Sunday, April 22, 2018

Resurrection Power!

[This was shared during today's worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Acts 4:1-12

Yesterday, the nation said goodbye to a woman beloved by many, the wife of one president, mother of another, Barbara Bush. 

One theme that ran throughout the funeral was her belief in Jesus Christ and in the resurrection from death that will come to all who believe in Him. Her son, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, reported visiting his mother shortly before she died. He wondered if she was ready to die, if she was frightened. “Jeb,” Mrs. Bush told him, “I believe in Jesus and He is my Savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know that I will be in a beautiful place.”

Barbara Bush expressed the faith we have as disciples of Jesus Christ, God the Son, Who took on human flesh to receive the condemnation for sin that you and I deserve, the condemnation of death and separation from God, then rose from the dead to assure that all who turn from sin and daily entrust their lives to Him, will also be raised to live with God “in a beautiful place,” the eternal kingdom of God.

In the past two centuries or so, the Western world has seen the rise of what some see as rational thought. It features a rejection of belief in God, the deity of Christ, or His resurrection. 

In fact, one of this nation’s founders, Thomas Jefferson, was just such a “rational” thinker: He produced his own version of the Bible, with Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection, deleted. For Jefferson, his “bible” produced a more palatable “Christianity.” 

Today, there are large numbers of ill-informed people who have never taken the time to consider the evidence who agree with Jefferson. Earlier this month, Scientific American cited polling showing that the number of Americans who profess no religious belief whatever rose from dramatically between just 2005 and 2013

This is why our friend Bill Mowry and others say that the United States is one of the largest mission fields in the world. 

Some who reject the witness of the early Church that Jesus rose from the dead and the belief that those who trust in Him will also be raised are members of Christian churches who attend worship only out of habit, for social connection, or something to make them feel good once a week.

But rationalism, in my judgment, isn't the biggest reason some people reject Christ and His resurrection. The biggest reason revolves around the old question of power. It's a question that goes back to the garden of Eden where the serpent lured humanity into sin and death by lying to them, telling them that if they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they wouldn't die as God had warned they would. Instead, the serpent insisted, God only warned Adam and Eve against the fruit because at the moment, they did, they would be like God (Genesis 3:1-5). We human beings have been hot on the trail of god-likeness, of power ever since. We look for it in all the dying stuff of this world because the last thing we want to do is play second fiddle to anyone, even to the God Who made us!

But think about it: When you know that one day, if you will remain faithful to Jesus, you will be reunited with Him “in a beautiful place,” how powerful are the things of this world? 

How powerful is money? 

How powerful are comfort or ease? 

How powerful are governments or the in-crowd? 

The power and utility of each will end for us at the moment we draw our last breaths.

If you belong to the risen Jesus, can anything intimidate you? 

Can you be intimidated by sickness or setbacks, adversity or rejection? 

Can you be intimidated by death? 

Years ago, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised his voice in Christ’s name against the system of racial slavery known as apartheid that existed in his land. He received multiple death threats daily. Why, a reporter asked him, did he keep pressing Christ’s case against government-authorized hatred, he was asked? He couldn’t help it, Tutu said, God hates injustice and loves it when we treat others justly. “Besides,” he said, “death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.” 

Do we live in that assurance? 

Do we dare to fight for the good of our neighbor, not worrying about what’s best for us in this world because we know that by God’s grace through our faith in Christ, we have a share in God’s best for all eternity?

Do we brave the taunts of an ego-imprisoned world to share the good news of new life from the risen Jesus with people who need Him as much as you and I do?

The early Church, having gone through the darkness of Good Friday, the glory of Easter, and now filled with God’s Holy Spirit, did live in the assurance that because Jesus rose from the dead and they belonged to Jesus, nothing could separate them from God (Romans 8:31-39).

They knew that no power in this world could rob them of eternal life with God

That’s why after the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost--as He comes to us in our Baptism, they shared the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus. 

They were and they made disciples, just as Christ calls and commands you and me to do.

But their message about the risen Jesus threatened those who clung to the power and comforts of this world, just as He does today

In Acts 3, we’re told that, in the name of the risen Jesus, Peter and John, two of the apostles, healed a lame beggar at the temple in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, eople were amazed! Peter explained that this had happened not because he and John were great, but because the risen and living Jesus is infinitely the greatest of all.

The temple crowds weren’t the only ones who witnessed these things though. So did the powerful, in this case, the Sadducees, the priestly class who wielded both religious and earthly power. They didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. And they feared that if the people started believing in the resurrection, they might become fearless. They might realize that they no longer needed the system of temple sacrifices by which the Sadducees kept the people under their thumbs. 

That’s where our second lesson for today, Acts 4:1-12, begins. When the Sadducees saw that after the healing of the lame man and Peter’s sermon, 5000 men (and who knows how many women and children) came to believe in the resurrected Jesus, they took the apostles into custody

With Jesus’ crucifixion fresh in Peter’s and John’s memories, the Sadducees undoubtedly thought that some time in a jail cell and time in their intimidating presence would make the two of them (and the rest of the Church) stop claiming that Jesus rose from the dead.

But they soon learned that intimidation cannot work on those who follow Jesus. As they stood before the powerful custodians of the temple, Peter and John are asked, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7) (Back to the perennial human issue of power again.) 

Notice: The Sadducees didn’t deny that the lame man had been healed. That’s not the issue. They know that the man really had been lame and now really was healed. No, their interest is in the power question. “In whose name are you defiantly flouting our power here in the seat of our power, the temple?” they demanded to know.

The reaction of Peter and John is instructive for we who bear the name of Jesus and confess Him to be our Lord and God. They didn’t counterattack. Like the Lord Jesus, when He was tried, they didn’t become defensive. They didn’t issue a torrent of condemnations. 

But here’s what they also didn’t do: They didn’t buckle under the power arrayed before them. After all, death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. 

Verse 8: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…” 

Peter declared that the lame man had been healed by the Savior they’d had a hand in (and we all have a hand in) nailing to a cross, but was very much alive, sitting at the right hand, the power hand, of God the Father! 

The world had not been able to get rid of Jesus. Even when the world killed Him off, He rose again, and there is nothing that the powerful, the cynics, the hopeless, or the joyless of this world can do about it! Jesus is risen; He is risen indeed!

Peter goes on to cite a verse from Psalm 118. It's interesting that he does because Psalm 118 celebrated the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity of God’s people. The temple had been an important place long before Jesus came into this world. It was where God’s presence dwelt on the earth. It was where pious Jews offered sacrifices for their sins and prayed. 

But those days were done

When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain shielding worshipers from the holy of holies where God lived was torn from top to bottom. 

Jesus was and is the final, definitive sacrifice for sin; no more sacrifices were needed. 

“Behold,” Jesus’ earthly cousin John the Baptist had told his own disciples when he caught sight of Jesus at the Jordan, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” 

Jesus was and is the only foundation stone on whom eternal life is built, which is why Peter described Jesus to the Sadducees, quoting the psalm, as “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone…”

No matter how the power-hungry, rational, self-worshiping world may rail against belief in Jesus’ resurrection or the resurrection of those who follow Him as nonsense, the truth cannot be altered. 

The 500-plus disciples of Jesus Who had saw Him risen from the dead and staked their lives on that truth cannot be ignored (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). 

Nor can the millions of lives that have been changed, transformed by the risen Jesus. 

Nor could they possibly deny the truth of Jesus’ resurrection if they dared, with the help of Christian friends like you and me, to put their trust in Jesus. When I came to faith in Christ after being exposed to the faith of the people of our home church in Columbus and the Biblical witness on which they built their lives, I reached a point at which I told God, "Lord, I find it hard to believe. But I am willing to believe. I'm willing to trust what these people believe and what your Bible tells me. Help me to believe." If people would dare to come to God in this way, the Holy Spirit would begin to build their faith in Jesus Christ. He and His resurrection would become undeniably and palpably real in their lives!

It’s to underscore the truth of Jesus' resurrection victory over sin and death that Peter says in the final verse of today’s lesson: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Today is the third installment of our series, Church Lessons, taken from the New Testament book of Acts. Here is our third lesson: 

The only power to overcome the sin, death, and futility of this world is the risen Jesus Christ. The true, eternal Church is made up of those who trustingly live as though they believe that’s true...because it is! 
Jesus Christ calls us to live in this truth. Are you in?

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Remembering God, Overthrowing the Altar of Ego

This is my journal entry for today, the fruit of my quiet time with God, as I considered His Word in Psalm 63. This message explains how I approach quiet time.

Look: “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” (Psalm 63:6)

A thought crossed my mind while in the shower yesterday, one that’s hit me before, but usually to little effect. It’s this: How much time I spend thinking about myself and how little I spend thinking about God. Often, I get caught up in my own agenda, my own perceived needs, my personal desires without thinking of God. Most, if not all, of the time I spend wrapped up in myself could be better spent (not to mention more faithfully spent) in praising and honoring God, thanking God, seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and so on.

It can be surmised from Psalm 63’s superscription--”A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.”--that the future King David was in a situation in which, once again, he was hard-pressed, a moment when he understood his desperate need of God. Some scholars believe that its composition is rooted in David’s experience of fleeing from Absalom. David wouldn’t always remain so connected to God, of course. His hard fall into sin when, at a time when he was avoiding his duties as king, he had an affair with Bathsheba and then arranged for the murder of her husband, show that he didn’t always remember God. Like other garden-variety sinners, David could be complacent and insensitive to his need of God when his human vulnerabilities weren’t so apparent to him. In other words, David was human like me.

Listen: But this verse expresses reality. We need God. I need God. And I need to keep him at the center of my life, not as some legalistic prescription from a God Who, to paraphrase a character on the old TV series, MASH, wants to send me to the fires of hell without an electric fan. But it’s in remembering God, staying connected with God, that I remind myself to cling to the gracious God Who, through His ultimate self-disclosure in Jesus, shows that He wants to take me under His wing, empower me for living with confidence, lead me to a life of love, forgive my sins, destroy the power of death over me, and give me an eternity of the life for which He created me in the first place.

When I forget God, when I fail to let Him fill me with the assurance of His presence and love, I begin to think that I’m on my own, that I must constantly prove my goodness or my strength, or my self-sufficiency, or my intelligence or whatever seems important for me to prove at any given time. I’m left to my own resources in solving problems, facing this life’s tragedies, making plans, or, when I’m so motivated, doing the right thing.

I need to remember God because I need God. That’s why daily reading His Word and contemplating it are so important for me. That’s why being part of Christ’s Church is central...anyone who sets out to be a Christian without being part of Christ’s Church is turning their back on the will of God and “cutting off their nose to spite their face,” as the old saying puts it.

Respond: Forgive me, Lord, for failing to remember You, my God and my Savior. Today, when every new hour begins, help me to remember You and to pray whatever Your Word to me this day leads me to pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Barbara Bush

Nostalgia is bad history, but much of what she represented is missing from current American culture and politics. 
While her husband, a fundamentally decent man who was a good president, felt the need to consort with the likes of Lee Atwater and other smarmy political operatives to get himself elected, Barbara Bush never lost sight of her values. And she clearly kept her family grounded. What a life!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Serious About Sharing Jesus

During today's worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, our amazing worship coordinator, Mark Brennan, presented the message. It's the second installment in our series based on the New Testament book of Acts, Church Lessons.

The message can be found HERE!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Right Clothes?

[Below is the message given at the wedding of a young couple that happened this weekend.]

Colossians 3:12-17
Luke and Hilary, I’m honored and happy to be here as you enter into marriage today.

This is a remarkable young couple and over the past several months, it’s been a pleasure getting to know them better. Not only do they love each other and their families, they also love the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. They truly want to honor Him not just in this time of worship and celebration, but with their lives.

Luke and Hilary, I’d like to speak with you particularly about one of the Bible passages you chose to be read today. 

All of the passage you chose present different facets of marriage, of course. 

The reading from Genesis reminds us that marriage between a man and a woman, two people who are the same but different, who when brought together are complementary and complete, is God’s idea. 

The passage from Ephesians reminds us that marriage is meant to be a relationship of mutual surrender in which husbands and wives love and serve one another as, in Martin Luther’s phrase, “little Christs” who see the Christ in the other. 

Ecclesiastes reminds us that God made us for relationship and that every strong marriage is a cord of three strands: husband, wife, and God. 

But, for now, I want to say a few words about another passage you chose, one which we haven’t read yet. Colossians 3:12-17.

This passage, written in about 60 AD by the apostle Paul, wasn’t originally addressed to a married or engaged couple, but to a church in the ancient Greek city of Colossae. Nonetheless, its words are perfect for two people like you as you begin your married life together.

The passage begins with Paul telling the Colossians: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” 

It’s interesting that he doesn’t say, “Be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.” 

He didn’t do that because Paul knew that telling the Colossians (or any human being) to be any of those things would be like telling me to be a seven-foot-four power forward. 

Paul is saying that we can't resolve to enact these virtues, but we can clothe ourselves in them, putting them on like we put on our clothes. “Put on compassion,” Paul is saying. “Put on kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

As you are married today, Hilary and Luke, I’m not going to tell you to be compassionate, kind, gentle, or any of the rest toward each other.

But I am telling you three things.

First, if your marriage is going to be all that God intends for it to be and everything that you want it to be, you will have to all these virtues. When two people spend a lifetime together in marriage, Paul’s list of virtues will be as essential as air and water.

The second thing I want to tell you is this: Nobody other than Jesus Himself, God in human flesh, ever exhibited these virtues with any consistency.

The third thing is this: There is a Source from Whom these virtues can be unleashed in our lives, sometimes in spite of ourselves. That Source is the one true God of the universe Who came into this world to take the punishment for sin we deserve on a cross, then rose from the dead to give life with God that never ends to all who trust in Him. By grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved from ourselves, from our sins, and from death. 

And this same God, Who loves the two of you and everyone gathered here for this holy, happy moment with a passion and perfection none of us can imagine, can also daily refill you with the virtues with which Paul told the Colossian Christians to clothe themselves. 

God alone can give married couples all that we need not only to make our marriages work, but also to be the kinds of people to whom our marriage partners want to be married.

And how does God do this for us? 

You know the answer: By faith in Jesus Christ, by daily surrender to Him, by daily giving our marriages to Him, by daily coming to Him to confess our sins and our needs and to be filled again with His grace and power and love. To put all of that in its simplest terms: by letting Jesus Christ love us to life

This is really what Paul is talking about when he also tells the Colossians: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts...Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts…”

Hilary and Luke, let Jesus Christ be the center of your marriage, let Him fill you with His love, cover you with His grace, give you life with God. 

Trust in Him and He will make your marriage a blessing to you and to everyone fortunate enough to know you in the years to come. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Is this a Christian way to pray? Yes!

Below are reflections from my quiet time with God today. I met God at Psalm 58 in His Word. To see how I approach quiet time, see here.

Look: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short...The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.” (Psalm 58:6-7, 10)

Psalm 58 is an example of what the scholars call an “imprecatory psalm.” To imprecate is “to invoke or call down (evil or curses) as upon a person."

Those outside the faith or casual Christians who read imprecatory psalms can be horrified, even offended. They see these psalms as arguments against the transforming love of God that Christians claim is at work in believers or even as arguments against God Himself. “How could a person filled with the love of Jesus pray such things?” they wonder.

In fact, these psalms demonstrate how important it is for believers in the God revealed now to all people in Jesus to be utterly honest with God about what we’re thinking and feeling. He knows all about us and our “moods.” In Psalm 139:4, we confess to God, “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” It’s futile to think that we can conceal from an omniscient God the kinds of sentiments to which imprecatory psalms give expression. God wants us to be completely honest with Him, as is appropriate for someone who is your best friend.

I like the suggestion made by Eugene Peterson, famed as the Bible translator who gave us The Message, and his friend Bono, lead singer of U2, in a short video from their conversation on the Psalms: The imprecatory psalms give Christians a faithful way to cuss. When we lay our anger before God in ways modeled by these psalms, we lay ourselves open to God’s correction and transformation. When we pray in this way, we may sense God telling us, “I understand your feelings…” And then, “I will take care of it. Remember that vengeance is mine.”

Or, “Are you being entirely fair?”

Or, “Does your own life measure up to the same standards by which you’re condemning so-and-so?”

Or, “Let me orchestrate events to bring about a positive resolution.”

Or, “Here are the words I want you to speak publicly to this situation.”

The third thing to be said in favor of imprecatory psalms is that their perspective can sometimes reflect God’s perspective. When we see injustices perpetrated against others, our anger toward the doers of injustice matches God’s anger toward them.

There is such a thing as righteous anger, anger born of God. Those who misuse or abuse earthly power of any kind to perpetrate injustices against others, who take refuge in the laws of this world rather than in God and His gospel will, at the final judgment, stand naked in their misdeeds rather than be covered by God’s grace given to all who trust in Christ.

The apostle Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). In the imprecatory psalms, we find a model for acknowledging injustices and asking God to bring justice about, whether that justice comes in this world or in the one to come. Imprecation in our conversations with God is one aspect of a healthy faith.

Listen: In Psalm 58, David is specifically railing against the injustices of rulers. He cries out to God to defang these rulers, to cause them to vanish. When that happens, he says, the righteous, those who depend on God for life and holiness, not themselves, will be glad, dipping their feet in the blood of the evildoers.

Tough talk. Not the kind of talk believers might express when they’re talking to their unbelieving barista at Starbucks. But if we bring such sentiments before God, God will understand. God will hear it as prayer and respond.

Think of the bloodthirsty tyrants in the world today. Take Vladimir Putin, who has murdered, jailed, and confiscated the property of his political opponents at home, invaded Ukraine, ordered the bombing of innocent civilians and medical convoys in Syria and Chechnya, poisoned opponents granted asylum in democratic nations, stolen his country blind, tampered with democratic nations’ elections, and been an enabler for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. If anyone deserves to be defanged and to vanish from the earth, it’s Vladimir Putin, this evil man. That’s why I go to God each day and ask for his peaceful removal from power. I also pray that his henchman will be removed from power.

I pray similar prayers regarding other bloodthirsty rulers.

I pray that those who abet the bloodthirsty will be given God’s wisdom and an openness to that wisdom or, barring that, that they too will be removed from office.

I pray, as Scripture teaches Christians to do, for all leaders, that God will help them to rule not with their own wisdom, but with the wisdom of God Himself.

Political activity has its place. Personally, I try to be an informed citizen, I vote, I send emails to government leaders, I make political contributions. As a pastor, I feel it would, except in the most extreme of circumstances, be inappropriate to be politically active: I don’t want people to confuse my political preferences for the Gospel I am called to proclaim.  

But I also am part of a Christian tradition, Lutheranism, that encourages believers in Christ to be involved in the world for the sake of others.

And this is a key point: for the sake of others. When the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazia, his cause wasn’t Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Bonhoeffer’s social class, or even Christians. Bonhoeffer acted against Hitler’s despotism because he was appalled by the treatment of Jews and others in his country and elsewhere. Christians know that we have eternal life with God; no worries. This gives us freedom to act and vote to protect others, not ourselves. God is always protecting us. “...whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8)

Whether it’s in our prayers or in our voting, Christians should never be about their own interests, but
about what is in the best interests of their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian alike, those living today and generations yet unborn.

I follow a Savior Who calls me to take up my cross and follow the same path He took through this world. He underscored the Old Testament law that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If my anger at unjust rulers or my quiet act of voting is ever in response to my self-interest, I’m in the wrong. Always.

If my anger at unjust rulers or my voting is in behalf of the lowly, the poor, the powerless, the overlooked, the despised, the abused, the underappreciated, the endangered, the held-down, my anger is righteous.

But the very first thing we need to do with our righteous anger is take it to God. When we do that, He can lead us in discerning how best to express and live out indignation born of holy love.

Respond: Lord, today, do not forget the victims of violence, discrimination, and harm meted out against them by the abusers of earthly power. And don't let me forget them, or to pray for them, or to act and speak for them. Bring all tyrants into submission to You. Help me to live, not self-righteously, but in utter submission to You, the Lord, Who saves me not by my merit, but by Your charitable grace given to all who repent and surrender to Jesus. I surrender again now. Grant that all that I do and say will reflect Your imprint on the deepest parts of my soul and life. And let me share the saving good news of Jesus, the gospel of new life for all who believe in Jesus, with someone today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, April 09, 2018

Set Free to Take Care of Each Other (AUDIO) (Church Lessons, Part 1)


[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Set Free to Take Care of Each Other (Church Lessons, Part 1)

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018]

Acts 4:32-35

As is true every Easter season, the appointed Scripture lessons for Sundays include passages from Acts. So today, we begin a new series of Sunday messages based on Acts that we’re calling Church Lessons.

We start today with Acts 4:32-35.

To dip into this amazing book four chapters in, it’s necessary for us to set the scene. 

Acts begins with the risen Jesus reiterating the great commission to the eleven apostles and His whole Church. “ will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” Jesus tells them, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) 

In Acts 2, as 120 disciples were gathered in Jerusalem for prayer, the Holy Spirit descended on them and the Church was empowered to fulfill Jesus’ commission. By the power of the Spirit, they told the crowds from all over the Mediterranean who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, in the diverse languages of those crowds, about God’s mighty works. Especially the mightiest act of all: God becoming human in Jesus, living a sinless life, dying on a cross for our sins, and rising from the dead to give forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Him

On that day, Peter then preached a sermon that brought 3000 people to faith in Christ. We’ll be celebrating Pentecost Sunday six weeks from now. 

After Pentecost, the Church continued to pursue its mission and ran into opposition for it. But instead of collapsing or falling to the temptation of returning violence or hatred to its persecutors, the Church, as well portrayed in the fantastic new movie, Paul: Apostle of Christ, prayed for boldness in lovingly sharing the good news, the gospel, of the crucified and risen Jesus with the world. 

It’s soon after this that we come to our passage for today.

Verse 32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” 

We need to spend some time talking about what these words mean and what they don’t mean. 

As we talked about a few Wednesday nights ago during Lent, the disciples in Christ’s Church did have conflicts and disagreement. They seem to have known the wisdom of the modern wag who said, “If two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant. 

To be of “one heart and mind” doesn’t mean that the first Christians always agreed with each other. They didn’t.

Among the many disagreements and conflicts, the one most consequential to you and me, maybe, is the one that raged for some time over the ministry to Gentiles, non-Jews, by Paul. 

There were Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles couldn’t be grafted into the Church or the Kingdom of God. They were sure that only Jews could be Christians and that Paul was blaspheming God by welcoming non-Jews, Gentiles, into the fellowship of Christ’s Church.

In Acts 15, we’re told about what’s now called the Council of Jerusalem. There, all points of view were aired and those gathered finally agreed to let Paul reach out to the Gentiles. As long as Gentile believers would respect Jewish Christians, Gentiles would be welcomed into the fellowship of Christ’s Church as fellow heirs of God’s grace given in Christ. That was a good decision for you and me, making it possible for us to know Jesus and the free gift of new life He gives to all who repent and believe in Him!

There are some non-negotiables for people to be part of Christ’s Church, of course. The Church expects believers to accept the deity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the belief that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Christ, the witness of God’s Word in the Bible. 

But the first Christian disciples, led by the witness of the apostles and the Holy Spirit, concluded agreement about unimportant matters like times of meeting, the kinds of songs, the color of the carpet, or whether people wear jeans or suits and ties to worship, to put it all in modern terms, was unnecessary.

Scholars tell us that the phrase “one in heart and mind” refers to the Old Testament vision of God’s Kingdom. Deuteronomy 15 described something of what life in covenant with God would be like. Believers were to be part of a community in which, every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven and possessions lost restored. Deuteronomy 15:4, says to the Israelites who were about to enter the promised land (this is from the English Standard Version, which gives a better translation of the verse): “...there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess…” 

In other words, when you were part of God’s community, no one who is part of it should be in need. But Jesus has expanded the meaning of Jubilee. Through His once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the cross, He has forgiven all of our debts and told His people that as we have been forgiven of our eternal debt to God, so we are to go about relieving our sisters and brothers in Christ of their debts to God, to us, to the world. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," Jesus teaches us to pray.

This is really what Luke, the author of Acts, means when he says at the outset of our lesson: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” 

The proof that he’s talking about the first Christian disciples taking care of each other’s needs here and not about always agreeing with each other comes in the very next thing he writes: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…” 

This doesn’t mean that the first Christians sold off all of their homes and properties and lived off the land or on the streets. (Practically speaking, they would have had nowhere to meet for worship if they'd done that.) 

It means that all recognized that everything they had was from God. As James writes in his New Testament letter: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17) 

So, the first Christians did something far harder than agreeing with each other: They took care of each other

When their widows or other destitutes among them, who had no Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid to rely on, no 401k's or 403b's, were in need, their fellow Christians met those needs. 

To be the Church means, among other things, that we take care of each other

Many congregations have the attitude that the pastor is the hired caregiver. 

But that’s not the Bible’s vision of the Church. Acts tells us that the whole Church took care of the whole Church: in prayer, in ministering love, in shared burdens, and in money given in support.

Years ago, I wanted to take a group of young people on a weekend during which they would worship with hundreds of other Christian young people, meet to study, pray, and reflect in small groups, hear great speakers with inspiring messages geared to them, and do service projects in Jesus’ name. 

One of the boys in our group wanted to go, but his mom, a single parent struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t afford the modest registration fee or the additional expenses for things like meals during the trip. 

I went to the Church Council and laid out the need. The council spent the better part of a half-hour going over the pros and cons. Money was not an issue; the congregation had the money. Council members were afraid of the precedent that might be set if they authorized the expenditure of a few hundred bucks for one kid to experience something that might change his life. 

They decided against paying for the young man’s registration. I was shaken. This was a truly great congregation, but its leaders couldn’t see their way clear to helping a fellow disciple in need. 

The meeting ended and I wondered what I was going to tell the mom. "I'm sorry, but the congregation doesn't care about your kid?" "I'm sorry. We can't afford to invest in your child's discipleship?" Things were lean for Ann and me: I was willing to help, but I didn’t have all the money needed. Besides, I felt that this was a responsibility of the whole community, to help grow the disciples in our fellowship.

In this state, I was walking out of the building, when a member of the council approached me. “Pastor,” he asked. “How much is the registration and expenses?” I told him what I thought it would all add up to. He said, “I think that I can find a source.” I looked at him to be sure of what he was telling me. “I think I can find someone who can give what’s needed.” 

I knew that the man’s “source” would be his own bank account, though it was clear he wanted no credit for it. All I could do was thank him again and again.

That man, still a friend of ours, was, in that small way, living out the Biblical vision for the Church: He saw the needs of another disciple in Christ’s Church as something he was called and enabled by God to take care of.

Disciples in Christ’s Church live in the absolute certainty that as God has blessed them, they are set free to bless their fellow believers--and the world, strengthening our witness for Jesus. 

The rest of our lesson from Acts underscores this truth. Verse 33: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Notice that it was God’s grace at work among them powerfully that enabled the first Christians to take care of each other. Anyone who tries to do God’s will without an utter reliance on the grace--the charity--of God will fail. 

But when we let the gracious God we know in Jesus lead us, we can do anything that God is calling us to do, including taking care of one another in this community of faith, Living Water Lutheran Church, whether we agree on things like the color of the carpeting or whether men show up to worship in ties.

A not-very-good nineteenth century hymn was called, God Will Take Care of You. It has an atrocious sing-song melody. It's awful; I love it! It's message is right on point:
The God we follow through Jesus Christ is committed to providing us with our daily bread. He will and He does take care of us. But sometimes a Christian sister's or brother’s bread will be sent to them from God through those of us who, at the time, have more bread than we need

Jesus says that the world will know that we belong to Him when we love each other (John 13:35). Acts shows us that loving one another isn’t about an attitude of friendliness. If, in response to God's grace, we set out to love others as Christ has loved us, there will always be a price tag attached, whether it’s in the sacrifice of convenience, time, status, money, sometimes our very lives. 

When we make sacrifices to take care of each other, we give witness that we can live in utter reliance on Him because Christ is alive and the gospel is true. The risen Christ assures that no matter how much we give of ourselves, He gives us eternity and more. Christ gives Himself to those who give themselves to Him

So, we are called to take care of each other. 
Church lesson #1: In all ways, we are to seek and are set free to seek to take care of the needs of our fellow believers so that together, we can be authentic witnesses for the new life God is establishing in all who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]