THE WHOLE ARMOUR OF GOD

13th Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Ephesians 6:10-20

… be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11)

For many of my ministry colleagues in the United Church of Canada (and, I suspect, in mainline denominations everywhere) this is not a favoured text. We have difficulties when it comes to using military metaphors as figures of the Christian life.

“Be strong in the Lord … put on the whole armour of God … take the shield of faith … the helmet of salvation … and the sword of the Spirit …”

We don’t like to mix martial images with the gospel of grace. And I understand why. Some of the darkest days of church history occurred when crusaders marched out with banners unfurled to wage holy war. Or when Catholics and Protestants in Ireland killed each other in the name of religion. Or when armed policemen tore First Nations children from their mothers’ arms and carted them away to church-run residential schools.

I get that.

And—as followers of One who urged us to “love our enemies”—Christians certainly ought not to be warmongers. After one of the most violent centuries ever, it’s no wonder that church leaders shrink from martial imagery.

I guess that’s why “Onward, Christian Soldiers” got bounced out of Voices United, even though it was in the “Red Book” hymnary that preceded it, and the good old “Blue Book” before that.

Like I said, I get it. It’s a legitimate question: what has battlefield language to do with the religion of the Prince of Peace?

The thing is … “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is really all about the church’s call to be in mission throughout the world. Just as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—rife with imagery from the Book of Revelation—was conceived as an anthem for the Abolitionist movement that fought against slavery in 19th-century America (and of course, it later became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s).

Alas. Ours is a day of subdued churches, toned-down preachers, and timid prophets. It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, the church believed that there were things worth fighting for.

Is today’s Ephesians passage a worthy expression of Christian faith?

What do you think of when you hear the apostle Paul’s admonition to:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”?

Is there anything worth fighting for today? Is there anything in your world so threatening to the way of Christ that you need some kind of sword and shield to protect you?

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he described himself as “an ambassador in chains” because he was at the time a prisoner in leg irons. His message to the Ephesians was: “If you plan to follow Jesus, you better get ready for a fight.”

Yeah. A fight. To most people of my generation—growing up as we did in the heyday of the North American Church, in the prosperous and optimistic 1960s—this is kind of a foreign idea. We were, for the most part, raised in a church where the main agenda was to help Christians adapt to the world.

But it’s a different ball game, now. Today, the church’s agenda is—or at least, it ought to be—to help people survive as Christians. And in this regard, I want to point out that the most of the armament listed in Ephesians, chapter six is of a defensive nature: helmet, shield, breastplate … This is the armour needed for survival, rather than for attack.

We are in survival mode, are we not?

On Sunday morning … look around. In many (if not the majority) of our buildings, the seats are mostly empty. If we get 20 people out for a summer service, we think we’re doing well.

And those who do show up … Well, they are the few and the faithful.

It’s not an easy thing, is it?

Sunday morning. You drag yourself out of bed. Then maybe you drag the kids out of bed, and you get them dressed. You finally get everybody loaded into the car, and you head off to church. On the way, you see your neighbours …

Actually, you don’t see most of your neighbours, because they’re still in bed. And the few you do see are hitching up their boats and trailers, or packing their camping gear into their RVs.

Yeah. Even during this Alberta summer, when the B.C. interior is on fire and our mountain parks are shrouded in smoke … some folks are headed for the campgrounds … or to lake country. I guess they must have packed their gas masks, too!

I suppose they’ve just been cooped up too long, hiding from the coronavirus. So they just want to get out and go … somewhere!

But one thing you notice, for sure, is that most of your neighbours are not setting off for church.

We have become members of a minority faith. Religious faith in general—and Christian faith, in particular—has become countercultural. Leaf through a magazine. Go to a movie. Switch on the TV or surf the internet. Chat with your next-door neighbours as they head for their holiday destinations. Immediately, you realize that the world is marching to a very different drummer, buying a different set of goods.

Let the church dare to question government policy, or our economic system, or the lifestyles of the rich and famous … and the church quickly finds out who is running the show—and it’s not Jesus.

The apostle Paul did not have to be convinced that the world was a hostile, inhospitable place for discipleship. Remember, his words to the Ephesians were written “in chains.”

Paul’s world recognized the subversive nature of Christian faith—and it locked the Christians up. Our world recognizes the subversive nature of Christian faith … and it subverts us by ignoring us.

The world has declared war upon the gospel in the most subtle of ways—so subtle that often you don’t even know you’re losing the battle … until it’s much too late.

The gospel brings about a head-on collision with many of our culture’s most widely-held and deeply-believed values. Today, being a Christian is uncommon and uneasy. Just like it was in Paul’s day.

So, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul warns us that we had better not go out unarmed. It’s tough out there. The world lives by different slogans, different visions, speaks a different language than that of the church. So we must gather to “speak the truth in love” (4:15), in order to grow up in our faith. Weak, childish, immature faith is no match for the world. Being a Christian is too difficult a way to walk alone.

It’s tough out there. You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms, without your sword and your shield.

So we must gather, on a regular basis, for worship. To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God. We must speak to one another as beloved sisters and brothers in a world which encourages us to live as strangers. We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world which teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.

In such a world, what we do on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death. I pray that I might speak the gospel boldly (Eph. 6:20).

I do not mean to say that we North American Christians are in any way suffering the persecution which our sisters and brothers elsewhere are forced to endure. None of us pays for our faith in blood.

And yet, even here, there is a price.

Materialism, narcissism, militarism, commercialism—a host of “isms”, of “principalities and powers”—tempt us, mock us, and sometimes subdue us. We’re not fighting the same battle as the Ephesians. No totalitarian Caesar is on our backs. There’s no bloody persecution for us.

And yet, we are locked in a kind of struggle. It’s tough to pay for one’s faith in blood. But it’s also tough to be ignored, ridiculed, dismissed by one’s culture—a culture which is not, on the whole, willfully unbelieving. It’s simply too self-absorbed, too jaded to make the effort to either believe or disbelieve.

The world is giving us fewer and fewer breaks. Now, we’re just trying to hold on, stand firm, keep our story straight, keep our values clear.

We shall have to be more intentional about who we are, more careful to give people the equipment they need to discern true from false, light from darkness, death from life.

The world will defeat or co-opt the weak ones, the ones who have no compelling vision, no armour.

So pray for us. And pray for those who lead, that they might be bold in proclaiming the gospel—and faithful in equipping the saints.

Gracious God, in whom justice and mercy sing in harmony, we thank you for your care for us. With unparalleled love, you have saved us from death and drawn us into the circle of your life. By opening our eyes to the wonders this life sets before us, you enable us to serve you—free from fear—and to love one another as you love us—without regard to riches or poverty, class or place in life. O God, how good you are!  Trusting that your will for all of Creation is healing and wholeness and health, we lay before you the burdens of our hearts and minds.

We pray for the Church, that your Spirit will transform our relationships and our vision of life. Help us to show forth our faith in action, to regard all people with compassion, being quick to listen and slow to anger.

We pray for our nation; whenever trials may befall us, grant to our leaders both endurance and wisdom.

We pray for the world, that the lowly may be raised up, and that your mercy may fall upon every creature.

We pray for the sick, the injured, the vulnerable, and those undergoing all forms of adversity, that they might be strengthened. Especially we remember those suffering because of wildfires, natural disasters, and armed conflict.

As well, we pray:

  • for all who have been victims of discrimination or prejudice.
  • for all who work with the poor and the homeless.
  • for all who are fearful and anxious.
  • for all who work in dangerous situations, especially police officers, military personnel, health-care workers, and firefighters.
  • for all who have experienced violence—at home or in society.

We pray for the grieving, the sick, and the dying; for the resentful, the guilty, and the self-righteous.

We pray for those near to us, and for those dear to us. We pray for those whose names we know, and for those whose names—and needs—are known only to you.

All these things we ask in the name of the One who touched and healed rich and poor, feeding the Bread of Life to sinners and saints alike; even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

A MESSAGE FOR SPIRITUAL DIETERS

12th Sunday After Pentecost

TEXTS: John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 16:51)

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus finds himself surrounded by angry people. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” How dare he call himself “the bread of life”? What arrogance! What blasphemy! Isn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Isn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is, anyway?

And yet, a few verses earlier in the chapter, their opinion had been quite different. You remember the story. Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish, and used them to feed 5,000 people. And afterwards, there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets. After they witnessed that, the crowd was ready to make him their king!

However, Jesus knew that—while they were impressed by the miracle—they failed to understand the good news. So he spoke of himself as being “the bread of life”—bread not just for their bodies, but food for their souls. Unfortunately, they just could not see it. This talk of having come down from heaven not only confused them, it offended them. After all, they had seen Jesus grow up like any other kid from their neighbourhood. They knew the mother who had given him birth. They knew the father who had taught him his trade. They knew him—or so they thought.

You know, the way we view the world can either limit our horizons, or expand them to eternity. If they had been able to see more than just the carpenter’s son, they might have understood the depth of the good news; but they could not. When we limit our world to what we know—or what we have experienced—we can easily miss the vastness of God’s power and God’s grace.

The great theologian Karl Barth once wrote: “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god, it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”

How can we find the bread that will satisfy? In his Letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul points us in the right direction when he says: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5:1-2)

Paul’s point is simply this: we become what we habitually imitate. We become what we make our own. Just as the bread that fills our bellies becomes part of us, so it is with the thoughts that fill our minds, and the loves that fill our hearts; they become part of who we are. If we fill our hearts and minds with the trivial, the faddish, and the profane, we make ourselves trivial, faddish, and profane.

That’s why the role models we choose are so important. That’s why the example we set for our children is so important: “children learn what they live.” And so do we. If we fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word and attempt to love as God loves and to care as God cares, then we shall become more and more like Christ; we shall become “imitators of God.”

A few years ago, it was popular in some circles to wear bracelets or pieces of clothing with the letters “WWJD” on them. This stood for: “What Would Jesus Do?” That’s always a question worth asking. But answering it … Now, there’s a challenge!

John Wesley once wrote: “First, let us agree what religion is. I take religion to be, not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but a constant ruling habit of the soul, a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.”

If you’ve ever struggled to stay on a diet (or if you are struggling with it), then you know the importance of developing a taste for the right foods. What you don’t eat on a diet can be far more important than what you do eat! That’s exactly what Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians. We have to make some hard choices about feeding our hearts and minds. We have to be selective about what kind of bread we shall feast upon. We have to ask, “What has to move out of our lives in order for the Spirit of God to move in? What do we need to remove from our spiritual diet?”

To refer again to chapter four of Ephesians, Paul gives us some vital instruction there. Listen to what he says.

In verse 25 we read: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors …” We are challenged to deal honestly. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Truth is the bond that makes community possible.

In verse 26, we read: Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger …” In other words, deal now with what makes you angry. Don’t let it fester, and become malignant. As Martin Luther said, “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

In verses 27 and 28 we read: do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing …” When the devil comes ringing your doorbell, are you in the habit of inviting him in? If so, change that habit! If Satan has made the pizza, you better not sink your teeth into it! Because what you are filled with will become what you are. Paul is telling us we need to change. When he writes that thieves must give up stealing, he’s urging us not to return to our old, sinful patterns of behaviour.

In verse 29, the challenge is to realize the power of our words. Our words have the power to either tear down or build up. Jesus used his words to build people up—like when he saw Mary Magdalene as a disciple, Zacchaeus as a friend, Simon and Andrew as “fishers of men.”

The power of words to encourage, to show appreciation, to express care—these same words can be twisted to tear down, to hurt, even to destroy. And the way to control the words we speak is to make sure that our hearts are filled with the right things. We need to feast on the bread of life.

In verse 30, Paul tells us to remember whose we are—to remember who we belong to. We are cautioned not to break God’s heart. The quality of what we are filled with will show in our lives.

And then, as we come to the last two verses of chapter four, we are warned to put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” You cannot move on until you unload. Bitterness and wrath and wrangling leave scarce room for God in your heart. Anger and slander and malice leave even less.

Some of you, I’m sure, will recognize the name of Corrie ten Boom. She was a Dutch Christian Holocaust survivor who helped many Jews escape from the Nazis during World War Two. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells this story:

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [my sister’s] pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing.

“How grateful I am for your message, Fräulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not.

I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.

As I took [the man’s] hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.*

Just like Corrie ten Boom, we all are challenged to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving—to eat, if you will, the living bread that comes from heaven. If we will eat of such bread, my friends, we will live forever. This is the promise of God. Amen.

__________________

* ten Boom, Connie. The Hiding Place. (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 1971), pp. 214-215.

LET’S GET IN THE GAME!

11th Sunday After Pentecost

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message*)

TEXT: Ephesians 4:25–5:2

If you’ve been watching the Olympic coverage over the past couple of weeks, I’m sure that—in addition to the actual sports events—you’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from commentators. They seem to be on television 24 hours a day, dissecting the performance of the athletes, the officials, the judges—even the Japanese summer heat and the vending machines of Tokyo.

Of course, it’s not just the Olympic games or other sports events that get commented on (or is it, “commentated on”?). All through the year, we listen to commentators—commentators on politics, football, books, movies, music, the economy, gardening, restaurants … you name it! If you can name it, somebody will be available to comment upon it. And for the most part, all of these verbose opinions come from people sitting on the sidelines.

But you know, it’s not only in the news media that we find these sorts of commentators. We find “homegrown” commentators around us in our everyday lives, all over the place: sitting in their living rooms—or in a sports bar—watching TV; working beside us in office and shop; riding with us on public transit. We hear them voice their opinions during intermission at a concert or play. They offer us their insights while we’re waiting in line at the grocery check-out, or pumping gas at the self-serve.

Yes, homegrown commentators are thick on the ground, eager to give the world the benefit of their opinions.

We also encounter them in churches, don’t we? These folks may comment after a service if the piano player touched a wrong note, if the sermon ran overtime, if the scripture reader mispronounced some obscure biblical name.

Now, some of these church commentators are actually quite knowledgeable. They can legitimately comment on who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. They can discuss the latest archaeological discoveries in Megiddo, Jerusalem or Qumran, and even address the question of how many “Isaiahs” wrote the prophet’s book. They’ve read Barth, Tillich and Rahner. They know their stuff!

However—and this is a big however—when it comes to commitment, many of them shy away. Because, you see—while they’re more than happy to be commentators—they don’t want to be active practitioners of the Christian gospel. They’re not at all eager to join in the life of Christ’s church, or to learn the art of cross-carrying. We get plenty of opinions from them—but a bare minimum of action.

Here’s another “big however”: One ounce of practice is worth two tons of theory! Christian discipleship is not a spectator sport. We need to get down to the nitty-gritty. Is our belief simply an intellectual exercise, or is it a way of life—abundant life—in Christ Jesus?

How do we perform in the everyday circumstances of life? Do we “walk the walk” as well as we “talk the talk”? Do we practice what we preach? When it comes to the ways of Jesus, are we participants … or merely commentators? These are some of the questions that challenge us if we carefully read Paul’s words in his Letter to the Ephesians.

In the early passages of this letter, we find a lyrical celebration of what God has done in Christ. The apostle lays before us the wonder of what Jesus has done—not just for the Ephesians, but for the entire world and the whole universe. Paul celebrates the divine power which will bring everything into harmony: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (4:5).

Paul really is amazing. He launches out upon the ocean of God’s glory and plumbs the depths of holy mystery. He sees visions far beyond the commonplace, and struggles for words to express the awesome wonder of it all. In the early part of his Ephesian letter, the sentences roll on as if punctuation was impossible once Paul got rolling on his subject.

Then, suddenly, the mood changes. The sentences become shorter. Now, Paul’s focus shifts to the nitty-gritty of Christian behaviour.

After soaring through the universe, he comes back to our street—back to our homes, our schools, our places of business … and yes, even our churches!

This doesn’t mean that Paul is setting his theology aside, and saying: “Okay, enough of the exalted theory, now let’s get real.”  No. What Paul sets forth in today’s lectionary reading is the essential outworking of his high vision—but expressed in the common affairs of life. If we truly believe, as Paul does, that Christ intends to transform all things—and is calling us to help in this process—then we must begin at home. Just listen to few of the things Paul says here; it doesn’t get much simpler than this:

  • “Tell your neighbour the truth” (4:25). Stop lying. No more half-truths. Speak the plain truth to one another because you are already members of the body of Christ.
  • “Don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge” (4:26). Watch your moods, deal cleanly with your anger. It’s natural—and sometimes necessary—to get angry, but make sure it does not lead you into evil.
  • “Get an honest job” (4:28). Stop stealing. Those who have been thieves must start working honestly for a living—not just for their own sake, but so they have something to share with the needy.
  • “Watch the way you talk” (4:29). Filthy language must not pass your lips. Cut out spiteful words and actions. Don’t nurse your resentments.
  • “Say only what helps” (4:29). Speak only what is good and helpful in a situation, so that your conversation brings blessing, not condemnation. Loud-mouthing and malicious gossip must cease immediately. Slander is never the way that Christ would take.
  • “Don’t grieve God” (4:30). Don’t do anything that is offensive to the Spirit of God who now lives in you.
  • “Be gentle with one another” (4:31). Don’t forget you are members of one body. Be kind-hearted and eager to forgive, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Could Paul get more down to the nitty-gritty than this? This is what his lofty theology means on the streets of Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. It’s what the gospel is about on the streets of Tokyo, London, New York, Calgary, and Toronto.

Paul is showing us how we can put our ideals into practice. We are called to be not commentators, but practitioners, of faith in Christ.

Now, when we hear Paul talking about cheats, liars, thieves and slanderers, maybe we think to ourselves: “What a rough bunch those Ephesians were!”

Perhaps we feel superior to those early Christians to whom Paul wrote this letter. But look: we are not called to be commentators about them and their faults, way back then and there. No. We are called to be practitioners of Christ—here and now. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians still applies to us. Who among us can bear his checklist, without flinching? Listen to it once again:

  • “No more lies,” Paul says (4:25). That means no “white lies”—and no deceit by truth withheld! How does our honesty in all our dealings stack up?
  • “You do well to be angry,” Paul says (4:26)—but only if you channel your anger into some good purpose. “Don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge.” Do we follow the apostle’s wise advice?
  • “Did you used to make ends meet by stealing?” Paul asks (4:28). There are plenty of ways of stealing other than burglary and shoplifting—like tax evasion, or claiming credit for another person’s work. What is our record like?
  • “Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth” (4:29). This includes verbal abuse and the disrespect for others that lies behind it. It includes racism, and religious prejudice. Do those things lurk among us?
  • “Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk” (4:31). Do we choose words to bless others rather than hurt them? Do our words affirm, encourage, inspire and lighten the load that others bear?
  • What about spitefulness? Do we harbour resentments?
  • How about gossip? Libel causes damage whether or not it ever ends up in court. Good will and trust can be forever destroyed by idle slander.
  • Or, what about being generous and merciful? Giving without looking for reward? Forgiving as Christ forgives us? Is that truly our style?

Are we really that much better than the Ephesians? I’m not sure we are. And, actually, I know I’m not! The down-to-earth practical things still challenge me—challenge me to get off my commentator’s cushion and put my faith into action.

Small things matter. Paul’s grand vision—where everything is reconciled in Christ and drawn together in beautiful harmony before God—in the end, it all comes down to some very basic stuff. It is not enough to sit on the sidelines as Christian commentators. No. Our calling is to be practitioners. But there’s no instant Ph.D. in the field of discipleship. This is a step-by-step venture. It takes time.

And yet … we live in an era that emphasizes speed. Automobiles can cover long distances in a few hours. Our airliners can take us to the other side of the world while we eat, drink and sleep a little. By telephone or internet, we can instantly communicate with just about anyone, just about anywhere on earth. Things happen quickly these days. We like speed.

But our journey as disciples of Jesus remains a pilgrimage on foot. We move towards the magnificent future that Paul says lies in store for us—but we proceed step by step.

There is no expressway to the Kingdom of God. Instead, we traverse a narrow path that is, in places, rough and full of potholes. There are deep ravines and high mountain passes to navigate. Sometimes robbers may fall on us and try to steal our faith. False guides will meet us at crossroads, offering tantalizing diversions or bogus short cuts.

And then, at pleasant camping places, we may meet some very friendly folk—expert commentators who have watched many other pilgrims go by. They invite us to come and stay with them, and discuss at length the profound questions of life. We must not allow them to delay us for too long.

Some mornings we may feel exhilarated by the new day, and—when evening comes—we have intriguing stories to swap around the campfire. Other evenings we will lie down weary, bruised, and discouraged—and wonder why we bother. But, by morning, the call of Christ lifts us to our feet once again.

That’s how it is. Speed is not the essence of this journey, but the small details are. The small details of faithful, practical love—these are essential to our pilgrimage. From Paul, we have received the glorious faith that all things will be drawn together in harmony through Christ. We also learn from him that such glory becomes real when we pay attention to the details—the details of loving deeds.

I tell you, the world we live in does not need our religious opinions. But the world we live in is very much in need of our faithful actions. It is desperately in need of our love, our joy, our hope of resurrection.

Remember, we are the ones entrusted with Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18)—the ones through whom God is making his appeal to the world in this day. So, my friends, let’s be faithful ambassadors for our Lord. Let’s be practitioners instead of commentators … for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

_____________________

* The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson 

BREAD FROM HEAVEN

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: John 6:24-35

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …” (John 6:27a)

In today’s gospel lesson, we catch up with Jesus the day after he performed that famous miracle where 5,000 people were fed from a small boy’s meagre lunch (John 6:1-14). Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes until everyone present had eaten their fill—and then there were 12 baskets of leftovers remaining.

The people have followed Jesus all the way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee because they want another free meal.

They have come looking for physical nourishment—and who can blame them? But now Jesus wants to offer them something else, something that is even better. He wants to give them spiritual sustenance. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In John, the emphasis is on spiritual blessing—on “food that endures for eternal life.” Less than 24 hours earlier, these people had witnessed Jesus’ miraculous provision of bread—and now they want more of the same. They want another miracle like that—like the manna which sustained the physical lives of their ancestors.

You remember the story about the manna, right? It’s found in chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus. In the midst of their long journey through the barren desert wilderness, the people had difficulty finding enough food to eat. So the Lord provided for them.

“Out of the blue,” bread rained down from heaven. Always, just enough bread for that day. On the sixth day, there was enough bread for two days, so the people could rest on the Sabbath.

It is this story from Israel’s history which the people hold up when they come to Jesus and ask him for a “sign” (John 6:30). They want the future to be like the past. They figure that the thing which worked so well previously is what they still need in their present circumstances.

And why would they not desire something that’s “tried and true”? When Moses was their liberator, God gave them food for their bodies. Why can’t they expect the same thing from Jesus?

Well, of course, they can! The experience of the previous day had shown them they could. But Jesus wants to give them something more—something greater.

He wants to provide not merely bread to feed human bodies, but eternally-enduring food to sustain the human spirit. He wants to give them a taste of another kind of bread—bread which will sustain them in and for the future.

Most of them don’t get it. In fact, as we read further in chapter six of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus trying to enlarge their understanding of bread—and of life.

In verse 48, he tells them again, “I am the bread of life.” And then he says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever …” (vv. 49-51).

But all that talk just weirded them out. If Jesus wasn’t going to repeat the “bread” miracles of the past … Well, they wanted no part of the future he was offering them. And in verse 66, we read the sad commentary: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

They stood at a turning point. Jesus wanted to lead them in a new direction. Not because their walk up to this point had been evil or bad, but because their old ways of thinking—and doing—belonged to the past.

They had come to a dead end. To move into the future, they needed a new way of thinking, a new way of doing.

They needed a new path.

Jesus wanted to show them the way forward … but most of them refused to look.

However, the “bread from heaven” being offered by Jesus is not about the past. Rather, it points to the future—to “eternal life,” in fact.

Yes. Eternal life. Not only in heaven after we die, but right here, right now, in our earthly future, as well.

Not only in the distant past, but also in the very recent past, the church has been blessed by “manna from heaven”—gifts which have come to us from “out of the blue” just when we needed them most. And of course we should give thanks for that.

But, today, I find myself wondering whether—just like those people who wanted more of the same old kind of bread—we, also, have reached a turning point. Are we, I wonder, being called away from the manna which has sustained us in the past?

Is Jesus offering us a new kind of bread? Bread which is able to sustain us as we journey onward? Is he offering himself to us in a fresh way?

Is he, I wonder, calling us out of our usual places? Our familiar sanctuaries? Our traditional ways of doing things?

Is that idea shocking?

Is it more shocking than the ongoing discoveries of unmarked graves at former church-run residential schools?

Is it more shocking than the realization that we have used the gospel as an instrument of colonialization?

Is it more shocking than the “greying” of so many of our churches? In my own denomination, it’s obvious that in most congregations, at least three-quarters of the membership is over 60 years of age. As one astute observer commented: “Viewed from behind, we look like a box of cotton swabs.”

In Canada today, less than 15% of self-identified Christians attend worship services even once a week, according to a recent poll.

I’m certain of this much: we cannot any longer go on the way we have been. Something has to change.

I confess, this scares me at least as much as I know it scares some of you. Change is never easy. However—if it’s the right kind of change—it breathes fresh air. It brings new life.

On this first Sunday in August of 2021, many of us will approach the Lord’s Table.

As we taste the bread and drink the fruit of the vine, we will be participating in a sacred feast which is not only about remembering the distant past, but also about looking forward. As we celebrate the community of which we are part—a community which exists not only on earth, but also in heaven—we are celebrating hope. We gather to proclaim our trust in the God who gives us “the true bread from heaven”—the bread which gives life to the world. The bread which can give life—abundant life—to us, today … and tomorrow.

And that, my friends, is something to be grateful for! Thanks be to God.

HOW WIDE? HOW LONG? HOW HIGH? HOW DEEP?

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Ephesians 3:14-21

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)

In a magazine article some time back, a story was told that I think illustrates an important point. A growing church was making construction plans. In honour of the pastor’s many years of ministry, the building committee told him they wanted to put his name on the cornerstone. He thanked them for their thoughtfulness, and then he quoted First Corinthians 10:31, “…whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

He then asked that the committee not let his name appear. If you were to drive by that church today, instead of the pastor’s name, you would read these words on the cornerstone: “For the glory of God.”

“For the glory of God.” Or, as Paul puts it in today’s passage from Ephesians: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph. 3:21)

“For the glory of God.” That’s the only purpose of any church building. That’s the only purpose of the people who are called the Body of Christ. That’s the only reason for the church’s existence. That, says Paul, is why God gives us his love and his power. It is all for his glory!

The apostle Paul starts our passage with a prayer. We can break down what Paul says into three distinct petitions. As we go through this passage you will see that Paul prays that we: measure the immeasurable, know the unknowable, and contain the uncontainable.

First, the apostle prays that we may comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love. Now, I know that he was praying for the Ephesian Christians—but this is Scripture, and so it is also his prayer for us. Paul wants us to understand how wide and long and high and deep is the love of our Saviour for us. Now, we can ask—and should ask—that very question: how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ?

Here’s another story: it comes from England, in the time of Oliver Cromwell.

A young soldier had been tried in military court and sentenced to death. He was to be shot at the “ringing of the curfew bell.” His fiancée climbed up into the bell tower several hours before curfew time and tied herself to the bell’s huge clapper. At curfew time, when only muted sounds came from the bell tower, Cromwell demanded to know why the bell was not ringing. His soldiers went to investigate, and found the young woman—bruised and cut and bleeding from being smashed back and forth against the great bell. They cut her loose, and brought her to Cromwell. He was so impressed by her willingness to suffer on behalf of the one she loved that he let the soldier go, saying: “Curfew shall not ring tonight.” *

That story illustrates the love of Christ. Christ’s love is so wide and long and high and deep that he is willing to do this—and more—for us. Brothers and sisters, this is the kind of love Paul wants us to personally know and live out in our lives. How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Behold the cross. I’m not talking simply about what happened on the cross. I’m talking about the actual cross. It points up to the heavens, and it points down to the depths. It points to the east, and it points to the west. The love of Christ is like the cross—it points in all directions, and to the furthest reaches of the universe.

How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Think of the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, between humanity and God. The love of Christ tore down and destroyed the wall that separated Jew from Gentile, and which separated human beings from God (Eph. 2:14). It is this same love which redeemed for God people from every tribe and language and nation; it broke down the wall between different races and cultures and languages (Rev. 5:9; 7:9).

How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Scripture provides us with some clues. As the eternal Son of God, Christ in heaven had glory and majesty. He was very God of very God. By him were the heavens and the earth and everything in them made. His almighty arm held up the sun and moon and stars. The praises of the cherubim and seraphim perpetually surrounded him. The full chorus of the hallelujahs of the universe unceasingly flowed to the foot of his throne. He reigned supreme over all Creation. He was God above all, blessed and exalted forever.

Then, Christ took on our flesh—and he emptied himself of all of this glory. He left it behind. Instead, he took on our sin and our shame, our misery and our grief, our fallenness and our depravity. He made himself nothing. He took on the nature of a servant. He humbled himself. Because of his great love, he emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-8).

How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? Think now of what happened on the cross. The one who was King of the universe became obedient unto death. The one who was the Son of God became a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He suffered, he bled, and he died. He was forsaken by his Father. He endured the torments of hell. He suffered all of this out of love for us.

How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of Christ? The width of God’s love is immense; it extends to every tribe and language and people and nation; it covers every sin and need and care and situation. The length of God’s love is eternal; it existed before time, it is never-ending, it is unconditional, and it is boundless. The depth of God’s love is unfathomable; it caused God to stoop as low as we are—to reach down to our level. The height of God’s love is infinite; it extends to the highest heaven and to the very throne of God.

Measuring God’s love is impossible. How can you measure the immeasurable? And yet, as disciples of Jesus, we are being called to show this immeasurable love—to demonstrate this love in our world.

Paul’s second petition is that the Ephesian church will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (v.19). He prays that they will “know this love”—that is, experience it personally in their hearts and in their lives. And he has the same prayer for us—that we will make the love of Christ our own. He wants you to make Christ’s love your love. And Paul knows that such love—when it is lived out—becomes a witness, becomes a light to those who do not yet possess it.

I want you to notice that Paul thinks we can know the unknowable. Right there in verse 19, he says that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge”—yet he prays that we may know it! How can this be? Well, I think Paul means a special kind of “knowing”—the kind that cannot be learned in a theology class, but which can only be known through experience. Once we know and personally experience the love of God, we come to realize it is indescribable and utterly amazing. Indescribable; amazing—and yet, it is the most real thing in the life of a believer. That’s why Paul’s prayer for us is that we may know this unsurpassing love.

Paul’s third petition is that we may be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul is praying that we may be filled with the love of God. But, more than that, he prays that we may be filled with the God of Love—filled not only with God’s love, but filled with God, who is Love! The Book of Acts tells us what that looks like. The fourth chapter of Acts paints a picture for us. Peter and John are in Jerusalem, some days after Pentecost, and they have been hauled before the religious authorities and ordered not to preach their message to anyone. But after they are released, they find some other believers and they have a prayer meeting! And after they had prayed, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).

Now, when we hear about a building being shaken, we automatically think of an earthquake, or maybe an explosion. But in the New Testament church of Jerusalem it was the God of love that shook the building. It was the presence of God’s Spirit that did it.

Can you imagine us being so filled with the Spirit of God—with the love of God—that our sanctuary walls would start to shake? Paul wants us to be filled with the Spirit of God. In other words, his prayer is that we may contain the uncontainable. Wow! What a tall order! When King Solomon built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, even he had to ask himself: “… will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

The God of love is too big and too awesome to be contained in a building or in any single person. And yet, Paul’s hope for us is that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

What happens when we try to contain the uncontainable? Think, for a moment, about an empty drinking glass being filled from a full pitcher of water. The full pitcher not only fills the glass, but fills it to overflowing. That’s what happens when we are filled with the love of God. Not only are we filled, but we are filled to overflowing. God’s great love in our lives splashes onto those around us. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

And if we want to be filled with this overflowing love, the apostle Paul tells us what needs to happen in our lives—as individuals and as a church. He prays that we may be “rooted and grounded in love” (v.17b); he prays that “Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith” (v.17a); and he prays that we “may be strengthened in [our] inner being with power through his Spirit” (v.16b).

These are three different ways of saying the same thing: you need to have a relationship with Christ! In order for God’s love and Christ’s love to be your love, you need to have a relationship with Christ. I’m sure this is nothing new for any of you who are reading this blog. But let me tell you anyway! For you to measure and know and contain God’s love: you need to have Christ at the centre of your life; you need to live for him; you need to spend time with him every day in prayer; you need to read and study God’s Word in daily devotions, and in the company of other believers; you need to worship God every Sunday. And, as you find yourselves being drawn closer to him, you will also find yourselves growing in his love—in his love which is so wide and long and high and deep.

In most congregations today, we struggle to make ends meet. It’s a perpetual challenge to pay the bills, and maintain the building, and meet our other obligations. But I want you to notice that Paul does not pray about buildings and payrolls and money concerns. His concern goes much deeper than that. Paul’s first concern is that the church be a place where God’s love is measured and known and contained. And if we can accomplish that—well, my friends, I believe that the Lord will take care of everything else. Thanks be to God. Amen.

____________________

* https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Thorpe_Curfew_Ring.pdf

 

A SPIRITUAL HOUSE

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Ephesians 2:11-22

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19-20)

This will come as no surprise to any of you, I’m sure …

Friends, our world is a mess. In fact, things seem messy just about any place you care to look: Palestine. Israel. Syria. India. Afghanistan. Washington, D.C. … Calgary, Alberta. British Columbia is on fire. The COVID-19 pandemic still rages out of control in the developing world, while many in rich nations stubbornly refuse vaccination. Where church-run residential schools once stood, unmarked graves belie our supposed devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are problems everywhere—problems on the ground; problems in the air we breathe; problems in the ocean. Political tension. Racism. Sexism. Rottenness at the core of our most cherished institutions.

Have you ever heard of the “Doomsday Clock”? It’s a symbol representing the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. The clock has been maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and it displays their opinion about the threat of human extinction. Today, it is set at 100 seconds to midnight.* Midnight being … well … doomsday.

We have war, famine, plague and pestilence. We have discord within our society and conflict between nations.

In every major city, we have gang warfare in the streets and homeless people on the streets. Concurrent with the lingering pandemic, we have an ever-metastasizing opioid crisis—and our health care systems are staggering under the weight of it all.

Yep. This world of ours is a mess. Many believe that things will only get worse. Some commentators have observed that the troubles in this world—be they environmental troubles, or people-related troubles—have intensified in recent years, and they see no indication that things will improve.

Then, there are other people who will argue that the world has always been a mess, but that people do find ways to cope and carry on. We may not be able to fix our problems, they say, but education and diplomacy will prevent our problems from overwhelming us. And keep the Doomsday Clock from striking twelve.

However, there is another perspective. It is suggested in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: this world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan.

This world of ours is a mess, but God is offering a solution—and the solution is us! This world of ours is a mess, but we can make things better. We … being … the Church.

Yes. The Church. Us. We can make things better. Given our institutional history, that’s hard to believe. But God tells us it is so. We are the Church, and the Church is the means whereby Christ functions in this world.

Moreover, the Church is not “Plan B”—it has always been “Plan A.” As Paul reminded the Ephesians, God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). God has always had a purpose for us. We are part of a grand, cosmic plan. As the Church, we are the channel through which Jesus Christ is to be glorified in this world.

One of Paul’s favorite metaphors is the Church as “the body of Christ.” As the body of Christ, we have a unique relationship to Jesus, who is our Head.

And here’s the thing: all of the power that belongs to the Head has been made available to the rest of the body. With this divine power at the Church’s disposal, surely we can make a difference in this world!

It’s a pretty good analogy: as the head directs the human body, so Christ directs his body, the Church. And now, here—in Ephesians, chapter two—Paul introduces a new group of metaphors to make this point. Paul relates the identity of the Christian: first, to a nation; secondly, to a household; and thirdly, to a building.

Prior to entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ, you and I were contributing to the mess in this world. Paul says that we were “strangers” and “aliens” (2:19); that is to say, we had no concern for the nation—or kingdom—of God. But now, Paul says that we are “citizens” of God’s kingdom—we are a part of God’s plan to transform the world.

Moving the analogy further along, Paul identifies us more intimately with God by explaining that we belong to God’s “household” (2:19).

This progression is significant because, if we were merely citizens, we might imagine that our participation in God’s purposes was based entirely upon duty.

As citizens, we might abide by the laws of God because that is our duty as loyal subjects. However, belonging to God’s household is an entirely different matter. That makes us members of God’s family! And as family members, we soon discover the privilege and joy of working for our heavenly Father.

The third metaphor—that of a building—may initially strike us as a rather impersonal comparison. But we quickly realize that this is no ordinary building.

Paul explains that this building is comprised of individual Christians who are connected to one another. Paul says we are being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:20).

Now, Paul is not saying that “the apostles and the prophets” themselves are the foundation. He is saying that the apostles and prophets—through their proclamation of Christ—have laid the foundation. Christ himself is the cornerstone.

What is a cornerstone? In the sense that Paul means it, the cornerstone is that one stone that binds all of the other stones together. In the same way that the body depends upon the head, the strength of the building—and the usefulness of each stone—depends upon the cornerstone.

The imagery in this second chapter is so rich! Here’s something else to notice: the Church is not a completed edifice, but one that Paul says is “joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21). Hear that? We’re growing! We’re a building that grows! Even though Paul has moved from the metaphor of a body to the metaphor of a building, he does not want us to lose sight of the fact that the Church is like a living organism. We are like a temple that is alive.

You know, I think Paul must have had a conversation about this with the apostle Peter, because this was one of Peter’s favorite images. In his first epistle, Peter says we are like “living stones” that are being “built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). The reason the building can grow—the reason the building is alive—is that it is built from “living stones.” And so, it is as “living stones” that we are “growing into a holy temple.”

“A holy temple.” A house for God. That’s what we are—a dwelling place for God, the place where God’s glory is revealed and made apparent. Wow! That’s amazing, isn’t it?

God’s plan is to build us into his temple. God’s presence is not contained within a church building. No. God’s presence resides within the living stones that have been fitted together and connected to the cornerstone, Jesus Christ. God’s presence resides in us!

To put it another way, the Christian Church is the vehicle for God’s presence. The Christian Church is the means whereby the spiritual Christ functions in a physical world.

We do not go to church; we are the Church! Church is not someplace we go; Church is what we are.

This new identity of ours begs the question: if you and I, as living stones, comprise God’s holy temple, what should we be doing?

First of all, as living stones, we must stay connected to Christ. We find our proper place and usefulness within the building only in relation to Christ’s position as the cornerstone. As Jesus said, using yet another metaphor, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me … bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). For this reason, we must make every effort to remain connected to the Lord.

Secondly, as living stones, we must stay connected to one another. Many so-called Christians today believe that they can get along just fine without ever belonging to a community of faith. This is a huge mistake. If you believe that, then you have fundamentally misunderstood God’s purpose for us.

As living stones, we are not meant to exist in isolation. A stone in isolation is useless. In fact, a living stone, detached from the rest of the building, is not only useless, but it is also a tragic waste. It makes a travesty of God’s purposes.

The grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God has positioned you and me to be living stones, fitted into a spiritual building. And, again, this building is changing.

This building … that we are … is growing. Together we are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” Therefore, we must make every effort to remain connected to one another. And finally, since we are no ordinary building, since we are meant to be “a holy temple,” since we are meant to display the glory of God within this troubled world, we must make every effort to lead holy lives. If we, as living stones, comprise God’s holy temple, let us not defile it—either with our words or through our actions.

One of the implications of being fitted together in this way is that your sin is not just your sin; your blemish is the Church’s blemish. The defilement of one part defiles the whole body. We’ve seen that truth demonstrated many times in our history: crusades, witchcraft trials, sex scandals, genocidal complicity … The misbehaviour of even one member can harm the reputation of the entire Church.

This is a sober message Paul is giving us—and a profoundly challenging one. How we behave matters because the Church is the means whereby the spiritual Christ functions in this world. As someone has said, Jesus has no hands and feet but ours. And you and I … we really might just be the only gospel someone else ever reads.

Yes, this world is a mess, but God has a plan—and we are part of it.

If we stay connected to the Head of the Church, which is Jesus Christ; if we are joined to the cornerstone; we can make a positive difference. United with Christ—and with our fellow Christians—we can be a blessing to the world which Jesus loved and for whose people he gave his life. Let us resolve, this day, to do exactly that. Through the power and presence of God within us, we surely can … as we move forward into the future.

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

______________________

* https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/

 

HERE’S THE PLAN … WOW!

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us … (Ephesians 1:3-6, NRSV)

I recall a comic strip from not that long ago which had a mother bringing her young daughter to church—which evidently was not something they did regularly. Afterward, as they were leaving, the little girl asked her mother, “What does ‘ah-lay-loo-ya’ mean?” And the mother said, “It’s Latin for ‘yippee!’”

Well, “alleluia” is the Latin form of the Hebrew “hallelujah,” which means “Praise the Lord!” So really, that mother wasn’t so far off the mark. “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” These are expressions of praise and joy—and in common parlance, they are pretty much interchangeable with “Yippee!” or “Yahoo!” or even “Wow!”

Wow! God is wonderful! The opening passage of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about saying exactly that. It’s one great big “Wow!” Paul describes the big picture of God’s plan for the world, and then he exclaims, “Wow!”

Sometimes we lose the “wow factor” in our response to the gospel. Maybe that’s because we’re so used to it. If we’ve been part of God’s people for a while, the message becomes so familiar to us that we begin to take it for granted. Maybe we forget how extraordinary it is.

Or perhaps we have not heard the message stated with the kind of enthusiasm—and the kind of clarity—it deserves. So let me try to expand a bit on the words of Paul—and, hopefully, get that wow factor back in.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). Wow! Blessed be the name of God! All praise and honour to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! God has gathered up all the spiritual blessings of heaven—everything that you might have imagined would be kept for only the holiest of saints—God has bundled them all up together and given them to us in our union with Christ.

This was not a new idea on God’s part, even though we knew nothing about it. It was God’s plan since before he laid the foundations of the world. Even before time began, God had us in mind. Before the first dinosaur left its footprints in the mud, God was looking forward to our arrival.

God knew what we would need, and he was getting it ready, so that—from the day of our birth—we would be surrounded by his divine love. Only love can truly set us free to be the people we are capable of becoming, and there is no love so life-giving as God’s love. God wanted to immerse us so completely in his love that it would soak into the very pores of our skin. God wanted to plant the seed of his love in our hearts so that it could germinate there, and grow there, and then burst forth into our lives and bloom, and bear fruit for him in our lives. Imagine that—our lives considered good enough for God, who is holy and perfect!

Think about it! Billions of years before our grandparents were born, God set the wheels in motion for us to be adopted as his own children. And he planned to do it through Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, his Word—his Love—made flesh.

Why? Well, maybe because God knew that we would understand him better if he came to us with a human face. Maybe God knew that we would only be able to recognize just how over-the-top this love is if we saw it in a person—in a flesh-and-blood human being that we could relate to. And it worked, didn’t it? Because the divine love that we’ve seen in Jesus far surpasses any other love we’ve ever known. Christ’s love for us was limitless. His desire to reconcile us with God was unstoppable. That’s why he paid the ultimate price on our behalf, shedding his own blood in order to reclaim us for God’s family. And he did all of that even though—at first—we refused his offer.

We turned our backs on God so often and so completely that Jesus could easily have given up on us. He could have said, “Well, I tried to get through to them but they were too stubborn to listen.” No one would have blamed him if he’d washed his hands of us and walked away. But he didn’t. His love was so extravagant—and his generosity was so utterly reckless—that he just forgave us for everything! He forgave us, and he kept right on going, putting his life on the line to save us from the consequences of our own bad behaviour. To him, even death by torture was a price worth paying to make sure we would not miss out on God’s love. Yes, “in him we have redemption through his blood, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8).

God can see and understand perfectly what we could never get our heads around—but he decided to let us in on it, to give us a window into the mystery of his divine plan. God just seems to love doing things like that. It must be one of those things that you can’t get any real pleasure out of if you can’t tell anyone. So God decided to make it plain to all of us by giving us a preview in Christ. If we look at Jesus, and consider who he is and what he is about, we actually begin to see God’s whole plan for the entire universe.

God in Christ—God in everything; that’s the plan. This is how it will unfold when the time is right: God will bring all things perfectly together in Christ. The reconciliation of everything—from the depths of the earth to the farthest reaches of heaven—is all accomplished in and through Jesus Christ. And we’re not talking here about a token reconciliation—about a few lame platitudes written down and never really put into practice. No. We’re talking about the birth of something totally new—a great cosmic communion of boundless love. We’re talking about the kind of love we see so wonderfully expressed in Jesus himself.

Imagine that love filling every corner of the universe. Imagine everything and everyone being consumed by love for everything and everyone else. Well, that’s the plan; and God has given us a glimpse of it already. In Christ Jesus, we see it beginning to take shape. And you know the best thing about this plan? It’s just as much about you and me—about each and every individual—as it is about the universe as a whole.

“In Christ we have obtained an inheritance …” (Eph. 1:11a). In Christ, we are identified as God’s beneficiaries, and our future is secured. If God had gone to a lawyer and drawn up a will, it would have your name on it—yours, and mine. “To these ones, I leave everything I have to give.”

God’s plans always work out, and right from the beginning we have been a part of those plans. It makes no difference whether you were one of the first people to follow Jesus, or whether you just decided to do it 10 minutes ago. It’s the same for us in the 21st century as it was for those in the first century. The message of God’s rescue mission reached us, and once we accepted the offer and put our trust in Christ, we became part of him—just like those first 12 disciples. We were “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13b).

Our future is signed and sealed, and you can trust that it will be delivered. God never puts his name to anything without following through on the whole deal. Your life in the Spirit right now is a pretty good down payment—but there is far, far more to come. Everything planned for God’s people will be yours—a life overflowing with the glory and splendour of God. All joy, all peace, all love, all wonder, every blessing of heaven bundled together and wrapped in the glory of God will be yours for all eternity.

Wow! Hallelujah! Yippee! Blessed be God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Power Comes to its Full Strength In Weakness”

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXTS: Mark 6:1-13 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

 

[Jesus] … went to his home town accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue; and the large congregation who heard him were amazed … (Mark 6:1b, 2a) 1

The story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown is a classic. Most of us can identify with it, because it is a story that has happened to most of us. It’s kind of like a leading question too many of us—rather stupidly—persist in asking our spouses … or our children: “Why won’t you ever listen to me?”

And the reply is: “Because I know you!”

Whether they say it out loud or not, that is the reason! The people in our hometown know us all too well, and therefore they simply cannot believe that the boy who used to leave his dirty socks sitting on the kitchen table—or the girl who used to skip school to go hang around the mall—could really have anything worthwhile to say.

Consider the grumbling of the people in Nazareth when Jesus taught in their synagogue: “Where does he get it from?” and “What wisdom is this that has been given him?” and “How does he work such miracles? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3)

And Mark goes on to say that they took offence at him (or, as the New English Bible has it, “they fell foul of him”). And as a result, Jesus was not able to do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

Yes, Jesus was rejected by his own—and all because his own thought that they knew him. But there is more to this story of rejection, for the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth is also a story about how we ignore and reject God. It is a story about our unwillingness to be helped by God—or by anybody else. It’s about an unwillingness which is born from our own arrogance—our supreme confidence in our own wisdom, and our own strength.

For the people who lived in Jesus’ home town, their knowledge of him as a youth prevented them from seeing God’s power in him as an adult. But for most of us, I think, the grace of God is shut out not because we know Christ so well, but because we think we know what is best for ourselves—and because we refuse to acknowledge that sometimes we need help. We don’t want to consider that our own understanding could be incomplete or faulty. We don’t want to believe that our own strength might be insufficient.

The road to spiritual wholeness is not travelled by exercising our human powers, but rather by acknowledging our human weaknesses, and then—in that weakness—allowing God to exercise his power in us. The Apostle Paul—like all of us—knew weakness. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he reveals that he was given a “thorn in the flesh”—“a sharp pain in my body which came as Satan’s messenger to bruise me.” He says he received this in order to keep him from “being unduly elated” by his extraordinary revelations and spiritual experiences; in other words, to keep his ego in check.

Paul does not tell us the precise nature of this affliction, and so a great deal of conjecture has sprung up. Some believe that Paul had severe migraine headaches. Others say it was a skin disease, or a crippled limb, or blindness—or even alcoholism. I think this speaks to the genius of Scripture: because this “thorn in the flesh” is unspecified, anyone with almost any sort of physical infirmity is able to identify with Paul.

Whatever it was, Paul tells us that—three times—he prayed for this affliction to be removed. And on the third occasion when Paul prayed, God answered him and said: “My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness.”

Paul’s response is amazing. He says: “Hence I am well content, for Christ’s sake, with weakness, contempt, persecution, hardship, and frustration; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

“When I am weak, then I am strong.” To the world, this sounds like utter nonsense. Power and strength are practically worshipped by most people, and weakness is despised above all things. The world teaches us to conceal our vulnerabilities, lest we get hurt. It teaches us to hide our weaknesses, lest we be taken advantage of. The world teaches us to camouflage our inadequacies with self-confidence, self-reliance and self-assurance, so that we can build a heaven for ourselves here on earth. The world teaches us that we are the captains of our fate—that we can do everything on our own, and that we can find within ourselves all the answers—and all the strength—we will ever need.

But of course, this simply is not true. It is the deception of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve; it is not the wisdom of God. Every dysfunctional person caught behaving in an offensive manner says that he knows better, and that he is on the way to overcoming the problem.

Certainly, our weaknesses, our hardships, and our tribulations are not blessings, in and of themselves. They are real problems for us. However, when we acknowledge our weaknesses and our needs, and turn to God and ask for his help—instead of relying on our own skill and wisdom and strength—then something profound happens: we discover that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and that his power is made perfect in our weakness.

When I am weak, then I am strong. Truth be known, we are weak in many, many ways—ways that all too often we are afraid to admit, because we fear that we will be scorned or rejected or judged or taken advantage of, somehow.

But that is not what must happen—especially for the believer. To me, it seems that—if we will allow his Spirit in—God comes to us and helps us. Our weakness may remain—as Paul’s “thorn” remained—but God’s power inhabits that weakness, and turns it into strength for us; strength for us to do what we are meant to do.

The story is told about how one day a small boy was trying to lift a stone that was much too heavy for him. His father—seeing the boy struggling—asked him, “Are you using all your strength?” The boy said that, yes, he surely was.

But the father replied, saying, “No, son, you aren’t—for you have not asked me.”

How much, I wonder, have we not asked God about? How much of our weakness do we keep locked up inside us, because we think that we are beyond help—or that there is no help for us? Or even, that we don’t deserve any help? Because we know that what we’ve done is so wrong, or so dishonourable—or so … just plain stupid—that we are ashamed to lift our eyes up to heaven.

And yet, the greater part of our help comes from our relationship with God—the God who is not only willing to forgive us—but also able and eager to help us.

Yes. God is eager to help us. That’s the whole reason he sent Jesus to rescue us. That was the entire point of the cross, my friends. That’s what Christ’s death and resurrection were all about. But first we must acknowledge our need for him, and ask him to take control.

Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to do. For some of us—and perhaps for all of us, some of the time—relinquishing control can appear impossibly difficult. Sometimes we have to come to the brink of destruction—to a point far beyond even desperation … a point where our very souls cry out to God!

Carrie Underwood has a song about this. Maybe you know it. Probably, you have heard it:

Jesus, take the wheel

Take it from my hands

Cause I can’t do this on my own

I’m letting go

So give me one more chance

Save me from this road I’m on

Jesus, take the wheel 2

Even so, please take the wheel, Lord. Your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.

Amen.

___________________

1 Scripture quotations herein are from the New English Bible: © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press & the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.

2 “Jesus Take the Wheel” Songwriters JAMES, BRETT / LINDSEY, HILLARY / SAMPSON, GORDY. Published by Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, WINDSWEPT HOLDINGS LLC, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC 

 

SHE WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THERE

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Mark 5:21-43

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages  for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (Mark 5:25-28)

She had plenty of reasons to be afraid. She wasn’t supposed to be there, but she was desperate: desperate for help, desperate for healing. She wasn’t supposed to be there in the crowd, sneaking through, trying to touch just the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Surely if she could touch even that, she would be healed. Surely.

But she was not supposed to be there—and if she got found out, she’d be in trouble. Culture and custom said she wasn’t supposed to be there. Social courtesy said she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Law said she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Law—in Leviticus, chapter 15—said: “If a woman has a flow of blood, she remains unclean as long as the flow continues, and for seven days after it stops. Anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Anyone who touches anything she has touched will be unclean until evening.”*

She has been bleeding for twelve years. She has been ritually unclean for twelve years. For twelve years, anyone she touches has been rendered ritually unclean until evening. If she touches someone, they are prohibited from having social contact with anyone else for the rest of the day. For twelve years, she has been persona non grata. For twelve years, she has been expected to avoid contact with the rest of society. She was not supposed to be out in public, pushing her way through a crowd, trying to touch Jesus—or even the hem of his garment.

Yes, she had plenty of reasons to be afraid, and plenty of people to be afraid of—including Jesus, when she made him unclean!

How many of us, I wonder, are just like her—sneaking around with our heads down, afraid of being recognized? Desperately hiding the truth about ourselves, for fear of being shunned and isolated? For fear of being looked down upon, or judged? How many of us, I wonder, are just like her—desperate to find some cure, some relief, some acceptance … but terrified of what it might take to grab hold of it?

She pushed her way through the crowd—face hidden, anonymous, risking everything. It was only a fleeting opportunity, after all. Jesus was in a hurry. This was no time to interrupt him; he was on a mission of mercy, dealing with an urgent matter.

A little girl was dying. There was not a moment to lose.

This little girl, you see … She was twelve years old.

For twelve years, she had been healthy and happy. For twelve years, she had grown up as the precious daughter of one of the most important men in the town. For twelve years, she had had everything—but now her life was hanging by a thread. This was no time to interrupt Jesus. He had more important business to attend to. He had a little girl’s life to save.

“If I can just touch the edge of his garment as he hurries past—surely, that will be enough. Surely, that will make me better.”

So she did it. She pushed through the crowd and touched his garment as he hurried by—and immediately, she felt the bleeding stop! She had been right. She was healed. The disease was gone. No more feeling anemic and lethargic—no more hiding in the shadows, avoiding everyone.

She pulled the veil around her face and slipped back into the  crowd. She had what she’d come for, and she was off. No harm done. No one had recognized her. No one knew who it was that had touched them in the crowd. She would just melt back into the crowd and slip off home.

“Who touched my clothes?”

Jesus has stopped. Like an ambulance driver screeching to a halt on the way to an emergency, Jesus has stopped.

“Who touched me?”

Jairus is pulling on his arm: “Who cares who touched you? Come and save my daughter! Quickly, before it’s too late.”

“Who touched me?”

She froze in fear. She’d been found out. She was busted.

She meant no harm, but she had been desperate. She’d been careful not to interrupt, not to get in the way … but now, she was going to be exposed. Now the jig was up.

She had plenty of reasons to be afraid. She was not supposed to be there. Trembling, she fell to her knees at Jesus’ feet, and admitted what she’d done. She knew she was in for it, but there was nowhere to hide. He knew. Somehow, he knew.

Then Jesus reached out his hand: “Daughter, you took a risk of faith—and it has paid off for you. Welcome back to society. Shalom! May peace, health and happiness be yours, and may your illness be gone for good.”

She has not been condemned, after all. Instead, she has been touched by one who knew why she was supposed to be untouchable. She has been lifted to her feet and embraced. She has been commended in public, and given the Lord’s blessing. She has been offered healing beyond her wildest dreams: social healing; emotional healing; public acceptance.

How often, I wonder, are we just like her?

How often can we not see beyond the little bit of something that we hope will make life more bearable? How often are we only too willing to settle for symptomatic relief, and then slip back into the crowd without daring to imagine what more there might be? How often do we look for nothing more than that? Nothing more than that, from Jesus—and from his body, the church? A little bit of something to make us feel a bit better. A little touch to get us through the week. How often do we think that we’re not worth anything more than that?

Surely God has got more important things to do—more important people to attend to. Surely there is a twelve-year-old somewhere—dying of hunger or disease—who warrants God’s attention much more than we do. Who are we to expect Jesus to stop and take notice? So we just push through the crowd for a little touch to make life bearable … and then slip off again—unnoticed, unimportant, unchallenged, unblessed—anonymous, and still tightly bound by fear and shame and loneliness.

Jesus, however, thinks you are worth more than that. You see, to him, nothing is more important than you are. There is nothing else that matters so much that Jesus would pass you by and leave you to fend for yourself. Jesus is not content to see you just get a little touch to make you feel better, temporarily.

No. He wants to see you healthy and whole, strong and confident, accepted and loved. He wants to do more than just close your wounds and stop the bleeding; he wants to lead you into a wholeness you could never have imagined—a fullness of life beyond your wildest dreams.

And if you slip off into the crowd, Jesus will be left standing there, still asking: “Who touched me?” Because he believes you are worth waiting for. Because he has so much more that he wants to give you. Because he wants you to follow him, to dance with him, to learn from him, to share life and love and joy and suffering with him.

He wants you to lay aside your fears and your shame and your isolation—to lay aside the only self you have ever known, and follow him into the wide-open spaces of God’s love and mercy.

But, be assured of this: Christ will not force you.

When the bread is broken and the cup of blessing is shared, you can reach out your hand and touch him. And then, if you want to, you can slip back into the crowd—strengthened, perhaps, to get through another week … but without ever finding out what Jesus might be offering you.

And if you do that, you won’t be punished or exposed.

But Jesus will still be waiting for you, asking, “Who touched me?” and longing to give you all he wants you to have, longing for you to accept the gift of his very self.

If you will stop—if you will fall to your knees before him, if you will risk offering him your self in truthfulness—then he will offer himself to you, and open himself to you, so that you might be healed by his brokenness and drawn into his wholeness and raised into new life. He will offer himself to you, so that you might be reconciled to him—and, in him, to the glory of God and the joy of all the earth.

If you will stop, if you will come—even if you will come back—it will be worth the risk; because “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away … everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

It does not matter who you are, or what you have done. Whether you were raised in a loving home, or made to feel worthless; whether you live with guilt and shame and fear—or even live as one from whom others recoil in fear—Jesus is offering you a place in his family, a place at his table, a place that’s been set just for you.

So, reach out. Reach out and touch.

Even if it’s just the hem of Jesus’ garment, the touching will change your life.

____________

* See Leviticus 15:25-28

 

WHERE’S YOUR HEAD?

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Mark 4:35-41

… But [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)

Besides the gospel reading from Mark, the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper Seven, Year B also serves up this Epistle reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. So, we read the gospel account of Jesus calming a fierce storm on the sea of Galilee (after his terrified disciples woke him up, that is). And then we hear the apostle Paul going on at some length about his favorite metaphor for the Christian Church—that is, the image of the church as being like a human body: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit …” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

And Paul goes on: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor. 12:14-16)

Okay. You get the idea. The church is like a body. Like I said, it was Paul’s favorite metaphor: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

The church is the Body of Christ. For Paul, the church is Christ’s Body upon the earth. Not simply the broken bread upon the Communion table, but the people—the women and children and men—who come to the table. We are the Body of Christ. We are the ones who carry out Jesus’ mission, here and now.

We often hear that said. In fact, we often say it! We are the Body of Christ. But, I wonder: how often do we seriously consider what it means?

For a body to be of any use, the parts of the body have to be coordinated. They need to be engaged with one another. They need to be working in harmony.

Almost everyone these days has a cellphone. Here’s a question for you: How come you’re not supposed to be texting your friends while you’re driving a car?

It’s called “distracted driving” because—even if you’ve got one hand on the steering wheel and one foot working the accelerator and the brake pedal … if your eyes aren’t focused on the road ahead, you are in for BIG trouble!

Likewise, if your brain isn’t switched on—if your head isn’t in the game, so to speak—you shouldn’t be using a table saw. Or you could find yourself suddenly without fingers! Like Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

But you know—just as when an infant is learning to walk—coordination, and balance, and focus are not automatically present. It takes a length of time to develop.

And if the head isn’t fully connected to the rest of the body … Well, then it’s like one of those “headless chicken” videos on YouTube; the body just flails about wildly, running in all kinds of directions until it finally collapses.

Consider the disciples in that boat with Jesus. This story is told in all three of the synoptic gospels. Here’s what Luke’s version sounds like, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, called The Message:

One day [Jesus] and his disciples got in a boat. “Let’s cross the lake,” he said. And off they went. It was smooth sailing, and he fell asleep. A terrific storm came up suddenly on the lake. Water poured in, and they were about to capsize. They woke Jesus: “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!”  They did it. The lake became smooth as glass. (Luke 8:22-24*)

“Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”  They’re absolutely in panic. They don’t know what to do. And yet, at least four of them were professional seamen!**

Without Jesus, though, they came undone! They lost their heads.

This is worrisome, isn’t it? I mean, these are the same men to whom Jesus was going to entrust his entire mission and ministry upon the earth. You might hope they’d be a tad less excitable! How would they cope, once Jesus was gone?

Of course, if you’ve read the Book of Acts, you know the answer to that question. After Jesus died and rose and then ascended—“blasted off for heaven,” as someone has said, leaving them here to finish the work—this group of seeming incompetents and cowards became …

Well … they became apostles.

Joined later by Paul, this bunch of misfits spearheaded a movement which would eventually displace the pagan emperors of Rome, and become the official religion of the Empire. To be sure, their efforts were not always perfectly coordinated, but over time they certainly became far more effective—and unified—than they were that day in the boat.

So, what changed? Well, remember that we are in the season of Pentecost. There are those who argue that—never mind what the liturgical calendar says—we’ve been in the season of Pentecost for the past 2,000 years. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the church, just as Jesus promised when he said, “… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

The Holy Spirit—who dwells in every believer—connects us one to another, and—even more importantly—connects us to Christ, who is “the head of the body” (Col. 1:18).

Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit—and through the power of the Holy Spirit—we are knit and bound together as one body, of which Christ is the head.

Yeah. Christ is the head.

That’s the good news for the church, my friends.

Jesus is the brains of this operation!

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

__________________________

* The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

** Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all fishermen.