Saturday, September 21, 2019

Nurturing the Baptized in the Faith

This is from the pastor's cutting room floor. This paragraph didn't make it into tomorrow's message on the role of family members in nurturing young ones in their lives as baptized children of God.
There are no guarantees that family members who are nurtured in the faith, taught the Word of God, and shown how to pray will come to believe in Jesus and have life in His name. Even people Jesus sets out to save will, like a drowning person, fight against Him, His love, His call to repent and believe. Even people who see good examples of imperfect people seeking to follow Jesus each day will turn away from Jesus. But I can guarantee this: If parents, grandparents, and other family members don’t seek to lovingly share the Word about Christ within their families, especially with young children, the chances of those family members coming to believe in Jesus are significantly diminished.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Lord, Fan the Flame in Me

[This the journal entry for my quiet time with God this morning. I use a simple format for my personal time with God. I stop to repent for sin and pray about known needs in my life and the lives of others; I look at God's Word; I listen for what God might be telling me in that Word; I respond in some way.]

Look: “For this reason [Timothy’s sincere faith and the tears he has shed because of his work for the gospel] I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

These verses are highly encouraging to me and, I would think, could be encouraging to any believer in Jesus, whatever their calling in life.

This is a message of encouragement written to the young pastor Timothy. The encourager is the apostle Paul, then in prison for preaching the gospel of new and everlasting life through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. Paul might seem an unlikely person to be encouraging Timothy to keep faithful in sharing Jesus with others despite the persecution: Paul’s perseverance landed him in prison!

But Paul insists that persecution, hardship, and even death aren’t the end of the story for those who remain faithful to God Who blesses us with eternal life through faith in Jesus. I need to always remember this!

Paul remembers the faith of Timothy and urges him not to allow anything to cause either his faith or his assurance that God has called him to go cold. Instead, Paul says, “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of hands…”

He then reminds Timothy that the Holy Spirit imparted to Timothy with the laying on of hands is “not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” I love that reminder!

Listen: As I read Paul’s words, I remember that the Church, Christ’s people in the world, uses the “laying on of hands” in many ways.

When a person is baptized, the pastor makes the sign of the cross on the forehead and says that this person has been marked with the cross of Christ and, by virtue of what God has done in their baptism, sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.

When a person is confirmed, the presider will place hands on his/her head or shoulder and pronounce a blessing.

When a person is ordained, clergy will join in the laying on of hands, invoking God’s name to bless the ordained person.

When Christians pray, often groups will gather around the one for whom they pray and place their hands on their heads and shoulders.

At the conclusion of worship, the presiding minister will pronounce a benediction with a hand over the congregation, figuratively “touching” those being blessed. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”

These aren’t mere gestures. The laying on of hands is connected to God’s Word. And what God sets His Word out to do brings results. Isaiah 55:10-11 says: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

When Christians lay hands on others, invoking the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, something actually happens.

Paul apparently recalls ordaining Timothy with the laying on of hands and reminds Timothy that the younger man had received the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. (All Christians do at baptism.)

He then tells Timothy to fan the gift of the Holy Spirit within him into flame. I don’t believe that Paul is telling Timothy to “get psyched” or “get woke,” or as my grandparents’ generation would have said, “work himself into a tizzy.”

On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the praying Church on the rush of a mighty wind and then “divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4) The fire of the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to be disciples and to make disciples, to live in the confident hope of life with God no matter what, without timidity, but with power, love, and self- control.

Sometimes let my life, not just its adversity, but things like the next item on my to-do list, my agenda, my inborn indifference to God and others--to get in the way of the fire of the Holy Spirit. I fail to repent for sin and trust in Jesus. I fail to spend time in God’s Word. I run from accountability to God or to others in Christ’s Church. The flame can become a flicker. When that happens, even little things can overwhelm me.

So, I need--I need today--to fan the flame that God has already set within me, at my Baptism. It’s His fire, His flame. I need to open up the flues so that He fills my life more fully. The furnace will do the world; I need to open up the vents.

My experience makes pretty clear how that needs to happen: I come back to Christ and His Word. I spend time in His Word. I spend time in prayer in Jesus’ name. I ask God, in Jesus’ name, to keep me walking close with Him and to watch for opportunities to honor Him and help others in His name. I make regular time to meet with others around His Word beyond Sunday worship.

Fanning the flames of the fire of faith is about turning back to Jesus. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,  are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

I fan the flames of my faith and the gifts of the Holy Spirit within me when I turn to Jesus with helplessness and trust. When that happens, whatever my call may be in life and whatever challenges I may face--even imprisonment for Jesus’ sake or death--I can face them (including possible persecutors) with power, love, and self-control: Without fear and with the confidence that nothing can separate me from the love of God given to us in Christ Jesus.

I turn to Jesus. He fans the flames.

Respond: In all the things I face today, Lord--and you know them better than I do, help me turn to you. Fan the flames of my faith and the Holy Spirit You have already given to me so that I can bring You to others: my family, fellow church members, people I encounter as I go about my day. In Jesus’ Name. Amen

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

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Church: How God Helps Us Live Out Our Baptism

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today. This is the second part in a four-installment series on living out our Baptism.]

Acts 2:41-47
Everybody loves baptisms. In fact, we seem to bathe baptism in sentimentalities. This is true whether the baptized is a child or an adult. 

I have a feeling that much of the sentimentality about Holy Baptism involves things like the cuteness of the baptized child or the supposed uprightness of the adult submitting to baptism. In such cases, the baptized is the center of attention rather than God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Who, through water, brings His saving Word to the person being baptized.

We seem to forget what happens in Holy Baptism. 

The first thing that happens as the water connected with God’s Word hits our foreheads is that we die. Our sinful selves are drowned and we share in the death of Jesus, God the Son, on the cross. 

We die to sin and self so that a second thing can happen when we receive Holy Baptism: We rise to new and everlasting life with God

This is a life that still must be apprehended by faith in Christ, to be sure, faith in Christ created within us by the Holy Spirit

But in Holy Baptism, the man, woman, or child who was born in sin and who has died with Christ for that sin is lifted out of sin, chaos, death, darkness, and futility by the gracious hand of God

The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:4: “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 

Through the waters of Holy Baptism, God graciously reaches down to make new the person who dies and rises at the baptismal font.

But even new creatures can take wrong turns. (Think of Adam and Eve.) 

Baptized Christians, who are simultaneously saints by the grace of God and sinners by nature, are daily called to return to the One Who saves us

In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks what the significance God’s decision to baptize us through the means of water might be. His answer: “It signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil desires, should be drowned by daily repentance and sorrow for sin, and be put to death, and that the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” 

After we have been baptized, neither the devil, nor the world, nor our sinful selves give up on dragging us back into the chaos of sin, into ruptured relationships with God, with others, with the self, with creation. 

Luther says that our call is to daily be re-membered or reconnected with Christ so that sin, death, and the devil are unsuccessful in pulling us down again into the deep of separation from God.

But this lifestyle of discipleship--a lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal--isn’t easy, especially if we try to do it ourselves. The person who thinks that they can be a Christian or grow as a Christian without God is bound to fail.

When one’s faith life is just Jesus and me or Jesus, me, and the people I find companionable, it’s too easy to confuse my ideas and my preferences for the ideas and preference of God. It’s too easy to fall into the thought that Christian faith isn’t about what God has done for me through Jesus, but about all the things I do that I think are good by Jesus. In our own power, we can never be good enough to warrant entry into God's eternal kingdom or even have a relationship with God. Isaiah rightly says of our human race, "...all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6) 

“I guess I’ve done enough good stuff for the Church and other people to get into heaven,” a man once told me with a straight face. He could only have said that if he’d been listening to the devil, the world, and his own sinful nature more than he’d been listening to God’s Word or the testimony of the Church. 

Yet God has decisively acted to safeguard and guide us in living out our Baptism each day. And how has He done that?

Let’s take a look at Acts 2:41-47. These verses from Acts, a New Testament book written by the Gospel writer, Luke, come right after Luke’s account of the first Christian Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to Christ’s Church, then sent all of its members out to tell of God’s mighty acts. Using God’s Word in the Old Testament, Peter explained to the crowd that it was Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended Who had sent the Holy Spirit to enable the Church to tell everyone about the new life Jesus offers, three thousand people were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the first Christian baptisms.

And all the baptized became part of the Church. Verse 42 says: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” 

Notice that the old and new believers all were sustained in living out the Baptism God had given to them in four ways. 

First, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They spent time in God’s Word. God’s Word has the power to transform us from enemies of God to forever friends of God. Churches and individual Christians start to depart from God when they stop reading God’s Word together and individually. The apostle Paul tells the young pastor Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) 

Second, the first Christians spent time in fellowship with each other. The word translated as fellowship from the Greek in which Acts was originally written is koinonia. This is more than having a laugh with someone in the hallway of the church. Koinonia has the idea of partnership. The Church is a group of people called together by Christ for the common mission of being and making disciples

Third, the first Christians devoted themselves to “the breaking of the bread.” I feel sure that this means the disciples regularly and frequently received the body and blood of Jesus, Holy Communion. In Luke 24:30, on the first Easter Sunday, two disciples who hadn’t yet figured out that they were in the presence of the risen Jesus, immediately knew Him as He broke the bread and gave it to them. In Holy Communion, the baptized are re-membered to Jesus, forgiven for our sins, and filled with His life. We are renewed in our relationship with Christ. 

Fourth, the first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. They prayed together.

Acts 2:44-47 goes on to say: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Some suggest from this passage that the early Church was a socialist community in which all the people owned and shared “the means of production.” That’s a stretch. But what we do see clearly from this passage is that the early Church members were in community with each other and shared what they had, including the good news of new life through faith in Jesus, with each other and the world. 

To live with this kind of love and sacrifice of self is not only foreign to how society teaches us to live, it’s foreign to our very nature. 

Only people who know that they are desperately, totally loved and saved by the God we meet in Jesus, would even want to live this life of complete trust in God and love for others

I  confess that when God asks me to love people I find unlovable, to give to a cause from which I can’t imagine I will ever derive benefit, to spend time with someone I’d rather not be around, or to interrupt my plans by in doing something that I’d rather not do, the old Mark in me, wants to run the other direction. 

I especially want to run the other way when God calls me to trust in Him even in times of pain, adversity, or grief...or when I’m not getting my own way. 

But I find myself trusting in the God I know in Jesus, doing things that I don’t want to do because, through the Church, I have heard God’s saving Word, been called to the common mission of the Church, received Christ’s body and blood, and prayed with God’s people

Through the Church, I am reminded again of God’s grace given to me through Jesus, the grace in which I was washed clean at my baptism, and I am filled again with the Holy Spirit to will and to do what God wants for my life and not what I want to do.

The celebrated writer and philosophy professor Dallas Willard, a mentor to our bishop, John Bradosky, once observed, “The average church-going Christian has a headful of vital truths about God and a body unable to fend off sin.” 

That’s why the Church is so important

The Church is God’s support group for baptized Christians, God's support group for recovering sinners

The Church, the body of Christ, helps saints and sinners saved by God’s grace to have the faith to keep following Jesus when everything in us and everything around us scream at and the devil whispers to us to go our own ways, to look out for our own perceived and earthbound interests and to forget about God or others. 

For we baptized Christians, the Church is our family, the fellowship through which Christ gives those who believe in Him the benefits of His death and resurrection.

In Holy Baptism, God makes us part of Christ’s family, the Church. We acknowledge this at every baptism. 

“Through Baptism,” the pastor says, “God has made these new sisters and brothers members of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus, that we may proclaim the praise of God and bear His creative and redeeming Word to all the world.” 

And the Church responds, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as fellow members of the body of Christ, children of the same heavenly Father, and workers with us in the kingdom of God.”

Baptism, as I said last week, is a big deal. In it, God saves us, giving us a share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

But, as we see from Acts 2, He also makes us part of Christ’s eternal family, the Church. 

May we then, be avid participants in the life of the Church, supporting one another and deepening our own relationship with the God Who has baptized us by 

  • being together regularly to hear God’s Word, 
  • partnering together to fulfill the mission of the Church, 
  • receiving Christ’s body and blood together, and 
  • praying together. 

These elements, more than any other things we might name, are what God uses to help us live out our Baptism. Amen

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