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10-24 - Christian Spirituality - Ephesians 1

          We have spoken these last few weeks about Jesus’ formation of his church.  We saw that Jesus’ desire was and remains that the church be a group of people committed to following him.  Through his ministry, Jesus gave examples for his church to follow.  Those examples include being loving toward those in the church, being willing to give testimony about Jesus, and to give care and comfort to those outside the church.

          Jesus’ first disciples brought Jesus’ message forward and established churches throughout the ancient world.  That ancient world had a vast set of spiritual beliefs.  In fact, the notion of atheism, the belief that there is no God or gods was rarely held in the ancient world.  Virtually everyone had some belief in the supernatural or the spiritual realms.  We might think that after 2,000 years of human history that the modern expression of humanity would be vastly different from our ancient ancestors.  But we are not.  A survey of Americans in 2017 showed that the vast majority of Americans believe in some form of higher power.  At that time of that survey, about 56% of Americans believed in the God of the Bible, 33% believed in another type of higher power, and the balance, about 10% of Americans, believed in no God or no gods or no spiritual life.

          Despite all of our technological advances, spirituality, the belief in the existence of something other than that which is physical or material, remains central to human story.  I thought then it would be profitable for us to examine how Jesus’ early disciples began carving out a sense of Christian spirituality in the ancient world and how their experience informs us today.  Of the earlies disciples and church planters, the Apostle Paul was known for blending spirituality with practical counsel for living life as a Christian.  So, I would like us to begin our look at Christian Spirituality with Paul’s letter to a church he founded in the city of Ephesus.

          Ephesus was a city in ancient Greece but now part of modern-day Turkey.  The city was famous for its Temple of Artemis, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Artemis, in Greek religion, was the goddess of wild animals, hunting, and vegetation and of chastity and childbirth; she was identified by the Romans with the goddess Diana. Artemis was the daughter of god, Zeus and the goddess, Leto and the twin sister of god, Apollo. In just the briefest of introductions to Artemis, she is identified with four other gods and goddesses.  SI we can see that spirituality was very much alive in the city of Ephesus.

          Paul began his letter to the church this way, “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3).  Immediately, Paul began his letter to the members of the church at Ephesus talking about Christian Spirituality. 

Just look again at Paul’s opening three verses for words that are of a spiritual nature.  “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3).  Paul wanted to make sure his readers understood that whatever else Paul might have to say in his letter, Paul would be talking from a spiritual frame of reference. 

After reading Paul’s words again, I thought about letters I have written to people.  I have spoken of spiritual matters in those letters, but I cannot think of a single letter in which I started off the letter on a spiritual framework.  I can only recall starting letters talking about news of family or current events and then working my way up to spiritual topics.  Paul made clear that his spiritual perspective would inform everything he had to say including anything he might offer about news of family or current events.

Christian spirituality was, therefore, central to Paul’s life.  From that frame of reference, Paul’s first teaching of his Christian spirituality was given in verse 3, “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).  Paul wanted his church, Christians, to understand that Christian spirituality begins with an understanding that God is the God who grants unmerited blessings.  We do not have to do works to please God and hope that perhaps we can do enough to make God happy such that he will be persuaded to bless us.  Working to please God or to please the gods was and is a pagan view of spirituality.  The view of trying harder and harder to please a god or working harder to achieve a higher and higher level of self-improvement is also part of modern spirituality that nearly 1 in 3 Americans claim for their lives. 

Paul said that Christian spirituality is something completely different than works. Christian spirituality begins with a recognition that God is on his own and of his own well pleased to bless people with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

We know then that Christian spirituality is expressed by having Christ at its center.  In verse 3, Paul, in his various letters, used the two-word phrase “in Christ,” nearly 100 times to emphasis Christian Spirituality and to express that Christ was and is the source of God’s blessing to humanity. Paul also used that two-word phrase “in Christ,” frequently in his letters to emphasize the union Christians enjoy with Jesus.  So, Paul said that Christian spirituality causes us to say, ““3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

We might want to then ask, what are those “spiritual blessings in Christ?”  Paul began to explain those blessings in the verses that follow.

“4 For he (God) chose us (you and me) in him (Jesus) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his (God’s) sight” (Ephesians 1:4).  The first blessing we see is that God took the initiative to make us different than we would have been.  Our relationship with God is not an accident.  God always intended for us to be in relationship with him.  This means God is not uninvolved in the world. God is not as some believe a Creator who set the world in place and walked away from it saying, “I set things in motion, gave you everything you need to be successful. Good luck!” and then retired. God is the God who created and loves his creation.  In loving his creation, God chose to love humanity who he created in his own image above anything else in our created world.  God created us holy, meaning set apart for him, and blameless, without sin. Yet, we did sin and since that time, God has worked to bring us back to be holy, set apart for him, and blameless, without sin.  It is part of God’s plan to restore inner peace to us and God desires to give us such peace.  Why does God desire this for us?  God’s desire is based on the simple fact that He loves us.

The concept that God loves you and loves me is at the heart of Christian spirituality.  The idea that God loves people was radical to the ancient people and is still difficult for many people today to believe in.

Many people today struggle to believe God loves them because so many of their relationships with other people have turned out to be unloving.  That is a sad truth but we need to face the truth.  Love as God would have us know it has been corrupted.  People who should love one another too often abuse one another. People who should love one another often abandon one another.  People who should love one another often are indifferent toward one another.  When we see and experience hurt and pain in unloving relationships, it makes it difficult for people to believe God loves them.

Here is the good news.  God knows about the abuse, abandonment, and indifference many people experience in their relationships that should be loving. God knows the darkness of those experiences.  God knows the hopelessness of those experiences.  And knowing all that, God chose to speak and speaks to us into that darkness as a bright light saying, “I love you! I love you so much that I sent my Son, Jesus, to you. I know some will follow him out of the darkness and into genuine love, to a life lived in the light.  I know too that some will prefer the darkness and will kill my son with their words, doubting my love, and they will live in the darkness.  Even though I know all that, I am willing sent my son as a sign of my love for you.”

Jesus knew he came as an expression of God’s love for you.  That is why he said to those who would accept his love that they must love other believers. The heart of Christian spirituality is to know God loves us and we reflect that love, we reflect his bright light into the darkness of abuse, abandonment, and indifference.

Paul said, God desires a relationship with us as a spiritual blessing in Christ, and then Paul said, “In love he (God) predestined us for adoption to sonship (to make us his family) through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his (God’s) pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5).  We should think of what Paul was saying in this way.  “God loves being in love with us.”  Have you ever experienced that feeling on your own? You love someone.  It could be a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child, a friend.  You love someone.  As you think about loving them, you come to love the emotions you have because you love them.  In your love of loving that person you experience joy, happiness, and ecstasy. You love the idea of planning to do things that would express your love for them.  You love being in love with someone.  Paul was saying in verse 5, “God, in his love for you and me, decided to send his Son, Jesus, with an invitation to become God’s own child and sharing his love and that made God joyful, happy, and ecstatic.”

That “God loves loving you and me,” is at the heart of Christian spirituality.  That God loves loving you and me, is the bright light into the darkness of those human experiences that can leave us feeling abused, abandoned, and exhausted.  God wants you to see in Christ that he loves loving you.  That is a spiritual blessing.

In sharing spiritual blessings, Paul explained how God made his plan come together.  Paul wrote, “In him (Jesus), we have redemption through his (Jesus’) blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he (God) lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:7-10).  Paul’s words seem like a lot because they are.  I want us to begin with the end of verse 8 and all of verse 9. “With all wisdom and understanding, he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-9).  Said simply, “God made himself known in Christ.” 

The mystery about God and his ways were unveiled in Christ.  The mystery revealed about God is that to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  If we put that on a bumper sticker it might read, “No Jesus, No God.  Know Jesus, Know God.”  It is knowing Jesus and accepting he died for us that we will come to know all that can be known about God.  Christian spirituality then is that in Christ we come to know God, simply and plainly.

To be loved, to known, and to know someone simply and plainly is the desire of our hearts.  God knows that and God has provided for that desire to be met in Christ.  Knowing this desire is met in Christ, Paul concluded his opening thought to the church in Ephesus this way.  “When you believed (in Christ), you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14). 

Paul was pointing out two things here.  First, Christian spirituality involves embedding the Holy Spirit of God in us – now. When we accept Jesus, genuinely accept Jesus, then God enters out life to guide us, to comfort us, to challenge us, and to lead us.  God blesses us with a new capacity to live a new life guided and informed by his Holy Spirit.  Second, Christian spirituality sees a blessing in the present and for all time. Following the Holy Spirit is not just about getting into heaven, it also includes living a fruitful abundant life of grace and peace while in the body.

Christian spirituality is about abundant life in the present and for all time.  I have met people who want to believe Paul’s words, but they are unwilling to wait for the Holy Spirit to work in their life.  They are impatient and want a new life instantly and on their terms.  When they do not see their life changing into the life they want, they conclude that God is a myth.

Christian spirituality, the work of the Holy Spirit, is not about snapping one’s fingers and being changed. Christian spirituality involves real work to become more and more like Jesus.  We naturally resist making changes until we experience the blessings from those changes.  Paul said God’s Spirit works, “according to the plan of him (God) who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his (God) will” (Ephesians 1:11b).  God is patient with us in making us who we were always intended to be.  We must be patient with him as we cooperate with him in making those changes through the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is Christian Spirituality.

Spirituality remains central to our lives.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God blesses us not because of our works.  God blesses us because God loves loving us.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in Christ.  In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever. This is the start of our journey as Christians.  And I am so glad we are on this journey together.  Lets pray.

10-17 - Baptism - Christ & His Church

          September 19th, just five Sundays ago, we observed National Back to Church Sunday by beginning a series of worship services focused on understanding what Jesus meant when He said he would establish His church.  That Sunday, we talked about church as being formed of people who would be committed to taking the plunge into a relationship with Jesus as one would enter a marital relationship.

          On the second week of our journey, we saw that Jesus established a command that the people of his church love one another. Being loving toward other believers was the singular criterion to the world to distinguish Jesus’ church from any other collection of people.

          On the first Sunday of this month, we saw that Jesus commissioned his committed loving followers to go into the world and bring the good news of the Gospel to all people.  In celebrating the Lord’s Supper that Sunday, we gave testimony to Jesus’ unconditional love for those who would follow him.

          Last week, we spoke about the Jesus’ examples that we were to servants to one another to build up the church, making the body of believers vibrant and healthy.  And with that strong body, we were to then love our neighbors giving comfort and care when others would walk past them.

          Today, I would like us to look at one more element of Jesus’ church and that is baptism.  With the differing Christian traditions about baptism, there is much confusion about baptism. What is baptism?  Does baptism do something to us or for us?  Should we be sprinkled with water or immersed in water as an act of baptism?  Is baptism symbolic of something?  If I was sprinkled as a baby, should I be baptized again as an adult?  Where should we begin with our conversation on baptism?

          Absent any other starting place, it is always good to start at the beginning.  So, let’s start our conversation with the earliest Biblical references to baptism. In chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark, we read, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’—‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’  And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:1-5).

          Baptism has no earlier use in the Bible than the Gospel of Mark.  Baptism, as we know of it, began with a man named John who God called to stir up the people’s attention to be aware that God was sending his Messiah, his messenger of great importance, to the people.  John called people into the wilderness to hear the message.  John called people away from the cities and town, away from the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues across the land and into the wilderness to hear a new message. The people who traveled to the wilderness and so they did not hear John’s message accidentally.  The people were of an age and mindset that they wanted to hear what John had to say.

In the wilderness, John said two things.  First, the Lord was coming.  Second, in preparation for the coming of the Lord, people needed to repent, turn from everything else in life, turn from sin, and return to God, just God.  To mark their preparation to receive the Lord and their decision to repent, John invited people to then be baptized in the River Jordan.  Baptized is an English word we get from the Greek word, bap-tid'-zo, βαπτίζω, meaning “to immerse.”  Those who responded to John’s message immersed themselves in the waters of the River Jordan.  John’s baptism was thus seen as a symbol of preparation in anticipation of coming Lord.

John understood that his time of calling people and performing baptisms would only be for a limited time.  John said, “And this was his message: ‘After me (John) comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I (John) baptize you with water, but he (the Messiah) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mark 1:7-8).  Some text say the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John knew that something more profound than his message and more profound than his baptism in the River Jordan was coming.

In fact, Mark informs us that, “At that time (when John was baptizing people) Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he (John) saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him (Jesus) like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You (Jesus) are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).  John knew then the Messiah, God’s chosen, had come as John had proclaimed.

We see here though that Jesus the Son of God, the promised Messiah, was baptized by John. Why did Jesus get baptized?  Jesus did not need to prepare for himself. Jesus did not need to repent and turn toward God.  Jesus was God!  So what is going on with Jesus’ baptism? 

The Gospel of Matthew gives us some insight, “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15 Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then John consented” (Matthew 3:13-15).  Jesus, who was God, humbled himself by becoming a man. Everything that Jesus did as a man served as an example for people to follow him.  Therefore, Jesus said it was proper for people to see Jesus doing all things that lead to righteousness, a right relationship with God.  And yielding of one’s spirit to the act of public baptism would become part of doing what leads us in the paths of righteousness by experiencing life in and by example of Christ.  Jesus, therefore, did not undergo baptism for himself but instead was baptized that you and I would follow his example.

Very shortly after Jesus’ baptism, the king imprisoned John the Baptist and had John executed while in prison.  The baptisms of John to prepare people for the coming of the Lord were over.  Jesus was revealing himself as the Lord and the necessity for John’s message had ended. But the death of John and the ministry of Jesus did not put an end to the conversation about baptism.

 Jesus, with his disciples, now well into his ministry talked about his pending arrest, trial, suffering, and death.  Jesus referred to this experience as a baptism that he had to undergo.

  • “But I have a baptism to undergo” (Luke 12:50a).
  • “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).

The baptism Jesus was talking about was not at all like the idyllic baptism in the gentle waters of the River Jordan.  Jesus’ drinking from the cup and baptism was going to be hard and difficult. We learn just how difficult the cup and baptism would be for Jesus though a private moment with Jesus and his disciples in a garden called Gethsemane.  “32b Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:32b-36).

          Jesus’ cup and baptism were upon him.  Jesus was about to experience the intense suffering of the cross.  That was the cup and baptism Jesus must undergo and through it his disciples, you, and I would come to see the very image of a baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire.

          Visualize the scene of Jesus’ baptism of suffering for the sins of the world.  It began after Jesus was arrested and the order given that Jesus be executed.  Luke shared it with us:  “32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left… 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’  40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’  42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 Jesus answered him (the second criminal), ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).

          Three crosses stood on hill.  Jesus, God in the flesh, sinless and righteous, hung on the center cross.  Jesus was undergoing a baptism of suffering for the world’s sin.  Jesus was selflessly giving to others.  To his left and to his right were two thieves.  Men who selfishly stole what was not theirs. They were sinners bearing witness to Jesus’ baptism of suffering.  One thief mockingly challenged Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  This thief did not believe in Jesus.  This unbelieving thief only wished Jesus would free him from judgement. 

The thief on the other side of Jesus was different.  The second thief acknowledged Jesus’ Lordship of Jesus.  The believer begged Jesus to remember him in Jesus’ kingdom. In that moment, the two thieves were baptized by Jesus.  The believer received words of comfort from Jesus, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  That was a baptism of the Holy Spirit bringing about salvation through Jesus Christ. The other thief received silence from Jesus.  He received a baptism of fire into judgement.  We can see John the Baptist words in the scene on the cross, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Jesus will baptize us in accordance with our wishes.  He will either baptize us with the Holy Spirit as our Savior or He will baptize us with fire as our Judge.  The choice is ours to make.

          After this baptismal scene of the Holy Spirit and fire on the cross with thieves, Jesus’ baptism of suffering came to an end. Jesus said, “It is finished,” and Jesus died.  Jesus’ baptism on the cross reflected the completed work of Christ suffering for all sins.  Jesus’ baptism does not and will not be repeated.

Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb.  Three days later, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and reunited with his disciples.  Jesus then commissioned his disciples saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).

          In Jesus’ commissioning, Jesus directed his church to teach the gospel to make disciples.  And of those who are disciples of Jesus, the church is to baptize them in the fullness of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ command to his church was not to repeat what John had done in the River Jordan.  Jesus’ command to his church was not to repeat what Jesus had done on the cross. Jesus’ command to his church was for a new baptism.  Jesus’ command was that his church baptize those people who had come into agreement with who Jesus and is.  Jesus is their Lord, Teacher, and Savior.  Jesus is the visible imagine of the invisible God and they want to follow him and do has he has done, and he would do.  Jesus’ command to the church was that people could be made new in him and to celebrate that newness with baptism.  This is the baptism of what we are now about.

So, if you are willing to commit to Jesus, willing to love other believers, willing to bear witness of Jesus, and willing to serve in Jesus’ name – then you should be baptized as sign that the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit of Jesus, is part of you and you are saved from all judgement.  Your baptism means God is central to your life and that you seek to live it your life of commitment, love, testimony, and service.

Your baptism does not mean you perfect and free from sin.  Your baptism means you agree with Jesus and that you are a different person seeking to follow him into a life that is free from sin.

Your baptism does not mean the water will wash away your sins. Your baptism means you have had your sins washed away by Jesus’ baptism on the cross.

Your baptism does not mean you are better than anyone else. Your baptism means you are better off than you were before because you are God’s child.

Your baptism as a thinking person does not mean your baptism as an infant was wrong or improper.  Your baptism now as a thoughtful youth or a discerning adult, means you want to personally follow every example set by Jesus.

The church is ready to do as Jesus commanded and baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Come and be baptized.  Amen and Amen.

10-10-Service - Christ & His Church

          We have been exploring together Jesus’ formation of His church.  A few Sundays ago, we talked about church as being formed of people committed to Christ as deeply and intimately as in a marriage in which the two become one.  A couple of Sundays ago, we talked about Jesus’ call that disciples love each other and that that love would be seen by the world as the hallmark of His Church. And last week, we saw that Jesus was not content with the accidental discovery of the church.  Instead, Jesus called upon the church to bear witness of Him, to give testimony, by words and deeds throughout all the world.  Church is not to be a secret.

          Today, I would like us to look at another element of the Church.  And that element is serving.  The idea of being a servant is hard for many people to grasp because the word servant in our culture has a very negative connotation.

          I remember some years ago, we took a family trip to Newport, Rhode Island to tour the magnificent mansions once owned by the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegie families.  One of the mansions, I think it had 70 rooms, was built with passageways concealed within its walls.  These passageways were for us by the servants.  The owner wanted the servants to be able to access the rooms of the mansion to care for the needs of the family, but the owner did not servants to be seen.  Being a servant, in that context meant you were not worthy to be seen.  That must have been a humiliating experience.

          Interestingly enough, Rhode Island, until about one year ago, was officially called State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  The word plantations elicit from our American culture a much darker sense of being servant with the enslavement of black people in plantations of the American southern states.  The slaves of the south were, of course, not employed on these plantations, they were considered owned as one owns property.  Being a servant in this context of an American slave was not just humiliating but also was an intentional effort to degrade the humanity of those entrapped by it.

          So, in the American culture, the words servant and slave carry some heavy and painful emotions.  Yet, we must confront the words, servant and slave, as both the word servant and slave appear hundreds of times in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. And we find that in those uses Jesus called upon his church to be servants and slaves.  What did Jesus mean and how are we to do with his words?

          Let’s first consider what Jesus faced with his chosen apostles, the nucleus of the Church.  One day, Jesus and the Twelve were on a journey to the town of Capernaum. After arriving and settling down for a moment in the house of their host, Jesus asked his disciples, “33b  ‘What were you arguing about on the road? 34 But they [The Twelve] kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who [among them] was the greatest.  35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

          The Twelve saw the formation of Jesus Church as a place through which they could have standing, status, and power.  Jesus said the greatest of church was in being a servant.  But…  But being a servant in church was not an employment status, like the servants who worked within the walls of a mansion, nor was it a forced status, as a slave who was considered owned property.  Being a servant in the church was a voluntary status arrived at by giving up one’s standing, status, and power.  This was a hard lesson for the Twelve because Jesus was saying something completely opposite to the teachings and experience of the world.  In the world, standing, status, and power is like the food chain. It is a “dog eat dog world,” and people generally perceive that it is better to be the top dog.  Jesus was saying that in the kingdom he was called to bring to light, the lower you voluntarily choose to go, the more you become a servant, then the greater you became in the kingdom.  The kingdom of God is inverted from the normal expectations of the world.  We are not told about the immediate response by the Twelve to what Jesus had said about servanthood but we will soon find out the disciples were set on being at the top.

          We see in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark, just some days after Jesus’ teaching, that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, approached Jesus when he was alone. James and John were brothers.  The brothers said to Jesus, “36b ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’  36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’” James and John appeared to be making a play for standing, power, and status.  So much for Jesus’ lesson that, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

          We might think, “Perhaps, Jesus’ other disciples understood Jesus’ teaching and it was only James and John who did not get it.”  Mark gave us the reaction of the other ten disciples to request by James and John for the two positions in Jesus’ kingdom.  “41 When the ten [other disciples of Jesus] heard about this [what James and John asked of Jesus], they [the ten] became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41).  Well, it looks like the other disciples were upset with the powerplay by James and John believing that the honor of being to Jesus’ left and right should go to one of them.  Understanding servanthood was a problem for the Twelve.

          “42 Jesus called them [the Twelve] together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus again preached to the Twelve on serving one another and that such service in the kingdom of God looks like the behavior of a voluntary servant or slave not that of a ruler or overlord.

          The lesson of serving through the church is a difficult one.  The Twelve struggled to see what voluntary servanthood looked like and the impact it could have on the development of the church.  Then, in John’s testimony, we read that, “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own [the men and women who followed him] who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his [Jesus’] power, and that he [Jesus] had come from God and was returning to God; so he [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet [the Twelve], he [Jesus] put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he [Jesus] asked them [the Twelve]. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:1-5, 12-16).

          I think that at this point the light might have come on in the minds of the Twelve.  In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples experienced an intimate encounter with Christ.  Their leader and friend chose to sooth their tired and dirty feet.  Jesus used the love language of touch to express his feelings toward each disciple, even Judas. 

In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples came to learn some important lessons about servicing.  First, serving in God’s kingdom must be voluntary.  Jesus, the leader, teacher, and Lord could not be commanded by anyone in that group to serve.  Instead, Jesus humbled himself and voluntarily served those who were before him.  Jesus was still Jesus, the Son of God.  Jesus was still the leader of the group, but he was also the servant doing the most menial of tasks by washing the dirty feet of the Twelve.  Servanthood in the kingdom is always voluntary.

          Second, Jesus showed that service in the church begins by serving those in the church.  Did you notice that?  Service in church of Jesus Christ began by serving those in the church.  Jesus did not interrupt dinner to go into the street and grab twelve people at random and wash their feet and tell the disciples to do likewise.  Not at all. Instead, Jesus served those in the church and said to the Twelve do likewise.  It might surprise us that as Christians the primary example of being a servant offered to us by Jesus is to serve other Christians, not those outside the church.

          Jesus’ example played out in the early church this way.  After Jesus returned to heaven, a church under his disciples formed in Jerusalem. We are told that, “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).  The church, the people, voluntarily served and saw its primary responsibility was to serve other believers.

          Again from the Book of Acts we would find, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).  The issue here was the distribution of food by the church for church members was unequal and needed to be fixed.  The church saw its primary responsibility as serving other believers.

          What does this mean to us? There are a couple of things. First, we ought to desire to volunteer to be in the service of the church.  Regardless of the task, voluntarily serving the church whether in worship or teaching or life assistance is one of the highest forms of service to the kingdom of God.  Why is that true?  First, it is true first because that is what Jesus did.  And second, service within and to other members of the church encourages and strengthens the church to present itself as a bright light to the world.

          We should be happy to serve the church and to do so in such a way as those within it are encouraged and the church, in all ways, looks as inviting as practical.  But as in anything that is good there is a risk that if we take that good too far it becomes its own problem.  We cannot simply serve only the church.

          Jesus taught his disciples to be warry of serving only themselves using a story found in Luke’s collection of witness statements we call the Gospel of Luke.  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest [a religious leader] happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, [another religious leader] when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’  36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’  37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’  Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:30-37).  And so, Jesus tells us to be careful not to be so focused on our kind that we do not see the needs of others regardless of their association to our lives.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, a United States Supreme Court Justice is credited with saying that we must be careful to avoid the criticism that, “Some people are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.”

          Service in the church means there are two types of service that must exist.  We must be active in the church body itself serving the members of the church itself.  This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of love for one another and our desire to imitate Jesus as his faithful disciples.  It does not mean that we must necessarily wash one another’s feet, but it means we serve on all the ministries of the church for the church to include the Trustees and Treasurers, teaching, preparing meals for one another, greeting, leading worship, giving a message, and the list goes on.  When we serve the church, we strengthen the body of Christ.

Second, we must also take that strengthened body of Christ and serve our neighbors as ourselves. This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of concern for all who are made in the image of God.

I will close today with the words of Apostle Paul who instructed the churches he established this way: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

          We do not need to humble ourselves into death.  Instead, we need to live humbly for the lives of others.  Amen and Amen. 

10-03 - Witness - Christ && His Church

          We have been exploring together what Jesus meant when he said that he would form and sustain His church.  Two weeks ago, we explored that church is a company of committed disciples of Jesus who had taken the plunge into faith.  Jesus and the earliest Christian saw the relationship between Jesus and the Church as a holy marriage.

          Last week, we explored Jesus’ first command for His church: Love one another.  Jesus said loving one another, believers loving other believers, was the sole criterion for determining whether we were genuinely disciples of Jesus.  If we cannot love each other, then we have no business claiming Jesus or sharing what Jesus means to us.  The Apostle John was so firm on this point that he said to share Jesus with another while not loving someone in the church would make us a liar.

          So Jesus asked his disciples to be committed and loving. And from this posture of being committed and loving, Jesus then gave the second command to his church, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).  Luke, in the Book of Acts, recorded Jesus’ words this way, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Jesus’ command to His church was to be a company of committed disciples who love one another and to bear witness of their beliefs and love to nonbelievers.  To be a witness in Jesus’ day is the same as they are today.  A witness gives truthful testimony about what they saw and heard someone do and say, as well as give truthful testimony about what they themselves said and did.  Jesus said, “Give testimony about me and let your lives be your testimony of me.”

          Jesus’ command to give testimony was given to His church and, therefore, Jesus’ command was given to this church, meaning everyone who claims to be a Christian seated here or listening today is a witness.  Jesus did not make this command to just pastors, or members of the choir, or any other subset of the church.  Everyone is to give testimony.

          Let’s look at what Jesus said we are to give testimony about.  According to Matthew, Jesus’ command was to “teaching other people everything I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a).  Last week, we read from the Apostle John’s letter to his church and John expressed his witness this way, “1-2 From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. 3-4 We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy! (1 John 1:1-4 MSG)

          John started his testimony by explaining who Jesus was and that John was able to share his testimony from firsthand experience. After writing those words, John gave his testimony by writing his witness statement totaling some 18,658 words in what we now call the Gospel of John.  Contained within John’s testimony are the commands of Jesus, things John wanted people to know and to follow.

  • Jesus drove moneychangers out of the Temple, Israel’s most sacred place of worship.  Jesus said, ““Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16).
  • Jesus spoke to one of the most learned members of Israel and said, “‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7).
  • Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman and said, “24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24).
  • Jesus spoke to a crowd of religious leaders and said, “24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”  (John 5:24)
  • Jesus spoke to his disciples and said, “27 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.” (John 6:27).
  • Jesus spoke to a crowd and said, ““Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37b-38)

We could go on for many minutes culling out the commands of Jesus from the testimony of John through his gospel.  John was being a faithful witness of what he had heard Jesus say and reporting on what Jesus did.  John was a faithful witness because he was standing up to be counted by giving testimony about Jesus.

Now, as to John, we can rightly say, “Well, John was with Jesus in person.  John could speak personally about Jesus and what Jesus said and did.  We have not with Jesus in the flesh, what testimony are we to give?”

I think this is a fair question.  We cannot give firsthand testimony of what Jesus said because we were not present like John with Jesus said those words.  But… There is that word again, “but.”  But we who have believed that Jesus is the Son of God, and our Savior can testify about what Jesus means to us.  When we do, then what we are saying is our personal firsthand testimony.

Please allow me to illustrate.  Twenty years ago, our nation was attacked by madmen who commandeered aircraft killing thousands of people in New York City, Washington, D. C., and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.  That was September 11, 2001.  I lost a friend that day.  He was the pilot of the first airplane highjacked and crashed into the World Trade Center. The next week my daughter miscarried her first child, our first grandchild.  That same week, we learned my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He died three weeks later.  About a month after my father died, my wife, Becky, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  Two months later, my mother died of complications from Alzheimer’s.  It was a time of sorrow.  But…

But this is my personal firsthand testimony centered on what Jesus and his commands meant to me in and through that time of sorrow. I said then and I affirm now that Jesus blessed me in my sorrows because I was blessed with communion.  Because of communion with Jesus, my sorrow was turned to joy.

My testimony to others then was that I had communion with Jesus, an intimate fellowship with him as my Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.  From the testimony in the Bible, I knew of Jesus and came to know Him.  Because of this blessing of communion, I had access to all other blessings that God intends for us to experience.  I knew from John 3:16 that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. “ So, my testimony then and remains today that the first thing I experienced from God through these adversities, was a renewal of perspective - that if we believe in Jesus as our Savior though we may die a physical death - we do not perish for we have been given eternal life.  This sense comes from communion with the Lord.

Second, communion is as an act or instance of sharing.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28-29 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Each time we faced adversity during those difficult months, we experienced God blessing by turning to Jesus and saying, "Jesus - I cannot bear this event alone. I pray that you give me the strength - not strength to endure - but strength to let go - to turn over my burdens and my fears to you.  Let me do so - and find rest."  And it was my testimony then and remains today that it does take strength to let go - to give our burdens to Jesus.  It is part of trusting God’s word.  Now here’s some good news - it works.  There is in that act or instance of sharing - that communion with Jesus - an easing of the sorrow.  A knowledge that you whatever you are going through - you are not going through it alone.

Lastly, I participated in the in the act of holy communion - the Christian ordination - the eating of the bread and the drinking from the cup.  While we all love God and what communion means, we must recognize that familiarity and repetition in partaking the elements of communion can blotted out or blurred their significance or somehow make them seem a commonplace experience.  Communion - the partaking of the elements - is supposed to be anything but common.  In taking communion during those months of trial, I came to see that Jesus Christ had each and every one of us personally in mind when he went on the cross.  Think about that for a minute - He had you and me personally in mind.  It was my testimony then and it is now that recognizing and remembering true and personal dimension of the elements of communion helped me to experience God, by understanding that regardless of whatever we are going through in this world - Jesus has paid the price and through Him - we can have everlasting life.

This is part of my personal firsthand testimony of what Jesus said, even though I did not personally walk with Jesus in the flesh as John did.  Every one of us has a personal testimony about the meaning of Jesus in our life.  And every one of us is called, even commanded by Jesus, to share it with others.  We can and must share what Jesus said.

Secondly, Jesus said more broadly in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We can give testimony by how we live our lives.

Early in Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus explained how we give testimony through our living.  In a sermon giving on the hillside of Galilee, Jesus spoke to his disciples this way:

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 MSG).

We give testimony, we are witnesses of Jesus, when we season the world with the pleasant flavors of God.  We give testimony, we are witnesses of Jesus, when we bring the God-colored light into another dark world.  We bring flavor and light by living our lives like Jesus lived his.  Jesus was compassionate.  Jesus never looked away from the needs of people.  He always walked toward them.  Live compassionately.  Jesus was a servant.  He did for others, even the most menial of tasks.  Live by serving.  Jesus was forgiving.  He forgave when others would have cursed.  Live by forgiving.  Jesus was prayerful.  He prayed even though he was God.  Live by praying.  Jesus was gentle.  He took time to comfort others.  Live gently. Jesus was patient.  He quietly taught others and met them where they were. Live patiently.  Jesus was humble.  He did not demand from others titles and honors.  Live humbly.

No matter how we choose to live, we who claim Christ, will give a very personal testimony of who Christ is to us.  We want to make sure our testimony is a true portrayal of Christ.

We have been blessed to know Jesus through the testimony of others and through our personal relationship with Christ.  Now, let’s make our joy complete by being witnesses for Jesus and giving our testimony publicly and unashamedly by sharing the words of Christ and by the testimony of living like Christ.  This is Jesus’ command for his faithful followers who love one another.  This is his command for his church.  This is his command for this church.  Amen and Amen.

09-26 - Fellowship - Christ & His Church

                    Last week, we began exploring Christ’s formulation of His church.  We saw that the Biblical image of church was compared to the intimate relationship of marriage in which Jesus serve as the groom and the church as his bride.  As in the human experience of marriage, the two shall become one.  In the Biblical image, the same holds true, Christ and the church become one.  We saw the foundation of the Christ/Church relationship was established upon the unconditional commitment of Christ and the individual commitments of members of the church.  Jesus Christ’s commitment to the church was expressed throughout by his life on earth, but mostly by his death on the cross.  Christ held nothing back from His church.  The commitment of individual Christians, you and me, remains an open matter.  The image of marriage compels us to take the plunge and be immersed in all that Jesus has for us.  We must be committed to Christ to experience the intimate relationship God intends for us to have with Him.

          In that commitment to Christ, Jesus said that one behavior would evidence that we had committed our lives to Christ.  As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own arrest, trial, and execution, Jesus said to this disciples and to you and me, “33 My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.  34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 16:33-35).

          This is the only time in the four gospels we have recorded for us a simple command from Jesus to his church, to those who were and are his disciples, to “love one another.”  Moreover, Jesus said the presence of love between and among believers in Christ, was the only criterion necessary to evidence to the unbelieving world that Jesus was the Lord of the believers’ life.  Jesus’ command and criterion make sense.  If we claim Christ, but do not love another believer something is very wrong.

          Jesus’ apostle, John, understood this message and conveyed its meaning to his churches this way, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).  John was speaking to Christians about their behavior toward other Christians.

          There is an often-told story of a church that was searching for a pastor.  A pastoral candidate came to the church one Sunday and gave an inspired sermon on loving one another.  The congregation was thrilled.  They believed they had found their past and so they voted unanimously to call the preacher as their pastor.  The following Sunday, the new pastor came to deliver the sermon.  There was much anticipation about what he would say. But the new pastor preached the same sermon on loving one another he had the week before, word for word.  The congregation was pleased by the sermon but a little concerned that it was the same as previous week’s sermon.  The next Sunday, the new pastor delivered the sermon. He preached the same sermon on loving one another again, word for word.  The congregation was very concerned and wondered if this pastor had only one sermon to offer.  A group from the congregation decided to meet with the pastor to express their concerns. They told the pastor his sermon on loving one another was great the first time, good the second time, but troubling to hear the third time.  The group asked the pastor if he knew there were other commands and topics about which he could preach.  The pastor said he was aware of the other commands and could preach excellently on those topics.  But he said there was not point talking about other topics and other commands if they did not love one another.

          From the Biblical accounts and that story we come to learn that Christ intended for his church to be comprised of committed disciples who would evidence that commitment by loving one another.  The early Christians had a word for this type of love between believers.  It came from the Greek language, koinonia, which we translate into English as fellowship.

          Fellowship then is an essential character of the body of Christ expressed through and within the church.  It is a deep inclusive caring for those who are here.  Church should be a society of friends not a building of passing strangers.  The earliest expression of fellowship, koinonia, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. The church had just begun.  Luke described the behavior of the early Christians this way, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [committed] and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

          The early Christians, the founders of Jesus command for a church, practiced their belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, by loving one another was a bright beacon on the landscape.  They were committed to the teachings of the apostles.  People were committed to Christ.  They were hungry for Jesus.  They did not want the day to go by without immersing themselves into the word of God.  And these committed Christians were engaged in fellowship, koinonia.  They wanted to spend time with other Christians. They wanted to know their stories and celebrate the new life that each of them had in Christ.  Everyone was excited by the prospect of more people into the church because it meant more people were being saved and would be expressing their lives through koinonia, or Christian fellowship.

          The Apostle John saw the development of church and fellowship this way, “That which was from the beginning (Jesus), which we (his disciples) have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared (Jesus); we (his disciples) have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We (his disciples) proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus ChristWe write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

          John saw the gathering of the early church as the company of the committed coming together to be in fellowship with God through Jesus and in fellowship with each other.  John’s view was that fellowship with Jesus made possible fellowship with other believers.

          To John, joy in Christ became complete with and through the fellowship with other believers.  Sadly, there are many people across our communities who enter a church building, pray, perhaps sing, and leave without speaking to another human being or having another human being speak to them.  Why does that happen with such frequency?  I think this happens because there is no desire for genuine fellowship.

          In some cases, people enter a church and welcome the idea that they did not have to speak to anyone because too often those exchanges come across as judgement rather than welcome.  The visitor feels their past will be judged instead of their present life in Christ being celebrated.  This is not a new phenomenon. 

Consider the case of the Apostle Paul who was originally known as Saul from the city of Tarsus.  Saul was a devoted Jew who ruthlessly persecuted Christians.  Saul encouraged a mob to stone to death a Christian named, Stephen.  Saul went house to house dragging Christians from their homes and sending them to prison simply because they were Christians.  Then, Saul encountered Jesus and committed his life over to Christ, fully, unconditionally.  Saul had given up his former ways and had a new life in Christ.  But Saul wanted fellowship with other Christians to make his joy in Christ complete.

          But look at what happened to Saul when he tried to make that joy in Christ complete by engaging other Christians.  “26 When he (Saul) came to Jerusalem, he (Saul) tried to join the disciples (the other committed believers), but they (the members of the church) were all afraid of him (Saul), not believing that he (Saul) really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  The members of the church had reason to be concerned with Saul the Jewish persecutor.  That Saul was destructive and dangerous.  But the Saul who came to the church was Saul the committed Christian.  The church was not buying it, preferring instead to remember Saul as his was.

That might have been the end of the Saul’s story in the church of Christ if not for that all important word at the beginning of the next verse, verse 27.  “They were all afraid of Saul, not believing that Saul really was a disciple.  27 But Barnabas (a member of the church) took Saul brought him to the apostles. He (Barnabas) told them (the Apostles) how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him (Saul), and how in Damascus he (Saul) had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them (the church) and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:26b-28). 

But Barnabas took Saul.”  Barnabas, committed to Christ, took charge of Saul, and spent time with Saul to learn Saul’s new life in Christ.  Barnabas was not interested in Saul’s previous behaviors.  What Barnabas wanted to know was what God had done and was doing through Saul’s life now.  Barnabas then took the next step to make his joy, Saul’s joy, and the joy of the church complete by bringing Saul into the fellowship of believers.  Barnabas’ example teaches us that at any given point we might be called to serve as the “but” person who welcomes the stranger into the fellowship of the church.  We might be the person who says “but look at what is happening in this person’s life since they came to Christ.”

Saul, who would later change his name to Paul and establish many churches encouraged Christians to acknowledge the power of Christ’s forgiveness within a believer which made every new.  Paul wrote, “11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:11-14). Paul, who had been forgiven by Christ and brought into the Christian fellowship by the aid of Barnabas, encouraged others, you and me, to express fellowship with other believers through compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness and then to bind all those virtues in love. 

Paul’s words give a wonderful expression of Christian fellowship expressed between believers.  How could joy not be found in that image?  How could that image not express to the unbelieving world the power of Christ to change lives for good?  I think the answer is clear that to love in this manner would be convincing evidence of the Christ in our lives.

I want to encourage you this week to reflect on Christ’s purpose for His church to be a company of committed disciples and that that commitment would be expressed through fellowship.  Let the idea of Koinonia, that deep intimate belief that members of Christ’s body should be loving to one another sink into our conscious thinking. Examine what you do and how you express yourself to and about other believers.  Think about Barnabas and whether you are that “but in” person who needs to stand up and bring another person into this church.  Think about your opportunities to express compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness to another believer. Think about how you can bind all those wonder virtues by love so that church may be seen to the unbelieving world as loving society of friends.  Afterall, to love one another is the only criterion established by Christ to mark a genuine church.  Let us pray.

09-19 - Commitment - Christ & His Church

          Today, is national “Back to Church Sunday.”  This is the Sunday in which the most summer routines have been completed, school routines have been started, and church comes back in play for many people. I thought as we came to this date, it would be profitable for us if we spent a few weeks together exploring the significance of Christ’s church.  What did Christ mean when he established church?  Why does church exist?  What does God expectation for His Church and, more specifically, for this church?

          To start us off, I want to frame our conversation about church in the Biblical terms.  To do, I ask that bear with me as I share with you some work I did in seminary on the topic of pre-marital counseling.

While in seminary, I took pastoral counseling class that included a study of marital counseling.  We had a final project in that course of presenting a research paper and accompanying set of slides detailing the topics and content of a premarital counseling plan.  I decided at that time to provide counseling to prospective marital candidates on five topics all beginning with the letter “C.”  The topics were Commitment, Communication, Conflict Resolution, Children, and Church.  I would later add a six topic, Cake, after witnessing some painful moments of new husband’s smashing cake into the face of their wife at the reception. I really dislike that practice.

          I chose the original five topics because they seemed most important to the marriage setting.  Marriage has been and remains the foundational of human society. In fact, marriage is the first institution of the human experience.  The Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, tells us, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24-25). 

Biblical marriage is, therefore, presented to us as an intimate bond, a weaving together, of lives.  In that unity, there virtues emerge of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances of life shift. These virtues are to be a continual and active exchange between the participants of the marriage.  There are not supposed to be any spectators in a marriage.  Both the woman and man are members of the same active living body. This is how God chose to describe marriage at the very beginning of humanity’s existence.

          As we continue to look at the Biblical account of marriage, we find later, in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus affirmed Genesis’ picture of marriage saying, “’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:5-6).  Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, confirmed for us the image of marriage as a active living body.

          Later in the Bible, the Apostle Paul would speak to this same verse from Genesis, affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, in Paul’s letter to the believers in the city of Ephesus.  Paul wrote, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Ephesians 5:31).  The image is affirmed again.

But Paul then added a very important new meaning to these words that makes those words from Genesis apply to each of us, whether we are or not presently married.  Paul said, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).  Paul’s words in verse 32, makes clear that the Christ and the church must be seen through the image of marriage, of two become one. 

Marriage then, whether the institution comprised of husband and wife, or the institution Christ and the church, is union.  Neither institution, marriage or church, can be viewed as a contract with an expiration date or having an escape clause.  Neither institution can be entered into by keeping one’s fingers crossed and hoping things will somehow work out.  The union of marriage or of church there are to be the virtues of proximity, affection, loyalty, and a sense of “staying with” as circumstances shift. These virtues are to be continual and actively exchanged between the participants of the union.  There can be no spectators in a union.  Both are members of the same body.

If we were to condense the foundation of the union that Paul was spoke about to a single word, that word would be commitment.  Therefore, both institutions of union, marriage and church, require a commitment without reservation with an attitude for better or worse.

This is why I found in premarital counseling the first and most important “C” among the now six topics that I share with an engaged couple is Commitment.  Using the parallels from the Apostle Paul, it would follow that the first and most important “C” for each of us as participants in the marriage of Christ through the church is Commitment; a commitment without reservation with a “for better or worse” attitude.  Our commitment to Christ through the church ought to be one expressed by the words, “to have and to hold from this day forward” coupled with a vow to “forsake all others.”  We could go on with other marital phrases to describe our demeanor toward church, but I think we can get the sense that our commitment to Christ through the church parallels solemn vows people use when uniting with a spouse.

Let’s look at how commitment plays out in the New Testament. First, Jesus and others spoke about Jesus as a groom.

  • John the Baptist said, “29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend (speaking of himself) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (John 3:29).  John the Baptist recognized Jesus was preparing himself for a marriage to his church and that in that union there would be joy.
  • 14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him (Jesus), ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’  15 Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14-15).  Jesus acknowledged that his relationship with his followers was likened to a marriage and that would be reason to celebrate.

Jesus equated that marital relationship to the union of himself and his disciples through the institution of church.  Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:17-18a).  Jesus here describes his groom and bride relationship as being between him (the groom) and the church (his bride).

The Apostle Paul saw this union relationship established by Jesus and offered these words, “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). The Christ and the church are a marriage in which Jesus’ goal as an active participant is a perfect union. Paul saw Jesus’ commitment to this goal expressed by Jesus, coming as a man, and giving everything to the marriage. Paul said, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).  Jesus, the perfect groom, expressed his commitment to the church and gave everything to his imperfect bride, the church, so that she, those of the church, could become perfect through him.

Second, let’s look at Christ’s bride, the church, and see how commitment to the marriage of Christ and the church is to be expressed.  Again, from the marriage symbol, in Genesis, in the Gospels, and in Paul’s letter, marriage is described as the union of two into one.  Paul begins by giving us an illustration. Paul wrote, “18 And he (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18a).  Christ and the church are a union forming one complete body.  The church, Jesus’ disciples, are to be in union with Jesus as a single body active and engaged.

Paul continued in a letter to the church in Corinth explaining, “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27).

Paul’s message is clear that the two, Christ and his church, the divine groom and earthly bride, comprised of many individual members, have formed a marital union in which the two become one body.

          So, the church, made up of many members, like a body, is in a marital relationship with Christ, who serves as the head of the body.  This means that we must be committed to Christ through the church. So how committed to that relationship must the individual members be?  There are three points we could examine.

          First, let’s talk about the most obvious element of commitment. Commitment, for it to be genuine, must evidence an excited presence.  It is plain to see that two cannot become one if they are never together with each other.  To become one there must be a commitment to spend time together, not occasionally but frequently.  In the New Testament Book of Hebrews we read, “23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he [Jesus, the groom] who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we [parts of the body] may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:23-25a).  For the body to be a body the parts must commit to be present.

          Think about this way by considering a silly illustration about the union of the body.  Suppose you wake up tomorrow morning and you begin to make your way out of bed. Suddenly, you realize that your left foot is not there.  Not only that but your right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all missing.  How well do you think your body is going to function that day?  It is going to be hard for your body to do what it was intended to do.  In this silly illustration, you manage to struggle through the day, lay down again at night and go to sleep.  The next morning you wake up and find with great relief that your left foot, right knee, left elbow, right hand, and left lung are all back in place.  Praise God!  But then you discover your right foot, left knee, right hip, left kidney, and right shoulder are all missing.  Again, the body suffers just like the church suffers when its members are absent.

          Paul’s descriptor of church as being like the body is easy to understand.  The parts of the body work together because they are all needed, they are committed, and connected unconditionally to each other.  Each person serves as a part of the body of a church and is needed to make the body complete and functional.  So, commitment is not an abstract intellectual assent to the idea of church. Commitment involves an active continual presence and participation in the body of Christ.  This is why we should dismiss the idea that an otherwise healthy person can say, “I don’t need to be part of a church to be a faithful Christian.”  There is no part of a body that can function as intended when separated from the body.

          The second part of commitment to the Christ and church relationship is the willingness to take the plunge.  What do I mean by that?  To take the plunge has been an expression used when two people decide to get married. To take the plunge is to take on a momentous and challenging decision.  But here is the thing.  To take the plunge means we are willing to put everything we have into the experience. We are trusting and immersing ourselves fully.

          In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, we read that many of the people who were following Jesus left him.  When Jesus said to be a disciple you must be willing to eat of his body and drink of his blood, they left.  John wrote, “66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  67 ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.  68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:66-68a).

The disciples who had left Jesus had not taken the plunge.  They had been dipping their toes in the water. They were ready to step back out when it suited them.  The disciples on the other hand had taken the plunge.  They were committed to following Jesus even if what he said was hard to understand.  Commitment to faith, like commitment to marriage, means you are willing to take the plunge.  We cannot be just dipping our toes in the experience.

          Finally, commitment to the Christ and church relationship is a willingness to be concerned for the whole body and each part of that same body.  Think again this again through a silly illustration.  You are working in the kitchen cutting some vegetables.  The knife slips and you slice open the index finger of your left hand.  Your finger begins to bleed.  Under normal circumstances, your right hand would grab a towel and wrap the left index finger to stop the bleeding.  Only this time, the right-hand refuses, saying, “I do not like the left index finger. Let the left elbow handle the problem!” I admit, it is a silly illustration, but the point is that each part of the body must honor the other parts for the body to be healthy and be willing to do the work that it has been gifted to do .

          Jesus said it this way, 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).  The body of Christ must love itself.  It cannot be a war with itself.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:29-30).  Commitment to the Christ and church relationship means we love each part of the body simply because it is part of the body.

          Our relationship with Christ must be based upon a commitment to become part of one body with him through his church.  But do we see our commitment toward Christ through the church that way?  Are we committed to Christ through the church for one hour a week on Sunday and then committed to other things for the remaining 167 hours of the week?  Or do we have so many commitments that practically speaking we are committed to nothing, including Christ through the church?

          I invite you to take the plunge into the Christ and Church relationship.  Be as committed to the body of Christ as your hands are committed to your own body.  Be excited in this venture of faith as together we make our membership in the body of Christ mean something; something to treasure and something to share.  Welcome back to church.  I am glad you are here.  Amen and Amen.

08-29 - Heaven - Outside the Lines

          Today, I would like us to conclude our four-part series of exploring how Jesus colored outside the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions.  We have explored how Jesus came to talk about the kingdom of God as something far different than people thought it was and far different from the kingdoms of the world.  For in the kingdom of God there is forgiveness, mercy, and grace for each person. In the kingdom of God, there is an inverted order to things where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  In the kingdom of God, women and men are equal in God’s eyes.  And so today, I would like us to explore one final dimension of Jesus coloring outside the lines. 

Today, I would like us to explore what Jesus had to share with us about the afterlife, heaven, and hell.  We may not realize it but what Jesus had to say was deeply surprising to his audience.  For some people, what Jesus said about the afterlife was deeply disturbing and for others what Jesus said was wonderfully encouraging.  The same is true today.  For some of what Jesus said is disturbing and some it is encouraging. Our hope is that we are encouraged by what Jesus said and be strengthened to share our good news with those who may be disturbed by what Jesus said.

As we begin, we might want to know where we and our neighbors stand on the idea of heaven and hell.  A survey in the United States, revealed that about 70% of the people believe in some form of heaven.  About 60% of Americans believe in some form of hell.  Americans hold that heaven is a good place and hell is a bad place.  Apparently, we like the idea of heaven more than the idea of hell.

The balance of Americans, about 30%, believe that life only exists in the present time as living human beings.  They believe when we die, that is it.  There is nothing, no future, nothing beyond this immediate life. 

I share this snapshot of views of contemporary thinking in our country because in many ways these same concepts existed in Jesus’ day. Different groups had differing beliefs. The Sadducees, one of the main Jewish religious groups of Jesus’ day, did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection of the body.  The believed that once you were dead, you were dead.  There beliefs came about because they only followed the first five books of the Bible, and little is said in those books about an afterlife. 

The Pharisees, the other main religious group in Jesus’ day, believed in the afterlife.  It just wasn’t clear the afterlife was all that great as many believed everyone went to the same place.

Jesus entered the scene, and he had some very definite ideas about the afterlife.  Jesus began sharing about the afterlife and his words created great emotions in his audience.  Some of those who heard Jesus speak were moved to joy, others to sadness, and others were moved to mock Jesus for what he said.  Well, what did Jesus have to say about the afterlife?

One time, Jesus was teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God and Jesus wanted to talk about the subject of the afterlife.  As we previously talked about, Jesus acquainted people with things they did not know by telling a story about things that they did know.  The Gospel writer, Luke, recorded one of Jesus’ stories about the afterlife for us.

Jesus said, “19‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day [Many in Jesus’ day saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing.] 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. [Many in Jesus’ day saw poverty and illness as a sign of God’s disfavor.] 22 The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [the rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  25 ‘But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (Luke 16:19-26).

Jesus’ disciples could understand the story. They knew of rich people and poor people.  The disciples could understand living and dead.  The disciples knew Abraham was called by God, loved by God, and was the father of the Hebrew people.  Finally, Jesus’ disciples could understand the difference between comfort and misery. We also understand these elements to Jesus’ story.  So, from what Jesus said the disciples and we had no difficulty understanding the context of the story.  With that in place, the disciples, and we, can make some sense of heaven, hell, and eternal life.  Let’s look at four points.

First, Jesus taught that all human life is eternal. There are no exceptions.  There is a time of living in human form and a time of living after death.  The Pharisees would have liked hearing that and the Sadducees would have been disturbed by that truth.

Second, Jesus taught that there are two destinations in the afterlife.  One is pleasant and comforting and the other is not.  I think the Pharisees who saw themselves as being favored by God for their religious adherence to worship activities would have liked to hear that news.

Third, Jesus taught that each person’s destination is fixed by their conduct in this life.  Those who are first shall be last, those who are last shall be first.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who are humble will be exalted.  The kingdom of God is open to each person but what way we choose to live could prevent our own entry to heaven.  Heaven was not for the wealthy and selfish it was for the faithful.  That news would have disturbed many.

Fourth, Jesus taught that our destination is fixed for eternity.  There is no movement from one destination to the other.  Those in comfort cannot now help those in misery and those in misery cannot later move to the place of comfort.  This news would have terrified many.  Redemption was not possible after death.  Redemption was only for the living in the present.

In one simple story, Jesus wiped clean all the conflicting ideas of existence and destiny.  Did Jesus clear up all the questions we could ask about heaven and hell? Of course not.  He did not intend to do that.  What Jesus intended to do was to put to rest the question as to whether there is an afterlife.  Short answer, “Yes, there is an afterlife.”  Jesus then put to rest the question whether in that afterlife was there but one place for all or were their two places, a place of comfort and a place of misery?  Short answer, “There are two places, one of comfort and one of misery.”  Jesus was not trying to give a description of heaven or of hell.  He was speaking to the character of heaven, with comfort and fellowship, and the character of hell, as misery and loneliness. 

Jesus’ words were probably unsettling to everyone who heard them because his words would cause everyone to reflect upon their beliefs and behaviors.  Right now, some of us might be reflecting on our past or about the past of a loved one. Is there something in our past or in their past that set their destination for something other than heaven? It is a frightening thought.

As Jesus’ disciples, and we think about this simple story, there seems to me to be a natural desire to want to be closer to Christ.  For if Jesus knows the truth about heaven and hell, then certainly he share words that would lead each person to know the path to heaven.

In that reflection and desire to be closer to Jesus, suddenly words Jesus said in the past carried with them much greater significance.  Jesus once told his disciples, “13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus was saying the road to our eternal destination in heaven was narrow and only a few would find it.  My goodness!  You mean, we could miss the gate and the narrow path?  Yes. In fact, Jesus said more people will miss it than find it! The wide gate and the broad road would be easily found and more comfortable to walk.  And many would choose that gate and road.  But that road leads to destruction not life.  Jesus words would make us anxious.  What are we to do?  How will we find the narrow gate?  How will we travel the narrow road?  How will we know we are on the right road?

Jesus knew the anxiousness of the disciples as well as our anxiousness about finding the gate, the narrow road, and life eternal. So, Jesus gave a very simple instruction for those seeking the narrow gate and path.  Jesus condensed his teaching to just two words, “Follow me.”

  • Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
  • Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
  • My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
  • If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).
  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

We could continue with examples of Jesus saying, “Follow me!” but I think you get the point.  Jesus was making it clear; you have but one choice to make.  That choice is to either follow Jesus or not.  If we follow Jesus, then he will show us the narrow gate and keep us on the narrow road.  Jesus was really coloring outside the lines of the world and religious tradition. Jesus was saying there is a heaven and hell and that he would show those who would follow him the right path to get to heaven.

Now accepting what Jesus said would mean that we believe that we are on the right path and that being on the right path we willingly respond in joy.  Out of our joy we would do the right things for others.  Doing right things on the broad road is nice but none of those nice things help us to find the narrow gate and the narrow road to life.  Only Jesus can guide us to the narrow gate and narrow road.

I think the disciples were beginning to understand that they had a future in Jesus in this life and the next.  Then everything seemed to change.

Jesus began speaking of betrayal and arrest. Then just moments before Jesus was arrested, Jesus accentuated the plan for eternal life through him.  Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6).  Jesus was no longer talking in stories or parables.  He was speaking plainly.  Jesus was saying of himself, “I am the narrow gate.  I am the narrow road.  I am only voice that you need to hear in this life.  For there is no other way to be with God except by following me.” What Jesus said was so powerful and so outside the lines that he was, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, either a madman or the Son of God.

No sooner had Jesus finished saying these words, men of the world and religion came in force, armed with swords, torches, and bindings.  They came in great strength to arrest and bind Jesus and spirit him away for trial. These men could no longer stand for Jesus, coloring outside the lines of their beliefs.  These men had no intention of following Jesus, and they were not about to let anyone else follow him. 

We know the story quiet well.  In a matter of a few hours, Jesus, this troublemaking preacher was tried, beaten, humiliated in the streets of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, died, lanced with a spear, and sealed up behind a well-guarded rock tomb.  Jesus public ministry of three years seemed to over in fewer than 12 hours.  Those who did this to Jesus slept well believing the days of Jesus coloring outside the lines were finished.

And what about those who followed Jesus? There were men and women who had given their time, treasure, talents, and tears believing they had found the narrow gate and were on the narrow road.  They believed in Jesus as the Son of God.  But now what were they to do?  Following Jesus’ arrest and execution, everything Jesus said seemed muddled and infinitely harder to believe.  Jesus was dead.  Fear abounded.  There were so many questions and so many doubts.  I am sure the disciples asked themselves, “Did we make a terrible mistake? How was it possible for Jesus to be taken and killed?”

Days passed.  Then suddenly, without warning, exceptionally strange news began to emerge. Jesus was not dead.  He had risen from the grave.  No one rises from the grave.  His women followers ran from the tomb with the news.  His disciples ran from hiding to the tomb to see for themselves. Two other followers from Emmaus ran to Jerusalem with the news that they had seen Jesus.  Everyone was running and excited.  Could this be true?  Then Jesus himself ended the questions.  Jesus entered the locked room of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you!”

Suddenly the grief, the dread of another day, the anxiousness, and the horror of Jesus’ death was lifted from the men and women in that room.  All those emotions were replaced with joy, abounding joy!  With Jesus’ resurrection, all of Jesus’ words became so much more powerful and so much clearer.  He was not a madman.  Jesus was the Son of God and therefore his is all he said he was.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  He is the narrow gate.  He is the narrow path.  He is the life eternal.  He is the only way to the Father.  All the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions that encumbered the disciples were shattered.  These men and women became fearless and bold in their faith.  You could not silence these people.  Instead of just Jesus coloring outside the lines, now dozens of men and women were coloring outside the lines talking about the kingdom of God, salvation, and forgiveness all fueled by the resurrection of Christ.  From those dozens, cane 500 followers, then 3,000 followers, and  from there the number of followers began multiplying.  They had found the gate and the narrow path.

“Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’”  Please do not leave to chance which gate you have entered and which road you are on.  Listen to the words Jesus has for you, “Follow me.”  For in following Jesus, we will live an abundant life now and a life of peace for all eternity.  Now that is coloring outside the lines.  Amen and Amen.