September 2, 2012

Undying Love For Our Lord Jesus Christ

Passage: Ephesians 6:23-24

Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.

Kielder Village is a small settlement in, Northumberland, England.  It is located at the head of The Kielder Water home to northern Europe's largest man-made lake and England's largest forest.  It is also home the Kielder marathon; an annual event that that claims to be Britain’s most beautiful marathon.

In the 2011 edition of the marathon Rob Sloan, placed third, completing the 26.2 miles in 2:51:00, but suspicions surfaced, including those of the witnesses who reportedly saw him hide behind trees until the first- and second-place runners passed him.  Sloan initially denied the accusation claiming to be angry that someone would want “to cast these aspersions”. Organizers launched an investigation and Sloan changed his tune.  He confessed that at around the 20 mile mark he had decided to give up; for some reason, though, he boarded a bus that took him near the finish line, hence his third place finish. Organizer of the race and former world-record holder Steve Cram noted that Sloan “was the only runner in the whole of the race who ran the second half quicker than the first half."

The writer of the letter Hebrews compared the Christian life to a long-distance race when he said “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”; Paul was fond of using athletic competition to illustrate Christian life and long-distance races were among these illustrations.  As we run this race of faith there are times when we feel like giving up—maybe even looking for a bus-ride to the finish line.

The theme of perseverance in the faith runs throughout the closing section of Paul’s Ephesian letter.  Perseverance is implied in the final word of blessing: “Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In our world we are confronted by an enemy that ever seeks to cause our love for Jesus to grow cold.  I invite you to reflect with me on what this text might say to us about persevering in this love for Christ.

1. My mother was born the same year the The United Church of Canada came into existence.  The rural Methodist congregation that her family attended became the Wallace United Church.  Like the origins of Central United Church it began as a Methodist Society; the Wallace Methodist society was founded in 1855.  It was through the ministry of this congregation that my mother came to faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour. When I was a boy we would visit my grandmother and uncles who lived on the family farm and if there on a Sunday we went to worship at the Wallace church.  The sanctuary holds about 130 people; it seemed much bigger in my childhood memory.

Last September I was the guest preacher for 156th Anniversary service of this congregation.  My aunt is one of about twenty faithful members who continue to meet there for worship; every other Sunday the minister, who they share with two other congregations, holds a service.  On anniversary Sunday people come from the other congregations so numbers are up; on the Sunday I was there even a few relatives of mine showed up since their cousin/son/brother was the guest minister.

We might reasonably ask why this small congregation would not make the prudent decision to wind up operations and join with the larger town congregation.  Why do they persist?  When I visited last September I saw people there who were part of that congregation when I was a boy.  Their perseverance witnessed to me that they continue to cling in faith to Jesus Christ; it was an encouragement to my own faith that those longer in this journey than I persist.  It bears witness to the story of the gospel that Jesus has not given up on them—the he will not abandon them.  “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I on the midst”, promised Jesus.  For any who would care to join in their worship they will hear the timeless message that God loves them so much he withholds nothing of himself for their sakes—even death on a cross.

Why God has bound himself to people for the fulfilment of his great purposes to set all things to right is a profound mystery; that he has is expressed in Jesus’ pronouncement that he will build his church.  It is consistent with that great wonder wherein God created humans giving them dominion over creation and in that the work of tending and care that the world might become all that God envisioned for its existence.  The church of Jesus Christ is a together-with-others project and your clinging to Jesus in faith is a crucial part of Christ’s work to sustain others in their faith.  Your persevering to be present with others at worship is vital not only for the sustaining of your own faith but also for the encouragement and help of others.

2.  In this Ephesian letter the Christian life has been presented as a struggle against supernatural forces.  We are to put on the whole armour of God so that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  We live in an era where talk of such forces is thought by many as fanciful; the stuff of fiction novels and movies.  A product of the Enlightenment thinking, the universe has been shrunken to only the physically measurable.  Good and evil—if they exist—are then thought of as elements of the physically measurable.

But Jesus insisted that in reality the battle line was not simply between groups of people; not between the Romans as evil occupier and the Jews as downtrodden saints.  The battle was with the accuser; the Satan was the adversary behind it all.  One day Jesus healed a crippled woman who was bent over unable to stand up straight; Jesus said that it was Satan who did this to her.  The battle in the wilderness at the commencement of his ministry was with the Devil.  He saw that even his disciples could be so influenced; when Peter tried to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem to face death Jesus said: “Get behind me, Satan.”  When the religious establishment was co-opted he said “you are of your father the Devil”.

Paul, in this Ephesian letter, names the same enemy.  Though Christ has already defeated these foes, they are still active attempting to detach followers from Jesus.  They surrounded believers in the guise of pagan gods or magical practices, or of unchristian and heretical beliefs cutting away at the core of faith.  It is not for believers to attack them in an attempt to in an attempt to inflict another defeat; the armour of God does not contain such weapons.  Instead, believers stand where they are; if they hold the line, that itself will be another defeat of the powers arrayed against us.

3. We are in a battle, insists the Apostle.  We are confronted with detractors who level all manner of criticism against Christian faith; some of the criticism is deserved given that Christ’s people have not always done as Christ would do.  Never let it be a reason to prevent you from Christ; do not cut yourself off from experiencing the promise of Jesus to be present at the gathering of his people because some of Christ’s people behave badly.

We are confronted by distractions—many of them good and important things in and of themselves—that deflect our eye from the essential that is faith in Jesus Christ.  A ministry colleague of mine left his work in parish ministry to take up chaplaincy work; he told me of his surprise at the struggle to maintain the habit of weekly attendance at worship; of how easy it was to get away from something that had been so routine for him.

Paul had listed six pieces of armour that we are to put on in order to stand against the enemy.  Some commentators say that there is a seventh; prayer. Immediately after describing the six pieces of armour Paul wrote: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to “deliver us from evil (the evil one)”.  Clearly Jesus understood that prayer was integral to this battle to stand in the face of what the evil one throws our way.

It is a profound mystery that God invites us to participate in the influence of the course of events by prayer; that he does is witnessed everywhere in scripture. The Apostle James wrote that “the prayer of the righteous (rightly related to God by faith) is powerful and effective”.  Countless believers bear witness to knowing themselves upheld and supported by prayer even though they did not see anyone pray.  Some object to prayer saying is a little like advising God what to do, above our pay grade, so to speak.  With C.S. Lewis, I would ask such a person, “I suppose, then, you never ask someone to pass the pepper or salt because God has supplied your food with adequate spice; or that you never take and umbrella with you since God knows whether you should be wet or dry”.  The fact that God allows us to influence the course of events in some matters indicates that God is willing for us to do so in others.

I have found that as people age feelings of being useless can be a great discouragement; where we once could do much for the church infirmities sideline us from such things.  I often tell people in such a place that they can still do much for the church by prayer.  I ask them to pray for me the thing Paul asked for; to pray that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.  Pray for the proclamation of the gospel.

We need to hear the gospel; the message of God’s salvation.  If we have difficulty understanding what the word “salvation” means in scripture we should think in terms of “salvage,” a salvage operation. The earliest Christians knew that in the cross Jesus had set aside his own safety, had immersed himself in our predicament, had drunk down the death we deserve—and all of this in order to salvage us. It was a rescue mission. Rescue from what? From the judgement of the just judge. Our Lord didn’t do all this at incomprehensible cost to himself in order to make us feel better or supply us with information we lacked. He did it to spare us real loss, final loss, amidst a peril that couldn’t be more perilous. Our Lord went to the cross to do for what us what we could never do for ourselves and apart from which our situation as sinners was hopeless before the Holy One—such is his love for us.

The gospel preached is the sacrament of the word which sustains us in our faith.  It is the sacrament of perseverance.  Much can distract a minister from proclaiming the gospel.  I can think of the media coverage of pronouncements about Israel/Palestine relations made at the 41st General Council of the United Church held this past August. I find the resolutions adopted by this council deeply troubling, bordering on anti-Semitism.  Yet I believe that what we need to hear Sunday morning is not a dissection of those resolutions but the gospel proclaimed.  To pray for the preaching of the gospel is to pray for the church’s perseverance in faith.

4.  I have already hinted at my next point when I shared my experience of preaching at the church of my mother’s childhood.  Prayer is essential for perseverance.  People are critical for perseverance as well; people who journey in faith with us.

Sometimes we gloss over the final part of Paul’s letters where he names people; it is like reading the in-house stuff that had importance for the people involved but does not have the application for us like the parts of the epistle aimed at the broader Christian church.  Listen again to what Paul wrote. “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.”

As you hear that you can detect how important the relationship between Paul and the people of the church was.  How you are doing in the faith and in life was the matter that would encourage the hearts of people.  According to letter to the Colossians (4:7,8), Tychicus delivered both letters (Ephesians and Colossians) for Paul and carried with him the stories of how Paul was doing (and how they were doing back to Paul).  In those days there was no reliable postal service so messages had to be delivered; Tychicus was chosen for this task.  Consider what that says about him and his relationship with Paul.  He was a trusted colleague; he could be counted on to  deliver the letters and personal news about Paul.  Tychicus plays an important role in the preservation of Paul’s writings.

We need people who share faith with us to persevere in the faith.  Outside moving to a new community, people tend to leave a church for three fundamental reasons—one of those reasons is “lack of meaningful relationships”.  This is one of the reasons I believe that developing small group ministry at Central is important—we need each other to develop in faith in Jesus Christ.

5.  Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ. In Paul’s final greeting he touches on the foundation for perseverance—love for our Lord Jesus Christ.  Not everyone who met Jesus in his earthly ministry loved him. Some hissed at him: “He has a demon.” Some despised him: “He’s illegitimate.” Some discounted him: “He’s only a carpenter’s son.” Most ignored him: “Has anything noteworthy ever come out of Nazareth?” And then there were those who loved him. At first they warmed to him the way we warm to anyone who is winsome and engaging. Then they came to love him the way we come to love those whom we know to love us.

But it didn’t stop there. They came to love Jesus not as an equal; they came to love him not just because another human being had loved them; they came to love him as the very presence and power of God. They adored him. Love and adoration suffused each other only to surge out over him. Their love was adoring and their adoration was loving. In other words, they loved him in a way that was different from the way they loved everyone else. For he alone was Lord.

This point is crucial. Everywhere in life you and I love those whom we don’t adore and aren’t supposed to adore. There is only one whom we are to love and adore alike: this one the earliest Christians recognized in the Nazarene whom they knew to be the Son of God Incarnate.

When I was young I didn’t understand why Christians would suffer martyrdom rather than deny the one they loved. I didn’t understand this because I hadn’t yet grasped the fact that people today genuinely do love Jesus. To be sure I could grasp the fact that people believed this or that about him. I could understand that people deemed him to be truth. But love him?

Take the stories of Jesuit missionaries to Japan.  The face of Jesus was painted onto the floor. Then the missionary was told he could spare himself death if he walked on the painted face.   “Why didn’t they walk on it? Jesus would understand. He would understand that there’s no point in dying needlessly. Walk on the portrait – and live to preach the gospel a thousand times more.”

I am not sure when it was that it all fell into place for me. One day I grasped why those who genuinely love don’t betray the one they love. Would I denounce and disown my wife to spare myself?  For Christians, Jesus Christ is alive and well and living among us. Denounce and disown him out of the crassest self-interest? This is what Paul meant when he speaks of “those who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is also why the one and only question Jesus put to Peter on Easter morning was simply, “Peter, do you love me?”

Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.