Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 5); September 26, 2021

The “In Crowd”

“For the one who is not over against us is for us” (Mark 9:40, my translation). If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That seems to be the plain sense of this verse and of the verses surrounding it. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus tend to exercise the reverse of this statement – whoever is not for us is against us.

Before I get too far down the line, we need to acknowledge that Jesus says precisely that – “The one who is not with me is over against me, and the one who does not gather together with me disperses” (Matthew 12:30, my translation). It hasn’t happened often in my ministry, but on a few occasions an alert parishioner has caught these diametrically opposed statements and asked about them. Those have been precious ministry moments.

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So, Beloved Preacher, which is it? Does Jesus call us to welcome all comers unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise? Or does Jesus call us to screen out the interlopers for flaws and only to let in the Chosen Few? Matthew’s account, after all, is the one that reminds us that the way to Life is narrow (Matthew 7), and that many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22).

Yes, there are differences in these gospel accounts because there are differences in the audiences and issues addressed. In the Markan composition, Jesus is speaking about an outsider who is doing the work of God’s Kin(g)dom apart from the “normal channels.” Good for him, Jesus says. Keep up the good work.

In Matthew 12, the context is the Beelzebul controversy. The “sides” here are not insiders and outsiders doing the same blessed work. Instead, the “sides” are the “Kingdom” of Satan versus the Kin(g)dom of God. Those accuse Jesus of casting out Satan by the power of Satan are aligning themselves with Satan, Jesus declares. That continuing alignment is the one sin which cannot be forgiven since it is the ongoing choice to align oneself against God and to ally oneself to the Enemy.

In addition, the words in Matthew’s account are addressed to the powerful, the positioned, the privileged, and the propertied. In this case, they are represented by the Pharisees. Here the Pharisees seek to adjudicate whether Jesus himself is “in” or “out.” The case Jesus makes here is that he is the One who will do the adjudicating, thank you very much.

The vocabulary used in these accounts matters as well. In Matthew, the phrase “with me” has the sense of “being in company with” or “on the same side as.” That language fits well with the battle lines being drawn in the context. The verb that the NRSV translates as “gather” is the Greek word, “sunago,” which means to gather together or assemble. It is the root of the word we know as “synagogue.”

Matthew’s verse has an underlying Hebrew parallelism which results in a “rhyming” of ideas. “The one who is not with me” is paired with “The one who is not gathering together with me.” In the same way, “is over against me” is paired with “scatters.” Again, Matthew’s statement has to do with real alliance and identification with Jesus, not merely doing the same work. The result of opposition to this alliance and identification is to be “scattered.” Scattering is a code word for what happens to the people of God when they rebel (such as the time leading up to the Babylonian Exile).

There are, therefore, good textual reasons for drawing a fairly strong distinction between the two statements in question. They aren’t contradictions except in a woodenly literal sense. Instead, each is appropriate (at least in literary terms) to its setting and does not impact the use of the other.

That discussion seeks to answer the question of the (hypothetical) alert and curious parishioner. But it can help us with more than that. The power of the statement has something to do with who is being addressed and how. In Matthew, it is the representatives of the religious and political establishment who are seeking to exclude Jesus rather than to “gather with” him. He is only welcome on their terms, and he won’t agree to those terms.

In the Markan composition, it is the disciples who are acting as the representatives of an “establishment.” They are operating in the same way as the Pharisees in Matthew 12. John and the other disciples assume that anyone who is not “with” them in the most literal of senses is over against them and must be regulated. That may be all well and good for the powers of the establishment, Jesus replies, but it shall not be so among us.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

The language in the Markan composition has another striking feature. The one who is not over against us is “huper” us (to quote the Greek). The Greek preposition often has the meaning of “for the sake of” or “on behalf of.” There is the sense that the one who is not over against us is actually favorably disposed toward us and is acting for our benefit or improvement. I find that interesting.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Mindscape podcast with Dr. Sean Carroll. You can find links to the podcast at Carroll’s web page, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/. Carroll is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, investigator of complex systems, and amateur philosopher. He is bright, curious, entertaining, and relentlessly in pursuit of the Truth – whatever that ultimately means. The breadth of topics on the podcast is marvelous, and Carroll’s grasp of a variety of subjects is impressive.

It would be fair to say that Carroll is no adherent to a religion. He is a philosophical atheist, a naturalist and materialist, a determinist (at least in the way that quantum mechanics allows determinism), a many-worlds cosmologist, and an eternalist when it comes to an understanding of the nature of time. While he does not go out of his way to hammer religions, he does not shy away from the opportunities when they present themselves.

I imagine that many people of faith would find Carroll irritating and offensive on these occasions. I do not. While we do not share the same perspectives on metaphysics and ontology, I value his work and his views. I find that Carroll is “for” me and other religious folks because he is pursuing the Truth. Whether he accepts the description or not, I believe Carroll is working for the benefit of all who seek to know the essential nature of Reality.

And I think that if Dr. Carroll met me and discovered that I needed a cup of water, he would provide that as well.

When I think of Sean Carroll, I am reminded of the story of Emeth in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia volume, The Last Battle. Emeth (whose name is the Hebrew word for “truth”) was on the opposing side, that of the Calormenes. The last battle is concluded, and the forces of Aslan have triumphed. Now they are entering the true Narnia, the deep Reality behind all reality.

As they enter, they discover Emeth reclining against a tree in a state of bemusement. Emeth fully expected, once he realized how things turned out, that he would be punished and likely destroyed. As Aslan approached, he awaited his fate. He confessed that he was on the “wrong” side and was glad to at least know the Truth.

Aslan bends down and touches Emeth on the forehead. “Son, thou art welcome,” the Lion growls. Aslan then explains that because Emeth has been devoted to the Truth, even in a vain cause, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy].” The Great Lion is not limited by our human perceptions of who is “in” and who is “out.” We do not determine the bounds of God’s Truth, nor can we be sure we know precisely who is “over against” Jesus and who is “for the sake of” Jesus.

Carroll might find this patronizing or even offensive. I certainly intend neither. Instead, our text demands great humility on the part of Jesus followers. What we think we know is not all there is to know. What we think is Real is surely not all that is Real. The Truth sought by science – even when resolutely opposed to the existence and working of God – is still a Truth being sought. As Luther might remind us, the First Commandment is still in effect. God is God, and I am not.

And that’s the Good News.

No one who earnestly seeks the Truth can remain unaffected by that seeking. When Dr. Carroll shares with me a cup of the water of Truth in his work, I am enriched. And he is drawn (from my perspective), like it or not, more deeply into the Truth that I would call God. While the Church deserves all the recrimination we receive in the atheist discussion groups I sometimes haunt, the pursuit of the Truth often brings the very same people closer to Jesus.

That means something. For example, it means that we must be very careful in how we respond – lest we create trip hazards for these earnest Truth seekers. How much better the world would be if we faith folks could see someone like Carroll more often as a Friend of the Truth than as an Enemy of the Church.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

“Suit Up and Stand Up!” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 6:10-17

We stood in line at the outfitters shop on the Taylor River in southwest Colorado. As a family we were preparing to ride the rapids in a big rubber raft. We rented wet suits, boots and gloves, life vests and oars. Our guide—a confident woman who was, I thought, younger than some of my sweat socks—helped us into our gear.

Just as we got on the bus to head for the river, another party arrived. In those years, people could decline the equipment. That’s what they did in order to save expense and time. The guides tried to persuade them to suit up, but they declined. Off we went.

The un-suited party got their raft into the water first and headed downstream. Soon we were in the boat as well, pitching and rolling in the aggressive water. It was all great fun. Great fun, that is, until we rounded a bend and found a raft pinned against a big rock.

The group ahead of us had taken a bad turn and hit the water. One of the un-suited party was clinging to the raft. We pulled him into ours. Another was floating face up near the bank. We got him in as well. A third member clung to a rock downstream and was rescued by another raft.

It was a a sobering lesson for all of us. We were so very glad we had taken the advice of our guide and suited up for the journey. Paul gives his readers similar advice here at the end of his letter. “Put on the whole armor of God,” he warns them, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” It’s time to suit up!

Paul uses a descriptive Greek word that we translate as “the whole armor.” It is the word panoplia, from which we get our English word “panoply.” Imagine a cohort of Roman soldiers, armed with spears and swords and protected by shields. When the cohort came under attack or advanced into battle, the soldiers could lock those shields together into a nearly impenetrable shell. If they stayed together, they were nearly impossible to defeat.

These Roman infantrymen were called “hoplites,” and they marched in this formation, called a “phalanx.” When Paul uses his term, his listeners would see that phalanx of locked shields united in common cause for the sake of the Empire. So it’s important to read these verses as addressed primarily to a group of Christians rather than to us as individuals.

There’s another element in this description. It’s the “stance” we adopt for the battle. Four times Paul uses a word that means “stand” or “withstand” or “stand firm.” If our stance is right, we can, as the old commercial used to say, “take a licking and keep on ticking.” It’s time to suit up! And it’s time to stand up!

I was a poor wrestler, but I liked to try. The first thing you learn is how to stand: feet about shoulder width apart, knees bent, shoulders forward, center of gravity, well, in the center, head up, eyes forward, hands ready to engage the opponent. One of the most important things in wrestling was to keep a good “base” under you. If you did that, lots of other things would go better. It’s time to stand up!

That’s Paul’s point here. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. The right stance and the right suit are necessary for dealing with the attacks and challenges the forces of evil will launch against us. It’s time to suit up and stand up!

For a third time in Ephesians, Paul reminds us about the nature of the enemy we face. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” he declares, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

These are the same rulers and authorities and powers Paul describes in chapter four. Paul urged his readers to speak truth to those powers through the united voice of Church in the name of the Messiah and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here he reminds us that the battle continues.

How do we suit up and stand up? We take the battle seriously. Church is not a weird kind of card club. Christianity is not a hobby. Congregations are not museums or memorial societies. This is about the meaning and purpose of life. This is about the direction and destiny of history. This is about whether death wins or life triumphs. If we’re not that serious, we should stay home. Paul witnessed to his faith by dying. Will we witness to our faith by living?

How do we suit up and stand up? We live for the praise of God’s glory. We express that praise in regular worship. We welcome the gift of faith as the Holy Spirit equips us to be God’s works of art. We live in the unity of that Spirit as people who are no longer strangers to one another. We trust the Spirit to expand our imagination and energize our prayers to ask for what we need for mission and service.

How do we suit up and stand up? We celebrate the gifts given to the church for ministry and leadership. We live by the power of God’s love as one people in all our relationships. We submit to one another in love to show the world what the kingdom of God really looks like. We speak truth to the rulers and authorities of this world and remind them that they are temporary and answer to a higher authority. We rely on God’s word in Scripture and sacraments to fill us and form us for the fight.

It’s time to suit up and stand up! One weapon remains—prayer. Next time we will stand up with Paul as he comes to the end of this letter.

The Hard Stuff — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Read Ephesians 6:1-9

Paul’s words in Ephesians six, verse five, are disturbing. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” he writes, “with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ…” How do we respond to these words?

August twenty-third is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. On that date in 1791 the Haitian Slave Revolt was launched. This revolt began the long journey that ultimately stopped the transatlantic trafficking in African women and men.

It took until 1833 for human enslavement to be legally abolished throughout the British Empire. It took another thirty years and a bloody civil war for enslaved persons to be emancipated in our country. Then Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws put back in place most of the pre-Civil War practices. Lynchings, voter suppression and separate accommodations maintained the systems and structures of white supremacy in our country for another hundred years.

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Supreme Court decisions and Civil Rights legislation attacked those systems and structures in the Fifties and Sixties. It is clear, however, that the systems and structures of white supremacy and privilege are alive and well in our country. For example, we remember in August another anniversary of the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, instigated by white supremacists and resulting in the death of one counter-protester. The racial disparity in conviction and incarceration rates in Iowa, among many other states, is disgusting. The fruits of human enslavement remain among us.

Nowhere does Paul directly condemn slavery. Nowhere does Paul demand abolition. N. T. Wright suggests that Paul was walking a tightrope between living the power of love and alienating the prevailing culture. Nonetheless, human enslavement is wrong. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

Human enslavement and its historical grandchild—white privilege—violate the Gospel. We know this from Paul himself. In Galatians three, verse twenty-seven, he writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” He concludes in verse twenty-eight: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”

What makes us fully and truly human is God’s image that we bear. Maleness does not make someone fully human. Neither does whiteness. Neither does social status or age or birthplace or language. When we limit real humanity to a particular group, we create a false god. And we create disposable people.

First century Greco-Roman culture saw women, children and slaves as subhuman. Men believed women had limited intelligence. They believed children weren’t yet worthy of notice. They believed slaves were too brainless to ever be fully and truly human.

Fathers could dispose of unwanted babies. Such children often ended up at the city dump. There they died of exposure or were picked up by local slave traders. Enslaved people were treated like furniture. They could be used and abused as the slaveholder saw fit. If they resisted, they were tortured and killed without consequence.

Subhuman people are disposable. In Germany, Jews were called rats. In Rwanda, Tutsis were called cockroaches. In America, Blacks were called stupid apes—and far worse. Now such name calling is as common as breathing. It is part of our public discourse. Remember, what we feed grows. The rhetoric of disposable people is well-fed these days.

Now notice something. “Masters,” Paul writes in Ephesians six, verse nine, “do the same to them…” It’s the word “same” that gets our attention. Paul says masters and slaves are the same in the Lord’s eyes. They are the same in how they will be evaluated. They have the same Master in heaven. They are to render service to one another with the same enthusiasm.

In the background is the family of Philemon. Onesimus, the enslaved person, returned to Philemon as a brother in Christ. A close reading of Philemon tells me that Paul wanted Philemon to free his former slave. In the midst of a society where human enslavement was regarded as being as necessary to their economy as electricity is to ours, something big was beginning. In Jesus, Philemon and Onesimus were the same.

It took the Church another eighteen hundred years to make this right. But the Church has been part of the journey. British Christians drove the abolition movement there. American Christians have been at the heart of both our abolitionist and racial equality movements. We white Christians have drug our feet many times during the journey, and for that we must repent. We have not “arrived” anywhere when it comes to race. There is still much work for us to do, much sin for which to atone.

If it took the Church eighteen hundred years to move beyond Paul on human enslavement, should we be surprised that it has taken us even longer to welcome people with a variety of gender and sexual orientations? The Gospel moves us forward, however slowly. Just as we no longer keep slaves, so we should no longer hold people in bondage because of gender and sexual orientation.

Of course, human enslavement has not vanished. The Global Slavery index estimates that in 2017 over forty million human beings were enslaved. Accurate estimates are difficult to come by since slavery is a hidden and illegal practice. The reality is likely to be a higher total.

This is the highest number of enslaved people in human history. Two thirds are women and children. Even though human enslavement is illegal in every country in the world, it is a real and growing issue. Because of our location at a major interstate crossroads, the Omaha metro is something of a human trafficking hub. I urge you to become more aware and educated in this whole area of concern. The ELCA website is a great place to begin learning more.

I am proud that our denomination is at the forefront of the issues of human enslavement and human trafficking. Our ELCA provides financial, staff, and advocacy support for local, regional, national and international efforts to combat slavery and human trafficking. Your gifts help to make that happen. The Women of the ELCA are among the greatest of our church warriors in this fight for people to be treated as fully human.

And we are in a war—make no mistake about that. Next week we will learn more about the weapons of the Spirit. We will put on the whole armor of God for the battle that confronts us. Let’s pray…

What You Feed Grows — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:1-14

Pastor Bud Christensen is one of my heroes in the pastor biz. He was the Director of Nebraska Synod prison ministries when I served in Lincoln. He touched the lives of hundreds of men during his decade of service there. One of the slogans he gave his guys was, “What you feed grows.” It was wise counsel then, and it’s wise counsel now. What you feed grows. That’s the main thought for today.

We’ve come to another “therefore” in the Letter to the Ephesians. Here we have a summary of the way of life Paul is describing, the way of life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called. Are we heavy enough believers? We are by the power of the Spirit within us! So get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.We are called to imitate the kindness of God rather than the brutality of the world.

What you feed grows.  It helps to know what this life looks like. Let me illustrate. It was one of those “grandpa” things. We were giving our granddaughter a desk for her birthday. Of course, some assembly was required. The instructions could just as well have been written in Babylonian as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. “Let me see the box,” I said in frustration. On the carton was a picture of the desk, fully assembled. Fortunately, it was at just the right angle for the insight I needed. After that, the desk went together in minutes and all was well.

It’s good to see what we’re supposed to be doing before we do it. We get just such a picture here at the beginning of Ephesians five. After some pretty specific instructions in the second half of chapter four, we get more of the big picture at the launch of this chapter. In fact, we get the biggest picture of all. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul writes. Look to God’s kindness and love for the picture of how to live your life in the Messiah. If you want more detail, then live as the Messiah loved us and gave himself up for us. That is a pleasing offering to God.

It’s important to catch the “therefores” in Paul’s letters. And it’s imperative to notice the “buts” as well. The fact that this line probably made you giggle is a support of Paul’s argument here. What you feed grows

Our thinking, language, even our jokes can fill us up with darkness where there should be light. Edmund Gwenn played the character of Santa Claus in the movie, Miracle on 34th Street. George Seaton visited Gwenn, whom he called Teddy, while Gwenn was on his death bed.

“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy,” Seaton said. Gwenn smiled. “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy,” he answered cheerfully. It’s from that exchange that we get the quip, “Dying is easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Most humor these days bounces between stupid and mean. It wasn’t much different in Paul’s time. The language in his world was obscene, silly and vulgar. Words were used to tear down, not to build up. What you feed grows

Talk that turns women into sex objects encourages a culture of harassment and abuse. Talk that uses racial or ethnic or sexual stereotypes encourages a culture of prejudice and bigotry. Talk that demeans the disabled encourages a culture of cruelty. Talk that reduces humans to animals encourages a culture of genocide. Talk that reduces people to commodities encourages a culture of trafficking and slavery. Talk that threatens war increases the likelihood of war.

This is the native language of darkness. There’s no place for such talk among grown-up followers of the Messiah. It’s not that we are opposed to fun and laughter in the church. Were you here for Holy Humor Sunday? We have fun pretty much every Sunday here in one way or another. What you feed grows.

The pastor here has even been known to tell a joke or two. For example, a man always fell asleep in church because the preacher was so long-winded. The pastor gave one of the deacons a stick to hit the man over the head every time he fell asleep. Once the man dozed off, the deacon tapped him on the head and woke him up.

A few minutes later, he starting dozing again. This time the deacon hit him a little harder, again waking him up, but only temporarily. When he fell asleep the third time, the deacon hit him so hard he knocked him out of the pew and onto the floor. The church member was heard to say, “Hit me again; I can still hear him preaching!” If any of you requires that service, please raise your hands so the ushers can help you.

In fact, we are called to be wide awake Messiah followers. We use our language “to live for the praise of God’s glory.” We are to be conscious of our words as well as our actions. Paul quotes a hymn verse that early Christians used in their worship. Maybe he gave them an “ear worm” to remind them of the best way to use language.

What you feed grows. Worship is a way to feed the best in us. “Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul concludes, “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves…” We are dedicating additional hymnals today so we can do just that. We are picking out some of our favorite hymns today. We have been chanting the appointed psalms this summer. In addition I hope at various times during the week you get a piece of liturgy or a hymn in your head. We do our best to fill your heads and hearts with light and life. Our call is to use the power of words for the power of love.

Next week we begin to tackle the most contested parts of Ephesians—words on wives, children and slaves. Stay tuned! Let’s pray…

Servant Power — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:15-33

We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. The power of love is always “servant power.” Servant power is always FOR others. That’s today’s main thought.

About a hundred miles inland from Ephesus was the little town of Colossae. There you’d find a local businessman named Philemon. Philemon was married to Apphia. They had an adult son named Aristarchus. Philemon, Apphia and Aristarchus hosted the new Christian congregation at Colossae in their home. They must have been fairly well off. They had a house big enough for such gatherings. And as a family they owned slaves.

We know about Philemon and his family in a brief New Testament letter from Paul written to Philemon. Philemon may have met Paul on a business trip to Ephesus. Philemon came home an enthusiastic Jesus follower. Soon his wife and son joined him in this new way of life.

There was a problem. One of the household slaves, Onesimus, had escaped from his master. Onesimus may have stolen some household money to fund his fleeing. Onesimus headed down the Lycus River valley to Ephesus. Maybe he planned to hop a ship and skip town before he could be caught.

Then Onesimus met Paul. Paul was under arrest in Ephesus, but he was still free to receive visitors and to teach the faith. Maybe Onesimus knew Paul from a previous encounter. Maybe it was what some would call coincidence. Either way, Onesimus became a Christian. It must have been a magnificent conversion. Paul referred to Onesimus as his adopted son and valued his assistance in the ministry of the Gospel.

Now to the problem. Following Jesus changes everything. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power.  Onesimus had unfinished business in Colossae. “Thieves must give up stealing,” Paul wrote, “rather, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so at to have something to share with the needy.” I wonder if Onesimus thought about the tidy little stash he had lifted from his master’s purse.

More than that, Onesimus and Philemon were now brothers in the Messiah. Paul challenged Onesimus to do something about the rupture in this relationship. Paul asked Onesimus to carry two letters back to the congregation in Colossae. One letter was for the congregation. The other was for Philemon. It’s likely that Onesimus read the letters out loud at worship. In the personal letter, Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus.

I don’t know if it happened this way, but something like this took place. I share this story because of the directions we find in Ephesians 5:15-33. Paul addresses the relationships between wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. Philemon fits all three of the latter categories. Paul urges him to re-work each relationship based on the power of love rather than the love of power. “Be subject to one another,” Paul writes, “out of reverence for Christ.” If we want a model for servant power, we can look to Jesus. Servant power is always power FOR others.

First century Greco-Roman culture assumed that only freeborn adult men could be fully and truly human. One first century Greek philosopher wrote, “The man has the rule of the household by nature. For the deliberative faculty of the woman is inferior, in children does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent.” Men in this culture assumed that women had limited brain power, children were a work in progress, and slaves were too brainless to be fully and truly human ever at all.

We Jesus followers reject this view. What makes someone a fully and truly human person is God’s image that we bear as a gift and calling from God. We receive that gift and calling in our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Messiah’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s presence restore God’s image in us. Living in the Messiah by the power of the Spirit makes us fully and truly human. Anyone can embrace God’s gifts—men, women, children and slaves. Maleness does not open the door to full humanity. Baptism does.

In this first century culture, the master of the house life and death power over spouse, children and slaves. Any talk of limiting that power with love was revolutionary. That is precisely what Paul does in Ephesians. Paul places special responsibility on those with power over others. Servant power is always FOR others.

Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to husbands are disappointing. Requiring women to “submit” to their husbands creates a dynamic where the love of power reigns supreme. Last week Paul reminded us that what we feed is what grows. Too often the church has cooperated in feeding the system of male dominance that is strong in our culture. As the whole church we must repent of that sin.

The wrong emphasis has created ongoing abusive situations in millions of homes. That love of power produces verbal, emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse. Worse yet, the blame for the situation is placed on the victims. Paul travels a little way down the road toward loving treatment of women. We have come farther, but we have not come nearly as far as we thought. We know that “submission theology” endangers women—even in Christian communities. Systems of male dominance produce abuse.

I need to say this as clearly as possible. Emanuel Lutheran Church is a safe place for anyone who needs to escape from Intimate Partner Abuse. We will hear your story. We will believe you. We will support you in your decisions. Women are not responsible for the emotional issues of men.

Systems of male dominance have no place here. We submit to one another out of reverence for the Messiah. We embrace full partnership between men and women. We reject the view that holds women subject to the authority of men.

We know what we need to do. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. Servant power is always FOR others. The power of love must shape our most intimate relationships. It will be important to keep in mind Paul’s strategy with Philemon as we continue next week. Let’s pray…

“Put On Your Grown-up Clothes” — Throwback Thursday Books (Ephesians 4:17-5:1)

“Put on your big boy/girl pants”—it’s mildly insulting way of saying that, up till now, you’ve been acting like a child who hasn’t been potty-trained yet. It’s too bad training pants and “pull-ups” weren’t around in Paul’s time. He probably would have used this expression in his letter to the Ephesians.

It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes. That’s the theme of this section of the letter.

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Some people go off to college to find themselves. I went off to college to lose myself and find someone new. I became a dedicated, disciplined and doctrinaire atheist. I thought I was original and intelligent.

A year later my life was a mess. I was kidding myself. I wasn’t original and intelligent. I was lazy and willful and selfish. As an atheist, I didn’t need to get up on Sundays for church. I didn’t need any particular standards. I didn’t respect any interests but mine. Not the best philosophical arguments.

Paul takes us back for a moment to chapter one of Ephesians. Remember our discussion of centripetal force—the force that pulls an object toward the center? Paul reconnects us to that image. If God is not pulling us together in Jesus, we are always in danger of flying apart. That’s true for us as individuals and as a church.

Get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.

Perhaps others did the atheism thing better than I. Without a center, my life flew apart. Without a direction every road looked the same. Without a purpose, breakfast and suicide were equivalent options. Worst of all I left a trail of broken relationships and hurtful choices in my wake.

About this time, I first read a line from Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “Without God,” he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “all things are permitted.” There it was—my life in a hundred year old Russian novel. So much for being original!  If all things are permitted then nothing really matters. So much for being intelligent!

Ephesians four rings some sad and painful bells for me. “[Y]ou must no longer live,” Paul writes, “as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.” The Greek word here means “pointless emptiness.” In my experience, this pointlessness was not like a sort of virus of the spirit. Instead, it was the result of a series of conscious choices—large and small—that resulted in a bitter, mean and unforgiving way of life.

The words Paul uses here fall like hammer blows. Darkened understanding, estranged from the life God gives, ignorant, hard-hearted, callous—these are not people you’d want for your in-laws. They handed themselves over to debauchery for the express purpose of practicing to the full every sort of impurity. I wish this was hyperbole on Paul’s part. In my experience, it is not.

In another year I returned to Jesus and the Church. And I realized that things had to change. It was time to put my “grown-up clothes” on. I resisted that for a while. I thought this meant I was sentenced to a dull, boring, narrow life as the price of sanity. But nothing is further from the truth.

Get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.

“Becoming mature,” writes Eugene Petersen, “means refusing to live a reduced life, refusing a minimalist spirituality.” We are made in God’s image. We are called to cultivate God’s garden in kindness. We are not animals. But sin, death and evil make us less than human. Faith, hope and love make us more fully human. That’s what Paul means by maturity in Christ.

Paul urges us to take off the “clothes” that no longer fit and put on our grown up clothes. Put on what it means to be truly human, to engage in authentic flourishing. We are called and equipped to put on the new humanity. We are called and equipped to be what God has intended us to be.

Get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.

This section begins with Paul’s urging–that we would lead lives worthy of the calling to which we are called. We are called to be the fully human image bearers that God intends us to be. We know what that looks like because Paul has already told us. We know from chapter two that God intends us to be God’s works of art, doing good works which God has intended to be our way of life.

Our culture practices and promotes many things that make us subhuman. Hatred, violence, greed, lust, lying–all these things make us less human, not more. Paul urges the things that make us truly human. Paul urges the things that make for authentic human flourishing. Paul describes the contrast in verses twenty five and following.

It’s clear that verses twenty-five through thirty-two are directed to life in the community of the church. Paul reminds his readers that they are “members of one another.” Our speech is to be for “building up”—a word connected to the temple imagery in chapter two and to the body imagery in verse sixteen of this chapter. This address to conduct within the church community then continues into chapter five.

Get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes.

Grown up humans put on faith, hope and love. That’s just the opposite of what the world tells us. The world says that real grown-ups are hard and cyncial, ruthless and weary of the world. The world says that real grown-ups are selfish and violent because that’s how the world works.

I hope that you hear echoes of our baptismal liturgy in Paul’s words here. When we baptize someone, we anoint that person with a bit of oil. Then we say, “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit…” That seal marks you out for a particular destination and destiny. The destination is life now and forever in Jesus the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the destiny is love–for God, for neighbor, for Creation and for ourselves.

Get it together, Paul says. It’s time to put on our grown-up clothes. Next week we’ll hear more about our wardrobe. Let’s pray…

“Life in the Balance” — Throwback Thursday Books (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Paul urges us to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you were called.” Eugene Petersen, in his book Practice Resurrection sees “worthy” as the central image in Ephesians. The Greek word is “axios.” It is worth, if you’ll pardon the pun, worth looking at this image.

An “axios” in the first century was a pan and beam scale. The standard measure—usually a lead weight—is placed in one pan. The commodity to be weighed–flour or sugar or silver or gold—is placed in the other pan. When the pans balance, you know the weight.

Paul’s urges a way of life that has a “weight” equal to the calling to which we have been called. “When our walking and God’s calling are in balance,” Petersen writes, “we are whole; we are living maturely, living responsively to God’s calling, living congruent with the way God calls us into being”. So this text is a challenge to us.

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Are we heavy enough believers?

Petersen suggests that this image is at the center of the letter just like the beam of the scale is balanced on a center point. The calling to which we are called in chapters one through three is to be balanced by a sufficiently “weighty” way of life in chapters four through six.

The words for “call,” “called,” and “calling” do not appear once in the first three chapters of Ephesians. And yet, the whole first half of the letter describes the calling to which we have been called in Jesus and by the power of the Spirit.

We have been blessed to be a blessing to the world. We have been filled with the fullness of God’s love. We are God’s works of art and no longer strangers to one another. We are stewards of the revelation of this age-old mystery and the living temple of God’s Holy Spirit. This is who we are in the Messiah and by the power of the Spirit.

”Therefore, Paul says. Whenever you come to a “therefore” in one of Paul’s letters you must come to a full stop and throw the car in reverse. Paul is launching into a conclusion based on what has been said before. What has come before is three chapters of worshipful prayer, celebrating Jesus’ lordship and our place in Jesus’ mission as God’s works of art.

Therefore—on the basis of all that has come before–Paul pleads with us to live a life “worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” “Worthy” here isn’t about being acceptable or deserving of something. Instead, this is about a life of sufficient weight as to deserve the name “Christian.”

Are we heavy enough believers?

Many of us wonder about our callings. What am I supposed to do now? Perhaps things have changed for us somehow. Perhaps we are thinking about a different job, a change in family situation, an increase in years, a shift in our health. What am I supposed to do now?

That is a worthwhile question. But it is interesting here that Paul urges us to focus first on the calling we all share. Paul urges us to stand light to the things this world holds to be important. He urges us in verse three to walk around in our lives “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

If all we have to put in the pan is our meager selves, the beam will never balance. But we are showered with gifts from God through the work of Jesus. Paul quotes a few verses of Psalm 68 to make his point. It’s important to hear the story that stands behind that quotation.

Jesus, the human face of God, has come to be among us. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul puts it another way. He points to Jesus who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,” Paul continues, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” That’s the “descending” that Paul describes in his Psalm quote here.

But there’s more. Jesus ascends as Lord of all Creation. He has conquered sin, death and the devil in his cross and resurrection. Now, like a Roman emperor presiding over a military triumph, King Jesus showers his people with the fruits of victory. Those fruits are the gifts of the Holy Spirit for mission and service. It is the weight of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that allows us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we are called.

Are we heavy enough believers? We are by the power of the Spirit within us!

God’s gifts always come with a calling. We manage God’s gifts. We don’t own them. Our calling is to use God’s gifts for God’s good and loving purposes. “If we are to become mature,” Eugene Petersen says, “we must gradually but surely realize ourselves as gift from first to last.”

It is our life lived together in the Spirit that can be of sufficient weight to be worthy of our calling. Of course, we don’t lose our individual identity when we are baptized into the body of the Messiah that we call the church. But even though the gifts may vary from person to person, they all have the same goal–to produce and sustain disciples who are heavy enough believers.

The real goal is to grow up into the life of Jesus the Messiah. That requires worship and prayer. But it also requires formation and information. No Christian congregation can be heavy enough if adults do not study the Bible and the faith together.

I have to say that seeking to grow in faith and knowledge is not a high priority for most adults in the congregation. Until we change that, we will be held back in our growth toward maturity in the Messiah. I find that offering adult education here does not meet with an energetic response. I pray that might change.

Are we heavy enough believers?

Next time we’ll talk think in some detail about what heavy believing looks like. Let’s pray…

“The Living Tapestry” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:1-13

 “My life has been a tapestry,” sang Carole King. I first heard that song as a college freshman. A dear friend introduced me to the magic of King’s artistry, and I treasure the song (and the album) to this day.

A tapestry is a good picture of Ephesians three. God pulls it all together in Jesus. In love and by grace we are the one people of the one God.The church filled with the Holy Spirit is now the “holy temple in the Lord.” Through us, this good news confronts the powers of this world. We do that by living as God’s work(s) of art. We see the purpose of that artistic work in these verses from chapter three. We are God’s living tapestry.

The mysterious message of God’s inclusive love comes “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The phrase “rich variety” translates a wonderful Greek word–“polupoikilos.” It’s fun to say! It means “many-colored” or “variegated.”

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Pexels.com

Including everyone was always God’s plan. God’s one big family shows the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places who’s in charge. These rulers and authorities “in the heavenly places” represent the powers which stand against God in the cosmos. And these powers are done for.

We confront the rulers and authorities when we are one in the Messiah. In Jesus’ name and through his Spirit, we tell the powers that Jesus is Lord and no one else is. We speak truth to power by being an authentic community, united by the Spirit rather than by a common enemy or by using one another to deal with our own self-interests.

We are the Church—the one people of the one God. We are the Church—filled with color and diversity. The very existence of such a community is fair warning to the rulers and authorities that something new is on the way. Our young people are experiencing that in a powerful way this week at the churchwide youth gathering. We are God’s living tapestry.

Here’s an example. Recently, we partnered with Mosaic in Western Iowa to hold a Mental Health Awareness Sunday. The highlight of the day was called “Kicking the Stigma of Mental Health.” We used our church parking lot to hold a game of kickball. If you didn’t stick around to kick around, you missed something special.

Youth and adults from our congregation, people from our neighborhood and community, people served by Mosaic, and Mosaic staff spent an hour of kicking and catching (or not), laughing and teasing, and just being God’s people together for all the world to see. We resisted a culture that wants to hide people away and ignore our needs for quality mental health services and support. As we played together, we gave evidence of another way to live and love.

I watched our young people enjoy being church together in many-splendored diversity. I was a bit teary as some of our younger folks also learned how to use the experience to serve and learn, to grow and mature in the context of Christian community. This was just one example of the variegated vitality that Paul urges upon us. We are expanding that welcome as we begin a support group for those who wrestle with issues related to mental health.

We are God’s living tapestry.

We are at our best as church when we are multi-colored, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-talented. Because we are God’s work(s) of art, we live out the beauty of this tapestry in our witness and work as the Church. We do this as well in our lives as individual followers of the Messiah. We do it to be a sign of what God wants for all of Creation.

It’s important that we make that radical inclusion real in our own congregation and denomination. It’s hard to call the world to account if we can’t even make it happen in our own house. That’s why we are practicing inclusion here.

Start small. Sit next to someone at worship you don’t know well. Talk to someone at coffee you don’t know well. We don’t do this on our own. The Holy Spirit equips you and me to be the church. “This was in accordance,” Paul reminds us, “with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

We know all human beings bear the image of God. We celebrate diversity as God’s gift to us and not a threat to our own existence. We rejoice to be part of a country whose ideal includes welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse” of distant teeming shores. We are called to raise questions when the values of radical inclusion are suppressed.

The church lives as an alternative to fear and exclusion. By our very existence as an inclusive community, we remind the rulers and authorities that they answer to a higher power. Sometimes we will suffer as a result. We are not going to be protected from persecution, nor should we expect that. But when we live as God’s one big family, embraced by grace and empowered by love, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s God’s work of art.

In early June, 2018, our churchwide Bishop Eaton issued a letter along with twenty other religious leaders urging the current administration to stop the forced separation of migrant families at our borders. I’m grateful for that statement and to be part of a brave and relevant church. It’s hard to be a sign of God’s love for all people and to be silent in the face of such practices. Our bishop spoke up for us, and I’m thankful.

We are God’s living tapestry. Next time we’ll hear about God’s abundant power to get the job done in us, among us and through us.

“Now That’s a Prayer” — Throwback Thursday, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:14-21

In the 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays TV reporter Bruce Nolan. Bruce takes over for God while God (played by Morgan Freeman) enjoys a vacation. Bruce fails in his omnipotent role. Worst of all, he damages his relationship with Grace, his sweet fiancé (played by Jennifer Aniston).

Just when Bruce gets his faith act together, he kneels down in the middle of a highway and gets hit by a truck. He finds himself in “heaven” with God. God wants one thing from Bruce—a real prayer. Bruce’s first effort is filled with clichés and boilerplate lines. God presses Bruce for what Bruce really wants. Bruce says, “Grace.”

“Grace,” God replies. “You want her back?” “No,” Bruce says. “I want her to be happy, no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now, through Your eyes.” God is the one who smiles. “Now THAT’S a prayer.”

In Ephesians three, verses fourteen to twenty-one, Paul prays for his readers. He starts with the riches of God’s glory and asks that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God.” That’s a pretty good prayer. Paul finishes with the best benediction in the Bible. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, THAT’S a prayer! God’s abundance is astonishing! That’s the main thought today, so let’s hear it again. God’s abundance is astonishing!

Abundance is not the world’s way. The world’s way is scarcity. In scarcity there is power. I can control you by withholding or dispensing something. If there is enough for all, I lose my power over you. Paul’s prayer subverts our political and economic and emotional assumptions about life.

I love the pointed description of our culture offered by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. We live. Williams says, in “a prosperous culture in love with the fantasy of absolute individual security and protection against anything that might frustrate the projects of the solitary self.” In other words, we live in a culture that celebrates selfishness and idolizes individual privilege.

Scarcity sustains privilege. Privilege manages and distributes scarce resources to the advantage of the privileged. Then the privileged experience material abundance, use it to ignore the needs of others, and do everything possible to defend that privilege.

It’s no accident that at times of economic uncertainty, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan reappear in force. Whenever white male privilege is threatened, hate groups become popular again. Living from God’s abundance is a form of countercultural resistance. If God is the provider, then humans can’t control us.

God’s abundance is astonishing! God is the Owner. God does not transfer ownership to us. There is a delegation of authority, not a transfer of title. It all belongs to God. We are created to be stewards of God’s abundance.

Good stewardship makes us truly and fully human. Good stewardship equips us to be what God has created us to be. In the course of this study, we have been reminded that God’s gifts always come with a vocation. So stewardship is how we respond to our call to follow Jesus with our whole lives.

We think we can rely on our own resources. But that’s such a narrow life, such a finite resource, such a shallow well. Jesus leads us to an enlarged and abundant world. God offers far MORE than we can ask for and imagine—not less. God calls us to use our gifts for the power of love, not the love of power.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

Why does Paul pray for his readers? He knows they are discouraged because he’s in jail. Paul’s fate (execution) seemed like a certainty (which it was). How could his readers be anything but discouraged? They are sinking into a scarcity mindset.

Paul reminds them of their vocation. The church speaks the variegated wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities. The rulers and authorities don’t respond well. But it’s all part of God’s plan. So we can speak for God “in boldness and confidence through faith” in the Messiah.

Paul expects his readers to suffer for being Jesus followers. He does not pray for them to be protected from such threats. He prays for them to see beyond the suffering, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” He prays for them not to be spared but rather strengthened. He invites them to ask and dream big.

Paul invites us to ask and to dream big. Even though God can and will do more than we can ask for or imagine, that shouldn’t keep us from either asking or imagining. Often, we fail to make changes because we simply cannot believe that such a thing could ever happen. My experience is that big things are often resting right under the surface if we have enough patience and trust to see them.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

For example, I didn’t whip up the idea of a child care center or the notion that we could have walking paths and a labyrinth and a retreat center or the idea that we should support mental health issues. Those things were sitting here waiting to be noticed. What is sitting there, waiting to be noticed in your life? What is it that is more than you could ask for or imagine that God wants to do for you, in you, through you by the power of the Holy Spirit?

God’s abundance is astonishing! Next week we will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit God gives to the church for our mission in and for the life of the world.

“God’s Work of Art” — Throwback Thursdays

Ephesians 2:1-10

Michelangelo is perhaps the greatest sculptor the world has ever known. “Every block of stone,” he once said, “has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo could see the statue inside the stone. His genius was to free that living work of art from the cold, dead marble.

In Ephesians two, verse ten, Paul says, “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The translation, “what God has made us” is too tame.

Paul uses the Greek word, “poiema.” It’s the root of our words “poem” and “poetry.” The best translation says that we are God’s “work of art.” You are God’s work of art. That’s the main thought for today.

Last week Paul reminded us that all Christian power is Resurrection power. God’s love looks like a cross. God’s power looks like an empty tomb. God’s justice looks a mighty wind blowing through the Church and into the world. We live, as Paul says, “for the praise of [God’s] glory.”

God gives us Resurrection life with Jesus the Messiah. That new life is a free gift of pure love. “But God, who is rich in mercy,” Paul writes in verses four and five of chapter two, “out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.

Through Jesus, God can see the beautiful work of art that you are. Out of the dead stone of sin, God makes you alive with the Messiah. You are God’s work of art.

Faith is the first gift of the Resurrection life. The Holy Spirit fills us with that gift. Faith is not just intellectual agreement that a doctrine is true. Faith is trust in God’s goodness, mercy and love in life and in death. Let me illustrate with a favorite sermon story.

One night a house caught fire. A young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” All the boy could see was flame, smoke, and blackness. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” The boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “I can see you and that’s all that matters.” The boy jumped and lived. The boy had faith in his father.

For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul declares, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” We are created in the Messiah as God’s work of art. Faith is the first gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift empowers us to trust God in life and in death. That gift equips us to live for the praise of [God’s glory].

Faith is a gift with a purpose. We are made alive for good works. God has always meant for us to live this way. It’s what we’re made for! You are God’s work of art.

We are part of the “advance notice” of God’s New Creation. “So if anyone is in Christ,” Paul writes in Second Corinthians five, verse seventeen, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” My new life—and yours—shows that God’s New Creation has been launched among us, in us and through us.

You are God’s work of art. You are a sign that God intends this for all of Creation. This is why God made it all in the first place. God is an artist. All great art has love at its core. God made the cosmos as the great Divine work of art. Sin, death and evil deface this work of art. But God will not toss it out. God is remaking the cosmos, and we are part of that remaking!

God loves beauty. We don’t think about beauty often enough. We have wonderful painters, visual artists and graphic designers. We have poets and essayists. We have craftspeople who work in wood and metal. We have marvelous gardeners and florists. We have geniuses working with fabric and fiber. We have gifted and talented and passionate musicians. That’s only a partial list of the creative artists in this place.

Beauty does not feed the hungry or clothe the naked—not directly anyway. But it does make us more of what God intends us to be. When we experience real art, we become more fully and truly human. Art is a form of worship!

So, let’s have more of that beauty in our sanctuary. Let’s have more color in this space week in and week out. I know there are always complications about where to place things and how to hang them and what to do with them after a while. Let’s figure all that out so that more of God’s art work will be visible here.

You are God’s work of art. God has made you alive together with Christ and gifted you with the faith that sets you right with God. In the power of the Holy Spirit you are now freed and empowered to be the work of art God has always intended you to be. I invite you to live that way this week.

God is pulling the whole cosmos together in Jesus. God fills up that cosmos with the Holy Spirit of love. God uses that Spirit within us to point toward the beauty of God’s love in all of Creation. In all of this we live for the praise of [God’s] glory. You are God’s work of art.

Love always unites. Next time we will hear about the power of that love to break down walls of human division and to build up Christ’s body as the new temple of God. Our unity in the Messiah is a sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s greatest work of art. Let’s pray…

Pastor Lowell Hennigs