Matthew 5:14-16

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“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

On a recent trip to the mid-west, I found myself among thousands of travelers in O’hare airport in Chicago. There is no better place, I am sure, to have a sense of one’s utter insignificance! Crowds of anonymous people come and go with studied indifference to those around them. 

At the same time, should you happen to strike up a conversation with someone even for a few minutes, you suddenly become part of their history, their story. Something that is said may stay with you. You might pass it along to someone else. Or, you might have made a business connection. I heard once of a couple who met in an airport who later were married.

The season of Epiphany, which we are in now, is that time in the church year when special emphasis is placed on the light of Christ shining in the darkness. That’s another way of saying that God is not anonymous. In Jesus, who we call the Messiah, God has become part of His own history and ours. And when someone becomes part of your story, it is not an abstraction. It makes an impact, a difference.

Many historical figures have made their impact on the wider world. The war tactics of Alexander, picked up by the Romans, continue to define military operations up to the present. The writings of the Roman orator, Cicero, were one of the most important influences on the development of  the European and American systems of governance. Four lads from Liverpool catalyzed the adolescent hysteria of a generation, which has never fully calmed down.

When you were baptized, your history and God’s history were joined in the intimacy of the Spirit. Adoption is one word we use for it. In conformity with the entire trajectory of the biblical witness to Emmanuel, God took the initiative to enter the numbing anonymity of a sinful world and a sinful life – yours. In baptism God entered your story, to claim you as His own by His grace, to be God with and for you, to make you a living member of His body, the Church.  But what difference does it make? If living by grace does not in some real, tangible sense become our way of life then are not our claims to life with God nothing but a religious abstraction, a vague, internal ‘spirituality’ which makes no real difference in our lives?

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 1:18

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“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.”

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An old parable tells of a man who was offered one wish by the gods. They would grant him anything. The man thought for a moment and replied, “I wish that all laughter would be on my side.” The gods were so pleased with his response they gave him everything else to boot.

What the man was asking was that he would never be the object of laughter, that he would never be the butt of the joke.

St. Paul, in one sense is saying, if you are part of the Gospel you will appear as foolish, you are going to be the butt of the joke. But what is it about the Cross, the word of the Gospel that seems to be foolishness? And why, at the same time, can this same cross be called the “power and wisdom of God”?

The simple fact is that Jesus failed to meet our standards of what it means to be God, to be a savior. In fact, it was the accusation of blasphemy that lead to his crucifixion. This one who carried no obvious credentials of divinity, claimed to be God. What a fool! Away with him!, they cried. Not much has changed.

Just consider the current crop of messiah figures in our culture; they ALL must carry the credentials of success with the message that following them, emulating them will lead you to success also. All of our redeemers are supposed to bring off redemption at little cost to themselves and at no cost to us.

Jesus, the one we call our Lord, did not come as some kind of Superman, dying on a kryptonite cross only to emerge from the phone booth of the empty tomb, ready to grant every wish. His cross exposes us at that place where God’s grace and human sin intersect. The craziness of the Christian Gospel says to us, the power and wisdom of our would-be redeemers is a lie. To see and to know the weakness, humiliation and rejection of the Crucified Jesus is to be brought into the very heart of God’s truth. To trust Jesus is not to organize Him into our way of life, our definitions of salvation. To entrust one’s self to Jesus is be shaped by the One for whom wisdom and success is serving, and power is expressed in a faith active in love.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John 1

…”who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

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The holy trinity of American evangelicalism were Moody, Finney and Sunday. You can Google them and learn more if you wish. These three were the original purveyors of mass revivalism, mass evangelism and “Big Box” tents, the forerunners of “Big Box” churches. The actual peak of this form of evangelism was in the decade prior to World war I. Well over a thousand itinerant evangelists plowed the country, while hundreds of others, in established communities, developed that unique American version of showmanship religion which made the ministries in neighborhood and country churches seem dull in comparison. Sheep stealing was rampant as these free-will purveyors railed against established churches and their meaningless sacraments. During the height of it’s lather, from about 1910 to 1913, church membership in America actually declined slightly. Go figure.

For many people, confrontational revivalism (the gospel at gunpoint, as one called it) is assumed to be the default way in which the church does evangelism. Give people a choice; heaven or hell, which will it be? Everyone must make a decision. First, accept Jesus as savior, then you must make Him Lord of your life. Salvation and this life are in some strange way unrelated, separated. Salvation becomes adherence to an ideology. The Christian life becomes a morality project, a striving after perfection.

What we have going on here, it seems to me, is the religious equivalent of a sales pitch for a consumer decision about a product, rather than the proclamation of the decision God has made about sinners. And it is no accident that what has characterized these ministries from the 19th century up to the present is a reliance on the end justifies the means. All that matters is closing the deal. No method or gimmick is too outrageous, provided we can bring people to the point of decision. Then, once the decision has been made, the job is to keep the whip of spiritual growth on their backs so that Jesus will really become their Lord.

But since when does the manipulation of a sales pitch play a part in the open and free proclamation of God’s grace? The only possible way to find any of this in the New testament is to ‘cherry pick’ verses and bend them out of all shape and context.

The New Testament witness does not separate the saving work of Christ, His will to save from His will to be Lord. His Lordship and salvation are inseparable because He is the one who has done the deciding and He is the one whose life now defines the life of the Christian and Christian community. The only will that is free to do any choosing where God is concerned is God’s will. For us to claim such freedom is not the key to salvation, it is blasphemy. For it is claiming something for ourselves that belongs to God alone. 

Evangelism, therefore, is being brought by God’s grace – through Word and sacrament – to be with those whose great need is God’s concern. To trust God, to believe the Gospel, is not a consequence of my decision, it is the form God’s decision takes for me.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Colossians 1:13-14

“[13] He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  [14] in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

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Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.”

The term ‘god’ refers to that upon which your life is ordered, directed, controlled. The term ‘god’ points you to whatever it is in your life that has the last word. When understood in this way it is apparent that gods are all over the place. So, when people say that they believe or trust in god, it might be of interest to ask them to tell you about the god they believe in. You might be surprised at what you hear!

When the early Christian community got it’s wheels rolling it began to speak of God in three terms; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They did so because of what had happened to them in Jesus the Christ. Not only did they know Him as teacher and miracle worker, they also knew Him as the righteous sufferer who had been raised from the dead.

The idea of the righteous sufferer being raised from death was already present in Judaism. But this is not how the early Christians experienced the Resurrection. For, if Jesus had been raised under those terms, it would simply have been His private business. But when the early Christians proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus, the righteous one, it included everyone. It was proclaimed as a cosmic event. In the Resurrection of Jesus they were let in on the final meaning of the universe. The ultimate meaning of the history of the universe comes only at the end of all things when the last word on the meaning of every event and every person is spoken.

The early Christians recognized that the end of all things, the last word, had suddenly appeared in the midst of the unfinished business of history. By abandoning Himself utterly to the death, to powerlessness in the name of the Father, Jesus was raised from powerlessness and now life was proclaimed to be stronger than death. When the early Church, then, called God Father and Son, they were at least in part, referring to this mysterious intimacy between Jesus and the Father by which this God defeated the powers of death and meaningless. Death no longer has the last word. Life has the last word.

The Holy Spirit, then, becomes a way of speaking about how this life of God continually breaks open the powerless, meaningless future which appears to be dominated by death. It is not the death-dealing demonic spirits that dominate the future, it is the Holy Spirit of God who has the last word.

When we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, therefore, God gives us His promise that we are now being transferred from the reign of death into the reign of life. The question as to whether or not the last word in your life and the tragic life of the universe will be gracious or not is answered in the affirmative.  Baptism is God’s promise that in the midst of all life’s inconsistencies and ambiguity, you may entrust yourself to this God who has given you His name; that you may “look to Him for all good,… and find refuge in every time of need.”

 

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Ecclesiastes 3:1

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:”

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Faith does not hear or grasp everything at once. There is a time and place for understanding. There are many Christian doctrines, for example, that speak to various aspects of creation, sin, grace, the meaning of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so forth. But when is the right time to confront them? When may they speak meaningfully to us?

Helmut Thielecke, the late pastor and theologian who lived through the traumatic years of Hitler’s Germany, pointed out that struggling with these doctrines is fruitful only when these questions arise in the midst of our experience of either the absence or the presence of God. Pastor Thielecke observed that when Martin Luther wrote his introduction to the Letter to the Romans, he pointed out something very insightful regarding the architecture of the book. The first eight chapters deal with the great doctrine of God’s grace. Only then, in chapters 9-11, does Paul move on to his discussion of the doctrine of predestination. The order is significant.

The doctrine of predestination – not determination – is appropriately confronted only after we have been brought to the heart of God by His grace. Just as when out of suffering and injustice we ask, ‘Why has this happened to me?, The question of grace then becomes not an academic one but a question that arises out of our experience of grace. For since grace comes upon us, we have no recognizable key by which we may control this grace; free will, moral striving, pure doctrine and so forth.  When the awareness of being saved by grace alone comes upon me, only then may I ask the critical question, Why has this grace come to me? Only then is it possible for me to see not only the God who rejects but the God who selects.

The great doctrines, the great questions of the faith were not hatched in a theological hothouse, removed from the questions of life, the questions good and evil. They each have their time and place for the individual Christian and for the Church. They represent the struggle of God’s people to come to terms – literally – with the reality of the God who is utterly hidden from us, and yet chooses to reveal Himself, by His grace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 11:23-26

“23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

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When I flew back and forth from Wisconsin recently, I was in a total of five airplanes, packed in with hundreds of others. We were isolated in a shared space but we were not communities because nothing happened among us or between us. When we landed we scattered, never to be together again. If, however, we had been hijacked or crashed, those who survived would have shared a story that was defining, in some sense, for the rest of our lives and of our lives.

The Scriptures were born out of the preaching, teaching, complex life and worship of the early Christian communities. Imagine hearing the gospels and the letters read in the early Christian communal worship gatherings where the context of hearing very often included baptisms and the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. How would these events have shaped their hearing? How would they have heard the feeding stories around the Sea of Galilee? Or the baptism of Jesus? Or the eating stories in the parables of Jesus? Or the key stories of accusation against Jesus, that He ate with sinners?  

The Lord’s Supper was the central ritual, liturgical action – the central story – of the early Christians. The Scriptures do not run on endlessly about the Lord’s Supper for the same reason they do not run on endlessly about baptism: they were assumed aspects of the Church’s life. When you read the Scriptures in this way, you get a very different New Testament.

Many people suffer from what I call a ‘ritual bias’. The great value, even necessity, of ritual is lost on them because liturgical ritual assumes a deep investment in the community that is given shape and form by the rituals of worship. People who are shaped by the values of the isolated individual do not know what to do with ritual because meaning is always defined by ‘me’ and not ‘we’.

Liturgy and the ritual of worship are not simply matters of church etiquette for altar guilds to fuss over and for worshipers to endure. Nothing about the words and actions of worship is peripheral, not for the community that is brought forth out of the orthodoxy (right worship) through which the Gospel is given.  That is to say, the gospel at work in Word and sacrament through the living, ongoing rituals and liturgies of the community both create and shape that community. 

Families are shaped and defined largely by the stories they carry with them from their ancestral heritage and the ones they write with their lives. These are unique to each family and are, in some sense, unrepeatable. But the ritual worship of the Church is different. The words and actions of Word and Sacrament are repeated over and over because it is through them that the Christian community is brought forth and sustained in the midst of many other stories that compete for the crucial place of definition in our lives.

Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the proclaimed Word stand centrally in Christian worship and ritual because through them we are incorporated into the story of Jesus. The rituals of liturgy and worship, therefore, provide the means through which individuals are brought into the story of Jesus and formed into a community in the Spirit. Such rituals serve both as the means of ongoing interpretation of the story of Jesus even as they invite us to participate in that story as new persons and as a new people, a new community in Christ.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ephesians 2:8

“For it is by grace you are saved, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God…”

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Someone once observed that we have no choice about choice. Thrust into the world, life is on our hands and with it comes an automatic culpability which we cannot escape. Life demands response in every aspect. Even choosing to sit it out is a choice. And if you do, someone else must choose to pick up your slack.

What this means is that, by nature, life is full of demands which force us to be responsible creatures. When the New Testament speaks of being born under the demands of the law, this is what it means. And these demands, which come at us in all the structures of existence, are the voice of God.

How do we respond? The story of Adam and Eve gives insight here. Faced with their culpability, both of them threw up their defenses. Adam blamed God for giving him Eve and Eve blamed the serpent for hoodwinking her. Their knee-jerk response to God’s inquiry was self-justification, self-defense. We can see this in ourselves all the time. We are quick to blame, quick to mount a defense. In a world of self-defenders this is how you get along. This is how life goes in a world of law.

In Jesus, God’s voice also speaks the dialect of grace. For if the voice of law is meant to call us to fulfill our responsibilities, even more does the voice of grace calls us to trust in the forgiveness of God. The law reveals our culpability. Grace reveals God’s mercy.

Jesus was a threat to many because He lived out His humanity not primarily in response to law but to grace. Self-defense was not His way. Entrusting Himself to the grace of the Father was His way, even to death on the Cross. 

The way of the Christian is this radical way of grace. The freedom of faith permits us to assume the responsibilities of life without resorting to self-defense or blame. Faith has nothing to fear. As a result, the Christian is free to live in love beyond the limits of law and trust in God’s grace – alone – with a joyful daring.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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