WORSHIP TOGETHER – September 5, 2021 – St. Stephens

Rev. Terry Ingram

 

  • Welcome and announcements
  • Call to Worship (Psalm 95:1-3)
  • O come, let us sing to the Lord;
  • Let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.
  • Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving;
  • Let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise!
  • For the Lord is a great God
  • And a great King above all gods.

 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

 

*Hymn: Sing A New Song Unto the Lord

 

Prayer of Praise, Confession and Lord’s Prayer

God of grace, You created our minds to grow in wisdom and truth. You created our hearts to expand with love towards You, others and even all creation. You created our voices so that we might communicate in honoring and helpful ways with each other. You also created our voices so that we might speak and sing your praises forever. Fill us to overflowing with your Holy Spirit, that we may worship and serve You in spirit and in truth, bringing good into the lives of others through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our minds tell us that there is no one greater to love than You; our hearts tell us that there is no one to love more deeply than You.  And so, our voices offer loving praise – together we praise the Lord!

Heavenly Father, You create the future and You call us to follow Christ, yet we prefer to remain where we are. You offer us new beginnings, yet we make the same choices, guided by our own desires. You invite us into the fullness of life, yet we distance ourselves from You and each other through fear and doubt. You offer us love but we naturally shy away from its transforming brilliance. Holy Spirit, You prompt us with the desire to love others, but we are tragically side tracked by our own selfish ways.  We fail to love in what we do, say and think.  Forgive us, Eternal Love, and cleanse us from every unworthy thought, word and deed and move us to grow in a Christ-like love so that others will know that we follow Jesus.  We pray this that You might be glorified and in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon

God has done something new.

The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us.

Since we’ve all proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us,

God did it for us.

Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.

A pure gift.

He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be.

And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

In his name you are forgiven!

 

Prayer for Illumination:

Spirit of the living God, open our minds and hearts so that we might hear Your Word for us today.  And in hearing give us the courage and conviction to let it transform us.  For the sake of Jesus, Amen,

 

Scriptures – Deuteronomy 6:1-9; 1 Corinthians 13:1-7; John 13:34-35

 

 

Message: “An Unexpected Better Way”

 

There is an old legend explaining why the Hebrews of yore did not eat pork.  While they were wandering in circles through the desert, they became tired of their food menu.  It was told that a holy man could help them so a delegation was sent.  They approached the holy man and asked, “Could you help us?  We’re lost and could really use some different kinds of food.”   The man replied, “For you, most fortunate.  Have visions, do I.”  With those words, he placed his fingers on his temple, closed his eyes and began to hum.  Suddenly his eyes popped open and he declared, “Over the dune, across the cactus field, around the big rock, you go.  Find a bacon tree, you will.”   “A bacon tree?!” they exclaimed.  “Most certainly,” said the man.  So, with those instructions off they went. When they arrived, they were rushed by a small group of very large Philistines, beaten and left to die.  Dragging their broken, bleeding bodies back around the rock, through the cacti and over the dune they found the holy man.   “What on earth were you thinking?” one asked, “You nearly got us all killed.  And there wasn’t any bacon tree!!”   The man calmly held his hands to his temple again and said, “Wait, another vision get I… Oops.  Sorry, it wasn’t a bacon tree.  It was a hambush.”

 

One of the things that make a joke funny is an unexpected turn.  Unforeseen plot twists can make for a nail-biting movie.  And an unannounced visit from an old friend, on an otherwise predictable day, can alter the rest of the day.  The unexpected comes in many forms.  Perhaps surprisingly, I find one in a letter that the venerable theologian and church planter named Paul wrote to his friends at Corinth.  In that letter, as well as many of his other letters, Paul explains how central the Holy Spirit, the ‘third’ person of the Trinity, is in the life of believing Christ followers.  The Holy Spirit is God with us, right now.  The book of Acts observes on several occasions when men, women and children came to believe in Jesus as Messiah, they were ‘baptized in the Spirit’.

 

What did that mean for them and for us?  Paul taught that the Holy Spirit frees us to walk in the ways of Christ (Romans 8:1ff). The Spirit also imparts ‘gifts’ to believers.  Paul speaks of these gifts in terms of prophecy, teaching, generosity, helping others, tongues, healing and so on (there are four major lists of the ‘gifts’ of the Spirit – 1 Corinthians 12 &14, Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:11-13).  These gifts are given to individuals so that the entire Church might be built up and ready to join in God’s mission as Christ’s community on earth.  Further, Paul told them that the Spirit bears ‘fruit’ in the believer’s life.  The fruit of the Spirit’s presence in us are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-24).  Paul encouraged them to let these fruit ripen in their lives.  As I review Paul’s letters, I am convinced that being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ is a rather unique Christian reality.  [Thus, it serves us and our Lord well, to ask to be renewed by the Spirit at all times.]

 

The Corinthians seemed to know a great deal about the Spirit.  I deduce this from how extensively Paul wrote about the Spirit and spiritual gifts in his letter to them.  I am tempted to call First Christian Church Corinth a charismatic style church.  Lots of exuberant spirituality experienced there.  So here is the twist – the unexpected: while they seemed so very spiritual, apparently, they were not.  Paul makes this crystal clear when he writes, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.  Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:1-3).  In other words, even though they exercised many outstanding spiritual gifts, and gave exuberant expression to the Spirit’s presence, they weren’t even weaned when it came to their spiritual development.

 

How so?  Well, to begin with they had a penchant for judging each others gifts – putting the Spirit’s gifts in a hierocracy of importance.  One almost gets the feeling that they had a modern day “This Church Has Talent” side show going on. Unfortunately, this misuse of God’s good gifts is still a present reality.  For instance, the Holy Spirit has been co-opted for monetary gain or worse.  There are those who teach that if you scratch the Spirit’s back, the Spirit will scratch yours.  Give 10% and the Spirit is bound to return 20%.  It is the Spirit’s job to do so, or so some say.  There are Christian faith healers, who have mega homes in several places around the world, funded by well meaning people who just want to be healed.  Some evangelists get from place to place in their personal jets – compliments of those who want to get to heaven.  Pastors in positions of trust and who ostensibly hold the key to heaven, have sexually abused children.  It is a tragic irony that many who promote things of the Spirit in the Christian realm, seem farther from the Spirit than those they prey upon.

 

The list of spiritual realities that the Corinthian church missed wasn’t limited to the gifts of the Spirit.  One might have thought, that given how tight they thought they were with the Holy Spirit, they would have known how important it was to be united.  As Ephesians puts it, “You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all and is present in all.  Everything you are and think and do is permeated with oneness” (Message – Ephesians 4:5-6).  Yet, divisions were rife. There were those advocating for the teachings of Apollos while others thought the teachings of Peter were better and so on.  All of which must have been hard to Paul to hear – after all he had invested personally so much in their Christian development.  They claimed to have oodles of knowledge about the way God wanted them to live but Paul pointed out just how lax and twisted their community moral standards were (5:9-13).  They had difficulty resolving interpersonal conflict and apparently were given to taking too much of the wrong spirit during house communion get togethers.

 

Like a good pastor, Paul tried to show them better ways to live together.  He addressed issues of unity, worship and a correct understanding of the last things.  And right dab in the middle of a rather lengthy section on the use and purpose of spiritual gifts in the church’s life – that is between chapters 12 and 14 – he makes another huge unexpected twist, and focuses on something entirely different.  It was not some ideal or an abstract theological notion about the Spirit or the second coming.  Nor was it a self-help course.  Rather he focuses on something God demonstrated in the life of Jesus.

 

Paul starts, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.” (13:1).  Imagine that I have the gift of tongues and can preach the gospel in a language that I have never heard before – like changing to fluent Russian mid way through a Sunday morning sermon.  Now that would be pretty amazing.  The press might even show up if it happened often enough and the languages changed.  But if I don’t have love – well then, I really am just making a lot of irritating noise.  Or if I have faith – I mean the kind of faith that says to a mountain “Jump,” and the mountain asks how high, but I don’t love, I’m nothing” (vs. 2).  Let’s face it, that would be a pretty miraculous kind of faith and we would all be amazed seeing it and declare that the Lord is here and revival is on the way!  Time for a bigger Church parking lot because this kind of thing will really bring them in.  Yet, Paul says, if that is done without love then all it amounts to a hill of dust.

 

In fact, he goes on to say that if you give away everything that you have to the poor, but don’t have love, well you haven’t given much at all.  And pushing well beyond self preservation: if I “even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.” Even if I die a martyr’s death by fire let’s say – which surely seems like the apex of Christian faithfulness and conviction, and do so without love, then don’t bother wasting the match.

 

It important to remember that Paul is not contrasting these actions.  It is not a matter of either/or.  It is not as though giving to the poor is unchristian or God forbid, being persecuted for our faith is not noble.  I am confident Paul would commend such things in our lives. It is just when authentic love is missing, such ‘spiritual’ things miss the mark entirely.  Here, we find ourselves at the heart of our faith – a vibrant spiritual way of being.  And it is a way of living that reflects the way God is with us in Jesus Christ.  As 1 John reminds us, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows god.  Whoever does not love does not known God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).   Reading John leads one to understand that the essence of God can be described in terms of love. Now, to say God is love doesn’t capture everything there is about God to be sure.  But for we mere mortals, it is likely the best starting and perhaps a pretty solid finishing point as well.

 

It is unfortunate that words lose their currency and are often cheapened.  When we use a word like ‘love’ we automatically conjure up our definition or understanding.  My hunch is that our definitions of love are flawed, incomplete, shifting and undoubtedly clothed in self-interest. I know – that is pretty brutal, but it needs to be said. In our day love is co-opted by all sorts of groups and communities, each with its varying definition.  It is quite common to hear people speak of falling in and out of love.  These are romantic notions of love and while such love is important, giving us great pleasure in life, such love is only one small, tiny slice of a definition, far too shallow to contain the fullness of God’s love by itself. Quite frequently these days I hear love to mean ‘accept me just as I am including all I do.’  If you love me, you won’t, indeed can’t say anything that I deem negative.  Or if you hurt my feelings then you don’t love me.  If you challenge me on something I do or say then you must hate me.  In Canadianese, love means begin ‘nice’.  All of these notions of love are, in my opinion, misdirected, falling short of the gritty and courageous nature of Christian love.

 

Living out of a center of love was critical for Jesus.  He said quite directly that the second most important rule ever (after loving God) was, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). We all know this as the ‘golden rule’ and I suspect most of us say that we try to let it guide us through life.  However, there is a problem even at this point.  I am to love others as I love myself.  So, what happens if I don’t really love myself in a healthy way?  What if I always put myself down?  Is it then putting others down to love them the way I love myself?  Or coming at it from a different angle, what if I do something that I think is in your best interest because it is the way I would want to be loved.  I might believe that the most loving thing I can do for my wife is to go on a canoe trip in early June.  My wife, who is a mosquito magnet might not see this as being a terribly loving idea.  Cruel and unusual punishment comes to mind.  All by way of saying, our ‘self’ gest in the way of loving others and ourselves for that matter.

 

I think Jesus offered the golden rule as a wonderful starting place.  It catches our attention and wakes us to the possibility of loving others in warm and helpful ways.  I think he made the golden rule clearer when he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way to love one another, as he loved us.  Not as I think I should love nor as someone thinks I should love them: but as He loved us.  Maybe we can call this the ‘platinum rule’?

 

To live in a way that is not bound by rules which tend to keep us sheltered or safe, in a way that is centered at the well of love will mean we ponder what is the most loving thing to do in this or that situation.  What might Jesus do? What does it mean to genuinely love my God and my neighbour at this moment in time?  The answer is not always easy, but is certainly is worth a prayerful ask.  We know that the way of love for Jesus was basically unselfish and sacrificial in nature.  As he went on to explain, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

 

Paul, understanding the nature of Christ’s love, provided us with several descriptors of what love is and is not in 1 Corinthians 13.  The Message offers them in a fresh way.  Read them and listen to what the Spirit might be saying to you:

 

Love never gives up.

Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

 

As I listen to what Paul has written, and think of what Jesus said, I gain an awareness of how I need to be and relate to others and the world about me.  Living out of a center of love is not easy, but it is the only way if I am to flourish in my journey through life as a follower of Jesus.  And I am reminded again of how deep and wonderful God’s love is for me.

 

Silent Prayer and Reflection – “Holy Spirit, fill us with so much of the Father’s love that it overflows in surprisingly unmanageable ways.  Amen.”

 

 

Offertory Prayer:

God of love, you have given us so much in life to enjoy. Enveloped by Your love we freely and joyfully offer our very selves to You.  Accept us and our offerings so that the good news of Your great love may take deeper root in our lives and in the lives of many others.  For the sake of Jesus’ love, Amen.

 

Hymn: Love (One Another) New

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving, for Others and Lord’s Prayer

God of compassion and courage, in our weakness you are strength. In our darkness you are light.

In our sorrows you are comfort and peace. With your steadfast love, embrace each situation we name or picture in our prayer at this moment…

 

We are thankful for your constant presence in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We thank you for moments of joy and celebration in our lives, for times of excitement and expectation, for love given and received, for friends who furnish our lives with meaning and happiness, and for family who embrace us with love and understanding.  In all our relationships and interactions, keep us gracious, kind and centered in love. Thank You for every glimpse of love that we encounter.

 

We pray for your body, the Church.  Jesus, You once said that others will know that we are your followers by the love we demonstrate in our lives together.  Holy One, may Your love flow from us so that others might understand and experience your redemption.  Lord Jesus, bring a healthy and helpful unity to your body so that the world might know the fullness of your love for all creation.

 

We pray for our country and countries around the world.  We lift up all who frame laws, are societal influencers, and those who keep the peace and administer justice.  In places where the innocent are punished and the poor ignored, wherever injustice rules, we ask that You move in the hearts and minds of those who can influence and bring just change with loving compassion.

 

We remember with sadness the love defying divisions in the world that too often lead to violence. We pray for peace to prevail in places torn by war and ask that love for human life take new root in places where people are abused or scorned.

 

We pray for those who suffer, for those who mourn, and for any who fear for the future and what it may bring.  Surround them with your love, support them with strength and courage. Open our eyes with compassion to see how we might respond with a love that reflects Jesus’ love so to bring comfort in situations of hurt and pain.

 

Eternal God, we thank you for your people in every age who have entered into your heavenly presence, especially those dear to our own hearts.  Keep us in communion with them and bring us to dwell with them at the last in your everlasting light.

 

We continue to pray as Jesus taught, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

 

Hymn: El Shaddai (New)

 

Invitation to Mission:

We go into the world

To love as Christ loved,

Knowing that there is no better way

To honour the One who loved us.

 

Benediction

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.