Ephesians 4:7-16 – Be Mature

Christ has generously divided out his gifts to us. As the Scriptures say,

“When he went up
    to the highest place,
he led away many prisoners
    and gave gifts to people.”

When it says, “he went up,” it means that Christ had been deep in the earth. This also means that the one who went deep into the earth is the same one who went into the highest heaven, so he would fill the whole universe.

Christ chose some of us to be apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers, so his people would learn to serve, and his body would grow strong. This will continue until we are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.

We must stop acting like children. We must not let deceitful people trick us by their false teachings, which are like winds that toss us around from place to place. Love should always make us tell the truth. Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head of the body. Christ holds it together and makes all of its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love. (Contemporary English Version)

The Body of Christ, without love as its skeletal structure, would be as ridiculous and silly as a boneless chicken ranch. 

The Apostle Paul, a concerned spiritual father, was encouraging the Church toward maturity, to act as adults in the faith and not like immature children.

Just as the physical body begins small, then grows and matures over time, so the spiritual body (the church) is to focus on incremental slow growth across the years so that it realizes maturity. And the consummate evidence of that spiritual development is strong bonds of love.

Ten days after the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, the Day of Pentecost occurred. On that day, the Holy Spirit came upon the small band of believers and the church became a full-fledged phenomenon, growing and expanding. (Acts 2:1-47)

The gracious gifts of the Spirit are given to each and every Christian so that growth and strength will come to the Body of Christ through love. Each spiritual gift might be different from person to person, but every one of them is meant to be used in love for the benefit of the entire church.

Without any bones or skeleton, the church will be weak and ineffective. It might look like a church but will not be able to do anything in the world. 

For spiritual maturity to happen, it is necessary for every single Christian in the church to discover their spiritual gift, and then, use it in love to build up the entire Body. This is the God-ordained means of realizing a healthy functioning church. 

It may appear that you and I, as believers in and followers of Jesus, have the luxury of pursuing other interests rather than providing loving and gifted service to Christ’s Church. After all, church attendance, Christian mission and service are all voluntary, right? A volunteer can choose to sit out, right?

Uh-hem (clearing of throat). Wrong. That sort of thinking is based in the goofy notion that the Church is a voluntary society which we choose to become a part of, or not. It isn’t. The Body of Christ, the Church, the people for whom Christ died, was chosen by God – and not the other way around.

Before we chose God, God chose us. We can no more choose to decline Christian mission and service anymore than a physical heart or bodily organ can decide it needs to go do something else – as if they could simply leave the Body or just stop doing what they’re doing without consequence.

No, my friends, for the Body to function, it must work in concert, paying attention to the unique parts which keep it alive and thriving, while at the same time, maintaining the overall health of all the Bodily systems.

Bottom line: We need one another. Going off and continually doing my own thing or picking up my marbles and going home because I’m mad or frustrated, is what children do. When adults act like children, we rightly discern they are immature and need to grow up.

So, instead of lacking self-awareness or being pouty about my blog post, focus on the following questions:

What is your passion and desire for Christ’s church? 

What issues stir you emotionally? 

What group of people do you feel most attracted to reach? 

What area of Christian mission or church ministry would you most like to influence? 

Are there people whom you notice that others seem to ignore? 

Will you step out in faith and learn how God has wired you for ministry? 

Will you speak and serve in the name of Jesus through the enablement of the Spirit?

Loving God, I ask you to give me a heart of faith to trust the Spirit and the Spirit’s work in my life. I ask for a heart that desires the gifts of the Spirit for the common good of all persons. I ask you to help me be open to the gifts of the Spirit in others. I ask for jealousy of others’ gifts to be quieted in me. I pray that my gifts would build up the church. Most of all, I ask for the gift of love. Use me for the strengthening of Christ’s church, and for a positive influence in the world. Amen.

Philippians 1:3-11 – Better Together

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybecause of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (New International Version)

The need for a medical intervention means there is ill health in the body. And the need for a spiritual intervention means there is ill health in the Body. Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. Bodily sickness prevents us from doing normal activities. Illness causes us to need care and to have an inability in caregiving to others.

Spiritual health in the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort into keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there is an inability for service and mission, a lack of unity, and an absence of joy. It was in such a situation that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians as a spiritual intervention meant to help restore their spiritual health.

In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity, joy, and fellowship through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others. Paul emphasizes throughout his letter that the church is to be a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others.

“We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.” 

J.K. Rowling

Every pronoun, “you,” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing, avoid tattoos, or vote Republican.

The Apostle Paul knew without a focus on mission, on encouraging one another with the good news and sharing the gospel with others, the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people will nit-pick one another to death with their various opinions and wants. Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find complaining, arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the gospel of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes, when we are facing hard circumstances, we need to recall past days when this was true of us and remember why we were joyful.

In difficult times of injustice, we need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another. When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the hope of Advent and the anticipation of Christ’s coming, give us a way to understand our past and order our steps in the present so that the rule and reign of God is planted in our hearts and spread throughout the world.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to set aside our cranky unhappiness and divisive spirits. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and everything which hinders us from godly union and connection: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth to glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 – World Communion Sunday

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So, he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs….

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.” [Psalm 8:4-6]

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the assembly I will sing your praises.” [Psalm 22:22] (New International Version)

Today is World Communion Sunday. We come to the Lord’s Table with awareness of Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world, in all nations, and in all the various traditions of Christianity. We may not all agree about a lot of things in the church and the Christian life. Yet, every Christian tradition – past and present – has and does observe communion around the Lord’s Table. It is a practice which binds us and reminds us of our unity with another.

And that unity is focused and centered in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Jesus is the person who holds us together. Jesus is the one in whom all the good promises of God are fulfilled. Today we remember Jesus, commune with Jesus, and express our hope in Jesus.

We remember that Jesus was made perfect through suffering – and that we, too, experience spiritual formation through suffering.

We commune with Jesus and one another because the cross of Christ achieved deliverance from spiritual estrangement and relational loneliness and gathered us into the one people of God.

We hope with confident expectation, as we celebrate Jesus at the Table along with all the saints everywhere, that Christ will return and take us to be with him forever in glory. There will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more poverty, no more oppression, no more injustice. There will be complete faith, realized hope, and absolute love for all time and forever. Amen!

Our past, present, and future all belong to Jesus. And we are not alone, for all Christians in everyplace from every race, ethnicity, class, and gender – whether they are Pentecostals in Puerto Rico, Anglicans in Africa, Catholics in Poland, Coptic Egyptians, or Orthodox Russians – the beautiful diversity of Christ’s Body comes together in harmonious unity at the Lord’s Table. It is this sacrament which raises our awareness of both solidarity with Christ and with all believers everywhere.

The purpose of the Lord’s Table is to participate in the blessings of Christ by visually re-creating the story of Jesus. There are three different terms for the Table in the New Testament, and each term is meant to convey a different aspect of the Table’s significance. 

The Lord’s Supper is a focus on remembrance, a memorial of Christ’s death that is deeply reflective and contemplative. 

What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.

Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe. (1 Corinthians 11:26-28, MSG) 

The Eucharist literally means “thanksgiving.” The Lord’s Table as Eucharist means we celebrate Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell on our behalf. 

While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks (Eucharist), broke it, and gave it to his disciples. “Take it,” he said, “this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God (Eucharist), and handed it to them; and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23, GNT) 

Communion means to participate in Christ and with other Christians. This emphasizes that when we partake of the Lord’s Table, we ought to do so with unity and fellowship. We are more than individual Christians. We share in the Lord together as the community of the redeemed.

When we drink from the cup that we ask God to bless, isn’t that sharing in the blood of Christ? When we eat the bread that we break, isn’t that sharing in the body of Christ? By sharing in the same loaf of bread, we become one body, even though there are many of us. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, CEV) 

As we allow the Table to be a remembrance, celebration, and participation with each other, we engage in a ritual that helps us to know Christ better. And we are better able to realize God’s grace to us.

Participating and sharing in communion is important because we can easily be fragmented and not fellowship with one another in a local church, as well as the world-wide church. The cross of Jesus Christ has ended division. The cross has brought us peace and reconciliation between God and others. 

The suffering of Jesus on the cross has restored a broken relationship between us and God, and also between one another. Therefore, there is to be no more ignoring one another, or brothers and sisters elsewhere, because we are one unified people around the good news of Jesus – enjoying solidarity with each other in both our joys and our sufferings.

One awareness needed as we share in communion together is to be mindful of others. Not everyone is the same. We must avoid coming to the Table expecting people to be the way we want them to be. Instead, we are to come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Church is the best place to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we’d be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two scandals of God: that he loves me—or that he loves everyone else. 

The Lord’s Table is the great leveler, where we all have equal footing and accept one another according to a common confession of Christ. Communion emphasizes participation in the body and blood of Christ, as well as participation with all Christians everywhere. 

Therefore, we are not alone. Communion means God is with us, and that Christ has so closely identified with us that he took our place on the cross. As a result, every believer in Jesus is linked to all the others so that, when one suffers or rejoices, all suffer or rejoice, whether it is a Pastor down the street rejoicing over a newly saved soul, or a suffering Syrian Christian trying to survive in a refugee camp.

Let us live up to what, and whom, we profess. Since we are God’s forgiven people, we are to work at living the Christian life together. This unity is symbolized by partaking together of the same loaf of bread and drinking from a common cup.

One Sunday, a group of missionaries and believers in Papua New Guinea were gathered to observe communion together.  After one young man sat down, one of the missionaries recognized that he seemed to be quite upset. Then, after a while, the young man seemed to be fine. 

The missionary leaned over and whispered to him, “What was it that troubled you?”  The young man replied, “The man who just came in happens to be the man who killed and ate the body of my father.  And now he has come in to observe communion with us. At first I didn’t think I could do that. But it is all right now.  He is washed in the same precious blood as I am.”  And so together they participated in Christian communion.

We have peace because of Jesus. Christ’s suffering and death has brought reconciliation not only between us and God, but between each other. As we approach the Lord’s Table, let us be aware not only of our personal relationship with God, but our relationships with one another in the local church, and our unity with the world-wide church. 

May our lives be shaped and formed around the cross of Jesus Christ, as we remember, celebrate, and participate together.

Almighty and everlasting God, may this time we partake of the body and blood of Jesus unite us in the community of saints who know your love and proclaim your Son with fervor and grace to a broken and hurting world. May your healing hands be the salve for ending hurt and violence in this world, even as we prepare for the next. In the holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

Walking in the Light without Fumbling in the Darkness

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

All the hopes and expectations of Christians are realized in Christ’s resurrection. The good news of Easter cannot be contained or limited to a single day (Easter Sunday). That is why, according to the Church Calendar, Easter is only the first of fifty days of celebration called “Eastertide” which leads to the day of Pentecost.  Eastertide is designed for exploring the new life we have in Jesus and the joyful Christian life we can all experience.

Yet, what if a new life has not been our experience? What do we do when, year after year, Easter comes and goes and all the old sins, failures, compulsions, and addictions remain unchanged?  It is not sufficient to simply know the gospel of grace; there must be a careful and truthful application of the gospel to our lives. For the gospel is not just a message to believe; it is a powerful truth to be acted upon in our daily lives.

Too many folks are spiritually damaged from regrets or remorse over bad decisions. They have shame and guilt about the inability to overcome bad habits. There is a lack of courage in facing temptations and sins within. It all lies beneath the surface festering, irritating, and causing pain. In some cases, it is so deeply embedded in the soul that the cause of the discomfort is unknown.

Spiritual renewal is needed. To take a trip into our inner worlds, there are three words that bring to light three important theological themes.  We need to know and apply these words so we will have the pain relieved and experience the joy of new life in Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-2:2)

Fellowship: Christians have a sharing bond of partnership in Christ with God and with one another.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3, NIV)

Koinonia is a familiar word to many Christians. The image of “fellowship” might be of sitting around a table at a church potluck. Or maybe it evokes the picture of standing around after church and talking with each other over a cup of coffee. The biblical word is much more than this. Fellowship means we have deeply shared beliefs and behaviors with God and one another. 

Fellowship means Christians have a vital union with Jesus which paves the way to cooperate with God’s purposes in the church and the world. Fellowship also means Christians share in Christ together through a common relationship with God and a common purpose of glorifying God. In Christ we partner together to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Biblical fellowship is an action based in the union we have with God in Christ.  To live in fellowship is to live in the light and not in the darkness.

The way we view Jesus determines how we live the Christian life. Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood man. If Christians do not uphold the physical reality of Jesus, then the Christian life will be unconcerned for the material world and the ethics of bodily existence. The Christian life is very much about both body and soul.

Walk: The power of sin is very deceptive.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8, 10, NIV)

The New Testament often pictures the Christian life as a walk down a road. Which road we are on and how we walk it is especially important. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. We are to walk with the light of Jesus illuminating our way.

Talk is cheap. The real muster is whether we live in the light of revealed truth.  If a person claims a relationship with Jesus but lives how they want, that person is not an authentic believer.  If a person claims to be without sin, that person is self-deceived by the power of sin.  If a person claims they are okay and do not sin, such a person makes a mockery of Christ’s bodily existence, including his human suffering and death.

Photo by Paulo Mu00e1rcio Dos Santos on Pexels.com

If a person’s daily life is characterized by darkness, then no matter how sincerely or publicly they make a profession of Jesus, that proclamation is a sham. This is not about sinners in general making occasional lapses in judgment or behavior. This is about people who claim to be Christian but have daily on-going patterns of deliberately walking down a dark path and doing what they want. Their mantra is, “It’s my life, I do what I want, and nobody is going to tell me what to do.” Such a person is a poser. They only pretend to have a walk with Jesus.

To counter the bogus claims and pretensions, we are to walk in the light, and not hide in the darkness. This requires honesty, integrity, and the courage to allow God’s light to shine on the shadowy places of our lives. There cannot be new life without the light.

We counter the darkness by openly confessing our sins. There is a promise attached we need to take to heart: God is faithful to forgive and purify us. God’s light shining upon us might hurt, but it brings life and healing. Holding onto secrets only festers in the soul, while the snakes of sin slither around our feet.  The result is spiritual blindness, darkness, and death. Confession is more than private and personal; it is also public and corporate.  New life, renewal, revival, and revitalization come from real honest tell-it-like-it-is confession. 

This really ought to scare the hell out of us. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said we should pluck our eyes out if they offend. Cut our hands off if they cause us to sin. It is better to be in God’s kingdom with no eyes and hands then to burn in hell with all our parts intact. (Matthew 5:29-30)

Repentance is more than mouthing words about being a sinner like everybody else. Repentance is a complete change of how we live our lives. If there is a besetting sin that dogs us every day and we do all the same things this year we did last year to deal with it, and it did not work, then we will be right back here at Eastertide next year – frustrated with the very same dark walk, carrying the very same burden of guilt, shame, and regret. 

Remaining in the dark with no one knowing about our inner life is opposite of biblical fellowship because it forsakes the light. Walking away from the church will not deal with it. Walking away from God will not deal with it. Trying a new teaching or a new practice will not make it go away. Only agonizing, soul-rending, yet freeing, confession will allow God’s surgical knife to take out the offending sin and bring healing of both body and soul.

Patricia Raybon, in her book I Told the Mountain to Move confesses the regret and grief she carried after aborting two children. She writes, “I had told myself that an abortion would end my problems, not complicate them by bringing an innocent life into my own upheaval.” She shares the following letter, written to her two aborted children:

Dear Babies:

“This is Mama. You will know my voice, I think, even though we were together for such a short time. I did a bad thing. I did not trust God. I did not understand God would have made everything okay. I was like Peter, who looked at the waves, not at Jesus. And when he looked at the waves, he started to sink—down, down, down.

That’s how I felt, like I was sinking down. When the doctors said you were growing inside of me, that’s how I felt, so I didn’t know how to love you. I was afraid. I let fear convince me that more babies would just make things worse.

Instead, look what I did. I robbed us. First, I robbed you—taking your own lives. I didn’t think I was strong enough. So, I robbed myself of all the joy you would have brought me, too. Brought all of us, your sisters, your family, and for each of you, your daddy. I thought we would have more problems. That we did not have enough money. That we did not have enough time. That we did not have enough love. But I just did not know then that God is bigger. And God would make everything all right. I didn’t know.”

We are not left to unending remorse and sorrow.

Advocate: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ purifies us from all unrighteousness.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. (1 John 2:1, NIV)

To advocate means to come alongside another in need, speaking and acting on their behalf. Jesus is our Advocate. Christ’s death atoned for all our sin, guilt, and shame. Christ’s propitiation satisfied all of God’s righteous wrath against every sin, including yours and mine. The Lord’s gracious intervention has saved us from ourselves. Jesus made it possible for us to experience forgiveness, restoration, and new life. 

When we are so broken and full of tears that we cannot even speak, Jesus steps in and speaks on our behalf with meaningful words that have been backed up with the action of the cross and resurrection.

We have a few choices: We could pretend everything is okay and proceed with business as usual. Or we can come to Jesus, confess our sin and receive the grace of forgiveness and cleansing. We can allow the church to be a hospital for sinners through praying for one another. Throughout the New Testament we are called to be little advocates practicing the ministry of coming alongside and speaking on one another’s behalf before God and others.

Choose wisely, my friend.