Saturday, April 20, 2019

Spoiler Alert

Still true!

Holy Saturday: Come, Lord Jesus

Imagine the grief of Jesus' disciples on the first Holy Saturday. 

Not only had they lost their leader and friend, they also lost their version of the Kingdom of God. They thought that Jesus had come to give them worldly ease and vindication. That, rather than surrender, repentance, and trust in Christ as the way of restoration and new life, is what they thought the kingdom of God was. They saw themselves as basically good people who deserved the help of the good God they met in Jesus. Jesus insists that all of us who descend from the first human beings are born in sin and in need of His salvation (Psalm 51:5; John 14:6). Repentance and faith in Christ are the means by which the kingdom of God comes to us, not through the assertion of coercive power or the passage of so-called godly laws.

The first disciples didn't understand, as we often don't, that our greatest enemies aren't other people. Our enemies are our sin, our death, and our darkness. Jesus had to conquer these enemies by offering His sinless life as a sacrifice for us in order to conquer them.

On the first Holy Saturday, the first disciples too, were filled with fear, certain that now that the world had killed their leader, it would kill them. Of course, the world would and still does kill people for following Jesus. We are all part of a human race that shares the ambition that drove Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the desire to "be like God." To "be like God" or to "be our own bosses," we're prone to push the God we know in Jesus out of our lives or put Him on the margins as a good luck charm we can pull out when we're finding it hard to get what we want. Our impulse like that of the renters of the vineyard in Jesus' parable who said of their master's son, "This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours (Luke 20:14)." We want to wear our own crowns.

But Jesus won the crown. He has the "name above all names." This happened when He died for the whole human race. Jesus is the only way to God, to life with God, to membership in His kingdom in which we are made right with God, with ourselves, with others. At least that's what Jesus claims: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)."

On this Holy Saturday, on the other side of Easter, the day when Jesus rose from the dead, we know all of that. We know the truth of His promise: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die (John 11:25-26)."

But even now, we wait. In a world still reeling under sin, death, and darkness, we wait for the final consummation, when the risen, ascended Jesus returns and brings His kingdom finally, fully into being.

Until then, we can know that we are part of this kingdom of grace and love as we daily turn from sin and trust in Christ as our King, God, and All.

And we can pray with all believers of every time and place, "Come, Lord Jesus." He will answer that prayer any time we offer it.

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday: Jesus Comes to Us

[This message was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Luke 22:7-20
Maundy is the Old English word for command. On the Thursday when Jesus was arrested before His crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus gave His Church a new command: that we love our fellow disciples with the same commitment, passion, and sacrifice that He lived out in His suffering and crucifixion

Of the four gospel writers, only John mentions this commandment. But John doesn’t mention what, for the other three--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--is central to this night, the institution of Holy Communion. Are the evangelists--three on one side, one on the other--contradicting one another?

Not at all! John’s entire account of Jesus’ earthly ministry is framed by a consciousness of the centrality of the two sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, to the Christian life. And so, John tells us that Jesus’ ministry begins at Cana when He turns water into wine and His ministry ends when, dead on the cross, a Roman soldier pierces His side and sees water and blood emerge from the wound. 

The Christian life is composed of receiving new life as an act of grace through Jesus at our baptisms and continuing to receive new life and the forgiveness of our sins as Jesus gives Himself again in Holy Communion. John doesn’t denigrate Holy Communion; he elevates it.

Similarly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by their accounts of Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion don’t denigrate or ignore Jesus’ new commandment. On the contrary, when we receive the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion, we are immersed again in the saving love of Jesus. In, with, and under the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus enter us, and as we receive Him by faith, He imparts the power to love our fellow disciples as He loves us. 

So, there is no contradiction among the four gospels about Maundy Thursday, just different perspectives, each reinforcing and underscoring the other.

The gospel of Luke’s account of the first Maundy Thursday and the institution of Holy Communion is our focus tonight. I want to look at just the last seven verses of the lesson, Luke 22:14-20. 

Verse 14: “When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’”

The feast of Unleavened Bread was kicked off by Passover, the annual celebration of God’s ancient people, the Jews, of God’s deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. On the first Passover, the eldest of captive Israel’s children and livestock were spared when the angel of death sent by God passed over because their families smeared the blood of a lamb without blemish on their doorposts. 

On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus is showing us that He is about to accomplish something even more miraculous and spectacular: The power of sin and death will pass over and not harm those washed clean of the blemish of sin in Holy Baptism and who are covered in the power of His life-giving blood when they trustingly receive Holy Communion

This is what Jesus anticipates as He sits with His disciples at this last Passover.

Verse 17: “After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’”

Those of you who were able to attend the Jews for Jesus presentation on Christ in the Passover, will recall that four cups are part of the Passover meal or Seder. The Seder celebrates God’s old covenant or old testament with Israel. Scholars are unclear as to which of the four Passover cups Jesus is sharing in verses 17 and 18. In the end, I don’t think it matters much. The more important thing is that from this old meal commemorating the old covenant, Jesus institutes a new covenant by which all people, Jews and Gentiles, may be saved from death for all eternity

In Jesus, Israel’s historic mission of being God’s light of salvation and new life to the nations if fulfilled. A new or renewed Israel comes into being, believing Gentiles grafted into one body with believing Jews. Because God has now shown up in our world in Jesus--the Word made flesh--all people are called to trust in Jesus for life with God. 

As the apostle Peter said of the risen Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) In a sense, the cup that Jesus shares with the disciples before instituting Holy Communion is the last act of the old covenant.

Verse 19: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

A good rule of thumb when interpreting Scripture is that, unless symbolic or poetic imagery is intended, the Word says precisely what it seems to be saying. That’s true of Jesus’ words here, the words of institution. Jesus does not say, as He shares the bread, “This represents my body” or “This symbolizes my body.” Instead, Jesus makes a simple, declarative sentence, “This is my body.” The same happens with the wine: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” As I’ve said before, Jesus knows precisely what the meaning of is is. Through the power of His Word spoken over the elements, the bread and the wine are also His body and His blood. 

Jesus gives Himself to us! The simple elements of the two sacraments--water, bread, wine--are God’s saving Word, the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus, touching our bodies, our tongues, our bloodstreams, just as surely as the read Word enters us through our eyes and the proclaimed Word enters us through our ears. 

Holy Communion is Christ entering into us, destroying the cancer of sin and raising us up to life with Him!

This means too that when Jesus says that we’re to receive His body “in remembrance” of Him, it doesn’t mean that receiving Holy Communion is a tour through musty history. Jesus means that when we receive this sacrament with faith that He always tells us the truth, we are re-membered to Him and to His people, reconnected to Christ and the eternal Church of every time and every place, on earth and in heaven

We feast with Abraham as he received the bread and wine from Melchizedek. 

We feast with departed loved ones who, heaving trusted in Christ, today enjoy the messianic banquet with Jesus in eternity. 

We feast with every believer in the world, from Amir, the Iranian I met and talked with for forty-five minutes at Aldi’s the other day, who left Islam and came to faith in Jesus back in 2005, to Miriam, Daniel, and Francoise, Jews who trust in Jesus for their salvation, who we met last week. 

We feast with the members of the black churches in Alabama that were recently destroyed by a racist arsonist. 

We are re-membered to Christ and to each other and eternity invades are sin-darkened, time-bound world. 

Holy Communion is a miracle wrought by Jesus by which He lets us have and savor a foretaste of the feast that He has in store for all His people

In Holy Communion, heaven comes to earth.

When I was a boy, my parents liked to start our vacations at night based on the mistaken idea that we five kids would fall asleep on the way and dad could drive in peace. That never happened, of course. We always had a big meal before we left home and, since there were no snacks in the car, would only eat when we stopped along the way for a meal. I guess you could say that, through those pre-vacation meals, we were fortified for the journey. 

For the baptized believer in Jesus, life on this earth is a journey. First Peter tells us that we’re foreigners in a strange land. But along the way, God fortifies us with the living bread from heaven, Jesus.

Tonight, we enter a different journey, one that Christians have historically called the Easter Triduum, the Three Days--Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. It’s a journey through Christ’s betrayal, His death and burial, and finally His resurrection. 

For the first disciples, the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection was a long, grief-filled journey, the way our lives in this world can sometimes be. Their lives weren't perfect or easy even after they came to know that Jesus is risen from the dead.

So, how powerfully loving it was of Jesus to fortify those first disciples for all of their journeys and to fortify us for our own journeys through our own Good Fridays until we reach the believer's final destination, that Easter when we will one day, beyond the gates of death, awaken in His presence. Jesus does that by giving us not just a memory, but Himself, His body and blood in this sacrament, bread and life for our journey

Receive this sacrament again tonight and always, friends, with gratitude and faith and awe, remembering that in it, Jesus is coming to you again. Forgiveness is coming to you again. Life is coming to you again. Amen

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Following Jesus by Living in His Grace

[These are reflections from my morning quiet time with God today.] 

Look: “Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (Matthew 8:21)

When Luke recounts this incident, he says that it’s “a man” who asks Jesus to allow him to bury his father before following Jesus. But Matthew tells us that this man is a “disciple.”

A disciple, a mathetes in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, is a follower, a student of the way of life that Jesus reveals.

This man then is more than just a “man” Jesus encounters. This is someone who supposedly already believes in and is following Jesus, a part of Christ’s Church, the body of Christ, like me. Yet, he wants to delay following Jesus.

Listen: People may find Jesus’ response to the man off-putting. Matthew says: “But Jesus told him, Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22)

Burial customs in first-century Judea were the same as those practiced in modern, secular Israel and among Arabs. The body was buried as soon as possible, within a day. The man is asking Jesus to wait while he takes charge of burying his father.

It is possible for us to follow Jesus without going to other towns, countries, or peoples. While the apostle Paul carried the gospel to Turkey and Greece, for example, people like James stayed at home to carry the gospel to their own people. Mark 5:18-19 says that a man begged Jesus to allow him to travel on with Jesus after Jesus had healed him, but Jesus refused his request. “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) The man was to evangelize his own community and people. That was what following Jesus meant for him.

I’ve had several people from Living Water tell me that they feel almost guilty for not going on an annual mission trip to Haiti in which a few of our folks participate. When I ask them if they feel guilty because they believe that God has called them go to Haiti, their perspective usually changes. “No,” they say. “That’s not what I feel God calls me to do.” “Then you shouldn’t feel guilty,” I tell them. The Christian’s call is to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us.

Apparently, the man Jesus encounters in Matthew 8:21, unlike those Living Water folks who have honestly wrestled with God’s call in their lives, is making excuses. Jesus refuses to accept excuses. And, in this instance, He seems to know that this disciple must be taken from his familiar surroundings in order to be broken open to true discipleship, to truly following Jesus.

Respond: Even disciples make excuses for not doing what Jesus is calling them to do.

I know that I do and I ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name, Lord.

And sometimes, “disciples” who seem faithful may only be making a big show of the sacrifices they’re making to “follow” Jesus. I suspect that this is exactly what the disciple in Matthew 8:21 is being called out for by Jesus. “Disciples” like this may not be following Jesus at all.

Jesus once mentioned people who loved to say long prayers in public in order to be seen as pious. Those people got the reward they were seeking, Jesus said: the attention and commendation of people, the popular perception that these attention-hogs were actually faithful worshipers of God. The only reward a Christian seeks is Jesus Himself. Like Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, mentioned in the gospel of Luke, our call is to daily choose the one thing that’s needed, Jesus Himself.

To follow Jesus means to quit trying to prove myself, to live in the reality that I am saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus alone. It’s then that He gives me the freedom to follow wherever He leads, near or far, and simply be in His presence.

Lord Jesus, today, help me to live in the freedom of Your grace. Amen

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

Monday, April 15, 2019

The King We Need (AUDIO)

Yesterday's Palm Sunday message from Living Water Lutheran Church: HERE.

Even When Steeples Are Falling

The fire that swept through Notre Dame Cathedral is, according to a reporter interviewed by NPR this afternoon, the heartbreaking culmination of years of neglect toward one of Europe's great architectural landmarks. The above picture, by Getty Images, is from The New York Times' coverage of the event.

This evening, I keep thinking of the first three stanzas of an old hymn:

Built on a Rock the Church shall stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling--
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

Not in our temples made with hands
God, the Almighty, is dwelling;
High in the heav'ns His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He Who dwells in heav'n above
Deigns to abide with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

We are God's house of living stones,
Built for His own habitation;
He fills our hearts, His humble thrones, 
Granting us life and salvation.
Were two or three to seek His face,
He in their midst would show His grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing...

Jesus is the Rock on Whom the Church is built.

And the Church isn't buildings, though buildings can be places where the Church meets for worship, prayer, praise, and the deputization of the Holy Spirit to spread the good news that all who repent and believe in Jesus as their God and Savior have life with God that never ends.

The Church is God's people, the body of Christ, living stones built into the Cornerstone, Jesus, once rejected by the world, Who died for the sins of all humanity and rose to open the way to eternity with God for all who trust in Him.

The Church always faces setbacks. But even when steeples are falling, the Church continues to call people to the life that only Jesus Christ can give. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).”

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The King We Need

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

John 12:12-19
In many churches, in recognition of the fact that many Christians don’t attend Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, this day is designated not as Palm Sunday but as The Sunday of the Passion, a Sunday that remembers Christ’s suffering and death for us. I prefer to give Palm Sunday its due as a separate day with its own significance. 

Besides, if you’re interested in remembering Christ’s passion--His suffering and death--there is a whiff of His crucifixion and death amid the celebrations of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday isn’t all sweetness and light. Don't let the crowds who shouted in adulation fool you about that!

To set the stage for what happens in today’s gospel lesson, which gives us John’s take on the first Palm Sunday, it’s important to remember what comes just before this event. In John 11, Jesus raises His friend Lazarus from the dead, the seventh and final sign John records Jesus performing.

This should have alerted people to who Jesus is. But even miracles from God can be doubted or arouse controversy. In John 11:45, we’re told that some who had witnessed Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life ran off to tell the Pharisees what had happened. The Pharisees aren’t happy, but alarmed. John 11:46 says that, along with the chief priests, they called a meeting of Judea’s religious leadership. They’re all more fearful of their Roman overlords than they are of the God Who is meeting them in Jesus. “If we let [Jesus] go on like this,” they tell each other, “everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (They gave little evident thought to the fact that a Messiah Who can bring people back from the dead might be able to provide them with ultimate protection from an enemy who, at best, could only kill them once.)

In John 11:49-50, Caiaphas, the high priest for the year, upbraids the rest of the leaders for worrying. The solution, he says, is simple: a way must be found to kill Jesus. “You know nothing at all!" he tells the others. "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” In the next verse, John tells us that Caiaphas was the one who didn’t know anything: “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them [Jews and Gentiles] together and make them one.”

So, as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, there’s a plot to kill Him. The plotters, Judea’s religious cream of the crop, are clueless about the the fact that, Jesus, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world,” is going to the holy city with the intention, according to God’s plan, of sacrificing Himself on the cross in order to save the world from more than death in this world. He’s going to die and rise to save all who entrust themselves to Him from sin and from the more lasting and horrible death of eternal separation from God. Jesus could well have said to these leaders what He later told the Roman governor, Pilate, in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” 

Ultimately, it would be neither Jewish leaders nor crowds nor the Romans who would take Jesus’ life. In Luke 23:46, we’re told “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Jesus died at precisely the moment when God had decided He would die. The leaders didn’t know it, but they were doing the will of God against their wills.

In our lives, we often think that we’re in control. But, whether we perceive it or not, God is still in charge. We may endure tragedies and heartbreaks, as the folks down South whose lives were upended by tornadoes yesterday, but God is bound to ultimately bring His good out of bad. God will use Good Fridays to bring Easters for those who place their hope in Him alone! In fact, in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther shows us that Good Fridays and Easters are the prevailing pattern of the disciple's life. The life of daily repentance and renewal it commends is nothing other than the daily crucifixion of self so that Christ can give us the forgiveness that brings new life in Him.

Good Friday and Easter loom in the background as Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem at the beginning of our gospel lesson. Please go to it, John 12:12-19.

Verses 12-13: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival [the festival is Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ [meaning Save or rescue us, Savior] ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’”

The words and the palm branches used to welcome Jesus help us to understand that while the people see Jesus as a king, they want Him to be an earthly king who uses military might to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Among God's people, palm branches were associated with the welcome given to military conquerors. 

Jesus is the King--the Messiah, Lord of heaven and earth. But He doesn’t conquer by force of arms, by mob rule, or by using a democratic vote. Jesus’ authority isn’t derived “from the consent of the governed.” As Jesus told the Roman governor Pilate after He was arrested: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Instead He conquers by a servant love that dies for us. And the enemies He conquers are the common enemies that live in every human soul: sin, death, darkness.

Jesus won’t be our king on our terms. We can’t come to Jesus and say, as some people do, “Jesus, I’ll follow You if You do so and so.” Jesus becomes our Lord only when we entrust ourselves to Him, allowing Him to crucify our sinful selves so that our new selves, remade in Christ’s image, can rise.

Verses 14 to 16: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’ At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.”

Jesus isn’t shy about claiming His kingship. He says in John 10:30, "I and the Father are one." And just as foretold in the messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to claim His kingdom on a donkey. God's people generally didn't like horses. Horses were the engines that moved the chariots used by armies that had threatened and conquered them for generations. By contrast, donkeys were seen as noble mounts worthy for a king.

Despite the prophecy and the symbolism though, not even Jesus’ closest followers understood Jesus at this moment. 

We shouldn't be too hard on them. Even today, I find Jesus' ways and will difficult to understand. There have been times in my years of following Jesus when it has seemed to me that Jesus has blocked from my life the very things that I thought would bring me happiness. Only in heaven will we more fully understand Jesus and His mysterious ways. 

But anyone, Christian or not, who tries to understand Jesus apart from His death and resurrection or apart from His call to follow Him because He is the way to life with God, they are missing the point

On the first Palm Sunday, some may have understood, though most didn’t, that in meeting Jesus, they were facing God in the flesh. Ignorant or not, they all disregarded His signs and the substance of His teaching, refusing Jesus’ call to follow Him through death to eternal life.

Verses 17-18: “Now the crowd that was with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”

Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was seen as an interesting use of power. The crowds hailed Jesus as king because of a sign, not because of what the sign pointed to.Jesus had power; now the people hoped to draft Jesus as king to do their bidding. 

But within days, another Jerusalem crowd would demand Jesus’ execution

People can turn on God when they don’t like the way He does His job as Lord of the universe. A woman I knew years ago became bitter with God because, her mother, in her late eighties, died after long years of illness. “I’m mad at God for taking my mom from me,” she said. I wanted to ask the woman if she would like it if her mother, a believer now free from suffering and in the presence of God, would be brought back to this earthly life by God just to make her happy. I bit my tongue. But it’s questions like these we need to ask ourselves when God disappoints us.

In the midst of the Palm Sunday joys and celebrations, our gospel lesson ends on an ominous note: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’”

Jesus is seen as a threat by the Pharisees. And, in truth, Jesus is a threat to us whenever the things valued by this world--security, wealth, health, family--become more important to us than welcoming Jesus to rule over our lives. Only Jesus and not the world can bring us peace with God, the presence of God with us through all the times of this life, and life with God now and in eternity. The call of Palm Sunday is to trust in Jesus, letting Him forgive us our sins, letting Him guard us from separation from God, and letting Him give us everlasting life with God.

I look forward to being with you on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, so that, once again, we can celebrate Jesus not as the king we want when sin has its way with us, but as the King we need when we let Him reign over us. 

As we immerse ourselves deeply into the story of Christ's death and resurrection this Holy Week and remember how Christ did all of this for sinful human beings like you and me, God can incite us to sing the old Lenten hymn with a deeper sense of awe and gratitude and faith: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." Amen

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