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: “ 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: “ 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!

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Your love is teaching me how to kneel"

A Recent Sunset at the James M. Cox Arboretum

Who was James M. Cox, Jr.? He was the son of James M. Cox, Sr., about whom you can read here. The country probably would have been better off had Cox the elder been elected president instead of fellow Ohioan and newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding, when both were the nominees of their parties for president in 1920.

Loving the Church...and the People In It

[This was prepared for sharing during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, yesterday.]

John 13:34-35
During these weeks in Lent, we’re focusing on five building blocks for our personal Christian discipleship and for the life of the Church. They are:
  • loving God,
  • loving others,
  • loving fellow believers,
  • making disciples, and
  • growing in our own discipleship
Today, our focus is on Jesus’ new commandment, John 13:34-35 (page 751 in the sanctuary Bible). Jesus is the speaker. He says:
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
What makes this commandment so new? And why does Jesus give it?

There are two main ways in which this commandment is different from Jesus’ command to love others as we love ourselves. That command does hold up an impossible standard for us to adhere to, to have the same regard for the needs, hopes, desires, loves, hurts, and difficulties of others that we have for our own needs, hopes, desires, loves, hurts, and difficulties. 

But Jesus’ new commandment holds us to a much higher standard: We are to love just as God in Jesus Christ has loved us!

In thinking about how God loved us, Paul writes in Romans 5:6-8: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s how Christ loves us!

Jesus says in Matthew 20:28: “...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." That’s how Christ loves us!

2 Corinthians 5:1 says: “God made [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And that’s how Christ loves us!

He willingly bore the condemnation for sin we deserve--death--so that, when He rose, He could claim new and everlasting life for all who repudiate sin as their way of life and trust in Him, believe in Him, as the only way to God, their only hope for this world and the next, their only Savior, God and Lord of their lives.

Jesus says that we are to love like that. To be willing to love even to the point of doing what He did for us, giving our lives for others.

As Paul says in Romans, we might do that for a righteous person.

Or we might do it for a family member or a friend.

But Christ did that for a world of people--including you and me--who really don’t want God over our lives, who nailed Him to a cross. “Love like that,” Jesus tells us.

If you’re not feeling a bit squeamish right now, you haven’t been paying attention.

So, the first thing that makes this a new commandment is that it dramatically ups the ante on the love that God requires of us as believers. We’re not just to love others as we love ourselves, we’re to willingly give our lives for them, no matter how they may feel about us, no matter what they do to us. (This doesn’t mean we should submit to abusive or co-dependent relationships, something we’ll talk about another time, I’m sure.)

Now, here’s the second thing that makes this a new commandment: The object of the love Jesus commands isn’t the ordinary neighbors in our lives.

The object of love in this commandment is our fellow believers, our fellow disciples, other Christians, the people who make up Christ’s Church, all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God and Savior and King, inside and outside our congregation, inside and outside our denomination.

We are to love the Church--not an abstraction and not the sentimentality surrounding the scent of burning candles or stirring music or fellowship time, but the Church: the flesh and blood, imperfect people, saints by the grace of God who in this world remain sinners by birth and impulse, the people of the Church with whom we confess faith, worship God, receive the sacraments, study God’s Word, pray, serve in Christ’s Name, the people with whom we sometimes disagree or don’t understand or who drive us crazy...These are the people Jesus tells us to love and serve and live for to the point of death itself, if necessary.

Why? Why does Jesus make such a steep and daunting demand of us as His disciples? Jesus, of course, gives the most important reason for obeying the new commandment: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

When the world sees Christians loving and caring for each other, as I see happening so often in the life of Living Water, the world then knows that we truly are Christ’s disciples. They see Christ living in us and that makes following Christ--becoming disciples themselves--more compelling to an unbelieving world.

The book of Acts tells us that people saw how the early Christians loved each other and their neighbors and enjoyed “the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (By the way, notice that the Bible isn't squeamish about saying that some people are saved and some aren't. Those who reject faith in Christ, reject His salvation.)

When the Church is united in its commitment to Christ, to the authority of God’s Word over its life, and its love for God, the world, and one another, it is a powerful magnet for people who don’t yet know Jesus Christ or the freedom from sin and death only Christ can give.

We all know, by personal experience how destructive church fights can be.  The world sees Christians fighting and they figure the whole Christianity thing is a worthless delusion.

Church fights are nothing new. Paul wrote early in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, filled with conflict, back in the first century: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

So, does loving like Christ mean we paper over our differences?

Hardly! Jesus Himself confronted false teaching. He threw out the moneychangers who were using the faith of others to line their pockets. He called Peter a Satan.

Some church fights are stupid. I know of a church that split because people couldn't agree on the color of the carpeting in the sanctuary.

Some church fights are necessary. When the basics of the faith are called into question--when people deny Jesus' virgin birth or His resurrection from the dead or that He performed and still performs miracles or that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and things like that, then church fights are essential. God's truth is worth fighting for within His Church.

The New Testament makes clear that the Church should discipline or remove preachers who preach or teachers who teach false doctrine, that it should confront and deal with unrepentant sin. It should only call people to positions of leadership and service among them who have the gifts for particular ministries and have the courage to say when they don't.

Jesus Himself teaches that there will be fights in the Church, that sometimes those fights must happen, and, in Matthew 18:15-20, gives a whole process by which those fights should be fought cleanly, with love and grace. And even those fights, Jesus says, should be fought with the idea of restoring unity to the Church.

So why is the unity of the Church so important?

First, because it authenticates our faith.

Second, because we need each other! “People learn from one another, just as iron sharpens iron,” Proverbs 27:17 says. There is no such thing as a solo Christian because when you try a “Jesus and me” faith, there is no one to tell you that you’re full of it when you forget to get full of Christ or full of the Bible instead.

But the Church is so important to Jesus for another reason: It’s the only entity that will survive the end of this old creation, that is eternity.

In Revelation 19:7, we’re told about the rejoicing that will happen in the new heaven and the new earth after Jesus has returned to this world, the dead in Him rise, and this old creation has been destroyed. It describes the wedding between the groom, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, and His bride. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give [God] glory!” it says. “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”

The Church is the bride of Christ. The Church--the fellowship of those who turn from sin and trust in Jesus as God in the flesh for forgiveness, life, and eternity--will live forever. And Christ wants His bride to produce many newborn children of God. He wants His Church to be the safe harbor in which His bride, living in His grace and forgiveness, is made ready for its wedding day in heaven. It becomes that when those to whom we reach out with the Gospel, in our words and in our deeds, see that we love each other as Christ has loved us.

But, how do we do that? Only, as we’ve said the past few weeks about loving God and loving our neighbors, by letting Christ live within us. Only by becoming one with Christ and renewing our relationship with Him in daily repentance and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us how this works in John 15:5-8 (page 752 in the sanctuary Bible):
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
If we try to love Christ’s Church apart from a tight connection to Christ, we’ll give up. No one but God Himself is capable of loving with the passionate love Christ lived out and died for on the cross...unless, like the branches of a vine, we remain connected to Christ. That’s why the Church is here: to keep pumping us full of Christ’s love and God’s truth as we move through life, that we might flourish and grow in the love of God given in Christ. Then that love comes alive in us and among us and a world mired in sin wants what we have. “Jesus is what we’ve got. Do you want Him too?”

Christ’s love living in people is a magnet. It starts to exert its pull when we believe in Christ and as we submit to letting Christ grow our faith, we come to do what doesn’t come naturally to human beings: to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love each other. On these three building blocks and the two more we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks, Christ readies us as individual disciples and His the whole Church for eternity with Him.