Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bless those who persecute you...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

From Romans 12:14-21, in the New Testament:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
Read Julie Ackerman Link's outstanding reflections on these words, today's installment of Our Daily Bread.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 11 Prayer

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled be one of a number of local clergy offering prayers during a September 11 commemorative prayer service happening in our community. I've been assigned praying for our government. Here's the prayer I plan on offering (unless God has other plans):
Gracious God: Your Word tells us that there is no authority on earth that does not come from You. And so, we pray for the leaders of governments throughout the world, especially for those in our own country. To our president provide Your protection and Your wisdom. Grant these same blessings to all federal, state, and local officials, so that they will be guided by Your will. Grant that we, as citizens of this republic, even if we disagree with those who govern, will remain respectful of them. We pray guidance and protection for all in government service—from first responders to Peace Corps volunteers, from those in diplomatic service to those who regulate industries and ensure our safety, from cabinet secretaries to those in our Armed Forces. Mindful of the fleeting nature of life on this earth, aware that we are sinners by nature in need of our Savior, and knowing that we have nothing for which we can boast, we cling to Jesus Christ as our hope for this life and the one to come. We pray these things in Jesus’ holy and mighty Name. Amen

Forgiving the 9/11 Perpetrators?

A commenter on a friend's Facebook page said that, irrespective of what Christians are called to do, she would never forgive the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Another commenter suggested that if a person can forgive the terrorists, "then you need to check yourself."

I understand their sentiments, of course. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I were fond of the political cartoon showing an American eagle sharpening its talons preparing to respond. We liked it so much that we posted it on our refrigerator. Without getting into the specifics of endorsing or condemning any particular policies, my wife and I, like hundreds of millions of others thought that some response to the September 11 outrages had to come.

But I didn't agree with the commenters at my friend's site today when it came to this business of forgiveness. This is what I wrote:
There's a difference between forgiveness and heedlessness. In an imperfect world where people do evil things, God has provided for the establishment of governments in part to pursue justice--whether through domestic police powers, economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, imprisonment, or armies. The government that is heedless of injustices like the September 11 attacks would not be doing its job.
[Similarly, the woman, for example, who fails to get out of an abusive relationship or fails to take the necessary legal steps to keep an abuser from continuing to harm her, is not doing the right thing. She will be right to forgive, but she will be reckless to take no action, to be heedless of the threat her abuser poses in her life. She must do something to stop her abuser!]

But Jesus leaves no question as to whether we should forgive. Not forgiving will, if allowed to prevail in our lives, make us monsters who also commit injustices against others.

Forgiveness is hard to do. It requires supernatural power given to us only by God, which is why Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Vengeance is not the same thing as justice. 
Forgiveness is not the same thing as excusing. 
Release (aphiemi is the word in the Greek in which the New Testament was written) is one word for forgiveness used in the New Testament. [When we forgive,] we not only release others from their indebtedness to us, we release ourselves from the corrosive, hellish feelings that accompanying holding onto hatred, vengeful sentiments, and putting ourselves on God's throne of judgment. 
[Government leaders can only think clearly about how best to mete out justice, including the possibility of waging war, by getting all notions of revenge out of their minds. When armies wreak vengeance, they violate one of the most important principles of Christian belief on what constitutes a just war: proportionality.
[We similarly escalate relational discord in our own lives when we seek revenge rather than justice.]

I'm only a student of the lessons God wants us to learn, by the way.

What I try to do when faced with my inability to forgive or love others is to ask God to forgive or love them through me, in spite of my feelings. [Imperfectly,] I try to follow as Savior Who, as He died at the hands of hateful, violent people, against all common sense and evidence to the contrary, put the most charitable construction on his murderers' actions and prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!"

If Jesus can do that in His own power, maybe He can do it through [me in spite of] my weakness.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

My New Favorite Bumper Sticker

"As followers of Jesus Christ, we want the words that flow from our hearts and out of our mouths to"

That's a quote from today's installment from Our Daily Bread. It's worth reading. The New Testament passage on which it's based is Ephesians 4:25-32:
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

These words from God's Word imply, among other things, that we are both to lovingly tell others the truth about the reality of our sin AND the truth about Jesus, Who brings forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all who believe in Him. 

Whether we tell it to those who are part of the Christian family or to those not yet experiencing the new life that only Jesus Christ can give, everybody needs to hear and to be reminded of the truth that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). We also need to hear and be reminded that:
the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets [that is, by the two major strands of Old Testament writings], the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood effective through faith...[God] justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
God's call and command that we who follow Jesus "speak the truth in love," also means, in Martin Luther's words in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" that:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.
I don't mean to imply that the sort of truth-telling to which believers are called is in any way possible to do when we rely on our own will power or strength of character. The self-reliant can never, in the guts of everyday life, experience the truth of the promise of Jesus that "with God, all things are possible." 

In the face of derision and the pressures of "political correctness," we all would rather do almost anything than speaks God's truth...and usually will. 

But we can tell the truth and come back to the truth that Jesus calls us to tell and to live when we rely on God. God-reliance will always empower us to to be the people that self-reliance only deludes itself into thinking it can achieve!

When it comes to sharing the truth about sin and forgiveness, about life and death, about heaven and hell though, we Christians are all to be proclaimers of the truth

Some will be called to tell it from the pulpit. Others are commissioned by Christ to tell this truth while kicking back with friends in those conversations that, as conversations with good friends always do, drift into the subjects that really matter. 

We Christians who withhold the truth about Jesus, that He is, "the way, and the truth, and the life," from our neighbors--even the "neighbors" in our own homes, the "neighbors" with whom we watch ball games, shop at the mall, share cubicles at work, or have a drink--are not fulfilling our sacred obligation or experiencing the unique joy that comes from telling others about Jesus. 

In that sense then, every Christian is commissioned by Jesus, in a sensitive and caring way, to be a preacher of the good word--the good news--about Christ. Paul puts it simply in Romans: are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are hey to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?...not all have obeyed the good news [that is, believed in the gospel that life and forgiveness come to those who repent of sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ]; for Isaiah [the Old Testament prophet] says, 'Lord, who has believed our message?' So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of the Lord.
Beyond this special and important truth, we are to tell all truth to others, not in a desire to hurt, but to build up others. When tempted to "tell the truth" about those we dislike or who dislike us, those whose integrity or intelligence we may question, and anyone with whom we may be angry or not in sync, the Ephesians 4 passage tells us that we should consider a great option: Keeping our traps shut. This is true whether we're speaking to them directly or when speaking to others about them.

By all means, when we have conflicts with others and the cause, the relationship, and the stakes are important enough to us, we should lovingly "have it out" with the other person. Otherwise again, we should keep our traps shut.

It's passages from God's Word like Ephesians 4, that make my daily prayers of repentance so long!

They're also the reason behind one of my most frequent prayer requests. In many situations I face, I ask God to cause me to speak the right words and to keep the right silences and to know the difference. And I find that when I trustingly get out of God's way, God answers that prayer.

That's how I know, by the way, that God does impossible things: I've learned that God can use an imperfect sinner like me to bring His life to others. If that's not some sort of miracle, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Burn Korans? Not If You Want to Do Christ's Will

It's hard to fathom the motives of the Gainseville, Florida pastor and his 50-member flock who plan on holding what they call an "International Burn the Koran Day," this coming Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

I can't help suspecting that a big motivator on the part of the pastor, Terry Jones, is to gain attention for himself and his struggling church.

He has certainly gotten that. Newspapers, TV news shows, and Internet web sites are filled with stories about the planned event. There have been protest demonstrations in the Islamic world, where pictures of Jones have been set afire. A U.S. State Department spokesperson and the White House press secretary have condemned the planned Koran-burning. General David Petraeus has taken time from his combat duties in Afghanistan to warn that the Jones event would endanger U.S. combat forces and every American by inciting Jihadists and confirming the Muslim world's worst misapprehensions about Americans. (And about Christians too, I would add.)

It's difficult to see what good that Jones and his flock think all this attention will produce. It certainly won't advance the cause to which every follower of Jesus Christ should be committed.

That cause, which we Christians believe the risen Jesus gave to us just before He ascended to heaven, is called, the Great Commission. Forms of it appear in all four of the New Testament gospels and in Luke's history of the early Church, the Book of Acts. The most famous version is in the Gospel of Matthew. There, Jesus commissions Christians to:
 "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 
 As an evangelical Christian, I take this commission seriously. Jesus claims that He is God in the flesh and that repentance for sin and belief in Him is the only means by which human beings can grasp the grace of God and be reconciled with God. I pray every day that God will use me, inadequacies, faults, sins, and all, to share with everyone I contact, the good news of new and everlasting life from God that, as I believe the Bible teaches, only comes through Christ. I want all people to know the joy and the peace that comes from Christ, even in the midst of life's challenges.

But none of this should lead a Christian to burn Islam's book, even if we don't believe that the Koran came from God.

In fact, it should lead us away from such off-putting actions. If we want all people to come to faith in Christ, we should be looking for ways to build bridges, not burn them down.

Mr. Jones and his congregation might want to turn to the apostle Paul for an example of how to approach Muslims, a small fraction of whom act as the seedbed from which Jihadists grow terrorists.

Paul was the greatest of the early Church's preachers, a devout Jew who once persecuted believers in Christ, then became a great champion of Christian faith, and who spent most of his adult life traveling the Mediterranean basin, starting churches, winning converts, and encouraging believers. Ultimately, he was martyred for his faith in Christ.

Sometime around 50-52AD, Paul spent time in Athens awaiting the arrival of friends. The Book of Acts in the Bible's New Testament says that Paul was "distressed to see the city was full of idols." For a Jewish Christian like Paul, steeped in the Old Testament's teaching (and what would also be the New Testament's teaching) that there is just one God, the many statues depicting false gods was undoubtedly disgusting. The temptation to throw a fit and pour condemnations on the Athenians would have been huge for a man like Paul, passionate, sharp-tongued, and devout. He might have felt that he had good warrant to do just that.

But Paul had a higher call, a great commission! A rhetorical assault on the Athenians and their worship of many Gods would have been the first-century equivalent of burning a Koran, momentarily satisfying to the one with the torch, maybe, but ultimately useless to the cause of Christ.

Instead, we're told that Paul went to the synagogues there to tell his fellow Jews about Jesus and also to the Athenian marketplaces where learned people discussed life issues. He debated, but he didn't attack.

Then, one day, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, curious about, if disdainful of, Paul's message about Christ took him to a place called the Areopagus, a low Athenian hill. With the city's multiple idols visible to everyone, Paul didn't attack.

“Athenians," he began, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Paul, starting with where the Athenians were, told them about the one God of the universe he believed was first revealed to God's people, Israel, and was ultimately revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus. He even quoted one of their poets as he talked with them.

After Paul finished speaking, some simply wrote him off. Others said that they wanted to hear more. Still others became followers of Christ. Paul wouldn't have seen these results if he had decided to scold and excoriate the Athenians for their evil beliefs. Instead, Christians believe that God's Holy Spirit used Paul's approach to make disciples of some.

Abraham Lincoln is widely reported to have been asked once by partisans why, instead of attempting reconciliation with his enemies, he didn't try destroying them instead. Lincoln replied, "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"
In an imperfect world in which violent people pose threats to others, there is a place for military, police, jails, prisons, and aggressive government action. 

But the Bible I read and the Savior I follow gives Christians no encouragement and no warrant to burn Korans. Doing so will not only endanger the lives of many Americans who want no part of what Terry Jones and his Gainesville congregation are planning to do, it will also hurt the cause we Christians are commissioned to pursue: Making new friends and followers of Jesus.  

Monday, September 06, 2010

Pray for and Help the People of Pakistan

If you watched the PBS Evening News Hour tonight, you know how dire things are in Pakistan are in the wake of recent flooding: Millions are displaced, living in constant exposure to the elements, without food or medical care, families are separated, and children separated from their families are subject to the strong possibility of exploitation or violence.

Please pray for the people of Pakistan and prayerfully consider a contribution to Lutheran World Relief so that some of that sterling organization's partner groups can bring relief and help to the people in Pakistan.

Here is a link by which you can contribute online.

The Fear We Desperately Need

The great 20th.-century Lutheran pastor and theologian, Ole Hallesby, wrote about the fear we need in a sermon based on Luke 12:5*:
The disciples needed an admonition to fear God. We need it too. Yes, I often ask myself: Is there anything our generation needs more urgently than to really fear God? There is fear enough otherwise in our day and age. We fear illness...We fear poverty...We fear people...Yes, there is enough fear. Jesus tells us that this fear which stunts the growth of a person's character and contaminates the soul is all due to the fact that we do not fear the only one whom we should fear, namely, the living God.**
If you want an explanation for why so many Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations are failing either to rise up and demand that the denomination reform and repent or, in the knowledge that the deck is heavily stacked against the Word of God in the ELCA, leave it to join other Lutheran bodies, you need look no further than Hallesby's insightful quote.  

ELCA Lutherans are failing to speak and act in concert with the will of God because they fear everything more than they fear God.

For many in the ELCA, God is an abstraction, not a real living Being, the Ground of All Being, as Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich put it. For many, the Bible is not the Word of God, the authoritative record of God's self-disclosure, first "in many and various ways," to the people of Israel and ultimately in the Person of the Word made flesh, Jesus.

Bishops stand idly by, failing to exercise their pastoral responsibility to correct, rebuke, and discipline those pastors and theologians who deny Christ's virgin birth (even the ELCA's official web page that our confession of Jesus' virgin birth is not "a gynecological assertion," which no doubt comes as a great surprise to Jesus and would to the Biblical writers and to the early Christians, including Jesus' own family, who spent some energy denying the allegations made by many that Jesus was a "bastard," conceived by the usual means), who deny that Christ was physically resurrected or that Christians who believe in Christ will physically rise with Christ, and who, even on the official pages of the ELCA, uphold the universalistic notion that since Christ died for all, all will be saved, whether repenting or believing in Christ or not. (Although "saved" is a term meaning little in some universalists' hands, if there is also no resurrection.) The Bible, and Jesus Himself, teaches that faith in Jesus is the means by which God's grace is appropriated by believers and that there is no other way to God but through Jesus. (See here, here, and here.) (Also see here and here.)

The ELCA countenances pastors who teach that while there may be a heaven, there is no hell, in direct contradiction of Jesus Himself.

It countenances, in the presence of and with the complicity of participating bishops, the offering of flagrantly un-Christians prayers in "celebratory" rites. (To see a recent "rite" at which three ELCA synodical bishops were present, in which several alternative versions to the Lord's Prayer and in which there is a refusal to acknowledge God's power and might, see here. Warning: It's deeply depressing reading, especially because it so slyly displaces Biblical truth with plausibly phrased heresy and sin.)

The presiding bishop of the ELCA stands idly by at a conference called Sharing the Gospel (a conference supposedly about sharing the good news of Jesus, the one and only Savior and God), while Muslim and Buddhist prayers invoking other deities or "ways," are offered, ostensibly to allow participants to appreciate the beauty of the prayers***

And, of course, consistent with all of these acts of outright rebellion against God and lazy complicity with heresy, the ELCA, last August, officially denied the authority of God to declare what behaviors are acceptable and what are sin, when it granted congregations the right to ordain practicing homosexuals.

All these sins of commission and of omission are perpetrated by a denomination and by complicit congregations who fear the world more than they fear God.

God's will and Word on all the sins and errors enumerated above, which hardly represents an exhaustive bill of particulars, are crystal clear. A reading of the Bible in which we allow it to speak in its clear sense, untouched by rope-a-dope theology will tell us that the ELCA has wandered far from God. 

The ELCA and many of its congregations fear the world; fear being on the outs with those to whom we look for what is politically correct; fear appearing "fanatical" if we side with God rather than the arbiters of contemporary mores and attitudes; fear offending people; fear hurting people; fear breaking up somnambulant clubs masquerading as churches, clubs that have forgotten that the Church belongs to Christ, not to church members.

The truth of God's Word always hurts when we let it tell us the truth about our sin and our need of God. But the truth of God--the truth of Jesus Himself--can also set sinners who repent and believe in Christ free from sin, death, and futility for all eternity.

Jesus tells us to fear God alone. Fearing God leads to freedom and life. Fearing anything else leads to slavery and yes, hell.

Are we listening?

*[Jesus said:] "But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!"

**This is cited in By What Authority: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message.

***Obviously, it's a good thing to learn about world religions and to interact with those of other faiths. We Christians want to live in peace with all people AND, by our servant hearts and Christians love, we want to earn a hearing for the good news of Jesus, which can lift people out of darkness into God's marvelous light. But when Christians are gathered to worship God, they should turn their attention to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Period.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to Be What You Cannot Be

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

Luke 14:25-33
When I was a boy, our family took a fishing vacation to Michigan with my grandparents. We had done this several times before, but the cabin my grandparents rented this particular year was in a different spot next to a different Michigan lake. My grandfather was pleased because, though he had never seen the cabins before, they were owned by an old friend of his and he felt that he had gotten a good deal. The brochures his friend sent to us pictured this as a great place that all of us would enjoy.

When we first pulled up to our cabin, we were all disappointed; the lake was a little more than a pathetic pond and the cabin itself was a dump. The disappointment continued when we went inside and searched in vain for a bathroom. My grandfather confronted his friend: “The brochure said that the cabins had bathing facilities." With a sweeping backhanded wave, his friend drew our attention to the water and said, “There’s a whole lake right there.”

A little truth in advertising might have spared a friendship and our family having what turned out to be a fairly rotten week. Of course, both of those outcomes could also have been avoided had my grandfather followed a simple old motto: Buyer, beware! A few questions, a little research, and he wouldn’t have even booked those cabins in the first place. One of the last things any of us want to do is make decisions that we later regret.

Our Gospel lesson from Luke for today finds Jesus engaging in “truth in advertising.” He wants people to know exactly what is involved in following Him. God’s grace, His forgiveness and favor, is a free gift; but to grasp hold of it costs us everything, our whole lives. Jesus is intent on our knowing that.

Turn once more, to the Celebrate inserts and find this morning’s Gospel lesson, Luke 14:25-33. Read along as I read just the first clause of verse 25: “Now large crowds were traveling with him.” Whenever references to crowds appear in Luke’s Gospel, Luke is talking about people who are interested in Jesus, maybe even hopeful that Jesus will do something for them, but who haven’t committed to following Jesus. Like many people today, they wanted just enough of Jesus to get from Him what they wanted, but not enough to change their personal priorities.

Read on with me, please: “and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” If Jesus were writing a promotional brochure, it’s hard to imagine Him doing a worse job of attracting people to Christian discipleship than in starting out like this! In Jesus’ hands, the brochure sent to us by my grandfather’s friend might have said, “The lake is really a pond. The cabins don’t have any bathrooms. And, oh, by the way, the fishing is lousy! Call to make your reservations now!”

What is Jesus saying here about being a disciple, then? In Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke every day, the word “hate” didn't imply hostility, but often had the meaning to love less, to hold one thing or person as having less important than another. In this verse, Jesus is telling us to love our families and our own lives less than we love Him, to love Him more than these things.

The so-called “family values” crowd of today will be appalled to know that Jesus doesn’t agree with them when they say, “Family is the most important thing.” Jesus says, “No. Your family is not the most important thing. I am.”

To modern narcissists who talk about needing to take care of themselves, look after themselves, or find themselves, Jesus says, “Finding yourself, being happy, is not the most important thing in the world. I am.”

Jesus refuses to be just another item on a religious buffet table. We can’t take one from Column Buddha, one from Column Mohammad, one from Column Joseph Smith, and, oh, a side of Jesus. Jesus is saying that He will either have first place in our lives, or He will have no place in our lives.

I like what one Lutheran wrote on Facebook this past week about the God Who comes to us in Jesus: "God does not offer us a choice. He comes, not hat in hand, but ready for battle. He breaks into the strong man’s house [that is, He breaks into our wills, held captive by sin from the moment of our conceptions] entering into contention against the heart, soul & mind of the [sinner]. The rational free will of [human beings] cannot believe or accept this & as such God always ...appears as the opposite, contrary to our expectations, confounding appeals to choice." Where does Jesus and His Word found in the Bible fall on your list priorities in life? Is Jesus everything or nothing to you?

 Read verse 28 now [Jesus is still speaking]: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” One scholar writing about these words, says: “The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule [I would add, even death] in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.” That person Who calls us to a different way of life is Jesus. Discipleship then, means breaking with the world’s values, radically turning from what is popular or politically correct to follow Jesus and the Word of God alone.

After this, Jesus tells two parables, each meant to urge those considering following Him to count the cost involved. In one, Jesus says that farmers, who in first century Judea where He lived, often built towers to give themselves early warning about marauding thieves or wild animals, would be crazy not to figure out whether they could afford the structures before starting to build them. Similarly, Jesus says, a king who didn’t know about the strength of an opposing army would be foolish to start a war with that army. Again, Jesus wants us to know that following Him isn’t easy.

Then, in verse 33, as if to totally turn off His original listeners (and us), Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I don’t think that Jesus means that we all have to sign the deeds to our houses over to the Church. It’s one thing to read the Scriptures for their literal meaning, which I do, and quite another to read them literalistically. If you read the Bible cover to cover, which I hope every Christian will do more than once in their lifetimes, you’ll read about believers in Israel’s God and followers of Jesus who had a lot and others who had very little. They all belonged to God. The only person I can recall who was told by Jesus to sell everything he owned, give it away, and follow Him, was a rich young man who, Jesus saw, valued his wealth more than anything. Jesus knew that unless this young man got rid of his wealth, it would get in the way of his following Jesus. Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor are the things Jesus mentions in today's lesson: parents, siblings, spouses, children, or life itself. All are gifts from God. A literal, if not a literalistic reading of the Bible will tell us that if we value any of God’s gifts more than we do Jesus, we cannot be His disciples.

Now, if these words of Jesus for this morning are as daunting—almost frightening—to you as they are to me, as we close, I want you to consider some important good news.

Three times in our lesson, Jesus uses the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Look, it's in verses 26, 27, and 33. In the original Greek, the same words are used in each place, giving the verses this literal meaning, “You don’t have the power or ability to be my disciples unless you put me in first place, take up the cross, and give me access to your whole life.”

Martin Luther said that if we want to understand passages of Scripture that confuse us, the best thing to do is to go elsewhere in Scripture to clear things up. It might interest you to know that Jesus uses that word for power or ability in another place in Luke’s Gospel. It comes on the heels of His encounter with that rich young man, after Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for a rich person—someone who is more tempted than others to rely on their money rather than on God—to enter God’s kingdom than it would be for a camel to be pushed through the eye of a needle. The disciples, who had thought that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, ask Jesus, “Then, who does have the power or ability to get into the kingdom?” Jesus says, literally, “The things that human beings cannot do [or don’t have the ability to do], God can do.”

Folks, I can’t imagine why anyone who gets to know anything about Jesus wouldn’t want to follow Him. Those who follow Jesus have all the gifts He came into our world to bring: forgiveness of sin, lives lived for good purposes, strength when we’re weak, and eternity with God. But unless Jesus rules over our lives without rival, these gifts cannot come to us.

The good news is that your ability to follow Jesus doesn’t depend on you. If you want Jesus to take first place in your life, all you need is to make yourself available to Him and ask Him to help you do just that. This is what Luther called “daily repentance and renewal.” Today, as you come to receive Jesus’ body and blood, I invite you to say a silent prayer:
“Jesus, help me to be what I most want to be, but what I cannot be without You. Make me your disciple. Help me to live in the covenant of Baptism You’ve made with me. Take control of my whole life.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, one nanosecond after you’ve prayed that prayer, you’ll start making your own plans, dreaming your own dreams, obsessing on your own thoughts, maybe even committing your own favorite sins. Just keep asking Jesus to take first place in your life.

But, just as the buyer should beware, the would-be follower of Jesus should be aware, too: Let Jesus in and He will start to make of you what cannot make of yourself. Jesus will make you His disciple.