Monday, June 03, 2019

The Way

[This message was shared earlier today during the funeral of Norma, a member of the congregation I serve as pastor.]

John 14:1-6
JD, Tom, Dan, Ed, Susan, and family, God’s blessings of peace, comfort, and hope be with each of you today and always.

When Susan texted me last Tuesday night to say that Norma had passed away, a passage of Scripture crossed my mind, Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants.” I thought of how the lives and the deaths of all of God’s people are important to God. 

And later, as we prayed and spent time together in Norma’s room at Bethany, another passage struck me, this one from the apostle Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Norma could say the same thing.

Over the past nearly six years, I have gotten to know something of Norma: her love for her family, her essential sweetness, her orneriness, and her laugh. Her personality shone through in many ways to the end. I enjoyed visiting with her and JD, first in their home, later at Bethany. 

Over the past few days, the family has given me a more detailed picture of Norma. They’ve told me how, as JD put it, “she jumped into motherhood” and later, jumped into grandmotherhood, buying a grandma shirt as soon as she knew a grandchild was on the way. How she was an accomplished seamstress, making both Barbie clothes and later a prom dress for her daughter. How she participated in the needlework ministry at Epiphany. How she loved to travel. 

I also learned how much she loved you, JD, telling Susan after her diagnosis, “You need to take care of your dad.” I observed, JD, how well you took care of Norma, displaying an unflappable love that was an inspiration. 

I have also learned how this entire family is knitted together in a love that allows for a lot of humor and gentle ribbing, sure signs of a strong family. 

And, in Norma, and the rest of the family, I have seen a faith in Jesus that cherishes every opportunity to hear God’s Word and to receive Christ’s body and blood. 

You should know that you are in the prayers of our congregation and in mine as well.

There are some people who labor under the false impression that Christians shouldn’t grieve. In fact, there’s a sense in which it’s probable that Christians grieve more deeply than other people. When the passionate, empathetic love of God given to us in Jesus enters our lives, it opens our hearts to more deeply love other people, including our family members. 

When Jesus visited the gravesite of His friend Lazarus, we’re told that He wept. Whether His tears were from grief for Lazarus or grief for Lazarus’ family and local friends, or some of both, when we consider that Jesus, God the Son, could feel sadness, it should show us that the grief of losing loved ones is both deeply human and deeply divine. 

But it is true that, as Paul writes in another place in the New Testament, followers of Jesus are enabled to “not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Believers in Jesus do have hope and it’s of this that I want to remind you this morning. Jesus talks about this in the verses from John we read just a moment ago, John 14:1-6.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking with His followers, His disciples, shortly before His arrest. The disciples have a sense of foreboding. They’re sure that the powers of religion and state will array against Jesus. 

They were right to feel this way. In fact, even though Jesus had warned them that in Jerusalem, He would be tortured and executed, then rise from the dead, that His purpose for being on the earth would only be fulfilled if He did these things, the disciples never seemed to fully understand what He was saying! They were always trying to find a way out for Jesus. He insisted that the way of the cross was the only way He could bear the sins of the world and destroy the power of sin and death over the lives of those who dare to trust in Him.

Into the sadness and grief of His disciples Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” 

This is an incredible promise! Jesus has prepared a place in God’s house for all who believe in Him.

He goes on to say, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” 

True to form, the one we call doubting Thomas, who Jesus, when you look at the Greek in which the New Testament was written, actually described as unbelieving Thomas, says He has no idea the way that Jesus is going and asks how they could possibly know about it.

Jesus makes things clear when He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the days to come, I hope that your grief will be lightened not only by the happy memories of a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, family member, and friend. And not only by the comfort of knowing Norma is now strong and whole and living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. But also by this: That Jesus is your way to life with God, comfort from God, hope from God today; your way to the place that Jesus has prepared for you as you entrust your lives to Him. 

The place Jesus has prepared for you is one in which you too will live in His presence and where one day, you will be reunited with that child of God whose life we remember today. 

You will once more be with Norma. Amen

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

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Jesus Prays for His Church

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

John 17:20-26
This morning’s gospel lesson, John 17:20-26, is part of what’s often called Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In it, just before His crucifixion and resurrection, God the Son pours His heart out to God the Father. Our lesson for today contains what may be the most remarkable part of the prayer. Here's why: Jesus prays for us, for you and me. He prays for those who have received with faith the Word about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son that all who believe in Him will have life with God. In today’s lesson, Jesus asks the Father for three things for us, His Church.

The first thing that Jesus prays is that His Church will be united. Take a look at the lesson beginning at verse 20. Jesus prays: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus prays that His Church will reflect the unity that the Father and the Son have. Jesus says that when His Church is united, it proves to the world that Jesus comes from God the Father and that the Father loves His Church with the same love He bears for Jesus.

This petition of Jesus’ prayer has often been misconstrued both inside and outside of Christ’s Church. 

Within the Church, it has been used by some as an excuse to enforce institutional uniformity among church members and pastors, often in support of false teaching and evil ends

For example, the Medieval Church had a system of church indulgences by which believers were told they needed to buy or work their way out of damnation. When Martin Luther challenged this as being unbiblical, pointing out that the Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by anything we do, he was accused of breaking the unity of the Church. 

And nearly five-hundred years later, Lutheran Christians who could not accept overthrowing God’s Word as the ultimate authority over the Church’s life, were accused of breaking the unity of the Church. 

But if our unity is rooted in anything other than the God we meet in Jesus and in His Word, the Bible, we don’t have unity or even the Church, only a collection of people who may or may not like each other. Unity apart from Jesus and His Word is not what Jesus is praying for here.

Outside the Church, Jesus prayer for unity is often used as an excuse for not being part of the Church at all

“All those denominations and all those arguments among Christians in churches,” some people say. “I don’t need it.” 

Actually, we do need the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, the family of God, the only entity charged by Jesus with proclaiming the good news of new life through faith in Jesus--the gospel--to the world. No Church: no Christians. No Church; no salvation. No Church; no eternal life. The Church alone carries the Word into the world. 

And nowhere in Scripture are we told that church members don’t or won’t or shouldn't argue. Imagine someone saying of a married couple, “So and so had an argument last week. They must not really be married.” People who care about each other do sometimes argue. And as I've said before, if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant...or dead. 

In your anger do not sin,” Ephesians 4:26 tells us. Anger and disagreement are not sins. They only become sins when we use our disagreements to dehumanize others.

Jesus’ prayer continues in verse 24 of our lesson: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” Jesus prays that you and I will be with Him so that we can see the glory He has had since before the universe came into being.

Back in Old Testament times, when God’s ancient people, the Israelites, were given God’s Law, they refused to come into God’s presence. They were afraid of God’s glory, His rightness, His perfect innocence. The people of God were sure that God’s holiness would break out and destroy them if they came near to Him. Jesus is the bridge Who allows sinners to see and come into the presence of the glory of God. “No one has ever seen God,” John writes early in his gospel, “but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18) When we see Jesus, in His Word, in the sacraments, in the worship and fellowship of the Church, we see the glory of God. That’s a privilege Christ grants to His Church!

Jesus next prays for us in verses 25 and 26: “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” Here, Jesus asks that as He continues to reveal Himself and the Father to His people, that the love of God would fill us.

This love of God isn’t like the counterfeit stuff the world calls love. 

A friend of mine caused his parents no end of grief in his teenage years. He got involved in alcohol and drugs. His parents, godly people, tried everything. Nothing changed, except that he got worse. One night, he ODed and was taken to a hospital ER. When he came to, he looked up to see a family friend, a doctor and also a believer standing over him. “Joe,” the man said, “your parents have asked me to bring you into my home. I’m going to do that. But you will have to do everything I tell you to do. You will have to do counseling. You will have to work. And you will have to stay clean. Otherwise, neither your parents nor anyone else you know who cares about you can do anything to help you.” 

To some those words may seem harsh. But they were words of love, love from God. They were matched by actions, commitment, and sacrifice by the doctor who took my friend in. Joe got clean, came to believe in Jesus, and for more than thirty years now, has been a faithful pastor. Jesus prays that God’s tough, committed love for them will be seen in us so that others too can believe in Jesus and have life with God!

Earlier, I mentioned two misuses of the first petition of this section of Jesus’ high priestly prayer. But there’s a big misuse to which the whole prayer gets subjected. Well-meaning Christians look at it and think, “I’ve got to work at being united with other believers. I’ve got to work at being in Jesus so that I can see His glory. I’ve to work at being filled with Jesus’ love.” 

If you come away from worship today thinking that Jesus’ words are a work plan or a set of homework assignments for Christians wanting to be better people, it will only prove that you haven’t been paying attention

Our lesson doesn’t present a plan for personal improvement. Our lesson lets us listen in on Jesus’ pray for us

Jesus is praying that He will be seen in those who seek to follow Him.

Our call is to daily turn to Him in humility at the baptismal font, at the Communion table, and in His Word. As we turn to Jesus, it’s Jesus Who  goes to work, not us

He covers us in His grace and gives us faith in Him. 

He forgives our sins, gives us awe at His glory, fills us with His love and with Himself. 

God the Father has been answering this prayer from Jesus for believers for more than two-thousand years now. He’s answering it even now in you. 

You can trust in that. 

You can trust in Jesus. 


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