, because he is good news.

Let’s be congregations and fellowship groups that are known for what we are for. We are for helping others build relationships with Father, Son and

Spirit and with others.

Striving to always share his love and life with others,
Rick Shallenberger

Fitly Framed Together

What if you were able to recognize the different voices in your congregation and help equip them for works of service?

By Jeff Broadnax, East U.S. Regional Director

Worship teams are re-taking the stage. Seating areas are emerging once again and now we get to see what life will be like once we come back together in full capacity.

What would happen in your congregation if every member came and said, “Pastor, in order for us to operate at our healthiest level as a congregation, I need to allow the Lord to use my voice and my gifting to help. I want to do my part.”

I know, your heart just skipped a beat, right? That is what we all dream about and pray for. We long for that day when Paul’s message in Ephesians 4 takes up full residence within our congregations. We pray that every member grows in their knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit and matures as a Spirit-led believer joining Jesus in his mission. That’s a healthy church.

As we have focused on the aspects of being Team Based and Pastor Led, we have introduced tools like the 5 Voices from GiANT Worldwide to help us see our giftings, abilities and leadership styles differently.  If that is new to you and you want to know more, just reach out to your Pastor, Regional Director or me.

In teaching about the Nurturer, Guardian, Creative, Connector and Pioneer voices, our desire is to help every “supporting ligament grow” in our communication and help the congregational members be “fitly framed together” as “each part does its work.” Some have asked, however, what knowing the 5 Voices has to do with God’s gifting and with being a healthy church. Aren’t the 5 Voices more of a business model, and God’s gifting a spiritual model? I believe they relate quite well together. Allow me to explain.

As I was reading Ephesians 4 recently, something new hit me. I found myself seeing verse 11 through completely different eyes.  In speaking of the grace (giftings) that have been given by Christ to his people, it says he himself gave “the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service…”

I used to see those as titles, but now I see them as responsibilities and styles of leadership within the body. While there are exceptions, it didn’t seem like a stretch to connect the 5 Voices to those giftings. Pioneers as apostles, Creatives as prophets, Connectors as evangelists, Nurturers as pastors, Guardians as teachers. Let me show how they fit together.

Imagine if Paul had written, “It was Jesus who gave some to have a gift of strategic vision and problem solving (apostles/pioneers), some with the gift of clearly seeing future opportunities and threats while maintaining organizational integrity (prophets/creatives), some with the gifting of effectively communicating and expanding the network (evangelists/connectors), some with the gift of maintaining relational harmony and sharing the love of Christ (pastors/nurturers), and some with the gift of maintaining healthy systems and processes (teachers/guardians).”

There are a lot more words, for sure, but I believe all members could see themselves fitting in that body. Viewing this verse in hierarchical terms is more disempowering for an average member and frankly doesn’t seem to fit the overall context of equipping members for works of service. This is why it is vital that we NOT see the terminology in Ephesians 4 through a hierarchal lens. Instead, we should see the leadership skills and responsibilities each brings to the Body. It is also important to remember that every member has all five gifts within them to varying degrees.  Some are just easier to access than others.

When you recognize the different voices and start to see them in terms of the various giftings/responsibilities listed in Ephesians, you can start to see more possibilities for more members to lead the congregation to healthy church. Imagine as you come back together and seek your congregational renaissance post-Covid, you and your team intentionally see your members through this lens as you work through the three avenues of a healthy church. What would your weekly worship gathering (Hope Avenue) look like if these giftings and voices spoke into your plan? What new connect groups would you use in your discipleship pathway (Faith Avenue) that could begin to help disciples become disciple-makers? What would your next outreach event (Love Avenue) look like as members who have this giftedness and passion help you organize and lead these events?

I recently was invited to a meeting by our 22-year-old local GCNext team leader. She was sharing a community ministry partnership vision with our pastors, and she told me that she was inviting me because of my community connections. She wanted the strategic insights and accountability in her process from our pastors. Once approved, she would reach out to another member who would help other members see their part in the ministry.

I was inspired as I watched my pastors empower, engage and equip her with the resources and insights to take this vision to the next phase. I was excited as I sat there because I wondered how many other people in the congregation have ideas and visionary plans for how we can join Jesus in his mission and ‘be the church’ in our community. Then I got excited about your congregation and prayed for this to become reality.

Imagine our GCI congregations being fitly framed together like this?

Facilitator Postures

With our focus on healthy leaders, it’s important to consider three healthy leadership postures for connect group facilitators

By Elizabeth Mullins, Love Avenue Champion

A healthy church has healthy leaders, multiple connect groups (planned or in place), and healthy group facilitators. A healthy connect group will primarily be rooted in the one square mile around our church location and will include friends and coworkers from the neighborhood. We hope to be gathering a diverse group of people, and that can feel daunting! When differences arise among members of our connect groups, what is a healthy posture in the facilitator? Let’s consider three postures healthy facilitators can model and cultivate: belonging, curiosity, and courage.

Belonging

How do we practice belonging when we don’t share everything in common? By orienting to Jesus and acknowledging he is the center of the center. We belong to God and therefore, to one another, having been reconciled in Christ. We may differ in opinions, but we are not enemies. We have unity by what we do share in common: we are children of God, chosen and adopted, united in and to Christ. In other words, we are one because ontologically we are the same!

In our connect groups, we take these concepts out of the abstract and practice them on a relational, concrete level. We model and express belonging: you are loved and chosen always; disagreement does not place your belonging in jeopardy. We engage with different points of view from a place of worth, knowing our identity is rooted in Christ. We have a profound need for connection and acceptance and each one longs for the love that will never leave us. We bear witness to the love of God by demonstrating that each person in the group belongs and that belonging is not conditioned on “correct” thinking. Being held in a community that isn’t afraid of the fragmented, incongruent parts of our life has the power to transform us.

Curiosity

Curiosity allows the freedom to investigate if we’re wrong and to lay down our need for certitudes.

We want to believe that we’re objective and use reason to develop our convictions, but we often resist information that disturbs what we already believe and it’s often unconscious. Curiosity towards the other allows us to reject overly simplistic categories. And the good news is contact with a likable person outside our select group is a wonderful way for our false certitudes to be punctured. We laugh, share a meal, confess our hopes and dreams, and come to see that there are no one-dimensional heroes and villains.

Curiosity allows us to hold people with wonder over problem solving. Curiosity helps cultivate an openness that allows us to consider multiple perspectives and allow others their autonomy of thinking. Is it even our place to “correct” another person’s thinking? How you answer that question probably relates to your perspective of Christian leadership. Is it the role of a leader to fix or rescue others? (I’ll just ask you to consider the fruit of hierarchical, authoritarian leadership in the church.) I believe hope and patience produce curiosity as we hope that the Spirit who is at work in us is also at work in the other and so we practice patience as Christ is growing them up. As we intentionally practice belonging and curiosity, we are able to be formed in a way that allows us to differentiate between a person’s held beliefs and their worth and position as a child of God.

Courage

Courage is fostered when fear is properly positioned. I’ll illustrate what I mean by describing an encounter I had with a woman. As she expressed her opinions, I noticed my palms were sweating and my heart was beating faster. I found it very difficult to listen to her express her views that were fundamentally different than my own. I began rehearsing facts in my head to defend my position and to expose how wrong she was. Fear is a legitimate, neurological response to threat, but I needed to remind myself I was not under threat. She was not my enemy. And my belonging and union with Christ were not threatened by her opinions. If anything was being threatened, it was my own opinions. I could describe my opinions as  ideas which I have attached to my ego, and that ego needs to die!

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is responding maturely from love and belonging when we are triggered by fear. Fear is an emotion that invites us to turn toward God; it’s an opportunity to experience the Spirit’s healing presence. Again, I ask you to consider the fruit in our society of denying and repressing fear.

Fear, not positioned under our identity in Christ, leads to defensiveness, which leads to isolation and a posture of self-protection. When we allow that fear to block relationships and a sense of community, our defensiveness takes resources we could be using for healing.

Let’s get practical:

  • Take responsibility for the energy you bring and manage your internal experience without becoming protective. Admit if you don’t feel equipped to respond and ask for some time.
  • Say, “Others here may think differently about that.” When one is voicing a strong opinion, this simple statement holds space and provides safety to others. It communicates that your belonging isn’t predicated on alignment of thought.
  • Be attuned to reactions of the listeners. Are others becoming uncomfortable or triggered? Has there been consent given to discuss sensitive topics? Discern if a given topic should be discussed one-on-one. Say, “Let’s pause and save this for another time.”
  • Engage with questions when one is being reactive. Ask: What do you hope for? What do you care about? (Very often there is fear underneath the anger.) What do you love that you’re afraid of losing?
  • Assess power dynamics. There may be power differences between younger and older people, quieter and louder voices, longtime and newer members. Likewise, there exists power differences because we don’t all inhabit the same flourishing. Be cautious: members of marginalized communities are often asked to cooperate for the common good, sidelining their needs of safety and flourishing for the sake of unity.
  • Take peace seriously! In our connect groups, as in our Sunday gatherings, we can say, “All are welcome. Come in peace!” As we cultivate peace, our witness must reflect the love we find described in 1 Corinthians 13, as well as the fruit of the Spirit. Our connect groups can be formational spaces of mutual respect, authentic dialogue, and unselfishly seeking the flourishing and shalom of the other. This supersedes any differences!

Fresh Perspective on Connect Groups

You might be surprised at how easy it would be to start a connect group.

By Mike Rasmussen, North America and Caribbean Superintendent

For several years now, my wife Juli has been thinking and talking about hosting a Ladies Wine Night for our neighbors in Surrey Hills. My wife is an introvert and a nurturer, so the very thought both excites her and scares her to death. Over the years, Juli and I have had the privilege of hosting several small groups, and it works out well because she is the planner and loves to prepare food for our guests, while I feel more comfortable teaching and leading a group and then cleaning up afterwards. During COVID, we began to strategize how we could bring our neighbors together and start building relationships—once it was safe.

We came up with a Surrey Hills Ladies Wine Night for the women and a Surrey Hills Whiskey Club for the men. Both events take place once a month in our home. We have invited our neighbors and some couples from our church to be part of the group. It’s a “come if you can” type of event. Our desire is two-fold: to hang out and build relationships with our neighbors in a fun casual environment and to watch how the Holy Spirit works in people’s hearts and minds within these relationships.

We have three simple rules for both of our Connect Groups.

  1. We drink to taste what each person brings—but always in moderation! This is always important, but especially as many of our neighbors are former Baptist, Nazarenes and potentially even Mormons and we want to model balance.
  2. As hosts, we are not allowed to talk about God, faith or church, unless the guest(s) bring it up. Our goal is to build relationships, not make people feel we are trying to get them to join our church. If the topics do come up, we share a little and then get back to the relationship building. If they want to talk more about these topics, we can offer to get together for lunch or dinner to discuss them in more detail. Our belief is that in all relationship-building environments, the Holy Spirit will always lead the discussions toward God, faith and church. It will not be in our timing, but in his, and we need to be OK with that.
  3. Everyone is encouraged to invite a friend.

As of this week, we have held two Ladies Nights and two Whiskey Nights. All events have been fun and bonding for those who have attended. The Ladies Wine Night has been better attended than the Whiskey Night, GO LADIES! Time will tell how these groups grow in size and in depth, but in the meantime, it is so much fun getting to know our neighbors in a deeper way.

Connect Groups should be just that—opportunities for people to connect and build relationships. While some Connect Groups are specifically focused on a Bible study format, or may have something specific to do with church, many do not. All of our Connect Groups should be focused on building relationships and sharing God’s love with others in those relationships—even if we don’t mention his name or his purpose. In other words, our motivation is to show love through relationship rather than through teaching. We trust God to take things deeper and more focused in his timing. If our focus is about building relationships only with those who might come to church with us, this comes across as a bait-and-switch. People will quickly realize the purpose of the Connect Group is to build our church and it becomes clear we only want to maintain relationships with those who can benefit us and/or our congregation.

Here is a list of Connect Group ideas:

  • What would Jesus brew?
  • Flower club
  • Book club
  • Game night
  • Motorcycle rides
  • Gardening club
  • Quilting club
  • Barbeques
  • Moms and tots
  • Sharing recipes
  • Sewing club
  • Golf group
  • Work-out group
  • Cycling group

Tell us about your Connect Group. We’d love to hear from you!

Intergenerational Ministry

Young, middle-aged, and old can grow and learn together, blessing our faith forward churches and communities.

By Daphne Sydney, Australasia Superintendent

One of the greatest joys of attending or visiting one of our GCI congregations is fellowshipping with a mix of ages from the young to the well experienced in years, from infants to octogenarians. It’s especially joyful to see two and sometimes three generations gathering together to worship, to learn and to fellowship with one another. Where else would we have such a privilege to mix and mingle with a group of people of all ages? Church is a wonderful community where all ages are welcomed to fellowship and grow together with an intentional engagement of the generations, none too young and none too old. This provides a picture of belonging where each generation is valued.

A similar picture is found in the Gospel of Luke, who tells an amazing account of young and old being vital in God’s plan. Beginning with the birth of John the Baptist, Luke tells the remarkable story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, both from priestly descent, an upright and blameless couple. The scripture also says, “and they were both very old” (Luke1:7). Being very old was obviously no hindrance to God and the purposes he had for them. Miraculously they became the parents of John the Baptist— the one who declared Jesus as the Lamb of God!

Unfolding in the next chapter of Luke is the birth of Jesus as told through the story of Joseph and a very young Mary. Notice how Elizabeth, this godly and mature woman, was present for Mary when she was chosen to bear the child Jesus. Mary, most likely a peasant teenage girl, must have felt quite alone. Elizabeth was there with a grandmotherly tenderness, and being in a similar situation herself, was described by Gabriel the angel to Mary: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail” (vs. 36-37). There is that sense of empathy yet strength in belief and togetherness.

Shortly afterwards, Mary hurriedly goes to visit with Elizabeth, where Elizabeth blesses, uplifts, and encourages her. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (v. 42). Elizabeth also blesses Mary because she has “believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (v. 45).  These are incredible, Spirit-filled words of reassurance and comfort that were no doubt embraced by Mary as she faced the difficult days ahead. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for around three months, and we can only imagine what a wonderful ministry of shared stories and faith was taking place between the two women of two different generations.

In researching for this article, I discovered a helpful book entitled: Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship, by Holly Catterton Allen & Christine Lawton Ross, which I have drawn upon for this article. The authors share the following quote, which underlines intergenerational ministry as a way of being formed in Christ:

The best way to be formed in Christ is to sit among the elders, listen to their stories, break bread with them, and drink from the same cup, observing how these earlier generations of saints ran the race, fought the fight and survived in grace. (James Frazier, p. 17)

With intentionality, these intergenerational experiences foster the spiritual growth and development of both young and old. I like this definition:

Intergenerational ministry occurs when a congregation intentionally brings the generations together in mutual serving, sharing or learning within the core activities of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community. (p. 17)

This is kept in balance by maintaining some very important separate activities that are central to groups—examples given such as Seniors gathering within their age group for mutual care and support, or young children gathering to learn and make friends. However, when there are regular cross-generational opportunities for worship, fellowship and/or activities together, these also offer real spiritual benefits and blessings. Note another quote from the book:

Intergenerationality enables the whole church to benefit from each individual’s God-given gifts and enables believers to fully live out being the body of Christ and the family of faith. Among the many benefits for both adults and children is a sense of belonging. (p. 47)

That sense of belonging, feeling loved and wanted is foundational to a child’s development. And moving into teens, the authors note Smith’s 2005 national study which endorsed parents as the primary influence on teens’ spiritual lives. However, as these teens become emerging adults, others who reach out to them are also important. Significant others in their faith communities who have taken the time to build a meaningful personal relationship can share their experiences with these emerging adults as they begin asking profound life-questions during these years:

They are also seeking community and are looking for ways to pour their lives into the hurting people of the world. Perhaps more than at any other time period in their lives, they need input, feedback, insight and wisdom from those who are further ahead on the journey. Intentionally intergenerational communities of faith can provide especially well for those entering the adult world. (p. 56)

With a strong intergenerational community, those who are a little further ahead on the journey can surely be a source of encouragement, insight or simply be an attentive listener. Jesus himself was intergenerational. He took time out to bless little children. In doing so he reminded all of his disciples to have that childlike attitude—one of Christ-like humility and gentleness. Paul continues this thought: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

This process of becoming Christlike is formed by participating in a community of believers, as God designed church to be—a place where we grow up in him, a place for Christian formation. As Paul notes:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15)

May we embrace the values of intergenerational ministry and appreciate the wonderful gift each generation brings to the body. In this year of Faith Forward, lets capitalise on those many opportunities to engage with and strengthen the generations within our church.

Reference: Holly Catterton Allen & Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation – Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.

GCI Celebration Watch Party

The Denominational Celebration is the perfect time for your local congregation to be encouraged, inspired, and challenged. Hosting a watch party is a great way to gather together and participate in the Celebration locally, reflecting and discerning the vision to which God has called your unique congregation. #gcichurchhacks

Check out this month’s church hack in the link below for ideas and information on hosting your own watch party.

https://resources.gci.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/2021-CH6-Watch-Party.pdf

The Playful God

 Games, humor, dance, singing, and unadulterated silliness are basic human needs.

Peekaboo! Ready or not, here I come! Row, row, row, your boat… How did reading these words make you feel? Perhaps they made you feel nostalgic or excited. Maybe you felt a longing for a simpler time. Whatever it was, hopefully it reminded you of childhood. For me, it reminds me that human beings are wired to play. Play is so important to child development that the United Nations designated it as a human right for every child. Games, humor, dance, singing, and unadulterated silliness are basic human needs. Therefore, it is interesting that Jesus, the ultimate human being, is rarely portrayed as fun or playful when presented to children.

It is understandable if “fun” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Jesus. In the Gospels, while we don’t have stories of Jesus playing games, we do have instances when it is likely that Jesus is employing humor and word play. For example, notice this story in Luke:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” (Luke 18:1-5)

The crowd likely found this story funny, and, in general, they saw Jesus as a very compelling personality. Why else would people walk for miles and forego eating just to hear what he had to say? Jesus knew how to teach, and passages like this show that Jesus knew how to have fun as he taught. Why is this important? Too often, we send the dangerous message that if children and youth want to be spiritually healthy they should turn to Jesus, but if they want to have fun, they should turn somewhere else. God is seen as boring and limited in his ability to provide for our needs, not responding to our need to play. We send this message by not incorporating play into our discipleship of children and youth. Play is one of the best ways children learn (think of the lasting impact of Sesame Street, School House Rock, etc.). To minimize the presence of play in children and youth ministry can imply that God is not the God of children.

Grace Communion International has a rich history in youth camps. Our camps have done an excellent job of showing that God is fun. That tradition will continue in a more profound way with our neighborhood camps that are springing up around the country. We will now reach out to children in the one square mile around our church. But, what about our congregations? Are our churches places where a young person can encounter the playful God? If your congregation does not presently have young people, what can you do to help young people encounter the playful God? How can you show that the kingdom of God is here and it includes children? Do we understand how children play or do we present them with what adults believe is fun? Perhaps if we intentionally embrace play as part of youth ministry, children can teach us something about the playful God. It could be that children and youth may better understand the God who made us to play. Let me leave you with this quote from G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

May we teach our children that as the perfect Abba Father, God is loving and playful. May we help our children see that a relationship with God is good and it is fun.

Still playing,

Dishon Mills, US Generations Ministry Coordinator

 

The Impact of Connect Groups on a Local Congregation w/ Grant Forsyth

The Impact of Connect Groups on a Local Congregation w/ Grant Forsyth

In this episode, Anthony Mullins, interviews Grant Forsyth – Pastor of Grace Communion Kenockee in the great state of Michigan. Together they discuss Connect Groups and how they function to support the Faith Avenue and the overall vision of Healthy Church.

“In order to grow our Faith, and our relationship with God, we really need to grow together with one another, in so many ways. I really think that Jesus’ command to love one another is a little difficult with a once a week gathering. It is so much easier to that love play out by gathering more often.”
– Grant Forsyth, GCI Pastor

Main Points:

  • In the big picture, why is connect group ministry important to the Faith Avenue of a local congregation? (7:03)
  • Your congregation has 4 groups running concurrently. What impact have these connect groups had on your congregational life? (9:30)
  • What is the role of the connect group facilitator? How did you go about preparing facilitators for their care of the group? (14:47)
  • What advice would you give to a pastor who may be a little skeptical about connect group ministry because they have tried it in the past or don’t see the value of having group interaction during the week? (23:59)

 

Resources:

  • Apprentice Square – a leadership tool that provides a pathway for leaders to journey alongside team members to provide learning opportunities and support, while inexperienced leaders learn a new skill or take on an unfamiliar role.
  • Why Connect Groups? – environments for relationally-based discipleship (includes starter curriculum).
  • On Being Series – a four-part interactive connect group curriculum, designed for biblically-based, dynamic discussions around being a disciple.
  • We Believe– a comprehensive tool for teaching all age groups the core beliefs of our Christian faith.
  • The Basics for New Christians – a less comprehensive tool for teaching adults and older teens.

 

TO REGISTER and for updates on the 2021 VIRTUAL DENOMINATIONAL CELEBRATION visit gci.org/events/2021

 

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Gospel Reverb – Time’s A Wastin’ w/ Geordie Ziegler

Time’s A Wastin’ w/ Geordie Ziegler

Video unavailable (video not checked).

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Geordie Ziegler, unpack these lectionary passages: 

August 1 – Proper 13
Ephesians 4:1-16 (NRSV)   “Unity”
(16:17)

August 8 – Proper 14
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 (NRSV)   “Living the New Life”
(34:23 )

August 15 – Proper 15
Ephesians 5:15-20 (NRSV)   “Time’s A Wastin”
(50:10)

August 22 – Proper 16
Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)   “More Than a Fighter’s Chance”
(01:05:03)

August 29 – Proper 17
James 1:17-27(NRSV)   “The Father of Lights”
(01:21:40)

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!

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Sermon for August 1, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3036 | Having Only A Natural Relationship With A Supernatural God

Distant judge, vending machine, genie in a bottle – these are a few views that we see played out in our interactions with God, both in the Bible and in everyday our lives. In John 6, we see Jesus’ response when people ask God for too little. In these verses, Jesus highlights God’s generous nature and abundant love for us. We have a God who offers us more than we can ask or imagine.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3036 | Having Only A Natural Relationship With A Supernatural God
Michelle Fleming

Imagine the greatest chef of all time was cooking for you, and all you asked for was a bowl of cereal. Or that the most profound singer of the ages was performing a concert just for you, and you only wanted to hear them sing “happy birthday.” Sounds ridiculous right? You would never settle for so little from someone who could offer you so much. So why do we often seek only temporary comforts from a God that offers us eternal life? In John 6, a group of people made the mistake of asking Jesus for too little.

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 6:30-35 (NIV)        

In this passage, Jesus engaged the group of people he amazingly fed with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread — a miracle we often refer to as the feeding of the 5,000. The crowd was now following Jesus, not because they believed he was the Son of God or the Messiah, but because they wanted more bread. Imagine having the Creator God standing before you, with all of his power and glory, and asking him for bread! It seems absurd, yet we do it all the time. We do it every time we limit ourselves to only a natural relationship with a
supernatural God.

It is easy to focus on our perceived physical needs like healing, financial intervention, and safety. God cares about our physical needs and often blesses us in tangible ways.
However, many of his greatest blessings are not physical but spiritual — things like: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are true treasures that await us as children of a supernatural God; gifts that are eternal. Yet far too often, we ask for earthly trinkets that will fade and not be remembered.

Jesus told the crowd that he was the bread of life and the source of gifts that will never fade. He mercifully met them where they were and tried to help them understand that he could do so much more than satisfy their physical hunger. We should strive to avoid the mistake of trying to have only a natural relationship with a supernatural God. In his infinite mercy, God offers us more than we even know for which to ask. Therefore, we should not ask for too little, but seek God for his treasures which are ours in Jesus Christ.

I am Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 51:1-12 • 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a • Ephesians 4:1-16 • John 6:24-35

Receiving mercy from the Bread of Life is this week’s theme. Our call to worship Psalm focuses on David’s repentance after the 2 Samuel story of taking another man’s wife, then murdering her husband. While David received consequences for his sinful actions, God showed him mercy and David sought restoration from the Lord. In Ephesians 4, Paul explains how believers should respond to the mercy and grace we have received in Christ by living in unity. Paul also details the systems Jesus has put in place to spiritually develop his followers and keep them united. John 6 points out that Jesus fed the 5,000 even though many followed him for superficial reasons. In this passage, Jesus reminds them that he is the bread of life and the one who sustains us.

Making Every Effort

Ephesians 4:1-16

Recently, a major news outlet featured an article about the significant political divisions in America. The journalist spotlighted a mother who was told by her son that he would never speak to her again because of the presidential candidate for whom she voted.  It seems wrong that an ideology would interrupt such an important relationship, but this story is not uncommon. This is one example of the fractured relationships we see in the news, read on social media, and hear in diners and barbershops across the U.S.

You may want to use a local story to make this point in your area of the world.

Some of you may have experienced this directly and can testify of the pain that comes when the ties that bind us together are severed. This is not the most divisive period America has faced, although to some it could feel that way. It could feel like the political, racial, socioeconomic, and other divisions are so deep that they cannot be healed. Unfortunately, this condition is not only an American problem. It seems that many countries are struggling to heal divisions across various lines. Are we falling apart? Are the divisions in our society insurmountable? Where is God in the midst of our divided world? What is our role?

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed a divided church. Among other challenges, Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians were having a hard time figuring out how to live together. One of Paul’s goals for writing the book was to exhort the church to be united. Notice what he writes:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:1-16)

We should first note that living worthy of our calling in Christ does not have anything to do with some kind of individual standard of worth. Rather, to live worthy of our calling—our personal invitation to participate in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ—has everything to do with how we live in community.

In order to address the divisions in the church in Ephesus, Paul first needed them to understand that when God calls us, he calls us into something. He calls us into the body—the church. Our response to the mercy and grace of Jesus’ saving work is to be lived out in the community of faith and the world. As hard as it may be, we must resist the temptation to think of our relationship with God as something separate from our relationships with other people. In fact, our relationship with God is demonstrated, tested, and proven by how we care for our fellow humans.

An individualized view of our relationship with God can fuel divisions because we act outside of the truth that we belong to each other. The truth is, we depend on each other. We cannot become who we are supposed to be without each other. Because of Christ, I cannot make a decision that is good for me if it harms you. Because of Christ, I cannot be unaffected by your suffering just because it does not affect me directly.

Let’s be honest. What I am describing makes a lot of sense when we are talking about people around whom we feel comfortable. It is not hard to care for those who think and act in ways that are familiar. But what about people who rub us the wrong way? What about people who are different from us? What about those with different beliefs? Without the leading of the Spirit, I would not love people I do not like! Thankfully, God does not leave room for me to decide whom I will love.

After explaining the necessity of community, Paul makes it clear that unity and peace require us to “make every effort.” In other words, it takes work and sacrifice to connect and stay connected. More accurately, it takes proactive work and sacrifice to connect and stay connected. Our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves, so we cannot sit back and just hope to form genuine relationships with other humans—we have to make the effort. It cannot be done within our comfort zone at a time convenient for us. The status quo will not bring unity or peace, especially in a fractured community. Being a Christ follower means that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to be united to our brothers and sisters.

While working for unity is a challenge, there is good news. Paul poetically states that there is one gospel, and to believe and follow that good news means that we enter into a unique type of unity with other believers—a unity that is forged and maintained by Christ himself. Not unity from a human perspective, but unity “in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” Unity does not depend on our own strength or knowledge. Rather, unity begins when we seek to see others as Christ sees them. We work for unity when we try to participate in the relationship Christ has with our fellow humans. We maintain peace by standing with Christ against the things that divide us or dehumanize those made in the image of God. And, because of Christ, we can have faith that all divisions can be healed. Jesus’ resurrection means that he has triumphed over every enemy of humanity, even death itself. In him there is healing for all that ails us, including the things that divide us.

God, in his mercy and grace, invites the church to be the mechanism he uses to spread his unique brand of unity. Verses 7-16 list some of the roles in God’s new society that Christians can assume to bring about “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” (For a different perspective on these verses, see Jeff Broadnax’s article, “Fitly Framed Together”.) It is also in these verses that Paul begins to explain the texture of Christian unity. Although God facilitates our unity, Paul is saying that unity is our responsibility as the church. It is something we must actively pursue and bring about by using our God-given gifts. Christ catalyzes spiritual growth, diversity in gifting, and the unity of the church. He is the standard by which the church measures its progress towards its goal, as well as the goal itself. Every believer has a part to play in the church, and we can only achieve unity when every body part does its job. Here, Paul balances the collaborative goal of the church with individual responsibility.

Now that we understand the role of the church in bringing unity to the world, we have to ask an uncomfortable question: If the church is empowered and equipped by Christ to bring unity to the world, why do we see so much division in our society? Perhaps we have allowed things like politics, race, and economics to convince us that we are more different than similar. Perhaps it is easier to be divided than do the hard work of making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”

In a recent interview where he was asked to comment on the racial reckoning taking place in America, theologian N. T. Wright stated the following:

The real problem here is that the church has forgotten its vocation. The church’s vocation is to be a place where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male nor female because all are one in Christ Jesus…The church has forgotten that that’s what church life was supposed to be like. And, we thought that as long as we are preaching the gospel and taking people to heaven, we don’t need to worry too much about what happens down here, because that is just social work or table manners or something. And I want to say, “Absolutely not!”…Who you sit down and have fellowship with is a sign of whether you really believe that on the cross Jesus won the victory over all the powers of darkness or not.*

We should note that unity does not mean uniformity. Like the Triune God, the church is meant to experience diversity in unity. Our churches should be places where everyone belongs, and every story is valued. Like Jesus, we should actively resist prejudice and systems that promote injustice because these things disrupt unity. At the same time, we must be humble enough to admit that we have a lot to learn about those with different backgrounds. We may have to educate ourselves on the stories of others and how to have challenging conversations. It will not be easy, but isn’t that what we have been called to do? As followers of Christ, we should ask ourselves, “Am I making every effort to promote unity? Is my congregation?” Realizing we cannot perfectly promote unity, are we dedicated to trying to do our part with the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit? Are we seeking relationships with others so we can be changed by their story? Do we value the mutual humanity in those with whom we disagree?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I cannot tell you in a single sermon how we heal our society’s divisions. However, what I can do is remind you that Jesus is Lord, and he is still on his throne. I can tell you that he has been given a name that is above every name, including racism, sexism, and every other ism you could imagine. I know enough to say that Christ has taken the responsibility to unite humanity upon himself, and he cannot fail. I can let you know that Christ can heal all wounds.  He sacrificed all, even his very life, to make us well. And I am a witness that he is not blind to our problems and even now is working to bring an end to all suffering.

When faced with a fractured church, Paul reminded them of their unity in Christ. He reminded them that Christ has empowered and equipped the church to participate in his work to bring unity to all humanity. Paul’s message to the church in Ephesus is still relevant for us today. I pray we do not lose hope. I pray our hearts do not grow cold. I pray that we roll up our sleeves and join Jesus in making peace and unity.

*Dr. N. T. Wright in an interview with Way Nation on June 27, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBShzeTy_Xg

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-families/you-are-no-longer-my-mother-a-divided-america-will-struggle-to-heal-after-trump-era-idUSKBN27I16E

Sermon for August 8, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3037 | Under the Broom Tree

Broom trees or similar desert shrubs show up at pivotal moments throughout the Old Testament. They usually provide shade and relief in places known for being barren lands and having unrelenting heat. Have you experienced dessert seasons in your life? Take some time to reflect on the ways God has sustained you during these difficult times. Rest in the provision he is casting over your life.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3037 | Under the Broom Tree
Greg Williams

This is a broom tree. Solitary shrubs like this grew all over the desert in biblical times—rugged, resourceful plants that shot their roots deep into the unforgiving dry soil. 1 King 19 tells the story of Elijah, who—after defeating the prophets of Baal and prophesying rain after a drought—had his life threatened by the corrupt queen Jezebel.

Exhausted and on the run, Elijah collapses under a broom tree to rest.

Broom trees or similar desert shrubs show up at pivotal moments throughout the Old Testament. Job describes the broom tree as a place of desolation and ruin. The psalmist connects the broom tree with punishment. Hagar leaves her son under a shrub to die in Genesis 21— after being exiled by Abraham.

The broom tree, like the desert where it’s found, is associated with loss, emptiness, and being exhausted of our resources, and… with hearing the voice of God

Elijah slept on the uncomfortable rocks and woke up to the smell of bread cooking. Notice the passage:

And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”
1 Kings 19:5-7 (ESV)

Under the broom tree—a place associated with waste and desolation, when he was at the end of his rope—Elijah gets the sustenance he needs.

How often has God met you at the end of your rope? How often has God met us in the shade of the broom tree?

Sometimes it is when we’re stripped of the strength of our defense mechanisms, that God leads and guides us the most clearly. It was when Elijah had virtually given up that God spoke to him with a “still, small voice?” He often speaks to us in a similar fashion. We expect the booming voice, but he often comes with that still small voice—that often sounds like the voice of a spouse, friend, or confidante.

Are you in the desert today? Are you taking shade wherever you can, even under a scrubby rough broom tree because that’s all that’s there?

Look for the messengers of God who bring you sustenance in this time. God fed Elijah with ravens and angels. Who are your angels and ravens today?

Maybe that old friend who calls you out of nowhere. Maybe kids or grandkids who bring their own oblivious joy. Maybe a verse from scripture that reminds you of God’s love and plan.

God is sending you sustenance. He knows what you need. And he sees you, even under the broom tree.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 130:1-8 • 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 • Ephesians 4:25-5:2 • John 6:25, 41-51

The theme for this week is the God who restores. The call to worship Psalm is a cry out to God, waiting for his restoration. 2 Samuel 18 tells us about how David is brought back to kindness and mercy, even while mourning for his rebellious son. John 6 is about Jesus, who steps into the metaphor of the bread of life who sustains and restored Israel, and now restores us. Our sermon is on Ephesians 4. Paul gives us part of what it means to live as people being restored into the image of Christ.

Listening to That Other Voice

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 ESV

We’ve all been through transitions. Some of them were scary, some exciting, some disappointing, but all of us went through them. Think about that moment—the first time you put on your Army fatigues and crawled into that creaky bunk. That first job when you learned the sales pitch, how your feet ached when you stood at the register for eight hours that first day. How it sounds in a dorm room on the first night, all the other freshman there just as scared as you.

This is a good moment to share a life transition story of your own.

 “Change is the only constant,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Maybe he overstated the case, but transition is everywhere in life. You have to get used to new landscapes, new habits, languages, even new smells. We all know the rough feeling of unfamiliar clothing and (hopefully) the rush of confidence when you’re able to navigate that new space.

Paul writes about that period of transition in our lives as God’s people. He talks about dropping the old self and putting on the new self. The old is corrupted by sin—its perspectives and motives are stained. The new is being shaped into the image of Christ, showing the buds of the fruits of the Spirit.

This is a huge theme for Paul, appearing throughout his writing. Be who you are. Be how you are now in Christ. It hinges on identity—not on trying to buy God off with good behavior, not in trying to be good because you “just should,” but in acting out of who you are as a person in Christ.

He’s fully aware that the transition is a process. Paul isn’t under the illusion that you flip a switch and become Christlike. He just presents us with the tools and coordinates of what it is like to live in the new country.

The common critique we hear in the modern world is that the Bible is full of “dos and don’ts,” or that the Bible is just fancy moralizing and as tiring as any other motivational speech. With even a short study, this assessment is obviously untrue, and the only time Paul gets close is in a passage like this.

His object and his approach are more three-dimensional than simple moralizing. He gives not just what but why, and not just behaviors but the logic behind them.

We can orient ourselves a little before our passage today when Paul addresses the Ephesians directly.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. (Ephesians 4:17 ESV)

There’s a subtle detail here that we can miss easily. The Ephesians were decidedly a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience. Why would Paul address them this way?

He seems to be calling them no longer Gentiles, and they aren’t Israelites; they are something different; we are something different. We are God’s people, and our identity has shifted.

Our passage begins with a discussion of this resurrection identity in more detail.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:25 ESV)

Members of one another. This is discussion of a new identity. Paul doesn’t just come out wagging his finger—he tells them the reason behind it.

We are family now—dependent on one another, connected in relationship. We don’t lie to each other because of that connection. This is part of what means to be in Christ.

Paul is not just saying, “You’re a Christian now, this is what you do.” He is saying: “This is who you are.”

He lays this out as our new identity as we go through the transition to Christlikeness. We don’t earn our way there—it’s true from the beginning. He calls us to live out of that reality.

Think of that transition in your own life. In the American military, your name is changed as soon as you come in. You’re called by your rank and then, even more generally, you’re called “soldier,” “airman,” or “sailor,” depending on which branch you’re in.

It’s an identity given that you grow into—through rugged training, intensive education and just plain time, you become who you are as a soldier. In the same way, we are given our status as Christ’s family members and we grow into it from there.

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:28-29 ESV)

Paul also goes from resurrection identity into what we might call resurrection action. The two concepts build on each other.

First though, it’s important to note that Paul doesn’t just tell them a blanket “don’t.” Aiming simply to not do something often doesn’t work—our psychology has nothing to wrap itself around.

Ask anyone in recovery from addiction. If an alcoholic sits around the house just trying not to drink, failure is usually close at hand. In 12-step recovery, going to Alcoholics Anonymous or other meetings is a replacement behavior for the bad habits and hangouts that used to lead to drinking.

Early in the program, a participant might even do “90 in 90”—ninety AA meetings over as many days to give structure and alternative activity to their life. We need something to aim at, not simply to aim away from.

So Paul sets out this ideal, based on kingdom logic. The thief will become the giver; gossip and insult will turn to encouragement. Because the “we” are one family and connected, we no longer steal from each other because it is like stealing from the self. Because we are part of bringing in God’s kingdom, we use our words to build up rather than tear down; we don’t waste words in crassness and blasphemy.

Sometime later in a 12-step program, participants will get involved in “service work.” This involves volunteering time and work for the joy of giving without any thought of compensation. In giving freely, the addict participates in joy and spontaneity rather than in the gloomy self-focus of indulging an addiction.

Instead of focusing just on what we shouldn’t do, Paul focuses on what we should do. He talks about resurrection action, which is possible only when the resurrected Lord is in charge.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30 ESV)

The conversation here goes back to identity. In ancient times, royalty would put their seal or stamp on something that was theirs. In their physical absence, their seal symbolized their presence, and the penalty for breaking or ignoring a seal was severe.

God’s seal on us is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in our hearts, shaping us into his image and changing us, is the seal that we are his, no matter what. We are in the “time between the times” waiting for that day of redemption. This arrangement is temporary, but our future is sealed, taken care of, guaranteed.

C.S. Lewis describes well this intermediate moment where we find ourselves as children of God who are learning to act like it by the power of the Spirit. He writes:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind. (Mere Christianity)

Listening to that other voice—that inner voice that calls us to resurrection identity and action.

Experienced saints can attest to this. Allowing God into those spaces of our lives that are desolate and gloomy has some uncanny results. You find yourself with sudden patience for that difficult coworker. You find strength to resist old temptations and awareness of your own self-centeredness and distraction. You find echoes of an inner peace in the noisiness of modern life.

I say “allowing” only as a placeholder. Hang around Jesus and you’ll find he quits asking permission. He starts to change you and awaken you where you didn’t even know you were sleeping.

Ignatius of Loyola is an interesting example. A decorated 16th century Spanish soldier, he was once severely injured by a cannonball. After a brutal process of setting bones without anesthetic, his leg finally healed, but at a strange angle that didn’t allow him to look as good he wanted in his ornamental outfits.

He ordered his leg re-broken and reset so he could walk without a limp and look striking in his soldier’s boots. As he recuperated, he started reading the sacred books at the hospital because that was all they had. He found that reading about the lives of the saints and about Jesus gave him a joy and satisfaction that his own dreams of fame and glory never gave.

Slowly, he began “listening to that other voice.” As his leg healed from the break, his spirit began to heal from its vanity. He finally left the place he was convalescing, still walking with a limp, and went on to become one of the greatest saints in European history.

The absurd insatiably of his ego led him to literally break bones and risk his own life in medical procedures. It was only in that dark place that he began to finally hear that other voice calling him away from the cruelest god of all: the self.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV)

This section from Paul ends where it began. Why do all these things? Why join in the struggle to listen to that other voice? Because you are beloved children.

You don’t do this and that to become beloved children, to someday obtain this coveted status. You act like children of God because you are children of God in Christ. Your royal status is where it starts. The next step, as Paul says, is to be who you are and imitate the one who made you who you are.

Conversion is a lifelong process. In our modern emphasis on just the initial decision to “get saved,” we miss out on this journey sometimes. The truth is it takes a lifetime to soften hearts, shed favorite habits and embrace our resurrection identity.  But Jesus is that “other voice” that calls us, not with bland moralizing but with invitation, to the best life, the freest life and life as it was meant to be.

Sermon for August 15, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3038 | The Comfort and Connection of Bread

Research shows that breadmaking offers stress relief and a means of self-expression. When the final product is shared with others, it becomes a way to connect with them, even at a distance. This describes Jesus as our bread of life, the one who sustains, comforts, and connects us with God and one another!

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3038 | The Comfort and Connection of Bread
Michelle Fleming

During the early days of the pandemic last year, one surprising trend was the number of people who turned to breadmaking—to the point that yeast and flour were in short supply. Some news organizations asked people why they chose breadmaking, and some responded that since they were working from home, not only did they now have the time, but it was also something they always wanted to try. Others said it gave them a sense of control in a seemingly out-of-control situation.

For some people, breaking bread during the pandemic was a way to comfort themselves and others. Research documents how breadmaking offers stress relief and a means of self-expression, and when the final product is shared, it becomes a way to connect with others, even at a distance. Some say that making bread connects them to past generations, and they bake to honor the memory of grandmothers and great-grandmothers who also faced challenges.

Bread has also played an important part in Christianity. Most are familiar with the symbols of the wine and the bread and their connection with Jesus, but Jesus introduced himself as the bread of life before he instituted the Lord’s Supper. Let’s look at what Jesus said in John 6.

 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.
John 6:51, 53-58 (ESV)

This was a hard saying for some, who initially did not understand the
down-to-earth metaphor Jesus was giving helping us understand our need for him for a sustained life. Just like our need for food and drink to live physically, we need Jesus to live spiritually and in relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit. In the same way we consume food, making it part of our body and bones, so we must take and consume Jesus. By “making a meal” of Jesus, we join him in our pathway through the world, knowing we are always in him, just as he is in us. We recognize that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and we can live joyously even in the most difficult circumstances. Consuming “living bread” brings us comfort by reminding us of our connection with God and other human beings.

Bread and breadmaking comfort, nourish, and connect us, and Jesus knew this when he said he was the “living bread.” Human activities like breadmaking remind us of our need for a nourishing connection with God and each other.

May you take in the “living bread” and live fully alive, knowing Jesus is always with you.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

For Reference:

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/people-explain-why-baked-bread-quarantine_l_5ec73570c5b6698f38f5035c

https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/stress-baking-and-the-comfort-of-connection

https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/09/health/bread-baking-health-benefits-coronavirus-wellness/index.html

Psalm 111:1-10 · 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 · John 6:51-58 · Ephesians 5:15-20

The theme for this week is wise choices and the well-lived life. The call to worship Psalm expands on how developing “the fear of the Lord” includes a healthy dose of gratitude as part of a well-lived life. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, rather than long life or riches, is detailed in 1 Kings 2. In John, Jesus, the Bread of Life, explains how the sacrament of Communion nourishes us with its symbolism about the bread and the way that Christ dwells in us, becomes part of us, and guides our lives, enabling us to astutely move through the world. Our sermon text comes from Ephesians 5, where Paul exhorts us to spend our time carefully considering the choices and opportunities before us, using prayer and gratitude to tune into God’s guidance.

Choose Wisely

Ephesians 5:15-20

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day features actor Bill Murray as TV weatherman Phil Connors who becomes snowbound in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day. If that weren’t bad enough, he becomes caught in a time loop where he repeats Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) over and over. The original script for the movie indicated that Phil was caught in the time loop for 10,000 years, but later director Harold Ramis said it was probably 10 years. You might be wondering why Phil Connors would need to remake his choices over and over for ten years. At the beginning of the film, Phil is a narcissist, intent only on serving himself, but after he experiences the negative consequences of his choices (not once, but many times), he begins to modify his behavior and make better choices.

As he relives Feb. 2 again and again, Phil begins to care about the people of Punxsutawney, and he averts a number of disasters (because he knows they are going to happen) to keep them safe. For example, in an early scene, a child falls out of a tree and breaks his leg. After that, Phil Connors manages to be under the tree to catch the boy at just the right time. In another scene, a man chokes on a piece of steak in a diner, and Phil makes sure he is present right then to save the man by performing the Heimlich maneuver. As Phil’s choices become less self-centered and more focused on helping others, he changes, ultimately breaking the “Groundhog Day curse” and moving on to Feb. 3.

Having the power to make choices is God’s plan for humanity. Free will or free moral agency gives us the ability to choose to love God or not. We remember verses like Deuteronomy 30:19, where life and death have been placed before us, and while most of our choices don’t directly seem to lead to either of those, we recognize that our choices have consequences. The consequences of those choices can be blessings or can feel like curses we put on ourselves or others. In the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul talks about carefully considering the choices we make. Let’s look at the text.

 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20 NRSV)

What can we notice about this passage?

  • The theme of the passage contrasts wisdom and foolishness. Other themes earlier in the fifth chapter include love vs. lust and light vs. darkness. Bible writers used this technique, called antithetical parallelism, to grab readers’ attention, much like advertising today sometimes relies on exaggerations or extremes to gain an audience.
  • In the Message translation, verse 16 says, “So watch your step. Use your head.” Paul is making it clear that we’re to carefully consider our choices. We’re encouraged to consider how we spend our time. “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” reminds us that we are presented with opportunities, both for good and evil, and we must choose properly by thinking through the implications of what we do.

Human decision-making is easily influenced. Psychology Today reports that making decisions comes from “the interactions between reflection and emotion.” As you might think, the emotional aspect is more spontaneous and doesn’t always consider the consequences of a choice while the reflective side tempers that, if given adequate time and thought. One example of this is the way our emotional side wants dessert, but our reflective side knows that dessert might not help us meet our health goals. Because the emotional brain tends to dominate and “flood” our consciousness, we don’t always understand why we do the things we do. Becoming more aware of how our choices can be driven by emotion helps us take extra time to allow our reflective side to consider the consequences more carefully.

  • 18-20 – We’re encouraged not to drink too much alcohol, as it leads to an overindulgence in pleasing the self in sensual pleasures. This cheapens our life, impairing our judgment, leading us to making unwise decisions and even affecting our speech. Perhaps more importantly, it cheapens our view of ourselves and others.

However, drinking too much is not the only way to think less of ourselves and others. Lacking empathy for others or ourselves creates judgmental attitudes that devalue human beings, forgetting that we are created in God’s image. Refusing to be open to new information that might change our opinions is another way we fuel judgmental attitudes that generate feelings of superiority and create division between people.

  • Instead, verse 19 says to be filled with the Holy Spirit—drink deeply of all that Jesus is and what he gives to us. Sing hymns and praises, making melody in our heart for the Lord. The implication is that being in tune with the Holy Spirit guides our choices and creates thanksgiving and joy. We treasure creation and have eyes wide open to see the goodness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in our ordinary circumstances. We offer thanksgiving and praise (v. 20) “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

These verses encourage us to show our reverence for what God has given us: the breath of life, each other, and time on Earth. What we do and how we live is how we honor God. Numbing ourselves—with alcohol, lack of empathy, or selfishness—limits our ability to experience the fullness of life filled with the Holy Spirit.

Application:

  • Carefully consider the consequences of your choices, understanding how easily human beings are driven by emotions. This may mean pausing and taking a deep breath before responding in a heated conversation, or telling someone you’ll get back to them with a decision so you have time to think about it.
  • Prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. This will take the shape of contemplative prayer, which is more of an unveiling than a list of requests. Asking for wisdom, insight, and loving kindness for all keeps the focus on the ultimate outcome of any decision you make rather than the individual steps needed to get there.
  • Become aware of how you might “cheapen” your own life or others’ lives. Though drinking too much alcohol might not be an issue, a lack of empathy, kindness, and acceptance of yourself or others rejects the Imago Dei (“image of God”) in each of us. Notice attitudes of comparing yourself with others (Galatians 6:4-6), and strive to remember God’s unconditional love for all.
  • Incorporate gratitude for God’s presence in our lives. Recognize ordinary joys, like your morning coffee or tea, a warm bath, or the smile of a loved one. Offer praise to God each day for what’s bringing a smile to your face.

This passage invites us to think deeply about our choices and how we might exercise our God-given right to free will in the most loving way. Too often we make our decisions hastily, without taking the time to consider the consequences, pray for wisdom, or notice the blessings around us. We forget that our emotions can push us to make choices without considering the consequences. However, we don’t need to be trapped making the same poor choices over and over, like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Careful consideration of consequences, prayer, self-awareness, and gratitude help us enjoy this God-given gift of life.

For Reference:

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/04/groundhog-day-horror-movie-quarantine/610867/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107048/trivia

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201705/who-is-actually-in-charge-when-we-make-decisions

Sermon for August 22, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3039 | The Songs of Home

Did you have a memorable family trip while you were growing up? If you were to journey those familiar roads, the sights may take you back to a different season of your life and perhaps bring comfort and hope. Church practices of prayers, praise, and communion can be familiar roads for us, pointing our hearts and minds to God’s faithfulness and the hope we have in him.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3039 | The Songs of Home
Greg Williams

Did you have a trip your family took while you were growing up? Maybe to visit relatives across the country? Or maybe back to a parent’s hometown? Or that one resort or beach town you visited every year without fail?

You develop a certain routine. You might stop at the same hamburger joint, like Melvin’s in Elizabethtown on the way to White Lake, North Carolina. You may fill your car with gas at the same Scotchman service station because you know they have the cheapest prices. You get a feel for the landmarks—the DuPont Plant, the Smithfield pork processing plant, the bridge across the mighty Cape Fear River, and the bait shop right before you enter the FFA Camp at White Lake.  If your kids are young, you might pass the time by playing “I-spy” or singing songs. Our kids still remember that Susan and I would count the cows in the fields on our side of the car riding through the country.

The Israelites had similar travel customs and traditions. Israelites wore a groove between their homes and the temple, making the trip several times during their lives, and they would often sing psalms as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Psalm 84 was one they traditionally sang.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
Psalm 84:10 (ESV)

This song might be sung several times along the way, ringing the theme that they were headed to God’s courts. With rising joy as they approached the familiar destination, they would reiterate their central story as God’s people.

Stop for a second and think about this: The Son of God probably sang this song as a kid. Joseph and Mary most likely sang this song as they traveled to the temple to have him dedicated when he was twelve. Some of the first sounds he would remember on earth were these hopeful words over and over:

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3 (ESV)

These were songs of comfort and longing, songs of home.

We still sing these songs and similar songs as we tell these stories today, as we are on our own pilgrimage. We are not all the way home yet, we are not fully at rest; we are still on the journey.

Jesus journeyed. He knew the fatigue and boredom that would occasionally arise, but he also knew the excitement of traveling with family. And that’s the key. We are the family of God, still on that journey. The blessing is that Jesus journeys with us; he walks with us and he sings with us the songs of his home.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 84:1-12 • 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 • Ephesians 6:10-20 • John 6:56-69

The theme for this week is God’s romance with us. The call to worship Psalm talks about being in God’s loving presence (“courts”) better than being anywhere on earth. 1 Kings tells the early story of this romance, the ancient memories of the Ark of Covenant and God’s covenant people. John 6 is the strange and beautiful story of Jesus being with us and uniting himself with us at the Lord’s supper. Our sermon is from Ephesians 6, the story of us taking on our Lover’s armor, which he took on first for us.

The Second-Hand Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20

One of the runaway hits of 2021 is the Disney series The Mandalorian. This science-fiction saga set in the Star Wars universe follows the nearly silent Mandalorian bounty hunter on his adventures through space.

This warrior strikes quite an image, and the first thing you notice is his iconic armor. Made of a mysterious indestructible metal, the suit is one of the main keys to his success in battle. It’s hundreds of years old and forged by artisans who learned the esoteric trade through the centuries.

The Mandalorian never removes his armor.

In the end of Ephesians, Paul gives us his iconic armor image by describing the full armor of God. The belt, the breastplate, the shield, the boots and of course the sword have made their way into Christian imagery for centuries, from dynamic art to cheesy plastic costumes. This is our tradition as Christians, to suit up in this armor—millennia old—not just when the armor is needed but, like the Star Wars soldier, as a way of life.

There’s been plenty of misuse of this kind language on the Bible. We’ve been too fast to interpret this as “us versus them” when we think of people outside of the faith. At worst, people have committed violent acts claiming they are in the Lord’s army and doing his will. Think of those who blow up abortion clinics claiming they are doing God’s work.

How do we approach this passage from Paul responsibly? How does it resonate with us in a digital age where wars are fought by drones? What does it mean to wear God’s armor not as art of battle but, like the Mandalorian, as a part of daily life?

Let’s look at three realities about the armor of God that we can pick up from Paul’s famous passage.

Armor Reality #1: It’s not who you think

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:11-13 ESV)

In Paul’s day and all through Jesus’ life, the question was always when would Israel be restored to power? They had been perpetually conquered and persecuted. Their latest ruler, Rome, was the superpower of the ancient world. They believed the Messiah would be the conquering king who would drive Rome out. Paul speaks to that sentiment here.

He reminds them the problems are further upstream, so to say. This is an evil much deeper and older (and smarter) than Rome. Dark spiritual forces are at work—Satan and all that comes with him. This evil is worse than tyranny because it’s the reason tyranny exists.

So instead of the fight against your neighbors, Paul is talking about who the real enemy is. Satan’s campaign to destroy humanity in subtle, insidious ways is not a military battle but a centuries-long war.

The weapons he recommends—truth, righteousness, salvation, peace—are the way to true victory. Our worldly weapons of power, intrigue and violence are no match for the strength of true armor. They will fall away and burn themselves out, but the metal (and mettle) of the kingdom is indestructible.

In our own time, we fall into our own “flesh and blood” distractions from where the true enemy resides. As the age of faith passes from much of the world’s culture, we Christians find ourselves with a lot less influence. We panic. We fixate on a political candidate to either hate or venerate as a savior. We judge celebrities harshly, wagging our heads as if they are the only thing going wrong in the world. Or we get angry and react with Islamophobia, homophobia and other bigotry rather than showing love, even to those we disagree with.

As we fixate on the flesh and blood in front of us, we lose sight of the bigger picture—standing firm in God’s power while he builds his kingdom through us. This brings us to reality number two.

Armor Reality #2: It’s primarily defensive

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:13-17 ESV)

Growing up in Sunday School in the last few decades, you may have heard the song “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Going through various military images, the song crescendos with “I’m in the Lord’s Army! Yes sir!” The song itself, like every other Sunday kids’ tune, is as harmless as it is tedious, but it can point to an unhelpful sentiment.

We begin to see ourselves as aggressive and anti-, as if we are the “all the way good” guys against the “all the way bad” guys. The reality, vividly woven from Genesis to Revelation, is that we’re all equally “lost guys” who need help. Author Donald Miller put it well: “Jesus taught that we are all bad and He is good, and He wants to rescue us because there is a war going on and we are hostages in that war.”

So the armor that Paul gives us is primarily defensive—it’s mainly about standing firm and remaining standing through the onslaught of whatever our enemy (see above) comes up with. Let’s look at each piece of armor:

  • The Belt of Truth

The gospel never claims to give us only an exciting new perspective or a dynamic three-step scheme—it claims to give us the truth with a capital T. The gospel is the bedrock truth about the universe that holds it all together; Jesus is the quantum equation that sums it all up.

Not only do “church realities” of theology and religious practice make sense in the gospel, but all realities—science, history, art, music, psychology and astrophysics—come together in the truth of Jesus. This belt of truth holds everything together, and when we are assailed by temptations to sin or despair, holding on to that truth keeps us from falling apart.

Again, is this a command from Paul to go pick fights and squabbles? Is Paul telling us to beat people over the head with this truth until they acquiesce? No. Absolutely, we will stand for truth when necessary, but this is not a call to come out with an angry, judgmental voice—which is really just a vent for our own rage—and call it God’s work.

A belt does what it does, holds things in place, holds things together.

  • The Breastplate of Righteousness

This word encompasses more than just virtue or ethics, although those things are important. It also speaks to the historical reality of God putting the world to “rights” – reforming and reconciling and one day completing the process. God vindicated Jesus through the resurrection, set all to “rights” even though Jesus was burdened with all our sin, and he put us to rights as well within him.

This Christian status of “being in the right” before God is the breastplate we need to have firmly in place. The devil’s assaults are rarely the kind of theatrics we might see in a movie like The Exorcist. He’s much more likely to whisper garbage to you like “You aren’t good enough” or “You won’t make it” or “You aren’t loved, so numb yourself with this work/sex/drug/entertainment addiction.” One of his main weapons is to remind us of our insignificance.

The breastplate we need in place is that we are loved, accepted, and set to rights before God in Christ. We are part of the legacy and family of salvation that began with Israel and will one day end when Jesus returns.

  • Shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace

Again, standing firm. The “peace that passes understanding” that we have access to as God’s children gives us strength to stand ready through battle. When you’re at peace, you are prepared. Much of martial arts and other kinds of hand-to-hand combat is about stance, having your feet in the right place, and everything else follows.

  • Shield of Faith

The “flaming darts” of the enemy take all shapes and forms—everything from the temptation to despair, to slip into entangling sin or simply to be so distracted by life that we never grow. Standing against these things is not a matter of putting out every last arrow that comes your way—that will drive you mad, and while you might extinguish one, you are liable to get hit by twenty more.

Your faith in Jesus and loyalty to him is what stands against all of these at once. We don’t try to match arrow-for-arrow in battle—we take shelter behind the shield that will deflect them all.

  • Helmet of Salvation

Keeping the reality of our completed salvation close to us gives us protection. Knowing that the main battle—for our own souls—is completed and won gives us strength to face whatever other skirmish comes our way.

It’s interesting how close the helmet is to the brain. We are continually charged with keeping our minds on things above, taking every thought captive, setting our focus on the realities of the gospel. This is our helmet, which we should always keep in place to protect our minds, and by proxy, our hearts and everything else.

Our last piece of armor, the only offensive weapon, brings us to our final armor reality.

Armor Reality #3: It’s second hand

This armor reality sounds completely strange until we consider the source material for Paul’s famous arsenal.

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:5 ESV)

He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. (Isaiah 49: 2 ESV)

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head. (Isaiah 59:17 ESV)

All of these images, obviously echoed in Paul’s words, most likely describe the coming Messiah. Throughout the OId Testament, this shadowy figure of promise appears, described in superhuman terms, and brings together God’s plan that everything is leading to.

So, in one sense, all this armor belonged and belongs to Jesus first. He is the Messiah figure described in Isaiah, wearing this armor and bringing forth God’s epic plan of salvation. We can wear this armor only because he wears it first.

  • The Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God

Here we get to the only piece of offensive weaponry. The Sword of the Spirit is wielded by Christ; we can only put our hand on it. This does not refer to Scripture when it says “Word of God.” Although this phrase is commonly understood to be Scripture in our time, the Scripture itself wasn’t complete yet when Paul wrote these words; the New Testament hadn’t been completed.

Paul is most likely referring to the “word” in the sense of the gospel word in which God accomplishes his work in us. In short, the “word” here is the gospel itself.

Paul refers to this in the previous chapter, verses 25-26:

…as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. (Ephesians 5:25-26 ESV)

God’s word, in this sense of God’s gospel action, is the sword that slices into the darkness of the world, cleanses hearts and changes lives. If you’ve been on the receiving end of this blade, you know it can be very invasive, cutting out old habits and mindsets and trimming the spiritual fat we all gather over time.

Jesus can use us in the process, wielding us for his purpose as we sharpen each other through encouragement and coaching. He also uses the circumstances of our lives and the truths of the gospel to grow us, transform us and change the world.

Again, we aren’t given an “us versus them,” aggressive image here, but the image of God’s holy work being done in us and through us. We can wear this hand-me-down armor only because it was and is worn by Christ. As we are “in him” we are in his armor as well.

  • It’s not who you think
  • It’s primarily defensive
  • It’s second hand

These are the realities of the armor of God—the counter-intuitive, three-dimensional, second-hand armor of God which is stronger and older than anything the Mandalorian might put on. Our stance is not aggressively chasing down every last “enemy” we may think arises, but holding firm and letting the darts of the true enemy extinguish themselves. Our strength is not in our ingenuity and strategy, but in the faithful, everyday holding of truth in place in our hearts and minds. Our power is not our own, because the armor is not exclusively worn by us.

Sermon for August 29, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3040 | Greeted With Open Arms

Jesus Christ greets us with arms wide open, calling us his beloved, and offering us his embrace. How often do we have our hands full of all kinds of baggage that we believe we need to hold on to? Answer Jesus’ invitation to draw near to him, surrendering our burdens, and experience his full loving embrace.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3040 | Greeted With Open Arms
Heber Ticas

Let me walk you through a common experience I’m sure you can relate to. Just nod when you know what I’m talking about.

You have been away from home all day. Maybe you were working long hours at the office or had a full day at school. Or maybe you are returning from a long trip out of town. You gather your things and walk up to the door. Your hands are full. Maybe you are carrying grocery bags in each arm, or perhaps both hands are grasping schoolbooks or luggage. When you are greeted at the door by someone who loves you. Maybe it’s your wife or husband or a parent or a friend. They are smiling with joy to see you and greet you with arms open wide to give you a big hug.

Does this experience sound familiar to you? Or maybe something similar?

As wonderful as it is to be reunited with your loved one, this moment creates a dilemma. The only way to receive that hug is to put away everything you have in your arms.

How we handle this dilemma may tell us something about the relationship. Some may see the hug as an unwelcome hindrance and just walk by. Others may try to negotiate a better time by awkwardly walking around trying to take care of their stuff first. Then there are those who will try to hold on to their baggage while being hugged at the same time. If you have ever done that you know you have settled for the person hugging your baggage instead of you.

But then there are those who drop their bags immediately at the feet of their beloved in order to receive a full embrace.

In a similar way, we could use this to mirror our relationship to our heavenly Father. He greets us in Jesus Christ with arms wide open, calling us his beloved and offering us his embrace. How often do we have our hands full of all kinds of baggage that we believe we need to hold on to? But there’s the good news: as we come to know God as the one who truly loves us and is for us, we begin to relax our grip on everything that prevents us from receiving his embrace.

The Apostle James tells us that we cannot receive what God has for us without putting away our “baggage.”

“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” 
James 1:21 (ESV)

If you are feeling homesick and burdened by the baggage that’s weighing you down if you need to feel that loving embrace, hear God’s word to you today. You are his beloved made to be wrapped up in his embrace. He stands before you in Jesus Christ with arms wide open. Step right into that embrace and feel the love he wants to give you.

Mi nombre es Heber Ticas, Hablando de Vida.
(My name is Heber Ticas, Speaking of Life.)

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 • Song of Solomon 2:8-13 • James 1:17-27 • Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week’s theme is receiving God’s Word. The call to worship Psalm and the passage from Song of Solomon paint in lavish terms a relationship of lovers attuned to one another’s voice, and point to how we build relationship by hearing and responding to God’s voice. The reading from James displays the generosity of the Father whose words of salvation can be received as a blessing flowing from a trust relationship with him. The Gospel reading presents Jesus as the Word to listen to over and against the traditional interpretations aimed at avoiding the purposes of the law.

Do Not Be Deceived

James 1:16-27 (ESV)

Begin by reading James 1:16-27 ESV.

As we get into our text today, it is important to remember why James is writing this letter. Primarily, James is writing to encourage a church that is going through various trials. Are you going through “various” trials? If so, this letter is also written for you. What James says to us in these verses today is not a simplistic platitude to make us feel better. James is grounded in a reality that puts our trials into a proper perspective. When it comes to trials, small or great, a reminder of what is true is very important. Notice how James addresses his church in the face of trials. He does not tell them to get over it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He does not blame them for their situation and guilt them to change some behavior. He also does not tell them to “turn that frown upside down” or encourage them with some form of “positive thinking.” No, what James does is to remind his beloved church of who God is and who they are in relationship to him. We all need people in our lives who will come alongside of us during our challenges and trials to remind us of the reality we see in Jesus Christ. Today, that person is James, the author of this letter that the Holy Spirit has inspired to be preserved for you and me.

Leading up to our reading today, we find that trials and temptations are closely linked. When our circumstances seem to turn against us, we may be tempted to believe that God has turned against us as well. The temptation James wants to warn against is the temptation to stop trusting in God and to place our trust elsewhere. When trials come our way, there is a temptation to doubt God’s character. Giving in to this temptation will have dire consequences. So, James begins our section today with a warning against being deceived. That is the danger that comes along with trials. We can be deceived into falsely believing that God is not faithful to us, that he is not good and is not for us. So, James is emphatic:

Do not be deceived, my beloved. (James 1:16 ESV)

James is not just softening his statement here; he seems to be reminding them of who they are in relationship to God as his “beloved.” That is ultimately what we are tempted to doubt when trials come upon us. We may be tempted to believe that we are no longer loved, or maybe that we never were loved in the first place. This is a very powerful deception that James sees will grow and lead to death (James 1:15).

After James warns his readers about being deceived, he then goes on to remind them of the truth. Verses 17 and 18 offer a rich reminder of who the Father is. This truth buffers us against the deception that God is not the faithful, loving God of grace that we see in Jesus Christ. In these two verses James reminds us of God’s character and his purposes for us.

In verse 17 James seeks to build our faith by reminding us of the Father’s unchanging character.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17 ESV)

What an amazing insight James has given us here.

  • First, God is a “generous” giver. He does not give begrudgingly or with strings attached. Have you ever been given a gift by someone you know was only given to obligate you in the future? We may be tempted to think this is how the Father is towards us as well. But James is clear that this is not how our Father gives. His giving flows out of who he is as a generous giver.
  • Second, James lets us know that “every” good gift is from the Father. James is emphasizing the inclusivity of all the good that comes our way. Think of some good things that have been given to you. How often do we attribute these good things to luck or chance? Or maybe we attribute it to our own skill and cleverness or hard work. We may be tempted to think that it is not a gift but something we have earned. Like the scene in “The Simpsons” when Bart was asked to say the dinner blessing: “Dear God, we paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” When trials come our way, we may be tempted to believe that God is not a generous giver. We may think the bill has come due or perhaps we just need to work harder for God’s blessings.
  • Third, James does not want us to be deceived about the gifts the Father gives. His gifts are good and perfect. The goodness of the gift means it is intrinsically good whether we know it or not. His gifts are perfect, meaning they are complete and not lacking.
  • Fourth, all these good and perfect gifts come down from “the Father of lights.” James lets us know with this description that there is no dark side to God’s giving. God does not trick us with gag gifts. Even in times of trouble we can depend on God to give us his very best, exactly what we need in our time of trouble. We may not always know what that is, and we may even confuse some of his gifts as contrary to what we need, but we can trust that he will be faithful to his generous heart towards us. After all, this is who he is, and he does not change like shifting shadows that distort reality. Have you ever mistaken a shadow for something that was not real? We don’t have to worry about that happening with our Father of lights.

After James establishes God’s character in this way, he then tells us in verse 18 about the Father’s purposes for us.

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18 ESV)

It’s good to remember that God’s gifts and his purposes for us are not opposed. If you were to give ice cream to your kids for breakfast everyday, your “gift” of ice cream would not fit the purpose of raising healthy kids. We can trust that God’s gifts contribute to his purpose for us. We may want ice cream for breakfast every day, but that would not be a fitting gift from a Father who loves us towards the good and perfect purposes he has for us. Let’s take a closer look at what James is telling us about the Father’s purposes for us:

  • First, notice the intimate language of our origin. It was God’s will, his desire to bring us forth. Even the word translated as “brought forth” refers to conception and birth. You are not an accident, but you are a deliberate choice of the Father. He didn’t have to bring us forth—he wanted to. We may not feel like that during a difficult trial, but we can trust that God is as intimately involved in our situation as he was in our creation. In fact, he is more concerned about us than we are of ourselves.
  • Second, James lets us know that we are brought forth by “the word of truth.” This takes us back to Genesis, where God’s speaking is our beginning. And what’s more, this “word” that spoke us into existence is a “true” word. Our beginning is not from a false word of deception but from the depths of reality itself. You never have to doubt if you should have been born. God wanted you, and that is the rock bottom truth of it.
  • Third, our “being brought forth” has a further purpose of being “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The Old Testament’s understanding of “firstfruits” meant the best, or the “cream of the crop.” God created us to be the pinnacle and crown of his creation. This is what God is up to and this is the very good and perfect gift he is giving us in Jesus Christ. God is faithful in completing the good and perfect work in us as the gift he refuses to rescind. The only thing that will keep us from God’s good and perfect gift is being deceived not to receive them.

So, you can see why James is adamant in telling us not to be deceived. Our trials can be used to whisper lies into our ear that we are not loved, that we do not matter and that we have no future. Don’t believe it! Remember who God is and who you are in relationship to him. In doing so we will be in a better place to receive all the good and perfect gifts God is giving us as he brings us to completion even during our times of trial.

In light of what James has said about who God is and what his good purposes are toward us, he now goes on to encourage his readers to receive what God is giving. And he begins doing this by once again referring to them according to the reality of who they are in relationships with God:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:19-25 ESV)

Again, his address to them reflects the reality of who they are—beloved brothers. This reality also has implications of who they are in relationship with one another. Their “beloved” status unifies them together as “brothers,” which, rightly understood, includes both male and female. James addresses them as fellow brothers and sisters, for that is his true relationship with them. Knowing who we are in Christ, and therefore who we are in relationship with each other, will change how we address one another. We belong together in the same family as beloved children of our Father of lights.

With this address, James then encourages us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” These three commands are not detached from what James has been saying. He is not digressing into a different topic on effective communication or conflict management. He is telling us how we can respond and receive what our generous God is giving us in our times of trial.

  • Quick to hear: This first command might lead to the question, “hear what?” Looking further in our passage gives us the answer. James is going to refer to “the word” three times. He tells us to receive “the implanted word,” as well as to be “doers of the word” and not just a “hearer of the word.” He is not focused on just being good listeners to one another for the sake of good communication, as true as that may be. He is pointing us deeper to listening to God’s word spoken to us. This is the word we need to hear in our trials. This is the word that will guard us from being deceived. This is the word we are told to receive.
  • Slow to speak: This naturally follows the first command. Notice he doesn’t tell us “not” to speak but to be “slow to speak.” Why is that? Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is not listening but just trying to find a pause in the conversation so they can get their own word in? It can be frustrating. That’s not really a conversation but more like parallel monologues. When we speak without first listening and understanding what the other person is saying, our words become disconnected from that person. Our speaking will not reflect or take into account what the other person has said. If James is telling us primarily to hear God’s word to us, then being slow to speak is letting our words first be formed by what we hear. James is telling us to speak only after we receive the “word” we hear from the Father. When we rush to say something to another, or to ourselves, we may want to pause and ask ourselves: “Is this what the Father is saying to you?” When we are under pressure from our trials, we may be tempted to try to control our circumstances with our tongues. We may fear that we need to speak up quickly or things may get worse. But James wants us to know that God is faithful to speak to us his word of truth and life. Out of trust in the Father of lights we can listen to him knowing that he is a “generous giver” who does not hold back his word from us during our times of trial. When we are not deceived about our generous Father who loves us, it becomes easy to obey the command to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” because we will know that the Father is speaking exactly what we need to hear.
  • Slow to anger: The word James chooses for “anger” is not referring to just a momentary loss of temper but rather a continuing and permanent state of opposition. James is warning us to be slow at coming to a place that anger and wrath is our way of handling problems. Anger can consume us and lead us down very destructive paths. I’m sure we can all recall times when we said or did something out of anger that we regretted. This momentary outburst can be very damaging but imagine if this becomes our default way of thinking and behaving. This is where James is cautioning his beloved brothers from arriving. It’s been said that anger may be a good way to identify a problem, but it is never a good way to solve a problem. That is so true and important to remember in times of trial. When we are going through difficult circumstances, we can be tempted to view ourselves as victims who are powerless to better our situation. We will want things to be made right and we will be tempted to try to make it right by words and actions fueled by our wrath. We have seen this approach to trials played out many times in destructive riots and violent protest aimed at setting an injustice right. This is not the approach for a beloved brother or sister. And James gives us the reason to obey this command: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”Biblically speaking, “righteousness” means setting things right. But it is “the righteousness of God” that we need to trust, not our own. We are not very good at knowing what is “righteous” most of the time. God holds the bigger picture of his good purposes for all his children as what determines true “righteousness.” This bigger picture may take more time to come into view than our quick responses of anger will allow. So, we must be “slow to anger,” giving way for God to work his righteousness in and through us as we receive and respond to his word spoken to us. James doesn’t say we should never be angry. There can be a “righteous” anger but even this anger is not how God sets things right. It may point to an injustice and sin that needs to be set right, but it does not provide the means to that end. Only God can do that.

With these three commands James is pointing us in a direction where we place our trust in the Father rather than in ourselves. When we use our tongues and anger to gain control during trials we are being deceived into believing that the Father is not faithful to us during difficult times. We are deceived to grasp our own identities and “righteousness” rather than hearing and receiving what the Father is saying and giving. We are created to flourish by hearing God’s word spoken in Jesus rather than our own voice spoken in anger. In light of this James connects the rest of the passage with “therefore.” James is going to fill out more fully what it looks like to be “quick to hear.”

Being quick to hear also includes getting rid of anything that comes between our trust in God and receiving the saving work he is doing in our lives. James tells us that we must “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” By doing this we are making room to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Notice the “word” is “implanted.” We are to receive something that we already have. Just because it has been “implanted” doesn’t mean it doesn’t take constant work and attention to receive—especially during trials. The weeds of doubt and deceit can spring up and crowd out our trust in the Father if we let our circumstances speak to us more than the “implanted” word. So, we must “put away” anything that tempts us to not put our trust in the Father’s word to us.

This “implanted word” is not a weak word with no effect. James tells us that it is “able to save your souls.” This is the word we need to hear during our times of trial. We will hear and find God’s answer and provision for what really needs to be set right. And we are encouraged to put this word to work by being “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Otherwise, we deceive ourselves. James is telling us to put our full trust and weight on God’s word spoken to us. This means we act on it, we let it, rather than our circumstances, tell us our identity and purpose. James uses an illustration of a mirror to make his point. When we come face to face with our true identity in Christ, we are not to walk away and act as if we are someone else.

It may be helpful here to see the “mirror” as Jesus himself. Jesus not only reveals to us who the Father is, his character and love to us, but Jesus is the “implanted word” who reveals what it means to be the Father’s children. As we listen to Jesus, he is like a mirror that confronts us with our true identity. When we see Jesus, we see who we really are as the beloved children of God. If we forget who we are in Jesus, we will act as if we are not blessed and beloved. True listening leads to transformed lives of blessing and freedom as we continue to live out our “face to face” relationship with the Father, Son, Spirit.

James concludes this section by contrasting a religion that’s worthless with a religion that works.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27 ESV)

A worthless religion is where we place our trust in our own words rather than trusting in the Father’s word to us in Jesus. When we are using our words as a means of control, then we are not trusting or receiving the “implanted word” that brings us salvation. In this way we are seen to be “deceived.” Then James tells us that a “pure and undefiled” religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

In James’ day the orphans and widows were those who were powerless with no influence or status. In short, they had nothing to offer in return. James is not just telling us to do good to the marginalized but rather to have all our actions toward others come from a place of fullness from receiving from the Father. Our actions are not motivated by what we can get in return but rather are motivated by what we have already received from the Father. When our trust is firmly rooted in the Father, we are free to act towards others with no other end in mind. We can speak to and care for others with no need to get something for our service. What an amazing blessing this would be if we approached all our relationships from this place of freedom!

When we see that our Father truly loves us and visits us in our time of “affliction,” then we can rest in his love with a freedom that opens us to be with others in a real and authentic way. We can become more like our Father, who gives generously with no strings attached.

Last, a “pure and undefiled” religion is “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is similar to James’ admonition to put away “all filthiness and rampant wickedness” so we can receive God’s implanted word. In short, anything that tempts us to put our trust in any word other than the Father’s must be avoided. Just as Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the Serpent in the Garden, so is the stain that spreads in our world. We are continually to keep ourselves from being stained by such mistrust. James is encouraging us to place our full trust in the Father so we can receive his word that gives us a righteousness that we cannot give ourselves.