Summer is a great time to plan an outreach event for your community and share the love of Christ with your church neighborhood. To assist you in preparing for your outreach event, we’ve prepared the infographic below (click on the image to download).
Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 • 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 • Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 • Psalm 16:1-11 • Galatians 5:1, 13-25 • Luke 9:51-62
This week’s theme is Letting the Spirit Lead. The passages in 1 King and 2 King remind us of Elisha’s calling. He asked for a double portion of the Spirit to guide him. The Psalmist reminds us how the Spirit led Israel out of Egypt and that everything we have is because of God. Paul reminded the church in Galatia they were free—Christ had set them free. The sermon, from the Gospel of Luke, talks about Jesus, who followed the lead of the Spirit throughout his life.
Luke 9:51-62 (NIV)
We recommend you have the two passages from 1 Kings and 2 Kings read as part of the worship music and readings, and then begin this sermon by reading—or having someone read—Luke 9:51-62.
Introduction: The story in Luke 9:51-62 is often used as a warning for believers: Have you counted the cost of discipleship? Have you taken up your plow and then desired to look back? If so, you are unfit (disqualified) for service in the kingdom. If you are concerned about where you are going to sleep at night, you aren’t dedicated enough and in danger of being disqualified. If you are overly concerned about taking care of your family, you aren’t focused enough on Jesus. Your job is to keep plowing ahead—keep moving forward if you ever want to be fit for the kingdom of God.
It’s almost as if the passage is more of a warning on how to lose out on the kingdom than how to enter.
In other words, if we believe this passage’s sole purpose is to talk about the cost of our discipleship and what it takes to follow Jesus, we can get easily discouraged. The passage will leave us with such a radical calling that no reasonable person could expect to qualify. So, let’s start by asking a couple questions:
- What is the author’s purpose in writing his Gospel?
- Who is this passage about?
The answer to the first question leads to the answer to the second question. Luke’s goal was to write a summary of Jesus’ life. His purpose was so that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught—that he would have an accurate account of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. Theophilus may have been a converted Gentile, but many biblical scholars believe the name Theophilus—which means one who loves God—was used because it refers to the Christian community in general.
So, we know Luke’s purpose was to give an accurate account of Jesus’ ministry, and this passage is also about him.
Note the beginning of today’s passage:
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.
So rather than the passage being about our radical commitment to the kingdom, we see a radical commitment of Jesus to establish the kingdom of God and our salvation. This is what we will focus on today.
This passage in Luke’s Gospel is the beginning of what is often referred to as the “Travel Narrative,” which runs from Luke 9:51 to Luke 19:47. This narrative is the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke lets us know that Jesus has set out “resolutely” to accomplish his mission of salvation through his death, resurrection and ascension.
Jesus redefines roles
And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:51-55).
Luke also uses this picture of setting out for Jerusalem to connect Jesus with Ezekiel 21:7-8, establishing him in the role of a prophet. This theme of Jesus as the prophet gets carried out in several references going back to Elijah and Moses. One such reference is found when the Samaritans reject Jesus, and the disciples, James and John, ask if they can call down fire to destroy them like Elijah did with his enemies. We find that Jesus’ resolution is firmly grounded in grace and not in retaliation. He rebukes them for their suggestion. Jesus is establishing that he will redefine the role of prophet.
Notice Jesus chose to deploy messengers to go ahead “to get things ready for him.” This is an example of God’s grace—including others in what he is doing. The overzealous disciples on the other hand wanted to “call fire down from heaven to destroy” those that were not welcoming to Jesus.
Notice this amazing contrast between Jesus and his followers. Jesus wants to deploy where his followers want to destroy. James and John were not set on the same goal as Jesus.
Then he and his disciples went to another village (Luke 9:56).
Jesus, in his grace, uses their continuing journey “to another village” to give them some observable teaching on what it means to be a disciple.
Let’s stop a moment and think of the lesson here. Jesus was and is a prophet of grace. However, many followers don’t practice a lot of grace.
Too often we are tempted to call down fire on anyone who is unwelcoming to what we think is progress. We want to call down fire on those who don’t believe like we do, who aren’t as good a follower as we believe we are. We start to believe all followers need to be traveling in the same direction as we do, in the way we follow Jesus.
But Jesus is not looking to “burn” anyone on the way to his goal. His aim is to save everyone at the end of his journey. As we follow him, we must be careful not to step on others in our journey with the Lord. If we do, it’s a clear sign we are not following in his footsteps. Secular notions of success will tell us to win at all cost. The end justifies the means. If you need to burn a person to reach a crowd… go for it!
Not so, says Jesus. He gives a strong rebuke for succumbing to this mindset, regardless of any precedent that may have been set. Jesus is the redefined prophet who redefines his followers.
The church can stand as a witness to this gracious prophet who has set out “resolutely” to the cross of grace. As believers, we do not have to play by the rules of this world. We belong to another kingdom, a kingdom of grace whose prophet is returning to establish his rule in all the world. This is the good news we can proclaim every time we choose to deploy rather than destroy.
The story continues:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 19:57-62).
After his rebuke of James and John, we see the story take a form similar to the calling of Elisha when he was called to follow Elijah. There is a three-fold vow in both stories of following their master. Jesus’ response to each vow illustrates the radical calling required to follow Jesus. The two requests to “go and bury my father” and “say goodbye to my family” would have been reasonable and expected requests to make before signing on to a life of following a prophet. But both requests come up short for radically following Jesus.
Jesus redefines discipleship
The last request has the added punch of reminding Luke’s reader of the calling of Elisha. When Elijah called Elisha to follow him, Elisha was plowing a field. Elisha asked if he could first go and say goodbye to his family. Elijah permits him to do so. But Jesus in this role does not permit it and responds by using the image of plowing as a picture of discipleship when he says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Sounds ominous if we believe this is directed just toward us, but this passage is not about us. This passage is about Jesus—who resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Nothing was going to stop him from going where the Father was leading him. He would not allow anything to turn him aside from his goal—regardless of what it was. When we see that Jesus is the central focus of this passage, we can see this is good news for us. He is fully committed—he is the one who puts his hand to the plow as he goes “resolutely” to Jerusalem. Jesus is the radical prophet who does not turn back. He is the one who is “fit for service in the kingdom of God.” And he proved it.
Jesus goes all the way to the cross, walking in grace to a place where he saves us by that same grace. The radically redefined role of prophet and follower has been accomplished in the resolute will of God to save us.
We will never be fit for service in the kingdom on our own works or merits. But we’ve been invited to participate with the one who is fit—Jesus Christ. He encourages us to keep our eyes on him—put your hand on his as he plows the fields that are ripe for harvest. Jesus is the plow; he is the kingdom; he is the way forward. Your salvation is his will.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Compare and contrast the approach to Jerusalem between Jesus and his disciples. What stands out to you?
- Can you see ways where we “burn” people in our efforts of following Jesus? What is the root problem with this disconnect?
- What secular notions of success get in the way of following Jesus in his grace?
- Discuss how seeing Jesus as the one who “puts a hand to the plow” is good news for us.
- Look at the passages in 1 Kings and 2 Kings and discuss the differences between Elisha and those who told Jesus they wanted to follow him.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:1-15 • Psalm 42:1-11 and 43:1-5 • Galatians 3:23-29 • Luke 8:26-39
This week’s theme is Remembering whose we are. The Psalmist reminds us to “pant for God” when our soul is downcast, to put our hope in him, even when we feel we are at the end of our rope. This happens when we believe we are still in custody to the law, as Paul told the believers in Galatia, and we forget who we are and that we belong to Christ. The story in Luke of “Legion” possessing the man who could break his chains reminds us that no matter how bad it can get, God is for us—we belong to him.
The Voice of Truth
Have you ever felt alone? Or like you are the only one going through a certain type of situation. I know I have.
Share a personal story—or one you are familiar with—of being alone. At some point in the sermon, you may want to play the Casting Crowns song, “The Voice of Truth.”
This is one pastor’s personal story: I have two siblings who tried to commit suicide—an older sister and my twin brother. Both situations were very painful, for my twin brother, it was like I felt his pain. I knew he felt like a failure, not worthy of living. Feeling like he was all alone, he ran. He’d had enough. I was at summer camp when I got the news that my brother was missing. The family suspected he might try to commit suicide. I felt alone, so far away from the rest of the family. And I felt like no one could understand what I was going through, like I was the only one who felt that way. At least that what I told myself. Truth is, I was listening to the wrong voice about myself, just like my sister and brother gave in to their depression by listening to and believing negative words about themselves. Thankfully, neither sibling was successful with their attempt, and both are alive and well today.
The Bible tells us that God never leaves us nor forsakes us; he is with us always—even when we least feel his presence. In spite of this truth, we sometimes find ourselves afraid, feeling alone, believing no one cares or no on loves us. Whenever I feel alone, when I hear those voices telling me I am no good—that no one cares or loves me—I remember Elijah. There is a story in 1 Kings that should give us some encouragement.
First some background:
Elijah was a prophet of Israel who served the Lord. He prophesied against Israel because of the kings and people’s idolatrous ways of turning away from God and serving false gods and idols. The king of Israel at the time was Ahab—who, according to Scripture— “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30). He married a pagan woman named Jezebel, who led him to worship Baal. He eventually set up an altar for Baal and made an Asherah pole—a sacred pole (or sometimes a tree) that was used in the worship of the pagan goddess Asherah. Ahab “did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” Kings 16:33).
Jezebel wasn’t finished: she started killing off the Lord’s prophets. She and Ahab were after Elijah in particular. (You can read the story in 1 Kings 18.) At the same time, Ahab and Jezebel set up their own prophets—450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah.
Dealing with the false prophets
God sent Elijah to meet Ahab and all the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. There Elijah pointed out he was only one of the Lord’s prophets against 450 prophets of Baal. He challenged them to a duel by giving these instructions:
“Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:23-24).
The prophets of Baal called on their god all day long, and not as much as a spark came close to the altar (I Kings 18:26-29.) At first Elijah mocked them and encouraged them to shout louder—saying maybe their god was deep in thought or busy, or traveling, or asleep. The prophets of Baal finally gave up.
Then Elijah had a trench dug around the Lord’s altar and ordered four large jars of water to be poured on it and over the wood. This was done three times. The altar was drenched, and water filled the trench. Then Elijah prayed:
“Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (I Kings 18:36-39).
Elijah then demanded that all the prophets of Baal be killed.
A powerful story—God was with him. Nothing could stop this fearless leader—this prophet of God. Well, nothing except fear, and the feeling of being alone. The story picks up in 1 Kings 19.
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1-3).
What happened here? One moment Elijah is at the top of his game—God had revealed himself in an incredible way and 450 prophets of Baal lost their lives. Elijah should have been on top of the world. But when Jezebel flipped out and sent a warning to Elijah, he got scared and ran into the wilderness.
When he got to a place of hiding, he sat down under a tree and prayed—not to give praise to God for what he had just experienced, but rather a cry of despair.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).
Elijah, seeing the powerful influence that Jezebel was still exercising despite his triumph on Mt. Carmel, lost hope of ever reforming the king and people. It’s like he concluded that God could only do so much—the enemy was still out there. Elijah started to feel alone and so he prayed for release from the troubles and anxieties of a wicked world.
Have you ever lost hope like this? Yes, you’ve had some great spiritual highs—prayers answered, feeling God’s presence, seeing a miracle take place—but they can be followed by a spiritual low. Now you just want to lay down under a tree, or crawl into bed, and sleep? Have you ever wanted to run, just run away because you lost your purpose? Or wondered if even God could help? I think we can identify with Elijah on some level or another.
In his woe, Elijah lay down and fell asleep. Note the good evidence he was not alone:
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night (1 Kings 19:5-9).
Here is a prime example of Elijah’s feelings lying to him. He wasn’t alone; an angel came and fed him. Still, Elijah went to hide again. After some time, the Lord came and said, “What are you doing, Elijah?
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10).
God told Elijah to stand in the presence of the Lord. First there was a great wind, then an earthquake, then a fire, and then a gentle whisper—God was making his presence known, but Elijah still felt alone, and full of fear.
“I am the only one left—yes, I know you are there, God, but no one else believes in you. I can’t do this anymore. It’s me against the world.”
The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:15-18).
You are not alone
This story speaks to us on a number of levels. There are times when we feel so lonely that we might even believe we are the only one going through our kind of stuff. We listen to the voice that tells us we are alone with no help in sight. We feel alone, but that voice and that feeling is not speaking truth. There is another voice we need to listen to—the voice of truth. God is never done with us.
God told Elijah: I have always been with you. In the midst of your distress and dejection, I am with you. In your triumphs and your failures, I provide for you. I am with you now. Here is your identity and purpose. It is in me. Now go and live for me and serve me.
God was not done with Elijah, and he is not done with you. No matter what circumstance you face, no matter what your feelings tell you, the truth is that God does not leave you nor forsake you.
God was always with Elijah just as God is always with me and God is always with you.
There are always others who have gone through similar circumstances you go through. There are others who can encourage you and who need to be encouraged by you. This is what relationship is all about—sharing our stories, listening to each other, encouraging each other, always pointing each other to the truth that we are never alone.
God is never done with us. Our identity is not in our successes or our failures—our identity is in the victory and personhood of Jesus Christ. Feelings lie to us, but God never does. He tells us we are never alone in Christ. Jesus promises he will never leave us nor forsake us. God will provide for us and sustain us. He provides help, hope and encouragement in the Bible stories we read, in our prayers, and in our relationship with him and with one another.
We are to listen to the voice of God. He gives us our purpose. We may not hear him in the loud and flashy, the wind, the earthquake or the fire. We may hear him in the silence, or in a still small voice. If we listen to the voice of truth, we will hear how much our Father loves us, how much our Savior cares for us, how much the Spirit lives in us. If we listen to the voice of truth, we will hear God.
I encourage you to reflect on this story when you are feeling alone. I suggest you read the story of David who didn’t allow anyone to tell him he couldn’t slay an enemy of God. I encourage you to read the story of Peter who felt like a failure, or of Paul who was redeemed on the road to Damascus.
These stories are written for you to remember who God is. He is doing a work in you because the story is continuing. You and I are part of that story. Share the story with others—let them know they can hear and believe the voice of truth.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Share a time in your life when you felt lonely. Where and when did you see that God was with you the whole time?
- Is there a time in your life when you felt like a failure, if even just a little? How did you come to see that your identity was not in your failure, but in Jesus Christ?
- Where and how have you seen God provide for you?
- God not only offers provision of material things (food, money, possessions) but he also provides for us emotionally and spiritually. Describe a time when people came around you for emotionally support, encouragement or simply a listening ear.
- In what other ways can you relate to Elijah?
- Read Psalm 42 and share how you relate to this Psalm. Share a time your soul panted for God as the deer pants for streams of water.
- Read Luke 8:26-39 and share how this man must have felt when he was released from the bondage he lived in—when he realized he was not alone.
Readings: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 • Psalm 8:1-9 • Romans 5:1-5 • John 16:12-15
This week is Trinity Sunday and the theme is God’s Glory. Proverbs 8 talks about wisdom, which is a personification of God’s ways, or a personified blueprint of all creation. The Psalmist sees the glory of the heavens and asks, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them.” He concludes by saying, “How majestic is your name!” Paul spoke to the believers in Rome about the peace and hope we have in Christ—leading us to rejoice in the glory of God. Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of John about the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—who will glorify Christ. The sermon focuses on the passage in John.
What’s Mine Is Yours
John 16:12-15 (NRSV)
Introduction: How many of you, as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles believe you have much to share with the young people in your family, but you realize they simply won’t receive it or understand it? Sometimes it’s because they aren’t listening; sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have the experience or maturity to understand. I know I wish I had listened more during my life—and I’m sure you feel the same about your life.
Today we celebrate the Trinity on this day called Trinity Sunday—part of the traditional Christian calendar. We are going to look at a passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells us that what he shares with us has been given to him by his Father. Jesus is showing us the unity he experiences with the Father—”what the Father says, I say; what the Father does, I do.” Elsewhere in the Bible we are told Jesus is the exact representation or expression of the Father. When we understand the significance of God being Father, Son and Spirit we see that this is an immeasurable gift we have been given in Jesus Christ. Let me explain:
In Jesus, we are brought into the divine life the Father, Son and Spirit have shared for all eternity. Don’t just gloss over that thought. Let me say it again: In Jesus, we are brought into the divine life the Father, Son and Spirit have shared for all eternity. This life that we are brought into is not like some extra carry-on bag of goodies that we add to our present journey. It is a life that transforms our whole existence, past, present and future. Let’s briefly look at how the Triune life transforms us.
The Triune life shared with us transforms our past.
Notice how Jesus addressed his disciples:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12 NRSV).
Jesus takes us as we are and where we are. The disciples weren’t ready for some things, and Jesus knew this. A few days later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were ready for a lot more. Aren’t you glad our past doesn’t determine our future? Maybe you have said to yourself the phrase “If only I knew then what I know now.”
However, we don’t know what we don’t know; and sometimes we don’t know we don’t know what we don’t know. But like the disciples, often what we know now we could not have received at an earlier time. How often do we look back at our parents and realize they knew more than they could tell us because of our immaturity or lack of experience? The more I look back on my life, the more I realize how much grace has been extended to me.
We don’t know what we don’t know, but thanks to God’s grace he does not leave us stuck there. In Jesus, we find grace, not guilt, for our past. The Father is not deterred by the lack of understanding we may have at any given time. He takes us where we are and moves us forward in his grace.
One thing we can see in the context of this passage is that the disciples were exhausted and had already been given quite a bit to chew on. Their minds were probably saturated with everything Jesus was telling them. We can see in this that God is aware of our limitations. Jesus did not overwhelm them, but rather gave them hope for another day. He does the same for us. You probably have days where you just can’t take anymore. Ever feel like that? God knows how far to stretch you and he knows when you need a rest. We may disagree at times with where that line is, but we can trust him that he is not trying to destroy us.
The Triune life shared with us transforms our future.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13 NRSV).
This guidance of the Spirit of truth extends into “the things that are to come.” The “things that are to come” is the kingdom Jesus is bringing us into. When we understand the kingdom primarily in relational terms—Jesus bringing us into the divine life the Father, Son and Spirit share—then we come to see that this truth Jesus is talking about is the eternal truth of who God is.
The Spirit is sent to bring us into a relational knowing of the Father. The heart of this truth is that God is a God of love. This is what Jesus was revealing about the Father through his life, death and resurrection. The Father is not an angry, vindictive God but rather the God of compassionate love. This is what the Spirit continues to “declare” to us as we move into the future.
The unknown of the future can be a fearful thing, but when we come to know the unchanging love of the Father, our fear can be removed. As John says elsewhere, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). This truth of God’s heart and character transforms our future to one of hope. We do not have to fear being led into a future of knowing God. If God is love, then the more we come to know him, the less fear we will have.
Today, you may be fearing the future regarding your children, your retirement or your health. Perhaps it’s the future of your career or your church that makes you fearful. Maybe you fear the future of our country or our world. In all of it, we can know that when the future arrives, we will find a God of love waiting there for us. We can rest in his loving purposes for us, knowing that he has our future secure as he will never change his heart about us. His love never fails.
The Triune life shared with us transforms our present.
In this Triune life Jesus brings us into in the Spirit, our past is released from guilt and our future is freed from fear. But we must still live in the present. It’s in the present that we feel the anxieties that often rise day in and day out. How does our inclusion in the Triune life counter our anxieties today?
Today’s passage ends with Jesus telling us that he is glorified because all that the Father has given him is being shared with us.
He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:14-15 NRSV).
God’s glory, or the way he really is, is put on display as a generous God who gives and shares ALL. What Jesus is showing us about his life with the Father is a life of abundant fellowship and sharing. The Father never keeps anything from the Son and the Son is delighted to share all things with the Father and the Spirit shares all the mutual sharing between the Father and Son with us.
When we see the abundant provision of sharing and fellowship poured out on us in Christ, our present anxieties have no ground to grow in. This is the fellowship we participate in for the present. God is with us now. Jesus is Lord now. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, our Counselor, now. We have been offered the opportunity to participate in the relationship Father, Son and Spirit share now.
We don’t have to wait until some distant future time and we didn’t miss the bus sometime in the past. Father, Son and Spirit are presently with us, sharing their abundant life of faith, hope and love which leaves no room for fear, guilt or anxiety. Jesus today, in the Spirit, is telling us the amazing good news that “What’s Mine Is Yours.”
This week when you feel anxiety start to rise, read this passage and remind yourself that Jesus wants you to participate in the loving relationship he shares with his Father and with the Spirit. You’ve been invited in; let your anxiety subside and your glorious response rise.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- What difference does understanding God as Trinity make compared to seeing God as a single deity who has existed alone for all eternity?
- Can you look back on your past and see where God was graceful to you in your journey with him? Can you think of stories in the Bible where God was merciful and gracious to those whom he was leading forward with him?
- Discuss how knowing God’s character as a God of love can remove our fears about the future.
- How does knowing that God is a generous giver of all he has remove our anxieties in our present lives? Discuss how God as Trinity who lives an abundant life of sharing frees us from living in a scarcity mentality.
- Read Psalm 8 and answer David’s question in your own words, “What is mankind, that you are mindful of them?”
- Read Romans 5:1-5. Paul talks about the progression of suffering leading to hope. Share what you think it means, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Readings: Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b • Romans 8:14-17 • John 14:8-17, 25-27
This week’s theme is Pentecost: The Spirit gives life. Prior to his ascension, Jesus told the disciples to wait for the “promise of the Father.” The Holy Spirit is that promise. In Psalm 104 we are reminded that life depends on the Spirit; without God we have nothing. In Romans we read that those led by the Spirit are children of God—adopted—and can say “Abba, Father.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us the Holy Spirit is our Advocate—he will teach us all things.
Language of Love
Introduction: You may want to share a story about a time you could not communicate with someone because of the language barrier—how frustrating it was for both of you. It could be with a child who could not make him or herself clear, or it could be dealing with a foreign language.
We’ve all faced challenges in communication. Infants struggle so hard to communicate, but they don’t have the skill set to make themselves understood. Toddlers have a limited vocabulary. Teenagers seem to choose what to hear and what not to hear—as do some spouses. Sometimes we are using the same language in a conversation, but there is still a disconnect—we may be speaking from a different context; we may not be listening carefully to what is being said, or the other person may not have the language or capacity to understand what we are trying to make clear.
There are times when it seemed the disciples did not or could not comprehend what Jesus was saying. “You will not die,” Peter said to him. “Show us the Father,” Philip said. Peter asked, “Where are you going that we cannot go?”
Jesus knew they would understand once they received the Spirit. So just before he ascended, he told them to wait in Jerusalem and receive the promise from the Father.
We pick up the story in the book of Acts.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1).
Let’s give a bit of background.
Jerusalem was bulging with people due to the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, one of the pilgrimage festivals. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Pentecost was observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after this time. So, seven weeks was to be counted between the day of the first grain offering and the beginning of Pentecost, when an offering of new grain was to be given. Thus, this holy day was called the Feast of Weeks. We refer to it today as Pentecost, which means fiftieth.
This festival has a double significance. Not only did it mark the all-important wheat harvest in Israel, it had also come to commemorate the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20-24). It makes sense, then, that Pentecost would have a symbolic meaning for the church. It was the day when God manifested himself in a unique way, signifying a new relationship between God and his people.
Many Jews traveled to Jerusalem for this important festival; so there were Jews from all over the world.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
The promise had arrived—but I would suggest it was not as the disciples expected. From what we read, the Holy Spirit enabled several of them to speak in different languages. This is one of the most recognized manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. This is God communicating with his beloved in a powerful way.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12).
Some will say the miracle was in the hearing rather than in the speaking, but the Bible says the gift was in the tongues—the spoken word. In spite of the many different languages, all were able to hear and understand the words spoken.
Pentecost reminds us that God wants to connect with us and communicate to us. He speaks to us by the Holy Spirit—telling us all truth—reminding us that we are his children and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
On this day of Pentecost, God uses the gift of language to grab the attention of all those present and share amazing good news. Peter stood up and shared the gospel. We don’t know if the miracle continued through his sermon, but we do know the response, as 3,000 were baptized. But we are getting ahead of the story.
Some thought those speaking in different languages were drunk—you would have to conclude there was some type of disconnect that prevented them from understanding. One can only speculate what that disconnect was, but it seems clear something must have prevented them from hearing their own language. Earlier Jesus had used the term, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Perhaps these didn’t have the ears to hear—thus the communication link was broken.
Peter stood and addressed the crowd:
“Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’” (Acts 2:14-17).
Peter then preached about Christ, telling them Jesus was the Messiah they had been looking for.
“Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:22-24).
Peter talked to them about David, who spoke about the Messiah.
“Seeing what was to come, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:31-33).
The people were so moved by the power of the Spirit and Peter’s words, they were cut to the heart and asked what should they do.
Peter replied, “Receive the gift.”
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
Many look at this verse as a formula—A (repent) + B (be baptized) + C (be forgiven) = D (receive the Holy Spirit). But this is taking this out of context and implies receiving the Spirit is the result of our actions—our works.
Let me suggest another way to read this passage in context with Peter’s message:
Repent—change the way you look at Jesus, the way you think about him—thinking he was only a man, or a rabbi, or a prophet. He was much more than a man; he is the Messiah who came to deliver us. He is the One you killed, but God raised him from the dead. He is the Lord—change the way you think of him, change the way you respond to him, repent of your disregard for who he is; repent of the things you thought about him and said about him and receive the gift of his forgiveness.
Participate in his baptism, putting to death all the former things you thought about him and receive the gift of his baptism, which gives you new life.
Receive the gift God is giving us today—the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who helps you see who Jesus truly is and repent of your former thoughts. It is the Holy Spirit who helps you believe the truth of your forgiveness and enables you to live in that truth. It is the Holy Spirit who changes your heart and mind to see the love God has for you. It is the Holy Spirit who helps you see you are God’s beloved.
This is what you should do.
Another way to say this: When people receive the Spirit, receive what the Spirit is teaching them, they repent.
And 3,000 people made that choice and were baptized. The gift was received, and it is still being received.
When people receive the Spirit, receive what the Spirit is teaching them, they repent.
Pentecost reminds us that when God makes a promise, he fulfills it. God’s desire is to speak to us and for us to hear him in our own language, in our own way of understanding. Pentecost also reminds us that God sent the Holy Spirit to us to communicate his love for us and our belonging to him.
He tells us to repent—change the way we think and live—and receive the gifts he gives us. In other Scriptures we read that the Holy Spirit reminds us we are God’s children—adopted as his own—joint heirs with Christ. The Holy Spirit comforts us, strengthens us and reminds us of who God is. God communicates his language of love through the Spirit. May every day be a day of “Pentecost” a day of experiencing and listening to the Spirit.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Have you ever had trouble communicating with someone or understanding their thoughts, ideas or intent because of a “language” barrier? (Describe the experience – It could be because of cultural/ethnic differences, age difference, language difference, etc.)
- What is your favorite way to communicate your appreciation and love for/to someone? (According to Dr. Gary Chapman, there are five main ways of giving and receiving love – love languages.)
- Acts of service
- (Appropriate) physical touch
- Giving/receiving gifts
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation.)
- How do you see God communicating his love for/to us?
- How do you communicate your love to God? (e.g., prayer, praise, worship, meditation, giving/sharing/generosity, service to others, singing)
- How do you experience, hear from, listen to and receive from God (specifically the Holy Spirit)?
- Read Romans 8:14-17 and describe what this means to you to be an adopted child of God, a joint heir with Christ.
Readings: Luke 24:44–53 • Psalm 47:1-9 or 93:1-5 • Acts 1:1-11 • Ephesians 1:15–23
This week’s theme is Ascension Sunday. Prior to his ascension, Jesus reminded the disciples that the law and the prophets were written about him, and he would send the “promise of the Father” to them. Psalm 47 and 93 tells us our Lord is “robed in majesty” as King over all the earth. Acts 1 describes the ascension as well as a reminder that Jesus will return in the same way he ascended. Paul prays for the believers in Ephesus, that they would know Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all things.
Forward and Upward
Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11
Introduction: You may want to ask what comes to mind when people think of the Bible. What is their favorite story?
Often when I talk with someone about the Bible, what comes to their mind are stories from the Old Testament. There are many stories, songs, and prophetic writings in the Old Testament talking about the story of Israel—their beginning as a nation, their rescue from Egypt, the various kings, judges and prophets, their capture, their freedom. It’s a fascinating story that seems to end rather abruptly when a remnant returns from exile to the promised land, still under the control of another powerful nation.
The Old Testament, with its stories of the people who died, whether by war, famine, or natural causes, seems to end with little forward or upward movement. There seems to be no resolution to the injustice, or the failures of kings, judges, or prophets. The story seems to end with God’s people longing for deliverance—seeking a Messiah. These were the writings used by God’s people for years as they waited for the Messiah. For some, these are still the writings they focus on because they rejected the Messiah when he came.
They do not see that the Old Testament isn’t just the story of Israel—the over-arching story is the story of God himself. When we read the Old Testament, looking for manifestations of God’s presence and power, we find the Father, Son, and Spirit are at work from creation to freedom from exile. The God of the Old Testament was faithful to his covenant and to his people. He was always at work, renewing his covenant with them when they fell short, sending his prophets to call them back into faithful relationship with himself and to give them hope in the midst of despair.
The God who was hidden from their view, was to be made manifest in an amazing and unexpected way—in the person of an infant, born to a virgin, and placed in a manger.
When God personally entered the universe he created, he came in such a way that he experienced every part of our human experience, even to the point of a cruel and horrific death at the hands of the humans he lovingly created. This God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, participated in our humanity by living as we live, shared in our death by taking on the death we deserved to die, and was buried in a tomb. Even though Jesus tried to prepare them for Sunday morning, the disciples were still amazed to find him alive again after he rose from the grave.
After rising, he met with his disciples and said:
These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24:44 NASB).
In other words, “This is what I’ve been telling you all along.” The story of the Old Testament—this collection of law, prophets, and psalms—was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The ascension—still future from when Jesus said this—was a critical part of the fulfillment of what was written long ago.
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45-28 NASB).
When the living Word came to earth to live as one of us, he made substantial and understandable what God had spoken to his people about himself—that he was and is a loving, gracious, and faithful God. As God in human flesh, Jesus was someone who could be seen, heard, and touched, and was someone who lived in unbroken loving fellowship with his Abba, God the Father.
Knowing the disciples still struggled to see what was really going on, Jesus opened their minds to help them understand. Then he said the following:
“And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49 NASB).
Apart from the intervention of God himself, we cannot know or understand the truth about who God is and who we are in Christ. To understand that Jesus came to earth to live our life, die our death, and to rise again bringing us with him from the grave, requires an intervention. This intervention is the promise of the Father—the Holy Spirit. Jesus told them to stay in the city until they received that promise.
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:50-51 NASB).
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he took all humanity with him—so that each of us is hidden with Christ in God. There is a distinctive forward and upward movement to each of our lives as we participate in Christ’s ascension. By the Spirit, we are to keep our minds and hearts on things above, not on things on this earth. When we come to Christ by faith, we turn away from the past and turn toward our eternal future with Christ, living and walking “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus’ purpose in returning to the Father was to send the Holy Spirit, so we could be effective witnesses to the glory and goodness of God. The Holy Spirit—the promise of the Father—enables us to understand that Jesus is our Savior and helps us to know the heart and will of our Abba, our Father in heaven, so we can bear witness to the truth about Abba and Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit opens our minds and changes our hearts. The Spirit of God brings us to repentance and faith as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, inspiring us to turn to Christ. As we grow in our participation in Christ’s nature by the Spirit, we become more and more effective witnesses to the story and glory of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.
Part of the fulfillment of all those things written about our Messiah Jesus Christ was that God’s word would go out into all the world, so that one day all people would know and worship God. We are continuing the story written so many millennia ago in the Old Testament. We become part of the new story—”living letters,” as the apostle Paul describes God’s people. As we abide in Christ, resting in him, drawing on his strength and power, we become effective witnesses to the gospel. This is our participation in God’s story which began so long ago.
It’s important to note that our participation isn’t just observation. Jesus told his disciples they would be “clothed with power from on high” (v. 49). We don’t need power to simply observe, but we are given power to participate in this great story. We are included in Jesus’ ascension.
The apostle Paul longed for the people of God to understand this. To believers in Ephesus, Paul said his prayer was that:
The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe (Eph. 1:17-19 NASB).
That hope, that great power, is the Holy Spirit living in us. And the Holy Spirit is not just a power, but a person—the third person of the Trinity—to be worshiped and adored just as we worship the Father and the Son.
When we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with God’s life and being—we are in unity with who we really are as God’s children, made in his image. When God goes to work in us by his Spirit, he does amazing and wonderful things. But he also enables us to wrestle with our brokenness and our failures and shortcomings. He helps us in our struggles and suffering by helping us feel the presence of the Living Lord. The Spirit of God empowers us to speak the words of life to those around us whom we encounter during our everyday life.
The power and presence of the living God in the person of the Holy Spirit is at work in us because Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Jesus didn’t just float away and leave us stranded, hopelessly lost in our broken and sinful world. No, he ascended to his Father’s side bearing our humanity with him, and then he sent the Spirit out on all flesh. We are brought into intimate relationship with God himself by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
There is power in the indwelling presence of God by the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul talked about the surpassing greatness of this power:
These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:19-23 NASB).
The Spirit is at work in every human heart, bringing about the perfect response to Abba and is drawing us each into the truth of who we are as the beloved, redeemed children. The message of the gospel is repent and believe—turn away from ourselves, our fallen ways of living and being, our broken and evil views of God and one another, and to turn to Jesus Christ, trusting in his perfect relationship with his Abba. Jesus responded perfectly to his Father on our behalf, and he calls us by the Spirit, and through the witness of his people, to faith in him.
As you can see, the stories we read about in the Old Testament—which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ—opens out into a continuing story—a story that includes you and me in the plotline. Jesus has come, fulfilled all the Old Testament Law, Prophets, and Writings, and now, seated at the right hand of Abba in glory, is writing a brand-new story with new characters and plot twists. We participate in this great story as we trust in Christ, walk in the Spirit, in loving relationship with God and one another.
On this day, as we commemorate the Ascension, we look upward—seeing what the ascension means for us—and we look forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return and restore all things. As participants in the already, not yet, of God’s kingdom, we look forward with hope and anticipation, while living with our eyes on Jesus, our ascended, glorified Lord and King.
Thank you, Abba, for sending your Son Jesus, to free us from sin and death, and to bring us up into your life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thank you that Jesus is at work now, making a place for us, moving us forward day by day into our true being as your beloved, redeemed children. We thank you for the promise that by your Spirit you will finish what you have begun in us. May we be filled with your power and presence, Spirit of Truth, and overflow with your love, Abba, so we may powerfully and effectively speak the words of life to all those around us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- What is your favorite Bible story and why?
- How do you think your favorite Bible story points to Jesus?
- Put in your own words what it means that you are included in Jesus’ death.
- That you are included in his life
- That you are included in his ascension
- How would you explain to someone that the Holy Spirit opens your heart and changes your mind?
- Read Psalm 47 and share what this passage says to you. Does it make you want to clap your hands? Shout for joy? Sing praises?
- What does it mean to you to be part of God’s continuing story?
Identifying your congregation’s gifts and talents
This article was written by Randy Bloom, US Regional Director, East.
Many years ago, at the end of a planning meeting, our supervisor shocked us with the statement, “I’d advise you all update your resumes. Not that we expect anything; it would be good to be updated just in case.” Just reading this account you might be experiencing a bit of the shock we felt. For many of you, “been there, done that.”
I went home and updated my resume. It was a bit awkward. Not only had it been a long time since I’d visited my resume, I was reminded how difficult the process is. Not only do you list your experiences, you also need to extol your virtues. That is, you need to describe your abilities in a positive way—“put your best foot forward”—as you attempt to sell yourself to a new employer. You want to let them know you have something that will help them—something they need and want.
Assessing the gift mix of your congregation is like putting together a resume. The process of developing a “congregational resume” will help your congregation get focused. Further, it helps your congregation grow healthier as you discern how Jesus wants you to participate in his mission to your community.
One of the first steps in the process (the first being focused prayer) is to ascertain your congregation’s gifts and talents. This understanding will give you a good indication of how the Lord has prepared you, collectively, to participate in his mission to your community. You want to know what you can do collectively to help your community. You want to know what your congregation has to offer your community—to help it (even if they aren’t asking).
So, how do you develop your congregational resume? How can you know the collective gifts, talents and experiences of your congregation? What does your congregation have to offer your community? What does it have that your community needs? We can learn from any job resume.
What life experiences have your members had, within the church context and without? What have they done and what are they doing that could be of benefit to your community? What would they do if they could? Don’t know? Ask. A simple questionnaire will work. Examples include vocational experience—teaching, accounting, management, construction, food preparation, health care providers (the list is endless), and specific community service.
What are your members passionate about? What “fires them up?” Don’t know? Ask. Examples include strong families, helping the poor and oppressed, reconciliation, racial harmony, serving, Christian education, counseling, financial responsibility, etc. Knowing their hobbies can provide insights into their passions.
What are the predominate spiritual gifts in your congregation? A good way to find out is to conduct a spiritual gifts inventory. You can contact your regional director for some recommendations for an inventory you can use.
By becoming familiar with the unique needs of your community, your church can position itself to serve according to the predominant gifts, passions and experiences of the members. Addressing community needs with loving concern and practical service provides opportunities to understand the spiritual climate of your community, the general attitude people have toward Christianity and what spiritual questions they have.
Keep in mind as you proceed, no church can reach or serve everyone. It is impossible to reach all people simultaneously. You will be most effective, as good stewards of the resources Jesus has given you, if you focus your gifts and limited resources on a specific people group or community and in a few specific ways. As you gain experience and grow in resources and numbers, you can diversify your missional work to include a wider range of people.
You may wonder, “How can I find out what people in my community need?” While simply observing people within their cultural context is valuable, there is no substitute for personal contact. By preparing some carefully worded questions in advance, you can take advantage of everyday contact with people to learn about your community. You can participate in community events and make a point to meet people and ask good questions about the community. Local publications provide a wealth of information, as do civic and professional organizations and online databases.
Now that you have a wealth of information about your church, work with your leaders to develop your “resume.” List your collective experiences, passions and gifts. What stands out? What predominates? List the needs of your community. Then ask, “Given the experiences, passions and gifts we have been given, and considering the needs of our community, what can we do?”
Then you take your “resume” to your community by talking to community leaders and government officials in a more informed way about the needs of the community and how your congregation can help. Pray the Lord of the harvest will open doors for you and provide whatever additional resources and assistance you may need. Go with confidence. Be patient and persistent. Opportunities may not come right away.
This process can help you better discern the gifts, passions and experiences the Lord has given members of your congregation by and through the Spirit. Why has he? So that your congregation can join Jesus in his mission of grace and reconciliation to the world around you. I pray you move forward with faith and hope to develop your resume and participate with confidence and joy in the unique ministry Jesus has called you to.
Engaging your community
This article was written by Pastor Sam Butler.
Healthy churches desire to make an impact in the church community. The question raised is often, “How do we start?” I suggest our starting point, the framework from which we engage, is not a how question, but a who question. In other words, our framework should not begin with something we do but rather from who God is—so, we begin with the very nature of God, which is love. Father, Son and Spirit are love and everything thing they do flows out of that love. We can describe their relationship in terms of community to help us understand what community should mean to us. God is a community based on perfect love, perfect relationship and full participation.
How does God include us in that community? John 3:16 tells us that God loves us so much that he sent his Son to intervene on our behalf so that we would be able to experience eternal relationship with him. This love relationship gives us the privilege of full participation in what Jesus is doing. And what is Jesus doing? John 3:16 also informs us that God in Jesus is extending the opportunity of community to everyone, that everyone who believes in Jesus will enter his kingdom, a godly community of love, relationship and participation.
How does this impact how we live now in this present age? We understand from Scripture that in Jesus, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the kingdom now but not yet in its fullness. In John 15:19 Jesus tells us that we live in this world, but we are not of this world. Our true community is in heaven and he has called us now to represent this Godly community in our present world, in the communities that we live in.
What does this look like for us? Last months’ lead article focused on gaining a better understanding of the “Great Commission”—moving from a position of apprehension into a deeper understanding of who Christ is and who he is for us. Christ has been given all authority and he tells us that he will be with us always. In him we share in his ongoing work, to bring all who will believe in Jesus into the godly community of love and relationship where we for eternity will have the privilege of participating in what God continues to do. No apprehension necessary.
Therefore, as we think about being involved in community for the sake of the Gospel, let us do so, not with apprehension, but with the deep understanding that we are participating with Christ in fulfilling God’s purpose of sharing his love. It is about love and relationship. God is calling all his creation into an eternal relationship of love. At the heart of who God is, at the heart of who we are, at the heart of what we do, is love. Everything begins and moves from here.
So rather than figuring out something to do to impact the community, it seems clear we should start with a love for the community—for each person in that community.
There are practical things we can do to engage community that can be discussed at another time, but before we focus on what, we need to see and experience our communities as Christ does, with the Father’s love. In John 17:23 Jesus tells us, “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
As the Father loves the Son, so he loves us and all of his creation. This is the gospel. This is “Missio Dei.” Jesus is now sending us—sending us out into our communities to share his love. Through the indwelling of God himself, the Spirit, let us embrace our communities with a desire to build relationships and to share God’s love, as he is love and as he loves us.
God’s love is everything. Drink of it deeply and let it flow…….. Community.
A deeper look at Jesus’ New Command
Most of us can recite John 13:35, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I’ve spent most of my life wondering why Jesus referred to this as a “new command.” After all, it was very similar to the great commandment discussion Jesus had earlier in Matthew.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
So why did Jesus, on his last night with his disciples before heading to the cross, say he was giving them a new command, and then say the new command was to love one another? Wasn’t this already a command?
The answer is in the preceding verse in John 13 – and this is what we need to unpack for our congregations as we focus on reaching out in mission.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
If Jesus says he is giving us something new, it seems imperative we pay attention. This isn’t just anyone giving us a new command, this is Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, Emmanuel – God with us.
So what is new?
I would suggest it is in the phrase, “as I have loved you, so must you love one another.” Let’s look at how Jesus loves us and discuss how that relates to our GCI Love Venue.
Jesus came to us – Love Venue: Identify Target Community
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” The reason Jesus came was because of love. He didn’t come presenting himself as God to rule over us and make us conform. Rather, he came and presented himself as one of us—fully human—and lived among us. The fact that he took the initiative is the key to understanding how his command to love is “new.”
Jesus didn’t demand we come to him; he came to us. He entered our world. He ate our food. He lived as we live. He walked the roads we walk. He dressed the way we dress. He spoke our language. He didn’t wait for us to come to a certain level of understanding, or change our behavior, or demand a certain lifestyle—he simply entered our world. As GCI congregations, we can’t just wait for people to come to us—we need to go to them. We want to be intentional about going to others—loving outside the doors of the church. We want to enter the neighborhood God has called us to. We want to walk the streets, eat the food, speak the language, spend time with others.
Jesus didn’t go all over the world; he came to a specific region to start his ministry. Jesus had a target community where he did his ministry and mission.
Where do you meet for church? Is this your target community? Is this where God has placed you? (In some cases, we may find we are not meeting in the best place for mission. If this is the case, please talk to your regional director for guidelines to help you identify your target community.)
Your target community is the area (neighborhood) surrounding where you meet. It’s not the whole township, city, county, or state. Be specific in determining where Jesus is inviting you to love others as he loves them. Then ask God to help you see people the way he sees them, and to love them the way he loves them.
Jesus built relationships – Love Venue: Ongoing Relationship Building
Jesus didn’t stay at home and wait for people to come to him. He went to them – into their neighborhoods, into their communities. He went where people were gathering. He went to those who were hurting, and had needs, and he went to those who were ostracized by others.
When he encountered others, he didn’t just say “follow me” and then go about his business hoping they would follow. He spent time with his disciples. He built relationships with them, and with many others. People followed him because he was relational. He was invited into people’s homes because he showed them love and they reciprocated. He was enjoyable to be around. And note that some relationships were closer than others. Jesus was intentional in his mission.
The way we show love to our target community is to go out and spend time in that community talking to people. Get to know them. Find out what their interests are. Find out what the neighborhood needs. Be present at community events so you can build relationship. Be interested before being interesting – in other words, get to know their views, their hopes, their fears, before sharing your hope and your faith. When they see you are interested in them, they will show interest in you. Again, ask God to help you see the people in the neighborhood through his eyes. See them as his beloved – those he loves so much he sent his Son, and now he is sending you.
Jesus got involved – Love Venue: Missional Activities and Events
Jesus loved people by getting involved in their communities and in their lives. He spent time in public places – going where the people were celebrating, mourning, meeting, learning, shopping, debating.
A way to show love for a community is to go where the people go: school events, local sporting events, community picnics, celebrations and meetings. Go to funerals of family members of those you’ve met. Go to restaurants and coffee shops in your target community. Let people see you and become familiar with your presence. Let them know the congregation cares for this neighborhood or community. Let them know they can call you when they go through trauma or need to share. This is being interested before being interesting.
Jesus gave us this new command—to actively love others as he loves us—because he knew he was going to send us just as the Father sent him. He knew he was going to invite us to participate in his mission of sharing his love and his life with others.
The new command Jesus gave us—to love as he loves—is to reinforce that love a verb.
Continually learning to love,
Readings: Acts 16:9-15 • Psalm 67:1-7 • Revelation 21:10, 10:22-22:5 • John 5:1-9
This week’s theme is God makes us whole. Acts shares the story of Lydia’s conversion. Lydia, from Thyatira, is regarded as the first baptized convert in Europe. In Psalm 67 we are reminded that all are invited to praise God for his universal mercy. He brings us to perfection as all are ruled with equity. Revelation reminds us that Jesus is the temple. Through him God restores our heath and makes us clean. All are given access to the water of life. The sermon is developed from the story of the healing at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus tells us to stand up before God and receive the blessings he provides.
Stood Up by Jesus
Read John 5:1-9, NRSV, before sermon:
Have you ever felt stood up by God? And when we say “stood up,” what we mean to say is that we have been let down. Maybe that’s how the person with a disability felt “who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” That’s practically a lifetime of being down on the ground. Enough time to convince us that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know our situation and basically doesn’t care. Have you been there? If so, maybe this little story told by the apostle John can lift your eyes to see a different perspective.
The story begins with John telling us “Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” John has used this “up to” language many times in his stories of Jesus. The word in Greek is “anabaino” which simply means to ascend but it’s the word used to translate many ascensions in the Old Testament—stories like Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai or the ascent to Mount Zion or to Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem the same language is used in going up to the temple, and then within the temple there is a further ascent into the holy of holies. More examples could be listed, but in essence, when John uses anabaino, he is using a word that points back to God’s presence in Israel’s history. God is the one Israel’s priests and leaders have historically ascended to. So, when Jesus enters the story by going up to Jerusalem there is more than a change in physical elevation taking place, the story has to do with Jesus ascending in order to stand us up in the presence of God. Let’s look at the text:
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha [Bethesda], which has five porticoes, (John5:2 NRSV).
John gives us some details to ponder in the story. The setting is at the pool of Bethzatha or Bethesda depending on translation. Bethesda means “house of mercy,” so you will see a number of hospitals named Bethesda.
Until the 19th century, there was no evidence of this pool and people believed John was creating a metaphorical illustration. However, archeologists later discovered the remains of the pool fitting John’s description. It is in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem.
John also wants us to note that the pool is next to the Sheep Gate, which was the gate sacrificial lambs were brought through. As the story unfolds, John is creating a picture of contrast between the rituals of sacrifice—along with the superstitious waters of “healing”—with Jesus himself, who is both our true sacrifice and our living water. John was a good storyteller.
In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:3-4 NRSV).
We are introduced to our poor cast- down soul as “one man” who was among “many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” This description of disabled people serves as a rather poignant pointer to life in this fallen world.
This refers to a life without direction, a life with distortion and pain, and ultimately a life that is hopeless. Like this one man, we can find ourselves among many people with disabilities, people who are paralyzed and unable to find any healing or wholeness for their lives. We can feel there is no one to help us when we forget that we are made to walk with the Lord.
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NRSV).
Jesus enters the scene. Keep in mind that John is primarily concerned in his Gospel account of showing us that Jesus is the full revelation of the Father. The first thing we see Jesus do is take notice. He “saw him lying there” and he also “knew that he had been there a long time.” No matter what our lifelong experience has been, the Father sees us and he knows our situation. It’s out of this deep personal knowing Jesus asks the man the question “Do you want to be made well?”
At first glance it sounds like a “tongue-in-cheek” question. Of course, he wants to be made well; who wouldn’t want to be well. But good questions are grounded in personal awareness. Jesus must have known that this man would need to wrestle with that question. Thirty-eight years of anything is a lot of undoing. The man’s healing would amount to a whole new life of change for him.
- Who has been bringing this man here for the past 38 years?
- Who has been caring for him and feeding him?
- Are you ready to do things on your own?
- Are you ready to stop depending on others and learn a skill to earn an income?
- Are you ready to enter society in a new way, with all its blessings, and all its requirements?
- Are you ready to start showing personal responsibility?
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (John 5:7 NRSV).
The man’s answer didn’t tell us explicitly if he wanted to be well. But it did tell us that he had been trying to make himself well for a long time. His description of all the reasons he couldn’t make it to the pool was placing blame on others who refused to help. This is what happens when we are working a program for our own healing, or what we may call legalism.
When you can’t live up to the program—and you never can—you can always look down at others. It’s easy to put the responsibility elsewhere—to blame others—to get the attention off ourselves. Jesus knew this about this man, and he knows this about us. And his response is one of grace.
Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8 NRSV).
Here’s a man who has been let down for thirty-eight years by legalism, a man who is unable to stand up, and Jesus’ response to him is a powerful word of grace: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” These weren’t empty words. They were words of power that created a new reality. The man only needed to believe and to respond.
At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk (John 5:9a NRSV).
Jesus gave him legs to stand on and told him to take the mat home—he no longer needed his mat to protect him from the ground. He no longer needed to wait for others to take care of him; his healing was complete. Jesus stood him up. The story doesn’t end here:
Now that day was a sabbath (John 5:9b NRSV).
This lectionary selection cuts the story in half by ending with “Now that day was a Sabbath.” What? Why this little bit of information from John?
It’s not another example of a story culminating into a nasty showdown between the legalistic religious rulers of the day and the Lord of grace and healing, but John has a significant point to make. In this story we are given this little twist to aid us in our understanding of what the Sabbath rest is all about. Here, on the Sabbath day, Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and walk. He wasn’t trying to goad the religious leaders—he was helping this man and us understand that resting in him is not lying around all day; resting in him is experienced as standing and walking in the presence of God. Jesus is our Sabbath rest.
We all face times in our lives when we feel like the man at Bethesda. We are waiting and waiting for someone to help us—for someone to come and fix the problem. We’ve all had times when we’ve blamed others for the situation we are in—there is no one to help me get to the healing water.
This week, ask God to help you see that he is the living water—in fact, the living water came to you. Ask him to help you see you need to pick up your mat and enter his Sabbath rest. Ask him to help you remember that he has stood you up—that is, he has helped us stand.
Jesus has forever stood us up in him, and in him we will never be let down.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Can you think of experiences in your life where you felt that God had let you down? How does the story of the man who was “down” for thirty-eight years help you reflect on your own story?
- Reflect on Jesus taking notice of the person and knowing his situation. What does this tell us about the Father’s heart toward us? Does this feed your faith or leave you with more questions?
- What do you think about Jesus asking the man if he wanted to be made well?
- How does the detail that this healing took place on a Sabbath inform us what true rest is?
- Read the passage from Revelation and talk about what it means that Jesus is your temple and that you have been given access to the water of life.