Thursday, March 09, 2023

Your Great Commission (Part 2, Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out Lenten Series)

[Here is the text of the message from last night's midweek Lenten devotional worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church, as well as the live stream video of the service.]

Matthew 28:16-20
This Lenten season, we’re focusing on the mission of Christ’s Church and of this church, given to us in Jesus’ Great Commission, found in five different places in the Bible: to be and to make disciples.

Last week, we described what a disciple of Jesus is and what the life of a disciple looks like as she or he continues to receive the Word and the Sacraments as part of God’s people, the Church. Next Wednesday, we’ll start looking at the discipleship pathway of Reaching Up, Reaching In, and Reaching Out.

But tonight, I want to underscore what our mission of being and making disciples IS and, maybe more importantly, what it IS NOT.

It’s especially important to emphasize what this mission is not.

That’s because we fallen human beings have an inborn and sinful penchant for wanting to capture, constrain, systematize, routinize, and make programmatic the things of God that aren’t meant to be captured, systematized, routinized, or turned into programs.

There’s a wonderful insight into God’s character in the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Four children from our world enter an alternative universe and are told about Aslan, the character who is the Christ-figure of those books. When told that Aslan is a lion, one of the children asks, “Is he tame?” “Of course he’s not tame,” they’re told, “but he’s good.”

That’s what Jesus is like. The Bible describes Him as “the Lion of Judah.” How dare we try to domesticate Jesus and make Him over in our image. Our call is to submit to Him so that He can make us over in His image!

We try to scale Jesus down so that we can manage Him.

On the mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’ deity was revealed to Peter, James, and John, Peter famously wanted to erect booths to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, as though they were equals.

Peter envisioned a well-organized set of shrines that people could visit whenever they felt the need for goosebumps.

God the Father then said of Jesus, “This is My Son…Listen to Him.”

Peter’s impulse was to capture, organize, and tame God the Son to his preferences and his specifications. This echoes the incident that occurred not long before the Transfiguration in which Jesus asked the disciples who people said He was and Peter gave the right answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But when Jesus told Peter he’d given the right answer and that, as the Messiah, He was going to suffer and died on a cross before rising from the dead, Peter shook Jesus, rebuking the Lord as if to say, “You don’t know how to do this Messiah business, Jesus.”

Peter tried to whittle Jesus down to his specifications. That’s a way of keeping the One Who came to die for our sins and to make us righteous, fit for eternity with God, at arm’s length. That’s something we try to do often, I think.

A pastoral mentor of mine once said, “The Church is forever trying to organize things because it’s afraid of the Holy Spirit.”

It’s true, I think.

We confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord and that our lives are in His hands. But we would be frightened nearly to death if God told us, as He told Abraham back in Old Testament times, “Leave the place you’ve lived for the past seventy-five years and all this property you’ve acquired and go to a place–somewhere out there–I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

We would want to plan everything out.

Do a cost/benefits analysis.

Demand that God answer all our questions.

Make certain our insurance would cover such a risky change of lifestyle.

Those kinds of things have their place in the lives of the Church and of individual Christians.

But in the forty-seven years since I came back to faith in Christ and in the nearly thirty-nine years since I was ordained, I have seen such so-called “practical considerations” prevent God’s people from doing what God was calling them to do.

Repeatedly, I have seen Christ’s Church opt for comfortable earthly certainties rather than stepping out by faith to where its God and Lord was calling it.

That’s because we’re afraid of where the Holy Spirit wants us to go, whether to the neighbor next door or the stranger we encounter in the store.

Even after we sinners are granted sainthood by grace through faith in Jesus, we are still recovering sinners, recovering control freaks, who want to be our own gods.

Tonight we focus on the most famous recounting of Jesus’ great commission in the New Testament.

A literal rendering of Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20, might look like this: “Having gone therefore, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all the things I commanded you. And look, I am with you until the completion of the age.”

The word πορευθέντες, often translated simply as Go at the beginning of this passage, carries the idea of as you go through your life or as you live from day to day, disciple people.

Every Christian is, in Saint Paul’s phrase, an “ambassador for Christ.” But that doesn’t mean we’re all called to be foreign missionaries or pastors. Our call is to be and to disciple people right where we are: at work, at home, at stores and restaurants, ballgames and parties.

And by this word, πορευθέντες, Jesus seems to have no idea of the Church instituting evangelism campaigns, buying advertising, or creating programs to attract people to our churches–although churches may choose to do such things to augment their ministries of disciple-making. (Church advertising, based on how many people it attracts to our churches, by the way, is nearly worthless.)

What Jesus is saying in Matthew 28 though is, You Christian, worshiping regularly, reading God’s Word, receiving the Sacraments, wherever you go are disciples–My people–and wherever you go, you carry the good news that Jesus Christ has already died on a cross and already risen to save us from sin and death. You can assure the people in your life that they can trust Jesus Christ for life with God, now and forever. As you go about your day to day lives, you will be the Ones Who share Jesus with the world.

The apostle Peter writes to Christians elsewhere in the New Testament: “ your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

As we follow Jesus, Who has saved us from sin and death, through lives of daily repentance and renewal, we are prepared to tell others about the eternal hope we have in Jesus.

This isn’t about programs.

It’s about the grace of God we receive as we gather with His people to worship together and receive His Word and His Sacraments.

It’s about being rooted in Christ, branches from the vine, Who makes us His own and shelters us with Christ’s righteousness by grace through faith in Christ alone!

So, being and making disciples then is about following Jesus and sharing Jesus. Let’s not complicate it!

Luke’s telling of the Great Commission in the book of Acts is instructive. There, Jesus tells the first Christians that after they’ve received the Holy Spirit, Who we receive at Holy Baptism, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Note again what Jesus is NOT saying. He doesn’t say that after we Christians have been trained in an evangelistic program, or after we’ve been called to foreign mission work, or after we’ve gotten funding from a recognized church body, then we can be His witnesses.

If the Holy Spirit has given us the faith to say Jesus is my Lord, we are His witnesses. We’re good to go, right now!

We have programs of pre-evangelism like Toddler Time, and of evangelism like our Kindness Outreaches, at Living Water, of course.

But they’re only meant to help us become more comfortable with making disciples in our everyday lives.

You, friends, already are Christ’s disciples.

You already carry Him wherever you are.

You already have the Holy Spirit.

Christ can make disciples through you tonight.

True story. A man, during the Great Depression, then in high school, told his dad, a working class immigrant, “Pop, I want to go to college.” He expected his dad to try to formulate some plan by which he could get the money for college. Instead, his father said, “So, go.”

“So, go” was his way of saying, “You have the capacity to do this and I won’t hold you back.”

I often hear Christians say, “I wish I could go and make disciples,” as though they were expressing an aspiration for some higher kind of life.

But Jesus is telling us today that we who know Him as Lord and Savior are already His witnesses.

We are the ones He has already empowered to be and to make disciples.

If we are justified, then we are qualified.

If we have been saved, then we have been sent out on the great rescue mission Christ has given His Church.

So, as you look at the troubles and craziness of the people around you and wish that someone would go to them to share the life, forgiveness, peace, and salvation God has secured for all the world through Jesus Christ, Jesus is telling you tonight in His great commission, “So, go. Live in My grace and let others in on what I have done for you and for them through My cross and My resurrection.”

The Great Commission is also your Great Commission.


Sunday, March 05, 2023

Law and Gospel, Part 4

[Our adult Sunday School class is looking at Law and Gospel, the two ways God speaks to us, using this study. The video cuts off the last few moments of our session.

Born Again

[Below are the live stream videos of today's worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, along with the message prepared for the day.]

John 3:1-17

​​”The law says, 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe in this,' and everything is already done.” 

With these words, Martin Luther describes the two ways in which God speaks and interacts with us. 

First, God speaks His Law to condemn us in our sin

God’s Law shows us that we are sinners who merit eternal condemnation for our sinful natures and sinful actions. 

God’s Word says of us, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:29-32)

Of course, we all know God’s Law. We’re to love God and neighbor, worship God alone, love God’s Word, do and think only good things about our parents, presidents, and neighbors, and build others up, not tear them down. We do know God’s Law, His will for us. 

But people like us and everyone else who has ever walked on this planet–except for one–could be taught God’s Law continuously from dawn to dusk every single day of our lives and still not do God’s Law. In His Law, God says, “Do this” and because of who we are, it never gets done.

And that’s a problem because, as the apostle Paul reminds us in God’s Word, “...wrongdoers [literally, he says here, “unrighteous ones”] will not inherit the kingdom of God…” (1 Corinthians 6:9) 

To be righteous means to keep God’s Law perfectly. And righteousness is the baseline requirement for having life with God, now and in eternity. Yet, when God tells us to obey His righteous Law, it never gets done

What are we to do?

That was a question that occupied a man named Nicodemus a lot. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees lived under the misplaced confidence that they (and we) could behave righteously, do God’s Law, and so deserve life with God, life beyond the grave. 

Part of the Pharisees’ misplaced confidence resided in how they twisted God’s Law. Jesus once condemned them, for example, for teaching that people could get around God’s command to honor their parents by telling their parents that whatever money they would otherwise spend on their parents, they would instead spend on God. No wonder Jesus told the Pharisees, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8-13)

The Pharisees, including Nicodemus, grew up believing that righteousness was about what human beings do. But they also gave themselves little escape clauses, humanly-created fine print to God’s Law meant to cover and deny the stench of human sin with the perfume of fake obedience. 

When a Pharisee asked about God’s Law, “What are we to do?” they were really asking, “What is the bare minimum we can get away with doing and still be considered righteous?” When they hit the low threshold of their own preferred version of righteousness, they let all the world know how good they were!

Nicodemus, with his confidence in his own righteous capacity to obey God’s Law was, in some ways, no closer to God than the modern-day atheist who thinks he can be a good person. Anyone who thinks they can rise above their sinful nature or if they’re inclined to believe in God, make themselves acceptable to heaven, is deluding themselves.

I believe this was just beginning to dawn on Nicodemus when he visited Jesus that night. He’d been living in darkness. In Jesus, he began to see a sliver of the One the Bible calls, “The true light that gives light to everyone…” (John 1:9) Because of Jesus, Nicodemus was starting to see that the Law hadn’t and never could make him righteous. 

And so, this member of the Sanhedrin goes to see Jesus. But soon, the teacher of the Law becomes the student of the One he already calls rabbi. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

Now, Nicodemus should have heard these words of Jesus as the second of the two ways God speaks and interacts with us. Nicodemus should have heard that God saves us from sin, death, and darkness not by the things we do, but by what God does for us. Here, Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “There is a way to righteousness–to acceptability to God–that has nothing to do with rules or laws.” It’s about being born again–or born from above.

The image of birth itself which Jesus uses should tell Nicodemus that being ‘born again” has nothing to do with what we do or what we decide

Being right with God is nothing like what a high school classmate of mine described to decades ago when she told, “I decided to be born again.” Now, that's a silly statement on the face of it when you consider it!

When we are born is not a decision made by children when they are born. We are born when we are born. 

Just so, we are born again when God’s Word comes to claim us and it’s only by the power of that Word that we come to saving faith in Jesus Christ

Nicodemus hears Jesus’ words and wonders what he can do, what he must do, to be born again, as though he could be both the baby and the obstetrician at his rebirth. 

Nicodemus wants Jesus to give him a guidebook so that he can get busy obeying a new law. “How can someone be born when they are old?” he asks. (John 3:4)

Jesus clarifies matters for Nicodemus. 

Referencing Baptism, the Christian sacrament that infants and children have undoubtedly undergone since the first Christian Pentecost ten days after the crucified and risen Jesus ascended into heaven, Jesus says, “ one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) 

Our lives with Christ are meant to be initiated in Baptism. That’s what’s what will happen to Sofia and Leo today and will happen to Alina in less than two weeks. 

But even if, as sometimes happens, because our God is a big God out to free all of us from the condemnation of sin and death, God’s grace comes to us before we’re baptized, we’re still not saved by what we do or what we decide. Our salvation is still not our doing!

We apprehend Christ’s victory over sin and death for us by faith. And even our faith is His gift to us! It’s all God’s work. 

As Paul tells us in Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8) 

Our call from day to day is to turn in trust away from our sin, including our sinful reliance on our own goodness or good deeds, and turn to Christ Who died and rose to shield us in His righteousness.

Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are His words to you again today: “For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17) 

The law says, 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe in this,' and everything is already done.” 

God’s Law condemns us. 

But God’s Gospel saves us. 

Friends, you can trust in what Christ has already done for you to make you righteous, fit for life with God, now and forever. Amen

[Below are pictures from today's Baptisms at Living Water.]