“THE HEART OF THE MATTER”

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OCTOBER 7th, 2018                                                                         PASTOR DON PIEPER

MAIL FROM JAIL                                                                          EPHESIANS 2:19-3:7; 8-21

 

                                    “THE HEART OF THE MATTER

 

            We've been reading from the Apostle Paul's inspired letters to the early church, written while in chains in Rome to those being cut loose, these words, written in ancient Greek, a dead language, are alive in their timeless relevancy.  Still, should we even be reading them?  Isn't there a law against opening other people's mail?  We could get in trouble – kinda like my young Calvin friend...

 

Susie:             Calvin!  Pass this note to Jessica.    It's a secret note.  So don't read it. 

Calvin:                        (smiles malevolently, reads...:) Calvin, you stinkhead, I told you not to read this. Susie.

                                                                                                            (The Essential..., p. 43)

            I told you you could get in trouble!  Yet, like Susie's note, Paul seeks to impart secrets as well – what he calls, God's Mysterious Plan. But Paul's letter, unlike Susie's note, is not meant for an audience of one, but many.  In fact Paul's letters, including this one written to the church in Ephesus, were meant to be shared – to be passed from one church to another. 

 

            And at the heart of this letter, both in terms of its literary location but in terms of its significance – Paul offers a glimpse of the very heart of God!  “Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit,” Paul declares, “because of what Christ has done for us.”  (Ephesians 2:18)

 

            All of us, meaning Jew and Gentile!  God has broken down walls of hostility so that sinners of all shape and manner may be saved.  This is God's mysterious plan, in the hopes that all may be saved – that all of us can come to the Father.  And the safety net God has thrown us is that of His own son...

 

            “Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God's presence.”  (Ephesians 3:12)  This was the mysterious plan that God the Creator of all things had kept secret from the beginning.  God's purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom …”   (Ephesians 3:9-10)   That is, as the church is Christ's hospital for sinners, it displays God's grace and goodness by revealing the kind of people God loves – all of us!   And Paul's prayer reveals God means for us to both understand …, as well as experience, His reckless love for us. 

 

            But comprehension is not so easy. Paul concedes that we will never fully comprehend it. (3:19) That's not too surprising.  We struggle to comprehend love in general: She loves me; she loves me not...   

           

            It brings to mind the husband who decided to honor his wife for her birthday.  When he asked what she'd like for her birthday, she answered, “I'd like to be sixteen again.”  Right! 

            The next day he whisked her off to a nearby amusement park where they did the whoop-to-whoop, the triple-decker ferris wheel, and the tower of fear roller coaster.  He bought her cotton candy and pizza and then took her out to the movies and watched the most recent Star Wars movie.

            When they arrived at home she collapsed on the bed.  'what was it like to be 16 again,' he asked. 

She opened an eye and glared at him, “I was talking about my dress size, you idiot!”

            So you see, even if he is listening, he may still not get it right. He may still not comprehend... 

                                                                         

            If we can't comprehend the mindset or the heart of those we can see, how can we hope to ever comprehend that of the Almighty?  Yet, even so, Paul prays that we may “have the power to under-stand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God's love for us really is.”  (Ephesians 3:18)

                                                                        -2-

            Why does Paul bother to pray this if no one will ever fully understand it?  Because the ability to comprehend is a gift.  It comes thru a power that is beyond us, the power of the Holy Spirit.  That's why Paul prays not only for an understanding but for an experience: “May you experience the love of Christ, then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”  (Eph.3:19)

 

            But if God's love is so deep, wide, long and high – what keeps us from experiencing his love all the time, 24/7?   Three things get in the way: 1) We devalue ourselves; 2) We inflate our selves; and 3) We distract ourselves. 

            Many of us devalue ourselves.  We become convinced that God could never really love us.  Usually this is because we've come to believe a lie about us, or God, or both – a lie, like, we're nothing

 

Charlie Brown:           I can't talk to that little red-haired girl because she's really something and I'm

            nothing.  If I were something and she were nothing, I could talk to her or if she were something

            and I were something, then I could talk to her... Or if she were nothing and I were nothing, then

            I also could talk to her..., but she's something and I'm nothing so I can't talk to her...”

Linus:              For a nothing, Charlie Brown, you're really something.  

                                                                                                (The Parables of Peanuts, p. 167-8)

            For those who devalue themselves, listening to lies about who they are or aren't, scripture offers some powerful truth to counter those lies such as you were created in the image of God, or,..., God so loves you that he sent his only son.   Or this one: “(You) are God's masterpiece.  He created you anew in Christ Jesus to do the good things He planned for you long ago.”  (Ephesians 2:10)  Those of us inclined to devalue ourselves would do well to keep morsels of such truth handy. 

 

            On the other hand, many go to the other extreme of inflating themselves, convincing themselves of themselves, that they don't need help from beyond.  As it says on a bumper-sticker I saw in town recently: “I couldn't have done it without me.”   Wow!  Really?  Some of us risk pulling a muscle patting ourselves on the back.  And our culture caters to that!  'You deserve a break today.' 

 

            You've heard how an American changes a light bulb, haven't you?  He or she just grabs on to the light bulb and waits for the world to revolve around them!  Pastor Erwin McManus speaks to this:

            “There's a difference between loving ourselves and being in love with ourselves.  When we're in love with ourselves we are prone to only listen to what we want to hear.  We want to feel good about ourselves more than we want ourselves to be good.  When we fill our lives with loving ourselves, we make no room to experience God's love for us.”  (Erwin McManus)   

            If we're to experience the love of God in all its power than we must simultaneously see our selves as prince and beggar.  In the words of Martin Buber: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other according to his needs.  In his right pocket are to be the words, 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left pocket; 'I am dust and ashes.'”   (Martin Buber)

 

            A third hindrance is that of our being distracted.  We touched on this last week...  One problem we have is that of being too busy.  Never in the history of the world have so many people tried to cram so many activities into a 24 hour day.  But truth is, we have no less time than our ancestors.  We're just more stretched.  As Bilbo Baggins put it …  “I feel like too little butter spread over too much toast...”

 

            Many of us can relate.  After all, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

                                                                                    (the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland)

                                                                        -3-

 

            But if we want to sense the presence of God, if we want to experience his love for us in all its fullness, then we must slow down...and still down.   It’s interesting to note that the majority of folks who share what they liked most about Alpha, tend to celebrate the moment we all got quiet …

 

            So how does that work?  How can you experience more of His love for you?  Paul's prayer points the way.  Among other things, he prays, “May Christ make his home in your hearts as you trust in him.”  (Eph 3:17)  It starts by our inviting him into the most intimate, private places of our lives, just as our homes are the most intimate private places....

 

            Ever visit someone who told you as you entered their home, “make yourself at home”?  Well, if anyone ever does, don't believe them!  They don't mean it!  And neither do you!   We don't really want them to make themselves at home!  What would that look like?  They'd help themselves to your food, eat up your favorite snacks, sit in your favorite recliner, hog the TV, leave their smelly socks in the living room, brush their teeth with your toothbrush, and sing in the shower – loudly and off-key!

 

            They'd move in and never move out!  And Jesus, he'd see what you eat, how much you drink, how you talk to your spouse when your tired!  He'd see what you spend your money on, what kind of movies you watch, your closet skeletons, and your colorful underwear!  And that's just your home – Paul is saying we should make him at home in our hearts!  That means he's also going to be privy to what you think about, what you dream and fantasize about, what you fear and your buried pain.  He knows all that already and still wants to come in and make himself at home amidst your dirty laundry.  

            Paul's saying, the one who loves you like no other, wants to come in …   His plan is to share his heart with you – his heart for you – and how he can help make the best you!  Will you let him in?

 

            Second, Paul prays that your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong.  (Eph 3:17)  We sink our roots into God's love by rooting our day to day lives in his Word.  Paul's metaphor echoes back to the very first psalm: “Those who delight in the word of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season.”  (Psalm 1:2-3)  

 

            By spending time in the Word we come to understand and appreciate the heart and mind of God.  We come to recognize his voice, his still, quiet and beautiful voice.  I'm not sure when but some where along the way of twenty-five years of marriage I came to recognize Claudia's voice.  I can pick out her voice in a crowded room.  She could remain hidden to me by being silent but as soon as she begins to talk and laugh my Claudia antennae can pick her out anywhere. 

            So it is with Jesus – or so it should be.  If we spend enough time with him, if he's at home in our home and in our hearts, he will speak life and truth and love into our lives, and we'll recognize him!  

                                                                       

            Finally, Paul prays for his friends to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that “God will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit..., so that you may experience the love of Christ..., and so that you will be filled with the fullness of life and power from God.”  (Ephesians 3:16, 19)

           

            That is God's heart, to empower you with His Spirit as you experience Christ's love for you.  It's

a life-changer!  Paul says that with the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, “we're able to accomplish infinitely more than we might even think or ask for!”   (Ephesians 3:20)

            That means whenever we gather together we should expect amazing things to happen!  God has made us a force to be reckoned with, praying prayers that make Satan tremble, as God's reckless love fills us and flows through us to those around us, especially those who are desperate to be so loved! 

                                                                        -4- 

 

            I've experienced that love at worship, and when Alpha friends prayed for me at HTB, and during a fast once, and when some of you prayed for me but most consistently God's reckless love has filled me as I am given the chance to pray for others.  I think that's how it’s supposed to work.  We receive so we can give it away.  It grows as it’s shared. 

            So how about you?  Can you comprehend how much God loves you?  Would you like to...?

 

            Let me/us pray over you. Let's pray: “I pray now that from God's glorious unlimited resources He will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit.  I pray that Christ will fully make his home in your heart(s) as you increasingly trust in him.  May your roots grow down into God's love and keep you strong.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his (reckless) love for you is.  May you experience the love of Christ though it is too great to understand fully.  (And as He fills you with His Spirit), may you be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

 

            Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accom-plish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus though all generations, forever and ever!  Amen!”                               (Ephesians 3:16-21)

“GOD'S MYSTERIOUS PLAN”

SEPTEMBER 30th, 2018                                                                              PASTOR DON PIEPER

“Mail From Jail”                                                                                           Ephesians 1:1-11; 12-23

 

                                    “GOD'S  MYSTERIOUS PLAN

 

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            Confined to house arrest, chained to a Roman guard, Paul dictates letters to churches far and wide across the Roman empire.   We read Colossians, now we turn to Ephesians, and I must admit, I'm so excited.  It's probably my favorite letter, although Romans and Corinthians are right in there as well.

 

            But Ephesians is so rich, and Paul's love for this church goes so deep.  He was there for three years - longer than any other church he planted.  Located on the southwestern shore of Asia, Ephesus is due east of Athens from across the Aegean Sea, and in Paul's day, by far the more prominent city.  It was such a blend of peoples and cultures....and religions.  As in our day, there was a tendency to blend practices and teachings from that blend.  Paul's letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are no simple greetings – but corrections and clarifications about the identity and mission of Christ. 

 

            When I was in seminary, I read a commentary in which Ephesians was referred to as  “Paul's mysterious letter”.  What, you may inquire, is a mysterious letter?  Well..., Calvin got one once....

           

Calvin :           Look, Hobbes, I got a mysterious letter!  The return address is a skull with x-ed out

                        eyes!  It was a local postmark, though.  So I must know the person.  

Hobbes:           Oh Boy, intrigue!   

Calvin:                        But who would send me an anonymous letter like this?

Hobbes:           Maybe a Girl! 

Calvin:            GAAA!!  Doesn't the post office screen anything?!

Hobbes:           I'll get you some gloves!                                                                                                                                                                                 (It's..., p. 135)

            Calvin is such a cool cucumber, isn't he?  So, that's not the kind of mysterious letter we're talkin' about. Paul's letter is not anonymous, for one thing.  He makes it quite clear who the author of the letter is: “This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus...”  (Eph 1:1)

 

            I'm sorry to say but there's no skull with x-ed out eyes, either.  But make no mistake, Ephesians is a mysterious letter.  At least it has a number of mystery elements.  For one thing, no church since the one in Jerusalem was more clearly launched by a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit than the one in Ephesus.  Remember that?  We read about it back in May.  Luke, Paul's traveling buddy, writes:

 

            “Paul traveled through the interior regions (of Asia) until he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' he asked them.

            'No,' they replied.  'We haven't even heard that there is a Holy Spirit...' Then, when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in other languages and prophesied.                                                                                                                    (Acts 19:1-2, 6-7)   

            Sounds pretty mysterious to me!  There's also the mystery surrounding the letter's authorship.  Some scholars have questioned whether Paul is the author since the literary syntax of the letter is different than Paul's other letters.  Those questions have lent the letter a modern mystery bent. 

 

            I must say, though, to question the letter's authorship because of a shift in literary style is a pretty weak argument.  The shift could be explained in a number of other ways, such as the fact that Paul dictated his letters, and we know that the person doing the scribe work was ever changing.  Paul could well also deliberately change the style based on the purpose and audience of the letter. (Romans!)

                                                                        -2-

 

            The letter is also mysterious in its unusual parallel to Colossians.  Many themes are found in both: “God chose you to be the holy people he loves.”  (Colossians 3:12) And, “Even before He made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy...”  (Ephesians 1:4)  There's a lot of that...

 

            But of all its mysterious qualities the one which is by far the most profound, timeless, and elo-quent, is that of Paul revisiting the Colossian theme of God's mysterious plan.  “This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to His people.”

                                                                                                                        (Colossians 1:25-26)

            And to the Ephesians: “God has now revealed to us His mysterious will regarding Christ – which is to fulfill His own good plan.”  (Ephesians 1:9)  That plan, as Paul unpacks it, has a number of facets to it.  The first is the simple, good news that God has a plan!  When life feels out of control, one begins to wonder.  After all, our own plans are not always.....so good...or end so well...

            [DVD clip from Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail;                                   ]     

 

            In contrast to our plans, God has a good plan: “God decided in advance to adopt us into His own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what He wanted to do and it gave Him great pleasure!”  (Ephesians 1:5)  So God's mysterious plan is mysterious in part because God decided in advance – even before he made the world – to adopt you.   God sure has had his eye on you! 

 

            I love how Paul articulates that.  It's not that Jesus was forced to go to the cross or that the Father reluctantly let him go.  Christ humbled himself and laid himself out for and to you – with great pleasure – so eager is God in his great love for you to adopt you as his very own, and draw you close!

 

             Having established that, Paul writes: “And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ – everything in heaven and on earth.”  (Eph 1:10)

           

            Well, that's certainly good news!  But on the other hand – isn't that kinda cheatin'?   You know, giving things away?  It's like all those intellectuals out there – and yes, you know who you are – those bookworms in our midst, folks who like to curl up to a good book, and get all caught up in the intrigue and mystery of the story – but not before opening the book to the final pages to see how it all ends...! 

 

            You know who you are?  I'm married to one of you book-wormy types!  Isn't that what Paul is doing here?  Yeah, well, actually it is!  And I'm actually totally alright with that.  He's saying that by choosing to follow Jesus we follow the one who's ultimately going to be in charge – fully in charge.

 

            Not only that but look at what kind of person will ultimately be running the place: “He's to be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His government and its peace will never end.  He will rule with fairness and justice...for all eternity.”  (Isaiah 9:6-7)

            God's plan?  He's putting Jesus in charge – up there as well as done here – at just the right time! 

                                                                         

            But that's not all!  “Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for He chose us in advance...”  (Ephesians 1:11)

            There's that bit about being chosen again – and chosen in advance!   I sometimes wonder, tho', if God's eyesight isn't so good.  I mean think about some of the yo-yo's he's chosen over the years: a coward, a thief, a murderer, an adulterer, a traitor, and so on and so on.  Paul even points to it in these letters: “You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world...  All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature.”  (Ephesians 2:2-3) 

                                                                       

-3-

 

            And yet, he chose us.  Obviously not because of what awesome people we are, that's clear.  Something else compelled him, but before spelling that out, Paul adds this: “And he makes everything work out according to his plan.”  (Ephesians 1:11)  Uh-oh, he's opening up the end of the book again!

 

            It reminds me of Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist.  Do you know it?  It's the story of boy who is left as a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage where he is raised in an abusive environment in London's inner city.  Eventually he manages to escape and winds up being taken in by a street urchin and his Sugardaddy overlord, Finney, who enlists orphans as his army of pick-pockets.  Oliver has more than one brush with the law and with death before being discovered by a kind, affluent couple from the burbs.  The story ends with Oliver being adopted as their lawful son. 

 

            In a sense that's our story and Paul is pointing to the final chapter.  Life may throw you a few hurdles, you may find yourself in a situation you wish you could escape, you may feel like you're proverbial pockets have been picked, but in the end, Paul says, you'll be welcomed home, chosen by the head of the household to be his adopted son or daughter, and heir to the estate. 

 

            But there's more!  Paul continues with this: “God's purpose was ...to identify you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago.”  (Ephesians 1:13)  We wondered a moment ago what compelled God to choose the likes of us – His deep desire to claim you and you him...!

 

            Not only that but Paul makes it clear here that part of God's plan from long ago was to give you the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by which Jesus healed the lame and raised the dead, the same Spirit by which the prophets of old prophesied about ways God would make good on His promises.  For “The Spirit is God's guarantee that He will give us the inheritance He promised and that He has purchased us to be His own people.”  (Ephesians 1:14) 

           

            Remember, Paul is writing to this community of believers who, when he laid his hands on them, were powerfully filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues and prophesied, proving that God was making good on his promises and that Christ's kingdom was breaking loose among and thru them. 

 

            God is still making good on those promises – even now...  Some of my favorite moments in ministry here have been moments at Alpha retreats or Sunday worship in which folks experienced a life-changing encounter with God as they were filled with his Spirit, of old lies being exposed and truth bringing freedom, of a guest having his ears healed, another of his back being straightened, of a women healed of lupus, of Josh's health miraculously restored, of a quarreling couple reconciled, but most of all – of person after person, including myself, having our world rocked as God shared his love for me!   

 

            That reality would prompt one more facet of God's mysterious plan: “God did this so we would praise and glorify him.”  (Ephesians 1:14)  When we do we get caught up in a holy dance that has also been going from long ago – that of the Father glorifying the son, who delights in the Spirit, who points to the Father by glorifying the Son, and around and around this cosmic circle of loving fellowship goes.

 

            As it always has and always will.  And we are called, no chosen, to get all caught up in it our selves, because in doing so, in seeking out God and experiencing his love for us we come to sense the very purpose for which we live and breathe and have meaning.  So it is that Paul moves from sharing God's mysterious plan to praying over his friends that they may get it – really get it - how much they're loved!  That's my longing for you as well.  So as we did with his Colossian prayer I'd like to pray his Ephesian prayer over you now.  If you would close your eyes..., relax, and receive...

“LIVING A NEW LIFE”

SEPTEMBER 23rd, 2018                                                                        PASTOR DON PIEPER

“Mail From Jail”                                                                                     Colossian 3:1-11;12-7;4:2-6

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                                                “LIVING A NEW LIFE

 

            Our series, “Walking in Paul's Footprints”, ended as Paul arrived in Rome, where he was placed under house-arrest, to await his trial with Caesar.  While he waited, he wrote numerous letters to the churches in Asia and Europe.  Why so? Well, why does anyone write a letter?  Consider Calvin, for eg.

 

Calvin:                        As a genius, it's important that I write a lot of letters.  After all, my correspondence will

                        be the basic resource material for historians to reconstruct my life.  My writing will

                        provide countless fascinating insights for biographers. 

Hobbes:           Such as how all your salutations begin, “Hey Boogerbrain”?  

Calvin:                        It's been three weeks and I still haven't received my x-ray glasses!

                                                                                                (It's A Magical World, p. 135)

            Okay, that’s probably not one of the reasons Paul wrote all those letters.  One of the first letters he wrote, apparently, was his letter to the church in Collosae in Asia Minor.  In his opening chapter, as we saw last week, Paul provides four reasons for his writing them: 1) To connect; 2) to correct; 3) to encourage them to live changed lives and 4) to elevate them by lifting them up in prayer. 

 

            Now, in chapter three, he returns to the subject of living changed lives to clarify what he means: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God's right hand.  Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.  For you died to this life and your new life is in Christ.”     (Colossians 3:1-3)

                                                                                                           

            Paul begins by reminding them that these new lives, lives that are free of guilt, fear and shame, are the result of something that has been done for us – not by us: Since you have been raised to new life...!  It's a done deal – its past tense.  And you are the passive noun in that sentence.  Jesus the active. 

 

            So how does that work?  Personal change doesn't come easy.  Even if we get off to a good start, many of us have a tendency to backslide into old ways.  If we're not careful, if we don't make a clean break with old behaviors and relationships, temptations will quickly surface to lull us back in.  Not only that, but if we're honest, we'd have to admit how easily distracted we can be. 

            It's kind of like a certain canine that appeared in film a few years back...

            [DVD clip from the film, “Up”;                                                          ]

 

            It's so hard to stay focused when there are squirrels around.  So what's your squirrel look like?  How can you live the new life Christ offers without getting distracted and losing your way?

            In the context and the teaching text of Colossians 3, Paul provides several helpful insights.  For one thing, we learn from the context that the Christians in Colossae, had struggles with squirrels too.  “Put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you...”   (Colossians 3:5) 

                                                                         

            How does Paul know this?  After all, as we learned last week, he's never been to Collosae.  He's never met the people in this church.  How does he know that sinful earthly things are lurking within them? Well, because they lurk within all of us – believers and nonbelievers alike.  “Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed or idolatry...”  (Col 3:5) 

 

            And then he makes a telling statement: “You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world.  But now is the time to get rid (of such thoughts and actions).”  (Col 3:7)

                                                                        -2-

 

            Apparently, Paul had been informed about the kinds of lives they used to live.  That is to say, that among the Christians in Collosae there are many who were already living changed lives, or at least had been, but some are now getting distracted by false teaching, for one thing, and are backsliding.  We are all prone to distraction...  Even in Paul's own entourage there is such a one. 

 

            In the conclusion to his letter, Paul mentions a number of partners in the gospel that are with him as he writes.  It's like a roster of all-stars from the early church.  He mentions Luke the doctor who traveled with Paul and authored a gospel and the Book of Acts.  There's Barnabas, Paul's partner on his first mission trip; Mark, Barnabas' cousin & traveling buddy; Tychicus, a changed man and dear friend; Epaphras, the Colossian whose life was changed by Paul's witness during his third missionary trip; Aristarchus, a suave traveling buddy who visited us a couple of weeks ago; Onesimus, a slave who will reappear in Paul's letter to Philemon and then there's a fellow by the name of Demas. 

 

            The mention of Demas is significant in light of Paul's teaching here in Colossians.  By the time Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, Demas had seriously backslid.  As Paul later writes: “Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica.”                                                                                                                                               (2 Timothy 4:10)

            Apparently there were some squirrels in Thessalonica that caught Demas' eye.  The point being, that Paul could speak with authority on this subject as he knew firsthand of those who struggled to continue to live the new life Christ had called them into. 

 

            So it is that Paul writes to encourage those in Colossae to continue to live out this new life.  How so?  “Set your sights on the realities of heaven – think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.”  (Col 3:1-2)   In short, don't lose focus.  Feed your faith by focusing your mind on the things of God.  Be aware that the enemy is constantly trying to distract and dissuade you. 

 

            As Christians, we are disciples in training, but the problem is that there is so much in our day to day lives to distract and discourage us.  Consider Calvin's experience in the classroom...

Calvin:            I wonder how long it's been since I last looked at the clock.  Maybe it's been an hour. 

            Well, actually it's probably been only 40 minutes.  I guess half an hour to be safe... 

            20 Seconds?!?     It's going to be a very bad day. 

Teacher:          Calvin, sit up.                                                              (It's A Magical World, p. 134)

Calvin:            …..BORRRING!           Yeah, yeah....   Kill the messenger.

                                                                                                            (….Jungle Cat, p.88)

            We're so easily distracted.  No wonder Paul urges us to tune in to God's new, life-giving frequency.  It's like slipping into a new set of clothes, Paul suggests.  “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him...  Clothe yourselves with grace, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience..., and above all, clothe yourselves with love...” 

                                                                                                            (Colossians 3:10, 12, 14)

            This is the attitude and actions of Jesus himself.  Paul is saying that this new life we are called to live is like getting dressed up in Christ on a daily basis.   But in order for us to look like Christ we need to hang out with Christ, learn from him thru his word, let him give us new desires, attitudes and aspirations, by letting him rule us from the inside out, guiding our human spirit with his Holy Spirit.   

 

            Another insight Paul provides for those who embrace Christ is the importance of learning from others who are also in Christ.  Paul writes: “Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives.  Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom He gives.”       (Colossians 3:16) 

                                                                        -3-

 

            This past summer Melanie, did an internship in Germany working for a company that makes bi-cycles for people with special needs. At one point she told us how happy she was to have greasy hands.  I was like, “okay, that's.....wonderful! You go girl!”   And it was!  She learned from others, contributed to a cause greater than her self and connected with the boss.  For similar reasons, Christ gave us the church.  With all of its many imperfections it provides an op for us to learn from others, contribute to Christ's cause and connect with the boss – inviting others to join in on life's greatest adventure! 

 

            Paul follows that insight with yet another: that of developing an attitude of gratitude!  “Live in peace and always be thankful...  Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.  And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks thru him to God the Father...  Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart.”

                                                                                                            (Colossians 3:15-17; 4:2)

            Over and over again, Paul repeats it.  Always be thankful.  Scary and painful circumstances will come your way but such things as loss and grief do not change the character of God.  Even hard-ship and failure can be used by God to further his kingdom and draw us closer to Him. 

 

            In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of her experience being imprisoned at Ravensbruck concentration camp with her sister, Betsie, during WW II.  There they lived in deplorable conditions – lice, dysentery and brutality from the guards were the norm, yet Betsie ended each day giving thanks for it all.  Corrie protested that she couldn't give thanks for everything – not for the sadistic guards or the torment of lice infested beds, but Betsie persisted.  Only later did they find out that the reason the guards did not interrupt their weekend worship services, or punish them for having them as they were strictly forbidden, was because the guards were afraid of the lice. 

 

            An attitude of gratitude not only reflects that of Jesus but opens our hearts and minds to the peace of Christ which surpasses all human understanding.  An attitude of gratitude guards our hearts from the devices of the enemy to discourage and deceive us.  Paul's remedy?  Always be thankful. 

 

            Finally, Paul offers fresh perspective: “God chose you to be the holy people he loves...”  (Colossians 3:12)  God chose you!  He wants you on his team.  I recall what that was like as a kid.  I was not the best athlete so I was often chosen last...  But once, David, a kid from church, chose me second.  When the other kid complained David defended me.   'No – he's good!  Don's super quick!' 

                                                                         

            What a feeling to be chosen because the captain sees something in you.  So it is with God and you.  He sees something in you even you probably don't see.  God chose you – and he chose you to be one of his holy people.  Holy does not mean perfect, it means set apart, distinct.  What's more he has chosen you – not because you're super quick..., but simply because he loves you because he loves you! 

 

            You're holy, set apart, to look and behave differently than the world around you.  The difference being is that you have Christ's Spirit coaching and helping you along!  So it is that he offers to help you discard the soiled garments of your past – the part of you that was consumed with self-indulgence and to live in a radically distinct way – holy, as if God is indwelling you...!

            The concept is dramatized in the opening scene in musical, Godspell

            [DVD clip from the film, Godspell;                                                    ]

 

            That's who we're called to be – shedding our old lives in order to get dressed in a whole new way – clothed in the tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience of Jesus himself. 

                                                                        -4-

 

            My friends, “God chose you to be the holy people he loves...so that whatever you do or say, you do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.  So then, make the most of every opportunity...so that you will have the right response for everyone.” 

                                                                                                            (Colossians 3:12,17; 4:5-6)

 

 

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  “WHATTA YA GONNA DO?”

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SEPTEMBER 16th, 2018                                                                              PASTOR DON PIEPER

“Mail From Jail”                                                                                           Colossians 1:1-14; 15-23

 

                                    “WHATTA YA GONNA DO?

 

            (look up and around as if just noticing everyone...)

            So whatta ya gonna do?   It's awkward at best!   I mean think about it – there you are, chained to this crazy dude from Tar-pit, wherever that is!  They put him on house arrest as soon as he arrived in Rome and assigned you to be his guard!  So just like that, you and this Jew are like you're own little chain gang!  I mean, what's with that?   You didn't sign up for this, am I right? 

 

            You're thinking, what did I ever do to deserve this?   I mean this guy shows up off the boat –  half-starved, ship-wrecked, unshaven, unkempt, unshowered and ugly as sin and you're supposed to stay linked up with him?  Yikes!  What did I ever do, you wonder, to warrant this? 

 

            So, whatta ya gonna do?  And mean there you are, chained to the prisoner in question, this traveling wilbury, this nut from Tar-put...         (Voice from congregation): It's Paul – from Tarsus! 

 

            Uh-huh!   Anyway, day after day, this Paul fellow, a reformed pharisee, or so I'm told, starts dictating letters.  That makes sense.  I mean what else is there to do, when you're under house arrest, other than entertain guests?  And he does entertain guests.  Lots of guests.  It's like grand-central station over there!   You know what I'm saying?   It's crazy. 

 

            You recall that one guest, Epaphras, I think was his name, came to visit this guy from Tar-pit...

            It's Tarsus!

            Whatever – and this guy, Epaphras, hugs the prisoner like they're long lost pals, and then tells  him about some church he's helped plant in his home town of Collosae.  It's a city over in Asia Minor near where the prisoner passed through on his third missionary trip, apparently. 

 

            Anyway, Epaphras informs the prisoner that things had been going well until just recently. Now everything is getting confused, he says.   The prisoner was captivated, so to speak.  He urged his friend, his scribe, Timothy, to grab quill and ink to dictate a letter. 

 

            Now normally you'd be all in favor of prisoners writing letters.  It helps distract them from the certain doom that awaits.  With most prisoners, that would give you a chance to relax but not with this prisoner.  When he dictated letters he paced like a race-horse.  Back and forth he'd pace, and being chained by the wrist, you're going with him, stride for stride, you see what I'm saying?  And I'm telling you, that when he paced, that guy from Tar-pit really raced...! 

            It's Tarsus!

 

            Yeah – right!   So whatta ya gonna do!  You're going to pace back and forth too!  Criminay!  So you let out some slack in the chain and as he starts to dictate this letter he tells Timothy to address them as his faithful brethren – which basically means he's calling them his brothers and sisters.  And you think, okay, he's dictating to his family but then as he gets going you realize that he's writing to a place he's never been, to a group of people he's never met!   

 

            “We are writing to God's holy people in the city of Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters in Christ...., for we have heard of your faith..., (how) you learned about the Good News from Epaphras, our beloved co-worker...   He has told us about your love for others...”  (Col 1:2,4,7-8)

                                                                        -2-

 

            He's dictating a personal letter to city of strangers – like they're his own brothers and sisters!  So back and forth you go – oh, that annoying pacing – and you realize that this is no ordinary letter!  His response is both eloquent and profound.  Only in retrospect do you realize what you were privy to...! 

                                                                         

            At the time, you can't help but wonder why he writes such a letter to complete strangers.  But now...?  You can see it, can't you?  As you consider it, you can see that here in the opening to this letter to his foreign family, Paul unpacks four reasons for his writing this inspired letter...

            First, to connect; second, to correct; third to encourage; and fourth to elevate.  Check it out...!

 

            Paul, the prisoner from Tar-pit....       (same voice: It’s Tarsus!)   You seem awfully sure of that! 

Yes, him, Paul writes this letter to connect.   Epaphras pleads with Paul to reach out and connect with his friends back home in Collosae.  They need your help, he says.  They're sinking into confusion. 

 

            It reminds me of the German coastguard who is handed a pair of headphones his first day on the job, knowing that he is the voice of connection with those in trouble at sea....

            [run YouTube video, the Berlitz commercial, “What Are You Sinking About?”]

 

            So what are you sinking about?  Fortunately, as one of God's rescue workers, Paul is a bit more skilled..., and he knows the value of good communication.  So he writes to connect.  He refers to their mutual friend, Epaphras and of their common faith in Jesus Christ.  His opening words establish his credentials, if you will.  He informs them of his apostolic authority: “This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from Timothy...”            (Colossians 1:1)

                                                                                                                       

            They know and trust Epaphras, a follower of Christ who came to faith thru Paul's ministry, and by that connection Paul establishes his authority and the means by which they can trust him, like a skilled coast guard, to navigate and shepherd them to safe harbor. 

 

            So what danger are they in?  It would seem that Epaphras has brought word that there is some confusion in Collosae and that they could use some advice.  Reminds me of my young friend, Calvin...

 

Calvin:            I think our newspaper needs a new advice columnist, so I'm applying for the job. 

            See, I've written some sample answers to people who write in.

Hobbes:           “Stop whining and get a life, Bozo.”     “Don't tell ME your stupid problems.  I've got

            plenty of my own.”    “Go soak your head, you big baby.”   Want some advice?  Drop dead.”

            I guess that covers about everything. 

Calvin:            Can you imagine doing this for Money?  What a racket! 

                                                                                                            (from The Days..., p. 53)

            What a racket, is right!  Thankfully, the advice Paul offers is a bit more sound.  That brings us to the second reason Paul writes – to correct.  He writes, in part, to clarify their confusion.  Apparently, they are some in Collosae who are teaching an alternative and false gospel.  Evidence, from within the letter, reveal that he writes to confront an early form of syncretism and gnosticism.  

           

            Syncretism combined ideas from various philosophies and religions to make a watered down version of the Christian faith.  There's a rise of such thinking today as well.  Whatever works for you, is the litany of this way of thinking.  In Paul's day this led to the development of gnosticism.  Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge wherein it was believed that the goal of life was to accumulate 'secret knowledge' of the cosmos, a belief in which no savior was needed because we can all become gods... 

                                                                        -3-

 

            So it is that Paul prays, “We ask God to give you complete knowledge of His will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding..., growing as you learn to know God better and better.”

                                                                                                            (Colossians 1:9-10)   

            In contrast to the gnostics, who say we compete for secret knowledge, Paul writes that complete knowledge is available to all, that God wants to be completely known as revealed in His Son, and thru that relationship comes true wisdom, by learning to know God, personally, experientially! 

 

            Colossians includes one of the only early Christian hymns, articulating the understanding of Christ as found in the opening to John's gospel: “In the beginning was the Word...” (John 1:1f)  For “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God...!”   In him, we come to know what is true & of God!

                                                                                                                        (Colossians 1:15)

            Knowing him, which is clearly a process, a relationship, as we learn to know God more and more, better and better, day by day, ultimately changes us in the most wonderful of ways.  This is the third reason Paul writes the Colossian Christians – to encourage them and to celebrate how they them-selves, are evidence of God's plan, his will, to reclaim the world, one changed life at a time. 

 

            As noted last week, Jesus was and is a come as you are kind of Savior!  He loves you exactly as you are – but loves you way too much to leave you that way, working from within, by the person and power of the Holy Spirit, to change us – to give us new longings for the things that bring life, to give us vision for living lives of deep meaning, lives reflecting the love and grace of God into others. 

 

            As Paul put it: “This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world.  It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God's wonderful grace...  (For) God made peace with...you who were once far away from God...  As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault (due to Christ's death on the cross)”.

            Whatta ya gonna do?!                                                                        (Colossians 1:6, 20-22) 

            That's a major change, at least for me, who was once far from God, and am prone to roam, to be made so holy and blameless, as to be able to come into God's presence.   Paul says this is what we have in common in Christ – that God sees us through his Jesus' filter and sees us as without a single fault.  That's a major change!   So you're faultless – not because you're so good – but because he is! 

 

            Realizing that God now sees you that way, wants to relate to you in that way, that you are guiltless because of his grace, his unconditional love and forgiveness, changes us!  If we get that we become major dispensers of God's love and grace to those around us.  That's a big change...! 

 

            That's one reason I love Alpha so much.  As people open up and share with one another and begin to pursue Christ with less and less baggage, they begin to change!  No wonder one of the classic Alpha books in print is a series of books called, Changed Lives!   We could write a book here based on our own testimony to the same.  Last week, Amy got up and shared of her and George's story. 

            Care to hear another?  How many of you know Pete and Rebekah's story...? 

 

            I love Colossians 1 because Paul writes it, in part, to celebrate changed lives.  In doing so, he seeks to encourage his siblings in faith.  And fourth, he writes to elevate their faith.  That is, he offers to pray over them and in putting that prayer to paper he has provided the church a model for a great prayer for us to pray over others, over one another, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  I'd like to close by doing so now.  I've asked a couple of others to join me as I do so.  So sit back....and receive....

                                                                        -4-

 

 

            “We ask God to give you complete knowledge of His will...,

            ...and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding.  

            And that the way you live will always honor and please the Lord...

 

            And as you live to please Him may your life produce every kind of good fruit...

            and in so doing, may you grow up with him, learning to know God better and better!

 

            We also pray that you will be strengthened with all God's glorious power

            so you will have the endurance and the patience you need! 

 

            May you, in turn, be filled with great joy, always thanking God the Father...,

            mindful that He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to His people,

            those who live in the light of his truth and grace. 

 

            May you always recall how he rescued you from the kingdom of darkness and transferred you into the Kingdom of His dear Son, who purchased your freedom and forgave your sins!” 

                                    (In Jesus' name.  Amen!)

                                                                                                            (Colossians 1:9-14)

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“WELCOMED HOME!”

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SEPTEMBER 9th, 2018                                                                                PASTOR DON PIEPER

“Mail From Jail”                                                                               Rom. 15:1-7/Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

 

                                                “WELCOMED HOME!

 

            Our travels with the apostle Paul ended last week upon his arrival in Rome, where he was put under house arrest.  From there Paul wrote a number of inspired, timeless letters which we'll begin in-vestigating together next week.  Thru these letters he sought to build up the church, such as he'd done in writing the church here in Rome.  In that letter Paul sought, among other things, to impress upon the young church who they were as followers of Christ - children of God, and heirs to Jesus' kingdom....

 

            As Paul put it to his future neighbors in Rome: “You received God's Spirit when He adopted you as His own children.  Now we call him, 'Abba, Father', for His Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children; and since we are His children, we are His heirs.”  (Romans 8:16)

 

            Where did Paul get this idea that we can call the Almighty....'Dad', and that we are his children and heirs to His kingdom? From Jesus of course...

 

            In his preface, Luke 15 observes that: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This so upset the Pharisees and teachers of religious law that they complain-ed that Jesus was associating with such sinful people – even eating with them!”  (Luke 15:1-2)

 

            These two verses reflect what Jesus was all about. Three things stand out: First, as his critics noted, Jesus was associating with notorious sinners.  He reached out to them, talked to them, ate with them, ministered to them, traveled with them – in short, he hung out with them.   He saw past the exterior of bravado, self-indulgence, broken relationships, lustful, angry, wounded attitudes and life styles and saw their desperate need…to know and experience God's unconditional love. 

 

Jesus met people where they’re at, loving them, radically as is. The need was so great that it moved Jesus to tears: “As Jesus saw the city he began to weep, saying, ‘How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace…, but it is hidden from your eyes.’ (Luke 19:41-2)

That’s the first thing that leaps off the pages - his approach: love the lost into the kingdom!

 

             The second thing, admittedly, makes me squirm. It was the religious community, those who knew Scripture inside and out, who prayed regularly and eloquently, who gave offerings of time and money back to God, who resisted and criticized Jesus’ sense of mission more than anyone else. 

 

            One time he accepted an invitation to eat with a notorious sinner named Matthew prompting further complaints, to which Jesus responded: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.  I've come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”                                                                                                                            (Matthew 9:12-13)

            The church then, should resemble the E.R.  So is its reputation more that of a members only club?  I read ofan episode of The Simpsons where Homer is asked why his neighbors sent their child to a Christian camp. Homer pauses then says: 'They sent him there to learn how to be judgmental.'  Ouch! 

 

            One of the things I love about Alpha is that it provides a safe environment for people to experi-ence a sense of belonging even before they come to believe. One such guest confided in me that church people weren't his kind of people. Later in our Alpha group he shared how his perspective had changed.  “It’s the first time…that folks in church seemed to accept me as I am, that I was listened to…”

                                                                        -2-

 

            In the words of John Burke: “What our world needs more than anything else is grace. Not more talk about grace – but grace that seeks out lost people like God does.  Grace with skin on it – because people are born to run from God without it.”       (John Burke’s No Perfect People Allowed)

 

            That’s what the story of the Prodigal Son is all about.  Here’s a young man who's been selfish, spiteful, indulgent and immoral.  His demand for his inheritance while his father is still alive is cold and arrogant, since as the younger son he's not entitled to any thing.  It's a slap in the face of this father and his brother.   But Jesus says that at one point he came to his senses.  Like an alcoholic he hit rock bottom and came to realize his desperate need for what he’d had at home all along - loving acceptance and a sense of belonging.  But before he gets there, Jesus notes, “While he was still a long way off his father saw him coming and ran to his son…, embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

           

            It’s one of my favorite verses. It conveys the heart of our heavenly Father.  I read of a pastor who shared this story with a friend he'd made from Israel, asking him what stood out for him about the story as one who grew up in a similar culture.  The man referred to that verse and said it was laughable – that no self-respecting adult male would run after someone in public.  To do so meant to lift up one's robe, like a woman wearing a dress, and run with his ankles and knees showing.  Such an act would be viewed as reckless and shameful, which is huge in a culture that values honor above all else. 

 

            Jesus told this story in such a culture to reveal the father's heart which is echoed repeatedly by Jesus as he identifies his sense of purpose and mission... *  I came that you might have life...  (I) came not to condemn the world but that it might be saved...; The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor..., that captives may be released, the blind to see and the oppressed set free...                        Jesus wants us to know that we are loved unconditionally – that the Father's love for us is as radical and shameless as that of the prodigal's father.

 

            So every time I’ve come to my senses I realize how far off I still am, not in some general way, but as God reveals to me in specific ways.  As this occurs I reawaken to the pig sty I choose over the loving arms and ways of my Heavenly Father.  And where else can I most readily experience that loving embrace if not in the arms of Christ, through the Body of Christ? 

 

            Jesus told that story to help those in the faith community catch his vision of what it means to be the hands and feet of God – hands that embrace the sinner as is and feet that go racing after him “while he’s still a long way off”!  That’s why the story ends with the Father talking to the Prodigal’s brother, the son who refused to welcome his brother home.  It ends with a cliffhanger as the Father invites the elder son, the more mature son, to join in on the welcoming home party, and we the audience are left to determine for ourselves whether or not he will participate in that party of grace… (Luke 15:20)

                                                                       

            That’s the third thing that grabbed my attention in Luke 15.  Jesus was redefining what it meant to trust in God and to be obedient to His will.  It was no longer about being religious…, about keeping the rules..., but about learning to trust in Jesus – and living for him!

 

            Luke notes, “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to Jesus.” (Luke 15:1)  But why him – why go to the son of a carpenter?  Why?  Because they knew that Jesus was a come as you are kind of guy – one who loved others as is, inviting them to discover a God who welcomes and loves us even while we’re still sinners, as the apostle Paul would later note. 

 

                                                                        -3-

 

            Most people assume they will not be accepted until they change, not by God and definitely not by church people.  That gives us a great opening, an awesome opportunity for us to be used by God to love people into his kingdom with gestures of reckless grace following the example of Jesus...

 

            But to create a culture of grace we must each rediscover for ourselves our own desperate need for grace. We must experience it in order to share it.  In turn, we must give up trying to fix people.  That’s not our job; that’s God’s job.  This doesn’t mean we never point out sinful, immoral behavior. Clearly there may come a moment when a brother or sister in Christ is wandering off the path and so in the spirit of Christ's love we gently seek to redirect them but for that to happen there needs to be trust...

and humility. “We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”   (Romans 3:23) 

 

            We cannot change anyone.  Such inner transformation requires the power of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that in Jesus’ story the prodigal son comes to his senses while still wallowing in the pig stye. His brother would've been happy to tell him...but it is his Father's love that brings him home!

 

            And look at the reception he receives: the best robe, a shiny ring..., new sandals, a fatted calf!  The father wanted to make absolutely sure his son knew that, in spite of it all, in spite of how he'd been treated and the stench of swine, a job, by the way, repulsive to a first-century Jew to whom pigs were viewed as being spiritually unclean, in spite of all that, the Father communicated in word and deed that his lost son now found, belonged!  Every word and gesture shouts: You matter to me; welcome home!

 

            Think of it this way: If you saw a Rembrandt covered in mud, you wouldn’t treat it like mud.  Your primary concern wouldn’t be the mud at all, tho' it would need to be removed.  You’d be ecstatic to have something so valuable in your care.  But if you tried to clean it up by yourself, you might dam-age it.  So you'd carefully bring this work of art to a master who could help you restore it to its original condition.  When people begin treating one another as God’s masterpiece waiting to be revealed, God’s grace grows in their lives and cleanses them – God's plan for both brothers!

 

            Dave Roever is a Viet Nam vet who spoke of his fears upon his return home. ‘I’d heard of how others were being treated. Looking back I’ve come to realize that the greatest fear I’ve ever known …is fear of rejection.  I watched as the wife of the man in the bed next to me walked in, took a look at him, and tossed her wedding ring at his feet... Then my young bride walked in and saw me lying there in a body cast.  She leaned over and softly said, “I love you Dave.”  And then she kissed me on my broken, chapped lips and said, “Welcome home!”’   (Dave Roever)

 

            That’s Jesus' vision, to race out to embrace the lost son, to welcome home the wounded and broken hearted, to focus not so much on the mud but on the masterpiece and to convey in no uncertain terms, You belong! Welcome home!  That’s our vision, to be a Come as you are refuge from the storms of life, no matter how self-induced they may be, to be the body of Christ in this place and time, loving and “Accepting each other just as Christ has accepted us…to the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)  

 

“IT MATTERS!”

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Sorry, No Audio This Week

September 2nd, 2018                                                                               PASTOR DON PIEPER

In Paul's Footprints                                                                                      ACTS 28:1-16; 17-31

 

                                                            “IT  MATTERS!

 

            For the past several months we've been walking in Paul's proverbial footprints – uh, Paul's foot-prints, learning from him as did his traveling buddies, like Barnabus & Silas, Priscilla & Aquilla, Timothy, Titus and Luke,  and Aristarchus, who was here last week. 

 

            Now his footprints lead us to Rome, by way of Syracuse, then Rhegium, on to Puteoli, a stop at Three Taverns, and on to Rome. Rome would be Paul's final destination, as directed by the Holy Spirit, who told Paul years earlier that nothing would prevent him from spreading the gospel there, right under Nero's nose - not the stones hurled at him by his adversaries, nor the chains of Roman captivity, nor a tempest at sea, nor the shipwreck that would follow, not even the bite of a poisonous snake! 

 

            “And so we came to Rome!” Luke repeatedly declares. (Acts 28:14,16)   Ah, Rome! The flavor of fine Italian cuisine, the aroma of freshly pressed flowers, the grandeur of the coliseum, the vista atop Palatine Hill!  Unfortunately, Paul has arrived in chains and won't be doing any sight-seeing any time soon, as he is under house arrest and dependent upon others to come to him. 

 

            So Paul comes up with Plan B.  Instead of visiting the local synagogue..., he invites the Jewish leaders over for some expresso, where he articulates the purpose for which he’s risked it all: “I asked you to come here today so we could get acquainted and so I could explain to you that I am bound with this chain because I believe that the hope of Israel – the Messiah – has already come.”                                                                                                                                                                   (Acts 28:20)

            Suddenly there’s a bit of confusion.  “Who is this guy?  What guy?   Paul of Tarsus.  Paul of who?  Have you heard any reports about this guy?  Not a one - never heard of him.  He’s one of them Jesus people.  Oh, that explains it.  Explains what?  The ball & chains – you know how they are!

 

He says that the hope of Israel has already come! Really? It’s about time our soccer team won the world cup!  No, no, no!  Not that hope of Israel.  He’s saying that the Messiah has shown up – as a Nazarene!  The messiah is a Nazarene?  Huh.  I must’ve missed that memo!  

 

            The Jewish leaders are a bit taken back by Paul’s words.  If God is on the move, if the Messiah has come...: Why weren’t we notified?   Where’s the proof?   It reminds me of an old classic...

            In the film, Oh, God!, a grocery store manager claims to be having conversations with God, in person, but the authorities demand proof and so in his defense God takes the stand…

            [Oh, God film clip: (scene 21) 1:23:45 – 1:25:11]

 

            The premise for the film, Oh God, raises a good question.  If God showed up and talked to you, how would you help others recognize him?   That was the challenge facing Paul.  He knew many would not accept what he had to say and he was right.  Luke records that “some were persuaded by the things he said, but others did not believe.”  (Acts 28:24)

                                                                                                                                                 

            His circumstances had at least one thing in common with our own.  Folks were suspicious of Christians.  Some saw them as trouble-makers.  In a climate of religious pluralism, in which many religions were represented in Roman cities, the Christian faith sounded extreme and exclusive.   If you have ever tried to share your faith or invite someone you probably have experienced similar resistance.  Many of our neighbors have very similar suspicions of Christians and the church.

                                                                                    -2-

 

            In a 1996 Barna survey of those outside the church 85% viewed Christianity favorably. In 2009, just 13 years later, only 16% did and only 3% of those surveyed wrote favorably of evangelicals.  In a recent issue of Christianity Today, a journalist interviewed people on the street and then wrote an article entitled, “Four Common Complaints About Christians”.  Do you know what they were?   

            1) You don't listen to me.  2) You judge me.  3) You don't practice what you preach.  4) You talk about what's wrong instead of helping make it right.  As comedian, Cathy Ladman, put it: “All religions are basicly the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays.”  (Cathy Ladman) 

           

            How did Paul manage to convince anyone of the gospel in such an environment?  In this final chapter of Acts we catch a glimpse of Paul's approach – an approach from which we can learn a lot. 

 

            Four things grabbed my attention.  First, was Paul's invitation to those in Rome to come to his house, where he sat chained to a Roman guard.  Talk about being vulnerable!  Those he invited into his new home we're not exactly seeing him at his best.  He was tranparent with them.  We'd do well to do the same.  Too often we try to impress those around us by presenting ourselves as having overcome all adversity due to our faith, or to have all the answers as if we've somehow arrived... 

 

            In the words of Phillip Yancey: “We Christians do not have all the answers.  We squabble and argue with the best of 'em.  I have found that it makes all the difference in the world whether I view my neighbor as some one that needs to be fixed or corrected or as someone whom God already loves.”

                                                                                                (from Phillip Yancey's Vanishing Grace)

            It's significant that Paul invited those in Rome to his home “so we could get acquanted”. (Acts 28:20).  In order to get acquanted with those around us we must be engaged listeners.  Learning to ask good questions and good followup questions is key in getting to know someone.  Paul sought to make friends of his new neighbors in Rome.  We'd do well to do likewise – not in order to convert them but because we could all use more trustworthy, transparent friends.  In doing so we embody grace...

 

            Secondly, Paul welcomed them. Luke writes,“For the next two years, Paul...welcomed all who visited him...”  (Luke 28:30)  This witnesses to the ministry of hospitality.   We partner in two ongoing ways in this ministry here – one, on Sunday mornings, and two, on Monday evenings at Alpha.  Those like Shawn make it easy for us here on Sunday.  The spread of goodies in the back makes it a fun, tasty place to practice hospitality – sharing a shrimp.., getting acquanted, introducing them to our friends...

                                                                                   

            Hospitality also involves reaching out to guests when they first show up, being careful not to overwhelm them – (let go of my hand!), but helping them to feel at home, maybe sitting with them... 

            Likewise, hospitality at Alpha involves humility & sensitivity.  It takes a great deal of courage for someone to show up for an evening of Alpha.  Whatever we can do to help put them at ease....     

           

            A third approach Paul took in Rome was that of addressing their source of hope.  In speaking about the Messiah – the hope of Israel – in the way he did, Paul spoke to a deep longing they shared.  As a Jew, Paul knew how deep this longing went.  In our situation, we are less inclined to know what a person's deep-rooted hopes are without getting to know them first.  

 

            That's why it is so vital to truly listen to one another, particularly those who don't share our faith or world view.  Sharing our hopes and dreams requires trust.  Sometimes they are expressed in terms of where we have been disappointed or hurt.  Other times, in terms of deep held longings.  It's one of the reasons I love being involved in Alpha because so many of our guests share those things... 

                                                                                    -3-

 

            Paul's fourth approach was how he articulated the gospel.  Paul “explained and testified about the Kingdom of God and tried to persuade them about Jesus from the Scriptures.”  (Acts 28:23)

 

            Paul talked about what Jesus talked about – how trusting in him brings God's kingdom to life.

Jesus told parables to help us grasp it.  He healed people to demonstrate it.  He taught us to pray so that we would long for it, and experience it: “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”                                                                                                                                                    (Matthew 6:10)  

Paul's ministry to Publius and his father was a manifestation of this reality.  When the Holy Spirit healed Publius' father it opened an opportunity to minister to scores of other residents of Malta: “As it happened, Publius' father was ill, so Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him.  Then all the other sick people on the island came and were healed.” 

                                                                                                                        (Acts 28:8-9) 

            Paul saw this life as a cosmic battleground, where Jesus came to free and heal those under attack.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.  Even though he was rejected by the majority of those who heard his message, Paul refused to give up.  He knew his days were limited and so he gave it everything he had.  Every opportunity to help advance Jesus’ kingdom matters!  “For the next two years, Paul lived in his own rented house.  He welcomed all who visited him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God with all boldness and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.  And no one tried to stop him.”                                                                                                                                                  (Acts 28:30-31)

            And then…?  I don’t know; it feels like there should be more.  He’s there for two years after all! Perhaps Luke’s abrupt ending was his way of urging the young church to continue the book – that there were still chapters yet to be added – chapters in which the story of Jesus’ kingdom continues to push back the realm of darkness…through the healing and awakening of God’s people. 

            It’s reminiscent of how Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings comes to a close… 

                        [* Lord of the Rings film clip: (scene 59) 3:10:50-3:11:25]

 

            I like that.  We all have parts to play in the kingdom Jesus came to bring to life.  There is so much yet of the story to be written/told.  As William Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage.”   The question is, how big a part are you willing to play? 

            Admittedly, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  There is so much hurt and dysfunction in the world, not to mention how hostile the world/Jefferson County has become to the Christian faith.  What difference can one person make?   What’s the point? 

 

            It’s like the man walking on a beach where millions of star fish have been stranded, dying in the hot sun.  As he walks along he notices a boy picking up a star fish and throwing it into the water.  The man scoffs at him, “What are you doing, boy?  There are millions of star fish out here?  What differ-ence do you think that will make?” The boy reached down and picking up another one he flung it out into the sea and shouted back, “I bet it made a difference to that one!”

 

            My friends, it matters.  It matters that Jesus came to give you life and to give your life meaning that surpasses the 9-5, you deserve a break today, kind of life the world is selling.  The gospel Paul shared showed in word and deed that you matter..., and you were called to make a difference!  

             It matters!  (Just ask....)

 

            “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches our thirst.” (Henri Nouwen)             The story is still unfolding – yours and theirs – what part will you play…?!

"Stormy Seas"

AUGUST 26th, 2018                                                                                      PASTOR DON PIEPER

In Paul's Footprints                                                                          ACTS 27:1-2a, 4-15,18-26; 27-44

 

                                                “STORMY SEAS

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            It's quite the story isn't it?  It's got adventure, danger, suspense, drama, the supernatural, the supra-nautical!   It's really something!  One author refers to it as “the greatest sea voyage story in the Bible and one of the best in all of Greek and Roman literature.”  (Gerhard Krodel)

 

            It's not the first time Paul has been rocked by a gail at sea.  In his letters to the church in Corinth Paul writes: “Three times I've been shipwrecked.  Once I even spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea!”  (2 Cor 11:25)  Strange that Luke doesn't take the time to tell us of those ordeals.  Still, Luke spends more time telling this story than any other story he tells of Paul in the Book of Acts.  Why is that, I wonder?  Well, one, as I said, is, its just a great story.  And two, there are some great insights for those of us who seek to know and follow Christ, especially when we, too, face stormy seas!

 

            In modern times, when there's a big story, reporters rush to the scene and try and get an exclusive interview with a first hand witness or two.  So I've managed to arrange an interview with an eye-witness to the events Luke describes in Acts 27.  So with no further adieu, would you please give a warm welcome to our guest..., Aristarchus of Thessalonica...!

 

 

Check Out a video of this : 

"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_JWENLPSZE"

 

Aristarchus:                 Thank you...!  Thank you, very much! 

Pastor Don:                Welcome!  Welcome Aristarchus!  I'm so happy you could join us, this morning.

A:        Yes!  Thank you.   It's good to be here!

D:        So Aristarchus, Luke reports that you were part of this amazing sea voyage in which                                 Paul and everyone on board wound up getting ship-wrecked.  Is that right?

A:        Yes, that's right.  All I can say is its a good thing I can swim – Stroke, stroke, stroke...! 

D:        Okay!  So, I understand you're a friend of Paul's.  Can you tell us how you met? 

A:        Sure.  We met on Paul's second missionary trip when he came to Macedonia and told us               in Thessalonica how Jesus was the Messiah the Jews had long been waiting for. 

D:        I see.  And that's when you became a follower of Jesus?    

A:        That's right!  Paul spoke of how Jesus was anointed in the Holy Spirit and did amazing

            things in the power of the Spirit and Paul demonstrated the same power in the things he

            said and did.  I came to believe in Jesus who is still doing amazing things!

D:        That's great!  So when, exactly, did you hook up with Paul?

A:        Well, a few years after our church in Thessalonica was born Paul returned to encourage

            us.  I was so moved that I asked if I could come along and help on his third trip. 

D:        I hear you guys ran into some trouble in Ephesus?

A:        Yeah, that was a bit of nasty business, it was.  The whole city was in an uproar!

D:        Luke tells us that “everyone rushed to the amphitheater, dragging along Gaius and

            Aristarchus, who were Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia.”  (Acts 19:29)

A:        Yup, that was a drag! Never a dull moment! Hangin’ out w/ Paul is anything but boring! 

D:        I bet!  So that trip ended when Paul returned to Jerusalem...  The reason Paul was on 

            your ship was because he'd been arrested and was being taken to Rome to stand trial.    

A:        That's correct. 

D:        So what were you doing on that ship?  Doesn't sound like much of a pleasure cruise. 

A:        No – it wasn't.  Have you ever eaten what they serve on those ships? 

D:        Fish and chips? 

A:        Not exactly...  I was on the ship to support Paul, by the way – and to learn from him. 

                                                                       

 

-2-

 

D:        Okay.  So what happened? 

A:        Well, you heard Luke's account.  We actually wound up on several ships.  There was the

            ship we took from Caesarea to Sidon, then another from Sidon to Myra, then we hopped

            on an Egyptian cargo ship that was headed to Rome. After several days of putzing along

            the coast we arrived at the port of Cnidus. 

D:        Gesundheit!   Wait – Cnidus...?  Never heard of it!

A:        And for good reason.  The next day we sailed off to Crete, hugging the shoreline until

            we got to the port of Fair Havens.  It was fair but it was no heaven! 

D:        I see.  And that's when Paul talked to the ship's officers, wasn't it?

A:        That's right.  He warned them of the trouble ahead.  He prophesied that the cargo on

            board would be lost, the boat would be shipwrecked and our very lives would be in peril               But the ship's captain was determined to get to Phoenix for the winter. 

D:        He wanted to sail to Phoenix, Arizona?   He must've been a snowbird, huh?

A:        Snowbird?  Arizona, what's that?  No, Phoenix is further up the coast of Crete. 

D:        Oh.  Okay, so what happened?  Did you ever make it to Phoenix? 

A:        No, we didn't.  Once we set sail from Fair Havens we're blown out to sea by a monster

            typhoon.   It was like being caught up in a tempest.  It was terrifying!  The captain and

            his crew did everything they could – tying ropes around the hull, securing the life-boat,                            tossing overboard precious cargo and gear, even using the anchor to slow us down! 

D:        Sounds pretty intense! 

A:        Intense doesn't cut it.  We were all...absolutely petrified. 

D:        So what was the scariest moment for you, personally?

A:        I'm not sure.  That stretch when we're in the midst of the storm, and clouds blocked out                             the sun during the day and the moon and stars at night.  It was just so utterly dark! 

D:        That would be scarey...

A:        Then again, when the captain and his crew decided to abandon ship and leave us to our

            fates – that was intense. None of us knew how to man or navigate a ship.  I've never felt

            so helpless or powerless in my life!  Without the stars to navigate, we had no idea where 

D:        Sounds pretty discouraging alright. 

A:        Maybe worst of all, though, was when the ship hit a shoal and ran aground off the shore

            of Malta. That's when the crew wanted to kill the prisoners.  After all we'd just been thru              I don't know what I would've done if they'd killed Paul.  And if that wasn't bad enough,                               we were told we'd have to swim for it!   I'm no fish but I sure do flounder! 

D:        Uh-huh.   So tell us, Aristarchus, what helped you prevail in the midst of the gale?

A:        Hmm.  Well, I'd say it was the Christ I saw in Paul. 

D:        The Christ you saw in Paul?  How do you mean?

A:        Well, there was a number of things.  There was the prophetic warning he gave that I                                 mentioned.  That increased our confidence that God was speaking to Paul and that He

            was speaking to Paul on our benefit.  When his prophecy came true, it confirmed that

            God was using him to encourage us, to help us. 

D:        I see.   That makes sense. 

A:        Also the way he talked of God's plan.  When he told us of how an angel had visited him

            there on the ship and told him that nothing would keep him from reaching Rome, that

            God's plan to invade the enemy's territory in heart of the Roman empire would prevail,

            gale or no gale, I was encouraged to know that in serving that plan I was exactly where

            God wanted me to be and doing what he wanted me to do.  That gave me courage....

D:        No doubt, it did! 

                                                                       

 

-3-

 

A:        Also the way Paul demonstrated God's grace to everyone on board was inspiring – the

            way he spoke to the ship's captain and his Roman guard with respect and kindness; and                            the way he urged the sailors not to abandon ship, knowing that if they did they would all

            perish, reminded me of the stories of Jesus loving on sinners and pagans.  Paul gave me

            a glimpse of God's grace in human flesh and gave me a model of grace to aspire to. 

D:        Fascinating!   Anything else? 

A:        Yeah.  Paul's calm courage, even in the darkest, deadliest moments of the storm, taught

            me something about what true courage looks like.  It's not that Paul wasn't afraid.  He

            faced the same onslaught of wind and wave that I did, that we all did, but Paul wasn't

            undone by it.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but faith in God while feeling fear. 

            As Paul said, “Take courage!  For I believe God – all will happen just as he's said!” Acts                                                                                                                                                          27:25 

D:        That's powerful!  No wonder you like to hang out with Paul! 

A:        I do!  I like to hang out with those who bring Christ to life!  It's all about Jesus!

D:        Agreed.  Thanks so much, Aristarchus.  It's been a treat!  Thanks for joining us!

A:        Absolutely!  Just don't mention the fish and chips.  I don't think I can eat any more fish! 

           

            Right!   Would you give it up for my friend, Aristarchus of Thessalonica...! 

            Good ole' Aristarchus – his and Paul's Christ-centered focus gave them great courage.   We can learn a lot from them as we face similar storms today.  Consider again, the following four factors:

 

            One, God provides his people powerful spiritual gifts! The one that came into play here was the spiritual gift of prophecy. When Paul offered a prophetic word that was later fulfilled, it encouraged others with the confidence that God was speaking to them, that God cared.  The other spiritual gifts of healing and words of knowledge, for example, serve a similar purpose.  The Holy Spirit speaks thru these gifts to encourage the church and equip us to courageously do God's will.  For more on how God uses the gift of prophecy to this end check out the sermon from July 29th... 

 

            Two, Paul pointed to God's plan to spread Christ's kingdom against all odds.  Specifically, Paul spoke of God's plan to bring the gospel to Rome, invading the enemy's realm of darkness with the light of Christ.   God made it clear to Paul that nothing would prevent Paul from doing so...!  

 

              This was in sync with God's plan, as Jesus himself embodied it.  As Scripture testifies: “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil.”  (1 John 3:8)  And what are those evil works?  Whatever keeps people impoverished, captive to despair and darkness, spiritually blind or oppressed, physically or morally ill – those are the works of the devil.  These are the storms that assail us from within as well as without.  But in his most clear mission statement, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free...”  (Luke 4:18-19)  

 

            Whenever we're helping that happen we can be confident that, like Aristarchus and Paul, we're right where we belong!  Praying for healing and deliverance puts us in the eye of the storm and dead center in God's plan for us and those around us.  My friends, you're right where you belong! 

 

            Three, our lives are enriched, no matter the storm, as we live out God's grace.

  Paul's grace-filled approach to those on board serves as an encouraging model to follow.  No conversions are mentioned but that's not really the point.  The point is being faithful to the Spirit of Christ.  No one I know of ever came to faith by losing an argument with a Christian, but many have had their hearts softened... 

                                                                        -4-

 

            One such heart was that of Rosaria Butterfield who described herself in an interview with Christianity Today in 2013 as “A leftist lesbian professor who despised Christians”“Brainless, pointless, dangerous – that's what I thought of Christians and their god, Jesus, who in paintings looked as powerful as a Breck Shampoo commercial model”, she wrote in a article that was published in a local newspaper.  The responses to her article she filed under 'hate mail' or 'fan mail', save one. 

 

            In a kind and inquiring spirit, a Presbyterian pastor from Syracuse, NY, invited her to meet for dinner to explore further her conclusions.   Eventually she did just that and was amazed that she soon became friends with pastor Ken and his wife, Floy. “They entered my world.  They met my friends.  We exchanged books and talked freely though our worldviews differed greatly.  They did not treat me like a project nor did they act as if such conversations were polluting them.” 

 

            Then one day, I found myself in their church, feeling conspicuous with my butch hair-cut, and Despite myself, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. In this war of worldviews, Ken was there. Floy was there. The church that had been praying for me for years was there. I was a broken mess, my con-version was a train wreck, but the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world.”  

                                                                                    (from Phillip Yancey's Vanishing Grace)

            Rosaria Butterfield, now herself a pastor's wife, came to faith by the tender care and embodied grace of God through two Christians who pointed to Jesus, who looked at (her) and loved (her)...

                                                                                                                        (Mark 10:29)

            Finally, four, we come to be courageous Christians by trusting in God in the midst of the storm.  No one has inspired me more directly in this way than Nick Taylor, who, while his health failed, clung to Christ and showed such amazing resilience and courage, that he inspired everyone around him.  Like Paul, he had an encounter with his risen Lord when in Alpha he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and through that encounter was able to weather any storm, even that of losing the fight to illness. 

 

            Nick and so many others I've known over the years, have reflected such courage precisely because they were able to trust in Jesus, because they knew he is good and good to his word, so “Take courage!  Believe God – all will happen just as he's said!”                             (Acts 27:25)