Saturday, September 07, 2013

What is a Christian?

"To give a short definition of a Christian: A Christian is not somebody who has no sin, but somebody against whom God no longer chalks sin, because of his faith in Christ." (Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, here regarding Galatians 2:15)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Finding Ourselves

This from the sermon preparation cutting room floor:
In Matthew 16:25, Jesus says, “...whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” In other words, the only way for us to find our true selves is not by going on a quest of self-discovery, but by giving our whole lives to Christ and live the life that only God can give us!

Strength, Goodness, Wisdom Can't Come from Inside Us

"To trust in our own strength, our own goodness, our own wisdom, is a perilous thing. Let us search the Scriptures with humility, praying that we may never lose the light of the Gospel." (Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, Galatians 2:13)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

'A Hit by Varese'

This old tune by Chicago has been in my brain all day long.

Only super-talented musicians could perform this tune with its widely varying time signatures. Written and with a lead vocal by Robert Lamm, composer and singer on several of the band's earliest hits, A Hit by Varese, gives all of the original members of Chicago a chance to show their chops.

A band that included both formally trained and more instinctive musicians, Chicago's early work, including this song, presented a brilliant fusion of jazz and rock.

This is not one of their better known pieces. But it is definitely one of my favorites.

Helps for Witnesses for Christ

[During yesterday's meeting with the Women of Saint Matthew, I did a presentation meant to help those who want to share their faith in Christ with others. It wasn't written out beforehand. After the presentation, one member of the group wondered if I would take on some "homework," putting everything in written form. I thought others might be interested in it as well. So, here it is: Helps for Witnesses for Christ.]

Why witness?

The eternal destiny of every human being hinges on belief in Jesus Christ.

[Jesus says:] "For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)

Martin Luther called John 3:16, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Simply taking this verse under consideration, we see that while God loves and wants to save all people from sin and death, God will not force Himself or His grace and forgiveness on them. They must receive Christ by faith. That is, they must trust in Christ.

Now, faith in Christ is a gift from God. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we have the ability to confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3).

But faith in Christ only comes to those who are willing to receive it.

Remember the man who told Jesus, “I do believe; Help my unbelief?” Here was a man who had heard the Word about Jesus and wanted to believe, though, as is true for us, trust was foreign to Him. But Jesus took that willingness to trust in Jesus, answered that man’s prayer, and gave him faith.

Paul writes in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes by hearing.” But just as in Jesus‘ parable of the seeds scattered on different kinds of soil with differing results, people can hear the same Gospel word, resulting in some believing and some not. The mission of every Christian is to keep scattering the seeds of the Gospel. 

What this means for those who have never heard of Jesus is not something the Bible tells us about. But we can trust the God Who came to earth in Jesus and died and rose out of love for the world to take account of that reality. Any questions we may have about those who haven’t yet heard of Jesus and His Gospel should give more urgency to the Church’s pursuit of the great commission.

This leads to a second reason for every Christian to witness for Christ: Jesus commands that we be His witnesses.

[Jesus says:] “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)

What exactly does it mean to have faith in Jesus?

The only sermon by Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Mark is found in Mark 1:15. It summarizes Jesus’ mission on earth and the Gospel--the good news--itself:

[Jesus said:] “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)

Jesus came into the world to bring His kingdom to us. We enter it by faith. 

To have faith means two things:

1. To receive the gift of repentance. In the Greek in which the New Testament is written, the most common word translated into English as repent is metanoia. It literally means change one’s mind. It doesn’t come naturally any human being to think God’s way. Instead, we’re born sinners. When we receive the gift of repentance, we’re able to turn from our sins and turn to the God revealed in Christ. God forgives our sins and grants us the Holy Spirit to confront and guide us to continue walking on what Jesus called “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14), the way of following Him as God makes us more like Christ Himself (2 Corinthians 3:18).

2. To trust in Jesus as our only Savior and God. The word usually translated into English as believe is, in the Greek of the New Testament, pisto. It denotes absolute trust.

When I believe in Jesus then, I trust Him as I repent, not to use my sins against me to judge me, as I deserve, but to gracious forgive Him.

I trust Him too, to make me righteous and worthy of eternity not by my merits, but solely because of His grace--His charity--which I receive by faith in Him and His Gospel.

How do we witness?

Read John 1:35-46, part of an account of Jesus’ early ministry:

35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, "What are you seeking?" And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" 39 He said to them, "Come and you will see." So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."

Notice how it was that people came to follow Jesus. John the Baptist tells two of his disciples that Jesus is the Lamb of God. And they follow Jesus. Andrew tells his brother. Philip tells Nathanael.

Witnessing that results in faith in Christ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. John the Baptist, for example, had a relationship with the disciples. They knew him. They valued him and invested what he said with credibility. John’s relationship with them earned him the opportunity to be a witness for Christ.

Witnessing for Christ is most effective, authentic, and believable when the person doing the witnessing is someone we know. Witnessing is relational.

Witnessing, at its best, is also invitational. Jesus didn’t try to argue the two disciples of John the Baptist into following Him. He simply invited them: “Come and see.”

Philip didn’t have all the answers to Nathanael’s questions. He simply invited this man he clearly already knew to, “Come and see.”

The best witnessing then, is relational and invitational. As Christians, we should pray that God would help us develop relationships with people not yet in relationship with Christ and His Church so that, with credibility, we can invite them to, “Come and see”: Jesus in our church, Jesus in our lives, Jesus in the Bible, Jesus met in prayer.

How do you witness? By being a friend to those for whom Jesus died and rose and inviting them to come and see Jesus!

What if I don’t know a lot about the Bible?

1 Peter 3:15 says:

“ your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect...”

None of us is expected to know more than we actually know about Jesus and God’s Word. (Although that should never be an excuse for not knowing Jesus or God’s Word better!)

The best way to be prepared to “give a reason for the hope that is in you” through Christ is to cultivate a personal relationship with God. This is best done through what is sometimes referred to as “means of grace,” highways by which the God we know in Jesus promises to come to us, encourage us, teach us, chasten us, and renew us. These would include:

1. Holy Baptism. In Baptism, God claims us as His own children. God makes a covenant with us to be our God. We, in turn, are called to live each day affirming our participation in that covenant by honoring God, loving Christ’s Church, loving God and loving neighbor, and sharing the Gospel whenever and however we can.

2. Regular worship, including regularly receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion. One of the things that most pleases me about life at Saint Matthew these days is that people have the opportunity to receive Christ’s body and blood every week. In the Sacrament, Jesus Christ comes to us--body and blood--and brings us His presence and forgiveness. It is food for our journey until that day we meet Him face to face with all the saints in the heavenly banquet hall.

3. Regularly reading and studying God’s Word, the Bible, with other Christians. The Bible isn’t just another book. It is God’s inspired--literally meaning God-breathed--word given to us through many Biblical witnesses (2 Timothy 3:16). When we take in the Word of God, we imbibe breath, life, from the only One Who can give it.

4. Regularly praying, yielding our whole lives to Christ. This includes the discipline Martin Luther called “daily repentance and renewal.”

5. Regularly obeying to Christ’s call to serve others in His Name. This includes, but isn’t restricted to, serving the members of your family and the people in your community. As someone has said, “Charity may begin at home. But for the Christian, it doesn’t end there.”

What are some basic truths I might want to cover with a friend I want to invite to “come and see”?

We all need Christ because every human being is a sinner.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11)

Simply put, sin is a condition into which we all are born. It is a condition of separation from God. To be separated from God is to be separated from righteousness and from life. We commit individual sins because we are sinners. As I’ve said before: “Plumbers plumb. Teachers teach. Sinners sin.”

We sin because we can’t help ourselves. That’s who we are. That’s why we need Jesus Christ, the Savior, to erase the separation that exists between us and God.

Sin will only earn us eternal separation from God, no matter how good we may try to be. But life with God--salvation from sin, death, and hopelessness--is given freely to those who believe in Jesus Christ.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

God’s Law, seen in the Ten Commandments and explained in many other places in the Bible, find us guilty for our sin. They can show us the will of God for human beings. But they can’t save, because none of us is capable of observing God’s Law with perfection.

In Jesus, God took on human flesh and kept the law perfectly for us so that, in His undeserved death, He could take the punishment for sin we deserve. And in His rising, He makes new and everlasting life with God available to all who trust in and follow Him. God makes righteous those with faith in Christ.

“21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” (Romans 3:21-25)

We can only be certain of Jesus’ resurrection victory over sin and death--the truth on which our hope as Christians rests--by faith.

God, as someone has said, is a gentleman; He will not force us to faith in Him. But, for people who make themselves available to believe and ask God to give them trust in Him, “ is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). On the other hand, many clear-eyed, practical people who knew Jesus risked their lives in the face of persecution to affirm that Jesus rose from the dead.

[Paul wrote some twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection:] “3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

All who believe in Christ have a freedom and joy that nothing can take from us, in this life or in the next. Neither sin, the accusations of conscience, or the unkindness of others can harm us.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

I hope that you find this helpful. God bless!

Monday, September 02, 2013

Turning His Back on Football

Robert Stein's reasoning for saying farewell to football fandom. Interesting and thought-provoking.

What do you think?

Humility: Standing Upside Down with Jesus

[This was shared during both worship services with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on September 1.]

Luke 14:1, 7-14

In Acts 17:6, people in the first-century city of Thessalonica had an interesting reaction to the apostle Paul and his team, who had come to proclaim the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God.

They said: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also...”

These people who have been turning the world upside down...!

Paul and Silas, representing Jesus Christ in their teaching and preaching, were seen as radicals who upset the normal human way of thinking about living. Christians were seen as offering and living a radically different way of life than either the Jews or Gentiles of the mid- and late-first century had ever experienced. And it frightened people.

Unfortunately, Christians of today aren’t frightening people in the way Paul and Silas and party frightened people in Thessalonica back in the first century.

In fact, depending on which “wing” of the contemporary Church to which people belong, today’s Christians are turning very little of the world upside down.

Right wing Christians, at least in the United States, seem to speak not so much for surrender and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they do for a red-white-and-blue Jesus Who affirms them in their materialism, their self-styled decency, and their hatred for change.

Left wing, or so-called mainline, Christians tell a population resistant to submission to Christ that Jesus is just a man, the Bible is just a book, that Jesus didn’t mean it when He called Himself “the Way...the Truth...the Life,” and that only a narrow-minded bigot would accept as gospel-truth Jesus‘ claim that “no one comes to [God] the Father except through Me.”

Neither of these wings of Christianity are “turning the world upside down.” They’re just trying to fit in with a world that the Bible makes clear will one day be destroyed to make way for God’s new creation.

The Jesus preached by so many churches today is one who endorses people in their own predispositions, sins, and habits of thought, whether liberal, conservative, whatever. This version of Jesus isn’t turning anyone’s world upside down. He’s the cruise director on the HMS Titanic, keeping everybody comfortable in their own self-centered world views and self-satisfied living as every human being hurtles toward the judgment we all will and must face.

“Wait a minute!” you might say. “Jesus is the Friend of sinners. Paul and Silas may have been zealot hot-heads who went off on illogical tangents of Christian idealism. But Jesus wouldn’t want to turn our worlds upside down. He doesn’t want to change me, just comfort me.”

Listen: It is precisely because Jesus is the friend of sinners that He wants to change us.

He wants to make us feel uncomfortable in living life in the selfish, self-centered ways that represent our default positions as people born in sin.

Until we feel uncomfortable in our sins--until we are dissatisfied with the fact that we are idol-worshipers, thieves, gossips, adulterers, dishonorers of our parents--until we understand that we commit these sins because we are sinners who cannot help ourselves, we will never understand our need of the help that Jesus has come to give to us.

We will never see how desperately we need Christ to free us to choose to walk away from sin and toward being actual human beings until we’re uncomfortable enough to let Christ change us.

Until we’re uncomfortable with our own sin, our Christianity will be a going-through-the-motions religion and not an eternity-changing relationship with God.

The only way Jesus can ever bring us comfort is if, day by day, moment by moment, we remain open to letting Him change us, transform us.

The gifts of salvation and new, eternal life with God are free for all who believe in Jesus. But to believe in Jesus--the real Jesus--will turn our worlds upside down! Our treasured ways of thinking must be crucified, daily, in our repentance and confession, and in God’s forgiveness, given in Christ. The habits we dismiss as being simply the way we are, must be put on the cross, so that the new people God is making of us in Christ can rise!

Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came to turn our worlds upside down!

Just how topsy turvy the new world--the kingdom of God--that Jesus lived, died, and rose to give us truly is, can be seen in today’s Gospel lesson.

It finds Jesus, on a sabbath day, at a banquet in the home of a Pharisee. In chapter 14, Jesus tells three parables. Two of them are in our lesson. But I want to focus on just the first one this morning. It’s set in verses 7 to 11. Let’s a take a look:
So Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them:  "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
First century Judea in which Jesus lived, died, and rose was as an honor/shame culture. What people thought of you could be a life and death matter. People had feuds or worse over matters of honor. And your status played out in every aspect of daily life.

We haven’t really gotten over this. Every school playground has its pecking order, for example. And we build monuments and give awards to millionaires who may otherwise be stinkers but decided to give a chunk of money to the local college or community charity. In the meantime, we may ignore the everyday sacrifice made by the old widow who serves her neighbors and friends.

But Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and that those who humble themselves will be exalted. So, he tells us, don't take places of honor. Be willing to take the lower place in any pecking order; you might get invited to a place of honor.

Now, don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. I’ve heard motivational speakers say things like: “Be willing to serve others; you might gain a better place in the world from it.” "Scratch other people's backs so that they'll scratch yours." Folks, that is the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying in our Gospel lesson.

Jesus is not telling us to play the humble card so that we can manipulate others into giving us what we want in this world, like a better seat at the banquet, or tickets on the 50-yard line at Ohio Stadium, or a cushy job, or an inheritance.

This is a parable. And all of Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of God, the reign of God.

Where God rules, things are different than under the dog-eat-dog rules of sinful human beings. In the kingdom of God, all who have been saved from sin and death by faith in Jesus Christ alone, already have a preferred place at the table, every single one.

You don’t need to scheme or cheat to get it.

You don’t have to work hard to attain it.

You don’t have to have been born into the right circumstances.

And you don’t have to take places of honor when you know the greatest honor imaginable has already been paid you: the King of all creation died and rose for you.

All you do is admit that you're a sinner in need of saving, trust your life to Jesus, and fall into His gracious, saving arms.

That’s it.

We are exalted when, sinners though we are, we accept Jesus’ invitation to His banquet--to the kingdom of God and are made eternally clean, eternally children of God!

This means that arrogance is neither a necessity nor an option in the kingdom of God.

Each of us who stands each day in humility before God acknowledging our sin and our need of the forgiveness that Christ died and rose to give us, cannot pretend to be anything other than what we are, garden variety sinners turned into saints, holy ones, of God, solely by grace through faith in Christ.

This is how upside down Jesus’ kingdom is! In every other kingdom of the world, the honors go to those who have pushed and elbowed their ways to the top. In the kingdom of God, the honors go to those who trust in Christ, who let Christ call them and lead them and work through them.

And every one who trusts in Christ wears a crown.

All who believe in Christ are seated in God’s banquet hall!

The ultimate arrogance, of course, is for human beings to think we don’t need God.

Or, in another guise of faithlessness, to think we only need God for the things we can't handle ourselves.

Or, in another, to believe that Christ is optional for salvation.

Or, in another, that we haven’t sinned badly enough to lose our place in the kingdom of God.

Or, in yet another, to think that God’s Word is whatever we decide it is.

Friends, that all these ways of thinking, some of them having currency in the Church today, represent the way of the world, not of God.

They're all part of the easy way: the way of using people, sometimes pushing them out of the way, other times playing to the crowd to win their votes, their confidence, their money, their respect, all the while losing our own eternal souls.

Jesus once said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The way of humility and servanthood over arrogance, of submission to Jesus Christ and the holy Word of God, is the narrow way, the harder way to take in this world.

It’s the way that glorifies God for the simple privilege of being part of His family and never presuming to be better than anyone else...just forgiven, just made right with God by grace through faith in Christ. This is the way of life with God!

People who trust in Christ as their God and King know that no matter what situation into which they walk--banquets or ICUs, corporate negotiations or church meetings, worship services or firing squads, into death itself, they walk with Jesus! 

As they trust in Christ, they are already being exalted by God.

They have been called by name, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit for all eternity.

Their worlds have been turned upside down and they don’t need to follow the dying world.

They know that every earthly banquet hall will one day be destroyed, every worldly honor will be forgotten, every bank account and stock portfolio will go to someone else, all of it finally burned up in the final conflagration that will engulf this old, dying planet.

But salvation--the privilege, the honor, of being made a child of God by the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead--cannot and will not be taken from the one who sticks with Jesus.

But he who endures to the end shall be saved,” Jesus says. Those who endure in faith in Jesus will have their lives turned right-side-up even in this world and they will stand with their Savior forever.

Keep following Jesus and no one else!

Stand under the authority of God’s Word and none other!

It will turn your world upside down and make you whole, now and forever. Amen