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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.


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.

[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.

Monday, November 13, 2017

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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

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

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

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