Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Absolutely Nothing"

Ikea's a cool place. But I agree with John Schroeder that, contrary to a piece written by another blogger, the Swedish retailer, whose goal is to get us to consume what they're selling, has absolutely nothing to teach the Church.

Many retailers claim to live by the mantra, "The customer is always right." And so, lots of them, from Ikea to Apple, Walmart to Disney, try to give us positive experiences characterized by customer service and faux friendliness. ("Have a magical day," the cast members at Disney are taught to say.) There's nothing wrong with any of that as a business model, I guess.

But the Church, as John points out, is in a very different business. We invite people not to consume, but to be consumed by the love, grace, and power of God. We invite people to accept the idea that God is always right and that we need Jesus Christ to be made right with God and with ourselves.

Great retailers strive to make customers feel important. So do successful politicians, show business impresarios, and others. By contrast, the message of the Church is that we are important not because we give money or votes to those who feed our egos, we're important because God gave His life for us on the cross. He did this because we're so wonderful, but because we're deficient, sinners in need of forgiveness and re-creation.

The message of retailers appeal to our egos and our desire for mastery. The message of the Church is that life, lasting, resilient, joyful life, begins and continues in accepting that we are, in ourselves, incomplete, sinful, and dead, in need of the God of the cross.

No wonder then that the message of the Church daily scandalizes even those who call themselves Christian, even those who earnestly desire Christ, while Ikea only offends us on those rare occasions when one of the pieces of the table we just bought turns out to be missing.

It's too easy for the Church to embrace Ikea as a template. Ikea will never call us to submit to the death of the old self so that a new self, a self purged of sin and made whole by forgiving grace, can rise to newness of life each day. Ikea just wants to help the old self feel comfortable in its sin and self-delusion and self-absorption. The only way to really experience the Gospel message of the Church is to realize, in the worlds of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

Ikea is nice. I love going there. But it's no model for the life of the Church. Nothing else is because, unlike Ikea, Starbucks, the Pentagon, or the United Nations, only the Church, the fellowship of believers in Christ who submit to the death of their sin so that they can have the new life only Jesus Christ gives, will last for eternity. Christ is the Church's business model and absolutely nothing else will do.

Friday, May 24, 2013

How Can You Believe in Jesus Christ?

There are people who want to believe in Jesus Christ, but find it difficult to do so.

The fact is that none of us can ever know the truth about Jesus Christ, God made flesh, the Savior Who came to die and rise and offer everlasting life to all who believe in Him, until we dare to experience Him.

The great Norwegian Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby, in his book Why I Am a Christian, gives us five things that we can do to experience Jesus.

First, read the New Testament. Contrary to some of the psuedo-scholarship referred to in the novel, The DaVinci Code, the New Testament is accurate in its portrayal of Jesus inspired by God that has withstood the challenge and scrutiny of many skeptics. By reading the New Testament, you will get to know Jesus. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand. Instead, savor and apply what you do understand.

Next, Hallesby suggests, that we begin to pray. Talk with God honestly about your doubts, fears, hopes, and joys. Make yourself vulnerable to God and open to His guidance.

Third, while praying, should make an honest inventory of yourself , asking God to show you what you need to do to live life as He designed it to be lived. You will find God orchestrating events, encounters, and thought processes in your life that will move you increasingly into Christ's orbit and give you greater confidence about the faith you desire to have.

Fourth, participate in Holy Communion when it’s offered. We Lutheran Christians, for example, believe that in the bread and wine, Jesus offers Himself body and blood and embodies His forgiving love to us. In Communion, God takes on flesh and lives among us again. How that works, I don't know. Holy Communion is a deep mystery. I only know that, in ways I cannot explain, it works: it connects me intimately to Jesus, connects me to His eternal Church, and brings me the forgiveness of my sins, among other blessings.

Even if we don't understand how the bread and wine of Holy Communion are also Jesus' body and blood, we have His word on it. In recalling the night when Jesus first instituted Holy Communion, the apostle Paul writes:
...the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
Notice Jesus' use of the verb is. For Jesus, there is no question as to what the definition of the word is is. Nor should there be for us, even if we can't understand or explain it: When we receive the bread and wine of the Sacrament, we also receive Christ's body and blood in an intimate act of sharing by God that is one of the greatest blessings a human being can enjoy!

Finally, Hallesby says, we should fellowship with people who are wholeheartedly convinced that Jesus is the real deal, the Word, the Savior Who lights our ways.

The nineteenth century English preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked to explain why so many people flocked to his church on Sunday mornings to hear him preach the Gospel. Spurgeon said that he spent the week setting himself on fire with the Word of God and people came on Sundays to watch him burn. When we spend time in the fellowship of believers in Christ, our faith will be ignited.

When we allow ourselves to experience Jesus Christ, He will light our way through even the darkest of passages of life, enabling us to cope and inspiring us to love our neighbors--even those across the ocean--so that they too can be given light in their darkness and hope for their futures.

The Joy and Resolve We Get in This Life From the Life to Come

Please read today's installment of Our Daily Bread. It's built around nine verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews' eleventh chapter, sometimes referred to as the "faith hall of fame."

It reminds us that Christians are citizens of a better country. Knowing this helps us see what happens in this life in a realistic way: The world and its "rewards" are of less interest to believers, yet we can care about this world and stand with Christ and for what is right without fear, knowing that we belong to God for eternity!

Death, whether the death of our old ambitions that clash with the will of God or our physical death, is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

Far worse a fate for a Christian than death would be for us to cling to the favor, success, ease, or even physical life that this world offers and lose out on eternity with God because of our failure to faithfully follow Jesus wherever He leads!

This is what Jesus is talking about when He asks, "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" (Matthew 16:26)

It's what Paul was talking about when he looked back on the prestige, honor, and ease he had given up to follow Christ and looked ahead to the virtual certainty of martyrdom for believing in Jesus and said:
...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
Of course, this kind of joyful faith cannot come to those for whom the Bible is nothing but fairy tales or the invention of human beings.

A colleague recently reminded a group of us about this key issue recently. "The crisis in the Church today," she told us, "is that people need to decide where they are on the historicity of the Gospel."

By that, she meant that we have to decide if we truly believe the New Testament's proclamation of Jesus or not.

A willingness to believe that Jesus is Who Scripture claims He is--God and human born of a virgin, the Savior of the world, the only means of reconciliation between God and humanity, crucified, risen, ascended, and alive today--is the only way that a saving faith, a faith that rolls with the punches, and a faith that looks with confidence to eternity, can come to us.

Christians who believe, in the words of an old hymn, "I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home," have an enduring faith that cannot be stopped or overcome by a disbelieving world!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How the Holy Spirit Gives Life Today

From Pastor Eric J. Brown's Pentecost sermon this past Sunday:
The key thing, the important thing, that which the Holy Spirit has continued to do through all the ages since that first Pentecost is that the Gospel of Christ Jesus is proclaimed.  This is what the Spirit does – He points to Christ, for it is in Christ Jesus that we have life and forgiveness and salvation, and there is no other name under heaven or earth by which we are to be saved.  That is how the Spirit is the giver of Life – He gives out Christ Jesus and Christ’s life.
Read the whole thing.

So Much Church Fund-Raising is Legalism Mocking Grace

John Schroeder:
Somehow I cannot help but think that if we concentrated on producing mature Christians the money thing would take care of itself.
Read the whole thing.

'8 Ways Writing a Novel is Like Becoming a Parent'

Ali Luke, a novelist who has recently become a parent, writes an interesting post that all novelist (or would-be novelists), parents (or would-be parents), and everyone else is likely to appreciate.

Monday, May 20, 2013

'I Can't Get Started' Made Us Wish Things Wouldn't End

Last fall, the Emerald City Orchestra, a phenomenal community ensemble led by my dear friend and high school chum, Tom Carr, had a very special concert featuring two professional musicians who were at West High School in Columbus in our era, singer Vicki McDermitt and trumpeter Ed Morrison. My brother-in-law, Ken Neff, is also a trumpeter in this ensemble.

'I Can't Get Started,' as originally recorded by Tony Bennett and Doc Severinsen, was covered by the group and served as the encore that left us wanting more!

There were two performances on two successive nights. The night Ann and I attended, we saw many of our classmates and, as always, it was like a family reunion!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How God's Peace Comes to Us

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio during the 10:15 service today.]

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost already was an important day on the Jewish calendar when the day we Christians often call the first Pentecost happened.

For Jews, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. While Passover celebrated ancient Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the law, the ten commandments, by God through Moses to Israel (and all the world) at Mount Sinai.

That may seem strange to us. We don’t like laws. They hem us in, keep us from doing what we want to do, control us. And some human laws can be unjust and oppressive.

But ancient Israel saw God’s Law, the ten commandments and the moral laws that stemmed from them, as good things, as blessings that sketched out the boundaries of what they called shalom, a place of peace with God and neighbor. So the ancient Israelites sang songs about God’s Law! “Oh, how I love Your law!” Psalm 119:97 says, for example, “It is my meditation all day long.” (1)

But God's people had a problem. They loved God’s law. They couldn’t keep it.

If following God’s law was like staying on a paved road, disobeying it was like falling into a ditch of muddy water. And like kids who have just taken a bath, Israel loved heading for the ditches of sin: the ditch of idolatry, the ditch of materialism, the ditch of wanting to fit in with others and ignore the will of God, the ditch of adultery and fornication, the ditch of false witness and character assassination, the ditch of self will, the ditch of thievery and false business and political dealings.

Through the centuries, God sent prophets to call the people out of the ditches and onto the road of God’s laws and commands. But Israel was like one of its first-century AD sons, the apostle Paul, who confesses in Romans 7: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members [that is, in my very self] another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive [the law of sin]...”

Human beings are born captives to sin, death, and the devil. The Bible says that because of our captivity, there’s only one fate we deserve: “The wages of sin is death”  (Romans 6:23).

Life in the ditches leads inevitably to separation from God, separation from life. Yet, we can’t help ourselves. We’re born ditch-seekers. Some of us like some ditches better than others. But from the moment we’re born, we’re like lemmings programmed by the sin we inherit from our parents to head for the mud, to do the very sin we hate! We can hear and know God’s law and even delight in it. But we cannot keep it.

Our only hope is the Gospel, the good news. Now, the Gospel can’t be reduced to a concept or a happy feeling, though some people try. “The Gospel,” they say, “is about God’s love. God is love. Love. Love. Love. Everything’s cool.”

In fact, the Gospel springs from a particular true story. It’s the true story of how God took on flesh in a particular human life. It’s the true story of Jesus, born of a virgin so that He would not inherit the sin that the rest of the human family inherits from our parents; Who was the perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world; Who rose from the dead and offers the benefits of His sacrifice--new life--to all who believe in Him as their God and Savior.

The Gospel is about Jesus Christ, Who came to replace the evil kingdom of sin and the dying kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God for all who repent and believe in Him.

The new kingdom that Jesus died and rose to bring into being isn’t opposed to the law God gave through Moses. In fact, in some ways, Jesus makes God’s Law even more demanding than we remember it from Catechism class.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus says, “You have heard it said...‘You shall not murder’...But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus is saying that it’s not enough to simply obey the letter of God’s law. He cuts to the spirit of the law, which would, if we were capable of keeping it, create the kingdom of peace with God and peace with neighbor that Jesus had to come to earth to bring.

So, Jesus says to anyone who thinks that His death and resurrection are a free pass, a letter of indulgence, allowing human beings to heedlessly and unrepentantly do whatever we want no matter how disobedient or contemptuous of the will of God it may be, that they are wrong.

“Do not think,” Jesus says in Matthew 5, “that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Our situation would be hopeless were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ, the One Who delivers this stern message, has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He has obeyed the law. Perfectly.

Jesus has kept the law and so, by His innocent death for us, has conquered the law and its stern verdict against every one of us!

Romans 8:1-4 tells us this:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 
Think of that: We who are “in Christ Jesus,” we who quit trusting in ourselves and who trust instead, in Jesus Christ, who let God crucify our sinful selves and our sinful desires day by day, are no longer condemned for our failure to keep the law!

Those who are saved by God’s grace through their faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ are pulled out of the ditch of sin and death and set on the narrow way of life, the way that follows Jesus.

We are rescued from the kingdom of death and the kingdoms of this world and we become part of the eternal kingdom of heaven. It’s something we celebrate and praise God for here at Saint Matthew every Sunday!

For a Christian to use the phrase penned by Saint John in 1 John 4:8--”God is love”--is to mean something very specific. It means that the God Who is horrified by my sin and Who knows that sin is an eternal death sentence, loves me--loves you--so much that He threw out a lifeline which, if we will grasp hold of it in faith, will pull us out of the ditch and mire of sin and lift us into His kingdom.

That lifeline is Jesus.

He says:
For God so loved the world [including you and me] that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
Jesus is the lifeline! 

All of which brings us back to Pentecost.

The first chapter of Acts shows us that the first Christians experienced how Jesus’ grace can change people’s relationships with God and with each other. Jesus forgave them for abandoning Him and denying Him on the night of His betrayal. Through the crucified and risen Jesus and their faith in Him, God pulled them from the ditches of shame and guilt. They were right with God and learning what it meant to live in the kingdom of heaven.

But their minds, like ours, were still fogged by sin. So they ask, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?”

Jesus tells them they need to pray, to quit striving and start surrendering. Then, the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the power that created the universe, would come to them. That’s exactly what happened on the Pentecost of our second lesson.

Like the first disciples, all who believe and are baptized receive the Holy Spirit. But, you may have noticed something: The world is a ditch and it’s so easy to wallow in it sins. This side of our own resurrections, we will never be completely free of sin.

And, acting in our own strength or on our own impulses, we can make things worse. We too often let the distance grow between Jesus, our lifeline and rescuer, and us, in our everyday lives. We become strangers to the One Who died and rose for us.

That’s why we confess our sin and affirm our faith again each time we receive Christ’s body and blood.

That’s why Martin Luther taught Christians to live in daily repentance and renewal. That’s the kind of life I hope and pray you’ll live, Kirsten, as you begin life as an adult Christian today.

As we submit our lives to the control and grace of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit can empower us to live differently. “...[T]he fruit of the Spirit,” the Bible says, “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [that means patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” The Holy Spirit can help us experience the life of the kingdom of heaven, the life of shalom, of peace with God, peace with others, peace with others.

The Pentecost crowd must have wondered how this kind of peace could come to them. So do we. How can we know peace in the midst of chaos? How can we have serenity in the midst of this world’s uncertainties?

Peter knew the answer to those questions, not because he was perfect or arrogant or intelligent. Peter knew the way to peace because like the other first followers of Jesus, he had seen it revealed, heard its voice, received bread and wine from its hand, touched the hem of its garment, saw it crucified and resurrected. Peter knew the one way to the peace for which we long.

In Acts 2:21, the last verse in our lesson, he shares it with the crowd. Quoting from an Old Testament passage that used the word Yawheh, I AM, God’s Name given to Mose the lawgiver and which we translate in our Bibles as LORD, Peter commended to the crowd the One he and his fellow disciples had come to call, “Lord." He commended the Lord Jesus to them. Peter told the crowd, “...whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Today, this week, the Holy Spirit can empower you to live each day in the assurance that, no matter how crazy, conflicted, or even horrible and tragic the world may be, as you submit your sins, your hopes, your decisions, your family, your whole life to Jesus Christ, you are saved, again and again...from sin, from death, and from the devil. You are saved from the gossip that tears you down, from the fears that haunt you, from the temptations that allure you.

Jesus Christ is in heaven at the Father’s right hand. But if you believe in Him and call His Name, you are not and you never will be alone.

The Holy Spirit has come to let you know that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord Jesus--when you call  on the Name of the Lord Jesus--you are saved, safe forever in the arms of God, empowered forever to leave the ditch behind and walk as freed, redeemed, and forever loved children of God. Amen!

(1) The book, Lutheran Slogans: Uses and Abuses by Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson, provides a great discussion of the places of Law and Promise in a Biblical understanding of the Gospel. The conversation on chapter 5 of this book, conducted by my colleagues in the Association of Confessional Lutherans of Ohio this past week, was timely and helpful for the preparation of this sermon!