Monday, April 22, 2019

The Big Surprise

[This message was shared during the three Easter Sunday worship services with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio and our friends and guests. Plan on worshiping with us this coming Sunday. Traditional worship happens at 8:45 AM and Modern worship happens at 11:00 AM.]

Luke 24:1-12
On the first Easter Sunday morning, Jesus’ disciples were taken by surprise. None of them had expected that Jesus would rise from the dead.

We may find their surprise surprising. After all, Jesus had told them often enough what He was on earth to do. 

For example, Jesus once told His followers, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).” 

Later, speaking of Himself in the third person as “the Son of Man,” Jesus said: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again (Luke 18:31-33).”

The gospels tell us that every time Jesus mentioned that He was going to be crucified and then rise from the dead, they didn’t get it. 

Their incomprehension is understandable for several reasons. 

For one, I doubt that any of us have ever known someone who was dead for several days, then brought back to life by God the Father. Neither had the disciples.*

The other reason the disciples would have found Jesus’ prediction of His own death and resurrection incomprehensible was cultural. While many Jews believed that there would be a resurrection of God’s righteous people (like the Pharisees), they didn’t believe that one individual could be raised from the dead. For the Jews, resurrection was a group activity to take place at the end of history.

And so, the first Easter Sunday caught the first disciples off-guard. We see that in our gospel lesson, Luke 24:1-12. Let’s take a look at it together. 

Verse 1: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”

A contingent of Jesus’ female disciples, people who have followed Him since His ministry began in Galilee go on the first day of the week, Sunday, to anoint Jesus’ dead body. This day will also turn out to be “the first day” of a new life for them and all who confess Jesus as their Lord. But they don’t know that yet.

Verse 2: “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.”

Luke’s account of the first Easter begins much as his account of Jesus’ birth began. Just as an angel came to Mary, a young woman who trusted in God, to give the surprising news that she would bear the Savior of the world, on Easter, women who trusted in God were met by two men we will learn later in Luke’s gospel were also angels, to give equally surprising news. If any so-called Christian tries to tell you that women are inferior to me, don’t believe them. A man didn’t give birth to the Savior; a woman did. (Most women will tell you that if birthing were left up to men, there would be no new babies born.) Men weren’t the first ones entrusted with proclaiming the Easter message; women were.

But, lest we think this means women are perfect, we come to verse 5: “In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then they remembered his words.”

The women, overwhelmed by the gleaming angels reflecting the blazing perfection of God, fell to their knees while the angels chastised them. “Why are you looking for a risen Savior in a place for the dead? [It's like the angels are telling them, "Duh!"] Don’t you remember all the times He told you that He was going to rise again?” It’s with this reminder that the women, who had heard Jesus foretell His death and resurrection, remember.

Haven’t you had the same experience? You’ve had to be reminded of something repeatedly before you could remember it...and maybe you don't remember even then.

In one of his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis tells about an important message being entrusted to a young girl named Jill by the fictional Christ figure of those books, Aslan. Make sure you review what I’m telling you all the time, Aslan tells Jill, otherwise you might forget it. Of course, Jill doesn’t do what Aslan tells her to do and when the time comes for her to remember the message, she’s forgotten it all together.

Sometimes, I allow myself to get so caught up in the stuff of life that I forget about God’s promises. 

Ones like, “I am with you always (Matthew 28:20).” 

And like, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (John 11:25-26).” 

Or, “...whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).”

The Bible repeatedly tells us to remember God’s Word and God’s promises. God told His ancient people: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).” And, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, God tells Christians through the preacher: "...let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another..." (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Had Jesus’ first disciples spent more time listening to and reminding themselves and each other of God’s Word, they wouldn’t have been so surprised that first Easter. 

And though God's love for us, its depth and breadth, always is surprising me, aybe we wouldn’t be so surprised by the things that happen to us in this life or so hesitant about following where Jesus leads us if we spent more time remembering God’s Word and God’s promises given through Christ! 

We need to learn to be less self-reliant and more God-reliant.

Verse 9: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

Faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, the faith that saves us from sin and death, isn’t easy. One of my favorite Christian musicians, Steve Taylor, says simply, "It's harder to believe than not to to."

We can’t decide to believe. Faith is a gift from God given to those who are willing to believe, who understand that the notion of a risen Savior is nonsense to a disbelieving world. 

It will seem like nonsense to us too, unless we leave ourselves open to the Holy Spirit giving faith to us when we’re faced with temptation, despair, adversity, grief, or death. We need be open to letting God surprise us again and again! 

On Friday night, after the Good Friday service, Sarah and I watched a documentary about the evangelist Billy Graham. It recounted the famous crisis of faith that Graham underwent while preaching under the auspices of Youth for Christ. He was a modern man living in a modern world. How could he believe in the Bible? 

Ultimately, Graham knelt down in a woods with an open Bible and told God, “I don’t understand everything in this book. But, I ask You to help me to trust in it as Your Word, just as I trust in Jesus.” 

Graham learned what I have learned and relearned as a disciple of Jesus: If I am open to trusting in Jesus, He will empower me to trust in Him

If I will only bring my needy, sinful, mistake-riddled life to Him, He will breathe the new life of faith into me. The apostle Paul writes: “ one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).” 

The Holy Spirit wants to give you a deep, growing faith in the risen Jesus. Are you willing to receive Him by faith today and each day? That’s the question for us all in the face of Christ’s Easter surprise.

As many of you know, some forty years ago, God brought me out of implacable atheism to faith in Jesus Christ. It all started when I began to observe the faith in Christ I saw exemplified in the people of Ann's home church. None of them claimed to be perfect. But I saw in them a peace in the face of difficulty and a love in the midst of a crazy world that I needed to understand. 

As I studied the Bible and listened to the reflections on Christian faith of the people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I found myself being tugged toward Jesus. I began praying, even though I wasn't sure that the risen Jesus Who reveals the heart of God to the whole human race was there or real. I told Him that while I didn't yet believe, I was willing to believe. I don't know the exact hour or minute, but I do know that God heard that prayer. I fell in love with Jesus and I came to know that He wanted to save me from myself, my sins, my self-reliance. He made me see that going my own way--relying on own thoughts, my own will, my own heart--was, in the words of another song, "the highway to hell." He began to help me trust in the crucified and risen Jesus, "the way and the truth and the life," to receive forgiveness of my sins and for new life through Him. 

Faith in the risen Christ happens and is made stronger when God's grace meets our open minds, open wills, open hearts, whether as infants at the baptismal font or as needy sinners at the Communion altar. 

It happens when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we gladly hear and learn the good news of new life through Jesus. It's not a matter of doing anything, any more than it was for the first Christians. It's a matter of doing nothing and letting God do it all!

The disciples were skeptical about all of that as the first Easter began. But at least one of the apostles though, was curious about what the women said about the empty tomb. Verse 12: “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

The gospel lesson ends with Peter still not believing that Jesus was risen. That would come later. 

For me, knowing that the first disciples were skeptical about the resurrection is evidence that Jesus did rise. If Hollywood had written the gospels, all of the disciples would have been waiting for Jesus to emerge from His tomb and immediately believed in Jesus’ resurrection and, without doubt or evidence, begun to tell the world. 

But it took time for their faith to get to that point. 

Jesus had to show Himself to them. 

He had to teach them some more. 

He had to send His Holy Spirit after He had ascended to heaven to help them remember so that they, in turn, could tell us so that we can remember. 

The initial mystification of the first disciples on the first Easter has about it the whiff of authenticity, telling me that they came to believe in the risen Jesus against their own worldly judgment in the face of seeing the risen Jesus, eating with Him, hearing Him, talking with Him, touching Him. 

The honesty of the gospels in telling us that the first disciples didn't originally think that the resurrection was true or even possible, tells me that because these skeptics came around, I can believe in Easter too!

Everybody, it seems, knows the most famous words Jesus ever spoke: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” 

When we attend to Christ and His Word, turning from sin and to Christ, and when we open ourselves to faith in Him, Christ builds that faith within us. We will live in the certainty that He is with us always, even now, and that one day, we will have the greatest surprise of all: Jesus will raise from the dead all who trust in Him for to spend eternity with Him. This is the great promise of Easter. Never forget it! Happy Easter, friends. Amen

*Although they had seen Jesus call several people back from the dead.

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

In The Language of God, Collins, director of the human project, talks about how his life in the science of genetics, led him to faith.

[In Mere Christianity, Lewis, a scholar and one-time atheist, explains the Christian faith.]

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Spoiler Alert

Still true!

Holy Saturday: Come, Lord Jesus

Imagine the grief of Jesus' disciples on the first Holy Saturday. 

Not only had they lost their leader and friend, they also lost their version of the Kingdom of God. They thought that Jesus had come to give them worldly ease and vindication. That, rather than surrender, repentance, and trust in Christ as the way of restoration and new life, is what they thought the kingdom of God was. They saw themselves as basically good people who deserved the help of the good God they met in Jesus. Jesus insists that all of us who descend from the first human beings are born in sin and in need of His salvation (Psalm 51:5; John 14:6). Repentance and faith in Christ are the means by which the kingdom of God comes to us, not through the assertion of coercive power or the passage of so-called godly laws.

The first disciples didn't understand, as we often don't, that our greatest enemies aren't other people. Our enemies are our sin, our death, and our darkness. Jesus had to conquer these enemies by offering His sinless life as a sacrifice for us in order to conquer them.

On the first Holy Saturday, the first disciples too, were filled with fear, certain that now that the world had killed their leader, it would kill them. Of course, the world would and still does kill people for following Jesus. We are all part of a human race that shares the ambition that drove Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the desire to "be like God." To "be like God" or to "be our own bosses," we're prone to push the God we know in Jesus out of our lives or put Him on the margins as a good luck charm we can pull out when we're finding it hard to get what we want. Our impulse like that of the renters of the vineyard in Jesus' parable who said of their master's son, "This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours (Luke 20:14)." We want to wear our own crowns.

But Jesus won the crown. He has the "name above all names." This happened when He died for the whole human race. Jesus is the only way to God, to life with God, to membership in His kingdom in which we are made right with God, with ourselves, with others. At least that's what Jesus claims: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)."

On this Holy Saturday, on the other side of Easter, the day when Jesus rose from the dead, we know all of that. We know the truth of His promise: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (John 11:25-26)."

But even now, we wait. In a world still reeling under sin, death, and darkness, we wait for the final consummation, when the risen, ascended Jesus returns and brings His kingdom finally, fully into being.

Until then, we can know that we are part of this kingdom of grace and love as we daily turn from sin and trust in Christ as our King, God, and All.

And we can pray with all believers of every time and place, "Come, Lord Jesus." He will answer that prayer any time we offer it.

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday: Jesus Comes to Us

[This message was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Luke 22:7-20
Maundy is the Old English word for command. On the Thursday when Jesus was arrested before His crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus gave His Church a new command: that we love our fellow disciples with the same commitment, passion, and sacrifice that He lived out in His suffering and crucifixion

Of the four gospel writers, only John mentions this commandment. But John doesn’t mention what, for the other three--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--is central to this night, the institution of Holy Communion. Are the evangelists--three on one side, one on the other--contradicting one another?

Not at all! John’s entire account of Jesus’ earthly ministry is framed by a consciousness of the centrality of the two sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, to the Christian life. And so, John tells us that Jesus’ ministry begins at Cana when He turns water into wine and His ministry ends when, dead on the cross, a Roman soldier pierces His side and sees water and blood emerge from the wound. 

The Christian life is composed of receiving new life as an act of grace through Jesus at our baptisms and continuing to receive new life and the forgiveness of our sins as Jesus gives Himself again in Holy Communion. John doesn’t denigrate Holy Communion; he elevates it.

Similarly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by their accounts of Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion don’t denigrate or ignore Jesus’ new commandment. On the contrary, when we receive the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion, we are immersed again in the saving love of Jesus. In, with, and under the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus enter us, and as we receive Him by faith, He imparts the power to love our fellow disciples as He loves us. 

So, there is no contradiction among the four gospels about Maundy Thursday, just different perspectives, each reinforcing and underscoring the other.

The gospel of Luke’s account of the first Maundy Thursday and the institution of Holy Communion is our focus tonight. I want to look at just the last seven verses of the lesson, Luke 22:14-20. 

Verse 14: “When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’”

The feast of Unleavened Bread was kicked off by Passover, the annual celebration of God’s ancient people, the Jews, of God’s deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. On the first Passover, the eldest of captive Israel’s children and livestock were spared when the angel of death sent by God passed over because their families smeared the blood of a lamb without blemish on their doorposts. 

On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus is showing us that He is about to accomplish something even more miraculous and spectacular: The power of sin and death will pass over and not harm those washed clean of the blemish of sin in Holy Baptism and who are covered in the power of His life-giving blood when they trustingly receive Holy Communion

This is what Jesus anticipates as He sits with His disciples at this last Passover.

Verse 17: “After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’”

Those of you who were able to attend the Jews for Jesus presentation on Christ in the Passover, will recall that four cups are part of the Passover meal or Seder. The Seder celebrates God’s old covenant or old testament with Israel. Scholars are unclear as to which of the four Passover cups Jesus is sharing in verses 17 and 18. In the end, I don’t think it matters much. The more important thing is that from this old meal commemorating the old covenant, Jesus institutes a new covenant by which all people, Jews and Gentiles, may be saved from death for all eternity

In Jesus, Israel’s historic mission of being God’s light of salvation and new life to the nations if fulfilled. A new or renewed Israel comes into being, believing Gentiles grafted into one body with believing Jews. Because God has now shown up in our world in Jesus--the Word made flesh--all people are called to trust in Jesus for life with God. 

As the apostle Peter said of the risen Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) In a sense, the cup that Jesus shares with the disciples before instituting Holy Communion is the last act of the old covenant.

Verse 19: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

A good rule of thumb when interpreting Scripture is that, unless symbolic or poetic imagery is intended, the Word says precisely what it seems to be saying. That’s true of Jesus’ words here, the words of institution. Jesus does not say, as He shares the bread, “This represents my body” or “This symbolizes my body.” Instead, Jesus makes a simple, declarative sentence, “This is my body.” The same happens with the wine: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” As I’ve said before, Jesus knows precisely what the meaning of is is. Through the power of His Word spoken over the elements, the bread and the wine are also His body and His blood. 

Jesus gives Himself to us! The simple elements of the two sacraments--water, bread, wine--are God’s saving Word, the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus, touching our bodies, our tongues, our bloodstreams, just as surely as the read Word enters us through our eyes and the proclaimed Word enters us through our ears. 

Holy Communion is Christ entering into us, destroying the cancer of sin and raising us up to life with Him!

This means too that when Jesus says that we’re to receive His body “in remembrance” of Him, it doesn’t mean that receiving Holy Communion is a tour through musty history. Jesus means that when we receive this sacrament with faith that He always tells us the truth, we are re-membered to Him and to His people, reconnected to Christ and the eternal Church of every time and every place, on earth and in heaven

We feast with Abraham as he received the bread and wine from Melchizedek. 

We feast with departed loved ones who, heaving trusted in Christ, today enjoy the messianic banquet with Jesus in eternity. 

We feast with every believer in the world, from Amir, the Iranian I met and talked with for forty-five minutes at Aldi’s the other day, who left Islam and came to faith in Jesus back in 2005, to Miriam, Daniel, and Francoise, Jews who trust in Jesus for their salvation, who we met last week. 

We feast with the members of the black churches in Alabama that were recently destroyed by a racist arsonist. 

We are re-membered to Christ and to each other and eternity invades are sin-darkened, time-bound world. 

Holy Communion is a miracle wrought by Jesus by which He lets us have and savor a foretaste of the feast that He has in store for all His people

In Holy Communion, heaven comes to earth.

When I was a boy, my parents liked to start our vacations at night based on the mistaken idea that we five kids would fall asleep on the way and dad could drive in peace. That never happened, of course. We always had a big meal before we left home and, since there were no snacks in the car, would only eat when we stopped along the way for a meal. I guess you could say that, through those pre-vacation meals, we were fortified for the journey. 

For the baptized believer in Jesus, life on this earth is a journey. First Peter tells us that we’re foreigners in a strange land. But along the way, God fortifies us with the living bread from heaven, Jesus.

Tonight, we enter a different journey, one that Christians have historically called the Easter Triduum, the Three Days--Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. It’s a journey through Christ’s betrayal, His death and burial, and finally His resurrection. 

For the first disciples, the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection was a long, grief-filled journey, the way our lives in this world can sometimes be. Their lives weren't perfect or easy even after they came to know that Jesus is risen from the dead.

So, how powerfully loving it was of Jesus to fortify those first disciples for all of their journeys and to fortify us for our own journeys through our own Good Fridays until we reach the believer's final destination, that Easter when we will one day, beyond the gates of death, awaken in His presence. Jesus does that by giving us not just a memory, but Himself, His body and blood in this sacrament, bread and life for our journey

Receive this sacrament again tonight and always, friends, with gratitude and faith and awe, remembering that in it, Jesus is coming to you again. Forgiveness is coming to you again. Life is coming to you again. Amen

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Following Jesus by Living in His Grace

[These are reflections from my morning quiet time with God today.] 

Look: “Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (Matthew 8:21)

When Luke recounts this incident, he says that it’s “a man” who asks Jesus to allow him to bury his father before following Jesus. But Matthew tells us that this man is a “disciple.”

A disciple, a mathetes in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, is a follower, a student of the way of life that Jesus reveals.

This man then is more than just a “man” Jesus encounters. This is someone who supposedly already believes in and is following Jesus, a part of Christ’s Church, the body of Christ, like me. Yet, he wants to delay following Jesus.

Listen: People may find Jesus’ response to the man off-putting. Matthew says: “But Jesus told him, Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22)

Burial customs in first-century Judea were the same as those practiced in modern, secular Israel and among Arabs. The body was buried as soon as possible, within a day. The man is asking Jesus to wait while he takes charge of burying his father.

It is possible for us to follow Jesus without going to other towns, countries, or peoples. While the apostle Paul carried the gospel to Turkey and Greece, for example, people like James stayed at home to carry the gospel to their own people. Mark 5:18-19 says that a man begged Jesus to allow him to travel on with Jesus after Jesus had healed him, but Jesus refused his request. “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) The man was to evangelize his own community and people. That was what following Jesus meant for him.

I’ve had several people from Living Water tell me that they feel almost guilty for not going on an annual mission trip to Haiti in which a few of our folks participate. When I ask them if they feel guilty because they believe that God has called them go to Haiti, their perspective usually changes. “No,” they say. “That’s not what I feel God calls me to do.” “Then you shouldn’t feel guilty,” I tell them. The Christian’s call is to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us.

Apparently, the man Jesus encounters in Matthew 8:21, unlike those Living Water folks who have honestly wrestled with God’s call in their lives, is making excuses. Jesus refuses to accept excuses. And, in this instance, He seems to know that this disciple must be taken from his familiar surroundings in order to be broken open to true discipleship, to truly following Jesus.

Respond: Even disciples make excuses for not doing what Jesus is calling them to do.

I know that I do and I ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name, Lord.

And sometimes, “disciples” who seem faithful may only be making a big show of the sacrifices they’re making to “follow” Jesus. I suspect that this is exactly what the disciple in Matthew 8:21 is being called out for by Jesus. “Disciples” like this may not be following Jesus at all.

Jesus once mentioned people who loved to say long prayers in public in order to be seen as pious. Those people got the reward they were seeking, Jesus said: the attention and commendation of people, the popular perception that these attention-hogs were actually faithful worshipers of God. The only reward a Christian seeks is Jesus Himself. Like Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, mentioned in the gospel of Luke, our call is to daily choose the one thing that’s needed, Jesus Himself.

To follow Jesus means to quit trying to prove myself, to live in the reality that I am saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus alone. It’s then that He gives me the freedom to follow wherever He leads, near or far, and simply be in His presence.

Lord Jesus, today, help me to live in the freedom of Your grace. Amen

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