Friday, March 28, 2008

One and Only at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (March 30, 2008)

[These passes are designed to help all worshiping with us at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio to prepare for Sunday worship. Because we use the Revised Common Lectionary, as slightly modified by Lutherans, I also hope that these brief ponderings will help others too.]

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt,
may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ's blessing,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Comments:
1. Last Sunday was the first in the seven-Sunday Season of Easter. The risen Jesus, the New Testament tells us, walked among and taught His followers for forty days following His resurrection. (Paul says that more than five-hundred of Jesus' followers, or disciples, saw Hims after His resurrection.) The Easter season therefore, incorporates forty days plus ten days, recalling the time between Jesus' ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, traditionally described as the birthday of the Church.

2. This Sunday, as on all the Sundays of Easter, the only lesson from the Old Testament is the Psalms. Usually, the first lesson also comes from the Old Testament. But during Easter, the first lessons are drawn from the New Testament book of Acts. Acts is the second volume of Luke the Evangelist's two-volume work, the first being the Gospel that bears his name.

Acts gives the early history of the Church from the day of the resurrected Jesus' ascension through approximately 60-65AD. It recounts the tale of how a group of not especially reliable witnesses of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection carried the Good News that forgiveness of sin and new life belongs to all who believe in Christ first to their fellow Jews and then into the world beyond. Within thirty years of Christ's resurrection, the Church was becoming established and growing throughout the Mediterranean basin.

Acts says that this happened not because the first Christians were more able than others. Nor did they gain thousands of converts through power or coercion. The early Church knew the truth of Paul's affirmation that believers are their strongest and most convincing when they are weak, that is, dependent not on themselves, their own cleverness, or their native persuasiveness, but when they are utterly dependent on God's Spirit to give them strength and inspiration. This fact may explain why the Church of today is in the greatest risk of extinction in places where Christians are likelier to be more well-off and comfortable. Wealth and ease can delude us into believing that we are self-sufficient. In places like Africa and Asia, people know better. There, the growth of the Church makes Christianity, in 2008, the fastest-growing religion in the world.

The Lessons:
1. Acts 2:14a, 22-32: The first lesson is part of the sermon which the apostle Peter preached on the first Pentecost and that will be the first lesson on Pentecost Day in a few weeks.

In both of his New Testament writings, Luke, himself a Jew, perhaps writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, is at pains to emphasize the consistency between the Old Testament and the ways in which God revealed Himself to ancient Israel and the ministry of Jesus in New Testament times.

Foreign to Luke and the incidents he recounts both in his Gospel and in the ministry of the early Church is any notion that Jesus represents a "new covenant" (or a "new testament"). That's an idea gets more from reading John's Gospel.

In this lesson, as in Jesus' appearances to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the emphasis is to show how Jesus fulfilled what God always planned to do from Old Testament times.

2. Psalm 16: In his sermon recorded by Luke in Acts, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, although he takes some liberties with the passage, presumably because, as happens when I teach classes sometimes, he's citing it from memory.

3. The psalm is called, "A Miktam of David." As explained by a note in The Life Application Bible, "Miktam comes from a term that may mean 'to cover.' It could mean a covering of the lips, a silent prayer, or a prayer to be covered (a plea for protection)."

4. What so intrigues me about this psalm is its emphasis on human volition in choosing one's god. (Our "god" is whatever is of ultimate importance to us. The Bible emphasizes that there is really only one God and urges all people to choose Him as their ultimate foundation and allegiance.) In verse 4, we're told, "Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows..." In verse 5, the psalmist declares, "The Lord is my chosen portion..."

5. 1 Peter 1:3-9: First Peter, one of my favorite books of the Bible, is a letter meant to be circulated among Christians living in Asia Minor, located in what is today Turkey and part of the Roman Empire. Traditionally, it's been believed that this letter was written about 62AD to Christians facing persecution and marginalization for their faith in Christ.

6. Here, Peter calls attention to how God can use our trials of faith to strengthen our faith, increasing our dependence on the God we know through Jesus Christ.

7. Verses 8 and 9 anticipate our Gospel lesson and may reflect Peter's memory of the very incident involving Thomas and Jesus that makes up part of it. The "outcome of your faith" in Christ, Peter tells believers who never saw Jesus, is "the salvation of your souls." The same promise belongs to believers in Jesus today.

The Gospel Lesson: John 20:19-31
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A Few General Comments:
1. This passage recounts the second and third appearances of the resurrected Jesus in John's Gospel. There is a fourth appearance to come, in John 21.

2. As Brian Stoffregen points out, in each of the resurrection appearances recorded by John:
...words and sight are important -- although neither Greek words: logos nor rhema are used. The first appearance ends with Mary announcing [aggello -- only occurrence in NT] to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" and then telling them what Jesus had told to her (20:18).

The second appearance results in the disciples telling Thomas, "We have seen the Lord" (20:25) -- (the same words that Mary had used). The same word is used by Jesus to Thomas in v. 29: "Have you believed because you have seen me?" This suggests that believing involves more than just seeing the risen Lord. Each of these verbs is in the perfect tense, which implies a past action with continuing effect in the present. They saw something in the past and that seeing continues to affect their lives in the present.

The writer concludes the third appearance with his statement about the purpose of the declaration of his words in writing. The story does not end with "seeing the Lord," but by believing and sharing the message.
Verse-by-verse comments: v. 19: (1) The phrase "the first day of the week" is deliberate and significant. The creation motif is strong in the Gospel of John, starting with its opening echoes of Genesis' first creation account and the designation of Jesus as "the Word" who was both God and with God before the universe came into being. Jesus has come, according to both John's Gospel and the writings of Paul to usher in a new creation (Second Corinthians 5:17). The rabbis often taught that creation fell into sin on the seventh day and that God would renew His creation or create anew on a new first day, sometimes called the eighth day. (John also likes to speak of things happening on the eighth day or eight days later.)

(2) M. Craig Barnes, the wonderful preacher, suggests that disciples were afraid of their fellow Jews not just because of the possibility of their being killed, but also because they were ashamed for their disloyalty to Jesus.

(3) "Peace be with you" was a common greeting in Old and New Testament cultures. There is though, a particular irony in its use here and a particular need the disciples would have felt for God's peace.

v. 2o: (1) Jesus allows the disciples to see His wounds, confirming evidence that the full-embodied form before them is the Savior they had seen die.

(2) After satisfying themselves that this is Jesus and He is risen, the disciples rejoice. The only basis for joy that a Christian has--indeed, the only way people can call themselves Christian--is when they too, have their own satisfaction seen, for us through the eyes of faith, that Jesus is risen. Paul writes:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (First Corinthians 15:12-19)
v. 21: (1) Jesus underscores the peace that He gives by repeating this blessing to the disciples.

(2) Through Jesus, we're deputized and empowered to share the Good News as He had been. This echoes words from Jesus' high priestly prayer found in John 17.

v. 22: This is a sort of Pentecost, when you think of it. (Acts 2) The word spirit is pneuma in the Greek of the New Testament and ruach in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Both words can mean wind, breath, and spirit.

In the second Genesis creation account, God breathes His ruach into inanimate dust and the first man comes to life.

In the first creation account, God's Spirit, like a mighty wind, bears down on the stormy waters of primeval chaos and life comes into being.

According to John's Gospel, when Jesus exhaled His final breath on the cross, He literally "gave up His spirit." (John 19:30)

Through the impartation of His Spirit, Jesus, God-enfleshed, creates the Church, the community of believers in Him who proclaim forgiveness of sin to all who repent and turn to Christ and the need for repentance and believe to all.

v. 23: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Here, Jesus entrusts what's called "the Office of the Keys" to the Church.

Martin Luther explains this in The Small Catechism:
What is the Office of the Keys?
It is that authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.
Christ not only conveys this frightening authority to the Church in John 20:23, but also in Matthew 18:18, where He says:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
v. 24: (1) Thomas' nickname, the Twin or Didymus, has often been seen as an indicator of "double-mindedness" on his part. This would fit well with James' New Testament admonition to believers who don't really believe:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8)
That's because Thomas always struggled with unbelief.

In John 11, with word already having arrived that the Jewish authorities are intent on having their Roman overlords execute Jesus, Jesus announces that His friend Lazarus has died and He must go to him and wake him from death. Thomas says to the others, "Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Given what we know about Thomas, this isn't piety, but sarcasm. It makes no sense to him for Jesus to get closer to those who conspire against him. Nor does it dawn on him, in spite of all that he's seen to this point, that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead.

(2) We often often call the Twin, Doubting Thomas. But as Brian Stoffregen points out, the text, in the original Greek, never speaks of Thomas as one having doubts. The battle raging inside of Thomas throughout is instead, between belief and unbelief.

v. 25: An interesting question to consider is where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared to the others? I don't know the answer to that.

v. 26: (1) A whole week has passed; it's another first day of the week. Once more, Jesus transgresses locked doors, indicating that He is no longer limited by time and space as He had been before His death and resurrection.

(2) Once again, Jesus greets the disciples with the words, "Peace be with you."

v. 27: (1) Jesus goes directly to Thomas with the evidence of His resurrection. I think that there's an important principle at play here: If we want to believe, Christ will help us to believe.

(2) Jesus doesn't tell Thomas, "don't doubt." (Although that's not a terrible translation.) He literally says, "Be not faithless; be faithful." The point is that we must make a decision whether to allow God to create faith in us or not. We must cease and desist from our resistance and ask God to do this. We must put our dukes down and let God be God.

v. 28: To me, Thomas' response is so ironic. The faithless, double-minded one issues the most emphatic and all-inclusive confession of Jesus to be found in the Gospels: "My Lord and my God!"

v. 29: These words are really about all of us who haven't seen the risen Jesus (YET) and still believe in Him.

vv. 30-31: (1) I've called this the mission statement of John's Gospel.

(2) The unspoken implication here is this: I've told you everything you need to know in order to believe in Jesus Christ. To come to faith in Christ, we don't need more evidence; we only need to surrender! This is the choice of faith that Psalm 16:4 and 5 mention.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We're Number 65?

It's derisively called the "Not Invited Tournament." Its winner is said to be the sixty-fifth best team in the country for its failure to make it into the NCAA tourney. But this Buckeye fan would be extremely pleased if Ohio State's young team with a great future won the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The team took a step toward that goal with yet another win tonight.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

How Faith Comes

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

Matthew 28:1-10
A young preacher was going through a crisis of faith. His ministry as an evangelist was growing, but he was beginning to have doubts about God’s existence, about the veracity of the Bible, about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. It didn’t help that a friend of his, another young evangelist described by the first young man as “the best preacher I ever heard,” had lost his will to believe. A superficial reading of science had led the second young preacher to reject God. “Nobody believes what you believe any more,” he told the first young preacher.

It was a hard time for that young man. The beliefs on which he’d built his life seemed to be crumbling around him. Then, one night, on a walk through a field in southern California, he fell to his knees. He cried out to God as he clutched his Bible with desperate hands. Lord, he said, I don’t understand everything in this book. But with your help, I will trust the message on these pages. I will trust that there is a God Who so loved the human race that He entered our human story, died on a cross for our sin, and then rose from death so that all who believe in Him will never die, but be with you for all eternity.

That proved to be a turning point in the life of the young preacher. From that moment forward, Billy Graham's faith grew stronger.

Sometimes, I think, we have the wrong idea about faith in God. We think that we have to convince ourselves or get worked up with an ocean of goose bumps. But faith is not something we can manufacture. We can’t educate ourselves into it, like we do with the multiplication table or the conjugation of verbs. We can’t hold our own little pep rallies in order to create the feeling of faith within us. Faith--which is just another word for trust--isn’t something that comes naturally to we human beings.

Not even trust in God. Especially not trust in God. Ron Hals, one of my seminary professors, captured this human tendency to distrust God when he used to tell us, “You all say you would love to have been around when Jesus performed a miracle. But it’s just as likely that you would have watched Jesus turn water into wine or bring back a man from the dead and told him, ‘Do that again. Slower.’”

Faith in God, in the God of Easter, in the risen Savior Jesus, is God’s gift to those who are willing to believe. This may explain the really strange thing that happens in Matthew’s telling of the story of the first Easter morning.

Each of the four Gospel writers—Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew—tell us about what happened on the first Easter in their own ways. They differ on some of the specifics. That has never bothered me. If all four of them agreed on every single detail, I would smell a conspiracy. As it is, I smell the truth.

Be that as it may, one of the details that interests me in Matthew’s account is this. An angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who have gone to the tomb on the first Easter, “Go quickly and tell the disciples He [Jesus] has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.’ This is my message for you.”

At that point, the women hadn’t seen the risen Jesus. They were told that if they and Jesus' other folowers traveled the sixty miles to Galilee from Jerusalem, they would see Him for themselves. Granted, the earthquake they experienced at the tomb, the fainted guards, and the angel lighting on the stone that had been rolled away all were pretty impressive things, signs that could point them toward belief. But Jesus’ followers had seen and heard lots of impressive signs of Who Jesus was in the preceding three years. Still, they hadn’t really believed when Jesus told them He would die for the sins of the world and rise to give new life to all the repentant who believe in Him. When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, they were as hopeless as atheists, as forlorn and defeated as anyone who turns their back on God.

Who knows what the women actually believed at that moment? All we know for sure is this: They were willing to believe. They were willing to trust in the message given to them about the Lord they had seen murdered just days before. They were willing to believe that He was risen from the dead. We know this by their response to the angel’s message: “They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell [the] disciples.”

Someone has said that the mixture of emotions that the two women felt as they ran from the tomb—fear and great joy—is like that mixture of emotions felt by brides and grooms as they prepare, hearts pounding out of their chests, to walk into a church sanctuary on their wedding days. They have no idea what the next fifty or sixty years may bring. They have no certainty that they can trust either themselves or their beloved to be worthy partners in life. But they’re willing to trust that no matter what—in sickness or in health, in good times or in bad—that their marriages will work.

The women, like a couple about to be married, didn’t know what the future might bring. They had no more certainty than Billy Graham did that night he threw himself on God’s mercy, that Jesus had really conquered sin and death for all who dare to trust in Him. But they were willing to trust and so, their hearts pounding from their chests, they ran to tell the disciples that the angel had said that Jesus was alive.

But a funny thing happens in the lives of those who are willing to believe. They learn that the old saying is completely wrong. Seeing isn't believing. Believing is seeing!

The president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary during the years I attended there was Fred Meuser. Once, shortly after I started seminary, Dr. Meuser took six of us who had begun our training in the middle of an academic year, out for lunch. We asked him to tell us about himself, especially about how he came to faith in Christ. “There’s no drama in my faith story,” he told us. “I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a Lutheran pastor in churches all around Michigan.” At that, I thought I saw tears well in Fred's smiling eyes. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in Jesus,” he told us. Nurtured in faith from the time he was a baby, Fred had never rebelled. He had always wanted to believe in Jesus and he found that God builds faith in those who are willing to believe.

Many of you know something of my own faith story. In my teens and early twenties, I considered myself an atheist. Then, I married this Lutheran. The faith I saw in Ann and all the wonderful people of the congregation that became my home church made me want a piece of that action. I wanted to know and follow Jesus! I wanted to believe, but frankly, a part of my skeptical mind rebelled even after I'd made public professions of faith. I wanted to believe, but still didn't fully.

Then, one night a strange thing happened to me. I had a dream that I remembered. That almost never happens. I dreamed that I was walking down a street. Nobody else was there. Nobody, that is, except for one figure who kept walking closer and closer. Ultimately, he approached me and I could see that it was Jesus. No words were spoken. In my dream, Jesus simply reached out His arms and pulled me to Himself. That was it. I remember waking up with a smile on my face. My willingness to believe in Jesus had become faith.

When the women ran from Jesus’ tomb, the Lord they weren’t supposed to meet until they were in Galilee showed up. Matthew writes: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said ‘Greetings!’ And they came to Him, took hold of His feet, and worshiped Him…” God creates faith in those willing to put their dukes down and simply let God love them! When we allow ourselves to trust in Jesus that we see Him, see His grace, see His power, and see His love working in our lives. There are many people in this sanctuary this morning who can testify to that truth!

As a pastor for twenty-four years now, there is one single statement I’ve heard from people more than any other. It comes in various versions. But it’s the same statement nonetheless. Atheists will tell me, “I just can’t bring myself to believe.” Faithful Christians will tell me, “My faith isn’t strong enough.” Or, “I’m not close enough to God to be a witness for Christ.” These statements all betray a single, common, human, and very understandable misconception. They all see faith as something we do, as the product of our effort.

But the Good News of Easter is that Jesus has done everything necessary for our salvation. The Father sent the Son. The Son died and rose for us. The Spirit works in the wills of those who are willing to believe.

The women who ran from the tomb to share the message of the first Easter learned what every believer in Christ has learned these past two-thousand years: If we are willing to believe, God will build faith within us. God will help us live in the certainty that the risen Christ gives all who believe infinite, indestructible forgiveness, life, and hope. God will build certainty in us that a risen Savior is by our sides in all that comes to us in this life and He has the power to give us life beyond the grave.

If you and I are willing to believe—willing to meet the risen Jesus in worship, in the fellowship of believers, in the Sacrament, in the Bible, in prayer, in service in Jesus’ Name, our faith will grow. Our faith will invite others to follow. Our faith will show the world that there is a Savior Who died, but has risen. Risen indeed! Happy Easter, everyone.