Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Joy of Duty, the Duty of Joy

Texts: Genesis 29:14b-20; Proverbs 8:27-31; Romans 5:1-5; Ephesians 6:5-8; Hebrews 12:2-3

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A job you absolutely hated?   Maybe you still have it. Your boss is arbitrary and unfair.  Your duties are repetitious or degrading.  Your pay in no wise measures up to everything you’re required to do.  You’re going crazy.  How can you spend one-more-day laboring at it?  But with the state of the economy, where are you going to go?  And you’re a Christian, so you know it’d be a sin to commit sabotage or tell off the boss to his face.  So you suffer through it, all the while comforting yourself with this thought: “I feel miserable, and in this job I’m going to keep on feeling miserable.  But blast it all, I’m Doing My Duty, and God will give me credit for all the misery I’m going through as I Do My Duty.  In fact, if I enjoyed my job and did my duty out of joy, there’d be no merit in it at all.  So Lord,  look at all the misery I’m going through on this rotten job, and give me the reward I deserve.”

That’s the default attitude for human beings going through difficult, unavoidable situations, whether we’re Christians or not.  It might not be a job we feel trapped in.  Our unwelcome duty may be taking care of an infirm or ill relative, where he or she is ungrateful and everyone else in the family leaves all the heavy lifting-- maybe literally-- to you.   Or maybe the difficult duty you face is keeping a struggling marriage together for the sake of the children.  Or you’ve taken on a task for an organization you belong to and now that you’ve got it, nobody else will step up so you can resign in good conscience.  Or maybe, just maybe, the struggle and suffering you’re undergoing has to do with bearing with ridicule and disadvantage because you belong to Jesus Christ.

In all these situations, we have a natural inclination to believe that God should give us credit for how terrible our duty makes us feel.   In fact, we assume that if we felt joy and love in our duty, it wouldn’t be Duty at all.  Sometimes the object of all our self-sacrifice will even say: “You don’t really love me, you’re only doing this for me out of duty!”  We feel that Duty by nature is something done because we have to, not because we want to or take any pleasure in it.  I mean, if somehow we enjoyed our duty, wouldn’t that be selfish of us?  (I’m speaking according to conventional wisdom).  That means the more reluctant we are to do our duty, the greater the merit there is in it..

But is this what the Bible says about Duty and Joy?  What is God’s will concerning them both?  This morning we’ll examine a few brief passages that shed light on this subject, and by the help of the Holy Spirit may they aid us as we love and serve God and our neighbor in this present age.

We read these verses in the order they appear in the Bible, but I’ll start with the reading from Proverbs 8 first.  The context here might be called “The Song of Wisdom” or “Wisdom’s Manifesto.” In Proverbs Wisdom is personified as a woman, but when you look at the qualities and attributes she demonstrates, you realize that this describes none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity.  And doesn’t St. Paul call Christ “the Wisdom of God” in I Corinthians?  In our Proverbs passage we see the eternal Son of God, God’s eternal Wisdom, laboring at the Father’s side in the work of creation.  We see this truth confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where it says that  “by him all things were created,” and in St. John’s Gospel, where it is written that “without Him [that is, Jesus Christ] nothing was made that has been made.”  Jesus our Lord in dutiful submission to the will of His Father labored as the craftsman at the Father’s side, making everything that is.  And what does Christ the Wisdom of God say?  Speaking in the guise of Lady Wisdom He says:

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

God the Son did His duty to the Father, and in His duty He took delight and joy!

Now, it might be objected: The work of creation was not Duty for the Son.  But not so fast.  What is duty?  It is what is due to or owed someone.  The Scriptures make it clear in various places that God the Father is owed all obedience, honor, and submission, and from eternity God the Son pays His Father His due.  He does His duty, and He does it joyfully.

We, brothers and sisters, are now children of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, saved by His precious blood.  We follow in His footsteps in rendering all obedience, honor, and loving submission to God our Father, and like Him, we are called to do it with joy.

But another objection might be raised: Yes, but it’s one thing to render joyful duty to God.  What about to other people? That’s where we face all the trouble and hardship that we want credit for!  That’s where duty stops having anything to do with joy and love!  Isn’t it?

But consider the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis.  “I”ll work for you seven years, Uncle Laban, in return for your younger daughter Rachel,” promises Jacob.  And so “Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”  Jacob was doing his duty all that time.  He promised his service to his Uncle Laban, and he owed it to him according to his promise.  He felt that Rachel deserved any amount of service, and he rendered it.  Now, Laban did not do his duty towards Jacob; we all know the trick he pulled substituting Leah for Rachel on the wedding night.  Even so, for Jacob, duty and love were so intertwined for the sake of Rachel and it was hard to tell the difference between the two.

So it should be with us as Christians.  There should be no distinction between duty and love and the joy that flows from both.  Even as we fall short of the goal, we should strive and long for the time when we could so love all those we serve so deeply that the time and difficulties would seem like nothing.

Yes, all right, we can object, but it was Rachel that Jacob was doing his loving duty for.  What if he’d known he was actually serving seven years for Leah with her weak eyes and not-so-lovely form?  In our own lives, we might ask what joy can there be in working for that mean boss or taking care of that ungrateful relative or bearing patiently with that belittling parent or spouse?   We cannot possibly pretend we like being put down and called names and worked to death for someone who thinks we’re only around to serve their purposes.

Christian friends, God does not call us to pretend to like it, let alone to actually like it.  Nevertheless, it is His will that we should find joy in doing our duty, wherever it may lie.

Romans 5 deals with our duty to accept suffering with a joyful heart.  This suffering would be especially what we might undergo for the sake of Jesus Christ, but the passage doesn’t limit it to that.  Verse 2 says, “[W]e rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  All right, that’s understandable.  But Paul goes on to say, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings.” Why?  Are we supposed to be like those Medieval monks who scourged themselves, thinking they were gaining merit with God by self-cruelty?  No, we rejoice in our sufferings because of the results we can expect from them.  Jacob surely rejoiced in his seven years of labor because they were (supposed to) result in Rachel.  For us, suffering patiently and even joyfully borne results in perseverance: we learn to keep on keeping on.  That produces strong character: We become people who can bear up under hard testing.  And as we develop that kind of character, our hope in God grows all the more.  By hope we aren’t talking about mere wishful thinking, but to a confidence that looks ahead and knows that the promises God makes to us in Jesus Christ He will keep.  We know it because He’s already keeping His promise of love to us even now, pouring it into our hearts through His Spirit.  And refreshed by His love we can rejoice in whatever that rotten job or difficult relationship or physical ordeal throws at us, because our hope in God will never disappoint us.

In the same way, in our passage from Colossians chapter 1,  Paul by the Spirit prays that the Colossians and all believers may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  Why?  So we may live a life worthy and pleasing to the Lord.  So we can bear fruit in every good work, and grow in the knowledge of God.

Sometimes we think, “Oh, that would be so easy if I didn’t have all the hassles of daily life to contend with!”  But it’s the other way around.  Bearing fruit for God happens in the midst of the real trials of this earthly life, as we encounter trouble and suffering and hard, boring, ungrateful labor. And so Paul prays that we may be strengthened with all of God’s mighty power so we might have great endurance and patience.

What is this endurance and patience?  Is it gritting our teeth and just getting through it?  No, in all we endure God desires that we should joyfully give thanks to Him.  Why?  Because it is through our hard labor and trials that His glorious might is revealed in us.  Because in them we are more and more driven to trust Him and not our own abilities.  Because He’s teaching us to seek our satisfaction not in the joys and pleasures of this earth, but in the inheritance of the saints He has laid up for us in the kingdom of light.  This inheritance is eternal blissful fellowship with Him, and it’s not something we can earn; it’s already ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 6 brings the issue home.  Now, slavery is never God’s ideal for how one human being should relate to another.  Nevertheless, it existed as an integral part of 1st century Greco-Roman society, just as tedious, low-paying jobs exist in ours.  This passage does not advise us on getting better employment, any more than it deals with how a slave might try to become free.  What it does command is that as long as we are under a given boss or master, we should respect and obey him sincerely, just as we would respect, fear, and obey Jesus Christ.  Not going about moaning, “I’m miserable; O Lord, reward me for my misery!” but doing the will of God from our hearts.  Again, Paul says, “serve wholeheartedly.”  Not much room there for keeping a tally of our injuries and expecting God to pay us back for them, is there?

But wait a minute.  Look, here in verse 8, it says the Lord will reward us.  Yes, He will.  But not for how much we hated the whole experience, whatever it was.  Our reward will be for our faithfulness in the situation, for our service to Him no matter how terrible our boss might be, for our wholeheartedness and joy in the Lord as we imitate Jesus Christ-- who did not shirk the dirtiest, most offensive, and most demeaning job of all:  going to the cross to pay the price for our sins.

So in all the hard labors and trials of our life, let us indeed

. . . fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus willingly went through suffering for the joy of winning you and me as His redeemed people.  You belong to Him now; remember that and be comforted whenever you encounter trouble and opposition.  He has brought you out of sin and death and He certainly can give you joy in the midst of whatever hard labor you may go through.

But what about getting credit for our suffering?  If by that we expect God to reward us for having a bleak, miserable, unloving, and joyless attitude towards our work and relationships, sorry, we’re out of luck.  The Son of God rejoiced over us at creation and joyfully went through hell to present us as His workmanship before the Father.  We are now children of God, beloved by Christ who died and rose for us.  Since this is true of Him and true of us, we owe it to Him to take joy in our duty, and we also owe Him the duty of joy, just as He rendered joyful duty and dutiful joy to His Father in heaven.

And isn’t this what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves?  If we were perfect people in this very imperfect world, we would be so filled with love for our neighbor that the worst kind of service for the most difficult person would be like Jacob serving to get Rachel.  And as a very imperfect human being I’m tempted to tell you (and myself) that of course God does not expect that of us. But I’d be wrong.  He does expect that of us, for He expects us to grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, who joyfully suffered that we might live.

But take heart, brothers and sisters! He expects it of us through the peace, wisdom, and strength of Christ, not through our own. God loves you: Ask Him to help you love your neighbor.  God rejoices over you in Christ; pray in all things that He will bring you more and more to rejoice in Him.  And pray with all His saints that He will bring us through suffering at last to His kingdom of light, where duty is joy and joy is duty, to the praise of His glorious name.  Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When Our Hard Work Doesn't Work

Texts: Romans 4:1-25; John 6:22-29

TOMORROW IS LABOR DAY, WHEN we celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of America's workers.  So it was appropriate that recently the actor Ashton Kucher should give an audience of young people a strong exhortation about the value and necessity of hard work.  He was speaking at the Teen Choice Awards, and among other things, he said, "I've noticed throughout my life that Opportunity looks a lot like hard work."  His point was that nobody should sit around passively and then complain when opportunity to get ahead seems to pass them by. Hard work is essential, and the kids need to get that through their heads while they're young, and save themselves a lifetime of disappointment and misery.

That's how it operates in this world, "under the sun," as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes.  You get what you work for, and if you don't work, you don't get. And if you can work but refuse to, and by dint of welfare and handouts you do get, you're settling for way less than second best, and when the handouts run out, you'll be sunk.  It's the way things are.

But there's a sphere where all these facts are stood on their heads.  Where to stop working is virtue, where to keep on working is to do evil, where being willing simply to reach out and receive good things we don't deserve is to be the happiest of all.

St. Paul speaks of this condition in our reading from the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Now, in the Bible, context is everything.  So we need to remember that prior to this, up to the first part of chapter 3, the Holy Spirit has convicted us all, Jews and Gentiles alike, of unrighteousness before God.  The Jews have the Law of Moses written on tablets of stone; they don't obey it.  The Gentiles (and all mankind, really) have the natural law of God inscribes on their hearts, and they suppress it and break it, too.  So we're all in the position where the law has declared us all guilty.  God has brought us to this position so that, as Paul writes in 3:19-20,

. . . [E]very mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The law of God, whether it's the written law given through Moses or our inward sense of right and wrong, describes the work, the big job we have to do in order to please our Lord and Creator.  Ultimately, whether we acknowledge Him or not, God is our Boss, and if He wants to fire us, there's no place else to go.

And even if we feel we want to do what is just and right and do the work God requires, every day we're putting ourselves more in His disfavor.  We're like incompetent workers who not only don't do our jobs, but even when we're trying our best we break the machinery and alienate the customers and embezzle our employer's funds. When it comes to achieving favor with God, our hard work doesn't work.  This is how it is when we depend on ourselves to gain and maintain our own righteousness by obeying the law.

But the good news, as Paul tells us in the last part of Romans chapter 3, is that God Himself has done all the hard work for us through His Son Jesus Christ.  His blood shed on the cross makes everything right between us and our divine Employer: We are justified in His sight.  His death paid the price to buy us back out of slavery to sin: In Jesus Christ we are redeemed.  His sacrifice of Himself propitiated the wrath that God rightly had directed against us for our sin: He has settled the our sin debt for us and it will never be held against us again.

Jesus Christ did all this for us when He died on Calvary, and His resurrection proves that God accepted His work.  But how do we make the work of Jesus Christ our own?  Do we do it by laboring really hard to love God and our neighbor, so we'll deserve the favor of Christ?

Well, think of the words of Jesus Himself as recorded in the sixth chapter of John's gospel.  The day before He had fed the 5,000-plus on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.  Then somehow He'd transported Himself to the Capernaum side of the lake, though everyone had seen the disciples go off in the only boat they had without Him.  Even though they didn't necessarily know Jesus had walked most of the way across on the water, they certainly were sure that this Rabbi was a special representative of God and they weren't going to lose hold of Him.  They were racing around, working hard not to lose hold of Him.

But as Jesus says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."   He seems to be agreeing with the idea we all have, that spiritual blessings, like earthly ones, have to be earned by our own efforts.  So of course the representatives of the crowd ask Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

Now, they knew the Law.  And they knew God expected them to keep it.  But maybe, just maybe Rabbi Jesus would give them some wonderful new tip so they could keep it.

And Jesus says simply, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That's it.  If they or we want to gain eternal life, if we want to appropriate the work of Christ on the cross for ourselves, we must not work.  We must let God do all the work and simply receive the gift of salvation by faith in Christ alone.  Our work has no place in God's plan to make us right with Him.  In fact, to insist on working for it ourselves is to imply that Jesus and His death aren't good enough for us.

But if you've read your Bible and knew about the patriarch Abraham, you might be inclined to object.  Wasn't Abraham justified by his works when he obeyed God and left Ur and then Haran to go to the land of Canaan?  Didn't God reward him for his deed when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah?   Abraham pleased God by his works, didn't he? and aren't we to be sons of Abraham and follow in his footsteps?

Not so fast, Paul says in Chapter 4.  How was it actually that Abraham pleased God?  The Apostle quotes Genesis 15:6:  "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  It was by faith and faith alone that Father Abraham was accepted as righteous before God!

And is the righteousness that God credited Abraham by faith the heritage only for the circumcised, that is, the Jews?  No, because God created that faith in him and accepted that faith before the sign of circumcision was even given.  The important thing is not whether we are Jews or Gentiles, the important thing is that God does His work in us and credits righteousness to us by faith.  To walk in the footsteps of Abraham, Paul argues in verse 12, is to receive by faith the work that God has done for us and to live our lives trusting that God has done everything necessary for us to be accepted by Him.  Just as Abraham looked forward to Christ and trusted in the work He would do, we look back on the saving work Jesus completed and trust that it is enough and more than enough, apart from anything we could accomplish.

But--!  But--!  Don't we have to do something to be Abraham's true heirs?  The other day I heard that some television host was arguing that if you don't think the impending national healthcare law is a great thing you can't possibly be a real Christian.  The radio host who passed this story along thought this was ridiculous on political grounds.  As Christians, we first and foremost have to reject this statement on spiritual grounds.  We are Christians through being accepted by God in Jesus Christ, and that was due to no work of kindness of ours, public or private.  For as our reading says, "It was not through law--" [And the law is largely about how we should be kind to one another] "--Not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith."

But let's say it were possible for someone to receive the new heaven and new earth God promises by his or her hard work trying to love God and neighbor.  If that were the case, Paul says, "faith has no value and the promise is worthless."  But we've already seen that doing our best to please God-- that is, following the law-- doesn't get us anywhere.  It only puts us deeper into God's righteous wrath.

But being right with God through faith is an entirely different story.  For one thing, it's totally inclusive.  For it says in verse 16;

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-- not only to those who are of the law [that is, ethnic Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.

This is totally countercultural!  The culture says-- what is that song from The Sound of Music?  It goes something like

Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could;
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must've done something good.1

Human culture says it's all about work and rewards.  But the promise of God comes to us who are dead in trespasses and sins, who are totally helpless and can't do a single solitary thing to work our way to eternal life.  And see! He makes us alive in Christ!  Our God is the God who does call something out of nothing by the power of His Word, and He does it every time the Holy Spirit plants faith in Jesus Christ into a lost sinner, like each of us were before He gave us new life in Christ.

Our God is the God who "calls things that are not as though they were."  And when He speaks, those things spring into being!  How do we know this is true in time and space and not just in theory?  Well, says Paul, look at the whole history of the birth of Isaac.  Both Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead where it came to having children.  They totally didn't have it in them.  But God had promised him a son from his own loins by his wife Sarah herself and no surrogate.  God in His mercy maintained and repeated this promise even after the fiasco with Hagar and her son Ishmael.  And without wavering Abraham believed that the Lord indeed would give him his own begotten son by Sarah.  He had faith that God had the power to do what He had promised, and this faith was "credited to him as righteousness."

So what does this mean for us as we go about our lives as children of God living in an ungodly world?  First, we must resist the Devil's lie that God requires more of us than faith in the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ, or that faith itself is some kind of a work we do, and not itself the gift of God.

We must stand firmly against the world's conception that being a Christian is about doing good deeds, and the more good deeds you do, the better Christian you are.  Yes, God does want us to walk in the footsteps of our Father Abraham, who acted on the divine promises he believed.  But our actions and our work do not make us his children or children of the living God.  That all comes by grace through faith in Christ alone.

And we must utterly reject the falsehood that creeps upon us when we're depressed or in a bad situation, the nasty little voice that suggests we're not good enough to be saved by the blood of Christ, or worse, that somehow the blood of Christ isn't strong enough to save a wretch like you or me.  If we were good, we wouldn't need saving!  And the promise of God in Jesus stands firm and strong.  His cross is more than sufficient to save us from all our sins.

For what does the Apostle say at the end of our reading from Romans?

The words "It was credited to him" were written not for him [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

In the sphere of this world, by all means, work as hard as you can at the vocation God has called you to.  But in the sphere of the world to come, stop struggling, stop your fruitless working, put down your tools and come with empty hands ready to receive.  The Son of Man gives you the food that endures to eternal life, and He gives you the faith you need to take it from His hand.  By His grace, may you cease your labors and rest forever in Him.  Amen.
1  By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1959

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When "What Everyone Knows" Is Wrong

Texts:  Psalm 138; Colossians 6:6-23

EVER SINCE WE'RE LITTLE, WE LEARN that certain things are true about life in this world.  Things like, "No pain, no gain," "There's no free lunch," and "You get what you pay for."   We learn that if we want to get ahead there are powers and authorities we have to keep happy.  It might be your parents, your teachers, your boss-- or if we're superstitious, maybe it's Fate or karma or the powers of nature.  The general rule is that you have to give to get, and that's just the way things are.  It's what everyone knows.

And these basic principles don't just apply to our livelihoods and lifestyles.  As children of this fallen world we're born with the conviction that it works the same way in the spiritual realm.  It's what everyone just knows.  Good people go to heaven.   Being good means doing good deeds.  Good deeds and the right kind of worship will earn us the favor of God, however we conceive him, her, or it to be.  And if we're good and do good deeds and worship our god or gods the right way, he, she, or it simply has to reward us with prosperity on earth and heaven, paradise, nirvana, the Elysian Fields, whatever we're looking forward to in the life to come.

It's ingrained into us that that's how things are.  That if we're going to be full and fulfilled we have to keep the powers that be happy and do, do, do.  It even distresses us to think otherwise.

But along comes Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and He says, "Relax.  Forget all that do, do, do.  Trust in who I am.  Rest in what I have done.  Stop listening to what "everyone knows" and live by My wisdom instead."

This message of our Lord Jesus Christ is the message St. Paul was bringing to the Christians in the church at Colossae nearly two thousand years ago, and it's the same message the Holy Spirit is bringing to us in His Word today.  It's a radical message, a message that contradicts everything the world teaches us and everything our gut tells us is true.  But when it comes to teaching and truth, it's always best for us to obey the voice of the Lord who is Wisdom and Truth, and as new creatures in Him we need to leave the conventional wisdom of this fallen world behind.

St. Paul begins our passage from chapter 2 of his letter to the Colossians with these words, "So then, just as you have received Jesus Christ as Lord . . . " Everything hinges on this.  If we don't know what kind of Lord Jesus Christ is, and how we have received Him, we'll never get loose from "what everyone knows" and walk in the freedom of Almighty God.  What kind of Lord is Christ Jesus?  He's the ultimate, mighty, and supreme Lord Paul wrote about in Chapter 1, in whom all God's fullness dwells, as we heard in the Call to Worship.  And how is He to be received as Lord?  Verses 1:22-23 says,

"But now he [that is, God] has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel."

God willing, you received Christ as Lord not by doing anything, not even by repeating the formula of a prayer as if that were a kind of charm to make God save you.  No, you were reconciled to God by Jesus' death on the cross, and His blood was applied to you by God's doing alone. All you had to do was put your faith in-- that is, trust-- in the good news concerning what God had already done.  And as we know from elsewhere in the Scripture, even our ability to believe the gospel is a gift and work of God, and not something we have to or can work up on our own.

So if this is the case with you, if this truly is the Christ you received and how you received Him, then, you Christian of Colossae, you Christian of P----, continue, Paul urges in 2:6, to live, walk, conduct your life in Him.  As you live your life, may your roots of faith go down in Christ deeper than the most stubborn dandelion.  Let your knowledge of Him be built up higher than the tallest skyscraper.  Make sure that you are continually strengthened in the faith you have been taught, so you come to grasp more and more who Jesus is and the wonder of what He did to redeem you from sin and death, so you may overflow with thankfulness to your Savior and Lord.

Oh, yes, faith in Jesus is practical.  We aren't saved by what we do, regardless of what conventional wisdom says.  But neither can the word of Jesus that saved us just be a nice story that lives up in our heads and we forget about it most of the time.  We need by the grace of the Holy Spirit to be walking around continually in the wonderful new reality of God's work for us in Jesus Christ.

Why do we need this reminder?  Because, Paul goes on in verse 7, it's so easy for us to be taken
"captive again through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

This phrase "basic principles of this world" carries several layers of meaning in the Greek, and you'll see it rendered various ways.  "The rudiments of this world" (KJV); "the elemental spirits of the universe" (RSV); "the elementary principles of the world" (NASV), to quote a few.  It mingles the ideas of rules to be followed, of facts about "the way things are," and of spirits or entities--"gods" as Psalm 138 puts it-- that have to be kowtowed to and placated.  The Holy Spirit wanted all these meanings to be included, so we His people will understand that nothing is to take the place of Jesus Christ as we live and serve Him in this world.

The Lord our God created the world and set its basic elements in order, but we are not to be subject to our chemical natures.  He created the angels and all principalities and powers, but we are not to fear them or worship them-- especially when they rebel against God and claim to be greater than or more relevant than He.  God Almighty established the basic rules of right and wrong and wrote them on the hearts of every human being, and He gave His people Israel the written Law to show them how to live in His presence.  But even the holy Law given to Moses is not the way to fullness and satisfaction in this world or the next.

All these things throw us back on ourselves for hope and peace, but there is no hope or peace there.  No, only in Jesus Christ does "all the fullness of the Deity live in bodily form,"  and only in Christ is fullness given to us.

By warning us against the "basic principles of this world" Paul draws an uncrossable line between both pagan practices and Jewish legalism on the one side, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ on the other.  The church in Colossae would have faced pressures from both camps.

There would have been Judaizers telling them that to be real Christians they had to be circumcised and become Jews.  As you know, circumcision was a private sign of cutting oneself off from pagan gods and pagan practices and covenanting to worship the Lord alone.  But it bound a man-- and his affiliated household-- to obey all the Law and find his life and hope in it.  But now Christ has come, and He has fulfilled the Law for us.  Our circumcision is now spiritual, not physical, as Christ cuts off from us our old nature that could never please God.  Baptism is the sign given to us who have received fullness in Christ.  It is a public sign that our old sinfulness, our old allegiance to doing things our way has been buried in His tomb.  And our new selves have been raised with Him through faith in the power of God.

All God's power, all God's doing in Christ!  For "when you were dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ."  Dead equals helpless!  This term "the written code" in verse 14 literally means "handwriting" and it carries the sense of a legal indictment against us.  And isn't that what the Law ended up to be?  The decrees and ordinances that expressed God's holiness became a writ that put us on trial and condemned us to death!  But Jesus Christ took our sentence under the Law and made it His own!  And in the process, He also dealt with the forces, the powers and authorities that had us locked up in fear.

We aren't in the habit of worshipping gods and goddesses identified with forces of nature.  At least, I hope we aren't.  But we can still be bound up in superstition.  We can still feel a compulsion to check our horoscope before deciding anything important.  We can still be pulled towards believing some prophet who claims to have a source of special spiritual knowledge separate from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and is revelation in His word.  But by the best divine irony in history, Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross dying for our sins made a public spectacle of all of that.  Even as He was mocked and ridiculed He turned the tables and showed how foolish and powerless all those so-called gods really were.

You as a man or woman redeemed by Jesus Christ are no longer held captive by the basis principles of this world!  You have been freed from the clutches of the elemental spirits of this universe!  Therefore, let your mind be free of false guilt and needless fear.  The Colossians were under pressure to observe the Jewish festivals and the seventh-day Sabbath.  No, says Paul!  Those things were only shadows and pointers to Christ who was to come.  Christ is the reality, hold on to Him!  Some people even today will claim to have special visions and revelations, and try to make you feel you're second rate as a Christian because you just go to church and hear the preaching and receive the sacraments and do "unglamourous" things like that.  Others will go on and on about their guardian angels, as if it were wrong to trust directly in God.  Ignore them all.   You're running a race greater than any Olympics; don't let anyone get you off track and disqualify you for the prize.  People like that, Paul says, are proving they have forgotten the identity of the Lord who has saved them.  Jesus is our only Head; we, His body the Church, keep growing only as we stay connected to Him.

You have died with Christ to the basic principles of this world.  So don't submit to living as if they still governed you!  Don't go thinking that God is going to save you or keep you saved by certain things you do and enjoy or don't do and enjoy.  Paul illustrates the problem in terms of the Jewish kosher laws, but all religions set up foods and practices that are artificially taboo, even if they are good in themselves.  For us in our day, it might be rules about alcoholic beverages or watching movies or what car we drive or whether we're ecologically sensitive enough.  All these things belong to this world, which is passing away.  They can't save us, and abstaining from them can't even make us moral.

We as Christians live in this world, but our reality is in Christ.  We feel pressure to conform to the rules of this world, but they have all been subverted and turned on their heads by Christ.  "No pain, no gain"?  Christ's pain is our gain.  "There's no free lunch"?  Christ Himself is our free lunch, and we feed on Him by faith forever.  "You get what you pay for"?  We get what Jesus has paid for, eternal life, and we no longer need to fear the death we deserved.  We no longer need to fear Fate or those nameless forces that seemed to be out to get us, for we have died in Christ to them all and they no longer have any power over us.

Brothers and sisters, everyone wants to feel satisfied, to be fulfilled, to experience fullness in their lives.  Everybody knows how to get that-- that is, they think they do.  But in this case, what everybody knows is wrong.  No, bad people don't go to heaven, but our God has found a way to make bad people good, through no effort of their own.  For in Christ lives all the fullness of Almighty God in bodily form, and by His cross His fullness, power, triumph, and joy are ours.  Live each moment of each day rooted and built up in Him, keep on being strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and may your thankfulness overflow towards God for doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Amen.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

One Spirit, One People, One Peace

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-22

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN IN college, I met a guy at a party who introduced me to the concept of world citizenship.  He said he was working with a group who were lobbying the UN to make my hometown of Kansas City a "city of the world."  Somehow, the very mention of this filled me with excitement.  There was something so big and thrilling about the idea, something larger and grander and more hopeful than anything I'd conceived of before, and the thought that I myself might be involved in it made it all the more amazing.

Well, nothing came of this plan as far as I know, and it's been a long time since I thought that humanity united under a single human government is a good thing.  Still, there's something inherently appealing about the idea of human oneness and unity.  How wonderful it would be-- No barriers, no conflicts, just perfect communication and peace between man and man.

But that's not how things are in this world.  In fact, it seems like parties, opinion groups, and factions are more polarized and more in opposition than ever before in human history.  You probably have friends you don't talk to much any more because every time you get together, you end up in an argument about some issue or other.  With some people you can't even talk about the weather without things getting political!  It wouldn't be so bad if people would stick to evidence and facts, but the dividing walls of hostility are erected so high and so thick things too often end up in name-calling and insults.  So we stay in our own camps with that figurative wall standing between us, and human oneness is only a dream-- if we think it's a good thing at all.

With the way things are today, it should give us perspective on the polarization between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman world, as we read in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  But their conflict concerned more than current issues; it cut to the heart of created reality, for was over who or what should be worshipped as the true God and what that deity requires of us as humans.

This question is way bigger than the debate over, say, global warming or government-run health care.  In such matters let us take our stands based on the facts as we know them, but allow that more information may prove us to be wrong.  But in this matter of Jew vs. Gentile-- or, rather, Jew vs. pagan, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt as to who was and is right, or at least, more right, in this conflict.  The Jews absolutely were, before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only people on the face of this earth who worshipped the true Lord and Creator of the universe, while the gods of the pagans were useless idols.  The Jews were the only ones who'd been given His laws to follow, the only ones whom the Lord had made His people through solemn covenant, the only ones to whom He had powerfully revealed Himself with unshakeable promises of blessing. And although the prophets spoke of a Messiah to come who would somehow bring benefit to the nations as well, they were also clear that it was through Israel alone that this Savior would come. When it came to the divisions between Jews and pagans, it was not a matter of each side giving up a little on the human level and coming to a friendly compromise.  Compromise was something Israel could not do and remain Israel.  For whenever Israel compromised with the Gentile nations, that's when they got into deep trouble.

No, as Paul writes in verse 12, time was when we who were born Gentiles were

separated from Christ [that is, the Messiah of Israel], alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

In fact, for many centuries the dividing wall of hostility was a necessary barrier to preserve Israel from total disobedience and dissolution before the Messiah could come.   It was essential that the pagans and their evil influence be kept at a safe distance from the commonwealth of Israel, and the further off the better.  But, Paul says, the time has come for the dividing wall to be taken down.  Better than that, the time has come when it has been taken down, and the two indeed have become one.

How?  By us holding interfaith councils and agreeing that all religions lead to the same god?  By us avoiding controversial subjects and just talking about puppies and kittens and blue balloons instead?

No.  It took Jesus Christ Himself to break it down and bring Jews and Gentiles together.  For as we see in verses 14 and 15,

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances . . .

Now when we read that Jesus has "abolished . . . the law of commandments and ordinances," we might conclude that the Jews were wrong all along and we can indulge in and celebrate all sorts of immoral behavior and do it with Jesus' blessing.  That'd save a lot of arguments, for sure!  But we'd be wrong if we did.  For Paul has just finished, up in verse 10, saying that God has created-- recreated, actually-- us in Jesus Christ for good works.  And all the Scripture tells us that a godly life is the only way to please our Creator.  So what is this abolition?

In such a case, it helps to look at the original Greek. The word translated "abolish" literally means "down-un-acting" and, in the case of this verse, scholars interpret it as "made ineffectual or powerless; nullified; invalidated."  So what was the law considered to be effectual or valid for previous to Christ?  Well, the Jews looked to keeping the Law as an effectual and valid way to please God and be justified in His presence.  And that is what Moses had said by the Spirit in Leviticus, "The man who does these things will live by them"-- that is, have life, peace, and fellowship with the Lord of life.  But by the same Spirit he also said in Deuteronomy, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."  And who can live up to that?  The Jews never could.  Certainly the Gentiles could not.  We cannot.  The Law which reflected the holiness of God only served to prove how unholy we all were.  But in His flesh-- in His perfect obedience in life and His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Law in our place and set it aside as the way to peace and fellowship with God.

And as Paul writes in verse 13, in Christ Jesus we (and we're included with the Gentile Ephesians here) who were far off from Israel and alienated from God's promises have been brought near by the blood of Christ, shed for us all on Calvary's cross.  In Christ the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled, when the nations would miraculously stream up to Mount Zion and know peace walking in the ways of the God of Jacob.

I've heard that outside the United Nations building in New York there's a sculpture called "Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares," frankly taking its title from the verses from Isaiah 2 that read,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks.

In other words, let's bring about peace on earth.  Well, people, if you're trying to achieve that by what goes on in that building, good luck.  You'll be at it a long, weary time.  No, the Scripture is clear: Man cannot end hostility: Our peace is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.  In Him is the one and only peace that can make Jew and Gentile one and create one new man out of the two warring peoples.  It took the Son of God made Man to make peace between God's covenant people and those who before had been excluded from His covenant, and He did it by His atoning death.

But His death accomplished even more.  As wonderful as it was that Jesus should make one people out of the warring human factions of Jew and Gentile,  He also reconciled humanity to Almighty God.

And we all needed reconciliation to God.  Because as we can read in Ephesians 2:3, by nature-- fallen human nature-- we are all children of wrath.  In our natural sinful state we are at war with God and God is at war with us.  But in Christ and through Christ and because of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God who is rich in mercy chose us in love to be saved through Him.  And so now, as verse 16 says, He has reconciled both groups "to God in one body through the cross, bringing the hostility to an end."

But how does this come to be true for you and me?  Verse 18 answers that question: it is the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us access to the Father through Jesus Christ our mutual Lord.  By His gracious work we're no longer illegal aliens who deserve no amnesty; God Himself as in Psalm 87 has declared us to be born citizens of the heavenly Zion and by Christ His living Word it is so.  In Jesus we are made fellow-citizens with the saints-- and by that Paul would have meant the holy men and women of faithful Israel-- and members of the household of God.  In Christ the earthly nation of Israel is redeemed and rebuilt together with the elect Gentiles into the spiritual Zion, founded upon the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the head and cornerstone.  The dividing wall has been broken down, and in its place one building rises under His power.  Together we are that building, and it is no ordinary house: it is a holy temple intended for the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I hope you have a sense of how beautiful this is!  But beyond that I want us all to understand the power these beautiful truths must have for our lives in this fallen world.

First of all, we were not saved to be lone-wolf, individualized Christ-followers.  Back up in verse 11, the apostle begins this passage with the word "therefore."  In the previous verses he was reminding us of our salvation in Christ and God's will for our lives in consequence of that.  But we are not on our own.  God raised us up in Christ to be incorporated into one holy people by the ministry of one Spirit.  It is absolutely false that you can be a perfectly good Christian without being part of Christ's church.  Membership in Christ's church is a fundamental part of what you were saved for.  Indeed, everyone who has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ is a member of His Church whether he or she is able to sit in a pew or not.  Therefore, let us support and build up and act in love towards one another, for Jesus Christ is our peace.  In Him and in the power of His Spirit we can demonstrate that we are one new man, as we look out for the good of on another just as we would for ourselves.

Second, we cannot take our position as citizens of the heavenly Zion for granted, as something that simply comes with our living in our particular time and place.  No, for if things had kept on going as they had for hundreds of years, we who are not ethnic Jews would have remained strangers and aliens, unforgiven sinners, with no hope and without God in the world.  It is by grace you have been saved, just as it is by grace that the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah have by grace come to know that reality.  This should give us all a sense of humility before God and a heart of compassion towards our unsaved pagan neighbors.  For we were once as they are, and the blood of Christ that brought us near to God will, in His mercy, one day bring them in as members of the household of faith, too.  So let us conduct our lives in the power of the Spirit so Christ indeed will be seen in us, that through us others might also be reconciled to the God who made them.

This brings us to the third and final truth I believe we should take from our Scripture readings today.  Despite our compassion, there will always be plenty of people around us who are perfectly content to be without God in this world.  We Christians, they charge, are the ones who are unenlightened.  Indeed, when we conduct ourselves as citizens of God's holy nation and stand up for His righteousness in this world, we will be reviled as fools, bigots, even as enemies of humanity.  It can be hard living as a Christian in this world, the way things are going.  It may threaten your position, your income, and your reputation.  But you are members of Christ's one holy nation, and our heavenly citizenship takes precedence over all other loyalties.  Yes, let us be good Americans, good members of our political parties, good trade union members, good service club members, good members of our families.  But when any direction or practice or mindset of our nation, party, union, club, yes, even of our own families contradicts the will and nature of God as we know it from His revealed Word, He calls and commands us to stand firm in the Spirit and hold fast to the truth of Christ.

It won't be easy, but we can do it.  We can do it because we are God's one new people through His one Holy Spirit.  And the one peace we rest in is Jesus Christ Himself.  He is the Peace that will always last and never fail.  He has already accomplished the cosmic work of making peace between Jew and Gentile, and between both of us and God.  And so we can find our peace in Him, no matter what our conflict with the world may be.  Rejoice, Church of God!  We are His people, bought with His blood and brought together by His Spirit.  We are God's holy temple, His dwelling place on earth, and He will see to it that His temple, His spiritual Zion, stands forever, to the glory of His name.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What Is God For?

Texts:  Isaiah 40:18-31; Ephesians 1:3-14

I'M SURE YOU'D HEARD that tornados hit the Oklahoma City area again Friday night.  We prayed for the victims during our prayers this morning, for those who were hurt, for those who lost property, for those who lost loved ones.  But we know that as sure as this world turns there are going to be tornados in the Midwest in the spring, and sure as that world is fallen and sinful, there will be those who use that fact as an excuse to insult and mock God and those who believe in Him.

If you ever want to get totally fed up with that, go online and read the comments after any news article about any natural disaster. You'll have people writing that tornados and floods and hurricanes prove that God could not exist.  If the disaster takes place in the Bible Belt, they'll say with great glee that God must be punishing those stupid Christians, or insist that the disaster shows God can't be relied on, since He didn't come through as expected and protect His believers from loss and harm.

What can you say to such people?  Assuming they'd even begin to listen?  As believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can say that if that's the kind of god they believe in, these scoffers and mockers are right, because that kind of God doesn't exist.  If they think God is the Great Vending Machine in the Sky that's there to make sure our lives remain prosperous and comfortable, providing we drop in a few dollars worth of good works from time to time, that's a figment of the human imagination and it should be made fun of.

Atheists and people who believe in other religions have a distorted view of what we Christians think about who God is and what He is for.  No surprise.  The real problem is that too many Christians-- or people who call themselves Christians-- carry around the same false ideas about God and live their lives according to those false ideas.

It's gotten so bad that studies have shown that the majority of Christian teenagers-- and many, many Christian adults as well, don't really believe in classic Christianity; they hold to a religion that's been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  This modern faith says yes, there's a god, of some sort: that's the Deism part.  What this god is really like in him or itself doesn't really matter, the thing that matters is that he or it is benevolent and kind and well-meaning towards human beings and wants them to be happy, however they define happiness.  If I'm a believer in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I'd tell you this deity expects people to be nice and fair to other people, but he pretty much leaves it up to each person to decide what niceness and fairness is.  And so when I'm nice and do nice things, I can expect to be rewarded with this god's protection and favor.  That's Moralism.  And the most desirable way for him to reward and protect me is for him to solve all my problems, get rid of all the trouble, turmoil, and stress in my life, and make my sojourn here on earth comfortable and uncomplicated.  That's the Therapeutic part.  This god-- this false god-- makes no demands for his own sake; what he's for is to make me feel good about myself.  Otherwise, what good is he?

Brothers and sisters, is that what God is for?  Is that the deity we should be raising our children to pray to and depend upon?  Does the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism bear any resemblance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What do the Scriptures say?

The Lord God had a lot to say about Himself in chapter 40 of the prophecy of Isaiah.  We read that God is incomparable and unique.  He is high and holy.  To Him, people are like grasshoppers and the whole expanse of heaven is like a tent you might live in on a camping trip.  Governments and rulers reign only as long as He allows them; the mere breath from His mouth sweeps them away like chaff.  He marshals the stars and maintains them in their courses; nothing is outside His rulership or beyond His control-- and that would include tornados, floods, and hurricanes.

Does that sound like the spineless god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that deity who is at our beck and call, that we obligate and control by our good works?  Not in the least.  However, the Lord certainly is benevolent and merciful towards His people Israel.  He assures them that their trouble is known to Him.  He reminds them that He is the God who gives strength to the weary, even when the young and the strong are collapsing by the roadside.  He tells them that those who hope in the Lord will

. . . renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Is this like the therapeutic relief so many expect from God these days?

No, not really.  For as we've seen, the modern expectation is that God is supposed to be good to me for my good.  The eternal reality is that God is good for His own glory.  And it is not our good, moralistic works He wants, it's putting our hope in Him; that is, our total dependence on His greatness and power.

But maybe that's just the Old Testament talking.  Many people will tell you that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different beings.  Or maybe that the Old Testament writers got God wrong, and all this business about His holiness and majesty can be discarded; what we really want to concern ourselves with is His love and affection and how wonderful it makes us feel.

And the New Testament does tell us how much God loves  us.  But so does the Old.  And the Old Testament does tell us about God's glory and majesty.  But so does the New.  Both parts of God's holy Scriptures tell us who God is and what He is for.  And what it all says together might be a surprise to the self-satisfied atheists who comment on news websites and YouTube videos, and to many Christians as well.

What did we read in Paul's letter to the Ephesians?  Who is God, and what is He for?

First of all, He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all praise is due.  Jesus Christ the Son of God is the One who died to take away our sins by the express purpose and will of His Father in heaven.  No concept of God that leaves out Jesus Christ the God-Man can claim any kind of reality.  Beside the triune God of the Scriptures there is no God.

This same God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  No, we are not promised an easy life on this earth.  God never says He will divert tornados to keep His people out of their path, or always let us have the job we want, or grant us continual good health and prosperity on this earth.  What He does promise, what He is for, is our sharing in His very nature through Jesus Christ our Lord.  He's for us knowing union with Him: tasting a little of it now in this life, but enjoying it perfectly in the life to come.

We who believe in Jesus were chosen for this.  Before the creation of the world, St. Paul writes, God chose us-- not to be privileged, not to be perpetually safe and secure, not even to be serene and without turmoil in our minds-- but to be holy and blameless in His sight.  I don't know about you, but I know that in myself I am not holy and blameless in the sight of God.  I suspect you know the same about yourself.  So has God's choice failed, or are we outside His choice?  Not at all, for it is in Christ and Christ alone that we lose our guilt before God and deserve to stand in His holy presence, and God has ordained, He has predestined us to be in Christ, to be adopted as His very sons and Jesus' own siblings.  Being in Christ!  Sharing in His nature and His union with the Father!  You can't get more holy and blameless than that.

And what for?  God does it all for and according to His good pleasure and will.  Just think, God is pleased when His elect people are joined in union with His Son Jesus Christ!  But see, it is God's will and pleasure that come first, not ours.  If the it were left us to us to determine what would be the highest good for ourselves and the universe, how shabby and shallow that good would be!  But God has done everything according to His will, not ours, that His glorious grace might be praised as it deserves.

This grace is not some vague benevolence, it is that salvation He has granted us in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.  It is the redemption we have in Christ's blood and the forgiveness of our sins.  The modern world isn't too big on the concept of sin: if people talk about sin at all, they define it as things like eating chocolate or not approving of any and all sexual relationships or praying in a public school.  But according to the riches of God's grace lavished on us in His wisdom and understanding, the blood of Christ purchased for us forgiveness of real sins, the ones that had us under God's righteous wrath and kept us from fellowship with Him.

What is God for?  God is for working out the mystery of His will-- again, according to His good pleasure.  Not just His will to save us but more than that, His will to exalt His Son Jesus Christ to the highest place, bringing all heaven and earth together under the sole headship of Christ.

And yes, God is for us.  He is for us in Christ.  He is for us because He is first and foremost for Himself, for the purpose of His will.  God's purpose for us is that we might be for the praise of His glory.  By birth, by sin, by our natural bent we were not for God and we did not want to serve Him.  We were for our own glory, and we expected Him, if He existed, to serve us.

But by the power of the gospel preached to us God changed our hearts and turned them away from our own purposes and raised them up to love and appreciate His.  God gave us His Holy Spirit so we can know by fellowship with Him that the spiritual blessings promised to us are faithful and secure.  God has promised us an inheritance in Christ, and the Spirit is our guarantee that it surely will be ours.  When?  When all God's chosen possession, His predestined saints, shall have been redeemed.

That day surely will come, and as it does, what is God for?  Again, He is for the praise of His glory.  If God were an ordinary human like you or me, this would be obnoxious.  Insufferable.  How full of himself that person is! we'd say.  But God is God:  High, majestic, holy and incomparable.  He is no vague deity whose sole purpose is to tell us what good children we are and make things all better for us.  He is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory; He acts and operates according to the highest wisdom, understanding, and might. He has not left the welfare of the universe up to us and our sinful wills; rather, His good and gracious will works everything out to His good pleasure, and we can know that in His good pleasure we will receive everything we need for hope, purpose, and fulfillment in Him.

What is God for?  God is for Himself, and therefore in Christ God is for you.  Even in the worst of times, even when your life has been flattened and the mockers of God and the mockers of His people are shouting their insults and lies at full volume, you can have faith that the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is your Help and Redeemer.  What He chooses nothing can discard; what He predestines nothing can change; what He wills, nothing can sway from His purpose.  Trust in Him, for He who is the Creator of the world also raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and He will do for you all His has promised, to the praise of His glory.  Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Unfinished Business, Part 2

Text:  John 21:1-22

TWO WEEKS AGO in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John we began to see how the risen Christ works in us, from the perspective of the Apostle Peter.  We saw how Jesus meets us in the ordinary activities of our daily lives, even when we not be looking for Him.  We were reminded how He transforms us by the saving power of His cross, so we can run to Him and His holiness in spite of our sin.  And we saw again how Jesus, our Lord and God, provides us with everything we have and need, and though He doesn't need our help, still He calls us to participate in His work in the world until He comes again.

This morning we're going to go deeper into this last truth as we examine the second part of this passage.  We left Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Thomas, Nathaniel, and a couple of the other disciples on the western shore of the Sea of Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) gathered around a charcoal fire eating breakfast with the risen Jesus.  Imagine the mixed emotions Peter might be feeling.  You know how it is when there's something wrong between you and a good friend; when you've offended or hurt him in some way.  He's treating you like everything's all right, but you know, you just know that the two of you have unfinished business.

And there certainly was unfinished business between Simon Peter and his Lord.  Back in John chapter 18, in the hours before Jesus was crucified, there'd been another charcoal fire with Peter standing near, that time in the courtyard of the high priest.  Some distance away Jesus was standing His farce of a  trial.  Peter had already denied knowing Jesus when he was let in at the courtyard gate.  And by the flickering fire Simon Peter had denied his Lord the second and third times.  In a few hours Jesus was dead and now it was too late, the offense could never be put right.  But now here was Jesus, risen from the dead and sitting there with them! But for Peter, the joy had to be mixed with the nagging feeling that Jesus must still be terribly, terribly disappointed in him.  Would it be worse if the Lord left the unfinished business unfinished? Or if He openly called Peter out on his sin?  Either way, could their relationship ever again be the same?

Then it happened.  After they'd all finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"

Notice how Jesus calls Peter by his birth name, Simon, and not by "Peter," the name He gave him?  "Peter" means, well, not quite "rock" like the Rock of Gibraltar, but more "rocklike" or "rocky."  It signifies strength and steadiness, but Simon had been anything but strong and steady the night Jesus stood His trial.

Then see how Jesus asks him if he "truly loves" Him, "more than these."  It bears repeating that the Greek word the NIV translates "truly love" is "agapas," the second person singular of the verb related to "agape," which means selfless, deathless, Godlike love, the love that for the sake of righteousness would cause a man to die even for His enemies.  "Simon", Jesus is gently asking, "what about all those grandiose professions of unbending loyalty you spouted in the Upper Room?"  "I will lay down my life for you," Peter had said.  "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!" Peter had said.  "Simon," Jesus says now, "do you truly love Me,  agapas me , more than these?"  The night our Lord was arrested Peter had sworn, "Even if all fall away, I will not."  Peter had been so sure he loved Jesus with unshakeable, deathless       love, that his love for Jesus exceeded the love of any of the other disciples.  That had been his fervent boast.  So, "Simon, do you truly love Me like that?" Jesus asks. "More than these others do?"

What can he say?  Peter tries to get round his shame by replying, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  But what's this?  Peter isn't using the verb form of "agape" that Jesus used, but the verb form of "philia," or brotherly love.

Now, let's not sell philia love short.  It's far more than just liking.  It's the kind of love that would cause a sister to spend her last dime to bail her sister out of jail, or a soldier to fall on a grenade for a comrade in his regiment.  But it tends to focus on people you're in a mutual relationship with, those you know would do the same for you.  It doesn't have the same self-abandoning quality as  agape. Peter has to step it down and profess to a love that is not so high.

Once more, in verse 16, Jesus asks Peter, "Do you truly love Me, agapas me?"  Why does He ask this again?  Because the Lord bears true agape love towards Peter, and He wants to make sure Peter learns what he needs to learn.  Peter needs to really hear and respond to Jesus and not just say what he hopes he can get away with or what he thinks Jesus wants to hear.  Their unfinished business needs to be finished, not glossed over.

And again Peter can only say, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you-- philo se."  "Yes, Lord, I love you like a comrade-at-arms or a brother."  Peter can no longer claim that his love for Jesus is unlimited and Godlike.  It is, he decides, a good, solid, devoted human love.

But then, in verse 17, once more Jesus asks Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" That is, in the Greek, "Do you  phileis me?"   The Evangelist tells us that Peter was hurt at this.  Not because Jesus had asked him about his love for Him a third time, but because the third time Jesus had changed the word for love He was using.  He switched to the term Peter was trying to accommodate himself with.    "So, Simon, do you really love Me with philia love?"  How the reminder must have probed the depth of his betrayal!  Fall on a grenade for Jesus?  Back there in the high priest's courtyard he couldn't even admit to knowing Him!

But still, this philia love is what Peter intends towards Jesus and it's the least that Jesus deserves.  So he appeals to Jesus' deepest knowledge of his heart: "Lord, you know all things; you know I love you-- philo se!"

What is was our Lord trying to accomplish with all this?  Just this: It was still His intention that Peter should be the leader of the Apostles and the chief evangelist to the Jews throughout the Roman world.  But Simon Peter couldn't be all that as long as he was depending upon his own strength and good intentions.  He had to be-- not humiliated--but humbled, so he would depend wholly on the strength and resurrection power of Jesus Christ instead.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord hasn't called us to be the Prince of the Apostles like Simon Peter.  But He does call us to love and serve Him with a right appreciation of our intentions and abilities.  He wants us to walk humbly in His presence, depending on Him alone.  It's bad enough when we hang back from serving Him because we think it's all up to us and we feel inadequate and scared.  It's worse when we pull the "Stand back, Lord, I'll defend You!" act, as if we were St. George and Jesus were the helpless maiden who needed to be rescued from the dragon.  Because fear may cause us to cry out for Christ's help, but when we boast in our own strength, we forget our need of Him altogether.  Then He can do nothing with us until by the Holy Spirit we are moved to repent.

But what does Jesus command Peter each time the apostle confesses, "Lord, you know I love you, that I  philo se"?  "Feed my lambs," says Jesus.  "Take care of my sheep.  Feed my sheep."  Peter is the model and prototype of all the pastors and elders Christ has put into His Church to build her members up in the Christian faith and ministry.  All right, Peter loves the Lord with philia love.  How can he show it?  How can any leader in the church show it?  By bringing the people of God, young and old, to a deeper, richer, truer, heart, mind, and spirit knowledge of and relationship with the Lord who died to save them from their sins and rose to give them eternal life.

From the Holy Spirit's work as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles we know this feeding and care taking primarily means preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and His saving work.  Not just to bring in new converts, the lambs, but also, always, to sustain the sheep, the more mature saints.  For we who have been in Christ's Church longer also need to be comforted and corrected by repeated reminders of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.  Otherwise we forget and wander off on our own imaginings about Jesus and what He's about.  We go astray.

Brothers and sisters, we live in dangerous times when pastors and elders especially need to adhere faithfully and firmly to these commands of Jesus.  And I'm not now talking about bombs set by American citizen terrorists or infringements on our liberties by our own government.  No, I'm referring to a  trend that's set in in some parts of the evangelical wing of the Church, that would reject totally what Jesus commands Peter and all pastors to do.

This danger starts with the insistence that we should stop using the word "sheep" for God's people.  It's demeaning, some Christian leaders say, and it implies that we're all stupid and helpless.  And yes, it isn't exactly a compliment to be called a sheep.  They do tend to wander off.  They eat stuff they shouldn't.  They refuse to drink unless the water is still and not running.  They get dirty and diseased and smelly.  But God in His wisdom chose to incorporate this term for us in His Word because that is exactly what we are like when we're left to ourselves in our sin.  Helpless.  Wandering.  Consuming poisonous weeds.  And not very clever, and the most intelligent among us can sometimes be the stupidest of all.  He chose this word moreover because it exalts Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd who keeps us safe and healthy, who laid down His life to rescue us from Satan, that old wolf.  Without His loving favor we are prey to every false religion and wild beast of lying worldly ideas that comes along.  But Jesus does save and preserve us, and He does so by the hand of faithful undershepherds like the man He was making Peter to be.

Along with this, there are also those in our time who'll admit that God's people are His sheep, but they say it's up to the sheep to feed themselves.  That's the only way, they insist, for the church to be "seeker sensitive" and "missional." Pastors like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Chicago and Steven Furtick of Elevation Church of Charlotte, South Carolina, have said openly that members must become "self-feeders"; that those who want to hear more about the doctrines of grace on Sunday morning are on the way to becoming "spiritually obese"; that it's not their job as pastors to take care of the already-saved, they have to focus on the lost.  These men are right that the local church should be as outward-looking and concerned for unsaved sinners as Jesus is.  We must not be a private club where we care only for ourselves.  But they seem to forget that without pastors and elders continually building the membership up by the Word and sacraments of Jesus Christ we have nothing to take into the world.  If we sheep (and that includes all of us) are left without the shepherds God has appointed for us, if the shepherds refuse to do their Christ-given jobs, we will be walking pieces of unfinished business, with nothing to offer anybody but our own failing, faulty human efforts.

It would be bad enough if this "self-feeding sheep" mentality were a problem only in nondenominational churches, but some evangelical Presbyterian leaders are also beginning to suggest that that's what it takes to be missional.  Brothers and sisters, whatever you do, make sure that the person in your pulpit feeds constantly with the sincere milk and the strong meat of the Word of God, not only in preaching, but in care and visitation.  For only then will you be strong enough to reach out to those who do not know our great Shepherd and the only Lord.

Jesus in this episode in John led Simon Peter into a new knowledge of himself and of Jesus' will for him, and closed the unfinished business they had between them after Peter's denial.  But Peter is not exactly comforted when Jesus goes on to indicate how Peter will finish his life on this earth, in a martyr's death.  He no longer boasts proudly about facing it without fear, but he can't help wondering if John will experience the same.  But the command of Jesus to him and to us is immovable: Never mind my will for him (or anybody else), you follow Me.

For Jesus' business with us is never finished, at least, not until He comes in glory and we are perfected in Him.   We love imperfectly but are to go on loving, not depending on our love but on His; we serve in and with and through the gospel Word, not boasting in our own strength but humbly relying on His.  And the strength and love of Jesus are perfect and sure, for He who died has risen from the dead, and He is with us now and forever more.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unfinished Business, Part 1

Text: John 21:1-22

ONE THING I'VE LEARNED over twenty years of preaching is that my sermon title is not Scripture.  A preacher might think the title she's come up with when she's planning worship is really good and appropriate, but when she really gets into the text the Holy Spirit might have other ideas about where the sermon should go and what it should be called.  And over an even longer time of being a church member sitting in the pew, I learned that when this happens and the preacher doesn't let the congregation know, the typical church member is liable to spend half the preaching time waiting for the preacher to get to some point that fits the title printed in the bulletin, and for him the sermon falls flat.  People naturally expect the sermon content to match the printed sermon title, and they can get thrown off when it doesn't.

So as you might have guessed, this happened to me this past week.  The title I initially chose for today's sermon, "What About It?" no longer matches what the Holy Spirit wants me to bring to you from today's text.  A better title might be something like "Unfinished Business."

From the purely human point of view, the protagonist of our reading from the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, is the Apostle Peter.  Or, as he is also called, Simon son of John.  And the risen Jesus clearly has unfinished business with Him.  Peter held a unique position among the apostles, and so we have to be careful about applying everything that John writes about Peter directly to our own lives.  But all Scripture is written to build us up in faith and life in Jesus Christ, and since we are to follow and imitate our leaders as they follow and imitate Christ, this 21st chapter of John can certainly guide us as we believe and live in light of Jesus' resurrection.

The events John records happened during the forty days between Jesus' resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven.  Think how strange a period this must have been for His disciples!  It was a time of waiting, when uncertainty and hope were all mixed up together.  Christ indeed was risen; His body had been renewed and transformed in unimaginable ways.  So never again would He go back to being the same old human Jesus they'd known in the three years previous.  On the other hand, He was definitely there with them bodily and tangibly; that is, when He was there with them.  And then, their Lord had told them He was sending them out to preach forgiveness of sins in His name.  So the disciples were no longer just students, they were to be teachers with His authority.  That first Resurrection Day evening in the upper room, Jesus had breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit."  On the other hand, the full outpouring of the Spirit and His empowering for ministry was several days or weeks away.  And until it fell upon them they could not begin their mission.  This business of being an apostle was unfinished.

Peter, along with the other disciples, was an ordinary person living in the most extraordinary reality humanity has even known.  A Man he knew, his Teacher and Friend, had been brutally crucified but now was risen gloriously from the dead!  Jesus had conquered sin and death and brought life and immortality to light through His mighty resurrection!  Any time now Peter and the others would be released to go out and tell the good news. But what was he to do with himself in the meantime?  He was only human, with twenty-four hours in the day to fill.  Sometimes they all could see and fellowship with their risen Lord.  But often it'd be just Peter and the other disciples, wondering when Jesus might appear next.  No human being can live in a high state of watchfulness and spiritual fervor all the time.  Even when something has occurred that's changed us and all human history, ordinary sinners like Simon Peter, like you and me, sometimes have to exhale, and think and do ordinary human things.

So we shouldn't be surprised that at some point Peter (or some other disciple) should say, "I'm going out to fish."  A lot of preachers (including me, I'm afraid) judge him harshly for proposing this, but we sin against mercy when we do.  It's totally understandable that Peter and the others might go fishing.  Jesus wasn't with them at the time; maybe they hadn't seen Him in awhile.  They were home in Galilee, the boat was available, and a little extra income for their families would be a welcome thing.  Peter wasn't announcing that he was giving up on Jesus and going back to being a full-time commercial fisherman.  No, this was a one-time proposition, and you'll notice that we never read that Jesus rebukes Peter for coming up with the idea.  It's my thought-- and keep in mind this is only my thought because we can't know for sure-- that what motivated Peter to go out fishing that night was the pressure of uncertainty and waiting.  When you don't know quite what to do, the handiest thing can simply be to do the thing you know how to do best.

We can learn something from this.  When we know exactly what Jesus wants us to do in a situation, we should do it.  We should remember His resurrection and His power and fearlessly obey His word and His will.  It can be something as momentous and long-term as going overseas as a missionary or as momentary but equally significant as calling a friend to offer a word of comfort or stopping to smile and open a door for a stranger.  When the Holy Spirit of Christ is clearly leading you, obey.

But what about when life is just going on in the ordinary way?  What if we're uncertain what God's special will is for your life?  Remember that whatever you do and wherever you are, you belong to Christ, and He is risen.  Do your work, enjoy your family and friends, and take advantage of the good things of this world, including recreation and amusements, with thanksgiving and good sense.  Being a child of God doesn't dehumanize you or take you out of the world.  Knowing that Jesus is risen doesn't oblige you to live continually on some high plane of spiritual ecstasy.  In fact, what seems to be your ordinary work and play may be Christ's special mission for you.  But in everything, keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to perceive your Lord when He comes to you with the clear word of His will.  For you are His disciple, and His business with you isn't finished.  To you He certainly will come with His word and will, sometimes when you least expect it-- as we shall see in our reading.

So, the seven disciples launch the boat out onto the Sea of Tiberias (which we also call the Sea of Galilee) and get ready to fish.  But this night the luck is against them, or maybe they've lost their touch.  They fish all night and catch nothing.

And then dawn begins to break over the water.  Dimly in the morning light they can see a figure standing about a hundred yards away on the shore.  A voice calls out, "Friends, haven't you any fish?"  The Stranger seems to know they've had no luck; in fact, in the Greek this question is definitely put in the negative.  And the disciples have to admit, "No."  So the Stranger tells them to throw their net into the sea on the right side of the boat and they'll get some.

Ordinarily, this would be a silly thing for some random person to suggest to a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If the fishing was bad at night, it's going to be worse in the morning.  Are they beginning to wonder just Who this is that has commanded them?  At any rate, they comply.  And when they do, they can't haul in the net, so many large fish are in it.

Oh, my.  Oh, my!!  What memories would be going through the heads of Peter son of John and James and John the sons of Zebedee!  Three years before, as St. Luke tells us in chapter 5 of his Gospel, these men had had another night of fishing with no luck.  And in the morning the Rabbi Jesus came along.  They'd met Him before, as St. John tells us, down in Judea with John the Baptist.  The Baptist said He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But by the world's reckoning, Jesus was only a carpenter turned rabbi and no fisherman.  But He'd told them to push out and try again.  That time, Peter had grumbled a bit but did it to humor the Master.  Three years before, when they complied they also caught such a large number of fish the net began to break.  And now it was at the word of the Stranger on the shore, a tremendous catch is leaping into their net again.   John the beloved disciple cries out, "It is the Lord!"

But this time there's a difference.  Three years before when these things happened, Simon Peter fell at Jesus' knees and begged Him, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" But this time Peter grabs his cloak, jumps into the water, and wades to shore as fast as he can.  He's still a sinful man, but Peter now knows that in Jesus there was salvation, forgiveness, and love.  Regardless of the unfinished business in the boat and in his heart, he wants to be where Jesus is.

Brothers and sisters, let us run to Jesus, for He does not change.  He is the Son of God who rules over heaven and earth and everything in them.  The power He shows when He first calls us from our sins He still possesses when we are old both in years and in the faith. He is always able to use His authority for our good and His Father's glory.  What changes is we ourselves and our understanding of Him.  In our early years of walking with Christ we know Him a little, but He brings us on to know more and more.  Where once His holiness made us focus on the filth of our sin, He remakes us so we own His holiness as our only hope.  Like Peter who jumped out of the boat and waded to Jesus, we're still sinners; becoming totally free from of sin is unfinished business that won't be completed till we ourselves are raised to be like Christ.  But in His resurrection power He is working in us and for us, so that the sight of Him more and more will bring us gladness and joy.

The other six disciples continue to tow in the net full of fish.  When they arrive at the shore, they see that a charcoal fire is burning there, with fish already roasting on it, and bread as well.  Where could Jesus have got fresh fish so early?  This was a time and culture with no 24-hour grocery stores and no refrigeration.  He invites the disciples to bring some of the fish they've just caught, but He has no need of them.  The risen Christ is the Lord our Provider who requires nothing from our hand, but in His brotherly love He calls us to participate in His work.  Don't ever believe that without us, the Church on earth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do nothing.  If Christ our Lord wished it He could convert every one of His elect by the direct action of His Holy Spirit working in their hearts.  But in His grace and love He allows us to be His ambassadors and agents, bringing the food of His salvation through His word and sacrament, serving Him as we serve our neighbor in acts of comfort, encouragement, and relief.  But here in John 21 we see how Jesus told the disciples to come to breakfast and eat.  He took the bread and gave it to them.  He did the same with the fish.  Whatever we have to give comes from Him, and to Him we return our thanks and praise.

I'll have the privilege of filling your pulpit again in two weeks, and at that time, God willing, we will finish looking at this passage and see what it has to teach us about life and ministry in light of the resurrection.  Until then, I want you to consider that even though Peter seems to be the protagonist of this passage, the true central character is our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the central figure of all of Scripture and all of history, and He has unfinished business with each and every one of us.

For we, too, are living in an in-between time as we wait for Christ's return.  God has credited with His righteousness, yet we still struggle with sin.  We look back to His resurrection and live our lives in the knowledge and joy of it, yet it won't be made perfect in us until we receive our new bodies and are made perfect in Him.  Nevertheless, whatever we do, whatever He calls us to, let us live open-eyed in hope, ready to obey His commands whatever they may be.  And whether our spiritual eyes see Him or not, whether we feel His presence with us or we don't, He is with us, He provides for us, and in His good time, His heavenly business with us will one day be complete.  Amen.