Special Offer

April 2, 2020

During this difficult time, I am offering–with the generosity of my publisher–free access to online materials (videos and ebook) for small group discussion through a digital platform based on the book, Anchors for the Soul: How to Trust God in the Storms of Life.

Watch the introductory video here.

A completely online, small-group experience to help you connect with others as you process loss, grief—and isolation.

We’re offering this special experience to help you, the church, comfort one another and bring people together online.

Included in this limited-time offer is:

– Free access to 10–15 min videos of the author (available by video streaming).
– Free eBooks of Anchors for the Soul for each participant.
– Free access to author and teacher John Mark Hicks author via one live Q&A session.

Register your group here ===> https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/

This is a digital-only experience of the Anchors for the Soul Video Course with group access to ask John Mark Hicks questions.

It’s a six- to eight-week video series for groups.

You and your group of 10–30 people can interact with each other as you watch a video series and ask John Mark Hicks questions.

Sign up now (space is limited): https://himpublications.com/anchors-video-course-special/


Gathered into the Name of Jesus

March 24, 2020

A selection from A Gathered People by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton, and Bobby Valentine.

Just as Matthew begins his Gospel with the assurance of divine presence in Jesus (Matt 1:23), so he ends his Gospel with the same assurance. When he commissioned his disciples to disciple all nations, he reminded them: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Disciples minister with the confidence that Jesus is with them; God is present in their ministry and life. Indeed, when disciples minister to people by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, they minister to the presence of Christ in the needy (Matt 25:20, 45).

While disciples rest in this confidence, they are also promised the presence of God through Jesus when they assemble (Matt 18:19-20):

Again, I truly tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

“Two or three” indicates that it is not the size but the intention of the gathering that is significant. When disciples gather (sunagagein) Jesus is present. But it is not just any gathering. Rather, intentionality shapes the nature of the gathering. When disciples pray together, the Father listens, and he listens because Jesus is present among disciples gathered “in” his name.

Matthew 18:19-20 needs careful unpacking. While the context is church discipline (Matt 18:15-17), the “again” of verse 19 separates this saying from the context much like a principle can be separated from any particular application. Discipline by the assembly is grounded not only in the principle that God has already confirmed their decision in heaven (Matt 18:18) but also in the correlation between communal prayer and divine presence through Jesus. The church’s discipline is rooted in the experience of the Father’s answer to prayer—God will grant the wisdom to make such decisions. But that the Father answers such prayer is rooted in the presence of Christ among the gathered disciples. In other words, the principle that Jesus is present among gathered disciples is a broader truth than any specific application to disciplinary action. It applies to prayer meetings. It applies to any gathering of disciples “in” the name of Jesus.

The theological point is significant. Our prayers to the Father are mediated by the presence of Christ. The Gospel of John makes the same point by directing disciples to pray in the name of Jesus (cf. John 14:13-14). But Matthew’s emphasis is more than just answers to prayer. It is about the presence of Jesus among the gathered disciples. This is parallel to some early Rabbinic sayings. Though they are of uncertain date (perhaps first century though more probably second century), they illuminate the point that Matthew is making in the Jewish milieu of his Gospel.[1] Mekhilta, the midrash on Exodus 20:24, states: “Wherever ten persons assemble in a synagogue the Shekhinah is with them, as it is said: ‘God standeth in the congregation of God’ (Ps 82, 1).” And, in Abot 3, 2b, Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradynon says: “if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekhinah is in their midst” (cf. Mal 3:16). And, in Abot 3, 3; Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says: “When three eat at one table and do speak words of Torah there, it is as though they have eaten from the table of God.”

Paralleling these statements, Matthew 18:20 affirms that Jesus is the Shekhniah presence when disciples gather “in” his name. He is the new temple presence, the new glory of God among his people. The divine glory shines through the presence of Jesus among his people. When disciples gather, they become a house of prayer, just as Israel’s temple was a house of prayer (cf. Matt 21:13 quoting Isa 56:7). In the person of Jesus one greater than the Jerusalem temple is present because he himself is the Shekhniah glory of God (cf. Matt 12:6).

Further, “in my name” replaces the Torah in the rabbinic sayings. Instead of gathering to talk about or read the Torah, disciples gather “in [Jesus’] name.” A literal translation would be “into (toward, eis) my name.” The phrase expresses the purpose of the gathering—it is a gathering toward the name, perhaps “in devotion to the name” or person of Jesus, or to worship the person (name) of Jesus.[2] Indeed, Jesus is worshipped in the Gospel of Matthew more than any other Gospel (cf. 14:33)—most significantly as resurrected Lord in Matthew 28:17-20. Disciples worship Jesus, are called to participate in the mission of Jesus to disciple all nations, and are assured of his presence to the “end of the age.”

The phrase does not mean “by the authority of Jesus” as it might with the use of the preposition “in” (en). Here eis (into) signifies motion toward, devotion or commitment to the person of Jesus who is “God with us.” Into (eis) the name “expresses the conscious choice of identification with what has been involved in Matthew’s story: the action of the Father through the Son and by means of the Holy Spirit.” It is a “comprehensive commitment to Jesus and what he has brought, done, and stands for”—his mission in the world.[3] Disciples follow Jesus by participating in his mission and they gather “into his name” to worship (20:19—to pray), profess their commitment, and, as a result, to enjoy his presence. When they gather, the Shekhniah glory of God is present among his people through Jesus. Assembled disciples enjoy the presence of God.


[1] The Rabbinic citations are from Joseph Sievers, “’Where Two or Three…’: The Rabbinic Concept of Shekihnah and Matthew 18:20,” in The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, ed. Eugene J. Fisher (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 47-61.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004; revised and expanded) 2:233.

[3] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 750.


Gathered in the Spirit

March 21, 2020

Part of chapter 6 in A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.

Whatever God accomplishes through Jesus, God does by the power of his Spirit. We experience new birth through Baptism because we are born “of the Spirit” (John 3:5; cf. Titus 3:5). We eat with Christ at his table through the communion of the Spirit (1 Cor 10:16; 2 Cor 13:14). We worship the Father gathered into the name of Jesus in the Spirit (John 4:24). Just as the Spirit mediates the grace of God through Baptism and mediates the presence of Christ through the table, so through assembly the Spirit mediates the presence of the Father and Son as we are transported into the heavenly sanctuary by his power.

Mediated by the Spirit

As previously discusssed, “in spirit” in John 4:23-24 is best understood as the Spiritual dynamic of worship. The Holy Spirit gives life to worship through the personal presence of God by his Spirit. The Spirit is the living water which Jesus promised would well up inside his disciples to offer praise and glory to God unto eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39).

This idea, however, is not limited to the Gospel of John. Jude (20), for example, encourages believers to “pray in the Holy Spirit.” Paul probably stresses the role of the Spirit as the means by which believers worship God more than any other. We are baptized “in” the Spirit (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) and renewed by the Spirit whom God pours out on us generously (Titus 3:5-6). In this way we are initiated into the life of the Spirit and as a result our very existence is rooted “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9). We live in him and he lives in us (Rom 8:11; cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim 1:14), and we live by his power (Eph 3:16; Rom 15:13). Thus, we continually confess Jesus “by (en)the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3) and wait in hope “through the Spirit” (Gal 5:5). Given this abundant Spirit-language where believers live and move in the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God lives and moves in them, Paul characterizes Christians as people who “worship in the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3).

Ephesians demonstrates how prominent the role of the Spirit is. For Paul the Spirit’s function is to not only mediate divine redemption to the people of God but also to mediate our fellowship with the Father and Son. The Father elects through the Son and seals us by the Spirit (Eph 1:4-5, 13). The Father redeems through the work of the Son and applies that redemption to our hearts by the indwelling Spirit. Indeed, we are the habitation—the dwelling place—of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22). The Spirit of God strengthens our inner life as he dwells in us and empowers us for holy living (Eph 3:16). The Holy Spirit transforms us into holy people as he works within us. Just as divine action originates with the Father, comes through the Son and is applied by the Spirit, so our access to the Father is through the Son “in one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). In the power and ministry of the Spirit we are connected to the life of God and raised up to sit in the heavenly places with the Father and the Son (Eph 2:6). We pray “in the Spirit” to the Father “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph 6:18). The Spirit unites us with God and with each other (Eph 4:3).

While certainly more could be said about our Spirit-saturated existence in Christ, the long sentence of Ephesians 5:18-21 teaches that we worship in the Spirit. Though the context of Ephesians 5 is the ethical life of the new creature in Christ, the epistle is designed to be read within a Christian assembly and the language assumes a context where believers submit and speak to each other as they sing to the Lord Jesus and give thanks in his name. The words assume that the saints are gathered to hear the reading of the letter and praise God in song and prayer. The structure of the text is outlined below.

Ephesians 5:18-21

      “Be filled with the Spirit” (imperative)

                        speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, and songs

                        singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

                        giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus

                        submitting to each other in the fear of Christ

The command to “be filled with the Spirit” stands in contrast with “do not get drunk with wine.” The enthusiasm and energy of the Christian life is drawn from the Spirit of God rather than the chemicals of fermented juice or the spirit of Bacchus, the god of wine. The command means that believers take some responsibility in seeking out the life of the Spirit, but the participles indicate the means by which we pursue this filling of the Spirit or perhaps the result of being filled with the Spirit. Paul believes that when we sing to the Lord and give thanks to God we are filled with the Spirit. When we speak to each other in song and submit to each other in the fear of Christ we are filled with the Spirit. The Spirit is an active participant in the dynamic of singing, praying, speaking, making melody and submitting. The dynamic of worship and the presence of the Spirit are intimately connected.

The Spirit in our assemblies mediates our worship to God and God’s presence unveils the relational dynamic of the worship assembly itself. God is no mere spectator in the assembly as if he sits on his throne passively receiving our praise as an ego-trip. On the contrary, through the Spirit, the Father and Son are engaged in communing, rejoicing, enjoying, singing over and delighting in our love as we commune, sing, praise, honor and delight in their love. Sacramental encounter is a moment of mutual delight—an experience of mutual indwelling. The Spirit initiates and enables our praise and at the same time brings to our hearts the delight and joy of God’s own communion. The dynamic work of the Spirit brings us to God and it also brings God to us. Worshipping assemblies are events where God and his people are engaged in a mutual and relational “love-fest” through the active presence of the Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of love between God and his people.

Eschatological Assembly

If we draw near to God as an assembly through the Spirit, what does this mean for the worshipping assembly? The point is not about the presence or non-presence of charismata (e.g., speaking in tongues, prophecy, or even teaching, showing mercy, generosity and singing as expressions of giftedness; cf. 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12). We do not intend to debate the legitimacy, number and nature of the charismata (spiritual gifts). Rather, we are focused on something more fundamental. To worship “in the Spirit” is the foundation for the use of all gifts—whether it is the gift of teaching or speaking in tongues. The role of the Spirit is more fundamentally about presence and transformation. Indeed, the primary work of the Spirit is presence—God dwelling in his people and communing with them. Through that presence the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ and gifts us to minister. Transformation should shape the use of gifts from the Spirit. The Corinthians used their gifts in the assembly without the transforming love of the Spirit. Consequently, 1 Corinthians 13 (about love) comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (about gifts and their use).

But presence is foundational. Without presence there is no transformation or gifting in the new age. Without presence, there is no worship because worship happens in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the mode of communion between God and humanity. Through the fellowship of the Spirit—through praying in the Spirit, singing in the Spirit, eating at the table in the Spirit—we commune with God and he communes with us. Through the Spirit we enter the heavenly sanctuary and encounter God. There we delight in the love which the divine community lavishes upon us and God delights in the love that we lavish on him. The Spirit is the relational connection between heaven and earth.

When the people of God assemble on the earth, they are no longer located in a particular place or time. Instead, they are “in the Spirit.” They transcend space and time as they are lifted by the Spirit into the heavenly sanctuary. The church finds itself in the divine throne room. The preacher describes this moment in Hebrews 12:22-24a with language that contrasts the “Day of Assembly” in Exodus 19-24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus.

The absence of the Spirit in this description is not surprising if one remembers that the Spirit takes us there (just as he did the Son on the cross; cf. Heb 9:14). We draw near (Heb 12:22 uses the same word as Heb 10:22) to a different mountain than Sinai. It is no longer on earth, but in heaven where God lives in the heavenly Jerusalem. There myriads of angels surround the throne in festive celebration. There the universal church scattered all over the earth is gathered as assembly. There the perfected saints who have passed through the veil of death are gathered. At Mount Zion, the assembly on the earth is gathered to God and to Jesus. The Spirit gathers the people of God and presents them to God and his heavenly hosts, both angelic and human. When the saints assemble, they assemble with the church gathered from all over the world and with the saints that have gone before.

This is the picture in Revelation 4-7. A gathered host praises God—the four living creatures, the twenty four elders, the thousands of angels, and a great multitude that no one can count. In Revelation 4 the host gathered around the throne cry out to the one who sits on the throne, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and praise, for you created all things” (Rev 4:11). In Revelation 5 the host acknowledge the presence of the slain lamb and cry out to him, “You are worthy…for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In Revelation 7 the saints on the earth are sealed and protected from the coming judgment (Rev 7:1-8) while at the same time “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). This great multitude proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). This great multitude around the throne is the eschatological assembly—“they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple” (Rev 7:15). Even now that great multitude praises God and the Lamb!

The Christian assembly on the earth gathered to God—gathered to worship the Father into the name of Jesus in the Spirit—transcends time and space to join this eschatological assembly. It transcends space so that the assembly is no longer “here” but “there” on Mt. Zion. It transcends time so that it not only includes the present saints upon the earth but it also includes those who have died in the Lord. It transcends time in that the assembly even now participates in the future eschatological assembly around the throne of God. When Christians meet together, they join the future—they see the future, experience the future, are emboldened to live in the present because of the future, and live in the present as if the future has already dawned. In that future God will shelter us and the Lamb will shepherd us—a future where “God will wipe away every tear from” our eyes (Rev 7:17).


The Duty to Assemble?

March 20, 2020

Are believers required to attend a weekly assembly of the church? Why should believers “go to church”? Or, more specifically, why should believers regularly attend an assembly of believers?

[This post is Case Study Two in Searching for the Pattern.]

I address this question often in my ministry. People ask about the significance of “going to church.” Typically, they don’t see its importance, and they think it is a secondary, even tertiary, dimension of following Jesus. Also, they are discouraged by what they experience when they attend a church. They see hypocrites, squabbles, and a lack of dedication to the gospel as they understand it.

My response, briefly, goes something like this. I affirm their sense of discipleship and commitment to the gospel, and I ask, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” “Yes,” they respond, “I follow Jesus.” “Then,” I reply, “go to church because Jesus did.” The look on their face is sometimes priceless—they are either disturbed, think I’m crazy, or a light bulb turns on. Let me explain.

Jesus went to church. What I mean is that he gathered with the people of God regularly, even weekly as well as on special occasions. He went to the synagogue or the temple even though it was filled with hypocrites, squabbling, and misguided devotion to God. If Jesus went to church, and we are disciples of Jesus, then we will go to church as well.

But we are ahead of ourselves here. Let’s slow down and consider the above question in some detail. Are disciples of Jesus required to attend a weekly assembly of the church?

If we follow a blueprint hermeneutic, we immediately recognize a startling reality. Though I have often said and heard that we are commanded to attend an assembly of the body of Christ every first day of the week in order to break bread at the table of the Lord, there is no explicit command in Acts and the Epistles that obligates believers to participate in a gathering of believers every first day of the week,

The only text that might qualify as an explicit command to assemble is Hebrews 10:25, which counsels against giving up the habit of assembling and actually calls for believers to attend more frequently as they see “the day” approaching (identifying “the day” is highly disputed). This expression (using a participle—“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”) modifies an exhortation. It is a warning. Even if we understand it as a command (which is possible), it does not identify the frequency nor the specific meeting to attend. It is a general encouragement to continue meeting together—to persevere and not give up. While it encourages greater frequency, it does not specify what frequency is expected or required.

I was taught, and I also taught, that the example of Acts 20:7 was an implied command for the weekly gathering of the church around the table of the Lord, and this specified the frequency intended by Hebrews 10:25. But the conclusion that every believer ought to break bread every Sunday in the assembled church is itself an inference; it is nowhere explicitly stated. It is inferred from (1) the assumption that the church gathered every week (based on a particular but disputed understanding of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) and (2) the church gathered every week for the specific purpose to break bread (based on the implied command of Acts 20:7). Those inferences depended upon numerous rules such as generic/specific, coordinates, and how to identify expediency (among many others, as I detailed earlier). Thus, we concluded, by way of inference, that believers everywhere and at all times are obligated to break bread every Sunday in an assembly of believers. This inferred obligation is based on a series of assumptions. Each one is controverted, and none are indubitable.

Consequently, if there is no explicit command to assemble every first day of the week, and the claimed obligation for a weekly table gathering is based on inferences, are believers obligated to assemble? If not, why should disciples of Jesus assemble regularly and how often? I remember my own fear about this question. I wondered that if I let go of the certainty of the implied command and its obligation whether anyone would actually attend the assembly any longer. If there was no absolute and certain obligation, if there was no consensus on the command, if there was no consequence to disobedience, then would anyone actually come together for an assembly? Would anyone actually “go to church” anymore if it were not absolutely, legally, and certainly required? But I had to admit there is no explicit, certain, and clear command to assemble every first day of the week in Acts and the Epistles.

If the blueprint hermeneutic is inadequate to establish that certainty, how does a theological hermeneutic answer the question?

Let’s start with Jesus. When asked why I “go to church,” my first response is because Jesus did and does. As a disciple of Jesus, I follow Jesus, and consequently I go to church, too. That needs a little unpacking.

Jesus went to church. How could Jesus go to church when there was no church while Jesus lived? But there was. The word “church” (ekklēsia) simply means assembly or gathering. It is a gathered people. Israel was the assembly of God that regularly gathered in the presence of God at the temple for the great assemblies in worship (Psalms 26:12; 107:32; 149:1), at tables where communities gathered to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to God at Passover, thanksgiving sacrifices (Deuteronomy 27:7) and other festivals, and, at the time of Jesus, in the synagogues where they studied the Torah and prayed together (Luke 4:16-20). Israel was “God’s assembly.” In fact, Stephen described Israel as the “church (ekklēsia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

This sense of “assembly” began when Israel gathered at Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16 call it the “day of assembly,” and on that day God spoke to them. Israel was the church of God, and God’s church assembled. In Leviticus 23, God called Israel to regularly convene in “sacred assemblies” or “holy convocations” for Sabbath, Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles in addition to many other assemblies occasioned by special events and situations (for example, 1 Chronicles 29:1; 2 Chronicles 5:2; Nehemiah 8:1; Deuteronomy 27:1-7). The rhythm of regular assembly was embedded in Israel’s spiritual practices, and it formed Israel as they praised God, encountered God, and encouraged each other in these assemblies. These practices had a major role in Israel’s spiritual formation and its relationship with God. Israel was not fully Israel without assembly because they were the assembly of God. In the same way, the church is not fully the church without assembly.

Jesus participated in the festivals of Israel and weekly assemblies with other Jews. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus celebrated the Passover (John 2:13), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10-14), and the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22, which is not even in the Leviticus; also known as the Feast of Lights). As the Gospel of Luke notes, Jesus attended synagogue every Sabbath day (Luke 4:16). Jesus, we might say, went to church every week.

Why did God institute such practices for Israel, and why did Jesus attend so regularly? These practices were rooted in the mighty acts of God’s history with Israel. The Sabbath, for example, arose out of both creation (Exodus 20:10-11) and Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). The Feast of Tabernacles reenacted Israel’s wilderness experience, and the Passover remembered their deliverance from Egypt. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s providential provision of an abundant harvest for their sustenance. The Day of Atonement humbled Israel before the holiness of God and extended forgiveness. The Feast of Purim, unknown in the Torah but added at the time of Esther, celebrated the faithfulness of God in preserving the Jews in Persia (Esther 9:26-31). The Feast of Dedication, which is not commanded in the Torah either, celebrated the cleansing and renewal of temple worship in 164 B.C. The rhythm of assembly tied Israel to God’s mighty acts in their history and their relationship with God. These assemblies rehearsed the story of God. They were moments of grace, humility, encounter, and remembrance. Through them Israel professed their faith, experienced God’s gracious presence, and renewed covenant with God. They remembered God’s mighty acts.

Why did Jesus participate in these assemblies? We might say it was for the benefit of the attendees as Jesus taught in the synagogues, but that would not be the whole story. As both a human being and an Israelite (indeed, the true Jew), Jesus also needed community, celebrated the history of God’s people, and worshipped God. The temple was a place of prayer for Jesus, and he also ate the Passover and sacrificial meals in fellowship with God and the community at the table. Whatever the reason, Jesus participated in the communal life of Israel from the weekly synagogue service on the Sabbath to the annual Passover, and if Jesus participated, as disciples of Jesus it might be good for us to participate in the assemblies of God’s people as well.

But there is more. Jesus also goes to church. This may sound rather awkward as this is not how we typically think about assembly. Hebrews makes this point in several ways. Hebrews is probably a sermon delivered to an assembly of discouraged believers. Some had abandoned their faith, others were drifting, and a few were persevering. The sermon is filled with language that indicates it was originally an oral presentation, or at least intended to be read, to an assembly. For example, “time would fail me” (Hebrews 11:31), the preacher said. Or, “we have much to say about this” (5:11), or “even though we speak like this” (6:9). In fact, the preacher calls his work a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22), which is how synagogue sermons were described (for example, Acts 13:15).

When we recognize that Hebrews is a sermon spoken to an assembly of God’s people, this deepens the significance of its language. Jesus is present in this assembly. Indeed, according to Hebrews 2:12, Jesus participates in the assembly as one who praises God “in the midst of the congregation” (ekklēsias). Jesus proclaims the name of God to the assembly. Jesus shares the assembly with believers and stands among them as one who lifts up the name of God in the assembly.

While we may call this “Jesus goes to church,” it is probably more accurate to say “the church goes to Jesus.” In Hebrews 12:18-24, the preacher parallels the day of assembly at Mount Sinai with the present assembly of the saints. While the former was a mountain the people could touch (a physical mountain), the mountain upon which believers in Jesus assemble is Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem, a mountain they cannot physically touch. When we ascend Mount Zion, we enter the city of the living God. We draw near to God, and when we do so, we go to church. Specifically, the preacher says that when we draw near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, we also come “to the assembly (ekklēsia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). In this sense we “go to church,” that is, we approach God and Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem where the whole assembly of God is gathered, where the whole church is assembled.

Some call this an “eschatological assembly.” This is a helpful phrase because it identifies the exact nature of the assembly described here. The word “eschatological” comes from the word eschaton, which means last. It refers to the “last things.” In other words, it refers to God’s future goal, that is, what God will bring about in the future. More than this, the word also refers to the way in which the future is already present since we are already living in the “last days” (eschatou; Hebrews 1:2). This is similar to Paul’s language of new creation, and just like in Romans 8:23, there is a sense in which the future is already present (we already have the first fruits of the Spirit, for example), but that future is not yet fully present (we do not yet have resurrection bodies).

When Christians gather as disciples of Jesus and for the glory of God, we participate in this eschatological assembly. It is already present in our gathering, but it is not yet fully present. When we gather, we are lifted up into the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God even though we do not yet live in that new Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). When we assemble, we join the heavenly chorus around the throne to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and we join the whole church from all over the world in the heavenly throne room and become, by the Spirit, part of that number that cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9-10). Moreover, we join the multitude of those who have already finished the race and are now present in the throne room of God. We join the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” that is, we join Moses, Rahab, Mary, Peter, Paul, and Phoebe around the throne of God. We join all those who have died in faith before us. We assemble with the whole church, living and dead.

Returning to Hebrews 10:25, the verb (“draw near”) in verse 22 is the same verb as in Hebrews 12:18 and 22. When we “draw near to God” (10:22), we enter the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies (10:19), through the veil of Christ’s flesh. We enter the heavenly temple and join the host of heaven around the throne to worship God. Consequently, the preacher exhorts this discouraged church to draw near to God in full assurance of faith, hold fast their confession of hope, and stir up one another in love to good works (10:22-24). The assembly is the eschatological moment when we, as a community, participate in the heavenly assembly around the throne and, at the same time, profess our hope and lovingly stir each other up to good works as we encourage each other and are encouraged by God’s presence. We enter the presence of God for praise and prayer, and we stand there together as a people in hope and love.

Hebrews 10:25 urges believers to continue to assemble and encourage each other because something happens when they assemble. Or perhaps it is better to say, someone happens, that is, we encounter God as the community of faith enters the heavenly temple together to praise God in the Holy of Holies.

Hebrews 10:25, then, is not so much an explicit command rooted in an assumed blueprint that the church must obey as a matter of faithful obligation as much as it is an exhortation to embrace the eschatological reality into which we have been invited. In other words, we are invited to participate in the story of God through assembling together and joining the heavenly chorus of angels, the church universal, and all the saints of the past to praise God, confess our hope, and encourage each other. Indeed, it is better to hear the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25 in the context of the story of God rather than isolating it from the story as a proposition in a syllogism that identifies part of the blueprint. The story gives meaning to the exhortation, and this meaning is more transformative than an inferred blueprint obligation.

Why should believers in Jesus go to church? We may answer this question in several ways from within the story of God. No doubt others could be added as well.

(1) We are part of the story of Israel, and God invited Israel to assemble in God’s presence for praise, prayer, encounter, and remembrance (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10; Psalm 50:5). These assemblies were grounded in God’s mighty acts and called Israel into an ongoing relationship with God. We assemble because Israel assembled, and we continue this practice because we have been grafted into the story of Israel (Hebrews 12:18-24). The practices of Israel guide us in the development of healthy and formative spiritual and communal practices.

(2) As disciples of Jesus, we follow Jesus into the assemblies of God’s people. Jesus participated in Israel’s assemblies (John 2:13; 7:14-15), and he shared the rhythm of that life with God. In addition to times with small groups (his disciples) and solitude (alone with God), Jesus habitually assembled with the people of God. Jesus did not neglect assembling, even though he knew they were neither perfect nor necessarily loving or welcoming. If Jesus needed this communal life through assembling with others, we need it as well. Just as we follow Jesus into the water of baptism, so we also follow him into the assemblies of God’s people.

(3) Jesus is present in the assembly with the community of faith and participates in the assembly. As the firstborn from the dead, Jesus praises God with the people of God as he sings with us in the midst of the congregation (Hebrews 2:12). As divine, Jesus receives our worship alongside of the one who sits on the throne. In both senses, Jesus is present in our assemblies as the enthroned Messiah as well as the Son of God who receives our worship (Matthew 18:19-20). In either case, Jesus is present in the assembly as participant, host, and Lord, much like Jesus is present at the table in his kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, disciples follow, and Jesus goes to church both in the past and in the present.

(4) In our local assemblies, we assemble with all the saints, past and present. In our present assemblies, we anticipate the future as, by the Spirit of God, we participate in the present heavenly assembly around the throne of God (Hebrews 12:22-24). This is the work of God’s new creation which is already present but has not yet fully arrived. We await the future Messianic banquet and the fullness of God’s new Jerusalem, and, at the same time, we are privileged to enjoy that banquet and divine presence even now when disciples of Jesus gather as an assembly. That assembly transcends space and time as it includes all disciples everywhere (whether Singapore, Nairobi, or Chicago), whether living or dead.

When we fail to assemble, what is the most significant problem? It is not so much the violation of a command or an obligation as it is the loss of encouragement, the loss of encounter with God, the loss of God’s presence in community, and a failure to follow Jesus who participated in the assemblies of God’s people during his ministry and is present as the enthroned Lord in all the assemblies of God’s people.

But when should Christians meet? If it is important for Christians, like it was for Israel and Jesus, to assemble regularly and habitually, when should they do so? Are there any commands or prescriptions to guide our practice? How does a theological hermeneutic address this question?

As we saw previously in this book, there are good theological reasons for breaking bread every first day of the week as the assembled people of God. This assembly does not necessarily assume an institution, church building, or organizational structure. Rather, at its most basic level, it is an invitation to assemble with other believers to break bread every first day of the week. The conjunction of (1) the first day of the week, (2) resurrection, and (3) breaking bread in Luke-Acts provides a strong, even compelling, reason to eat the Lord’s supper every first day of the week. At the same time, my judgment about the strength of the point is inferential rather than explicit. We might appeal to the significance of the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10. But we don’t know with any certainty whether John is referring to the first day of the week (though I think there is good reason to think so) or to something else (like an annual event, or even the day of divine judgment).

Nevertheless, Israel’s weekly Sabbath and festivals, the inbreaking of new creation in the resurrection of Jesus, and the function of tables in the story of God (from Israel’s sacrificial meals to the eschatological Messianic banquet) ground a weekly table of the Lord, and I invite all believers to embrace this practice because of the theological meaning of the table as communion between God, those assembled, and with each other.

At the same time, Hebrews 10:25 suggests more frequent meetings, and there is reason to believe the preacher envisions daily assemblies or at least daily mutual exhortation (as in Hebrews 3:13).

Assembly is important, and it has theological significance. We participate in the story of God when we assemble, and we encounter God when we assemble as a community of faith. This is true wherever we assemble (home, building, or under a tree; whether three people or three thousand) because when disciples of Jesus gather for praise and prayer, Jesus is present (Matthew 18:19-20), and wherever Jesus is present, he invites us to sit at his table in his kingdom (Luke 22:29-30).

Similar to how Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation, so God invites us to assemble with others in the heavenly Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation. While there is no absolute command, there is a divine invitation.


New Publication: Anchors for the Soul

November 5, 2019

This is a second edition of a book published in 2001. I have updated it, and now it includes a video course, an audiobook, and a journal to accompany the reading of the chapters. I hope you will take a look.

“Anchors for the Soul” chronicles my story, interweaving a biblical theology of suffering without giving pat answers. It’s intended for sufferers *and for those who are comforting sufferers* on how to process and move forward, yet still be honest about where you’re at along the journey. It helps you make space for the pain… before God.

As a hardback book, I must say: it feels as good to hold as it does to read! Chad Harrington’s design team did a great job on this.

We also did an online course—that’s available right now for free when you buy the book—and a companion journal.

Also, I wanted to mention that it’s perfect for church groups: each chapter has small group questions to help you process suffering together. The online course is perfect for groups. Check it out!

Click here for information on ordering and options.


The Messiah Establishes Kingdom Priorities

November 2, 2019

Theodrama 41.

As Jesus taught in the temple courts, his opponents confronted him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his actions and authority. The hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity or endanger his life.

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, one scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wondered how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment is the most important one in the Torah?

Jesus identified two commands in the Torah as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” and the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18.

What enabled Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts as the first and second commandments? Jesus did not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, Jesus recognized levels of priority and importance. Some commands are more fundamental than others.

Jesus prioritized these two commands over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Loving God and neighbor is more important than the temple and its sacrifices. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but that there are more important commands. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t make any other command equal in importance.

What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. We give ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.

This reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or that what the Lord requires more than a thousand sacrificed rams is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices that God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).

The context in which this exchange takes place underscores the importance of “love your neighbor.” It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). In effect, Jesus identified several practices as examples of economic or social injustice.

Given these temple practices, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second, and the presence of social injustices are a clue as to why. When we love our neighbors, we treat each other fairly, honestly, and with equity, and we oppose all injustices.

The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. The kingdom is rooted, grounded, and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other.

When we love God, we love neighbor, and we love our neighbor, not because we found something worthy of love in our neighbor but because we love God. The love of God and neighbor are the priorities of the kingdom of God, and the driving energy of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus love God first of all, and also love their neighbors because they love God.


Why I Stay

September 19, 2019

“I imagine I was as thoroughly socialized and spiritually formed by churches of Christ as a person could be, though I was not alone. I shared this ethos with many friends and family. This was my home, and I felt at home. I still feel at home.” (Searching for the Pattern, pp. 62-63.)

Why do I stay?

I love my home despite its flaws. I love the shared confession of the Creator who sent the Messiah into the world and sent the Spirit into our hearts. I love the relationships. I love my historic heritage. And I could say more.

At the same time, I understand why some leave and find community elsewhere. Some have left because they have been excluded or abused, or they are simply exhausted. God bless them, and may God use them wherever they find a community of faith.

I stay to continue the journey of communal sanctification in love, kindness, and hope. I embrace and pursue hope because I believe in the God of hope.


New Book Announcement

August 31, 2019

Title: Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

It is available on Kindle or in Paperback.

In this book, John Mark Hicks tells the story of his own hermeneutical journey in reading the Bible. Lovingly and graciously, he describes his transition from a “blueprint hermeneutic” to a theological one. Some suggest that moving away from a patternistic command-example-and-necessary-inference approach for understanding what God requires leaves no other alternative, or at least none that both respects biblical authority and seeks to obey the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

In Searching for the Pattern, John Mark offers just such an alternative. His theological hermeneutic is deeply rooted in the way the Bible presents itself as a dramatic history of God’s plan to redeem the world as well as his own experience of growing up among Churches of Christ. Seeing the gospel of Jesus as the center of the biblical drama reorients us to what provides our Christian identity and unites us as disciples of Jesus.

*******

I pray this book is received with open hearts and open minds because I believe this work could go a long way in helping to bring unity to our fractured fellowship. 

Wes McAdams, Preaching Minister for the church of Christ on McDermott Road, Plano, Texas

This excellent book helps us understand the inner workings of Bible interpretation among Churches of Christ and provides a persuasive proposal for Bible interpretation that is built on the story of God we find in Scripture—a story into which God calls us.

James L. Gorman, Associate Professor of History, Johnson University
Knoxville, Tennessee

Finally, a trellis across the chasm! Throughout this book, Hicks does not compromise his high regard for both the church and the Scriptures; and through the grace found therein, he composes this urgent invitation back to the Table, where obedience cooperates with mystery, and we—estranged or conflicted—can find our place as one within God’s magnificent story.

Tiffany Mangan Dahlman, Minister at Courtyard Church of Christ,
Fayetteville, North Carolina

John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has taught for thirty-eight years in schools associated with the Churches of Christ. He has published fifteen books and lectured in twenty countries and forty states and is married to Jennifer. They share six children and six grandchildren.



A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:17-18

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time.

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28),

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations.

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here.

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift.

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!


A Mother’s Day Homily

June 4, 2019

This is the homily delivered by Melanie Smith on May 12, 2019 at the All Saints Church of Christ.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.