Friday, November 18, 2011

A Few Words with My Fellow Christians (I hope my non-Christian friends will eavesdrop)

Today's Our Daily Bread post and the powerful passage of Scripture on which it's based, has me reflecting and now, sharing with you.

The Biblical passage is one of my absolute favorites. The first century preacher and evangelist Paul is speaking at a site in ancient Athens known as the Areopagus. People went there to exchange ideas and gossip all the time. It was to Athens what the local bar, a favorite restaurant, the break room at work, or Internet sites like Twitter and Facebook, are today.

Paul wanted to tell people about how, through the centuries, God had revealed Himself and His will for the human race, first through Israel and ultimately through a son of Israel, Jesus.

Jesus, he said, also happened to be God Himself. After dying, Paul asserted, Jesus was raised from the dead as a sign that God would one day take full control of all creation and judge humanity based on whether they have welcomed Jesus with faith or rejected His authority over them. (Actually, Jesus will just be affirming the judgment people make about Him.)

But, in addressing this heavy issue, Paul didn't start out by reciting a bunch of Bible verses or lore from his own religious or ethnic heritage.

He met the people where they were, reciting the words of one of their very own poets.

Just as Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so that his people could know God for themselves and just as he translated and reformed the Mass so that people could participate with understanding in the worship of God, we modern Christians need to understand "where people are coming from" in order to help them know the God Who meets our greatest needs through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Christians need to be intentional in forming respectful friendships with all people. After all, we're commanded to love our neighbor, no matter what.

In addition, because we're commanded to love all people, God's Word commands (and privileges) us to share the new, eternal life that belongs to all who turn from sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus.

That's what Paul did.

We can do this ourselves with the non-Christian friends we make in our lives.

Knowing that they're NFL fans, we might ask our friends, "What did you think of the Jets getting Tebowed last night?"

Or, to a Lady Gaga fan, we might say, "I think she's right when she says that we're all 'born that way.' The question for me, though, is whether just because we're born that way, does it mean we should stay that way?"

Or, to the movie buff, we might authentically ask, "My wife and I are thinking of going to a move tonight. Any recommendations?"

Or we might simply and truthfully ask them about their spouses, their families, their work.

We might ask how they're doing as they grieve the recent loss of a family member. It's sometimes amazing to me hear people say, "You're the first person who's mentioned [their loved one] in weeks."

Christians don't do these things to be "ambulance chasers" who earn heavenly brownie points by piling up "good works" or by trapping hapless victims into following Jesus.

We do these things because Christ calls us to love our neighbor, tells us that when we do, we're really loving God, and because we know that our friends, like us, crave being treated with respect and love and concern.

We do these things because they're right.

And we do these things to share Christ with others. It's God's will for us to share our Best Friend with our other friends. Our Best Friend is the God you and I have met and know in Jesus Christ!

So, fellow Christians...
  • Establish relationships. 
  • Display authentic humility. 
  • Own personal ignorance. 
  • Let your friends see that you grapple with the issues of life, many of which may have you stumped, in the certainty that, despite mysteries and your faults and shortcomings, you have a relationship with Christ that helps you live today in confidence and to face tomorrow with hope. 
The conversations in which these things happen ought to unfold naturally, respectfully, and without judgment or unkindness. The New Testament says, "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

I've been able to have lots of these conversations with spiritually-disconnected friends over the years. Only a few have culminated in people turning from sin and trusting in Christ. But I do know that God has used conversations like these and conversations these friends have with other people, life events, and other things--to nudge people closer to Jesus Christ.

Only God can open a person to Christ. And He does it, not by force, but by gentle persuasion.

But God can use us all as instruments by which He turns an enemy of God, bound for eternal separation from God, into a person of faith in Christ, living life in the power of God's amazing grace.

When we show sensitivity and concern for the interests and needs of others, they see a Christ-follower and stereotypes of Christians as arrogant, self-righteous, and closed-minded are challenged.

They see our hopefulness and wonder whether they couldn't appropriate the same way of life themselves.

Over time, they may become open to the message that Paul ended with in first-century Athens, Greece: "God overlooks it [our ignorance of Him and His will for our lives] as long as you don't know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known since Paul has told them about the God revealed through the history of Israel], and he's calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31, The Message].
Let's love our neighbors so much that it will become unthinkable to us--maybe keep us up nights praying for them--that they could face a Christless eternity or that they need to struggle through this life without the incredible comfort of knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Pray about it. Then find those little "wrinkles in time," when you might, naturally, give an account for all the hope that you have through Christ!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jesus, Slip 'n Slides, and the Purpose of Your Life

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 25:14-30
A young man came to see me. “I know that Jesus loves me and that I’m saved by grace through my faith in Christ,” he said, “but what exactly is the purpose of my life?”

The short answer is that you and I are alive for only one purpose: To glorify God.

In Isaiah 43:7, God says, “Everyone who is called by My Name…I created for My glory.”

We most glorify God though, not when we look at the Bible’s portrayal of holy living, like we see in the Ten Commandments or in Jesus’ Beatitudes and then grit our teeth and strive to be good and holy people, whether it makes us or others miserable or not.

We most glorify God when we enjoy God and use His gifts to us in ways that honor Him.

Following Jesus from here to eternity presents its challenges. But there will be no joy in living with Christ if we think we must face those challenges on our own or in our own power.

The Lord Who saved us by going to the cross for us will also be glorified within us (and we will enjoy His company), if we will begin to learn one simple prayer of faith: “Lord, live within me and give me joy so that You are glorified.”

“Lord, live within me and give me joy so that You are glorified.”  

The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson is the story of two men who didn’t grit their teeth to do the right thing, but who remembered the goodness of their master and so enjoyed and used the blessings of the master.

It’s also the story of a third man who ignored the blessings given to him by his master, relying on his own personal sense of what was right and wrong, and so, denied himself a continuing relationship with him.

You know the story. A master, clearly a stand-in for God the Son, Jesus, is about to go on a journey. As we read Jesus’ story, we understand the “journey” Jesus is talking about. Since the crucified and risen Jesus ascended into heaven, we know that He has been enthroned in heaven, giving His followers millennia to share the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in the crucified and risen God of all creation, will not perish in eternal separation from God, but will have eternal life with God!

There will be a day though when the millennia cease and Jesus returns here to judge the living and the dead and to establish His eternal kingdom in the new heaven and the new earth.

Anticipating his journey, the master in Jesus’ parable entrusts some of his money to three different servants. Even the measly single talent—a unit of money—the master gave the third servant could be worth between 20 and 600 years of a day laborer’s wages!

In the same way, God entrusts a fortune of blessings to every human being. It’s called being alive.

And that’s just the start for followers of Jesus Christ! Jesus expended His life on the cross so that all we fallen, sinful, imperfect human beings can, like the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross, acknowledge our sin, turn from that sin, and turn to Him Jesus in faith to live with God for eternity.

What a gift! Living lives that joyfully express gratitude for these two gifts--the gift of life and the gift of life made new that comes to us by grace through faith in Christ--is not a burden. It’s joy, pure it’s-so-great-to-be-alive-that-I’m-belly-flopping-downhill-on-a-Slip-and-Slide-joy!

If you’ve ever done a Slip and Slide, you know that as much fun as it can be, there will often be a few painful bruises as a result of throwing yourself to the ground with abandon. I've even been known to throw myself onto a Slip and Slide in my adult years and every time I have, I've ended up with bruises and sore spots and friction burns.

Throw yourself with similar abandon into the life of following Jesus and you’ll get bruised too. Maybe more than bruised.

Today is an international day of prayer for the persecuted church around the world. There are Christians today who live in 52 nations in which it is illegal to confess that Jesus is Lord. (That's a huge percentage of the globe's 196 countries!)

Many Christian believers are losing their lives or being tossed into jails right now because they believe in Jesus. I think of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of five condemned to death for blasphemy--for which there is no law on the books--against Allah simply because she is a follower of Jesus Christ. She is just one of many Christians throughout the world for whom it isn't safe to confess belief in Jesus!

Other Chrisitans, in safer places, feel afraid to follow Jesus because of what their friends, their neighbors, their bosses, or their family members may say about them.

But anyone who dares to follow Jesus is bound to be attacked by more than just flesh and blood enemies. Follow Jesus and you will be bruised by Satan, who hates no human being more than the one who seeks to follow Jesus.*

A woman told me a few weeks ago that she cannot speak with her father about her relationship with Christ. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she told me. That's hard!

But all who are bruised for believing in Jesus need to remember the words of James in the New Testament: “My sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking for nothing”—or, as I would put it, you will be completely ready for everything in this life and the world to come!

In Jesus’ parable, the master came back, as Jesus one day will return to the earth, and, like Jesus on judgment day, the master demanded an accounting for how the servants had used all he had given to them.

The master was delighted to see that the first two men had enjoyed and used their gifts and so brought glory to his name.

The last man, not so much. His failure to honor and enjoy either his gifts or the giver brought him total separation from the master, just as happens to those who refuse to honor or enjoy Jesus, the Giver of the best gifts of all.

In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren gives five portraits of what people who glorify God look like.

First, they worship God all the time. As Warren puts it, “Worship is a lifestyle of enjoying God, loving Him, and giving ourselves to be used for His purposes.”

Second, they love other believers. Long before Jesus walked the earth, God had already commanded all people to love God and to love neighbors. But just before His crucifixion, Jesus told believers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you…”

Jesus’ sacrificial love for us brought us eternity with God and He commands us to love our fellow believers in exactly the same way.

Echoing Jesus' command, Paul writes in the New Testament: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” That's sacrificial love.

I know that I can only love like that by relying on the supernatural power of God’s Holy Spirit, asking God to love others I find unlovable through me.

Loving sacrificially does not mean that we become spineless yes-women or yes-men.

It doesn’t mean that we go along with sin.

Jesus shows that sacrificial love must be tough in confronting evil, even when we find it among fellow believers. When Peter chastised Jesus for insisting that He must go to Jerusalem to be crucified, then rise from the dead, in order to claim an eternal kingdom, Jesus was blunt. “Get behind Me, Satan,” He told Peter.

Sacrificial love will always speak and live out the truth in Christian love toward our fellow believers, even when the truth isn’t pleasant.

Third, they glorify God by allowing Him to shape them into the likeness of Jesus. The New Testament teaches that it’s God’s aim for all of us to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Submitting to God reshaping us into the likeness of Jesus is a difficult process that doesn’t end this side of our resurrection.

Submission to Christ means that the Word of God and the will of God must always trump our preferences, our emotions, our reason, and our experiences.

This is something we are at risk of totally forgetting in North American Christianity and for which we must repent or risk losing all connection to Jesus. Like our Savior in the garden at Gethsemane, we must be committed to daily telling God, “Nonetheless, not my will, but Thine alone be done.”

Fourth, we glorify God by serving others with our gifts. No matter what our gifts or our limitations, God has gifted every Christian to glorify God by serving others in some way or another.

Finally, Warren says, we glorify God by telling others about Jesus. As some readers of my blog know, this past week I heard a colleague tell the true story of a contractor he recently met in Ethiopia, a lay member of the Lutheran Mekane Yesus Church. This contractor takes on big jobs in various parts of his country.

Along with the rest of the work crews at any site, he also hires two pastors for every project. Every morning, the pastors lead worship among the crew before the start of the workday. After that, the pastors go into the nearby towns to see if there are any needs they can address, any prayers they can offer, any people who might want to know about Jesus and the new life He offers.

If there’s a group of people in that community who want to be part of a new Lutheran congregation, this contractor will then also pay the salary of one of the pastors for an additional year in order to develop the new church.

Sometimes, this guy gets flak for his witness for Christ from local government authorities or from leading people in the community. He always meets the skeptics, gives them Bibles, invites them to read the Bibles, and, if after they’ve read some of God’s Word, they still have questions about why he does what he does, he offers to meet them again.

It's because of committed lay Christians like this man that the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia gained 300,000 new members between 2009 and 2010. It already has 1-million more members than our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And, recognizing how desperately America needs Jesus Christ, the Lutherans in Ethiopia are about to send missionaries to the United States.

Not all of us can do what that contractor does to tell others about Christ. But each of us can do something to tell others about Jesus, even something as simple as using one the “This meal’s on us!” cards you can still find in the back of the sanctuary.

We can be like the first two men in Jesus’ parable. We can use the gifts our Master has given to us to glorify God and joyfully use our gifts.

We do this when we worship God in our daily lives, love our fellow believers, ask God’s help to become more like Jesus, use our gifts to serve others, and tell others about Jesus and the new and everlasting life only He can give to those who turn from sin and believe in Him.

Today, I want to close with one simple question. Who among us is willing to belly flop with utter abandon to enjoy and follow Jesus Christ?

If you are, I promise you that Jesus will always be there to catch you...and you will glorify God!


*Ephesians 6:10-12, in the New Testament, explains this well:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.