November 14, 2018 – Comfort, Suffering and Christ-Reliance- 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

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Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV)

There are some troublesome trends in American Christianity that are not healthy for us to follow. The phrase, “God will never give you more than you can handle” is an example of a not-so-biblical teaching that gets spread around on blog posts and such.  We think that it is comforting to others when we repeat such nice-sounding platitudes, but we are simply putting the burden on the other person and the emphasis on “you” rather than sharing the blessed comfort that God has our circumstances in HIS control.  We like to believe that we are the ones who are in control, but we are not. We do encounter more than we can handle.  Apart from the grace and mercy of God we cannot handle anything.

A more accurate and ultimately more comforting phrase would be, “God can handle everything you have been given, because apart from Him you can’t.” We share in the good news and in the real comfort that God offers in and through our suffering, beyond the limits of our strength, and beyond our afflictions. Suffering is not a surprise. It is inevitable. Suffering is part of the human condition we inherited in the Fall. As believers in Jesus we are not going to be spared suffering, but we are given the hope that suffering will eventually end.  Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him.  We necessarily share in the Cross of Christ, but we who share in the suffering of the Cross also share in the triumph and eternal life of Christ.

The apostle Paul experienced just about every imaginable obstacle and type of persecution on his missionary journeys. Apart from the grace of God, Paul would not have been able to continue to believe or to persevere in his mission.

Our trust is in God who raises the dead, God who delivers the captives from bondage, God the I AM before and outside of time.

It is interesting that Paul asks the church at Corinth for their prayers. We trust God, yet we still pray for each other in thanks for the blessings God gives us.  Prayer is one of the evidences and the results of our faith, that springs from our confidence that God is the one in control not only of us and our circumstances, but of the ultimate redemption and restoration of all things.  Prayer is the way that God invites us to align our wills with His holy and good will, such as He teaches us to pray- “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” in the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Paul is teaching us not to be self-reliant. Paul assures us that God handles those things- pretty much everything- that is beyond our ability to manage. Our culture teaches us to be independent and headstrong, but Jesus is teaching us through the apostle Paul that we need to be Christ-reliant. We need to pray together with other believers, trusting that God’s will is being, and will be done just as Jesus taught us to pray.  God is the master of our circumstances as well as He is the bringer of all comfort and peace.

August 10, 2018- Something, Nothing, the Law of Love, and the Cross- Galatians 6:1-10, 1 John 4:19

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Brothers (and sisters,) if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  For each will have to bear his own load.

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:1-10 (ESV)

It’s easy to look around and point fingers and see others’ flaws. It’s easy to catch other people doing the wrong things, but it’s not so easy to examine our own behaviors and motivations before confronting someone else for his or her faults.  We ourselves fall into temptation and error without much provocation or assistance. All too often we can get self-righteous and instead of gently restoring a fellow believer in love, we become the pots who call the kettles black.  Correction is best given out carefully and gently, with humility, and with the aim of lifting the other person up.

In some ways it almost seems as if Paul is contradicting himself here. In most of Paul’s letters he continually underscores our utter dependence on Jesus and (Paul, the former legalistic Pharisee,) downplays the importance of our works. We know that there is nothing we can do to score brownie points with God.  Our good works come as a result of what Jesus has already done for us.  Our obedience to the law of love (and yes, the command to love others is not the Gospel but is actually part of the Law) flows from Jesus loving us first.

We were created by God to do good works as we learn in Ephesians 2:10.  Those good works are for the benefit of our neighbors here and now, not so much for God, as God does not need anything from us.  The people around us, the world around us, however, could really use our good works.

Our lives will be more in step with the will of God both individually and collectively here and now as we do good works and help each other instead of being surly and arbitrary and fighting good order. When we pray the way Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we trust that the Holy Spirit will work in and through us to bring about God’s will, even here and now.

We know that as we live with fellow believers that we are both saints and sinners. We live a paradox in that even though Jesus is the sole source of our being, our sustenance and every provision, our life still requires suffering and hard work and cooperation with other people. In this world we still are under the curse of the Fall and its slavery to sin and toil.  Life takes the grace to forgive- and to give sacrificially- that can only come from Jesus.

If we are going to live our lives the way that God would have us live (and none of us even comes close to doing a good job of this) we can only rely on Jesus. We can only love others because He loved us first (1 John 4:19.)  We can only gently correct and forgive others because we are dependent upon the grace of God ourselves.

When we think we’re something and we are convinced that we’re all that, it’s time to turn away from ourselves, look to Jesus, and turn to the Cross. Jesus is the one who gives us what we need to bring about His will. He gives us the endurance and the strength to do the good works He planned for us in advance.

August 9, 2018- The Strength of Jesus for the “Three Score and Ten”-Psalm 34:1-8, Romans 15:1-6, Psalm 139:16

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I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together!

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Psalm 34:1-8 (ESV)

(The apostle Paul writes:) We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans 15:1-6 (ESV)

There is a distinct irony in the apostle Paul’s teaching here, especially in referring to the persecuted church as, “We who are strong.” Who is Paul kidding here?

He is speaking of the strength that we who believe have in Christ. In  2 Corinthians 12:1-10 we learn of the struggle that Paul endured with the thorn in his flesh.  He doesn’t come right out and say exactly what that thorn was, but we can infer that it was some sort of painful physical infirmity.  Those of us who live with chronic pain can certainly identify with Paul’s struggle.

(The apostle Paul writes:) For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)

Human beings are vulnerable in many ways. Even the most robust and physically sturdy among us are only a slight electrical charge- the one that tells our hearts to beat- away from sudden death.  Our physical bodies are vulnerable to disease and injury.  Our mental and spiritual states are tenuous as well.  In this life all of us are only a missed heartbeat or a rogue driver away from the end of worldly existence, and no amount of money, influence or anything else can change the reality of our physical mortality. We might think we can delay the inevitable, but we learn from Scripture: Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:16 (ESV.)

Human strength and the promises of health or longevity via modern science are fleeting at best. Try as we might, we don’t see too many people who live beyond the “three score and ten” of Psalm 90:10.

The omniscient God of the universe knows exactly how long each of us is set to live on this earth. He has equipped each of us to meet the challenges that we will face, and He gives us what we need to endure this life.

When we realize that we have no real strength or power in and of ourselves, we are free to abide in and trust the mercy and the strength of God. We look to God knowing our own fragility and powerlessness. We can trust Him to meet our own needs and also to provide for the needs of others.

In Jesus’ strength– not our own- we can lift each other up. In Jesus’ strength we can endure the unendurable for ourselves and we can help bear the burden for others. In Jesus’ strength we have hope, renewal and peace now, even in this wretched, paradoxical place of “not yet.”

 

 

 

July 26, 2018- A Dearth of Due Process-Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles- Acts 22:17-29

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“When I (the apostle Paul) returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered. Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.              Acts 22:17-29 (NIV)

The apostle Paul had a rather daunting calling. He starts off preaching the Gospel in the temple, but the Jews there didn’t know how to take him. Here was a guy once known as Saul- the Pharisee who had been persecuting Christians and who had not only green-lighted but also witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 7.)

All the sudden here goes Saul-who-became-Paul preaching the truth of Christ that he had once so vehemently opposed. This was offensive to the crowd, who probably didn’t realize Paul had such a sordid past, and their anger kindled when they realized who stood before them.

Interestingly enough, we see that Roman citizens had some advantages in Paul’s time. American jurisprudence borrows from Roman law the assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Paul was not afforded the due process he should have been as a Roman citizen. Instead he was presumed guilty and summarily flogged as if he were a common street thug. Flogging was not just a smack on the hand or a whipping with a belt. The instrument, called a flagellum or flagrum, that Roman soldiers would use to flog someone in the first century looked something like this:

flagrum
There were many leather whip-like ends with heavy metal pieces on them that were designed to bruise and rip flesh.

It is a fact that Christians throughout the ages have endured unjust treatment for the sake of their faith throughout the centuries. There are many places in the world today in which Christians face persecution, torture and even death for professing Christ. The apostle Paul endured many such trials throughout his ministry journeys, yet his message stayed the same. The same Holy Spirit who sustains us in far lesser trials upheld the apostle Paul and multitudes of other believers throughout time.

The world may not always uphold our rights, whether they are natural rights or rights given by virtue of the law. Sinful humanity violating the eighth Commandment (do not bear false witness against your neighbor) is as popular as it ever was.

There was a sort of silver lining in the fact that the Jews rejected Paul and the Gospel he was preaching. While Paul’s own people rejected him, God intended for Paul to preach to non-Jews, people who had never heard of the One True God of Abraham, or of Jesus. Paul wrote many of the books of the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- writings that Christians use to this day for doctrine and encouragement in the faith.

It’s easy to get discouraged when our rights are trampled on, or when those who should understand us and listen to us don’t.

We don’t always understand the trials that we go through in this life. All we do know is that we can trust God even when we can’t trust people. God will find a way to preserve us and to work in and through us, by His grace, to His glory.

July 25, 2018-The Curse of the Law and the Faith of Abraham – Galatians 3:1-14,1 John 1:8-10

(The apostle Paul writes:) O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Galatians 3:1-14 (ESV)

Christ alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone. These statements are the very heart of Lutheran theology. We can’t save ourselves by behaving ourselves (which is a very good thing) or by earning brownie points.

This being said, all of creation is under the curse of the Law. Apart from Jesus taking the punishment for us who were born under the curse, we might as well simply eat, drink and be merry, because all of this world’s creation is destined for death.

If we look at the 10 Commandments in light of the teaching of Luther’s Small Catechism, we can see just how impossible law-keeping is. Even if we look only at Jesus’ two Big Commandments: Love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, we fall woefully short.

We may not worship golden calves, but do we honor the sovereignty of God by putting Him first at all times? Do we consistently love our neighbors as ourselves? Even if we really try?

The bad news is that as good and right as God’s Law is, we can’t follow it perfectly, and to fail at following any part of the Law perfectly means we have broken all of the Law. (James 2:8-13)

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10 (ESV)

Law can’t save us. It can only point us to trust the One Who already did.

Jesus broke the curse. In baptism we are made clean and brought into the family of God. In Holy Communion we are given the healing Body and Blood of Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins.  We don’t earn forgiveness or salvation.

Jesus became the “cursed one,” Who hung on a tree and took the penalty of sinful humanity.

There is no other way to life. “It is Christ or nothing,” as C.S. Lewis so aptly described the Christian faith. The faith of Abraham was the simple act of trusting God-  and knowing God makes a way. That gift of faith extends to us as well.

This is the good news. Jesus has done it all.

July 13, 2018 – One Gospel, One Way- Galatians 1, 1 Corinthians 1:18

apostle paul

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)  Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they glorified God because of me. – Galatians 1

There are many voices all around us that demand our attention. Demands of work, family and the world around us scatter our minds.  It’s easy to get our priorities messed up in today’s world- and even easier to create a value system (a religion if you will) of our own.

The media and the culture send us messages that “there are many paths to heaven,” yet if we go to Scripture, we learn from Jesus that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The only way to eternal life is through Him. (John 14:6)  We can’t earn our way to God’s favor.  All we can do is accept the gift of faith.

The story of the apostle Paul doesn’t point us to Paul, but to Jesus. Jesus is the one “doing the doing” as it were.  Jesus is the one who knocked the Pharisee Saul off of his high horse as he was traveling to Damascus. Through the Holy Spirit the Pharisee Saul – who once had approved the persecution and killing of Christians- became the apostle Paul, who wrote a large part of the New Testament and was eventually martyred for the cause of Christ.

Our culture isn’t accepting of the Gospel that Paul preached. The theology of the Cross, that we are both crucified with Christ and raised with Christ, is just as abhorrent to 21st century sensibilities as it was to those in the 1st century.

Some people twist the Good News into a license for anything goes (antinomianism) which denies the reality and the evil of human sin as well as the power and the necessity of Jesus’ death on the Cross to save us from the death we have earned and deserve.

Others preach a “gospel” of legalism or works-righteousness that requires rigid adherence to a series of rules and regulations and self-denials and penances to appease an angry and vengeful God who is stalking us and condemning us for every possible error or flaw in our conduct.

Still other so-called pastors, preachers and teachers teach for shameful gain the illusion that God is like a vending machine, perpetuating the error of Johann Tetzel that through the sale of modern-day indulgences we can buy our way out of hell, and/or have our “best life” here on earth right now. Jim Bakker, Rod Parsley, Leroy Jenkins and countless other modern-day wolves in sheep’s clothing who teach the false gospels of word-of-faith, prosperity gospel, or sell “miracles” for money fall into this category.

It is true that we need to hear and know God’s Law, and that left to ourselves, we have earned and inherited death and hell, but the purpose of knowing God’s Law is to show us our desperate need for the Gospel- the free salvation that Jesus bought for us on the Cross. We are not going to have a perfect life this side of heaven.  We do have Jesus walking with us, the Holy Spirit in us, and God’s promise that by His grace we will not be tried beyond what we can bear.  We do not have the promise of “prosperity now.”

Being nice doesn’t save us. Being social justice warriors can’t save us. Sending money to the televangelist du jour doesn’t save us or give anyone prosperity- except the one to whom the check is made out. We cannot do anything to earn or deserve anything from God. Even the ability to trust the One Who died on the Cross comes to us as a free gift from God.

Any “gospel” that denies the reality of and the need for Jesus’ death on the Cross is no gospel at all. The assurance that Jesus died to save us from our sins and that He rose from the grave is the Good News. It is the Good News of eternal life versus eternal death in which countless martyrs and saints over the centuries have stood firm.

As people who are called Christians and followers of Jesus, God’s opinion is the only one that matters.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)

 

June 25, 2018 Today is the Day of Salvation- 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

loving god

Working together with him, (Jesus) then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  For he says,

“In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.  We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,  but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;  through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.  In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”  2 Corinthians 6:1-13 (ESV)

Lutherans generally don’t view salvation as a one-time event; rather, we see it as a lifelong process. We don’t do altar calls or expect miraculous immediate healings. Yet we do believe in the promises God gives us in Scripture.  We believe what Jesus and His apostles taught us. We believe that in our baptism we are named and claimed by God, and that we receive the real Body and Blood of Jesus- given to save us from our sins- when we come to the communion table. Our sins are washed away. Although now we live with one foot in this world and one in the next, and we struggle with sin and unbelief every day, salvation is our hope, The Promise, the ongoing process of God restoring, renewing and preparing us for live forever with Him.

For us, every day is the day of salvation, just as the apostle Paul preached during his ministry. Paul’s ministry was fraught with danger. As he and other Jesus followers endured persecution, shipwreck, starvation, imprisonment, deprivation and eventually martyrdom, the promise remained.

Because we know today is the day of salvation, and every day is a day to put on our baptism and know that in Jesus we have salvation, we are free to live in a way that honors Jesus no matter what obstacles or hardships we face.

We deal with living in this fallen world. We have suffering, loss, poverty and disappointment all around us.  Yet we also have that great and precious promise of salvation- Jesus with us now even through all of our pain, sorrow and loss- and life forever with Jesus.