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Why Are You Still Standing Here?

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Ascension Sunday commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven.  The Ascension of Jesus took place in the presence of His disciples 40 days after the Resurrection. It is traditionally thought to have occurred on Mount Olivet in Bethany. According to the gospel writers Jesus was lifted up disappearing into the sky before their eyes.

Ascension, according to the biblical witness, refers not only to the literal “being lifted upwards” but also to a theological reality of Christ’s new status of exaltation.  Exaltation describes Christ’s return to the throne of God:

Ephesians 1:19–22 (NLT) I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.

What is the significance of the Ascension?  What does it mean to Jesus?  And what does it mean to us?

Jesus commanded the disciples to wait: “Don’t leave Jerusalem until the Father sends the gift he promised, as I told you before.  John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

What does the ascension mean for us?

Presence

Power

Posture

Presence: We are invited to experience a profound intimacy with the Father through the Holy Spirit.

Galatians 4:4–7 (NLT) But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.* And because we* are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.”* Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child.* And since you are his child, God has made you his heir.

Power: We receive power and authority even in the midst of the evil and suffering of this world.

1 Corinthians 1:24 (NLT) But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles,* Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Posture: We assume the posture of intercession on behalf of others in need.

Hebrews 4:14–16 (NLT) So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them.  (v. 10)  “Why are standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”  (v. 11)

Jesus left his disciples, who would soon receive the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit, to return to his Father’s right hand.  The Ascension of Christ left the disciples feeling lost.  Their Lord and Savior had left them.  But God is gracious, he sent them two angels to encourage them and to remind them and us that the One who had just left them in the clouds would return again to usher in the Kingdom of God in totality.  Although the end had not yet come, they (and we) should anticipate the day when Christ would return again.

Why are you still standing here staring up into heaven?  Jesus will return, but until he does, we must be about our business of being his witnesses.

The Spirit has come. We live on this side of Pentecost.  Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, we experience the presence of Christ in us.  Everything that happens in Acts is what Christ continued to say and do through the Holy Spirit.  The disciples were ordinary people filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  We remain ordinary people, but we have access to the extraordinary resources of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Jesus will come. This knowledge gives us perspective.  The world in which we live remains a fallen world, but we can see that nothing will prevent the coming of the Kingdom of God.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a Religious Landscape Study.  They found that the number of Christians in the US has declined since 2007 from 78% of the population to 70%.  The biggest declines have been among mainline Protestants and Catholics.  Mainline Protestants have declined from 18% in 2007 to 15%.  The only group that increased was that of the unaffiliated, the so-called “nones,” that is, those who professed no religion grew from 16% in 2007 to 22%.  Whatever you think of the study’s results, the study points out the increasing secularization of our society.  We are living in an increasingly post-Christian society.  While some are wringing their hands together, for me, the study points out the need for the witness of the Good News of Jesus Christ in our society.  Now more than ever in our history, people need the Lord.

The question of that the angels ask is still relevant today:  Why are you still standing here?

The work of the church is not yet finished.  We are called to be his witnesses, telling people about him everywhere – in Bowie, throughout Texas, throughout the United States, and to the ends of the earth.

Life in Communion

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Acts 2:42-44 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.  A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders.  And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had.

The Book of Acts outlines the growth of the church after Pentecost.  The theme of the book can be found in the words of Jesus recorded in Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.  And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The book of Acts was written by Luke as the second part of the 2 volumes Luke-Acts.  In Acts 1:1-2, Luke gives us his purpose statement:  In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles instructions through the Holy Spirit.  These verses tell us that the theme for Acts is everything that Jesus  continued to do after his ascension into heaven, through the Holy Spirit.  So the title of the book is often called the “Acts of the Apostles,” it should rather be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

In the church season following Easter (Eastertide), the book of Acts is always substituted for the Old Testament in the Revised Common Lectionary.  The readings begin with Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-32 on Pentecost and end with the events that occurred on Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21.

On Easter Sunday, we greeted one another with the greeting:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  But Easter Sunday is not the end of the celebration of the resurrection.  Easter Sunday begins The Great 50 Days.  Jesus continued to appear to the disciples over the course of 40 days until his ascension.  He commanded his followers to remain in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 1:6-8)  On the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate each year on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit arrived in surprising fashion, and we often call this day the birthday of the church.

After Pentecost, we are told that the church lived “Life in Communion.”  (Acts 2:42-47)  “They committed themselves to the apostle’s teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.” (v. 42)  This verse will serve as the theme verse for our sermons in the season of Eastertide.

What does it mean for the church to live into the resurrection life that Jesus promised?  What would it look like in the church, if we actually lived like the church in Acts 2:42 – “Life in Communion”?

“Run the race!”

Pastor Steve

 

 

The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Poor

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Matthew 5:3 God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Matthew 5 through 7 is the first of five long discourses in Matthew.  This first one is famously called the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew has introduced his theme with his preaching, “Repent of your sins and turn to God for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  (Matt. 4:17), and the calling of the first disciples (Matt. 4:18-22).  The Sermon on the Mount answers the question, what does life look like in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Ch. 5:1-12 is a passage called the Beatitudes (a word that means “Blessed” in Latin for the first word in each verse).  “Blessed are those who are…”  What does a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven – a follower of Christ – look like?  This is the specific question addressed in the Beatitudes.

Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is usually translated, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Luke has simply, “Blessed are the poor….”  So what does Jesus mean by the phrase “poor in spirit”?  The poor are certainly not those whom the world would consider blessed, and in fact, the world often has considered the poor to be poor as a result of their own lack of character, for example, because they are lazy.

In the OT, the poor are often depicted as especially pious because oppression by the wealthy leads them to trust in the Lord for salvation and deliverance rather than relying on the power of wealth.  (Ps. 37:14-15; 40:17; 68:28-33; Isa. 61:1; 66:2)  And this is still true today.  The poor are often kept poor because of the oppression of the wealthy and powerful, and oppressive systems and governments.  The wealthy often turn their faces from the poor in order to deny their role in causing this suffering, and the Bible is clear that God will judge the rich for this.  (Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 1:46-56)

In both Matthew and Luke, the poor are really poor materially, but it is their faith in God, not their poverty, is what makes them blessed.  The poor are often lifted up in the Bible as examples of faith toward God.  Poor people, precisely because of their lack of resources, are often humble in their nature and demeanor.  And the poor are most often those who must, because they have no material resources upon which to depend, must depend on God.

The word translated as “Blessed are…” is makarioi.  This is sometimes translated as “Happy are…”  But happiness in our modern culture is such an ephemeral concept it is subject to the vagaries of everyday life.

The blessed one is the one possesses the favor of God.  So Mary is called “highly favored.”  Blessedness differs from the happy person in that a person may be happy as a result of favorable circumstances.  The blessed one is blessed because his satisfaction comes from God despite circumstance.  So the poor are blessed because they have received the favor of God despite their poverty.

God of the poor, from the riches of your grace you share your riches with all who are in need.   Provide for the hungry and th e homeless and teach us to do likewise.  So also provide for all who spirits suffer from poverty, that none may doubt your goodness or overlook your faithfulness.  Above all, prevent us from thinking that we are rich, when we are really poor, blind, and naked – lest our self-deception separate us from you.  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty, we might become rich.  Amen.

New Year’s Resolutions

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Luke 9:23-25 Then Jesus said to the crowd, “If any of your wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake you will save it.  And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?”

Happy New Year!  At the beginning of the new year, it’s customary for people to make resolutions for the new year.  Usually these resolutions take the form of making a positive change in one’s life.  According to Bing, the top three resolutions for 2016 were:

to go back to school

to get a better job

to lose weight/get in shape

All of these resolutions are good, but almost all are doomed to failure.  The problem is that there is something called ‘immunity to change.’  According to Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change:  How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential In Yourself and Your Organization, immunity to change is the internal barrier to change in people in organizations.  In order to change, people and organizations must recognize and overcome the hidden barriers.  In their book, they outline a tool (The Immunity to Change Map) to discover through experimentation these hidden barriers and strategies to overcome these barriers.

Every year, I begin with good intentions.  This year, I have the same goal that I have had for the past several years, to lose weight and get back in shape.  I recognize that part of my weight loss problem is genetics (70% of weight gain is based on my genetics).  To overcome those genetics there are no shortcuts, the answer is the same as it has always been:  Diet and exercise.  To lose weight, you have to use more calories than you take in.  It’s simple math.

So why is it so hard?  My body is pre-programmed genetically to return to my highest weight.  In addition, I have to overcome the emotional barriers to change in my life.  I eat when I am anxious, stressed, bored, or tired.  I have to overcome the immunity to change in these areas, the way in which I sabotage my own success.

It’s the same for our spiritual goals.  In 2017, I have a spiritual goal of being a better pastor and leader.  How do I do that?  By following Jesus Christ, the model servant leader for all pastors and leaders in the church.  So as I study the Bible this year, I will be focusing on Jesus as servant leader.  What are the characteristics of Christ as servant leader that I should demonstrate in my life.

What is your spiritual goal for 2017?  To be a better disciple of Jesus Christ?  That should be the goal for every believer in every year.  In Luke 9:23, Jesus gives us a three-fold call to discipleship.

  1.  Give up your own way
  2. Take up your cross daily
  3. Follow Jesus

Giving up our own way is the hard part of discipleship, the part that we as Americans have a difficult time with in our consumer culture.  Taking up our cross implies a willingness to die to self and to live for God, even at the cost of our lives.  And following Jesus means not just saying a prayer for salvation.

Following Jesus means a daily giving up of oneself and following him.  The basis for this following or discipleship is our relationship with our Lord.  And the quality of our relationship will be determined by how much time we spend with him.  They knew that the disciples had been with Jesus when they saw them, because they were becoming like him.  They were becoming like him, because they had spent every day for three years with him – literally following him, watching him, and doing as he did.  This is discipleship:  Following Jesus, watching Jesus, and doing what Jesus did.  We can only do this as we spend time with our Lord.  The basic Christian practice is daily Bible study and prayer – spending time with Jesus.

In 2017, this is my prayer, it’s a prayer that you may know from the famous musical Godspell and the song “Day by Day.”  But the words of that song were originally a prayer of St. Richard of Chichester.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.  Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.  Amen.

 

The Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness

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Kindness is one of the virtues that we often desire to attain.  A typical New Year’s resolution, “I resolve to be more kind in 2017!”  Unfortunately, our resolutions are so often broken almost as soon as they are spoken.

The Greek word translated as kindness in Gal. 5 is chrestotes.  Chrestotes means “goodness, uprightness, righteous.”  Biblical “kindness is a response of the heart, not a resolve of the will.  It is the kindness of God toward us that engenders genuine and lasting kindness from us to others.”  (Stookey p. 47)  Biblical kindness connotes generosity, a giving spirit that reflects how God treats us.

God’s kindness is one of God’s communicable attributes:

Rom. 2:4 (NLT) Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant and patient God is with you?  Does this mean nothing to you?  Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

Rom. 11:22 (NLT) Notice how God is both kind and severe.  He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness.  But if you stop trusting you also will be cut off.

God’s kindness toward humanity is related to God’s mercy or lovingkindness and grace (Hebrew chesed; Greek charis).  “What kindness has God shown to me, in forgiving my sins, in providing for my needs, in granting me hope and everlasting life?  How can I express my gratitude for this unmerited goodness of God?”  (Stookey 47)

God’s kindness should inspire us to examine ourselves by asking the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the opportunities to express kindness toward another person in our daily life.  What opportunities for kindness do we miss?  What occasions for kindness might we find?

Generous God, what goodness you show to us day by day.  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.  Your mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning, new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness, O God!  Great is your faithfulness!

It is from you, then, that we learn kindness.  Grant us your grace to extend your grace and kindness to others.  Accept our gifts of kindness toward others as a pleasing sacrifice to you of praise and thanksgiving, and grant that we may continue in your kindness forever; through Christ, who, upon the cross, made known most fully the extent of your perfect love.  Amen.  (Stookey 47, 48)

The Fruit of the Spirit: Peace

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A biblical word study of the word peace yields 2 main results.  The Greek Word for peace is eirene.  Eirene occurs in each of the books of the NT except 1 John.  In the LXX, eirene translates the traditional Jewish greeting “Shalom.”  Shalom is the key Hebrew word in the OT.  Shalom means “peace, completeness, welfare, and health.”  It is a key term in the OT.  Even today, Jews greet one another with the words “mah shalom,” meaning literally, “What is your peace?” an idiom that means “How are you doing?”  Shalom is used frequently in the OT (283 times).

Shalom means more than the English word peace.  Shalom means also wholeness, the perfecting of all that is broken or incomplete.  The biblical sense of peace is more than the absence of conflict or confusion.  Ultimately peace is the restoration of Creation to the state in which God left it when he rested from his work.

As we think about peace as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, am I a source of anxiety in my world?  Edwin Friedman wrote a book entitled, A Failure of Nerve:  Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Friedman’s concern is with the crisis of leadership in our culture.  This crisis of leadership is found throughout our culture:  in national, state, and local politics; in the legal system; in schools; in buisnesses; in churches, and religious institutions; and in families.

Friedman applies families systems theory to leadership in all kinds of institutions.  His key premise is that almost all problems are a result of anxiety in the system.  For example in a family, the anxiety in the system will create a triangular system:  father and mother against child, for exmple.  Or commonly, mother, father and adultery.  How that anxiety manifests itself are varied.  In our current political system, that anxiety has manifested itself in “fear of the other.”

What is required to heal the system is a particular kind of leader, which Friedman calls a “well-differentiated leader.”  He seeks to show that the leader’s strength is not in what he or she does (method or technique), but rather in who the leader is (character and presence).  The well-differentiated leader is able to separate him or herself from efforts at triangulation, while at the same time remaining in the system.

It seems to me that the well-differentiated leader will be one who demonstrates shalom:  a wholeness and completeness that permits them to stay unmoved by the anxiety in the system in such a way that they are able to act.  The leader who possesses shalom is able to influence the system toward shalom.  

How does this apply to the Christian?  I would say that the Christian following Christ is moving on to perfection (as Wesley would say).  Moving on to perfection means that we are cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification.  The Holy Spirit is working to conform us to the image of Christ.  And the well-differentiated person would be that person who to some degree has become conformed to the image of Christ, especially in respect to shalom.  

How strong is my sense of shalom?  How can I be an instrument of God’s shalom?  How can I communicate shalom, the peace that God intends for all of us?  How can I nurture within myself the confiction that in the end God will restore shalom to creation, such that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth?”  (Stookey, p. 43)

Most holy and undivided Trinity:  within the complexity of your Being there is shalom in Oneness; yet from shalom flows forth the diversity of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), and all taken together is shalom.  Share with us the mystery of your shalom, that we despite our differences, may not be at odds, but rather at peace (shalom), whole as you are whole, trusting in your reconciliating love.  Amen.  (Stookey, p. 44)

The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy

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I was taught this acrostic in Sunday School:  J.O.Y.  Jesus first.  Others next.  Yourself last.  It sounds simplistic.  It runs counter to our culture, which advises us to put ourselves first (“Look out for number one.)  Even in church circles, it has become popular for counselors and others to advise us to “Take time for yourself, or you will get burned out.”  Well, there is some good sense in that sentiment.

But what would John Wesley have said about that, or Francis Asbury?  Wesley is reputed to have traveled some 250,000 miles on horseback (mostly in England).  He preached some 40,000 sermons.  Similarly, Francis Asbury traveled some 250,000 miles on horseback in the United States.

I just came back from a trip to China.  I had the privilege of meeting many Chinese pastors who are serving mostly bi-vocationally in unregistered churches.  They work a full-time job, then do their pastoral work in the evenings and weekends:  visiting people, preparing sermons, preaching, pastoral care, counseling, teaching Bible studies, etc.  They do all the work that a pastor does in any church setting – all under the threat of persecution and arrest.

In this country, there are also many churches served by bi-vocational pastors, perhaps the church that they serve is small and cannot support a full-time pastor, or perhaps it is a church plant that is just starting out.  They have to earn a living and do their pastoral work.  As a full-time pastor for the past 7 years, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to study and work full-time in the ministry.  But I respect those pastors who also minister and still must work a full-time secular job in order to support their family.  This is true in almost every country in the world.

For me, the deepest joy that I have comes from doing the work to which I am called:  ministering and serving as a pastor.  The best time I can take for myself is the time I spend in reading the Bible, studying the Word of God, meditating on it, and in prayer.  Sometimes walking my dogs and praying for the houses and people I pass by.

Is it possible that much of the joylessness of our society, even of the church is a result of failing to pay attention to our first love?  Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”  (Matt. 6:33)  Jesus gives this as an alternative to worry.  Single-minded commitment to God and seeking the reign of Christ must be the primary concern of the followers of Jesus.

The best time we can take for ourselves is our time of devotion before God.  Burn-out may be a symptom of our neglect of our primary relationship with the Almighty.  As we follow Jesus Christ, we remember that even he would often withdraw to be alone and spend time in prayer with his heavenly Father.  How much more do we need it?

Every powerful saint of God like Wesley, Asbury, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, etc. has been a person of prayer and contemplation.  They would rise early to meet the Lord and spend hours on their knees in prayer.  In this way, they prepared themselves for the ministry that they had to face each day.  And this may also explain the tremendous length of their ministry.  They were not flames that burned bright for a moment, but God used them to transform the world.

Heavenly Father, what a comfort to read of the prophets and saints who despite the difficulties and dangers that they were called upon to face, were able to rejoice in the Lord and trust in Your unfailing faithfulness.  We pray that like them we too may receive Your abiding joy and discover like them that the joy of the Lord is our strength and that the peace that comes from You is an abiding peace that enables us to overcome all difficulties of life.  Fill our hearts with Your abiding joy and that we may rejoice in life whatever the circumstance.  Thank You for we are Your children and You are our Father.   We rest in Your love and trust in Your unfailing goodness.  Amen