Category: Befriending Jesus


Belonging to Jesus

The pulpit series on the Upper Room Discourse found in John 13 to 17 has been an intense and inspiring learning experience for me. Over the past seven weeks, we have given careful attention to the teaching of Jesus. In the short time with his disciples, Jesus revealed the Father’s heart and intentions for them. As Jesus confides in the disciples, we discover the vital truth about the essence of our relationship with God. The life of discipleship is initiated by the call of Jesus, transformed by the Father’s love, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In befriending Jesus, we experience personal reorientation, redemption, reconciliation, restoration and renewal.

Let us review what we have learned about befriending Jesus:

  • Jesus’ love is the hallmark and benchmark of the disciples’ love for one another. We are called to love as Jesus loves.
  • Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are drawn into communion with God through Jesus.
  • Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to all those who belong to Him. We are empowered to live for Jesus by the Spirit.
  • Jesus is the True Vine and we are the branches. We abide in Jesus and simply live as altogether Christians because Jesus lives in us.
  • Jesus calls us His friends. He sets us apart to produce lasting fruit through intimacy with the Father and deeper love for one another.
  • Jesus has chosen us out of the world to belong to Him. We are directed to live by the Spirit as agents of grace and love in the world.
  • Jesus assures us joy and peace in Him because He has overcome the world by His death, resurrection and ascension.

Therefore, befriending Jesus draws us into the mystery of belonging to Jesus. We are no longer strangers to the love of Jesus. In reality, we are led into the indispensable and irresistible union with God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are truly blessed to be called friends of Jesus. The question remains: are you a friend of Jesus? If not, may I invite you to respond to His love for you by giving your life to Jesus. Through faith in Jesus and by obedience to His call, we are given the privilege of befriending Jesus.

Last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, was filled with the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in our worship services. We were reminded that Jesus chose us out of the world to belong to Him so that we might be sent back to live by the Spirit, testifying to His love and grace in the world. Indeed, we give praise to the Lord for His magnificent grace in touching lives and turning hearts back to Him.

As the Spirit came upon us and moved freely in our hearts, many responded to the occasion for healing prayer towards the end of the services. One by one, and in some cases, couples and families, received anointing oil and prayer. Invariably, tears flowed. Hearts were opened to the Spirit. Lives were touched by the Spirit. What a joy to witness the hunger and yearning for the Holy Spirit. A profound sense of hush and reverence came over the congregation. We are simply grateful for the outpouring of God’s Spirit during this season. Praise the Lord for what He is doing in our community.

I believe the Spirit will continue to draw people closer to Jesus. I am confident the Lord Jesus will deliver individuals from mediocre faith and lukewarm hearts. I am praying for a deeper work of the Spirit in our lives so that we will experience freedom from fear and despair. I am trusting the Lord to move us from passive indifference to passionate investment in the work of the Gospel. I am anticipating a season of renewal, restoration and reconciliation. I am inviting you to partner with WVBC in prayer and service, leveraging our gifts and resources for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I am calling you to stand up for Jesus and to subvert the world’s influence with the truth and love of Jesus. I am challenging each person to reach out to one another with compassion and hospitality.

As we respond to the Spirit’s movement, I believe we are empowered to make a difference in our community. Where there is despair, let us give hope. Where there is fear, let us raise faith. Where there is hurt, let us show mercy. Where there is loneliness, let us offer friendship.  Where there is sickness, let us pray for healing. Where there is confusion, let us speak truth. Where there is sadness, let us share the joy of Jesus. Where there is a need, let us give generously.

From the earliest history of the Christian movement, believers have been persecuted for their faith. From the first-century disciples who followed Jesus to those in the 21st century who faithfully proclaim Jesus is Lord, many have suffered at the hands of those who are offended by the Gospel. Stephen was the first martyr in Jerusalem (Acts 7) and in recent times, Shakeela Bibi was beaten to death for her faith in Pakistan.

Persecution seems inevitable in places where Jesus Christ is hated. Just as Jesus predicted, the disciples will face the same fate as their master: “Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me.” (John 15:20-21 NLT)

In places like Iran, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, North Korea, and many others, Christians are not permitted to practice their faith. Yet they persist despite the threat of violence, harassment, imprisonment, and even death. The intensity of their faith is incomprehensible to their persecutors. Over 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest, and even death for their faith, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation.

Though it is sometimes difficult to identify the difference between persecution and the everyday inconveniences of living in a world hostile toward Christianity, Open Doors USA (opendoorsusa.org) says there are some clear defining factors. Persecution occurs when a believer is:

  • denied the protection of religious freedom
  • prevented from converting to Christianity because of legal or social threats
  • physically attacked or killed because of their faith
  • forced to leave their job or home because of the threat of violence
  • imprisoned and interrogated for refusing to deny their faith

According to Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, chief strategy officer for Open Doors International, there are at least four lies that drive the persecution of Christians today:

  • In the Middle East, the lie is that “Christianity is a foreign religion, a Trojan horse for pro-Israel, pro-American forces.”
  • In the Asian subcontinent, the lie is that “Christianity only grows through unethical or forced conversion and wants to take over our countries by stealth.”
  • In those countries where the Marxist ideology still lingers, such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, and parts of Latin America and Africa, the lie remains this: “Christianity is for weaklings who can’t face the world on its own terms and need crutches of illusion.”
  • In the West, the lie is that “Christianity is intolerant, anti-scientific and best kept out of public life completely.”

In the face of lies and threats from a world deeply prejudiced against Jesus and His followers, we are challenged to persevere in love and witness for Jesus’ sake. We depend on the Holy Spirit to convict and convert human hearts by subverting the world’s lies with the truth of God. Jesus made it clear that the disciples are not of the world but they belong to Him and thus live by the Spirit. As we follow Jesus, we are called to lay down our lives for Jesus. The prevalence of persecution in the world, including North America, is a wake-up call to be vigilant and bold in the Spirit. Jesus warns us in John 16:1 “I have told you these things so that you won’t abandon your faith.”

Chicago Tribune writer Marla Paul took a risk when she wrote a self-revealing column confessing her sadness and frustration over her own struggle to build and sustain friendships. Over time, she discovered many people experienced a similar crisis in friendship. It is not easy finding good friends. However, friends are vital to our wellbeing.

Marla Paul writes: “I think we all instinctively know we feel better after spending time with a special friend. We feel energized and happier. If we share a problem with a friend, we feel less hurt. But there’s also this whole new body of research showing how profoundly friendships impact our emotional and physical health. Friendships protect us from depression and anxiety. They boost our immune system, and we have a healthier cardiovascular system when we spend time with friends. Our memory is enhanced and we sleep more deeply. The list goes on about how spending time with friends and having close confidantes supports our health.”

The benefits and rewards of enduring friendships are positively desirable. We long for deep and meaningful connections. We also desire spiritual friendships in the church community. The yearning to belong and to feel accepted accompanies our need to know that God loves us. When we feel welcomed and respected, we also feel encouraged and affirmed. As we reach out to one another with the love of Jesus, we initiate and form spiritual friendships. By becoming present to one another, we learn to be available and vulnerable to each other. The organic nature of relationships within the community of God’s People involves an intentional process of attending to the needs of others while trusting the Holy Spirit to show us how best to respond in love.

But the challenge of fostering significant friendships persists in the local church. Some congregants have expressed frustration and disappointment in forming friendships. Casual greetings and conversations on Sunday in the foyer do not always transition to deep friendships. We may find it hard to remember names. Cultural and social diversity might affect our confidence in reaching out to others. Language might also be a barrier to greater freedom in expressing our thoughts and values. Perhaps, we could facilitate a network for hospitality whereby newcomers and visitors are invited to dinner and conversation in our homes. At our Welcome Lunches, we have been blessed with the privilege of recognizing those who have visited us in recent months. Hearing their personal stories of God’s leading in their lives, we sense a profound hope to belong to a community of people who truly love Jesus and who genuinely love one another. It takes time, effort and perseverance. Everyone is included.

The pre-eminent friendship of Jesus Christ is the basis for authentic relationships and spiritual friendships. We are called friends by Jesus because the Father’s love for us makes us valuable and significant. In befriending Jesus, we discover the joy and blessing of abiding in him. Our confidence in loving one another and in praying for one another emerges from a deep experience of Jesus’ presence in our lives. We are friends of Jesus – uniquely called and chosen to bear the fruit of loving friendship with others. Consequently, we are no longer strangers, isolated from others. Instead, we have become spiritual friends who delight in the company of those who love Jesus. We are friends of Jesus for life and for others.

In a beautiful book, “Scouting the Divine,” Margaret Feinberg tells her story of journeying into the stories of Scripture by engaging in the nuances and earthiness of life. In her search for God in wine, wool, and wild honey, Feinberg meets people who read and appreciate Scripture as vintners, shepherds, and farmers. She discovers ordinary and extraordinary moments when God intersects our world. In scouting the divine, Feinberg learned from people whose experiences cultivated an organic and lively faith.

One part of her book involves time with a vintner in Napa Valley, California, who revealed pertinent insights into the meaning of fruitfulness. Kristof, the master vintner, shares his observations about John 15 where Jesus identifies himself as the True Vine and the Father as the vinedresser. Kristof points out that the passage does not describe the full role of the Father.

In a vineyard, there are multiple roles assumed by the one who cares for the vines and the craft of winemaking. Kristof suggests that the Father is not just the vinedresser but also the owner and the master vintner. Yet, Jesus focuses on the Father’s role as vinedresser, the one who prunes or sculpts the vine. According to Kristof, the owner and the vintner are vitally important persons but it is really the vinedresser who has the skill, knowledge and care in ensuring the health and fruitfulness of the vine.  The vinedresser knows each vine and branch intimately so that the pruning and cutting process is carried out with utmost precision and care.

As Feinberg discovers, the vinedresser looks at each vine carefully and determines the precise cut that will produce the healthiest and most robust vines. God is deeply interested in our lives and He knows us intimately. But only God the Father has the power and authority to judge the status of each branch. The vinedresser does not cut off a branch simply because it has no fruit. Sometimes what appears as a dead branch may have the potential for new growth if the vinedresser prunes in such a way as to encourage it. However, with all the care and expertise of the vinedresser, fruitfulness depends on the branch drawing all the nutrients and water from the vine.

In befriending Jesus, the disciples are led to a deeper experience of the organic relationship with Jesus the True Vine. We are the branches, cared for by our Father the ultimate vinedresser. Jesus insists that we must abide in Him as the branch abides in the vine. This profound union with Jesus sustains our discipleship and daily life. There is no other way but to remain in Jesus so that His life may flow through us and form us into the kind of people who manifest the love of the Father to a world that is desperately scouting the divine. Our fruitfulness depends on the intentional and uninterrupted union with Jesus.

There is a sense of excitement and urgency regarding the work of the Gospel in our congregation. We sense an openness to the transforming work of God by His Spirit in our lives. As we learn to trust Jesus more deeply and intentionally, I believe we will experience the powerful presence of God in our hearts. In befriending Jesus, we learn to love Him by obeying His instructions.

What is Jesus saying to us today? What specific commands of Christ are we called to obey? Firstly, Jesus calls us to follow Him by submitting to baptism. Through baptism, we declare our love and allegiance to Christ. In our baptism, we commit to give our life to Jesus and to belong together in His Church.

Secondly, Jesus directs us to practice love for one another. It is the love of Jesus that motivates us to serve one another, to care for one another, to forgive one another, and to pray for one another. By loving as Jesus loves, we form deep relationships of trust and mutual concern.

Thirdly, Jesus invites us to ask the Father through prayer and intercession. We are commanded to ask for God’s will and God’s work to be accomplished in our lives. One exciting dimension of this privilege is the opportunity to ask for the Holy Spirit to indwell our lives and to empower us for ministry. I will explore Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit on Sunday when we contemplate the significance of Jesus’ teaching in John 14:12-31.

Fourthly, we are empowered by Jesus to engage in the work of touching people’s lives with the power of the Gospel so that they will be transformed by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Jesus promises our greater experience of doing His work because He has returned to the Father and the Father has poured out His Spirit upon every disciple of Jesus. In other words, the spiritual work that Jesus intends for us is validated by the the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in each person.

Let us pray for a deepening of our friendship with Jesus Christ. May the Lord Jesus direct our lives and invigorate our love and passion for God’s Kingdom.

We live in a world where trust is a premium and not always evident. In a low-trust culture, a common question would be: “How do I know who I can trust?” Some feel the risk of trust might be too much because corruption, scandals, scams and lack of transparency seem unavoidable. A parent might admit: “I wish I could trust my kids, but they’ve proven time and again that they can’t be trusted. How can I get them to change?” Within the community of faith, when our prayers are not answered or when disappointments become too unbearable, we wonder if God can be trusted? In a local church, if a member betrays our trust of confidentiality, do we conclude that all Christians are not trustworthy?

In our pulpit series on Befriending Jesus, we note how Judas left the Upper Room after Jesus revealed that one of the disciples would betray him. In a tense moment, Jesus disclosed his intention to leave the disciples for a time. On this occasion, Peter sensed the danger. Perhaps Peter does not understand the nature of Jesus’ message. From a human point of view, it was not appropriate for Jesus to assume the servant’s role in washing the disciples’ feet. Earlier, Peter had questioned Jesus’ mission to  suffer and to give his life as a sacrifice. Peter wanted to save Jesus from becoming the Suffering Servant. From his own sense of human strength and power, Peter felt confident he could lay down his own life for Jesus. But Jesus reminded Peter of his inherent weakness and vulnerability – “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” From that moment on, Peter was silenced and shaken.

At the heart of Peter’s impulsive relationship with Jesus is the paradox of trust. Peter wanted to follow and serve Jesus. But he was not prepared to give up his own sense of control and power. If Peter trusted Jesus at his word, he would have accepted the promise of Jesus’ love without conditions. The disciples were in a difficult place. They were reluctant to let Jesus leave. They felt threatened by the revelation of betrayal within their own ranks. Furthermore, they were shocked by Jesus’ prediction that their lead disciple, Peter, would deny Jesus three times. In the tense moments of self-doubt, suspicion, and fear, Jesus assured the disciples not to let their hearts induce more anxiety or distress. Things were not what they seem. It was a moment to trust Jesus more than to question his motives.

Jesus invited the disciples to trust him fully and wholeheartedly. Jesus introduced a new covenant shaped, sustained and secured by his persistent, unstoppable love for the disciples. As a result, Jesus’ love would overcome all fears. His love informs, inspires, and invigorates the disciples’ relationship with one another. Jesus challenges the disciples to trust him without reservations. If they trusted God, now they must trust Jesus more intently. The power of trust and the power of love are intrinsically inseparable in the person of Jesus. As the disciples learn to trust him, they will experience the incomparable extent of his love for them that will lead to a deeper encounter with the living God. Trust is necessary, non-negotiable. The question remains: Do you really trust Jesus?

Andrew Sullivan wrote a cover article for Newsweek recently: “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus.” Following the example of Thomas Jefferson, he advocates a personal quest for listening to Jesus and ignoring the “politics, priests and get-rich-evangelists” who have destroyed Christianity in American society. Sullivan expresses profound disappointment with institutional religion. “Christianity is in crisis,” laments Sullivan. In some ways, Sullivan’s complaints are serious and noteworthy.  However, unlike Jefferson, who used a razor to cut out portions of the Gospels which he regarded as the “pure doctrines” of Jesus, we are compelled to discover the real Jesus of the Gospels. In order to follow Jesus, we need to give attention to everything He taught. We need to read the Gospels afresh with an open heart and authentic faith.

John’s Gospel chapters 13 to 17 contain what is traditionally described as the “Farewell Discourse” or “Upper Room Discourse” of Jesus. Following Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, we note the prediction of Judas’ betrayal. As soon as Judas departs, Jesus confides in his disciples, revealing significant insights into the relationship between Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the disciples. I find it compelling that Jesus reveals the heart of God’s intentions for his disciples only after Judas has left the upper room.

“Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God.” (John 13:3) Consequently, Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet and the specific teaching in chapters 13 to 17 were intended to prepare the disciples for their mission in the world after his personal departure. Out of deep love for his disciples, Jesus revealed the full extent of his love for them (John 13:1). The act of becoming a servant and laying down his life for his disciples is symbolic of his mission and personal sacrifice on the cross. In anticipation of his departure, Jesus explains the way to lifelong relationship with the Father, sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit and secured by the indwelling life of Jesus.

In essence, Jesus discloses his personal desire for the disciples: that they would know Jesus intimately by befriending him. “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:15) We are called friends of Jesus because we have received everything that Jesus teaches and we live in the fullness of His love for us. Befriending Jesus is the lifelong experience of following Jesus, loving Jesus, and serving Jesus. Befriending Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus declares: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’ life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:13,14)