Saturday, May 12, 2018

Heeding Christ's Call, Turning from Racism

Two events that have taken place over the past several days have disturbed me a lot.
2. An African-American graduate student at Yale University was the subject of a call to Yale police. Her wrongdoing? She had fallen asleep in a commons area. To their credit, Yale police said it was not a police matter.
In both matters, two women were minding their own business but were deemed suspicious because they are black.
In America.
In 2018.
As to the first situation, I will be turning 65 later this year. I identify with the woman and so, find the treatment to which she was subjected deeply disturbing.
As to the second matter: Personally, when I was a student at Ohio State who commuted daily from my home on the west side of Columbus to campus, I often dozed off in the student union between classes. Nobody ever filed a complaint about me. Of course, among the other reasons why this was probably the case is that I am white.
The Yale case is disturbing in that the truly guilty party, the student who called the police, clearly acted out of racial fear. Another term for racial fear would be racism. This sin exists among us and within us to an extent that we white folks find hard to admit. But cases like these two are rooted in racism and no amount of denial can change that fact.
Racism is a sin and its existence has a continuing horrible effect in America on those who are its victims, as well as a devastating eternal impact on those who act upon it, refusing to repent or change. When we yield to racism, when we excuse it, we put our immortal souls at risk.
We must all change. This fatal disease of racism must be exorcised from each of us.
This is especially urgent for those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We follow a Savior, God-enfleshed, Jesus, who saves us from sin and death, not because of our virtue, but in spite of our sin. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. And, all my neighbors, whatever the tones of their skin, are, like me, made in the image of God. So, those of us who trust in Christ are particularly called to turn from the sin of racism and to call our sisters and brothers in Christ to do the same.
God tells us: “... if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
I don’t know about you, but I pray for healing in this land. And I know it starts with me repenting, trusting in Christ, and then, in the power of the Holy Spirit, loving all my neighbors, fighting for justice for each.

Monday, May 07, 2018

God has no favorites!

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during both worship services on May 6.]

Acts 10:34-48

We’re considering church lessons, lessons for we disciples of Jesus Christ taken from the book of Acts. Today we come to Church Lesson #5: God has no favorites

This comes to us from some of the first words in today’s first Bible lesson, Acts 10:34-48, spoken by the apostle Peter: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…”

Another way to express this insight is put on the lips of Papa, the character who represents God the Father in the novel, The Shack. Repeatedly, Papa says of people, “I’m especially fond of…” whoever it might be. In time we learn that Papa is “especially fond” of everyone, every one of us, no exceptions. God shows no favoritism. He loves all people equally.

Sometimes, I think that this is the hardest of all lessons for we who make up Christ’s Church to learn.

We can be like the older son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son came home, you’ll remember, he did so intending to beg his father, who he had treated disrespectfully, for nothing more than a job as a hired hand. But the father instead threw a party for him. The older son wasn’t happy. “...All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:29-30)

We can fall into the same kind of thinking, deluding ourselves with the idea that we deserve more of God’s grace and forgiveness than others and that some people deserve nothing from God. But we are sinners saved only by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. As disciples of Jesus, we are not less than others; neither are we more.

We need to remember that we follow a Savior Who told a murderous thug being crucified next to Jesus confessed his sin and confessed his faith in Jesus and was told by the Lord, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Sometimes, we forget that God has no favorites, not even us. And sometimes, we forget that Scripture teaches us that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but live forever with God.

God loved the world: Not just us or our family or our congregation or our posse or the people we like at our church or our country or our race. God loved and God loves the world. The apostle Peter is reminded of this truth in today’s lesson from Acts.

Before we look at this important passage, a bit of background. Remember, in a verse mentioned last week, the crucified and risen Jesus’ parting words to the Church before He ascended to heaven were: “ will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Up through Acts 10, where today’s lesson appears, we see the Holy Spirit setting out to prompt the Church to fulfill the first three aspects of this mission. Starting in Jerusalem, the center of Judean religious and political life, out into all of Judea, then to neighboring Samaria, the message of new life for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus and His death and resurrection for sinners, the Holy Spirit empowered the Church’s proclamation of Jesus. 

In chapter 10, the Gospel reaches “the world,” in a city not terribly far from Jerusalem, Caesarea. But Caesarea, named for the Roman rulers, was an outpost of the Roman world, the world beyond the normal experience of those Jews who were the first Christians. There, a Roman official, Cornelius, and his family come to faith in Jesus. Peter saw this, which is where today’s lesson starts.

Verse 34: “Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” 

By “does what is right,” Peter doesn’t mean religious or charitable acts meant to earn salvation. If we could earn our salvation by being good people, Jesus would not have had to die for your sins and mine. Anyone who thinks they can be saved by the good they think they do is pouring contempt on what Jesus has already done for us. Jesus tells us what doing right is in John 6:29: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent [to believe in Jesus, to surrender daily to Jesus].”

As if to make sure that Cornelius and his family understand just what they’re signing up for by confessing faith in Jesus and to convince the Jewish Christians who were with him (and maybe to reassure himself that it was OK for him as a Jew to share Jesus with these Gentiles), Peter then lists seven actions God took through Jesus to bring new life to all who believe in Jesus. 

God, Peter said: 
(1) had Jesus proclaim the message of peace with God for those who we believe in Jesus;  
(2) anointed Jesus will the Holy Spirit, just as the Old Testament had foretold of the Christ, the Messiah; 
(3) remained with Jesus, just as He had always been with His called leaders;  
(4) raised Jesus from the dead, showing that because He was sinless, death could not hold Jesus and that Jesus can give life to whoever believes in Him;  
(5) chose the Church, you and me, to be witnesses for Christ;  
(6) told the Church to tell the good news of new life for all who believe in Jesus everywhere; and  
(7) made Jesus the final judge of the living and the dead. 
This, as explained by one Biblical scholar, is what Peter talked about in verses 36-43 of our lesson.

Look at what happens next, starting at verse 44: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.”

This event has often been called the Gentile Pentecost. As happened on the Pentecost that happened ten days after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven, when Jews who had believed in Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to share Christ with others, Cornelius and his family, Gentiles, were now filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaiming in all sorts of languages the good news, the gospel, about Jesus!

Peter and the Jewish believers in Jesus who were with him needed no more evidence to convince them God has no favorites. Verse 46 forward, “Then Peter said, Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’  So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” 

Ordinarily, of course, we are baptized and then we receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 19:12). But we cannot and must not limit God, even though it’s so easy for all of us to do just that when we look at the challenges and the difficulties of our lives

Whenever we find ourselves trying to limit what God can do, we should remember the words of God to Moses when Moses was doubting God would accomplish what He set out to do, “Is the LORD's arm too short?” (Numbers 11:23) (Or, as another translation renders the passage, “Has my arm lost its power?” [New Living Translation]). 

On that day in Caesarea, in response to the good news of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit filled people who had come to believe. No wonder Peter said in essence, “I’ve seen enough evidence from God. Baptize them all right now!”

So, what does this all have to with you and me? Just this: God never gives up on us; it would be a sin for us to give up on anyone just because they’re different from us

Everyone in this world is as loved by God and as in need of Jesus as you and I are. 

We dare not write anyone off. We dare not stop praying for every possible opportunity to share Christ with the people in our lives so that they too can walk with God in this world and the next.

Besides, our judgments about the hopelessness of people are not infallible. When our son Philip was in seminary, he spent about a year working with ex-cons and recovering addicts who would show up at an inner-city Columbus church. On the last night he spent with these men, Philip told them, “You know, when I first started working here, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got so much to teach these guys.’ But tonight, I want you to know that I have learned much more about Jesus and His grace from you than I have ever taught. Thank you.”

Listen: Your world (our world) is filled with Corneliuses for whom Jesus suffered, bled, died, rose, and ascended, filled with Corneliuses who, whether they know it or not, are looking for someone to save them from their sin, from themselves, from death. And if you don't know any Corneliuses in your life right now, find them, befriend them, love them, tell them about Jesus. 

They need someone willing to tell them and show them how God has acted to save them and to give them life with God, right now, right in the midst of this imperfect world. They’re looking for someone who can show them and tell them the truth: God has no favorites and every child of God is one of whom He is especially fond. Will you be the person who lets others know that? Amen

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