Friday, August 29, 2008

Saints and Sinners at the Same Time (A Look at the Gospel Lesson for Sunday, August 31)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here.]

The Bible Lessons for This Sunday (The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost):
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Prayer of the Day:
O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

1. This Sunday, I plan to preach on the demanding Gospel lesson from Matthew. I'll only be commenting here on that text.

2. As I've mentioned several times on the blog in the past week (see here and here), last week's Gospel lesson, Matthew 16: 13-20 was the climax and culmination of a section of Matthew's Gospel, starting at Matthew 11:2-6, in which the prime issue was the identity of Jesus. Who is Jesus? Is He the long-promised Messiah? And, an ancillary question the section asks is, can Jesus, Who, as John the Baptist noted, didn't fit the usual profile of Messiah as a military conqueror who would bring economic prosperity, be God's Messiah? These are the questions dealt with in that portion of Matthew's narrative.

Peter, in last week's Gospel lesson, confessed Jesus as Messiah and, saying that such a confession could only have come from God, commends Peter for his confession. (Paul talks about how God goes about creating faith within us here.)

Actually, as you probably know, Peter wasn't the apostle's real name. He was Simon and Jesus gave him the designation of Peter, meaning Rock, as a sort of reminding memorial, telling him and us that it's the confession of Jesus as Messiah that is the foundation stone of Christ's Church. In making his confession, Peter was acting as a stand-in for all of us who confess faith in Jesus Christ. All who confess Jesus as Messiah are Petros, Peter. Appreciating this context is essential for understanding this Sunday's Bible lesson, which falls immediately after the incident in which Jesus gives Simon his new name.

3. At the very end of the Gospel lesson from last week, Matthew says, that Jesus "sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah."

The beginning of our text gives a hint as to why Jesus was so emphatic on this point. "From that time on," v. 21 says, "Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

As mentioned, the widespread assumption of Jesus' day was that the Messiah would be a military commander, a forceful king who would kill and exact vengeance from the enemies of God's people, a leader who would bring back the days of wealth, power, and ease that Israel experienced under Solomon.

Now, implicitly picking up on prophecies of a Messiah who would be a suffering servant, mentioned in a large section of Isaiah, Jesus said that He was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem, turning conventional expectations on their head.

Peter's reaction shows why Jesus gave the orders he earlier gave. Until we understand that the Messiah hasn't come with promises of giving us ease, power, wealth, or convenience in this world, we will be following Jesus for the wrong reasons.

Until we understand that Jesus hasn't come to exact revenge on our enemies, but calls us to love and be reconciled with them, we will be following Jesus for the wrong reasons.

Since Peter and the disciples (or anybody else) could not have possibly understood this until after the events Jesus says will unfold in Jerusalem, people who try following Him before He goes to His cross will get the wrong ideas about Jesus. (This is exactly the problem with the Palm Sunday crowd, who hailed Jesus as King, not knowing what kind of king Jesus meant to be.)

4. In our Gospel lesson, Peter demonstrates that he doesn't "get it." He's appalled by Jesus saying that He's going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. (It's interesting that Peter seems not to have heard Jesus say that He's also going to rise.)

Whether Peter's reaction comes from love and loyalty for Jesus, from fear that his dreams for his people are threatened by Jesus' prediction, or a combination of both, Peter's reaction is immediate and forceful. In v.22, Peter says, "God forbid it, Lord! This will never happen to you."

Peter thinks that he's being supportive and encouraging to Jesus. He claims to see a different future for Jesus, one born of wishful thinking, it should be said. In this, Peter is guilty of that false optimism which the world often mistakenly takes for the real thing. What passes for optimism in our world often is offered up as a way of being supportive and encouraging to people. But optimism that isn't rooted in reality isn't helpful or truthful and, according to Jesus, is downright evil.

That's why the guy Jesus has just named Peter, the Rock, gets a new nickname from Jesus: Satan!

The name Satan means, variously, accuser and wanderer. Satan, the devil roams the earth like a ravenous lion, Peter says in a letter written decades after this encounter with Jesus, seeking who he will devour. The Bible often portrays Satan or the devil as one who sows confusion, in contrast to the order and peace that belongs to those who follow God.

In using this less-than-complimentary name for Peter, Jesus is accusing Peter of setting his mind on human things--short-term gain--and not divine things, things that last for eternity.

5. Rock Peter, commended for his God-wrought confession of Jesus as Messiah, and Satan, wanting to prevent the Messiah from fulfilling His mission? Can Peter be both?

Yes, all who confess Jesus are both. We live in a lifelong battle to live up to the good name--child of God--Christ gives us at our Baptism. We are "saint and sinner simultaneously," as Luther famously said.

6. Vv. 24-26 show us another reason that Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah back in v. 20. The cross, which he bore for our sins, will demonstrate to all who pay attention that following Jesus will not be easy. Grace, forgiveness, joy, and eternal life come as free gifts to all who repent and follow Jesus. The cross demonstrates that we have sins and that we are sinners. It was our sin that put the sinless Jesus on His cross. Taking up our cross must mean, in part, wrestling with the reality of our sin.

For example, for the alcoholic and drug addict, it will mean giving up their addiction and throwing themselves in God's hands every day.

For the adulterer, the sex addict, or the person who misuses the gift of sexuality in other ways, it will mean turning away from their behaviors and seeking God's help to live God's way each day.

For the perpetrator of injustice or the greedy or all we other sinners, it too will mean renunciation and surrender.

The old self must die in daily repentance and renewal.

7. I personally believe that vv.27-28 refer to the Transfiguration, which happens in Matthew 17:1-8. There, as Jesus foretold, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus coming in His kingdom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's with the 'Donate' Button?

There's a new item over on the sidebar that you may have noticed.

No, I haven't decided to become a blogging version of the televangelists.

And I can't promise you that if you click that PayPal "Donate" button, you'll pay off your mortgage, get a new car, or score front row seats for a U2 concert.

But I can promise this:
  • 25% of all donations will support the ministries of my current parish, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio
  • 25% of all donations will support the ministries of my previous parish, Friendship Lutheran Church in Amelia, Ohio
  • 25% of all donations will support the work of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County, Ohio
There's a lot of content on Better Living. Some of it has been cited in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, and, among other places.

I've gotten notes from English and Social Studies teachers who have used some of the essays found here to teach composition, history, and critical thinking.

Recovering alcoholics have told me that they've been given inspiration by some of what they've read here.

Agnostics and atheists, as well as adherents of various religions, have communicated with me to say that while they aren't Christians, they appreciate having a reasonable advocate of Christian faith with whom they can have a civil conversation.

Of course, whatever is good about this blog is a gift from God and whatever is bad about it is me getting in the way. But I hope and pray that the good posts outnumber the bad and that all of it, in some way, glorifies the God Whose love and forgiveness are free gifts of grace through Jesus Christ. Even the stuff that isn't religious can glorify God, I hope, if it informs, inspires, elucidates, creates laughter, or engenders civil conversation among us.

If you value Better Living, please consider clicking the button to the right and making a donation. (But not you Friendship or Saint Matthew people. Your tithes and offerings should be made through the congregations themselves. I'm not asking you to give more than your normal tithes or offerings.)

When you donate, you won't just compensate me for slaving long hours over a hot keyboard, you'll also be helping two wonderful congregations and a great youth services organization, all of which are changing lives for the better every single day!

Thanks in advance for your help!

Wrong Reason Religion?

Early this morning, I read a piece by Martin Luther in which he reflected on something Jesus said to a makeshift armada of people who followed Him across the Sea of Galilee after he had miraculously fed at least 5000 with some fish and a few scraps of bread. Jesus told the greedy crowd, "You've come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free" (John 6:26, The Message translation).

Sometimes, Luther says, people followed Jesus for the wrong reasons. Rather than seeing Jesus' ministry as a sign that Jesus was the long-awaited Savior of the world, they saw Jesus as a means to getting what they wanted: a good meal, a chicken in every pot, and a Maserati in every garage. (Or the first-century Judean equivalent of a Maserati, anyway.)

There's nothing wrong with a full belly, of course. Or with peaceful neighborhoods and nations. Or with health. Or a Maserati. Or any other good and happy thing that may bless us physically or psychologically.

But none of these things last forever, which is why Jesus goes on to tell the crowd, "Don't waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last" (John 6:27). (Jesus often referred to Himself in the third person like this.)

Luther reflects:
Even today, the gospel attracts people who think it will fill their bellies, satisfy their desires, and help them here in this life...

...they come only for personal gain. However, the gospel wasn't sent from heaven in order to allow people to...take whatever they want...and do whatever they please. Christ didn't shed his blood for this purpose.

The gospel proclaims God's glory and teaches us how to praise the Lord. God wants us to praise him. If we make God's honor and kingdom our first priority, then not only will he give us life and everything we need in this world, but he will give us eternal life as well.
When I first read Luther's words, I thought of those televangelists with their ritzy lifestyles and their prosperity "gospels," lying to people by telling them that if they follow Jesus, they'll become wealthy, powerful, and beautiful.

God does provide for all the world's physical needs. There is enough food, sunshine, and water for all the people who populate the planet. But human beings also have the capacity to horde God's gifts and to decimate the earth God has given to us for our common benefit.

God provides for all of our material needs then, but God doesn't promise us success. God doesn't promise that, if we follow Jesus, we'll get whatever we want.

We follow Jesus to have a reconciled relationship with God, to submit to the reclamation project to which all followers of Jesus must surrender, the object of which is to turn us into truly human beings who live as truly human beings were meant to live, in love for God and love for neighbor.

As I thought of those televangelists who seem to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons and who commend their wrong reason religion to others, I felt a decided sense of superiority. "I'm glad I'm not like them," I thought.

But then, some other thoughts crossed my mind.

Did I always follow Jesus for the right reasons?

Didn't I sometimes treat Jesus like a cosmic rabbit's foot, a spiritual afterthought whose name I invoked after I'd already decided what I wanted to do?

And how often, in my preaching, teaching, leading, serving, and writing, have I fed my own ego and my craving for the affirmation of others rather than doing these things simply to help others know and follow Christ? In those circumstances, I followed Jesus for small-time, death-bound trophies, not as Luther puts it, proclaim God's glory or praise the Lord.

Me and the televangelists in the same category?

Yes, it's true. I don't want a private jet. But I do sometimes engage in wrong reason religion.

Thank God for grace that, through Jesus Christ, accepts me as I am.

Thank God too, that God is committed to making me new, even when it entails God wailing away on my ego to point out, "You and that televangelist may not be as different as you suppose, Mark."

Sometimes freedom begins with an, "Ouch!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Five "Books" of Matthew?

Last week, in my preview of this past Sunday's Bible lessons and again yesterday during the adult gathering that happens before worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan every Sunday, I mentioned a theory first expounded in the 1930s. I've been asked to write a bit more about that here.

The theory held that the Gospel of Matthew, written for a first century Jewish Christian community, is organized around five major sermons or speeches by Jesus, each forming the core of five "books" that comprise the Gospel. That there are five major discourses by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel is undisputed. But what not all Biblical scholars accept is that these discourses are the centerpieces of the five "books."

While I think that it's silly to argue that writers like Matthew, Luke, and John were confined to just one organizing principle for their narrative, it does seem fairly obvious to me that there are five main speeches by Jesus recorded by Matthew and it seems that they do form the core of narrative sections that each deal with particular issues.

For example, it's held by some that yesterday's Gospel lesson, Matthew 16:13-20, comes at the end of a section that begins at Matthew 11:2-6. In the latter passage, a confused and imprisoned John the Baptist, perhaps expecting the Messiah to be a fire-and-brimstone bringer of vengeance, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah everyone was waiting for or if they should expect someone else. The section ends with Peter confessing what he clearly doesn't fully understand, that Jesus is the Messiah.

Advocates of the five book theory go too far in several ways, I think. First, the first scholar to widely promote the theory, B.W. Bacon, claimed that Matthew, a convert from Judaism, produced his Gospel as a condemnation of the Jews. In fact, Bacon called his book, The Five Books of Matthew Against the Jews. A fair-minded reading of Matthew cannot sustain this view, I feel.

Second, Bacon and others felt that Matthew had written a book designed to supplant the Old Testament covenant and set out to use the words of Jesus to create a new Pentateuch superceding the original. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Torah was regarded as foundational for Old Testament faith. The problem with notions that Jesus sought to supercede Old Testament law is that He claimed to have come not to destroy or abolish the Old Testament law, but to fulfill it. And Matthew quotes Jesus in saying just that.

Authorship of the Pentateuch was traditionally attributed to Moses. Bacon et al also have claimed that Matthew attemtped to portray Jesus as, in some sense, the new Moses, God-enfleshed Who brought a new covenant to the world. But that doesn't seem to square with a fair-minded reading of Matthew either. Matthew portrays Jesus as not wanting to throw out the law at all.

But I do see something in the notion that there are five major sections built around Jesus' sayings in Matthew.

The five discourses around which the supposed books were built are:
  • The Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7)
  • Missionary Discourse (ch. 10)
  • Parables (ch. 13)
  • Community Instructions (ch. 18)
  • The Future and Judgment (ch.23-25)
These are sandwiched between accounts of Jesus' genealogy, birth, and infancy at the beginning of the Gospel and narratives of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection at the end, interspersed with narrative in between discourses.

I don't believe that Matthew used the five-book structure as a polemic against the Old Testament, but as a way of sending a message to his fellow Jesus. "Jesus," Matthew was telling them, "is the Messiah we've been looking for all these centuries."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"We are called to be faithful in every aspect of life, even in things that seem not to matter"

See here.

An Adventure Begins

Training for we Lutheran pastors is a four-year program that begins with two years of classwork (and some practical field work in local churches and hospitals), a year of full-time work in a church under the supervision of a seasoned pastor, and a final year of classwork, the idea of which is to help students integrate their personal faith life with their academic knowledge and their experiences with parish life. (All seminarians must already hold a Bachelor's degree, the field of study isn't important.)

Typically, Lutheran seminary careers begin with an intense initiation called Summer Greek. During this class, seminary students are immersed in Koine (or Common) Greek, the somewhat peculiar iteration of Greek in which the New Testament was originally written. When I say intense, I mean it. In the two or three week Summer Greek course, seminarians learn as much of Koine Greek as those who, for whatever reason, choose to take Greek beginning in the fall will get in one academic year. If you miss one day of Summer Greek, you may as well drop the course.

But, given the intensity of the experience, one I remember sharing in the summer of 1980 with forty-five incoming seminary students at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, you do more than learn Greek. You get to know other students, you begin to get a sense of what the seminary experience will be like, and, in most cases, you find confirmation of the sense of call from God you have to ministry. Two of my fellow Summer Greek students remain among Ann's and my best friends.

This little reverie of nostalgia has been incited in my by two posts from Ivy over at Called, Gathered, and Sent, who has begun her seminary career with Summer Greek. Check out two of Ivy's posts dealing with the start of this adventure: here and here.

Ivy: May God bless you and encourage you and all who love you as you heed God's call to ministry. You will do well, I am sure!

By the way, this is an experience our son, Philip, will be having next summer, as he too, begins training to become a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

So, is all the intensity and hard work worth it? There's nothing to compare with using the gifts, abilities, and passions has given to you in the work that God has given to you. I love it!

[Pictured above, from the school's web site, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, from which I received my training from 1980 to 1984. Students who train for pastoral ministry receive a Master of Divinity degree at the end of the four years there. Other degrees for lay ministry are also offered as well as advanced degrees. Click on the image to enlarge.]

Russia and Georgia Redux

Kenneth Anderson, professor at the Washington Law School of American University, knows a thing or two about Russia and Georgia.

He makes four key points in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia for current and potential US foreign policy makers:
First, I share unreservedly the belief that Russia is deliberately undertaking a dangerous, threatening, imperial expansion in the “near abroad” and that it must be opposed and rolled back...

Second, NATO is going to undergo a reshaping in two directions out of this crisis...[T]he idea of NATO evolving into some kind of post Cold War ‘legionnaires of the good guys’, into which Russia would eventually become attached in some friendly way, is dead...On the other hand, the idea of NATO as a genuine mutual protection club is back, at least as far as the Eastern Europeans are concerned; since the Western Europeans are much more interested in gas than protection, however, the forward path of NATO as a re-invigorated mutual protection association is cloudy...

Third, it is a grave error to conflate rolling back Russian expansionism with the idea that Georgia should have actual political, security, and military control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a difficult point, but it is essential...You can tell me about how Georgia is a democracy and allied with the US and NATO and those things wouldn’t happen any more. Maybe. But frankly I doubt it...[Georgia, he says, is guilty of ethnic violence in the effort to hold South Ossetia and Abkhazia and would need to engage in more such violence in order to keep the two provinces within Georgia.]...It cannot possibly be, in other words, in the foreign policy interest of the United States to commit itself to a policy of actual, in fact Georgian political and military and security control over zones that would be in the same general ball-park as suggesting that, in the name of territorial integrity, Serbia could run Kosovo...

Fourth,...US policy must also disentangle “democracy” from what Georgian democracy currently is - which is best characterized not as democracy, but instead as “participatory ethnic nationalism.”
As I suggested here, it will take a subtle hand to deal with Russia. According to Anderson, it will take the same subtlety in dealing with Georgia, encouraging democracy with a fair-minded regard for the rights of minorities there. (See also here.) (TY to Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit for pointing to Anderson's post.)

"Biden's refreshing lack of ideology"...

according to Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell over at FP Passport. A sampling:
...Biden doesn't bat 100 percent. He went ahead and supported the Iraq war despite warning that President Bush was underestimating the risks (he now says he didn't realize Bush would be so incompetent and that he thought Saddam could be deposed by other means). He called the surge "a tragic mistake" in February 2007 while John McCain has backing it wholeheartedly.

But he has gotten lots of other issues right, in my view: He has been calling for years for more resources in Afghanistan, for a more coherent U.S. relationship with Russia, for engagement with Iran, for a broader U.S. strategy toward Pakistan, and so on.

How much influence will Biden have on Obama's foreign-policy views? We'll have to see. But I imagine it will be considerable. Biden doesn't seem like the kind of guy who will simply stick to the talking points he's handed.
Read the whole thing.

Grateful? Go!

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

Romans 12:1-8
Dear Lord: Send Your Holy Spirit now. Use these words to point to Your Word for us today. In Jesus' Name. Amen

A high school friend of mine, Bill, who worshiped with us a few weeks ago, always was the model son to his parents! Even when we were teenagers, there was never even a hint of Bill giving his folks problems. He always made his curfew. He never drank or did drugs. He studied hard and was even kind to everyone. Bill was no nerd either. He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever known and he was popular.

I often wondered why Bill always seemed to obey his parents and actually liked them...and why he never gave them any trouble or lip. I never, ever heard a cross word pass between his parents and him. But eventually, I came to realize what that was all about. Simply put: Bill was grateful to his parents for their love, their sacrifice, and their support. Gratitude affected the way he behaved and the choices he made.

The book of Romans, from which our second lessons have been drawn for some weeks, is remarkable. It was written in the first century by the apostle Paul to a church he’d never visited, but hoped to encounter soon on his way to Spain. In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul explains the basic facts of Christian belief: That all people are sinners separated from God. That God loves all of us and decides to call us back to Him, offering forgiveness and new life to all who will turn away from sin and believe in Jesus Christ. Three chapters of that first segment of Romans deal specifically with the spiritual status of Paul's fellow Jews and his earnest hope that non-Jewish (or Gentile) Christians would be particularly committed to reaching out to God's people with the Good News of Jesus.

Our Bible lesson for this morning begins a new segment of Romans, a section in which Paul talks about how we respond to God’s love and mercy. It starts, he says, with our grateful response to the forgiveness and new life that belongs to those who follow the Savior Jesus, Who died and rose for us. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God [in other words, because of what Christ has done for you on the cross and from the empty tomb], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God---what is good and acceptable and perfect...”

Bill was grateful to his parents and it affected how he lived. Jesus Christ has done infinitely more for us than any earthly parent ever did or ever will do for a child and Paul says, we should willingly give ourselves to Jesus Christ, offering ourselves as living sacrifices to Him.

Her name was Charlotte Elliott. She was from England and she was a bitter woman. Her health was broken and she was disabled, in a time when little existed to help the disabled participate in life. “If God loved me,” Elliott told her family, “He would not have treated me this way.”

On May 9, 1822, in hopes of bringing her some comfort, guidance, and encouragement, the family invited a Swiss pastor to their home for dinner. They hoped that this gentle man could bring Elliott peace and hope. But as they ate, Elliott “lost her temper...[and] railed against God and [her] family.” The family quickly filed out and left her alone in the room with Pastor Malan. “You are tired of yourself, aren’t you?” Malan asked Elliott. “You are holding to your hate and anger because you have nothing else in the world to cling to. Consequently, you have become sour, bitter, and resentful.” What, Elliott asked Malan, was the cure? “The faith you despise,” he told her.

“As they talked, [she] softened, ‘If I wanted to become a Christian and to share the peace and joy you possess...what would I do?’ [she asked.] ‘You would give yourself to God just as you are now, with your fightings and fears, hates and loves, pride and shame...’ [the pastor replied.]” Elliott could hardly believe it, but asked God to help her believe it. She surrendered to Christ that day and later claimed the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John as her special verse, “...he who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out.” I’m sure that she, like all of us, had to keep giving herself to Christ each day because my own experience affirms the truth of what Pastor Rick Warren has written: “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it can crawl off the altar.” We crawl off of it often.

Charlotte Elliott was an invalid all her life, but through daily surrender to Christ, she came to live in a joyful relationship with Christ. She knew the depths of God’s mercy and grateful for it, she strove to live in response to His love.

Years after her fateful conversation with Pastor Malan, Elliott’s brother was raising money for a school for the children of poor clergy. She composed a poem, which was printed and sold to fund the effort. It sold thousands of copies. Later, the poem was put to music. When Charlotte Elliott died and family members went through her things, they found more than one-thousand letters from people telling her what an inspiration and encouragement her poem-turned-into-a-song had been for them. You may be interested in knowing what powerful words Elliott's poem contained. To give you a taste, I'll tell you that it begins this way: “Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come!”

The first response that God’s love in Jesus calls from us is humble surrender born of gratitude. When God calls us, we go where God sends us. We do that and as a result, get close to Christ and share Christ’s love with others.

It isn’t always what we want to do. Some of you have heard me tell the joke about a young man who didn’t want to go to Church on a Sunday morning. When his mother called to wake him, at first he didn’t say anything. She persisted and he asked, “Oh, why do I have to go to church anyway?” “Because, son” she said, “when we go to Church, God builds faith in us through the Word, the Sacraments, and the fellowship of other Christians. Because when we go to worship, we help strengthen others faith. Because God commands us to worship Him.” She paused. “But I guess the big reason for now, son, is that you’re the pastor.”

Paul says offer up your body—show up where you’re needed as an agent of Christ—as a way of telling Christ, “Thank You.”

Ann and I had been married about five years and we’d just moved into a house we rented from our home church in Columbus. I’d recently become a Christian after years of walking away from God.

It was Friday night. I was looking forward to relaxing with Ann when an emergency squad roared into our neighborhood, stopping at the house across the street. I’d met the man who lived there a few times. I'd never met his wife.

The squad was there for maybe twenty minutes when a police cruiser came. Another twenty minutes passed before squad car and cruiser both left without taking anyone to the hospital. I took furtive glances out the window, each time with a rising sense that I should go see if I could help. It was as though Jesus was telling me, “I love you. Love me back by helping your neighbor. Go across the street, Mark.”

Finally, I did walk across the street to what was now a darkened house. When he answered my knock, my neighbor had an expression of shock and incomprehension on his face. He flung the door open and threw himself down on a chair in the living room. There, on the living room floor, where she had collapsed, been attended to, and pronounced dead, was the body of his wife. The police and the EMS had left her body and this grief-stricken man who, in the haze of fresh grief, was unable to think or function.

They’d been eating dinner, he explained to me, when his wife of fifty years, the mother of his children, collapsed and died. He hadn’t known what to do. So, I asked where his address book was and if I could call his pastor, his family, and the funeral director. I stayed with him until they all showed up. Later, he thanked me. I told him that I couldn’t take credit for what I did; I just went where I thought Jesus wanted me to go.

Honesty compels me to confess that for every story I could tell you about my going where Christ wanted me to be, I could tell several more about how I ignored Christ’s call and did what I wanted to do instead. (Thank God for the forgiveness we can have because of Jesus!)

You and I don’t always feel like being Christians. We may not feel like showing up for worship on Sundays, for example. We may not feel like helping a bothersome neighbor, listening to a friend with problems, taking a little extra time with the person who has a story they want to tell, or sharing Christ with others. Sometimes, I can assure you, even we pastors would rather spend another hour with our heads buried in our pillows, worshiping at Saint Mattress of the Springs and not showing up where Christ wants us to be.

But, as Paul reminds us, the Lord Who went to a cross to die and rose from the tomb to give us life deserves our gratitude and He has an indispensable role for each us to play in His Church and in living each day.

Jesus Christ loves us just as we are. When we let our lives display our gratitude for that incredible fact, God can do wonderful things through us. God can build faith where there is no faith or little faith. God can warm our stone-cold lives made indifferent by sin, into lives pulsing with the life, passion, and compassion of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

When presented with the chance to go where you sense God’s love would send you this week, don’t hesitate, “Go!”