Saturday, July 02, 2011

But What is Freedom? (More Thoughts Inspired by the Fourth of July)

The sad truth is that, except possibly for the benefit of close family and friends, we human beings value freedom more than just about anything, more even than we value love. We'd a lot rather have our own way than to ever give way. It's part of our fallen human nature, inherited from Adam and Eve and all the other parents in between then and now.

Love, from the standpoint of God and the Bible, is not an emotion. It's a tough commitment to what honors God and helps others. It’s what the apostle Paul was talking about when he told the first century Christians at Philippi: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Real freedom resides in being so secure in yourself and your place in God’s kingdom that you don’t need to “look out for number one.” You know that, in Jesus Christ, in His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead, God has already looked out for you and will keep looking out for those who repent and believe in Christ, for all eternity. You have the mind of Christ and are set free, as Christ was while He was on earth, to truly live, whether you're living in a penthouse or the big house, whether you're being commended or being condemned. You have the freedom to become the person of steely love and obedience to God you were made to be.

None of us will experience this freedom in its fullness on this side of death. Personally, I admit that I do, say, and think things every day that have me turning to God to ask for forgiveness and to seek the power to live my daily prayer, “Thy will be done.”

But those who follow Jesus Christ have freedom in ways that no Declaration of Independence and no Constitution, no matter how cherished or important they may be, can ever bring.

True freedom--freedom from sin and death, freedom to live this life without fear--comes to all who trust in Jesus Christ, no matter the governmental system under which they live.  I hope that you're experiencing the freedom that comes from Jesus Christ alone on this Fourth of July weekend.

Thoughts on the Fourth

Monday is the Fourth of July, the day on which we Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, approved by the Continental Congress in 1776.

The Declaration's second paragraph contains the famous words Thomas Jefferson borrowed and reworked from John Locke and other political philosophers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Fourth is a great day to remember. But we might do well to celebrate September 17 as much as we do July 4.

In 2004, Congress established September 17 as Constitution Day. It commemorates the day in 1787 when the United States Constitution was signed. But barely a murmur will be heard about that day when it comes.

Maybe that’s because the Constitution deals with things we don’t like to talk about as much as we like to talk about freedom, things like personal responsibility and mutual accountability, things that prevent personal liberty and freedom from becoming what the Bible calls “license.” License is doing anything that may come into our heads—good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or hurtful. It's freedom without checks, balances, or concern for others.

From 1781 to 1789, this country tried to govern itself under the Articles of Confederation with freedom as its only principle. The result was a nation descending into chaos. Under the Articles, the new United States couldn’t defend itself or ensure political or economic opportunity or security for its people. That’s why the Constitution came into being. That's why it was essential.

“We the people of the United States,” the Constitution begins, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Many historians say that the Constitution completed the American Revolution. Without the responsibility and mutual accountability it imposed on the willing and the unwilling alike, the American experiment of freedom would have failed long ago. I think that’s worth at least a few fireworks.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Most Important Question

The most important question we will ever be asked to answer is one that Jesus asks in Matthew 16:15, "But who do you say that I am?"

For years, as an atheist, my answer to that question was that Jesus was a nice man. Yet when Jesus first asked it of His disciples, He spurned all answers but one. It came from a guy who often got things wrong, Simon Peter. He said: "You are the Messiah*, the Son of the living God."**

It's only when we trust that Jesus is Who He says He is--God in the flesh Who gives new, eternal life to all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Him--that we see Jesus right and reap the benefits of His death and resurrection.

Jesus says that "flesh and blood"--things like reasoning or force or tradition or a goose bump-inducing experience--cannot lead us to a confession like that made by Peter. In the end, we're incapable, on our own, of believing the great news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus. We're incapable of confessing our faith in Jesus for Who He claimed to be: the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In a bad news world, it doesn't compute.

That's why in another part of the New Testament, we're told that, "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

If you're open to believing, God can lead you to a confession like Simon Peter's...and to a new life with God that never ends.

If there's anything about Jesus you find attractive or compelling, then ask the God you're not ever certain there to help you to see Jesus as He demanded to be seen. It might change your life.

How do you answer the most important question you'll ever be asked?

*Messiah is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning Anointed One. It's the term used by Jews who were expecting God to send a king to fully establish His kingdom and set the world right. The Greek translation of the world is Christos, which in English becomes Christ

**In his language and culture, Peter's confession of Jesus as "the Son of the living God" did not mean that Jesus issued from God the Father in the way a human son issues from his mother and father. It means that Jesus is the very embodiment of God or, as the Nicene Creed puts it, "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God...not made." 

Paul was getting at what it means to call Jesus the Son of God, when he wrote in the New Testament book of Colossians, "He is the image of the invisible God..." (Colossians 1:15).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"A Small Untangling"

Pastor Russ Saltzman, who I knew briefly as I began my seminary education and he completed his at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, talks about his involvement with a new congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in Nebraska. His reflections on that experience and on the departure of some people from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that gave rise to it are interesting in themselves. The discussion in the comments is also worth reading.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now

I started reading 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper a few days ago. I read it while I'm speed-walking at night. While the writing can be a bit clunky, this true autobiographical tale about the experiences of a Texas Baptist pastor who was, by all signs, dead for ninety minutes following a horrible accident, will keep you turning the pages.

When my wife and I go any distance together by car, she drives and I read aloud to her from a book that we've chosen. Right now, I'm reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, a multi-character biography involving Abraham Lincoln and his chief rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, all of whom Lincoln brought into his cabinet. I read it myself right after it was first published. I'm enjoying sharing it with my wife now.

Back in 2006, when I first read the Goodwin book, I posted this and this about it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Keeping Your Gold Medal

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

Matthew 10:40-42
Imagine for just a second that you’ve turned on your TV to watch the opening ceremonies for the Olympics.

This is always a popular event. Athletes from around the world march into a stadium for the official starts of the games.

But imagine, for just a second, a different kind of opening ceremony this time. On the field are row after row of pedestals, all of equal height. At the appointed time, just as always, all the athletes march into the stadium. But today, all of them stand on a podium and every single one of them, before a single game, quarter, period, match, bout, round, scrimmage, or scrum has happened, receive gold medals.

Every single athlete.

Then imagine the announcer saying, “You’ve already received your medals. You don’t have to play to win them. The goal of these games is to play so that you don’t lose your reward.”

Grace, God’s undeserved favor, God’s charitable action for us to save us from sin and death and to give us life with Him for eternity, is a reward we cannot earn.

It’s a gold medal God wins for us.

The New Testament book of Romans says that “God proves his love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Before we even knew we needed a Savior, Christ died and rose for us.

Before most of us were aware of it, we were claimed by God in Baptism as His very own children.

Salvation, eternal life, the promises of Christ to be with us—all these things are ours not because of any good thing we have done, but simply because God has acted for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Life for the Christian is about keeping the prize—the reward—we’ve already been given.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew comes at the end of what scholars call Jesus’ missionary discourse. It takes up all of Matthew 10.

Jesus is sending His disciples throughout their native Judea with “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

They’re to proclaim the good news of new life that comes only through Jesus.

Most of Matthew 10 is taken up with Jesus telling the disciples how they’re to conduct themselves while on their mission. But in our verses, Jesus tells them (and all of us who follow Christ) what’s at stake for those who have the choice of receiving or rejecting the people like us who share Christ with them. Nothing less than the gold medal of God’s grace is at stake.

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts from the bulletin and turn to today’s Gospel lesson. It’s short. You can read along with me as I read it again:
[Jesus says,] “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
If the Olympic athletes in our imagined opening ceremonies don’t stand on the podium, they can’t receive the gold medal. They have to be positioned to receive the reward they don’t deserve.

The only way we can receive the gold medal of God’s grace is to position ourselves in a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.

The rewards of eternal life with God come to those with faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus famously told Nicodemus, ““For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, it’s precisely here that we Lutheran Christians often get ourselves into trouble. We turn faith into some proposition we agree to, no different from saying things like, “I believe that rainbows are pretty,” or, “I believe that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan.” In other words, we turn belief in Christ into nothing more than intellectual assent.

But, as I’ve pointed out before, even the devil believes that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Jesus says the true believers in Him will be known by their fruits. The seed of true faith in Christ won’t sprout as sinful actions, even though on this side of the grave, you and I will never shake ourselves of our inborn human orientation to sin.

Yet, as the New Testament book of James reminds us, “Faith without works [faith without evidence of the lordship of Jesus in your life] is dead.”

To believe in Jesus—to have faith in Jesus—is to trust in Him and when we trust in Jesus, it will show up in how we live our lives.

It’ll show up in the decisions we make.

It’ll show up in the service we render in His Name and in our willingness to give a witness for Him, even in something as simple and fun as our “This meal’s on us!” kindness outreach cards.

Faith in Jesus is active reliance on Him in our lives.

I once heard what this means illustrated by the picture of a canyon across which a tightrope is strung. Born sinners, we start out lives on one side of the canyon while on the other is God and the life God wants to give to us—His presence with us today and His promise of eternity for tomorrow. There’s a shuttle that crosses the canyon. It's a man on a unicyle who tells each of us, “Climb on my back. I’ve never lost a single person. Not one. But you’ve got to trust me to get you across. I’m the only way.”

Of course, in this homely illustration, Jesus is the unicyclist and faith is our dependence on Him to take us through the often scary, tragic, hard, and unknown places of our lives, beyond death and to a resurrected life with God.

When Jesus sent the disciples out in Matthew 10, they had no idea what following Him might entail. He was inviting them to climb on His back across all the canyons of life.

They found that the life to which Jesus called them wasn’t easy. Judas, of course, bugged out and betrayed Jesus before Jesus went to the cross. Of the remaining eleven, only John lived to an old age. The rest of them lost their earthly lives taking the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus into the world. They didn’t always get this discipleship thing right. But there was a direction in their lives, a purpose. Their faith was more than something they said on a Sunday morning. It was the way they lived their lives. Christ gave them the rewards of His grace before they set out on their lifelong mission of faithfulness to Christ. And by their faithful reliance on Christ, they did not lose their reward!

The same can be true for all of us, whatever our professions or social status or age.

Earlier in Matthew 10, Jesus warned the disciples that not everybody would welcome them when they lived out their faith in Him. Some would reject them. Some would persecute them. Some would kill them. Yet, He told them to persevere in their trust in Him anyway.

He tells us to do the same, even when it would be easier not to persevere in following Him.

In one of my former congregations, I was approached by a church member, a really good man, who said that he needed prayer. Competent and thorough in everything he did, he said that he’d reached a crossroads in his professional life. “Every day, Mark,” he told me, “I’m asked to do things that are shady or unethical. It’s made very clear that if I don’t do them, I not only won’t advance, I probably won’t even have a job. I’ve got a lot of years in this profession. I’ve always gotten good reviews. But I think that if I left my current position over qualms about what’s right and wrong from a faith standpoint, I wouldn’t even get a good reference. Would you pray for me?”

That man was being called by Christ to choose between the rewards offered by his career—financial security, chief among them—and the rewards of life with God already given to him at Baptism. To take Christ or kick Him away, that was his choice. That was a tough call.

If we're truly living for Christ though, we will face those kinds of tough calls often, too. Following Jesus isn’t easy. Steve Taylor, a Christian poet-musician, wrote some years back, “It’s harder to believe than not to.”

To trust in the rewards of a Savior you’ve never seen more than you trust in the rewards of things you can see, like financial security, comfort, or popularity, isn’t an easy or obvious choice. But when we come to the end of our lives and we stand before Jesus, the wisdom of living a life of holding onto the gold medal of Christ’s grace will shine through. Our Lord will look at us and say, “Well done, good and faithful slave. Inherit the kingdom God has prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We'll know for certain then that all the things we've worked and slaved for in this life die, rot, and decay; only those filled with the new life that comes from Jesus Christ will last.

Jim Elliot was a missionary who was killed by the Waodoni people in Equador to whom he had gone to share Christ. It was only years after his death that most of the people in the place where he was martyred, including people who had murdered him, came to faith in Christ. Some would say that Elliot’s death was a waste. But he wouldn’t see it that way. Elliot’s aim was always to honor the God revealed in Jesus Christ for the reward of eternal life that comes to all with faith in Christ. He knew that those who spend their lives trying to earn the rewards (and the regard) of this world are the ones wasting their lives. As he once said of his call to live for and share Christ with others, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

You can throw away Christ’s grace by failing to trust in Him to help you live for Him every day of your life.

Or you can hold onto Him.

If we will hold onto Christ and follow Him in every part of our lives, we’ll experience real purpose in our lives.

If we’ll turn back to Him for forgiveness and new life every time we become aware of our sin, He will give us a lifetime of fresh starts.

And if we will devote ourselves to truly believing in and following Jesus, we will never lose our reward.

We will never lose our gold medals. Amen