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Bread and wineMy wife and I like our son to eat food that’s nutritious and good for his development. We allow ice cream once in a while, but we know that giving our child a steady diet of junk food would be parental malpractice. He needs vegetables, vitamins, fruit, protein, complex carbs, and a reasonable dose of fat.

When he gets bored at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat the rest of his green beans, we encourage him to finish eating. We tell him that eating his food will help him to be big and strong like his daddy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean that you become green beans if you eat green beans. It means that eating healthful food empowers you to have a healthy body and a healthy life, while eating too much junk food empowers you to have a junky body with a junky life. This observation reminds me of another saying: “Input equals output.”

My congregation’s sermon this weekend comes from Romans 8, and in verses 1-11 we find a similar inside-outside connection.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

What goes into us shapes how we live. “You are what you eat.”

When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God transforms our lives. “Input equals output.”

The Spirit enters us in various ways.

We “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” when we believe the good news of Jesus and when we are baptized (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13).

The Holy Spirit enters people through the laying on of hands (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 19:6).

The Holy Spirit can enter people who are around others in whom the Spirit is working (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The Holy Spirit fills followers of Jesus when they speak (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 13:9) and when they are persecuted (13:50-52).

God gives the Holy Spirit to people who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Holy Spirit can even enter people before birth (Luke 1:15).

Beyond these ways, the Holy Spirit can operate in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable (John 3:8). As the hymnist William Cowper penned in the 18th century, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

I look forward to listening to tomorrow’s sermon on Romans 8. Before that sermon, I get to say a few comments to prepare the church for communion. As I get ready for that privilege, my meditation on verses 1-11 leads me to see communion as one way in which the Holy Spirits enters us and empowers us for life in God’s mission.

A long-held belief in Christianity is that Christ is somehow present with his followers in communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper). Although great thinkers in the history of the church have disagreed about exactly how this presence operates, many Christians have believed that in some way Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present when gathered communities of Christian faith consume the bread and cup, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating the hope of his return.

Through this process of remembering and celebrating, the Holy Spirit continually fills the body of Christ (the church) and empowers that community of Jesus-followers to carry out God’s mission of blessing the world.

When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we do more than eat crackers and drink wine or grape juice.

When we participate in this event, the Holy Spirit enters us yet again and strengthens us to live for God.

As a child, I experienced amazement when the bread and cup were served. When I looked at the people around me, I could tell that this practice was something special, something mystical. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the holiness of the moment drew me in.

I have not always experienced that amazement at communion. The Lord’s Supper has not always seemed special. I have not always noticed the mystery of the Eucharist.

So I pray for the ability to see the mysterious transformation that God is working through the Holy Spirit when followers of Jesus take the bread and cup together. Through the Spirit, the bread and cup become more than a snack and more than an ancient practice the meaning of which we’ve forgotten. They become a meaningful meal that fuels us for life.

When we eat the body of Christ together, the Spirit empowers us to be that body.

We are what we eat.

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Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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Who does the work of the church? Is ministry God’s work or our work?

The biblical book of Joshua can point us to an answer.

In that ancient story, God tells the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho once a day for six days with priests carrying horns and accompanied by a sacred box called the ark. On the seventh day, the Israelites are to march around Jericho seven times, and the priests are to blow the trumpets, and the people are to shout. They do all this, and the walls of Jericho fall, and the Israelite army is victorious.

That part of the story is in chapter 6. In chapter 8 we see a different approach. God tells the Israelites to set an ambush and attack the city of Ai. The Israelites practice some ancient but nonetheless impressive military strategy. One group hides. Another taunts Ai. When Ai responds, the taunting group retreats. Then the hiding group surpries Ai, and Israel gains the victory.

Chapter 6 doesn’t have any human strategy, but chapter 8 does. Sometimes God works with passive people, performing mighty deeds without much human contribution. At other times, God works with active people, performing mighty deeds through human effort.

How can Christians today know when to strategize in cooperating with God and when to let God accomplish the mission through us as passive pawns? This requires prayer, study, and discernment.

I cannot answer the question for every person, for every family, for every organization, or for every congregation. God works in different ways in different places and times and cities and cultures.

But spirituality involves strategy. Sometimes ministry happens without much input from us, and sometimes it happens with careful planning.

I have heard church leaders talk about the need for ministry strategy, and I’ve heard church leaders preach about avoiding strategy and letting the Holy Spirit lead the church. Both sides of the discussion have helpful things to say, but balance is needed. Relying on our own strategic skills to the neglect of the Spirit’s guidance is arrogant, perhaps even idolatrous. Refusing to strategize is negligent. Spirituality needs strategy, and strategy needs spirituality.

Is ministry God’s work or our work? Both. God works through us.

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pilgrimheart“I found a better way. It involves believing with our bodies, not against them” (Darryl Tippens).

Christian spirituality is not a “pie in the sky” kind of esoteric thought. It’s a way of life that happens in concrete ways in this time and on this planet. God didn’t sit in heaven and say, “Hey, you little peons down there! Climb up here so you can be spiritual. Leave the worthless world behind.”

Instead, biblical spirituality is deeply this-worldly. God was pleased with the creation in Genesis 1-2. Our bodies are to be an offering to God and  a temple of God’s Spirit (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). God even became a human, complete with a body (1 Timothy 3:16), and God plans to transform and preserve our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:12-57). God doesn’t despise our bodies or the rest of physical reality. God embraces the whole creation and is at work to renew it (Revelation 21:5). The spiritual-physical dichotomy is more Platonic than biblical.

Because the Spirit embraces the physical, spirituality is about more than our beliefs and thoughts; it’s about our actions. Our beliefs and our actions feed each other. What I do, feel, eat, lift, hear, say, touch, read — everything is spiritual. (Any similarity between the last three words of that sentence and a Rob Bell video is purely coincidental but not denied.)

When you cook, clean, write, read, carve, mow, build, and engage in other productive actions, you participate in the physical/spiritual life created by, embraced by, and experienced by God. Let those activities intensify your recognition of God’s presence and performance in this life.

Believing in God is how we live, what we do. It’s more than a mental thing; it’s a physical thing. Belief that’s limited to the mind is not real belief. Real belief is lived, and when it’s lived it grows. We believe “with our bodies.”

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For more on this, read the book Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life by Darryl Tippens (Leafwood, 2006). For slightly older insights, see Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

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“The church has left the building.” Yesterday we began a series of group discussions with that title. My preparation of the discussion guides is assisted by the work of John Grant. Here are a few reflections from yesterday’s conversation.

In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus leaves some parting words with his followers who are still expecting a restoration of their nation. In 1:8 we find these words: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NIV).

Instead of residing in a temple, God’s Spirit lives in God’s people and empowers them to be witnesses of Jesus (testifiers of his death and resurrection and life and teachings), not just in their current city but into the surrounding areas and even “to the ends of the earth.”

The kingdom of God into which followers of Jesus are called is more than a set of beliefs proclaimed from pulpits in church buildings. It is a way of life (both actions and words) that blesses the world far beyond the walls of worship places, beyond Sunday and into Monday through Saturday, beyond the sacred and into the secular.

How will you allow God’s Spirit to empower you to live out that kingdom way of life in your everyday contexts? Your home, your workplace, your neighborhood, your sports field, your grocery store can be holy grounds, contexts of the Holy Spirit’s moving through you into the world beyond church walls.

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It was my first month serving with Park Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis. As a new staff member and a new member of the neighborhood ministry committee, I sat at a table with several good people whose faces were still new to me.

One new friend suggested that we have a Friends Day in the coming year. The congregation had done a similar event annually but had stopped about a decade ago. After some discussion, the proposer solicited my opinion. I replied with something like this: “I think it’s a great idea. Since I’m new, I prefer not to be the organizer or the public voice for the event.” The committee penciled the Friends Day into the church calendar for April 21.

You guessed it. For several weeks leading up to Friends Day, I was praying, brainstorming, planning, organizing, and in other ways juggling previously unexplored chaos. What should Friends Day be? What should it do? What tasks need to be done? Who should do them? These and other questions claimed much of my attention and had numerous possible answers.

Friends Day for us became a day to focus on our calling as Jesus-followers to love the world. On Friends Day, the emphasis of that calling narrowed to our immediate surroundings, giving us opportunities to extend love to our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. We welcomed all guests and especially encouraged Park people to invite friends not already plugged into any faith communities.

Friends came. They came to the Bible classes. They came to the reception. They came to the worship gathering. They came to the lunch. We glorified God, and we reminded each other of the love God shows us and calls us to live out in our relationships across every line our society assumes.

The planning process intimidated me, but friends joined me as teammates, and our collaboration brought diverse people together in the name of Christ. Every aspect of the special day, from the sermon to the pasta, involved God-and-neighbor-loving teamwork (Mark 12:28-34).

Park, I’m blessed to serve with you!

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