Saturday, October 05, 2019

What Faith in Christ Does

[This the journal entry from my quiet time with God yesterday morning.]

Look: “...everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5)

In the previous chapter, John warned Christians not to believe every spirit, but to test whether they come from God. Any spirit opposed to Christ--whether it be “the spirit of the age,” by which I mean the prevailing ideas of our culture, or the spirit of our own sinful impulses or the spirit of the devil himself--will test Christians.

But every spirit that opposes Christ will also “tip its hand” eventually. It will show that it’s really opposed to the purpose of God to save us from sin and death through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. It will do all it can to cast doubts about Christ or our connection to Him.

These opposing spirits operate subtly and viciously within the Church itself. Satan has always been subtle, embedding lies in the truth. So, the spirits that oppose Christ will try to tell Christians, that-saved-by-grace-through-faith stuff is great, but… I need to watch out for the BUT. That jerk Satan will taunt me by saying things like:

“You think you’re saved, but do you remember when you were saved?” (Of course, I don’t. I don't remember when I was physically born either, but I most assuredly was born!)

Or. “You think you’re saved, but do you really believe?”

Or, “You say you believe, but what about that terrible thing you've done that you don’t want anyone to know about and that you try to forget yourself?”

Or, “If you believed, you’d be a nicer person.”

This is all baloney, the spirits trying to get us to think about ourselves and our inadequacy, rather than on God, His super-adequacy, and the grace He gives to all who believe in (trust in) Christ.

The spirits that oppose Christ will do anything to drive a wedge between Christ and me, to rob me of the assurance that, through Christ, I belong to God forever! That’s because their boss is Satan and Satan, as I say, is a jerk.

This chapter of 1 John assures me that if I confess that Jesus is Lord, even, as Jesus puts it, with faith the size of a mustard seed, it’s proof that all those spirits, whose ultimate source, as I say, is the devil, the one Jesus describes as the “father of lies,” are full of garbage.

“Everyone,” John says at the beginning of chapter 5, “who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…”


Despite the doubts that the spirits of Satan try to plant within me--even those that come shrouded in self-conscious pious Christian language, I know that I belong to Jesus because I confess Him as the Christ, the Messiah, my saving KIng! The Holy Spirit has, through the power of the Word of God--the Word of new life through faith in Jesus, created faith within me.

In verse 4, John reminds me that all who have been born of God--in the waters of their Baptism--overcome the lies of the world, the lies of the spirits--because we have faith. We believe in Jesus. We trust in Jesus.

The strength and the power of our faith do not reside in the strength and power of our faith, but in the strength and the power of the One in Whom we believe, in Jesus Himself!

The doubts, the misapprehensions, and the fears planted by these lying spirits are overcome for the One Who believes in Jesus as the Christ, God the Son. “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v.5)

Listen: John goes on in the chapter to tell me how I can trust that this is so.

In Biblical times, the testimony of three credible witnesses corroborated the facts in a dispute. According to John, there are three "witnesses" that corroborate Jesus’ identity as the Christ and Son of God: the Spirit, the water, and the blood.

These three refer first of all to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, at which time the Holy Spirit descended on Him as He was baptized in the water and the Father affirmed that Jesus was and is the Son of God, anointed by John to show Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah. (Both the Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ mean “anointed one,” a designation of kingship.)

In one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptizer initially refuses to baptize Jesus because he didn’t feel worthy. But Jesus insisted that all righteousness be fulfilled: Jesus was, despite His sinlessness, intent on connecting with our humanity and with our need for repentance. That was the righteous thing for Him to do. So, the Holy Spirit and the water witness to Jesus’ identity as Christ.

And then, the blood also affirms Jesus’ identity. This is the blood He shed at the crucifixion, the blood of the perfect Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. When I receive the gift of faith in Christ, Jesus’ blood also covers my sin.

These three witnesses then affirm that, as I trust in Christ, I am a child of God. I am saved from sin, death, futility, and myself.
The other night we were talking in the Tuesday class about the assurance the gift of faith in Christ gives to us. My sins have been overcome by Jesus. It’s God Who makes us conscious of our sin, not to send us on guilt trips, but to cause us to repent, so that we can have our relationship with God renewed.

The spirits opposed to Christ will never make us conscious of our sin, although they may try to drive us to feelings of shame that insist that God would never have anything to do with us.

The spirits of religion that oppose Christ will give us license to rationalize our sins, to say that because we’re such wonderful people that if we do something contrary to the will of God, there must be good reason for it.

The spirits of the world that oppose Christ will either keep us oblivious to sin or rail against the absurdity of the whole idea of sin or keep us locked in the cellar of shame to keep us oblivious to the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus.

But the Holy Spirit of Christ will first convict us of our guilt and then convince us that we have a Christ, a Savior, to whom we can turn, receive forgiveness and be empowered to live differently today than I did yesterday. Through faith in Christ, I can live in the grace of God! This is always good news to me...and it is again this morning!

This is exactly what John talks about early in his letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Respond: I have been dealing with feelings of my own inadequacy lately and with sinful thought patterns, obsessing on these thoughts and feelings more than I have on bringing them to You, Lord, through Jesus, the Righteous One Who bled and died for me. Help me to trust in Christ alone. Not in my performance. Not in my good works. Not in my “adequacy,” which does not exist, but in the surpassing adequacy of Jesus Christ alone. Help me to remember this: The fact that I can be conscious of my sin is proof that I have the saving gift of faith in Christ. I belong to You and You have overcome the world and everything that opposes Christ, including my sin. Help me to remember that it's faith in Christ alone that overcomes the world. Thank You, Lord. Now, let me live in Your freedom! In Jesus’ name, I pray. AMEN

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. And I put my pants on one leg at a time.]

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Confident and Free

"But you belong to God, my children, and have defeated the false prophets, because the Spirit who is in you is more powerful than the spirit in those who belong to the world." (1 John 4:4, Good News Translation)

When, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I'm able to confess that Jesus is Lord, it proves that I belong to the Lord, that the Lord has given me the gift of faith, and that I am in Him, part of His new creation. I needn't fear evil and I can live confidently in the freedom of God's grace.

Like Luther, I can tell Satan that yes, I am a sinner, but what of it? Jesus, my God and Savior, has overcome sin, death, and the devil. There is nothing that Satan or the world can do to me that won't result in my being with God in eternity forever.


Monday, September 30, 2019

Getting Personal

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

Matthew 4:18-22
I once heard a megachurch pastor talk about a survey his congregation conducted to understand what caused their newer members to join. This congregation’s worship attendance had grown explosively: By the time this study was conducted, the church’s weekend attendance was about 10,000. 

The survey determined that the number one people joined the church was this: anonymity. People joined this big church so that they could show up, consume what was offered, and leave without anyone knowing them. Most had been members of other, smaller churches and they started attending the megachurch in order to avoid any personal connection with Christ and His Church. You can imagine how disappointed the pastor and church leadership were to see those results.

A congregation doesn’t have to be of megachurch status for people to keep themselves anonymous. The church growth experts would classify Living Water as a middle-sized congregation. But even our Sunday morning numbers are sufficiently large for people to keep themselves anonymous if they choose to be. Anonymous Christians are folks who show up on Sunday mornings (sometimes) and make regular offerings but really aren’t engaged with Christ or the Church in any other way.

Of course, we all go through seasons of life when we can’t be that involved with other Christians in our church community. Ill health, overtime hours, parents or spouses or children in need. A lot of things can diminish our capacity for engagement. 

But some people choose to remain anonymous Christians. They want just enough of Jesus to say they know something about Him, but not enough to heed His call to follow Him and to love their fellow disciples as He has loved us. 

That’s sad because living in community with the Church is how God supports us in living joyfully and confidently in the grace God gives to us when the Word of Christ meets the water at our Baptism.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been involved in a series on Living Out Our Baptism. We began by remembering that at Baptism, the saving Word of Christ comes to us and we are given a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Our call from that point forward is to trust in God’s baptismal grace, even when temptations assail us or when we feel that we’ve committed unforgivable sins. 

Two weeks ago, we remembered that Christ gave us the Church and one week ago, we remembered that He gave what Martin Luther called “the little church,” the family, to help us affirm and grow in the relationship with God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--that God initiates with us in Holy Baptism. 

Today, in this last installment, we discuss a tool used by Jesus, but often forgotten by the Church, a tool designed to support and encourage people in their faith and to challenge us and ensure that people are praying for and with us as we each daily seek to follow the God Who saves us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

I want to point you to a few places in Scripture where we see Jesus focusing on the use of this tool. Look first, please, to Matthew 4:18-22. This comes after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan and His temptation in the wilderness. It says: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” 

Matthew 10:2-4 gives us a full listing of the names of the twelve people who Jesus called to be His apostles: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” I think that Matthew takes the time to name them because each one of these people were important to Jesus as individuals, just as you are important to Jesus as an individual person.

It was into this group of people, the twelve, that Jesus poured the second greatest amount of time and energy during His ministry. He met with these men, traveled with them, talked with them, ate with them, laughed with them, and showed them that He was (and is) the way, the truth, and the life, the Savior of the world. During Jesus’ time on earth, the twelve were a small group.

But Jesus had another tool He used to prepare His disciples for living out their relationship with Him beyond the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Jesus seems to have poured His great attention and energy into three of the apostles: Peter, James, and John

  • When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, He took these three apostles with Him. 
  • When Jesus went to the mountaintop to be transfigured and speak with Moses and Elijah, He did so in the company of these three men. 
  • When Jesus went to a secluded spot to pray on the night of His arrest, He asked these three to accompany Him. 

Peter, James, and John formed another kind of group. Some call them cells, relating to the Church, the body of Christ, the way the cells relate to our entire bodies. Some call them micro-groups. Around here at Living Water, we’ve taken to calling them triads or quads. (Or when we’re being silly, quad-daddies.)

Why exactly did Jesus start small groups? Did He want to have in-groups and cliques? 

You need to look no further than John 3:16 to know that Jesus wasn't into cliques. Jesus told Nicodemus that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

Jesus didn’t come into the world to start exclusionary cliques. He came into the world to do what everybody in the world needed to have done for us: He offered Himself as the sinless sacrifice for our sin and to rise from the dead so that all who turn from sin and believe in will share in His death and His resurrection! God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). All who believe in Jesus will be saved!

Jesus started groups for this reason: The life of a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ is not to meant to lived anonymously. In fact, it really can’t be lived in any sustained way anonymously. 

Christ took on human life in order to know us personally, from the inside of human experience, and so that, as one of us, He could offer His sinless life for us. 

And after He had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, He didn’t tell the eleven remaining apostles to print up brochures or tracts to be anonymously distributed by the post office; He didn’t tell them to sell advertising; He didn’t tell them to hold mass meetings. Being and making disciples, living as baptized disciples of Jesus, was never meant to be an anonymous enterprise

A literal rendering of Jesus’ words in the Great Commission are, “As you are going, make disciples of all nations…” Living out our Baptism--being disciples and making disciples--is intensely personal, something to be done as we're going about the world, interacting with other people. 

But, studies show that, at most, we’re incapable of having any kinds of close relationships with more than seventy people. And even then, most of those relationships will be little more than, “Hey! How are you today?” 

Living out our Baptism is best nurtured when we’re part of a small group whose members read and reflect on God’s Word together, hold one another up in prayer, and call each other out when it’s appropriate. Interpersonally. This is how faith best grows. This is how our confidence in Christ most grows. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” Proverbs 27:17 says. 

Weekly worship with the whole congregation is important. But when we rely on weekly worship to keep our faith sharp, it’s too easy to be anonymous, to grow dull in our faith, to forget about God’s love for us given in Christ, to forget to read and reflect on God’s Word, to forget to pray, to forget to trust in Christ, to forget to repent for sins that, left unchecked, can overtake our lives and our faith.

I would like to invite you to be part of a small group

Our Life and Learning Team will be meeting again the week after next to start new small groups...although several have been meeting for a while now. 

But you needn’t wait. If you have two other folks in the congregation who would like to join you in a small group, this is what you need to do: 

  • 1. Pick a book of the Bible that each of you will read a chapter or a paragraph at a time on your own during a daily quiet time. (Maybe shoot for three to five days a week for a quiet time initially.) 
  • 2. You can structure your daily personal quiet time with God in this way: Stop (to talk with God about your life, confess sins, seek guidance, ask God to illuminate His Word as you read it); Look (read God’s Word and discern what He may be telling you that day); Listen (ask God to help you see the implications for your day of the passage that struck you as you read); and Respond (ask God to show you what He wants you to do in response to His Word). 
  • 3. Then, when you get together in your group, maybe every two weeks, ask each other what God has been telling you in His Word; share, as you feel comfortable, what’s going on in your life; pray for each other, and set a time to meet again.

Simply put, a small group is composed of a group of baptized believers gathered around the Word of God--the Word about Jesus Christ--seeking to help one another grow in confident faith in Jesus. While one person may act as a facilitator, there is no “teacher”: the Holy Spirit, the One Who comes to us in Holy Baptism, is our teacher. 

If you’d like help in starting a small group, just write something on the attendance pad like, “I want to be part of a small group.” 

I’ve been part of several small groups over the years. Some have thrived. Some haven’t. But I can tell you that it’s in these small groups, where Christ gets up close and personal, that my faith in Him and my love for fellow believers has grown the most. The same can be true for you. Amen

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