GCI Equipper

Easter Jubilee

Celebrating the resurrection is much, much more than a day.

After completing 40 days in preparation for Jesus’ resurrection, the church fathers set aside 50 days to celebrate that resurrection. Why 50 days? For a number of reasons, including these listed below.

  • It was 50 days later when the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers on Pentecost.
  • “The period corresponded with the Jewish spring harvest and ended with the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot (the wheat harvest.)” [1]
  • The number seven signifies fullness, such as the seven days of creation, and the seven weeks of seven days amplifies that significance.
  • The number 50 suggested liberation, freedom, redemption deliverance, and joy, as in the year of Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus 25.

In my opinion, the 50 days also fulfills a significant part of Jesus’ mission, which he quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2. We find Jesus sharing his mission statement, or specific purpose statement in Luke 4.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19 NRSVUE)

While “the year of the Lord’s favor” can mean more than a reference to the year of Jubilee, Isaiah was clearly making an allusion to Leviticus 25, which brings us back to a list of sevens.

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you. (Leviticus 25:8-11a NRSVUE)

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the blessings contained in this the year of Jubilee and note the parallels to what the Easter season points to.

  • No planting or sowing, the fields will provide all your needs.
  • Debts are forgiven.
  • Family lands are restored.
  • Slaves are set free.

A word seen throughout the entire passage describing this year of Jubilee is the word redemption.

The season of Easter is a season of redemption and liberation. Jesus Christ came to liberate his people from sin, guilt, and debt, just as in the Jubilee year the Israelites and aliens among them were liberated from their guilt, debt and crimes. The big difference is Jesus’ liberation and redemption is not limited to the Israelite nation. He came for all; he forgives all; he redeems all; he offers Jubilee to all. In him, all believers are brought into the New Covenant and are given an inheritance into the kingdom of God – into a land that is being reserved for us free from corruption (1 Peter 1:3-4).

In practical terms, the season of Jubilee enables us to do the following:

  • Stop focusing on our behavior – good or bad – and focus on following Jesus. Following Jesus will affect our behavior.
  • See that the fruits of our labor in participation with Jesus produces results we see and do not see. We trust that fruit to him.
  • Know we have an eternal home in Christ. What we have here or what happens here does not affect what he has done or our future life in him.
  • See that all have value and dignity – regardless of economy, environment, genetics, race, belief, or social status. All are equal in him, and we treat all others as those whom God loves.

The Easter season is a 50-day celebration of Jesus ushering in the kingdom, where we experience to a point, and will one day fully experience, the ongoing year of Jubilee before the Lord. Until Jesus returns, we are living in the year of the Lord’s favor because our Lord died for our sins and rose for our relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit.

This is a season of celebration for all. None are excluded from the transformational work Jesus offers every person who has ever lived, is living, and will live in the future.

Spend the 50 days of Easter going through Psalms of praise, spend more time in worship. Celebrate your relationship with Christ with fellow believers. Share the joy you have in Christ with others. Celebrate because not only did he rise from the dead, but he ushered in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Rick Shallenberger
Editor

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year, p 190.

Spiritual Practices for Holy Week

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Soren Kierkegaard

By Anthony Mullins, Church Planter, Durham, NC

I suspect Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was on to something truthful with the above statement. Prayer forms the person who prays. It forms us by enabling us to share in the divine relationship of the Father with the Son in the Spirit. Communion with God through prayer helps us to apprehend what the Lord is up to in our lives. Based on Holy Scripture, one of the primary ways God is at work in our lives is to form the inner and outer life of the person and church community that prays. Said another way, the Father is conforming you and me and the community of faith into the very image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Many of you reading this article have been life-long followers of Jesus. You know the immense worth of prayer because you have experienced the tender and persistent love of God at work in and through a vibrant life of prayer. Instead of beating the drum on the importance of prayer, I would like you to consider an ancient but fresh approach to prayer which has brought a new vitality to my life of intimacy with Father, Son and Spirit.

Lately, I have been praying through a liturgy of prayers written by saints in the Church throughout the ages. It’s a relatively new approach for me because I had thought praying the words someone else had written would be inauthentic, legalistic, and bereft of meaning. Was I mistaken! It’s been quite the opposite. Praying through a liturgy has been invigorating, insightful and the Lord has been forming me in the process.

For Holy Week, the week beginning with Palm Sunday and culminating with Easter Sunday, I have collected liturgical prayers and readings from several sources, linked below. May I suggest we pray and read the liturgy this coming Holy Week as a communal spiritual practice? One prayer and reading has been included for each day of Holy Week but take the liberty to pray all the prayers and read all the readings each day. Whatever approach works best for you.

Palm Sunday
Holy Monday
Holy Tuesday
Holy Wednesday
Maundy Thursday
Good Friday
Holy Saturday
Easter, Resurrection Sunday

May God the Father continue to do the good work of conforming us into the image of the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ!

Nathaniel’s Plans for Passion Week

“I saw you under the fig tree.”

By Rick Shallenberger

I love how The Chosen shares the story of Nathaniel (Barthalamew in the other Gospel accounts). In the drama series, which uses artistic imagination to add backstories for characters, Nathaniel was portrayed as an architect who dreamed of building beautiful synagogues for God. Due to a construction failure that was not his fault, Nathaniel believed his dream was dead. He sat under a fig tree and cried out to God: “I wanted to build this for you. Do you hear me? Don’t leave me in my grief.”

When Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus and Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree,” Nathaniel responded by saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” (See the story in John 1:45-51).

Here is Nathanael’s story, told with artistic imagination, using his voice set in the historical context of Holy Week.

I’ve never experienced a week filled with so many different emotions than I did the last week we spent with Jesus. I had been following him for more than three years and there was still a hope that he was going to rise up against Rome and usher in a time of peace for us. I’m embarrassed to admit I was the one who said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Fortunately, Jesus just laughed at that with me as we traveled. He told me he knew of my plans to build and that I’d be part of building something much bigger than a synagogue. Admittedly, I didn’t pay attention to his warnings about his death, I thought what we were going to build together was something physical. His final week changed my perspective on everything.

Let me share some of the emotions from that final week, and then I’ll share what I do to remember it all.

Surprise and joy: I was surprised when people laid palm fronds and their outer cloaks on the street for Jesus. Shouts of “Hosanna,” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” were accompanied with “Blessed is the king of Israel.” and I knew in my heart the revolution against Rome was about to begin. (John 12)

Confusion and compassion: Imagine my confusion when Jesus stopped and wept as we left the praise and descended the hill into Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). I was moved by his compassion over all those who were rejecting him.

Embarrassment: I can’t tell you how embarrassed I was when Jesus started washing our feet. This was the role of a servant. Why didn’t I offer to serve others?

Worry and wonder: Jesus started talking about leaving us, which worried me. Then he started talking about the Holy Spirit coming, and I wondered what that meant. He also introduced us to a new commandment, which seemed almost too simple, yet proved to be profound.

Excluded and angry: We all went to Gethsemane with him, but I felt a bit excluded when Jesus only chose Peter, James, and John to join him in prayer. But when the soldiers came, I forgot about being excluded, and I stood up with the rest of the disciples and became angry at what was happening.

Shame and fear: I deserted him. I can’t even begin to describe the shame I felt, accompanied by an uncontrolled fear of being arrested. I wept while hiding from I don’t know what.

Horror and anxiety: When I saw him the next morning, I couldn’t believe what they’d done to him. Seeing him on that cross was just unbearable. Why didn’t he save himself? Was this all for naught? What was going to happen now?

Deep sorrow and depression: I spent Friday night and all of Saturday in denial, depression, and despair. I can’t explain my thoughts because I was in a daze.

Doubt and cautious optimism: Some were saying he was alive; the tomb was empty. Oh, I wanted to believe, but I just couldn’t bring myself to fully accept. I met with the other disciples in a locked room.

Joy, unbridled joy: He is alive. He came to us and told us to not be afraid and to have peace. He defeated death! He laughed with us, cried with us, shared a meal with us. I knew everything would change.

Friends have asked for some ideas to remember passion week. I’ve come up with a few things I’m planning on continuing to do.

  • Sunday before resurrection: I think Palm Sunday would be a good name for the day. I plan to get with fellow believers and talk about what it means that Jesus is the king of Israel. Moreover, I’ll share that he is King of kings, and Lord of lords. It will be a day of celebration, but also a day to remember that he wept over so many still living in darkness. I will encourage all to invite family and friends to this worship event.
  • Passover Night: It no longer needs to be called Passover because Jesus fulfilled the Passover. Instead, I like inviting a small group over to wash each other’s feet (or perform some other act of service that will be meaningful). We will talk about what it means to be a servant/leader. We will share the elements of bread and wine he introduced and talk about the meaning of them. We will talk about the new commandment and how the Holy Spirit helps us keep that commandment by living in us and compelling us with his love to love others just like he did. A good name for his night might be Maundy Thursday because Maundy means mandate, and the new commandment is our mandate.
  • Friday: This may sound a bit odd, but I’d call this day, Good Friday. Not because it was the day he was tortured and killed, but because it is the day he proved his love for us. This is a good day to get with friends and family and talk about what this day means. This is the day he forgave all of us. This is the day we were reconciled to our Father. This is the day all our sins are not only moved as far as the east is from the west, but they are forgotten. This day is good because this is the day death was destroyed as the great penalty and finality. This day depicts his victory over the enemy. These are good things to discuss with those close to you.
  • Saturday: I’ve been a Sabbath keeper my entire life, but Jesus became my sabbath rest. This is a good day to reflect on Jesus’ rest from his sorrows. This is a good day to reflect on my relationship with him, on my appreciation for who he is in me, for what he did for me, for what it means to participate with him. This is holy time, and a good name would be Holy Saturday. I might spend this day alone on an occasional year, but on other years I will get with friends and family and talk about the different things Jesus said while on the cross. Or I might take friends through what some are referring to as stations of the cross.
  • Resurrection Sunday: What can I say? This should be a weekly celebration and a new day of worship. Resurrection Sunday should be the biggest worship celebration of the year. It should be filled with wonder, worship, praise, and joy. It should be a worship event people look forward to for months, prepare for even longer, and one where everyone invites family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Let’s get everyone to celebrate that He is Risen!

These are just a few ideas that come to mind. I’m sure the other disciples will also have some ideas. Hey, what are you planning? Share it with others and let’s stay focused on Jesus – the center of the center.

Blessings,
Nathaniel

A Resolution vs a MAP

Accountability helps us keep our MAP a workable plan rather than a wish list or something to make the leadership happy.

By Tim Sitterley, Regional Director US West.

As I sit down to write this, we are two weeks into the new year. This is the point when many New Year’s resolutions start to wear thin. Often that resolution to eat healthier in 2024 doesn’t make it past the second Taco Tuesday of the month. Personally, I don’t like the term New Year’s resolutions. I prefer to call them “casual promises to myself that I am under no legal obligation to fulfill.”

Unfortunately, we too often tend to look at our Ministry Action Plans the same way. They looked good on paper in 2023, but now we are asking ourselves “What were we thinking?”

For those reading this who are unfamiliar with what a Ministry Action Plan (MAP) is, our lead pastors in GCI are required to submit a MAP outlining goals, objectives and strategies for the coming year. This MAP is the culmination of input from MAPs submitted by their congregation’s Avenue champions, as well as their personal goals for the coming twelve months. Where resolutions often address shortcomings or wishful thinking, MAPs are based on the reality of what is, i.e. strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and necessary changes.

The temptation when creating a MAP is to produce a document to keep denominational leadership happy. I’m not immune to that temptation. As a regional director I’m required to submit a MAP for my region, and I know what to write to make those above me happy. But I also understand that one of the values of a MAP is the accountability it provides. Just like a resolution to lose weight, there are clear metrics to determine if I’m actually living up to the goals outlined in my MAP.

Utilizing the element of accountability is one of the first steps in breathing life into your MAP. It will become evident quite quickly if your goals and strategies are unrealistic. Almost every element of your MAP should have tangible and measurable metrics attached. Very early in the year you will begin to recognize areas that may need to be adjusted, and timelines that need revision. If you treat your MAP as a written accountability partner, you will find yourself and your ministry team moving forward.

Which brings up the point that your MAP needs to be an organic, breathing document. There will always be curve balls thrown at your ministry, and the MAP will serve two functions. First, are the areas of the MAP affected by those curve balls still relevant and doable? And second, are the necessary adjustments in keeping with the overall direction of the document? Nobody could have predicted the impact COVID had on our congregations. But even with the changes necessitated by the pandemic, many of the elements of team and Avenue development were able to continue.

Finally, is your MAP accessible and accepted by your ministry team? Or did you submit a document to keep denominational leadership happy, but those working with you are still operating under the same old guidelines?

Buy-in to a Ministry Action Plan is essential if the document is going to survive the year. Are the goals and objectives accepted by your Avenue champions? Do you have an agreement from your finance team? And perhaps the most important question: are your members onboard with the goals, strategies, and objectives outlined in your MAP?

There may be a place for a personal plan that goes beyond what you are comfortable with sharing. I have a much more detailed MAP that I work from than the MAP I submitted to my regional superintendent. Many of those details are relevant only to me, and they have more of a “resolution” feel to them. There is nothing wrong with that.

But at the congregational level, the MAP you submitted should be a center pole that everything else hangs from. Without that, the integration necessary for your Avenue champions and their team to function properly will be absent. And it will be harder to maintain financial support if your membership feels excluded from the overall direction you are leading with your team.

I have a friend who told me he never shares his New Year’s resolutions with anyone (particularly his wife). That way he never has to be accountable to anyone when he inevitably fails to live up to those resolutions. Accountability is not a bad thing. Since we began requiring MAPs from our pastors, there have been several times where I’ve been able to offer suggestions or provide the occasional “nudge” necessary to move the MAP forward.

And if you are reading this, and you’re not someone required to create and submit a MAP, I would still suggest you consider the exercise anyway. It may not be a “ministry” action plan, but there is no reason you can’t turn your New Year’s resolutions into a roadmap, rather than just a list.

If your resolution is to learn to play an instrument in 2024, write down a pathway to achieve that goal. Include specifics like cost and time management to make it happen, and who in your life needs to be involved. Set some timeline goals, so you don’t hit next December and realize it’s too late. And then share your document with a friend or family member. Just don’t be surprised when they call you out in June to see where you are at.

And if you are a GCI pastor, don’t be surprised if your regional director calls you in June to celebrate your progress on your MAP…or maybe to offer a gentle “nudge.”

Paul’s Healthy Church Message in Galatians

Healthy Church Development Series

By Cara Garrity, Development

Think back to the image of caretaking plants as a metaphor for tending to the health of our local congregation. (See January Equipper.) Assessing and responding to signs of health and unhealth in the life of the local congregation is an act of stewardship – and it is not a new concept. If we read Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we will find examples of identifying church health and unhealth within the life of early church communities.

Paul writes his letters to real people with real questions and real problems doing their best to follow the real Jesus in real community. In that way, Paul writes to people just like us. Take a journey through the letters yourself or with your leadership team. What signs of life does Paul name and celebrate when writing to each church? What signs of threat to church health does he call out? How does he address these? What do you notice as you reflect on Paul’s assessment of church life from region to region?

One of my favorite letters of Paul is the letter to the Galatians. In this letter, I find that Paul is not shy at all about reflecting on an area where the Galatians were struggling. They were being swayed to return to the law from the gospel of grace. This was impacting not only their belief, but their personal and corporate behavior. Most importantly, it was impacting their interaction with new believers. In a GCI context, we might say that they were returning to unhealthy church practices that they had once repented of.

Why does this matter? Because this path does not lead towards life in Jesus – it leads towards death. This really matters – and to leave the Galatians to their own destruction would be a betrayal of Paul’s calling to preach the gospel and equip the saints. He cares so deeply for the wellbeing of the Galatian church that he is compelled to call them up towards God’s good purpose for them.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul identifies their faith in Jesus and love for his people as something to be celebrated. He continues to pray for continued growth and maturity in Christ and encourages them in their journey of following Jesus. In a GCI context we might say, Paul names some signs of healthy church and encourages them to continue discerning, receiving, and participating in what God is doing in and through them.

Proactive, intentional, discerning, reflection on the state of the church is an act of faithful participation in Jesus’ ministry. Paul demonstrates this ministry of love to us.  My prayer is that we too may be bold enough to seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to discern the elements of health and unhealth in our local church practices, trusting Jesus who is the head of the church – our ultimate health and the giver of life.

Reflective exercise:

  • Imagine Paul was alive and ministering today. If he wrote a letter to your local congregation, what might it say?
  • Write your own letter to your local congregation. Where do you celebrate life and healthy rhythms? Where do you see elements that threaten the health of the congregation? Share this with your leadership team and prayerfully reflect on your observations together.

New Covenant Patterns of Worship

Jesus’ worship model invites the believer not to come and watch, but to come and participate in worship.

By Takalani Musekwa, Regional Director, South Africa

One of the key ways to advance towards a Healthy Church is to understand the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant models of worship. By making the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, God “made the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13 NIV). There are some aspects that have continuity from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. There are also many discontinuities because of who Jesus is and what he has done. The things that seem to continue from the Old Covenant into the New create confusion for many believers as they wonder how to decide what to continue and what not to continue. The reality is that nothing of the Old Covenant is continuing. It just so happens that there are some overlaps between the New Covenant and the Old, however it is the New Covenant that the church is concerned with.

In the Old Covenant, the high priest and Levitical priests coordinated and oversaw the temple worship. The people paid their tithes to look after the priesthood, observed the Sabbath and other holy days, adhered to circumcision practices, abstained from unclean foods, and visited the temple three or more times per year to offer sacrifices. But now that “priesthood has changed.” (Hebrews 7:12)

Jesus presides over the New Covenant worship as our high priest and worship leader. He does not preside over a Levitical priesthood, but a royal priesthood which comprises all of us as believers. In the New Covenant, all believers are “to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5). Please note that our spiritual sacrifices are offered through Jesus Christ who wraps them by grace to be acceptable to God.

 

On the other hand, the Levitical priesthood in the Old Covenant allowed only the high priest to enter the holy of holies once a year. Since Jesus, as our high priest, has taken down the curtain that closed off the Holy of Holies, through his priesthood he made it possible for all believers to enter where once only Levitical priests were allowed. All have direct access to the Father through the Son.

Unfortunately, many of the modern churches have adopted Old Covenant worship patterns. They have put up the curtain again which Jesus had cut open in his body on the cross (Hebrews 10:20), in essence, closing off the Holy Place. The worshippers are simply expected to pay their tithes, attend weekly gatherings, and keep the commandments.

Like the Levitical priesthood of the Old Covenant, the professional clergy in the modern church takes care of the worship whilst the believers are expected to sit in the pews. In some cases, they are not even expected to stand up and praise God in song because the professional worship band takes care of that. The members can watch the show from the pews or the balconies. Many a church service has become a weekly concert where you go weekly to watch the professional worshippers (Levitical priests) do their thing.

Jesus’ worship model is very different to that of the Levitical priesthood. He doesn’t want us to be spectators of worship conducted by priests (or worship bands). Jesus’ worship model is inclusive. It invites the believer not to come and watch, but to come participate in worship. It is for this reason that the curtain was torn open in the temple. There are to be no mere spectators in Christ’s New Covenant worship model.

A healthy church is like a healthy body where all members of the body fulfil their functions according to their gifts. That is how Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. The members of the body “do not all have the same function.” (Romans 12:4). A healthy church is one that is living and sharing the gospel. The church does this through the ministry Avenues of Faith, Hope and Love. Healthy Church occurs when every member participates in ministry – we are all the holy priesthood after all. The Team based—Pastor Led model fosters a worship model where all members take part in worship activities. There is enough space and opportunity for every member to offer their living sacrifices as they take part in worship, witnessing and discipleship. There is no room for spectators from the pews or the balcony.

Following Jesus’ model of inclusion and invitation to take part in ministry, a healthy pastor’s primary task is not to be the centre of everything that happens in the congregation. It is to be a team-builder who engages, equips, empowers, and encourages members for ministry. It is about releasing members for the ministry for which Christ has called them. The biggest challenge for pastors is to let go of the Old Covenant patterns of worship and to adopt Christ’s pattern of worship. It is to gracefully support and challenge the believers to take up their cross and follow where Christ is leading his church. This is the challenge of the 21st century pastor.

Church Hack: Worship Calendar Practices

In the rhythm of our global GCI congregations, we find unity through our shared engagement with the worship calendar. This month’s Church Hack extends a helping hand, to assist both congregations and individuals in comprehending and actively participating in the rhythm of the liturgical calendar. To learn more about cultivating holistic discipleship and spiritual growth download and read the February Church Hack here:

2024 Easter Graphic Package

To extend our support as our congregations prepare for Easter, we’ve put together a special Easter package just for you and your congregation. Inside, you’ll find assets and PowerPoint slides designed with themed images and inspiring quotes. Our hope is that these resources will add a touch of joy and meaning to your Easter preparations. Please feel free to download and use them as you see fit.

Wishing you a truly blessed Easter season filled with love, hope, and renewal,

The GCI Media Team

He Knows Their Name

Our youth are struggling for identity, let’s remind them of the One who knows them and calls them by name.

By Dishon Mills, Pastor Charlotte, NC

On the last day of this month, we will celebrate Easter, a day when we rejoice over Christ’s completed work of salvation. The empty tomb was and is an open door to a new humanity in Jesus. It is at this time of year that we often retell the story of Christ’s resurrection, and we also give our attention to those who bore witness to the moment of our redemption. One story that always touches me is Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord (John 20:1-18). When Mary sees the empty tomb, she is distraught, thinking that someone stole away Jesus’ body. She speaks to Jesus, thinking he was the gardener. She does not recognize him and boldly asks to be shown to the Lord’s remains. Then, something amazing happens:

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). (John 20:16 NIV)

We do not know why Mary did not recognize Jesus. On other occasions, Jesus supernaturally obscured his identity somehow, so that could be a possibility. Or perhaps Mary’s vision was distorted because of her tears. We do not know for sure. What we do know is that Jesus said Mary’s name and she instantly knew him. She also remembered herself. She called Jesus “teacher,” which implied that she was his disciple. By saying her name, Jesus said something about who he was and who Mary was at the same time.

It is during the adolescent and teenage years that young people begin to ask questions like, “Who am I? Who do I want to be?” It is during this period of time that they begin to develop and assert their identity. It can be a time of experimentation and confusion as they try to figure out the kind of person they want to be. When it comes to the discipleship of children and youth, it is really important that we teach our young people that God knows who they are. He has perfect knowledge of their identity. Not only that, he is ready and willing to tell them. He knows their name and he desires to let them know.

As we do our part to support young people through this sometimes difficult time, let us teach them to turn to God in prayer and ask, “Who am I, Lord? Who did you make me to be?” We can teach our youth that God deliberately and joyfully made them. He has a purpose for them and is even now preparing a place that is perfect for them. No matter how confusing life gets, God knows them. He is willing to say their name and reveal himself to them. He is willing to say their name and reveal them to themselves. Our identities flow from him and it is only in Christ that we can find our true selves.

I am so thankful that God knows my name. I pray that your young people can make the same confession. Have a blessed Easter!

Discernment and Mapping Pt 3 w/ Heber Ticas

Video unavailable (video not checked).

In this episode, our host Cara Garrity and Heber Ticas, GCI Superintendent of Latin America, discuss how to support discernment and strategic planning for movement toward Healthy Church.

 

“Know that you, as a pastor and as a leader, have gifts that God has given you. And you’ve got to step into those gifts, and you’ve got to seek the Lord. Lord, where do I want to go? Where are you taking me? Where are you taking us as a group? Who have you surrounded me with to help me go there? God has been gracious in truly giving the pastors and their leaders eyes to be able to see others who can step into ministry. They just were not given an opportunity in the past.” — Heber Ticas

 

Main Points:

  • In your role as superintendent, how do you equip pastors to lead their teams in discerning a strategic MAP? 02:18
  • What do you look for as indicators that a local team is becoming strategic in their ministry planning? 08:00
  • The last two episodes we heard from Bogota about their practices of discernment, strategic planning, and mapping. What impact have you seen this strategic ministry planning have on healthy church growth? 11:15
  • What words of advice do you have for our local leaders who are moving towards a more discerning and strategic participation in Jesus’ ministry – more focused Healthy Church vision? 20:18

Resources:

  • Discernment and the Examen – a Church Hack that outlines how to use the practice of the examen for discernment and strategic decisions.
  • Ministry Action Plans – an Equipper article with templates and practical input for developing your ministry action plan (MAP).
  • Team Based – Pastor Led – the GCI ministry framework reference by Heber and Cara during the episode.

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Program Transcript


Discernment and Mapping Pt 3 w/ Heber Ticas

Welcome to the GC Podcast, a podcast to help you develop into the healthiest ministry leader you can be by sharing practical ministry experience.


Cara: Hello, friends, and welcome to this episode of GC Podcast. This podcast is devoted to exploring best ministry practices in the context of Grace Communion International churches.

I am your host Cara Garrity, and now in this first quarter of 2024, we are switching things up a little bit. We are bringing you mini episodes that are focused on the processes and practices of discernment, strategic planning, and ministry action plans.

In our last two episodes, we heard from Pastor Hector and Juanca Barrero in GCI Bogotá. They shared about their experiences with their strategic processes and communication, their use of ministry action plans. And so, today we have Latin American Superintendent, Heber Ticas, with us to share, from his perspective as superintendent, what it means and what it looks like to support and develop this discernment, strategic planning, perspective on healthy church growth and vision throughout the region, particularly, from the perspective of Bogotá since that is who we heard from the past two episodes specifically.

And so, Heber, thank you much for being here and sharing with us. We appreciate your time.

Heber: Hey Cara, thank you for having me. It has been quite a while since I have been on the podcast.

I was wondering, did I do something wrong last time?

[00:01:44] Cara Garrity: We got to share the wealth, but this will be your next test, so do not mess it up.

[00:01:51] Heber Ticas: Yeah, I better get praying right now.

[00:01:53] Cara Garrity: No, I really enjoy having you on the podcast, Heber. I hope that our listeners took as much out of the past two episodes as I did.

I love hearing what God is doing in Bogotá and the way that the leaders and members are just saying yes and amen to participating in what they are discerning he is doing. And so, I am wondering in your role as superintendent, what are some of the ways that you equip pastors like Hector to lead their teams in discerning a strategic ministry action plan for each year?

[00:02:32] Heber Ticas: Cara, that is a good question. In my role as superintendent, and for all of us who are superintendents and regional directors or regional pastors, we’ve got to take up this mantle and put on this hat of consulting. Me, I am not too much of a coach. I do not have the patience for coaching but yes, in my role as superintendent, I’ve got to do a little bit of consulting.

When I engaged this congregation, especially the pastors and a few of their immediate leaders there, they had a good dynamic, and with some consulting, they could truly become a healthier expression of the church. With this congregation or this pastor, it is not too different than with other pastors that I have consulted with, in my role as superintendent. Our Team Based—Pastor Led structure really provides us an ability to have a greater understanding of what it is to lead from a good structure. That is key.

So just as with anything, when you are talking about equipping, it must be two sides, right? If I am consulting, you must have a side that is willing to listen and willing to embrace. And Hector and Paulina, particularly in their leadership, they embraced Team Based—Pastor Led from the beginning. With them doing that, then I can move on and talk about clarity of leadership roles and understanding what that means, a greater understanding of healthy ministry practices, and most importantly, a clarity of a preferred future—where it is that they want to go as a congregation, as a team.

I would start in those areas but also particularly in pastoral leadership as well. And I can get into that a little bit if you want.

[00:04:40] Cara Garrity: Yes, please.

[00:04:42] Heber Ticas: Team Based—Pastor Led gives us this really good structure, right? And we do not want to be pastor centric, like you said earlier, we want to share the wealth. We want to share practice. We want to be team-based and participate with Jesus and really understand that others have gifts as well.

The Holy Spirit has gifted others as much as the Holy Spirit has gifted the pastor. With that understanding, as pastors, we need to lead. And when I say that we need to lead, I am talking about [how] a pastor needs to understand, needs to know the vision, needs to know where we are going as the church.

A pastor needs to be a visionary pastor. When I talk about a visionary pastor, I am talking about that a leader who is a visionary develops and defines a clear picture of the envisioned future for others. You can articulate it and apply it to future thinking in ways that would engage the rest of the team and motivate others.

That is from a pastoral perspective. So now as the pastor is leading, preaching, and equipping, they are doing it with a future in mind. That’s pastoral leadership, a pastor who leads in this way. We will also understand what it means to lead the congregation as a whole, but also lead your immediate team. In our case, in our structure, making sure that you are leading your Avenue champions, that you are equipping them, and that they are doing the same thing, right?

The Apprentice Square really is a useful tool to be able to lead, in this way. And then also understanding what it means to lead strategically. Okay, if there is no preferred future, then there is no way that you can lead strategically. You’ve got to have these things clear in your mind as pastors and especially as senior pastors.

[00:06:42] Cara Garrity: Yes, and that is so good what you have said here, that the starting point really of strategic planning is, where are you and where you are going? You cannot be strategic if you do not know those things. And we heard that in our conversations with Hector and Juanca, that they really appreciate how you spent that time to really go through the Team Based—Pastor Led model so it could really be understood and embraced, so that there is that foundation for by what method are we moving forward, right? We are moving forward together as a team. But then you also supported them to articulate—I love how you say that “clear vision of that preferred future.” Then you can be strategic about where you are going. There is no strategy to wander around in the forest, right? It is the image that I get.

Yes, that is excellent. That is excellent.

[00:07:44] Heber Ticas: Yes. And you are so right. Where are you and where are you going? If you do not have those two things, if you cannot discern that, then there is no math, there is no strategy. You cannot put any legs to anything.

[00:08:00] Cara Garrity: As you are working with lead pastors across your region and local churches, what do you look for as indicators that a local team is starting to become more strategic in their ministry planning and pastoral leadership?

[00:08:19] Heber Ticas: Without a vision, there is no MAP. Without a strategic MAP, the vision is unattainable, right?

Pastors need to know the landscape. They need to know where they are. Discernment is truly key. Once you have discerned that, then it is important for me as a consultant and working with – whether it be my vision pastors or those who I am dedicating more time to in terms of consulting – then I can truly start looking out for those indicators. Are they really catching what we have been talking about? And then, if they caught it, they could articulate it verbally. Then I want to be able to look for indicators in terms of their ministry practices.

See, that is why I am huge on MAPs because on a MAP, you can put your thoughts and your ideas onto paper. And if you do it collectively, as a team, now you can be accountable to each other. But now because it is on the MAP, you can truly start implementing in what you are doing because it is guiding you and it is leading you. One of the first indicators that I am looking for is, have you been able to move from the idea in your mind into a MAP, into something that is written? Okay. That is one thing.

Then, I would be looking for collective clarity of the preferred future in a clear direction—because a MAP will give you direction. The pastor may have clarity. The pastor may know the preferred future, may know where we are going, but does your team, those around you? Do those really helping you in ministry, participating with you in ministry, do they know where you are going? Is it clear for them? So that is one of the first things that I want to see. I want to see that collectively as a team. Okay.

And then, I want to be able to see incremental steps. Are there incremental steps that have been taken, in implementation of the strategy that you put together, towards your preferred future to get there?

So those are some of the indicators that I would really want to see collectively in a team as they plan.

[00:10:43] Cara Garrity: Yes, that is good. And, as I have mentioned a couple of times in our past two episodes this year, we heard from a couple of the leaders in Bogotá about some of the ways they have grown in this discernment and visioning and their strategic planning and use of their MAP.I was excited and impressed about some of the things that I had heard and the way that they have become collectively clear and very vision led, very strategic.

I am wondering for you, as you have collaborated with them a lot more closely, what impact have you seen this strategic kind of ministry planning have on their healthy church growth?

[00:11:31] Heber Ticas: I started doing consulting with this church, and I understood, Cara, and I think we all understand that this is a process. It does not happen overnight. I have been collaborating with this team for a while now. I feel that I’m part of their congregation. I better myself in such a way that I feel like I am part of the church now. But I have seen the impact that I have first seen it has been in their senior leadership one of the things that that I saw in this congregation that they had.

They had folks there who I felt could lead, but I did not see any spaces for them to be able to lead. As I started doing some consulting with the pastor, with Hector and Paulina—because they are a team; they are a dynamic team. Hector’s the preacher there, and he brings a lot of good assets to ministry. You can hear it in his voice, right?

But Paulina is really a strategic leader there. And she does it in a quiet way, but she is so spirit led. And she has just got this discernment about allowing the spirit to lead.

One of the first things that I started talking about was truly about valuing who God has placed around and creating spaces for them. And I said, do you know what? One of our greatest challenges is really developing other leaders. And the reason that is a challenge for us is because as pastors, we do not even know that we are hogging up all ministry. And in the process, sometimes we just get frustrated, and we get burned.

I started talking about ministry descriptions and how is it that you can engage a leader and make sure that you are clear from a pastoral perspective and that leader is clear on what [they] are being asked to do and really is being empowered, truly going through the 4 Es. Empowering them and creating this space is commissioning them.

Hector had an awakening and he said, “Do you know what? I have never…” Because I started pointing out some names, just throwing out some names of folks that I had engaged in this church from some development that I had done in the first few visits that I did to this church when I took on the role of superintendent. I said, “Hector, we need to truly value development.”

And you know what he said? Something to the effect that, man, I need to repent. Because I have so many leaders here, sometimes they come and go, and I have not really valued them in this way of developing them.

To me, that was impactful. And not only did it impact me individually, but then to Hector I said, look, we were having a vision pastors conference. This was like some three years ago, two years ago, in Mexico City. I invited some vision pastors from Latin America. And I said, Hector, do you think you can do just this little workshop on your journey of valuing development? That man got up there in front of that group, he said, I just repent of not valuing the people around me and creating spaces for them and developing them.

When Hector saw this clearly, I said, this congregation can become an MTC church. This congregation can really become a place where they train, where they recruit, they develop, they launch leaders into some significant ministry. I am starting to see that.

I am starting to see that develop more value of development, creating spaces for others. When I start seeing that, I am like, okay, now this church is now planning, now they are being intentional. And then I see their MAPs, and I see how their team leaders and ministry workers surround it.

Then I say, okay, there are spaces here. In ministry planning, as you plan out your MAPs and as you plan out your year of ministry—the impact that I am seeing in this congregation is that the silos are no longer there, but they are working together as a team, and there are spaces on ramps and even off ramps. Sometimes we need to have off ramps available as well.

Those are some of the things that I have seen, but a humble heart, just humility. That is always so key in leadership.

[00:16:31] Cara Garrity: Yeah, and I think you’ve really pulled out something that’s important for us not to miss in the key leadership: that humble heart, that openness to God’s leading and transformation, not just of what we’re doing as leaders of the church, but of who we are and how we’re stewarding that leadership that God has brought us into for that season.

I just think of that amazing transformation that Hector had. Then, after that, it sounds like from the conversation that we had, a lot of the members of his team and then those who can step into new spaces of ministry, just that transformation they were able to experience has been so key and then being able to live out this strategy towards this preferred vision.

And that is really important because that openness and that humble heart to be changed and transformed shapes how we identify and discern a spirit led preferred vision, right? It is not just the mechanics of being strategic. I can strategically rob a bank tomorrow.

That is not necessarily in line with God’s desires for me, right? But if, as leadership, we can do what this team in Bogotá has done and be open to giving up our own ways that we have clung to, to be repentant, to say, God, what are you doing? Show us what you are doing and show us where you are taking us and your preferred vision.

And then we can be strategic. It builds clarity towards there, and it may not be what we have always done. We might have to give up some things, get uncomfortable, try some new things. But that is something that we should not miss. As I hear from you and from folks every time I talk to leaders in Bogotá, I think their willingness to be shaped by God is so critical in their healthy church growth that has been happening.

[00:18:51] Heber Ticas: Yes. Cara, let me align you back. Okay. We are not robbing any banks. Okay.

[00:19:00] Cara Garrity: We are not. I am not going to rob any bank. I am just saying strategy in and of itself can be used for good or evil.

[00:19:08] Heber Ticas: You know what? You said an especially important phrase: stewarding. Stewarding the leadership that God has given us that is truly a good word because, remember here, we are talking about pastors, and on many occasions, we are talking about pastors who have been leading, who have been in ministry for a long time.

And with anything, change is not easy. Change is difficult. And now when you start sharing your pulpit, when you start sharing ministry, and then you start thinking, are they going to do it right? Or they are too young, or they are too old? Or they are too this, or they are too that, right?

At the end of the day, we need to trust that it is his church, right? The story of leadership, it truly is about engaging, and equipping, and developing, and trusting.  And you can have the best strategies in the world, but if there is not a trust factor, there is not a humility factor, there is not a Holy Spirit factor in your heart, in your thinking, in your processes you are going to have some issues.

[00:20:18] Cara Garrity: Amen. As we are coming up on the end of our time today, Heber, I want to ask you what word of advice would you give for our pastors around the world who are moving towards a more discerning and strategic participation in Jesus’s ministry that is more focused on healthy church vision?

[00:20:45] Heber Ticas: Yeah, I know this podcast goes all over our GCI world, and one of the first things  that I want to say is that our structure of Team Based—Pastor Led really speaks to all contexts in diverse ways.

And I would want to say,  understand your local context. Okay. Understand the local context within where God has placed you and from within you’re doing ministry, then know the team that the Lord has surrounded you with. Know the team. Even if you have not identified that team, know the folks that are around you, and ask God to give you clarity, ask the Lord to really give you direction of who, who has the giftings that you need for your local context.

And that requires engagement. Know your team, know the people around you, and then do not be discouraged if you feel you do not have the proverbial horses, per se, to accomplish the preferred future that God has given you. So just always remember that it is his church, that the ministry is participatory.

We are participating with Jesus but even knowing that, know that there’s participation, right? And know that you, as a pastor and as a leader, you have gifts that God has given you, and you’ve got to step into those gifts. All right you’ve got to pause, and you’ve got to seek the Lord. And okay, Lord, where do I want to go? Where are you taking me? Where are you taking us as a group? Okay. Who have you surrounded me with to help me go there?

So do not be discouraged. Be patient. Even like with Bogotá, man, I look at their team right now, and they got a stellar team. I started collaborating with them like pre-pandemic, and I look at their team now and it looks quite different.

God has been gracious in truly giving the pastors and their leaders eyes to be able to see others who can step in to ministry who may be quiet, quietly able to do things, but they are able to do it. They just were not given an opportunity in the past.

[00:23:05] Cara Garrity: Yes, absolutely.

Thank you for those words of wisdom. And I would just ask if you were willing to close us out this episode with the word of prayer over our pastors and our leaders, teams all over GCI, as we continue this journey of participating in Jesus’ ministry by the leading of the Spirit.

[00:23:32] Heber Ticas: Amen. Sure thing. Let us go ahead and pray.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I am so thankful, Lord, for who we are in you, Christ, and who we are as a collective body, what we call GCI. And Lord, through this conversation, Father, I pray that it may be a blessing to the pastors and leaders who may engage it, Lord.

And Father, I pray that as we think about discernment strategies and ministry action plans, Father God, that they would not burden our hearts, that it would not blow our minds. On the contrary, Lord, that it would be a blessing, that your Holy Spirit would give us that understanding of what participation looks like for us. And yes, in our participation, Lord I believe that these elements of discernment and planning and mapping things and being strategic, are part of what we are being called to do.

Father God, I just pray that as pastors and leaders hear this conversation, that they will not be discouraged because of their immediate context of what they are seeing in their journey, Lord, in their leadership. But I pray, Father, that they may be encouraged, Lord, and that your Holy Spirit would bring clarity to their minds and to their hearts about where they are going and how they are going to get there.

Father God, I pray that this may be a resource for them, Lord. I pray a blessing on all those leaders in those churches that are already there, but we have not even seen them yet as pastors. Sometimes we just do not have this discernment to be able to see. I pray that you give us those eyes to be able to see clearly and discern who you have gifted us with, Lord, to be able to do ministry together.

Lord, I pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen.

[00:25:21] Cara Garrity: Amen. Thank you so much again, Heber. And folks, until next time, keep on living and sharing the gospel.


We want to thank you for listening to this episode of the GC Podcast. We hope you have found value in it to become a healthier leader. We would love to hear from you. If you have a suggestion on a topic, or if there is someone who you think we should interview, email us at info at gci.org. Remember, healthy churches start with healthy leaders. Invest in yourself and your leaders.

Gospel Reverb – The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner

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This month, our host, Anthony Mullins, welcomes Jon Ritner. After 20 years of pastoring in local communities, Jon is a coach and consultant to Christian denominations, pastors, and church planters, helping them adapt and understand what sort of disciple making pathways are needed in a world that is becoming increasingly post Christian. He is the author of the book,
Positively Irritating, which is about embracing a post Christian world to form a more faithful and innovative church.


April 7—Second Sunday in Easter
John 20:19-31, “Peace Be With You”

April 14—Third Sunday in Easter
1 John 3:1-7, “The Weight of Glory”

April 21—Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:11-18, “The Lord is my Shepherd”

April 28—Fifth Sunday in Easter
John 15:1-8, “Sugar High”


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

Follow us on SpotifyGoogle Podcast, and Apple Podcast.

Program Transcript


The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner

Welcome to the Gospel Reverb podcast. Gospel Reverb is an audio gathering for preachers, teachers, and Bible thrill seekers. Each month, our host, Anthony Mullins, will interview a new guest to gain insights and preaching nuggets mined from select passages of Scripture in that month’s Revised Common Lectionary.

The podcast’s passion is to proclaim and boast in Jesus Christ, the one who reveals the heart of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now onto the episode.


Anthony: Hello friends and welcome to the latest episode of Gospel Reverb. Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view.

I’m your host, Anthony Mullins, and it’s my joy to welcome our guest, Jon Ritner. Jon is the author of the book, Positively Irritating, which is about embracing a post Christian world to form a more faithful and innovative church. He’s also a coach and consultant to Christian leaders. And I’ve personally gained tremendous insights from Jon as he coaches me in planting a new church in Durham, North Carolina.

Jon has pastored churches himself in Virginia, California, and of all places, Belgium. He’s been married to Kristyn for over 20 years, and they have two children, Addy and Jackson. And it’s our desire that this podcast would be positively irritating to you, and I’ll let Jon explain.

Jon, thanks for being with us. Welcome to the podcast. And since this is your first time on Gospel Reverb, what took you so long? We’d love to know a bit about your personal story and how you’re participating with the Lord these days.

Jon: Yeah. Thanks so much, Anthony. It’s great to be here in this setting with you, and I really have enjoyed getting to know you and Dishon, and so much of your tribe there at GCI at the event last year. I’m sure the reach of this even extends beyond that.

Briefly my story… I met Jesus in a fraternity house at the College of William and Mary through some guys who were followers of Jesus and were living kind of a missionary life in that environment. And I eventually felt God calling me into full-time equipping ministry, went to seminary in Chicago, met my wife Kristyn there. And we took a call at the same church that I had been attending when I was a college student back in Williamsburg, Virginia. We served there for 10 years, watched it grow significantly.

And after about a decade, we felt a little bit of a sense of questioning of our effectiveness and our strategies and whether or not we were really making the quality of disciples that I felt like Jesus was longing for in the world. And as I began looking around the world, asking, how is God moving in new ways and what are some more effective ways that are resonating with this post-Christian future that I was sensing was coming, God called us to Brussels, Belgium.

So, we spent three years there on a missionary visa, planting micro churches, we called them, small, contextualized expressions of church that resonated with local communities. They were less about gathering people for worship and more about sending people out into mission, joining the life of Jesus in the places that they live, work, and play. And then from those missional experiences, creating smaller communities. And then trusting that the Holy Spirit would be leading people to become worshipers.

And that was an incredible time of growth for us and paradigm shift. And after three years there, we felt, man, the American church needs to experience this sort of innovative approach—and honestly, this ancient approach, more of a first century approach to doing church.

And so, we felt called to come back to the U.S. and help other churches adapt. And ended up of all places in Hollywood, California. And so, I worked for seven years leading a church of artists and storytellers and creatives who were resonating with the fact that traditional ways of making disciples were no longer working in their environment, that a discipleship strategy that relied on professionals, property, programs didn’t really resonate with the people that they were meeting on set and on studio lots. And yet they weren’t really sure how to make disciples themselves, or they didn’t know what it meant to be a disciple making person who didn’t rely on the institutional church.

And so, we spent seven years trying to equip and empower individuals to do that. And we started some missional community things that we called food truck churches rather than restaurant churches—small, nimble, scalable, adaptable teams that could go out into the community and offer up a gospel meal rather than simply having to invite people to a brick and mortar location.

And along that way, I ended up writing a book, that we entitled Positively Irritating, which was really about embracing the irritant of post-Christianity as a positive force for change in the local church. And so now after 20 years of pastoring in local communities, I do work with pastors and planters and even denominations to help them adapt to this new reality and to better understand what sort of disciple making pathways are needed for this new world that we live in, that is becoming increasingly post Christian.

So that’s a little bit of my story. And as always, in an urban environment, of course, it’s right now that we start this podcast that the garbage man decides to come empty the dumpsters outside my window. So, life has a way.

[00:05:34] Anthony: Life has a way. I’ve gotten to know you a bit over the past year or so and what stands out to me, Jon, in you the person, and the book that you wrote, is your love for Jesus and his body, the church. And in that book, Positively Irritating, you devoted a chapter encouraging readers to embrace and empower the different gifts the Lord gives to his body and to his people. And you highlighted the gift mix that I find fascinating in Ephesians 4 of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher often people know the acronym of A.P.E.S.T.

So why should people be familiar with A.P.E.S.T.? And in your opinion, where is the church getting it right, where are we pointing people to this gift and fanning the flame?  Or where is there room for insights and growth? And can you tell us all of this in seven minutes or so? Maybe that’s the impossible thing.

[00:06:34] Jon: Yeah, no, you’re right. This really has become a passion of mine, and I’m so thankful for authors like Alan Hirsch and others who have done such a great job trying to articulate a better kind of theology around Ephesians 4 and these A.P.E.S.T. gifts. And really, my motivation for diving into this so deeply is just, I think the church needs to look more like Jesus.

We are called to be a conspiracy of little Jesuses out there in the world. And there’s something about the modern discipleship that is not forming people into the image of Jesus in a way that really reflects who I believe Jesus is. And I think that Ephesians 4 gives us a lens or an understanding of why that is and how the church may have distorted that.

Apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher. Those were all ancient professions in the first century. And when Paul is articulating them as gifts, I think part of what he’s getting at is this idea of functions or ministries. That these are five different ways that Jesus expressed the mission of God.

I won’t dive into all of them, but apostolic is more of a pioneering. The prophetic is more of a listening, interpreting, connecting with God. The evangelist was the storyteller, the recruiter. The shepherd we know as the heart and soul of a community who cares and nurtures. A teacher is an instructor, a legacy leaver.

All those functions are needed within a healthy church in order to fulfill the mission of Jesus—Jesus himself being an apostle, being a prophet, being an evangelist, shepherd, and a teacher. And as a local church tries to assess and analyze, are we living like Jesus, this becomes a tool in a way of understanding how Christlike we are.

And in my experience, the local churches tend to be really good at expressing the functions of shepherding and teaching. They’re good at care. Maybe they have community groups and fellowship halls that have meals and gatherings and support groups even. They do a good job caring for those who are widows or maybe divorced or going through addictions—a lot of shepherding care ministries. And then they’re fantastic at teaching Bible studies and Sunday school classes, and maybe a fantastic communicator on Sunday morning who opens the scripture and helps us understand God better.

Where we tend to struggle is with those “APE” gifts, the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic gifts in that acronym of A.P.E.S.T. I joke in my book that the “APE” has become almost extinct in many American churches. They aren’t functions that we do well. And part of that is just because when we have lived the last 1800 years or so in more of a Christian culture, even a Christian worldview, those gifts were taken for granted.

We didn’t need to pioneer and take new ground. What we really needed to do was to do the shepherd teaching stuff, which was more about supporting and building up those who were already Christians. But now that culture is changing, there’s a need to really reclaim those three functions that we’ve missed out on and that we need to show the world what Jesus looks like as an apostle, a prophet, and an evangelist.

And so, in Ephesians 4, Paul takes those five functions, and he turns them into gifts and makes this incredible argument that in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he gifts to the church those five functions and gives everyone an individual gift.

And I’m a big basketball player, still in my late forties. And I’m still trying to relive my glory days. And the best analogy that I’ve come up with for kind of this idea of A.P.E.S.T. as it relates to gifts is thinking about a starting five basketball team. There are five primary functions that a basketball team needs to embody to be successful.

They need to handle the ball and distribute it. They need to shoot the ball. They need to have someone who’s able to cut to the basket and be a slasher. They need to rebound missed shots, and they need to defend the basket as well from the other team trying to do that. And so all five of those functions are needed for a healthy team.

But it’s rare that any one individual is great at all five of them. And so, what coaches do is they try to identify five individuals who are gifted in at least one, maybe two, of those functions. So, you get a point guard who’s good at dribbling and passing. You get a shooting guard who’s primarily responsible for making long distance shots; you get a forward man, a power forward who can rebound and defend inside. And then you put that team together and you say to everyone, hey, play to your strengths, but you also have to be growing in the other skills.

There will be a time when even the center is going to have to dribble the ball and take an outside shot. So, you can’t just throw up your hands and say, that’s not me. I don’t do that. And so, as a coach, your goal is to get everyone to learn from each other, grow from each other in these five areas of skill so that they are more skilled as a team.

And I think that’s what the argument Paul’s trying to make is that Jesus has given every individual a primary gift or skill that allows them to represent the nature of Jesus and to be part of the Jesus team, the church, and that we’re all learning and growing from each other. And as those five ministries work together, they will better represent the fullness of Jesus in the world.

[00:12:22] Anthony: I grew up on the Chicago Bulls, and I was just trying to imagine a team that was made up of all Dennis Rodmans. You could rebound, but nobody could shoot or dribble effectively. It’s so powerful when the entire body is working together.

And I felt a twinge of sadness when you talked about the apostle, prophet, evangelist being muted in the church, because what have we missed out on by that, right? Because they’re sitting there, or they’ve gone elsewhere because those gifts weren’t being exercised. So let me ask you this just as a follow up question. If I’m a pastor of a church and I’m thinking, yeah, I can see that with us. We’ve shepherded well, we’ve taught well, but we’ve really been missing out on the other parts of this gift mix, what would you say to them? How would you encourage them to reconsider the entire breadth of A.P.E.S.T.?

[00:13:14] Jon: If we really believe that Jesus gives these gifts to the local church in order to empower his ministry, then I believe the gifts are present in the lives of people in your local community.

The challenge is that the way the local church is structured, it often makes people who are gifted as apostles, prophets, and evangelists feel either diminished or feel a little bit constrained. And so, what tends to happen is they exist in the community, but they start their own ministries. They start parachurch ministries. (Young life is a great example of a highly evangelistic ministry to young people in the community.)

Or they feel a call to pioneer and go into areas in your neighborhood that others aren’t reaching. And so, they have this apostolic side, and they come to a pastor and say, I have an idea for a new ministry. But their new idea doesn’t fit with the existing structure. So, they just go do it on their own.

There are many prophets who are very wired towards issues of justice. They would sound just like the Old Testament prophets saying the heart of God is missing in this community; we’re not caring for certain people. And so, when they come to the church and say, we want to start a justice ministry, honestly, a lot of churches have struggled to incorporate a theology of social justice or theology of communal justice with their own individual evangelism relationships. And so, they don’t know what to do with them.

And so those people say forget it. I’ll just go do it on my own. And so, what I say to pastors is the first thing you need to do, if you’re missing the APEs, is you need to just be curious and do an assessment of your local community and say, where did they go and where are they working?

And rather than trying to colonize them or even recruit them back to your thing and say, hey, we miss you, we need you back in the church, come alongside them and say, hey, what you’re doing is a valid expression of the life of Jesus. How can we serve you? Do you need finances? Do you need prayer? Do you need volunteers? Do you maybe need care and teaching ministries to support your apostolic evangelistic efforts? But we want to start by serving you, believing that you have something that has value as well.

So those APEs are usually pretty skeptical about being recruited back into the church. They’re afraid that a pastor is going to domesticate their wildness, but if you embrace their wildness and offer to serve and support them, you’ll often find that they actually are in need of that level of champion in their ministry.

[00:15:54] Anthony: I think there are probably people listening going, oh, I want to know more; I need to think about this, need a process. So, I would highly recommend to any of our listeners to get the book (wherever you get your book content), Positively Irritating. It’ll be well worth your time to read it.

All right, so let’s do this. We’re here to talk about the lectionary passages. We’ve got four pericopes this month.

John 20:19-31, “Peace Be With You”

1 John 3:1-7, “The Weight of Glory”

John 10:11-18, “The Lord is my Shepherd”

John 15:1-8, “Sugar High”

Let’s transition to our first pericope of the month. It’s John 20:19-31. I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the second Sunday in Easter, which is April 7.

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” 24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” 30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

Jon, Jesus came to his frightened friends and said, “Peace be with you.” And then goes on to say, “As the Father sent me, I’m sending you.” And this seems to be significant in understanding who God is and what God does and what he would have us to do. What say you? What does this have to teach us and compel us to do?

[00:18:58] Jon: Yeah, I’ll be honest. This phrase, peace be with you, is a phrase that continues to grow and expand as I mature in my own theology, I think. I was born in ‘75 and grew up and in and around the church without it really being something that was a personal relationship with me.

And when I heard phrases like, peace be with you, offered as a benediction—I can remember even one of my parents who would finish their letters, peace and joy, the word “peace” for me was always a 1960s and 70s definition of peace, right? It was either global peace, world peace, or we don’t want wars. So, peace as an absence of conflict. But I was like, that’s not what my parents are writing in their letters.

What I thought they were writing was more of a hippie ‘”peace,” more of “cool out, man,” like a relaxed chill. As if Jesus shows up and he can sense that everyone’s super anxious and he is, cool out, boys; I’m with you.

And the more I grow, the more I understand the essence of this word “peace,” and its Old Testament roots in this Hebrew version of shalom, I realized that it’s not either of those things completely, right? Yes, God’s peace might offer calm from our anxiety and yes, God’s peace does ultimately maybe get expressed as an absence of conflict, but at its root, this word shalom is the defining characteristic of God’s kingdom.

It’s not just the absence of something; it marks the presence of God’s power, of God’s Spirit. It’s God’s rule and reign wrapped up in one word. So, shalom is justice and love and beauty and harmony and reconciliation. God’s shalom captures the redemption and renewal of all creation into the way that the world was meant to be.

So, I think what Jesus is trying to do when he shows up to these disciples, some of whom haven’t seen him yet, is he’s trying to mark the inauguration of this new kingdom they’ve been waiting for, that has been coming. But literally his resurrected body is the first physical object that is completed in this kingdom.

It’s been he’s the first person who’s resurrected. And so, what he’s saying is, I come with this new peace we’ve been waiting for. I come and I’m ushering in my kingdom in this shalom. And so, because of that, everything has changed.

I’m not alleviating all conflict. My gosh, these men will all die for their faith. More conflict is coming. And I’m not getting rid of all anxiety because there will be much anxiety in the years ahead as they try to follow Jesus into ministry. But what he’s saying is that the peace of my kingdom has become even more real now through my resurrection. And the story is taking on a new chapter, so to speak.

And I love the idea that when he says, peace be with you, I think also what he’s hinting at is peace is with you because I am peace. That peace is a person, and so his body—the fullness of who God is in the Incarnation and now in the resurrection—is the first expression of the fullness of God’s peace.

And what’s crazy to me—and I’ve always wrestled with this—is why does he still have holes in his hands? Why does he still have scars? Shouldn’t the peace of God, the restoration of all things have removed those scars, those wounds, the marks of the wounds, right?

But I am so encouraged as someone who has wounds in my life, who has emotional scars in my life that have continued to be part of who I am even as I follow Jesus, to recognize that God values those experiences and transforms them. And I remember hearing a sermon on this years ago, and it brought tears to my eyes. This moment with Thomas, Thomas says, the only thing that will prove God’s presence to me, the only apologetic I’m going to believe are the wounds. The only evidence that God is real will be if I see Jesus and I see these wounds.

And I have found in my life that as many times as I’ve tried to argue people into the kingdom with apologetics around the validity of Scripture or the historicity of our faith or arguments to the nature of God, what often really connects with people on a deeper level is when they see the healing that has come in my life that Jesus has brought in areas of my woundedness. And so, I’ve learned to steward my pain and suffering and weakness and to be honest with that and say, hey, you want to stick your hand in the hole? Stick your finger in this hole. You want to see my scar, so to speak? Because I’m not bleeding anymore and Jesus is not actively bleeding, but there’s still an indicator that pain and suffering took place. And yet he has transcended that and that’s part of that peace, too.

[00:24:07] Anthony: So, taking that a step further, and I agree with you, I heard somebody once say, Jon, that I trust men who keep their wounds where I can see them.

And I wonder, how can we embody that sort of transparency, like here I am scars and all to a world that needs to know that’s okay. Because it just seems to me, we’re often trying to hide the wounds and especially in a social media age where everything needs to look perfect when we know it’s not.

So, what would you say when you’re going out into your parish, your neighborhood, talking about how could you embody peace be with you?

[00:24:45] Jon: Yeah, the way you said that reminded me of that famous scene in Jaws where the two men are under deck and they’re basically having a competition of to show off all of their scars and wounds. Oh yeah look at this one, [he] shows the gash in his arm. Then the guy pulls up a shirt, oh, yeah look at this one. And there’s this bonding that is taking place. They go from competing with each other to actually appreciating, okay, you are like me. And we don’t need to compete anymore. Let’s just celebrate that. We both had these experiences and we both survived them.

And I think in our culture around us when people’s wounds are being exposed, when we see someone going through something that might initially bring judgment from us, maybe they’re going through a divorce, maybe they’ve had a catastrophic moral failure, maybe they are embarrassed from something has come out that is a wound, that is a trauma, the natural human fleshly tendency is to either distance ourself from them or to judge them or to say, thank God I’m not like them.

But I think what Jesus is inviting us to do is actually to draw near. And say, your wound has been exposed. Can I show you my wound and can I maybe point you to the one who has healed me of my wound? And so, it’s not that I am without scars or without wounds or without faults, but actually I am bearing them up in a way that might allow me to connect with you.

And that’s where the real hope for that person might come from. So, it’s ironic. You said about social media because it’s something that I’ve wrestled with a lot. And I in my on again, off again, use of social media, it’s very hard to figure out how to be transparent because it’s not a medium that seems to welcome or celebrate that.

And I have seen people try to post like, I couldn’t get out of bed today and I’m really depressed. And I often feel like I don’t know how to even respond because there’s no intimacy of community right now. I’m in my house here, you’re at your house, stuck in your bed. And it does feel artificial. I don’t want to say inappropriate, but artificial. It’s very different than saying to someone over coffee, hey, can I let you know something.

[00:27:28] Anthony: That’s absolutely it. Jesus did not say the words, peace be with you, on a phone call or a zoom meeting. He literally came through the walls and showed up and was present with proximity. I think you’ve really nailed it. It’s about proximity and relationship, eyeball to eyeball.

I’ll repeat something I’ve said in the past, I think God and his brilliance put tear ducts in her eyes because our tears are meant to be seen by others in trust and relationship, that people can say, yeah, I’m here; I’m with you, as Jesus did.

Thomas was gifted with this experiential encounter, a very personal one with the risen Lord and his doubt melted away into one of the greatest proclamations of faith in the entire New Testament: my Lord and my God!

What does this encounter have to say to us beyond what you’ve already said? Anything you want to add there?

[00:28:19] Jon: I think it’s a great pattern for us to understand how the kind of modern secular individual is drawn into faith in Jesus—maybe even “postmodern” is a better word. In modernism, there was such an emphasis on the apologetics of information. Paul Little. Josh McDowell. All of you probably have all the same books I have on how to argue, how to articulate your faith, how to answer every question that someone has so they have certainty.

I’ve got two teenagers in my house. That’s not their starting point anymore. They want to know, is this Jesus that you keep talking about, dad, is he real? And if he is real, how do I experience him? When you say that the way we experienced Jesus is through the Holy Spirit today, what is the Holy Spirit? How does he engage with us?

And so, this generation, this more postmodern secular culture, is longing for spiritual encounters, spiritual experiences. And so, Jesus is, like you said, drawing near, inviting them in a relationship, saying, reach out and touch.

He’s validating that. He doesn’t say to Thomas, you man of little faith, I can’t believe that you had to encounter me before you’d believe the testimony of your friends. They testified to you that I was alive, and you didn’t believe them. Gosh, be gone. He goes, no, I get it. Some people, that’s what you’re going to need. So, I’m here. So, touch it. What do you want to do? You want to touch it? You want to hug me? What are you going to need to have an encounter with the resurrected Jesus? And when he has it, it clicks.

We are now the incarnation of the resurrected Jesus as the local church, and it’s our responsibility to be praying for people to have encounters, to help facilitate those encounters through our own expressions and activities and to validate this need that people have to really encounter God alive and at work in the world around them.

[00:30:44] Anthony: It’s amazing to me, Jon, how frequently you see people of Scripture having doubts. And so often we want to push them aside, like you said, ye of little faith, but God doesn’t seem to be too worked up about that. He keeps showing up, keeps pursuing, and keeps drawing all people to himself. Hallelujah. Praise God.

Let’s pivot to our next pericope of the month. It’s 1 John 3:1-7. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Third Sunday in Easter, April 14. Jon, we’d be grateful if you’d read it for us, please.

[00:31:00] Jon: Absolutely.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us. Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves even as he is pure. Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous.

[00:31:59] Anthony: Verse 2 heralds, the children of God haven’t appeared yet as they will be. And as I was thinking about this, it reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ great sermon, The Weight of Glory. And in that, in part, he wrote, “There is no ordinary people, or there are no ordinary people. You’ve never talked to a mere mortal.” He furthers his case by saying, quote, next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Really, can this be true, Jon?

[00:32:34] Jon: Yeah. I love that image of viewing every person you meet with this kind of holiness, the sanctification of almost like sunglasses that you could put on that would allow you to see them not just as who they are, but as who they are becoming and who, in Christ, they will ultimately be.

And there’s a relational optimism that comes with that. There’s an ability to believe the best about someone. That ultimately would make me feel incredibly loved if someone treated me that way, if someone constantly gave me the benefit of the doubt, if they believed that I was a work in progress and not yet to be judged, so to speak.

And you would hope that the church would be some of the best in the world at doing this. And yet I think it’s one of the areas we really struggle with. And part of it, to me, goes almost back to a theological starting point of whether we view those around us through the lens of Genesis 1 or Genesis 3.

It’s become very common in the evangelical world and from a reformed theology to start our anthropology from Genesis 3, and to believe that humans are inherently sinful and fallen and corrupt and everything they do is—even if it looks good, it comes from a bad motivation. We are sinners first and foremost in need of redemption. And yet that’s not the origin story of humans.

The origin story is Genesis 1. We are made in the image of God, that we have inestimable worth, that everything about us cries out something about the nature of God that can be discovered and understood. And then after that, there was a fall.

But I believe that there is still the potential to look at any human being around you and identify those traces of God’s goodness in them, whether it’s in their motivations or in their actions, or even in their longings, that they’re not able to live out with perfection. And so, what I hear in this text here is John inviting us to see the world, not as it is, but as it will one day be, and to treat every person, not as they are, but as Jesus would want them to be.

In Brussels, even I had a friend who I heard him using a phrase over and over again. He didn’t call people Christians and non-Christians. I finally said to him, you keep using this phrase. Why are you call people not yet followers of Jesus? Who are you talking about? You mean non-Christians?

And he said to me, yeah. He goes, I used to use that phrase non-Christians, but I realized it was a binary, inside outside language. And I prefer to believe that Jesus is calling everyone to him, and that they’re on a journey. And I want to have an optimism towards that person, that what I see now is who they are now. And it’s only because they’re not yet a follower of Jesus.

And so, I thought, man, what an incredibly optimistic way of referring to someone who is not living a life that honors God. He’s doing exactly what John says here, viewing them through the lens of who they will one day be. And what that does, I think, is gets to the C.S. Lewis quote. It confers back on them the value of being made in the image of God, of being a sacred and holy individual who reflects God’s presence in the world, even though that presence has a way of being corrupted and bent that is not perfect.

[00:36:12] Anthony: I heard it said that love is the ability to see another person, not as you want them to be, but as they are, and offer them genuine warmth that they belong to the family of Christ.

And it gets to the heart of a conversation I had with a friend over a meal a couple of days ago. And I was saying to him, I think a good starting point with our neighbor is mutuality. And in mutuality, we see them as being people of dignity, of worth, of value. We respect them. We honor them.

That’s good, but I think to take it to the next level, to really embody the heart of our Lord is kinship, is seeing that we actually belong to the other. Not separate, but we belong to the same family.

And as you said, all of us are made in the image of God, and they too are included in his love, whether they recognize it or not. And to relate with people that way. That’s my brother, my sister; they may not know it, but I know who they are. And it just transforms the way that you interact with people even if they’re not acting the way you want them to. I don’t always act the way I want to, so somebody is going to have to show me grace over and over in my life.

So, it just seems to me, we live in a very disconnected world, Jon, and we’ve got to do better. We’re recording the day after the Kansas City Chiefs held their celebration parade for winning the Super Bowl. And there was a shooting someone died. Children are injured gravely. We’re just so disconnected, and we don’t see the value that God places on every human being to our detriment, I think.

Well, moving on to our next passage, it is John 10:11- 18. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, which falls on April 21, and it reads,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. 17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

Jon, if you were preaching this text, what’s your sermon going to be?

[00:39:24] Jon: It’s one of the first Bible studies I ever led as a summer camp counselor, maybe eight, nine months after I had given my life to Jesus. And it was this. It was on, I am the good shepherd. We were teaching through the “I am” [statements].

And I was reflecting this week on whether I would have the courage to teach it today the way I did then, because what I did on that day was I took everyone outside and I scattered the high school kids around this field. And I gave them all blindfolds and from the point where they started in this scattered dispersed area, I told them to put on the blindfolds.

And then I stood at one spot in the field, and I read this text, and I told them to follow me as I read. And I wandered around the field reading through John 10, while these blindfolded people tried to follow me. And then eventually I invited everyone to sit down, take off their blindfolds and look around the field.

And some were amazed at how far away they were from me. Some were very close. And then we gathered around, and we just had a debrief conversation of what was it like to try to follow someone simply by their voice. And some of the kids said it was scary. I bumped into a tree, and I quit. I just sat down. I was like, I’m not doing this.

Others said, I found your voice pretty quickly. And the closer I got to you, the more confident I felt. And when I realized I was right near you because your voice was so clear, I knew I was safe. I remember others who said, along the way I bumped into somebody else. And we started holding hands and I had great comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone trying to follow this voice.

And I was like, y’all this is incredible. This was such a sermon that they were writing of what the Christian life is like and what it’s like to follow and the discouragement that can come from being all alone and wanting to quit versus the comfort that comes from community, and what it’s like to be close to the voice versus far from the voice.

And I think more modern communicators need that level of experiential learning. I know it’s hard to do on a Sunday, but I think there’s a lot of lessons in there that someone could gather from that experience.

The other thing that came to my mind is really contrasting this text with a lot of the prophetic critiques of the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament. Because this idea of being bad shepherds or false shepherds, even evil shepherds, is used a lot in the Old Testament, prophetic writing that the Jewish leaders did not really care for the people that they were like these hired hands that were in it for their own interest and versus the shepherding impulsive of Jesus as the good shepherd.

So, there’s bad shepherding and good shepherding and understanding those motivations. And then I might actually even then connect it over to Ephesians 4 with this shepherding function that we’re all called as a church to fulfill. So how do we identify the characteristics of a bad shepherd who’s in it for their own glory versus a good shepherd who’s willing to lay down their life. And then how do we embody that as a community as we try to shepherd those in the world around us?

[00:42:35] Anthony: It seems to me that verse 16, Jon. gives us a hopeful word to people sometimes deemed as outsiders. We love to do that, don’t we, as human beings? Who’s in? Who’s out? But we sometimes see them as outsiders to God’s care and promises.

So, I wanted to ask you, how would you exegete this scripture for 16? And it says, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock with one shepherd.”

[00:43:09] Jon: It’s funny, that summer camp I had I did this lesson for seven weeks, right? You’d have different campers come through. And somewhere along there, a kid said to me, is Jesus talking about aliens? I said, wait, what?

He goes, he says that there are some who are of my flock who are not here yet. And one day they’ll [inaudible]. Are those aliens?

And I thought, what a valid question a kid would have. What is Jesus talking about?

[00:43:37] Anthony: So, what did you say, by the way?

[00:43:40] Jon: Yes, of course, there are aliens. And if there are aliens, Jesus is calling them too.

I think the ancient context to this, in the ancient Near East, was that he is trying to prepare his people to understand that there’s going to be a Jew and Gentile mixing. That Jewish community that has thought of themselves as insiders and God’s holy, protected people are soon going to be mixed into a community that involves those who were deemed as outsiders.

And those are Gentiles. And so that begins to happen, of course, in the book of Acts. But Jesus knows that is coming, so he’s trying to prepare them for that. I think today where we don’t think in terms of Jew and Gentile, the natural way to translate this would simply be to say, who around you, what communities around you, do you feel like don’t belong to you?

Because of their lifestyle, because of their socioeconomic reality, because of their race, class, gender, sexuality, who is it that you feel like doesn’t belong in the pen, so to speak, with you? And what would it be like if Jesus called them to join you or Jesus called you to join them to be in a pen with them?

How do you prepare your own heart for that? How do you recognize that you are not unique or special because he’s called you? There are others unlike you.

And I think that opens up us to be better prepared for multiethnic communities and communities that have come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and communities that are open to people with all sorts of different lifestyle choices who want to come investigate Jesus alongside them and recognizing that the sheep don’t get to say who’s in the flock, the shepherd does.

And so, the shepherd might invite some people in here that you’re uncomfortable with and that’s okay.

[00:45:37] Anthony: Yeah. And in reality, as the Savior of the world, he has. I think it was Bob Goff I heard say, God drew a circle around the world and said, you’re in. And now let’s go about proclaiming that and inviting people to live into that reality that he has died and been raised to life for them too.

Our final passage of the month is John 15:1-8. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Fifth Sunday in Easter, which is April 28. Jon, would you do the honors, please?

[00:46:08] Jon:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

[00:47:05] Anthony: Whew, there’s a lot in that passage, but we’ll start here. Jesus is the true vine, and he is the nourishment we need—whether we know it or not—of real life, vitality, relational sweetness, and the kind of sustainable fruit we ultimately desire. So why, Jon, do we so often seek a sugar high from somewhere else?

And because we know what comes with a sugar high, comes a crash. So, talk to us about that.

[00:47:35] Jon: Yeah. What an incredible kind of agrarian reference that still holds true for us today as we think about vineyards and wine. Even out here in California and wine country, this passage comes to my mind every time I drive by a vineyard and just think about how Jesus was just wandering through a field like this with his disciples making this point.

But the essence of this passage to me is the connection between roots and fruits. And from walking around any sort of farm, that there are seasons in which all of the work is being done underground in the roots. And that the roots are deepening, they’re getting the moisture, the nutrients they need, and that eventually they’ll produce the stock, and eventually in the right season they’ll produce the fruit.

But that takes a long time. You cannot go out to a vineyard 365 days a year and grab a grape, so to speak. There are only certain times because of the length of it. And I think part of why we look for sugar highs in life is because sugar highs are instant. There’s an immediate gratification that comes that we can do something right now to experience some sort of artificial, superficial rush. In order to experience it the correct way took, takes a lot of work and work that needed to have started before now.

And so, if I haven’t planted any roots and if I haven’t cared for my roots, if I haven’t done the pruning of the vine, there may not be any fruit on the tree. And so, if there’s no fruit for me to experience in that moment, it’s going to lead me to go somewhere else to buy that. So, I think what I resonate with is just the temptation to immediate gratification, to always looking for cheap artificial solutions offerings for the things I really want, which I believe can only come from the Holy Spirit in us.

So, I remember a pastor once saying of this text: if you’re rootless, you’re fruitless; and if you’re fruitless, you’re useless. And that has stuck in my head for many years. Anyone who wants to be used by God needs to have the fruit of God’s, of the Holy Spirit’s, presence.

But the way that starts is with our own rootedness in him. And those roots are really where I think this begins for us. And ultimately, the quality of fruit that we give in the world needs to be better than any of those superficial offerings.

[00:50:03] Anthony: Yeah. I think it was Watchman Nee that said, Negligence and prayer withers the inner man.” The fruit just withers.

I’m looking at verse 5. Jesus said, without me, you can’t do anything. I think he’s being literal. You can’t do anything without me. And so, we must be drinking in that relationship first. What’s that old saying? You can’t give what you don’t have. And so, let’s be rooted in the one who is the true vine.

My brother, we’ve talked about folks being in and out, and I wanted to remind our listeners that the Greek word for hospitality literally means the love of strangers. And like it says in Hebrews 13:2, look, don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers. So, as you drink in from the true vine, as we learn from him and his ways, and as we engage our neighbors, let’s show hospitality, love a stranger, because that’s what the Lord is doing by the Holy Spirit.

Jon, it’s been a joy having you on the podcast. I’m so glad you said yes. Thank you for your labor of love in the ministries that you’re participating in as a coach and counselor, and as a prophetic voice to the church.

We’re grateful for you. And it’s been a lot of fun. And as typical for our podcast, we like to close in prayer. And so, would you do the honor of praying over us, Jon?

[00:51:33] Jon: Absolutely.

Jesus, I thank you for this word picture and just reading it afresh today. I believe there are people listening to this who have this image on their walls or on stained glass in their sanctuaries or on prints on their nightstand, Lord. And yet it can be so easy to walk right by that every day and forget the essential spiritual truth of it, which is that we are called to cling to you, to abide in you, to be rooted in you, that all of our nutrients that we need in life solely come from you.

And I pray for everyone listening, Lord, that even this week in this season that we have, as we draw near to you and think about spiritual practices. And we just pray, Father, that you would help us to sink our roots into you, that your Holy spirit would be the life blood flowing through all of us, that, Father, the fruits that come out of our life would be out of the abundance of the work that you’re doing in our life.

And we just truly believe the truth of this text, Father, that is we can’t do this, but you can. And you are in us, and we are in you. And Lord, there’ll be days we don’t even want to live the Christian life, but you want to. And you are in us, and we are in you.

And Father, at the end of our lives, when we look back at any fruit we may have produced, we want to be able to say, we didn’t do any of this, but you did because you were in us, and we were in you. So, I pray this week, Father, that we might cling to you, cling to the vine, prune out anything that needs to be pruned, Lord. Cut those things that are not worthy of your kingdom, throw them in the fire, Lord, that we might continue to grow and celebrate those as cutbacks and not just setbacks in life, Lord. And we pray that ultimately through this, we might become a flourishing, fruit bearing plant that has great value to you and your kingdom. We pray this in Jesus’ strong name. Amen.

Anthony: Amen.


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Sermon for April 7, 2024 – Second Sunday in Easter

Welcome to this week's episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript


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

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

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

John 20:21-22 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Greg Williams Speaking of Life.

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

This week’s theme is the blessing of peace and joy. In our call to worship psalm, we are given a picturesque depiction of unity and harmony lived out among God’s people. The reading from Acts also displays a peace and joy in the form of solidarity and sharing of possessions among the earliest believers. 1 John links the fellowship among believers with the fellowship given in Christ with God, and then elaborates on confession and forgiveness, which brings peace. The Gospel text in John recounts the post-resurrection story of Jesus’ blessing of peace, along with his bestowal of the Spirit, on his fearful disciples behind locked doors.

A Double Blessing

John 20:19-31 ESV

The Easter season is a time when the church can once again revisit the biblical witness of the risen Jesus, along with the blessing that comes to those who put their trust in him. This Easter season we are following closely the Apostle John’s testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and the implications of faith in him based on who Jesus has revealed himself to be. Considering John’s gospel account of the first encounters of the risen Lord, along with a look at today’s account of a later post-resurrection appearance, we are given an opportunity to make use of a wordplay to make a point. That wordplay will be the word “double.” Which is why this sermon is titled “A Double Blessing.”

To set this up, let me point out some “doubling” that we see in John’s writing. First, the way John tells the story of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in John 20:1-18, along with today’s story of Jesus’ later post-resurrection appearance, is by making use of two parallel “double-stories.” So, there are two doubles right there. If you remember John’s telling of the Easter story, he pairs the story of two disciples with Mary Magdalene. In doing so he shows a contrast between faith and doubt of those who are encountered by Jesus. In the resurrection story, it is the “beloved disciple” who demonstrates faith upon seeing the empty tomb, contrasted with Mary Magdalene who still believes Jesus is dead, even while standing face-to-face with him. Then, in our story today, John contrasts the response of rejoicing by ten disciples who are encountered by Jesus in a locked room, with that of Thomas who is absent and declares he will not believe without proof. So, now let’s take a look at some more “doubles” in John’s second use of a “double-story.”

As you read through this story you may notice a few more doubles. First, we see an image of two doors. There is the locked door of the room the disciples are hiding in and then there is Jesus, the Door, who appears in the room. Admittingly, that may be an exegetical stretch. But these are not: There are two occasions of disciples locked in a room. There are two blessings of peace pronounced by Jesus. There are two appearances of Jesus—one with the absence of Thomas and one with him present. There are also two presentations of Jesus’s hands and side. And just for fun, Thomas is referenced as “the Twin.” You may be able to find a few more doubles. But I probably should stop and make my point.

The point is simply to reiterate a pattern observed in all scripture from Genesis to Revelation. In Jesus, what is lost, is not only restored, but exponentially renewed. So, even using the “double” wordplay is not good enough. God is up to far more than just “doubling” of some blessing. He aims to bring us into the very source and fountain of all blessing, his own life and love shared by the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Here’s another way to think about it.

Borrowing from theologian Walter Brueggeman, we see a pattern particularly in the Psalms, and generally in all scripture, of God bringing us through the process of Orientation-Disorientation-New Orientation. When we go through a crisis, experience a loss, or have any experience that amounts to “disorientation,” we usually want to go back to the way things were. We seek re-orientation. However, not only is this impossible, but it’s not the pattern that God holds out to us in scripture. In Jesus Christ, God has done a new thing. He leads us to “New Orientation” which transcends the past and leads us to a joyous future. This framework is one aspect we can see in the story of Jesus encountering the fearful disciples in a locked room after the resurrection. Let’s take a look and keep in mind, the “double-blessing” pattern of Jesus’ work in our lives.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19 ESV)

We can identify with the disciples locking the doors because of their “fear of the Jews.” When we go through “disorienting” events in our life we can be fearful of the future, locking ourselves away, grieving the loss of the past. But Jesus gets behind our locked doors. He doesn’t wait for an invitation, and he is not hindered by our fears. He shows up with the words, “Peace be with you.” For the disciples this would be comforting considering the last time they saw Jesus they had abandoned and denied him as they acted fearfully during the events leading to his crucifixion. But Jesus transcends our past actions and the past events of disorientation of our lives. He restores us with peace – a lasting reconciliation that frees us from all past events that have left us scarred and wounded.

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:20-23 ESV)

Jesus used his own scars and wounds to serve as a connecting point for the disciples. Most likely, a very real fear the disciples had was being caught by the Romans and having their own hands pierced by nails and their own side impaled with a spear. To see the resurrected Jesus in their midst displaying these scars was a message that the Romans have no lasting power. Jesus gets the final word and that word in this moment is “Peace.” This is a second pronouncement of “Peace be with you” from Jesus. We can see the weight and force of the reality of peace that Jesus brings by his speaking of it twice. If all of creation was called into existence through the Word spoken once, then how much more of a reality of something he speaks twice! In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we do indeed have an abiding and lasting peace.

Within this reality of peace given to us, Jesus then commissions the church. He tells the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Jesus’ whole life and ministry was lived in the Spirit. From birth, through ministry, and all the way to his death, all that Jesus said and did was done in the Spirit. This is how the church is sent into the world. We are not sent out alone or abandoned. We are not sent out on our own power, cleverness, or ability. He begins a new mission for the disciples as he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Being sent does not mean being sent away from Jesus but being sent with Jesus into his continuing ministry. Jesus has begun a new thing in his disciples to go out and fearlessly proclaim the new creation and it’s new King. As we see who Jesus is as the resurrected one who sends his Spirit, we can move forward into the new orientation he has for us. It’s in this newness that we have life. There is no going back to the past, but we need not fear the future as Jesus stands as the Alpha and Omega, redeeming all time past, present, and future in his finished work on the cross. And we are not left alone but are given the Holy Spirit who encourages and empowers us to move forward into the new life and mission he has for us. The disciples are about to take their first steps from being fishermen to being fishers of men. The “double-blessing” is upon them. It’s a blessing held out to us as well in Jesus Christ.

In giving the Holy Spirit for this new mission the disciples would be entering, Jesus gives a descriptor of what that will look like: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” We will want to make sure to understand this in light of all scripture. We know Jesus is not giving us the power to make people forgiven or not forgiven but rather he is teaching the disciples the importance of living in the Spirit. As we forgive others, we come to understand more fully the truth and reality of forgiveness found in Jesus.

As a side note, Jesus also reveals by showing them his hands and his side that he is no ghost. His resurrection is a bodily resurrection. He restores and redeems all humanity with all our scars and all our wounds to a glorified body with a glorious future. That’s a glory we can’t fully comprehend this side of death. But Jesus gives us a glimpse of it as he stands unaffected and unhindered by the scars from his crucifixion. Those scars are now being used to elicit rejoicing from his disciples. We can trust that he will turn our scars and wounds into points of rejoicing as well.

It’s also the scars of Jesus that serve as the point of connection for Thomas to overcome his doubts.

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29 ESV)

Now we come to see the contrast in faith that John highlights with his “double-story” of the ten disciples first encounter with Jesus behind locked doors, and Jesus’ second encounter with Thomas included. It’s important to note here that even though the ten disciples who were in the room when Jesus appeared are telling their brother Thomas that they “have seen the Lord,” they too, along with Thomas in this moment, are still hiding behind locked doors. Often Thomas bears the brunt of unbelief in this story but that may not be a fair reading of John’s point. Each person in John’s narrative is dealing with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in different ways and at different times. Faith in Jesus is personal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to putting one’s trust in the Lord Jesus. It’s a work of the Spirit in each of us at a very personal level. It is not some mechanical method, automatic technique, or magic formula at play. Faith, by which we mean trust, is, by definition, something that can only take place in a relationship. And Jesus by the Spirit, is the initiator of that relationship. And he will take whatever time and approach that is fitting for each of us to grow our faith in him.

For Thomas, it seems he needed another week to even be in the same room as the other disciples. They are all behind locked doors, but Thomas seems to have another door locked as well. The door of belief. And before we look down on Thomas, let us not forget the many times we have done the same. Whether through life experiences or human reasoning we decide that Jesus is not to be trusted. Have you been there? Maybe you have been there and back again. Trust takes time and fear certainly impedes our progress. So, we react by locking the door and refusing to let Jesus in. But then, unexplainably, and without our invitation…. Jesus appears. He doesn’t need our belief in order for him to be present in our lives. He just appears behind our locked doors of unbelief and starts bringing forth a faith that we couldn’t bring forth on our own. Praise God! Jesus finds a way behind all our locked doors, and he meets us where we are, building a faith in us that leads to life.

Did you notice that Thomas’ demand for evidence that Jesus was alive was the very thing Jesus had already presented to the other ten disciples? And Jesus did not lose his patience with Thomas, or tell him, “Sorry, you should have been here last week.” No, he just presented his hands and side again, this time with the added invitation to touch them as that was what Thomas declared it would take for him to believe. And to Thomas’ credit, he was a man of his word by professing, “My Lord and my God!” We don’t know if Thomas actually touched the scars or not, but we do know that Jesus restored his faith by meeting Thomas where he was in his unbelief.

After Thomas’ profound confession of faith, Jesus asks, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Is Jesus making a comparison here to diminish how Thomas grew in faith? I think we are inclined to read it that way as we love to make comparisons that put us in a favorable light. But it seems more probable, in the way John is writing this, that Jesus is alluding to Thomas’ and the other disciples’ role in being sent into the world to proclaim the very message they have just come to believe. Jesus is risen. In hearing this message which the disciples will preach, others like you and me, who were not present to witness Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, will share the same blessing of being encountered by the risen Jesus, who gets behind our locked doors to bring us to faith. In this way, the passage concludes on a note of double-blessing that comes with the blessing of Jesus appearing to the disciples and commissioning them to tell us the story today where we can receive the blessing of placing our trust in the one who was raised to bring us new life. And that’s the story we have just heard. Do you believe it? If not, there are more stories to be told. Jesus is not done getting behind our locked doors and bringing us into his peace. John concludes saying much the same thing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 ESV)

As we continue our journey through this Easter Season, may we see the risen Lord who gets behind our locked doors. As he meets us where we are, even in the middle of our fear and pain of loss, may our faith grow as he encounters us, helping us to move forward in newness. This new orientation in Jesus is where we find life–joyous, abundant overflowing life. It’s where we find that we are “double-blessed.”

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W1

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April 7—Second Sunday in Easter
John 20:19-31, “Peace Be With You”

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Program Transcript


The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W1

Anthony: Let’s transition to our first pericope of the month. It’s John 20:19-31. I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the second Sunday in Easter, which is April 7.

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” 24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” 30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

Jon, Jesus came to his frightened friends and said, “Peace be with you.” And then goes on to say, “As the Father sent me, I’m sending you.” And this seems to be significant in understanding who God is and what God does and what he would have us to do. What say you? What does this have to teach us and compel us to do?

Jon: Yeah, I’ll be honest. This phrase, peace be with you, is a phrase that continues to grow and expand as I mature in my own theology, I think. I was born in ‘75 and grew up and in and around the church without it really being something that was a personal relationship with me.

And when I heard phrases like, peace be with you, offered as a benediction—I can remember even one of my parents who would finish their letters, peace and joy, the word “peace” for me was always a 1960s and 70s definition of peace, right? It was either global peace, world peace, or we don’t want wars. So, peace as an absence of conflict. But I was like, that’s not what my parents are writing in their letters.

What I thought they were writing was more of a hippie ‘”peace,” more of “cool out, man,” like a relaxed chill. As if Jesus shows up and he can sense that everyone’s super anxious and he is, cool out, boys; I’m with you.

And the more I grow, the more I understand the essence of this word “peace,” and its Old Testament roots in this Hebrew version of shalom, I realized that it’s not either of those things completely, right? Yes, God’s peace might offer calm from our anxiety and yes, God’s peace does ultimately maybe get expressed as an absence of conflict, but at its root, this word shalom is the defining characteristic of God’s kingdom.

It’s not just the absence of something; it marks the presence of God’s power, of God’s Spirit. It’s God’s rule and reign wrapped up in one word. So, shalom is justice and love and beauty and harmony and reconciliation. God’s shalom captures the redemption and renewal of all creation into the way that the world was meant to be.

So, I think what Jesus is trying to do when he shows up to these disciples, some of whom haven’t seen him yet, is he’s trying to mark the inauguration of this new kingdom they’ve been waiting for, that has been coming. But literally his resurrected body is the first physical object that is completed in this kingdom.

It’s been he’s the first person who’s resurrected. And so, what he’s saying is, I come with this new peace we’ve been waiting for. I come and I’m ushering in my kingdom in this shalom. And so, because of that, everything has changed.

I’m not alleviating all conflict. My gosh, these men will all die for their faith. More conflict is coming. And I’m not getting rid of all anxiety because there will be much anxiety in the years ahead as they try to follow Jesus into ministry. But what he’s saying is that the peace of my kingdom has become even more real now through my resurrection. And the story is taking on a new chapter, so to speak.

And I love the idea that when he says, peace be with you, I think also what he’s hinting at is peace is with you because I am peace. That peace is a person, and so his body—the fullness of who God is in the Incarnation and now in the resurrection—is the first expression of the fullness of God’s peace.

And what’s crazy to me—and I’ve always wrestled with this—is why does he still have holes in his hands? Why does he still have scars? Shouldn’t the peace of God, the restoration of all things have removed those scars, those wounds, the marks of the wounds, right?

But I am so encouraged as someone who has wounds in my life, who has emotional scars in my life that have continued to be part of who I am even as I follow Jesus, to recognize that God values those experiences and transforms them. And I remember hearing a sermon on this years ago, and it brought tears to my eyes. This moment with Thomas, Thomas says, the only thing that will prove God’s presence to me, the only apologetic I’m going to believe are the wounds. The only evidence that God is real will be if I see Jesus and I see these wounds.

And I have found in my life that as many times as I’ve tried to argue people into the kingdom with apologetics around the validity of Scripture or the historicity of our faith or arguments to the nature of God, what often really connects with people on a deeper level is when they see the healing that has come in my life that Jesus has brought in areas of my woundedness. And so, I’ve learned to steward my pain and suffering and weakness and to be honest with that and say, hey, you want to stick your hand in the hole? Stick your finger in this hole. You want to see my scar, so to speak? Because I’m not bleeding anymore and Jesus is not actively bleeding, but there’s still an indicator that pain and suffering took place. And yet he has transcended that and that’s part of that peace, too.

Anthony: So, taking that a step further, and I agree with you, I heard somebody once say, Jon, that I trust men who keep their wounds where I can see them.

And I wonder, how can we embody that sort of transparency, like here I am scars and all to a world that needs to know that’s okay. Because it just seems to me, we’re often trying to hide the wounds and especially in a social media age where everything needs to look perfect when we know it’s not.

So, what would you say when you’re going out into your parish, your neighborhood, talking about how could you embody peace be with you?

Jon: Yeah, the way you said that reminded me of that famous scene in Jaws where the two men are under deck and they’re basically having a competition of to show off all of their scars and wounds. Oh yeah look at this one, [he] shows the gash in his arm. Then the guy pulls up a shirt, oh, yeah look at this one. And there’s this bonding that is taking place. They go from competing with each other to actually appreciating, okay, you are like me. And we don’t need to compete anymore. Let’s just celebrate that. We both had these experiences and we both survived them.

And I think in our culture around us when people’s wounds are being exposed, when we see someone going through something that might initially bring judgment from us, maybe they’re going through a divorce, maybe they’ve had a catastrophic moral failure, maybe they are embarrassed from something has come out that is a wound, that is a trauma, the natural human fleshly tendency is to either distance ourself from them or to judge them or to say, thank God I’m not like them.

But I think what Jesus is inviting us to do is actually to draw near. And say, your wound has been exposed. Can I show you my wound and can I maybe point you to the one who has healed me of my wound? And so, it’s not that I am without scars or without wounds or without faults, but actually I am bearing them up in a way that might allow me to connect with you.

And that’s where the real hope for that person might come from. So, it’s ironic. You said about social media because it’s something that I’ve wrestled with a lot. And I in my on again, off again, use of social media, it’s very hard to figure out how to be transparent because it’s not a medium that seems to welcome or celebrate that.

And I have seen people try to post like, I couldn’t get out of bed today and I’m really depressed. And I often feel like I don’t know how to even respond because there’s no intimacy of community right now. I’m in my house here, you’re at your house, stuck in your bed. And it does feel artificial. I don’t want to say inappropriate, but artificial. It’s very different than saying to someone over coffee, hey, can I let you know something.

Anthony: That’s absolutely it. Jesus did not say the words, peace be with you, on a phone call or a zoom meeting. He literally came through the walls and showed up and was present with proximity. I think you’ve really nailed it. It’s about proximity and relationship, eyeball to eyeball.

I’ll repeat something I’ve said in the past, I think God and his brilliance put tear ducts in her eyes because our tears are meant to be seen by others in trust and relationship, that people can say, yeah, I’m here; I’m with you, as Jesus did.

Thomas was gifted with this experiential encounter, a very personal one with the risen Lord and his doubt melted away into one of the greatest proclamations of faith in the entire New Testament: my Lord and my God!

What does this encounter have to say to us beyond what you’ve already said? Anything you want to add there?

Jon: I think it’s a great pattern for us to understand how the kind of modern secular individual is drawn into faith in Jesus—maybe even “postmodern” is a better word. In modernism, there was such an emphasis on the apologetics of information. Paul Little. Josh McDowell. All of you probably have all the same books I have on how to argue, how to articulate your faith, how to answer every question that someone has so they have certainty.

I’ve got two teenagers in my house. That’s not their starting point anymore. They want to know, is this Jesus that you keep talking about, dad, is he real? And if he is real, how do I experience him? When you say that the way we experienced Jesus is through the Holy Spirit today, what is the Holy Spirit? How does he engage with us?

And so, this generation, this more postmodern secular culture, is longing for spiritual encounters, spiritual experiences. And so, Jesus is, like you said, drawing near, inviting them in a relationship, saying, reach out and touch.

He’s validating that. He doesn’t say to Thomas, you man of little faith, I can’t believe that you had to encounter me before you’d believe the testimony of your friends. They testified to you that I was alive, and you didn’t believe them. Gosh, be gone. He goes, no, I get it. Some people, that’s what you’re going to need. So, I’m here. So, touch it. What do you want to do? You want to touch it? You want to hug me? What are you going to need to have an encounter with the resurrected Jesus? And when he has it, it clicks.

We are now the incarnation of the resurrected Jesus as the local church, and it’s our responsibility to be praying for people to have encounters, to help facilitate those encounters through our own expressions and activities and to validate this need that people have to really encounter God alive and at work in the world around them.

Anthony: It’s amazing to me, Jon, how frequently you see people of Scripture having doubts. And so often we want to push them aside, like you said, ye of little faith, but God doesn’t seem to be too worked up about that. He keeps showing up, keeps pursuing, and keeps drawing all people to himself. Hallelujah. Praise God.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of some examples of when you were “double-blessed,” meaning you got something that far exceeded your expectations? Describe this experience. How might that compare to what the disciples experienced when Jesus appeared in their locked room?
  • What did you think of Walter Brueggeman’s insight of the biblical pattern of Orientation-Disorientation-New Orientation? How often are we looking for reorientation when Jesus is aiming to bring us into a new orientation?
  • What are some examples or experiences you can share of hiding behind locked doors out of fear?
  • What did it say to you to read that Jesus appeared in the room that the disciples had locked? Can you think of times Jesus appeared in your life without your invitation?
  • What did you think of the statement that “faith is a work that can only take place in a relationship?” How does understanding faith as trust in a person change how you understand faith in Jesus? How does this shape our view of what Jesus is doing in our present circumstances, whether good or bad?
  • What was your impression of Jesus’ actions and words to Thomas, when appearing to the disciples for the second time? What does this say about Jesus and his heart toward us?
  • Has this story of Jesus, appearing behind the disciples’ locked doors, helped you grow in trusting Jesus a little more?

Sermon for April 14, 2024 – Third Sunday in Easter

Welcome to this week's episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3021 | Jesus Goes Viral
Jeff Broadnax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 4:1-8

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

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

I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

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

This week’s theme is new identity, new power. In our call to worship psalm, we are reminded that we can rest in peace knowing that the Lord hears us when we call. The reading from Acts recounts Peter reminding others that healing power only comes from Christ.  Our epistolary text from 1 John explores the implications of our identity as children of God. The Gospel text in Luke records the startling appearance of Jesus, who confronts the disciples with the reality of his resurrection and charges them to be his witnesses to all nations.

Being Who You Are

1 John 3:1-7 ESV

For today’s message on the third Sunday of Easter, we will remain with the Apostle John’s writings, only we are going to change books. Instead of looking at John’s Gospel, we are going to look at a letter John wrote to a close community of believers who had been exposed to some false teachers. These false teachers were former members of this community who left and took some followers with them. So, John is writing to remind those who remained loyal to the community of believers the truth that goes back to “the beginning.” This Truth, as John begins his letter, is Jesus himself, who came down as the Incarnation to bring us into eternal life. So, for the season of Easter, we can read John’s short passage today as a reminder of the new beginning we are given in Jesus on account of his resurrection. Easter changes everything. And one of the key changes it makes for us is defining our true identity and helping us live out of that reality every day. John reminds them, and us, of whose we are, so we can live being who we are.

I’m sure we can all recount times in our life that our identity has been challenged. A time of crisis or challenge can shake our beliefs down to the roots and cause us to question who we are. When it comes to the reality of our identity in Christ, this becomes an issue of having our faith shaken. In the wake of false teachers who have inflicted losses on those John addresses as “little children,” John knows he needs to build their faith by reminding them of who they are in light of their relationship with the risen Lord. This letter is included in the canon of scripture as the Holy Spirit knew we too would need this constant reminder. As was stated in last week’s sermon, the Easter season is a time when the church can once again revisit the biblical witness of the risen Jesus along with the blessing that comes to those who put their trust in him. John is trying to restore the trust of his “little children” in Jesus, by writing a letter that we now can read for restoration of our own. As we read, we will discover some beautiful blessings that come to those who live in trusting obedience as “little children” who belong to the Father on account of the risen Lord.

As a backdrop, it is good to be aware of a hideous practice that was common in the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of this letter. John is writing to people who understood the Roman practice that took place when a child was born to a Roman family. The child would be placed on the floor at the father’s feet. If the father accepted the child, he would reach down and pick the child up to indicate that the father has accepted the child as his own. The child would then become part of the family, taking on the family name and all the benefits thereof. If the father did not choose to accept the child, he would walk away, leaving the child to be cast out on the streets. This barbaric practice may have been the norm in the culture of the time, but it was not the message of Good News about Jesus’ Father. This is why Christians during that time were known to rescue these abandoned children that had been so inhumanely cast out. John, in this passage, grounds our identity in the Good News that the Father has reached down into our humanity and lifted us up in his Son, Jesus Christ. The Father is one who loves all his children, and he never turns his back on us. This is a Father we can trust, who places his name on us, and who gives us all the blessings that come with that trust.

If we are going to grow in our trust in the Father, we must come to see more and more who he is. Is he like the Roman fathers who may or may not turn us away and leave us for dead? Or is he the Father Jesus reveals to us? This is a big reason Jesus had to come in the flesh. The Incarnation provides for us a revelation of the Father. Everything we see Jesus do and say reveals something about who the Father is. Understanding God as Trinity is essential for this understanding which the early church grasped and passed down to us. It springs from Jesus’ own words to us when he says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” On this biblical and theological foundation we have the historically orthodox understanding of Jesus as the self-revelation of the Father. Jesus never does anything or says anything that would contradict the Father’s own heart and character. It is from this foundation that John is going to boldly proclaim the love of the Father for us and remind us what we have been given as his children.

Specifically, as we go through the passage, we will be able to see four aspects of our identity as children of God.

  1. Peace
  2. Permanence
  3. Personhood
  4. Participation

A reminder of who God is as our loving Father can safeguard us against the lies and deceptions that false teachers, and the evil one pulling their strings, use to lure us away from the community of faith. If you have struggled with your faith and identity because of some confusing rhetoric from outside the church, and even more disturbing, from within the church, then listen to John’s words of affirmation of who we truly are in Jesus Christ. We will be reminded that we are the Father’s children who have been claimed, loved, and eternally embraced in the death, resurrection, and ascension of his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin with the first verse of our text to see the first of four realities about our identity established in Jesus Christ:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1 ESV)

Peace

There is no conflict between being “called children of God” and actually being his child. Our identity as belonging to the Father is not in label only. The Father calls us children and we know the Father does not tell a lie. Being a child of God is the most fundamental truth of our identity. We may not always experience being known by others in this way, but it does not change the reality of who we are. We cannot expect the world to tell us who we are. We do not belong to the world; we belong to the Father. The world with all its allure will clamor to have you place your identity in anything other than Jesus, the true Lord and King of this world.

The next verse contains two realities regarding our identity in Christ:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV)

Permanence

Being a child of God is not a potential or some idealistic dream for the future. It is our identity “now.” We may not fully see our identity now, but we can trust that it is who the Father made us to be. We are included in the Sonship of Jesus and therefore share in the very life and relationship between the Father and his Son in the Spirit. Our identity of being a child of God will never be revoked any more than Jesus will cease being the Son of the Father.

Personhood

The full revelation of who we are as children of God is grounded in a face-to-face relationship with Jesus. Our personhood is fully seen in the person of Jesus. We are not fundamentally “individuals” but rather persons in relationship. We do not realize or actualize our own identity from a center within ourselves. Our identity is centered in Jesus Christ. When we look elsewhere, we remain confused about our identity as children of God.

The final four verses give us our fourth reality regarding our identity along with some implications of living this reality out in our daily lives:

And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (1 John 3:3-7 ESV)

Participation

The Father did not claim us as his children just so he could put us on a shelf for decoration. He created us to be a real participant in the divine life. We are made to participate in the very life the Son has with his Father. As we participate, we are truly being who we are intended to be. This is the good life of faith, hope and love. We don’t have to create this life for ourselves. We can participate in it as blessed children of the Father for that is indeed who we are.

Children receive all their Father has to give them. They do not have to earn it by making a name for themselves. The Father’s name has already been placed on them. The lie we may be tempted to believe is that the Father really wants slaves, not sons and daughters. This is a false teaching deeply embedded in our world, tempting us to ground our worth and value in what we can do or produce (for the Master) rather than who we are as children of the Father. If you ever seen the 2005 Batman movie, Batman Begins, you may recall the scene where Batman reveals his identity to his childhood girlfriend by saying, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” This can illustrate how we too can go through life hiding behind the mask of “good works,” finding our identity in what we do (or don’t do). Like Batman, we can become vigilantes by taking of the fruit of “The Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong and choose to be the source of our own identity. But, unlike Batman who lives a double life, we do not define ourselves by an identity we can carve out by our own works. We do not achieve our identity, rather we receive it from the one we belong to, our Heavenly Father.

This is the context John has in mind when talking about sin. Sin, which is nothing short of thinking and acting as if we are not the children of God, has no place in the life of his children. When we participate in sin, we are not participating in the life we have in Christ. We are not receiving our identity he gives us in his Son. In short, sin reflects an identity of one who does not trust his Heavenly Father, but rather trusts in himself instead. In resistance to God’s gift of grace, we are trying to achieve our identity for ourselves, in one way or another. However, the Father has placed his name on us. John’s pronouncement that sin is lawlessness can serve as a backdoor reminder for us to live out of the true identity of who we are in Christ.

The word “lawlessness” used in this passage comes from the Greek word anomia. That word shares the same spelling of the Latin word anomia that is in many words we use today, only it means “without name.” John is not making this explicit connection, but interestingly enough, the Latin meaning of anomia does convey what lies at the root of lawlessness. When we forget that our Father has placed his name on us, making us his children in Jesus Christ, we will act out in lawlessness, not trusting the Father’s word to us, and relying on our own word to ourselves instead. We will live like people “without name” continually grasping to make a name for ourselves. Thankfully, we are not without name. The Father has lifted us up, claiming us, placing his name on us and giving us full fellowship in the family. John doesn’t want us to be deceived about our true identity. He wants us to live out the identity we have already been given in Jesus Christ.

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W2

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April 14—Third Sunday in Easter
1 John 3:1-7, “The Weight of Glory”

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Program Transcript


The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W2

Anthony: Let’s pivot to our next pericope of the month. It’s 1 John 3:1-7. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Third Sunday in Easter, April 14. Jon, we’d be grateful if you’d read it for us, please.

Jon: Absolutely.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us. Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves even as he is pure. Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous.

Anthony: Verse 2 heralds, the children of God haven’t appeared yet as they will be. And as I was thinking about this, it reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ great sermon, The Weight of Glory. And in that, in part, he wrote, “There is no ordinary people, or there are no ordinary people. You’ve never talked to a mere mortal.” He furthers his case by saying, quote, next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Really, can this be true, Jon?

Jon: Yeah. I love that image of viewing every person you meet with this kind of holiness, the sanctification of almost like sunglasses that you could put on that would allow you to see them not just as who they are, but as who they are becoming and who, in Christ, they will ultimately be.

And there’s a relational optimism that comes with that. There’s an ability to believe the best about someone. That ultimately would make me feel incredibly loved if someone treated me that way, if someone constantly gave me the benefit of the doubt, if they believed that I was a work in progress and not yet to be judged, so to speak.

And you would hope that the church would be some of the best in the world at doing this. And yet I think it’s one of the areas we really struggle with. And part of it, to me, goes almost back to a theological starting point of whether we view those around us through the lens of Genesis 1 or Genesis 3.

It’s become very common in the evangelical world and from a reformed theology to start our anthropology from Genesis 3, and to believe that humans are inherently sinful and fallen and corrupt and everything they do is—even if it looks good, it comes from a bad motivation. We are sinners first and foremost in need of redemption. And yet that’s not the origin story of humans.

The origin story is Genesis 1. We are made in the image of God, that we have inestimable worth, that everything about us cries out something about the nature of God that can be discovered and understood. And then after that, there was a fall.

But I believe that there is still the potential to look at any human being around you and identify those traces of God’s goodness in them, whether it’s in their motivations or in their actions, or even in their longings, that they’re not able to live out with perfection. And so, what I hear in this text here is John inviting us to see the world, not as it is, but as it will one day be, and to treat every person, not as they are, but as Jesus would want them to be.

In Brussels, even I had a friend who I heard him using a phrase over and over again. He didn’t call people Christians and non-Christians. I finally said to him, you keep using this phrase. Why are you call people not yet followers of Jesus? Who are you talking about? You mean non-Christians?

And he said to me, yeah. He goes, I used to use that phrase non-Christians, but I realized it was a binary, inside outside language. And I prefer to believe that Jesus is calling everyone to him, and that they’re on a journey. And I want to have an optimism towards that person, that what I see now is who they are now. And it’s only because they’re not yet a follower of Jesus.

And so, I thought, man, what an incredibly optimistic way of referring to someone who is not living a life that honors God. He’s doing exactly what John says here, viewing them through the lens of who they will one day be. And what that does, I think, is gets to the C.S. Lewis quote. It confers back on them the value of being made in the image of God, of being a sacred and holy individual who reflects God’s presence in the world, even though that presence has a way of being corrupted and bent that is not perfect.

Anthony: I heard it said that love is the ability to see another person, not as you want them to be, but as they are, and offer them genuine warmth that they belong to the family of Christ.

And it gets to the heart of a conversation I had with a friend over a meal a couple of days ago. And I was saying to him, I think a good starting point with our neighbor is mutuality. And in mutuality, we see them as being people of dignity, of worth, of value. We respect them. We honor them.

That’s good, but I think to take it to the next level, to really embody the heart of our Lord is kinship, is seeing that we actually belong to the other. Not separate, but we belong to the same family.

And as you said, all of us are made in the image of God, and they too are included in his love, whether they recognize it or not. And to relate with people that way. That’s my brother, my sister; they may not know it, but I know who they are. And it just transforms the way that you interact with people even if they’re not acting the way you want them to. I don’t always act the way I want to, so somebody is going to have to show me grace over and over in my life.

So, it just seems to me, we live in a very disconnected world, Jon, and we’ve got to do better. We’re recording the day after the Kansas City Chiefs held their celebration parade for winning the Super Bowl. And there was a shooting someone died. Children are injured gravely. We’re just so disconnected, and we don’t see the value that God places on every human being to our detriment, I think.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of a time in your life where your identity was shaken on account of some crisis?
  • Why is it important to know that Jesus is the self-revelation of the Father? What’s at stake if he is not?
  • The sermon claimed that the first reality regarding our identity in Christ is “peace.” Discuss the peace that comes when what we are called is who we are. Why might it be hard to believe that we are really children of God, and not just “children” in name only?
  • The second reality was “permanence.” What difference does it make knowing that being a child of God is not a potential or future dream but a present reality that will never change? How might this change how we live each day?
  • The third reality was “personhood.” What difference does it make to know that our identity has more to do with our relationship with Jesus than some “individualistic” self-determination? Who can better tell us who we are? Ourselves, or our Creator? What are some implications to your answer?
  • The fourth reality listed in the sermon was “participation.” How would you discuss the difference between receiving our identity from the Father, with that of achieving our identity for the Father?
  • Discuss the statement from the sermon, “When we participate in sin, we are not participating in the life we have in Christ.” How would you describe sin from the context of being a child of God?

Sermon for April 21, 2024 – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Welcome to this week's episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript


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

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

You know the Psalm, which begins like this:

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

Psalm 26:1-2 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

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

This week’s theme is the good shepherd. In our call to worship Psalm, the blessings of having the Lord as our Good Shepherd are displayed by use of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. Acts 4 presents a contrast between some religious rulers who were more concerned with their reputation than for those in need, with that of the Apostles who put themselves at risk by not withholding the healing message of the gospel from someone who was sick. In 1 John love is authenticated by Jesus laying down his life for us, a love that we are called to participate in our relationships with others. The gospel reading in John records Jesus’ own words of disclosure on what it means for him to be the Good Shepherd.

What Good is a Dead Shepherd?

John 10:11-18 ESV

One of the most memorable lines from the movie, Forest Gump, was when Gump says, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” As the movie unfolded it did seem that Gump was the smartest man in the room on this one very important point. That movie may challenge us with the question: Do you know what love is? And if so, how are you sure? That is also a good question to ponder within our cultural climate where many claims of love are being paraded around, some in sharp contrast with each other. So, how do we arrive at the point that we, along with Gump, can say “I know what love is?”

For believers, we do not have to come up with our own answer to that question. We trust that Jesus has already revealed to us the deepest knowing of love by showing us the identity of his Father, who is love and the source of love. Jesus doesn’t just tell us or show us what love is, although he does that as well, but he invites us into that love in a very real and abiding way. Jesus extends the love of the Father to us, the very love he has experienced and shared for all eternity, in order that we can know God for who he is and participate in the love he has for us and for others. It’s only from this ground that we can truly say “we know what love is,” or more accurately, “who love is.”

However, just saying we know what love is doesn’t make it so. As we look around our world today, we will find plenty of people, movements, organizations, programs, leaders, and other voices that claim they know what love is, and therefore, you should follow their example or teaching in order to be considered a “loving” person as well. Have you seen this displayed in the media around you, whether it be mainstream news outlets, Hollywood movies, political figures, or other sources that seem to have a stake in virtual signaling? After all, no one is going to follow someone who openly admits that they are not loving or who has no idea what love is. That would not be good for ratings at any level. So, we are bombarded with the message of love from every corner of our world. And we must discern who is trustworthy and who is not.

The only way to tell the difference is to know the real thing. For example, the best way to spot a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill is know what distinguishes a real one. And that is what we are given today in our text in John 10 when it comes to knowing the difference between the love of the Father and the counterfeit “loves” that masquerade around as the real thing. And we can trust what we are being told about love in this text because it is the words of Jesus himself, the one who has come from the Father, the only one who can tell us what the love of the Father really is. And we should be prepared that this subject is too deep to be contained in some rational or logical argument. The reality goes beyond what we can verify by our own reasoning powers. So, Jesus comes to us with an image, a metaphor, as a way to penetrate deeper than mere words can explain. How often does scripture use metaphors, images, and parables when speaking of something that is beyond what can be grasped by direct observation or scientific inquiry? And beyond that, we must begin from a place of faith. In order to receive what the Lord is telling us; we must first trust that he is the one who is in the position to tell us. We must trust that what he is saying is not further propaganda that serves some other means. We must trust that he is not only telling us and giving us a picture of what love is, but that he is in himself the embodiment and living proof of that love. Or as we like to say, we must know that this one doesn’t just talk the talk but has walked the walked.

Let’s begin with the first verse and see the picture the Lord is going to give us.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

Jesus likens himself to a shepherd. This is a metaphor ripe with meaning, especially considering God’s history with Israel. It’s not the first time this image has been invoked. Our call to worship Psalm bears witness to that. God has already declared himself as the shepherd of his people recorded in various scriptures like Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. So, why does Jesus go further in saying that he is the “good” shepherd, instead of just saying he is the “shepherd” as these other scriptures record? Why are we given the descriptor of “good?”

First, this sets up a distinction that must be considered when identifying the true Shepherd of Israel, from other competing or counterfeit shepherds. The adjective “good”, which also can mean right, proper, honorable, and beautiful, alerts us to the fact that there can be “bad” or wrong, improper, dishonorable, and downright ugly “shepherds” that parade around as angels of light. We must discern the difference. And Jesus goes further to help us discern that difference with the actions that will accompany a “good shepherd.” And that action is described as one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” You will notice in these eight verses that a reference to laying down one’s own life appears five times. This clues us in on a major distinction between what constitutes a “good” shepherd and what does not.

Second, by including the adjective “good,” Jesus is building our trust in him and in the Father who sent him. We do not want to put our trust in any ole shepherd. We need to know that he is trustworthy, that he is indeed good. And we don’t want to follow a shepherd who is good in name only. Self-proclaimed labels are worthless. The label must match the reality that it indicates. So, the authenticating and parallel action of a good shepherd is boldly proclaimed by the Lord as one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s a measurement that will flush out any “bad” shepherds who are only in it for self-gain. It’s a high bar to reach.

Jesus will now go further to describe in more detail what we can expect from a counterfeit shepherd. He is helping us discern where we are to place our trust.

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:12-13)

Jesus is not stretching the metaphor further than the Old Testament scriptures have already done. Throughout the biblical witness, we find many images of shepherds that did not live up to the description of “good.” In Isaiah 56, for example, the rulers of God’s people are described as shepherds who only care for themselves. They prefer getting drunk when they should be watching over the flock. In Jeremiah 10, Judah’s leadership is referred to as “stupid” shepherds who allowed the scattering of God’s sheep. And in Ezekiel 34, a severe denunciation is given to the shepherds of Israel as they are accused of gorging themselves when they should have been feeding the sheep. They are not concerned for the health and safety of the sheep. In short, they do not love the sheep, rather they love their own power and control over the sheep that gets expressed with harshness and even violence. Jesus is not saying something new here. Perhaps Jesus knows we need the reminder that not all shepherds are good. Not all those who come proclaiming to protect and save us are trustworthy. Not all claims to “love” are in fact love at all. Perhaps, Jesus knows our tendency to become naïve and then be deceived. Even in his metaphor, he is serving as the Good Shepherd by giving a warning as a means of protecting the sheep.

Jesus uses a contrast twice that designates a true shepherd from a fake by comparing a “hired hand” to a “shepherd” that the sheep actually belong to. That comparison brings to mind that hired hands are only in it for their livelihood. As soon as their lively-hood is in jeopardy, not to mention their very lives, they can be counted on to head for the hills. The contrast zeroes in on the fact that a “good” shepherd cares more for the sheep than he does himself. He is willing to lay down his life for the good of the sheep. We can also see a contrast here between a “shepherd” and a hired hand who sees his relationship with the sheep as a contract that can be made null and void once the conditions change. On the other hand, the good shepherd who will lay his life down for the sheep is a clear presentation of the covenant God who has committed himself for the good of his people, even at great cost to himself. Further, the contrast between a “hired hand” and a good shepherd hints towards the distinction between a relationship of works verses a relationship of grace.

It may be a good reminder at this point to say that Jesus is using a metaphor. Otherwise, logic would say that the “hired hand” should by all accounts save his own life and let the wolf snatch a sheep or two. At least the hired hand will live to tend sheep another day. After all, what “good” is a dead shepherd? Ah, now that’s an interesting question. Let’s look a little further and see what direction Jesus takes us in his metaphor.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)

It appears that Jesus is more concerned to use the metaphor to tell us who he is than who the “hired hands” are. He again states that he is the “good shepherd.” And that statement is followed up with the claim that the shepherd knows his sheep and that those sheep know him. Moreover, the manner of this knowing between shepherd and sheep is comparable to the way the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father. That’s a startling claim. Especially, when we take into account Jesus’ words later in verse 38 of this same chapter when he says, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” That’s some pretty serious intimate knowing. What do we make of this?

Letting the metaphor take us beyond some literal relationship between sheep and shepherd, we are able to take Jesus’ words about “knowing” as belonging to his claim of being the “good shepherd.” And this may shed some light on our previous question of “what good is a dead shepherd?” If Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, wouldn’t that open the flock up for attacks from the wolf? Or is Jesus speaking of something deeper that he does for the sheep in laying down his life? Is it possible that what Jesus wants us to see is that what qualifies him as the Good Shepherd is that he is the one who has enabled us to know the Father with the same knowing the Son has of his Father? Jesus is also the Good Shepherd in that he knows us as one of the sheep, not just as a hired hand. After all, it is a shepherd who lays his life down that can identify with a sheep who has been snatched by a wolf. Jesus is speaking way deeper about what “good” he brings to the sheep in his laying down of his life than some literal protection from death. It is the death of the Good Shepherd that has brought the sheep into the fold of the life and love of Father, Son, and Spirit. And as Jesus indicates, he is bringing other sheep into that fold as well. And this is where we come full circle with our discussion about knowing what love is. Let’s wrap up with the last two verses.

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

Notice how interrelated Jesus and his Father are in Jesus’ laying down his life for the sheep. They are both operating out of the same love. Jesus is showing us the love of the Father. We are to see that the Father loves us in the same way he loves his own Son, and the Son is loving us by the “authority” of the Father’s love. There is no difference between the Father’s love for us and the love we see in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for us. And that love seeks to bring us into an intimate relationship of knowing the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This is what gives Jesus the distinction of being the “Good” Shepherd. Our greatest good is to be brought into a relationship with the Father, where we know him and where we are known by him. John later will write this as a description of eternal life:

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

We must not end there. Jesus also mentions in this closing verse that he not only lays his life down, but that he also “may take it up again.” And with that statement we are reminded of what we are celebrating during this season of Easter. Our Good Shepherd is a risen Shepherd. He is still shepherding you and me, even in this text, to know him and his Father more. He is continuing to love us with the very love the Father has for him so we too can come to rest in the assurance of knowing what love is. The Good Shepherd is still warning us and guarding us against the “hired hands” who do not have our best interest in mind but would sell us out to the “wolf” at the first sight of cost to themselves. We have a Good Shepherd indeed. Through his death and resurrection, he has brought us into the one-fold of belonging to the one truly Good Shepherd. So, what good is a dead shepherd? His goodness lies in the truth of who he is. He is the one who knows us as one of the sheep, all the way from birth to death. When John writes of the crucifixion of Jesus, he portrays Jesus as the Passover Lamb. This “dead” Shepherd however, lives and reigns, as John would later pen in the book of Revelation, as a Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). This reigning Shepherd is also our King, risen and reigning in the goodness of who he is as the Son of the Father who knows what love is. And he lives to bring us into a knowing relationship with himself and his Father, to participate in that covenant love that will never leave or forsake us.

As we continue in our celebration of the Risen Lord, may we grow to know him more and more, learning to trust him as our Good Shepherd who leads us to know the Father in the same way he does.

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W3

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April 21—Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:11-18, “The Lord is my Shepherd”

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Program Transcript


The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W3

Anthony: Well, moving on to our next passage, it is John 10:11- 18. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, which falls on April 21, and it reads,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. 17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

Jon, if you were preaching this text, what’s your sermon going to be?

Jon: It’s one of the first Bible studies I ever led as a summer camp counselor, maybe eight, nine months after I had given my life to Jesus. And it was this. It was on, I am the good shepherd. We were teaching through the “I am” [statements].

And I was reflecting this week on whether I would have the courage to teach it today the way I did then, because what I did on that day was I took everyone outside and I scattered the high school kids around this field. And I gave them all blindfolds and from the point where they started in this scattered dispersed area, I told them to put on the blindfolds.

And then I stood at one spot in the field, and I read this text, and I told them to follow me as I read. And I wandered around the field reading through John 10, while these blindfolded people tried to follow me. And then eventually I invited everyone to sit down, take off their blindfolds and look around the field.

And some were amazed at how far away they were from me. Some were very close. And then we gathered around, and we just had a debrief conversation of what was it like to try to follow someone simply by their voice. And some of the kids said it was scary. I bumped into a tree, and I quit. I just sat down. I was like, I’m not doing this.

Others said, I found your voice pretty quickly. And the closer I got to you, the more confident I felt. And when I realized I was right near you because your voice was so clear, I knew I was safe. I remember others who said, along the way I bumped into somebody else. And we started holding hands and I had great comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone trying to follow this voice.

And I was like, y’all this is incredible. This was such a sermon that they were writing of what the Christian life is like and what it’s like to follow and the discouragement that can come from being all alone and wanting to quit versus the comfort that comes from community, and what it’s like to be close to the voice versus far from the voice.

And I think more modern communicators need that level of experiential learning. I know it’s hard to do on a Sunday, but I think there’s a lot of lessons in there that someone could gather from that experience.

The other thing that came to my mind is really contrasting this text with a lot of the prophetic critiques of the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament. Because this idea of being bad shepherds or false shepherds, even evil shepherds, is used a lot in the Old Testament, prophetic writing that the Jewish leaders did not really care for the people that they were like these hired hands that were in it for their own interest and versus the shepherding impulsive of Jesus as the good shepherd.

So, there’s bad shepherding and good shepherding and understanding those motivations. And then I might actually even then connect it over to Ephesians 4 with this shepherding function that we’re all called as a church to fulfill. So how do we identify the characteristics of a bad shepherd who’s in it for their own glory versus a good shepherd who’s willing to lay down their life. And then how do we embody that as a community as we try to shepherd those in the world around us?

Anthony: It seems to me that verse 16, Jon. gives us a hopeful word to people sometimes deemed as outsiders. We love to do that, don’t we, as human beings? Who’s in? Who’s out? But we sometimes see them as outsiders to God’s care and promises.

So, I wanted to ask you, how would you exegete this scripture for 16? And it says, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock with one shepherd.”

Jon: It’s funny, that summer camp I had I did this lesson for seven weeks, right? You’d have different campers come through. And somewhere along there, a kid said to me, is Jesus talking about aliens? I said, wait, what?

He goes, he says that there are some who are of my flock who are not here yet. And one day they’ll [inaudible]. Are those aliens?

And I thought, what a valid question a kid would have. What is Jesus talking about?

Anthony: So, what did you say, by the way?

Jon: Yes, of course, there are aliens. And if there are aliens, Jesus is calling them too.

I think the ancient context to this, in the ancient Near East, was that he is trying to prepare his people to understand that there’s going to be a Jew and Gentile mixing. That Jewish community that has thought of themselves as insiders and God’s holy, protected people are soon going to be mixed into a community that involves those who were deemed as outsiders.

And those are Gentiles. And so that begins to happen, of course, in the book of Acts. But Jesus knows that is coming, so he’s trying to prepare them for that. I think today where we don’t think in terms of Jew and Gentile, the natural way to translate this would simply be to say, who around you, what communities around you, do you feel like don’t belong to you?

Because of their lifestyle, because of their socioeconomic reality, because of their race, class, gender, sexuality, who is it that you feel like doesn’t belong in the pen, so to speak, with you? And what would it be like if Jesus called them to join you or Jesus called you to join them to be in a pen with them?

How do you prepare your own heart for that? How do you recognize that you are not unique or special because he’s called you? There are others unlike you.

And I think that opens up us to be better prepared for multiethnic communities and communities that have come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and communities that are open to people with all sorts of different lifestyle choices who want to come investigate Jesus alongside them and recognizing that the sheep don’t get to say who’s in the flock, the shepherd does.

And so, the shepherd might invite some people in here that you’re uncomfortable with and that’s okay.

Anthony: Yeah. And in reality, as the Savior of the world, he has. I think it was Bob Goff I heard say, God drew a circle around the world and said, you’re in. And now let’s go about proclaiming that and inviting people to live into that reality that he has died and been raised to life for them too.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you noticed how many different voices invoke the label of love for their cause? Can you think of some examples of messages within our world that claim to love or being loving? Can you also see how some of these claims conflict with the descriptions of love found in the Bible?
  • Why can believers be assured of knowing what love is?
  • Discuss the significance of Jesus claiming to be the “Good” Shepherd, and not just the shepherd.
  • What are some differences you can see between a “hired hand” and a shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep?
  • What are some warnings about shepherds who are only “hired hands” that help us distinguish between those who have our best interests in mind and those who don’t?
  • In what ways does the Good Shepherd “know” his sheep and the sheep know him?
  • In your own words, following the metaphor in today’s text, how would you answer the question, “What good is a dead shepherd?” How does Easter inform your answer?

Sermon for April 28, 2024 – Fifth Sunday in Easter

Welcome to this week's episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3023 | Plugged In
Michelle Fleming

The worst power outage in US history happened on August 14, 2003. It’s called the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and it affected 45 million people in eight states from Ohio to Connecticut. Though it lasted just a little over a day, much of the affected area was in the middle of a heatwave, which meant no air conditioning or fans. For people stuck in New York subways when the power went out, it took two hours to safely evacuate them. The same was true for people who were stranded mid-ride on roller coasters at amusement parks. Water service was also affected because the water pumps were electric.

It’s when we experience a power outage that we realize how much we rely on electricity to live and work, how much we need a strong connection to have a consistent flow. Otherwise, we experience what people in the Northeast Blackout faced: discomfort, delays, and loss.

When we think about our connection with God, we might see some similarities. We need a strong connection with God to experience the reality of how deeply we are loved, and how that love–like electricity­­–flows through us to others.  The apostle John writes in 1 John 4 that God is love and that the love we have for others comes from God. Here’s what else he says:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us… We love because he first loved us.
I John 4: 11-12, 19 (NRSV)

His love–like electricity–flows from him, through us, and to others. It’s his love that we share with others. That’s why the connection to God is so important. John also talks about when that connection feels weak, or when we choose to prioritize other connections over our connection with God. That’s when fear creeps in, and we doubt God’s love for us:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
I John 4:18 (NRSV)

 God loves us and doesn’t stop loving us. We experience blackouts when we doubt God’s love for us, we start to look for connections elsewhere, weakening our experience of our connection with him. When we don’t feel loved, we don’t have love to pass on to others. Just like the Northeast Blackout, there’s discomfort, delay, and loss.

Power outages can happen due to weather events and human error. But our connection to God is never in jeopardy. Fear in our hearts can weaken our ability to let God’s love flow through us, but the connection will never let go. His lavish love is readily available to us, whenever we turn toward him.

May you know and abide in the understanding that you are held and deeply loved by the Father, Son, and Spirit.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

For reference:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-blackout-in-us-history/

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

This week’s theme is fruit from the vine. In our call to worship psalm, the Lord is described as one who satisfies and elicits praise and worship from all the ends of the earth. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 echoes the far-reaching effect of the Easter message, the good news about Jesus. Our reading from 1 John is dominated by a message of mutual love among believers, that finds its source in the God who is love. The gospel message from John speaks metaphorically, using a vine and its branches, to point to the fruitful relationship that exists between the Father, the Son, and believers.

Abiding In the Vine

John 15:1-8 ESV

As we gather for the fifth Sunday in Easter, we will once again be invited into an extended metaphor to help us unpack the meaning of who Jesus is and who we are in relationship to him. Last week we were given the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we as his sheep. Today, we have another image, which also invokes Old Testament imagery used in Israel’s history, of a vine and its branches.

For context, this image, like last week’s, falls within a long talk in John’s gospel account that Jesus is having with his disciples just before he goes to Jerusalem to be crucified. He is aiming to encourage and comfort his disciples (and us), that even though he will die on a cross, his disciples will not be abandoned or left alone. John takes special interest in relaying that Jesus is present with us, even though he has “gone away.” He has sent us the Holy Spirit and therefore he is with us in a deeper way than he was before his ascension, and he has promised to return.

In John’s writing, we are confronted with the implications of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of his Spirit, along with his promise of his future return. The question we are invited to wrestle with is what are we to do with our lives in the meantime? Today’s passage in particular picks up Jesus’ instructions on that very topic. Here we will see what our primary calling is “between the times” of his first coming and his return.

From this text, we can see that the proper response and way of life for all believers living “between the times” can be summed up in one concept. Surely that sounds overly simplistic. But Jesus’ emphasis on this one word is unmistakable in the use of the image he has chosen to describe our relationship with him, and how that informs how we live daily as we wait for his return. If you are familiar with this text, you probably know the word I’m leading up to. That word is simply—abide. That is what we are to do as the disciples who follow Jesus. But, before we walk away thinking we understand what abiding means, we would do well to let Jesus’ chosen imagery fill in for us what he means by “abiding.” Otherwise, we may miss out on the comfort and encouragement he intends to offer us.

We will divide the text up into two parts. The first part will be the first three verses:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. (John 15:1-3 ESV)

Here are some general observations we can make from the first three verses:

First, Jesus begins by stating some realities that are involved. He is going to lay the groundwork of what is true before he tells us what to do. We do not receive the imperative of “abide” until verse four. Jesus wants us to know who he is, and who we are in him first before he gives us the implications of that reality. This is God’s grace to us. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not one of arbitrary commands, rules, or laws. All that he commands of us flows out of who he is for us and who we are in relationship with him. He will never command something of us that doesn’t fit who he is as the loving Father who sent his Son to save us. The Lord is consistent and trustworthy in all that he says and does. And he begins his image of vine and branches by telling us what this image says about him.

Second, Jesus does not start with a statement about us, his disciples. He begins by letting us know who he is in this image that he is about to use. He does this with one of his hallmark “I Am” statements. In this example, Jesus declares himself to be the true vine. But not only that, he includes the Father as the vinedresser. Jesus does not stand alone in the metaphor being used. His Father is intimately involved in all that goes on with Jesus being the vine. Jesus wants us to know that he and the Father are on the same page. We do not need to fear that what the Father does is in some way different or opposed to Jesus’ words to us. Although the operative word in this image will be “abide,” that does not mean we are to just “hang around” as we are waiting for the Lord’s return. But we do not need to be led to think that the Father is not for us in the same way the Son is. There is no “good-cop/bad-cop” relationship we are brought into.

Third, and related to the second observation, Jesus adds a descriptor to his identity as the vine by saying he is the “true vine.” You may remember last week that Jesus did the same thing in his description of himself as the “good shepherd.” Jesus is making a distinction that we must take seriously. The vine that we will be told to abide in is the “true” vine, meaning, this is the only vine trustworthy of abiding in. It also alerts us to the fact that there may be other “vines” that could also call out to us with the command to “abide.” It is vitally important to know whether those calls come from a “false” vine and not the “true” vine.

Have you ever found yourself abiding in a false vine? There are many “vines” that call out to us claiming that if we just abide in them, then we will be fruitful and have life. But, in the end, we come to find that those promises are hollow and empty, leaving us the same. We are tempted, and sometimes fall prey to such temptations, where we come to think that there is some other source that will give us life. Maybe it’s a particular lifestyle, ideology, community, social affiliation, status level, or any number of things we “abide” in that do not measure up to the “true vine” that gives us the fruitful life for which we were created.

Finally, after Jesus lets us know who he is and who his Father is, he then has something to say about who we are. However, he does not make any claim about us apart from our relationship with him. Using the image of “branches” for his disciples, he relates that “Every branch in me…” Our truest identity is only found in Jesus. There is no “us” in any true or fruitful way that exists apart from him. In fact, if a branch is not bearing fruit, it is described as being taken away. The vinedresser does not allow for any existence in the vine that is not a real existence as a branch connected to the vine. We must remember that Jesus is speaking with a metaphor using images to declare what is true of himself and our relationship with him. So, we must be careful not to read into the image interpretations that do not conform with the rest of the biblical witness of who God is. Jesus is not saying that the Father is looking for worker bees to produce some fruit. That’s not the thrust of the image nor is that consistent with Jesus’ revelation of the Father.

The Father is not searching among the branches to see who he can “take away.” This is a descriptive statement of what it means to truly be a branch. Branches draw from the vine, and it is on account of that relationship that fruit is produced. The branches don’t “produce” the fruit, the vine does. In fact, the word “bear” in this text is the same word John used in the story of Jesus’ miracle of turning water to wine. Jesus produced the “fruit” of the vine, in this case as wine, and then he tells his disciples to “carry” it to the master of the feast. The word “carry” and the word “bear” are the same Greek word pheret, meaning to carry, bear, bring, or even to make publicly known. The meaning is not meant to convey the producing or creating of fruit. The disciples were not tasked to turn water into wine. They were to pheret or carry it to the master. That’s the Lord’s work in the branches that are put on display as a witness to him and his Father.

Making that observation also helps us understand the vinedresser’s work in pruning a little better as well. The Father is pruning us in order that we can more fully be the branches we are intended to be. When we experience pruning in our lives this image is not telling us the Father is displeased with our “production” of fruit and he is going to make us miserable until will get our quota up. No, that again would not be consistent of who God is as revealed in Jesus. The Father’s pruning has something to do with what we are going to see in the remaining verses.

Let’s take a look now of verses 4 through 8:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:4-8 ESV)

Now Jesus gives us the imperative to “abide.” That is the life we are to live each and every day as a disciple of the Lord. But what exactly does that mean? Some may see this as simply hanging around waiting for Jesus’ return. But the Apostle John includes this teaching from Jesus as a comforting reminder that we are not left alone with Jesus’ departure. He is still with us, and that is why we can abide. So, we are invited to live in the present in the same way we will be living in the future kingdom the Lord brings when he returns. Abiding is not something we do to pass the time or as a means to some other end. It is the end purpose we are created for. It is the eternal imperative of living in union with Christ. When we get to heaven, enter the Kingdom, or whatever language you want to use to speak of God’s new heaven and earth that comes with Jesus’ return, we will be experiencing the fullness of the kingdom on account of the fact that we will be unhindered in our abiding in the vine.

Perhaps another word to bring alongside the word “abide” will be helpful here. When we consider the image of a branch bearing fruit because of its relationship to the vine, we can see that the branch is fruitful because it is drawing from the life source of the vine. If you cut a branch off, it’s not going to produce any fruit regardless of how much you fertilize it, water it, affirm it, or scream at it. Why? Because it can no longer receive its source of life from the vine. And that’s the word I would like to use alongside abide. Receive. That is another way of speaking of abiding in the vine. As branches, we are to receive our life from the vine.

Jesus is our source of life and there is nothing outside that relationship that adds up to anything other than withered branches, burned out and burned up. Jesus wants us to know that there is no “true” life outside of a relationship with the “true” vine.

We see in these remaining verses that not abiding in Jesus leaves us powerless, wordless, fruitless, hopeless and without a prayer. We, as branches, are to be receiving all things from the vine. That is what will make heaven, heaven. What the Father aims to give us in Jesus is the fruitful life he has with his Son and the Spirit. There is so much to receive that it will be a way of life for all eternity. In the present, even when we do receive, which amounts to bearing fruit, the Father will “prune” as a means to enable us to receive even more. He does not want us to miss out on all the blessings and fruit that come with abiding in the vine. That’s how good the Father is. He even works to enable us to receive more as we grow to know him as branches in the vine. If the Father is the giver of all good gifts, as declared in the book of James, then the most important thing to cultivate is a relationship of trust where we can receive all that he has for us. The only gift the Father cannot give us is the one we refuse to receive. But, as Jesus pictures it, even here, the Father moves to enable us to abide more fully, receiving all that he has to give.

Jesus punctuates the life of abiding as a life of receiving in verse seven:

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7 ESV)

Abiding in Christ is to be in a position of receiving “whatever you wish” and you can count on receiving it because the Father does not hold back. Of course, Jesus includes that this life of abiding will be consistent with the abiding word that is given to us. So, even what we “wish” will conform to the “true” wishes of the vine and vinedresser. Even what we ask will not go astray. And praise God for that as we don’t always know what to ask for. But the Word does.

The Apostle John is not finished with Jesus’ words on abiding. We are only dealing with half of the passage here. However, next week we will look at the second half of John’s passage in John 15:9-17 to find the most precious gift he is aiming to give us. Until then, take comfort and encouragement that Jesus’ resurrection means he has not left you, and that his Father has not abandoned you. Rather, the Father is determined to bring you into an abiding relationship with himself, through his Son, by the Spirit, in such a way as to open your soul to receive the fruitful life he always had in mind for you.

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W4

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April 28—Fifth Sunday in Easter
John 15:1-8, “Sugar High”

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Program Transcript


The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W4

Anthony: Our final passage of the month is John 15:1-8. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Fifth Sunday in Easter, which is April 28. Jon, would you do the honors, please?

Jon:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

Anthony: Whew, there’s a lot in that passage, but we’ll start here. Jesus is the true vine, and he is the nourishment we need—whether we know it or not—of real life, vitality, relational sweetness, and the kind of sustainable fruit we ultimately desire. So why, Jon, do we so often seek a sugar high from somewhere else?

And because we know what comes with a sugar high, comes a crash. So, talk to us about that.

Jon: Yeah. What an incredible kind of agrarian reference that still holds true for us today as we think about vineyards and wine. Even out here in California and wine country, this passage comes to my mind every time I drive by a vineyard and just think about how Jesus was just wandering through a field like this with his disciples making this point.

But the essence of this passage to me is the connection between roots and fruits. And from walking around any sort of farm, that there are seasons in which all of the work is being done underground in the roots. And that the roots are deepening, they’re getting the moisture, the nutrients they need, and that eventually they’ll produce the stock, and eventually in the right season they’ll produce the fruit.

But that takes a long time. You cannot go out to a vineyard 365 days a year and grab a grape, so to speak. There are only certain times because of the length of it. And I think part of why we look for sugar highs in life is because sugar highs are instant. There’s an immediate gratification that comes that we can do something right now to experience some sort of artificial, superficial rush. In order to experience it the correct way took, takes a lot of work and work that needed to have started before now.

And so, if I haven’t planted any roots and if I haven’t cared for my roots, if I haven’t done the pruning of the vine, there may not be any fruit on the tree. And so, if there’s no fruit for me to experience in that moment, it’s going to lead me to go somewhere else to buy that. So, I think what I resonate with is just the temptation to immediate gratification, to always looking for cheap artificial solutions offerings for the things I really want, which I believe can only come from the Holy Spirit in us.

So, I remember a pastor once saying of this text: if you’re rootless, you’re fruitless; and if you’re fruitless, you’re useless. And that has stuck in my head for many years. Anyone who wants to be used by God needs to have the fruit of God’s, of the Holy Spirit’s, presence.

But the way that starts is with our own rootedness in him. And those roots are really where I think this begins for us. And ultimately, the quality of fruit that we give in the world needs to be better than any of those superficial offerings.

Anthony: Yeah. I think it was Watchman Nee that said, Negligence and prayer withers the inner man.” The fruit just withers.

I’m looking at verse 5. Jesus said, without me, you can’t do anything. I think he’s being literal. You can’t do anything without me. And so, we must be drinking in that relationship first. What’s that old saying? You can’t give what you don’t have. And so, let’s be rooted in the one who is the true vine.

My brother, we’ve talked about folks being in and out, and I wanted to remind our listeners that the Greek word for hospitality literally means the love of strangers. And like it says in Hebrews 13:2, look, don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers. So, as you drink in from the true vine, as we learn from him and his ways, and as we engage our neighbors, let’s show hospitality, love a stranger, because that’s what the Lord is doing by the Holy Spirit.

Jon, it’s been a joy having you on the podcast. I’m so glad you said yes. Thank you for your labor of love in the ministries that you’re participating in as a coach and counselor, and as a prophetic voice to the church.

We’re grateful for you. And it’s been a lot of fun. And as typical for our podcast, we like to close in prayer. And so, would you do the honor of praying over us, Jon?

Jon: Absolutely.

Jesus, I thank you for this word picture and just reading it afresh today. I believe there are people listening to this who have this image on their walls or on stained glass in their sanctuaries or on prints on their nightstand, Lord. And yet it can be so easy to walk right by that every day and forget the essential spiritual truth of it, which is that we are called to cling to you, to abide in you, to be rooted in you, that all of our nutrients that we need in life solely come from you.

And I pray for everyone listening, Lord, that even this week in this season that we have, as we draw near to you and think about spiritual practices. And we just pray, Father, that you would help us to sink our roots into you, that your Holy spirit would be the life blood flowing through all of us, that, Father, the fruits that come out of our life would be out of the abundance of the work that you’re doing in our life.

And we just truly believe the truth of this text, Father, that is we can’t do this, but you can. And you are in us, and we are in you. And Lord, there’ll be days we don’t even want to live the Christian life, but you want to. And you are in us, and we are in you.

And Father, at the end of our lives, when we look back at any fruit we may have produced, we want to be able to say, we didn’t do any of this, but you did because you were in us, and we were in you. So, I pray this week, Father, that we might cling to you, cling to the vine, prune out anything that needs to be pruned, Lord. Cut those things that are not worthy of your kingdom, throw them in the fire, Lord, that we might continue to grow and celebrate those as cutbacks and not just setbacks in life, Lord. And we pray that ultimately through this, we might become a flourishing, fruit bearing plant that has great value to you and your kingdom. We pray this in Jesus’ strong name. Amen.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Jesus starts in his metaphor by telling us the realities of who he and his Father are, and who we are in relationship with him, before he gives us the command to abide?
  • Discuss the importance of seeing that the True Vine, Jesus, and the Vinedresser, the Father, are one regarding their purposes for us, the branches.
  • What does the descriptor “true” tell us about Jesus being the Vine? What are some reasons Jesus would want to include this descriptor?
  • Discuss the affect Jesus’ image of branches being thrown away and burned had on you and what it means to not abide. What should we be careful about in understanding these images? Are there some ways that we should NOT interpret the image based on other scriptures?
  • Discuss how this passage helps you understand a little more of what it means for the Father to “prune” the branches. Can you think of times of pruning in your life that you are now thankful for?
  • How did seeing “abiding” as being a description of “receiving” from the Lord help, or hinder your understanding of the text?
  • A lot of points were made from the image of the vine and its branches. What were some that had the biggest impact on you? Did you see other points from Jesus’ word picture that came to mind that you can share?