Sermon for September 30, 2018

Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 124;
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Sermon by Ted Johnston 
from James 5:13-20
Drawing from commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Exposition Commentary), Peter H. Davids (New Bible Commentary) 
and Luke Timothy Johnson (James, Anchor Bible).

Let Us Pray!

Introduction

In today’s reading in the Epistles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is wrapping up his letter to Christians. In doing so, he returns to one of his main themes: the power of the tongue. Having already mentioned that the tongue can be used for evil, he now shows how to use it for good by praying for those who are suffering, for those who are sick, for the nation, and for believers who have wandered. There are, of course, other prayer needs, but these four are particularly important ways for us to participate, by the Spirit, in the prayer life of Jesus. Let’s look at each one.

Praying Hands by Rubens (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 1. Pray for those who are suffering

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. (James 5:13a)

When we face trouble, how do we respond?  A typical human response is to complain and even lash out at God and other people. But James says we should instead pray—asking God for his wisdom to understand our situation and to use it to his glory (also see James 1:5).

Prayer may lead to the removal of our trouble, if that is God’s will. But prayer may also lead to the grace to endure our trouble and use it to accomplish God’s will in our lives. Indeed, in the midst of our trouble, God may “give us more grace” (James 4:6).

This was the case for Paul when he prayed that God would remove a terrible trial in his life, but instead, God gave him grace to endure it—turning his weakness into strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was also the case for Jesus, who in Gethsemane prayed that his cup of suffering might be removed, yet it was not. Instead, the Father gave him grace needed to go to the cross for us.

Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5:13b)

Of course, not all Christians are currently going through trials. Some are experiencing blessings. God allows in our lives both suffering and joy and mature Christians respond in faith to either. They even sing while suffering, as Paul and Silas did in their Philippian jail cell.

 2. Pray for those who are sick

Sickness is a common form of trouble experienced by all human beings, believers included.  James encourages sick believers to not only pray for themselves, but to ask others to pray for them. What James says here reflects certain cultural practices of his day and should probably not be taken as a formula to be followed verbatim in the church in all times and cultures. Let’s note the specifics and draw some principles that apply to us.

  • The role of elders

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him… (James 5:14a)

Why call the elders? Frequently James rails against the wealthy and powerful who abuse the weak. This must not be so in the church. James makes it clear that church leaders (elders) are to be servants of all. The weak and sick in the church should expect church leaders to reach out to them with compassion in time of need.  However, this does not mean that the sick must call on the elders or that only elders are authorized to pray for the sick. We should all pray for those in need, and non-elders may certainly exercise ministries of prayer for the sick.

  • The role of anointing with oil

…to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord… (James 5:14b)

The Greek word here translated “anoint” is a medicinal term. James may be suggesting the use of medical means for healing along with asking God for supernatural healing. God can heal with or without such means; but in any case, it is God who does the healing. In that culture, oil was a universal medicine—applied both internally and externally. It thus became a symbol of God’s healing touch—an appropriate symbol to be utilized to accompany prayers for deliverance from all sorts of ailments. But anointing the sick in prayer should not be seen as a commanded practice. Some churches use it and some do not, and people have experienced divine healing both with anointing and with prayer without anointing, In GCI, our practice is for our elders to anoint sick people with oil when they pray for their healing.

  • The role of forgiveness in healing

…the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14c)

Here James is apparently referring to a sinning church member who is sick because they are being disciplined by God. This may be the specific reason that the elders (who had responsibility for administering church discipline) were being called in: the person cannot go to church to confess their sin, so the elders need to go to them. In any case, this should not be taken as an indication that all illness is the direct result of the sick person’s sin. It may be (and if it is, the sin should be confessed), but it may not be. In some cases the sickness may be because of someone else’s sin.

  •  When healing is needed for the whole community 

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

The word “therefore” is important: “Confess your sins therefore to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (alternative translation). In this situation, sickness was the result of habitual sin, so the healing would come through the confession of that sin. Note as well that the sickness brought about by this sin was not only that of the individual but of the whole community. Here the word “you” (“you may be healed”) is plural. The community will experience healing through the exercise of prayer accompanied by the confession of sin.

It is not confession of sin that ‘earns’ healing, but healing here included reconciliation that comes through appropriate confession of sin that is impacting the whole community and through prayer of “righteous” people—people who are rightly related to God and to one another. In this way, healing is a community event.

  • Healing and “prayer offered in faith”

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)

Prayer for healing is effective when offered in faith (confident trust in God).  This is so because it is not anointing or prayer that heals, but God. The apostle John notes the importance of confidently trusting God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

A “prayer offered in faith” is one offered in assurance of God’s will in the matter. Here James calls elders to seek together God’s will for the sick and sinning person and to pray for that individual accordingly. Note that James’ example is not of one individual praying for the sick person, but of the whole body of elders praying together on behalf of the whole church.

As we seek God in prayer on behalf of those who are sick, we may not be able to know the specifics of God’s will for them. But it is always appropriate to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, heal your child.” Those who claim that God heals every time, and that it is never his will that his children suffer illness, deny both Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience.

3. Pray for the nation

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)

Here Elijah is given as an example of a “righteous man” whose prayers released power. The background is 1 Kings 17–18 where wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, his queen, had led Israel away from the Lord and into the worship of Baal. God punished the nation by holding back the rain for 3 1/2 years. Then Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long the priests cried out to their god, but no answer came. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah repaired the altar and prepared the sacrifice. He prayed only once, and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He had proven that Jehovah was the true God.

But the nation still needed rain. Elijah went to the top of Carmel and fell down before the Lord in prayer. He prayed and sent his servant seven times to see if there was evidence of rain; and the seventh time his servant saw a little cloud. Before long, there was a great rain, and the nation was saved.

Does the nation we live in today need God’s blessing? Of course. “But” we might argue, “Elijah was a special prophet of God.” To that James replies, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17)—he was not perfect; in fact, right after his victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away. “But,” we reply, “he was a ‘righteous man.'” But so are we, for our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, and our prayers are given through him, and the faith is his. Prayer for whole nations is the privilege of all of God’s children, not just some imagined “spiritual elite.”

Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him he would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1). You cannot separate the word of God and prayer, for in his word God tells us his will—he defines his promises, which we then claim confidently in prayer.

Elijah, in praying, not only believed; he was also persistent. “He prayed” and “again he prayed” (James 5:17–18). We sometimes give up in prayer too quickly. It’s true that we are not heard “for our much praying” (Matt. 6:7); but there is a difference between vain repetition and believing persistence in prayer. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, and Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh might be taken from him. We should not hesitate to ask and keep asking that God’s will be done.

Elijah “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17). The literal sense of the Greek text is “he prayed in prayer.” Sometimes we don’t really pray in our prayers. Maybe we haphazardly recite religious-sounding words, but our hearts are not in it. But “tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (James 5:16, Phillips translation). Elijah, a good, but not a perfect man (just like us), prayed for his nation, and God answered. Let us pray for our communities and whole nation too—pray that God will bring conviction and revival, and that “showers of blessing” will come. Paul says that one of the first responsibilities of a church is to pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–3).

4. Pray for believers who have wandered

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

Though James did not specifically name prayer here, it is implied. If we pray for the suffering, the sick, and the nation, surely we must pray for a brother or sister who has wandered from God’s truth. And we also must take other action to help restore them.

The verb “wander” suggests a gradual movie away from God’s will. Sometimes a brother or sister is “caught [overtaken] in a sin” (Gal. 6:1); but usually sin is the result of slow, gradual spiritual decline. Such a condition is dangerous for the offender. They may face discipline from God (Heb. 12) and may be in danger of committing “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16–17). Such wandering is also dangerous to the whole church. Offenders can lead others astray: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18, NASB). This is why members of the church must step in and help the person who has wandered away from the truth.

The “truth” in view here is the truth of God’s word. “Your [God’s] word is truth” said Jesus (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to this truth, they will start to drift. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, NASB). The outcome of this wandering is “sin” and possibly “death” (James 5:20).

What are we to do when we see a fellow believer wandering from the truth of God’s word? We should pray for them, to be sure; but also seek to help them directly. They need to be turned back (converted) to the right path. Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).  Let us do so as well.

Remember that we should always approach a wandering brother or sister in an attitude of love, “because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both James and Peter learned this principle from Prov. 10:12—“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Love not only helps the offender face their sin and deal with it, but love also assures them that those sins, once dealt with, do not need to be remembered any more.

Conclusion

May we hear and heed the admonition of the apostle James, who has given us these ways to use our tongues for good by being people of prayer.

Let us pray!

Sermon for September 23, 2018

Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-11; Ps. 54; 
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
from Mark 9: 30-37: Prov. 31:10; Prov. 9:10; James 3:13-16

Restoring Humility to our Humanity

Introduction

Though we all possess the corrupt, fallen human nature that resulted from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, there is good news: The eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the human condition, assumed our corrupt nature, and through his life of perfect submission to the Father overcame its fallenness, opening to all humans the possibility to be who they truly are in him—their true selves, beloved children of God.

Now, through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, God works to conform believers to the true humanity that is found in Jesus. One of the beautiful characteristics of that humanity is true humility—a quality in short supply in our self-centered, prideful world.

Our Scripture readings today speak to the restoration of that humility, and in this sermon we’ll see three ways in which we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to form that humility in us: 1) embrace our identity in Jesus, 2) live in the fear the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.

Embrace our identity in Jesus

In Mark 9 we read of the time following Jesus’ transfiguration. Rejoining the disciples who were not with him on the mountain, Jesus took them on a retreat where he could share some important truths:

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31)

Though what Jesus was saying was important, his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask (v. 32). To admit we don’t understand can be humiliating, and if we’re competing with others, we may not want to disclose our lack of understanding. Perhaps that was what was going on here with the disciples. Jesus sensed this and waited until the end of the trip to take up the conversation again.

As they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked, “‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Like children caught misbehaving, the disciples sheepishly withheld their reply. But Jesus knew what they were arguing about, and patiently taught them a vital lesson about leadership in the kingdom of God: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

In human organizations, those who are ambitious often expend tremendous energy climbing to top positions of leadership, where they exercise authority over those below them. Those being ruled serve the ruler, who dictates everything the people do. This autocratic style of leadership is designed to benefit the leader, not the people. Those serving are considered less important than the leader, although often they do the important tasks necessary for the organization while the leader does little besides dictating.

To illustrate the backwardness of this worldly style of leadership, Jesus took a nearby little child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

“For Ever and Ever” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

A child small enough to be cuddled in the arms of an adult is weak compared to an adult who tends to find it easy to consider the child of little importance. But Jesus illustrated a different attitude—one in which the adult sees the child as important because of the one who gives the child its identity. Jesus is that one.

This lesson brings to light a radical concept: seeing ourselves and other humans, even the smallest and weakest, through the lens of their identity given them by Jesus Christ, their Creator and Redeemer. This perspective is radical because human worth is usually associated with things like stature, appearance, intelligence, wealth, authority, and social standing. From Jesus’ vantage point, the only real standard of measurement of human value and importance is who that person is in relation to him—their Creator, Redeemer and Lord.

When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we express confidence in him, not in ourselves. When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to bother with comparisons with other people. We are freed to see ourselves as we actually are—small and weak, dependent on our Lord for everything. From this vantage point, our lives are not about pursuing personal ambitions, not about status and glory. Instead, our lives are in him, with him and for him.

Jesus used a little child not only to teach his disciples about servant-leadership, but also about humility. Note how he associates humility with our true identity in him. Ultimately, it is getting a true understanding of our identity in Christ that restores in us the childlike humility that is so essential, so endearing.

Live in the fear of the Lord

Another important shaper of humility is highlighted in today’s Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31. The topic is the woman of “noble character” (Prov. 31:10, NIV) called the “virtuous woman” in the KJV. Why is she virtuous? Several reasons are mentioned, but first and foremost, she “fears the Lord” (Prov. 31:30). What does that mean?  The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology answers:

“The fear of the Lord” does not mean being afraid of God. Rather, it is a reverential trust in God that makes us want to please and obey him. And yet there is a wholesome feeling of being sure that we do not disobey or displease him… Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christian life, at least in his relationship with God.

The lifestyles of those whose choices reflect a humble regard for God’s lordship over them are the opposite of those who, in their haughtiness, refuse to consider God to be the Lord of their lives. Humble submission marks one; proud self-determination the other. That is why dozens of passages in the Psalms and Proverbs encourage the fear of the Lord, including Proverbs 9:10, which says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” It is through this “reverential trust”—this realization of our dependence on God—that we receive and respond to his grace toward us.

Practice the wisdom from above

The wisdom we speak of here is not about mere human intelligence or experience. As we read in James, there is a difference between wisdom from above and wisdom that is earthly:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-15)

James’ contrast of these two types of wisdom reinforces the admonitions in Psalms and Proverbs about the lifestyle differences between those who fear the Lord and those who do not. One comes across as gentle, the other bitter like poison. Think again about the beauty of a seemingly innocent little child, and what it is that draws such a warm response from those who interact with the child. Is it not the quality of humility?

Those who disregard God often think they are too savvy to fall for what they consider religious superstition. Theirs is the arrogance of the child who thinks it knows more than his or her parents! Such counterfeit wisdom is rooted in demonic minds. It infects otherwise rational, intelligent-minded people, deceiving everyone not experiencing the gracious restoration given by the Father, Son and Spirit. The result is a world grasping for power, wealth, status and glory. That world despises the adult who exhibits wisdom from above:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:16)

Pure? Peaceable? Gentle? Willing to yield? Anyone who exhibits these qualities in this world is likely to be told, “Grow up!” Such qualities might be appreciated in a young child, but they typically are not respected in adults. That’s why James calls it “wisdom from above”—it’s not of this earth. It does not come from corrupt human nature.

James asserts in the first part of chapter 4 that it is due to worldly attitudes that there is human conflict at all levels. Whether in the home, among neighbors, within churches, or on battlefields between nations, the root causes are related to human pride and lust. Thus, James concludes with this strong advice: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

The Jamieson Fausset Brown Commentary says this concerning the word proud: “The Greek means in derivation one who shows himself above his fellows, and so lifts himself against God.” This is the same sinful attitude, which came from the devil and infected the demons. No wonder it is so dangerous to us!

God resists the proud because sinful pride has no place in his peaceable kingdom. This does not mean that God withholds all grace from unrepentant, prideful humans. Jesus said his Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The Father sent Jesus to save, not condemn, the world. The context of James 4 explains that the grace given to the humble is a special grace. In the first part of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes address this grace—special blessings that take place in the realm of the kingdom of God, not in this world. Jesus spoke these beautiful words of blessing and those who hear them can be sure that Jesus modeled the attitudes and behaviors he was advocating. His presence on earth said all that needs to be said about humility.

Conclusion

Are we willing to yield to God as he works to transform us into the likeness of Christ where we reflect his characteristic humility—a humility expressive of the wisdom from above? Sadly, that wisdom is typically ridiculed by the world. Jesus’ apostles would likely not rise to prominence were they living in today’s prideful, egocentric world. Why? Because, through the indwelling Spirit, they shared in Jesus’s perfected humanity, which includes his humility.

As we too yield to the transforming work of the Spirit, Jesus’ humility will shine through us more and more. May the transforming grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit work in us as we 1) embrace our identity in Christ, 2) live in the fear of the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

Scripture Readings: Prov. 1:20-23; Ps. 116:1-9;
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Sermon by Lance McKinnon 
from James 3:1-12

A Word Fitly Spoken

James, the brother of Jesus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In his epistle, James, the half brother of Jesus, begins by seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians going through difficult trials. Then in the section of the letter covered in today’s reading, he warns his readers against relying on their own abilities (including the use of their tongues) during those trials, rather than relying on Jesus.

In James 3:1, he tells them to not envy teachers who may be perceived as having more influence. Teachers use their tongue for their trade and there is real weight and responsibility that comes with that. What’s more, nobody is perfect in controlling their tongue. So, if someone wants a position where they think using their tongue will give them control over their troubles, they may find in the end that this will only make matters worse.

James’ point is that it is toward the perfection of Christ that God is leading us. Already in James 1:2-4, he has stated that this is God’s purpose in allowing our trials. Perhaps James’ point now is that followers of Jesus should trust in the Father’s working through their trials rather than relying on the use of their tongues to get themselves out of those trials. In making this point, James gives three illustrations that show the enormous power of the tongue. First he gives two illustrations concerning the positive power of the tongue: a small bit in the mouth of a large horse, and the small rudder on a large ship (James 3:2-4). Both illustrate how the tongue can direct and determine the destination of large things for good.

The rudder of a ship
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

He then uses the metaphor of fire to illustrate the destructive power of the tongue (James 3:5-6). James’ point is that we need to be rescued from the destructive consequences of trusting in the divided tongue of the serpent instead of trusting in the Word of God.

Jesus, the Living Word of God, is our rescue. He is the “tongue” that speaks on our behalf. Jesus is the final word of judgment on the destructive fire that has been consuming the world and poisoning our souls.

The Word of God in the smallness of crucifixion and death directs and determines the final destination of the entire world. Jesus is the bit and the rudder that brings us all safely home. It is in this final victory spoken by the Word of God on the cross and through the resurrection of the Word from the tomb that we are set free to use our tongues to be a blessing rather than to be a source of destruction.

As we participate in the Word spoken to us and for us, we find that we have been set free to be the source of the kind of speech that is truly a blessing, and not a curse. It is fitting and proper for our words to be words of blessing, seeing that we are created in and connected to Jesus.

Ultimately, we see that the word fitly spoken from our tongues is our Amen to the Father’s Word. We agree with his Word of blessing to us, who is none other than Jesus Christ.

Sermon for September 9, 2018

Scripture Readings: Isa. 35:4-7; Ps. 146;
James 2:1-13, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Sermon by Linda Rex 
from  Mark 7 and Isaiah 35

Hearing and Speaking the Word

Introduction

Stories about animals that talk and understand humans are fun and fascinating for children and adults alike. Perhaps that’s because God created us for relationship. We see our dog’s tail wagging and wish he could tell us what he is so happy about. We wonder, why does our cat meow loudly every time she gets done eating? Is she saying thank you? Is she praising God?

Jesus honors the faith of a Gentile woman

Perhaps in the world to come we will have an answer to these questions. In the meantime, we can learn something from the story in today’s Gospel reading concerning a Gentile woman who apparently enjoyed her pets.

[Read Mark 7:24-30 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]

“Jesus and the Woman of Canaan” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus has removed himself from Galilee and come to the largely Gentile area that included the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He was hoping to remain in the background, unnoticed by the people. Well, that’s not how it worked out. He had become known as a great miracle worker and though he told those who witnessed the miracles to not let word get out, they refused to be silent. Jesus was not able to escape being noticed, even in this Gentile region. It was only a matter of time before Jesus was accosted by someone wanting something from him. In this case, it was a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile. She kept asking Jesus to heal her little daughter of an unclean spirit. He responded with a statement which at first could seem rather insensitive to someone in her situation: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The word “dogs” does not necessarily point to the Gentiles but was often used in the sense of wild dogs or scavengers.

Nevertheless, she seemed to have a sweet spirit and a quick wit. She took Jesus’ figurative language and used it to express the heart of a kind and gracious parent: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” The nuances of the Greek here are lost in the English translation. In Greek, the diminutive is used so that it might have better been said, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs (or household pets) eat the children’s crumbs under the table while the family eats.” Her words express the idea of a warm family meal, with children and pets at the table gathered in love and harmony.

What she expressed, probably without even knowing it, was the heart of Abba—God the Father’s heart not just for his children, but for every creature under his care. Indeed, this is a description of life within the Trinity—a relationship of warm fellowship and companionship.

It seems that this woman trusted that there was enough love and grace and power available in Jesus to heal her daughter even after he first tended to the needs of his disciples and the Jewish people he was sent to serve. In her quick wit and persistent effort, Jesus saw a faith that he did not see in the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders he had been speaking with in the past few days. In her he saw an understanding of who he was as the Messiah—the one who heals, restores and frees from evil.

Jesus, seeing her faith, told her that her daughter was healed. So, she went home and discovered that indeed, this was the case. Her daughter had been healed at that very moment. Jesus had not only healed the little girl—he had also restored the family circle. The family could again sit together at a meal with their pets and enjoy sweet companionship and fellowship. The longing of this woman’s heart was fulfilled in Jesus’ gracious response to her persistent requests and her faith.

Jesus heals a deaf and mute man

Mark then tells us that Jesus moved on from Tyre and Sidon to the region of the Decapolis. There he encountered a man who was deaf and mute.

[Read Mark 7:31-37 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]

“Healing the Deaf Mute of Decapolis” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In many ways this man was an illustration of the Jewish people who Jesus had been sent to—they refused to hear Jesus, and they were incorrectly speaking the word of God. Earlier, Jesus had challenged the Pharisees and scribes with inaccurately teaching the Holy Scriptures:

Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men…. You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. (Mark 7:6-9, NASB)

Jesus knew the scribes and Pharisees were giving the people wrong ideas about who God is and about what it means to live in relationship with God. Their emphasis on Jewish tradition and on meticulous law-keeping were coming between the people and the God who loved them.

God’s law was meant to be an expression of the inner relations of God as Father, Son and Spirit. God’s people were meant to share in the peace, harmony and oneness of God’s love and life. A relationship with God is not about mere religion or a group of rules to follow. The law of God expresses a way of being—God’s way of Being—the way of covenant love. It shows us how we may be off the mark in our relationships with God and others.

The Jewish leaders also refused to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus was. Their insistence on keeping their positions of power and influence rather than acknowledging Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah was evidence of their deafness. Jesus said to them:

That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:20-23, NASB)

They were blind to this truth about themselves—about the condition of their hearts and their need to repent. On the one hand they would insist on meticulous law-keeping—no healing on the Sabbath, for example—and then on the other, immediately go out and begin to plot Jesus’ death.

Jesus was pointing out that they were not living in the truth of their being as made in the image of God—not living up to their calling to love God wholeheartedly and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Jesus was initially sent to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and he reminded his disciples and others of that fact. Yet, the Jews refused to hear him. They even sought to destroy him. Ironically, it was the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised and rejected, who welcomed Jesus and sought him out. A gentile woman who all the Jewish leaders despised and looked down upon, was the one who acknowledged who Jesus was, and was humble enough to place herself at his mercy and ask him for help. She was willing to throw all she counted on to the wind and put her trust in Jesus, trusting him to show her grace and compassion, and to heal her little girl.

Going back to our story, Jesus took this deaf and mute man aside into a private place and began to show him what he was going to do. He put his fingers in his ears, spit and touched his tongue, then looked up to heaven in the common stance of a Jew in prayer and with a deep sigh, breathed out the word, “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened!”

Poured into the deep sigh as he breathed this word was no doubt his heartfelt desire that all deaf ears be opened to hear and all tied-up tongues be freed to speak. He knew that he would soon pay a hefty price for this release, this healing. But Jesus walked the road to the cross freely and joyfully on our behalf. His heart, which fully reflects the heart of Abba his Father and ours, is that everyone be able to hear, understand and speak the truth about who God is and who we are as his beloved, adopted children.

Each of us is made in the image of God to reflect his likeness—we are created to love and to be loved, to live in the perichoretic dance of mutual service and outgoing concern in which God dwells as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But as God’s creatures, we are so unlike God in our humanity. We struggle to comprehend just who God is and who we are. Our bent is to turn our eyes from the truth and to close our ears—making ourselves blind and deaf to the truth, or twisting it in agreement with Satan’s lies.

This is why God came to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, in the incarnate Son of God. Christ entered our humanity so we could understand the truth about who God is. In Hebrews 1:1-3 (NASB), we read that “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” This Son, Jesus Christ, is God in human flesh—the exact representation of God’s being. When we look at Jesus, we see the Father. God wanted us to hear the truth about his love for us and so he spoke to us in a way we could understand—he gave us Jesus—God in human flesh.

Jesus did not turn away the outcasts. He did not refuse to help those who could not help themselves. He healed the Gentile woman’s daughter without even speaking a command—it was so because he made it so, because he was compassionate and understanding, because he is Lord of all.

In a more demonstrative way, Jesus healed the deaf and mute man. In doing so, Jesus used signs the man could understand so he could participate in his own healing. This healing gave clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah with these words:

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with anxious hearts, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. (Isaiah 35:3-7a, NASB)

Conclusion

Jesus did what only God could do—casting out an unclean spirit from a little girl, healing a deaf person’s ears, and enabling a mute person to speak and shout for joy. The reason Jesus was able to do these miracles was because of who he was—God in human flesh. He was the long-awaited Messiah, but he came as a humble Servant, not a conquering king.

His purpose was to redeem and restore our broken fellowship with his Abba. He came into our humanity so we could begin to grasp and understand who his Father was, and what it meant to be embraced by God’s covenant love. The Word of God, Abba’s one unique Son, took on our human flesh, lived our life, and died our death, thereby sharing in every aspect of our broken and sinful humanity. He took our brokenness and sin right through death into resurrection. He gave us healing and new life, delivering us from sin, Satan, and death.

This is the gift, the grace God has given us in Jesus—the gift of eternal life—life in loving relationship with our Triune God both now and forever. Our life in Christ is a life that reflects the very being of God as Father, Son and Spirit. In Christ, we are included by faith in the warm, loving family fellowship at God’s table. The Spirit calls you and me to believe and embrace the truth of our being—that we are God’s beloved, adopted children, healed and made whole in Jesus, God’s Son. Will we receive and by faith embrace that gift?

Let us pray [introducing Communion]:

Heavenly Father, thank you for all your blessed and perfect gifts, for your love and grace expressed to us in Jesus. We thank you for the new life, healing, and wholeness that we can participate in right now through your Holy Spirit. We come joyfully to your table in gratitude and praise through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for September 2, 2018

Scripture Readings: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps. 15; 
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from Deuteronomy 4, Mark 7 and James 1
(drawing from the Expositor's Bible Commentary)

Embracing True Freedom

Introduction

According to popular legend, just over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, German priest and theologian Martin Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

(source)

For many years, Luther had tried hard to be righteous in order to avoid suffering God’s wrath. He fasted so often he permanently damaged his body; he caused himself physical pain by lashing himself. He kept the other priests busy with his constant confessions. He took the admonition to fear God very seriously. He was terrified of God and God’s punishment.

But then everything changed as the Spirit led Luther in a deep study of Scripture where he came to the realization that the righteousness he had been seeking was a gift of God’s grace. He learned that nothing he could do, no matter how rigorous, would achieve that righteousness. He went on to share far and wide his understanding that freedom from guilt and sin comes from Jesus Christ, not from obedience to any rule, practice, or law.

Through Luther’s writings, many people began to understand and embrace  what true freedom in Jesus Christ means.

Freedom is not easy to understand

What Luther came to understand about freedom in Christ was not well-received. It is not an easy concept to understand. In Luther’s day and continuing down to our day, many religious leaders attach lots of rules and regulations to the simple gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Even in the first century, it was difficult for some of the early Christians to understand. Part of the reason was because many of them had come out of Judaism with its many laws and traditions (some of us can relate to that!). Let’s see why it was so difficult for them to understand and fully accept their freedom in Christ.

Look at how these people had been taught through the generations. Moses and the Law were their guides. Moses was dogmatic about obedience to the Law:

Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. (Deut. 4:1-2, NRSV)

Not only were the people of Israel to keep the Law in their lifetimes, the laws, commandments, statutes and ordinances that made up the Law of Moses were to be taught to their children as well, so they would be passed down through the generations to come. Look at verse 9:

Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children… (Deut. 4:9, NRSV)

Jesus’ freedom is suspect to legalists

After being schooled from childhood in the Law, freedom in Christ was not easy for these early Jewish Christians to understand. Not only did they have the Law given by Moses, the Jewish religious leaders over the years had tacked on more laws, rules and traditions as well.

They made a point to closely watch Jesus and his followers to see if they were following all the rules and traditions. After all, how could these religious types measure and compare how righteous they were with others without all these rules to go by? They were quick to condemn. But Jesus saw right through their self-righteousness:

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:1-5, NRSV)

“The Pharisees Question Jesus” by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ response

How did Christ respond? Not as they might have expected:

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8, NRSV)

Jesus called these religious leaders out for their hypocrisy. He knew their hearts. And he knew while they might carefully measure out a tithe of mint or cumin, they didn’t keep God’s commandments to love God and their neighbors.

Jesus didn’t just ignore what the Pharisees and scribes had said about ritual washings, either. He made a point to get the crowd’s attention and explain to them what really defiles a person:

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-15, NRSV; Mark 7:21-23, NRSV)

Jesus enumerated what evil really consisted of—not what people eat or how they dress or wash or anything outside a person, but from the evil that comes from what Jesus refers to as the human heart. No amount of washing can cleanse that evil. The righteous live by faith in Christ and his sacrifice.

Freedom is by faith in Jesus, not works

In Romans and Galatians, the apostle Paul refers to Abraham as “the father of the faithful.” He cites Abraham’s example of the righteousness of faith—that’s the only response needed from us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This is a righteousness—a right relationship with God—which comes by faith alone, not by works of the law. Even that faith, by which we stand rightly related to God, is his gift through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Does that mean obedience to God is not necessary for Christians? No, we know better. That is not the freedom in Christ Paul was preaching.

Paul teaches there is an obedience to God that faith produces (In Romans 1, Paul calls it “the obedience that comes from faith”)—an obedience through the Spirit, grounded in faith in God and motivated by love for God, not fear. This obedience is about keeping Christ’s commands to love God and to love one another. It is our grateful response to God’s overwhelming love for us.

James also refers to this obedience that comes through faith. He calls it “the law of liberty.” He also calls it “the perfect law.” Why use those terms?Perhaps because James is wanting to be sure his readers don’t confuse Christ’s commandments to love God and one another with the old dos and don’ts of the Law of Moses. In like manner, Paul, in Romans 7, taught that though the Law of Moses was “holy,” is lacked something (Romans 7:12, 18-19). What was it lacking? Christ and his grace!

It’s also possible that James was combining the words law and liberty in order to show an overall picture of God’s truth as expounded throughout the Old and New Testaments. The old law was the teacher that led us to Jesus, but only by Christ’s free gift of grace can we be obedient to him, thus keeping his law of love. Notice what else James says:

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:22-25, NRSV)

Conclusion

In summation, Jesus came to bring us truth, a truth that frees us from the old law and gives us his law of grace and liberty. Jesus said his truth makes us free. Let’s read what Jesus said about the freedom he gives:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32, NRSV)

But much like some today, they questioned the freedom that Christ offered. They didn’t realize they were in slavery to sin:

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36, NRSV)

Jesus was talking about a different type of slavery, the kind that any of us can be and have been a slave to. Only through the love, sacrifice and forgiveness of Jesus are we set free from sin.

When he freed us from sin, Jesus made us free to be who we truly are in him. We can quit being like the Pharisees by trying to look and act “religious.” We can admit we still make mistakes, and yet have the full confidence that Jesus forgives us and loves us anyway. And, you know what? When we realize we’re not all that perfect, we’ll be less likely to judge others, and as a result, they will feel more comfortable around us.

Knowing that God loves us and forgives us, we’re free to bear fruit for God. Free to love God and to love others. Free to be, as James says, Christian doers, not just hearers. Christians who recognize they are not perfect, and who can focus on others and their needs instead of their own shortcomings. How can people not like that?

When people feel you like them and don’t judge them, they are comfortable around you. That gives you the opportunity to show God’s love to them. When Jesus says he has made us free, he means it. The shackles are removed. Our sins are forgiven. We are free indeed. That’s an amazing truth we can share with others.

Sermon for August 26, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ps. 34:15-22;
Eph.6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Sermon by Lance McKinnon 
from Ephesians 6:10-18

Take Your Stand

Introduction

Ever feel up against more than you can handle? You might feel that way when reading what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 concerning formidable “powers of the dark” and “spiritual forces of evil.”

Though it’s a bit of a mystery, we realize that evil is all too real. Thankfully, Jesus tells us of a deeper gospel reality—through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has defeated all evil forces, the devil included. So we need not fear, though we should do what Paul exhorts in the second half of Ephesians chapter 6. Let’s begin in v. 10.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Eph. 6:10)

Here Paul is wrapping up his letter. Prior to this he has presented the gospel and addressed our calling to live into that reality. He refers in v. 10 to the Lord’s mighty power, which is on display in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s in this power that we can do what he exhorts in v. 11:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph. 6:11)

Here Paul uses the metaphor of putting on armor to speak of receiving and living into the reality of Jesus and his victory over the devil. In other words, Jesus himself is the full armor of God. Paul is exhorting us to understand who Jesus is and what we already have been given in his resurrected life. Paul is telling us to arm ourselves by participating in Jesus’ resurrection life. The devil doesn’t have any weapons that can fight against that. All he has are schemes—lies and deceptions—to try to keep us from doing so.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of his dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph. 6:12)

Paul is clear that our fight in this life of faith is not against “flesh and blood” but against spiritual forces of evil. It’s good to keep this in mind when we face relational conflicts. In Jesus, all men and women are brothers and sisters. Therefore, our struggles are not against one another. The devil would love to deceive us into taking shots at each other as enemies rather than living in the reality of our reconciliation in Christ. Because the devil is out of ammunition, friendly fire is his best strategy.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Eph. 6:13)

Jesus faced the day of evil on the cross. After the dust had settled, we found him still standing in the resurrection. That’s the reality that we cling to in the spiritual assaults we encounter every day. In the end, Jesus’ victory is our victory.

Then in Ephesians 6:14-18, Paul addresses putting on Christ by describing the various pieces of armor commonly worn by Roman soldiers. This imagery was close at hand for Paul—he likely wrote this letter while imprisoned, with Roman soldiers a common sight.

Roman Centurion (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paul first mentions the soldier’s belt as a metaphor for truth (Eph. 6:14a). Jesus is the truth and everything is held up in him.

Paul then uses the breastplate that guarded a soldier’s heart and vitals to picture “righteousness” (Eph. 6:14b). When we see Jesus as our righteousness, the devil can’t inflict mortal wounds of guilt.

The sandals worn by the soldiers was chosen to represent the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). Maybe Paul had in mind walking forward in the finished work of reconciliation in Jesus. Jesus is the gospel and he gives us his peace.

The shield of faith is our trust in the Lord (Eph. 6:16). This trust will quench thel doubts the devil raises in our experiences of sorrow and pain. Jesus, on the cross, experienced plenty of sorrow and pain. But he did not waver in his trust of his Father. Jesus expressed the human feeling of forsakenness, but he also expressed a continuing trust in his Father (“into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

The helmet of salvation protects our mind (Eph. 6:17a). Being saved means we needed saving. This is an affront to our pride. Salvation brings to bear our need for repentance. We must change the way we think about God, ourselves and others. Jesus is our salvation who transforms our way of thinking.

The sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17b) is the only offensive weapon mentioned in Paul’s metaphorical list. That sword is the word of God. This can be a reference to Holy Scripture and we’ve seen Jesus wield it against the devil. But deeper still, this metaphor can mean Jesus who is the Word of God that all Scripture points to. As we take our stand in Jesus we never move on the attack unless it is where he is leading. When we lead the charge instead of following the Spirit, we may be turning our backs on the real battle.

Paul concludes his list of the elements in our spiritual armor by stating the need we have to pray for one another in taking our stand (Eph. 6:18). Roman soldiers had to help each other put on their armor, as it was too difficult to do alone. Praying for one another is linking arms together in the communion Jesus has brought us by the Spirit. As we do so, we take our stand together, proclaiming the “mystery of the gospel” that victoriously moves forward despite all obstacles.

Sermon for August 19, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 2:1-12; 3:3-14; Ps. 34:9-14;
Eph. 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Sermon by Linda Rex 
from John 6:51-58

Our Living Host

Introduction

I have a relative who spent years studying bats in many different parts of the world. Someone who knows a lot about bats knows that most of them eat only insects and fruit. But some people associate bats with drinking blood, so they are afraid of all kinds of bats.

The only bat that drinks the blood of animals is the vampire bat, which apparently got its name from stories about vampires who would transform into bats. The concept of a blood-sucking creature or person developed out of folklore and mythology, as well as fears people had of death and disease epidemics, along with misunderstandings about the dying process.

It is instructive that the nation of Israel was told by God to not drink the blood of any living thing. In Leviticus 17 we read, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood… as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life” (Lev. 17:11-14, NASB). God had breathed life into human beings—it’s that breath of life that keeps us alive. We know from studying the human body that blood carries life-giving oxygen throughout the body, along with nutrients and many other things necessary for life. If any human being or animal loses blood in large quantities, they will likely die.

Something as simple as God’s command to not consume the blood of any living thing can point us to the gift God gave us of his Son. In our Gospel passage today in John 6, we read that Jesus was telling the crowd of Jews that unless they were to eat his body and drink his blood, they would have no real life. In their mind, Jesus was asking them to do something expressly prohibited in the Law of Moses. How could Jesus insist on them committing such an abominable act? This eating a human body and drinking its blood was an act that led to death, not life!

Communion Table (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus told them they needed to eat of his flesh in order to live. The Jews also knew that cannibalism was forbidden in the Law of Moses. Why in the world would Jesus insist that they eat his body? They could not see how Jesus was going to give them his body to eat.

Jesus also called himself the bread that came down from heaven. The Jews automatically assumed that this referred to the manna that God provided his people in the wilderness. It was a special gift from God for his special people—what did it have to do with this man who claimed he came from heaven and was God’s Son? He was just another human being like themselves.

The Jews focused on a literal interpretation of what Jesus was saying. They had literal flesh and blood in mind. They could see only the physical Jesus in front of them—they had no idea who Jesus really was. They did not understand or accept his true identity as the Son of God in human flesh.

But Jesus knew who he was. He understood that he drew his life from his heavenly Father. He knew he was the living Word of God in human flesh—the One through whom and for whom all things were made. He was the One who has always lived in loving relationship with Abba in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father…” He knew the source of all life is in our heavenly Father. The living Word had taken on a human body and while in that body on earth he drew his life from his Abba by the Spirit. The Father of all remained in close relationship with his Son, in the Spirit, even though his eternal Son had taken upon himself our broken, sinful human flesh.

Jesus lived in total dependence on his Father, just as we are to live in total dependence on the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit. Jesus trusted his Abba completely, and whatever he saw his Father do, he did. He did the will of his Father at all times—so completely and perfectly that when you saw Jesus, you saw the Father.

Jesus also knew that the reason he took on our humanity was so one day each human being could share in his eternal life. We humans were created for that purpose—to dwell in close, intimate relationship with God forever as those who were uniquely made in his image to reflect his likeness. As human beings, we were designed to draw our existence from the life-giving, life-sustaining love and goodness of God. We were never meant to be self-sufficient or self-determined.

Sadly, since the beginning, we humans have taken the gift of free-will given to us by Abba and turned it into license to do as we wish. We have considered ourselves to be self-sufficient, not realizing our decision to turn from God consigned us to death—to return to the nothingness from which we were made. God never meant for that to happen to us—his heart has always been to deliver us from the judgment we would bring upon ourselves through our stubborn, willful turning away from him.

Throughout his life on earth in mortal human flesh, Jesus slowly but surely took a steady path toward the culmination of his earthly mission—to deliver us from sin, death and Satan—from all the things we have surrendered ourselves to in willfulness and rebellion.

Jesus knew he was headed to the cross. The cross would be the place where human beings would come face-to-face with the depth of the evil, which had twisted and corrupted their beings. Humans would have to face the reality that when God came face-to-face with them here on earth—they crucified him, subjecting him to the worst torture and death known to humanity at the time.

Christ at the Cross (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus willingly faced the cross for our benefit. He was the complete expression of the love of God presented to us in a way in which we as human beings might begin to apprehend a little of God’s abundant goodness, grace and love. Jesus did not run from the cross, but “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb 12:2, NASB). Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, is the full expression of the love of the Father for every human being with no exceptions.

In the giving of his body and through the pouring out of his blood on the cross, Jesus offered himself in our place. He was the perfect sacrificial Lamb—for us. He poured out his life’s blood so we could and would have life in him. He freely offered himself in his humanity for us, so we would not need to be offered for our sins. Jesus stood in our place—his life for our life; his body for our body. This is the gift of life given on our behalf by Jesus Christ our Savior.

Jesus made this self-offering with joy, sharing the Father’s heart of love in the Spirit for us. The Incarnation—God taking on human flesh—was necessary for our humanity to be redeemed and transformed. The atonement—God in Christ taking our place—was necessary for our redemption and transformation. And Christ in our place was necessary for our intimate relationship with Abba to be redeemed and restored, so that we could share forever in the love and life enjoyed by the Father, Son and Spirit.

But that is not all God gave us in Jesus. Having ascended to the Father after his resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that everyone could have life in him. The Spirit is the breath of God, who breathes new life into each of us as we trust in the saving work of Jesus. Jesus calls us, by the Spirit, to trust—to believe in the truth of who he is and what he has done. As the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:18, we are to be intoxicated with the Spirit, not with anything that would steal our life away.

The life God calls us to is life in the Holy Spirit lived in obedience to Christ. We seek God’s face through spiritual disciplines—practices such as worship (with a focus on Holy Communion), praying in the Spirit, reading Holy Scripture, meditating on God and his Word, and fellowshipping with other believers. In all these ways we feed on Christ by the Spirit—eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood. As we do so, we are led by the Spirit to trust Jesus and follow him wherever he leads us.

Living in and participating in the divine fellowship that exists in the Holy Trinity is what we were created for. This knowing and being known is what Jesus said eternal life—real life—is all about. We have this life as we walk with Jesus, through the Spirit, by faith, trusting in Jesus as our living Lord. As we feed on Christ by the Spirit, God breathes this eternal life into us and we respond with humility and gratitude through acts born of faith.

Instead of being shocked by Jesus’ statement that we must eat his body and drink his blood, we can open our hands and hearts to receive this gift and begin to share it with those around us. The beautiful gift of Jesus’ body broken for us and his blood poured out for us brings us life, not death.

All the fears we have of disease, death and dying are swept away in the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing on our behalf. Because of Christ, we have nothing to fear. No one and no thing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Abba has set a table for us in his Son that meets all the deep longings of our souls. As we turn to Christ in faith, by the Spirit we feast at the Communion table on our living host, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our life. He is our breath. He is our sustenance—the real and living bread and drink of our existence.

As we come to the Communion table, we are reminded again of the gift of life in Christ Jesus. He offered his body and blood in our place and on our behalf. In offering the bread and the wine to remember him by, Jesus turns us away from our self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and calls us to himself. Take, eat—this is my body broken for you. Drink all of it—this is the cup of the covenant. We are reminded anew of the precious gift of Abba’s love expressed to us in Jesus and in the giving of the Spirit. And we are grateful.

Closing prayer:

Thank you, Abba, for drawing us to yourself with your two hands of love—your Son Jesus Christ and your Holy Spirit. Thank you for giving us real life—the life of your one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you for giving us your breath—the breath of life, the Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to trust in and receive these gifts and to respond by living in the truth of our existence each day—through Christ and by the Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Sermon for August 12, 2018

Scripture Readings: 2 Sam.18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ps. 34:1-8;
Eph. 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from John 6:35-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The Bread of Life

Have you noticed that bread is mentioned a lot in the Bible? That’s not a surprise—bread was the main part of daily meals in the Mediterranean world. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary grain “provided most of the proteins and carbohydrates for humans for centuries and even millennia.” The word “bread” in the Bible can also mean food in general as a sustainer of life. In John 6, Jesus refers to bread symbolically:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35, NRSV)

Here Jesus was speaking to a mixed crowd of people, some he had miraculously fed with five barley loaves and two fish the day before. Those people had followed after him hoping he would feed them again. He used their physical hunger to teach a spiritual lesson:

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48-51, NRSV)

The bread that Jesus had miraculously supplied the people the day before sustained them for a few hours. They were already hungry again. Jesus reminds them of manna, another source of miraculous food, which also kept their ancestors alive, but only temporarily. Jesus compares these breads, both miraculous feedings, to the bread he offers—the living bread from heaven—himself. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread. Those who eat of this bread will live forever, he said. That’s the bread they should be seeking, instead of following him around hoping to be fed and entertained with another miraculous feeding.

Some in the crowd knew Jesus’ family. They knew Joseph and Mary, perhaps personally. They were offended by Jesus’ often-repeated saying that he “came down from heaven.” Here was a man they knew, whose parents they knew, who claimed to have personal knowledge and authority from God. Jesus also seemed to be putting himself before their prophet Moses and the giving of manna in the wilderness.

The people began to mutter and complain among themselves. Who does this young upstart think he is!

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I have come down from heaven?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:41-47, NRSV)

They were taking Jesus’ statements literally, not understanding the spiritual analogies he was making. But bread and flesh used in spiritual symbolism was not new to them. Countless animals had been sacrificed over the millennia for the sins of the people. The flesh of these animals was then cooked and eaten. Bread was used as a special offering in the Temple. The Bread of Presence, which was also eaten by the priests, was a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel (Lev. 24:5-9).

But what they heard was Jesus saying that the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood was the key to eternal life. Without the discernment given by the Spirit, it was impossible to understand what Jesus meant. The drinking of blood was especially revolting to people long taught that it was a sin. When Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, it was a very difficult saying. It had to be spiritually discerned. Even some of his own disciples (the Bible says “many”) turned away and followed him no more at this point.

When Jesus asked the 12 disciples if they would also leave him, that’s when Peter famously asked:

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are Holy One of God. (John 6:68-69, NRSV)

Perhaps the 12 were as confused as the others; they didn’t usually catch on too quickly. Yet they believed in Jesus and trusted their lives to him, even their eternal lives. By faith, they stayed.

Perhaps they remembered Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood when he later instituted the sacrament of Communion at the Last Supper. They certainly did following Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It all became clear then.

Christ with the Chalice
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

We learn from the writings of the apostle Paul that Holy Communion was a sacrament performed regularly in the early church—apparently every time they met. What happens when the bread and wine of Communion are consecrated and ingested has been debated over the centuries, though most Christians agree that these elements somehow are presenting to us the body and blood of Jesus. By partaking of the elements, we are partaking of Christ—he is feeding us with his own glorified humanity. As this occurs, we are told in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is forming us to be the body of Christ on earth.

Henri Nouwen (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henri Nouwen, Christian author and professor, was also a priest. When he would offer the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Communion to his congregants, he would often think deeply about what he was doing. Here is what he wrote:

These words [spoken in serving communion: taken, blessed, broken and given] summarize my life as a priest because each day, when I come together around the table with members of my community, I take bread, bless it, break it and give it. These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given. Most importantly, however, they summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving are happening. (Life of the Beloved)

Though none of us, Nouwen included, can fully understand all that Holy Communion entails, and how all that it conveys “works,” he clearly understood that, somehow, eating the bread and drinking the wine makes us one with Christ and with each other. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. We truly are the body of Christ. As we learned in the sermon last week, this is the indicative of grace. What then is the imperative of this grace—what is our response to this, the greatest of all gifts to humankind?

The answer is that, just as the 12 disciples did, we come to Jesus believing in him, accepting his forgiveness and love. With gratitude, we embrace and celebrate the gift of our salvation. In receiving, we experience the freedom from sin and guilt and shame that are ours in Christ—gifts that are ours, not just today, tomorrow, next week or next year, but forever. What greater gift could there be? It’s only through the Holy Spirit that we are coming to more fully comprehend what Jesus has done for us.

As part of the body of Christ, how then should we live as Christians? How should we respond to this greatest of gifts? The apostle Paul tells us:

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 4:25-5:2, NRSV)

According to Paul, through these virtuous acts, we do something quite profound—we imitate Christ, who offered himself up to God for our benefit. The Greek word here translated “offering” refers to the grain offering in the Jewish sacrificial rites (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). In Christ, we identify with God himself, and through Christ our lives are an acceptable offering and sacrifice to God.

Now, we could make a list of these virtues, and stick it on our refrigerator, or tack it on our bulletin board. Doing so might be a good reminder. However, just to be clear, these aren’t new rules and regulations Paul is giving to replace those we’ve set for ourselves in the past. Don’t forget, living out these virtues will not bring anyone closer to Christ and to his salvation. Living this way is our response to Christ’s sacrifice already given. Our obedience doesn’t save us—it’s our response to Christ’s sacrifice for us. Paul is writing to people who are already Christians, and calling forth their response (the imperatives of grace) to the reality of who they already are in Christ (the indicatives of grace).

In conclusion, let’s not make rules for ourselves where they weren’t intended. We are set free by Christ’s sacrifice for us to love God and love people. These aspects of the Christian life that Paul writes about here in John 6 reflect that love. And, even the ability to do join with Jesus in that love is a gift of the Holy Spirit—we are not able to love like that on our own. As Christians we don’t look to rules and regulations; we look to Jesus, who says this:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51, NRSV)

In Christ, we identify with God himself, and through Christ our lives are an acceptable offering and sacrifice to God.

Sermon for August 5, 2018

Scripture Readings: 2 Sam. 11:26-12:13a; Ps. 78:23-29; 
Eph. 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
from Ephesians 4:1-16

Living Into Our Calling

The indicatives of grace

The epistle of Ephesians was sent originally to Christians in Ephesus and surrounding towns. In the first half, Paul declares what theologians call the indicatives of grace—the gospel truths that by grace, in Jesus, we are the adopted children of God and by grace, through the Spirit, we are being transformed into the maturity of Christ.  These realities do not become true if we do such and such, but are true, in Christ, by God’s grace.

“Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The imperatives of grace

In the second half of Ephesians, Paul addresses what theologians call the imperatives of grace—our grateful response to the indicatives of grace. Today’s reading from the epistles is from that section of Paul’s letter, and we will consider it as we consider how we live into our calling in Christ.

The recipients of Ephesians already had begun to do so by believing the gospel and committing themselves, through baptism, to Jesus Christ. Now in Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul urges them to continue their journey of faith by responding to God in ways that are consistent with the grace of God that they have received:

As a prisoner for the Lord… I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (v. 1)

Paul, who wrote Ephesians from prison, used the fact of his incarceration to strengthen two points: 1) that his readers have been called, and 2) that they need to live into that calling. The life that is theirs already in Christ is a “calling” because they did not seek it; it was not the result of their choice—it was something God initiated. God, appealing to them through the Holy Spirit, called out to them, beckoning them to respond. In issuing that appeal and calling forth their response, God used human servants—including Paul in their case. And now Paul urges them to live in ways that are “worthy” of that calling. The Greek word translated “worthy” does not mean “deserving,” as though they could somehow earn their calling. Instead it carries the idea of living in a way that is consistent with (in line with) the indicatives of grace. How were they to do that? How are we to do that today? According to Paul, it begins with our attitude:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (v. 2)

Though we are the chosen of the King, we are not to act like aristocrats. Instead, we are to show forth the virtues Paul lists here (and v. 4). These virtues typify people who are down-to-earth rather than high-minded; helpful to others rather than hurtful; accepting of setbacks rather than demanding immediate gratification; putting up with faults in others rather than expecting perfection. A primary virtue according to Paul is living in a way that promotes unity among Christians:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (v. 3)

Note that it is not a unity we create, but one created by the Spirit, which we then maintain by how we treat each other. It’s a unity that reflects the tri-unity of God who is three in Persons yet one in being. In similar fashion, the church is diverse with many members, yet united by the Spirit in one body—the body of Christ:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (vv. 4-6)

Unity pervades every aspect of the body of Christ—a unity grounded in the one faith and baptism that are centered on the one Lord, Jesus Christ. In order that this unity be preserved, the Spirit gives the body of Christ a diversity of grace-gifts:

To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave [the church] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers… (vv. 4-7)

The gifts noted here are leadership offices. The men and women who fill these offices are called by God to serve the church in a way that maintains its essential unity as the one body of Christ.

The many members that make up the one church are like the myriad cells of a human body. Note this from the article “Cells” in the Merck Manual:

The body is composed of many different types of cells, each with its own structure and function… Some cells, such as blood cells move freely in the blood and are not attached to each other. Other cells, such as muscle cells, are firmly attached to one another. Some cells, such as skin cells, divide and reproduce quickly. Other cells, such as certain nerve cells, do not divide or reproduce except under unusual circumstances. Some cells, especially glandular cells, have as their primary function the production of complex substances, such as a hormone or an enzyme. For example, some cells in the breast produce milk, some in the pancreas produce insulin, some in the lining of the lungs produce mucus, and some in the mouth produce saliva. Other cells have primary functions that are not related to the production of substances. For example, muscle cells contract, allowing movement. Nerve cells generate and conduct electrical impulses, allowing communication between the central nervous system… and the rest of the body.

How truly marvelously we are made! Scientists have calculated that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each carrying out an assigned role. In the same way, the church consists of many members who, though diverse in their roles, function together under the superintending care of its leaders who work to preserve the health of the body of Christ. Indeed, the role of these leaders is…

…to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (vv. 12-13)

Each of us in the body of Christ has been gifted in a particular way to contribute to the unity of the church. As we utilize those gifts in works of service, the church grows in maturity—it becomes more like Jesus, the head of the body. Paul says that as that happens…

…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (vv. 14-16)

As the church grows into the maturity of Christ, weird spiritual notions, haunting guilt, legalistic practices, misapplication of grace, uninspired predictive prophecies and negative reactions against different people drop away. Instead, the church lives more and more in a unity where each member, in love, utilizes their God-given gifts to  reach out in love to all people, while never compromising the truth that is in Jesus.

But how can this happen?

Is this beautiful picture of the church “pie-in-the-sky” idealism? Well, if it depends on mere human ability, the answer would be yes. But as our Scripture readings today show, with God it is possible. Indeed, it is the plan God is working out, despite human weakness. We saw that in our reading in 2 Samuel where David, through human weakness, failed to live up to his calling as Israel’s king. Yet, through Nathan, God led David to deep repentance, and David was restored and went on to serve Israel faithfully for many years. No matter how colossal our failures might be, God’s grace is greater. As we receive and respond to the grace of repentance, the Holy Spirit renews and restores us. That is true for us as individuals, and it’s true for congregations and even entire denominations, as our experience in GCI demonstrates. Praise be to God!

The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Our Gospel reading today in John 6 also gives us insight about living into our calling. There we find Jesus saying these words:

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” …Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:27, 35)

The people Jesus was addressing were largely concerned about satisfying their physical hunger. Though Jesus was not unconcerned that their bellies were empty, he was even more concerned that their lives were spiritually empty. He has the same concern for people today. As the body of Christ, we are called to join Jesus in providing to people something that will nourish their souls—the “bread of life”—Jesus himself. We must feed on Christ ourselves (and we do so, in part, through the Lord’s Supper) and we then enter with Jesus into the work of evangelism—a work for which the body of Christ is gifted by the Spirit.

Conclusion

Dear friends, members of the body of Christ by grace, we have every reason and every resource we need to live into the calling we have in Christ. Christ in us, by the Spirit, enables us to be and do what otherwise would be impossible if we had  to rely on our own resources. Like cells in the human body, each of us has been given particular gifts in line with a particular role and responsibility in seeing that the body of Christ is built up in love. To help us do so, God gifts the body with leaders called to oversee, to preach and to teach, so that together in unity we might live into the calling that we have been given. May we, by God’s grace, do so.

Sermon for July 29, 2018

Scripture readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps. 145:10-18;
Eph. 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
from 2 Kings 4, Ephesians 3 and John 6

When the Impossible Becomes Possible

Introduction

The apostle Paul constantly encouraged the early Christians to have faith, and, as they went out into the world with the gospel message, to access the power of the Spirit, which, through Christ, was within them. That same message applies to us today. Jesus did not give us an impossible job when he said to take the gospel to the world, making disciples of all peoples. It may seem that way at times, but through him the impossible becomes possible.

Let’s look at what Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 3. First, he reminds his readers that we do indeed have the Spirit of Christ within us and he prays that we be strengthened in that faith. Then he prays that we will comprehend the love that God has for us and all people:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19, NRSV)

Paul then ends his prayer by saying we can’t, even in our wildest imaginations, comprehend the power the Holy Spirit within us has. Nothing we can ask for or imagine to do in Jesus’ name is beyond him.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I get down on my knees I’m pretty good at asking, and, as for imagining, I can imagine quite a lot. But Christ in us is far more powerful than yours or my limited imaginations. Let’s continue in chapter 3:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21, NRSV)

When we think about the great challenge of the commission Jesus gave us, we sometimes get discouraged. But let’s not forget that Jesus can do the impossible! Though he was human just as we are, he healed the sick, fed thousands with a few scraps of food, and walked on water! Note what it says in John chapter 6:

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:1-9, NRSV)

This was another one of those teachable moments for Jesus’ disciples. What did Jesus do? Let’s read on:

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:10-15, NRSV)

Miracle of the Bread and Fish (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m sure the disciples were awestruck as they gathered up the remains of the feast Jesus had miraculously provided, but this memorable day was not over for them. We can’t be certain they saw where Jesus went to escape the crowds. Maybe he told one of them, but whatever the case, by that evening they had given up on him coming back, and headed back to their boat and took off without him to Capernaum. Continuing in John 6:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6:16-21, NRSV)

OK, you might argue, that was Jesus, not me. Jesus is God; I’m not. I couldn’t feed thousands without taking out a loan and hiring a caterer, maybe a dozen or more caterers, and I sure can’t walk on water. Sounds like a disciple of Jesus, right?

Jesus is not asking us to produce food out of little or nothing, or to walk on water, but if he did, don’t you think we could? Peter was bold enough to take Jesus at his word, and for a little while anyway, while faith held out, he could walk on water. And as for someone other than Jesus feeding lots of people through faith, look at the example of Elisha, one of the prophets back in the Old Testament:

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.”’ But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD. (2 Kings 4:42-44, NRSV)

Peter and Elisha were both human, just like us. Yes, Jesus was God, but he was also fully human. His miraculous powers to feed thousands, walk on water and heal people came not from himself, but from the Father upon whom Jesus fully relied. And, just as with Jesus’ first disciples, he is asking us to participate with him in his ministry to the world.

With such a powerful spiritual source to draw from, how can we as Christians not go forward with Christ to bring the good news of the gospel to others? As much as we feel comfortable here in our little church with those of like mind, we should think of our church fellowship as a kind of spiritual recharging station. We are to come here once a week to be recharged, not to live here.

Christian author and preacher John Stott wrote about our life in Christ:

The Christian life is not just a private affair of your own. If we are born again into God’s family, not only has he become our Father but every other believer in the world, whatever their nation or denomination, has become our brother or sister in Christ. One of the commonest ways of describing Christians in the New Testament is “brothers and sisters.” This is a glorious truth. (“Basic Christianity”)

Unfortunately, we have a hard time caring about Christian brothers and sisters, let alone non-Christians. But, is it such a hard thing to listen, to pay attention to that grumpy coworker or sad-faced person serving you, or that aggravating neighbor, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you in developing a relationship with them that can lead to opportunities to share with them the truth of the gospel? Well, it’s not a hard thing with God’s help. Whenever we can, let’s be an encouraging light in the darkness of this world.

Conclusion

I’ll conclude with a story I heard about a church member who felt he was totally unqualified to answer people’s questions about God. Yes, he knew God’s Word, but trying to explain it to someone else? He felt that was beyond him. When the members of his church went out to serve the poor in the community, he would help but avoid getting into any kind of spiritual discussion with anyone.

At one place they went regularly, one man would always rush out and challenge the church members with questions about God. This particular church member was careful to avoid that man, but one day, his fears became reality. He was personally accosted by the angry man.

What happened? Did his fears come true? No, not at all! Afterward, this hesitant church member rejoiced with his brothers and sisters that the Holy Spirit had given him answers to the man’s questions. The church member’s faith was strengthened as he realized who it was that really does the work of the gospel.

Let’s go forth this week and share the all-encompassing, overwhelming love of God with our families, our friends, our neighbors and other people we meet. Let’s pay attention to others and to what they are saying. Let’s be encouraging wherever we go. People need to know, through the grace of God, that we really care. And as we go, let’s not forget Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21, NRSV)