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Monday, November 13, 2017

Clothed with the New Self (Ephesians 4:21-5:14

Sunday, November 12, 2017

            People watching: I used to do this standing at the rail on the upper level of a big mall.  I’d gaze down at the shoppers going in and out of stores.  A group of teenagers, is laughing, carrying on, drawing the attention of mall security.  Some folks with walking shoes have no interest in any of the stores.  They are exercising - mall walkers.  They dodge these window shoppers and keep on walking.  A happy young couple lingers in front of the jewelry store.  A mom pushing a stroller heads wearily toward the food court.
            A football game is a good place to watch people.  So is the main street right downtown. There are always interesting characters on Franklin Street.  Maybe your neighborhood is another place.  Maybe church is a good place to study people. 
            What can we learn?  Can we tell, by surveying the crowd who is successful?  Maybe, but looks can be deceiving.  Do we know who’s happy and who is not?  Perhaps, but a generally happy individual might be going through an unusually bad day.  What can discern when we watch people? 
Can we, by people watching, know if someone is a Christian or not?  Are followers of Jesus any different than anyone else?  Should they be?  If the answer is no, what is the point of being a Christian?  Many might respond that it is important to be a Christian if you want to go to Heaven when you die.  In my own reading the Bible, I find that a blessed life after death is not the point of the story.  It’s an outcome, but not the main idea.  The main idea is that Jesus is Lord. 
We are sinners and we need him – his death on the cross for us and resurrection, also for us.  We need Jesus to remove our sin and when he does and when we receive his grace, then we become his disciples.  As his disciples, we submit our lives to him.  He is Lord – master over every area of our lives.  In Christ, we discover lasting joy and unfailing hope.  We respond to his grace by worshiping God, loving one another, and telling of the Good News of life in Christ to the people around us. 
If your impression is that belonging to church, attending Sunday morning worship, and declaring yourself a Christian is all done to get your ticket punched to Heaven, I think you might be missing something crucial and wonderful – a dynamic relationship with God right now. If we don’t live submitted to Christ in life, we might not enjoy the afterlife, even if we find ourselves in God’s presence.  If we ignore God here, we might not recognize Heaven if we get there. 
In the book of Ephesians, we are invited to understand our life together as God’s church; life lived in the household of God.  Each one who claims to be a Christian and to be a part of this church is a part of one family.  We are each other’s brothers and sisters in Christ.  This means something.  It’s not just a Sunday morning saying.  This defines our lives.  As we swim into the deeper waters of Ephesians, what it means is delineated.  It is “this,” and it is not “that.”
A bipolar understanding of who we are is introduced in verses 21-24.  Imagine people-watching with this question: what distinguishes the follower of Jesus from the person who is not at all connected to God in Christ?  Hold that tension.  Can we tell who the Christians are apart from those who are not?  We probably cannot make that call from the upper level rail as look out over the shoppers at the mall. Christians and non-Christians alike go to the frozen yogurt stand and the electronics store and so on.  However, in church, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes, in those places where we talk with people in intimate conversations, do we see a difference in the way followers of Jesus speak and act?  In the relationships in our lives, can we tell the Christians from the non-Christians?
Along with this, envisioning your own life, can you see the difference in yourself as you have grown in Christ?  Can we, each one of us, mark our lives out as timelines?  We point to a period where we say, ‘ah, there, I was clearly ignoring God,’ or, not ignoring, but, ‘I was ignorant of God.’  Did not know God at all!  And then at another point in our stories, we can point and say, ‘there’s the change.  I met God in Jesus Christ.  After that, things were different.’  Can we do that – distinguish two sides of ourselves, with Christ and apart from Christ?
Being with Christ doesn’t mean we become perfect.  Christians go through divorces.  Christians get addicted.  Christians get arrested.  But even in hard times, Christians are drawn to our master, our Lord who loves us.  Especially in dark periods, we rely on God; we don’t turn away. The pain we experience may come because we ignore the pull of the Holy Spirit and try to live on our wits, our own power, and our own wisdom.  Or, the ability to endure and even thrive in the midst of disappointment and loss is mostly likely directly tied to our unwavering commitment to Christ.
We read the latter half of Ephesians 4, the beginning of Ephesians 5, and we see the world as comprised of people who are in Christ and people who are not.  We see our own lives oriented toward the Savior, or turned away from Him.
It says, “[We] were taught to put away our former way of life, our old self, corrupt, and deluded by lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” – Ephesians 4:22-24.  We flow like streams, leaving behind godless life and all that goes with it.  As we move, we are cleansed, purified by God at work in us.  Residing in the household of God, we begin to take on the likeness of God, clothed with the new self.  Clothed with the New Self
What does this look like?
“Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak truth to our neighbors,” the open of 4:25.  See this dichotomy and see it in the most normal places of life.  Are we our true selves, and when we are our true selves, do those around us see Christ.  Is the Lord seen in us because of how loving we are, how honest we are, how much integrity is the mark of how we live?  Going back to the previous chapter and the earlier verses of chapter 4, are our lives marked by gentleness and humility?
Verses 26-27, “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not give room for the devil.”  Yes, Jesus got angry and so too do his disciples.  We are furious at injustice, at systemic racism, at debilitating poverty, and at divisive rhetoric.  We are just plain mad when we see the church break people with graceless judgment.  The church is for sinners.  Following our Savior’s example we are to open our doors and our hearts to those around us who have been rejected by others and to those who find themselves broken in their own sins.  We hate seeing those already broken stepped on heavily with judgment.  We are fueled to show love. 
But anger doesn’t get the last word.  We feel it.  In words inherited from Jesus, we express it. And then we submit our anger to Him.  We live every moment of life submitted to our master, our Lord, Jesus Christ.  When our eyes stay on him and we live under his rule, the devil has no voice.  The truth about Satan is He has very little power beyond what we give him.  But, since we are prone to sin, all Satan needs to do is tempt us and we do all the work for him.  Whether by anger, by cowardice, by greed or lust or gluttony, we give in to the temptations the enemy dangles, and we’ve turned away from God. 
It is “this,” we speak the truth, or it is “that,” we wallow in anger and follow our temptations instead of submitting to the Lord. 
Thieves, we see in verse 28, have a place in God’s church.  But they must stop stealing.  The transformation happens as they move from thief to disciple as the Holy Spirit makes them new.  They clothe themselves with the new self, the one born again in Christ.  The same could be said of killers and liars.  Forgiven, they are disciples and former killers and liars.  We can’t keep lying and cheating, abusing and stealing, and at the same time clothe ourselves with the new self.  There has to be break, a definitive step from life without Christ to life in Christ.
Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.”  Instead speak words that give grace.  Grace is hard to give because it means we don’t it hold against people when they wrong us or hurt us or lie about us.  In response to evil inflicted upon us, we give love and forgiveness.  If the sun goes down on our anger, we’d just as soon return a punch with a punch.  No, Jesus says, my way is different.  Verses 31-32, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice;” get rid of all of it.  Instead, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”
Putting on the new self is “this,” as we separate from “that,” the way of revenge, the way of power, the way of my gain equals your defeat.  In Christ, we build each other up, looking out for the good of the other.  And remember, reaching back to chapter 3, before this change in us happens, God goes to work in us: in each individual and in us as a church body.  The Lord removes our sins and reshapes our minds and our hearts so that we see the world differently than we did before we began following Jesus.  Our new vision causes new ways of thinking and acting.
Chapter five describes the new self, “this;” “Be imitators of God … and live in love as Christ has loved us” (5:1).
And then “that,” the old way we’ve left behind.  Ephesians 5:3, “Fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you. … Entirely out of place is obscene and vulgar talk; … Be sure that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy … has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God” (5:3-5).  Many of us were fornicators, were impure, were greedy, and were mouthy.  But we have turned from that life to this life, life in Christ.  The Holy Spirit reached out to us and we responded with gratitude and a new way of seeing and being. 

That’s life in the household of God – the church.  How we experience the world has changed because, clothed with the new self, we understand everything in life in terms of who we are in Christ.  
Ephesians 5:8, “For once [we] were darkness, but now in the Lord, we are light.  [So], we live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (5:8-9). 
Similarly, 1 John 1:5, “God is light and in him there is no darkness. … If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5b, 7).

Maybe all this talk of new self and old self, of turning to God and away from sin, seems too churchy, too Sunday-morning, too removed from the places of real life.  Maybe Bible-talk doesn’t gain much traction in the places where you spend your time.  If you’re feeling that, a sense that this is all nice and fluff but unrelated to everyday life, I suggest this.  Imagine yourself carrying the Holy Spirit with you into the most profane, unreligious, unspiritual places you go.  See the Holy Spirit there and see the Spirit there with you. Do that this week.  Take God with you when you go to those places you would never expect to see God.
The other people there might not look at you and immediately see Christ.  But you will know that God is there and your willingness to submit to that knowledge in that place will position you to be a witness.  At that point, God is working, working in you because you are clothing yourself with the new self, the person who is born again and lives in Christ. 
Use this response time to help you be clothed in the new self as your prepare to follow God in the places of your daily life. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Response to the Shooting at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, TX

Church Security and Soft Targets
Pastoral Response to the Texas Church Shooting, 11-5-17
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Tuesday, November 7, 2017

            Terrorist events (see Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino shooting), mass shootings (see Orlando night club, see Las Vegas country music concert), racially motivated violence (see Charlottesville), and other deadly interruptions into the flow of normal life have occurred with alarming frequency in the last 7-10 years.  We Americans haven’t yet caught our breath from the unthinkable attack in Las Vegas, and we learn of Sutherland Springs, Texas.  We learn that we love the people of that small community because the First Baptist Church (FBC) there was shot up on a Sunday morning, the sanctuary full.
            For me, a church pastor, this hits close to home.  I have raced through, in my own mind, how our church would react if a shooter entered.  I have played the scenario out repeatedly.  Truthfully, I don’t know what I would do because I am not prepared for that.
            On a Sunday morning, I am prepared to preach.  I am prepared to meet the people of the church.  Some need encouragement, and if I can, I give it.  Some need a welcome and a hug.  I certainly can and do give that.  Some are leaders in the church and we need to confer about what’s going on Sunday morning or what’s going on at other points in church life.  These are the things on my mind on a Sunday morning.
            I hope, my heart and mind are prepared to encounter God.  I pray that we – myself and all in the church – come expecting to see God act among us.  Over and over the disciples who walked with Jesus every day found themselves surprised by his displays of power as he commanded demons and the demons obeyed and angry, storming waves on the sea cowered before him.  They found themselves scandalized when they saw Jesus love people society had pushed to the margins.  These disciples saw it every day with Jesus and still got surprised.  I hope we’re open enough and worshiping with enough eager anticipation that we see it when God send surprises of love and provision and hope to us.
            What we’re not doing is preparing how to respond to a crazed, murderous shooter (or bomber) (or vehicle operator).  And I don’t we should.  I think our call and our responsibility is to God.  We need to be looking for God when the church gathers.
            My heart goes out to First Baptist Church Sutherland.  That church, like ours, is small.  So many were killed and so many more were critically injured or traumatized, and the community is so small, that that specific church may not recover.  The pastor has got to be devastated.  I don’t know if I could continue in ministry if a shooter killed a bunch of our people, and I survived.  We pastors feel a certain responsibility for all who enter.  God has entrusted the worshipers into our care. 
            The other time, recently, I felt such a burden for a church was the Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, when Dylann Roof shot up their prayer meeting in June, 2015.  On that occasion, I preached a sermon about how churches should exist in a time of random, unpredictable, deadly violence.  The text of that message is here
            One of the things I stressed in that message is that the deadly shooting happened when the church was doing “what churches do.”  They were in a prayer meeting, and they welcomed Dylann Roof, a dangerous person, into their fold.  They didn’t know he was dangerous.  We never do.  We know we are called to welcome people – people with mental illness, people will deep-seeded anger, and people who are themselves badly broken.  As we are church, the body of Christ, we welcome the lost.  That’s what we do.
            FBC Sutherland was different than Emmanual AME Church in that they never had the chance to welcome Devin Kelly.  He came in shooting, killing.  He may have destroyed that church.  God allows human beings agency – the freedom to make moral choices.  Part of being made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) is we have free will.  But too often, we use our freedom for evil.  God allows this because without this freedom, we would no longer be human.  Atheists will see and evil event and use it as an opportunity to attack the church, but they don’t understand the bigger picture.  God has created a world in which human beings and God are in a relationship of love and trust.  God doesn’t force the relationship.  But God is active in it and God is active in the world. 
The mark of the person walking in close relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, is how that person responds in crisis.  Tragedy hits all people – Christ followers and non-Christians alike.  God is seen in how his church represents his love and hope in the face of tragedy.  On Sundays, we in the church, pastors and worshipers, whether long-time members or first-time attendees, have the same invitation.  We are invited into the presence of God.  That’s what we’re seeking and preparing for, not a shooting.
I wrote in 2015 the following after the mass murder in Charleston:
We as a community of faith have to tell the alternate story – the grace story.  … We have to be the story of hope.  We do this by opening our doors and ourselves to the lost and hurting people in the world.  Yes, churches are soft targets because broken people need a soft place to land.  Hurting people need to meet Jesus in an atmosphere of love. 

By being a safe place, a soft target, we risk everything.  Dylann Roof could walk in here.  Or someone without a gun but with a dangerous agenda could attempt to infiltrate our community.  Our commitment to being a people who welcome all leaves us open to such risks.  But we embrace that because God has given us a particular mission.  God calls us to live a story in which people of different backgrounds are brothers and sisters who embrace each other in the love of Jesus.  God calls us to stand in the midst of the violence, throw open our doors, and say to the world, “Come in, you’ll be loved here.  You’ll be valued here.  You have a place here.  In the heart of God, in God’s Kingdom, you have a home.

In coming days, it will become harder for us to tell this story and live this mission.  But we will do it no matter the cost because God enables us as God calls us.  And we will do it with great joy because God’s story is a grace story and a joy story.  The hope for the world is in the telling and living of that story.  Now is the time.

Those words still ring true.  I know some churches are talking about having armed security.  I suspect there may be people in our church family who are armed when they come to church on Sunday morning.  My own preference would be for us to post signs that say “No firearms on the premises are permitted.”  My desire for this is not a comment on gun ownership as a political issue.  I offer no comment on that issue in this essay.  The action of posting a “No firearms permitted” sign would be a statement about where our focus is.  Our focus is on meeting the Holy Spirit of God in this place. 
This action wouldn’t slowdown someone like Dylann Roof or Devin Kelly.  But it would be a reminder to all our people that we put our trust in God.  The people of FBC Sutherland Springs put their trust in God too.  I don’t know why they died.  I don’t know why Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58-59), but John died a natural death (John 21:23).  I don’t know why most churches have pleasant Sundays but on November 5, tragedy his Sutherland Springs. 

But I know this.  We who follow Christ cannot let tragedy tell us who we are to be or how we are to live.  Tragedy doesn’t get to be the boss.  Racism doesn’t get to dictate to us.  Terror doesn’t the first word, the last word, or any word.  We churches are communities of Christ followers.  We are the body of Christ.  We’ll voluntarily exist as soft targets because we want to be safe places for broken people who need a soft landing.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Now Playing: The Story of the Church! (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

            As the movie begins, we hear the main character say, “Let me tell you about the time I almost died.”  The story is thrilling, but why?  Everything after “Let me tell you about the time,” is flashback.  When we see him hanging off the edge of the building with the bad guys shooting at him, we know he escapes.  We know he doesn’t fall.  We know he doesn’t die.  How? He’s the one telling the story.  Let me tell you about when I almost died.
            Today we step into a story - the story of the church as told in Ephesians.  This tale is not so death-defying as the hero escaping from some impossible scenario.  It’s not James Bond evading 10 gunman with bad intentions and falling into the arms of a woman.  It’s not Captain America and a handful of Avengers staring down hordes of aliens who threaten all life on earth.  This is not that kind of story.  This one is better.
            The story we find in Ephesians is better than the action film.  Even more, it is better than the stories on the evening news, stories of racial tension, terrorism, violence, and political strife.  This Ephesians story is better than the dream America holds before us where people are treated as commodities, consumers to be wooed by false impressions of beauty, success, and happiness.  The story in Ephesians is richer than the lies advertisers try to sell and Americans are too often too eager to buy.  The Ephesians story offers greater meaning, more permanent satisfaction than any nation’s ideals, and a better ending.
            The ending of the Ephesians story – a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit story – is that God wants to build up the body of Christ, which is the church.  The body is the gathering, the united sense of identity and shared life of all who follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God.  You, me, all of us together make up the body of Christ and God the Father, known through the Son, and at work in the world through the Spirit gives what we need to be His people, worshiping Him and helping others come to saving faith in Him.  God equips us in love so that we are united and are His people, His church.  That’s the story.
            Why is this good news?  And how do we get there?

            The beginning involves the Jewish rabbi, the carpenter’s son, the long-awaited Messiah, God-in-the-flesh; this Jesus, the Jesus, is crucified by Rome at Jerusalem’s insistence and each one of us is complicit because of our sin.  He gets tortured, killed, and buried, but after a few days, the tomb is discovered empty.  In the month following, his followers meet him and in these meetings discover he has been resurrected.
            His still bears nails holes in his hands from the crucifixion.  He can be touched and embraced.  He eats with the disciples.  Yet, when he so desires, he can pass through closed doors without opening them.  He can seemingly transport from one place to another in bodily form.  Finally, he ascends, stepping out of this realm and into a heavenly one.  A short time later, his Holy Spirit fills His followers, and the age of the church begins. 
            Within a few years, some Jews in Jerusalem become steadfast in their devotion to Jesus and to helping others come salvation in His name.  Other Jews in Jerusalem are equally determined to crush the Jesus movement.  One of these is a Pharisee named Saul.  The risen, ascended Christ returns in a blinding light to confront Saul on the road.  Saul, overwhelmed, repents of all the evils he has carried out against Jesus’ church.  He begins going by the name Paul and is commissioned an apostle. 
            Then he travels to, Antioch, around the Greek-speaking world, and finally he makes his way to Rome.  At every stop, Paul tells Jews and Gentiles alike about salvation in Jesus.  He is flogged by those opposed to his message.  People who come to believe are also roughed up and ostracized, precisely because they decide to follow Jesus.  Paul, finally, is imprisoned and tradition tells us he died while imprisoned for Christ. 
            Before death reached Paul, he started churches in numerous cities, and the letters he wrote back to those communities were saved and circulated so all the churches could have the word God had given Paul to give to the church.  A few generations later, those letters were compiled and in the 4th century, the entire New Testament, including Paul’s letters, were collected into the volume we now have in the Bible.  Ephesians has been our entry point to this story for the past month. 
            This story of salvation from creation to Jesus to the church to Paul to HillSong in 2017, this news, is good because it shows that in Jesus Christ, we have relationship with God.  We have freedom from sin. We have love beyond explanation, joy that does not diminish, and joy that does not fail.
            Last week in focusing on Ephesians 3, we looked at what God does and noted that our primary act is prayer.  In Ephesians 4, we see what we do in addition to prayer.  “I … beg you,” the author says, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).  We know we have been called to follow Jesus, to accept God’s invitation to be his sons and daughters, and to be his witnesses in a fallen, lost world.  The phrase “to lead a life,” in verse 1, means to be ‘in Christ’ in our walk through daily life.  Daily life is the arena in which our faith becomes real. 
            Following Jesus, as we care for our families, go to our jobs, shop in the marketplace, pay our taxes, and live in the cultural world of 21st century America, this walk happens in a specific way.  Humility.  God is great and we are servants.  Gentleness.  People around us are lost, and we must be safe, welcoming, representatives of our Lord.  Patience.  Inside the church and out, we are confronted with the pain of the world because sin hurts.  In spite of it, we welcome others into our embrace.
Bearing with one another in love.  Jesus’ great commandment is that we love God and then go out of our way, inconvenience ourselves, in loving each other.  Making every effort to maintain unity of the Spirit.  This is not unity for unity’s sake, but rather the unity of people who have died and been raised again in Christ. 
Verses 2-3 list the way we go about living into the salvation God has given:
·         Humbly
·         Gently
·         Patiently
·         Bearing one another’s burdens in love
·         Maintaining unity in the Holy Spirit

Imagine the story of the church that receives Paul’s Ephesians urging!  In a distorted view of church, some select certain behaviors to be the standard by which we are measured.  In one church, only men can be ordained.  In another, all the deacons have to sign a document written in 1963 or 2000.  In yet another, the leaders must be alcohol-free.  If a deacon is caught a deacon with a beer, he’s banished to some sort of ecclesiastical purgatory for a while.  In another, certain sexual behaviors are the measure of whether or not someone is following Christ.
I readily acknowledge a Christian ethic that relates to who should and should not lead, to the appropriateness in relationships, and other matters.  The Word of God speaks to all these things.  But, what if we paid attention when Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy?”  And what if in paying attention, we realize that in the church story God is writing, humility is the measure of the leader?  What if our loving critique comes down to, “Pastor, you haven’t been gentle?”  “Small group leader, you need to bear with those in your group – stand beside them; support them; help them through the crisis they’re experiencing!”  “Deacon, your actions are hurting our unity in the Spirit.”
These blunt words aren’t spoken to shame people.  Rather, the intent is to help the pastor grow in his discipleship by helping him learn to be gentler.  The idea is to help the small group leader deepen her commitment to Christ by helping her go the extra mile in caring for those in her group.  The aim is to help that deacon strengthen his own testimony by helping him know how to work for unity in the family.  In the Ephesians church story, gentleness, humility, and unity matter as much as the issues that take up so much of our time today. 
Our work is to lean in to this way of following Jesus.  God’s work is to shower us with grace.  Of course grace means our sins are forgiven and we have new life in Christ.  Grace is also the source of the gifts God gives.  The Greek word ‘grace’ and the word translated ‘gifts’ or ‘spiritual gifts’ come from the same root.  The only kind of gifting Paul writes about is spiritual gifting.  In 1 Corinthians 12 and in Romans 12, there are representative, not exhaustive, spiritual gift lists. 
Here in Ephesians 4, the grace given by God specifically refers to leadership.  Verse 11 names apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.  In our church family, we don’t have roles for apostles – but we know we are sent.  We don’t have prophets on the church staff – but there are times when people in the church are given a prophetic word from God and that word must be spoken.  We don’t have ‘evangelist’ as a formal position, but we know we are called to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
We do have pastors and teachers.  All the gifts described in Ephesians 4, those we have in formal title and those we exercise by function serve the same purpose.  These gifts are given by God, to be used by leaders in the church to equip everyone in the church to do the work of ministry and build up the body of Christ.  Ephesians 4:12 shows why all the people in the church are ‘ministers.’  God gifts the leaders, and the leaders respond by humbly, gently training and encouraging the members of the church family.  The church family responds by committing to unity in the Holy Spirit, giving full-bodied support to the other members of the church family, and sharing the good news in the community.
It’s good news because it is a story of salvation, a story of second chances, a story of belonging, and a story that never ends.  In this story, God never gives up on you.
How do we get there?  By commitment and trust.  We commit to grow as disciples.  We trust God’s promise of forgiveness and grace when we fail to do our part.  And realizing our shortcomings, we try again.  And again.  And again.
Know this.  We’re not there yet.  In chapter 4, verse 14, it says “We must no longer be children tossed to and fro and blown about by every [crazy idea that comes along].”[i]  This was written because sometimes the people of the church allowed themselves to be deceived and fell prey to false teachings.  They were easily swayed by bad ideas. 
The next verse says, “by speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”  We build ourselves up in love, as the end of verse 16 says. 
I have seen churches fail to be gentle with members.  I have seen followers of Jesus ignore the Ephesians call to humility and unity.  I have seen it in the church and in myself.  God doesn’t give up on me or on his church.  This story is not yet complete.  In fact, we see the power of this story as we grow in Christlikeness. 
We see it when the grieving widow is comforted. 
We see it when the nervous young adult whose never traveled before signs up for the overseas mission trip, and then confesses all her fears, and then allows her church family to encourage her and the family does exactly that.
We see it when the small group, showing love and mercy, walks through the divorce with him, sitting with him in his brokenness. It’s a story that’s happening now, happening among us, happening in your life.  The title of the sermon is “Now playing!  The story of the church.”  Together, looking to Christ, and sharing his love with one another, we see this show as it unfolds and through the church, the world hears and sees the good news of life in Christ.

[i] Here I substituted “crazy idea that comes along” because I think that’s clearer than the phrase “every wind of doctrine” which is what the NRSV says.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Church Lives its Calling

Lead a life worthy of your calling … [a life marked by] humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; from Ephesians 4:1-3.
Our church has spent several weeks in Ephesians during the Sunday morning sermons.  We’re finally to chapter 4.  It encourages me to be able to say, from my vantage point as senior pastor, that I have seen our church family embody the life depicted in these opening verses of the 4th chapter.
“A life worthy of your calling;” pastors and professional clergy are thought to be called by God like prophets of old.  But, I have seen lay members in our church family live out just as strongly this sense that God has given them purpose in their lives and they are as compelled as any pastor to live into that purpose.
“Marked by humility and gentleness;” our church family includes individuals who have accomplished much.  They are the leaders of their organizations, the groundbreaking researchers, and those with oversight in power positions in our community.  In our church family, these distinguished people are called by their first names, not “Dr. this,” or “Mr. that.”  We downplay titles because we are a family, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yes, church is an institution and titles can be appropriate.  But the lasting image of church, exceeding the societal function, is the household of God.  When I am at home, it’s comfortable and I’m on a first name basis with my family.  In our church family, the one in the kitchen wearing an apron and washing dishes is a department head at the university.  The one hunched over spreading mulch on the workday is the head of her department at work.  This wasn’t done by design.  We don’t try to “humble people.”  They have embraced the call of Christ.  What’s happening in what I am describing is the result of people following God with humility and gentleness.
“Bearing with one another in love:” we’ve had conflict, like most churches do at some point.  Some have left our church family in unhappy departures.  We’re not perfect.  But the ones who are here do their best to overcome differences that arise in loving ways.  Many of members are not that crazy about everything I say, but they love me as much as they love each other.  They “bear with” me because they’re trying to follow the Spirit’s lead.  I’ve seen people in our church overcome differences and become true friends – disciples who help each other grow in faith.
This has sound like a brag-session; look how great our church is.  I did not intend that. I thought, as a supplement to the Ephesians sermon series, I’d zero on some details in Ephesians 4 where we might focus our energy.  But don’t pastors do too much of that sometimes?   We must be humbler and gentler.  We have to work on “bearing with one another in love.”  Yes, we must and we have to, but sometimes pastors overdo it with the “must’s” and the “have-to’s.”  As I sat down to write, I wanted to express how grateful I am for that ways I see our church already living into the vision Paul casts in Ephesians 4. 

October was “pastor appreciation month,” and the church showed great love to me.  I feel it.  November is the month of Thanksgiving.  I am very thankful that the HillSong Church family is a body of believers who believe that to be Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus.  And this church lives out that discipleship.  I am glad I get to be part of it.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Paul Prays (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Sunday, October 25, 2017

            I am a Detroit Lions fan.  In the early 1980’s, in one of the rare seasons in which they won more football games than they lost, they were nearly in the playoffs, but they needed to win one more game.  They had it!  Down, by a point, their kicker, one of the best in the league, lined up a long field goal attempt with just seconds remaining.  He makes it, and they are in.  As the ball sails through the air, the camera pans to the Detroit head coach, Monte Clark.  He’s on his knees, hands clasped, eyes toward heaven.   The field goal went wide right, by the way, as we Lions fans knew it would.  Those prayers are never answered, not for the Lions.
            What leads you to pray?
            We’ve seen it over and over here in our university town.  Graduation approaches, and what then?  Our church family’s graduates need jobs.  “I’ll pray for you,” we assure one another.
            A hurricane hits Texas.  And the voice on the radio says, “Our thoughts and prayers go up …”.  Then Florida, and the somber news anchor, “Our prayers go out tonight …”.  Then Puerto Rico, and the church prayer list is emailed out, “We remember all affected by the hurricane in the Caribbean …”
            What leads you to pray?  He discovers your affair and even though you cheated, you want to save the marriage.  Do you confess?  Beg forgiveness?  To whom?  Him?  To God?
In another family, a happier one, his wife whom he loves and who loves him calls to say, “They found a lump.  Biopsy to be scheduled.” 
What leads us to pray?  We have the ultimate praying holiday coming up – thanksgiving. 
So many prayers; so many different reasons for prayer. 
The question for today is what drives us to prayer?  The need to praise and worship God?  It’s not the most common response, but it is why some people pray – the driving force in the prayer story of some.  What about others?  A guilty conscience?  When we pray, is it confession?  Most of time, we’re praying for help or healing or consolation.  Sometimes we don’t know why we pray.  We just know there’s a need – we need God to do something or give something. 
Of the 100 or so gathered here, I am certain some among us right now feel the need to pray.  If that number of those compelled to prayer is 15, we will hear 15 different stories that end with you in church not sure of much except that you really need God.  No one reason is better than any other in prayer.  We come praising, confessing, or asking – in all cases, we are in prayer and God welcomes us.

What drove Paul the Apostle, the church planter, the defender of Christianity to his knees?  What incited Paul to pray?  Ephesians 3:1, “This is the reason, I Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of you Gentiles.”  Ephesians 3:14, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father.”
We look back to what Paul radical idea in chapter 2.  “By grace we have been saved through faith” (2:8).  No matter your birthplace, no matter your gender, no matter your cultural background, no matter your education or work experience, this gospel is true for all.  All are sinners.  Jesus’ death on the cross covers the sin of all.  All who come to him in faith and repentance and receive the gift of eternal life he gives are saved from sin, saved from death, and saved to life in the Kingdom of God. 
There, all divisions that separate people have been shattered by Jesus.  Therefore Paul says, also in chapter 2, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22). 
We pray when things are bad, when we need help or healing, or, when we need something.  We should pray in those times, and usually, some hardship or challenge is what leads the Christians I know to prayer.
Paul looked and saw what God had done.  Paul was driven to prayer when he thought about the implications of the salvation we have in Christ.  God had eliminated the division between Jews and Gentiles.  God had removed the barrier of sin that separated people from Himself.  In Jesus Christ, God had made a way for people to be adopted as His sons and daughters.  Paul saw that and it drove him to his knees in prayer. 
Think of it this way.  Imagine Tychicus, as the one carrying this document – the letter to the Ephesians. He is named in Ephesians 6:21.  He may have actually written the letter.  If so, he would have attributed it to Paul because the material comes from what he heard over and over as he traveled with Paul.  So imagine, Tychicus standing before the church with the task of sharing this letter. 
Now, imagine Tychicus with the letter in hand, transported from Ephesus, 90AD to the year 2017, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, HillSong Church.  Tychicus stands before us, and says,   
“OK, great!  You are God’s church, the household of God, the dwelling place for God.  Look at you.  You’ve got worshippers here with lighter skin shades and darker skin shades and shades in between.  You’ve got people from different language backgrounds.  I see babies and teenagers and people in their 70’s and 80’s and everywhere in between.  Yes, with all your differences, you are gathered together in Christ’s name.  You have salvation.  And the divisions have been abolished by the Gospel.  You are the household of God.”

He says that, and then he reads the prayer Paul wrote in Ephesians 3. 
            “For this reason I bow my knees.”  Because of what God did, Tychicus must pray Paul’s prayer.  The Ephesian church in the first century drew together people who had previously been at odds with each other.  Yes at times Paul prayed for healing. Yes at times Paul asked for provision.  And forgiveness.  But on this occasion, Paul was driven to prayer because a group of people who believed the message of the cross came together and became a community of Jesus-followers.  He was driven to pray for the church.
            Are we?
            We begin to understand the prayer and even more importantly, we begin to understand ourselves as the household of God as we look at who does what.  It’s in the verbs.  “I pray … that [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [the Holy] Spirit.”
            “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend … the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
            Paul prays all this so that the believers who make up the household of God “may be filled with the fullness of God.”
            There are some good verbs here driving this story.  Strengthened.  One strengthened knows himself or herself and is not swayed by temptations.  One strengthened lives a convincing faith because when others see her, in the force of her conviction for Christ they can’t help but admire her and want what she has.  The strengthened believer is a support to others in the church and a witness to God’s goodness before the unbelieving world.  Wouldn’t you like to be strengthened? We all would!
            Comprehend.  Combine strength with knowledge and wisdom in a follower of Jesus, and you have someone ready to love the poor with compassion, to support the discouraged with a word of hope, and to speak the Gospel into the face of sin and death.  Comprehension and knowledge enable the disciple to see the world for what it is and to help people move from the world into the Kingdom by showing how God gives what we need.  Wouldn’t you like knowledge, given by God?  I want it!
            Strengthen and comprehend are meaningful verbs.  So too is filled.  ‘That you may be filled with the fullness of God;’ that’s what Paul prays.  Anchored when the winds swirl, the one filled with God does not sway in the face of the moral failings blowing about in society, or break when Christian truth is seemingly reduced to one idea among many truths from which one might pick.  The one filled with God knows the truth of the Gospel, stands on that truth, and does not move when the surrounding world questions or mocks that truth.  We all want and need to be filled with the Spirit.
            So then what must we do in the story of our own faith lives in order to grow in strength, knowledge, and the fullness of God?  Wait a minute!  That’s the wrong question.  What must we do to be stronger, smarter, wiser, and fuller?  We read the Bible and memorize scripture.  We participate in worship and go on mission trips.  We can work on relationships with Christian friends who help us grow in our faith.  We should do all those things.  An active Christian life; spiritual disciplines; relationships with other believers; yes, all of these should be important in our lives. 
            However, look at the verbs!  Who does the strengthening?  God.  Who dwells in our hearts?  God – that’s Ephesians 3:17!  God lives in us!  Who gives us power and knowledge and most importantly love?  God is the subject of all these verbs.  God is the one doing these things.  We – His church – are the objects.  Through strengthening, dwelling, giving, and filling, God is at work on us, among us, and in us.  God does this to us and for us.  In the household of God, one of the things to see is God at work.  That’s why believers are called witnesses.  We see what God has done and is doing and we testify to what we have seen and experienced.
            I wondered, how do I depict the gifted, strengthened, in-dwelt, rooted, grounded, knowing, full life?  Is it the kind of thing where you know it when you see it?  To whom do we direct our attention?  Who can we look at and say, “That’s it!  That person is living the life I’m talking about here.”
            More importantly, how do we know we are living that gifted, strengthened, in-dwelt, rooted, grounded, knowing, full life?  What can you do to ensure that life is your life?  How can I fix myself in that life, that God-life?
            Once more, we’re back to the verbs.  I pointed out that God is the subject, and we the objects.  God strengthens, dwells in, gives, and fills.  There is one verb in this passage in which Paul put himself as the subject.  Paul said, “This is what I do.”  “I bow my knees before the Father.”  In verse 16, “I pray.”  In verse 18, “I pray.”  In the household of God, we – you and I – pray, God acts, and we live in response to God in action. The church doesn’t accomplish.  God accomplishes in and through the church.  We are God’s instruments.  God makes the music.  Paul prays.  We pray for healing and forgiveness and needs, yes, but also that God’s Kingdom come, that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. 
            When a community is gathered in Jesus’ name and in Jesus’ name the people pray, God acts, and the people live in response to and as witnesses of what God has done, then that community is the church, the household of God. 
            This chapter ends, and Paul’s pray ends, with a word, ‘logos,’ of glory, ‘doxa,’ lifted to God.  ‘Doxa.’  ‘Logos.’  Doxology.  A word glorifying God.  This doxology proclaims exactly what Paul has said about God in action and us in response.  It is how the prayer and this message concludes. 
            “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generation, forever and ever. 


Theology, Metaphor, and the Expansiveness of God

I appreciate very much Eugene Peterson’s comments on the way the Apostle Paul uses metaphor.

            He writes,
Mystery, for Paul, is not what is left over after we have done our best to reason things out.  It is inherent in the very nature of God and his works.
God and his operations cannot be reduced to what we are capable of explaining and reproducing.
The way Paul uses language in his writing is to load it with metaphor.  There is hardly a paragraph he writes that lacks a metaphor.  … Instead of pinning down meaning, metaphor lets it loose.  Metaphor does not so much define or label; it expands, forcing the mind into participating action. … [Metaphor forces] the imagination into action to find meaning at another level, engaging the imagination to look for relationships and resonances that tell us more than anything literal.  We cannot be passive before a metaphor; we imagine and enter into.  Metaphor enlists us in believing-obeying participation. … Paul uses words not to define, but to evoke. 
Paul’s language is a living energy field.  He doesn’t develop a technical jargon for the sake of being precise about God.  … He uses language like a poet.  A living faith requires this lively, participatory language. … Paul’s theological imagination enabled him to keep the soaring truths and beauties of the gospel of Jesus Christ accessible and understandable to the very people that gather still in our congregations. 
Theology comes alive in conversations and prayers.  … Theology is not talking about God but living in community with persons in relationships, who, like Paul live in communities whose names they know.
Paul brings people by name into his theology, making sure we will not conceive theology as something impersonal, something to think about and argue over without living it. [i] 

            I typed some of the phrases above from Peterson’s writing in italics because I wanted to emphasize the expansive nature of what Peterson wrote, which in turns calls attention to the expansive nature of Paul’s theology.  My brother is an Oxford-trained theologian.  I often pick his brain, trying to understand what new things need to be written and thought in terms of theology.  Hasn’t it all been covered?  Isn’t theological writing done today just a rehashing and a reworking of what’s been said previously in the two millennia of Christianity’s existence?  Hasn’t it all been said before?
            Not the way Peterson presents it.  If theology is ever expanding (because the God theology seeks is beyond human words and comprehension, but also is willing to reveal God’s self to unprepared human minds), then theology will never “know it all.”  The lively, participatory nature of metaphor is not only necessary for theological understanding; metaphor itself is fueled by God’s very nature.  In other words, we need to metaphor to understand God and ourselves and ourselves in relation to God and one another, and metaphor exists because of who God is.
            I don’t know if Peterson’s understanding of metaphor and the expansiveness of God gets as the heart of theology as my brother understands it.  But I do know what Peterson has written helps me see what my brother has insisted – that theology is necessary, ongoing work.  It is the work of scholars.  It is also the place where the church comes alive.  It is where the rubber meets the road when the church exists in the world as a community “in Christ.”

[i] E. Peterson (2017), As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Waterbrook, a division of Random House (New York), p. 271-272.