Saturday, September 01, 2018

May people see Christ in this lump of clay

[From my morning quiet time with God today.]

I so identify with these words from the apostle Paul to the young preacher, Timothy: 
"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

I am a sinner saved only by the grace of God given through Christ to those who trust in Christ. 
And while I will remain a sinner through my entire life, the good news is that God's grace in Christ is bigger than my sin. So big that, in this life, Christ makes saints of those who, this side of the resurrection, remain also as sinners in daily need of God's grace.
As I take refuge in Christ and my baptism in His name each day, turning from my sin and turning instead to Christ, I am covered by grace, forgiveness, and new life. 
Years ago, after I had returned to Christ following years of atheism, a friend told me, "You're different. Something's changed." It was true. Christ had changed me.
But He's not done changing me. 
He is changing me still. 
Thank God for that, because I am still so imperfect, still so inclined to follow the human default mode of selfishness, self-will, and sin.
Every day, the God revealed to all the world in Christ sends the Holy Spirit to fight on my behalf, so that I can hear God's Word of love and life and counsel and wisdom when I am tempted by sin or when I have already caved into its enticements. 
There are times, I confess, when I have turned and still turn a deaf ear to the Word and will of God.
But I have found that God always leaves the porch light on for returning prodigals, for children who know His grace and long to return. 
In fact, all we need do is respond to His call and turn and He comes running to, paraphrasing an eminent theologian, embrace us before the words of confession and repentance come from our mouths or are spoken silently in our minds. (Luke 15:11-32:…)
If people can see that Christ has saved and is still saving a wretch like me, has made me God's own dear child, has changed the ways I view God and others--through the eyes of divine love, and has both humbled and emboldened me with the promise that as He rose, I will rise, as He rules, so I, a sinner made a saint by grace, with Him...if people can see what Christ can do in the life of this imperfect lump of clay, then maybe they can see all that He can do for them. 
Although that's what I live for. 
To the God revealed in Christ alone be all the glory, honor, and praise.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Our Call, Our Privilege, Our Life ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 1)

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

She was the wealthiest person in the small community where I served as pastor. She was also on the rolls of our church, although I’d been there several months already and hadn’t met her: She was in and out of town a lot. 

Then, one day, she met Ann at a local social gathering. She told Ann that she’d like to meet me and asked if I’d be available that afternoon. It turned out that I would be and, at the appointed time, she showed up. 

She quickly told me that she was an artist (an assertion that I came to doubt that...a lot), that she really couldn’t be bothered with the Bible, that she had a bevy of former husbands, each succeeding one more wealthy than the last, and that she intended to live her life as she wished whether God liked it or not. And, she made it clear, she wasn’t sure about the whole God thing anyway.

The purpose of her visit was plain enough. She was there to get a fix on what I was like, whether this worm in a clerical collar who sat before her was going to “play ball” with her view of the church as her own private country club, whether I was willing to compromise on Biblical truth in order to ensure that she wrote big checks for the general fund. Our conversation was pleasant enough. But I’m fairly certain that I disappointed her. Now, I’m not a perfect pastor or a perfect Christian or a perfect person, but one thing was absolutely clear to me: This woman had no idea what it meant to be a member of Christ’s Church, the body of Christ.

Over the next several weeks, with Thom Rainer’s book, I Am a Church Member, as a starting point, we’ll be considering what God, in His Word, the Bible, tells us about what it means to be a church member. I need to underscore that. While we can value Rainer’s book, it’s God’s Word that we most value. The Bible is, as we Lutherans say, the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice

And, in some instances, we Lutherans have different views of what God’s Word teaches than Rainer. But we will surface those issues in coming weeks.

So, where to start in talking about being a Church member? 

The first thing to be said is that while we who make up the Church may organize ourselves in ways that can look like other organizations in the world (we may even use Robert's Rules of Order), the Church is from God, it’s God’s idea and God’s creation. The Church was instituted by Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, and the members who make up the Church are the only creatures or things that will survive the end of this dying old creation

The Church is built not on human will, human power, or human wisdom. The Church is built on the confession that Peter made when Jesus asked His apostles Who they said that He was. Peter confessed that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, God-come-to-earth. Jesus commended Peter’s confession and told him that on the rock of this confession of Jesus’ Lordship, “...I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) 

The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional statements of Lutheran Christians, picks up on Jesus’ words to say: “The Church is the congregation of saints [that is, believers in Jesus] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] are correctly administered...It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere…” (The Augsburg Confession, Article VII). 

The Church is made up of people who receive the gospel Word about Jesus and the Sacraments with faith.

But faith is more than intellectual assent

To receive the Word of new and everlasting life from the crucified and risen Jesus with faith is to live with Him, however imperfectly, however often we may need to repent and be made new. (For me, this happens at least twenty times a day!) 

Faith means more than to say, “I believe that Jesus died and rose and I occupy a spot on the membership rolls.” 

That’s the second thing to be said about the Church. It’s composed of disciples, people who daily follow Jesus and seek to honor Him.

So, what are disciples? I'm glad that you asked that question! 

Disciples are people saved by grace through faith in Christ. Their life with God in Christ is a free gift. Even their faith is a free gift. These gifts come to us when we receive the Word about Jesus and when, in the words of The Small Catechism, we “hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it” (The Small Catechism: The Third Commandment). 

Disciples are those who turn to Jesus as the only One Who can make them right with God, right with themselves, the only One Who can give them forgiveness and life eternity; like Peter, they say to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) 

Disciples are those who, like the man who came to seek help for his child told Jesus after Jesus had told him to believe, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Anyone who says they're a disciple and that they never wrestle with doubts or challenges to their belief is a liar.

Disciples are those who have heard Jesus’ call, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 16:24). Discipleship is about dying to our old selves so that our new selves, our God-given selves, can rise to live with God now and for all eternity.

Disciples are those so grateful for God’s amazing grace saving them from death and hell through faith in Jesus that they seek to live that lifestyle we talked about last Sunday: they follow Jesus, go to the world into which He sends them, and they “fish” for people, telling others the good news--the gospel--of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus.

True church members then are disciples of Jesus. I seriously doubt whether people who don’t participate in a local church or who, like the woman who came to see me in my office that day long ago, really are church members. 

The Bible teaches that you and I need the church and not just when we agree with every decision made by the congregation. 

To be a Christian is to be part of Christ’s community of faith, the Church. Why is that so? 

One reason is that we need to be in fellowship with people who rub us the wrong way. We can get off on our own hobby horses and end up far from God if we aren’t part of a Christian congregation where there are people to set us straight. “As iron sharpens iron,” Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “so one person sharpens another.” 

Another reason is that the Church is the only fellowship in the world built around the Word of God. The preacher in Hebrews told the Church: “...let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Nobody conveys the necessity of fellowship with the Church more graphically than the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-28. These verses undergird Rainer’s first chapter. Church members realize that the Church isn’t about them, their preferences, their fears, their desires; it’s about Jesus and about our neighbors and our fellow members

The Church is about: 
  • reaching up to God in worship and praise every day,
  • reaching in to love, support, and provide accountability to our fellow members, and
  • reaching out with the good news of Jesus to a dying world
Church membership then isn’t a spectator sport. Church membership is about giving of ourselves abundantly and serving in Jesus’ name without hesitation.

We don’t have time to look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-28 in depth this morning. Please read it before our Tuesday learning group, which will happen over at Christ the King at 6:30. But I want to hold up what I believe Rainer rightly points to as the four elements of being functional members of Christ’s Church given to us by Paul. 

First: “Membership means we are all necessary parts of the whole.” In describing the Church as Christ’s body, Paul drew an analogy between our physical bodies and the parts that make them up. Each part is essential for the functioning of the whole body. We need our hearts, brains, lungs, and other parts to function properly. As Bishop John and others pointed out last week in Denver, when any member of the church decides to sink down to spectator mode, we are all hurt by it; it’s like trying to function without eyes or ears, fingers or toes. 

Second: “Membership means we are different but we still work together.” Rainer cites 1 Corinthians 12:26: “...if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice.” 

Third: “Membership means that everything we say and do is based on a Biblical foundation of love.” I love what Rainer says here, “We are not to love fellow church members just because they are lovable. We are to love the unlovable as well.” I would add this. Jesus says that we are to love others as He has loved us. To see how He loves us, all we have to do is look at the cross. When I realize that Jesus went to the cross for me despite my sins, it makes it easier for me to love others. Besides, Jesus say, when we do love one another, we make the gospel real to each other and to the world around us. “By this,” Jesus tells us,  “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35) 

Fourth: “Church membership is functioning membership.” Rainer observes, “The concept of an inactive church member is an oxymoron.” Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

Folks, according to God’s Word, the Church is indispensable for the salvation of the world. 

Without the Church, billions of people will be separated from God in hell for eternity. 

According to that same Word, the Church is indispensable for our own salvation and lives. Without the Church, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves would certainly take us far away from God. 

The bottom line is this: In the Church, we need each other. 

And unless a congregation has fallen into unrepentant sin or false teaching about God, heresy, our call as church members is clear: 
We’re each to be functioning church members, grateful for the grace that has saved us, devoted to the Lord and open to His Word, devoted to each other, and excited to prompt, encourage, and challenge one another every time we gather to go into the world and make disciples for Jesus Christ
That’s our call. 

That's our privilege. 

And that's our life. Amen

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