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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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Porch Sitting and Coffee Sipping (Ephesians 3:7-13)

What do we learn about God when we come into the church?

            According to Ephesians 2:19, we are members of the household God – we being “the church.” 
            This summer, I visited a guy.[i]  His house is old, mildewed, run-down.  Junk is piled everywhere.  Stacks of seemingly uses papers and old clothes lay about.  What can I learn about the man by what I saw in his household?
            He sits on his front porch.  He had invited me to do some porch-sitting with him.  So we sat.  As we talked, people would walk by; people who are having a hard time in life.  He lives in that part of the city where drugs are easy to get, but work, not so much.  There’s an abundance of heartache and a shortage of love.
He knew just about all who passed by, and they certainly know him.  Many would stop, and he’d say, “What do you need?”  He would give a bag groceries.  I don’t know who donated all the food, but he never ran out.  On the table on his front porch were clean, neatly folded used clothes.  He’d pass those out too, as people had need. 
            This is not all he does.  Sometimes he preaches at the church where he’s an associate pastor.  That’s how I met him.  Sometimes, he goes to prayer meetings with other pastors.  Sometimes he does advocacy work for the underprivileged in Durham. And sometimes, he sits on his porch.
            What can we learn about the man when we look at his household?  That he needs to clean up and maybe paint the walls?  Or, that he is ready to meet people in their need with compassion, kindness, prayer, and groceries if they are hungry and clothes if they need them? 
I visited another household – one in the part of the city with spacious green lawns and two-car garages[ii].  People don’t walk by these houses, they drive up to them.  This couple, near 80, has known me for 40 years. 
They invited me into their neatly decorated home.  For over an hour, we sat at their kitchen table, drank coffee, and talked about share memories.  We discussed life in the church and race in America.  At lunch time, they had prepared a table on their beautifully furnished, shaded back patio.  After a sandwich and some coleslaw, she said, “Rob, you haven’t had enough to eat,” as she refilled my empty plate. 
By the time I departed, I was full of food, and even more full of love from people who have loved me for as far back as I can remember.  And wisdom.  Gently, they poured the wisdom of their years into me. 
What can I learn about these people from their household?  That they have worked hard and enjoy the privilege of good education and good salaries and cultural refinement?  Or, that they love me and out of their household flows welcome and generosity?
Both my hosts showed me that God is welcoming – welcomes all.  They showed me God is generous.  They showed me God is ready to sit on the porch with me and listen.  They showed me God has a place at the table set for me.  And after each visit, I left with my cup full, God’s grace flowing out of me.  On Sunday morning, do people leave our church full, with God’s abundant love pour over?

Verse 10 caught me as I read Ephesians 3 this week.  Through the church, the wisdom of God will be made know to rulers and authorities in Heavenly places.  Are we ready for that?  Angelic beings, heavenly creatures we cannot imagine, supernatural forces both evil and benevolent, ask God, who are you?  What are you?  What wisdom will you share?  God responds, all you need to know of me you can know by looking to earth, to the realm of humans.  Look to my church if you want to know anything about me.  Whoa!
My family visited several churches this summer[iii].  We met some wonderful people.  But I don’t know if I would call the church (church worldwide) exalted based on what we saw.  One church didn’t really welcome us.  They were very nice, but they barely noticed we were there.  Another was so polished in their welcome, so refined in their method, it felt kind of like they wanted to sell us something.  Each church had its strengths and weaknesses.  That’s true of us too.  There are things HillSong does well.  And areas where we need improvement. 
However, we would miss the mark if we thought we had to strive for that improvement in order to be the church described in Ephesians 3:10.  The church does not make God’s wisdom known to the heavenly powers.  God does it working through His church, imperfect as it is. 
The great reformation theologian John Calvin says, “Truth is not extinguished [from] the world, but remains safe because it has the church as its faithful custodian.”[iv]  We have custody of the Word of God; we are responsible to share the Gospel and to do it in an inviting, loving way. 
Our sins separate us from God, but Jesus took our sins and the end to which our sins lead, death, on himself.  On the cross, Jesus shouldered it all.  Removing our sin and replacing it with righteousness, Jesus makes us right with God and each other.  And then in resurrection, Jesus defeated the last enemy – death.  So, as we come to life in Christ, we step into the Kingdom, into eternal life as sons and daughters of God.  This is the Gospel.  Paul calls himself a servant of this Gospel (3:7).  We, God’s church, have custody of this word and must care for it according to God’s design.  
Bible scholar Marcus Barth says it another way, calling the church a functional outpost of the Kingdom.  The world yearns to be rescued from the decay of sin and delivered to live in the Kingdom of God.  As Barth thinks about the church as the place where the wisdom of God is revealed, he imagines an outpost.  In the church, we’re not in the Kingdom fully, not yet.  But, we are connected and we point the way. 
Eighteenth century evangelist and founder of the Methodist Church John Wesley reads Ephesians 3:10 and writes that the church is “the theater of divine wisdom.”  The church is where divine wisdom performs.  It is where God’s ways are displayed and it is where we are affected by God. 
The church is …
·         a faithful custodian – caring for how the good news of life in Christ is shared
·         an outpost – pointing the way so people can escape the clutches of pain and loss and find their way into God’s arms
·         the theater in which God touches all who come with love and grace
·         the front porch where we sit together and pray and listen and welcome all who come buy
·         the kitchen table where we talk over cups of coffee

Pay attention because in these pictures, we don’t come to church to see what we can get.  We just come as we are, no pretensions, and we receive what God gives.   In receiving, with God doing the giving, we become the medium in which the wisdom of God is made known. 
We come wounded and broken.  God restores and heals. 
We come sad.  God sits with us in our sadness long enough for us to see that we are not alone, but rather are part of a family who loves us.  Sometimes the way we see God sitting with us is in others in the church, our friends, putting their arms around us.  No answers.  No solutions.  Just presence and love. 
We come confused.  God says, that’s OK.  Follow Jesus, even when confused.  Does the confusion clear up?  Sometimes?  Yes.  Eventually.  Always?  Not necessarily.  Some mysteries of God remain as mysteries.  But keep worshiping God, keep following Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will work through us. 
We come with our questions, our doubts, and our fears.  God says, yes, come.  And God loves us, through the love of the church family.

What does the world learn about God when the world looks into our church and we are living as a people in a dynamic relationship with God in which we give up all control and authority to God?
One lesson about God is seen in examining ourselves.  We have been created to be receivers, not achievers.  America celebrate achievers.  Look at what he accomplished.  We put those who have accomplished a lot on pedestals.  But God made us to be in relationship with God.  We are designed to receive what God has to give.  We probably have trouble with this because for centuries, we’ve been condition to work for what we have, to earn it, so we can tell ourselves we deserve it.  In the way of the Gospel, life, the love of God expressed through the cross and the resurrection, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, can only be received. 
Oh, we work hard.  We work hard to turn the other cheek, to respond to hurts with forgiveness, to know the word, to tune out temptations, to bless others with our generosity.  We work hard, but our efforts flow out of our gratitude for the grace we’ve been given.  We work knowing everything we have has already been given to us before we did a thing.  That’s the wisdom of God revealed through the church.
A second lesson is we are created for a home, not created for the marketplace.  The marketplace is not bad.  Buying and selling is a part of human interaction.  There are examples of smart business people who became devoted followers of Jesus while continuing to be smart in the game of commerce.  Jesus commended shrewdness.[v]  Yet, we were not made for business.  We were made for home and family.
In America and in other parts of the world, church has become big business.  Churches compete for one another to draw people.  In that climate, worship attendees become customers who must be attracted and then satisfied.  Church members see themselves as stakeholders or board members.  The church staff are viewed as employees.  And the senior pastor is a CEO. 
The New Testament presents an entirely different metaphor for church.  In the New Testament, church members called one another ‘brother,’ and ‘sister.’  Paul described himself as Timothy’s father in the faith.[vi]  Ephesians 1:5 says we are all adopted as children of God.  If we are unsatisfied with our family, we don’t shop around until we find a happier one.  We stick with one another through painful, hard times.  We come alongside each other, brothers and sisters in Christ, and together we pray for healing, forgiveness, and new life.  We laugh and cry and sing and dance together.  The church is a household, not one option among many in a spiritual marketplace.[vii]
What does the world learn about God when the world looks into the church?
Life is received from God, not achieved.  Our effort comes as response to God’s grace.  God is a giver.
Church is a family of believers who make up a household, not a Sunday morning option that serves to make the attendees happy.   Church goers who are in Christ have joy in all circumstances and are equipped to walk through darkness and pain because they lean on Christ.  Churches do not bend over backward to give people what they want; rather, they meet the needs people bring with the love of Christ – love expressed relationally, emotionally, and tangibly.  God has a place for you. 

I began with my experiences – porch sitting with one brother in Christ; kitchen-table-coffee drinking with two others.  This week, the wisdom of God is going to be made known in the world through this church.  Don’t be surprised.  God does this every week.  You may have been a part of it.  God may reveal divine mysteries through you this week. 
Ground yourself in Christ – bound to the Gospel by God’s grace.
Do some porch-sitting.  Sit with someone and listen deeply, ready to welcome any who come, and pray for all.
Do some kitchen-table coffee sipping.  As you do, with gratitude, receive the grace of God others will pour into you.  Don’t keep your brothers and sisters in Christ at arm’s length.  Let them pour love into your heart – let someone love you to overflowing. 
The wisdom of God won’t only be revealed through us, but also to us. 

[i] My visit to Alan Jones of Mosaic Church in Durham, August 2017.
[ii] My visit to Sandy and Emerson Shelton in Richmond, VA, August 2017
[iii] The period of my Sabbatical, May-September 2017.
[iv] Institutes, Book IV, chapter 8.12.
[v] Luke 16:1-13
[vi] 1 Timothy 1:2.
[vii] Peter T. Cha and Greg J. Yee (2012).  Honoring the Generations, M.Sydney Park, Soong-Chan Rah, and Al Tizon, editors.  Judson Press (Valley Forge, PA), p.94.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Once Far off ... Brought Near by the Blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13)

Sunday, October 5, 2017

            Two Satursdays ago, I took a shovel to a weed patch.  Hiding under that invasive overgrowth is good dirt, ripe for a garden.  But the green blanket of nuisance is covering it, so I took to digging.  Forty-five minutes later, good dirt smiled through and said to me, “Fill me with your seeds.  Flowers.  Vegetables.  Greens.  Let beautiful and delicious things grow here.”  I dragged three cans full of weeds to the curb for pick-up, went in the house, cleaned up, and began folding the mountain of clean laundry that needed to be put away.
            The weeding wasn’t done.  I was just done weeding.  I picked it back up yesterday. I got more done but still wasn’t finished.  Again, I went inside to fold Laundry with college football on in the background.  Fold the laundry.  Put it away.  Rinse.  Repeat. It’s a lot of work to maintain a home.  It’s good work.  A blessing.  But still, a lot of work.

            “We are no longer strangers and aliens,” Ephesians 2:19.  We are no longer cut off from God or the people of God.  The verse continues, “We are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  I mentioned three weeks ago that we would talk about HillSong as “the household of God.”  Our aim is to maintain this household so that all who come feel welcomed and feel at home here. 
            However, after setting that goal, I did a message about grace.  And then last week’s message was about how the Christian view of reality is more hopeful than any other.  In essence, that too is a message about grace.  Why so much emphasis on grace when the end in mind is to build up the household of God? I think people are scared of God; scared of what it will mean for them to be too close to God. 

            The question for reflection in your bulletin is “what, specifically, makes it hard for you to draw near to God?”  It’s unhelpful to be generic with this question. 
What make it hard to draw near to God? I ask.  Sin, you say.
That neuters the question.  You say, well sin is what cuts people off from God, so the answer must be sin.  It’s logical.
Yes, I respond, but which sin
Drinking to excess? 
Abusing power? 
Living in paralyzed fear when God calls us to bold faith? 
Living in affluence surrounded by need when God calls us to extravagant generosity? 
By saying “sin is what prevents anyone from coming close to God,” we avoid naming our individual, specific sins that prevent us from drawing near to God.  Church goers love condemning sin in general and especially love damning sins that don’t tempt them.  We don’t like it so much when talk of sin turns to our sins and thus to confession.  We have to confess things we have done, sins we have committed that hurt people and serve to separate us from a relationship of closeness and trust with God. 
Verse 13 says, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  I have seen people sit in the sanctuary as far back as possible during worship.  If we moved the back wall 15 further back, they’d be grateful.  Because up front is where the communion table is; up front is where the baptismal pool sits.  The big cross high up on the wall is up front.  That’s too close to God.  That’s terrifying. 
Why is it hard to draw near to God?  Before we can begin doing our part to maintain the household God has constructed in Christ at work in the hearts of people, before we can live as God has invited us to live, we have accept God’s invitation to come close.    That means we have to be honest with ourselves and about ourselves.  We’re sinners.
Twelve step programs get this right.  Hi, my name is Rob, and I am an alcoholic, or, I am an addict.  Stark honesty is essential.  What would church be like if every week, we began by going person by person, beginning our worship in raw confession.  Hi my name is Rob and I am sinner.  I am saved by grace, but though the Holy Spirit of God lives in me, still this week, I have sinned against God and against people.  How different would church be if instead of worrying about our “Sunday best” we live in confessional honesty?  We cannot draw near to God unless we do that.  If we do that God draws us into a bear hug of forgiveness and love.  Verse 13 says, “We’re brought near by the blood of Christ.”  That blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.  Sins are covered and forgiveness received as we confess, as we come to God with our full selves, as we are.
What comes between us and drawing close to God?  Fear of standing before the Holy One exposed in our sin. 
Another question that must be faced as we prepare to join our hearts with one another and live in the house God built as the household of God is this.  What new thing is God doing?
            Hear the language in Ephesians 2.  “At one time you … were called the uncircumcision.”  “Remember that at that time you were without Christ … having no hope and without God in the world.”  The view from Ephesians is that to be without God is to be without hope.  Those addressed were without hope.
            However, that changed.  “Remember at that time” yields to the language of verse 13.  “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  Something happened.  Something changed.
            This change occurs at two levels in Ephesians.  First, the individual is cut off from God by sin, but through Jesus’ work on the cross, the death sin brings is shouldered by Jesus.  So the individual is saved from death, saved for life.  Salvation! 
We saw this in Greg’s life.  He came to know himself as a new person, forgiven by God.  His baptism gives witness.  His baptism is public, a statement made before the entire church.  He is lowered under the water, dead in sin and buried.  But we don’t leave him under the water.  He is raised just as Jesus rose from death in resurrection.  Greg is raised to new life.  It’s the story of everyone who comes to God in confession and repentance.  Each person’s journey is unique, but we are united in our baptism.  What is god doing?  God is saving individuals.
            What else is God doing?  Reconciliation!  We are united in baptism.  Whatever may have previously divided groups of people is removed.  Race.  Ethnicity.  Social class.  Place of birth.  Country of citizenship.  It doesn’t matter what divides us because that division has been removed. 
            What is God doing? 
·         Saving individuals from death. 
·         Eliminating the divisions that come between groups of people. 
·         Building a house – a gathering of people into a family, the household of God. 

In Ephesians, the specific division is between Jews who follow Jesus and Gentiles who follow Jesus.  Ephesians existed as theological writing in the late first century when the church was a couple of generations old.  This is Jewish-Gentile tension had several decades to evolve into an ongoing institutional sickness that weakened the entire church.  One of the main reasons Ephesians was important as a letter is the profound statement of 2:15-16.  It says God [created] “in himself one new humanity in place of two, [reconciling] both groups to God in one body through the cross.”  This action put to death hostility. 
            Why is it hard to draw near to God?  Because of the specific sins you and I commit.
            What is God doing?  Saving people from sin and death, bring together groups who were hostile to each other.

            A third question: what hostility among us is bring broken down?
            Possibilities include the tension between white people who live privileged in society and non-white people who have to contend in society with privileged persons; also, the tension between people who deny there is such a thing as white privilege and those who insist it is an evil that plagues our culture; also, the tension between conservatives and liberals.  These and many tensions would divide us, but they cannot when we live in Christ because, he, “Puts to death the hostility” (v.16).
            Practically speaking, what does this mean?  It means your stand is not that important and cannot be what defines your relationships. 
Where do I stand on gun control? 
Where do I stand on birth control? 
Where do I stand on immigration? 
Where do I stand on tax reform? 
Where do I stand on big government v. small government?
Where do I stand on race relations?
            If, as I went through these questions, you thought of where you stand on each issue, you’re missing the point.  The first thing and the last thing is am standing in Christ?  Am I one forgiven, full of the spirit, ready to love, ready to forgiven, and ready to welcome my brother or sister, even the one who is opposite of me on all these issues?  Am I so grounded in Christ, I won’t run to Facebook to list all my stances in confrontational way that puts people with opposite views down because I know doing so will bring pain to my brother or sister?  I might post my ideas, but not in a way that demonizes people with other ideas.
            Facebook can be an arena of dialogue.  And it is OK to have opinions and hold them passionately.  But for the sake of who we are in Christ and for the sake of being a household that welcomes in people, all kinds of people, will I make it a spiritual discipline to show restraint in my language, in my use of social media, and in my expression of my passionately held views?  I will make sure that whatever I say is said in language colored by love and fragranced by Christ. 
            If you know that I love you no matter what your views are or who you voted for and if I know you love me no matter what my views are or who I voted for, then we can talk, laugh, shout, and cry together in our agreement and our disagreement because we are united in Christ.  If I trust you to be sensitive and not use language that hurts me and to apologize when you have hurt me, and if you trust me to be sensitive and not use language that hurts you and to apologize when I have hurt you, then we talk.  About anything.  The hostility has been broken down.  We are ready to work together to maintain the household of God.
            Jesus accomplishes a lot on the cross, more than we often acknowledge.  We know about the individual’s experience of grace.  Salvation is a work of the cross.  But so too is the work of reconciliation.  Groups welcoming each other – groups previously hostile to each other – is as important to God as the experience of individuals.  Salvation and reconciliation are both important.

            And so, we pray. 
In prayer, think about the group in society today that is the object of your hostility.  You don’t like liberals.  You don’t like people who post of Facebook.  You don’t like supporters of our current president.  You don’t like supporters of our previous president.  Think about the object of your hostility.
            Now confess sins hostility has led you to commit. 
Maybe you will need to go to someone and confess how you have thought hurtful thoughts about them or done hurtful things to them. 
If someone comes to you confessing, give them the grace you want God to give you.  Let this be a time where our hearts are wide open before God.  As church family, may we together pray, asking God to rain down grace, forgiveness, and healing.  We also want God to do some wall-busting.  O God destroy the hostilities that arise and divide us. 
In upcoming weeks, we’ll go deeper in Ephesians as we examine how we live as the household of God. 
This morning we pray for an in-breaking of the Holy Spirit.  May the Lord draw us together – to one another.  May the Lord provoke us to full-bodies, raw, honest confession.  And in that confession, may we accept God’s invitation to come close to Him.