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Monday, December 18, 2017

We Need Christmas (John 16:16-24)

Third Sunday of Advent: Joy
Sunday, December 17, 2017



The December issue of National Geographic arrived a few weeks ago.  The cover is the very famous work entitled “Head of Chris” painted by Rembrandt in the 1640’s.  Ah, we see what Geographic is doing.  It’s December, Christmas is coming, this is a magazine committed to popularizing culture, nature, and scientific discovery, and so, why not apply scientific sensibility to a world-wide cultural phenomenon, the religion behind Christmas. Why not take a scrutinizing look at the people who follow and worship Jesus, the man the baby in the manger grew up to become?
The caption on the cover confirms the intent. It says “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.”  Do you catch all the implications within this simple sentence?  We just sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”  We think that the baby Jesus grows up to become the “Lord Jesus.”  We proclaim it, we sing it, we pray it, and we insist it is the truth of all truths.  But is this a legend, a story first century Jews made up as a part of a series of ecstatic prayer experiences?  Is the Lord Jesus not actually the real Jesus?  See the questions raised by that caption under Rembrandt’s painting on the cover of National Geographic?
With the question before us, where do we go? Where do we turn to find out the truth about “the real Jesus?” Do we turn to the internet?  You can sit and down type it into Google.  In case you wondered, Google took less than half a second to produce 33 million hits in response to this question.  Good luck sorting through all those sites, all of them based on someone’s agenda.  Where else could we go for help with this?  You might call Heather or me or Beth, Phil, or Angel for that matter.  Or Hong or Dina or Greg Meyers.  We all have seminary degrees.  Or, if you’re feeling intrepid, you may skip the professionally trained clergy and go straight to the Bible yourself.  Anyone who is literate can read the divinely inspired accounts and form their own understanding of “the real Jesus.”
National Geographic goes in a different direction.  Again, the words on the cover: “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.” Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.”[i] It is a science, one that works hand-in-hand with its sister discipline, history, which is also practiced as an emotionally detached academic discipline.  National Geographic thinks that the science of archaeology will give us more fact-based truth about the historical figure of Jesus than anything we might find in biased accounts like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written from a faith perspective.  When a historian or archaeologist declares that faith and miracles and the supernatural are all fantasy and the only things that are real are the facts science can establish, it has the potential to suck the joy right out of Christianity for me.
I love National Geographic, a magazine that comes from a worldview that stands on scientific discovery and proof as the only standard for what is real.  The author of “The Real Jesus” article, Kristin Romey, appreciates what science can say, and also appreciates the limits on scientific inquiry.  There is no way the science of historical research can prove or disprove that an angel spoke to Mary and that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus.  National Geographic tends to default to the view that the virgin birth would have been legend, not something that actually happened.  Science has no category for something that occurs outside of scientifically established natural laws. 
When archaeology and history are practiced as sciences, what they can do is give as accurate a picture as possible about what human life and human society was like in the past – in this case the late first century BC and the first half of the first century A.D.  The article in National Geographic does a thorough job of showing how scientists have over and over verified that much of what we find in the four gospels is historically solid.  The cities reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were where those gospel-writers said they were.  Kristen Romey shows that based on what history can prove, Matthew and his three Gospel-writing peers got the facts right.  First century Israel was mostly likely the way they described it when Jesus was born, when he lived, and was crucified.    
If you’re tempted to say, “Oh, I didn’t need science to tell me that,” allow me to push back just a bit.   As followers of Jesus, we should all be enthusiastic supporters of S.T.E.A.M – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.  No, we don’t need science for salvation.  However, Jesus commands us to love the Lord with all our mind.  Our church has many members who stretch their minds to the limit in their work, scientific research.  As a worshiping community, we need to foster an environment in which our students are encouraged to excel in science whether it is elementary school or a PhD program or anywhere in between.  We need to bless our members who are scientists and also are Jesus’ disciples.  Their work can be an offering to God and they should glorify Him by committing to excellence in their work. 
Science matters because there are things that can be proved.  For instance, if an ossuary, a bone box, was discovered, and it was proven to contain the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, our faith would be shattered.  We stand on the belief – a belief we insist is incontrovertible fact – that Jesus rose from the grave.  So, if we found what we know to be his grave, it better empty.  Or, our faith crumples. 
However, there are realities for which science cannot account.  Researchers can say what life was like in first century Nazareth, but they can’t prove or disprove that Jesus performed miracles there.  They can’t determine whether or not an angels appeared to shepherds in Bethlehem or spoke in Joseph’s dreams.  The author of the National Geographic piece was very fair on this point.  She traveled all over Israel – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum.  She met Christ followers from every country you can imagine.  From all over the globe, people traveled to worship Jesus on the ground where he actually walked.
At the end of her article Kristin Romey writes, “To sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence.  That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions [and] irreconcilable facts.  But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the son of God will be evidence enough” (p.68).  I appreciate her recognition of the both/and quality of the Jesus story.  There’s the Jesus who existed in history, and the Jesus who transcends and fulfills history.  They are one and the same and this Jesus is the subject of our worship. 
Christmas time sees us entering into a special season of worship.  The scientific study of Jesus gives us a framework to talk about the story in a post-enlightenment age.  But we need miracles because we need more than just what modern man’s technology can provide.  We don’t just need cures; we need hope.  We don’t just need life to be made easier; we need life to matter.  We don’t just need a few days off to rest and visit family; we need worship that reminds us we are transformed, a people made new in Christ.  The way Christmas has come to a place of importance for my own family helps me see why it is so important.

            Our kids sit around the computer with my wife Candy, and together, they play a simulation that includes a graphic with green and red wrapped presents, an old-time village decorated in Christmas lights, Christmas-related games, and a repeating track of delightful Christmas music in the background.  Beginning on December 1 and going all the way to the 25th, there is something new every day as they click on the globe icon.  Around the time supper is ending and the time for homework is nearing, I say, “Kids, it’s time for the globe,” and they assemble on the sofa and get the computer ready.  Every year.
            In darkness of the early morning, at this time, as we are rousing, getting breakfast, school lunches made, getting ready to catch the bus that comes at 7:05, I tell one of the kids, “plug the Christmas tree lights in.”
            In this season, when we are driving home from a basketball practice or a gymnastics class or Wednesday night youth group, from the back seat I hear, “Dad, can we drive through the neighborhood and look at the lights?”  I say, “Yes.”  We do this several times, pause to see how our neighbors have decorated to celebrate the season.  Every year.
            The pilgrimage to the theater to see the Nutcracker.  Decorating homemade cookies, little trees, stars, and Santa Claus’s.  I need this.
            Four or Five years ago, I had a nasty head cold that ran all through December.  I grumbled and growled.  I wanted nothing to do with Christmas songs or lights on houses or drives through our neighborhood.  Sometime around December 27th or 28th, my wife said, “You were a real grouch this Christmas.”  She was right.  That has stuck with me.  I don’t want to be that.  I need the joy of the season both from our faith and from our cultural ways of celebrating and living that faith.  I need that joy.
            I think most people do.  We spend Advent anticipating his birth as we relive the story, anticipating new things he will do in our lives in the coming year, and waiting with anxious patience for his return at the fulfillment of history, when history ends and God’s kingdom is fully ushered in.  John captures this spirit of longing, waiting, and uncertain in chapter 16 of his gospel.
            There, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his coming crucifixion and then resurrection and then ascension.  They don’t understand much of what he says, but they have the words, and after he is raised from death, and after they see him ascend in clouds and the Holy Spirit fills each one of them, they remember and understand in a new light. 
            “You will have pain,” he tells them.  “But your pain will turn into joy.”  Jesus’ words recall the prophet Isaiah who says, “The Lord gives beauty for ashes, gladness in place of grief” (61:3, my paraphrase).   This is what God does.  Our sin produces pain and death, and draws us away from God.  God, through the death and resurrection of Christ, defeats death, removes our sin, and gives us blessing.  Our pain turns to joy.
            Jesus continues in John 16:22, “You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Grab a hold of this promise he made to 12.  Claim it for yourself.  These words are in the Bible, handed down to the church, to us, for us.  God, in the risen Christ, in the present Holy Spirit, takes your pain, give you joy, and protects it, so that you have joy unending, joy that cannot be ripped from you.
            And finally Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive; I have said these things my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (16:24; 15:11).
            Based on the assessment of all the available evidence, researchers have determined that Luke, John, and the other gospel writers give an accurate picture of first century Israel.  In terms of verified reporting, John can be trusted.  We know our own stories, how much we need the joy that is promised in the Bible, in the story of Jesus.  That Jesus himself said we can ask and God will give divine, unending, life-changing joy.  Why don’t we ask him to do that?
            I don’t know the specific challenges that block your path in life right now, but I suggest, we end our time with prayer.  Ask God to be with you as we sit together in the Advent season and you face whatever it is you face in your life.  Ask God to sit with you.  And, ask God to fill your heart with Jesus’ love, so that you can know without a doubt that His joy is in you, and your joy is complete.  This is something beyond explanation, something only God can give.  And he wants to.  So ask God in right now.
AMEN



[i] https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS749US749&ei=huozWoH5O-GR_QaCjbqgCQ&q=archaeology+definition&oq=archaeology+d&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0j0i20i264k1j0l8.2888.3881.0.5059.4.4.0.0.0.0.83.311.4.4.0....0...1.1.64.psy-ab..0.4.307...0i10k1j0i67k1j0i131i20i264k1j0i131k1.0.4uBrsPNZd9Q

Monday, December 11, 2017

Love has Come




Love Has Come (John 13:34-35; 14:15-24)
Second Sunday of Advent: Love
December 10, 2017

            One of my favorite Christmas songs, popular about 35 years ago, was “Love has Come,” by Amy Grant.  Here are the lyrics from the second verse:
If I could have a special dream
Coming true on Christmas morn'
I would want the world to see
How his father smiled when Christ was born
The greatest gift the world has known!
So come on kids, look high and low
For all the toys you've dreamed to find
But I believe you'll never know
A greater joy than Jesus' love inside[i]

And then after the chorus begins, “Love has come, for the world to know.”  The song continues from there.
            As much I love that song, I never put to it the question I’ll ask right now.  Why did love need to come?  Wasn’t love already here?  Was love missing?  Hold onto that thought.  Was love missing?  Is that why God needed to come to earth and inhabit human skin?
            Now, hear the words of Jesus in John 13.  “I give you a new commandment.”  “New” is a favorite word of the New Testament.  In Christ we become new creations.  At the end of the last book, Revelation, God promises a New Heaven and a New Earth, which is actually this earth made new, joined with Heaven made new.  It sounds lovely, inviting, but why did Jesus feels the need to give a new commandment? And why was that the commandment he felt was necessary? “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
            We’ve got a love problem.  This lack of love prompted Jesus to give this specific command as a foundation in the new age that dawned with his coming.  His so called new command was actually an old command, dating back to Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  When asked, on numerous occasions, what is the greatest of God’s commands, Jesus always responded the same way.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  And, love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is the core of the Christian life.  We love God with everything that is in us, with our very selves, with the fullness of our lives.  This love we give to God is seen, made manifest, in the way we love our neighbors.  And neighbor, as defined in the Bible, is anyone we meet.
            Jesus felt the need to say that because he looked around and he didn’t see God-worshippers or anyone else doing that.  Amy Grant wrote and performed a song that declared Love had come with Jesus’ arrival because she was a Jesus-follower (and still is).  Her understanding of the world was such that she believed without Jesus, this love was missing. 
            We look around and see deep pain.  The way people thought about love in Jesus’ day did not alleviate the suffering caused by disease, colonization, dehumanization of people, and poverty.  Today, there is as much pain around us as in Jesus’ day.  We have 2000 years of technological advancement, developments in medicine, intellectual development, and developments in mobility and communication.  Yet, with all that’s been achieved, we look around and see as much pain as ever.  As many people hurt now as they ever have, and this is true in wealthy nations like the United States, just as it is in poorer countries. 
            Humanity has a condition no doctor can treat, no medicine can cure, and no technology can fix.  Each of us commits our individual sins.  Each one us in our own way is an agent of pain through our sinfulness.  That’s not all we are.  We are also each made in the image of God, each one very good, as it says in Genesis 1.  But because we have free will, we sin.  We willingly turn from God.  The condition of sin plagues humanity and all of creation. 
            There are many results of the sin condition.  The sin condition bears fruit.  One example is divorce.  A divorce is a death, the death of a relationship in which both participants originally vowed to stay together “until death parted them.”  Then those vows are discarded and the divorce happens.  And the insidiousness of sin leads our society to say it’s no big deal, not even a bad thing. 
Another condition is sexual confusion and sex scandals.  We treat sex casually, ignoring God’s boundaries, which are in place to keep sex healthy and beautiful and tied to a relationship of love.  The idea that one would keep himself or herself and wait for marriage is seen as quaint, childish, or old-fashioned.  Society giggles at the thought that one would actually submit to scripture as a guide for sexuality.  This is another result of the condition of sin.
Poverty is another result.  People living empty lives, void of meaning and utterly lacking in direction is another reality produced by our sinful condition.  We could keep listing things.  The human body gets a virus and symptoms break out: aches and pains, a rash, nausea, a runny nose.  The world has contracted sin as a sickness and broken relationships, toxic sexuality, violence, poverty, and emptiness are some of the symptoms, the results of our condition.
Our ideas about what love is aren’t helping.  Love as a feeling can’t be trusted.  I don’t mean to say that feelings are bad.  I love it when I feel love for my family.  There’s nothing better than being in love.  But, let me tell if you haven’t ever been married, there are days when you feel a lot of things other than love.  It doesn’t mean you bail out.  I hear of people getting divorced because they’re “not in love anymore.”  Love isn’t something you go into or come out of, it is something that’s in you.  It’s something you give, even when you don’t feel it.  Feelings are real, but they can’t be the only thing that drives us or even the first thing.
Love as a feeling doesn’t help with the pain that sin has imposed on the world.  Neither does love as romance.  I’m a big fan of sappy love songs.  I enjoy the way they make me feel, especially the ones from Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera.  But I know that romance, as fantastic as it can be, is fleeting.  Starry-eyed love does not heal the world’s pain.  Even the few people who are lucky to live the fairytale ending have to wake the next day and live that day under the condition of sin. 
God saw the world as it is and continues to see the world as it is.  God’s response was to take on flesh and walk among us.  God knew sin was too powerful and we could not overcome it.  So, in Jesus God came.  Here’s how Amy Grant thinks about in her Christmas song:
Love has come
For the world to know
As the wise men knew
Such a long time ago
And I believe that angels sang
That hope had begun
When the god of glory
Who is full of mercy
Yes, the god of glory
Sent his son

            Chris Tomlin, in his Christmas song “Noel,” sets this love God showed in Jesus in theological categories.  The opening lines are “Love incarnate, love divine.”  “Love divine,” is Godly love – love that human beings are incapable of producing.  We could work on developing our society for another 2000 years and we’d be no closer to divine love.  We have to depend on God for it, and we desperately need it to fully be what we were created to be – God’s image bearers.
            “Love incarnate” means this Godly love is here.  Incarnation is the idea of being completely and permanently present.  When Jesus is referred to as the incarnation of God, we are declaring that God walked among us as a human being.  Jesus was not God disguised as a human.  Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, Paul says in Philippians 2.  He never stopped being God, but he emptied himself to the point that he was fully human.  He was fully present.  To sing “Love incarnate, love divine” as Advent worship is to insist that Jesus is love and in Jesus, God’s love is fully with us.
            The love is seen in Jesus’ interactions with people like blind beggars, outcast tax collectors, poor gentiles, scandalized prostitutes, and uneducated peasant fishermen.  All were welcomed.   The love is in all of Jesus’ teaching.  And ultimately, it is expressed in his sacrificial death for us.  How do we live into this love?
            In John 14, he tells the disciples and tells us today, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (v.15).  The verb “keep” has several connotations.  In saying, “keep my commandments,” Jesus tells us to pay attention.  The commands are “love God” and “love neighbor.”  So, we have to pay attention to God’s constant presence, and to the needs of hurting people around us.  We live into the love that has come by being attentive to people and to God.
            A second connotation is “observe.”  We love God by worshiping Him.  Our observance happens in our participation with the church in the singing of worship songs, communal prayer, and communal engagement with the Word of God.  We live into the love that has come by living lives of worship.
            A third connotation of the word “keep,” as in “keep my commandments” is fulfill.  Jesus’ will is done, his word fulfilled, when we extend ourselves to help others.  To whom will you show special kindness?  What hurting person will be blessed because you decided to give of yourself?  When we sacrifice our time, our resources, and our hearts on behalf of others, then the world begins to experience divine love.  The shallow, fleeting expressions of love that don’t help the world’s pain are eclipsed by the God love that lives in us and pours out of us because we have turned to Christ. 
            Divine love is not a feeling or sentiment, but a choice and action.  We can only live in this divine love with God’s help and Jesus also knew this.  So, in the same speech, John 14:16, he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you the Advocate to be with you forever.”  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, God the Comforter, is with us, helping us see the love of God in real ways in our lives. 
            The world is in pain.  Maybe you know your own specific version of that pain.  Have no fear.  The Christmas story is that love has come in Jesus Christ.  We can know that love, live in that love, and draw other hurting people into that love of God.  It begins as we turn fully to Him.  Love has come.  Receive it by giving your heart to the Lord today.
AMEN  



[i] Songwriters: Amy Grant Gill / John Shane Keister / Michael Whitaker Smith
Love Has Come lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Capitol Christian Music Group

Monday, December 4, 2017

Hope for the Long Walk


Hope for the Long Walk (John 4:46-54)
First Sunday of Advent: Hope
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, December 3, 2017

Desire.  I wonder what this word brings to your mind.  Desire is something one absolutely must have, a “strong feeling of wanting something very badly.”[i]  Craving, longing, and yearning, are synonyms.  I am craving the sweets on the dessert table.  My grandfather died in 2006.  I am longing to play golf with him, or hear his lovable growl as he putters around the house.  I love my family, my work, my life, and yet deep inside, I find myself yearning for more. 
We meet a “royal official” in John 4:46.  The notes in the Oxford Annotated Bible say this was a Gentile military officer, a Roman stationed in Israel, in the city of Capernaum.  It sat right on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, but the official actually met Jesus in Cana which was as far from Capernaum as the Raleigh-Durham airport is from here, except in that time, you’d walk or go by mule.  He walked that 15 or so miles to meet Jesus because he desired something deeply.  His son was ill and the best doctors around were powerless to help.
Roman authorities for the most part looked on Jews with condescension.  They looked down on everyone that way.  They were the mighty Romans after all.  Yet he comes to Jesus begging.  We all come to that point in life.  We desire something and there’s no way we’ll get it.  So we beg God to deliver.  He didn’t know Jesus was God, but the talk of Jesus’ miracles had spread throughout Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, and other area towns.
The futility of desire led to desperation, maybe even despair.  This man of power was on his knees begging a carpenter turned itinerant teacher-preacher for a miracle.  He prostrated himself before a religious man of a religion he didn’t even follow.  What dreams do we have that become all-consuming desires that make us desperate to the point of despair? 
“I hope all is well with you.”  I write that in notes or emails I send to people I haven’t seen in a long time.  My desire, when I think about people I love, is that all would be well them.  I hope my friends and family can flourish in their careers and in their relationships.  This week, one of my best friends, Kevin died.  He was young – 39.  He had been married 1 month and 6 days.  He had been a senior pastor for about a year after many years in youth and college ministry.  He was just starting out. 
Last Sunday, he and his new wife Jackie posted pictures on Facebook of them going out to cut down their first Christmas tree as a couple.  They brought it home and decorated it.  Over the last month they’ve posted a flurry of wonderfully happy photos: wedding pictures, honeymoon photos, and pictures of them in the house together.  The Christmas tree pictures were posted Sunday night.  Monday morning, Kevin, a life-long weightlifter went to work out.  He collapsed.  How many years will it be before Jackie can enjoy hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree again?
Jesus and the desperate Roman official talk past each other.
“Please, miracle worker, heal my son.”
“Unless you see signs wonders you will not believe,” responds Jesus.
The man doesn’t care about believing!  Urgently he says, “Sir!  Come down before my little boy dies.”
When Jesus mentioned “signs and wonders,” I don’t think he was talking to the man.  His words came in response to the man’s plea, but I think he was actually talking to the crowd around them and to future generations who would live this story through reading John chapter 4. 
“Come down before my little boy dies.”
Finally Jesus looks at the man.  “Go.  Your son will live.”  And the man believed Jesus, turned around, and start the 15-mile trek back to Capernaum.  He had to stop for the night, then pick up the journey the next day.  Everyone in his household – wife, children, slaves, colleagues, neighbors – everyone knew why he took the trip to Cana.  Now, here comes a servant, smiling, weeping with joy, greeting him on his return. Breathless, he says, “Your son is alive and recovering from the illness.  He’s going to be well.”
“When did the healing begin?”
“Yesterday.  One in the afternoon;” the very hour Jesus told him his child would be fine. 
And John writes, “So he himself believed, along with his whole household.  Now this was the second sign Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee” (4:53).

Do we dare believe that hope is real?  Do we dare hold the hope that we sing about in Christmas songs and promise others when we tell them the good news found in the Christian faith?
When Jesus initially responds to the man, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he sounds annoyed.  It  is as if Jesus is fed up with people demanding proof.  Yet at the end of the story, the narrator tells us this the second sign and we know there will be more to come.  Jesus tolerated the need for signs because he could see how weak our faith is even as he could see how much we need faith.
He commented on the frailty of people’s belief.  Then the man made a decision.  Jesus told him the boy would be fine and he believed.  At least he believed in the sense that he turned around and walked back to Capernaum.  As he trudged those 15 miles, was he scared out of his mind?  Did he walk along desperately repeating, “God please let his words be true?   God please let his words be true.   God please let his words be true.”  This man moves from the desire for his son’s healing to desperation to decision.  He decides to do what Jesus says.  In that decision to walk back to Capernaum, John writes he, “believed.”  His belief came in a decision to obey Jesus and accept his word.
Then, the servant tells of the healing and the man realizes it happened right when Jesus said, “Your son will live.”  Again in verse 53, John writes that he believed, only this is different.  This is the belief of a man who has seen God act.  The first instance was the belief of a man who hoped God’s word could be trusted.  At the end of the story we see the belief of a man who knows he can count on God. 

I mentioned Kevin who died just a month after marrying Jackie.  She has to go on with life.  She’ll have more Christmas trees to decorate.  It may be years before she has the strength to do it.  Healing will take time, but long before she met Kevin, she made the same decision this Roman official made.  She learned the story of God-come-to-earth, the baby in the manger.  She worshiped in churches where she heard preaching about the death of Jesus on the cross for her sins and for the sins of the world.  She has worshipped the Risen Lord Jesus on Easter Sunday.  Just as the Roman decided to believe Jesus and to take that long walk back to Capernaum, not knowing, she long ago decided to believe Jesus is the Savior.  She put her trust and hope in him. 
Now she’s on the long walk.  Now, she discovers whether the decision to believe will be confirmed by the presence of God in her life.  This story of the boy healed in John chapter 4 is no help to her.  Nor is it a real help to you if you are going through a crisis or loss in your life.  The idea that Kevin is with Jesus now, or resting peacefully awaiting resurrection, which is assured, is of no help today.  Kevin will be resurrected.  Jackie will be.  I will be.  That doesn’t help today.  Today, she’s really, really sad. 
At times the long walk is that way.  It’s long and hard and sad.  The shadows are so deep, we can’t see the sunshine around the bend.  This is where we need to remember something very important about the hope we have in Christ.  Yes, in Jesus God redeems the world.  Our sins are forgiven.  With his victory on the cross and resurrection, our hope of eternity spent with God is guaranteed.  But, there is more. 
The resurrected Jesus departed bodily but left behind the Holy Spirit of God.  In addition to forgiveness and new life and the hope of eternal life, we are promised the Holy Spirit.  That’s God with us, all the time.  Jesus speaks explicitly about this in John chapter 14.  He calls the Holy Spirit the “Advocate,” which could also be translated “Helper,” or “Comforter.”  In upcoming days, Jackie is going to meet God the Comforter and God will stay by her on every step of the long walk.  I pray that she will have her moment, where, like the Roman official, she realizes Jesus spoke truth.  I pray for Jackie that as she steps out on the long walk, the Holy Spirit will help her feel God’s presence.  God was with Kevin right to the end just as Kevin is with God now.  And God is with Jackie now, when hope seems so far away.  I pray she will allow herself to feel hope, of life with God.
I pray this for you too.  One of our long-time members, Marion Charles, lost her son Roy.  He was 65 and died during heart surgery. Marion is many steps further along the long walk to Capernaum.  She knows sadness, but she has seen God work.  Over and over, she has experienced the hope to which she steps. 
Maybe you have as well.  When you sing of hope at Christmas, it is a hope you know. 
Maybe you’re where Jackie is and with each step, you have to force yourself to believe.  With each painful step you pray “God please let hope be real.   God please let hope be real.   God please let hope be real.”  I promise you, you’re not on the walk alone.  God’s church walks with you.  God’s Holy Comforter walks with you.
Maybe you have other struggles or other things on your mind as you walk through life with God.  The promise of hope is assured.  God can be trusted.  Make the decision to believe.  Then walk into that belief.  We all can because the hope of the Gospel is that God the Comforter has come and is with each of us, the Holy Spirit walking the long walk with us.  We do not walk alone, but with God, every step.
AMEN

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Persistently Seeking Hope in God






The Nutcracker music is playing as the day winds down.  It is 7:42PM on the first Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.  This morning in worship, we had our regular English congregation, many Spanish-speakers from Iglesia del Amor de Dios, Karen-speakers (the Karen come from a Burmese tribe), and many Chinese-speakers.  In our Chapel Hill, NC, these worshipers from all over the world came together in Jesus’ name.  There were at 130 of praising the Lord together.
Yesterday, in Arlington, VA, I was in a gathering of more than 500, and just as ethnically diverse.  My good friend Kevin, a pastor in Luray, VA, and someone I mentored 12 years ago when he was getting started, died this past week.  He has cardiac arrest while weight-lifting, collapsed, and died.  He was just 39.  The mood at our worship service this morning was joyful, festive, happy.  We had a big potluck after worship, with tables decorated for Christmas.  The mood yesterday at Kevin’s funeral was somber, heavy. So much sadness.  Kevin’s mother was disconsolate. 
Now, on whatever music loop that’s playing, it’s shifted from The Nutcracker to ‘Star of Wonder.’  It’s the typical background music of Christmastime.  Our house has lights on the outside.  Our tree is up.  Our decorations are around.  I sit and reflect upon conflicting moods: joy from this morning’s worship, and sorrow from yesterday.  The first Sunday of December is, along with Easter, the highpoint of the year at our church and this morning was no exception.  Yesterday, grieving my young friend and protégé, was one of the lowest lows I’ve had in a while.  There’s a weight to grief and it has settled on me even as feel the true of joy of Christ’s birth.
Facebook has given me perspective.  Memories popup on Facebook.  The memory to pop up just now was from 2012, when I posted my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent that year.  The theme was the same as this morning – our search for hope.  The path for that search was different then than today.  In 2012, I lamented the divisiveness of politics (Obama v. Romney), and the specter of terrorism that hangs over us.  In spite of the negative waves emitted by politics and violence, I promised our church that God is present and can be trusted. 
This morning, 2017, I took our church through Kevin’s story and his parents’ and young wife’s sorrow at his death, and I invited the worshippers to contemplate their own losses.  Just as in 2012, I promised that God is present.  God is with us and God’s promises can be trusted.  I stood before the congregation this morning and said that.  I did the same in 2012 and many, many other occasions throughout my 20+ years preaching the Gospel. 
Am I right?  Is God’s here?  Can God be trusted?  I think the answer is ‘yes.’  I am sure it is.  But tonight, I feel so tired.  It’s more than fatigue.  It’s not malaise, though it feels a bit like that.  What heaviness is wearying me?  Grief?  Probably.  The lights in the house shine softly, warmly.  Right now, my kitchen table feels like a peaceful place.  But my tiredness is not a peaceful feeling.  What is it? 
Yes, I am sure that God is present and God’s presence is a source of unfailing hope.  Yes, I am sure this is so.  I don’t feel it at the moment, but feelings can’t usually be trusted.  At least mine can’t.  Yes, I will go on, year after year, preaching that God is here and God can be trusted.  I say it because it is true. 
It is true. 

Right now, I’m just tired.  And that’s OK too.  I’m not necessarily OK.  But it is OK that I am not OK.  Because God is here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Advent Hope



With the start of Advent, December, 3, 2017, our church, like many, gives attention to the Lectionary texts and to the themes of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  The Lectionary is a series of prescribed readings that cover a three-year span.  Each week there is a Gospel, a Psalm, an additional Old Testament reading, and an additional New Testament reading.  There are several lectionaries.  I typically refer to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  Jesus brought each of these ideals to the world.  In him these words are realities that we live as we live our lives in Christ.  These came with his birth and in Advent we remember.  These come as we walk with Christ in our lives.  In Advent, we long for these things and anticipate. 
Us anticipating the story of Jesus’ birth  is not exactly like the way the creation anticipated his coming prior to when Joseph and Mary made their way to that stable.  We know the story.  But, it becomes new in our lives each year.  So Advent, for Christ followers, is really the start of rebirth as we once again reach for God even as God reaches to us in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
Additionally, we anticipate the Second Coming of Christ.  When Jesus returns, as it is promised he will (Acts 1:11b), then we will see these value, these dreams – hope, love, joy and peace – in ways we have never seen them.  The qualities will be fulfilled as all things will be.  Thus our Advent is remembering and living into life in Christ and anticipating the fullness to come with his return.
The first week is hope. One of the reading is 1 Corinthians 1:3-9.  Verse 8 says, “God will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This verse and the longing for hope and the assurance of hope has hit me in a most unwelcome way this week.  One of my dearest friends, Rev. Kevin Ly, died suddenly while doing a morning weightlifting routine.
Kevin was a high school senior when I began as a pastor.  I was 27.  I stayed at that church long enough to see him go through school and he became our youth minister.  He was the first person I mentored in ministry.  We were linked at the heart – linked because we both heard God’s call so clearly.  Over the years, I have encouraged certain people in churches I’ve served to consider ministry.  It rarely leads to them becoming pastors.  I never had to encourage Kevin.  He was called, driven to serve the Lord.  I just had to give him opportunities, to stay out of his way, and to help if he needed it. 
Earlier this year, he got his first senior pastorate.  Then, October 21, 2017, he married his beloved Jackie. I don’t understand his death, just one month and six days after his wedding.  It doesn’t make any sense.  For my own sadness, I have needed that promised Advent hope – that Jesus fulfills everything.  I have needed the 1 Corinthians promise, “that God will strengthen you.”  I don’t feel strong.  I cannot imagine how Jackie feels and how Kevin’s parents and siblings and church members feel. 
For Kevin, I trust that 1 Corinthians Advent Hope promise.  In Christ, he will meet God blameless.  When Kevin sees God face to face, all of Kevin’s sins will be gone, covered and removed by Christ.  God will, smiling, look at Kevin and see Christ’s righteousness.  I am steadfast in my confidence of this hope for Kevin.  It doesn’t reduce my sadness.  But it does mean sadness is not the only thing I have.  There is sadness.  There is also joy.  Yes, it is possible to hold both at once.
Do you have troubles, losses, pain that you carry as Christmas approaches?  Let the Advent hope extend beyond Sunday morning to your heart and your mind and your life.  If you have sadness, it’s OK to sit in it.  In fact, that’s the right thing to do.  I don’t ask why because I don’t think there’s a good answer.  I don’t console myself with platitudes such as “Now Kevin is singing with the angels.”  I’m sad.  But, in my sadness, I have turned my eyes upon Jesus.  His hope washes over me.  His Holy Spirit sits with me in my sadness as long as I need him to be there. 

Are you sad or hurt or lost?  There is hope – real hope for you today.  It began with the child in the manger, grew through his life and teachings, and spread worldwide with the coming of his Holy Spirit and the growth of his church.  It grows as you grow in relationship with God’s Holy Spirit.  Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  He will strengthen you now and make you blameless when you meet God on the day of his return.


Monday, November 27, 2017

The Fortified Church (Ephesians 6:10-20)







Sunday, November 26, 2017

            I hope your Thanksgiving included time spent with family, laughter, and good food.  But, I am under no illusion.  I know that some spent Thanksgiving away from family.  The holiday can magnify loneliness.  I’ll bet some spent time with family, but it wasn’t so happy.  The forced togetherness of the holiday has the potential to amplify already existing tensions.  If the family argument gets too heated, the happiest time of Thanksgiving is when you get to leave.  The pain we feel is one more thing the devil uses to tempt us to turn away from God.
            I really do hope your Thanksgiving was full of joy and full of life.  I do, though, ask you to have a sympathetic heart.  If you are basking in a happy Thanksgiving afterglow, I pray that, somehow, God will show you how to share those good feelings, that happiness and that love that you have.  There might be someone sitting near you who is as miserable as you are happy.  We share one another’s pain.  I pray that we can also share one another’s joy. 
We’ve referred to Ephesians 4:2 the last two weeks and it is appropriate for us look there once again.  As people called together in the household of God, called by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ, we “bear with one another in love.”  Or as Paul says it in Galatians 6:2, we “bear one another’s burdens.”  The pain some of us carry can bring all of us down a little bit.  But what if, instead, the joy others have lifts everyone’s spirits? 
Paul has something to say about it – those times when we are gathered with family and it’s a rehashing of fights that have gone on for years.  Paul sees that young adult who longs for his parents’ approval only to have it made abundantly clear how disappointed they are.  Paul understands that persons who is alone, whose only relationships are failed ones.  “Our struggle,” he writes, “is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (6:12). 
Few of us envision our family Thanksgiving table as the battlefield where God’s angels and Hell’s demons collide in combat, but that is one of the places this fight happens.  That’s how the teaching in Ephesians ties together.  Chapter 4 – bear with each other in love.  Our passage from last week, 5:21, “Submit to one another for fear of Christ.”  And today, chapter 6, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the [treachery] of the devil” (v.10, 11b).
Last fall, during the election and in the aftermath, we witnessed American politics divide people in God’s church.  The various issues in our country – the immigration & refugee crisis, violence suffered repeatedly by African-Americans, marriage equity, and what may be the most damaging but least addressed, the growing divide between a few rich people and a burgeoning working poor class – these issues have set people against each other.  As Christians in the United States, we are in the midst of all these struggles and they affect us. 
Your family’s Thanksgiving table is one battlefield where demons and angels fight.  The political and contemporary culture scene is another.  The challenges that come before us a church, and in the last 12-15 months there have been many, is another arena in which God does combat with evil. 
Ephesians describes preparation for battle.  How do we play our part?  We bear with one another in Christ.  We live in reverent “fear” of Christ; this fear leads us to love our Lord with all our hearts and to receive the grace, love and mercy he has for us.  Bear with each other.  Fear and love the Lord.  And then we see what’s here in 6:10 – “Be strong in the Lord.”
 I’ve titled the message “The Fortified Church.” We read this that we are “strong in the strength of [the Lord’s] power.”  We “stand against the devil’s wiles.”  We are to “put on the armor of God.”  It sound militant until we go deeper in the passage and see what is meant by this military metaphor.  How do we participate in this fight?
Look at the words: truth, righteousness, proclamation (or the telling of), faith, salvation, Spirit, word of God.  Those don’t sound like fighting words to me.  And they shouldn’t.  Remember Jesus on the cross – that’s where Satan was finally defeated.  The spiritual battles all over the world today – in North Korea, in Syria, in the United Nations, in the Whitehouse, in our church, at your kitchen table – those spiritual battles are the last vestiges of a war that was won at Calvary when Jesus took on himself the death sin brings.  The skirmishes around the world now are Satan’s last gasps. 
To us, it feels like war.  In the heat of the moment when temptations reaches for us, drawing us to lash out in rage, or give in to ungodly lusts & carnal desires, or minimize the place of God in our lives, or become blind to generosity and love, blinded by greed; when these and other temptations visit us, the battle is real and so intense, we are overwhelmed.  From our perspective, the lure to live apart from God and to follow after our cravings is almost insatiable.  And so, Paul casts it as such, by way of military imagery. The armor of God is a belt keeping us girded and breast plate protecting us.  It is shoes in which we are ready to run and fight, and it is a shield with which we deflect flaming arrows.  It is a helmet and a sword.  Yes, this feels like war. 
However look again at the equipment.  Too many Christians have become enamored with the war-mentality to the point that this idea of spiritual warfare itself is distorted into an idol that distracts us to the point that we are defeated before we even start to live the life Christ has for us.  This is because all this equipment is not actually intended to help us win a fight but rather to help us live a life as God’s children and God’s witnesses in a dying world.
Look again at the equipment.  The belt is a belt of truth.  Do you know the Gospel truth?  I reject the idea that truth is relative. What’s true of God is true for all people.  So if we are to live in the household of God and be his witnesses and enjoy the abundant life Jesus promised, we need to know the truth.  Our knowledge of truth begins with love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Growing from that base we mature in our knowledge of truth throughout our lives.  This is living, not fighting. 
The breastplate is righteousness; right-living, right-thinking, right-speaking, and most importantly loving rightly.  We can’t be righteous on our own.  We’re sinners.  Jesus’ death on the cross did not just defeat sin.  In his act, he also gave and continues to give his righteousness to us.  If we want to be in the right, we stay connected to Jesus.  This happens through worship, through prayer and Bible reading, and mostly through keeping our thoughts on him in every part of our lives.
The shoes are shoes of readiness.  We are to be ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.  Right in the middle of his military metaphor Paul reminds us our fight is actually to help people come to peace – peace with God through forgiveness of sins.  No one is actually our enemy.  The enemy is sin, Satan, and death.  Satan’s great deception is to convince us that other people are our enemies.  There are people with whom we have animosity.  But we are called to love them and to pray for the people who persecute us. 
The shied is faith and the helmet is salvation.  Both are gifts given by God.  The sword, the most attack-oriented of the armor Paul describes, is the “sword of the Spirit,” which verse 17 says is the word of God.  Many Christians have taken this passage as a license to bash people over the head in condemnation, using Bible passages to judge others.  Such an approach to scripture is gross proof-texting and irresponsible abuse of God’s word.  Using the Bible to wear people down is wrong.  Judging and condemning are God’s jobs, not ours.  When we share the word we must be gentle about it.  Our witness to scripture must be given in love.  Note that when Paul mentions the sword, he speaks of the Spirit before the word.  Our relationship with God’s word, the Bible, has to be guided by and forever tied to our relationship with the Holy Spirit. 

Yes, demons and the devil are real.  Yes, they have some power – the power to tempt us and use our own temptations to draw us away from God.  Yes, a spiritual battle is happening in the world and we see it in the bad news that comes across our TV and Computer screens, and in the struggles in our church and in our own personal lives.  Yes, Paul speaks in military metaphor to describe this battle.

For us to play our part, we remember the ideas described in the word-pictures: truth, righteousness, the sharing of the Gospel of peace, faith, salvation, Spirit, word of God.  In these words we see that the Fortified Church is one where people will be welcomed.  The fortified church keeps its eyes on Christ and so will not fall when temptations come or controversies threaten the unity within. In the fortified church, people are safe to come as they and lay themselves before God.  They stand as new creations, a people in Christ. 
I pray that these past 9 weeks we’ve spent in Ephesians, learning what it means for us to be the household of God has been fruitful.  I pray that we have come to see that the church matters because the world is falling part.  Sin has run rampant, but we are here to love people and help them come to new life in Christ.  Hospitality, grace, and the willingness to bear with each other are the values and our relationship with God in Christ is the foundation. 
Next week, Advent begins. In our worship services, we will focus on the traditional Advent themes – Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. We will read the familiar Christmastime stories from Luke’s gospel in worship, but the sermons will take an Advent look at a Gospel not usually read this time of year: the Gospel of John. 
We are now in the throes of the holiday season.  May our church be the household of God, a place of rest, joy, and equipping to each of you, and we pray that the Lord will lead unsaved persons into our community so we can love them and introduce them to Christ.

AMEN

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fully Submitted to Christ (Ephesians 5:21)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

            Imagine a trek through jungles, across a river, in all weather.  You walk for days, thirsty, bug-bitten as you deal with snakes and wild animals.  By the time you arrive, you’ve used up your supplies.  Still you make that final climb up the mountain in order to sit at the feet of the shaman.  He’s older than time.  That’s why you seek his wisdom.  Yet before you can open your mouth, he speaks as if he knew you were coming.  He asks, “What is the theme of your life?  Why do you exist?”
            Maybe that doesn’t work for you.  You couldn’t, in a million years, imagine yourself on some kind of adventurer’s journey.  You don’t hike and you don’t “rought it,” and you have no plans to do so.  But, you can see yourself in a coffee shop with a friend you’ve known a long time. A good friend. The trust between you runs deep.  On this occasion the conversation has exhausted the usual topics – gossip about friends you have in common, complaint about how commercialized the holidays are, and delight at the pumpkin spiced latte.  Why don’t they serve that all year?  At the lag in the conversation, your friend asks, “What’s it all about?”
            She’s asking the same question put by the aged wise man.  What is theme of our lives?  Why do we exist? What’s it all about?  Hint.  The answer is not to save for a comfortable retirement.  That’s something we do, but that is not the purpose of life.  The answer is not watch football. That’s something some of us do.  It is not why we are here.  So, why are we here?  What is it all about?  In Ephesians, we find one path to the answer.
            Issues abound Ephesians chapter 5.  “Do not get drunk with wine.”  This is not an anti-alcohol sermon message.  What we see here relates to drinking only because the heart of the matter relates to every part of our lives.
“Wives, be subject to your husbands.”  I see red-hot anger on the faces of advocates of equality in marriage and smug satisfaction on those who promote complimentary roles in marriage.  This is not about marriage.  This word from Ephesians informs our marriages because the central idea sees Jesus at the center of all our relationships. 
The central idea comes in verse 21.  “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  The Greek actually says, “[we are] submitting to each other in fear of Christ.”  In my previous study of this verse I saw emphasis on “submitting to one another.”  All of Ephesians is related to mutual submission within the church, but that’s not the first and primary lesson.  Mutual submission comes after “fear of Christ.”  The answer to all the hypothetical questions I posed at the outset is found in this idea.[i]
We have to read the passage and listen to God’s word very carefully.  I think that is what the NRSV editors had in mind when they rendered the Greek word ‘fobw’ as ‘reverence.’  Fear is a negative emotion.  In the dark, we fear sounds that creak in the house in the dead of night.  We fear financial ruin, we have fears when we have to have surgery, and we fear heights and enclosed spaces.  Phobias, from the Greek word ‘fobw,' used in this passage’ are categories of fears.
Fear has been used to oppress people in churches.  The fear of judgment and God’s displeasure has been used been by heavy-handed church leaders to beat people down. It’s the attitude of superiority Jesus condemned when he confronted priests and Pharisees.  We approach Ephesians 5:21 cautiously.  Speaking of “fear of Christ,” we don’t want to awaken the fears that break people spiritually and drive them out of the church. 
In the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, [ii] the entry for fobw shows the term to be part of a family of words.  The description of this family of words is over two pages long.  The way the term is used in Ephesians 5:21, it specifically means reverence or respect.  That’s a bit more inviting than fear, as in being scared of someone.  We’re happy to revere Jesus Christ.  We’re eager to show how much we respect Christ.  We love him.  He doesn’t strikes terror into our hearts.
However, we don’t want to neuter this term.  The deference and esteem we give to Jesus exceeds any respect we would extend to a general in the army or the president or the pope.  We might hold a special kind of respect for human beings in elevated stations of life, but it is nothing like the reverence we offer Jesus.  The force that defines who we are is the light in which we see Jesus Christ.  He is Lord and everything in life is done based on who we understand Jesus to be and how we see ourselves in light of who He is. 
To say we fear the Lord, in the sense of Ephesians 5:21, is to say we can’t imagine any life decision, situation, or relationship apart from full obedience to the way of Jesus.  We are fully submitted to Him.   The use of the Greek word fobw in Acts 9:31 is helpful. 
Paul had just turned from persecuting Christians to joining them.  Barnabas joined forces with him, convincing the churches to trust him – congregations who feared his past evils against the church.   With Paul now in the fold and Barnabas at his side, the church experienced tremendous growth.  Many people began trusting in Jesus.  And Acts 9:31 says, “Throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria [the church] had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it increased in numbers.”  ‘Fear of the Lord,’ that is, life fully submitted to the way of Jesus, was coupled with peace, comfort, and growth.  Normally, we don’t associate fear with peace and comfort.  It is the opposite of those things. 
That’s why the phrase ‘fear of the Lord’ is different.  At the center of the Christian reality we see “fear of the Lord” as the only way to live.  Have you suffered soul-crushing abuse at the hands of judgmental Christians?  Come and discover the merciful welcome of Jesus in a community fully submitted to Him.  Together we discover and rediscover life lived fully in fear of Christ.  It’s a life of love and grace. 
The fear of the Lord is why we live and act the way we do.  Once we have established that life is fully submitted to Jesus, then we move to what in most English translations is the first stanza of Ephesians 5:21.  “Be subject to one another.”  Why do we subject ourselves before each other?  Because we fear Christ.  We revere our Lord and want to walk in His way and thus, we submit to each other. 
The Greek verb is upotassomenoi, and like fobw, we derive a variety of English ideas from this word.  In Ephesians 5 it means the voluntary yielding to each other out of love.  Why we do what we do?  Out of reverence for Christ.  What is it that we do?  We submit to each other as an expression of love.  We are reminded, in chapter 2, verse 19, that we are all together in the household of God.  Once we have submitted to Christ, we do not have the luxury of simply ignoring one another.  We belong to each other and are accountable to one another.  Beyond technicalities of membership in a local congregation, this is about membership in the body of Christ.  We are connected to other believers.
In Ephesians 4:2, Paul emphasizes humility, gentleness, and bearing with one another.  There is no option for indifference.  Too often in our cultural context Christianity is treated as one religious option among many and Christians approach church as their own individual preference.  If you are following Christ, the church you belong to should be the one he leads you to join.  I have had times in the life of our church where people in our church family simply refused to talk with me about a difference between us. As Americans that’s our right.  We can engage with people or ignore them at our leisure.  But we do not exist in this space or anywhere as Americans.  We are a people fully submitted to Christ.  We submit to one another.
That doesn’t mean when I call to talk with you that you are obligated to do whatever I say or vice versa.  I am not beholden to you nor you to me.  In love we voluntarily submit to one another because Jesus is Lord and he tells us to live this way.
In Ephesians Paul extends this out telling wives to submit to their husbands, husbands to love their wives, children to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters.  Paul’s effort is to bring the call to voluntary submission in love to the places of real life in first century Ephesus.  He’s not writing primarily about marriage or households so much as he is locating the call to mutual submission in the context of home life because Jesus is Lord there. 
This passage cannot be used as grounds for affirming slavery or affirming a husband’s dominance over his wife and children.  Slavery was an accepted first century institution.  Paul subverted it by declaring that in the church, everyone was to submit to everyone else.  He commended deferential behavior, but he also broke the law himself when the way of Christ demanded that he do so.  This letter was written from prison.  In his letter to the slaveholder Philemon, he tells the man that now, the slave Onesimus was a brother in Christ.  Philemon, out of fear of Christ, would need to submit to Onesimus even as the other submitted to him.  Wives and husbands, parents and children submit to each other. 
For us to live out the words of scripture we ask, what does it look like when, because of our reverence for Christ, we live in mutual submission in the places of our lives?  It looks many different ways depending on the situation, but we know this.  We have unity instead of strife because our reverence for Christ takes priority over individual rights and preferences.  We eagerly seek ways to meet the needs of all who come.  We love each other and this love is seen in the way we extend grace to one another. 
This passage challenges our church to understand who we will be in a world swirling with both change and tension.  Public mass shootings have us on edge.  How can we prepare for something unpredictable?  Divisive political rhetoric has us feeling combative.  We’re always ready to establish our position and then defend it in verbal combat.  The nature of gender and sexuality has created generational divides.  We don’t know how to talk to each other anymore.  In these and many other controversial topics, the church and individual Christians are pushed to extremes, unable to unite with one another in love.  How do we move forward as a faithful witness to the Salvation we have in Christ?  How do show people outside of God what life in the Kingdom is like?  The answer is not found in how we deal with any individual crisis or debate.  As soon as we find our ground in one issue, another, one we don’t understand, will arise.  The answer comes in who we are in Christ.
We are a people fully submitted to Jesus as Lord.  We fear the thought of life apart from him, and we fear Him in a way that exalts him all the while knowing he extends us love, grace, and life.  Because we are fully submitted to Him, we live in gracious submission to one another.  That defines as we face the questions of our day and try to help people come to know Jesus. Whatever arises to confront the church, we face as a people in Christ.  That’s our top value.  We are His, a people whose identity is found in Him.  Who we are in Him determines what we do, how we do it, and what it means.
AMEN



[i] I am indebted to Marcus Barth and his commentary in the Anchor Bible volume on Ephesians 4-6.  He helped me understand the centrality of ‘fear of Christ,’ as the starting point in Christian life.
[ii]Bauer, Walter and F. Wilbur Gingrich (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (1979), University of Chicago Press (Chicago), p.862-864.