Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter: Did He Rise? What Does It Matter If He Did?

[This was prepared for delivery during the worship celebrations of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, April 20, Easter Sunday.]

Matthew 28:1-10
On this Easter Sunday morning, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I want to consider two simple questions:
  • Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the first Easter? 
  • And what difference does it make to us if He did?
We live in a skeptical age. The so-called “New Atheists,” people who not only adamantly reject the existence of God, but also reject all truth claims made by the Bible, are given great prominence these days.

Even within the Church, there are theologians who claim that Jesus was not physically raised from the dead, that what the first disciples called “the resurrection” was only their subjective experience of the dead Savior’s presence in their memories. Or, they say that the early disciples experienced a mass hallucination even though psychology tells us that such a phenomenon is impossible.

And truth be known, even the most pious and convinced of believers have their moments of doubt.

But let’s be clear: If Jesus didn’t actually physically rise from the dead, we may as well pack up, go home, and eat our Easter dinners right now.

And if we're part of the church just to feel good or to help us through this life, we've got it all wrong.

In the first century, the apostle Paul wrote this to church members in the Greek city of Corinth: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”

Through the centuries and still today, some read or hear the words of Paul or those of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and dismiss it all.

A then-fifth grader in my former congregation told me once that a classmate of his, no doubt echoing words he’d heard at home, didn’t believe in God or in Jesus. The kid said that Christianity was all a big conspiracy.

So, what do we say to such assertions? Is Easter and the faith that is built on it all a big conspiracy? Or is it the truth?

Let’s consider the evidence. Please look at our Gospel lesson for today, Matthew 28:1-10. (You’ll find it on page 698 in the sanctuary Bibles.)

Anyone who takes the time to lay out the four Gospels’ different accounts of the first Easter side by side will see differences: different women are named among those who went to the tomb; Matthew says that the women simply went to see the tomb, while other gospels say they went to anoint Jesus’ body; and there are other differences. But these differences shouldn’t bother us. They should, in fact, help convince us that the report of Jesus’ resurrection was no conspiracy, but the truth. As one New Testament scholar has said, “a calculated deception should have [caused the conspirators to agree on the details of the resurrection story]. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: 'I saw him first!' 'No! I did.'” That makes their common story that Jesus rose from the dead more likely to be true!

Now look at Matthew 28, verse 1, please. It says: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

The Jewish sabbath, of course, runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. As our lesson begins, the sun is rising.

The women went to the tomb with no expectations of finding any good news. They had watched Jesus die. Like billions of people who have lost good friends or loved ones, they went to the cemetery only to pay their respects, to grieve and, maybe, to remember together. Jesus’ promise that He would rise again, if they thought of it at all, would have seemed like a fairy tale memory to them.

The fact that the women who went to the tomb didn’t expect to see evidence of Jesus’ resurrection ought to make us give credibility to their later saying that Jesus, once dead, was alive again.

Now look at verses 2 through 7. It says:
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."
Notice to whom this news—the greatest news in the history of the world—is being given: women. In patriarchal, male-dominated first century Judea, the testimony of women wasn’t considered valid. A woman couldn't testify in court, because women were deemed by that society to be unreliable.

If the first Christians had made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection—if Easter was one big conspiracy, they certainly would have been shrewd enough to say that men were the first to meet the angel at the empty tomb and not women whose word would be automatically dismissed by that society.

It was poor marketing in the first century world for Christians have to admit that, in fact, women were the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. This too, is a powerful proof that there was no Easter conspiracy.

Please see what happens next in Matthew 28:8-10:
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
None of Jesus’ first followers ever claimed to have seen the precise moment when the corpse of Jesus came back to life. Instead, they all said that they were shown an empty tomb and like us, were asked to dare to trust that the Savior Who had never once lied to them was good for a promise He had made, that He would rise again.

It was only after the women at the empty tomb chose to be open to believing and chose to act on the angel’s message that they saw the risen Jesus.

When it comes to faith in God, you and I cannot fold our arms and demand that God prove Himself to us.

Nor will God ever force us to trust in Him.

We must be willing to believe. It’s then and only then that we will begin to believe. It’s only then that God’s Holy Spirit can build faith within us.

In faith, seeing is not believing; believing is seeing!

So, did it really happen? Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the first Easter Sunday? The evidence, I think, indicates that He did.

But, even if we find the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection convincing, the resurrection will still be nothing more than a bit of trivia or a blip on our calendars unless we, like the women met by the angel at the empty tomb, dare to believe—to trust our whole lives to Christ—and dare to act on that belief.

And listen: As a former atheist myself, I can tell you that God will give you faith in the risen Jesus if only, like the women at the empty tomb, you are willing to believe.

In his book, The Power of a Whisper, Pastor Bill Hybels tells of being with a group of pastors and asking them how they had come to faith in the risen Jesus. One pastor said that he grew up in an non-churchgoing home, his parents deeply hostile to Christ and the Church.

Next door was a couple who believed in Jesus, were active in a local congregation, and sensed that God wanted them to invite their neighbors to church.

So, one day, they came to that young boy’s home and invited his family to worship with them. The parents were venomous in their response to the invitation, “We want nothing to do with your God…[or] your church…[or] you.”

But their son said, “Hey, Dad. I’ll go.” The parents thought to themselves, “Free babysitting!” So, they let junior go to church.

All through that boy’s junior high years, the neighbors took him to church Sunday in, Sunday out. While in high school, he surrendered his life to Christ.

Later, he became a pastor and started a church on the East Coast, which today welcomes thousands of worshipers each week, changing lives and bringing the peace of the risen Jesus Christ in facing and living in this world this world and the hope of eternity with God beyond the grave through the risen Jesus.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! It really happened and He can change the lives and eternities of all who repent, that is, turn from sin, and believe in Him.

If you’ve come here this morning, not really certain about what you thought of Jesus and His resurrection, and you find yourself wanting Him in your life, I promise you that He wants the same thing. He wants life with you.

If you’re willing to let Him in, He can be right there with you in all the times of your life--the good and joyous, the hard and sad, and every place in between. He can give your life meaning and purpose.

And, when, like Jesus Himself, you cross the threshold of death, He will be holding you and He will raise you to life again to be with God for eternity. If you want Jesus today, just tell Him.

If you’d like a little help in either getting started in a life with Jesus or in renewing that life, you’ll see people with blue lapel badges around today. They will be happy to pray with you, share a bit with you. They’ll also ask you if you’d like a call from me this week. If you’re not a Living Water member or you don’t live in this area, please know that I won’t be phoning you to try to get you to join this church, though people are certainly welcome to take instruction and check us out. Instead, we simply want you to experience the power and blessings of the risen Jesus every day of your life, the way we do day in and day out. We want you to have eternal life with God. It happens through Jesus, the One Who rose on the first Easter.

To paraphrase the angel at the tomb, “This my message for you,” the message of new life through the risen One, Jesus. It’s God’s message for you and all the world. It can change a life for eternity. Let it change yours. Amen!

Easter Welcome

With each Church Season, our congregation's weekly bulletin has a special welcome for visitors. Here's what will appear this coming week, with the Second Sunday of Easter:
Welcome to Living Water Lutheran Church!

We’re pleased to welcome you during this Easter season, which this year began on April 20 and ends on May 25.

Throughout this season, we remember the greatest event in history--Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead--and what it means for our lives today and our lives in eternity.

Living Water is a congregation dedicated to spreading the good news of Easter by our words and our actions. That good news, very simply, is that God has conquered our common enemies as people sin, death, and meaningless living, through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection from death. All who will daily turn from sin and daily surrender to Jesus share in His victory over these enemies. Jesus promises in Matthew 24:13: “...the one who endures to the end [in faithfulness to Christ] will be saved.”

In gratitude for the free gift of new life given to believers in Jesus and from the love of neighbor that God’s Holy Spirit seeks to build within His people, Living Water undertakes a lot of exciting ministries. These include housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, working with other churches to provide Christian sports experiences to young people, and help in rebuilding people’s lives. We do that throughout our church’s service area, which runs from Beavercreek to Lebanon, in Dayton, and in places like Haiti and Memphis, where mission teams of our congregation’s members often go.

Living Water is committed to building its life on three key commands of Jesus. We seek to: love God; love our neighbors as we love ourselves; love our fellow Christians as Christ has loved us; make new followers of Jesus by spreading the good news of the Easter story; and personally grow in our relationship with Christ each day.

We hope and pray that you will feel welcomed by the people of Living Water and that you will plan on being with us again soon.

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sad Beginning to Holy Week and Passover

How horrible that with Passover just two days away and Holy Week beginning yesterday, a white supremacist killed three people at a Jewish community center in Kansas City.

Jesus summarized Old Testament law when He said that the greatest commandment included loving God completely and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

May God teach us to love.

Perfect Comfort from the Perfect Savior

He feared what this life in our world can do to a person.

See here too.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Not the King We Want...the King We Need

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11

I once preached at a church in Germany. I delivered my sermon in English and it was translated for me. But the hardest part of the service came when, at the insistence of the host pastor, I helped lead the congregation in reading the Psalm responsively. I somehow got through the service and afterward, several of the German congregants asked me, since I spoke German so fluently, why I hadn’t given the sermon in German too. I had to explain that I’d spoken the Psalm phonetically and hadn’t really understood many of the words.

It’s possible to know the words we say without knowing what we’re saying. How often do we, on Sunday mornings recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer with little thought as to what we’re confessing or praying? More often than we might want to admit, I’ll bet.

The crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday said words that came from Psalm 118. “Hosanna [a word that means Save, please] Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

They were the right words to use in welcoming the King of kings. But they clearly didn’t really understand what it means for God to save us or to answer our prayers: A few days later, this crowd would turn on Jesus, along with the rest of the world, and cry for Him to be executed on a cross. In the end, Jesus wasn’t what the crowd was looking for. I wonder sometimes if Jesus--the real Jesus--is what you and I are looking for.

The crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday saw Jesus as a means to their ends. They wanted Jesus to lead a rebellion against their Roman conquerors. They wanted some of the money that the extortionist tax collectors were constantly taking from them. They wanted Jesus to be their king, so long as that meant He took orders from them. But it’s doubtful, at that moment, that many of them wanted Jesus to go to a cross. After all, they would have reasoned, what good would Jesus’ dying do them?

Yet, Jesus’ reason for coming into the world had always been plain.

It had been clear to the wise men who came to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. One of their gifts had been myrrh, a resin used to anoint the dead.

And Jesus sought to make His reason for entering the world clear to His disciples. He told them that He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by the world, killed on a cross, and then raised from the dead. And when Peter tried to correct Jesus on this point, Jesus told him that Peter’s ideas were from Satan, not from God.

Jesus, although He was sinless, had come into our world to take the punishment for sin we all deserve. He came to die. He came to be the Lord of all because He loves all people and wants to bring forgiveness to all people. And He will become the King of any who dare to repent for their sin and believe in Him as their Lord.

That’s good news. But it also can be hard to accept because it entails things we don't like: surrender, obedience, submission. It also means accepting that, just like everybody else, we're sinners in need of a Savior.

A few days after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowds noticed that He hadn’t led an armed rebellion. He hadn’t taken over the government. He hadn’t done their bidding. Instead, He spent His time throwing moneychangers out of the temple, talking about prayer, arguing with the religious authorities, telling stories (or parables) about the kingdom of heaven, talking about love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment, teaching of the need to be ready for Him to return after He’d died and risen, and, most strangely of all maybe, He prayed, sometimes for hours at a time. This wasn’t the king they'd been looking for. And so, by the Thursday after the first Palm Sunday, the crowd was crying for Jesus’ execution.

Jesus may not be the king we are looking for. But Jesus is the Savior we need. I’m convinced of that, first of all, because of the road Jesus took on Palm Sunday. It demonstrates that Jesus is committed to walking through the hardest places in this life with us.

As our Gospel lesson from Matthew begins, Jesus is walking on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. This is the same road, different direction, on which Jesus set His fictional parable of the Good Samaritan. It was a road on which people were often subjected to violence and robbery. Thugs hid in the rocks and crags of the road. Jesus walked that road. But, as you know, that wasn’t the hardest road Jesus traveled with us and for us.

The hardest road was Jesus’ entire life on this earth, when the Creator of the universe took the form of a servant, aiming all the while to die for us. That’s the point of some of Paul’s words in our second lesson today. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, saying that though Jesus was “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!”

“I don’t understand all of this,” a woman whose husband had left her once told me, “but I sure wouldn’t want to go through it without God.” A king like the one the crowd wanted--and that we may sometimes want: a king who skated above us, untouched by our failings and our difficulties, a king who gave us all we wanted without reshaping our characters into being more loving and more human, couldn’t help us when we’re confused or lost or lonely or grieving. But Jesus can! Like that woman, we learn that, in Jesus, the God of all creation can reach down into our everyday lives, even when we go through tough times. He can do that because every experience we may have as human beings, He has experienced. And every sin you and I have ever committed, He bore in His own body on the cross.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus also proved that He was the Savior we need by Who He chose to rely on. When I was in high school, I played hooky to see a President deliver a speech down at the State House. He was surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service security, necessary to be sure. He also had Air Force One and his presidential limo and cars filled with assistants and the latest communication technology. Back on Air Force One, he had access to every comfort he could want. Wherever presidents go, they look like rulers of the world.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, He didn’t look like a ruler of the world. According to Matthew, Jesus rode a donkey, trailed by the colt of the donkey. In ancient times, the donkey was a symbol of humble domestic pursuits. Jesus had come into Jerusalem not with a sword, or a political program, or a retinue of public relations people, or a bevy of yes people. Jesus’ power didn’t and doesn’t depend on the dying stuff of this world. Jesus relied simply and completely on God the Father.

Every king, president, great athlete, and pop star, no matter how exalted dies. Even Elvis has left the building, folks! Only one king has ever defeated death. It was Jesus and there's only one reason for His victory over death. Even when He hung on the cross, the taunts of the fickle crowds ringing in His ear, the agonies of His wounds besetting Him, the horror of feeling abandoned by all haunting Him, Jesus depended only on God the Father. And here’s the point: Jesus’ resurrection is confirmation that surrender to God is the only path to new life.

Having committed Himself to walking through life’s hardest parts with us and having refused to depend on anything or anyone but the Father, Jesus rose from the dead. But more than that, Paul tells us in the second portion of our New Testament lesson from Philippians, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Pastor Joanna Adams says that sometime before World War One, “Germany's last kaiser, Wilhelm II” visited Jerusalem. “His entourage,” she writes, “was so grand that he had to have the Jaffe Gate in the old city widened so that his over-sized carriage could pass through. After the parade had ended, someone climbed up and attached a large sign to the gate. The sign read, ‘A better man than Wilhelm came through this city's gate. He rode on a donkey.’"

On the first Palm Sunday, the most that the crowds would say about Jesus was that He was a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. But those who paid heed to how He voluntarily walked our hardest roads with us and how He relied completely on God the Father, ignoring the acclaim of the crowd, could see that Jesus was much more than a prophet.

In one week, His resurrection would prove that His is the Name above every name.

When Jesus calls us to repent for sin, to put God higher than anything, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, He may not be the King we want. But when we remember His cross and empty tomb, we realize that, no matter what happens, Jesus is always the King we need.

He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the One Who reconciles us to God, the One Who erases the power of sin and death over our lives, the One Who makes us whole.

May our faith be more than words we say. By our dependence on Jesus, may it be seen too in the lives we lead. Amen

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Growing in Discipleship

[This was prepared for presentation during worship with the people and guest of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Corinthians 3:1-2
Matthew 28:19-20

During these weeks in Lent, we’ve been talking about the five building blocks of Christian discipleship and of the mission of Christ’s Church. Today, we come to the fifth building block: Personal growth in discipleship.

Now, this may seem like the least interesting and maybe the least important of the five. But I believe that every time the Church or individual Christians fail to live out the other four building blocks--loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our fellow believers as Christ loved us, and making disciples--the root cause of this cluster of failures is that we have failed to grow as disciples.

In his book, Real Life Discipleship, Pastor Jim Putman identifies five stages of spiritual development. The first stage is being spiritually dead. Every human being is born spiritually dead. We are turned in on ourselves. We are born in sin. We are separated from God, the only one Who can give life.

This is why Jesus told Nicodemus: “...no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." The old must die so that the new can rise, which is what happens in Holy Baptism.

This need is why God, not wanting to see the people He created eternally lost to Him, sent God the Son Jesus to die and rise so that all who repent and believe in Him will have eternal life with God.

And this is why God commissioned the Church--you and me--to act as His rescue mission to a world filled with the spiritually dead. The simplest statement of what it means to be a disciple--a follower of Jesus--was made by Jesus Himself when He called the first disciples in Matthew 4:19: “Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people."

The ultimate goal of discipleship is to grow up and become strong enough in our discipleship that we reproduce ourselves, making new disciples. That’s why I think Putman’s five stages of spiritual development are right on:
  • spiritually dead,
  • spiritual infancy,
  • spiritual childhood,
  • spiritual adulthood, and finally,
  • spiritual parenthood.  
We don’t like to hear this. I don’t like to hear this. We don't like the idea that God wants us to grow, to change.

We’d prefer to remain spiritual infants, sopping up the grace and love of Jesus with no thought of being changed by grace or of passing it onto others.

We’d prefer to turn our faith into a kind if intellectual transaction: We give assent to Jesus’ lordship and in exchange, He gives us forgiveness for our sins and life with God.

We want to be able to just say: “Thank you very much, Jesus, we’ll see you when I die and now onto the stuff I really want to do in this world.”

Or we want to make discipleship into membership, like belonging to the Kiwanis or the local health club.

But to be a disciple means to submit to the ongoing process of trusting Jesus to, day after day, destroy our addiction to the dying ways of this world and to make us more like Him.

God does not want us to get too comfortable with life in this world. He wants our whole way of life to be alien to this world. That’s why 1 Peter tells Christians: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers [to this world] to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation [the day when Jesus returns to the earth].”

Keep so growing in your faithfulness, Peter is saying, that when unbelievers observe you, they’ll have every reason to follow Jesus themselves and then, on the day He judges the living and the dead, join you and all of Christ’s people in glorifying God in eternity because, through you, they too will be disciples.

Often, when I talk with people about the importance of growing in faith, they tell me I’m ignoring Jesus’ call to childlike faith. “All I need is faith as a child,” they say. “I don’t need anything more than that.”

But Jesus never called Christians to be infants. Paul echoes Jesus’ implicit teaching on this subject when in 1 Corinthians 14:20, he writes: “In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

And the fact is, if we are not growing in our faith, we are dying. If we are not growing closer to Christ, we are, by default, falling away from him.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians understood the importance of growth in discipleship. Turn please to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 (page 794 in the sanctuary Bible). Paul is confronting first century Christians in Corinth. He laments that they weren’t spiritually mature enough for him to speak to them as he needed to. He writes: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.”

Paul was saying if there is no spiritual growth, Christians aren’t really ready to do Christ’s mission for them. They aren’t ready to be who Christ died and rose to set them free to become!

So, how do we grow as disciples?

Theologians call the process of growing in discipleship sanctification, the process by which God makes us over in Jesus’ image. Paul says that, “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” In other words, as we lay our lives open to Christ each day, God is remaking us, deepening our faith and our discipleship. We let the Holy Spirit call, gather, enlighten, and work on us as we seek to follow Christ. That’s how we grow as disciples.

But how do we do that exactly? How do we keep still and let God make us over as disciples?

When I was learning how to play in the outfield as a little leaguer, I realized that I had no control over what pitch the pitcher threw or how fast. I had no control over how hard or high or where the batter hit the ball. But if I positioned myself right in the field and used my glove and throwing arm in the right ways, I could catch balls hit to my field. In that conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit blows where it will and we have no control over it. But if we position ourselves spiritually, we can receive the growth God wants to give to us. We can breathe in the Holy Spirit and grow as disciples. That often can be painful and we will frequently not understand what God is trying to accomplish in our lives. Growing as Christ's disciple isn't easy. But it is the way of life.

Here are a few ways we can breathe in the Spirit and grow.

First of all, ask a person you know who is more spiritually mature than you are to meet with you periodically--once a week, once a month, once every two weeks--and informally. Make sure it’s someone you trust and who isn’t a gossip. Talk about your struggles, spiritual and otherwise. Read Scripture together. Pray together. Make yourself accountable to this person and keep your  appointments. God will meet you as you meet and you will grow.

Second, read God’s Word and pray regularly on your own, with your spouse, or with your family. God’s Word has power. Isaiah says God’s Word never returns empty. Even when we don’t perceive it, as we submissively read and consider God’s Word, the Potter is molding His new creations, you and me.

Third, worship and receive the sacrament regularly with your church family. Hebrews 10:25 says that when Christians worship together, we not only praise God, we also encourage one another and prepare one another for the day we see Jesus face to face.

Fourth, get involved with a small group Bible study. You might want to join us for the studies we’re beginning on Mere Christianity and on discipleship itself after Easter. We gain insight from studying God’s Word together that we can’t gain on our own.

Fifth, get involved with mission and service and evangelism projects. We have lots of them at Living Water. And we’re going to be doing more with our regular Kindness Outreaches in the near future. These outreaches can change both your life and the lives of those you touch. In both of my previous parishes, we did kindness outreaches. In Cincinnati, we committed more than 12,000 individual acts of kindness in five years--giving away cold water or Coke on summer days; cans of soup in the winter; money off at a local gas station; and our youth group loved going to local businesses to clean toilets. And with each act, we handed out a card or were able to verbally tell the recipients, “We’re doing this to share the love of God in a practical way.” Whether others are nudged closer to faith in Christ or not, when you serve others in Jesus’ Name, your discipleship grows.

Sixth, cultivate friendships with people you think are spiritually dead. They’re all around us. We meet them every day. They need to know Jesus. Pray for them. Invite them to your house. Truly befriend them. And then, in Peter’s words from 1 Peter 3:15: “...be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have [in Christ]...” Be willing to be a mentor and faith guide to a co-worker, classmate, or friend. Growing disciples are mentors as well as mentees. It's how we grow.

In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives the great commission. Let’s look at it one more time (page 698). Jesus says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

It’s God’s plan that we who make up Christ’s Church will be His hands and feet in this world. More than that, it’s His plan that we--His sheep--not the Good Shepherd--Jesus Himself--will make other sheep. As Dan and Trish have both pointed out this past week, there is no Plan B. God is counting on us to play our parts in calling the spiritually dead to new and everlasting life with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

We have no control over the message of the Gospel. That has been set by God.

And we have no control over how others will respond to the Gospel, whether they receive Jesus and live or reject Jesus and choose death.

But we do control whether we will allow Jesus use us to live the Gospel through the five building blocks of loving God, loving others as we love ourselves, loving fellow disciples as Christ loves us on the cross, making disciples, and growing as disciples.

As we position ourselves to receive the life and power God gives to those who are “all in” for Jesus, our lives will be built on the solid foundation of Jesus and we will fulfill our one and only purpose in life: to have and to be Christ’s disciples. Amen

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Lenten Welcome Message

One of the customs at Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, is to have a special seasonally-related welcome to worshipers in the front of the bulletin. This is the welcome we've been using this Lenten season:
Welcome to Living Water Lutheran Church! We pray that you will feel welcomed as we worship the God we know through Jesus Christ.

You’re with us at a special time in the Church Year known as Lent. For centuries, Lent has been a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. (Easter Sunday is April 20, this year.)

Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief:

  • The suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross, where He took the punishment for sin all human beings deserve so that all who repent and believe in Him will share in the victory over sin and death Jesus won when He rose from the dead.
  • Personal repentance and renewal is another emphasis of Lent. While repentance and renewal should be an ongoing element of the Christian life, this season is set aside to encourage believers to especially focus on them.
  • Preparation for Baptism or Affirmation of Baptism for those coming to the faith or preparing to publicly declare their allegiance to Christ.

This Lent, at Living Water, we’re looking at five building blocks of Christian living and the mission and ministry of the Church. Each of the building blocks are faithful responses to our being saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. These five building blocks, describing behaviors of the Christian, aren’t ways we earn God’s love. They are what we offer, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in us, as a response to God’s love, freely given in Christ.

The five building blocks are:

1. Loving God
2. Loving neighbors
3. Loving fellow believers
4. Sharing our faith and making disciples (or followers of Jesus)
Personally growing in our discipleship
We hope that you will join us in this journey during Lent. We pursue it not because we’re perfect. We’re not. We do it because we love the Lord Who loved us--and you--first...because we’re grateful for His grace, love, and mercy. Welcome!