30 June 2015

Greet One Another - 2 Cor 13:11-14

“Greet One Another” – 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
Kevin Rees – June 28, 2015 - audio file posted at

“Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1Co 13:5).

I am a student of cultures.  They fascinate me.  To be a culture, a group of people generally shares a geography, a language, a core belief system, an economy, a set of values, a story, and an explicit or implicit agreement on how to get along together (e.g. governance).  Whether we delve into the Finnish culture, for instance, or into the sub-culture of graffiti artists in Brooklyn, we find most or all of these seven aspects of culture (even if it just a few code words that distinguishes them from the rest of the population). 

One of the things I find most fascinating about the subject of culture is that in it I can see God’s fingerprints, so to speak.  God who created people to live and work and be together, marked us with his image even on a societal level—his creativity, his appreciation for and allowance of variety, his design that we live in relationship, his preference that we bring order out of chaos.  We can see God reflected in society, even if that reflection is in shards and murky from sin.  Culture is praised for many of God’s blessings and blamed for many of man’s poor decisions, but culture is another canvas on which God paints his masterpiece. 

Did you know that God has a culture, too?  We call it his Kingdom.  We pray that it would come on earth as it is in heaven.  We are made citizens of this Kingdom; it is very much real even though our eyes have yet to see it.  We are called to align our loyalties to its geography, its language, its core belief system, its economy, its values, its story, and its government.  We advance his Kingdom; embody it, represent it.

But as with any culture, when one culture butts up against another culture, there will be a cultural clash.  Sparks will fly.  Which culture will bend?  Which culture will ascend to the top of the pecking order?  Which culture will suffer shame or humiliation or defeat?  Read the newspaper with culture in mind and you will come away with a different take-away.  You see it is not just the Greek economy that is in danger, it is the Greek culture.  Anytime a culture is threatened, it fights back—the only play Greece has left is to quit the EU.  It is not just the Confederate Battle Flag flying outside the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, it is a cultural symbol.  Whether you take that symbol as positive or negative, whenever you bump up against culture, you will stir up the whole population.  Wars are fought for lesser things. Less than 10% of the Italian population goes to mass, but if you suggest that you are a Protestant missionary then 90% of the population becomes very “Catholic” in a hurry—because of culture, not theology.

We cannot change or summarize culture in 30 minutes … not to mention 30 years … but suffice it to say that culture is important; formidable as an enemy, invaluable as an ally.  Culture is created and permitted by God; even celebrated by God, but culture is not god.  Some people treat it like a deity; unchangeable, unquestionable, omnipotent.  But culture needs redemption as much as the individuals comprising culture.  While God is doing that great work of societal redemption, we can still learn some about God by considering the culture he allows to flourish.  Meanwhile, we must express the love of God inside, through and with culture.  It is the ocean in which we swim.

Our third “one another” of the summer is a very culturally-minded admonition.  More frequent than “pray for one another” or “confess to one another” or the rest (minus “love one another” and “encourage one another”) is the under-represented “greet one another.”  In my 21 years as a preacher, I have never heard any sermons on “greet one another” (except the one that I preached on it last year).  Yet, it is remarkably rich and relevant.  “Greet one another” is a form of “love one another” but on a wider, cultural scale.  “Greet one another” is almost shorthand for showing love in a culturally relevant, significant way.

Our customs related to greetings serve as an excellent, miniature way to view the gospel’s effect on culture.  But greetings are so common that we hardly ever take time to think about them.  However, by moving to Tennessee, we have revisited greetings.  You may not have thought twice about it, but my family has thought it interesting to see around town what we refer to as “the one finger wave.”  Not to be confused with the “one finger salute,” which is quite different and quite well represented in all parts of our fine country, the “one finger wave” is when we are approaching a vehicle—usually a late model pick-up, let’s say on Hogwallow Road—and the driver, without taking his other four fingers off the steering wheel, waves at us with one finger.  This is a very friendly gesture that I have never seen before moving to West Tennessee.  Of course it may change from a “one finger wave” to a “one finger salute” because I am still too slow at waving back before our vehicles pass each other at speed.

What are some unique forms of greeting you have seen?  Would you consider demonstrating for us?  Any secret handshakes?  Any variations of fist bumps or special “group talk” that only the insiders know and use?  For instance, when bikers pass each other on the road they almost always acknowledge one another—but it is not a wave as much as a backwards nod; an indication with the chin.  What else?

When most people travel, they collect normal things like collectible spoons or postcards.  We have collected a wide assortment of greetings.  In Italy there was a cultural kiss—often even for people meeting for the first time.  It begins with a handshake, but gripping that hand the greeters pull you in close for a side-kiss; cheek to cheek, even making the “kissy” sound effect … right side then left.  This is tricky on many levels, for instance, when we couldn’t remember which side to begin on.  If you went left first, you could end up nose to nose or even lips to lips with a near-stranger.  (Personal space issues are not transferrable between cultures!)  The cultural kiss in France, I believe, is left then right.  Belgium, I think, is left then right then left.  How confusing!  How horrifying to those with personal space issues!

In Arabic cultures, although we have never personally been to any, the men will do the cultural kiss, but only with other men.  For a man to “culturally kiss” or even shake a woman’s hand in the Arab cultures is a serious crime.  In Japan there is a bow.  In China there is a kowtow, which is a bow with additional hand movements down the side of the body.  The Maori people in New Zealand greet with the hongi; an ancient, life-affirming custom of touching noses believed to have come directly from the gods.  In Tibet the customary greeting involves stick out your tongue at one another.  Apparently, a vicious king in the 9th century named Darma had a black tongue and it is feared that he might reincarnate.  So, by sticking out your tongue you are proving that you are not Darma and are, therefore, safe.

In Romania, I remember, it was customary to greet your host with fresh flowers, but you must carry those flowers upside down (for some reason I can’t recall) and you always make the bouquet an odd number of blooms since “everyone” knows that an even number is romantic.  In Ukraine, the men shake hands but grab the forearm with the other hand and make a very firm up-down-done motion.  In Ugandan culture, in pretty much all the 80 tribes that coexist in a volatile equilibrium inside its modern borders, you ask how the other one is, how his mother is, how his people are, how his goats are with every greeting.  It literally took half an hour to walk a tenth of a mile down the road for all of these conversations.  Sometimes, I confess, I waited until the road was clear before making a run for it.

What can greetings convey?  Both positively and negatively—what do we communicate through our greetings?  True, we can express love and respect, even if we botch the cultural nuances.  Inversely, we can express superiority and impatience, even if we master the culture.  What is at stake here is not achieving a cosmopolitan air, but expressing love and respect to another for the sake of the gospel.

Speaking of Romania makes me think of one of the negative powers our greetings can hold.  Our team of twelve had spent months training, preparing, rehearsing, planning, and packing.  We learned that the church in Romania was very conservative requiring jackets and ties for the men and head coverings and skirts for the women.  One very aggressive woman in our group adamantly declared, “I will never wear a skirt.”  I tried to reason with her that these are the wishes of our hosts—that failure to comply would be deeply insulting; that—our own cultural views aside—for a woman to wear trousers in church would be something akin to dressing like a prostitute.  “That’s their issue; not mine.”  Of course it is their issue, it is their culture.  I conceded hope that the Romanian church culture could mature beyond its legalistic beginnings to embrace their freedom in Christ, but that was not our job.  Our job was to take down barriers, not to stand them up.  Still, she remained defiant, “I will never wear a skirt.”  I should have dismissed her from the team then and there, but I didn’t.  What does her attitude convey to the other culture?  “You must bend to my way of doing things.  I am more important than you; than the gospel.”

Instead of defiance and clutching to the right to self-express, she could have chosen love—but she could not do both.  With greetings we have an opportunity to value something that someone else values for the purpose of building a relationship where the gospel might be effectively communicated and received and strengthened.  Even if their custom seems silly to us on the other side of the cultural gap—if it is important to our host, then it is important to us because of love and respect.  It is more than manners; it is love.  Love and respect for God is first and foremost, then love for others.

Are there times when a culture requires unbiblical behaviors?  Yes, there are those few examples of bowing before a king as an expression of worship, of declaring the praises of a false god, of opening our minds up to the demonic—but for the most part we can bend to enter another culture for the sake of the gospel without breaking our conscience.  Love bends in order to earn the occasion to be heard.  And yes, love has its limits—for even Christ stopped sharing the gospel sometimes after it became clear that he was placing “pearls before swine.”  But love is a willingness to bend to enter another’s starting place.

It is a double-sided sword cutting both ways.  The one side is: are we ourselves willing to bend toward others?  The other side is: are we willing to resist being so easily offended when someone doesn’t bend toward us?  Remember that, on the one side, “love is not rude,” but love is also, on the other side, “not easily offended.”  We need love on both sides of the cultural gap—as givers and as receivers.  Paul touches on both of these sides of greeting in 2 Corinthians 13:11-14.

Paul is writing a very serious letter to the Corinthian church.  His first letter to Corinth was scathing list of about 10 things they were doing very wrong in the church.  His second letter is ferocious because a segment of the church turned on Paul after his first letter, calling him cruel and illegitimate as a minister of the gospel.  Nevertheless, his conclusion almost pleads for their unity—and as an expression of unity, he issues a rapid succession of commands, capped by “greet one another.”

I.          Give Greetings to One Another (vv. 11-12)

11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

The commands are rapid-fire: rejoice, be restored, comfort, have the same mind, live in peace.  All five of these are foreign to the fragmented, immature church at Corinth.  Paul has now spent 29 chapters in two letters urging the church toward unity and maturity.  This final appeal is a summary—move forward together, for you will not move on apart.  As they move forward together, they will find that they have not only a restored fellowship with each other, but they will also have a restored fellowship with God.  This takes deliberate love; deliberate decisions to leave resolved issues resolved ... deliberate action to build new bridges of agreement, comfort, and peace.

So, one of the first extensions of love—when a relationship is new or newly strained—is to greet one another, the minimal expression of love that will hopefully grow into deeper forms of relationship.  But sometimes we have to go back to square one.  That is not a punishment; it is a resurrection.  Relationships died.  But God brings the dead back to life again.  Square one is: greet one another.

Have you experienced a rift in relationship so severe that even greetings stopped?  You won’t make eye contact with the other one anymore.  You won’t shake hands.  You won’t say, “Hello.”  Sometimes you even stop saying the other person’s name; substituting it with a mere pronoun.  “Oh, here he comes.”  “Oh, there she goes.”  Perhaps the current of love is nudging you to begin building the bridge of restoration.  Whatever might happen to rebuild this relationship, there has to be a line carried to the other side—to measure, to plan, to begin carting materials to the places that they will need to go.  Who will send the first line?  That first thing in the restoration process might be a greeting.  “Hello, Agatha.”  “Hello Margaret.”  “How are you?”  “Fine, how are you?”  That’s not much, but it could be a solid beginning.  Sometimes reconciliation is not possible, but sometimes it is.  We need to be on the upside of that equation—“if possible, as far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). 

To greet one another, however, is not merely for rebuilding a ruined relationship.  A greeting could also pioneer a brand new relationship.  You have your friendships all measured out; there are no current openings on the Friend List so why walk around the playground to the other mom sitting on the bench on the far side of the swings?  Ah, but a greeting is the first step of love—even if it is only a gesture, only a kindness, only a small nod … if faith nudges it, then it is the will of God in the moment.  Don’t underestimate the nudges of the Spirit to expand or deepen your relationships.  Perhaps my family is more sensitive to this than most families; but moving to a new place is dreadfully hard.  The people in that new place already have established relationships that date back to, probably, grade school.  Whether or not it is true, the impression that newcomers often feel is that “there are no current openings” on the Friend List.  Whether or not it is true, the vibes that newcomers often give off is “don’t waste my time.”  But we—on both sides of that scenario—have to be sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance to initiating and to receiving the initiation from another toward relationship.  Not because of manners, but because of faith and the lead of the Holy Spirit.

To greet is active—to show respect toward, to extend a gesture of welcome.  But, as we have been careful to mention in previous weeks, there is always a counterfeit lurking in the shadows of the genuine.  There can be a false expression of welcome; a predatory welcome like a venus fly trap gives to the fly.  Look, in here it is sweet and warm.  Come in, stay a while.  But before the fly can lower its heart beats per minute on the soft perch inside the large green and pink “flower”—the “flower” bites, feeds, and begins to digests its prey.

I don’t like to talk about Uganda, but the more I try not to talk about it, the more examples I find from our Uganda days.  I have never experienced a more deadly counterfeit of welcome than we did there.  “You are welcome here” is a part of the long greeting process there.  And I feel somewhat foolish to have taken some (but not all) of them at their word.  Many were all smiles at first, but then the snare started to close.  We were sucker-punched … not by the Ugandans themselves, but by some of the missionaries.  People often asked us what was the most ferocious part of Africa—the black mamba snake, the crocodile, the mosquito carrying cerebral malaria?  But no, the most ferocious part of Africa was the American missionary who got a hold of a little bit of power and felt threatened.  And I will just leave it at that; call it a counterfeit to “greet one another.”

II.         Receive Greetings from Others (vv. 13-14)

13 All the saints greet you.
14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Oh, but the presence of a counterfeit does not diminish the power of the real thing.  A greeting can be incredibly affirming … even when it comes from somewhere outside your established borders. 

Paul delivers the greetings from “all the saints” to the church at Corinth.  From what little we know, there is considerable interaction between the churches in the first century.  They were not isolated, although traveling between them was not as easy for them as it is for us to simply jump on the Interstate and drive.  However, with the arrival of the false teachers, the interaction between churches started to sour.  Distrust was sown by teachers who claimed to be apostles but who undermined Paul, especially, at every city, every congregation.  Paul describes them rather unflatteringly in Galatians 2:4—“False brothers [were] secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery.”  This group dogged Paul for years, persecuted him, pretended to welcome him in person, but when he was out of sight slandered and defamed him.

That is why I find it so fascinating that Paul still urges the church to keep on greeting one another—inside and outside the church.  Paul was not jaded about the power of a greeting by those who misused their welcome to bring poison into the very church that offered sanctuary.  The brothers and sisters at Emanuel A.M.E. were killed by the one they welcomed into their circle.  For an hour he sat with them before he killed them.  But the congregation is not jaded—they continue to welcome others into their circle.  The trend would be to shut and lock the doors.  But love opens the doors and greets outsiders in the name of Jesus.

“All the saints greet you.”  Paul delivers their greeting.  The saints scattered all over wanted to show respect and love to their brothers and sisters in Corinth, so they sent word with Paul.  If you recall the history of Paul at this time—he had to leave Ephesus where he had an “open door” for ministry that collapsed in a moment and he had to flee assassins, changing his plans at the last minute from taking a ship to Corinth to walking the long way round on foot.  But even the trauma that forced this unexpected journey—which was still bothering Paul acutely the several months it took to make the journey—could not stop him from delivering that which was entrusted to him for safe keeping: their greeting.

So it begs the question—how are we at accepting the greeting of others?  How trusting are we?  How willing are we to open up to new relationships?  Those relationships might bring pain.  They might welcome a radicalized gunman.  They might open to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Isn’t it easier on every level to just keep the “holy huddle” we have and wait for the rapture?  Maybe easier, but disobedient.

Love is willing to bend to someone’s culture; to learn how to communicate the love of Christ into their host’s heart.  Love is willing to allow someone else’s gesture to build a relationship.  Love is willing to give.  Love is willing to receive.  Greeting is often the first step of love in a new relationship or in a renewed relationship.  The implications of giving and receiving greetings—in culturally sensitive and meaningful ways—are huge for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

To be a gracious host, to be a gracious guest—when true, the greeting is where the conversation begins … when false, the greeting is where the conversation falls apart.  Will we value what another person, another culture values in order to earn the right to communicate what we value most in the Kingdom, namely Jesus Christ?  When someone fails to bend to us, can we by the power of the Spirit resist the urge to be so easily offended and refuse to require others to be like us before that can be numbered with us?  It is more than mere manners; it is love.  And love has to start somewhere—can is start here?  Can it start with us?  Can is start with me?

One last illustration as a conclusion; one last look at Uganda … for not everything was poisoned by the selfishness of the few.  It will be a highlight in my life’s memory book.  I was one of two mzungus (white foreigners) on a team of about 30 Ugandan students who went to evangelize other Ugandans in Yumbe—the far north of Uganda at the border with South Sudan where 99% of the population is at least nominally Muslim.  It was decided by our Ugandan leaders that before we did any preaching, we would go and dig in the gardens of the people, and clean up their streets.  We arrived and the very first thing we did was to grab our hoes and find the elderly citizens who could no longer weed their gardens.  And in Uganda, if you don’t grow it yourself, you often don’t eat—so gardens are very important.  The first field we weeded belongs to a musee, an elder who was also the chieftain of the tribe. 

It took us about an hour to finish our task and the musee called us over to where he stood, sporting his his Muslim prayer hat (taqiyah), leaning on his cane.  Of course, he assumed that the two mzungus were in charge, but we quickly deferred to our group’s real leaders, a couple of young Ugandans who were in their early twenties.  Ugandans do not say “thank you” very often in their culture, especially the “big men,” but he did, admitting that even his own grandchildren have not been willing to help him weed his garden.  And then he turned to the two of us with pale skin saying, “And I have never seen a white man do manual work.”  “We have seen some groups come here for various reasons, even the United Nations, but no one has ever helped us weed our gardens.”  This was our greeting—we gave it, he received it.

Later that week, after several more gardens, we invited the whole city to see the Jesus Film.  But we were threatened by the local thugs with rocks and sticks and pangas to leave town; that they would break our equipment (or worse).  Now get this, it was this musee whose garden we first weeded who hired armed guards (probably without more than one bullet each) to surround our group until the event was concluded.  We counted perhaps 500 people who heard the gospel for the first time in their lives, in their own language.  And it all started with a love-infused, faith-ignited greeting—this is the powerful, beginning of love.

23 June 2015

Encourage One Another - Hb 10:19-25

“Encourage One Another” – Hebrews 10:19-25
Kevin Rees – June 21, 2015 - audio file posted at

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

Many places in the world have famine—even today there are historic droughts in India and in North Korea that dwarf the drought in California which, this week, prompted huge water restrictions even upon the very farmers who grow most of our nation’s produce.  We in the West have built in safeguards against famine, but most in the world have no margin whatsoever against a lack of rain, a lack of food, a lack of safety, a lack of opportunity, a lack of hope, and a lack of normalcy.  There is a state of vulnerability that never goes away in the Developing World that, for example, makes people who by-and-large cannot swim prefer several days and nights at sea in unseaworthy and illegal migrant vessels than their homeland.  But every person is vulnerable to the famine for encouragement. 

Without exaggeration, though perhaps slower, a famine for encouragement is as fatal as a famine for bread.  There might be a flood of the words of men, but what we need is the word of God …. for without God’s word we are lost—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  The prophet Amos wrote eerily similar words to Israel: “Behold, the days are coming," declares the Lord GOD, "when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). 

I think Job was in a famine for encouragement; for Word.  In a day he went from the top to the bottom of life.  He lost his children, his wealth, his home, his health.  And there at the bottom, where he really needed comfort, he instead got two more cruel daggers plunged into his heart: first his wife told him to curse God and die (which might have been the worst of all his tragedies) and then his friends tried to convince him that he was getting what he deserved.  But Job looked to God for encouragement, even despite his human comforters.  True, he demanded God for answers, a gesture for which he would later repent, but he still looked to God for word.  His faith was remarkable.  But his famine was intense.

In light of our contemplation of the “one anothers,” our introduction puts a spotlight on Job’s friends more than on Job himself.  With one another in the church, we are frequently in the position of being like or unlike Job’s friends to others who are in deep anguish or deep confusion.  Job’s friends started out so well; so helpful … so encouraging.  “They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11).  For a week they said nothing; they simply and silently were with their friend in his grief.  That was awesome, but then regretfully they opened their mouths … and everything soured. 

Their comfort was unmasked as not only unhelpful, but selfish and patently false.  “Miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2).  “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?  There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (Job 21:34).  God himself was the one who finally shuts the “friends” down in 42:7—“My anger burns against you [Eliphaz] and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

To “encourage one another” is to speak not only what is right, but when it is right; to know the difference and do what is best for our brothers or sisters in a temporarily diminished capacity … even if that means doing nothing at all beyond sitting in a hospital room, at a graveside, or under the weight of a trial.  Biblical encouragement is a skill we all need.  For some of us it is a spiritual gift, but we are all called to offer it in the body of Christ.  And, on the flip side, we are even instructed to receive encouragement from one another (Romans 1:12), which is often harder than giving encouragement. 

“Encourage one another” is the second most frequently repeated “one another” in the New Testament.  It is interesting and insightful that this “one another” shows up as several different words—encourage, comfort, beseech, exhort, urge, even admonish.  We might think that encouragement is always a pat on the back or a “thumbs up” gesture from across the gymnasium, but encouragement is not so saccharin; so simplistic.  Sometimes the most encouraging word is the sharp yet wise and always love-filled exhortation to snap out of poor thinking and step into the truth. 

Can we carefully and courageously give both kinds of encouragement to one another?  Are we?  Both the softer and the harsher sides fit the sphere of biblical encouragement, wisely applying whichever is most needed at a particular point in time.  A former teacher of mine condensed all of biblical counseling into a fine nutshell: “Go to where the other one is and help him take one step closer to Jesus.”  Encouragement is not healing.  Encouragement is not redemption.  Encouragement is not meddling.  Encouragement is not creating some weird mix of co-dependency and Messiah-complex.  Encouragement is going to where someone else is and helping him to take one step closer to Jesus.  Jesus heals.  Jesus redeems.  Jesus is Messiah.  Encouragement incrementally assists another to move one step closer to Jesus.

The principal word is, of course, comfort/encourage—parakaleo.  You might remember it as the tender name given to the Holy Spirit—“The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).  But the ministry of encouragement actually applies to the Father and the Son as well.  Jesus is called, “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6).  The Father is called, “The God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).  Parakaleo is the verb—to call alongside.  It is an intimate position—next to the heart—a close place to which not many people have access; under the armor and behind the shield.  When we find ourselves in a place to give encouragement—will we be like Job’s friends or not?  Will we dispense human ideas or apply the balm of God’s word?  Will we wrench their suffering and somehow make it about us?  Or will we, like Paul said in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  May it consistently be the latter, for the world has enough of Job’s sort of friends.

Let’s jump to a passage where encouragement is briefly but brightly on display—Hebrews 10:19-25.  Encouragement was acutely and chronically needed in the community.  The original audience—the Jewish Christians presumably in and around Jerusalem, just a few years before Rome finally levels the city and leaves the Temple with not even one stone on top of another (70 AD)—were in a severe trial.  The pressure to panic has already carried many professing Christians in the Jewish church to renounce the gospel for the more culturally acceptable traditions of Judaism.  They were being imprisoned for their faith in Jesus, ostracized, and persecuted, therefore many in the community were seriously considering going back to the Law and the Temple. 

One of the major themes in this letter is encouragement, but not the naïve and cliché kind that we have in our Hallmark® cards preaching that suferers simply turn the lemons of life into lemonade and put the fun back into dysfunctional.  No, the theme of encouragement in the epistle to the Hebrews has teeth.  And rightly so, because the church needs teeth at this precipice.  It needs sharp exhortation.  It needs someone to come to where they are and help them take one step closer to Jesus.

Do you have someone who you have given permission to speak directly into your life?  Are you that someone who has been invited to speak directly into the life of another?  It is a high calling; an intimate relationship.  It is something we should all have and be if we are going to be serious about the faith?  It should crisscross the entire church, back and forth, up and down.  This is the ministry of encouragement.  Not a luxury, it is a necessity.  Conversely, a lack of giving and receiving of encouragement is famine. 

In our text, encouragement is needed because temptation is mounting (compare Matthew 3:16-17).  On the basis of Jesus’ merit (vv. 19-21), we must apply three very practical aspects of Jesus’ ministry into our ministry.  First is UPWARD: we must draw near to God confidently (vs. 22).  Second is INWARD: we must hold fast to the truth consistently (vs. 23).  Third is OUTWARD: we must stir up others to love and good works courageously (vv. 24-25).

In verse 19, he begins by addressing, “Brothers.”  This is a Christian audience.  This is a Christian concern.  We are not saying to non-Christians that they must encourage one another.  It would be super if they did, but really—for non-Christians—they first need to receive the encouragement of the gospel before they will ever be a position or a condition to encourage others with the gospel.  The pattern holds for all ministry—we cannot give out what we have not first received.  We might be able to fake it for a short while, but there is no sustainable dispensing except that which flows from reception.

Everything in church ministry stems from the ministry of Jesus Christ.  What was his ministry?  It is spelled out very clearly around “the blood of Jesus” (vs. 19).  By shedding his innocent blood, Jesus opened a way where there was previously no way; “a new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain [of] his flesh” (vs. 20).  Now there has been a lot of blood shed unjustly, mercilessly, savagely—even this week at the brutal slaying of our nine brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, SC—but only the blood of Jesus can be called innocent.  The blood of animal sacrifice, at best, bought us time.  Our blood is important, but it is not potent.  Only Jesus’ blood can open a new and living way.  The shedding of tainted blood closes doors; only Jesus’ blood opens the door to reconciliation with God.

I.             UPWARD—Draw Near to God Confidently (vs. 22)

22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Therefore, on the basis of Jesus’ trailblazing ministry to open up a new and living way to the Father, we are given three strong applications, each with a clear directional emphasis.  The first is upward.  “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near.”  Since we have Jesus, let us lean in with our whole weight.  There is nothing halfway about this new and living way—we don’t tiptoe our way through.  We plunge in.  Why?  Because we have been given a “true heart in full assurance of faith” in the New Covenant.  Our old, false heart of sin has been exchanged for a soft, pliable heart of faith. 

The language is heavy with Old Testament imagery.  In the Old System, the sprinkling of the blood of bulls and goats got the high priest into the holiest place just once a year; and even then it was a precarious situation.  His life was in jeopardy.  Unless he bathed his body, dressed in white linen, and made atonement for his own personal sins first, the high priest could be struck down in the very act of his priestly duties if he came near to God in an unworthy manner.  But in Jesus, in this new and living way into the holy places that he secured through the shedding of his own blood, past the curtain that once separated the presence of God from the people of God, we have full assurance of our acceptance—“our hearts [have been] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  Jesus did not have to atone for himself since he was sinless.  Jesus did not remain dead, his way is living.  And therefore, hidden inside Jesus by faith, we have unrestricted, confident access to the Father.  In every way, Jesus is better.

Nothing else needs to be done that Jesus did not already do in order for us to draw near to the Father.  Sin, guilt, and shame have been remitted, absorbed, and healed.  Estrangement, unwelcomeness, and alienation have been displaced by acceptance, admittance, and invitation.  We have a confidence to draw near, upwardly to God.

Our salvation is as secure as our Savior is strong.  It is not up to us to keep it, but up to Jesus to keep us—which he does forevermore.  We have faith that Jesus opened this way just as we have faith that he will keep it open.  This door hinges on him alone—not on our worthiness.  All sin has been nailed to the cross—it is no longer determinative over our eternal destination because it has been completely absorbed by Christ on our behalf.  That is why he is the basis for our confidence, not our purity.

II.            INWARD—Hold Fast to Truth Consistently (vs. 23)

23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

The first application goes UPWARD with confidence.  The second application takes more of an INWARD direction with consistency.  “Since we have a great priest over the house of God…let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”  Our drawing near is a deliberate act of moving in, leaning in close.  Our holding fast is an intensified act of clinging to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

These applications suggest strongly that our grip of truth, although eternally secure, is not automatic.  If it were automatic, we would not be commanded time and time again to remember, to remind, to rehearse, to review, to renew, or to recount the promises of God.  Holding fast is an intensely deliberate act (middle voice).  Jesus opened this new and living way, but there are periods our lives where believing that his work still retains its power is a daily fight.  “Without wavering” is not without doubts; without wavering comes in spite of doubts.  The sailboat keeps a straight course not because there are no waves, but in spite of the waves.  Some sailors might even suggest that the energy to keep a straight course comes from the waves. 

I’m not a sailor, but I have been sailing a twice with a sailor.  Both times we sailed a 27’ sailboat christened the Alice O.  The first time, there were about 6 or 7 of us on the boat.  It was almost boring; we were tripping over each other, the lake was calm, the sun was bright, and the waves were virtually non-existent.  Yet, on my turn at the tiller it was surprisingly difficult to keep the Alice O on a straight line because the wind was timid at 3 or 4 knots.  But on my second trip on the Alice O, we found a storm halfway into the cruise.  There were lightening strikes all over, thunder crashing all around, and the wind was furious at 27 knots.  This time it was just the two of us on the Alice O—so there was no place to hide.    The sails seemed like rigid sheets; they did not flag, did not spill the wind, did not fluff.  We were in and out of 10-foot swells and the waves were crashing up onto the deck.  We were going amazingly fast; faster than any engine could carry us.  Yet, on my turns at the tiller, I was amazed how straight the Alice O went, straight through the waves.

Without wavering” is not at all equivalent to “without waves.” Our holding fast without wavering is not because there are no waves; no struggles … but precisely because the waves and the struggle drive us, sharpen us, straighten us, galvanize us, and propel us deeper and deeper into the promises of God.  The pressure of the storm forces us to rely completely upon the vessel of our deliverance.  I remember my sailor-host saying, especially when he could see concern wash across my face at the size of the waves: “The Alice O has never been capsized.  She has never gone over.”  The promises of God have never been capsized.  They have never gone over.  Take heart because “he who promised is faithful.

III.           OUTWARD—Stir Up Love and Good Works Courageously (vv. 24-25)

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Our first application takes us UPWARD.  Our second application drives us INWARD.  And now, finally, our third application pushes us OUTWARD.  This is where we find our “one another”—“encourage one another.”  “Since we have a great priest over the house of God…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Because Jesus opened for us the new and living way, we are obliged to help others apply the gospel to everyday life just as others help us to apply it in our lives.  You might discern that there are actually three “one anothers” in this passage—“consider how to stir up one another,” “not neglecting to meet with one another,” and “encouraging one another.”  Regular meeting together with one another and the encouraging one another actually help give shape to the first: “consider how to stir up one another.”

The engine of this application actually begins in the mind—“consider”—katanoeo.  Brainstorm, strategize, use creativity toward stoking the fire of love and good deeds in the church.  It is not simply a mental exercise, though.  It is very practical and very others-conscious.

The church that received this letter was suffering.  The church was starting to splinter into individualistic and family groups.  The church was confused and hurting.  It seems almost counterintuitive to consider ways to catalyze love and good deeds inside suffering.  Suffering usually suffocates love and good deeds.  Times of testing usually urge us to say: “Just leave me alone” and “Just let me go.”  But we are to reverse that trend in the church.  While the momentum pressures us just to look after myself and my family in a time of trial, God calls us to stir up others for love and good works.  Come alongside one another—parakaleo; help one another take one step closer to Jesus.  Taking one step closer to Jesus also brings us one step closer to each other. 

Our spiritual desert makes us want to scream, “Encourage me.  Why won’t anyone encourage me?”  “Comfort me.  Why won’t anyone comfort me?”  But the Lord of the desert calls us even inside our spiritual desert to encourage one another.  Encourage one another.  But if we are all helping each other take one step closer to Jesus, then we move as a unit.  If we are each encouraging one another and receiving the encouragement that others offer to us, then we all win.

If that were not urgent enough, the writer of Hebrews adds emphasis: “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”  There is something about suffering that brings out the stark contrast between this world and the world to come; between this twilight and the Day that will dawn without another twilight. 

Struggle is real.  We cannot change struggle, but we can change how we view struggle.  Is struggle taking us under, or is struggle taking us through?  Is struggle our enemy, or is struggle our opportunity to put our faith into action for the benefit of others?  One step closer to Jesus—that is our calling in a bite-sized morsel.  Let me help you take one step closer to Jesus right now.  And next time you can help me take one step closer to Jesus.

Consider one last time Job’s (so-called) friends.  They took 34 chapters trying to set Job apart from them, to set him right; to set themselves above.  “You are wrong,” they said to this blistered and tear-streaked man sitting in the ashes, “and we are right.”  They emerge as the examples of exactly what not to do.  They are the counterfeit of “encourage one another.”  They offer shadow-comfort, for what might look like encouragement at first is actually just another attempt to gain the advantage; to assert power.  They took the suffering of another and used it to climb one step higher for self.  But true encouragement will come alongside the other, and help him or her take one step closer to Jesus.  Not one step closer to us—that is false, too.  But one step closer to Jesus.  Encouragers use their power to empower others, not to empower themselves at the expense of others.

We cannot prevent suffering, but we can—with the strength that God gives us—relieve the famine of encouragement for someone else in the mighty name of Christ.  “You are not alone.”  “We stand with you in solidarity.”  “We have a great priest over the house of God who has opened for us a new and living way to the Father.”  “We are ‘we’ because he is he; the great ‘I Am.’”

16 June 2015

Love One Another - Jn 15:12-17

“Love One Another” – John 15:12-17
Kevin Rees – June 14, 2015 - Audio file posted:

The way we treat others in the church has a direct correlation upon the mission of the church.

“An Applied Unity,” is a phrase that I dropped, almost without premeditation, several weeks ago while I was right here preaching on John 17:20-26.  And it has stayed with me.  In fact, it has more than stayed with me; it has haunted me.  Some people are haunted by nightmares or regrets but I am haunted by enduring words; words that have “mileage.”  Some words grab me and expand; enlarge.  This is one of them.  It won’t leave me alone.  Unity is given for a purpose … unto what end goes the gift of unity? 

Unity is too valuable to spend on merely ourselves.  It must carry us further and farther.  We are blessed with unity in order to bless others—locally, regionally, and globally.  While we continue to pray and seek the mind of Christ and wait for the regional and global aspects of this “Applied Unity” to develop, the local aspects are very developed in New Testament thought.  So let’s pick it up there.  How can we apply biblical unity locally?  We need to look no further than the passages that contain the often repeated word “allelon—one another.”

Fifty times “one another” is repeated (50 times allelon is used explicitly; 12 times allelon is implied) yielding fifty very practical, very sharp, very personal applications that, if embraced by faith, can completely transform our day-to-day lives and our Sunday-to-Sunday rhythms.

This summer I want us to get very familiar with these fifty “one anothers”; these fifty applications for our unity; fifty friends.  You might already know some of them by name—love one another, exhort one another, bear one another’s burdens, welcome one another, pray for one another.  Of these fifty we will look at the top ten most frequently repeated “one another” admonitions as representative of the whole.  This is quite the all-star team: #10 love one another, #9 serve one another, #8 build up one another, #7 forgive one another, #6 bear with one another, #5 speak well to one another, #4 prefer one another, #3 greet one another, #2 encourage one another, and #1 love one another (since there are twice as many references to “love” it deserves two spots in our Top Ten List.)

As we launch into this summer series—consider this overarching question: how many of these “one anothers” can be fully expressed inside a church building for 90 minutes a week?  Seriously, between 10:30 and 12:00 every Sunday for 52 weeks a year, over 70 or 80 years—that’s less than 1% of your life—how many on this list can find their full expression of obedience on Sunday mornings alone?  We might be able to forgive one another on a Sunday morning, but how much time will it take for us to become forgiving toward one another as a way of life?  We might be able bear with one another while inside these walls, but how much bearing one another’s burdens can really happen at 454 Tucker Street, Dyersburg TN?  We might not neglect to meet with one another on Sunday mornings, but which of us is an expert at welcoming one another, showing hospitality toward one another, or having fellowship with one another the other 166.5 hours in the week?  These take years to develop, not weeks; certainly not hours.  The solution is not to expand our Sunday hours, but to expand “one anothers” beyond Sunday.

The “one anothers” form a collective voice spoken with the authority of Scripture—the way we treat each other in the church has a direct correlation to the mission of the church: to know and make known our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).
The first (and last) of our Top Ten List is: “love one another.”  In John 15:12-17 we have a most compelling definition and description of what this love is and what this love looks like.  Not in theory, but in action.  Not distilled in a laboratory, but displayed in life.

Here Jesus gives us an absolute gem.  The structure (chiasm) is pristine—where “x” (Greek letter chi) marks the spot.  Jesus marches up to his teaching apex and then marches back down again in the same footholds regarding “love one another.”  The whole section elaborates what this love for one another looks likes orbiting around the one little word: “as.”  “Love one another.”  Okay, what does that entail?  “As I have loved you.”  Okay, what does Jesus’ love for his disciples look like?  Laying down your lives for others, calling others into relationship, and disclosing everything the Father has revealed.  This is the shape of loving as Jesus has loved: laying down, calling in, and opening up. 

What might seem like a quaint list of loving virtues is actually very rare in life.  We have been taught since birth, since the dawn of history, to stand up for ourselves and lay nothing down, to resist and retreat from intimate relationship, and to conceal and use information as leverage to manipulate others to do what we want them to do.  We have become experts in sewing fig leaves to cover our shame, hiding among the trees of the garden to avoid our guilt before God and humans, and shifting blame when hiding is no longer an option.  But loving one another as Jesus has loved us is completely contrary to the human condition.  Love is incredibly vulnerable, defenseless, and risky.

One last comment before we dive into our text—with anything true, pure, and right we must expect there to be a counterfeit hovering in the periphery.  And so it is with “love one another”—there is a shadow “one another” that looks like love but is not love; that uses the vocabulary of love but it not love.  In New Testament language it is to hate, bite, devour, and consume one another.  In modern language it is to use one another. This shadow “one another” is predatory and malicious yet coolly disguised by a toothy grin and a demonic charm, where vulnerability is encouraged but not by both parties, where invitation is given but not to mutual benefit—only to the benefit of the shadow.  The false one stacks the deck while affirming his good intentions the whole time.  This is hatred.  This is the absence of love.  This is consumption of others to fill the insatiable belly of self.  It follows the way of love only so far as to win an advantage for self.  Sadly, most of us know this counterfeit love more than we know true love of Christ.  But may that ratio change starting today, starting with us, starting here—may real love for one another take root and bear fruit.

I.          LOVE DEFINED: Loving as Jesus Loved (vs. 12)

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  The first step in “love one another” is to define love itself.  While our culture demands vehemently that each individual has the right to define truth as he sees it, the Scriptures teach the objective and absolute nature of truth.  God selects and defines his own terms.  By faith we defer to his terms as revealed in Scripture.

God’s definition is contained in the word itself—“love” (agapao).  It was a highly unusual word that Jesus plucked out of obscurity and set in gold and silver as the treasure of his church.  Quite distinct from a sentimental kind of love, or a brotherly kind of love, or a sexual kind of love (all of which are valid in their own spheres)—Jesus’ kind of love is often called divine love because of its “otherworldly” characteristics.  It is not an emotional reaction, but a decision to act freely for the benefit of another an outworking of the character who gives it; not the quality of the one who receives it.  God is a lover, therefore he loves.  Love is who he is.  His love does not ebb and flow based on our worthiness; it is constant and full and fierce and integral with his divine character.

This is my commandment.” Notice that Jesus says it is “my commandment.”  This is a claim at authority—Jesus himself openly takes the role as the speaker of the Word of God—the divine Logos.  It is not a vague, “Thus says the Lord,” but a specific and personal claim, “This is my commandment.”  Jesus steps up the mic, so to speak, and says, “Listen to me: ‘love one another as I have loved you.’”

The little word—“as”—carries the weight of this whole passage, this whole definition of love, this entire description of love.  Whatever Jesus meant, he rivets our love for one another with his love for us.   So how does Jesus love us?  He explains his love for us in three specific ways—all of which are fully seen at the cross—laying down one’s life, calling others into deep relationship, and disclosing the heart of the Father.  Whatever else our love might include, it must include those three principles.

II.         LOVE DISPLAYED: Laying Down as Jesus Laid Down (vs. 13)

Love defined is this: the decision to act freely toward the well-being of another as exemplified by Jesus himself and epitomized at the cross.  Love displayed is this: self-sacrifice, or as verse 13 puts it: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”  What does love look like?  Well, first of all, love looks like Jesus.  And, second of all, love acts like Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  The greatest display of love begins with the act of laying down one’s life.

Here, the shadow-counterfeit of love lurks.  But there is really no rivalry when the light of Jesus’ glory is  flipped on—the predatory self-interest that masquerades as love but really seeks to consume one another (Galatians 5:15) placed next to Jesus is exposed as a fraud.  Self-interest just does not lay self down for the benefit of another.  Self-interest might delay its final pounce until the opportune moment, but it will not lay down its defenses for the well-being of another.  But Christian love does.  Self-sacrificial love is the new normal for the Christian.  If we are vitally connected to Jesus by faith and he to us by grace, then we will bear his kind of fruit—love.

To “lay down” is a voluntary act setting down; a placing before; a relinquishment.  The world calls it weakness, but Jesus calls it freedom.  Such is not forced; it is free.  It is one thing to be willing to take a bullet for a friend, but it is entirely a different thing to forfeit self for a friend’s benefit.  Yet, this is precisely where we echo and re-echo the love of Christ for one another.  By this the world knows that we are his.

Please also notice the word: “life” (psyche).  It can and does mean “life” here, but it is the word most often translated, “soul”—the seat of emotional and volitional being, the realm of the inner person where we can say our mind exists, our personality, our reputation, our likes and dislikes, our preferences, our hopes, and our dreams.  By even pointing out this common word, I am by no means suggesting that Jesus died merely some immaterial or figurative death—may heaven forbid such a heresy.  No, but by the use of this word instead of, for instance, the word for biological life—“bios”—Jesus actually expands (not limits) the ramifications of his self-sacrifice.  He shed his blood, yes.  He offered his last breath of oxygen, yes.  But he also placed down before the Father, thus relinquishing any claim upon: his personality, his reputation, his happiness, his contentment, his fear, his rights.  He laid his entire self down and made neither provisions nor caveats.  Love relinquishes self.

By way of mini-application—do we sometimes place conditions on our love for one another in order to maintain control?  I will love you, if you honor me for it … if you name a building after me … if you brag about me at the party … if you agree to owe me a favor later.  Christ’s love is a relinquishment of control over self and life and results and ramifications.  Incidentally, Christ did not lay himself down to the enemy, but to the Father.  When we love as he loved, we do the same.  We lay down self to the Father and relinquish all schemes to control; trusting that he cares for us.  That makes my stomach roll just thinking about it.  I am and we are control addicts.  We move through life looking for ways to control our pain, suffering, joy, embarrassment, hunger, public opinion, respect, rights, and safety.  I don’t fear heights or snakes or water, but I do fear powerlessness, helplessness, and vulnerability.  But love bravely relinquishes all claims.  What does love look like?  Love freely steps into vulnerability.

To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it up carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable (CS Lewis, The Four Loves).

III.        LOVE DESCRIBED: Calling as Jesus Called (vv. 14-15a)

Love defined is this: the decision to act freely toward the well-being of another as exemplified by Jesus.  Love displayed is this: the voluntary laying down of the self-life on behalf of another.  Love described is this: calling others into deeper relationship.  Jesus calls his disciples a name of deep relationship—“friends.”  “You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (vv. 14-15a). 

Abraham and Moses were called, “Friend of God”—so the company is quite famous.  But Jesus gives a stunning gesture of deep relationship to his disciples in calling them friends.  Being a friend of God by no means exempts the disciples from maintaining a role of servant to their master.  They are both, servants and friends.  But not all servants are friends; in fact few are.  In the court of a monarch, there are some called, “Friends of the King.”  To have such a name was lavish and lucrative; an inner circle of advisors that are close enough to the king to know his secrets, but they still must obey the crown (Warren Wiersbe, The Be Series, “John 15:12-17,” WORDsearch7 software).  Jesus’ point here is not so much about luxury or status, but about the closeness of relationship he opens to the disciples.

Quite definitively, however, a servant does not know what his master is doing.  Even if the master were to treat him with utmost respect and kindness, the servant holds no right of friendship with the master.  Unless the master initiates it, then a new thing begins.  Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us friends.  The move is unprecendented, but it is still conditional—“if you do [keep on obeying]” (3rd class condition—undetermined but assumed true).  Like Oswald Sanders said years ago, “Each of us is as close to God as we chose to be” (as cited in Wierbse).

Another mini-application—does our love for one another call for deeper relationship?  Are we knocking barriers down in our spiritual brotherhood, or standing them up?  Are we withdrawing from one another or pursuing one another.  The trend is to have fewer deep friendships in the church—deep enough to share business with one another, but not enough to share meals.  We are all busy, but do we secretly prefer busyness instead of the messiness that comes with relationship?  We can’t be best friends with everyone—even Jesus had his closest connections with Peter, James, and John of the Twelve.  But we can and should have at least the possibility of such relationships in the church.  If it doesn’t materialize,  may it  not be because we are unwilling or that we undervalue relationship.

The shadowy counterfeit is very much present in this aspect of loving one another.  False friends are bottom-feeders who look for anything—real or imagined—that they can use to gain advantage, draw blood, and apply leverage for their own gain from gossip to subterfuge.  But love is risky amid counterfeits.  Yes, we need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves in the process, no doubt, but our calling walks into relationship even with all of its dangers.  We do not have to all become extroverts; we have to value and pursue relationships.  Chances are that will get burned at some point, but we are called to love as he loved. 

IV.        LOVE DISCLOSED: Knowing as Jesus Knew (vs. 15b)

Love defined is this: the decision to act freely toward the well-being of another as exemplified by Jesus.  Love displayed is this: the voluntary laying down of the self-life on behalf of another.  Love described is this: calling others into deeper relationship.   Love disclosed is this: revealing everything heard from the Father.  All of these are demonstrated fully and finally at the cross.  We echo and reecho the love of Jesus in our love for one another.

I can’t deny that “disclosure” sounds like something out of a spy movie—“I’m sorry ma’am, that’s classified information.  I can neither confirm nor deny anything.”  But with Jesus, disclosure is the highest application of love.  There is no classified information with Jesus; he holds no secrets from us.  This is the climax of this passage; this is the fulcrum of the application of love.  What does love look like?  Love looks like the knowing and making known the Father’s heart.  This is where “x” marks the spot.

All that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (vs. 15b).  We do not have to fear that there is some hidden file that we are responsible to know, that we are going to be tested on, but to which we have never had access.  There is no secret society at the middle of Christianity that holds the power like the conspiracy theorists postulate.  We don’t discover anything about God.  He discloses everything we need to know through Christ.  Disclosure of the Father’s heart is love in its purest form.

In Uganda spiritism was everywhere.  Witch doctors were not only present; they were admirable people in the community.  The witch doctors were the self-proclaimed possessors of “the secret knowledge” about which spirit needed appeasement for which ailment.  This knowledge was power.  Sadly, however, many of the pastors were eerily similar to the witch doctors, although their buildings and clothes looked different on the outside.  Several pastors regularly said things like: “You don’t know how to pray against that disease, but come to me and I will pray for you.  I have the secret knowledge.  I have special access.  But don’t come empty-handed (e.g. pay me money).”  A thousand times no!  This is as demonic at the witch doctor’s shrine as it is at the pastor’s tabernacle. But Jesus says, “There are no secrets.  You have access to all the information that the Father has given to me.  I have disclosed it all.” 

Does that mean that there are no mysteries?  Of course not!  We are not capable of handling the full download of all information.  But everything the Father deemed pertinent he revealed to the Son and the Son has faithfully revealed it to the church.  Does the divine nature of Jesus know everything?  Absolutely, but his human nature that depends utterly on the Father has relayed all information along to the church.  What a gift!

One more mini-application—how do you use information?  Do you use it to bring people closer or keep people away?  Do you use it to bind people up or set people free?  Do you use it to build yourself an empire or to advance the kingdom of God? 

Sadly, the shadow “one another” is once again lurking.  The counterfeit that says, “We believe in close relationships here.  Tell me where you struggle, dream, wish to be because that is what we do here in this inner circle of leadership.  We expect full disclosure.”  But they do not disclose their own hearts.  They take it all down, but they do not show a similar vulnerability.  And when the time is right, using what they took down in presumed confidence, and what they have amassed by secretly interviewing people who are connected to you, they demand loyalty—not a bond of fellowship but a cult of threats.  This is not love, even though they claim over and over again that it is.  This is predatory self-interest masquerading as love.  It is demonic.  Let me extend it one more level—any secret society that has this operating procedure is antichristian.  We will tell you our secrets only after you pledge loyalty.  And if you renege on your loyalty or fail in your probationary period, then we will use your secrets—as well as many that we can plausibly concoct—against you.  Baloney!  You can keep your fraternity.  I’ll take Jesus—his pattern is open disclosure, open drapes, open hearts.

This is what love looks like: self-sacrifice, calling others into deep relationship, and disclosure of truth—all of which exemplified in Jesus and epitomized at the cross.  Jesus laid down his own life.  He called people to himself.  He communicated the message in its entirety.  This is love.  This is what our love for one another must be.  Whatever else our love might include, it must include these principles first.

The rest of the passage follows the same steps back to the starting point; using the same verbs in the Greek.  We stepped from love (agapao) to lay down (tithemi) to call (lego) to know (oida).  The way back goes from know (gnorizo) to call (eklego) to lay down (tithemi) to love (agapao) (vv. 16-17).  “You did not choose me (eklego), but I chose you and appointed (tithemi) that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  These things I command you, so that you will love (agapao) one another.”

Love defined is this: the decision to act freely toward the well-being of another as exemplified by Jesus.  Love displayed is this: the voluntary laying down of the self-life on behalf of another.  Love described is this: calling others into deeper relationship.   Love disclosed is this: revealing everything heard from the Father.  All of which is demonstrated fully and finally at the cross.

So, the natural question to conclude this stellar expanded application of the love of Christ for us which now becomes the standard of our love for one another is this: “How are we doing?”  I hope we take all summer to cook on that question.  It is a valid question, but not the primary one.  The primary question is: “Where are we resting?”  Are we resting in Christ’s finished work that pleased God perfectly, or are we trusting in our endless attempts to please God on our own?  As we rest in Christ, vitally connected to him by faith like the branch abides in the vine, his love like the sap of the vine flows through us and bears enduring fruit.  But it is not our love that accomplishes it.  It is Christ’s love flowing through us.  This is our new normal.  Love one another as I have loved you.

28 May 2015

The Great Commission - Mt 28:16-20

The Great Commission
Matthew 28:16-20
Kevin Rees – May 24, 2015

Serve the world deliberately as disciple-makers.  Audio file posted at:

We put in a garden this spring and are finding it less than flourishing.  The act of gardening hasn’t changed since we last checked, our infusion of labor this spring has not been lacking, so why has the garden not jumped into action?  We are not sure, so we decided to conduct a soil test.  It is not exactly a glamorous event, but important and necessary … and surprisingly illustrative.

We picked up a soil chemistry kit at the local garden center and found four test tubes—one for testing pH balance, one for Nitrogen, one for Phosphorus, and one for Potassium (Potash).  Reading the directions several times through, my wife—being the resident scientist—took over.  A few things were unexpectedly apparent—first of all, the sample must come from 4” under the surface.  It was important to use a clean container and add the proper amount of water.  Shellie dropped in the chemical and waited the alotted 10 minutes.  Finally, it was pointed out in the printed directions that sunlight was vital for interpreting the data on the color chart that came with the test kit. 

Not a great conclusion—our soil, although it looks healthy, is not.  Considerably alkaline (basic), we have soil that is very low in Nitrogen, low in Phosphorus, with only medium level of Potassium.  That does not mean that it is sterile or incapable of producing a crop, but our corn will probably flop this year.  Not even factoring in the amount of rainfall, beans will do okay—but we didn’t plant many of those.  All in all, our soil needs help.  But bringing down the pH level and bringing up the Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium will take time.  It is important to note, however, that we can cause more trouble if we are too aggressive with our attempt to fix our soil chemistry. 

What does this have to do with the Bible or with our faith journey?  Actually, quite a lot!  Let me back up a few steps to connect the dots.  If you remember five weeks ago I mentioned that some of our prayers for church-wide vision and “next steps” were starting to yield answers.  Plow the ground we already have, we said.  Obey the portions of God’s will that we already know, we said.  Move in the direction that has already been revealed, we said.  All three of those goals form a solid starting place.  We learned that biblical unity will be a purposeful and applied unity or it will be less than the ideal unity that Christ prayed into his church in John 17.  We are united, but unto what end?  To begin answering that question we took note of the four “Greats” in the Scriptures—the Great Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1), the Great Confession (Matthew 16), the Great Commandment (Matthew 22), and finally this morning the Great Commission (Matthew 28).

Every church must wrestle with these four directives.  Every Christian must evaluate these four directives.  Every pastor must help his flock to take the next faith step regarding these four directives.  It is nothing new; but it is perpetually new and in constant need of renewal.  So here is today’s question, what is our health?  How is our spiritual soil?  Take a sample, drop the chemical into the four test tubes, wait the 10 minutes, collect the data, and pull it into the light for proper interpretation—being in relationship with God personally, knowing Christ deeply, loving God and others authentically, and serving the world deliberately. 

You could phrase it in many ways, but to keep the agricultural imagery going: who and why are we growing (the Great Cultural Mandate), what are we growing (the Great Confession), how are we growing (the Great Commandment), and where are we growing (the Great Commission)?  We are growing in understanding and appreciation that we are human beings, first and foremost.  More than human doers, we are human beings made in the image of God placed here to reflect God’s character in relationship and to represent God’s leadership as his stewards.  We are growing the good seed of the word of God; particularly the person and work of Christ and Christlikeness in us.  We are growing up in love for God and growing out in love for our neighbor with authenticity.  We are growing out in service toward the nations with compassion.  This is spiritual identity (the soil and the seed of being), spiritual integrity (the germination and the root of knowing), spiritual vitality (the shoot and the leaf of loving), and spiritual maturity (the fruit and the replication of serving).

I.          Five Repetitions

Okay, so let’s dial down on the Great Commission; the fourth “Great” in our series of the Greats.  It is a most appropriate day to cover this passage on Pentecost Sunday.  In the 40 days between the resurrection of Christ and the ascension of Christ, he appeared and taught several times to his disciples.  On at least five separate occasions in at least three different locations (the Upper Room in Jerusalem, a mountainside in Galilee, and the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem), Christ taught the disciples of his Great Commission for ministry; his marching orders.  That’s a high concentration and a strong emphasis.  This occasion, recorded at the end of the gospel of Matthew, is the most populated of the five Great Commission statements.

Christ has advertised that his disciples meet him in Galilee at “the mountain” (Matthew 28:7,10).  Although we are not clued in from the text as to which mountain in Galilee he had in mind, clearly the disciples knew the rendezvous point.  Perhaps it was the mountain where he taught the Sermon on the Mount, or where he fed the 5000.  But we know that word got around about this public, predetermined appearance of Christ because over 500 disciples showed up at this Galilean mountain—which Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:6.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him, they worshiped him” (vv. 16-17a).  There is explicit worship of Jesus now, which is a full indication not only that he was God but that the disciples knew he was God (not that such doctrine was later realized).  “But some doubted” (vs. 17b).  Some were “divided in mind” (A.T. Roberston) about Jesus (compare Matthew 22:37).  These were most likely not the Eleven who doubted, but a fraction of the remaining 500 who had not settled the issue yet about Jesus’ resurrection and full identity as Messiah and as God. 

And Jesus came and said to them” (vs. 18a)—he came up close, the text narrates, with holes in his hands, feet, and side.  His body is a glorified body now.  He is not subject to gravity anymore.  He can appear and vanish at will.  He can pass through closed doors now.  He can be still touched and is still physical and recognizable, but his appearance is also more than it was.  Jesus can and does eat—he is no phantom.  He is not a figment of the imagination.  And he has a message that he wants them to hear.

This message is one that he communicates five different times.  We call it the Great Commission statement.  It is a valuable study to place them side-by-side and note the distinctions—I suggest such an activity to you for this week.  Matthew stresses the authority of the message-giver, Jesus himself (Matthew 28:18-20).  Mark stresses the authority delegated to the messengers, the Eleven disciples (Mark 16:15-18).  Luke stresses the Scriptural basis of the message (Luke 24:44-49).  John stresses the manner of the sending out the messengers (John 20:19-23).  And Acts stresses the scope of the sending (Acts 1:8).

In fact, these five repetitions present a somewhat creative way to move through this awesome passage.  There is a five, four, three, two, one, zero pattern.   It is kind of like a launch sequence—5, 4, 3, 2, 1, blast off.  In Matthew, see how Christ’s authority is dominant.  The authority of Christ has been publicly displayed on earth—his healings, his teachings, his exorcisms, his challenges to the gate-keepers of the day, his freedom from the traditions of men, his character, his purity, his righteousness, his crucifixion, his burial, his resurrection.  On the basis of that authority, he commissions his disciples to storm the world.

A.T. Robertson summarized it this way: “It is the sublimest of all spectacles to see the Risen Christ without money or army or state charging his band of 500 men and women with world conquest and bringing them to believe it possible and to undertake it with serious passion and power” (“Matthew 28:18,” Word Pictures in the New Testament.”

II.         Four “All”s

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (vs. 18b).  Jesus does not share the preeminence.  Not with Buddha, or Muhammed, or Conficius, or Caesar, or Moses, or Abraham, or Peter, James, or John.  But Jesus does not use his authority tyrannically.  Instead he applies his authority to reach the world through the agency of the church. 

This “all” is the first of four “alls.”  So there are five repetitions of the Great Commission, and four repetitions of the word “all”—all authority, all nations, all that I have commanded, and all ways/days.

I remember in a creative writing class the professor drilling it into our brains—do not use “always” and “never” in your writing.  But clearly Jesus wasn’t in her class.  He uses “all” because he has the gravitos to pull it off.  Our use of the word “all” is now based on his use of the world “all.”  So by faith, we say Christ has all authority, we have been delegated to disciple all the nations, our doctrine is all that Christ has commanded, and our promise is that Christ is with us all the time.

III.        Three Participles

So far we have repetitions of the Great Commission in the Gospels and Acts, four uses of the word, “All,”  three participles, or as I like to think of them, three fine tuning adjustment knobs to navigate this ship.  Going, baptizing, teaching—these are the three participles that modify the command to make disciples.  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20a).
The power supporting such a commissioning is the authority of Christ not the ingenuity of the church.  The “therefore” tells us this.  We have nothing unless we are vitally connected to giver and sustainer and definer of life, Jesus Christ.  But honestly, the participles get most of the press.  Most of the times I have heard this passage preached or exegeted or referenced the emphasis falls on the “Go” aspect or the “baptize” aspect or even the “teach” aspect.  But they are helpers.  They are not the focus, but the fine-tuning adjustment knobs.  However, they can show us many things in their own right, as long as we restrict them from carrying this passage, which they by no uncertain terms may.

Going to all nations—this is fabulously insightful and extraordinary in the highly Jewish setting.  The disciples are not to target Israel alone, nor are they to force non-Israelites to first become Jewish before they can become Christian.  No!  Christianity is not a new culture; it is a new kingdom.  It allows for culture and even celebrates culture within limits, but the gospel will and does change culture.

I remember some anthropologists giving me a warning before we went into cross-cultural missions—whatever you do, do not change their culture.  I will support you, but only if you lay off their culture.  I can understand this concern up to a point.  Missionaries have long bulldozed into a culture and caused huge amounts of cultural damage in the process of going into all the nations.  Missionaries have, by default, required the nations first to become Westerners before they could become Christians.  This is just flat out wrong and tragic.  However, the gospel will and must change culture, but the missionary is not the captain of that transformation process.  The Holy Spirit is.  When it is forced by man upon men, change is cruel and one-dimensional.  When it is unleashed by God for the benefit of men, change is freeing and dynamic.  But eliciting change is not our focus; Jesus is!

Baptizing is an interesting aspect.  It is a public display of allegiance.  We confess in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and are saved.  This is initially unseen by any but God.  But baptism is the outer profession of an inner confession.  Baptism is for the world to see.  I love baptisms, but baptisms do not add or subtract from personal salvation.  Personal salvation hinges on belief in the Son of God.  Baptism is a declaration of allegiance to the kingdom of God.  It is an act of obedience; an act that I encourage all Christians to step into because the Spirit is prompting it.

Teaching is fabulously important as well.  We are commissioned to communicate the entire word of God to the entire people of God.  Not just the ordained preachers, but all disciples of Jesus.  Not just the apostles, but the church.  Not just the spiritually gifted, but the spiritually alive.  Where is your pulpit?  It may be at the group home.  It may be at the high school.  It may be at the nursing home.  It may be at the water cooler at work.  We have all this commissioning.

I would be remiss if I did not say that all three of these participles are local; none can be done by remote or via satellite.  Yes, many try to do this by remote, but the very nature of going, baptizing, and teaching are personal, face-to-face activities.  All three of these are personal; none can be deferred to a radio or a seminary.  For instance, when was the last time you heard of K-Love radio baptizing converts, or Memphis Seminary laying hands on and sending out missionaries?  It is unheard of because those are functions of the local church.  All three of these are plural; none can be accomplished in isolation from one another.  I cannot retreat into my hunting cabin and expect to take these three participles seriously.  Now I can go to my hunting cabin if it helps me refuel and recharge and reenter the mission field, but the mission field is where the people are.

IV.        Two Promises

Five repetitions of the Great Commission in the last 40 days Jesus was on earth, four uses of the word, “all,” three participles that help us fine tune our disciple making ministry, and now we have two promises that infiltrate and saturate all that we are and do.  “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”—the promises of space (completely with you) and time (consistently with you).

Jesus sets these two promises off with the interjection: behold!  Look!  Pay attention!  What I am commissioning you to do is big, but my promise is bigger.  That Jesus accepts as his own name “ego eimi”—I AM—is staggeringly important.  It is the name of God given to the people of God at the burning bush.  But even more than claiming that Name as his own name, which he does, Jesus applies that Name to us in the carrying out of his mission.  “Behold, I am with you.”  The very first name Matthew ascribes to Jesus in chapter 1, Immanuel, is the basis of the promise Matthew mentions in chapter 28—the gospel is bookended with Immanuel—the With-Us-God.

David Livingstone, back from Africa, was given the degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Glasgow. In response to the honor conferred upon him Livingstone, bronzed by the equatorial sun and gaunt from many a bout with fever, announced his intention to return to the Africa he loved: “I return with misgiving and with great gladness. For would you like me to tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude towards me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!’ On these words I staked everything, and they never failed!” (Paul Rees, Forward to Defeat of the Bird God, Zondervan, 1967)

V.         One Command

Five repetitions of the Great Commission in the last seven weeks on earth, four uses of the word “all,” three participles, two promises, and finally we have one—one command.  We have one command!  Soak that in.  We have one command!  It is not to grow.  It is not to build.  It is not to collect.  It is not even to go.  It is, “make disciples.”

A highly unusual word, “to make disciples,” but it made a huge impression on Matthew.  In fact, Matthew means disciple or learner.  Matthew’s name was Levi, but when he left his tax collector’s table to follow Jesus, he adopted a new name.  In a verb form, it means to make another a learner as you were made a learner.  Do to others what God has done for you.  Levi was befriended by Christ, called by Christ, accepted by Christ, and set free by Christ.  So as Matthew in his first public gesture after his new life with Jesus, throws a party for his tax collector friends where they can be befriended by Jesus, perhaps called by Jesus, certainly accepted by Jesus, and hopefully set free by Jesus.  As you were made a disciple, so make disciples of others.

It is so much more than making converts.  It is so much more than boosting attendance.  It is so much more than counting hands at the invitation at the end of a revival service.  It is the long and deliberate process of building relationships, explaining the way of the gospel, giving opportunity to respond, and walking the responders from their addictions and patterns into the freedom that is found in Christ.  But it is even more than that, but disciple-making has an eye two, three, four generations into the future.  A disciple is mature when he or she becomes of a discipler of others who also become disciplers of others.

With all of our talk about agriculture and crops and soil test kits, we have to realize that the crop we grow in the church is not just for this October and then done.  No!  We must already be planning what and where and how and who and why and when we will plant next spring, and the spring after that, and the spring after that.  This is spiritual maturity—not that we can have a robust Sunday school discussion on the minutiae of theology, but that we replicate the faith in another generation of disciples.  This is spiritual maturity; replication.  Really, the only others to use this term are the false teachers/cults.

I have nothing against the big churches.  I have nothing against the modern churches.  I have nothing against the house church movement if they are making mature disciples of Christ who become mature disciplers of Christ.  If this is happening, then the church is healthy.  If this is not happening, then the church is not healthy.  Irrespective to size or budget or professionalism or four-color glossy brochures in the lobby—healthy churches replicate the disciple-making pattern.

The equipping, evangelizing, worshiping, fellowshipping, identifying and using of spiritual gifts—those all prepare us for the mission, feed into the mission, fortify the mission, bring further definition and clarity to the mission, but the mission is singular—make disciples.  It is more than training.  It is more than Bible study.  It is more than potlucks.  It is more than hymns and choruses and pianos and organs.  It is even more than making converts.  All of the things we do ought to be an expression of disciple-making.  Ever preparing, ever rehearsing, but never deploying.  And we wonder why Christ seems so irrelevant, so outdated, so burdensome, so embarrassing.  Could it be that we have drifted from our course?

But finally this mandate must not, ever, by no means become the process of replicating ourselves.  The world does not need more Kevin’s, more Tucker Street Churches, more Bible-belt Christianity, or more 1950s-nostalgic Christian sub-culture.  The world needs Jesus.  And Jesus has commissioned Kevin, and Tucker Street Church, and the Bible-belt to make disciples of him, and him alone.  But to make disciples of Jesus will take time, money, training, discernment, and cooperation.  To make disciples of Jesus will invite criticism, confusion, and challenge.  To make disciples of Jesus will require that we joyfully take up our cross and follow him.

VI.        Zero Excuses

Five, four, three, two, one, blast off—we are notoriously busy with many different ministries inside, outside, and sometimes in spite of the church—many of which are done with excellence and efficiency—but what is our singular mission?  Make disciples!  Churches hum with activity: education, visitation, radio shows, television shows, literature, music concerts, children and youth ministry, camps, cantatas, choirs, and altar guilds.  We have movement, but not motion.  We have movement like a treadmill whirrs around and around but gains no ground, no purchase, no traction, and no forward motion in the singular trajectory of Christ’s mandate.  We don’t need movement; we need motion.

So, this is our mandate.  These are our marching orders.  Whatever particulars we take; we must do this.    The four tubes in the chemical test kit determine the health and effectiveness of our spiritual spoil.  How are we doing?  It is the question of the hour.  Being, knowing, loving, and serving as disciple makers.  We must look 4” below the surface for an accurate analysis.  We might look healthy, but are we?  While we are healthy in love, I think we are anemic in disciple-making service.  But that is okay; there is time and our gardener is God.  We can still be productive even while God balances us out (not we ourselves).   May we be receptive to his plowing, his rearranging, and his long-term plans for a harvest of mature disciples who become mature disciplers.

Start with this: however you were made a disciple of Jesus, make yourself a catalyst through relationship for God to use to disciple another.  Whatever faith initiates, steer it toward intentional disciple making ministry.  Plow the ground you already have.  Obey the parts of God’s will you already know.  Move toward the directives that God has already revealed in Scripture—being, loving, knowing, and serving.