Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paul’s Mission

Week 29: The Story

This week we read quite a chapter in The Story.
I’m sure the editors of The Story had a hard time condensing and editing all the stories from this period after Pentecost, when the life-changing Good News of Jesus spread across the whole Mediterranean region.   Just Google a map of the Mediterranean from this period and look at all the places where Christian churches were planted.

And leading this movement was the man who formerly been one of the leaders persecuting Christians, but then was changed dramatically after Jesus spoke to him on the Damascus Road.

Instead of breathing murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples he became one of the leading disciples, an Apostle to the Gentiles, because an Apostle is one has been called and sent to proclaim the Good News.
I want to talk to you more, later in this sermon, about what we mean when we say Good News.
It means something very specific in the Bible.
But first more about Paul.

After his conversion, Paul lived in the city of Antioch, and grew strong and bold in his faith.
Antioch was a vibrant center for trade, and a great launching point for the early church.
So from Antioch, Paul set off on three separate missionary journeys over the course of approximately eight to ten years.  As you can imagine travel, in those days, was difficult.

Today, travel is easy. 
For Confirmation Sunday, my parents and Marin’s parents will just hop on a plane and travel the 2,000 miles to get here.  But in Paul’s day, you either walked, rode a camel or donkey,
or, if you were really brave, you traveled across the Mediterranean Sea, on a small ship.
Paul did all three.  But his courage and his passion to travel came completely from the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit compelled him to go and travel and suffer persecution in so many places.

On his very first trip, Paul arrived in place called Pisidian Antioch, which is in modern day Turkey.

When Paul would enter a town the first place he would go was the local synagogue.
And so when he arrived at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch he was invited to speak.

And Acts 13 records what he said to the people there:
 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb.30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus…
 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.[1]
So, essentially, what Paul was doing was connecting the dots for this audience of faithful Jews.
He was showing them how their own scriptures – pointed to Jesus.
Everything that happened to Jesus had been foretold in the Old Testament including his suffering and death. And then Paul simply looked out at this audience and invited them to believe their own prophecies.

The people in this particular synagogue were so intrigued that they invited him to come back on the next Sabbath and speak again.

Word got out, and on that day, nearly the entire population of Pisidian Antioch gathered around the synagogue to hear Paul.  But the local religious leaders got jealous and where threatened by a challenge to their authority and they started to make trouble for Paul and his traveling companions.  And that’s where the persecutions began.  They stirred up the people.

And so Paul spoke again to the people of Pisidian Antioch and said:
“We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
     “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
       that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

That was a quote from the prophet Isaiah.  Israel was called to be a light to the Gentiles.  As we’ve been studying this year, God blessed Israel so that they might be a blessing and bring the message of salvation to the whole world. 

Paul heard that call and was carrying out that mission: bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations.

And this week in Chapter 29, we had the opportunity to read all these amazing stories about God’s power, through the Holy Spirit, working through Paul and his missionary companions.

We read parts of his letters to the Thessalonians, the Galatians, and the people who lived in Corinth and Rome.

Many people are drawn to these letters because they are filled with so much practical wisdom,
and instruction for how to live as Christians in this world.
But at the heart of each of these letters is one thing: and that’s Paul’s passion to preach the Gospel.

And this is where I really want to draw you into this sermon, because I want everyone as you leave here today, to know what the Gospel is, and be able to explain it.

I won’t ask you to turn to your neighbor right now and do that,
but I do want you to think for a moment just to yourself, and answer this question:
“In one sentence what would you say the Gospel is?  What is the Good News?”  Please do that now.

Now I’m going to give you several verses where Paul describes the Gospel and here’s the first one:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.[2] 

For Paul, the key to preaching the Gospel was to preach “Christ crucified.”
So the key phrase in that verse is “the message of the cross.”

So if someone asked you “What is the Gospel?”  You could say, “It’s the message of the cross.”
And if they asked you “What is the message of the cross?”  You can tell the story of how God sent his Son into this world, because He loves this world so much.  And because this world is broken by sin he sent his Son to love us and to save us through his death and through his resurrection.

Now when the Gentiles heard this message they would have thought this was the strangest thing they ever heard.  They worshipped all kinds of deities and they had never heard of a god who was crucified.

And so that’s why Paul wrote that this message was foolishness to the Gentiles.  They did not understand how the message about a god who is crucifies is Good News.

And this is how Paul answered their bewilderment.

 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[3]

The message of the cross, the message of Jesus is Good News because it is Good News for sinners. Sin separates us from God.  Sin takes us down roads that only leads to suffering.

But in Jesus, we are made a new creation.
Through his death and resurrection, God promises to make all things new!
Things in heaven and things on earth!

That’s the Easter promise!
Jesus is Risen and in Christ, God is already healing things that are broken in this world.
In Christ, God is reconciling us back into a life-giving relationship that begins now and continues into eternity.

So the Gospel is the message of the cross, is the Good News that God took this instrument of death, what men meant for evil, and turned it into an instrument of life.
God turned it into victory: Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

And here’s one of my favorite passage, where Paul describes how the message of the cross is good news for you and me.  In Titus, chapter three Paul wrote:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.

We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.[4]

Do you know why this is one of my favorite passages?
Because that’s me. 

That sinful nature that Paul is describing, I resonate with that, because that’s me.
It’s within me, and it’s within you.

How many times have you done something you’re ashamed of?
It’d be pretty hard to count wouldn’t it?

How many times have you said something or done something that has hurt someone that you love?  You mean I’m not the only one?

How many of you love reading the second part of this passage where Paul writes:

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.

Not because we’ve done so many great things that we deserve it.  That’s not how salvation works.  That’s why God calls it mercy: not getting the punishment we deserve.
And that’s why God calls it grace:  getting what we don’t deserve the love and kindness of God our Savior, who freely, freely gave his life to free us from our sins.

God comes through the Holy Spirit and fills us with that grace every day.
It’s a divine empowerment that gives us the desire to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us the desire to honor God and give glory to God in our daily lives.

Is that Good News?

That message was the heart of what Paul preached wherever he traveled.

And that eternal life that Paul refers to, is not just a life that begins when we die.
It’s life in Christ that begins now, the hope within all who believe.

That’s why we can say with Paul:

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is
the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”[5]   Amen.

[1] Acts 13:27-33,38-39
[2] 1 Corinthians 1:17-18
[3] Romans 5:6-8
[4] Titus 3:3-7
[5] Romans 1:16

Monday, April 13, 2015

New Beginnings

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been looking forward to this Sunday.
This whole year, we've been immersing ourselves in God’s story, from the creation of this world, to God’s covenant relationship with Israel, to the repeated breaking of that covenant,
and finally to God’s plan to rescue His people and make us a new creation in Christ.

But, early on that first Easter morning, the disciples didn’t yet see or understand God’s plan, and so their eyes were on the Lower Story.

“He is finished” they thought. They had just lost their leader and their teacher.
And they were grieving the loss of the person who loved them and believed in them,
and gave them hope.

Even though Jesus had given them a glimpse of the Upper Story when he told them that he would die and rise again on the third day, they just couldn't grasp it.

But on Easter, when he called Mary by name,
and when he appeared to the eleven,
and later when he met Peter by the lake shore,  and restored him by three times asking him “do you love me”  “Feed my sheep”
in each of these encounters, Jesus changed their lives forever.
The old was gone, a new day, a new beginning, had come.

Well, today I want to talk to you about a new day for Community Lutheran Church and for you and me.

Each time we baptize a child or an adult in this church we say these words:
“you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever”
And then we say, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family, as a fellow member of the body of Christ and into the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus.”

I want to talk to you this morning especially about that last phrase,
the priesthood of all believers.

Because on that first Pentecost Sunday God poured out his Holy Spirit, not on prophet or two,
not just on a few charismatic and powerful church leaders...
rather, God chose to pour out His Holy Spirit upon every believer.

The Story we have been reading this year is not a story that ends with Jesus’ resurrection, that’s not the last chapter.  And God’s Story doesn’t end with the disciples who followed Jesus 2000 years ago.

Because just as God sent the Holy Spirit upon them God sends his Holy Spirit upon the church in every time and every place.  Just as Jesus’ disciples became the “priesthood of all believers”  because the Holy Spirit was given to them,  we become a priesthood today,
a priesthood of witnesses, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us.

On the Day of Pentecost, the crowds heard Jesus’ disciples speaking about God’s power in foreign languages they had never studied.
Some people, stood back in amazement, but others sneered and said, “They are drunk...”

So Peter stood up before the crowd and explained the miracle that had turned these ordinary fisherman, and even a tax collector, into priests, into people who spoke about God’s power.

“In the former days,” Peter explained, “God’s word was spoken only by prophets,”
   “but, the prophet Joel, foretold a day, when God declares,
   ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people, upon the young the old
   upon men and women, sons and daughters,
   and even upon those from whom you would least expect it.’

The church was born on Pentecost and it continues to be born in every place and in every way that God pours out His Holy Spirit.

Like today.
Right here in this congregation.

The Bible teaches us that the Holy Spirit is our Teacher, our Advocate, our Comforter,
the one who comes along beside us in our times of need, and intercedes for us, when we can’t find the words.

But the Bible also  teaches us that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to create and sustain faith. And that’s what God does in your life and mine, and in every person who receives the promises of Holy Baptism.

Over the next several weeks here at CLC, we have three baptisms scheduled.
And each of these baptisms, happens to be of a young child.

Now some Christians who don’t baptize infants might say to us,
“how can you baptize a baby, they can’t understand what is happening.”

But Lutherans believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on each of us for a specific purpose. We have a calling to be witnesses to be the priesthood of all believers.

Today and each Sunday the Gospel is preached,
is a day when the Holy Spirit is being poured out upon young and old, men and women, parents and baptismal sponsors, so that we might raise these children in faith, and so that we might tell each person in this congregation, and in this community the good news of Jesus Christ – the good news of new life, and forgiveness, and salvation in Jesus’ name.

That’s what it means to be the Priesthood of all believers.
That’s what it means to be witnesses, shining the light of Christ.

Pastor Randy Frazee wrote something important about witnessing that I think we are all wise to remember.

He wrote that “witnessing certainly includes telling others about Jesus.
But it is also expressed in how we live – in how we treat others.”

Being faithful witnesses in word and in deed, each day of the week is hard.
It would be impossible if it weren't for the power Jesus promised.
Without the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, we could do nothing.

But when others begin to see how our lives are changed,
when they see the hope and the joy and the peace God gives us through the Holy Spirit,
they are drawn to Christ.

I love thinking about those very first followers of Jesus.
and the believers who received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost - 3,000 new believers were baptized that day.

They met together in the temple courts, but they also met in smaller groups.
They came together in hundreds of homes spread out all over Jerusalem.

And what did these new followers of Jesus do when they met?

Luke writes that:
“they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

They were sharing a very close fellowship with one another, and they generously provided for the needs of anyone.

They were a church family.  
They prayed together, and studied God’s Word together.
They took care of their neighbors.
They helped others, without expecting anything in return.
God has poured out His riches in Jesus Christ, and so now they were echoing that unconditional love.

That’s what God calls us to do here, at Community Lutheran.
We are called to be witnesses to Jesus’ unconditional love.
We are called to tell the story and live the story.

We are called to share our hope and joy and peace, not just on Sunday, but wherever we go all week long.

With the power of God’s Spirit living within us,
God will use us to draw others into this life-giving community.

This is where life as a Christian becomes exciting because our lives intersect with God’s Upper Story. God works through you and me, to bring His joy and peace and love to all those around us.

How cool is that?    

May God empower you by the Holy Spirit
to be His faithful witnesses this week and every week.    Amen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter is Coming, Easter is Here!

Easter is coming! 
Isn't that a great word of hope?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone through a rough time in your own life when you've needed to hear these words. Maybe that time is even this morning?

When we are standing in the middle of one of those times, one of the tombs of life,
we need to hear the  Good News:   Easter is Coming!

Just this past year, right here in our own congregation
we have experienced many of the tombs of life

·         the death of a loved one
  •         the loss of employment
  •         struggles with friendships or relationships
  •         strained marriages
  •         conflicts between parents and teenagers
  •         serious illnesses and hospitalizations

The list could go on and on, but into each of these situations, God has a word of Resurrection hope. Easter is coming and Easter is already here!

Luke tells us that:   

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn,
the women came to the tomb, taking spices that they had prepared.”

But instead of death, they found that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
Luke tells us they were perplexed, they didn't understand.  What did this mean?
How could an empty tomb change anything?

But suddenly two angels appeared to them and said:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And honestly, don’t we sometimes do the same thing?

When we are going through the rough times in our lives
often instead of looking to Jesus -  the risen Christ
sometimes we look to other things to cope with our stress.

We turn to food or alcohol,   or other distractions.
Or,   we pull away from other people.
Or, we pull away from our church, or stop praying  or reading our Bible.

But do you remember what the angels told the women?

“He is not here, he has risen!”

And the angels brought to their minds what Jesus had said to them:
“Remember how he told you, that while he was still in Galilee, that th e Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.
Then, they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all of this to the eleven and to all the rest.”   Luke 24:6-9

Do you remember how the disciples responded at first?

Luke tells that to the disciples these words seemed like an idle tale.
They sounded too good to be true.
They sounded, like wishful thinking.

But do you remember what happened next?

God stirred Peter and John, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

God’s resurrection hope was breaking in.
God’s reign was breaking in.
Easter was coming, and Easter was already there.

If you are sitting there this morning and this story seems too good to be true,
if it sounds like wishful thinking, I’ve got Good News for you.

God’s reign, God’s wonderful, gracious kingdom is breaking into your life too.
just like it began to stir with Peter and John.

And God is inviting you to run and see for yourself.

And one of the best places to look, is through the eyes
of others who have seen this resurrection.
People like Jared Witt.

Jared was a student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and he was on a seminary trip to Haiti  -
at the time of the big earthquake and survived.

But the story I want to share with you happened on his first trip to Haiti two years before that.

He was visiting a school for orphans called Trinity House and this is what he writes:

In seminary we use a lot of words — words about God.  But it would be difficult for me to explain with mere words why I need Haiti in order to really know God.
Two years ago, on my first visit to Trinity House
I was watching a pickup basketball game that the boys were playing one afternoon and found myself struck dumb with what I saw.
One of the younger boys, Dadzi, is blind, and every couple minutes or so the others (all pre- and early teen boys, mind you) would halt the game for a moment, hand the ball to Dadzi, direct him to the hoop, and allow him to shoot, after which he would laugh uncontrollably.  I watched this go on for about 15 minutes, until finally, I found it unbearable not to join the game myself.
Often in Haiti kids play soccer, a sport way out of my comfort zone, so if I get invited to play, it’s solely for the sake of laughter. But because I’ve been a few times around a basketball court, they joyfully welcomed my intrusion, and the match-ups quickly deteriorated until an even five on five became 10 Haitian kids versus one large blanc (a Creole word meaning “white,” “foreign,” or generally awkward looking).
At one point the game stopped, as it normally did for Dadzi, but instead of just handing the ball to Dadzi, the others started motioning for me to do something. Eventually, I figured out that they were wanting me to lift Dadzi onto my shoulder so he could dunk the ball.  I did, he did, and this became the new ritual until a bell rang and the boys had to run inside for dinner.
Before leaving the court, though, I felt two little arms wrap themselves around my waist, and I looked down to see that it was Dadzi,
giving me one last hug before dinner.  Then an older boy gently grabbed his hand and directed him indoors.
I’d played many, many basketball games in my lifetime. I’d won some. I’d lost a bunch. But never before had I cried after one.  At first I was puzzled by my tears. I certainly wasn't crying because I was sad; in fact I’d never felt a joy so deep in all my life.
I guess I was only reacting the one truly rational way that one can react when one has just experienced the overpowering, wonder of the reign of God up close.  

Do you want to experience the reign, and wonder and power of God up close.
Look to the empty tomb and the angels words, “He is not dead, he has risen,”
and the witness of the women and Peter’s faith and John’s faith.

Look to Jesus, who love breaks through into our lives

and brings life out of death

            and light out of darkness.

            and hope right now in the midst of anything, anything you are facing.

Easter is already here!  Amen.