Friday, January 25, 2019

Faith: Credit Where Credit Is Due (It Ain't Me, Ma)

"...It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see." (Acts 3:16)

This verse struck me during my quiet time with God today.

I find the phrasing interesting.

Peter and John, devout Jews at the temple in Jerusalem, sometime after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, encounter a paralyzed beggar. The beggar wants money. But, after getting the man's attention, Peter tells him, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk (Acts 3:6)." And the man walked.

Understandably, this created a stir. People came running to Peter, treating him like a god. Peter is quick to correct their misimpression. He insists that it's the power of Jesus' name, the name he used to command the man to walk "and the faith that comes through him" that the paralyzed man was now was "walking and jumping, and praising God (Acts 3:8)..."

That phrase, "and the faith that comes through him" is what strikes me. What it says is that Peter takes zero credit for the faith that led him to tell the beggar to walk. In other words, Peter not only gives credit to Jesus and His powerful name in the healing, but Peter also says that even his own faith to believe that Jesus' name could accomplish the healing is God's work. This is true faith.

I think sometimes I and other Christians are tempted to take just a little credit for the good we do in Jesus' name and in the power of Jesus. We like to think that the good things we do, however small, have just a bit to do with our being faithful people. But Jesus tells Christians, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5)."

Whether it's me resisting a temptation, repenting for sin, deferring to someone else on approaching a long grocery store line, tutoring a child, caring for a neighbor or a loved one, sharing the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus, or whatever it might be that we do in Jesus' name, I can't take credit for it. It's Jesus working in me.

And this applies even to my faith. Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
If I believe in Jesus Christ, it's because the Holy Spirit, working through the Word and Sacraments entrusted to Christ's Church and to Christ's Church alone has given and is giving me faith in Christ. Peter clearly knew and gave witness to this truth.

Prayer: Father God, in the name of Jesus, get me out of the way of the Holy Spirit so that daily my faith in Christ grows and daily You use me for Your purposes. Amen

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

'Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom' (so far)

So far, three of the four installments of our series, Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom, have been presented at Living Water Lutheran Church. Here are links to those first three sermons:

Knowing Christ

Growing in Christ

Showing Christ

The links also show the video postcard we've created for the pathway to discipleship.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Even Peter, Even Me (Even You)

[This is the journal entry from my quiet time with God today.]

Look: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:7)

This is part of what the young man in white, who I presume to be an angel, told the women at Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter morning. Jesus, Who had died on the cross, was now risen from the dead and would meet His followers in the Galilee region.

But the phrasing caught my attention this morning: “tell his disciples and Peter.” When read as and, the Greek word kai, could mean several things in this sentence:

1) It could mean that, because of his denial of Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter was no longer considered a disciple. The fact that in John 21, Jesus makes a point of restoring Peter to fellowship with Him three times might be read in support of such a reading. But if Peter was being considered, at least temporarily, excommunicated, he would hardly be invited to a gathering of disciples with the risen Jesus. Besides, all of the disciples denied or betrayed Jesus in some way.

2) If read as and, kai could also be seen as singling Peter out for special mention as the designated leader of the Church that Jesus is founding. This seems to be the preferred meaning among most scholars, I think, and I have no particular quibble with it.

But this morning, a third possible interpretation hit me. That little Greek word kai can also mean even or also. What if the angel’s invitation was meant to be a word of reassurance to Peter, whose denial of Jesus had been so cowardly, so public, and so bitter to Peter himself that he wept over it?

What if the angel was saying, “tell his disciples, even Peter who feels ashamed over his denial of Jesus to meet Jesus in Galilee”? Even Peter, who denied knowing Jesus to a lowly servant girl who posed no threat to him, is invited back.

After all, Peter, who was inclined to pride and shame (two sides of the same coin), may have concluded that his sin was unforgivable. “You tell Peter that the Lord wants to see him too,” the angel may be saying.

Even if you accept the second interpretation above, it wouldn’t preclude translating kai as even, not and.

Listen: The implications for me this morning is that Jesus, just as He wanted to see Peter, even wants to see me. 

Despite the condition of sin into which I, like the rest of the human race, was born.
Despite the sins I've committed because of my fallen condition.

Despite my failings.

His grace includes me because He is good and because I, however inconsistently, by the power and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, repent and believe in Jesus and the good news His death and resurrection brings to sinners like me.

The angel seems to be telling Peter that Peter’s sense of guilt need not lead him into shame.

I’ve noticed the difference between these two things, guilt and shame.

Guilt is the prick to one’s conscience used by God to turn us back to Him when we’ve heard the good news of Jesus and realize that we've acted out of our sinful nature and sought to be our own gods.

Shame is the conclusion we draw that our sins make us beyond redemption, forgiveness, or renewal, that God is impotent to save us.

Guilt can turn us to Christ.

Shame turns us ever-inward, away from God and His grace.

I think that Peter was so inclined to self-sufficiency that after he had denied Jesus, he may have believed that he was forever damned. Peter still was putting too much faith in himself, even in his own sense of guilt. There is a subtle egotism and pride involved in refusing to be forgiven, in wallowing in shame, in refusing to allow Christ to have dominion over our sins.

But, if this is how Peter was feeling, the angel would have none of it. He tells the women at the tomb, “Tell his disciples, even Peter!”

When I pronounce absolution during worship, God wants me to remember, “These words are for you too, Mark. Yes, you’ve been a sinner again today and this week. You are a sinner, after all: Sinners sin. But you are a sinner saved by grace through faith in Christ. When you turn (repent) and trust Christ with your life, including all of your sins, you’re forgiven. The only people beyond repair are those who stop turning to My Son, who refuse it when the Holy Spirit convicts them of their sin or when the Holy Spirit convinces them of My grace. The only ones who can’t be saved are the ones who are too focused on themselves to turn to Christ.”

I’m sure that Peter felt like a failure after Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Truth is, he was. But that didn’t make him beyond Christ’s capacity to save him from himself, to give him life. In Christ, God can save, restore, renew, empower, enliven, give resurrection to anybody, even Peter, even me.

Respond: Thank You, Lord, for this reminder of Your grace. Help me today to not be afraid to own my sin and my sins before You and in Jesus’ name, see You crucify my sinful nature so that You can be about the work of making me over in Jesus’ image. I don’t deserve Your grace. But in Christ, it comes even to me. In the name of Jesus, I thank, praise, honor, and glorify You. Amen

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

Monday, January 21, 2019

Showing Christ (Part 3, 'Bearing Fruit for God's Kingdom')

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

Luke 13:6-9
Two weeks ago, we first showed the congregation what we call a “video postcard,” displaying the pathway to the destination of full maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Now, why are we making such a big deal about growing as Christ’s disciples?

In Luke 13:6-9, Jesus tells one of His parables. He says, “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Here, Jesus paints a picture of a vineyard-owner upset that one of his fig vines hasn’t grown. Impatient, the owner tells the caretaker to cut the tree down. The way he sees it, the tree is just taking up space, using water, nutrients, sun, and life that might more productively be used by a new tree that will actually produce figs. But the caretaker wants to give the fig tree more time to do what fig trees are supposed to do, to show the result of all that’s been put into it. He says that he wants to put more manure on it, water it, and dig some space around it to give it the chance to grow. If, after all of that effort, the tree won’t bear fruit, then it will be time to cut it down.

The point Jesus is making is clear. Through His Word, which we can read and hear proclaimed, as well as taste and see in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, we can know Jesus Christ and the new life that He brings to all who believe in Him; we can grow in Christ, as we mature as followers who daily die to self and rise to the new life God has in mind for us; and we can show that Christ lives in us and so, bear fruit. 

Some see the caretaker in Jesus’ parable as being Jesus Himself. Jesus shields us from the condemnation for sin and hard-heartedness that we deserve and keeps pouring His Word into our lives with one aim in mind: that Christ will so fill us that we will show Christ to the world. We will be people who live for Christ, serve in Christ’s name, share the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus. The people around us will know that we follow Jesus. That’s what it means to show Christ.

Let’s be honest, taken together, most people in the churches of North America and Europe are like the dormant fig tree in Jesus’ parable. 
Despite being able to freely receive the Word of God, the word of new and everlasting life that when embraced and trusted, fills a person with the very life of God, most church-goers are indistinguishable from the rest of the world. They’re dead stumps. They’re “go through the motion Christians.” 

And one day, such lukewarm Christians may be cut down, eternally separated from God, because they refuse to let Jesus take up residence in their lives, refuse to let the Word they repeatedly received from the crucified and risen Jesus fill them and impel them to lives of love, service, and witness to the dying world around them.

In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” But something miraculous happens to us when we let Jesus, the blazing, luminescent Author of all life, get to us, to enter into us, when we open the door and let Him into the center of our lives. 

We become lights that show others Jesus so that He can change their lives the way He’s changing ours. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15) Are we giving light to the whole house? The whole world? The whole community?

God’s grace given in Christ is not our private possession and faith is not a private matter. We’re to show it, not with arrogance, but humility; not with pride, but with love

1 Peter 2:9 tells you and me as baptized believers in Jesus, “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.In other words, God has poured all of this grace and life made available to us through faith in Jesus not just for our own personal assurance, but so that we can let others know and grow in Jesus too. That’s our purpose in life! There is no other!

This message up to this point is apt to engender two main responses. 

One is indifference. 

The other is an anxious desire to know how we can show Christ, as though showing Christ to others was an item on a holy checklist, the successful completion of which will earn us a place in eternity with God. 

Both reactions are human and understandable. And both of them are completely wrong. 

Nothing I’ve said today alters the truth that we are saved by God’s charitable grace through our faith in Jesus Christ alone. But what I am saying is that if you have been saved by Christ and your faith in Him, you will want to show others how you, although a sinner worthy of eternal condemnation, have been made a saint in God’s kingdom because of the death of Jesus on a cross and the faith in Jesus created in you by the Holy Spirit. In other words, what we should be asking is, How can we get out of God’s way so that Christ is shown through us? Here are a few thoughts on how that happens.

First: We consciously, daily invite Jesus into every part of our lives. The New Testament book of Revelation begins with the resurrected Jesus interacting with seven ancient Christian congregations, one of them Laodicea, a church filled with people indifferent to Jesus. “Here I am!” Jesus tells them. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20) We show Christ to others when we let Jesus in.

Second: We spend time in God’s Word so that Christ can take root in our lives. Psalm 1:1-2 uses the term law in the Old Testament sense, meaning God’s Word or the way of life God reveals to His people in His Word when it says, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” We need to let God’s Word go deeply into our lives each day if Christ will be shown by our lives.

Third: We worship and receive the sacrament every time we can. I’m so happy to be part of a church that offers Holy Communion every Sunday. And to be part of a church that take God’s Word so seriously. We need God and we need God’s people if we’re to bear fruit for the kingdom.

Fourth: We build listening into our prayer lives. It’s a noisy, busy world. If you can, take time to let God speak to you, to assure you of His presence and His love for you, to guide you, and to challenge you each day. Psalm 46:10 famously tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God…”

Fifth: We don't ignore what God tells us. Some people spend their lives wringing their hands, wondering what God wants them to do. But there’s really no need to wonder! God calls those who trust in Jesus to love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. This is God’s will for our lives, which Jesus expressed in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. When we’re not sure what to do in situations in our lives, Martin Luther tells us to “sin boldly,” meaning seek God’s guidance, ask wise Christian friends, and then do what we think shows God’s love or helps us share Christ with others. We can’t show Christ to others if we get mired in what’s been called “the paralysis of analysis.” Think and plan, of course. But “Do not quench the Spirit,” 1 Thessalonians 5:19 tells us. In other words, be bold about sharing Jesus in your family, among your friends, and in the world.

These are steps of faith we can take in order to get out of God’s way to show the world the Savior Jesus we want everyone to know.

At Living Water, we’re committed to creating opportunities for everyone touched by the life of this congregation to know Christ, to grow in Christ, to show Christ and so, bear fruit for God’s kingdom. This is the entire reason for our being. Let’s continue to seek to follow Christ faithfully so that together we can fulfill our purpose as a church. We conclude our series next week.

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