Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalms 42 & 43 – Longing for Another World

As a deer gets thirsty
    for streams of water,
I truly am thirsty
    for you, my God.
In my heart, I am thirsty
for you, the living God.
    When will I see your face?
Day and night my tears
    are my only food,
as everyone keeps asking,
    “Where is your God?”

Sorrow floods my heart,
    when I remember
leading the worshipers
    to your house.
I can still hear them shout
    their joyful praises.
Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I should trust you, Lord.
I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God.

I am deeply discouraged,
    and so I think about you
here where the Jordan begins
at Mount Hermon
    and at Mount Mizar.
Your vicious waves
    have swept over me
like an angry ocean
    or a roaring waterfall.

Every day, you are kind,
    and at night
you give me a song
as my prayer to you,
    the God of my life.

You are my mighty rock.
    Why have you forgotten me?
Why must enemies mistreat me
    and make me sad?
Even my bones are in pain,
    while all day long
my enemies sneer and ask,
    “Where is your God?”

Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I trust you, Lord!
And I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God…

Show that I am right, God!
Defend me against everyone
    who doesn’t know you;
rescue me from each
    of those deceitful liars.
I run to you for protection.
Why do you turn me away?
Why must enemies mistreat me
    and make me sad?

Send your light and your truth
    to guide me.
Let them lead me to your house
    on your sacred mountain.
Then I will worship
at your altar because you
    make me joyful.
You are my God,
    and I will praise you.
Yes, I will praise you
    as I play my harp.

Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I trust you, Lord!
And I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God. (Contemporary English Version)

Longing is a universal human experience. It is also an integral part of the human condition.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

C.S. Lewis

Before that statement, Lewis spoke of the nature of longing – how all that we experience in this life is not the ultimate object of our desire, of our longing. The beauty and satisfaction we seek:

“was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

If we follow the path of any pain, any psychological or emotional wounding, it will lead us to this one primal pain: the pain of separation.

That’s because, having been born into this world, we are banished from Paradise and carry the scars of our Edenic estrangement – the separation from God.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, if we will but embrace this suffering, if we allow it to lead us deep within ourselves, it will take us deeper than any healing this world can offer.

In other words, longing is itself the cure. It is when our hearts break that they become open for the love to come pouring out of it.

The grief we acknowledge and express draws us toward intimacy with the Divine and with others. It brings union, not separation. The problem itself becomes the cure.

“Do not seek for water. Be thirsty.”

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

The longing for love, belonging, and connection needs to be deeply felt, because it is really the only way of actually loving another. It is in hungering and thirsting – that is, in longing – which leads us to pray and seek to end our separation.

Prayer is the voice we give to our longings.

Naming our sadness for what it is, even our depression, is most necessary. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen.

Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement, tears, and the longing for better and beauty, many Christians buck the feelings. Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions come banging at the doorstep of their soul.

Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. And our longings are the evidence that this is so. We must sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. Refusing to feel is, in reality, putting the stiff arm to God.

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath?

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denying our deep longings. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel discouraged or cry any tears because it complicates their lives. Besides, it hurts!. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?”

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain of separation and longing for things to be different.

Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell.

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. So, he prayed as if his life depended on it.

The psalmist did not get answers to his questions. But that was never the point of the asking.

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension.

While we desperately search for a cure, none will be found in this life – at least not in full. We are occasionally and surprisingly graced with glimpses of our deepest longings whenever we experience the kindness of a stranger, an answer to a prayer we uttered years ago, or the peace of an unexpected rest.

Then, our trust reawakens, and we are encouraged to take another step in the long walk of life – a walk in which God is beside us, even if we cannot discern it.

Gracious God, help us to know wonder in our waiting, patience in our wonderings, and a vision of how life is supposed to be lived. May our deepest longing find its satisfaction in you and in the many ways you mercifully hold the world together, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 17:20-26 – The Need for and Importance of Unity

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (New International Version)

What is the Church’s identity?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

The Church’s Identity

The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit. This special relationship that believers and Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenant relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenant community – receiving the blessings first promised to Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith. 

God mercifully acts on the Church’s behalf through choosing, adopting, and redeeming people. This new covenant community receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things. 

So then, the Church is not a voluntary society, like other human institutions. Rather, it is divinely called by God. The Church is the community of the redeemed whom God has joined through the Spirit to Christ. Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

The Nicene Creed

This ancient ecumenical creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from being in fellowship with God through Jesus in the Spirit – expressed through the bond of love and a common worship which 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 holy. 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 catholic. 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. 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 remain in darkness. Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that good news is spread to all nations.

The Church’s Mission

  1. The Church is called to love God.  The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells. The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints. The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners. The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ. The forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

The Church’s Importance

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach. The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The Belhar Confession

This Reformed Confession of faith directly addresses the need for and importance of Christian unity, which was of great significance to Jesus in his high priestly prayer.

We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another.

We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:

That we love one another;

That we experience, practice, and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;

That we share one faith, have one calling, are of one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope.

That together we come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;

Together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;

Together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another;

That we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.

Amen.

John 14:23-29 – Spiritual Peace

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away, and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. (New International Version)

The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, Companion, Helper, Comforter, Counselor, and Teacher. All of that is wrapped up in the word “Paraclete” (a transliteration of the Greek word, Παράκλητος).

A straightforward literal translation of “Paraclete” needs a phrase rather than a word: “Called alongside for encouragement,” fairly-well translates the word. Our needs as followers of Jesus are many – thus requiring a multi-faceted mentoring ministry by the Spirit.

The Spirit was sent to be with Christians continually, reminding them of all Jesus has said and done as the ultimate witness to Christ’s life and ministry. So, the role of the Holy Spirit is providing aid for Christians, especially in difficult situations; the Spirit helps in a time of need.

The Spirit is also our close Companion. Indeed, it is a special friend who stands up for us, advocates on our behalf, gives us remedial teaching, and brings comfort. In other words, the Holy Spirit is motivated with love for us, just like the Father and the Son.

Whatever we need, the Holy Spirit is something of a divine concierge in the middle of adversity, attentive to our every need. Perhaps a story will better illustrate the Spirit’s nature and work.

When my girls were small and I was a financially struggling seminarian, we were one evening down to our last bit of food. Although they thought it was a privilege to eat Wheaties for supper, my wife and I knew the cupboard was now bare.

So, we prayed. As we got up from our knees and started off for bed, there was a knock at our patio back door. We looked at each other wondering who in the world it could be at such a late hour. When I drew the shades, one of our neighbors, a little Puerto Rican woman, was outside holding what appeared to be more than her own body weight in overflowing grocery bags.

As I ushered her in and before I could say a word, she said this: “I went to bed and had just fallen into a deep sleep. But the Holy Spirit woke me up and told me to take as many groceries as I could carry to you. So, here I am.”

In that moment, I knew in my head and felt in my heart a ministry of the Spirit which transcends language. And the next morning, our girls learned something about God that they would never get from listening to their Dad’s teaching and preaching. I must also add that this is a story which gets retold often because it reminds us of how God meets us in our need and how much God cares.

Through such encounters with the Spirit (and I have mercifully been granted many of them!) I begin to understand and appreciate the wisdom of the saints throughout the ages:

“When the grace of the Holy Spirit enters a soul and is established there, it gushes forth more powerfully than any other spring; it neither ceases, dries up, nor is exhausted. And the Savior, to signify this inexhaustible gift of grace, calls it a spring and a torrent; He also calls it gushing water, to indicate its force and impetus.”

St. John Chrysostom

“Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.”

Corrie Ten Boom

One of greatest gifts which is given to us because of Christ and the Spirit is peace. Personal peace. Family peace. National peace. World peace. There is such a tremendous need for peace!

And yet, so many of us lack peace to the degree that we must medicate ourselves to sleep, at all. For some folks, avoiding family seems normal, just to keep the peace. National peace almost sounds oxymoronic. World peace is merely wishful thinking for far too many people. Perhaps we are in such a befuddled conundrum because of this reason:

We already possess what we so desperately want.

The search for peace is really the search within. The simplest of observations about Christ’s words is that Jesus has left us his peace. He gave it to us. We have it. Perhaps we have misplaced it? Maybe its lost in that huge stack on the desk?  Most likely, we plain old forgot about it. We need to remember that God’s peace is here with us. Right now. This very minute. We have exactly what we want.

The peace Jesus is talking about is far more than the absence of war, conflict, or infighting. The peace of Christ is the settled and restful calm and confidence of being with God, of an intimate union with the divine.

Jesus has given himself. He himself is our peace. Peace isn’t some happenstance thing, nor did it just magically appear. Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [the Son] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV)

The gift of peace needs to be unpacked.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3, NIV)

Practices of peace and peacemaking must be acknowledged and engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Romans 14:17-19, NIV

Since Jesus gives in a different way than any other gift, it may have thrown us off. Like the delivery guy who leaves a package in an odd place, we could be searching for the ongoing gift of peace somewhere on our property. It’s there – it just seems so darned elusive.

The authentic peace that is harmony and unity, can neither be found in perfect circumstances nor in idyllic families and faith communities. Divine peace is the security of relationship with God, smack in the middle of life’s crud.

The reason Jesus can exhort his disciples to be untroubled and unafraid is because the life of God is within them. As that life grows within us; as our hearts are healed with that presence; as we receive peace from the gracious hand of God; then, we discover, often by happenstance, that perfect love has driven the fear away.

Fear focuses on the hard situation in front of me, whereas love directs attention on Jesus. As the Father has loved the Son, so the Son loves us – and we have peace – without trying to miraculously conjure it with positive thoughts.

It is the glorious, gracious, and mystical union between Jesus and the believer which is peace. All obstacles have been surmounted and tossed into the trash for the garbage guy to haul away. And no, you did not accidentally throw your peace in the dumpster. There really is no need for any dumpster diving with Jesus around. He has already done that work for you and me through the cross.

Yet, peace still seems a pipe dream for some, even with the understanding of the gift. Like a new product packed so tightly in the plastic, we struggle to open it. Maybe the following thoughts may help to unpack peace for us:

  • Stop and breathe. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit of God is likened as wind. Pausing to take deep breaths in through our nose, and full exhales through our mouth can become prayers. The ancient Christian practice of breath-prayers can help us here. Some examples: Inhale saying, “More of you,” and exhale saying, “Less of me.” Inhale, “Holy one,” exhale, “heal me.” Inhale, “Abba Father,” exhale, “let me feel your love.”
  • Listen to peaceful music and words of peace. If we are continually in a state of agitation, it could be that we are inhaling a steady stream of radio, TV, or social media that is anything but peace forming – leaving us perpetually upset. So, pay close attention to who and what you listen to.
  • Identify some trigger words or phrases. Have a go-to word or phrase that brings you back to the peace within. For me, its quoting Psalm 23, Romans 6, John 14, or other Scripture passage from memory. So, the trigger phrase is, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need, or “Trust in God, trust also in me.”
  • Smell it. I keep candles around with pleasant odors and light them when feeling stressed. I also have found that, for me, burning sage helps to feel unburdened and, thus, peaceful.
  • Forgive. I have observed that many of the behavioral health patients I work with have little to no peace in their lives due to either resentment toward others or the inability to forgive themselves. Forgiveness brings peace, even if the other party does not want it.

May the Holy Spirit’s work abound in your life. And may the peace of Christ be with you always.