(Note: The following article, like yesterday's sermon, was heavily influenced by the insightful comments of several of our members. There are references to these comments throughout and a couple of links to the discussions they came from at the end.)
“Hey Babe, can I get your thumb?” is something that is said at a probably(?) higher than average rate in our house. Some necessary context... For several years mine and Jordan’s phones, like many, required our unique thumbprints to unlock them. Occasionally, we would need to use the other’s phone for whatever reason. When one of us would say, “Hey Babe, can I get your thumb?” the other would typically respond in jest, “you just want me for my thumbs.” (For the unmarried ones reading this, that is the sort of “hilarious” couple banter only you and your significant other will find funny. This is what you have to look forward to if you choose to get married!). While neither of us is actually bothered by this, it touches on a reality that is quite irksome - some people don’t really care about us; they just want what we have to offer. Anyone who has been used by someone else knows the feeling. You feel dirty, unappreciated, slighted, and betrayed. We tend to avoid or, at the very least, severely limit our interaction with those who have used us in the past and do our best to head it off in future relationships. This reaction is understandable, but sometimes it can have consequences that impede our ability to be Christ-like.
We tend to meet neediness with negative assumptions and may even justify why we won’t or shouldn’t help. Sometimes we don’t feel like the other person deserves it. Perhaps they have the wrong motives. “They’re just using us,” we reason, and we might walk away being okay with not helping. But this not the way Jesus shows us.
As we discussed yesterday from Mark’s gospel, Jesus was the groped giver. He was always being groped and grabbed, pushed and pulled in many different directions, oftentimes quite literally (Mk. 3:10; 5:24-34; 6:53-56). He encountered people who were always need something from Him. Needing Him to fix this problem or remedy this issue. Instead of ignoring them in light of some larger purpose, goal, or task, or seeing these people as annoying interruptions or items to be added at the end of a to-do list, Jesus was okay with getting thrown off course or delayed because He saw these people as individuals and cared about every need and touch (This something that Sheila and Leanna highlight). He was willing to get dirty, to be involved in the mess of their lives to help pull them out of it.
Were they using Him to fulfill their own desires? It sure seems so much of the time! And yet, Jesus seems okay with that (as Leah pointed out yesterday in a conversation after the sermon). In the story that we looked at yesterday about the woman who reached out to Jesus in desperate need (Mk. 5:24-34), Jesus responds to the woman in a way that subverts our natural inclinations. Heather notes, Jesus speaks to the woman “not to reprimand her, but to acknowledge her.” He doesn’t begrudge the fact that she needed something and used Him to get it. In fact, He celebrates that she had the faith to do so! We see this exceptional response from Jesus time and time again. He identified with people’s felt needs as well as the ones they don’t know they had. He sees legitimate neediness not as an annoyance but as a pitiable and unfortunate part of the human condition and a world marred by the effects of sin. He doesn’t avoid being used; He embraces it.
Even on the couple of occasions, I can think of where Jesus does, in fact, critique someone who is seeking something from Him, it doesn’t keep Him from showing compassion. In fact, in the case of the man who asks Jesus to cast the unclean spirit out of his son, Jesus’ critique is not leveled at the man’s neediness or his request for help but, surprisingly, that he didn’t ask strongly enough! (Mark 9:14-29, Gabe pointed this out over lunch on Saturday). Significantly, when Jesus feeds the 5,000 plus women and children, Matthew and Mark tell us that He was seeking to get away to rest and recover from all the needs He had been busy meeting (Mt. 14:13; Mk. 6:31). Yet He has compassion on them and takes the time to feed them, tired as He and the disciples may have been. What makes this even more remarkable is that John’s gospel uniquely records Jesus’ rebuke of the crowds when they come seeking more food (Jn. 6:22ff). Knowing ahead of time their intentions, Jesus feeds them anyways! Further, He doesn’t allow this experience of being used to hinder Him from giving of Himself in the future (He later will feed 4,000+; Mk. 8:1-10).
Jesus isn't irritated by people's neediness, hindered by their motivations, or frightened of being used. He just shows compassion and meets needs, and lets the chips fall where they may. Let us love liberally, serve sacrificially, and give generously as Jesus did. And if they use us... what of it? If we can appropriate language from Paul, “why not rather be [used]?” Jesus was.
One final thought from Roan that speaks to us on the other side of this coin as people in desperate need. The proper response of needy persons to God and the men and women through whom God works is gratitude. While God hopes that we will be grateful to Him, He has demonstrated His goodness to us without the guarantee that it will work out. He is willing to be used and abused in demonstration of His love, hoping that at least in some, this grace will produce a gracious response. And for the rest of us mere mortals, much less noble than He, gratitude is often the difference-maker in meeting needs with delight rather than with drudgery. Therefore, let us also be properly grateful to those who have helped us.
Paul was on a mission. He intended to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost, and his route there had already taken some unexpected and unintended turns (Acts 20:1-5, 13-15). Thus, he did not have time to stop in Ephesus as much as he might have wanted to (Acts 20:16). Paul had spent the better part of three years laboring in the city in Ephesus, was instrumental to the radical conversion of many, and no doubt had developed strong bonds with the Christians there (Acts 19, cf. 20:31, 37). As much as anywhere else since Paul's conversion, save maybe Antioch, this was home. Though he knew he did not have time to stop in the city, he felt it was important to meet up with leadership in Ephesus. Being certain of little other than a future of hardship and affliction and the likelihood that he would never see these men again, Paul called a special meeting in the city of Miletus (Acts 20:17, 22-23, 25, 38). The details of this meeting provide one of the strongest examples of what leadership ought to look like among God's people (Acts 20:18-38).
Though not an elder in any official sense, Paul left behind a powerful example of what an elder should be. He modeled a balance of humility and boldness (20:19-20) of perseverance and selflessness (20:22-24), of hard work and deep concern for the wellbeing of others (20:31, 33-35). These characteristics were evident to all, and Paul encouraged the elders to not only call them to memory but to embody them in their own lives (20:18, 31, 34, 35*). But while these characteristics (much like those given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) provide a sketch of the type of person elders ought to be, this is still very much a 2-dimensional rendering in black and white, in need of depth and color.
The term elder, especially when used of a man with a special position in the community, emphasized his maturity, wisdom, and experience. To stretch Ezekiel's metaphor, two related terms add flesh and function to this basic form or structure. Paul admonishes the elders to "Be on guard for yourselves and
The primary means, at least that Paul mentions here, that these elders were to provide for and protect the flock as shepherds and overseers was through the word. Paul's own example was of someone who gave himself entirely to the proclamation of the word in order to teach, admonish, and encourage (20:20-21, 24-25, 27, 31). Thus, his charge to the elders in Ephesus was to be men who are given to the word, using it to nourish the flock (v. 28, 32) and to combat those who would twist it (vv. 29-30), being especially careful that they don't lead the flock astray.
After instructing these men, Paul led them in prayer, and they all said their heart-felt, or better heart-wrenching, good-byes (20:36-38). There are a few takeaways that we can take away from this. These apply first and foremost to shepherds or aspiring shepherds and the rest of us to a certain degree.
- Mentorship and Continued Development: During Paul's time in Ephesus, he had spent time with these men, instructing them and modeling for them what it means to lead God's people well. This was a continuous process, as even the very fact of this conversation in Miletus suggests. Here were men who had met the qualifications of being Elders, yet they hadn't arrived in any triumphal sense. They still needed to grow and improve. God's people, especially its leaders, need to continue to learn from/be mentored by others as we all grow to be more like Him. The flip side is that those who are mature ought also to be training up others after them at the same time. This applies especially to the need for elders to groom and train other men to be elders after them. The general concept of mentorship arises a couple of times in Paul's letters and is modeled in several relationships (2 Tim. 2:1-2; Tit. 2:1-8; Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, Barnabas and Paul/John Mark, Paul/Timothy, etc.).
- Introspection and Self-Deception: Paul's tragic (prophetic?) statement about a destructive influence infiltrating not only the flock at Ephesus but the leadership itself calls for all God's people, especially its leaders, to practice great circumspection and introspection to avoid self-deception. Indeed, Paul warns them to pay close attention to themselves (20:28) and tells them to be alert (Acts 28:31). We all must regularly check our motivations and intentions, especially those of us who have a greater influence on others.
- Selfless Abandon and the Mission of God: Paul knows that he is called to suffer and sacrifice as a follower of Christ. Rather than shying away from this, Paul is willing to endure this because of his overwhelming sense of mission and purpose. He is willing to spend and be spent for the proclamation of the Gospel and the growth and health of the flock. While this is essential for all Christians, it is especially pertinent for those in or aspiring to leadership. It is a call to service, not splendor, and to giving rather than to gain (Matt. 20:25-28). We must allow God's mission to reorient every aspect of our lives.
I have deep gratitude for the men who work among us in this capacity, those who have before, and those who are aspiring to engage in that work someday. Indeed these men are worthy of "double-honor" (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Let us all glean from the instruction and example of Paul in Acts 20.
“And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” (Acts 19:19-20)
To say that the Gospel had an effect in the ancient world is to severely understate the case. It transformed lives and subverted the world’s value systems as it called people to follow an entirely new “Way” (this is the earliest self-designation for the Christian movement Acts 9:2; 18:24, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4 24:14, 22). For those on the outside of this movement, their worlds were being turned upside down (Acts 17:6-7), and this had the expected effect (Acts 17:8). We don’t like it when our categories are shaken up, our convictions are challenged, and our systems are overturned. The rest of the world is no different. Thus, it should come as no surprise to us that as the Way grew, so did its detractors and opponents.
In Acts 19:23-41, we read about one occurrence of these competing “ways” that may shed some light on our own experience in the world. Demetrius and certain craftsmen in Ephesus were starting to notice the work that Paul and many others were doing, and a great disturbance arose concerning the Way (Acts 19:23-25). This occurred because their sources of security, in this case, their occupations and their religious convictions, were undermined as a result of the rapid spread and influence of the Gospel (Acts 19:26-27). The ground on which they stood was shaken, and they responded in unsurprising ways.
First, they responded in anger and outcry as they boisterously continued to assert their stance, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28, 34). In all of this outcry, there is not a whole lot of room for listening. Some didn’t even know what they were yelling about*; they were just angry (Acts 19:32)! In fact, when a man named Alexander steps forward to make a defense, he is met with louder and even more persistent cries (Acts 19:33-34). Notice that the why they don’t listen to him. It is because he is a Jew; that is, at the very least, he is not one of us. This is the “grown-up” version of the phenomenon we observe in toddlers/ young children when they plug their ears with the fingers and say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, I’m not listening.” We can expect that the world will often, though not always, refuse to listen to us because of who we are or, perhaps more precisely, who we aren’t. We are not them. We don’t share their convictions and values; therefore, they don’t listen.
Second, notice how a moral/religious objection is co-opted and conflated with a personal/financial concern. This happens far too often in our current climate. Moral objections, to be sure, at times perfectly valid ones, are levied against the broader world of Christendom of which we are a part, but many times, these are used to masquerade the true motivations of those who cry out. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the arguments that are put forward, but it certainly calls into question the sincerity of those making them. When we fail to realize these smoke screens for what they are, we end up embroiled in conflicts we have no chance of successfully navigated because we are unable to deal with the root issues. (To be sure, when the world raises legitimate issues, even if the motivations are less than noble, we must humbly and introspectively consider the criticism. The history of God’s people is replete with examples with them.
Third, when the world feels threatened, it often threatens in return. Notice how they treat Gaius and Aristarchus (Acts. 19:29). Because of what’s at stake, the world will often resort to acts of physical and emotional violence. It may attempt to yield its political, economic, and/or judiciary clout against us (Heb. 10:32-34; Rev. 13:7-10; 16-18). It is significant in this case that for all the commotion, the accusations against the Way are ultimately declared empty (Acts 19:35-41, esp. v. 40). While we are not guaranteed that the threats will subside as they do here, we must never give the world a legitimate reason to threaten us (1 Pet. 4:12-16).
Just this past week, I observed all four of these responses to followers of the Way and have experienced all of them in various ways in the past. I’m confident you have as well. The takeaways for us are three-fold:
- As followers of the Way, we ought to expect and prepare for these sorts of reactions. The world will hate us because it hated Him (John 15:18-19; 1 John 3:13). Those who love the darkness will recoil when we shine as lights in the world (John 3:19-20, cf. Eph. 5:11-14; Phil. 2:14-16). Therefore, we are not surprised by this inevitable eventuality (2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 4:1-4, 12-16; 5:9).
- But this begs the question, am I following the Way in such a way that I garner this sort of reaction? Certainly, we are not seeking such or being intentionally obtuse or obnoxious in our interactions with the world (Rom. 12:18; Phil. 4:5). But the fact of the matter is, as we have witness to in the life of the early church and the abiding word of the Lord through the inspired writers, as the Way increases, so does its opposition. If we live, walk, and move according to the Way, we will make waves in the world around us, both positively and negatively. What waves am I making?
- Finally, the world's reactions should serve as negative examples of how not to respond to those we disagree with. We must 1) carefully listen to our opponents, not just plug our ears. 2) Make sure our motivations are right even while arguing for the right things. 3) Respond with calm conviction rather than corroding coercion. "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:5)
Yesterday we talked about the need to bear one another’s burdens with the necessary traits of love and humility. Today I’d like to focus on the other side of that relationship and consider the number one trait required by the person bearing the burden. Having been a part of several different accountability relationships, both in a one on one format and in small groups, and having been actively involved on both sides of those relationships, I can tell you from experience that the number one requirement is honesty. It is absolutely essential. Without it, the entire relationship falls apart. This is especially the case when the burden is sin and temptation. This is so because sin likes to hide in the dark, it wants to remain hidden, and it will do everything it can to disguise itself. We are all familiar with John 3:16 but consider what is said just a few verses later in verses 19 through 21:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Sin loves to stay in the dark, but as people committed to holiness and living a life guided by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-26), we must be willing to confront the darkness within us with light if we want to have any hope of expelling it. Consider also 1 John 1:5-10:
5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
If we want to be in fellowship with the God, who is light, and the community of His people, we must be upfront about our sin. Further, this sort of transparency is essential if we want to be free from and find victory over sin and temptation.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Ps 32:2–5)
Now I’m not going to lie (see what I did there?) this sort of honesty and transparency is not easy. To lay oneself bare before another so that they see all your worts and wrinkles and the things you typically try to cover up requires great vulnerability. The risk we take is that we open ourselves up to judgment and rejection. But, ideally, we have chosen someone who is led by the Spirit and embodies gentleness, humility, and love to help bear our burden. They are someone whose first recourse is to listen and love, rather than reject and recoil. This quells much of our fear.
Two other essentials that spring from this one trait: immediacy and specificity.
Let me lay out a scenario that happens far too often in these relationships.
Bob struggles with alcoholism (forgive me if the following scene is imprecise or stereotyped. This is not one of my particular burdens). Bob is tempted and thinks, “I need to reach out to my accountability partner, John. But… John’s busy. He’s got a lot going on. It can wait. I’ll talk to him later.” Five minutes go by, ten minutes go by, Bob is doing okay, but around about minute 13, Bob is being tempted again, and this time Bob caves hard. Bob should have reached out immediately. Even if John was busy and in the most important meeting of his life and couldn’t check his phone until 2 hours later, Bob could have sent a text. “John, I’ve had a hard day at work. I went out to eat with the guys after quitting time, everybody is ordering drinks, and I’m really jonesing for one. Please check in with me later and ask me if I had anything to drink.” Consider what two things would have happened had Bob sent that text.
First, Bob would’ve reached out immediately. Even though John wouldn’t have been able to respond in the moment, Bob has set the scene for a proper accountability conversation to happen later. He was tempted at 5:48, and the text went out at 5:49. Because he knew that the conversation would be coming later and he immediately reached out, there was no time for the temptation to fester without Bob thinking, “I’m going to have to tell John how things went later.”
Second, Bob was specific with the temptation and what sort of accountability he wanted. This helps to ensure honesty and doesn’t give any wiggle room for murkiness. Suppose Bob had said, “Ask me how it went” rather than “ask me if I had a drink.” John calls Bob later and asks, “so how’d things go?” “Things went fine,” Bob replied. End of conversation. Of course, what Bob is leaving out was that he continued to be tempted for several more minutes, finally decided to order a drink, had about half of one, decided to quit, felt good about that decision after the fact, and assumed he was doing fine. All of that needs to be part of the conversation if they are going to have any effect. If I know I’m going to have to give a detailed account later; I’m less likely to toy with whatever line it is I’m being tempted to cross.
Honesty often requires immediacy and specificity. We can’t leave room for the details to become murky.
In the ideal scenario, Bob and John would have a conversation later following up on the immediate and specific text that Bob sent. Bob, because he had reached out, successfully overcame temptation and is able to look forward to the conversation. John patiently and lovingly listens to the details of the event and gently and humbly responds by praying for Bob, thanking him for reaching out, applauding his honesty, and offering some advice about what Bob could’ve done differently next time (if anything). Together they both celebrate the victory. This is vitally important. Too often, these relationships center around failure rather than victory. The conversations tend to only happen when there is a fall of some sort. While constructive, loving, humble, gentle critique may be necessary, at times, we must learn to celebrate the victories, not just criticize the failures. As Rom. 12:15 says,
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
In addition to these sorts of conversations that occur as a particular temptation arises, fall occurs, or victory is won, accountability partners may also agree to talk on a routine basis, daily or weekly, about life, hopes, dreams, disappointments, delights, stresses, struggles, etc. This will help build trust and comradery and will strengthen the relationship so that when the difficult conversations need to occur, they can be approached by both parties with love instead of fear (1 John 4:18).
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
On the surface, 2 Corinthians is a letter navigating a conflict between a church planter and a church over personality disputes. But, as we watch it unfold, we realize that is something much more than that. Throughout it, Paul laces some of his deepest and richest theological insights, which hit at the very core of Christian motivation and identity. In a particularly dense section toward the center of this letter, Paul reveals the two forces that compel his ministry and ought to guide the Christian life.
Yesterday we looked at love, the greater of the two. Specifically, the love of Christ poured out on the cross was the primary thing that gave meaningful movement to Paul’s life and being (2 Cor. 5:14-15). To put it in John’s language, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Not only should our motivation be derived from the love of God in Christ, but our inclinations also find their source and their shape in that love.
The second force is equally worth our consideration. It is hope. These are not competing forces; rather, they work in tandem. If love is the inertia that pushes us from behind, hope is the gravity pulling us forward. Paul describes this force as an eternal weight of glory, a heaviness of hope that made all other things seem light in comparison (2 Cor. 4:16-18). The substance of this hope is that we might have new bodies, lasting, glorious bodies. (This, of course, dovetails quite nicely with the ideas about the New Creation we considered last week). Notice the two metaphors Paul mixes to describe this hope - dwellings and clothing (2 Cor. 5:1-5). The tent, or body, in the body in which we dwell now is passing, fit for destruction, not because it is inherently bad or fated to be done away with but because it is looking forward to the transformation. We long for the day when our mortal bodies are swallowed up by life, and we dwell in our eternal dwelling (bodies), which have been built by God (2 Cor. 5:4). Put another way; our hope is not to be unclothed (out of our bodies), for that would bring shame and nakedness (2 Cor. 5:3). Rather, we long to be further clothed (given newly transformed bodies), which God is preparing for us (2 Cor. 5:2, 5). All the afflictions we face now in the body (2 Cor. 4:16-17) will give way to the glory that God has in store for us. Our longing for this, our hope, pulls us forward to meet that reality.
One last thing to consider in light of all of this. While we dwell in these temporary bodies awaiting our eternal ones, we must realize that what we do in these bodies will echo for eternity. How we live life in the here and now will determine how we will live, or perhaps better, IF we will live in the hereafter (2 Cor. 5:10). Thus, hope is a powerful kinetic force, pulling us forward to eternity, much like the moon’s gravitational pull beckons the waves. As the waves move toward their destination, the landscape of the shoreline behind them is demonstrably different. So too does what I hope for change my reality at present. What is your hope?