Romans 9:6-13 – Who’s in Charge?

God is in control

Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. It wasn’t Abraham’s sperm that gave identity here, but God’s promise. Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”?

And that’s not the only time. To Rebecca, also, a promise was made that took priority over genetics. When she became pregnant by our one-of-a-kind ancestor, Isaac, and her babies were still innocent in the womb—incapable of good or bad—she received a special assurance from God. What God did in this case made it perfectly plain that his purpose is not a hit-or-miss thing dependent on what we do or don’t do, but a sure thing determined by his decision, flowing steadily from his initiative. God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.” (MSG)

I want to break this to you as gently as possible yet as straightforward as I can: My friend, neither you nor I are in control!  Any semblance of control we think we have is merely a delusion.  Now, before you push back its important to make the distinction between control and responsibility. We are to own our decisions and take responsibility for their outcome.  The Bible describes this as “self-control.”

God’s saving kindness has appeared for the benefit of all people. It trains us to avoid ungodly lives filled with worldly desires so that we can live self-controlled, moral, and godly lives in this present world. (Titus 2:11-12, GW)

Attempting to control others is not our job – never was, isn’t now, and never will be – that’s God’s business.  God makes his choices.  This was the Apostle Paul’s point to the church at Rome.  The congregation was a volatile mix of both Jew and Gentile.  There was some bad history between them that stretched back centuries. Yet, here they were together in one church worshiping Jesus.

Paul made a responsible choice to step into the mess between them and let each group know something important: It is neither their choice about who’s in and who’s out as God’s people, nor their choice about how someone gets in to start with.  Again, this is God’s choice.

The Jews needed to know that Gentiles are in the kingdom because God does his work of choosing, calling, and including Gentiles just as much as Jews.  The Gentiles needed to know that they were not replacing Jews as chosen people.  The point? God chooses whomever he darn well pleases to choose, and the choice is not up to you or me.

This speaks on so many levels about how to conduct ourselves with one another in the church.  The foundation of all good church dynamics is the recognition that God is the one who calls and gathers people together in the church.  This always needs to be the starting point in our relations with each other. The church is not a random collection of persons who happen to be in the same place at the same time. God puts us where we are.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV)

The Church is a covenant community. Believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution. Rather, it is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

Church in God's hands

The Nicene Creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who are in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

Sovereign God, you choose whomever you want to include in your kingdom.  Allow me to see Jesus in each person you call and save so that I can love and encourage them in the faith which is mutually and graciously given to us all; through Christ our Lord, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Philippians 4:10-15 – Generosity is Like a Warm Bowl of Grits

Jethro Bodine
Max Baer, Jr. playing the incomparable country as corn flakes Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only. (NIV)

In the English language, the words “you” and “your” can be either singular or plural. Unless, of course, we go with the southern “y’all.” But for a northerner like me, I’ve got to determine which by looking at the context that it’s in.  In the language of the New Testament, Greek, we know which words are singular and which are plural because, well, they’re different words which aren’t spelled the same.  It’s important to know in the book of Philippians that all the “you” pronouns are plural.  That’s important because the theme of unity and solidarity runs affectionately throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. In fact, for Paul, the reason he gibbers on so much about joy in his letter is because it’s only realized when unity is around. Unity really dills Paul’s pickles.

The entire Philippian church and not just those two really caring parishioners like Uncle Bundlejoy and Cousin Cozysweet, shared in Paul’s troubles with him. The whole kit-and-caboodle partnered with him through financial resources, prayer, and ministry.  Paul had confidence that every need the Philippians had would be supplied just as sure as God put worms in sour apples.

They learned a valuable lesson from Paul: that unity through generosity brings contentment in all circumstances and eases anxieties. The Philippian believers got a glimpse of the paradox that through giving they become rich. When tightwad believers are around, a church frets so much they could worry the horns off a billy goat. But when generosity settles in, people are more content than a flea on a pup.

Folks who only care about their personal needs and independent wealth aren’t right in the head – their cornbread’s not done in the middle. God wants everyone to know the blessing of working together in a worthy common cause.  Generosity and contentment go together like bacon and eggs. A charitable spirit in a group of people leads to more joy and happiness than a gopher in soft dirt.

Hoarding makes a church more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If we want to be free of backbiting and worry, then we need to be wild about generosity. Give like the sun and the whole world grows tall.

Be generous with your money, generous with your words of encouragement toward others, and generous with your gratitude to God. Besides, giving is more fun than a sack full of kittens. And if you do give till you laugh, maybe you’ll see good ol’ Paul standing there grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato.

Generous God, your storehouse of grace and mercy is infinite and unending.  Help me to partner with you in a way that makes my generosity flow in the same direction yours does so that Jesus Christ is glorified, and his church is edified through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Acts 2:42-47 – The Community of the Redeemed

Welcome, friends! I hope you sense the great communion of all the saints past and present during this unique time. Simply click the video below, and let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts.

You can also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

Click Filipino Choir for an 8,600 community voice expressing their praise to God.

Be safe. Be strong. Be spiritual. We’re all in this together.

The Community of the Redeemed

Devoted to Fellowship

It seems everyone has their own ideas about church – what it is and what it should be – whether one needs to be part of a local congregation, or not. No matter the view, we all intuitively know that:

We are created and hardwired for community.

The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible presents Christian community as the primary means of becoming spiritually formed (Acts 2:42-47). And that community dynamic revolves around Jesus Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christians are not just any old community and not just some random benevolent organization. Christians together are the Church. They are the Community of the Redeemed, purchased from the slave market of sin with the blood of Christ, and devoted to knowing Jesus and making him known.

The early church possessed a group dynamic second to none. To be sure, they had their issues (e.g. antagonisms between Jews and Greeks, and bogus converts attracted by the power). Yet, problems are to be expected because the Light is always going to attract some bugs.

The early church consisted of new converts, having responded to the Apostle Peter’s preaching about Jesus. The transformation of these early followers of Jesus is nothing less than amazing. Many of these very same people had applauded the murder of Jesus. However, after Christ’s ascension, the people realized they were complicit in the death of Jesus and were cut to the heart and changed their minds. In a mass conversion, thousands embraced the grace of God in Christ. They quickly became a group of Christians:

Committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come in amazing ways.

Two major commitments of the new believers were the basis of the church: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. Within that close fellowship were firm undertakings to eat and pray together. It is no wonder this curious bunch of people became noticed. After all, sharing food and providing prayer are compassionate activities. In a world starved for basic human kindness, the believers’ attention to the feelings and needs of others must have been a respite to the people around them.

Devoted to One Another

The Christians were hungry for instruction. They craved teaching and fellowship so much that they met every day. They gathered in the Jewish temple, and in homes. That reality of the church so long ago is a clue for the modern church that both large group meetings and small group gatherings are paramount for healthy spiritual growth and development. The gatherings of the early Christians were characterized by a deep engagement of Scripture with one another and of heartfelt participation in fellowship.

Mutual learning and sharing are for everyone – not just for a select few, or for extroverts.

That is why throughout the New Testament the metaphors used to describe the Church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ (biological metaphor), the Temple of God (building metaphor), and as the army of the Lord (battle metaphor) are all images that emphasize the redeemed community’s vital need to work, worship, and have a wide reach together. Indeed, true discipleship happens because of life together.

Metaphors are important; they pack meaning to ideas. So, it is important to be aware of church metaphors which emphasize only the individual and ignore the community. For example, imagining the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low neglects the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other folks, the church is imagined as a movie theatre – which disregards our contribution to community. The emphasis is on a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you came in. Or some might imagine the church as a pharmacy – a place where you can fill a prescription which will deal with your pain in a slip-in and slip-out sort of way. Others might opt for imagining the church as a big box retailer – a place that “offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family,” along with a marketing model of evangelism: “Come to our church; we offer great service and great programs at a great low price.”

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. The church, without question, ought to serve and meet individual needs. And there are times and seasons of life when all an individual can do is consider their own spiritual and emotional health. The problem arises when we only ever function as independent persons who have no intention of being interdependent with others through living the Christian life together. The early church was faithful to learning the Word of God together. They committed themselves to fellowship with one another. They practiced hospitality. The new Christians prayed with each other every day.

The early church’s teachable spirit along with an emphasis on fellowship brought amazing results. Everyone was filled with awe of God. Everyone saw and experienced miraculous events. Everyone looked out for the common good of all. Everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life. Everyone praised God. Everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them. And, all this behavior brought numerous people to faith. This was a group who demonstrated deliverance from empty lives and presented an alternative way to live – a life filled with receiving grace and giving grace to others.

Stained Glass Window

To have that kind of group dynamic, the path the church took was a dedication to Holy Scripture and Christian community every day! Indeed, for healthy churches everywhere, and in all times, congregations continually exhibited courage and vulnerability. The word “fellowship” in Scripture (κοινωνία – pronounced “coin-o-nee-a”) literally means to be “yoked together.” Just as two oxen in a yoke must work together and plod forward being mindful of each other’s steps, so Christians have the invitation to yoke with Jesus and learn from him. Gentleness and humility are sorely needed in this polarized and often petty world we live in. So, the loving participation of fellowship is more than important and influential – it is vital and urgent.

The earliest Christians are portrayed as a group of people who intensely desired the apostles’ teaching and could not get enough of sharing life together as followers of Jesus. They were such curious learners and had such a depth of love and concern for one another that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt open and free to discover more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously and humbly gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

The type of community life which the early church had might seem to be an ideal which is not possible today. I wholeheartedly disagree. Because I myself have experienced such a group dynamic in my own life. In my college days there were dozens of us who became Christians in a short period of time, much like in the book of Acts. We were a rag-tag group of new believers who deeply hungered for spiritual food and craved the fellowship of one another. We met every day in dorm rooms and cafeterias, at the student union and in the library, and even sometimes in off-campus bars.

Everything we had we shared with each other – both our possessions as well as our hearts and lives.

And there was a solid two year stretch in which the Lord added to our numbers daily those who were being saved. We were attached to our Bibles as if they were a fifth appendage on our bodies. There was no separating us from each other. We needed one another’s Christian fellowship and spiritual support every day. In fact, we needed one another so much that we all ended up marrying each other so that the fellowship did not end.

Oh, my friends, how much we need one another! How much this old fallen world needs a yoke that is gentle, kind, gracious, and loving! Christian disciples are formed and shaped in the context of community. The collective conversations of our experiences and insights; the use of our hands and feet to work together; and, the sharing of our resources and of our time are all necessary for becoming spiritually mature in Christ and blessing the world. Confidence is gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what’s needed.

May the group dynamic and the results of those earliest believers so long ago be our communal experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.