Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Galatians: Love Rules

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 11/20/2011

We know how important rules are for kids.

Don’t hit. Don’t scream. Be respectful. 2 sheets of toilet paper per wipe, max. Be in charge of your emotions. Stay in your bed once we’ve said goodnight, unless you are bleeding or throwing up. Say, OK Dad, when I ask you do something. And then do it. Come put a hand on my shoulder if you want my attention and I’m talking to someone else. And on, and on.

What if, one day, you said to your kids: OK, the rules are gone. The rules were always just temporary, meant to point us toward love. Love is here now, so Love is in charge. Just listen to Love.

What do you imagine it would be like? Planet of the Apes? Animal House?

Lord of the Flies?

If it’s always been rules that have constrained behavior and provided for order and a safe context for healthy growth, what will happen when the rules aren’t in charge anymore?

[15 minute NO RULES! experiment with our kids…]

When we move from an experience of bounded-set community to centered-set community, from Law to Gospel, from rules-based religion to love-based faith, we get nervous in the same sort of way.

Won’t people just use their newfound freedom to get away with murder? Won’t there be all kinds of hitting and screaming and disrespect and whole rolls of toiletpaper clogging the toilet, and temper tantrums and people running through the house all night and the TV set to spongebob 24 hours a day?

First, a reality check. Even with the rules, there was still some hitting. And the occasional outside voice when an inside voice would have been appropriate. And the toilet keeps getting suspiciously plugged far more often than it should, especially in light of how much coaxing you’re having to do to get them to eat anything at dinner, anyway.

Even when our faith communities are rules-based, rules are getting broken all the time. Only, more often than not, it’s being hidden in shame or by malicious deceit. And new ways of misbehaving that the rules haven’t caught up with are more than likely already underway, aren’t they?

But even with that reality check in mind, we still have our yes, buts when we hear Paul describing a faith that places Jesus and his message of good news and his call to love at the center of what it means to be part of the family of God. Especially when he goes ballistic at the most reasonable, Biblically defensible attempt to just add one or two or three things to the Gospel.

OK, we say. We can understand how important it is to have at our center only that which is truly central, and if we add anything to that, that which is truly central will lose its power. That’s what we talked about in more detail as we looked at the book of Galatians last week.

Yes, we say. But…

And most of our buts have to do with all of the questions that come up around the question, “What in the world then is going to get us sinful people to behave, to live in good and right and life-giving ways? What’s going to save us from the seemingly inevitable abuses of freedom that are coming? And what do we do about them when they come?”

Paul’s response begins in chapter 5, where he says in essence:

I hear your concerns. First, no matter what, don’t let your concerns persuade you to go back to rules-based religion.

Second, as to your main concerns: It’s pretty simple. The Love that has come into the world in Jesus Christ is a more reliable guide than any rules, so walk in the way of Love. Along the way, avoid the obvious exit ramps that will send you in an opposing, love-killing direction. And let the Holy Spirit lead you.

Let’s read it:

[quick summary of background first…]

5 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

7You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will have to pay the penalty, whoever that may be. 11Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Life by the Spirit

13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Paul begins with this strong re-assertion of the importance of keeping Christ and Christ alone at the center, because he knows things will be a little messy and uncertain on the way to freedom, and he knows the human tendency to want to return to what we’ve always known, even if what we knew wasn’t that great in the first place. Because at least we knew what to expect.

[Remember Israel wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt…?]

But Paul doesn’t leave it at that, thankfully. He does give us something to go on, and it’s first referenced right in the middle of his diatribe, and then expanded on later.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.

More literally, only faith operating through love is truly powerful.

Rules-based religion may seem powerful, but actually, real power is only present in the kind of trust in Jesus that gets expressed through love.

Do we want to welcome the kingdom of God amongst us? Do we want to participate in the restoration and renewal and redemption of all things? Do we want to be healed and made whole and be filled with God’s Holy Spirit? Do we want the old creation to be re-created and remade into the new creation present for the first time in Jesus’ resurrection body?

I say we do.

Paul says the only way to get there is faith operating through love.

And that will require some significant learning and adjustment on our part.

13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Mission statement: together we follow the way of Jesus and create breathing room for the disfavored to find favor, the discounted to count, the disconnected to connect.

Each one of us engaged in the mission has at some level found favor, experienced what it means to count in God’s kingdom, and tasted the joy of connecting to God and his family through Jesus. And we found that favor, started counting and tasted connection all because we turned towards Jesus and received what he had for us.

Not because we got any part of our act together.

Surely, the various parts of our acts that we’ve gotten together have increased our capacity to embrace God’s favor, give all of ourselves to God’s purposes for our lives, and dwell securely in the Shalom that comes from connection to Christ. But none of that was required for entry; Jesus – and cooperating brothers and sisters – gave us breathing room to turn and receive and enter into freedom from sin and death and separation. Freedom, freely given and freely received.

But now, it would be insanity to use that freedom to indulge the sinful nature. We’d just be using our freedom to become slaves again.

The warning against indulging the sinful nature goes two ways. We can’t indulge it to enslave in rules-based religion those who are coming after us and need the same breathing room we were given as a gift (Love your neighbor as yourself; if you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other). And we can’t indulge it to stop walking together on the way of Jesus (serving one another humbly in love), taking the next step of discipleship.

All of our energy in the centered set goes to becoming students in Jesus’ school of love. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. (they’ll know you’re my disciples by your love…)

Not just any kind of love, but Agape love.

STORGE, affection: fondness thru familiarity; PHILEO, friendship; EROS, romance; AGAPE the least celebrated: unconditional love, love that cares for the other regardless of circumstance. Not a single god in the Graeco-Roman pantheon specialized in AGAPE.

Except YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who so agape-ed the world that he sent his one-of-a-kind, unique Son, that whoever trusts in him would have the life of the heavens, eternal life, the kind of zoe-life that flows from God and never runs out and can’t be taken away and doesn’t decay or get blown around by the winds of this world.

[centered-set; God Agape-ing those far, far away, even turned away from him, calling them to receive his love, inviting them to follow him, further and further into it. Demanding that those who follow learn to imitate his Agape towards one another, which makes space for his Agape to make a home in them, welcoming new creation, because it is after all, Agape that made the world in the first place, love that loves the other and invites the other into one’s love, even at great cost, so that love is multiplied.]

With Jesus as our center, The AGAPE that has made a home in us through the Holy Spirit moves us in discipleship from inside and the AGAPE that is our master, Jesus the anointed one, draws us from outside (like 2 magnets drawn to each other).

And because the law and the prophets were always pointing the same direction as AGAPE, AGAPE himself will lead us to Christ-likeness both more reliably, and more powerfully.

Old creation guarded by law, but dying and doomed nonetheless.  Law a preservation until turning point in history - explosive good news of Jesus, death, rising, pouring out of Spirit.

No going back.  Rules-based religion may be tidy, but it was crucified with Jesus. Along with the rest of the old creation.  

Love has come, and love is the train that carries us into new creation.

Love may look like an uncertain guide - it seems so invisible, doesn't it?  So up for interpretation?  But Agape is personal.  God, according to St. John, is Agape.

Jesus himself.  The Holy Spirit.  

To Paul, AGAPE meant a living, active, life generating, directive, guiding, personal presence living inside of those who follow Jesus!

Paul had encountered AGAPE on the road to Damascus, and knew that AGAPE was WAY more demanding than any law.

Paul said in Philippians, “As to righteousness by the Law—I was perfect.” But AGAPE love is another matter entirely. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  (Romans 7:15) In other words, Paul was successful at obeying the law, but AGAPE was pushing and pulling him further than the law had ever demanded. [like the difference between a workout routine and a personal trainer…]

So we are going to walk in the way of AGAPE love instead of rules-based religion because we want more than rules-based religion can give us. We want everything Jesus wants to give us. Which in the end, is life. Abundant life.

Paul knows however, that we aren’t super-well versed in the way of AGAPE yet, that we are still learning the voice of our new Master, so he cautions us to avoid some of the obvious exit ramps.

16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In other words, in the end, the goal is for AGAPE to permeate us entirely, so that we want what God wants, so that our new natural desires lead us on the way of love. That’s walking by the Spirit.

But we still have a sinful nature exerting influence on our desires. So instead of just doing what we want, we need to evaluate our desires and hold them up against AGAPE.

Do our desires lead us to any of those obvious love-killers on the list? Don’t go down that path. If you keep walking on it, it won’t lead you to AGAPE, to the kingdom of God, to life.

Notice Paul’s tone here, though. He’s not shouting, threatening. If he has to raise his voice to get us off those paths, it’s already too late, and won’t do any good, because we’re clearly not trying to take the next step of discipleship.

No, here Paul is using his inside voice. He knows if we’ve chosen Jesus, if we’ve chosen the gospel, if we’ve chosen the way of love, then we want to hear what he’s saying. So he can speak gently to us.

And he continues about the importance of the Holy Spirit in a centered-set faith community.

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Notice how Paul contrasts the “acts” of the sinful nature with the “fruit” of the Spirit. One can choose or not choose to take steps on the way of love or on the various love-killer exit ramps. But one can’t choose to be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things come as a natural result – “fruit” – of a discipleship to Jesus characterized by listening to the Holy Spirit and taking each next step of discipleship as Jesus leads.

And that’s why rules-based religion can’t get you there. The fruit of the spirit comes directly from the trusting relationship with Jesus that is nurtured in discipleship. If I’m trusting a system, it will bear in me the fruit that that system bears. But it is limited by the limits of that system. If I’m trusting a living, breathing Savior, it is only limited by the life of that Savior. And this Savior has unlimited life, life eternal. And so the fruit of the Spirit is bursting with that life.

It’s like we’re in a sailboat with one of those little electric motors to get us out of the harbor and into the wind.  At a certain point, we have to take our hand off little electric outboard and put our sails to catch the wind.  If we don’t know how to sail--how to lower the boom and rig the jib and trim the thingamajig--we’re going to make a royal mess of things. We will sail in circles, or tip the boat over, or sit dead in the water. We’ll be tempted to go back to little outboard motor.

But Paul is in the boat with us. The motor is the Law. The sails are the gospel. And Paul is saying, “Keep your hands off that motor and learn how to sail, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’ll live with the mess until you do. There’s no other way across this lake!”

So what does all of this mean for us as a church?

It means we will not let anything but Jesus occupy our center. It means we will not let anything but the gospel be our message. It means we will not let anything but love be our aim. Because the Bible is our book, and this is what the Bible says to us.

Like Paul (and Jesus before him), when necessary, we will use our outside voices to keep Jesus as our center and the gospel as our message and love as our aim.

It’s easy to get into a bounded set and stop moving towards AGAPE once you’re on the inside.  But there’s no point to being in a centered set unless you want to keep moving.  We are here, together following the way of Jesus, because we don’t want to settle for anything less than everything Jesus has for us.

Which is why we will continuously encourage one another to walk in the way of love, and to avoid the exit ramps that the love-killers provide, and to learn to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as we seek to take each next step of discipleship

But as we do that, like Paul (and Jesus before him), we will use our inside voices. We will seek to come alongside one another and pay close attention to what the Spirit is saying in preference to what our sinful natures are saying, so that we can truly speak the truth in love to one another. Because while Love is loud when it is announcing good news in the face of opposition, it is gentle and humble when addressing sinners and inviting them into the next steps of discipleship.

[notice how the fruit of the spirit isn’t an exhaustive list of virtues, but it is a list of the virtues that a sinner would love to be surrounded by when learning to follow the way of love? Notice how it’s a list of virtues that would need to be present for a centered-set community to work without anyone becoming conceited, provoking and envying one another?]

A note to those who are newbies to a centered-set community of faith, but veterans of more bounded-set religious expressions: in bounded sets, the leaders’ primary jobs are guarding and enforcing the boundaries. And the non-leaders are there to notice infractions and bring them to the attention of leaders. This is not the case when AGAPE defines a centered-set. The demands of AGAPE on everyone who is part of the faith community centered on AGAPE are that we serve one another in love. Which means we are all on the front lines of helping one another discern the voice of Jesus’ Spirit calling us to the next step of discipleship, and on the front lines of helping one another take those next steps.

No one is exempt.

And the primary role of leaders is helping equip the saints for that work of service to one another. Helping us learn serve one another in love, how to discern the desires of our sinful nature vs. the desires that come from AGAPE, how to listen for the voice of the spirit. Which is where we need the scriptures, and the gift of discernment, and the witness of our fellow believers from the first disciples on until today.

And so if you bring some exit ramp behavior to the attention of a leader, if that exit ramp behavior isn’t something that is keeping us from our mission to follow the way of Jesus together, creating breathing room for the disfavored to find favor and the discounted to count and the disconnected to connect, that leader’s task will not be first to address the exit ramp behavior, but instead to help you discover what it means – as part of your discipleship – to humbly serve your brother or sister in love.

This might be frustrating at first J. But press in – there is life down this road, abundant, overflowing, zoe-life.

Practical Tips:

1. Receive God’s AGAPE love for you. Recognize that God’s love is not contingent on you improving. It is not contingent on you staying within some kind of boundaries. God’s love for you simply is. Trust it.

Every step of discipleship from here on out will not add to his love for you. But each step will open your heart to receive it more deeply and empower you to welcome it’s transforming effects on you and your relationships and your world. And that’s why you’ll keep moving forward.

2. Listen to U2’s “When Love Comes to Town” as a commentary on Galatians.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Galatians: All Bait, No Switch

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 11/13/2011

[explain bait and switch…]

So maybe you’ve had this kind of experience:

You want to share the good news of Jesus with someone at work, or a friend, or a family member. You know that Jesus’ good news is good news to you. That Jesus is good news to them. That it contains – for them, and their circumstances – explosive, transformative, life-changing, saving power. But you also know that when they hear it, they are going to have some questions about what else goes along with it.

Like, if I go to your church to find out more about Jesus, will I have to give my money? Will I have to stop partying? Will I have to change something about how I express my sexuality? Will I have to dress differently? Will I have to stop talking the way I normally talk? Will I have to start believing some particular things about the end of the world? Will I have to stop believing some particular things about the beginning of the world? Will I have to change my politics? Will I have to stop smoking? What religious things will I have to start doing? Will something in my past disqualify me from going very far on this journey? Will something central to my identity be a problem pretty soon?

And you’re not sure what to do with those questions. Truthfully, you hope they don’t ask any of those questions until after they meet Jesus. Because you want to be able to say, no, none of that matters, just come, check it out. But you’re also thinking, I hope once they check it out, they fall so in love with Jesus fast enough that once they find out the reality about ____________, they don’t care anymore, and they are ready to change.

And so you feel like you’re sort of doing a bait and switch. Advertising one thing, hoping that once they are in the store and find out it’s not exactly as advertised, they’ll still buy, because after all, it truly is a good deal; they just wouldn’t have come to the store in the first place if you’d told them the whole story.

We are going to start a two week series on the book of Galatians, because Galatians is about the first bait and switch in the history of Christianity. But we won’t get to the scripture itself until nearly the end of the message today. So hang in there.

Let’s begin today by defining the goods we Jesus followers are peddling. Those goods are the good news, the gospel. This is my dad’s 100 word summary of the gospel:


The gospel is good news that our exile from God, others, and ourselves is ending thanks to a great rescue. God has entered the human condition once and for all through his Beloved Son—to reconcile and redeem us by his coming, living, dying, bodily rising, ascending, Spirit-infusing, and promised future coming as judge. Jesus is gathering a community of disciples to bear witness to the future-glorious reign of God breaking into the present, empowering us to work toward the day when heaven and earth are once again fully integrated in a new creation—which through Jesus, has already begun.


It’s that good news that gives us our vision of being a centered-set church. That for us, the one thing we have in common is Jesus and the good news we hear from him and see in him and experience with him. That something about him has gotten our attention, and to one degree or another he is capturing our hearts. So much so that eventually, the only thing of supreme importance in our lives is figuring out our next step in following him. What we might call our next step of discipleship.

We believe that Jesus has announced the good news of the kingdom of God. That God’s kingdom – his good rule and reign that sets us free from everything that might try to enslave us, the rule and reign that brings us life, that makes us secure in his presence – is here now, and it’s coming more and more, and it will one day come all the way, through and through, everywhere, and then everything will be set right: in us, in our relationships, in our world.



Made new.

Set right.

By the rule and reign of God.

And we believe that the kingdom of God comes by Jesus’ authority and the work of his Holy Spirit. Our job, therefore, is simply to receive the grace that lets us see what he’s doing so that we can join in with Jesus as creatively and joyfully and wholeheartedly as possible.

And as tempting as it is to try to authoritatively define exactly what it means to do that [prayer, bible reading, stopping this behavior, starting that behavior, etc.], we know that that responding to that temptation would – despite our best intentions – actually change the good news of Jesus into a religion. And in the end it would cause us to take our eyes off of Jesus and turn them towards things that might be good, but would be less than he is.

So we choose instead to be pilgrims on a pilgrimage toward Jesus, living lives that are responding to Jesus, shaped by his gospel. Sharing what we’ve learned along the way with other pilgrims, but never letting anyone’s response to any particular thing we’ve learned along the way become a criteria for joining together in pilgrimage.

No, instead we will create breathing room for everyone we encounter along our path. Confident that Jesus will work out all of those differences that truly matter along the way.

After all, if Jesus really is who he says he is, and if the kingdom of God really is what Jesus says it is, then all who seek first his kingdom will find that everything else that matters will be added to them.

That’s why we describe our mission this way:


Together we follow the way of Jesus and create breathing room the disfavored to find favor, for the discounted to count, and for the disconnected to connect. Starting here.

And since Jesus is the treasure hidden in the field, since he is the pearl of great price, we simply will not allow ourselves to let anything else – no matter how good and true and right it is – take center stage in our vision.

For example, any one of us might feel sure of what heaven is and how it works, or what hell is and how it works, or how the world started, or how it’s going end, or what behaviors are life-giving and God-honoring, or what actions are destructive and disobedient. Any one of us might feel sure that a particular way of reading the bible, or a particular passage, is the right way and that other ways are the wrong way. But we will not let any of those things we may feel sure about trump the commitment we have to not letting anything get added to the gospel. Because it is the gospel that is the power of salvation for those who trust it. And if we force anyone to trust the gospel, or Jesus, and something else in order to be called brother or sister, than we ourselves do not actually trust the gospel, or Jesus, do we?

Gospel comes from an old English word meaning “good news.” The gospel is good. In fact, it’s the best possible, nothing better anywhere ever. And it’s news. As in new and noteworthy. Unheard of before. Fundamentally unlike the same old same old.

The gospel does what good news does. It drops like an explosive energy into the midst of space and time, and transforms everything about its surroundings and its hearers. [remember Oprah’s favorite things…?]


“favorite things” reaction

Nothing is ever the same again in the wake of good news. The gospel invites us to embrace the new reality that the good news announces and let it work its power on our hearts and minds and bodies and souls.

The gospel is not the same thing as religion.

Religion comes from the root word “lig” which has to do with connecting (as in ligament) and “re” which means again. So religion is a way to connect us again to God and to one another and to all of creation. Religion at its core is as good as people are good and as bad as people are bad. Which means it can be both pretty good and pretty horrible. And religion is most definitely not news. No matter how new the religion, religion is always made out of the same old same old, just in new configurations, for better or for worse.

And so religion does what religion does. It connects and guides and guards and shapes and gathers and defines. Religion can be an agent of blessing people, communities, cultures, or quite the opposite. But because it does its work from the outside in, religion tends not to invite, but rather to usher, with varying levels of forcefulness, and its power is a function of the effectiveness and wisdom of its systems.

Various forms of Christianity, then, are various religious forms wrapped around the gospel.

Thankfully, the gospel is so powerful that it’s possible for huge gaps to exist between the religion it’s wrapped in and the gospel itself, and many people will still buy it, and it will still be a good deal. But sometimes, those gaps between the gospel and the religion it’s wrapped in can be so large that they obscure the gospel. Obscure it thoroughly enough that some people never even glimpse the gospel that lies at the heart of that particular religious form. Or sometimes those gaps are so significant that the gospel sneaks right out of the picture all together, and all you’ve got left is empty religion.

Let’s go back, now, to that hypothetical person with whom you shared the gospel at the start of the message today.

What if you could say, in response to their questions about the religious wrappings:

There is nothing in your past that will disqualify you from getting everything out of this good news that the best person in the world gets out of it – in fact, in a strange way, you may even get more out of it.

There is nothing central to your identity that will ever be a problem as you explore this good news – in fact, you will find that God’s love for you as you are right now is even greater than your own love for yourself right now, and the impact of the good news is always to make us more of who we truly are, rather than less.

What if you could say:

And I honestly don’t know the answers to any of those particular things you are concerned you might have to start or stop because all of that isn’t up to me; in the end it’s up to you and Jesus, and his ideas about all of that might be different than mine.

I can tell you what it’s meant for me, though, if that helps, and how I’ve experienced it. And others can tell you what it’s meant for them.

But none of us knows where your journey is going to start and what it’s going to look like along the way. Because your next step and my next step and his next step and her next step – even though they are all going in the same direction – aren’t necessarily the same at all.

What if you could say:

And if and when the time comes for you to start doing something new, or stop doing something old, you’ll be doing it because you want to, out of some place deep inside of you, out of a conviction that this new way of living is the best possible way to live, that leads to the most joy and satisfaction and blessing, and definitely not because somebody else is forcing you to.

And as to what you’ll have to believe or think, the only thing that is of central importance is the good news of Jesus, and trusting him.


Because Jesus is our center.

And the gospel is our message.

And love is our aim.

And all of that is the case because the Bible is our book, and the Bible is what tells us the story of the gospel, and Jesus, and love.

What if you could say all that?

The truth is, you can say all of that. Because that’s what Jesus says. That’s what the gospel says. That’s what Love says. And, that’s what the Bible says.

In particular, that’s what Paul says in the letter to the Galatians.

The letter to the Galatians revolves around a significant conflict between religion and the gospel. This week and next we’re going to look at it in order understand some of the implications for our church. If the Bible is our book, what does it mean to be a faith community with Jesus as our center, with the gospel as our message, with love as our aim? And how does that shape our mission to follow the way of Jesus together, creating breathing room for the disfavored, the discounted, and the disconnected?

So first, some background on Galatians.

Gospel lands first in Israel, embraced primarily by Jewish people. They continue, most of them, to practice Judaism, but it’s a Judaism that is transformed, fulfilled by the good news of the resurrected Jesus and empowered by the outpouring of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. Some of the main leaders of the church in Jerusalem are Jesus’ original disciples like Peter, and Jesus’ brother, James.

Then the message of Jesus begins to spread, and communities of faith begin to form in non-Jewish parts of the Roman empire. These non-Jewish people are called Gentiles, and their primary religious forms are not Judaism, but various forms of paganism, having previously worshiped Greek and Roman gods. Paul, a Jewish Pharisee who had previously tried to kill followers of the way of Jesus until he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, is one of the main announcers of Jesus’ good news among the gentiles. He starts lots of Gentile churches, including a church in Galatia.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, an uprising against the Roman occupiers is brewing among the oppressed Jews living there. Since Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem are primarily Jews, there is a lot of pressure from the Jewish religious leaders for them to cooperate. And one of the keys to the rebellion’s success, according to the Jewish leaders, is for the Jewish people to be extra-faithful to the tenants of Judaism, things like circumcision, and keeping kosher, and observing the holy feasts. Which is no problem for the church in Jerusalem, since the Jewish followers of Jesus were continuing to practice Judaism faithfully, just as Jesus – who was also a Jew - had.

By this time, there are a number of Pharisees who have also received Jesus’ message of good news and joined the Jerusalem church. Since they are more educated than the original disciples, they begin to exert influence on Peter and James. They notice what’s happening with all of these gentiles around the Roman empire becoming followers of Jesus and forming communities of faith, and they know it is going to have an impact on the Jerusalem church’s reputation. So a movement starts to convince the Gentiles that they need to be circumcised just as Jewish people are circumcised (not to mention keeping kosher and all the rest).

And they’ve got the Bible to back them up. After all, Abraham, who had been a pagan until he heard God’s invitation to follow him, was circumcised when he became part of the family of God. And these new gentile followers of Jesus were joining the family of God through faith in Jesus, being grafted onto Abraham’s family, so a very strong case could be made that they should be circumcised as well.

It would be tough to make a biblical case, in fact, that they shouldn’t.

But when Paul hears that the gentiles in Galatia are being pressured to be circumcised, and keep kosher, and celebrate the feasts in order to be true members of the family of God in Christ Jesus, and when he hears that they might go along with it, he goes ballistic. And writes a letter to the Galatians.

6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God’s curse! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God’s curse!

Galatians 1:6-9

11When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

17“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!...

21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Galatians 2:11-21

23Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

26So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:23-29

12Those who want to impress others by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

Galatians 6:12-16

What counts is the new creation. Amen. And Amen.

Next week we are going to look at Galatians, chapter 5 to see what Paul has to say to us about how a law-free gospel helps sinners behave. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s part of what is so uncomfortable about all of this for us. It’s the “yes, buts…” Yes, but what if somebody is doing such or such? Or doesn’t believe such and such? Or won’t do such and such? Or still believes such and such? Yes, but, doesn’t that mean anyone can do anything they want, and there is nothing to stop them? Yes, but…, yes, but…

For now, a couple of practical tips:


1. Read the whole letter to the Galatians, out loud. Better yet, listen to it on audio.

2. Offer Jesus your Yes Buts. Write your “Yes, but…” down on paper. And give Jesus permission to answer your “Yes, but..” After all, discipleship starts between us and Jesus, doesn’t it? So theoretically, if him answering your “Yes, but…” is important to your next step of discipleship, he just might have something to say to you.

3. Sign up to get baptized. Baptism is saying, “Jesus, I’m yours.” Not, I’ve got all this religion business worked out. Or that I’ve got myself all worked out. Just, I see who you are. I hear what you’re saying. I love what you’re doing. I’m yours. Lead on.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

1st John: Santa, Lightsabers, Joyful Asking, and Idols

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 11/06/2011

13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:13-21

Our vision of G-d shapes our relationship with G-d.

Competing visions of nature of relationship between human beings and God…

The God who sets things in motion and has a set of rules for us to follow; reward for obedience, punishment for disobedience. Alternatively, a God who is experienced primarily as a mysterious, powerful force for us to figure out how to use to our advantage; learning the right way to interact with him to get what we want. [Watchmaker Santa vs. Force Baby]

The vision Jesus gives us is neither of these.

What we see in Jesus is a God whose primary desire is intimate, cooperative, creative relationship with us. A God who is covering the distance between us by running toward us and by inviting us to turn and embrace him. A God who is up to incredibly powerful redemptive, restorative work in our world, but who has chosen to include us as joint participants, co-laborers with him in his new creation. And so the idea is that there are all sorts of things God desires to do, but he generally only acts when he can do so in cooperation his kids. [Father, Mother, Brother, Friend]

Because fundamentally, the universe the triune God has created is relational. In other words, at the center of everything is relationship.

God, after all, says John, is Love.

By this, says Jesus, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.

The greatest commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And Love your neighbor as yourself.

After all, what was humanity’s first encounter with God? Not an instruction. Not a pointing finger.

A kiss.

4This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have [echo/hold] what we asked of him.

Ask anything. Start there. It’s a good rule of thumb in relationship with God. Because after all, if you’re asking, your relating. And that always pleases God.

Perhaps you are concerned you are asking about trivial things.

God is not like a frazzled parent who gets overwhelmed by the small requests and doesn’t have time to deal with the big stuff that really needs attention.

Or perhaps you are concerned that you are asking for “wrong” things.

When in doubt, ask away. People in the bible are always asking for the “wrong” things. God is self-differentiated enough, and loves us enough, not to give us what won’t give us life. And again, coming to him with our desires, even our broken desires, is the starting place for relationship.

So ask anything. Start there. But where relationship really hits its stride is when we start asking “according to his will.” Because when we do that, we see God at work in our world and in our lives in all kinds of unmistakable ways. We get the joy of firsthand experience of his power, the joy of partnering with him in the most significant work happening anywhere in the world.

For some of us, the idea of asking “according to God’s will” seems like a religious technicality, the fine print that makes room for unanswered prayers. That’s not the sense here.

The sense here is that as we follow Jesus, our hearts, our desires begin to shift, transform, and become like God’s desires. And so we start to want the same things God is wanting, and we naturally start to ask him to do things that he’s been waiting since the dawn of time to do, and then, wow! Look out! We are in the middle of new creation, in the middle of resurrection life bursting forth in our lives and our world.

The word for God’s will here, is after all, “thelema.” The Greek word that means pleasure, or desire, rather than a set-in-stone plan.

So imagine it’s the Lord’s desire, his pleasure to heal someone. To set someone free from demonic oppression. To release someone from an addiction. To deliver you from some brokenness that has afflicted you for a long time in your life. To help a child find a lost toy. To keep a car running despite the fact that the gas is gone. To miraculously multiply some resources. Imagine that he’s just bursting with anticipation to do that.

And imagine you’re wanting the same thing, just in that moment. And so you ask him – Lord, here’s my request.

What John is saying is that God will do it, he’ll give you your request. Not because it’s magic. Not because you got the formula right. Not because you lived a sinless life that day. But because you had faith – which is just another word for trusting relationship - and in faith you expressed your desire, your pleasure, your thelema will, to God. And for God, this is what he’s been waiting for since the dawn of time itself. You and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, co-operating in love. Dancing the kingdom dance. Singing the shalom song.

[Basketball season on brink of being cancelled / a last ditch prayer…]

How cool to find out that that not only did God answer the prayer – which means we got to play ball, but also that God wanted me to play ball. Life’s different when you know it gives God pleasure, isn’t it? [Lexi and the presents…]

[Jericho prayer experience / I will shout for you…]

You can bet I’m continuing to pray for those things, with such anticipation that God desires them, too. The only thing that stands between now and having the request in my hands is his timing, and, as always, the free will of others. But that’s the place from which Jesus lived his life, wasn’t it? I’ll take it.

[Turning 40 / and the 3 requests…]

Turns out I’ve been completely reluctant to embrace God’s way of answering, but beginning to discover the joy of realizing that these requests are his pleasure, his desire, his thelema.

It’s at this point that the letter gets a little intriguing, as John gives a specific example of the kind of request we might make “according to God’s thelema will”

16If you see any brother or sister commit a sin (sinning a sin) that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them [zoe] life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

Lots of scholarly discussion and debate on this passage. Is there a particular sin that John is speaking about, for example, that leads to death? One that everyone reading this letter would have known about? Murder, maybe? Speeding? Letting your dog poop on your neighbor’s lawn and not cleaning it up? Judging your neighbor for letting their dog poop on their lawn and letting bitterness build up instead of either forbearing it or talking to your neighbor about it? Driving on the shoulder during a traffic backup? Using your mobile phone during a movie? Sadly, we’ll never know.

I’ll give you my take on what’s going on here.

Centered set / Consider someone on a zoe-life trajectory – a settled, repentant decision to trust the gospel, to follow Jesus. Ask for life for a brother or sister who is on the way of Jesus but sinning; it’s always God’s pleasure/desire to give it. We all sin all the time, even as our next steps take us stumblingly after Jesus. But those sins aren’t going to have their way, not in the end. The zoe-life within us, the Spirit within us, is going to win the day.

(Ever felt reluctant to pray for life for our brothers and sisters who are sinning? Especially if they are sinning against us… We are afraid that it will encourage them, somehow. We are afraid to support, pray for, celebrate fellow disciples if their sin is noticeable enough. Don’t be anxious about inadvertently condoning their sin, John is saying; invest your energies in praying for an increase of the zoe-life within them. Interesting wisdom at work here. Notice the impact on our capacity to love instead of judge with this approach…)

But on a death trajectory, the free-willed person’s hands are closed to the gift. Yes, it’s still God’s thelema pleasure/desire to give them life, but something else has to happen before they can receive it. John’s not saying don’t pray for them, simply that the particular picture he’s painting of relational cooperation doesn’t apply here.

[side note: 1 John 5 seems to me to have all kinds of connections to John 5, where the story is told of the invalid at the Bethesda pool. There we have a picture of a man whose sin is leading to death. 38 years of complaining that no one will help him into this pool with superstitious healing powers. Jesus challenges him as to whether or not he even wants to get well. And then tells him to pick up his mat and walk. For this man heading towards death, the door opens to life when he hears Jesus’ voice, recognizes the truth and authority of it, and responds. By picking up his mat and walking, he is repenting of his helplessness and trusting the voice of Jesus, and the kingdom of God breaks through and brings him freedom/healing. Now he’s on a zoe-life trajectory. Stop sinning, Jesus tells him, or something worse may happen to you. In other words, that sin – the sin of not owning his life and going after what God has for him – was the sin that was leading him to death.]

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

True, true, true v idols.

True / Alethinos – that which has not only the name and resemblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name, in every respect corresponding to the idea signified by the name, real, true, genuine.

Idol / Eidolon – image, or likeness.

Anything (or anyone) we attempt to draw life from that is not the one true God made known in Jesus. Something (or someone) we count on to have power over that before which we feel powerless.

An idol has nothing behind it. No Zoe-life in it. No power. Don’t let either hand grasp one. The Lord will take your hands off of it.

Even good things can become idols to us. Even and especially things that the Lord uses to bring life to us. As soon as we let go of Jesus to hold those good things in our hands in his place. [sibling tug of war strategythe enemy does the same to us]

And so sometimes what Jesus has to do – as we follow him – is teach us to let go of our idols so that we can embrace him afresh, and hold tightly. And then those good things (people) can be restored to their proper place as glory vessels and image-bearers, instead of being images, eidolon.

(that’s why the people of Israel were so careful about not even having images / idols of the one true God. God wants us to know him and have relationship with him unmediated by our own creations. He has made a creation that points to him and image-bearers to reflect his glory, but he is jealous for us, and sometimes that jealousy can feel furious, just like his love.)

Healing of cripple by the pool / pool is an idol. Jesus wills, the man wills, the Father wills, holds his healing in his hands and walks toward life…

Practical Tips:

1. Make 3 big asks of God – requests that come from your heart, your deep desires - write them down, and make some sort of reminder to revisit them at least once a quarter for a year. Adjust them if your heart has changed, ask again if they are still your desire.

2. Be a Coal-less Santa. Pick somebody (a follower of Jesus) you’ve been judging because of what you perceive to be their sin (or somebody you’ve just been anxious about because of their sin) and begin to pray that God would give them more of the zoe-life of the heavens. See what happens to them. See what happens to your heart towards them.

3. De-Idolize . Ask Jesus to reveal to you, in your mind right now, something or someone that has become for you an idol.

Don’t rashly quit your job or cut off relationship – your particular idol may in fact be a holy and good thing meant to be used by God as a source of true blessing – but do tell Jesus you want him to be what you have in both hands instead of that other thing or person. And give him permission to lead you in the next steps of discipleship that will bring that about.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

1st John: Echo Jesus

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/30/2011

This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.

1 John 5:6-12 (NASB)

What this passage is getting at is the answer to the question, “How can we enjoy real, deep, rich, satisfying life?” We who live in a chaotic, insecure world. We who have so much hurt and brokenness in our lives. We who have this ache inside for something more, who get tastes of it from time to time. Is there a way for us to drink deep from a river of life that doesn’t change with changing circumstances and moods, that isn’t subject to forces beyond our control, that isn’t fickle and fleeting?

And what John writes in this passage, which is what he’s been writing throughout the letter, is that the answer is YES! Those who “have the Son” have that kind of life.

Which is good to know, but which also brings up a few other questions, doesn’t it? Such as, “What does it mean to ‘have the Son’?” and “What’s up with all the water and the blood and the testifying and what does that have to do with all this?”

So here’s what we’ll do today:

1. Explore what the water and the blood and the spirit stuff is all about. At least as much as we can.

2. Try to understand the testifying stuff.

3. Describe what it means to say that he who has the son has life.

4. Practical Tips

Traditional Water & Blood interpretations, in reverse chronological order:

· Luther & Calvin: baptism & communion; we should be baptized and take communion.

· Augustine: water and blood flow out from Jesus’ side after being pierced in side by spear (eternal life flowing from Jesus).

· Tertullian: water and blood a reference to the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry (baptism & crucifixion)

My take? Tertullian’s explanation brings us nearest to understanding what John is up to. Especially in light of what more modern archaeological findings have revealed about the gnostic heresy (“a different opinion”) that was probably a divisive influence in the church to which first John was written.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gnosticism, a very brief primer is in order (this will be very brief, and therefore oversimplified, but nonetheless, helpful). One, the gnostics taught that spiritual things were good and true and trustworthy, and that material things were fundamentally evil and false and unreliable. And secondly, as a result, the way to eternal life was through attaining rarified spiritual knowledge and insights. And thirdly, because material things were fundamentally evil, Jesus the Christ and Jesus the human being were separate and distinct from one another. The divine Christ had come upon Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism – which is why Jesus was able to do all the amazing things he did - and then left to go back to the heavens sometime before his crucifixion, because death is only something evil material things experience, but never something experienced by the divine Christ.

You see where this is going?

John is saying Jesus the anointed one (which is what “Christ” means) was anointed by water at his baptism (when the Spirit came from heaven and landed on him, and a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.” And John is saying, not with the water only, but with the water and the blood. In other words, the blood of his crucifixion was also an anointing. Blood ran down his body when the crown of thorns was placed on his head, just as water had run down when he was baptized by John the Baptist. And when the crucified Jesus bowed his head – just as he might have in baptism – he gave up his spirit. Only to have the Father re-animate his body with the Spirit on Resurrection Sunday. The same Spirit that Jesus breathed on his disciples that same day when he anointed them to carry out the mission that had begun with Jesus’ baptism.

In other words, John is saying that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ – the anointed one – through and through: fully human, and fully God. That the Spirit of God was joined to the stuff of the old creation so that the stuff of the old creation could be joined to God and made new again. John is saying that the good news is that the life of the heavens – eternal life – is through Jesus, getting all mixed up with the life of the earth. That the end, when the heavens and the earth are made new and unified again, has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection. And so eternal life is not something we have to wait for the future to enjoy, and then only if we’ve achieved the right level of rarified spiritual knowledge, but instead is something already present among us through Jesus the anointed one.

But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s slow down then.

It is the Spirit who testifies…

The Greek word for testify is the word martyr. Martyr just means “to bear witness.” So for example, when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit (wind, breath) bore witness that Jesus was God’s son when the voice (breath) from heaven said: “This is my son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is always what the Spirit is bearing witness to, no matter when we encounter him/her/it. The Spirit is always bearing witness to Jesus as the author of life. And John knows that the gnostics trust the Spirit, because the Spirit is good and true in their view. So he’s saying, “Listen to what the Spirit is bearing witness to in Jesus. Not just in his baptism, but always, everywhere we look.”

Some of you have the Spirit of God bearing witness to that in your soul right now. It’s an invitation from the God to trust Jesus. Listen to that invitation.

And John says that the water and the blood are also bearing witness to the same truth.

This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who [bears witness], because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that [bear witness]: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in [one/unity; i.e., unified in their witness]. If we receive the [witness] of men, the [witness] of God is greater; for the [witness] of God is this, that He has [borne witness] concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the [witness] in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar [made him out to be a false witness], because he has not believed in the [witness] that God has [borne witness to] concerning His Son.

At a deep level, what John is getting at is that all of the life in the universe bears witness to the truth of who Jesus is. The eternal life-filled Son of God, through whom all things were created and who has come that we might have life and have it to the full, if we will only hold on to him in faith.

Water is the life-blood of the natural creation. Every living thing depends on water for life, flora and fauna, from the largest mammals to the smallest microbes. No water, and life ceases. It’s no surprise that God would use a moment when Jesus was immersed in water to bear witness to Jesus as the Life from whom all life comes.

Blood too, is at the heart of the human organism, bringing life-giving nutrients to every cell and oxygenating the furthest reaches of our bodies. No blood, and life ceases. It’s no surprise that God would use Jesus’ bloody death to bear witness to Jesus as the Life from whom all life comes.

And Spirit, which means equally breath and wind, is central to what it means to be alive. Winds blow on a living planet, and breath courses through our living bodies. No breath, and we die. The water and the blood and the spirit are all bearing witness in one accord. With Jesus, there is life. Without him, there is none.

[additional note for the blog version: notice the courtroom image of witnesses. Multiple witnesses make everything more reliable; here we have 3. Also, notice how those who trust Jesus (…believes in the Son of God…) bear witness in their lives to the truth of the life of the ages. We don’t just have to go on faith, as it were – we can see this truth at work in some people’s lives. And beyond that, there is this exhortation to the gnostics that if you don’t believe what God himself has said about Jesus through the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection, you are in essence making him out to be a false witness. Which would be a sobering thought in that culture.]

And then John brings it all home, all down to earth, all rubber meets the road. Let translate in way that helps us see a little more clearly what John is getting at specifically for us.

And the [reality borne witness to] is this, that God has given us [the zoe-life of the heavens], and this [zoe-life] is in His Son. He who [echo/holds (keeps hold of in his hands)] the Son [echo/holds] the [zoe-life]; he who does not [echo/hold] the Son of God does not [echo/hold] the [zoe-life].

This is what the gospel, the good news, boils down to. God has given us this incredible gift of aionios zoe, the life of the heavens, eternal life, life all life flows from, life that’s deep and undisturbable and overflowing and insistent and joyful. Not he will give it to us someday in the future or that he might but that he has. It’s here now. Here among us. As close to us as our next drink of water, our next heartbeat, our next breath. And this zoe-life is in Jesus. The gift of Jesus and the gift of life are one and the same. You can’t separate them. You can’t have one without the other. The good news is all wrapped up in Jesus.

And so, for those who want this life that God has given us as a gift, John says it’s very simple. It’s not about a complicated ladder of ever more elusive knowledge and learning. It’s about keeping hold of Jesus. Like the way a student driver keeps hold of the steering wheel the first time she gets on the freeway. Like the way a toddler keeps hold of their first helium balloon. Like the way a best man keeps hold of the rings before the wedding. Like the way a special teams player keeps hold of the football when the onside kick comes his way at the end of the game. Like the way a pit bull keeps hold of a tennis shoe. Like the way a mother keeps hold of child in a riotous crowd.

[on stage illustration…?]

Keep hold of Jesus, John tells us. Which means the same thing as seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you. The path to life is in giving our focused energy to Jesus. Where is he today, in this circumstance, in this situation? What is he saying to us? Inviting us to? Desiring for us? Desiring from us? Commanding us to do? Teaching us? Showing us?

Which has implications for the whole of our lives, work, relationships, body, money, and so on… [examples]

And also for our lives of faith, what it means for us to be religious (religion coming from the word for “ligament” – our connection to God.)

One of the ways we think about this here at the Vineyard Church of Milan is in this centered set model

(diagram, show how focus is on the center, on Jesus, on the next step in discipleship…)

Life is in keeping hold of Jesus, not in fixing our eyes on the boundaries, or on others’ relationship to the boundaries… (we can’t know from the outside looking in what is keeping someone from their next step of discipleship with Jesus….)

Because he who keeps hold of the Son has life; he who does not keep hold of the Son of God does not have life.

Practical Tips:

1. Fill in the blank. I don’t have time or energy to look for/listen for/talk to/pay attention to/take the next step in discipleship towards/hold on to Jesus because of _________________.

2. Go Dr. Phil on yourself. “And how’s that working for me?”

3. Put Blank in your Blank. Make a settled decision to move whatever you put into the blank out of the blank, to be replaced by nothing.

Prayer of surrender…

Jesus of Nazareth,

I acknowledge before you my thirst for what you have to give.

I surrender myself, whole and entire — what was, and is, and is to come — to you.

Plunge the wrongs I have done and the wrongs done to me into your fathomless mercy.

Receive me as I am today.

Make of me what I am meant to be, and let me walk in the path of your new creation.