Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Our Partnership in the Gospel

[This was shared during an Evening of Worship and Celebration with the people and pastors of the Southwest Ohio Mission District, North American Lutheran Church, on Sunday, September 8.]

Philippians 1:1-11
Tonight’s Evening of Worship and Celebration began with your district executive council reading and discussing Philippians, chapter 1. 

Things happen when God’s Word comes to us. 

Something happened at this executive council meeting. 

Saint John’s pastor, Brian McGee, suggested that we have an event to worshipfully celebrate the partnership we have as congregations of the North American Lutheran Church in southwest Ohio. 

We loved the idea! 

And, in good church fashion, the person who had the idea was delegated with executing the idea. So here we are.

We have a lot to celebrate. 

We began our life as a district, under Pastor Dan Powell’s leadership, by gathering about 90 to 100 representatives from our congregations to prayerfully discern what God was calling us to do as a district over our first few years. The results are reflected even in the line items of our district budget. 

We have an annual youth retreat for the young people of our congregations. (The next one’s happening on April 17, 18, and 19, 2020.) 

We have events to strengthen the lives of our congregations, like the retreat for all congregational church councils happening on January 11 of next year. 

We’ve had events on discipleship too. 

Your pastors get together every other month around God’s Word, sharing and praying. I feel blessed to be part of this district.

Which leads us to today and back to the first chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the first-century Christians in the Greek city of Phillippi. It was written in about 60 AD and, at the time, Paul was thought to be imprisoned in Ephesus.

In those days, government authorities who held prisoners didn’t provide food for the internees. Prisoners were locked away, unable to do anything that might bring them some money to buy food. Philippian Christians sent one of their members a distance of about 250 miles, to take money to Paul so that the apostle could eat.

And so, Paul’s letter is filled with thankfulness to the Phillippian Christians for their growing faith in Jesus and for their partnership with him and with the whole Church in the gospel.

If you have a Bible close at hand, take a look at where Paul specifically mentions that in the passage of Scripture just read to us by Pastor Hohulin. Philippians 1:3-5: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…”

The word translated here as partnership is, in the Greek language in which Paul and the other New Testament writers wrote, is κοινωνίᾳ. It’s usually translated as fellowship, which we in the Church usually use to describe get togethers over food. (Or ice cream sundaes.) 

This kind of koinonia is good for Christians to enjoy together. As King David writes in Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!” The mission of the Church--being and making disciples of Jesus Christ--is facilitated by the unity of the Church strengthened by fellowship.

But the word koinonia was originally used of business partnerships. Business partnerships happen when partners realize that they need to work together to accomplish what they can’t accomplish separately. Business partnerships entail shared risks, shared work, shared accountability, shared results, and, in really good partnerships, shared joy in fulfillment. 

It’s this aspect of our koinonia as congregations in the Southwest Ohio Mission District, this partnership in the Gospel, as well as our fellowship as fellow believers, that we’re celebrating today.

Our partnership in the gospel differs from business partnerships in three ways, I think. I want to talk about those three ways briefly now. 

The first way is that the aim of this partnership isn’t to make a profit, but to make disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is the purpose Jesus has given you and me in the Great Commission. Our partnership--our unity--in the Gospel is rooted in Christ Himself. Disciples reflect Christ and share Christ

In some church bodies today, unity is less about being united with Christ and His saving gospel than it is about unity around a set of social and political propositions. True Christian unity is built around the Gospel Word of new and everlasting life through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Period.

There are other partnerships in the world and they can be useful. But our partnership is about working together and helping one another in making disciples of Jesus. 

What God is teaching us in our North American Lutheran Church and here in southwestern Ohio is that, to make disciples, we need to be disciples, people who are being daily transformed by the Gospel Word through the reading of Scripture, hearing the Word preached, taught and shared among friends, and receiving that Word in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. 

Our partnership reflects Christ living in and among us.

The second way our partnership in the Gospel differs from other partnerships is that it’s created, not by us, but by the Holy Spirit

Faith in a crucified and risen Savior isn’t something a human being dreamed up. It’s so outrageous to imagine that the God of all creation, saddened that our sin would only bring us death and wanting to save us from ourselves, would take the dramatic step of becoming one of us, lead a sinless life, die on a cross to take the punishment for sin we deserve, and rise from the dead to give forgiveness and new life to all who repent and believe in Him. A love that deep, that pure, that saving, is beyond human imagination. 

Our capacity to believe this good news comes from God. In Ephesians 2:8, we’re told, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” 

Martin Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed says, “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 through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith…” 

The operating question in most human partnerships--even in many marriages and families--is, “What’s in it for me?” The operating question in the partnership in the Gospel given to us by the Holy Spirit, is, “How can we follow Christ individually, as congregations, and as congregations bound together?” 

That we even care about this question is a sure sign that the Holy Spirit has created an outrageous faith in Christ’s outrageous Gospel within and among us.

Finally, our partnership in the Gospel allows us to affirm both the ways we are different and the ways we are the same

Some partnerships demand uniformity. 

When I worked fast food in high school, a representative from the company that sold my boss his franchise, came by to make sure that we were using the same hamburgers as everyone else, the same milkshake mix with the same quantity of mix and water as everyone else, the same coffee and french fries as everyone else, and so on. 

In our congregations, we’re encouraged to use our different gifts and different passions for the good of the one mission we’re on as people of “one faith, one Lord, one Baptism.” 

The same is true of our varied congregations: We have different styles of worship, different favorite hymns and praise songs, different pastoral styles. We all have unique contributions to make to the mission of being and making disciples. 

Lutherans have always seen such diversity within our unity as a sign of strength. Article VII of The Augsburg Confession, a foundational statement of faith for Lutherans, says: “For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions...or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere.”

Tonight we celebrate our partnership in the Gospel, that we are people with a common Lord, a common faith, and a common mission. In that partnership, God may call us to new joint ventures of faith. (I have one such new venture in mind that I’ve been praying over and will share soon.) 

But for now, let’s celebrate who God has called us to be together...and, in a short time, share in some fellowship together over those ice cream sundaes. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I also serve as dean of the Southwest Ohio Mission District, North American Lutheran Church, in which capacity I was asked to share this message.]

Monday, September 09, 2019

What is Baptism?

[This is the first of a four-part series of messages on Living Out Our Baptisms that I'm presenting during Sunday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This one was shared on Sunday, September 8.]

Matthew 28:19-20
Mark 16:16
John 3:5
Titus 3:5
1 Peter 3:21

We talk a lot around here about discipleship. And it’s not just us; this is an obsession throughout the North American Lutheran Church. 

Discipleship is discussed so much among us that last month at our convocation in Indianapolis one person said that it had become a buzzword. One online dictionary says that a buzzword is “a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.”

God forbid that discipleship ever proves to be nothing more than a passing fad among us

God forbid that it’s regarded or approached as nothing more than another float in the parade of church programs

Being and making disciples is the business, the only business, of Christ’s Church. 

We have that from Jesus Himself. After He died, rose from the dead, and spent forty days revealing Himself to and teaching some 500 of His disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven. But not before He had given His Church--this church, you and me--our commission. 

In His commission to the Church, Jesus didn’t say, “Cocoon yourselves from the world on Sundays and ignore Me the rest of the week.” 

He didn’t say, “Have big potlucks, fun parties, and entertaining worship services, light on both Law and Gospel.” 

Instead, Jesus gave us what we call the great commission. You know it well. But humor me and read Jesus’ words of commission for us aloud with me now: 
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a)
A disciple is a person to whom the Word of God, the Word of forgiveness of sins and everlasting life with God through the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, has come and, powered into our hearts, minds, and wills by God the Holy Spirit, creates within us faith in Jesus, God the Son, that saves us from sin and death and also makes us part of God’s ever-new creation.

The English Standard Version’s rendering of Romans 10:17 gives us a helpful understanding of how a saving faith in Christ, the thing that makes us disciples of Jesus, comes to us: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” 

See how it works? 

First, the Word of God, the good news of new life through Jesus, comes to us.

Then that Word knocks on the doors of our lives, opening us to God, to create faith, making each of us a new creation.

Some of us are so thick of mind and heart, so willful and self-centered, that it takes us a long time of having that Word incessantly knocking at our doors before we begin to hear and start to believe. 

This is what happened in my case. The Word of Christ first came to me in April 1955, when at about a year-and-a-half, I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, Who never gives up on we sinners, kept speaking the Word of Christ to me through the years, even through a decade of overt atheism and unbelief. He kept sending people into my life who, in their own ways, spoke the Word of Christ to me. They were members of His Church, His rescue party, prompted by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word to me so that I would come to trust, or believe in, Christ

This is what God does: He keeps speaking His Word to us in order to give us faith in Christ and then to grow our faith in Christ so that we can have life with Him. “Here I am!” Jesus tells us as He told the first-century church in Laodicea, “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) 

To be a church committed to discipleship means, first of all, to be a people who hear and trust the Word of Christ when it’s spoken to us in the Scriptures, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion

It also means to be a people who, out of love of God and neighbor, speak the Word of Christ in various ways to our families, our neighbors, our classmates and co-workers, and others we come to know

Personally, I find God opening doors for me to share the Gospel, the Word of Christ, all the time. A new one creaked open last week. Last Sunday, we were at Rusty Bucket for lunch. Ann and I go there maybe once every six weeks or so, sometimes with family, sometimes with members of the congregation. 

On Sunday, our server and another one helping her brought our meals to us. The second one saw me and exclaimed, “There’s our favorite priest!” She recalled an incident that I was only able to remember later on Sunday afternoon. Holding a tray of food at that time, she had bumped into me as I was going to the restroom to wash my hands. seeing me in my collar, she nearly fell over herself to apologize. I smiled. “That’s OK,” I told her. “My business is forgiveness, not condemnation.” The way they reacted, you would have thought that I was Jimmy Fallon. I guess they don’t expect the Word of Christ to be delivered with a smile. Apparently, they’ve been talking about their “favorite priest” ever since. 

Before we left, our dinner companions and I filled out a positive review of our server...sincerely meant. I appended a note to my receipt saying, “Thanks for the great service. God bless you!” I left my business card. 

This is how God uses His baptized people. As Greg Finke says in Joining Jesus on His Mission, the book we’re going to start studying and discussing on Tuesday, discipleship is about enjoying the people Jesus brings into our lives and watching for and, knowing that Jesus has already gone ahead of us to Rusty Bucket or wherever we may go, showing those people how Jesus is calling them to Himself.

This life of discipleship begins for most of us at Holy Baptism. Baptism is the usual portal of entry into life with Christ. (If you’re one of those people who have come to believe in Jesus without having been baptized, you’ll want to be baptized.) 

To drive home the idea that Holy Baptism is the usual starting point for Christian discipleship, consider a few things.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that Baptism is like circumcision, the rite through which eight-day-old boys were claimed by God as His own in Judaism. God made them His own without the children being able to understand a thing about God or faith

Jesus says in His conversation with the Jewish teacher Nicodemus that Baptism is a new birth for human beings born into this world as sinners and that we must have this rebirth to be part of His kingdom. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) 

The apostle Peter says of the flood that God used to destroy the whole human race except for Noah and his family: “...this water [the water of Noah’s flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21) The cataclysmic flood that God used to kill off the whole idolatrous, self-centered, sinful world and give this old creation a new start is only a faint foreshadowing of the absolute and eternal salvation that comes to us through Holy Baptism. Noah’s flood was to our baptisms what the Tonka trucks from my childhood you’ve seen in my office are to real trucks. 

In a letter to a pastor named Titus, the apostle Paul says of Baptism: “[God]  saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit [in other words, through Holy Baptism]…” (Titus 3:5) 

Baptism is a big deal: It saves us. It brings rebirth and is something that the Church has no right to withhold from children, infants. And because it is, as Jesus teaches, a rebirth for us, it isn't necessary that the baptized person understand what God is doing for them through Holy Baptism. Did any of us understand what God was doing when He gave us birth into this earthly life?

Some people say. “You Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and others make it so easy. You think that if you get doused with water, you’re saved and you don’t need to believe in Jesus.” 

That’s not what we think. 

This is what we do think: We can’t rescind the Bible’s teaching that Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit saves us. That’s what God’s Word teaches. It saves us because, as The Small Catechism reminds us, “Baptism is not merely water; it is the water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” 

Holy Baptism brings God’s Word to us, unleashing the Holy Spirit into our lives to constantly speak the Word of Christ to us, to create what the New Testament calls the “gift of faith” within us

The good news of Jesus is too good to be believed by people mired in the sin, death, and cynicism of a fallen world, a world no different from the way it was before Noah’s flood. In my natural state as a sinner, I can’t believe the Gospel. I will only have the power to believe the good news--the gospel--of new life through faith in Jesus when the Word invades my life as it does in Holy Baptism, the Bible, and Holy Communion. Jesus tells us: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Think of it in this way. Today, we’re praying for the people of the Bahamas. Hurricane Dorian decimated their island, injured them, killed many of their loved ones, destroyed their homes, businesses, and infrastructure. But even now, salvation from these horrors has arrived, things like shelter, medical attention, food and water, power generators, and so on. The start of a new life is there for those who will trust in the givers and their gifts. (May we be among those offering them help.) Just so, Holy Baptism saves us. But God doesn’t force us to trust in Him. He doesn't force us to believe in Jesus. He keeps giving to us, keeps calling us His own, in the hope that we will receive by faith what He offers as a free gift

This is the first of a four-part series on living out our baptisms. That means being and making disciples who have been saved by God’s charity--His grace--through faith in Christ. We baptize because Jesus commands us to do so and Jesus commands us to do so because Holy Baptism brings the saving Word of His Gospel to sinners, calling us to receive the gift of faith, so that we live with God now and forever. But that’s just the beginning of our journey as baptized children of God. More about this journey next Sunday.

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