Wednesday 14 February 2024

The Armour of God - Ephesians 6:10-20


Thank you, Friendship Group, for leading us in worshipping God this morning! Paul writes this letter while he is prison. Prison is a place where it gets easy to be afraid, especially afraid that God doesn’t care anymore. Paul wants to help the church in the city of Ephesus have courage because one day they might also be put in prison because many people there hated Christians because they taught that idols were not real. Satan used the people who sold idols to get the people angry against the Christians. Paul later left to go to other cities, but he wants to help them stay strong for Jesus and not be afraid of what Satan was doing. Paul takes Satan seriously, he knows Satan can be scary sometimes, so Paul gives us courage by reminding us that Jesus has already defeated Satan and we just need to stand strong against Satan’s lies and tricks.

I often ask people, “Where do you see God working in your life.” It gives us courage when we learn how to see where God is in our lives. God also gives us armour to help us be brave. Paul uses the image of a Roman soldier dressing himself for battle to show us how to stand against Satan. Satan is no joke and we need to be aware of how he works against us and how the armour helps us stand strong. He encourages them to “Be strong in the Lord and his mighty power.” Paul reminds them that they are filled with the Spirit and their strength comes from the Lord. If we’re going to be strong and brave as we stand against Satan’s schemes, we need Jesus. Our battle’s not a physical battle against other people, it’s a spiritual battle for our hearts and souls and it’s being fought against “the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Paul prays that we will “stand our ground, and after we have done everything, to stand.”

The Jews saw the area between heaven and earth as the place where Satan and other evil spiritual powers were in control. This is why Jesus hanging on the cross between heaven and earth is such a powerful picture of the battle between Jesus and Satan, because Jesus was in the realm of Satan and these spiritual forces when he dies. When Jesus dies for our sins, he defeats Satan and his forces. Paul reminds us in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Satan has no power over us, but he can still tempt us by lying to us and this is what the armour of God protects us from.

We’re not called to go looking for a fight, instead God gives us armour to protect ourselves. The armour is also called the armour of light in Romans 13:12, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world. Putting on the armour of light is like putting on Jesus. Paul writes, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re called to clothe ourselves with Jesus and to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can stand strong against Satan’s tricks, and live the way Jesus wants us to live.

Paul calls us “to stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around our waist.” All the armour Paul talks about is given to help defend us, not to go into battle with. As Jesus and the Holy Spirit battle for us, we’re called to stand strong for Jesus, to keep believing and trusting in him and his plans for us. Paul keeps pointing us to Jesus who tells us that he’s “the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus’ truth helps us to have courage and stand strong because we know the truth of his love for us, his salvation for us, and the truth that he is with us always. The truth is that Jesus is God and is more powerful than anybody else and he defends us.

Next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness, which sits over your heart. Righteousness is about right living, it’s about how we live with God, each other, ourselves and creation. Loving God and our neighbours is at the heart of righteousness, but it’s also about responsibility: about justice and protecting those who are vulnerable, providing for those who are unable to provide for themselves, and helping others develop the potential God has put in them. We put the gospel of peace on our feet. Gospel means good news, and peace for the Jews is all about shalom, about having healthy relationships with God and others; it’s about wise living within the community for God. The church is all about people being together so we don’t have to go through life alone, we’re supposed to be there for and with each other. Righteous lives supported by the gospel of peace that Jesus brings, helps us live wonderful lives together as followers of Jesus that please God. This gives us the strength and courage to constantly stand for Jesus, even when it’s hard.

Paul then calls us to “take up the shield of faith so that we can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.” When Paul talks about a shield of faith, he’s thinking of the big shields the Roman soldiers carried. They were huge, 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and allowed the soldiers to duck behind then when enemy archers would send volleys of arrows at them. Often these arrows would be tipped in tar and lit with fire to create more damage and fear. When you trust in Jesus and follow him, your faith puts out the arrows of doubt that Satan loves throwing at you. Adam and Eve fell to those arrows, doubting God when Satan asked them if God really cared about them. Jesus comes and defeats Satan, first in the wilderness when Satan tries to create doubt in Jesus’ mind about his Father’s plan, but Jesus chooses to trust his Father and place his faith in his Father’s plan and sends Satan packing.

The next piece of armour is the helmet of salvation. A helmet protects our heads, our minds, the place where we do our thinking. Trusting that our salvation comes from what Jesus has done for us in our place on the cross, bringing back into a right relationship with God, helps us stand strong against Satan’s lies that we need to earn our salvation, or that we’re not worthy, or loved by God enough to save us. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul tells us, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” Knowing that when Jesus returns, we’ll be with him, gives us strength to face the hard and confusing times of life when things don’t seem to make sense and everything gets hard.

Finally, there’s “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” We saw how the shield of faith protected Jesus against Satan’s temptation in the wilderness, but Jesus defeated Satan by using God’s word, words from the Old Testament to remind Satan that we live on every word that comes from the mouth of God, that we don’t test God, and that we are created to worship and serve God. The better we know God’s word, the more we let it shape our lives, and our ways of thinking and seeing the world, the stronger we are.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But Satan, even though he knows he can’t win, keeps trying to separate as many followers of Jesus as he can from God’s love through lies, whispering in our hearts that we can’t really trust God, and we can make our own salvation and heaven. This is why we put on the armour of God, to stand strong against Satan and his followers who want to keep us from knowing and experiencing the love of God, especially though Jesus. We don’t do this alone; God gives us this armour to protect us, and it’s for all of us to wear together as the body of Christ.

We need to always pray, staying close to God and Jesus. Talking regularly with God is one of the ways the Holy Spirit keeps us strong. Life and faith are not always easy, but by praying regularly to our Father, you can stand strong, knowing that Satan has no power to lead you down paths and roads that might lead you away from Jesus. Nothing can separate us from the love of God because we have the armour of God protecting our minds and heart, keeping us strong in the Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

Be Filled with the Spirit - Ephesians 5:1-21


Paul often uses contrasts to describe our journey of faith and how we respond to Jesus. He does the same thing in these verses. But before he gets into the contrasts, he sets down a foundation of how we are to live, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us, Paul calls us to allow gratitude and thankfulness shape our hearts, minds and lives in response to that love. This is why the church can be such a blessing, why it appealed to so many people 2,000 years ago and it’s why the church has been placed here; to bring light and offer the hope that only Jesus can give, or as we’re talking about in our Profession of Faith class, we’re here for the life of the world.

Paul is warning us here that we have choices in how we live; we can follow Jesus’ way, or we can follow the way of our culture, especially in its negative paths. Paul recognizes those ways of living that separate us from God keep finding their ways into our lives: sexual immorality, impurity, greed, or mockery that, no matter the times or generation we’re part of, keep getting embraced. Paul uses the word porneia here, where we get our word for pornography and is about lust, about filling your heart and minds with sexual images and thoughts that use and demean others for your own pleasure. It’s easy and common to escape into created worlds of lust and greed instead of living with the people around you. With the world at our fingertips through the internet, it’s easy to indulge our lust at any moment of the day, anywhere we are. Our culture teaches that it’s normal and even good to indulge our lusts through pornography and studies show that it affects both men and women, both young and old. Self-control and purity are seen as out-dated virtues.

What these things all have in common is a spirit of selfishness, arrogance, anger, hatred, and spite that takes rather than gives. I’ve had people challenge me on sex outside of marriage and say it’s about love and this is why God isn’t unhappy about their relationships. Yet when I push them on it, they will normally come to admit that their physical relationships are about experiencing pleasure for themselves more than about the other person; their ultimate commitment is to themselves rather than the person they’re with. Impurity is about letting things into your head, heart, or life that brings stains to your soul, stains you know don’t please God, but you embrace them anyway even though they build barriers between you and others, even if the barriers are unseen and only inside your heart. I’m no longer shocked at mockery or coarseness, it so normal today and too often it’s passed off as “just joking,” and there’s little concern for the hurt or harm it brings. Paul challenges us to embrace the spirit of Jesus instead which consists of love and self-sacrifice, placing the other first instead of tearing them down. How we live is important.

Paul’s talking about the differences between living in darkness and living in and as light in the Lord. We’re reminded that Jesus gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering, one that pleased God, a sacrifice to God for us that paid for all our sins because he loves you so deeply. We’re unable to cover the cost of our sin, so God comes down to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Jesus takes the price of our sin on himself, buying us back from death and Satan for himself. The invitation is always to come into the light, but it does reject those who embrace the way of darkness. The call is to expose the deeds of darkness while having nothing to do with them.

We’re called to live as children of light, which is all about goodness, righteousness and truth. We live in a cynical culture and many people mock these ideals, but they build strong blessed communities that allow people to flourish and experience acceptance and permission to take chances to explore their talents and who they are. Jesus is the light of the world, but because we are followers of Jesus, we also are light to the world. This is why Jesus reminds us how foolish it is to hide a lamp under bushel baskets because that defeats the whole purpose of what lamps are for, to provide light when it’s dark. In the same way we provide light in the form of hope and grace, as comfort and acceptance to those who are going through dark times. We’re light, called to love and walk in the way of love, guiding others into Jesus’ way of goodness, righteousness, and truth.

The reality is that it’s impossible for us to walk the way of love, to walk the way of Jesus out of thankfulness and gratitude to God without help, and that help comes from God. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Do we really know what that means?

To be filled with the Holy Spirit, means that we’re mastered and controlled by a very different power, one that works inside of us to stir things up so that we’re more aware of God’s presence around us. This presence and power of the Holy Spirit helps us to focus our energy on worshipping God and serving God throughout the day, every day. The Spirit guides us through our day; praising God through how we do our life at work, at school, at home, and in community. It may involve songs and music, but often it’s about how we do goodness wherever we are, doing our best work all the time, especially when no one else is looking; standing up for what is right, even if it might cost you; and at times, this could cost you a lot.

Following Jesus and being filled with his Spirit is not about doing church, but about who we are as the church in the world. Who we are as followers of Jesus, our character being shaped by the Holy Spirit, reveals to the world who God is. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Galatians where he talks about what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit, contrasting the world’s way with walking with the Spirit. Galatians 5:16–26, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” The Holy Spirit changes us, makes us new people, changing us from who we used to be into people that are living out the values and ways of the kingdom of heaven, inviting others to join us in the kingdom, inviting them to join us in relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

 We’re called to live out the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” wherever we are, and we’re in the world all week, every week. We’re called to walk in the way of love, love of God, love of our neighbour, love of the things Jesus loves. It comes down to trusting that Jesus’ way is intended to help us reach our potential; to be the person God has created us to be; to be communities that honour God and each other. Love for Jesus, walking in his way of love looks like giving water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring about the people in our communities, and obeying his commandments and inviting those who are ignoring or rejecting God’s will to trust that God’s way is best because he loves us and desires what is best for us, even if we can’t understand it at the time.

When we care for others Jesus says, we’re really doing it for him, walking in his way of love, showing that we are filled with his Spirit. This is how we’re light to the world; bringing hope. Even if you feel you’re too old or physically unable to be this kind of a presence, being filled with the Spirit will grow your prayer life as you pray for those who are engaged in the physical and relational work, you can support the activities of being light in our community with your finances, you can encourage those who are engaged in blessing the community through Bethel Church by blessing them through cards, phone calls, emails, and in person on Sundays.

We come together as a church filled with the Spirit to walk in the way of love. It’s not a journey we walk on our own, we walk it together and with God as he fills us with his Spirit to guide and bless us that we may be a blessing here.

Unity of the Spirit - Ephesians 4:1-32


Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy called In His Image, where I discovered just how truly fearfully and wonderfully our bodies are made. Our bodies are way more complex and amazing than I had ever imagined before reading their book. Brand and Yancy tell how the wondrous complexity of our bodies relates to being created in God’s image. When we talk about being created in God’s image, we’re talking about spiritual things here. All other creatures were also created, just like humans were, and they’re all living breathing creatures; the difference between humanity and the other animals is that God breathed his breath, his spirit into us to give us life, giving us a glimpse of God’s love for us.

Paul uses the body as an image of the church. We’re all interconnected, we’re all are part of the same whole. “There is one body and one Spirit,” Paul says. The call is to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. It’s all connected to Jesus as our one hope. This whole theme of oneness comes through again and again in these verses, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yet how important is unity and peace in the church to most of us? In a culture, even a church culture that often emphasizes being right over peace and harmony, unity is not always considered important. Just look at how many denominations or independent churches there are to see that unity is often not a high priority for many.

Jesus gives the church the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God. This image Paul gives us goes against how we often do church, where we hire someone to do the work while we focus on what we get out of church. Paul believes that Jesus gives the church the workers we often hire to do the work of the church, to equip and train us to do the work of service. This is how we are built up as a church and reach unity in the faith and knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God. We learn through serving that life is not about me, but about serving God and neighbour.

Jesus gives us leaders to equip us to do works of service. The works of service don’t save us, only Jesus saves us from our sin through his work on the cross for us. We cannot save ourselves from our sin, we need Jesus; but, like the Heidelberg Catechism tells us, we do works of service because it helps us to be more like Jesus, it’s a way of showing our thankfulness to God for his grace, and it helps to win our neighbours over to Jesus. Paul reminds us that works of service makes the church stronger and healthier, helps us to be more united together. It’s part of how we mature as followers of Jesus.

Jesus’ last prayer in the Garden focuses on his followers being one, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message (his disciples), 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.” If all the parts of a body don’t work together in unity, it’s hard. My brother Glen had epilepsy; if you have physical struggles, it makes life more difficult and you need to learn new ways of doing everyday things. It doesn’t make you any less a person, but you have things to deal with that others might not have to. It’s also true that those whose bodies might not work the way God created them to work, often learn greater grace and appreciation. I think of people like Joni Tada Eareckson who was paralysed after an accident, or Helen Keller who is blind and deaf, and how their faith grew because their physical bodies were hurt or didn’t develop the ways other bodies do as they focused on Jesus and who he is calling them to be. In many ways, the church is like this, we wrestle with hurts or brokenness, and yet together as the body of Jesus, we support and encourage each other, walking together, sometimes learning new ways of being church together. The Holy Spirit will guide us, if we’re open to the Spirit, guiding us to be one as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one essence even as they’re three persons.

Just like the Holy Spirit gave life to Adam, Jesus’ Spirit gives life to the church. The coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was like getting a blood transfusion, bringing new life. Dr. Paul Brand tells of a woman in an accident who had lost most of her blood. She was almost dead and pale white. Once they started a blood transfusion, colour returned to her skin and her life was restored. This is what Paul’s getting at here, “That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” The Spirit works in us as the body of Jesus, pointing us to who Jesus is, and working in us to make us more like Jesus, renewing our minds and making us more righteous and holy.

What does this look like in the church? Partly it’s about holding common beliefs, which is why we have creeds and confessions based on Scripture. This is why educating our youth and new believers is so important because it joins us together. This is why we’ve developed mentoring relationships in our youth ministry. Learning together, mentoring others is part of how we put on the new self so we become mature and aren’t tossed around like ships in a storm without a rudder, helpless and grabbing onto any life-line for safety. As we work towards living in unity together in our faith, we also learn to walk in holiness and righteousness together as Jesus’ body set apart to be a witness to the world to who Jesus is.

Holiness and righteousness are revealed through the relationships found within the church. John puts it this way in his first letter, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” In Jesus’ prayer in the garden, he prayed that we would be one in him so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Unity in the church helps the world to believe that Jesus has been sent by God; that Jesus is the Son of God who has come to save the world! We can be different and diverse in our gifts and talents and still be unified in our faith and beliefs, focusing on working together in order to reveal to the world who God is.

But unity is hard. Pride, arrogance, selfishness, anger, and more can break the church and relationships with God and each other because they lead to a lack of faith and forgiveness, showing we haven’t accepted Jesus’ forgiveness. This leads to brokenness. It comes down to how well we listen to and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, allowing the Spirit to flow into and through us. This means taking the time to listen to the Holy Spirit as we pray, to listen to the wisdom of the Spirit as we study God’s Word together, as we do works of service within the church and our community to grow stronger together. There’s something about working together that draws people closer together. Talk to people who serve in various organizations and you will often hear how their closest friends come from among the people they serve with. The key is combining our works of service with Jesus’ humility and love and sharing who Jesus is.

Paul writes, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” How do you speak to or of others? Are you focused on building them up, being an encouraging presence? Or do you enjoy talking about others in negative ways? Paul calls us to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Another way of saying this is, “live in love, speak with grace, offer forgiveness easily, because in Jesus we’ve received unmeasurable grace.” This is Spirit-filling shaping ways of living, echoing the fruit of the Spirit encouragement Paul gives the Galatians.

Unity and growing mature together is hard work, but anything precious takes effort and sacrifice to achieve. Anything Jesus prays for is precious. Unity is not something we achieve in our own strength; this is why Paul reminds us of the need for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Will it take sacrifice to focus our lives and rhythms around these things? Yes, but you’ll discover the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s life blood building us into a stronger and blessed body of Jesus who bring glory to God and life to the places where we live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rooted and Grounded - Ephesians 3:14-19

                          

Thank you, cadets, for leading our time of worship. Thank you for sharing what being a cadet is all about; reminding us that we’re all called to live for Jesus. Paul, who wrote the letter where our verses come from, wants the same thing, praying that God our Father will make our hearts and souls strong through the Holy Spirit so that Jesus can live in our hearts. The Holy Spirit helps us to live as Jesus’ people, just like our code does; reminding us that a cadet is reverent, obedient, compassionate, consecrated, trustworthy, pure, grateful, industrious, and cheerful! I loved studying the cadet code with you this fall so that we can live for Jesus together.

Paul wants us to be rooted and established, or grounded in love. Paul reminds me of growing up on my uncles’ farms, of my parent’s huge garden, and later working as a landscaper. I was taught when I was about your age, how important it was to make sure the soil was ready for planting by making sure it was full of healthy nutrients for the seeds so they would have good food and grow up strong and healthy and produce lots of food and grain. Because my uncles had farms, we used lots of manure, but even then, there would be some types of fertilizers that we still be used to create rich soil so the roots would grow strong and healthy. Paul is praying that our hearts will be rooted and grounded in love so that we’ll grow strong in our faith and relationship with God.

Good roots help plants grow good fruit. It’s the same with us, if our spiritual roots are strong, we’ll be healthy followers of Jesus; becoming more like Jesus. What are some of the things that help us grow as Christians?

Paul tells us that we need to grow the fruit of the Spirit in us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Did you hear the first part of the fruit; it’s love. Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 7 and 12 that good trees make good fruit and good works and good deeds show that their hearts are good and they’re producing good fruit. The good works and good deeds don’t save us from our sin; they come from the work of the Holy Spirit in us, guiding us to be more like Jesus, showing that we are rooted in the love of God. When we look at Scripture, we find that the word that’s translated "good" means that it’s pleasing to God.

Love is the foundation of our relationship with God. Jesus talks a lot of love; one of the most important things he taught us about love is that all the commandments boil down to two laws, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” It’s kind of powerful that Jesus tells us that the two most important things we need to focus on is to love God and to love our neighbours. Jesus even calls us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. That’s a hard kind of love to do, this is why Paul tells us that we need to be rooted in Jesus’ love because that’s the only way we can love people the way Jesus wants us to.

Because loving others can be really hard to do, Jesus told them a parable about how important it is to stay connected to him. In John 15, Jesus taught them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Jesus gives us life, keeps us strong, when we stay connected to him because his roots are love and he is the strong vine that gives us life.

I learned how important it is for branches to stay connected to the main vine when I was a landscaper. My boss sent me and Andy to go to a house whose gardens were pretty wild and overgrown. When we got there, Andy took a look at all the work that had to be done and told me to begin on a side of the house that had beautiful ivy growing up and covering the side of the house. My job was to trim it back a bit and to mix some manure into the soil and to clean up the plants that had gotten out of control. By the end of the day, I had trimmed back the ivy so it looked neat and tidy again, leaving us to concentrate on the rest of the yard and gardens the next day.

As we drove up to the house the next morning, Andy mentions that the ivy on one half of the house looks kind of wilted so I should water the ivy and flowers and then join him on the back yard gardens. It’s like in Psalm 1 where it talks about, “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” Water is important, so I gave it a good watering and thought nothing of the ivy for the rest of the day. As we were packing up our tools for the day, we took a look at the ivy and it looked terrible. Andy and I got down on our knees to try and find out what was wrong and it didn’t take long to discover that the main vine had been cut and now half the vines were dying because they had no connection to their roots. Oops, I knew who had done that cut!

We’re the same way with Jesus, if we allow things to cut us off of from our connection to Jesus, our hearts and souls start to die and we begin to wither away as people. When we start withering as people, it looks like not caring about other people as much, it looks like being more selfish, it looks like becoming more angry or bitter. To be healthy and strong as cadets, and as followers of Jesus, to do what is right and good, we need to stay connected to Jesus.

If we’re supposed to be rooted in love, we need to learn what love is and where to find that love. The word that Paul uses for love here is the Greek word “agape.” Agape love is one of the attributes of God, meaning that it shows us what God is like. Love is a key part of who God is, what his nature is. Agape love is the perfect description of the relationship between God and us that is reflected in the Christian community, in our relationships with God, and with each other. Agape love is nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit, who is living inside us and the church, always reminding us of who Jesus is and pointing us back to him when we drift away. This is why love has been the essential characteristic of Christian discipleship and Christian ethics.

We learn about God’s love for us by studying the Bible and the stories of God’s relationship with his people right from Adam and Eve, all the way to John’s revelation in the last book of the Bible. We quickly learn that even though we might turn away from following God and listen to other voices instead of God’s, he never gives up on us and he keeps coming after us. We see God’s love in Jesus as he leaves heaven to become a person just like us. He grows up and spends three years teaching everyone about God our Father and how we should live with each other and God. Jesus then goes to the cross where he takes our sin on himself and dies, but he doesn’t stay dead because God shows his love by raising Jesus from the grave. When Jesus returned to heaven, he gave us the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts and remind us of who Jesus is and to remind us that God is always close to us.

Jesus teaches us what a life of love looks like, especially in places like the Sermon on the Mount or Plain in Matthew and Luke. This is why Jesus tells us that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. We keep Jesus’ commandments because we trust in his love for us, that he wants us to be strong and faithful and become who God has created us to be; strong and filled with power.

When we grow our roots deep into love, into Jesus’ love, we learn how to love each other, even those who are really hard to love and we begin to understand just how much Jesus loves us; how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus. I pray that you know this deep in your hearts today.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday 15 January 2024

The Lord and Giver of Life - Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:1-8


Have you been born again? This is a question that sounds a bit odd to many of us this morning, a question we might expect in a church from a different tradition, like a Pentecostal church. Yet this is what Jesus tells Nicodemus we all need, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'" Paul also talks about new life, contrasting the new life with being dead in our transgressions and sins. In both Ephesians and John, new life is found in following Jesus and accepting him as our Lord and Saviour. Paul tells us again in Colossians that we are dead in sin, but made alive with Jesus; powerful words of hope!

Paul talks about being dead in our transgressions and sins. This is about our spiritual condition, a heart and soul thing, not a physical body thing. There’s a lot of brokenness today that creates a death of hope, a dying of peace and safety; there’s hurt inside many that kills any chance of dreaming of something better. I volunteered for years at a downtown ministry in Thunder Bay with men whose families had shattered, with children from broken homes, many filled with parents struggling with addictions. I saw the scars and trauma in their eyes. They came looking for hope, for help, for a new start again. Many of them only knew of God as a someone who hated people who broke his rules. The family brokenness, the breaking down of being community together in a society focused on 'me first,' has led to lots of loneliness and brokenness. When they would come to that place of accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, it was amazing the transformation that happened as they accepted God’s grace in Jesus.

Paul's not saying that you can't experience joy, satisfaction, accomplishment, or even love in your life without being made alive in Jesus, just that it has no roots to it. I have many friends who don't want anything to do with God or religion and have happy and fulfilling lives. They’re accomplishing a lot and doing a lot of good things and they don't feel dead. Yet in God’s eyes they are dead because they’re disconnected from Jesus who is life. Life’s not just about breathing, it’s about being anchored in Jesus as Lord.

Without Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the good things in life, the good things we accomplish, the happiness we feel all depends on us and our ability to make life go well, but what happens when life goes hard? We often discover that the things we put our trust in for happiness end up failing us at some point. In small and large ways, we've made the good things God has given us, God’s blessings into gods small "g" gods that we lean on to make us happy and satisfied. When you judge life by how you feel, you’ll make sure you surround yourself with stuff that makes you feel good. Yet in the end, everything you've done comes to an end because it’s focused on this life. If death and nothingness is all that you have to look forward to, life loses its meaning and purpose.

An old friend continues to say 'no' to Jesus, he’s admitted that he sometimes wonders why he bothers working hard, does good things, and helps others, and his only answer is because it makes him feel good. He's been married and divorced twice and was living with his girlfriend. His happiness depends on keeping her satisfied enough to stay with him. This is what Paul's talking about when he talks about “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” This is what Jesus is getting at with Nicodemus, when life and happiness depends completely on what we do and have, the “flesh giving birth to flesh” idea instead of the “Spirit giving birth to spirit.” I've always been a "God" person in his life and so we would talk about happiness and having something constant in our lives instead of things that keep changing. We’ve talked about God and why Jesus is that constant in my life. I’ve talked about how Jesus makes me a different person; someone he keeps talking to about Jesus. Being born again for him will look like exchanging his small 'g' gods for Jesus. This is a decision we all need to make.

Tim Keller mentions how some of the unhappiest people he's met are those who've succeeded in life but then found that as they accomplished all their dreams, they were still restless. The more they achieved, the more they needed in order to feel fulfilled and happy. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council, a man dedicated to fulfilling all the laws and requirements of the Jewish faith, but still he’s seeking more, finding that doing the law wasn't filling that emptiness in his heart and soul that needs more. Nicodemus shows up one evening; hoping to find something to fill those empty places in his soul.

Jesus identifies Nicodemus' heart longing, that emptiness in his soul as a longing for the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, "How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born!" You have to wonder how can someone as educated as Nicodemus not understand that Jesus isn't talking in literal terms, but pointing to something deeper. Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus see is that, instead of seeing life through the lens of following all the rules or his accomplishments, Nicodemus, and many of us, need to see and experience life from a new starting point. Jesus points to the need to have the Holy Spirit renew your heart, soul and mind so that you approach and live life through Jesus instead of yourself. We've messed up our hearts and souls through sin so much that it is described as death. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the only ones who can un-mess us up again and bring us into new life.

I was talking last week with someone about how faith is a heart and soul thing, not a rules and law thing. Faith is rooted in relationship with Jesus; this is what Paul’s getting at when he tells the Ephesians, “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” There’s that word “grace” again, rooted in our relationship with God, rooted in God’s great love for us; a love that looks like sacrifice, that looks like Jesus on a cross reconciling us with God our Father again and bringing new life. There’s a whole lot of death and life talk here by Paul; our souls are dead in our sins, but he keeps pointing us to the offer of new life and the generosity and grace of God, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Receiving the new life that flows out of God’s grace, means letting go of your old life and your wants; letting God take charge and shape your life his way instead; inviting the Holy Spirit to wash the old away and dress you in new clothes with a new family name and identity anchored in Jesus. You’ll begin to embrace new priorities and cultivate a new focus in life based on accepting Jesus completely, letting go of your fear and embracing trust and faith in Jesus and his plans for you. You may be called to embrace some of the chaos that comes from loving the prodigal as God does; reaching out to the hurting and broken, coming alongside those that are rejected and ignored by loving those Jesus loves, helping them know they too can have new life, that there’s hope because of God’s amazing grace.

You’re invited by God to embrace his grace. You’re God’s handiwork, created to do good works, to be grace to others. Living our new life in and with Jesus frees us to accomplish Jesus’ goals because the old stuff no longer holds us back. It may seem small to you to lead someone to Jesus, but the angels in heaven celebrate every time someone comes to Jesus, making that small thing in your eyes something that has eternal consequences. Your new life allows you to continue the things Jesus was doing as he told his disciples in John 14, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

Your new life is a sign of hope to others looking for healing and hope in their own lives. You’re witnesses of the power of Jesus in the world still today; of the power to hope again after life throws you a curveball. Jesus sees who you are and all the potential he’s placed in you when he created you. The church is here for the world, Jesus has put us here, not for ourselves, but to go out wherever Jesus has placed us to serve and to bring healing, and to make disciples by offering them the new life found in Jesus. The power of the Holy Spirit in you brings change into our community that ripples out in ways that you can't even imagine as the Holy Spirit blows wherever it pleases. We’re part of building a community of strength and hope and health rooted in Jesus; living out what the kingdom of God is, where people focus on living for others, offering them God’s grace.

Spiritual Blessings - Ephesians 1:1-14

                         

I love this letter of Paul to the church in the city of Ephesus; it’s a letter filled with theology, enough for a seminary education, all rooted in the 2-word phrase “in Christ.” Scott Hoezee identifies these theological gems introduced in these first 14 verses, “The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine election. Redemption through Jesus’ blood. The baptismal seal of the Holy Spirit. The doctrines of creation and providence. Salvation by grace alone. Eschatology. Faith. Sanctification. The proclamation of the gospel. It’s all here.” Yet at its heart, Paul reminds us that our faith is rooted in Jesus, it’s all about God, and, as two great Jacob’s, Eppinga and Prins, keep reminding me, “it’s all about grace!” Throughout this entire letter, we’ll be reminded over and over again that our salvation is completely begun and carried out by Jesus; we’re unable to contribute to our salvation in any way, and the grace in this completely changes us for the better.

Ephesus is the most important city in the area; a commercial, cultural, and religious hub that drew people from every part of the known world, and even from parts unknown, making it a fascinating mix of cultures, languages, and faith beliefs. Paul spent two to three years in Ephesus building the church. Because of its location on major trade routes and its multi-cultural population, Ephesus was a strategic place to build a church that could spread the gospel news far and wide.

It was customary when you wrote letters in Paul’s time to open with greetings and blessings and then introduce the different things you’re going to talk about in the main part of the letter. Our verses this morning is the greeting and introduction part to what Paul is going to go more in-depth about and what we will be reflecting on over the next few weeks as we journey through Ephesians.

Paul reminds his readers that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus. The Greek word for “apostle” literally means “one who is sent” and can refer to a representative or anyone sent on a mission. An apostle is given the authority of the one who sent him while a disciple is still a student, someone who is learning. All of the apostles were disciples, they were among the many believers in Jesus, but only a small group of disciples were chosen as the Twelve Apostles as we read in Matthew 10:1–4 when Jesus sends them out in pairs to share the gospel news of Jesus and gives them power to even cast out demons, and in Acts 26:14–18 where Paul is telling King Agrippa about his call to go share the gospel news of Jesus. This included the original twelve disciples and Matthias after Judas betrayed Jesus, and then Paul. Paul receives his call a little differently on the Damascus Road, but he’s definitely chosen by Jesus and given the call to go make disciples. Later we discover others are also given the title apostle.

Paul goes on and reminds then that they are a holy people; people set apart by God as his. This is followed by a blessing, offering them grace and peace from God. A blessing is all about speaking God’s presence into someone’s life. Then comes something really special, Paul begins praising God and how he’s blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. At this point I’m going “WOW,” what a picture of God’s incredibly generous nature! This is no stingy God, but a God who pours out every spiritual blessing to us, his people; not because we deserve them, but because this is who God is!

What are these spiritual blessings? We’re chosen to be holy, to be set apart for God and made blameless, forgiven because we’re chosen in Jesus. God sees us through what Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross where he took our sin on himself, where he died and was buried for our sin, and then was raised from the dead and now sits with God preparing to return and claim everything under himself again. We’re chosen to be children of God to bring him praise for his glorious grace. To think that our confession of faith in Jesus, that in how we live as his children leads to God being given all the praise is an amazing call for our lives!

It’s all about God and Jesus; our lives are always to point to them. If you know grammar, this intensifies the awesomeness of what Paul is saying here. All the verbs used by Paul here in the original Greek are in the past perfect tense. You might say so what, well this means that everything Paul is saying here about what God is doing is settled, completed, accomplished once and for all; there’s no turning back, no changing what God has done in these blessings given to us! God does it all, he will not turn his back on us, he will not un-choose us, he will never take back his gift of grace and faith, all we’re called to do is simply receive the blessings; hopefully with lots of thanksgiving and praise!

Why does Paul focus so strongly on these things? We look back to what the world was like then. For the most part, things looked mostly good. The economy wasn’t horrible, there was mostly peace in the empire. As long as you acknowledged Caesar as lord, you could believe whatever you liked, religion was mostly tolerated. Yet as you dig into the government, the philosophies, the faiths of the day, as you take a closer look at the empire, you begin to see that signs of corruption were creeping in, cracks were starting to form in society. With the world opening up because of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, the investment in infrastructure like roads, the world was coming to the Roamn Empire with all its diversity and different beliefs.

When people looked to all the various faiths and philosophies that were appearing and capturing people’s minds and hearts, they were mostly told that they needed to earn their ways into a better life or into paradise. Philosophers were teaching that the gods were created in our images, or if gods did exist, that they weren’t interested or engaged in this world except for their own pleasure, and that they could be manipulated but not trusted. No matter the faith or philosophy, they all mostly came down to telling the people that we need to work towards becoming perfect, it’s all up to us to save ourselves.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus to show them that their lives have meaning by pointing them to God who has created them for a reason and gives them a purpose. Paul shows them a God who values and loves them, giving them a place where they belonged and were accepted, filling them with hope; things the other faiths and philosophies didn’t offer. Paul tells them that God loves us, honours us; sharing with us “the mystery of his will… to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ… in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the paise of his glory.” The greatest gift is that God does it all, he chooses us, saves us, and gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us into becoming more like Jesus. We’re reminded that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, that God uses us to play a part in the grand plan of God for all creation to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ!

This fascinates me, that we’re part of God’s plan to accomplish this; God’s doing this through the Holy Spirit working through us when we put our hope in Jesus, when we commit our lives to be for the praise of his glory, showing the world who Jesus is and the difference he brings, sharing what he’s done for us by becoming one of us, living life with us. All it takes to belong is to believe the message of truth, the good news of our salvation. As a sign and mark of reassurance, we’re given the Holy Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance as children of God.

Biblical scholar N. T. Wright shares with us what the gift of the Holy Spirit looks like, “Those who follow Jesus, those who find themselves believing that he is the world’s true Lord, that he rose from the dead—these people are given the Spirit as a foretaste of what that new world will be like. If anyone is ‘in the Messiah,’ what they have and are is—new creation.… The Spirit is the strange, personal presence of the living God himself, leading, guiding, warning, rebuking, grieving over our failings and celebrating our small steps toward the true inheritance.” A time-honored Christian confession of faith, the sixteenth-century Heidelberg Catechism, declares the same truth: “By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Q&A 49).

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gets us thinking in big picture ways, thinking of eternity, of salvation, of thinking about more than me and more about we and the world. He offers a message of hope, a message anchored in the gift of the Holy Spirit as a seal on us of God’s promises, showing us that God claims us as his, not as slave, but as his children, princesses and princes in the kingdom of heaven. As we journey through life, we do life in Christ, looking to Jesus for our identity, for who we are called to be as his brothers and sisters, and how to carry out his work of sharing the gospel news that leads people to God. To do life in Jesus, he gives us the Holy Spirit so we can have the courage and joy that comes from being his. May you all experience every spiritual blessing in Christ as you go into the world this week.

Monday 1 January 2024

Being Salt and Light - Matthew 5:13-16

  

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to think about who we are as Bethel Church, and who we want to become as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and opening our hearts and minds to Jesus’ plans for us. It's important that God is at the center of all our dreams and hopes; that we’re known as a church that honours God and follows Jesus; known for our faithfulness and grace. This is where the Sermon on the Mount comes in. Jesus’ sermon brings together how Jesus desires his followers to live with each other and with God. Jesus begins with a series of blessings, though not blessings as we normally understand blessings and they end with Jesus saying, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." It's in this context that Jesus calls us to be salt and light.

It's easy to follow Jesus when everything is going well, however Jesus is talking about following him in a deliberate way during times when we’re looked at and considered a fool, and worse, by many in the community because we follow Jesus. It takes trust and faith in Jesus to embrace who he is calling us to be when it's quite different from most others around us. The challenge is to be salt and light when what we believe is right and wrong is different from the world around us. This is the situation the early church found themselves in. It's in this kind of an environment that we can really be salt and light through the strengthening and development of a Christ-like character, always responding with grace.

Proverbs reminds us that “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bone.” We can turn away a lot of anger and fear by how we respond in difficult circumstances. Peter calls us to in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” Being salt and light is about being an agent of transformation, changing the environment around you. It's not about big stuff, it's about small consistent acts of grace based in your relationship with Jesus that creates significant differences around you and in the lives of others. Salt and light are not neutral elements, they make a difference, even if only a small difference. Jesus is telling us we’re change makers.

Miroslav Volk writes about how the West has changed over time. Augustine defined the supreme good that makes us truly happy as “a completely harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and each other in God.” Life was centered outwards to God and neighbour. Then humanism came along and rejected God, but the love of neighbour as being fundamental to human flourishing remained. However, in today’s culture, Volk sees human flourishing is becoming more defined as “experiential satisfaction,” which is centered on “concern for the self and the experience of satisfaction.” The idea of being salt that seasons a community or being light is slowly being lost today; this is why it’s so important for the church to show the way, walking in the way of Jesus. At the heart of being salt and light is in truly loving God with everything we are and loving our neighbours as ourselves, seeing everyone as precious because they’re created in the image of God.

Salt is used for many things, but most importantly it was used to season food and preserve food, especially meat which would otherwise rot. It's an important spice in hot climates, so important and useful that it’s even been used as currency or money at different times through history. It's a basic spice, nothing exotic or super special, and often cheap. It’s ordinary, it's easily overlooked until you don't have it. Salt seasons any food it's put into and a little goes a long way. It makes food taste better, enhances whatever you are cooking or baking. Without it, food is bland and not nearly as enjoyable.

How can you enhance the places God has put you, how can you make life better, more like God desires? It takes connecting with God and being open to the kind of person and church God is working to transform us into. It involves more listening to God than talking to God; it's about reading the Bible to discover who God is and how he works so we can become closer to God. It’s about asking God to help us see the people around us, and the life situations we're in ourselves, through his eyes and with his heart so that we can offer hope, encouragement, blessing, and even wise advice. Seasoning life around us is more about who we’re becoming as followers of Jesus than about specific actions and deeds.

Salt has been used as a preservative since ancient times. It works by absorbing water from foods, making the environment too dry to support harmful mold or bacteria. This allowed the people to keep their meat safe even though they had no refrigeration back then. Salt is used in healing, even today. Growing up, any time we cut or scraped ourselves badly, my mother would force us to soak the injured area in salt water in order to keep it from getting infected. Ancient Egyptians used salt water for treating wounds and stomach ailments while Greeks and Romans used it for treating scrapes, cuts, mouth sores, and skin irritations. Even today, modern medicine uses saline water, especially in surgery. It helps clean and sterilize wounds preventing infection.

What does it mean to be salt? Biblical writers compare salt to wisdom. Paul tells us in Colossians 4:6, "Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man." An early biblical scholar writes, "Salt is the symbol of that wisdom which gives a relish for the sweetness of divine nourishment; preserves, by the teaching of the Gospel, from the corruption of sin, and prevents evil passions from growing in men's souls." Wisdom creates a desire in us to know Jesus better and drives us to study, prayer, reflection, and living as Jesus taught us to. It passes on the faith and wisdom of God by teaching the story of God's relationship with humanity, making sure the Bible is taught especially to our youth as we embrace learning as part of our journey in following Jesus. Wisdom prevents evil from growing in our hearts, just as salt keeps bacteria from growing in wounds, because it keeps us focused on Jesus.

This ties into the image of light Jesus uses here, "You are the light of the world." Light illuminates and pushes back against the darkness. It's an image of hope and guidance and brings life. While Jesus calls us the light of the world, our light comes from Jesus as it flows into us and through us into the world. As the light of the world, Jesus reveals what’s good and healthy, what’s blessed and beautiful in our culture, our relationships, and more. Jesus calls us to shine in the places he's put us in to reveal the good, the beautiful, and healthy, but also to reveal and push back against the dark and unhealthy; the places where there’s a lack of justice, grace, and health.

As light in the world, we’re called to be people of hope who create hope and show the difference following Jesus makes in our lives and shapes who we are. Jesus says, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." Our lives need to point to God, helping others see who God is. It's not through extraordinary deeds or accomplishments, it's through the simple everyday acts that show we care and are willing to be there with others, remembering that what we do for others, we’re doing for Jesus. As Mother Teresa said “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Because we’re keeping our eyes on Jesus, we love our neighbours, wanting them to flourish. Augustine wrote, “God is the only source to be found of any good things, but especially of those which make a man good and those which make him happy.” We are called to share the good news of Jesus; this is why we are here!

You can be a mentor to someone, guiding them by being an example and helping them develop into deeper followers of Jesus. You can pray for others and let them know you're praying for them. You can encourage others, building them up, and it doesn't matter how old or young you are, you all can bless others; creating a church and community of people who are blessed and who bless others, making sure God is the one who gets the glory and honour. It's simple things like stopping and spending time with others listening and showing interest in who they are. For many people today, just knowing that you’re willing to be there can make an enormous difference to someone, showing that God is interested in them too. This is grace, this is love, this is God working through you and in you. May this be our goal for 2024, that all our other plans and dreams will flow from who God is shaping us to be.

The Armour of God - Ephesians 6:10-20

Thank you, Friendship Group , for leading us in worshipping God this morning! Paul writes this letter while he is prison. Prison is a plac...