Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Being Church (Part 3, The Disciple's Life)

[This was shared this evening during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

John 13:34-35
Matthew 28:19-20
You hear people say it all the time: “I don’t need to be part of a church to be a Christian.” People say this because they don’t like...
  • the messy business of being in relationship with others, 
  • being accountable to others, or 
  • being committed to working at making relationships grow. 
But when they say this to me, I don’t go into all of that. I simply tell them that while it may be theoretically possible to be a Christian without Christ’s Church, the Bible knows of no such possibility.

When Jesus and the New Testament writers speak of discipleship, the life of faith, it’s never as a solo proposition.

Even if, as Jesus says, we may have to choose Him over family members and friends, He does not call us to a “Jesus and me” relationship. Jesus calls us to a "Jesus and us" relationship. Jesus always calls us to be part of His body, the Church. He calls His disciples to be the Church.

Being the Church doesn’t mean that we’re part of a pack of automatons who think alike and never disagree. The New Testament has many examples of how the early Christians argued and disagreed with each other, even while Jesus lived and walked among them.

Remember how Jesus once caught the twelve apostles arguing over who among them was the greatest? (I can't imagine being caught having an argument over who's the greatest by Jesus!)

Or how James and John ticked off the other apostles by asking for special places in Jesus’ kingdom?

And how, after Jesus had dies, risen, and ascended into heaven, the Greek-speaking Christians and the Jewish Christians got into a dispute over whether one set of widows was being better treated than another?

Or how Paul and Barnabas split up their ministry team when Paul wouldn’t agree to take along a young pastor Barnabas wanted to take who Paul thought was unreliable?

And who can forget Paul reminiscing about a long-previously-resolved argument that he’d had with Peter? “When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch,” Paul remembered, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (Galatians 2:11) (Way to let go of things, Paul!) While the two did resolve their dispute, there’s no record of Paul saying that later, he and Peter sang Kumbaya together.

When Jesus established His eternal salvation community, the Church, He fully anticipated that His people would sometimes disagree or even disappoint each other.

If the Church is Christ’s designated means for turning imperfect sinners into sanctified saints, you can bet that those people who, while on this earth, are simultaneously saints and sinners, will sometimes rub each other the wrong way.

That’s OK. That’s how we grow. “As iron sharpens iron,” Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “so one person sharpens another.”

Do you know what you call a couple or a family in which there is never disagreement? Dysfunctional.

The absence of disagreement in a church or the absence of a capacity to deal with disagreement in a healthy way indicates not that the people of a church love each other, but that they don’t care about the common life to which they have been called by the Holy Spirit. Who do you get angriest with: people you don't know or people you love?

A couple that refuses to deal healthfully with disagreements in their marriage demonstrates that they really don’t care about their marriage or each other.

The life of a disciple is other-minded. Within the fellowship of the Church, Christ seeks to set us free from all obsessions with ourselves--our desires, our will, our fears, our pride--to focus entirely on the God we know in Christ and His will for our lives and on others.

And so, Ephesians 4:6 urges Christian disciples, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…”(ESV)

Love, the love of God appropriated through daily reflection on God’s Word, daily prayer, and daily application of God’s Word to our lives, is the way to healthfully work out potential conflicts and to do the will of God. 1 John 4:20 puts it bluntly and truthfully: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

The bottom line is this: The Church, with its imperfect members and its imperfect pastors, is the indispensable means by which Christ brings His perfect, eternal kingdom to the world.

The Church is the people of God in and for the world who, through the power of God’s Word, the power of God’s Spirit, and the power of the Sacraments, are enabled to live for more than themselves to live:
  • for God, 
  • for sister and brother in Christ, 
  • for the spiritually disconnected of the world. 
The only way to be disciples is to be the Church.

This is why the words of Jesus that we read a few moments ago are so important. They give us our marching orders as disciples and as the Church.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus gives a new commandment, new because in it, He doesn’t just command Christians to love others as we love ourselves. He says that our love for the sisters and brothers who make up the Church should go way beyond that low standard. Look at what Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We are to love our fellow Christians the way Christ loved us: with suffering, self-sacrifice, and commitment.

But Jesus is clear that our fellowship as Christian disciples is not to be a closed circle.

Our love shouldn’t be confined to those who like us or we find companionable. (As Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? [Matthew 5:46]) And by the way, how companionable do you think the apostle Paul was sometimes? Or Martin Luther?

Our love shouldn’t be confined to the fellowship of the Church. Jesus says that our love must incorporate those who aren’t yet His disciples. Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Disciples, members of Christ’s body, the Church, refuse to withhold the gospel of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ from the world. Pastor Rick Warren memorably says that the church that cares nothing about making disciples is really telling the world to go to hell. May we never be that church!

If being the Church sounds daunting, good. It is. One day, by the grace of God, I hope to learn this truth.

Being part of Christ’s Church isn’t like being a member of the local wholesale club in which you pay your dues to derive benefits.

It’s not like joining the National Geographic Society where all you do is send them some money and get twelve months of glossy pictures from around the world.

To be the Church is to be a community of disciples called to a way of life that is impossible apart from the God we know in Jesus Christ: a life of love for God, fellow disciples, and the world, come what may.

Just as it’s impossible for a couple to fulfill their marriage vows apart from the help of the God we know in Jesus, it is equally impossible for us to be Christians without the grace of God we receive in Jesus.

To live this impossible life together, Christ has given us means of grace: repentance, the Word of God read, pondered, shared, savored with others, and proclaimed, and the Sacraments. And He's given us something else. Do you know what it is? He's given us one another. He's given us each other. Christ has given us His Church.

To be disciples, we must be the Church. More next week.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, March 04, 2018

What's Most Important to Jesus

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

John 2:13-22
Imagine for just a moment that you’re the parent of a young family. You’ve spent a rare evening out with your husband or wife. It’s about midnight. As you get closer to your house, you hear sirens. Then, you see flashing lights. A block from your home, you see that your cul de sac has been blocked off by emergency vehicles. Terrified, you pull your car off to the side of the road and run toward your house. Within seconds, you see that your house is engulfed in flames, destroyed. But you don’t care about that. When a second later, you see your kids huddled with the babysitter and some neighbors, you fall on your children with tearful embraces.

The house is just a building. What matters is the people inside it.

In today’s gospel lesson, John 2:13-22, we see that God feels the same way.

Let’s take a look at the lesson: “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”

That last line quotes Psalm 69:9. On the face of it, the verse would seem to say that Jesus is protective of the temple, like the member of one of my previous parishes who was upset that I wasn’t upset when people brought coffee to worship.

In fact, Jesus is upset by the extortionists preying on the faith of those who have traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the temple. Many of these pious Jews came from long distances, many for the only time in their lives. It was impractical for them to bring sheep or pigeons from Spain or Italy or Egypt, or wherever they lived. So, once they got to the temple in Jerusalem, they exchanged their gold or local currencies for temple cash, the only stuff they could use to buy animals for sacrifice there.

Jesus didn’t like it that people who came to worship God were gouged for the privilege! It would be like Living Water charging admission to people who came to worship God on Sunday mornings. It was out of zeal for His fellow Jews, the household of God, that Jesus became angry.

And this is important to note. Jesus’ zealous ire is aroused against those who would stand between God and people who need God.

This reminds me of something Jesus said when His disciples tried to keep children away from Him: “Let the little children come to me [Jesus said], and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14)

Listen: The only thing that seems to ever have made Jesus angry was when someone--be it the Pharisees, the religious authorities, the devil, the demons--got in the way of people who wanted to know God.

That’s because for the God we know in Jesus, nothing is as important as people.

All people.

Including you and me.

Jesus’ fellow Jews who made up the temple leadership were upset by what Jesus did. He was cutting into their revenue, disrupting their routine! So, they ask Jesus in verse 18 of our gospel lesson: “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus proves His authority with these words: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (v.19)

“I’m going to give an evil, cynical world a sign of my authority,” Jesus is saying. “My Body is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, as is the body of every person who confesses faith in Me (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if you cut this body down, if you kill Me, I will be raised again on the third day.”

The sign of Jesus’ authority is His resurrection.

It isn’t just the sign that He had the authority to throw the money-changers out of the temple, though.

It’s the sign too that He has authority over all that keeps people made in the image of God from experiencing life with God.

Jesus has authority over the sin that blackens your conscience, the public disclosure of which would mortify you, the sin that makes you sick to remember.

Jesus has authority over death.

He has authority over your heartaches and sadness.

He has authority over your deepest regrets and your most earnest desires.

Because of His resurrection, Jesus can erase the power of sin, death, heartaches, and disappointments over your life.

Because of His resurrection, Jesus can give life--abundant, never-ending life with God--to all who dare to daily turn from their sin and daily trust in Him.

But is it true? Did the resurrection, this sign of Jesus’ authority over everything in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18) really happen?

An Israeli scholar, rabbi, historian, and diplomat of the last century wondered the same thing: Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

This scholar, Pinchas Lapide, set out to learn the truth. Lapide looked at the witness of the early church--of Peter, who had spinelessly denied knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest; of the other apostles who had run away from trouble when Jesus was executed; of the 500 or so early Christians who had made themselves scarce on the first Good Friday.

He saw how these same once-gutless people, after they’d received the gift of the Holy Spirit, had staked their lives on proclaiming that Jesus was risen from the dead.

He considered how a rational scholar like Paul, a hard-headed businessman like Peter, and all the other first followers of Jesus Christ faced death and persecution and refused to renounce what they knew to be true: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, true God and true man, crucified, dead, and buried, was also risen from the dead and now seated at the right hand of the Father, offering new and eternal life to all who believe in Him.

Lapide looked at how the resurrection had changed these people’s lives and said that the resurrection of Jesus must be true.

As He put it: “I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event." We can accept that too!

The resurrection of Jesus is the sure and certain sign of what Jesus bore witness to on that day in the temple: People, people made in the image of God, people lovingly formed in their mothers’ wombs, people for whom Jesus died on the cross, people, all people, including you and me, are what matters most to God.

It is people--your friends, your enemies, your family, your neighbors, YOU--that Jesus came to this world came to save, to gift new life, to know God for eternity.

And it is this resurrection that Jesus came to share with you and me if we will follow Him, day in and day out.

As Jesus promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” (John 11:25)

Houses and skyscrapers will crumble.

Empires and fortunes will be lost.

But the God we know in the risen Jesus and all who trust in Him will live forever.

It is on this fundamental truth--and nothing else--that we baptized believers in Jesus are called to live our lives.

May we always do just that. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]