Word for Wednesday…Eligible
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.Romans 3:21-23
The text message came through yesterday at 4:25 PM. I didn’t recognize the number, but I embraced the news: As of today, I am now officially eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. Apparently, members of the clergy are considered frontline essential workers. Who knew? Of course, this doesn’t mean I can expect to get vaccinated today, or even in the immediate future. It simply means I can begin the excruciatingly tedious process of attempting to schedule an appointment. As strange as it may sound, like many of you, I have been looking forward to it.
Eligibility is an interesting concept. It implies the existence of two groups of people; those who are eligible and those who are not. The criteria for determining eligibility for the Covid-19 vaccine were established by some very intelligent people, using a great deal of research, and therefore make some degree of sense. In many other situations, however, determinations of eligibility seem unfair, arbitrary, malicious even. Such is the case with the way many people apply the concept of eligibility to God’s gift of salvation.
One way this is evident is our tendency to prioritize who we share the Gospel with. Some folks struggle with sending money overseas to support the work of missions abroad, while others fail to see the need to support evangelistic efforts in their own communities. It can also be seen in who we invite to our churches and welcome in our worship services. These may not be conscious decisions, but they can reveal an unconscious bias that some people are more worthy of the Gospel than others. Some Christians even cloak their judgments of eligibility in what I believe are unscriptural theological beliefs, such as the doctrine of limited atonement, which states that Jesus did not die for all people, but only those God has arbitrarily chosen.
Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon. In the early Church, there were some Jewish Christians who were claiming that only those who shared their ancestry, or those who embraced all their religious practices, were eligible for God’s gift of salvation. To these individuals, and to all who would make similar claims in the future, Paul insisted, on the contrary, that since no one was eligible, since no one was worthy, to receive God’s gift of salvation, God sent Jesus, so that all could become eligible through his death and resurrection. There is no waiting list to become a follower of Jesus. There are no criteria that must be met before you can experience God’s salvation. It is a gift of God, given to all who put their faith in Christ Jesus.
— Pastor Geoff
Jesus did a lot of things within His three years of ministry on this earth. He performed miracles, taught powerful sermons, and challenged the religious authorities of His time. You may be able to recall many of these moments off the top of your head. These interactions that took place not only changed the world that Jesus lived in at the time, but continue to shape our world today. In fact, these actions shape us. Our very being is radically changed by the actions Jesus took here on this earth. Perhaps you heard sermon on a miracle that Jesus performed and it forever changed the way that you perceived the relationship between God and yourself. You may have even had the Holy Spirit speak to you in a life altering way while you read through the things that Jesus did on this earth. Regardless of what it is, there is something distinct about the way that Jesus walked this earth.
We could point to a number of things that defined Jesus’ time on this earth. The way He felt compassion, the way He demonstrated love to others, the balance of truth and grace in His words, and even His servant’s heart are all things that defined Jesus while He walked on this earth. However, while all those things are incredible there is one element that almost every single action of Jesus has in common. It’s more simple, yet profound than we realize. Think about your favorite miracles, sermons, or conversations that Jesus had with others. Now think about where they took place. Where was Jesus physically at during that time? If you were thinking of anywhere except within the church, then chances are that you are correct. Over 90% of Jesus’ interactions occurred outside of the synagogue. The synagogue was their equivalent to the modern day church. Jesus didn’t wait for people to show up to church. He intentionally went out of His way to meet people where they were. All of the most powerful and memorable interactions took place in a location unique to the person Jesus met. He even became the exact person they needed in that time and moment. The Samaritan woman at the well, the thief on the cross, and many others had their lives changed forever and they weren’t anywhere near a pew. As much as it pains leaders in the church who spend hours on crafting sermons, the reality is that much more of life occurs outside of the church than in it.
This observation isn’t something that we can extrapolate from a single verse or passage of scripture, but rather something that we see when take a step back from the intense details in each and ever encounter of Jesus. This desire to meet people exactly were they are is vital to the success of the church. Even the Apostle Paul knew that it was important to imitate this missional attitude of Christ. Listen to Paul’s words as he physically travels as far and wide to establish churches in the ancient world:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
If we want to be an effective church then we have to meet people where they are. We must go where they are. We must be who they need us to be. In order to win others for Christ, we need to be like Christ—taking hold of every opportunity to reach others exactly where they are.
– Pastor Phil
Imagine a time and a place where people are divided. Cultures clash, Christian denominations can’t agree, and no end to these struggles are in sight. Chances are that you aren’t having to imagine much. These things are current observable realities. It feels like we have entered into a new era in human history. Most of us are just tired of having to live through historical events that are being recorded for our great-great grandchildren to read about. It seems as if everyone wants to define this new era with political strife, cultural division, and a world wide pandemic. It may be new territory for us but, the truth is that the world has always been like this. For all of recorded history our world has been in turmoil. What’s happening now is just par for the course.
So, how do we respond? As people of God how should we behave in a time like this? Without a doubt, the most sound advice comes in the form of Paul writing to the Philippians as he writes a letter from prison to them. Before we read what Paul says, it is important to understand what the Church in Philippi was going through. First, they appear to have faced persecution from those outside the church. Second, they were threatened by the possibility of false teaching similar to that which had infiltrated other churches. And third, they struggled with conflicts between one another in the church. Just like our lives today, sin and turmoil defined their world. Both inside and outside of the church sin permeated everything around them. But Paul, the man who established their church and raised up their leaders was not about to let the turmoil of the world define who they were. Even while Paul sits in prison he tells them this:
Philippians 1:27-30 NLT
27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. 28 Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. 29 For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. 30 We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.
In his prison cell Paul is telling the Philippians, “No matter what happens in this world our response should be to live a life that declares the message of Jesus Christ.” He says, that it is a privilege to suffer for Jesus! So today, live your life in a way that proclaims the Good News of Jesus. When we choose to live in this way others will see the love of God being displayed in a world full of turmoil. Let us become a walking testimony to the Gospel of Jesus.
– Pastor Phil
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.Ephesians 6:12
A few months ago, on Sunday, October 18, I preached a sermon in which I challenged our almost entirely Republican congregation to believe that sincere followers of Jesus could vote for a Democratic candidate. Here is a quote from my manuscript…
“I think who you vote for in this election doesn’t matter to God…as long as you search the Scriptures for guidance, pray about your decision, and vote with a clear conscience. I think two sincere followers of Jesus could do exactly those things and arrive at completely different conclusions.”
As you might imagine, I upset a fair amount of people. Many of our folks could not fathom how a Christian could ever vote for a Democrat, and especially Joe Biden. Interestingly, I received an email from someone who does not attend our church, who had listened to the sermon online, and also found my words extremely difficult to hear, but for the opposite reason! She could not fathom how a Christian could ever vote for Donald Trump.
I think these two very different reactions to the same sermon are indicative of the extreme division that exists in our country, and in many cases, within churches. And one reason I believe we are so divided is our failure to recognize the true enemy we are facing. It is not FOX news or CNN. It is not Republicans or Democrats. It is not Donald Trump or Joe Biden. No, our enemies, as the passage quoted above reminds us, are the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The devil and his minions, the spirits of lies, anger, hatred, fear, etc. are the ones who are threatening to destroy us, not our fellow human beings, and as long we fail to recognize this, we are fighting a losing battle.
The news outlets, political parties, and politicians mentioned above have all been guilty of doing evil things (and we should not hesitate to identify these things as such and hold these individuals accountable), but it’s not because they themselves are evil. It’s because they have allowed evil spirits to guide their thoughts and actions. If we’re not careful, those evil spirits will get ahold of us as well. But as followers of Jesus, we are not consigned to this fate, because he has complete authority over evil, and through his power, so do we. The next time you feel hatred or anger welling up in your heart toward another human being, and most especially a fellow believer, pray for them, and pray for yourself, that you would “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth".Isaiah 49:6
In a previous church I pastored, whenever an opportunity would be presented to share testimonies, one particular individual would share the exact same story. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good story; a story of God calling him to step out in faith and start a brand new ministry at the church. This ministry provided several opportunities for people to serve, and had undoubtedly exposed several others to the message of the Gospel. But it was an old story. This had happened several years ago. I often wondered if there was something more that God wanted to do in the life of this individual.
In the passage quoted above, Isaiah was in the process of describing God’s servant whom he would send to rescue his people from exile. This was no small thing, yet God didn’t want to stop there, he wanted to do so much more. This coming servant, who we now understand to be Jesus, would not only rescue his own people but would be a “light to the nations.” God was setting in motion a plan to save the world. If you are like me and cannot trace your ancestry back to the tribes of Jacob, then God’s desire to do more is the reason why you are eligible to receive his gift of salvation. That is something we Gentiles are called to celebrate in this season of Epiphany.
If you are a follower of Jesus, God has done something amazing for you; he has forgiven you of your sins, restored your relationship with him, adopted you as his beloved son or daughter. That is no small thing. But God wants to do more. He wants to change you, redeem you, and transform you into the image of his Son. Never fall into the trap of believing God is done with you. Never fall into the trap of believing there isn’t something more.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.Matthew 28:19-20
Several years ago, my grandfather gave me the gift of a used, dark green, Pontiac Transport. If you are struggling to recall what a Pontiac Transport looked like, allow me to refresh your memory. It was one of the earliest minivans on the market. The front windshield was interchangeable with the windshield from a Boeing 747. From the side it resembled a dust buster. And when all the tail lights and brake lights were illuminated it looked like an alien ship from the arcade hit, Space Invaders. Admittedly, it was a curious gift to give someone newly married with no immediate plans for children, but it was still a gift. And it gave me a great deal of pleasure making my new wife drive it.
Before handing me the keys and signing over the title, my grandfather went through the vehicle and took out all his personal belongings, assuring me all that remained were things I would need. I assumed this meant he had only left things like the owner’s manual and maintenance records, but later discovered he had left more than that. A few months after he gave it to me I was looking through the glove box and discovered, next to those aforementioned items, a small Gideon Bible. I smiled, remembering the way my grandfather defined “necessities.”
The topic of my sermon last Sunday was evangelism, a term I will always associate with my grandfather. For the twenty-seven years or so that I knew him, evangelism, telling people about Jesus, ranked high on his list of priorities. I gave a few examples in my sermon of how he supported and engaged in evangelism, but I didn’t mention his habit of always carrying at least one pocket-size Gideon Bible with him, so he would have one on hand if he encountered someone who might need it. He would buy them by the case. When cleaning out his closet after he died we found a box that was nearly full of them, waiting to be given away. He didn’t think I would “need” a Gideon Bible to operate the Transport, but he felt I would in my efforts to follow Jesus.
The passage quoted above are Jesus’ last words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. Often referred to as “The Great Commission,” they contain Jesus’ instruction to engage in the work of evangelism, to share the good news of the Gospel, to tell people about Jesus, and to invite people to follow him. Evangelism is something all followers of Jesus need to be doing. As we were reminded last Sunday in the story of Philip inviting Nathanael to “come and see” Jesus, we don’t need to have a prepared script or be able to engage in rigorous debate. All we need is a heart for lost people, and a willingness to introduce people to Jesus that flows from our excitement over our own encounter with him. We should pray for both. Jesus can take over from there.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:9-11, NRSV
In a conversation with my son about last Sunday’s sermon, things got a little heated. I’m exaggerating a little. It would probably be more accurate to say it prompted healthy dialogue, which is becoming increasingly rare these days. It all started when he said that my little sidebar about politics and the January 6 protests at the Capitol building seemed forced, and not related to my larger point. While I thought there was some connection, I agreed that it was forced, and even said as much in the sermon. At the conclusion of my spiel I admitted I had gone off on a tangent, but felt it was necessary to address the situation from the pulpit. Regardless, I wasn’t bothered by his criticism, but rather by his interpretation of what I said, which was revealed as the conversation continued. It occurred to me that others may have also misunderstood.
To save you the trouble and/or pain of listening to the sermon again, I’ll try to summarize it. My focus was on the idea of Jesus’ secret identity, which was declared at his baptism. As Mark tells us, when Jesus rose up from the waters of the Jordan he saw the heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and heard a voice from heaven that declared, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This was a secret identity because it was not fully apparent to anyone, including his disciples, until his death and resurrection. Like Jesus, when we are baptized or confirmed, this identity, in some sense, becomes ours. The wall between us and God disappears, we receive his Holy Spirit, and we become his beloved sons and daughters. In contrast to Jesus, this identity is not to be kept secret, but shouted from the rooftops.
Now to the tangent. I argued that while this aspect of our identity should not be secret, other aspects of our identity, such as our political persuasion, should not be known to anyone except those closest to us. I suppose this has always been true, but given our current political climate, it is more true now than ever. I say this because declaring our political views outside the context of a relationship (such as making public statements of support, putting signs in our yards, posting on social media, or wearing a hat or t-shirt with our candidate’s name emblazoned on it) opens the door for people to make other assumptions about our beliefs and values. They are all essentially one-sided conversations where we don’t have the opportunity to qualify our statements. When those of us who claim to follow Jesus participate in these things…the name of Jesus becomes associated with policies, actions, beliefs and values that have nothing to do with him. His reputation, and the reputation of his followers, becomes tarnished. This was made painfully clear when an angry mob stormed the Capitol building last Wednesday.
Like many of you, I saw the disturbing footage of Wednesday’s protest over and over again. And nearly every time I saw signs littered throughout the crowd with Christian symbols, and sayings like, “Jesus Saves.” How the name of Jesus has become associated with something so antithetical to everything he taught and lived is no mystery. It’s because so many Christians, including influential Christian leaders, have made unqualified statements of support for the candidate these individuals represent. To be clear, what I mean by “unqualified statement of support,” is a statement that does not, in the same breath, acknowledge that many of the things this candidate does and says contradict the teachings of Jesus.
We did not arrive at this point overnight. It is the result of a decades-long, concerted and deliberate effort of some politicians to lead us to believe that being a Christian and being a Republican are one and the same. I believe the Christian leaders that have lent their support to this effort will be held accountable. I’m saddened that the events of last Wednesday have not compelled more of them to publically repent for their actions.
Please understand me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as both a follower of Jesus and a Republican, or as a follower of Jesus and a Democrat for that matter. I know sincere Christians on every point of the political spectrum. The call to follow Jesus is not a call to reject all things political. In fact, the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” is an overtly political statement. It was their willingness to hold fast to this confession, a direct contradiction to the claim, “Caesar is Lord,” that led to the martyrdom of many early believers. The call to follow Jesus is a call to worship him and him alone, and make the identity established at our baptism paramount, more important than any other identity we embrace, especially our political affiliation. Let’s be followers of Jesus before we are anything else. Let’s make this identity the one that defines us the most, and let everything else be tangential to our life’s story.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.Matthew 12:21, NRSV
Late yesterday afternoon I made a conscious decision to listen to Christmas music. I was preparing to go on a short run. I put in my headphones, opened up the Pandora app on my phone, and realized it was still on the “Rend Collective Holiday” channel. I was about to change it to something like NF, when I remembered it was still Christmas, at least according to the Church Calendar, since the Christmas celebration is not over until we observe the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. I thought to myself, “Why not celebrate as long as you can, especially with all that’s going on right now.” Then I was reminded the very next day, today, I could even kick the festivities up a notch, since for those of us who are Gentiles, the party is only just getting started. When we hear the word “epiphany,” the first thing that usually comes to mind is a moment of sudden realization, often referred to as a “eureka moment.” But it can also mean “appearance” or “manifestation.” The Feast of Epiphany is the celebration of God’s appearing or making himself known to the wise men, who would have been perceived as the epitome of Gentile sinners, for their participation in things like sorcery, fortune-telling, and astrology. Matthew’s mostly Jewish audience would have been shocked to learn of God graciously revealing himself to them, and insulted by the appropriateness of their response, since so many of them failed to recognize the truth of who Jesus was, but Matthew wanted them to understand that God’s gift of salvation was for Gentiles too. Since we too are Gentiles, we also rejoice in this truth. In his sermon two weeks ago, our associate pastor, Pastor Phil, referred to God’s offer of salvation to us as an “unexpected gift.” While it is that, it is also a gift that is “undeserved,” made possible only through God’s gracious gift of his Son. Paul’s reminder to the Gentiles in Ephesus is something we should also take to heart, “Remember, that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13, NRSV). Today, we celebrate the hope we have on account of God’s gift to us in Jesus. And this is a celebration that will last forever.
Word for Wednesday…Sanctification
(Note: For the Advent Season we are doing a series on the gifts of God. For these four weeks, the “Word for Wednesday” will be a follow-up from the preceding Sunday.)
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, NRSV
The root word in both Hebrew and Greek for the word “sanctification” is the same root word for words like “saint” and “holy.” This is one of many reasons that most Christians think sanctification is something God reserves for a select few of his children. But sanctification doesn’t necessarily imply a sinless perfection. To be sanctified means to be set apart for a specific purpose. I remember a former professor, in a class called “Theology of Holiness,” telling us that his pen was sanctified. He went on to explain that the purpose for which his pen was created was to write. As long as it was doing that, it was sanctified, it was perfect, at least in the Biblical sense of the word. According to the Westminster Catechism, our purpose is to worship God and enjoy him forever. This is the purpose for which we have been created. As long as we are fulfilling it, we too are perfect. Of course, in order to offer ourselves to God in worship and glorify him in fulfillment of our purpose, we must be transformed into the image of Jesus, as Jesus is representative of who God created us to be. As long as we are in Christ, we possess the designation as God’s holy people, set aside for this purpose, but this doesn’t preclude us from this ongoing journey of transformation. We need to daily yield ourselves to God’s sanctifying grace as he continues to shape us into the person he created us to be. Along the way we may have moments of perfection, but then life happens; we are challenged, tempted, and made more aware of our shortcomings. In these moments if we confess, repent, and submit ourselves to God, growth in grace happens. Paul’s hope for the Christians in Thessalonica, and for us as well, is that this work of God would be completed in us by the time Jesus comes again. This is my wish for myself and for all reading this post this Christmas. That we would all continue to unwrap and experience these gifts of God that we’ve been given.
Word for Wednesday…Adoption
Note: For the Advent Season we are doing a series on the gifts of God. For these four weeks, the “Word for Wednesday” will be a follow-up from the preceding Sunday.)
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 in the Beloved.Ephesians 1:5-6
When I was a kid, whenever my parents would make me do something terrible, like go to bed, eat mushrooms, or clean my room, I would wonder aloud if I was adopted. After all, I reasoned, there was no way a parent would make their biological child suffer in those ways. It turns out I was wrong. As a parent myself I have discovered parents do those things to their children to “build character,” and for the sheer joy that results from exercising authority. While I was not adopted, I had a friend that was. And her parents loved her just as much as mine loved me. She also had to go to bed, eat mushrooms, and clean her room. Adopted as a baby, she had never even met her biological mother or father, and did not seem to have any interest in doing so…until she became pregnant with her first child. All of a sudden, for reasons only an adopted child could understand, she wanted to reconnect with her birth mother. One thing, though, was for certain; it wasn’t because she doubted the love her adoptive parents had for her. Every single human being is, in some sense, a child of God. Although we are not God’s biological children, we are his spiritual children. As our Creator, he is our Heavenly Father, but we have orphaned ourselves. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we have all sought to emancipate ourselves from God’s authority in our lives. Nonetheless, our independence comes at a great price, causing us to feel as I imagine an adopted child may feel at times, lost, disconnected, unloved, and unwanted. We all carry within our hearts a desire to re-establish our relationship with our Heavenly Father and regain our status as his beloved son or daughter, but we are powerless to do so. Thankfully, as Paul reminds us in letter to the Ephesians Christians, God has made our adoption possible through the gift of his Son, Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we can become, once again, children of our Heavenly Father, and receive all the benefits that flow from that relationship. If you feel lost, disconnected, unloved, or unwanted this holiday season, receive this gift of adoption that God wants to give you; re-establish your relationship with your Heavenly Father. Allow him to show you whose you are, and how much he loves you. If you already know the blessings of being a child of God, share those blessings with someone who doesn’t. Tell them how they can reconnect with the God who created them.