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10.07.18 Building a Peaceful Church Isaiah 57.14-19, Ephesians 2.14-22 Sermon Summary

This week is World Communion Sunday, started by Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in 1933. By 1940 it was endorsed by what would become the National Council of Churches and has grown to become a truly worldwide celebration of Holy Communion. Thanks be to God!

World Communion Sunday reminds us of Malachi 1:11 which says, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, says the Lord, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations.”

During World Communion Sunday we remember the sacrifice of Christ. We offer our lives to God at the table. We worship together as a reminder and preview of our destiny in Christ. Since “meaningful worship” is one of the Five Practices of Faith, it is appropriate that we celebrate and understand World Communion Sunday.

When sin entered the world, community was broken. Humanity hid from God and blamed each other. We came up with laws, “commandments and ordinances,” as Ephesians elaborates upon them, in order to put “them” far away from “us.” Laws are used to put “them” on the other side of a wall. Laws create a separation in space.

But Ephesians says that in Christ God “abolished the law” in order to create a new, unified humanity. In other words, Christ reverses the effects of sin. Community is restored. There is no more us/them, no more near/far, for in Christ all are “near.”

World Communion Sunday calls us to bridge space. We are a worldwide church. Our membership in the Kingdom of God is more essential to who we are than our membership in any country or nation.

Besides separation by space, there are other separations. We experience separation by time. When we care only for our own time and don’t listen to the past, or the wisdom of the tradition; when we don’t care for the future, failing to preserve resources for our grandchildren, we are separated by time.

We can also experience separation by dimension. When we feel the dead are also gone, and the yet-to-be-born have to take care of themselves; when we don’t feel accountable to these out-of-sight, and we take no counsel from them, we are separated by dimension.

Ephesians says that all these separations are reconciled in Christ. Separations of space, time, and dimension are unified in Christ. All creation is one in Christ who, at the end of redemption, offers it all to God so that, in Paul’s words, “God can be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)

The image Ephesians uses begins with that of a wall. Christ breaks down the walls that separate us and instead builds an arch with himself as the cornerstone. Christ does this over and over, wall by wall, arch by arch, until we are a household of God, a holy temple, built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

This is one of the meanings of Holy Communion. As we partake of the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, sharing one loaf and cup, we become the body of Christ. Saint Augustine said of the Eucharist, “Behold what you are; become what you receive.”

When we worship at this table, we worship with all the world. And from the rising of the sun to its setting, across the land of every nation, we make our offering to God. So let us participate in meaningful worship this World Communion Sunday. It is worship because the focus of our attention and action is the God revealed in Christ. And it is meaningful because the world at worship on earth participates in the worship of heaven, where children from every nation will bow before the Father of Jesus in adoration, praise, and thanksgiving.

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09.30.18 Churchy Friendships John 15.8-17 Romans 1.7-12 Sermon Summary

Making friends is harder for some than for others, even in the church. Fortunately the Bible gives us steps for making friends more easily.

Jesus said that God is glorified as his disciples make disciples. What does he mean? The simple answer is that disciples follow in Jesus’ footsteps. They are as convinced as Jesus was that they are beloved children of God. And disciples of Jesus practice that—being beloved children of God. This fall we are considering five practices that are traditional activities of beloved children of God. They are

  • meaningful worship
  • prayer
  • knowing and applying the Bible
  • making spiritual friends
  • serving the church and the world

Making disciples—convincing people that they are beloved children—was Jesus’ mission, and he passed it on to us. Our mission as the church is to convince people of their belovedness by God.

Jesus himself was convinced of God’s love for him. He knew it from his baptism, when the divine words were spoken, “This is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.” And so he assures his disciples, “As God has loved me so I have loved you.” God’s love is deep enough and broad enough to include all people beginning with Jesus. That’s what glorifies God: A community of love. And it starts with the church.

This is why Paul is longing to go to Rome, to strengthen one another by sharing spiritual gifts. He wanted to practice what Jesus said, that “the world will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” (John 13:35) And this is why we practice making spiritual friends at Faith Presbyterian. We do so to grow as children of God ourselves, to glorify God as we do so together, and to show Jesus’ message to the world.

The reason Jesus says these things to his disciples on the night of his betrayal is because he needed friends. We all do. As early as the Creation story God declared, “It is not good that a person should be alone.” God has made us for community. When sin entered the world, the first thing to be damaged was community. The humans hid from God and blamed one another. But in Jesus Christ, God is re-creating community, creating a new family. And it starts with the church.

Paul understood this. From the opening verses Romans is about making spiritual friends. Paul has never met the Roman church, but he has a goal of mutual encouragement. How does he go about it?

The first way Paul made spiritual friends is by assuming kinship with others, that is, he reckoned everyone as part of the family. He refers to the Romans as “God’s beloved” and “saints.” He refers to God as “OUR Father.” Though they had never met, they were kin.

Think how much more quickly friendships would start if we assumed kinship instead of suspicion. Instead of sizing someone up, trying to get them pegged, what if we said, “This person is more like me than not.”

The psychologist Carl Rogers claims that what is most personal is most universal. We share the same insecurities. We share the same hopes. We share the same anxieties and fears. We share the same concerns. So why not share each other’s burdens? Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” That’s spiritual friendship. It begins with assuming kinship.

The second way Paul made spiritual friends was by offering prayers. He said, “I thank God for all of you” and, “I remember you in my prayers.” Thanksgiving and intercession builds spiritual friendship, even when it’s HARD to do so. Prayer softens our hearts towards one another. When I find myself in a tense relationship with someone, thanksgiving and intercession provide a ready place to begin working on it.

A third way Paul made spiritual friends was to look for mutual benefit. Paul had much to give, of course, but he was not too proud to receive. Paul wants to offer his gift to the Roman church. He wants also to receive their gifts. Disciples of Jesus make friends by looking for mutual benefit among themselves.

This is Paul’s strategy for making spiritual friends: Assume kinship with others, offer prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, and look for mutual benefit.

What was Jesus’ strategy for making spiritual friends? It is self-sacrificial love. Jesus also prayed with thanksgiving and intercession, but his “thoughts and prayers” led to action. “No one has greater love,” he said, “than the one who lays down his life for his friends.”

And so Jesus gathered the disciples at his table, took and blessed bread, broke and gave it to them with the words, “This is my body, given for you.” Right up to the end, Jesus practiced making spiritual friends. He sat at table with Peter who will deny knowing him, Judas who had already betrayed him, and the rest who will run away that night.

Now he sits with you and me. He invites us to come and be friends—with him and with one another. Through Christ’s priestly ministry we have been adopted into God’s family. May we go forth as God’s beloved children, making friends with all whom God has redeemed, mindful that the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for the sin of the world.

09.23.18 How Scripture is Useful Psalm 119:65-72, 2 Tim 3:10-17 Sermon Summary

You wouldn’t think that a letter that is barely three pages long with only four chapters would be so rich with plot! But 2 Timothy is a suspense thriller based on the classic question of whether good will outlast evil. It has heroes and villains and an extraordinary number of named characters.

The villains are Phygelus, Hermogenes, Hymenaeus, Philetus, Demas, and Alexander the coppersmith. Their crimes are that they engage in profane chatter and senseless controversies, that they are quarrelsome, and most especially that they have abandoned Paul, presented to us as the author of the letter.

Paul is among the heroes, as is Lois, Eunice, Onesiphorus, and Mark. And maybe, if he perseveres and remains loyal, Timothy son of Eunice, grandson of Lois, and companion and student of Paul. Will Timothy join the heroes? Probably, if he does two things: Emulate good examples and listen to the wisdom of the Scriptures.

Paul lists the bad examples with the villains and their crimes. And he offers some good examples with the heroes. A common characteristic among the heroes is that, “all who want to live a godly life will be persecuted.”

Here we find two reasons to know and apply the Bible, one of our five faith practices: To pursue a godly life, and to endure persecutions.

The godly life is not the ordinary life. It is not the popular life or the status quo life. The godly life goes against the conventional, the convenient, and the comfortable. Here the human and divine diverge. The human life is self-interested; the godly life loves the other.

This is to say that the godly life is counter cultural, so culture will oppose it, and that could lead to persecution. Knowing and applying the Bible helps us discern how to live a godly life and gives us strength through persecution. For example, Paul writes in Romans 8:35 that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not even persecution.

We find two more reasons to know and apply the Bible within this passage from 2 Timothy. The first is that doing so provides instruction for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the context in which we know Jesus. In the biblical context, we discern that Jesus, aside from being a renegade Rabbi of sorts, is also Prophet, Priest, and King. In the context of the whole Bible, we know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, that he is Spirit-filled, and that he is the Redeemer of creation.

And for Paul, the more deeply we know Jesus the more we experience salvation. And the more we know the Bible the better we can know Jesus.

The fourth benefit in this passage to knowing and applying the Bible is that it makes us proficient for good works. “Proficiency” here has the sense of “completion.” Knowing and applying the Bible helps us grow in holiness. It facilitates our sanctification to accompany the justification we have through Christ. In other words, it takes us back to godly living.

Is there a word from God for you in this letter to Timothy? You may not be a church pastor like Timothy, but you do pastor someone—encouraging them with words of grace. A whole congregation may not look to you for guidance, but someone does. You may not experience physical persecution, but you do make sacrifices.

Or maybe you think, “Nah, I’ve wandered too far. My life is kind of in shambles. God’s Word can never come to me.” But remember Psalm 119:67 which says, “I went astray and I was humbled, but now I keep your word, O God.”

Even being lost teaches us how to listen, because the voice who calls us in the wilderness is that of a shepherd who finds lost sheep. The shepherd who calls us prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies, in the presence of our wayward culture, in the presence of our persecutors.

At this Lord’s Table we receive bread, but we receive grace also. For we live not by bread alone but by every Word that comes from God.

At this Lord’s Table, the Spirit unites us with Christ and speaks to us in the sacrament of bread and cup, and continues to speak to us to lead us to a godly life, strengthen us through our persecution, instruct us in the way of salvation, and complete Christ’s mission of redemption through our own good works.

Remembering Christ’s Words at this Table, and knowing and applying God’s Word from the Bible, we practice our faith until such time as we rest with Eunice, Lois, Paul, Timothy and all whom God has redeemed.

Parenting Practices

This is my list of practices for becoming an even and ever better parent.

  1. Keep the environment and relationship safe at all times.
  2. Only impose negative consequences that are prescribed.
  3. If there are no prescribed negative consequences, promise them, identify them, then impose them later.
  4. Remember that anger and blow ups always lead to regret. They damage the relationship, model bad behavior, and are almost always exaggerated.
  5. Take a time out.
  6. Take time to determine what is going on behind the presenting problem.
  7. Use “Because I told you so” sparingly.
  8. Have a list of chores, jobs, etc., ready to assign as negative consequences.
  9. Get good sleep, meditate, exercise, and eat well.
  10. Identify stressors related to your spouse, work, health, and anything else, and deal with them without projecting them onto your children.
  11. Pray for your children and your spouse.
  12. Accept that you will fail, acknowledge it, learn from it, change because of it.
  13. Apologize as soon as possible.
  14. Keep trying.
  15. Celebrate everything you can about and with your children.
  16. Recognize that your children have their own stressors, including school, relationships, changes to their bodies, fear, anxiety, regret, and confusion. And respect that they probably don’t know how to manage or even talk about them.
  17. Remember the love and hope which led to your children’s conception, and the joy that accompanied their birth.
  18. Look at pictures of your children as they grew. You probably took those pictures to record a good feeling.
  19. Remember it takes a village. Through church, extended family, chosen family, neighborhood adults, teachers, coaches, music instructors, parents of friends, etc., God is helping you raise these children. They’re not solely your responsibility.
  20. Let their emerging independent identities teach you how to parent. They have their own personalities, preferences, gifts, etc. Your own insecurities may feel threatened by this. Overcome your ego.
  21. Teach them to weigh pros and cons, but also to honor the marginalized and unimposing forces of Spirit, wisdom, intuition, etc.
  22. Honor their freedom to make choices, and let them experience the consequences of those choices, whether pleasant or painful.

09.16.18 When we Pray Matthew and Luke on Lord’s Prayer Sermon Summary

In all the best church programs that are sent to the office each week, there are five things in common. This is what we’re talking about this fall: the Practices of Faith.

The five practices are

  • meaningful Worship
  • Prayer in private and public
  • Service in the church and world
  • having Spiritual Friendships
  • knowing and applying the Bible

Last week we started our series with worship and we continue this week with prayer. If worship sets the week, prayer sets the day. Just as worship invites everyone, prayer evokes our whole self. In worship we love God and love our neighbors, in prayer we love God and love ourselves as God loves us.

Prayer is a proven practice of faith throughout the scripture, by all kinds of people, and in a variety of ways. We practice prayer over and over because it reframes our vision. In prayer we offer ourselves to God. Prayer gives us spiritual resources for managing anxiety, fear, loss, and overwhelming joy.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. In the Gospel of Matthew, the teaching is embedded in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, the disciples witness Jesus praying and they ask him to teach them. Jesus also modeled prayer as a practice, withdrawing often to pray and praying publically a number of times.

We’re looking at the Lord’s Prayer because it is a nearly universal practice of prayer. Not every Christian church prays the Lord’s Prayer, and those that do don’t agree on which version to use. That’s because the Lord’s Prayer you have memorized isn’t in the Bible.

In the Bible, just as in the churches, there are various ways to pray the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel of Matthew has added “Who art in heaven,” and “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Much later, the ending we all know was added by liturgists who thought sin wasn’t a good way to conclude a prayer. Called the “closing doxology,” “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” it borrows from 1 Chronicles 29:11 where David prays, “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”

While disorienting, confusing, and perhaps troubling, this variety in the Lord’s Prayer dating all the way back to the Bible is actually good. It shows collaboration between Jesus and the disciples, and the ongoing evolution of prayer in the churches. The variety permits our own adaptation today. It also gives us an opportunity to trust God and love others as we practice the Lord’s Prayer in diverse ways.

And Jesus must have known all this change would happen, for he taught the prayer in the plural: Do something in committee and you’re bound to get diversity. Matthew added “Our” to the beginning “Father” so we wouldn’t miss it.

The variations in the Lord’s Prayer are another example of something we looked at last week: The distinction between practices and principles. Practices are those specific instructions on what to do. They may or may not translate easily to today. Principles are the enduring foundations for the practices, and they translate to today more readily. The differences in the Lord’s Prayer are matters of practice. It’s the principles that interest us in this series—principles that can help us to develop our own practice of prayer.

So, for example, “sins, debts, and trespasses.” Which is it? All three words appear in the Bible. All three have theological importance. Insisting on just one deprives ourselves of the value of the other two. For a fuller treatment of this issue, see my message from 05.13.12.

The point I want to make here is regarding the underlying principle. Matthew’s “debts” is probably the most literal translation of what Jesus likely said. In his Semitic context, speaking in Aramaic, Jesus probably said “debts,” but his audience would have understood him to mean “sins.” Luke, writing in a Greek context, made this change to “sins” for his audience, then switched back to language of “indebtedness.” It’s clear that Matthew also intends “debts” to refer to sin when he concludes the prayer with the warning, “Unless you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will not forgive you your trespasses.”

There are two principles to embrace here: One is that changing the language is OK. Luke did it for his context, and so can we. Second, there is a direct relationship between our God-relationship and our human-relationships. In all our prayers, our relationship with God and with others are related. God forgives us; we forgive each other. Our vertical and horizontal relationships are connected. And this applies not just to forgiveness, but to providence, delight, rejoicing, all of it. Whatever we talk to God about regarding our own lives, there’s an application to how we relate to others also.

Take another example: “Lead us not into temptation.” This rendition has been a stumbling block for many people, because James says God cannot lead us into temptation. (James 1:13) Last Advent the French Catholic Church rendered this petition as “Do not let us enter into temptation,” and it got the Pope’s blessing.

Back in 1988, a group of English speaking liturgists from many denominations (the English Language Liturgical Consultation) published this rendition to clarify the petition: “Save us from the time of trial.” The petition is indeed hard to translate, but these renditions bring out the principle: We need God’s strength on account of our weakness. See my sermon 05.20.12 for a fuller treatment of this petition.

In closing let us remember that Jesus taught us how to pray for God’s kingdom, and he lived according to that prayer. He concentrated his example at the Lord’s Table. Here we are reminded of our daily bread, and also that we live not by bread alone but by God’s Word.

I encourage you to use the Lord’s Prayer as a model for your own worship at home. Go ahead and change it to make it fit your life. Remember to keep the vertical and the horizontal dimensions together. And remember it’s not a question of which words to use, because prayer can occur even without any words at all. Instead prayer is simply our trusting God through anything and everything.

As an example, I leave you with this paraphrase from English liturgist Jim Cotter:

Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The Hallowing of your name echoes through the universe!
The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.

09.09.18 Why we Worship 1 Corinthians 10.23-11.1 Sermon Summary

“Do you have faith?” This was the question that preoccupied me as a young conservative evangelical. “I think I may be losing faith.” This is the statement that begins many conversations in my office as a pastor. A helpful approach to faith I’ve found over the years is, “How are your practicing faith?”

For several years our church has been focusing on Five Practices of Faith. These have arisen from our various church consultations and from within my various pastors groups. Our church leadership has asked that I do a sermon series on the Five Practices to remind the whole church of our mission. This we will do for the next ten weeks.

What are the Five Practices?

  • meaningful Worship
  • Prayer in private and public
  • Service in the church and world
  • having Spiritual Friendships
  • knowing and applying the Bible

There is no required order of the five. If you start anywhere, you’ll be led everywhere. In this series I’m starting with worship because many people’s church journey starts with worship. It’s also our most commonly shared experience. We’re also tinkering with the order of worship, and starting with the practice of worship may help us make the adjustments.

Worship is also the main point of at least the first four of the Ten Commandments. The first two commandments direct us to have nothing above God and not to make idols. One of the best ways to avoid letting something take the place of God and become an idol is to thank God for it. Then ask God to show you how you can use whatever it is to glorify God. This helps us keep God the object of our lives, the object of our worship.

Paul’s letters to Corinthians show that they wrote back and forth at least a few times, seeking Paul’s guidance on a number of conflictual issues like baptism, dress, and sexuality. Their correspondence shows Paul’s authority in the church, but also evidences diversity within the church.

Paul responds sometimes with specific practices, instructions that he expects the Corinthians to follow. Sometimes he offers principles that transcend the Corinthian churches and which we can apply today. This is a helpful insight to always keep in mind when we read any part of the Bible. Which things are historically bound practices, and which are more universal principles?

In our passage the issue is whether Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

On one hand, Paul responds, is the recognition that there are no other gods. Idols are without reference or substance. The act of sacrificing to them is meaningless and so the food is fine.

Other hand, he says, some Christians are hung up on past convictions and actions. It’s a hard thought-habit to break. Someone’s eating food sacrificed to idols creates a distraction of faith at least and a crisis of faith at worst.

How does Paul work it through? First he instructs those without a crisis of conscience to, “eat whatever is put before you.” The principles underlying this practice include being a gracious guest, acknowledging that, “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1), and receiving all things with gratitude (like the method offered above related to the first two commandments).

But then Paul says it is right to abstain from eating out of respect for the other person’s conscience. He anticipates the counter argument: “But all things are lawful!” True, he replies, but not all things are beneficial, not all things build up.

So there is a tension between what is lawful and what is loving. The Christian is free according to law but bound according to love. One of Luther’s great rediscoveries that fueled the reformation of the church is his statement that, “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

The Christian standard is not what is lawful but what is loving. This is helpful to remember in conversations about economics, and politics, and parenting. Our standard is what love requires, not what the law allows.

In the end, Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Paul simply taught what he learned from Jesus, which is why he can write, “Imitate me, for I imitate Christ.” Love God, Jesus and Paul teach, but also love your neighbor.

And that’s what worship is all about—loving God and loving our neighbor.

The Confession of 1967, part of our denomination’s constitution, says, “The church gathers to praise God, to hear God’s Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to pray for and present the world to God, to enjoy fellowship, to receive instruction, . . . to speak and act in the world’s affairs as may be appropriate to the needs of the time.” (9.36)

Notice what worship is NOT. It’s not about:

  • my taste in music
  • my interpretation of Scripture
  • my political affiliations
  • my race, income, education level, or special needs

It IS about

  • loving God
  • loving our neighbor

In the words of Paul, worship is not about “seeking our own advantage” but rather “the advantage of others.”

That might mean:

  • I don’t eat the meat sacrificed to idols, though idols mean nothing to me
  • I don’t regulate what others do with their bodies, though my interpretation of Scripture regulates my choices
  • I show hospitality to people, though the law excludes them
  • I welcome families with children, though it is a distraction
  • I welcome people with disabilities, though it can be awkward
  • I sit through and sing music, though I don’t like the sound of it
  • I join in prayers faithful to the Bible and tradition, though they challenge my thinking and lifestyle
  • we reorder the way we worship, though it bends our habits

Since worship is the practice of loving God and loving neighbor, it means making room for God in our lives, and also room for others. We practice it over and over because it is our calling now and our destiny into eternity.

The Table of the Lord is the sacrament of the body of Christ and the symbol of the kingdom of God. Here we eat meat sacrificed not to idols but out of love for God and for the world. Here where Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave bread and cup, Christ’s life is rehearsed for us for inspiration and imitation.

Let us practice the faith in worship, let us imitate Paul as he imitates Christ, doing all for the glory of God, giving thanks for all God’s gifts, loving God and loving our neighbors.

09.02.18 God’s Love and Ours Ephesians 3.5-6, 14-20 Sermon Summary

Today we look at how God overcomes a universal and destructive human tendency through a universal divine attribute. This is the final installment of the Hymns of Faith (Presbyterian Church) series. For three months we’ve explored mostly well-known hymns in order to gain a deeper experience and appreciation of their biblical roots and theology.

You can search recent sermons which covered such topics as:

  • Greatness of God’s faithfulness (June 10)
  • The solidity of Christ as our Foundation (July 1)
  • Joy of worshiping the Creator (July 22)
  • Assurance of God’s ongoing work in our lives (August 5)
  • How every moment is sacred in God’s hands (August 12)
  • What it means to be saved by the Spirit (August 19)
  • How God sustains our souls (August 26)

It is a universal human tendency to fear limits. In recent decades the business world has referred to this as the “scarcity mentality,” or “zero-sum thinking.” It is the perception that there is only so much to go around, and if one person has some, it means others have less.

This is a destructive attitude because it breeds hoarding, facilitates exploitation, and causes generalized fear and anxiety.

Are there limits? Of course there are. But there are far fewer limits than we fear. The only way to discover true limits is by challenging the notion of scarcity. Business writers offer the contrast of an “abundance mentality.” In words from the church world, we’re talking about belief.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to faith not fear, to abundance not scarcity mentality. Jesus challenges the universal human tendency to fear limits, and he does so based on the divine attribute of creativity.

The Letter to the Ephesian Churches teaches this. There is no question God chose the Jews. That choice created an apparent limit. It seemed there was no way it could change. Over time this limit was reinforced by tradition, ritual, institutions, and perpetual antagonisms.

But then comes Jesus, a faithful Jew and an inclusive prophet. It took some decades, but eventually the tradition, ritual, institutions and antagonisms were re-read and interpreted differently. The discovery was that God HAD chosen some out of necessity, because God has in actuality chosen ALL.

Why does God choose all? Because all are beloved. Why are all beloved? Because all are created.

God’s greatness has always been recognized in creation. Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” In Christ God’s greatness was further recognized in salvation. This is what Ephesians saw, and what is demonstrated in today’s hymns.

In “How Great Thou Art”, the first two verses are dedicated to creation. “When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . . then sings my soul, how great Thou art!” Then verse three moves us beyond meditation on creation to comment also on God’s love. “When I think, that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, to take away my sin . . . then sings my soul, how great Thou art!” God’s love is demonstrated by the gift of Christ and evokes bewildered praise.

Finally, verse four projects this perspective into the future and throughout the cosmos with the image of Christ’s return. “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God how great Thou art!”

This hymn like the Ephesians passage, challenges our limited thinking, our scarcity mentality. The greatness of God’s grace exceeds the limits set by sin. Non-Jews are included in the promise. The Great Creator of all is the Great Savior of all.

What do we do with passages of scripture that forecast damnation? See the postscript below.

“There is a wideness in God’s mercy,” our second hymn says, “like the wideness of the sea.” Across religious traditions, sea and sky are metaphors of infinity. God’s mercy is infinitely wide. It goes on to say that, “There is a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty.” What means more to the pardoned than mercy? What is more than freedom? The answer is solidarity.

God’s salvation is more than a simple rescue operation. God actually came to us in Christ and remains with us in Spirit. “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven,” because heaven has come to earth in Christ.

The hymn concludes rightly that, “the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind.” The natural mind imposes limits. It creates the scarcity mentality. It even tries to limit God—to the Jews, to the Christians, and to the Bible. But in Christ, Ephesians says, God’s election expands beyond Jews, beyond the limits of our mind. This is why the author prays for our “inner being” to comprehend that which surpasses knowledge, namely the love of Christ—the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love.

“Then sings my SOUL,” the other hymn agrees, because the mind lacks the capacity. Ephesians makes this prayer because as we grow in God’s love, we grow in our love for others, and we overcome the scarcity mentality.

The final hymn urges us: “If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s word, and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.” May we grow ever more in God’s love and fulfill Jesus’ command to love God . . . and our neighbors.

POSTSCRIPT

So what about those passages of scripture that forecast damnation for some? Does this contradict the greatness of God revealed by God’s salvation of all?

Such passages undeniably exist in both the newer and older testaments. Even so, not every passage to which one might point actually refers to eternal damnation. But some certainly do. How do we understand their presence in the Bible?

Some such passages may arise from a limited historical perspective. They were written before the revelation in Christ or before that revelation was fully understood.

Or it may be that those authors simply didn’t get it. They preferred to remain in the scarcity mentality despite the revelation in Christ. Never forget that the Bible was written by humans.

Many passages of damnation are actually rhetorical admonitions to ethical behavior. Most of Jesus’ words on the topic fall into this category. He really isn’t talking about the afterlife, but this life.

Could these passages damning some to eternal hell be true? I suppose. If God wants to create the world good and humans in the divine image and not save them all, who are we to protest?

But which God is greater? The god one who created all but could only save some? Or the one who manages to save all?