Monday, May 02, 2011

Do We Believe It?

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

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 116
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
Last Sunday, we considered Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and asked the question, “But did it happen?” We looked at some of the evidence presented in Matthew’s account of the first Easter Sunday. That evidence, it seems to me, supports what we Christians say about Jesus: “He is risen, risen indeed!” This Sunday we come to another question: Do we believe it?

Do we believe that Jesus, sinless God in the flesh, rose from the dead? That isn’t just a question of fact. Many believe it’s true that Jesus rose from the dead. But they aren’t believers.

A friend of ours wanted her brother and his family to get involved in a church, knowing what a difference her own church had made in the lives of her husband, children, and herself and how in a bad news world, involvement in the church helps us hold on tight to the Good News about Jesus.

But she was frustrated by her brother's response. “Look,” he told her, “John 3:16 says that whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. I believe in Jesus. I believe He rose from the dead. Why do I have to mess with the Church?”

I suppose all of us wonder about that sometimes. But our friend’s brother was confusing two different meanings of the term, “believe.”

One meaning of belief is to simply accept the facts of a case. Even Satan believes that Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus rose from the dead; that doesn’t mean he’s in the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t make him a believer.

When the Bible and the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds use the words, “We believe…” or “I believe…,” much more is meant than just, “These are the facts.”

For the Christian, to believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is to say:
  • We entrust all our lives, all our past sins, all our present fortunes, all our future, into the hands of one person alone. 
  • We don’t entrust our lives to ourselves, our efforts, or our understanding. 
  • We don’t entrust our lives to our country, our political philosophy, our families, or our ways of life. 
  • We entrust ourselves to the God revealed in Jesus Christ alone. 
  • We trust that Jesus alone can bring us into the presence of God, that the risen Jesus alone can bring us forgiveness of sin, that the risen Jesus alone will one day make our dead bones rise to new life in the eternal presence of our God. 
  • And we trust that Christ instituted the Church to help us believe in Him even as the devil, the world, and our sinful selves strive to drive us away from Christ. 
Do you believe this?

1 Corinthians 12, verse 3, says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord—in other words, confess that Jesus is the ultimate authority over our lives and over the universe itself—unless the Holy Spirit empowers us to believe it. Belief in Jesus, is a gift, something we can’t manufacture.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion tried to talk himself into courage. It didn’t work. Nor can we talk ourselves into believing in the risen Jesus.

But we can decide to be open to the gift of faith. This is true of all gifts, when you think about it. A gift is offered, but we must decide whether to take it.

When Ann and I were engaged, her stepfather offered a bucket of golf balls to me. I had no need of golf balls and, probably from pride, didn’t want to be seen as grasping for his charity. I told him, politely, “No, thanks.” He raged at me for “looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

People can look the gift of faith “in the mouth,” too, refusing it, just as our friend’s brother did. It’s part of the gracious, loving nature of God that He will not force us to entrust ourselves to Him. And though it breaks His heart, God lets us say, “No” to Him, giving us the final say over whether we live with Him or live in hell.

This has always been true. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to say no to Him and the life He offered. They misused that freedom, submerging the whole universe (and you and me) into the bondage to sin from which we cannot free ourselves. (A bondage from which Jesus alone can free us.)

To Abraham and Sarah, God gave the freedom to trust in His promises of a son and a nation of descendants. Sometimes they trusted in God. Sometimes they didn’t. When they decided to trust God, even when adversity struck, they lived in the calming, empowering certainty of God’s presence. When they decided not to trust God, chaos inevitably broke out.

Through Read the Bible in a Year, we’ve seen that this same story played out in the history of God’s people after God freed them from slavery in Egypt; it’s because Israel decided with depressing frequency to walk away from God that what should have been an eleven day journey in the wilderness took God's half-believing chosen people forty years to complete!

Every day, we have a choice, a decision. We must choose whether to be open to the gift of an ever-deepening faith that the God we meet in the risen Jesus offers us or to close our wills to Him, ignore the clear teachings of Scripture and go our own ways. Do we truly believe in the God Who raised Jesus from the dead?

In the Old Testament, Joshua, the man God chose to replace Moses as leader of the Israelites, confronts the people with a decision. “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua told them, "...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

That is the decision that each of us must make: Whether to believe, trust, and serve the one and only God of the universe or not.

Each of our Bible lessons for today address this reality.

In the first lesson, part of Peter’s Pentecost sermon delivered ten days after the risen Jesus had returned to heaven, Peter confronts his fellow Jews with the truth that Jesus, according to the plan of God laid out in the Old Testament, though sinless, had died for the sins of all and had risen from the dead, an event he, along with 500 of his fellow Jesus-Followers, could vouch for. His sermon was a challenge for them to decide whether they would believe that the God of promise had fulfilled the promise of new life for all who believe in their time. “Do you believe it?” Peter asked.

Psalm 16, from Old Testament times, challenged the people to believe that those who ran after other gods or ways of life were led only to trouble, but that those who trust in God are never abandoned. “Do you believe it?” the Psalmist asked.

Peter, in our second lesson, writing to Christians in Asia Minor and other locations—people who faced daily persecution for their belief in the risen Jesus—challenged them to make the decision to trust that their faithfulness would result in “indescribable and glorious joy” when Jesus returned to bring an end to the life of this world and fully establish the new heaven and new earth of which all Christians will be citizens. Peter asked again: “Do you believe it?”

Our Gospel lesson ends with what I call John the Evangelist’s mission statement—the reason why he wrote the Gospel and really, the whole reason the Church and individual, ordinary Christians like you and me tell the world about the risen Jesus. Take a look at John 20:30-31:
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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 his name. 
“Here is the evidence for the new life with God that only comes to those who believe in the risen Jesus,” John is saying. “Do you believe it?”

Do we believe it? How we answer this question day-in and day-out is important not just for our lives beyond the grave. It’s important today.

On February 25, a dear friend of Ann’s and mine died. Ron Claussen was the pastor of a neighboring parish when we arrived at our first call in northwest Ohio in 1984. Later, Ron became a member of the congregation I served, Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona.

But to describe Ron simply as a neighboring pastor or a parishioner doesn’t quite give you the right idea of who he was for so many people, including my family. Ron was, quite simply, one of the greatest people and greatest Christians I have ever known. He was certainly the finest pastor I ever met. Everything about him, including his wonderful sense of humor, displayed the risen Jesus Christ. When someone was hurting, no matter the time of day or night, Ron was there. I loved him more than I ever was able to tell him!

But there’s more to Ron’s story. In the 1950s, during his teen years in Nebraska, Ron was among the last people to be afflicted with polio, just before the first polio vaccines came out. Polio, for the benefit of you young people, is a horrible virus that, without the vaccines we now take for granted, can bring about total or partial paralysis and can cause bones and muscle to shrivel and atrophy. Polio can do other horrible things to the body of someone who suffers from it. That Ron contracted polio when he did was a horribly, tragic occurrence that would impact the rest of Ron’s life. Its effects would have destroyed or embittered many people. But it did neither to Ron. I spent many hours with Ron, but I never once heard him complain about his circumstances. He radiated the certainty that can come to those who follow Jesus!

The reason for this is simple: Each and every day of his life, Ron made a decision to trust in Jesus and to live for Him alone. You see, when we decide to open ourselves to the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, the joy and hope of eternity inevitably spills over our everyday lives. We know that already we have what Peter describes as “the outcome of…faith, the salvation of [our] souls.”

Deciding to let God build faith in the risen Jesus within us helps us face each day with confidence, joy, and hope.

We know that with Christ by your side, even when the world turns against us, we will prevail.

We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We know that we can love as we’ve been loved, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, be as patient with others as God is with us.

Through Jesus, you can can know that God is with you always and that, one day, God will welcome you into eternity with Him.

Do you believe all of this?

Then live it! Amen!

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