Participation Trophies

2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 17 But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am enjoying the fall, with its strange temperature spikes, cool evenings, breath-taking colors, and pumpkins, pumpkins, everywhere. Over the last few years they have put pumpkin in every conceivable food, from pumpkin spice lattes, to pumpkin-flavored Twinkies, to pumpkin bread, and of course, the classic pumpkin pie. They have even started putting pumpkin in some non-edible products. I saw a picture this week of “pumpkin spiced Clorox.” Let’s just say that maybe it isn’t wise to make Clorox smell delicious.

Sonya, the children, and I picked up a couple of pumpkins to have for decorations at our home yesterday. Unfortunately, one of the children dropped their pumpkins, shattering it into pieces. But it was okay, because I know how to fix pumpkins…with a pumpkin patch.

Today we will be talking about racing. I’ve never been much of a racer, not in my car, and not on foot. But you don’t have to be a runner to know how it works: the first one to cross the finish line wins. And no matter where you finish in regard to the rest of the group, if you aren’t first, you lose.

Now over my lifetime I have heard a lot of debate about something called “participation trophies.” Are you familiar with participation trophies? There are some leagues and some races, usually ones for children, where every child receives a trophy, ribbon, or medal at the end. Obviously, this is different from grown-up races, where there is only one winner, and then first, second, and third-place losers. The argument against the participation trophy is that it doesn’t prepare children for the real world where not everyone gets a trophy, either metaphorically or literally. If you show up to work late, fall asleep at your desk, play on your phone all day, and just perform poorly, they aren’t going to give you a raise, a promotion, or even “employee of the month” recognition. You don’t get a “participation trophy” for just showing up to work. If everyone wins, then why bother putting your best effort into something? Shouldn’t the trophy be reserved for the winner?

I want to say that I understand that argument in athletics, and I can go both ways on this discussion. But when we consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus, we aren’t competing with one another for a trophy. Instead, we are helping one another finish the race. And in this race, everyone who finishes gets their own participation trophy. We all get a crown.

Our text this morning comes from the very end of Paul’s second letter to his young disciple, Timothy. We have been looking at these two letters for a few weeks now, and next week I hope to swing back and address one part of 1 Timothy that we conveniently skipped over, the first two verses of chapter 6, which deal with slavery. Oh yes, we saved the most challenging for last.

As we look at today’s passage, we can see that there is both a sense of triumph and sadness in Paul’s words. Paul is believed to be writing this letter from his prison cell, awaiting execution. He has reason to be a little down. In verse 6 he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.”

I find it interesting that Paul considers his life a drink offering, a “libation,” according to some translations. Elsewhere, Paul talks about being living sacrifices to God. With a traditional meat offering, the animal was slaughtered, some of the fat, the skin, the intestines, you know, all of the good stuff, was burnt and sent up to God. Then the priests would eat the meat, and who doesn’t like a good barbeque?

But a drink offering was different. A drink offering requires taking your finest, most expensive drink—we are talking about Pepsi or Coca-Cola, not that Big K stuff—and doing what with it? Pouring it on the altar. The finest drink is…wasted. At least with a burn offering, the priests and perhaps others got to eat some of it. But when Paul describes his life, he compares it to a drink offering. Yes, it was all done in the name of and to the honor and glory of God, but Paul feels like nobody else benefitted from it. That’s the state of mind Paul is in while he sits there in the prison cell writing this letter.

The lectionary skips over a few verses, perhaps because they don’t seem to add much to Paul’s argument. I want to look at those verses right now because they help us better understand why Paul is feeling a bit down. Verses 9-15:

Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 12 I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.

14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

How sad is that? Demas has deserted Paul, Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus has gone to Dalmatia, where one can only assume they have large white dogs with black spots. Alexander has done harm to Paul. And now he is cold because he doesn’t even have his coat! I feel bad for Paul.

But it doesn’t stop there. Paul continues in verse 16, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” That “first defense” is Paul’s trial, where he was first sentenced to death. He went through that alone, and I am amazed that he has the strength to ask God for their forgiveness!

We all know what it feels like to be deserted by the people we love, by the people we think love us. Sometimes it feels like it is us versus the world, like nobody is there to support us. Paul wasn’t the first to experience this feeling, and he won’t be the last. Jesus’s friends left him at his worst hour. And I bet that many of us can think of times when we needed someone, and they weren’t there.

Susan Johnson, a Marriage and Family Counselor, claims that when she meets with adults who are having problems, she can often ask one question that gets to the root of their struggles. She asks, “Was there ever a time that you needed them, but they weren’t there?” No matter what one spouse is complaining about, their struggles often can be traced back to a feeling of abandonment.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent people, strong and resourceful, there will be times when we need people. I feel like I can get by on my own pretty well, when everything is going as it should. But when I have issues, like when my back goes out and leaves me struggling to walk, struggling to get dressed, I know I can’t do it all on my own.

When a loved on dies; when you lose your job; when you get that diagnosis; when the verdict is read. Nobody should have to go through that alone, and the feeling of abandonment can drive a huge wedge between loved ones when we are not there for one another.

Yet Paul believes he was never alone. God was always with him. After Paul’s first trial, God saved him from the “lion’s mouth.” I don’t know if that is literal or metaphorical, but Paul was sentenced to die and was saved.

Paul does something kind of fun in the Greek; a little word play. When he says that none of his friends stood with him, the word he uses is “paraginomai.” But when God stood with him, the word is “parahistemi.” He contrasts “paraginomai” with “parahistemi.” You weren’t there, but God was with me.

As early as the book of Deuteronomy, we are promised that God will never leave us nor forsakes us. This promise is reaffirmed in the book of Hebrews. We have heard this all of our life, God will never leave us nor forsake us. I know it, you know it. Paul knew it.

Yet still, Paul is discouraged. And if Paul is discouraged when his friends desert him, I know that I am in trouble, because I am not as strong as Paul.

If we circle back up to the beginning of our text for this morning, we will find some familiar phrases. But now read them with the sense of abandonment that Paul was dealing with. Verses 7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

In spite of being abandoned by so many people, Paul can look back and say that he fought well, and he finished the race. For that, he knows that he will inherit a crown of righteousness.

When we see artistic renditions of the old Olympic Games, we generally see wrestlers grappling with one another, javelin throwers heaving their spears, and of course one of the oldest competitive sports, we see runners racing to the finish line. But where today’s victors receive a gold medal, the early Olympians received something of less value in my mind. They received a crown of branches. Those crowns would dry up, fall apart, and disintegrate over time. Only the king, the Caesar, was permitted to have a crown that would last forever!

Yet Paul, as he is nearing his execution, says that he will receive a crown of righteousness. But here’s the thing, he isn’t the only one who will receive a reward. Everyone who participates get a trophy, kind of like in little league baseball. Because in this race, everyone who crosses the finish line wins. It doesn’t matter who gets there first, it doesn’t matter when you start the race. What matters is that we fight the good fight, that we finish the race, that we keep the faith.

So if we all win, maybe we should do a little less competing with one another, and do a little more helping?

My sister-in-law, Cassandra, is a bit of a runner. She coached Middle School track and field and cross country up until she gave birth to my twin nephew and niece. She has run a number of long runs, marathons and halves, stuff like that. I’m told that within the running culture there is often a strong community. You meet other people at races, you chat while you catch your breath, share a Gatorade or a Powerbar, and you support one another.

Cassandra got to know some other runners, and they all started running together on a regular basis. And about five of these runners decided to do an ultramarathon together. This ultramarathon was an overnight, multiple-day, 100-mile race. Nobody said that these new friends were smart. Cassandra, being of sound mind and body, decided that should would not compete in the ultramarathon with her friends. But what she would do is something called “pace” them for a portion of the run.

There would be any number of ways that you could support a friend running an ultramarathon. You could come and cheer for them as they run. You could prepare snacks and drinks for them to consume along the way. Someone needs to set up their tents for the runners to stop and sleep for a few hours. Cassandra’s way of supporting these friends was to help them train, and to run the last leg of the race along with them. So while a few of the friends ran the entire 100 miles, Cassandra only ran alongside them as a pacer for the last 26.2 miles. It was her job to keep the ultramarathoners motivated, to encourage them along the way. She was there to help them when they fell, and after running 80-some miles, they were falling a lot! She said that one guy was just crying the entire time, they smelled really bad, and for disgusting reasons. But Cassandra was there with them through the roughest and most challenging part of the race. And though Cassandra didn’t run the entire ultramarathon with her friends, she did cross the finish line with them.

Here’s the important thing to remember. As we run this race we call life, there are many people who are out there looking to win, to get ahead, and to beat you at any cost. But we must not fall into those practices in the church. I’m not saying that we can’t be competitive at sports or when it comes to getting a better job. But when it comes to following Jesus, we are not trying to get across the finish line first. We are trying to make sure the most people possible are able to finish the race.

Cassandra wasn’t trying to win the ultramarathon. She wasn’t even registered for the race. Her goal was to be there for her friends to make sure that they finished the race.

Paul felt deserted as he ran his race. I wish that he could have had a friend like my sister in law.

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Scripture and the Inspiration of God

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5New International Version (NIV)

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

4 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

There was a very interesting archeological find this week. Most people believe that Jesus was employed as a carpenter, but it turns out that he may have had a different occupation altogether. Some people now claim that Jesus was really a rancher, a cattleman. Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. We don’t know if he had any female cattle or not, but there is reason to believe that he had at least two male cattle. This should really come to us as no surprise, because the Bible is always talking about Jesus and his parables (pair of bulls).

We are not talking about parables today, but we are talking about the Bible. This sermon is going to be a little different from what you might be used to, because usually we talk about a passage from the Bible, but today we are going to spend most of our time talking about the Bible itself.

I’m going to say this up front, just to make sure that you know where I stand. I believe that the Bible is inspired by God. I believe God guided the authors of the text, and I believe that God guided the process through which the books of the Bible were selected. I also think that far too many churches today fight over what it means for the Bible to be inspired by God. We actually have a church in our conference that is voting today whether or not to remain a part of our denomination, in large part because our denomination’s Confession of Faith does not use certain words to describe how the Bible is inspired. And because our denomination does not, by their approximation, have as high of a view of the Bible as they do, I fully expect them to vote to leave. All because our Confession of Faith doesn’t use two words to describe the Bible; two words that the Bible itself doesn’t use to describe the Bible.

Again, I do believe that the Christian Bible is inspired by God and that will be our topic for today. But if we have a simplistic understanding of what that means, spending five minutes with an angry atheist will do one of two things. It will make you look like you have never actually taken any time to study the book that you claim to be so important in your life, or it will make you lose or at least question your faith. Perhaps even both.

So what I hope to do today is to show you why I believe in the inspiration of Scripture by first deconstructing some arguments, showing you why they aren’t good arguments, and then we will build up a new way of understanding inspiration.

I sat down this week and did a quick Google search to find some resources on the inspiration of Scripture. Many articles referenced our text for this morning from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

More than one article said something along the lines of “The Bible is true because it says that it is true.” For someone who already believes in the truthfulness or inspiration of the Bible, that may be enough. But good luck trying to convince someone else with that logic! That’s what we sometimes call “circular reasoning,” or “circular logic.” You can prove that something is true because it says that it is true. That’s like saying that chocolate ice cream is the best because I said it is. If you already think that chocolate ice cream is the best, you might offer a hearty “amen.” But if you are one of those people who likes butter pecan, you probably aren’t convinced.

But even worse, what does 2 Timothy 3:16 actually say? It says that all scripture is God-breathed. When this text was written, what was that a reference to, what did Paul have in mind? This was a reference to the Hebrew Bible because much of the New Testament had not even been written yet. By the time 2 Timothy was written, the only books of the New Testament that were in existence were a few of Paul’s letters. And Paul probably didn’t expect that his letters would one day be a part of our Bible, because Paul seems to think that Jesus was coming back in his lifetime.

Paul had to be referring to the Hebrew Bible alone when he wrote this. Some will argue that Paul anticipated the New Testament, and that is what he means when he says “all scripture.” I don’t think we can make that assumption. All scripture is a reference to all scripture in existence. Think about it like this. I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon, for instance, is inspired by God, even though Mormons will claim that it is scripture. We know that other gospels were written, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. These books are not included in our Bible because they paint a different picture of Jesus, and I don’t believe that they are inspired by God. No, “all scripture” is a reference to the known scripture in the Hebrew tradition.

Okay, so when Paul says that all Scripture is inspired by God, he doesn’t mean all of the scriptures in the world, or even all of the scriptures in our Christian Bible. Now I’m really going to mess with you. When Paul says all Scripture is inspired by God, not only is he only referring to part of our Bible, he is also referring to parts that aren’t in our Bible. Paul would have included the text that we know as the Apocrypha as scripture. This is somewhat debated, but what we do know is that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are some of the oldest Hebrew texts in existence, some dating 400 BC, included Apocryphal text. The Apocrypha includes stories about the Maccabees, the rededication of the Jewish Temple, and the celebration of Hanukah.

Quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 to an atheist will not prove anything other than that the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 believed what he considered to be scripture was from God. In fact, nothing can be proven about God at all! And while what we do have may not sound like a rock-solid base upon which to build one’s religious belief, it was good enough for Paul. It was good enough for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What we have is faith.

Now don’t downplay the power of faith. Jesus says that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. So now that I have deconstructed one way to look at the Bible, let’s look at what this text really says and let’s build up our faith in this text together. We are nearing the end of this book of the Bible, which again is Paul’s letter to his young mentee, Timothy. Paul often closes with a few encouraging words, kind of like going to a pep rally before the big game. Paul wants to send him off with some energy. So he closes with 9 points. I’ll touch on a few of them here.

Paul says in verses 14-15, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is affirming what Timothy has been taught since a young age. Was Paul there to hear all of the teaching that Timothy received throughout his lifetime? No, of course not. So how does Paul know that Timothy’s teaching has been sound? Because Paul knows who has been teaching Timothy.

Remember that in last week’s passage, Paul praised Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and his mother Eunice, for their faith and for passing that on to Timothy. Paul trusts that Timothy is going down the right track because he values these women and their faith. Paul believes that Timothy’s faith is genuine because Eunice and Lois’s faith was genuine.

I think that this is helpful for our discussion today on the inspiration of the Bible. How do we know that the Bible is steering us down the right path? One, I know where it came from. I got my first Bible from my parents, and I trust them. I have to believe that they wouldn’t intentionally steer me down the wrong path. But that alone isn’t convincing. On a larger level, I trust people like Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And I trust the people that helped them write our New Testament. Peter is often given credit for sharing the stories recorded by Mark. Look at the first four verses of Luke, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

I believe the Bible is true because I trust not only my parents, but because they got it from their parents, and they got it from their parents. And we can trace our Christian lineage, either genetically or theologically, back to the first Christians. Back to those who wrote the books and formed our Christian Bible. I trust the eye witnesses, those who spent time with Jesus when he was here in the flesh. I don’t think they just made these stories up, because you don’t give your life for a story that you made up.

I’ve been known to make up a few stories in my days. When I was a little boy and I told a story that didn’t quite seem logical, my father would say one of two things. He would say, “I think your nose is growing,” an obvious reference to Pinocchio, or he would ask, “Did I ever tell you the story of the little boy who cried wolf?” So sure, I would tell the story of how I won the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics at the age of eight. But when my father pushed me on it, I would admit that I had made the story up. It didn’t take much, he just needed to let me know that he didn’t believe me, and I would drop it.

Now imagine I was making up a story, and someone said that it wasn’t true. But I was promising them up and down that it was true, even though I knew that it was made up. If that person threatened my life, I would come out and admit to them that the whole thing was made up. Even if the story was true and someone threatened my life, I would probably lie to save my own skin!

Of those people who I mentioned who formed the New Testament, either through writing or dictating their stories to those who did write them, many died for their faith. Of the eleven remaining apostles, after Judas left, and Paul, we are told that most if not all of them were killed for their faith, killed for telling this story. If Peter was telling the story of Jesus and someone threatened him by saying “Stop saying that or we will kill you,” he would probably stop if he was making it up! But he was crucified, upside down.

So when Paul tells Timothy to continue in the faith because of those from whom he learned it, it may sound silly. But it is quite profound. Timothy learned from those he trusted, his mother and grandmother. And they learned from the first disciples. Timothy learned from those who learned from those who were willing to die for this message.

Let’s move to verses 16-17, the crux of this passage, which says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Some versions say that all scripture is “God-breathed,” others say “inspired by God.” The word here is θεόπνευστος, theopneustos, which is a compound word combining theos (God) and a form of pneuma. Pneuma is again the Greek word for breath, wind, and spirit.

To say that the scriptures are “inspired” or “God-breathed” is not to say that they descended from heaven on a cloud, or that God took over the hand of the person who wrote these books. It means that God filled these books with his very life-breath, just as God breathed life into a lump of clay, just as Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Without the divine breath, this is just a story, a biography, a history book, some papers bound together with glue and string. To say that the scriptures are God-breathed means that God has given life to an otherwise lifeless book.

There are a number of arguments for why the Bible should be understood to be true. Some people claim that the unity of the Bible shows that God was guiding this process because many people over hundreds of years wrote this text. And yet in spite of those factors, the Bible depicts a relatively uniform story of fall and redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Those who argue against this say that it really isn’t that surprising because all of the newer author had the work of their predecessors to build upon. Jeremiah had the book of Exodus; John had Jeremiah.

Others argue for the inspiration of the Bible based on archeological finds that confirm the stories, particularly of the Old Testament. For years people claimed that there was no archeological proof for a major group found in the Old Testament known as the Hittites. But archeologists in the 20th century found proof of the existence of these people. And today even the strongest of doubters have to admit that the Old Testament is highly accurate in depicting historical events. But being historically correct doesn’t prove that the Bible is divinely inspired. It just shows that it is accurate.

When we get down to it, I think that the most compelling argument for the authenticity of the Bible is its ability to change lives. And yes, other holy books can offer the same claim. And I am also well aware that people have used the Bible for bad things, like slavery and genocide, as well. But I know that my life has been changed by the text, especially the words written in red, the words attributed to Jesus himself.

The strongest reason that I have to believe that this book, from Genesis to Revelation, is inspired by God is not because the book itself says so. I believe this book is filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the very breath of God, because I’ve experienced the life-changing, transformative power of God through these pages.

I’ve seen drunks and addicts find a power stronger than the needle or the bottle. I’ve seen husbands and wives reconcile and rededicate their lives to one another. I’ve seen violent people turn into peacemakers. I’ve seen the power of the Gospel to transform lives, to breathe the very breath of God into lifeless lumps of clay.

How do I know that Bible is the inspired word of God? Because I continue to be inspired by it every day.

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For I Know Whom I Have Believed

2 Timothy 1:1-14 New International Version (NIV)

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

I spoke with our new neighbor the other day as she was digging in the backyard, attempting to plant a few perennials. She had dug deep enough to make room for one of the plants she had purchased, but still had a few more to go. She informed me that digging in the soil was a lot easier back when she lived in Kansas, but here she moved a few inches of mulch and she hit what I would call good-ole, Virginia, red clay. To make matters worse, she was trying to dig a space big enough to accommodate the root system of an established perennial using nothing but a trowel.

As I loaned her a few digging tools, I told her that through her efforts, she had learned an important lesson that day. Because an effective way to learn is through trowel and error.

People learn in different ways. Some people are visual learners, they need to see something for it to make sense. Other people are auditory learners, picking up challenging concepts when they hear it or talk through it themselves. Others learn by doing something, practice makes perfect. But regardless of how you learn best, I think we can agree that knowledge is generally acquired when one person passes it on to another. That knowledge can come in the form of a book, a documentary, a podcast, a mentor, or a lecture. Sure, there are occasions when someone has an original thought. Einstein’s theory of relativity was not something that he learned from someone else. If he had, we wouldn’t call it Einstein’s theory of relativity. It would be Einstein’s teacher’s theory of relativity.

But even original thoughts are arrived at because of the work of those who have gone before us. Without the work done by Isaac Newton and passed on throughout the generations, we may have never had an Einstein. And without some man living in a cave, inventing the wheel, we may have never known Newton. Even the most novel of ideas are based on knowledge passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the things that I love about today’s text is that it brings me back to my younger days and all of the people who have invested in my life and education. You might say that these people have helped to form me into the person that I am. 2 Timothy is a letter reportedly written by the apostle Paul to his young mentee, Timothy (I know, it is very unlikely that Paul wrote it. But work with me!). In verse 2, Paul even refers to Timothy as his “dear son.” Though they shared no blood, Paul saw the mentoring relationship with Timothy as parallel to the relationship between a father and son. I wonder if Paul ever took Timothy fishing, which is, in my mind, the ultimate father-son activity.

The goal of their relationship is for Paul, a learned individual, to pass on his experiences to Timothy, a less-experienced person. But none of this knowledge was original to Paul. Paul studied with the great Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel, who prepared Paul through study of the Torah. Paul, after his encounter with the risen Jesus, is mentored by people like Barnabas and some of the original 12 disciples like James and Peter. Those people passed on something that they knew, forming Paul into the person he was.

Now do you think that Paul agreed with everything that he learned from his mentors over the years? I am sure that he didn’t. We are never told that Gamliel came to understand Jesus as the expected messiah, where Paul obviously did. That seems like a big disagreement to me! A quick spin through the book of Acts and you find Paul having disagreements with Barnabas, Peter, and James.

I think that one of the most important things we can learn from this process is that when we learn from other people, we learn two things. We learn what we believe, and we learn what we don’t believe. Or to say it slightly differently, we learn who we want to be and who we don’t want to be.

For all of the people in this long string of mentors that have directly or indirectly contributed to Timothy’s education, notice who Paul calls out by name and praises for their role. It is Timothy’s mother and grandmother. Verse 5 says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

Yes, mentors and teachers are important in a person’s growth, learning, and faith development. But nobody will have a greater influence on a person than the people who share a home or share a table with them. And this isn’t about shared genetics or blood. This is simply about investing time in one another.

I’ve been thinking about the role that my family has played in forming me into the person that I am today. Yesterday was my maternal grandfather’s 97th birthday. After my mom and dad, he was the adult that I spent the most time with as I was growing up. Especially during the summer, it was grandpa who was out on the farm, teaching us to drive the tractors, check the moisture of the hay, and the value of a hard-day’s work. After he retired he committed his time to helping my father on the farm, because my dad’s parents both passed away in their early 60’s, and my father inherited the land, cows, and a lot of debt at a young age.

I see how my grandfather has influenced me to become the person that I am today. Even my frugality comes from, well from both sides, but especially from my grandfather. This is the man who when the local paper started distributing in the evening he would save it and read it the next day because he didn’t want to turn on the lights to read it. That’s what happens when you grow up in the years following the depression!

But just like our mentors, we learn how we don’t want to be from family members as well. In my extended family, there is some very overt racism. I still recall sitting at Thanksgiving lunch with my extended family and hearing two distant relatives talking about the changes in the local workforce. Twenty-some years later, I remember the exact words said, “A Mexican will outwork a black two-to-one.” My jaw dropped. And when I looked over at my little brother, who was not yet old enough to drive, he looked just as shocked. We knew that wasn’t appropriate, even as teenagers.

Much of our formation in matters of life and faith come from our families. And we must choose to either take what we have learned and embrace it as a part of our selves, or reject it as incompatible with who God is calling us to be.

I’ve been formed in a number of ways by my family. My roots of my faith were established when my parents dressed me up on Sunday mornings and took me to church, and when we weren’t allowed to touch our meals until we first gave thanks. My personality has been formed by my family, I’ve learned the value of hard work, and how to help others in their times of need. And I’ve learned that our families are not perfect; through our time with family, we can learn how we don’t want to be.

The strongest sense of nostalgia for me is evoked towards the end of our passage for this morning, when we get to the second part of verse 12. When I read through today’s lectionary texts, I read verse 12 from the New International Version, and it sounded pretty familiar. So I flipped over to the King James Version, and my hunch was correct.

Growing up in church we sang four-part, unaccompanied music, because even a piano was not permitted in worship. Singing seemed to be a very important part of worship and the Sunday school hour, and we seemed to sing the same songs week after week. This, however, was not a problem for me. I liked these songs.

One of my greatest accomplishments in life came when I was around 12-13 years old and my voice changed. This meant that I could sing bass at church, just like my Daddy (Momma sang tenor). And one song had this beautiful line that dropped way down low and then jumps up high, “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.”

I didn’t know what that line meant back then, but I knew that I liked it. And 20 years later, I still don’t know what that line means, but I still like it and am strangely comforted by it.

I’ve been formed by mentors. I’ve been formed by family. And I’ve been formed by the church.

Just as there are things about my mentors and my family members that I don’t wish to adopt as a part of who I am today, there are things about my conservative Anabaptist upbringing that I reject as well. I can be pretty hard on the church of my youth for the way that women were forced to wear skirts and head coverings and remain silent in the church. I can be critical of the relationships that were disintegrated because of a lack of trust for those outside of the church. I could probably generate a long list of grievances and nail them to the church door, a la Martin Luther. But in all honesty, I must admit that I was formed by the church. Yes, there are some things about the church that I have chosen not to adopt as a part of my life. But there are many more that I am thankful for, and wish to further develop.

So I think about the children of our church, and the formation that they are experiencing just by being here today. Just by getting out of bed and coming on a Sunday morning when you could be doing anything else shows our children that worship is a priority. We are forming the next generation of Christians to place a high value on worship.

And I love that the children have a chance to give their coin offerings every Sunday. My children are just as stingy as I am, but they don’t try to keep all of the coins we give them to themselves. My daughter asked me the other day where all of these coins go, and I assured her that they were going to help poor people. That was good enough for her, as she dropped her 12 cents into the empty water jug. We are doing more than giving money away, we are forming the next generation of Christians into generous givers.

And one of the things that we probably don’t think about as being ethical or theological is the fact that we get together and fellowship. We had a meal last Sunday after church and later this month we will have a chance to spend the entire afternoon together at one parishioner’s farm. We are forming the next generation of Christians into people who value community, who value people, and who break bread together.

Let’s look at verse 12 once more, but this time in a more-recent translation: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.”

I know whom I have believed as well. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Joseph, Edward, and Kevin. I trust in God not because I found him in some vacuum, void of any other living being. I believe and trust in God because of those who have gone before me, and passed on their faith. My mentors, my family, and my church. None of them have been perfect. Some serve best as a negative object lesson, as something I don’t want to mimic in my own life. But they have helped make me the person I am today. I hope we can help others grow in their faith as well.

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Bartlet for President

1 Timothy 6:6-19New International Version (NIV)

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

I need some help form the congregation this morning. I am making a list of opposites, so when I say a word, I want you to reply with the opposite. So if I say black, you would say white. If I say hot, you would say cold. If I say light, you would say dark. If I say pro, you would say con (or amateur).

If pro is the opposite of con, does that mean that the opposite of progress is…congress?

That’s right, folks, we are starting off today’s sermon is a joke about politics. Every Christmas we sing songs about Jesus being the King of kings, Lord of lords. And sometimes I fear that when we hear those words year after year, associating them with the birth of a baby and stopping there, that we forget how important this phrase is. We forget how subversive it is. To say that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords says that ultimate power, authority, and allegiance belongs to him. This isn’t some far-off confession of faith meant for when we die and go to heaven. This means Jesus is King of kings, Lord of lords, here today.

But we also know that we are in an election year. If you didn’t know that, well, I’m a little jealous! In less than two months our country will pick the next leader of the United States. As our nation continues to divide and become more polarized, we must remember that we cannot simply follow the culture around us. We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ, a city on a hill, standing out from the rest of the world as an alternative. Even an alternative to the divisive politics of our day.

Our text for this morning comes from the last chapter of the first epistle written to Timothy. What a great way to end a book of the Bible, am I right? Money and power are the main emphases of this passage, so if we could just make a reference to sex yet we would hit the trifecta: sex, money, power.

Most scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles, which includes the books of 1 and 2 Timothy, were not written by the Apostle Paul, but likely by someone else named Paul, which would have been a common name in the 1st century, or by one of Paul’s disciples. The authorship of this letter really doesn’t matter to me; what matters to me is that we as the church have canonized this letter as a part of our divinely-inspired Bible. So if I say Paul wrote this letter, please know that I do so out of convenience.

Paul is writing this letter to his young companion Timothy, and as is common in these letters, he tries to fit in a lot of information in his closing paragraphs. You get the feeling that he is running out of papyrus and is turning it sideways, writing in the margins, trying to squeeze in every last bit of wisdom that he has been given. And evidently the issue of money is very important because our text opens with a comment on money, moves to a comment on power, and then comes right back to money again. Money, power, money; I simply can’t imagine how I’m going to connect this passage with politicsJ.

Our text starts with the phrase “godliness with contentment is great gain.” The word translated as contentment simply means that you need nothing outside what you already have. He goes on, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” You’ve heard the saying, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch,” before, right? Yeah, they often do have trailer hitches. But the purpose of the saying is still valid. You come into this world with nothing, and anything you do accumulate will be left here. But this isn’t just a teaching on the temporary nature of money, there is something quite important to be taught here. Verse 10a, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Money itself is not evil. In fact, it is quite essential in our society, just as it would have been in Timothy’s day. The problem is when we love money. Or, as the old saying goes, far too often we love money and use people when in fact we are to love people and use money. Paul then says that some have wandered away from the faith on account of money.

Paul takes a short break to talk about power. He names Jesus as Lord, which is a ranking of Jesus as the highest leader. Jesus is the boss! He says that God is the only ruler, the King of kings, Lord of lords. I’m not sure that Paul had his doctrine of the Trinity completely finalized at this point but he is connecting the Father and Son as Lord over all. Lord over the church, Lord over nations, Lord over Caesar, Lord over money.

Jesus has a lot to say about money and power in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, he says in 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Our English translations lose something here because we translate the word mammon into money. According to a number of scholars, mammon was not a neutral term used to describe money, but actually a name for a deity, a god of money. Mammon was perhaps a Canaanite counterpart to the Greek god Plutus, the god of wealth. You may hear of a system of governance called a “plutocracy,” which means it is ruled by the rich.

What Paul and Jesus are saying is that we cannot make money a god, we cannot treat it as an idol.

I don’t think it is by accident, then, that after this brief section about the Lordship of the Trinity that he comes back to money again in verse 17. The brief section on power is bookended by a warning against power. Money and power are interwoven with each other.

Speaking of money and power, we are coming right up on Election Day here in the United States, and I think this is a good time to really think about money and power here in the United States. Who is Lord over our church, Lord over our nation, Lord over our leaders, and Lord over our money?

There is a story where Jesus is questioned about paying the imperial tax, which would have been money collected by the Roman Empire from the Jewish people. They are trying to trap Jesus, because if he says that they should pay the tax, he sounds like a Roman sympathizer. If he says not to pay the tax, he could be arrested for sedition. As always, Jesus is wise in his response, and he asks one of his questioners if he has a coin. When the man produces a coin from his purse, Jesus asks him to look at the coin and tell him whose image was on it.

It was Caesar. Money and power intertwined.

But the convicting aspect of that story is that the man who was carrying the coin was breaking an important Jewish law. Let’s look at it in the King James, Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That’s one of the ten big ones.

To participate in the Roman economy required the Jews to use Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar. To carry Roman currency, to use it in the market place, to have it in your home meant breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But as a minority group in an occupied territory, what other option did they have?

I am absolutely struggling this elections season, because like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, I don’t feel like I have a good option. And I don’t think that I am alone. Sonya and I recently had a conversation about how few signs we see for the presidential candidates in our neighborhood, where four years ago there were a dozen signs for Barrack Obama or Mitt Romney on every block. We interpreted this as other people not being overly excited about the options, as well. Our friend, Tate, who has always aligned himself with one party, even being a part of a partisan organization through his college years, has said that he can’t support his party this year. He posted a picture of himself wearing a “Bartlet for President” shirt on Facebook recently. If you don’t know the reference, Jed Bartlet is not real. He was the President of the United States on the television show, The West Wing. The joke behind the shirt is that many would rather have a fictional character as their president than one of the options that we are faced with. I even heard a Christian say on the radio this week that he wasn’t voting for anybody this election. He was voting against someone.

Here is my struggle. I feel like a vote for any presidential candidate requires me to bend, if not outright break, some of my religious convictions. Like a Jewish man living in the 1st century, carrying an image-bearing coin, what other options are there? Or as New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk has said, “There is no vote cast that doesn’t require some measure of forgiveness.”

Think about it like this. Recently I was encouraged to listen to a podcast that tends to be on the more conservative side. This podcast discusses religious issues, politics, and how the two interact. On the particular podcast that I was listening to they were discussing which of the two major political parties in our country a Christian should vote for. They did not endorse one candidate over another, and I don’t think either were even named. But knowing the nature of the podcast and the hosts, I kind of knew which way they were going to encourage people to vote. And that’s okay.

To make a case for Christians to vote for Republican candidates, they addressed three topics and looked at the official platform for each party. Those topics were: life, family, and liberty. At this point, I think everyone is on board! Who isn’t for life, family, and liberty? But it comes down to how you define these things.

The hosts spoke about three agenda items that have been central to the Republican Party for as long as I can remember: abortion, LGBTQ rights, and religious freedom. And because the Republican Platform aligns with these two Christian hosts views on these three issues, they said that Christians should vote Republican.

That’s fine, but who decided that those were the only three topics that matter to Christians? When I think about life, I don’t just care about life before a baby comes into the world. Life after birth matters, too. So a party’s views on humanitarian aid and refugees matters to me. Families are about more than LGBTQ rights and laws. So I’m concerned about programs for underprivileged families, public education, and housing.

When Jesus comes on the scene and begins his life as a ministering person, he gives his stump speech in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What was Jesus’s platform? Good news to the poor, prison reform, healthcare, social equality, and debt reduction.

My point is that you can make Jesus sound like a Republican or a Democrat by picking and choosing which aspects of his ministry you want to emphasize. If abortion and gay marriage are among the most important things to you right now, vote for the party that most closely aligns with your viewpoints. And if healthcare and immigration are the most important issues to you right now, vote for the other side. But know that neither side is perfectly in line with my understanding of who Jesus was and is calling us to be today. That’s why I strongly believe that every vote cast requires that we humbly admit that we need to repent as well.

This is my real challenge to everyone today. If you feel called to vote for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, feel free to do so. If you want to vote for a third-party candidate as a protest, I understand that as well. And if you choose to not vote because you cannot in good conscious be a part of this system, I get that. But please never, ever say, “If you are a Christian, you will vote this way.” I’ve read the words of Jesus written in red in my Bible, and they do not align perfectly with either platform.

Let’s just look really quickly at what the Bible does not say.

The Bible does not say, “They will know we are Christians by our voting record.” No, they will know we are Christians by our love (Jn 13:35). Far too often I hear followers of the Prince of Peace pointing fingers and calling names. We fall into the practices that we see among the candidates, slinging mud and spinning lies. I think that one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do as the church is to opt out of all of that.

The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not engage the other political party in a loving conversation.” Jesus was always sitting down to a meal, eating and drinking with people who had vastly different view than he did. He dined with Pharisees and tax collectors, religious leaders and prostitutes. And if Jesus can break bread with a prostitute, you can probably buy lunch for a Democrat or a Republican.

The Bible does not say, “Blessed are you who will vote, because you have fulfilled your Christian duty.” No, one of my biggest fears is that over the last few decades Christians have fallen into the thought trap that says if we vote on an issue, that is all we need to do. Jesus never spoke about voting at all. It is fine to vote, but it takes a back seat to actually doing something. And make no mistake, both sides of the political divide are guilty of this. If you feel strongly about reducing abortions, don’t vote for a law and call that your duty. Befriend an unmarried, pregnant woman who is struggling to make ends meet who might be considering ending her pregnancy and walk with her through the process. Help her with medical bills, go with her to birthing classes, hold her hand while she pushes 8 pounds, 9 ounces of humanity out and into the world.

If fighting poverty is your goal, sure, vote for your preferred candidate. But don’t stop there. Tutor a child who is struggling to make good grades. Mentor a young adult who can’t seem to budget their income. Volunteer at the Valley Mission and clean some bathrooms. Yes, these things are costly, but Jesus compared following him to carrying your own cross. It will hurt; following Jesus always does.

My friends, Jed Bartlet is not running for president this year. So if you choose to vote, vote for the person that most closely aligns with your beliefs. But know that we are called to do much more than vote. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. We are called to continue the ministry Jesus began 2,000 years ago when he gave his stump speech. Money and power are formidable foes! But we have a greater ally. Jesus is our Lord, no matter who is president.

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The Power to Change

Exodus 32:7-14New International Version (NIV)

7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Do you know who, out of the people in the Bible, was the greatest sinner of all? It was Moses. He broke all 10 of the Commandments at once.

About 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greek world experienced a period of enlightenment that still affects much of the world today. Euclid was working out what we today would call geometry, Pericles was refining democracy, and a trio of men were developing the practice of philosophy, which simply means the love of wisdom. The three men that I am referring to are of course Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And as I like to say, my favorite is Plato, because his name alone brings back fond memories of my childhood, making snakes and spaghetti with my Plato fun factory. Or was that Playdough fun factory?

Plato offered a theory that everything that we see is simply an image of that which is real. Off is some distant location, there are true “forms,” which is the thing that we see, but in its purest and unadulterated state. So we may see a tree, but that is really not a tree. It is simply an image of a tree, which in reality exists as a form somewhere else. The forms do not change and cannot be altered, where things can be changed and altered here on earth. (I’m grossly oversimplifying. Bear with me!)

Plato’s student, Aristotle further developed some of Plato’s thoughts and developed the concept of God as the “unmoved mover.” God is the one that set the world in motion, but God himself is not affected by creation. God moves us, we don’t move God.

Plato had a major influence on a number of early Christians, as many came out of Greek backgrounds. One of them is a man known St. Augustine. If you read Augustine’s work, you will see some of the influence that Plato played in the development of Augustine’s thought. The same is true of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Even if you never read anything written by Augustine or Aquinas, but you are likely influenced by their work, even if you don’t know it!

Over the years, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas’s works have been both praised and condemned, copied and amended. I think some of this work is good, and some is better left in the Dark Ages! We find ideas about the immutability and impassability of God coming out of these men. Immutability does not mean that you cannot silence God, it means that God does not mutate, God does not change. God is the unmoved mover and the “form” of anything that we might imagine. Impassibility is a reference to God suffering, remember that the French/Latin word “passion” means to suffer, like in the movie title, “The Passion of the Christ.” God cannot suffer because that would affect God and change God.

These historical teachings align well with verses like Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change,” and James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We even sing a song, “God always faithful, you do not change.”

We can always count on God to be God. God’s attributes do not change. God is always faithful; God is always just; God is always righteous; God is always holy; God is always love.

How many of you have ever run into someone that you haven’t seen for years and you think to yourself, “Wow, you’ve changed!” Maybe that person looks older or perhaps their interests are now different. You might run into your best friend from high school with whom you played video games all night long when you were a kid and now they are a mature parent, spouse, and employee. They’ve changed; that’s a part of growing up and maturing.

I am not immune from this change, and I bet that you are not, either. One hot summer day I toasted some homemade, whole wheat and flax bread and made myself a cucumber hummus sandwich. It was so good! But I remember thinking that if 18-year-old Kevin could see me now, he would totally kick my butt for being such a hippie.

But it’s not just our interests and our tastes that change, our actions sometimes change, too. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. There is a heroin epidemic in my home state and even in my little, rural home town. Maybe you saw the picture of the father and mother who overdosed on heroin this week and the police found them in their car with a child in the back seat. That happened in my state. When I was growing up the rowdy kids would get some tobacco and smoke or chew it, or maybe sneak a few Bud Lights from their dad’s fridge. The people in a place dear to me have changed, and not for the better.

Sometimes you hear about couples who have been married for 10, 15, 20 years who are getting a divorce. And almost always you will hear one of the individuals say to the other, “You’ve changed. You aren’t the man or woman that I married.”

People change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

I find it comforting to know that God does not change. Some have said that the one thing that God can’t do is to stop acting like God. God can’t be unjust, unrighteous, unloving.

But what I think is very important about our text for this morning is that it differentiates between two different kinds of change. God does not change his attributes, but God does change his mind. And what is the powerful and mighty force that can cause our great and wonderful God to change his mind? Oh, it’s people. People like you and me. People who pray.

Our text tells us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai where he was receiving the Torah from God. During this time the Israelites, just pretty fresh out of slavery in Egypt, asked Moses’s brother Aaron to make them a god. So Aaron gather’s all of their gold, melts it down, and makes a golden calf for them to worship. Because, you know, if you are going to worship something, it might as well be a bovine.

God was angry, and I think that is the right response. God just protected them through the plagues, led them out of slavery, even separated the waters so that they could go through on dry land, and how do they thank him? By worshipping another god. Then we read God saying this in verse 10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”

Moses could have responded by saying, Do it, God! Get those idolaters! But instead, we find Moses saying in verse 12, “Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”

Let’s jump ahead to verse 14, where we find God’s response: “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

I don’t know what is more amazing, the fact that Moses asked God to change his mind or the fact that God actually did.

If you read this in the King James Version, it is even more amazing, because rather than saying that “the Lord relented,” the KJV actually says that the Lord “repented.”

We need to remember that to repent does not mean that God is apologizing for sin, and the NIV translates this as saying that God relented because we have the mistaken understanding of repentance as admitting guilt. To repent means to turn. God was going to do one thing, and God instead turned and did something else.

This is not a one-time event. There are 39 unique passages in the Bible that tell us that God changed his mind. Additionally, there are a total of 200 places where it does not say that God changed his mind, but that tell a story of how God did something different from what he had originally said he would do. Here’s a quick look at some of the “mind changing” verses:

Chron 21:15—God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.

2 Kings 10:1-6—King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”

Ex 33:1-3, 14—In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.

Deut 9:13-29—The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.

1 Kings 21:21-29—The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.

2 Chron 12:5-8—The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.

Jer 26:2-3—The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”

Ez 4:9-15—God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.

Amos 7:1-6—The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”

Jonah 3:10—God “changed his mind” about the destruction he planned to carry out on Nineveh.


Notice what these verses have in common, aside from God changing his mind. When God changes his mind, it is often at the request of human beings.

But God doesn’t change. He is the unmoved mover, the immutable, impassible one. Yet there are at least 200 verses that speak otherwise.

What I want to warn us all of today is to have our understanding of God formed by what we actually read in the Bible, not what some Greek philosophers said thousands of years ago. It is true that God does not change, but that is a reference to God’s attributes, his holiness, his love, his character. God does not change in the way the people of Ohio have moved to hard narcotics, or the way a spouse changes from the person you married. God has shown that he will change his plans, change his mind, when his people humble themselves and pray. As long as what you are praying for is not asking God to act contrary to who God is, I believe God will entertain your prayer. There is a difference between God changing his mind and changing his attributes.

We have the power to influence God’s actions. Do not take that lightly!

Let’s go beyond what is in our text for today. After Moses appeases God and gets him to calm down, Moses descends from the mountain and sees the people worshipping the golden calf. Moses becomes infuriated! He is carrying the tablets upon which God carved the Ten Commandments, and Moses throws them down, breaking them into pieces. He takes the gold calf, burned it, and ground it up into little pieces of gold dust. And what is probably my favorite move in the Bible, Moses mixes the gold dust with the people’s water supply and makes them drink it. This has kind of a Titus Andronicus feel to it, doesn’t it?

There is something here that I think we need to make note of. God was angry because the people had sinned against him. But Moses was essentially able to talk God down and away from his anger. But immediately following this episode, we find Moses getting extremely angry and taking it out on the stone tables from God and on the people.

It seems as if Moses is powerful enough to change God’s actions, but not his own. Moses convinces God not to allow his anger get the best of him, but fails to keep his own anger in check.

If we have the power to change God’s actions, surely we have the power to change our own. Indeed, there are times when we cannot do this alone. But together, with friends, family, the church, and the Holy Spirit of God, we can change.

People change, that is undeniable. I mentioned some ways that change can be bad, but it can just as well be good.

We all struggle with something, addictions, attitudes, finances, relationships. One of the things that I have historically struggled with is watching too much television. When Sonya and I first moved to Virginia in 2005, the local cable company was offering a great deal on basic cable. I’d never had ESPN, TBS, TNT, or the History Channel before! And let’s be honest, I didn’t spend hour after hour watching the History Channel. I found it amazing that I could watch water polo at 2:00 am. I could watch reruns of Friends and Seinfeld while I ate my meals and even into my study time. 24-hours sports and round-the-clock comedies! Who could ask for anything else?

Sonya and I soon decided to “disable the cable,” receiving only the broadcast stations on our home television. I had to make the decision to put down the remote.

I realize that I can easily relapse into those old ways to this day. Now, rather than watching water polo late into the night, I can easily binge-watch a television series on Netflix. And there are times when that is okay. The middle of the winter when you can’t get out because of the snow it is fine to do some binge watching. The point that I am making is that if we have the power to change God’s actions, we surely have the power to change our actions. And sometimes it takes something bigger than our selves. We need to pray for the strength to come from God.

Twelve-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, all begin by saying, “I am powerless against my addiction.” That statement is not true. Maybe on your own, you are powerless over your addictions, but that is why people come together for AA. I may be powerless, but together, we are not. With help from one another, and help from God, we can change our actions and behaviors. We can turn, which is the true meaning of repentance, turn toward something better.

Throughout our scripture for today, God calls the Israelites a “stiff-necked people.” Stiff-necked people do not look side to side, but only straight forward. They do not turn, the do not repent, they do not change their minds or their actions.

God was mad at the Israelites because they worshipped an idol, like was their custom in Egypt. God is calling us all to turn, to repent, to change our minds and our actions. God is calling us to turn to something more beautiful, more life-giving, and more Christ-like.

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The Spilts

Acts 15:36-41

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We had an unwanted visitor at our home over the last few weeks. He tore things up, knocked over the garbage, and sometimes he just stunk. Our visitor was a skunk. We smelled him before we actually saw him, and if you have ever smelled a skunk, you know that the odor is unmistakable. Sonya later saw it scurrying down our driveway one night when she returned from work, and we also met it face-to-face one evening just outside our back door.

It was time for us to say goodbye.

So we borrowed a live trap and set it along a wall in our backyard. Then, early Monday morning, Sonya looks out the window and says to me, “We caught the skunk… Now what do we do?”

And by “we” she meant me.

You see, the problem with a live trap is that the captured creature is still, well, alive. Some suggested that I shoot the skunk from a safe distance. But I live in the city where it is illegal to discharge a gun, and I don’t own a gun. Someone else suggested that a trashcan full of water could quickly do away with the skunk. Sure, I’ll just tell the skunk to keep calm as I baptize him. I am, after all, a member of the clergy.

Each of these options defeat the purpose of a live trap. I was okay with the skunk living, I just didn’t want him to live in my backyard. So I spoke with my friend Dwight, who lent me the traps. And we discussed how to cover the trap with a blanket or tarp and that a skunk won’t spray you if he can’t see you…or so they say. And Dwight has a truck, which is great, because I wasn’t putting a live skunk in my car. Let’s just say that I am thankful that I have a friend like Dwight. Some friends say that they would take a bullet for you. But how many say that they will take a skunk for you?

We are in our fourth and final installment of our sermon series on Barnabas, the son of encouragement. We have reflected on those who have encouraged us along the way. We have looked at our call to minister in some capacity in our community, and we have considered the role of the Holy Spirit as we work together as a church.

Our esteemed worship leader asked me earlier this week how I was going to tie my experience with the skunk to our series on Barnabas. I didn’t need to think long before I came up with the answer: just as Paul and Barnabas did, the skunk and I have now gone our separate ways.

Our text for today comes from the same chapter as last week’s lesson. We really don’t know how much time has passed, other than what the author of Acts, Luke, tells us in verse 36, “Some time later.” Let’s look at the entire verse as it sets up our text for today, “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’”

Paul is often said to have gone on three (some say four) separate missionary journeys in the 1st century. As he went from city to city, he preached the gospel and helped start churches. Paul was accompanied during his first trip by our friend Barnabas, and Paul is inviting Barnabas to go on a trip again. This time, they will visit some of the places that they had previously visited to see how the church and the new believers were growing and developing. So far, so good.

Verses 37-38 set up our conflict: “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.”

At this point I’m wondering if anyone goes by their real name. Joseph, also called Barnabas, wanted to take John, also called Mark. But Paul, also called Saul, did not. Kevin, also called confused, needs a little more information.

Let’s start with Acts 12:25: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” Paul often travels on his missionary trips with another experienced Christian, like Barnabas or Silas, and also with a less-experienced Christian. Later, he will have Timothy with him as a bit of a disciple or mentee. We are told in Colossians 4:10 that Mark and Barnabas are cousins, so they have that extra connection there.

So Paul and Barnabas are taking off on their first missionary journey, taking Barnabas’s cousin Mark along with them. They make a few stops in cities whose name I won’t try to pronounce. They are doing good things, but there are also some scary things going on. Then in Acts 13:13, we find this brief comment that we could easily overlook: “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” That’s John, also called Mark.

He just left them to go back home.

Now I want to be very careful not to read my own emotions into this one verse. I am tempted to say things like “Mark deserted them, left them to go home. When the going got tough, Mark got going.” I’m tempted to say that, but I won’t (or did I?). The reason I want to refrain from using that kind of language is because the author of Acts, Luke, does not offer any kind of judgment on Mark’s decision to go back to Jerusalem.

We don’t know why Mark went back; he may have had a really good reason. What we do know is how Paul and Barnabas reacted to Mark’s decision. Barnabas wants to bring Mark along on their second missionary journey, Paul does not. Continuing in verse 39, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.”

Like me and the skunk, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. And like me and the skunk, they did it because at least one of them thought the other “stunk,” at least when it came to issues of discipleship.

This is where I really want to weigh in on the issue. I’m impressed with Barnabas, the son of encouragement. Here he is, doing what Barnabas does. He is giving Mark a second chance. Perhaps Mark made a bad decision, and maybe he left them hanging in Pamphylia, but Barnabas is willing to invite Mark along again. This seems very consistent with how Barnabas encouraged the other disciples to welcome a man named Saul among them just a few short years earlier. It also seems consistent with the teaching of Jesus to forgive others, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. I really like Barnabas’s willingness to be patient and offer forgiveness to Mark. To offer him as second chance, even after Mark has failed them.

But then again, I can see Paul’s point of view. It isn’t like they are trying to pick a place for lunch and they are trying to decide if they should go to that one pizza place again after they received bad service last time. We are talking about Paul’s safety and the safety of the other missionaries. We are talking about the potential for success or failure of their missionary journey.

So who was right, Paul or Barnabas? Should they have taken Mark with them or not? And was it a good thing that they went their own way after this sharp disagreement? Again, when you read Acts, Luke presents this split without judgement. He is neutral.

I find that it is always easier to look back on issues and pronounce judgement. These things always look clearer 10, 50, or 2,000 years later. But at the time, both Paul and Barnabas felt strongly about whether or not they should take Mark with them.

Splits happen. Marriages end in divorce. Families divide over inheritance, over politics, and over favoritism. And we know that churches split, too. Now I realize that the split between Paul and Barnabas is not 100% analogous with these splits, but I am pretty sure that a split is a split.

As members of the Protestant faith, we are children of divorce. Our denomination exists because Martin Luther posted 95 grievances against the Catholic Church on the front door of his church for all to see. And when a group of believers thought that the Reformation wasn’t going far enough, we started another reformation, out of which the Mennonites were born.

Here’s the thing, I’m glad that the Reformation took place. I also think that there is a place today for denominations, which allow us to disagree on some really big things. I won’t say that the Reformation or modern denominations are a bad thing. What is bad is when a split leads to hatred, anger, name calling, and finger pointing.

I like to joke with my Presbyterian friends about the governing documents found in the Book of Confessions. This confession, was written about 500 years ago, says this: “Anabaptists: We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that new-born infants of the faithful are to be baptized…we condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of the peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.”

I kind of thought that whole idea about following Jesus might be something we had in common.

I laugh about this today with my Presbyterian friends, but guess what. This passage is still in the Book of Confessions to this day. When they amend this book they only add to it and never subtract. So the “official word” today from the Presbyterians on the Anabaptists is condemnation, they call our doctrine “peculiar,” and they say that we have nothing in common. But then again, they probably believe that God predestined it to be that way, so their off the hookJ.

That’s kind of funny, but things quickly get less so. There is a story that is well-known in our area about a church split that happened in a Mennonite church just a little more than 60 years ago. There was a pastoral transition in the church and the leadership was divided over who should be the next pastor. The winners of the argument got their pastor and the losers went and started their own church just 5.9 miles down the road. Like most church splits, this one divided friends, classmates, coworkers, and yes, even families. The story isn’t that troubling to me until you hear the ripple effects of the split. This family feud, which again split families, was so intense that the family on what I have called the losing side of the divide decided to change the spelling of their last name. They did not want to be confused or associated with the other.

I can’t speak for God, but I would guess that the split itself isn’t always the worse thing in the world. Sometimes it can even be good. Many churches have been planted because of church splits. I think that the biggest disappointment to God is when we allow the things that cause us to split from one another to keep us from loving one another, working together for a common good, or even just being able to be in the same room together.

Maybe Luke doesn’t offer much as far a judgement on the split between Paul and Barnabas, but Jesus does say in Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

First, go and be reconciled to them. Jesus says, “Even before you worship me, go and make it right with your brother or sister.”

Just look at what Paul wrote later in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

So did Paul change his mind or did he simply fail to practice what he preached? In the same book, chapter 9, Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow Apostle. And toward the end of “Paul’s” life, we find him writing this in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

Paul sounds a little bit selfish there, asking for Mark because Mark would be helpful to him. But Paul trusts Mark again and is willing to give him a significant amount of responsibility. Reconciliation has taken place.

I think that this is where my opening story about being separated from the skunk breaks down a bit. While I hope that he can happily live out the remainder of his days where Dwight left him (in a neighbor’s backyard?), I’ll be okay if I never meet that skunk again.

Splits are inevitable, in our families, in our communities, and in our churches. And sometimes, I am sure that these splits are for the best. But can we continue to work together for the greater good of God’s kingdom, even after a split?

A little over a year ago, Mennonite counselor Harvey Yoder wrote an article about church splits. He said that in his 50 years as a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference, he has seen Rockingham/Augusta County go from three distinct Mennonite groups—which included two plain-clothes Mennonite groups—to at least a dozen.

I bet that if we went through some of these groups and looked at their beliefs and practices, we would probably be okay with the fact that some of these splits occurred. There are, after all, still Mennonites to our north that drive horse and buggies. Good for them, but I think I’ll keep my internal combustion engines, thank you very much. But the thing that always impresses me is that come the first weekend of October, people across the theological spectrum will come together for a greater cause.

If you go to the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale you will find plain-clothed Mennonites with head coverings and beards. You will also find women with short hair wearing pants. We work together, in spite of our differences, because we believe that Jesus called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer help to those in need.

Splits are perhaps inevitable, full reconciliation may never be possible. But rather than changing our names so we aren’t associated with one another, let’s remember that there are things that God calls us to do together that are bigger than our differences.

One last word on John Mark. Does anyone know what happened to that young man, the cousin of Barnabas? He went on to write one of the first books about the life of Jesus, and we still have copies of that book today. In fact, we’ve canonized it, and you can find it right between the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most scholars even believe that Matthew and Luke gathered some of their information from Mark’s book. That’s right, the Gospel of Mark was written by none other than Mark, the one who deserted Paul and Barnabas, the one who led to these two leaders of the early church parting ways.

Splits will happen, but really good things occur when reconciliation takes place. Our Bible is proof of that.

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Decisions and the Mission of the Church

Acts 15:22-35

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:


24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.


30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [34] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

My wife grew up in rural Nebraska. It isn’t often that I meet someone that grew up in a smaller community than I did. So when I met my wife I knew I needed to marry her, because that was one of my criteria for the perfect spouse. Okay, there may be a few other reasons I like her as well.

Virginia seems like a foreign land to a person born in Nebraska. Here we have not only mountains, but hills. She grew up with wide-open prairie land. We have buildings in our cities, and trees in our wilderness areas. She grew up where a 640-acre section (a one mile wide by one mile long continuous piece of property) of land was the norm. Roads in her home community are laid out on one-mile grids, labeled by letters going one way and numbers going the other.

One thing that I really don’t think about is just how little wind we have here in the Shenandoah Valley. The mountains, trees, and buildings break up the wind and we don’t feel the full force of the wind. But if you go to Nebraska, you notice the wind. Wind is one of those things that you don’t always notice when it is absent, but if you aren’t used to it, you will surely notice it when you experience it.

As you drive along the straight roads of Nebraska, you will often see large turbines out in the middle of nowhere. There are entire fields filled with the gigantic windmills. Their purpose is to simply try to make use of the wind to generate electricity. They maybe don’t look the nicest, but entire cities in Nebraska are powered by these wind turbines. Granted, those cities are really small, but they operate on the power of the wind.

In John’s gospel we find a strange story about the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a man who was killed three days earlier and has risen from the dead is doing something we might consider weird. But still, this is unique.

John 20:21-22 says this: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

He’s been in the grave for three days, you have to think he had some objectionable breath.

In the biblical languages, both Greek and Hebrew, the same word is translated as breath, wind, and spirit. In Hebrew that word is ruach; in Greek it is pneuma. This is where we get the words “pneumatic” and “pneumonia.” So when John says that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “receive the Holy Spirit,” it says that Jesus pnuema-ed on them and said for them to receive the Holy pnuema.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the church. We are told that the believers were all gathered together in one place. Then in verse 2 we read, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Wind, breath, and spirit. Obviously, not all wind is the Holy Spirit, but the Bible uses the wind as a metaphor to describe the Holy Spirit. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of the wind. The wind is powerful, powerful enough to knock you down, powerful enough to provide energy for an entire city. But you can’t catch the wind. All you can do is learn to work with it.

In Acts 15 we find our friend Barnabas again, and as we often find him in the first 15 chapters of Acts, he is with Paul. This time they are trying to figure out what to do with Gentiles who are coming into the church. Ultimately, the question comes down to, Do they have to become Jews first? Specifically, do they need to be circumcised? Paul and Barnabas say no, others say yes. It may seem rather unimportant to us today, but remember that circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament.

At this point in their careers, Paul and Barnabas are working as missionaries, going from city to city, preaching and teaching. They know that this is not a decision that they can or should make on their own. So a group of leaders gathers in Jerusalem for what we often call the “Jerusalem Council.” Paul and Barnabas bring their case for the full inclusion of Gentiles to other leaders of the church. Among these leaders we are told are some of the original apostles; James and Peter are named. There are also some who are simply called “the elders.” Still others are called “prophets.”

The Greek word translated as elders here is presbuteros, which is also often translated as bishop or presbyter. This is simply a reference to a more experienced person in the faith.

When there was a difficult decision to be made, Paul and Barnabas didn’t simply make that decision on their own. They asked other leaders for their input. They included the elders, the disciples, the prophets, and other representatives from the church. You might call this the leadership team for the early church.

There has been much made lately about the five-fold ministry of the church. This ministry is often based on Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 4:11 that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers [to the church].” These are all important roles in the church, and I wouldn’t want to lead a church without these people present.

I would also say that this is not a complete list of church leaders. The elder/presbyter from Acts 15 isn’t listed, and neither is the deacon, that we find in Acts 11 and other places as well.

However, I have a concern about those churches that say that they follow the five, six, or seven-fold model of ministry. My concern is that we really don’t know what these people did. We don’t have a job description for most of these roles, and who really knows what an elder or deacon is supposed to do, anyway?

The word “deacon” literally means a servant. Aren’t we all supposed to be servants? When I think of the ministries of the church, I like to think of a Venn Diagram. Venn Diagrams show how multiple things are both unique and yet also overlap with one another. So there is a role in the New Testament Church called deacon, but all other leaders are also called to serve one another.

There is a really good example of this in Acts 6. We find a story here about a certain group of widows who are not being cared for properly. So the 12 disciples decide to name a group of seven men to look after the widows. The text doesn’t call them deacons, but it would be appropriate to call them servants. The first of these servants is a man named Stephen.

The very next story in Acts 6 also includes Stephen, and this is the story that many of us probably know Stephen from. At the end of this chapter and into chapter 7 we find the story of Stephen being stoned, making him the first Christian martyr.

Why was Stephen killed? Was he killed for helping widows? How dare he?! He was killed for preaching, not for serving. But Stephen wasn’t a preacher teacher, or evangelist. He was a deacon! It is clear that these roles in the church overlap. Those who are deacons still preach and those who are elders still help the widows and the poor. These positions aren’t always locked in and separate from one another. The position is about a person’s primary role or calling, not their exclusive responsibility.

I’ll admit that I think that the five-fold ministry is a little too rigid for my taste. Maybe it is because I push back a little against the established way of doing things. Yes, a way of doing ministry may have been successful in one setting, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do ministry in exactly the same way.

What I think we can learn from the passages like the five-fold ministry from Ephesians 4 is exactly what we learned last session. When Barnabas was called to be the pastor at First Church of Antioch, he invited Paul to join him because Barnabas knew that they each brought different gifts in their leadership roles.

So while I don’t think that we need to have written job descriptions for every leader in the congregation, I do think that it is important to have a good understanding of one’s role. And rather than saying that every church needs to have a pastor, an elder, a deacon, and a prophet, I think it is better for a church to start by asking, “What is our mission?” and “What needs to be done to achieve that mission?”

If you are ministering to people dealing with poverty, one of the leadership roles in your church might be to work with people on budgeting and purchasing groceries on a limited income. If you minister to a lot with single mothers, perhaps parenting classes would be the best way to fulfill your mission. You may not need an official deacon on your leadership team. Maybe what you need is a “nanny in residence.”

The division of the work in the church is important for maintaining our sanity, especially for those who are bi-vocational or volunteers in the church. But this doesn’t always mean that sharing the leadership roles is easier.

It would have been easier for Paul and Barnabas to just make the decision on their own to include Gentiles in the church without requiring circumcision. I’m sure that they made many decisions without consulting the other leaders first. But this one required the input of the entire church leadership.

It isn’t efficient to bring every question to the leadership group, so every leader needs to have the authority to make some decisions. But when a decision affects the entire congregation, it needs to be a group decision.

I like to use the metaphor of the church as an old ship, driven by oars. In my mind it is a Viking ship, but weird things happen in my mind. On a ship, everyone wants to steer. Everyone wants to be the captain. Everyone wants to stand behind the big, wooden wheel and give it a spin. That sounds like fun.

Not everyone wants to row. Rowing is work. Rowing is boring. All you see when you are rowing is the back of the person in front of you. Nobody wants to row, but someone has to do it.

When I apply this to decision making in the church, I like to say that if you want to steer the boat, you have to also row. If you want to make the decisions that will effect where the church is going, you need to invest some physical labor, some sweat equity, in the church.

But we would be making a mistake if we thought of a big Viking ship being driven by nothing but those who are rowing. Remember, these ships have sails as well. And the sails make sure to utilize the power of the wind.

So Paul and Barnabas gather together with the elders, the deacons, the apostles, the pastors, the teachers, and with other leaders from the church. These are the people that have been working for and with the church since its very beginning. They talk about the issue at hand, and they come to an agreement. I cannot emphasize this process enough. Look at verse 28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

When major decisions are made, we cannot make them as individuals. We consult the group. And most importantly, we put up our sails and consult the Holy Spirit.

It all comes back to the Holy Spirit. Remember that the words we translate as spirit can also be translated as wind and breath. When God formed the first human being out of dirt, God breathed his holy breath, his Holy Spirit into that lifeless lump of clay. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, they heard a sound like the wind coming through the city, and that holy wind, the Holy Spirit, descended upon them, equipping them to be leaders, to be ministers, deacons, and elders, to be financial advisors and nannies-in-residence, to lead the church that was in its infancy.

I believe that it is our job to join the Holy Spirit of God to lead the people of this world into a relationship with God and to make this world more like what God intended for it to be.

So what is our “mission” here at Staunton Mennonite Church? We actually have a mission statement, but those are generally so broad that they aren’t of much use (IMHO). A number of years we invested some time, energy, and money into the Valley Mission. I think that was an excellent endeavor on our part. And maybe we want to keep investing in the Mission.

But we also have opportunities before us to minister to our own children. I hope to meet with the families of the church in the near future to hear what you would like to see the church do as far as youth ministry. We have opportunities ahead of us, and I’m not going to make those decisions on my own!

When Paul and Barnabas were faced with a major decision, they gathered a number of leaders together to discern the future of the church. They gathered all those who were willing to row and asked where they would like to steer. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can steer this church, guiding the congregation into the future God would like us to have.

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