Light in a Dark World

John’s Gospel Sermon Series: John 8.12-30

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have light of life.’” – John 8.12 NIV

Mother’s Day has always been a difficult experience for me. I remember my first church mother’s day celebration which consisted of pink carnations being handed out only to mothers but not all the women. I cried. You see, I was struggling with infertility at the time. And, the next seven Mother’s Days would create a huge grief experience for me until finally my husband declared, “Enough!” So we quit attending church the second Sunday of May. For those of us who have lost children or struggled to conceive, days like Mother’s Day can be difficult. For those of us who have not had the support from our biological mothers, we may struggle to find an expression for our grief. For those of us who have a mother who experiences depression and mental illness we may grieve the loss of her companionship. 

Even now my grief from years of infertility weighs on me every May when Mother’s Day comes around. I began calling Mother’s Day a secular Hallmark Holiday until I discover that it originated with the Methodist Church. So what is the biblical basis for Mother’s Day apart from our gift-giving and luncheons? God commanded that mothers and fathers be honored by their children. Moses wrote on the stone tablets the Ten Commandments and one of those commands is, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20.12).

Paul reiterates the command in his letter to the Ephesians, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—“so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6.1-4).

Paul reminds us that we can exasperate our children when we fail to bring them up in the training and instruction of God. Matthew teaches us that the way to a holy life is narrow. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7.13-14).

We as parents are called by God to inspire our children by living an exemplary life and never neglecting to correct our own faults in accordance with God’s word. As parents we are called to be responsible for the spiritual growth of our biological children. However, Paul lives out his responsibilities as a “spiritual parent” to his church pointing out that God becomes our Father and we are his children. Paul’s role was to parent the church. 

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Baal? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 6.14-7.1).

Families are the backbone of society. As mothers and fathers we are given the task of raising children to live a life of holiness. That can be a daunting task if we do not know how we are to parent. When I look across the audience here today, I am reminded that some here are children, young adults, married with kids, divorced with children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents… Yet, we are all called to walk in holiness of heart and life for the sake of our families. 

John offers us a message of hope. We have a model to live by that guides us and shows us the way to being good parents. John describes Jesus as the Light of the World. John’s message for us guides us to become conscious of our responsibilities to live according to the Light of the World and not live in darkness. John points the way to our personal understanding of light and darkness. This is a major theme in his writing. John inspires us to live an exemplary life in the light of God, and not neglect to correct our understanding of darkness. John parents us in our understanding of who God is and how we should live.

We know John as the one whom Jesus appointed to take care of his mother. There must have been something very special about John for Jesus to have designated him as his mother’s caregiver. We know John was very young at the time of Jesus death, perhaps one of the youngest disciples. He was passionate so much so that he was nicknamed the Son of Thunder along with his brother. We may know him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John’s character gives us pause today as a young man who was exemplary. 

John offers us an illustration of what was important to him in his relationship with Jesus. Of all the ways he could have written his biography about Jesus, he chose to write in analogies and stories. He has given us simple instructions that transcend time. He tells us that Jesus is the Light of the World. As a parent this illustration has great meaning in how I raise my children. When we think about raising up our children, our first obligation to them is to give them a moral compass, a plumb-line of right and wrong. John’s analogy may be the easiest way of nurturing children in understanding the Gospel. God is light and in him there is no darkness. 

Even as we grow old, we must maintain our moral compass. Even as our children leave us to live on their own, we must maintain our moral compass. Even when we are great-grandparents, we must maintain our moral compass. The moral compass in life never changes. Even though the culture around us changes, God’s word never changes. We are to live in his Light. 

Across the pages of the bible, prophets are constantly bringing the people back to the plumb line of righteousness rather than right according to their contemporary worldview. The Prophet Isaiah inspires us to grasp God’s word as a testimony of warning, “Bind up this testimony of warning and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples. …Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8.16, 20). Later in his writings Isaiah points out, “…those who with a word make someone out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice” (Isaiah 29.21). In the very  beginning of time and space God created light and then separated light from the darkness. Light becomes a plumb line.

When we became a Christian, God provided you and I with a reset button for your whole thinking process. John opens our hearts and minds to understanding this revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Light of the World. The testimony of Jesus lives inside of us. When we push the reset button on our thinking process, God is viewed as the supreme moral authority for our decision-making. We become hungry to discovery the will of God through revelation, the opening of our mind to become renewed like Christ. The first step in resetting our thinking process is to show up and pay attention to our worldview. How do you understand Christ’s involvement in your life? 

Is Christ of culture, where people can be naturally good, and thus do not necessarily need salvation? Is Christ against culture, affirming only the activities in the church and secluding themselves from the general community? Is Christ and culture in paradox, a tension between the moral righteousness of Christ and the world we live, unable to be reconciled? Is Christ above culture, affirming a God that is separate from our everyday life experiences? Or is Christ transforming culture, restoring his creation by individuals, society, and structures? 

In Christ of culture, everyone has some light in them. Everyone has the ability to be good from the light within themselves. Light comes from the inside out, from humanity’s own inner goodness. Everything has the ability to be light, and everything has the ability to be dark. It is individual choice to keep light going.  

In Christ against culture, the church holds the light. Christians should take care to keep within the circle of light and not in the darkness. Anyone who gets too far into the darkness is at risk of being snatched away. Dark, if given the chance, can be a more powerful force than good. It is the church that keeps the light going.

In Christ and culture in paradox, the light and the darkness cannot mix. Light does not go into the darkness, because the darkness will overwhelm it. But darkness does not go into the light, for the same reason. Light and darkness stand in constant tension against each other, pushing like opposing magnets. Light keeps going from its own power, just as the darkness does. 

In Christ above culture, the church is a layer of light equal against the layer of darkness. Individuals in the church are called to carry the light into the darkness and return to the light every so often. Some individuals live only in the light, to better equip those who go into the darkness. The light keeps going from the power of God working through his agents of light. 

In Christ transforming culture, the light is slowly overwhelming the darkness. Light overpowers darkness by its very nature. When it touches a pocket of darkness, the darkness slowly but surely becomes light. The light is continually moving and finding new places to take root. Wesleyan theology understands God best as the transformer who seeks out people to become Spirit-filled people who then share the Good New so Jesus Christ with the world. We are Great Commission people.

Light removes darkness. Light shines in the darkness of our mind, will and emotions to transform us. Light takes every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10.3-5) and removes the curse of the fall (Genesis 1-3). Light calls to live by a moral compass, a plumb line as the prophet Amos would say.

For us to understand the plumb line, we must mark the space between light and darkness. Paul teaches us to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.3-5). That means we have to understand what is in our thoughts that is not holiness. Neil Anderson offers insight in his book Victory Over the Darkness.

We need to rid ourselves of rebellion, rejection, guilt, shame, helplessness, legalism, witchcraft, false identity, perfectionism, fear, worthlessness, anxiety, materialism, murder, self-destruction, lying, anger, lost knowledge of God, spiritual death, jealousy, manipulation, fear of people, dominant emotions, unclear choices, broken sexuality & body image, deception, depression, temptation, independence from God, broken family relationships, flesh or sin, fallen nature, alienation, bullying, peer pressure, blaming, rationalization, denial, fantasy, individualism, lone ranger, loner, displaced, retreat, and self-deception.

In the place of these dark perspectives, Paul teaches us to receive the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2.16). Neil Anderson in his book The Bondage Breaker lists who we are in Christ Jesus. Anderson does a wonderful job outlining the our identity in Christ:

I am the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a child of God, grafted into the vine, a friend of Christ. I am chosen, and appointed, I bear good fruit, a slave of righteousness, enslaved to God. I am a son of God. God is my spiritual father, I am a joint heir with Christ and I share in his inheritance. My body is a temple, a place where God dwells. I am united to Christ, I am a member of his body, I’m a new creation, an ambassador of reconciliation. I am a saint. I am God’ workmanship, a fellow citizen, a prisoner of Christ, a citizen of heaven, I am hidden with Christ, righteous and holy. I am chosen of God, holy and dearly loved. I am a son of the light and not of darkness. I have a heavenly calling. I share the life of Christ. I’m God’s living stone. I am a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s possession. I am an alien and a stranger, an enemy to the devil. The devil can’t touch me. I am not the Great I AM, but I choose to live in his likeness. I have been forgiven. Christ died for me. He has broken the power of sin over my life. I am no longer condemned. I am filled with the spirit of God. I have been given the mind of Christ. I belong to God. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I have been crucified with Christ. I am blessed with spiritual blessings. I was chosen before the foundation of the world. I was predestined to be adopted as God’s child. I am redeemed and forgiven. I have received his grace. I’m alive with Christ. I am raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. I have access to God and I may approached the throne with boldness. I have been rescued from the dominion of Satan and transferred into the kingdom of Christ. My debt has been cancelled. I am rooted and built in Christ. I have been spiritually circumcised and my nature renewed. I am complete. I have been buried, raised, and made alive. I am hidden with Christ. Christ is my life. I have been given a sound mind and a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. I have been saved and set apart. I am sanctified. God is not ashamed of me. I come boldly before the throne to find mercy and grace. I have received the promises of God.

As biological and spiritual mothers we all have a responsibility to be a light in this dark world for the sake of children and the next generation. I imagine a world that is filled with women loving children and guiding them with the holiness of heart and life that Jesus modeled for us and that the bible teaches. Join me in praying for women all around the world to choose to be righteous. 

Almighty God, set the plumb line in our hearts once again that we might live according to your word. May we be filled with the mind of Christ that our beliefs and actions would be in one accord with the will of God. Amen. 

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Bread and Water 

” I am the Bread of Life…” John 6.35

One of the first things professors teach you in seminary when you are preparing your sermon is that you are to go directly to the source. My professors have warned me not to go to the commentaries or other sources to figure out what God’s Word has to say. But isn’t it easy to pick up someone else’s devotion like the Upper Room, rather than read the Word ourselves, then call that enough? 

Let’s be honest. It can be intimidating to sit down and read God’s Word. Can you think of how many excuses you have used over the years not to sit down and study God’s Word, directly? It’s too hard to comprehend, and I need someone else to do it for me.  I get all the bible I need on Sunday morning. I don’t have time to work through the text for myself. I can’t believe that preacher wants to me to spend my time on reading God’s Word cause I already know everything I need to know about salvation and Jesus. I could go on… I’ve had days were I have said the same thing.

I remember the first time I picked up the bible to read it for myself. I was 10-years-old. I started in Genesis, and of course, I had questions. I went promptly to the one I knew had all the answers, my dad. And, he promptly took the bible and told me that it could only be interpreted by a religious leader. It was too hard for normal people to read and understand. I would guess that is how many people feel about God’s Word, and why we might have trophy bibles on our shelves and never pick one up. The bibles simply sit around and collect dust. If the truth be told, that’s how I grew up…with dusty bibles. 

As a family we attended church faithfully. Each week we heard the readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles. I knew a lot of the bible stories by the time I graduated from college, but that’s when God convinced me to read the bible for myself. The first writing I read was the Acts of the Apostles, but the only bible we had was Doug’s confirmation bible and it was in the King James Version. I hadn’t grown up listening to that version of the bible, and so it was too difficult to understand. I complained, Lord, I want to know what the bible says but I just can’t read this. The Lord lead me to my first experience of a Christian bookstore where I purchased my first New International Version. For the first time I could read God’s Word, and it took my breath away.

From time to time I fall back into the old pattern of feeling inadequate in interpreting the bible. Even with all my wonderful training and resources I find myself intimidated with reading God’s Word. We are studying John’s Gospel as a church family, I trust you are still reading your two chapters a week to make it through the four Gospels this year with me. What you don’t know is that John’s writings – his gospel, three letters, and revelation – have always overwhelmed me. His knowledge of Jesus is so intimate that when I read it I am challenged! 

As a young adult, there were times when I have put my bible away for several days at a time because I would feel overwhelmed with the intimacy required of me. You see, God requires of us not just head knowledge about the bible but it is through the bible that he longs to be in a deeper relationship with us. In many ways the bible is like a marriage. If we avoid the reading of God’s Word, the end result is a bad marriage. If we read other devotionals instead of God’s Word directly, it’s like having a friend who lives with you and your spouse all the time and you never have any time for yourselves. That certainly would wreck your intimacy with one another, and would lead to an affair. To be sure the bible is one of the ways we have to access God that leads us to grow in our fellowship with the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Over last several weeks I have read John’s writings over and over. Sometimes in complete pieces and other times cherry picking different concepts. What do I mean by cherry picking the text? Well, simply put it means that I am picking what I think the Word may say. For instance, I’ve looked at all the questions and answers in John’s writings. One example is the question that comes from Nicodemus’ night visit with Jesus, “How are these things possible” (John 3.9)? Many of us know this story as the “born-again” illustration, but did you know that this is the story that contains the most quoted Scripture from the bible, “For God so loved the world…” I bet you can finish it with me, “…that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16). The Word of God is a provision of spiritual food for us to partake. It is a banquet of Heavenly Bread that satisfies our spiritual hunger and Living Waters that quenches the parchedness of our spiritual journey. In the Hebrew texts is a similar word that means cling called “debak.” “Debak is translated as the “clinging” like the tongue to the roof of the mouth. When we are not intentionally growing in our walk with God, our spirit becomes parched as if we have been wandering around in the desert. The challenge is for us to wake ourselves up to this reality in our souls. We do get spiritually hungry and thirsty for God, and his Word is the place we find our food because it points us to a deeper walk with Jesus. It’s like reading the manual for a good and lasting marriage. 

Testimony: Identity and Authority.

Testimony is the evidence of things unseen. We believe in God who is unseen but was made manifest in human form through the Incarnation and Virgin Birth. These are extraordinary beliefs especially for those who have not grown up in the faith. They have not heard the stories repeated year after year. They do not have parents and spiritual leaders in their lives who have shared these stories. So it stands to reason that people today need testimonies more than ever. They need stories of how people encountered God in a life changing way. They need the evidence of the unseen real in our lives. Simply stated, pulling yourself up by your boot-straps mentality can only get you so far. People need to know that God is bigger than their circumstances. They need concrete stories, miracles, interventions beyond human-possibilities. In John’s Gospel Jesus was always asked for signs and wonders to prove himself. But most of the people who asked for these signs and wonders are already convinced that God doesn’t exist. The testimonies we share willingly point people who are open to God so that they might grow in an awareness of this unseen reality. 

One of the central concepts of John’s Gospel is the testimony or witness. John’s Gospel reports testimony after testimony to support that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus will testify on his own behalf by being with the disciples after his Resurrection. Testimony is not a necessary acknowledgement of Jesus’ authority and identity. We don’t have to believe Jesus’ authority and identity for it to be real and true. However, in God’s infinite wisdom we have stories about God’s amazing grace and favor as well as his mercy and forgiveness that strengthen us. When we read John’s Gospel, there is a string of recurring words to emphasize the use of “testimony” and “witness.” The Greek root word “martur” occurs 47 times in this Gospel. It means to witness or to testify. The verb “maturein” and “marturia” occur more 33 times. To be sure John’s Gospel might be best understood in light of experiential witnessing! 

So we might as “why witnessing” or “what kind of testimony is important” or “what’s the purpose of testimony.” Jesus’ identity was closely associated with Jesus’ personal testimony. A.E. Harvey suggests that the testimony of Jesus was a valid one in his writing entitled Jesus on Trial, “A single testifier was enough in the case of the defendant, but the prosecution was required to have two or more witnesses” (5758). 

Testimonies serve as a story that points to the person and nature of the character of God. The stories are about God’s identity as the Messiah, the Christ, as well as God’s authority in and through God’s Only Son. When we share stories about God they always point to God’s unseen reality that we call the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. When we speak of Jesus, we refer to his humanity and his divinity. We point to his place in the Godhead. The Spirit of God who lives in us testifies about Jesus. We hold within ourselves the full assurance of Jesus’ testimony in the presence and work of the Spirit of Jesus. Every experience of Jesus’ humanity is present in the indwelling Holy Spirit. If you have ever wondered why the doctrine of the Trinity is truly essential to Christianity, it is found here in John’s Gospel. Paul confirms this understanding of the Spirit as Testifier of Jesus, The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8.16). 

We have blessed assurance in and through the witness of the Spirit of Jesus that dwells within us. The Scriptures in and of themselves are the Letter of the Law but the Spirit of God who dwells in us is the way to Eternal Life without which we could not enter Heaven’s Gate. Scripture points to the revelation that God has sent his Son, Jesus. The Spirit always points us to Jesus, but if we fail to accept the indwelling presence of God thence we are not marked with the testimony of Jesus which is the certificate of authenticity for all card carrying Christians. The Scriptures serve as a testimony to God’s presence and God’s Kingdom that are made available to us through Jesus. Jesus is the way to heaven. According to John’s Gospel, we are required to have the legal documentation of the testimony of Jesus within us as the paperwork that secures our heavenly court case and the answer to avoiding judgment. We are no longer guilty of sin because we have someone who testifies on our behalf – Jesus.  

I Am the Bread of Life and Living Water.

In John’s Gospel there are numerous descriptions of Jesus. One is the Bread of Life and Living Water. Bread and water are the food and drink that sustains life. Jesus points to something deeper than the feeding of a hungry belly or quenching a thirsty pallet. Jesus wants us to dine on him. He wants us to look beyond our fleshly hunger to the spiritual hunger we possess. The only thing that will satisfy our sinful soul is the testimony of Jesus within us. We are starving for God’s mercy and grace to come and satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst. The deposit of God’s Holy Spirit, the witness of Jesus, is the satisfying disposition that our hearts desire. We are designed to be satisfied with Jesus. He is our bread and water that sustains our soul.   

Deeper Meaning: Knowing God Intimately.

John never apologizes for his theology or the long-winded details he uses to define who God is according to Jesus. Truly, he spends his time writing defining statements and stories about the identity and authority of Jesus. It is his favorite way of helping his audience believe in God’s Son. He tells us in the last verses that his writings are for the sole purpose of helping us believe (John 21.45-25). So if we are to eat the Bread of Life and drink the Living Water then perhaps the most methodical way of partaking of this meal that John offers is to review chapter by chapter. In many ways John’s descriptions of Jesus is quite mysterious in nature but this mystery provides intrigue for those of us who are God chasers, who seek God with unrelenting devotion. Let’s begin the journey through John’s Gospel. 

Jesus is the Word Incarnate. He is the word spoken from the beginning of time. He is the life breath of all creation. He is the Light that shines to reveal darkness and the true light that reveals false reality. His Light was unrecognizable to many. He is the family member that was disregarded. He is one of us, a human being. He is Grace, Truth, and the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. The One Moses wrote about in the Law and the prophets. Miracle worker. Fulfillment of Moses’ writings, and Master of the Law. He is the seen reality of the unseen Kingdom of God. He is the Worthy One, the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the World who takes away our sins of the earth. He is greater than all the prophets before him including John the Baptist. The prophet who sees us. A visionary. He is the One revealed by the Spirit who came down from Heaven. He is the place of rest for the Spirit. God’s Son. King of Israel. Teacher of Righteousness. Messiah. Christ. Jesus. I Am. 

He is the Nazarene, and the son of Mary. Miracle maker. New wine. Temple cleaner. Coin scatterer. Parable speaker and storyteller. Eternal Life. God’s One Son. The Light that came into the world. Truth. Baptizer. Traveler. Groom of the holy wedding and marriage of the Lamb. One that comes from Heaven and the beloved of the Father. Disciple-Maker. Jewish man. God’s gift of living water. Thirst quencher. Well-spring of clarity. Equalizer of the human race. Worker of the will of God. Festival celebrater. Investigator in women’s issues and defender of women. Healer of the royal official’s son. Household converter. Sin confronter. Life-long illness addresser and mat picker-upper. The cure for sickness and disease. The remedy for blindness and muteness. The restoration of the lame and the paralyzed. Avoider of conflict entanglement. Physician who brings the dead back to life. Voice of the Savior. Just. Testifies to the Truth. Greater Witness that anyone else in history. Worker of signs and wonders. Teacher of illustrations. Obedient to the Father’s directions and will. The One who comes in the Father’s name, on his behalf, and honors him completely. The Only God. New Testament. 

Commands the seating of 5000 people and feeds them a meal. Bread and fish multiplier. Thirst quencher. Bread provider. Bread from Heaven that holds and gives eternal life. Agent that gives new life and eternal food. Belief encourager. Obedient Son, and God’s Holy One. One who calls the dead to rise. Water-walker, mountain-climber, and boat-rider. Wanted man. Secret Messiah. Astonishing teacher. Lord of the Sabbath, Sabbath breaker and Sabbath miracle worker. Hidden One. Jewish man of Davidic ancestry from David’s village of Bethlehem. Galilean from Nazareth and Capernaum. Man of prayer. Freedom. Glorious One. The one who makes the blind see. Healer of the eyes of the blind. Lord.

Shepherd of the sheep. Guard of the Gate. Gate of the sheep. Good Shepherd. The One Shepherd who gives up his life for the sheep. The voice of the Shepherd. Giver of Eternal Life. One with the Father. The One made Holy. One sent into the world. God’s Son. The Father’s worker. The Anointed One. The beloved friend. The One who comforts the bereaved. The Resurrection and the Life. The One whom we believe who turns our mourning into dancing and our weeping into joy. One who weeps with his friends, and travels to the graveside to find solace with his loved ones. Remover of the stone. The One whom the Father hears and the voice that wakens the dead. The One we worship who removes the stains of our sins and stands by our side in conflict. He is the aroma of heaven, the Anointed One. Lover of his people. Servant. Footwasher. Friend. 

The One who fights our battles. The One we serve that deserves a banquet and dinner party in his honor. The One people seek out to kill. The One worthy of spending all our hard earned cash on. The One whom we embarrass ourselves in extravagant worship. Great crowds follow him, and the whole world even goes after him. He is the Father’s spokesperson. Glorified One. Sent One. Light of our lives. Chosen One. Betrayed. Abandoned. The One we lean on to discover the truth. The One we trust. The One who knows our weaknesses and our soon to be failures. He is the preparer of the way. Keeper of the rooms in heaven. The Way, the Truth and the Life. The Father’s Son is the spitting image of this daddy. Lover of his Father. Blessed Assurance. Answer to our requests. One who sends the Companion. Orphan rescuer. Revealer. Peace-giver. Fear-taker. One who makes us happy and glad. Path revealer. True vine, fruit bearer, and vine-dresser for the disciples. He is the One whom we remain in for life and health. Giver of good things. Willing to die for his friends. Hated by the world. Master of his servants. Harassed One. Revealer of sin. Hated by sinners. Eye Opener and Eye Popper. Powerful in Name. Fills us with joy. Overcomer. Encourager. Deliver. Authority. Giver of Eternal Life. Opens our minds to the One True God and his Son Jesus Christ. One whom the disciples believe. Powerful Person of Prayer. Giver of the Word. Protector from the evil one. Separator from the world, the Holy One who makes others holy. Testimony giver, and unifier of the people of God. Name revealer.

The voice that causes people to stumble and fall. One who welcomes the will of the Father. Submits to the mistreatment from corrupt leadership in authority. Testifies on his own behalf. King of the Jews. Crucified One. Declares his death complete. Risen from the dead. The One whom the angels guard. Revealer of himself. No closed or locked doors can’t stop him from entering. Spirit breather, sending one, and commissioner of forgiveness for sins. One who addresses doubt with the facts. Sign giver and wonder maker. Jesus Christ. Lord and God. God’s Only Son. He is the one we believe who gives life in the power of his name. He is the beachcomber, fish finder, fire maker, and fish and bread preparer. The blessing giver. The One who instructs and restores the fallen disciples to feed lambs, take care of and feed sheep. He is the One we follow. 

Jesus is the testimony of the unseen reality whom we believe and follow. We are called to live our lives as he has modeled it for us. He is the bread we hunger for and the living waters we crave. We share in the bread and cup where ordinary elements become extraordinary food and drink that sustains our spiritual needs. This meal is not something we choose, but Christ Jesus has chosen this meal for us as a real provision to sustain our spirits. It is a meal that seems bland, tasteless, light and fluffy, empty calories, carbs and energy.

Elevation Worship has a song entitled Come to the Altar. The words are this, “Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling. Have you come to the end of yourself? Do you thirst for a drink from the well? Jesus is calling. O come to the altar. The Father’s arms are open wide. Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

What about you?

You’ve heard me quote Joyce Meyer as she illustrates our selfish behavior, “What about me?”  I want to turn that around and say, “What about you?” Are you up for the lifelong challenge of being a Christian who lives your life with the real testimony of Jesus in your heart?  Or are you settling for someone else’s version of the real Jesus? Come to the Altar. The Father’s arms are opened wide.

Father God, we choose to lay down our weapons, and open our hearts to the Father’s love poured out in Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Relentless Pursuit

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father–in–law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. – Exodus 3.1-6

Last week we were with the disciples around the campfire. Kick off your shoes, folks, for today we are heading to the desert to discover another fire… a fire in a bush that wasn’t a fire at all. In fact we discover that the fire is not just a messenger from God, but God himself. Now we know that God being God could have chosen any way to catch Moses’ attention but he chooses a burning bush. Do you ever wonder sometimes how many peculiar things must happen to us before we will show up and pay attention to God. God will go to great lengths to get our attention – even a burning bush! What has been the most unusual way that God got your attention?

There are four key points in the text. First, the burning bush is God’s attention getter. God will go to great lengths to capture the attention of the one he loves. Second, stopping what we are doing is a requirement so we can hear God and be redirected. Entering into dialogue with God requires that we let go of the work we are doing and take time to come aside to hear God’s voice. Third, we have to take our shoes off. When Moses takes his shoes off, all his escape routes were cancelled. There was no more running from God. However, just because we stop running doesn’t mean we’re done negotiating with God. Fourth, if you can’t beat God, perhaps you can twist his arm! Moses wades through 7 different excuses to try to get out of his calling. Excuse #1: What about me? Who am I? Excuse #2: Who are you, God? Excuse #3: What about them? They aren’t going to believe. Excuse #4: I’m not qualified. I am unskilled. Excuse #5: Get somebody else. The last two excuses are inferred from the dialogue between Moses and Jethro and Moses and God. Excuse #6: They are probably already dead. Excuse #7: They’ll kill me. Suffice it to say none of these excuse worked with God. The funny thing is there are two more excuses that we often use but were not even considered by Moses – his old age and his family. They were not even legitimate excuses! Notice how God continued to relentlessly pursue Moses for the sake of his people. Let’s dig a little deeper into the text.

When Moses draws near to the one thing that captured his attention, God speaks. God invites Moses to stop and take off his shoes. When we enter into God’s presence we must slow down and enter with great humility. Moses even covers his face in fear. When was the last time you entered into the presence of the Lord by slowing down and surrendering your personal power. Moses has taken off his shoes and his mode of escaping God’s conversation has just been relinquished. Moses answers the voice of God by simply stating, “Here I am.” And, God responds by addressing Moses. God desires to have a little talk with Moses. And, boy oh boy! Moses had a lot of roadblocks at the ready.

One of my favorite childhood cartoons was a Warner Brother’s character named Daffy duck. Daffy played in a skit as Robin Hood and he would take his stick and defend himself, but he always ended up with a bent beak – ho, ha, guard, turn, parry, dodge, spin, ha, thrust. He always got smacked in the mouth with the very weapon he was using to defend himself. Moses was having a day like that. Every excuse he was making was met with God redesigning his plan. God made every effort to ensure Moses success, and he wouldn’t even consider letting Moses off the hook. “The Hound of Heaven” was pursuing Moses like a pack of sweet puppies ready to pounce on any young toddler and lick them silly. Moses said, “Here I am.” And, basically God said, Let’s talk because I have a problem I want you to address.

But Moses was full of excuses and the dialogue is a lot like one of my favorite Abbot and Castello routines “Who’s on first?” Moses first excuse is the old Joyce Meyer routine that we talked about last week with Peter, what about me? Moses informs God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3.11). Moses struggled with his identity. He didn’t feel qualified. He thought God had chosen the wrong leader. God reminded Moses that he was with them. God says, I am with you and it doesn’t matter who you are (3.12). Moses expresses his unworthliness to be a leader. But God provides blessed assurance. God doesn’t waiver in his determination that Moses is his chosen instrument. God displays utter patience with Moses. God wants to be in relationship. He desires to share of himself with his children. He reveals himself by divulging his name, which is his very nature. God does not coerce us but waits and remains passively peaceful in patience. Sometimes we get so full of ourselves that God can’t do a thing with us. We are more concerned with our personal needs, rather than God’s call on our lives to serve.

The second excuse is familiar to us as well, “Who are you?” We really like to question the voice of God and pretend it really wasn’t God voice at all. It makes you want to whistle and go right along with your own business. Moses inquires, when they ask me, “‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3.13). Moses was definitely looking for a loop-hole. Moses didn’t know God well enough, yet. He wasn’t yet able to articulate his belief about God because he lacked intimacy with God up to this point. God desires for Moses to know him, I am with you… I am ever present… I am everything you need… I am who I am. Moses had only a glimmer of understanding from his encounter, but by the time that his life ends Moses will know God in a way that only a few of us will ever experience. God is the revealer of himself, and provides the comfort that Moses needed to accept his strange relationship with God that was formed out of an encounter with a burning bush and a voice from heaven. God says, I will be whom I will be. God simply expresses to Moses – that He exists. God exists. He is a real person. Sometimes we think we know God better than we truly do. We think of God as old what’s his name.

The third excuse Moses offers sounds a whole lot like Peter’s response when he was called last week, But what about them? Moses inquired of God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?”(Exodus 4.1). Moses was fearful of how the people would respond and react. He wasn’t sure what they would say or what they would do. Moses was intimidated not by God, but by the people whom God created in his image. Moses isn’t sure if God would have his back. But God assures Moses that before he is finished with the people, they will listen. when God speaks, he means business. There are many powerful hierarchies that we live within – family structures, church organizations, and political influence. But all must bow low before the Maker of Heaven and Earth. God is not threatening to reveal himself – he is promising to reveal himself. Moses believes himself to be incompetent for the task of convincing the people of what God wants. Yet, God remains faithful to Himself. God will provide signs and wonders for the people to see. Sometimes we mishandle power and influence. When we lead others, are we spending time listening to God’s directions first?

The fourth excuse Moses is disqualifying himself by saying to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4.10). I can just hear Moses’ proud as a peacock smile thinking to himself, I’ve got you on this one, Lord. You can just imagine Moses jaw dropping when even a stuttering tongue wasn’t going to disqualify Moses from the job. God will speak through Moses, even with his stuttering tongue. Moses fretted about his inadequacies, never considering who made him that way to begin with. God is always willing and ready to fill in our inadequacies with himself. God chooses the imperfect people of the world to show his power. God chooses the humble and the lowly to shine his glory through. God the Creator has designed us for a purpose, but have we inquired of God what his plan might be for us? So often we make our own plans and tell God what we are going to do instead of asking God what his plans are and joining him where he leads us. The opposite of incompetency is over-competency. We become arrogant and lean on our own understanding, skills, talents, education, and experience without ever asking God his point of view. So have you prayed about your decision-making lately? We can get ourselves in a tremendous mess by disregarding the pathway of humility in prayer.

And, the fifth excuse, Moses utters the words, Could you please stop hounding me and just get somebody else? But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else” (Exodus 4.13). Can you imagine Moses being so sure of himself that he would not have to answer this call that God had presented him with. But even then God would not relent in his pursuit of Moses. I know you can find somebody else more qualified. I just can’t see myself doing that. I know what you are asking me, but that’s not for me. Moses measured himself against the shadow of someone else, and he pleaded with God to take away his calling and his commission to go and rescue the perishing. Please God send somebody else… Our excuses can go on and on. I don’t have time. My family needs me. My health is failing. I have young children. But God works with us in and through our excuses, because he loves our quirky personalities. Sometimes I don’t know how he puts up with me. Maybe you feel the same way. But God works with us, and he keeps calling us. God makes room for a ministry partnership, and he is sent not as a lone ranger but with companionship. His partner will have a call of his own to wrangle with, but the bulk of the responsibility will remain on Moses. Moses has to fulfill his own call from God, and no one else can fulfill it. The call of God on your life is irrevocable. God says, I’m still calling… will you answer.

But wait that’s not the last excuse. The sixth excuse… Moses speaks to his father-in-law, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive” (Exodus 4.18). Is there a hint that Moses hopes that they are all dead so he doesn’t have to fight for their freedom? Or does he hope they would be so few in number that it wouldn’t be an issue? Sometimes people wish themselves into negativity, but that doesn’t stop God’s relentless pursuit. Moses will discover that the people he returns to will be hard-hearted and bitter from their forced labor. Moses will bring about change to a community who should desire the new freedom. But read on in the story and you will discover trouble all along the way to the Promised Land. I surely wish that the journey into the future were smooth, easy and without the mishaps of disobedience to God’s best efforts to rescue us. But in all honesty, we know that problems are part of the growth process. Conflict is an inevitable part of God’s relationship backlash. And, unfortunately it’s human nature that we are quick to self-sabotage.

The seventh excuse, God speaks to Moses, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead” (Exodus 4.19). Moses had real concerns for his life. He was a wanted man by the most powerful nation in the Ancient Near East. God anticipated yet another excuse from our superhero of salvation history, and assured Moses that his enemies were no longer an issue in the community. That’s what amazes me about God’s grace. He loves us so much that he will not relent. In our culture pushy people are a turn off, but in God’s economy it’s called a work of grace. God has Moses in the “hot seat” of relentless grace. God has been at work in Moses life all along quietly working in the background of his daily life. But here is the first series of encounters Moses talks with God. God is no longer silent, but an active participant in a relationship with Moses. God has been wooing him with his love. God’s will has been drawing him in relationship. God’s desire has pursued Moses. God’s gift of grace freed Moses to respond to the invitation to trust God and be in relationship with Yahweh. It is easy to connect our own stories to the story of Moses.

How many excuses have each of us made to God about answering our call to serve and our responsibility to the people of God? Moses is our star pupil in God’s salvation story. When we discuss Moses, we know him as the hero that deserves his own scrapbook with all the photo ops and selfies of a comic strip superhero. For Marvel fans imagine that Moses is on your left. He is the super hero of church history and shows up on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah as they chat with Jesus before the crucifixion. He is one of the most remarkable men of all time, yet, his excuses for not stepping up into his call to help God’s people is tiring to say the least. I wonder how long this conversation went on before Moses was finally worn down with all God’s loving compassion and encouragement.

To be sure when God called Moses, Moses was not equipped to do the work that needed to be accomplished! God empowered him to serve, and gave him the stamina that he needed. God doesn’t equip his servants before the task. Instead God gives us the empowerment as we walk out beyond our abilities. God doesn’t want people in the Kingdom who know how to do things for God. God desires people in his Kingdom who are humble enough to ask for help and engage others in dialogue. God chooses the broken, lost, last, and lonely people to do his best work. God chooses those who will kick their shoes off and relinquish their escape routes. God chooses the humble who will cover their face when God is in their midst. God chooses those who will respond in dialogue with Him. God chooses the underdogs who have made mistakes, but have the courage to become overcomers. God chooses the aging and retired folks who think they are past their prime like Moses, and invites them to surrender their preferences to take up God’s task. God ensures that Moses will have a companion for the work ahead, but the work will surely require faith beyond measure and courage that can only be attained by the grace of God.

In our story there is good news! We have been invited into God’s Kingdom economy where the poor in spirit are lifted up and the impoverished have the Bread of Heaven. What made Moses a person God could use? First, Moses took time to be alone with God on the back-side of the desert at the Mountain of God. Second, Moses was fully transparent with God and he remained in dialogue with God when he didn’t get the answers he wanted to hear. Third, Moses was hungry for God more so than uncomfortable with his calling. His excuses didn’t diminish his hunger.

What prevents us from being alone, transparent, and hungry for God? Moses declared some significant excuses as to why he could not and would not follow God’s request, but perhaps the churches of Revelation give us even more insights into those excuses. There are several churches described in Revelation that can open our eyes to our deep-rooted excuses. John Maxwell calls these churches: persecuted, compromised, corrupt, deceased, faithful, and lukewarm. The persecuted church was consumed with fear, failure of nerve, and unfaithfulness. The compromised church used God’s gifts for a profit. The corrupt church was accepting of sexual immorality. The deceased church worked hard for God but failed to live by the Spirit. The faithful church lacked the strength and stamina to hold fast to God. The lukewarm church was rich in resources and complacent in their on-going relationship with God.

We are given an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God, and the altar is open for those who desire to step up and answer the call to faithful discipleship. God’s grace is like the “Hound of Heaven” wooing, pursing, drawing, freeing, and empowering you and me to seek that pathway of sanctification that leads us to the holiness of heart and life. Grace is relentlessly chasing us, Church! And, that’s good news!

O God, thank you for pursuing us until we cry out to you in sweet surrender. Take away the spirit of offense that invades our thinking when we are challenged to answer the call to deepen our relationship. Pour out your love upon us until we experience the sweetest joy of your Spirit. Amen.

Prevenient Grace

Emmaus Women’s Walk, 11:45am, June 1, 2018

Lead the Prayer: Please turn to page 48 in your Worship Booklet and join me in the prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Hear these words from Psalm 139.13-15, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth” (NIV).

My name is Sharon Bailey, and the title of this talk is Prevenient Grace. 

Today I will use these three chairs to talk about prevenient grace. The first chair is the time in your life when you were sure about who God really is. Perhaps you are still unsure. Some people don’t believe God exists. Some people believe there might be a higher power. Some people believe all religions lead us to the One True God. Some people have knowledge about Jesus, but still are uncertain about what having a relationship with Jesus really means. The second chair is when we give God the nod by saying “yes,” and the bible calls that justifying grace. The third chair is when we grow in a holy relationship with God, and the bible calls that sanctifying grace. The first chair is the “hot seat” for us in this talk. 

Grace is the foundation of our belief system. Grace upon grace upon grace is the model of God’s unfailing love toward us. The stories in the bible of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David demonstrate God’s love toward his people. The Hebrew people would find themselves in a revolving relationship with God of broken then restored relationship with God as they struggled to make good choices of faithfulness. The prophets of old demonstrated the call to return to God over and over. They were the voice of God’s prevenient grace toward his people. Jesus, the Messiah, has become the ultimate story of God’s grace poured out for all of us to witness and know of God’s great love. 

The whole bible describes an on-going relationship between God and his people. God has been pursuing people from the very beginning. Those who accepted the gift of grace became extraordinary characters of faith and obedience. We can read about some of those characters in Hebrews chapter 12 in the hall of fame list of the empowered ones whose faith has been celebrated across thousands of years of salvation history. Each one of us is invited to join the ranks of the fully faithful. We are drawn into a personal relationship with God. God woos us to experience an eternal relationship with God himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are no behaviors that we can accomplish on earth that will win God’s grace. God simply pours out his heart of love upon all of us extending his covenant relationship with all who will listen and respond. That’s grace. Prevenient grace. Can you recall a time when God was calling to you? 

Although God’s grace has been moving through history since the beginning of time, grace may be one of the most challenging concepts to understand. The root meaning of the word grace in the original Greek is “charis” or gift.  God offers us this gift by way of salvation, reconciliation and eternal life. God’s grace has many facets – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying, but it is all one grace. 

You might say there are three stages of experiencing grace in our lives. These facets describe the aspects of our spiritual journey – before we know God, saying yes to God, and living to the glory of God. Prevenient grace means that God is working in our lives from conception to conversion. Grace comes before we are ever aware of God, or understand that we are to seek a relationship with him. Prevenient grace is at work in us long before we are aware of God’s presence. God’s love woos us. God’s will draws us. God’s desire purses us. God’s gift frees us to respond to the invitation to trust God and be in relationship with Jesus Christ. God’s activity empowers us and gives us spiritual stamina. 

Prevenient Grace or preventing grace is the power of God and the presence of God in our lives before we are aware of God’s existence. It is the grace that goes before us and prepares our hearts to receive God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. John Wesley understood prevenient, preparing, or preventing grace as active in our lives before we ever respond and said “yes.” Grace opens our eyes to our need for God, and the sinful attitudes that we carry. Grace points us to the only cure for our lives is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Grace provides us with an understanding of our rebellion and sinfulness that we might say that God has proven his love for each of us while we were still caught in depths of life’s troubles. Jesus has died for even me, even you (Romans 5.8).

Even from a young age God is seeking us out, and the story of Tristan is a wonderful example of God’s amazing grace. I once cared for a child who suffered a bowel obstruction. His life hung in the balance between life and death for several weeks when he was taken to surgery for a second time. While his bowels were being repaired, the colon miraculously grew several centimeters to the doctor’s amazement. The doctor was not a believer in God, but after that surgery he began to question God’s existence. 

After one of the young child’s many operations, he died. Doctors and nurses attempted many strategies to revive him but finally gave up and walked away, while his mother began to cry out to God in prayer. As we prayed together, the young child awoke from death and began talking to the amazement of the clinical staff. By the next morning he was able to describe his experience to his mother and me. Jesus had come to visit him. Within three months the young child returned to school and was eating a regular diet. Whenever I think about this young child, I stand in awe of how God desired to have a relationship with this young one who was created in his image. 

We are all created in God’s likeness and for the “soul” purpose of being in relationship with God. In the beginning God created the world and all that is in it, and God declared that his creation was good. God created humanity, male and female, and declared that they were good. And, God formed a relationship with the first couple, but one day that relationship was broken. Sin crept into the garden. We were created in God’s own likeness, but sin has marred that original image. 

Because of the decisions in the garden, we are inherently born with the propensity, inclination, predisposition, proneness, or weakness toward sin. We have been wired for a relationship with God from the very beginning so the most deepest part of us longs for God. St. Augustine once declared this about God in his writings entitled Confessions, “Our hearts will not find rest until they find rest in thee.” 

We are indeed wired for relationship with God, and the story of Chase is the perfect example. A teenage boy was flown into the hospital where I served on the staff. He had been riding an ATV with his friend who flipped the vehicle in some gravel. The young man injured his leg severely, and there was real concern among the staff that he would most likely loss his leg, if not his life. 

I remember him saying, Tell momma I’m sorry I didn’t listen to her. Tell momma I got right with God and I’m going to be okay. Through his recovery, God was wooing him in the early stages of a deep and meaningful relationship. As he recovered from his first surgery he had a powerful encounter with Jesus where Jesus came to his bedside and laid his hand on his heart. The young man said that a great heat came over his chest, and immediately his life-threatening infection began to subside. That day became the turning point in his recovery. Several weeks later he would walk again on his own two feet, and begin to grow in his relationship with God. 

Indeed, there is good news, bad news, and good news. The good news is that we are designed in the image of God. The bad news is that sin has disfigured that imagine within us. Each of us has made poor choices – real choices – that have separated us from God. Our spiritual lives have been diminished, yet God remains faithful to his side of the relationship. God’s good grace is greater than all the poor choices we have made. The good news is that God desires a relationship with us more than we want to be in relationship with God. Grace moves in our lives like a weather front. God’s great grace creates a high pressure system moves across the lows places in our lives. Grace can sweep through those problem areas and cleanse us of sin. 

There is nothing you can do that can deter God from wanting a deeply personal relationship with you. God seeks us and initiatives a relationship even after we have wander into the miry pit of poor choices. The very nature of that relationship is covenant love like a bridegroom with his bride. God’s grace is holy, seeking, everlasting, and a real gift waiting to be received, unwrapped, and worn like a beautiful garment. God’s grace is loving, good, kind, and gentle. God’s grace is patient and peaceful. A relationship with God is a result of our accepting God’s divine grace. Prevenient grace overcomes our brokenness and alienation with God, neighbor and self. 

Grace seeks us in our brokenness and alienation, and the story of Orien’s daddy is an illustration of how God bridges the great divide. Orien’s daddy could not imagine even the possibility of there being a God until the day he lost his infant son. He had grown up with a family who were religious but struggled with addiction and imprisonment. His childhood had been broken by crime and abandonment. 

When his infant son died, he had nothing to fill the gap between his deep sorrow and his need to go on living. He questioned his faith until he finally surrendered to the possibility that their might be a God, and he might get to see his child again in heaven. He had just a glimmer of hope as he allowed the medical team to remove the life saving devices that were sustaining his son’s breathing. As he let go of his child with an uncertain prayer, God met him in his deepest need. Orien’s daddy had a vision of Jesus that day and came to believe that not only was God real, but Jesus was really God. His disbelief was met with God’s amazing grace. 

God seeks us through events in our lives, both positively and negatively just like the stories I have shared of Tristan, Chase and Orien’s daddy. However, God also speaks to us through daily events of financial struggles and employment, family relationships, personal sickness, grief and loss. God speaks to us through other people who share their lives and resources with us such as family and friends. God speaks to us through our church community in the form of worship, prayer, baptism, confirmation, and communion, as well as in small groups. 

God engages us in relationship but never forces us to respond to his expressions of grace. God’s covenant love is like that – always seeking us but never demanding that we respond. God works through us by our words and deeds to become a witness of God’s good grace to others. 

Truly God seeks to save those who have lost their way and squandered their souls on meaningless living. Perhaps the story of my Grandfather’s confession is the most meaningful experience of grace I have ever witnessed. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression and Prohibition. He learned to moonshine at a early age and became a drunk. By the time I was born he had made a name for himself and the family as the toughest guy around town. I had experienced the pain of being in his presence most of my childhood. But as he approached death, he suffered greatly with his diabetic issues until his feet were in need of amputation. 

Just weeks before his surgery and subsequent death, I happened to be visiting my family with my husband at the holidays. As we were leaving from the dinner party my grandfather called me to his bedside to offer a good confession, I am sorry I did you wrong. I don’t even know your name. Would you tell me what they call you? You married a good man, and he will take care of you. Can you forgive me? In those brief moments, I was dumbfounded by God’s prevenient grace. 

When I left that day, I knew I would never see him again. He died several weeks later. In my heart I knew that “The Hound of Heaven” had relentless chased down my grandfather until finally all his attempts to run from God failed and nothing was left but to surrender to God’s prevenient grace. I had no visual clues that God’s prevenient grace had been working upon my grandfather’s heart to bring about the change I experienced in our relationship. But God was working! God was wooing, pursing, drawing, freeing, and empowering him to make a real heart-felt change in his life. Through the years, I couldn’t see it. I wasn’t aware of the subtle and quiet move of God over the many years of his life. I came to realize that just because I was unaware, didn’t mean that God wasn’t pouring out grace!

My grandfather loved sitting on the front porch of the house. He didn’t like being inside much. And, he really didn’t like boundaries in his life. John Wesley described prevenient grace as the front porch of the way of salvation. We have the choice to walk through the doorway to discover a deeper relationship with God. But some of us like to hang out on the front porch of religion so we don’t have give God the nod. Some of us are afraid to acknowledge those gentle nudges of prevenient grace upon prevenient grace that woos us, draws us, pursues us, frees us, and empowers us to say yes to God.  

The question we have to ask ourselves is… Are we willing to open up our hearts to God’s amazing grace to work in our lives and accept an ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ? 

De Colores!

Resources for discipleship: James A. Harnish has written two excellent discipleship books and workbooks entitled A Disciples’s Heart: Growing in Love and Grace and A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Our Relationships with Christ and the Church. Steven W. Manskar has also written a wonderful study called Accountable Discipleship: Living in God’s Household.

Empowered People: Get Redirected

John 21

We’ve all been there. We’ve had a “failure of nerve” just like Peter. The dark night of failure has been my constant enemy from illness to career changes. Some may know what it’s like to deal with sickness and disease… some may know what it’s like to deal with financial struggles… some may go through addiction… some may struggle through mid-life career changes… some may struggle with a learning disability… some may struggle with a mistake that they just cannot shake… But, however, we experience it, failure can put us down so low we just can’t seem to get back up on our feet. Failure can make us feel like we are crawling on our hands and knees waiting for someone or something to come along and put us upright on our feet again. But it’s been my experience that God calls us to the place of joyful obedience in the midst of our death crawl. Let’s enter the text and see how Peter handles his next steps after a failure of nerve.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other discipleswere together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. John 21.1-3

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realizethat it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right sideof the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garmentaround him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c]When they landed, they saw a fireof burning coalsthere with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. – John 21.4-14

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressedyourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dressyou and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” – John 21.15-23

24 This is the disciple who testifiesto these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimonyis true.25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. – John 21.24-25

It’s early morning. Morning has broken! You can just experience the wetness of the morning air as the dew is heavy on the gentle breeze. I’m reminded of the hymn by Cat Stevens entitled “Morning Has Broken.” There’s just something about the tune of that hymn that makes me experience the early morning on the farm with the dew drenched spider webs in the wet grass. There’s a precious peace in the early morning when you take time to meet with Jesus. It seems like those quiet still moments as the sun begins to rise provides a sense of God’s splendor that forms a beautiful canopy over this great earth we dwell upon.  John draws our attention to the dawn of a new day with all the possibilities of the hope found in the early Sunday morning encounter with the Risen Lord. A new day is dawning! And with the daybreak, we welcome new possibilities! The dawn of a new will bring endless opportunities! The One and Only voice of God redirects us with clarity of call.

I remember being a kid and playing with dad’s fishing nets. We would sit in the little metal fishing boat on dry land and casting our nets over the sides. We would grab dad’s fishing poles and practice our casting from the bow. From time to time the guys in the family would go out all night fishing and bring home lots of fish. We would seine minnows for chub bait. We would set trot lines and make sour dough balls for bait. They were serious about their fishing skills. Then they would spend the night fishing at the Rolling Fork River.

In our story 7 friends have gone out fishing all night and caught nothing. Three are the major characters in John’s Gospel stories – Nathanael from Cana of Galilee, Simon Peter, and Thomas (Didymus). And, it seems from the text that these people weren’t just acquaintance with John. I believe they were his close friends. Nathanael is only called Nathanael in John’s Gospel. It means “Gift of God.” In the synoptic gospels he is called by his family name Bartholomew. John also notes in chapter two the wedding in Cana where Nathanael is from and where Jesus performed his first miracle. Thomas is called Didymus in John’s Gospel but not the synoptics. So it seems from the details that John is intentionally describe key characteristics to show how important these people were to his inner circle. The key disciple in this last passage of John’s Gospel is Peter. And, we will focus on his story.

John 1:49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

John 2:11 “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.”

John 6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 20:28 Thomas [Didymus] said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

John tells us that the 7 disciples have spent all night fishing and repairing nets in the early morning hours then hauling in their catch to the water’s edge. Fishing was a demanding trade compared to our work loads in the white collar industry of American culture. Fishing required a lot of grit and leadership. To be sure Peter was a tough guy, and there wasn’t anything fishy about his masculinity. And, here in the story we see him as the captain on a small fishing boat along with 6 other men who knew tough work. They have spent all night on the boat working, sweating, and catnapping between casting the nets without anything to show for their labors. They have been fishing and caught nothing! Zippo! After a night of working on the water with nothing to show for their efforts, they head to the shore where John catches a glimpse of a shadowy figure on the beach who call the disciples his friends. The fishing event will turn into something much more in God’s economy of multiplication. The disciples are about to be surprised by God’s goodness.

As they come closer to shore, a friendly voice calls out to them. And, he called them friends. This was a friendly greeting to redirect their efforts to where the school of fish were, advising the fishermen to cast their nets on the right side. With their obedient response, they count 153 large fish. It’s a wonder the net didn’t tear away. When Peter discerns that Jesus is there, he is obviously anxious not to miss his opportunity and abandons everything, grabs some clothing for modesty, and jumps in the water. He abandoned ship! Man-overboard for Jesus! He was acting outlandishly! As the disciples come in for a landing there’s fish and bread waiting for them. In John’s Gospel we see three places that refer to clothing. First, Jesus’ undergarment taken by the soldiers at his crucifixion (John 19.23). Here in this passage, Peter is getting dressed after having only an undergarment on. But there is also one other place that speaks of being dressed and that is the passage here when Jesus prophesies Peter’s martyrdom (John 21.18-19). In other passages of Scripture we read about the unshrunk cloth and how new wine should never be poured into old wineskins Matthew 9.16, Mark 2.21, Luke 5.36). And, we know that there was a young man wearing a linen garment who fled naked from the scene when Jesus was arrested, leaving behind his garment (Mark 14.51). Paul will teach us that as believers we will be clothed in righteousness for Christ-sake. If we look into the text there are hints of symbolism of baptism for a new beginning. Peter is ready to begin again this journey that has been derailed from a failure of nerve.

The friend on the shore asks the fishermen to cast their nets on the right side, which the disciples have heard before. What does it take for us to get on the right side with Jesus? I suppose the best answer here in the text is that “right side” means a simple act of obedience. We use the phrase “right side” as a way to designate the winning way or our preferred stance on an issue. When I think of the phrase “right side,” it has a lot of cultural and political connotations with it. But here in the story it is symbolized as obedience that leads us to belief in Jesus as Lord. In one cast of the nets salvation is realized for Peter and he jumps into the water with all the gusto of a love-struck believer who knows the healing power of forgiveness.

Notice in the text the response of the disciple whom we know as John. John declares the friend on the shore is Jesus, and John calls him LORD. LORD is the only title that is used in this passage, which lets us see the transition in Jesus’ authority in their lives (John 21.7, 12, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21). John’s Gospel moves from the title “Teacher” to “Lord and God” to “Lord and Jesus.”  The storyline in John’s Gospel moves from Jesus holding the title of teacher to declarations of his Lordship. And, here in this text He is Lord to the disciples. There is a real shift in the storyline from being taught to becoming a teacher. There comes a moment when Jesus invites us to grow-up in our faith. It’s not a biological growth, but a spiritual growth that includes total soul care. We move from being a student of Jesus to becoming a student for Jesus.  Peter is our proto-type. Peter knew Jesus. He had followed him for three years as his intimate companion. When he had to grow up in his faith, Jesus prepared him. But when it came time for Peter to respond without Jesus’ support when he was arrested, Peter struggled with his grown-up faith.

  • John 1.38, 1.49, 3.2, 3.26, 4.31, 6.25, 9.2, 11.8, 21.6 (Mary Magdalene)
  • Rabbi/Rabboni (means teacher)
  • John 11.21, 11.32 Lord – Martha & Mary at Lazarus death
  • John 13.6, 9, 37 – Lord – Peter at the Last Supper
  • John 20.13, 25 – Lord – Resurrection with the women
  • John 20.28 – My Lord and My God (Thomas)
  • John 21.15, 16, 17 – Lord – Peter on the Beach

Our story is yet another instance of Resurrected Jesus’ showing up to bring the disciples unexpectedly joy around just such a fire. This time the scene is a beach setting on the Sea of Galilee in the early shadows of dawn. As the sun begins to rise, I can only imagine the glimmer of daybreak casting a shadow on the beach where Jesus was building the fire. You might say it was a heap of hot embers. I love Jesus’ hospitality! He has a camp fire burning! Who was this fire for? The last time we witnessed a fire it was as Peter was warming himself in the courtyard at Jesus’ arraignment (John 18.18). Jesus uses fire to illustrate refining of character and the flames of failure when we fail to believe in God. It reminds me of the fire that has not yet been poured out at Pentecost when Peter will stand up for Christ Jesus and prophesy from Joel’s writings. It also reminds me of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah’s declaration at his calling when the angels came to visit him. Fire is a sign and a wonder of transformation in a person’s life. Transformational opportunities are always available to us, but sometimes we have a failure of nerve like Peter.

Isaiah 6.6-7 reads, “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’”

John’s story about Peter moves along the trajectory from Peter’s denial of Jesus to professions of love for Jesus. Up to this point Peter has loved Jesus, but not at a level that could sustain him from a failure of nerve. And, he certainly didn’t have the capacity to lead the sheep into the dangerous terrain that lie ahead. The qualities of love of God and love of neighbor are tied directly to caring for the sheep. Peter’s love had not grown to the depth of sustainability when hard times would come, and Peter denied Jesus. When I think about Peter, I see how easy it could have been for him to have the same outcome as Judas who took his life from his failure. But Peter’s love for Jesus doesn’t seem to have faded, only his flesh could not sustain his profession of faith. We know the story of Peter’s following and declaring Jesus as the Messiah, and then struggling with a failure of nerve. But imagine the man behind the situation. It’s easy to write Peter off as a less-than person who just couldn’t measure up. He failed to show up for the test. He turned in his test with all the wrong answers. But here in this passage, Peter is redirected in his failure. Jesus hands off the shepherd crook just like a baton.

It reminds me of a football game when the team is lined up, and that one player will become anxious and jump across the line of scrimmage prior to the ball snap! Peter needed help making the leap to becoming a mature leader, and he needed steady nerves. Jesus had lead the 12 disciples for three years. There is no doubt about Peter’s leadership skills. But his skills were not sufficient for the next stage of leadership – yet! But Jesus knows the next steps to launch Peter into ministry.

I don’t want us to miss that Jesus appeared to Peter on Resurrection Sunday – alone. They needed a heart-to-heart talk without anyone around. In fact we never hear what was said in that conversation. And, I can only imagine there being a lot of regrets and tears from his failure to launch as a confessional leader. Peter will see Jesus a total of four times that we know of in the Gospels. I have to believe that each one was an affirmation of his faith that had floundered in the crisis of belief.

There are two important parts of this passage about Peter’s reinstatement. First, he was reinstated as a good sheep. Second, he was given the role of a good under-shepherd. Peter has been a good sheep who scattered when he was spooked. A friend of mine and I were discussing sheep this week, and she helped me to see more clearly how sheep respond to danger. They are easily spooked. Peter has been spooked. Jesus is taking his shepherd’s crook and tending to Peter, wooing him back into the sheepfold.

Here in the text Jesus has already appeared to Peter with the 10, and next, he appeared to Thomas and the others the Sunday after resurrection. Jesus continued to be in relationship with Peter through the launching. Jesus didn’t give up on him, and Jesus didn’t settle for failure to launch as a good follower or a good leader. In our passage Peter is being launched into deeper waters as a leader. What was his new role – a disciple-maker! Jesus hands off his shepherd’s crook to Peter.

Peter is presented with a fresh challenge of comprehending this new lifestyle that he has agreed to be a part of… He had been spooked! And, he response was to deny Jesus three times, but now he is being reinstated to complete the task he struggled to launch into – becoming the good under-shepherd. Jesus reaffirms this young man’s abilities as an emerging leader in a world changing business of disciple-making. John concludes his Gospel with the same concepts he began with in chapter one. First, Jesus is the Son of God. He is both Lord and God. And, his invitation will always be “come and follow” and leave your old lifestyle behind to take up the lifestyle of the cross! To be sure Jesus is in the business of restoring disciples who have broken their promises to serve Jesus. Jesus is all about reinstating and recommissioning his disciples.

Peter is moved from the position of a hired hand who abandoned his post to the invitation of becoming a good under-shepherd. We know in John’s Gospel that Jesus is portrayed as the good shepherd, a title that helps us understand that Jesus protects, tends, and guides the flock.

We are dependent upon Jesus just as sheep are dependent on their shepherd. Jesus has compassion for the helpless sheep. He seeks the lost sheep. He knows his own sheep. His sheep know his voice. The shepherd provides for the sheep. He protects his sheep. He lays down his life for the sheep. He judges his sheep. And Christians are the sheep of Jesus’ flock. Jesus appoints under-shepherds like he appoints Peter in this passage, the first of many to come. The shepherd is flock centered. The alternative is described as the hired hand. The hired hand is self-centered and are apt to abandon the flock to be scattered or killed.

Peter has just been invited to turn in his sheep role to become a under-shepherd. And, the first thing he says is what about him. If we are not focused on ourselves, we are focused on our neighbors! But Jesus wants us to focus on him. Jesus is living the way he wants us to live. Jesus is still serving his disciples with menial tasks, he is doing lowly tasks of unskilled labor. What are the outward signs of a transformed heart? Being willing to be a nobody in the Kingdom of God for the sake of the One who called us to Eternal Life.

Bottomline it’s not the “what” we are following, but the “who” we are following. It’s not simply a concept that we learn about as a child or agree to as an adult. It’s not simply head knowledge with platitudes about who God is. It’s not about how well you recite the verses of the bible. It’s not about the head knowledge, it’s all about the heart knowledge. It’s about an intimate relationship that is shaped by knowledge of God. If our knowledge of God stops at just head knowledge but doesn’t go further by developing our spiritual relationship, it doesn’t have any value in the Kingdom of God. John’s Gospel will clearly illustrate and explain to us what it means to the have a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God. John begins with the profound understanding of who God is. But John can explain the reality of God not by what he has read in a book, but by spending time with Jesus in prayer.

We believe John’s Gospel was written at a time when he was old and gray, and yet his writing is as fresh as a young man still sitting at the feet of Jesus. He has had 60 or 70 years of pondering the meaning of his experiences with Jesus. As he writes his story we believe he is in exile on the island of Patmos. He is the last of the original 12 men who had been chosen as Jesus companions. And, at the end of his days surely his message to us is a love sonnet about the One and Only God whom he loves beyond any human capacity. Can you say that about Jesus? This man knew what it meant to love God.

John has written of not only this Gospel but also three letters that are rich in emotion and compassion for God’s chosen people. John is the writer who declares, “God is love.” The Spirit of God moves us declare God’s character of love. And, in this passage Peter is being challenged to move from knowing about Jesus as a human character to study and emulate into a spiritual intimacy that transcends the earthly world. We are called to come and follow Jesus. He is not a what. He is a who. And, he lives within our hearts.

Jesus moves us from the silence of pondering what Christianity is all about to testifying about who Jesus is! The details of our story are eye witness perfect. The rich particulars help us to be sure that the conversation we have read is a real dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Peter once again is the man of the hour. Jesus brings closure to this stage of Peter’s life story which becomes an example to us. Much like Thomas’ story of disbelief, Peter has his own story of denying that must be dealt with before Jesus leaves this earthly place to ascend to his throne. To be sure Peter needed more than clichés to help him make the journey ahead. Peter needed more than a formulate that lined out the steps of salvation. Peter needed another level of intimacy with God. And, here on the beach after a long empty night of fishing with six of his best friends, Peter faces the biggest challenge of his adult life. Jesus invites Peter to move beyond everything he had learned this far about Jesus and take the deep dive into the already not yet realized Kingdom of God that he had been taught. This is the moment of truth. Will he remain a man who only knows about Jesus, or will he become a under-shepherd who can let the head knowledge sink deep into his heart to become the man of God he is called to become? We know the answer to Peter’s story, but those of us here haven’t finished our story. We still have more personal growth in our walk with Jesus. We are given Peter’s story as a testimony to ponder, do I need to shift from being a sheep who knows about Jesus to being an under-shepherd who knows Jesus deeply and personally?

As many of you know I experienced a brain injury last August. I have learned many things from that experience. But the most important discovery I made was the clarity I now have about “head knowledge” about God verses the “heart knowledge” of spiritual intimacy with God. You see I lost a lot of “head knowledge” because a part of my brain died during the accident. But what remained was the “heart knowledge” of spiritual intimacy that came only by way of a long standing contemplative prayer life. My brain injury taught me that I had a lot of “head knowledge” about God that I had learned as a young Christian, but in many ways that “head knowledge” was removed from me with my brain injury. And, it helped me to understand how all those platitudes about Jesus where actually preventing me from a deeper intimacy with him. I can praise God for my injury, but it is also my testimony to encourage you. Don’t settle for what God is! Take the challenge of Peter and grow in your personal relationship – discover who God is. Move from failure of nerve to under-shepherd!

O God, open our minds to love you for who you are! We want to love you with an undivided heart and clarity of mind. Empower us with your Holy Spirit to grow-up into all that you have for us! Amen. 

Casting Vision in a New Season

Folks, we are all looking for answers to this dilemma of disinterest in Christ Jesus. We live in a dire world full of doubt and disbelief. Yet, we know that we have the evidence of the resurrection! We have the hope of tomorrow. We have the plan of salvation for a generation that is desperately in need of Eternal Life. What is our way forward?

We have to assessed our community reality, and we’ve done our research (Barna Group, Pew Research). We know that Generation Z (age 13-18) are the first post-Christian community in America and they have no foundation in biblical values. This problem is church-wide and nation-wide. We also need to assess our church reality. When our realities do not line up with God’s vision, we have a gap. Henry Blackaby would explain this gap as a “crisis of belief” that calls us to “adjust” in order for us to “experience” God. God is working all around us, will we join him?

God’s vision for the world is not gathering people in a building, but tending souls of all people no matter where they are on the journey – lost, found, and growing in the faith. I like to think that God’s vision is soul care for all the people of the world. When one person hurts, God longs to transform pain into something meaningful and hopeful. God longs for us to be in right relationship himself, ourselves and others then to live in a spirit of forgiveness. Soul care is a great way of describing the growth in Jesus through the stages of grace – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.

Our mission assigned to us who are believers in the church from Jesus himself is what we know as the Great Commission (Mt. 28.18-20). We are to go forth in our community and make disciples, baptizing them in the Trinity and teaching them everything Jesus taught the disciples. That’s every believers’ work in the Kingdom of God. Every detail of our lives should be shaped by our Kingdom job description, and it all begins with our willingness to “go” and “make” disciples.

Our vision provided in God’s word is addressing cultural issues and sin problems in our world that can easily be seen in broken lives. For instance, poverty, hunger, education, and medical ethics are hot topics in our world today that we need to offer a Christian worldview. God loves this world, and He wants his world to know that love experientially! In the places that people do not know the love of God, we are to share it in such a way that leads people to eternal life (John 3.16).

Our purpose is to show God’s love. There are a lot of doubting Thomas’ in our world who need someone to be Jesus’ hands and feet. Thomas need to experience Jesus, and we can be the ones who show Jesus to the world around us (John 20.19-23). We are commanded to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves. So when we are faced with a world of unbelieving folks, we can share the good news of God’s great love for them! Our testimony and witness of God’s love living inside us can be the encouragement that others need to open themselves to receiving God’s love.

Our biblical values are the foundation of our faith. These values are best understood as the fruit that comes from a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another which is expressed as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We know we are to live as Paul reminds us in faith in God, hope in Eternal Life, and love toward our neighbors. We are to practice justice, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Our values are not found in the worldview around us but in the context of the Word of God.

Sometimes we experience a gap in the church not only between the cultural reality and our everyday life experiences, but also between our life experiences and the biblical model. We also experience a gap between the biblical model and our work in the church. Sometimes we utilize people who are not gifted to perform tasks that they are not best suited for. Sometimes we make plans that are not reaching the world around us, but are just busy work for us. Sometimes we isolate our selves in the building and fail to reach out beyond the walls. The gap is something we have to assess with a willing heart to own where we are and be willing to make the shift.

Our spiritually gifted people become the avenue and pathway of reaching out to the world around us. God provides the gifts and talents for us to create a strategy to reach the people in our community with the Good News of Jesus Christ. These gifts are part of the blessing that comes with the deposit of the Holy Spirit who lives within each believer (Romans 12.6-8, 1 Corinthians 12.4-11, 12.28, Ephesians 4.11, 1 Peter 4.11, Acts 2.22, 3.6, 6.8, 8.6-7, 19.11-12, Matthew 24.4-5). Gifts acknowledged in God’s word include prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, mercy, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, healings, helps, governments, and diversities of tongues. God empowers us so that we are living in his strength when we reach beyond ourselves to care for others. Every believer has a role based on their gifts and talents, but not only their abilities but also their availability and commitment level. In addition every believer that steps up should be involved in a small group and intentionally living a devotional life. And, finally, every believer who is active in decision-making must also be tithing. Leadership in the church is more than showing up on Sunday morning and telling people what your personal opinions are. Leadership requires us to walk the way of the cross, dying to our selves so that others might live.

Our ministry plans are created directly from the gifts and talents of the people in our church. The foundation of our minister rests on the abilities of the believers in the church, not simply the preachers gifts and talents. The plans for ministry must come from the people who know the community and seek to serve God in the places that need God the most. The pastor’s role is to inspire and disciple, to come along side the people and cast vision for others to take ownership of a fresh expression of God’s unconditional love and mercy for the world.

The places for ministry to take root may be in the church as well as in the community. We need to learn about our neighborhoods, our commerce, and our schools in order to know how to pray and reach out in ways that connect the Good News with the needs of the people. We have to assess the gap! Surely, God has a design for our church to reach the lost, lonely, and unloved people in our community. Are we ready as a church to live into this already not yet realized Kingdom of God experience?

O God, open our eyes to see your design for our church and community. We long to do your will and your work. Help us to stand together in unity. Amen. 

Empowered People: We Believe

John 20.19-31

Folks, while you are greeting one another we will be passing out bubble gum. I have something I really want you to chew on! Today we begin a new sermon series that will take us through the Gospel of John. I wanted to begin with this passage for two reasons. First, it picks up the theme of forgiveness that we ended on in Mark’s Gospel last week. John’s Gospel message partners with Mark’s message in how we relate to one another and to God, i.e., the Great Commandment to love is lived out in the stories. Second, I wanted you to see how the two gospel messages fit together and are unique in the purpose. John will approach the stories of Jesus differently so that we can experience the life of Jesus together with him. To be sure Mark’s gospel focused on interpersonal relationships with other people, but John’s gospel will focus on intrapersonal relationship with God. Let’s enter into the passage and see what we can glean to encourage our faith.

Let’s read John 20.19-23.

The story begins on the evening of the Resurrection, the first day of the week or what we might say it was Easter Sunday. When we talk about the Resurrection, there is mystery and what you might call wiggle room when it comes to believing. But our video from Lee Strobel illustrated how the evidence is stacked for us to believe. Strobel suggests there are four evidences that are undisputable reasons to believe in the Resurrection, and theologian Thomas Oden agrees with his assessment that the resurrection is not an April Fool’s joke! According to Strobel, the death, eye witness accounts, the empty tomb, and the disciples’ response are ample evidence that Jesus is who he said he is and that we can fully believe the resurrection.

  • Death – Jesus was definitely deceased by all witness and evidence.
  • Eye Witness Reports – People were quickly named and the experiences are reported immediately following the event.
  • Empty Tomb – Even the opponents to Jesus report that the tomb was empty.
  • Disciples – 9 sources both inside and outside the bible record that the disciples had eye witness accounts to the risen Lord. 7 sources both inside and outside the bible describe the disciples as willing to suffer death for the Resurrection.

Martin Luther the eye witness suggests included Jesus’ adversaries that attested to the empty tomb and Saul who was a murderer of Christians. Eye witnesses included Jesus’ family who were living in disbelief in the gospel stories until we see that Mary his mother and his brother James are among those who believed in the book of Acts. Jesus himself attests to his own resurrection by showing his broken body and eating with the disciples. The prophets of the Old Testament give witness to the evidence before it was even lived. All this evidence leaves us not in wonderment, but in awe!

When we read the story of Thomas, we begin to understand how much our senses build our faith. It was important to Thomas that he see Jesus, hear his words of affirmation, touch his broken body, respond to him with an affirmation of faith, and eat fish on the beach with him. He absorbed all of this with his senses. When we live as the body of Christ we invest all of ourselves so that we become like Jesus to others. People can no longer experience Jesus’ resurrected body, but we can become the witness by living transformed lives that people can see, we share our testimony so that people can hear, and we share meals together so that people can eat with us. These simple ways of being together can provide an avenue for others to respond to the invitation to accept Jesus and the power of the resurrection!

Let’s read John 20.24-29.

Thomas had all this evidence but failed to be won over, and Jesus sets him as an example for the future generations. Thomas becomes someone we all can identify with when we struggle in our faith. Thomas had the evidence of Jesus’ death on the cross, the empty tomb, the disciples and followers testimonies, and the transformed lives that attested to the real experience of the Risen Lord.

Who is Thomas? We know him as Didymus in John’s Gospel, or the Twin. Thomas is listed once in Matthew 10.3, Mark 3.18, Luke 6.15, and Acts 1.13. But he is a key figure in John’s Gospel showing up in four events: Lazarus’ death in John 11.16, the Last Supper in John 14.5, the last disciple to witness the Risen Lord in John 20.24-29, and having breakfast on the beach with the Resurrected Jesus in John 21. He was courageous enough to die with Jesus, curious about eternal life, experienced a crisis of belief, and caught the fish to eat with Jesus. We know Thomas best as the last disciple to witness the Risen Christ after the resurrection because he struggled with is faith. Perhaps he is the one you most identify with because he needed something to touch, to see, to hear… he needed an experience to believe in Jesus having been raised from the dead by his Heavenly Father (1 Peter 3.18-20).

The climax of John’s gospel is to convince us as those who will not have the opportunity to be an eye witness to the Resurrected Jesus. Jesus cannot return as a resurrected person until the last trumpet call. He has ascended to heaven and now is seated at the right-hand of God the Father Almighty to resume his dominion over the heavens and the earth. John desires to increase our faith and belief in the Son of God who was the Son of Man, the Messiah. Each story we encounter in John’s Gospel is aimed at leading us to understand that we too can experience Eternal Life. John helps us to experience what it was like to walk with the Son of Man and the Son God.

Surely, the Resurrection creates a “crisis of belief” for us that we must adjust our lives to this news and the consequences. The disciples would have all suffered a crisis. The women at the cross were in a crisis of grieve watching Jesus die, then subsequently some followed his burial detail to the tomb (Mt 28.1, Mk. 16.9, Jn 20.11-18). The women were in grief when they witnessed the empty tomb, when Jesus revealed himself to Mary Magdalene in the garden (Mt. 28.8-10, Mk. 15.40-41, 15.47, 16.1). Peter had denied Jesus three times and abandoned the cause, yet Jesus would show himself (1 Cor 15.5, Lk 24.34). The disciples on the Emmaus Road were in crisis when Jesus arrived alongside them on the journey and opened the Scriptures for them to understand, then revealed himself in the breaking of the bread (Mk. 16.12-13, Lk 24.33-35). These disciples were questioning the women’s testimony! On Resurrection Sunday, in the evening Jesus revealed himself to the 10 disciples in Jerusalem in the locked upper room when he allowed them to see his wounds and commissioned them.

But one was missing and a week later Thomas would become the last disciple to see the Risen Lord. And, yet, the reports continued as 7 disciples have breakfast with Jesus on the beach (Jn. 21,1-24). Later it was reported that 500 plus brothers would witness Jesus (1 Cor. 15.6). Jesus’ brother James would come to belief (1 Cor. 15.7). At the Ascension many witnessed the Risen Lord ascending to his seat on the throne in heavenly place (Mt. 28.18-20, Mk. 16.19, Act 1.3-12). And, Paul would finalize the list of those who would see the Resurrected Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 8-9). It is said that there were 40 days of appearances before the Lord Ascended, so there may have been many more undocumented appearances. But as John says in his writing these were written down so that we might know and believe.

For those who disbelieve there are many arguments. Theologian Thomas Oden presents the evidence in his systematic theology entitled, “The Word of Life” (483-501). Thomas suggests the resurrection has significance because it is not repeatable, aimed for the lowly, and given to the faith-seekers. We cannot recreate the resurrection, only resuscitation. In other words, we can prolong life but we cannot grant eternal life. The resurrection evidence is also significant because it invaded the low stationed people. It the evidence was a hoax, it would have been aimed at the powerful people to influence others. Thomas also suggests the resurrection was for those who would believe, not for those who had no interest.

Did you know that faith is not a requirement for an encounter with God? But, certainly, faith is increased and a by-product of an experience with the Risen Lord. Thomas was in a crisis of belief but was convinced by the evidence of what he witnessed in Christ’s broken body. This too adds to the witness for those of us who might doubt the reality of the resurrected body. In fact Thomas’ story encourages us that even the most stubborn heart can be won over to Jesus. We’ve all had those moments like Thomas. We call him the doubter. We know what it’s like to be short of faith. I bet you can name a time that you struggle to believe that God cared about your situation. As Christians we all struggle with our belief in God, when has it been impossible for you to believe in Jesus? The bible becomes our resource to help us have faith when we struggle to believe.

Like Thomas our faith can struggle with meaninglessness, hopelessness, forgiveness, and relationships. Thomas was given the same evidence we have been given and Thomas said, That’s not enough I need to see the Risen Lord. And, Jesus knowing his heart, appears to encourage his failing faith. Yet, Jesus will admonish him, saying, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20.29).

Thomas surely struggled with the pain of personal grief that needed to be transformed. Fr. Richard Rohr said, “Pain which is not transformed is transmitted” (ABLD). Thomas needed his pain transformed. Thomas struggled to find meaning in the aftermath of his grief when everything seemed meaningless now. The Linn family discovered, “Meaninglessness makes us sick; meaningfulness makes us well” (ABLD). No doubt about it, Thomas would have struggled with forgiveness with God, himself and others – even Judas. His relationships were surely strained at the very least.

Thomas gives us for gifts from his struggle. We know that God can make meaning out of meaningless pain. We know that God can restore our broken relationships that have been strained by grief and misunderstandings. Even when evil is perpetuated against our closest friend, God can help us heal. We know that God can bring forgiveness when we struggle with broken fellowship. We know that God can give us hope in Eternal Life. Thomas’ disbelief is rooted in the same things that cause us to experience crisis of belief in our lives – the search for meaning that brings us love, the desire to find hope in the midst of pain, the peace that comes with forgiveness, and the community of friends and family to support us along the journey. Thomas’s story is really our story. The evidence has been stacked up for us. We can choose to believe or continue the crisis of belief, but either way God is for us and has provided all that we need to find him on the journey. And that’s very good news!

Let’s read John 20.30-31.

John’s Gospel originally ended with the story of Thomas, and the concluding paragraph that these stories have been written by John so that those who heard the message and those who now read the message would be believe. John conveys the message that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son. But not only that Jesus is who he said he is, but that in him we have life in his name. Now we know what the messages in John’s Gospel are all about: finding eternal life.

Thomas is the first disciple recorded as declaring that the Risen Jesus was Lord and God. John’s Gospel began with the intension of leading the seeker to declare Jesus as Lord and God. But many in our world do not declare him as either. The statistics by the Barna Research Group witness to evidence that the children growing up now are no longer faith-based. This is the most diverse generation in American history, and one way we are not divided is in our crisis of belief. Teenagers ages 13-18 have doubled the unbelieving adults in reporting that they do not believe in God. In one generation of children that we can Generation Z, our nation has moved from 6% of the US adult population being unbelievers to 13% of teenagers declaring they are unbelievers. What are their reasons? How can a good God allow evil? Christians are hypocritical and judgmental. God is a fairytale because there are no facts to support the evidence of God. The fact is that Christian history has injustice stamped all over it. Christians cannot hold reason and faith together; therefore, the church has rejected science.

As a result of our culture teenagers are reporting that family is no longer a priority in their lives, and in the place of family is education, hobbies, pastimes, career, financial independence, and delaying marriage. In this new generation the world is becoming faithless opting for words like agnostic, atheist, and no religious affiliation to be their guidepost in life. But in spite of these statistics we know we have a God who longs for these young people to discover the evidence for themselves. Would you stand today if you are willing to be a mentor for this next generation? The world needs people who know Jesus to reach the children who have no faith. This is the first post-Christian generation in America. Will you step up to bring faith to the faithless?

Approximately 50% of churched adults do not know what the Great Commission is and have no idea what it means for them personally. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus commissioned us to go forth and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel here Jesus gives us the authority to forgive the sins of the world. We are a people who have been empowered to make a difference in the world around us. Here is our broken world in a statistical snapshot. Our world has become faithless. Will you step into the gap to become the leaders to the next generation? I’m going to open up the altar today for folks to respond the story of Thomas and the Thomas’ in our world who need to find faith.

 

O God, help us to embrace the reality in which we live that we might be good stewards of your Kingdom gifts and graces. Empower us to be the Easter people we are for the world to see that others might find salvation in you. Amen.