Jesus is quoted as saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27). In the wake of the mass murders in Buffalo, New York, I am sure some are wondering just where is the peace Jesus promises.
The answer, my siblings in Christ, is that it is truly all around us. The confusion comes when we mistakenly look at the peace the world offers as being equivalent to the peace Jesus gives.
What is worldly peace? Most would define it as a lack of conflict. Sounds good, but truthfully, isn’t there always conflict somewhere: globally, regionally, at home?
The world gives peace conditionally. I do for you, you do for me. There’s a sense of indebtedness, perhaps mixed with a little guilt trip.
Can we really have worldly peace? In prosperity? Does it give peace, or does it generate more angst about protecting it, or worrying if it is really enough.
Worldly peace is an allusion. A wispy, far off promise that never quite comes true.
Not so with the peace Jesus gives. The word for the peace Jesus gives in the original Greek is translated as serene in English. More than merely a lack of conflict, it carries with it the connotation of restored relationship; with God. Which is what Jesus had come to do (and has done!) and is still doing!
So my friends, I encourage you to live in and into the peace Jesus has given us. Use the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, that lives in, through and all around us. Need a reminder of these promises? One of the primary reasons she has been sent to us is to remind us of all Jesus has said, promised and done.
Lastly, don’t allow yourself to be afraid to live. Rather, bask in that serenity Jesus gives. Do we need to be evermore careful, even cautious as we live day to day? Sure. But don’t let that keep you from living lives of active, joy-filled love. Being aware of troubles in the world may just help us look for and find the serene peace Jesus gives. Here’s a little prayer that helps me remember to do just that:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
I recently had the opportunity to preach a sermon based on the well known parable that Jesus taught of the prodigal son. (You can read it in Luke 15:11-31)
I have heard and now have spoken about this many times. Often the focus is on the younger (prodigal) son, who demands his part of his father’s inheritance to then only squander it.
The older son gets some attention at times as well. He sees himself as the unappreciated, hard working and loyal offspring who does all that he is supposed to do, but doesn’t seem to derive any enjoyment in doing so.
The father in the parable represents God. Again, much has been spoken about the loving forgiveness he displays as he welcomes his once ‘dead’ son back into the family. There is a wealth of wonderful teachings about God’s unconditional love for all contained within this story.
Any or all of the above would have served me well for my recent presentation. But as I thought, prayed, and did my study, I landed on an area I had not heard brought forth from this old account.
Those of you familiar with the prodigal son know that during a time of great desperation after his funds were completley depleted, he takes on the job of a swineherder, possibly the most repugnant thing a Jewish male could do during that time. And even though he has debased himself in this way, he is still starving.
It is at this point in the story that Jesus said, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” As I thought about the people who would have been passing this young man by, I began to see another place we can learn from Jesus as we ponder this famous account.
This young man was in obvious distress. I think the picture at the top shows this quite well. How, I want to think jugmentally, could people be so cold and uncaring? I understand from reading the text that there was a severe famine in the land. This tells me there wasn’t an abundance available to share. But no one gave him anything?
Upon further reflection, as I stepped down from my high horse, I began to see with more clarity the possible motivations of those who passed the prodigal by; and in so doing discovered some not so pleasant truths abut myself and how I think/react when confronted with the needs of others.
First, self-preservation. I have barely enough for me and mine, I couldn’t possibly share anything. This is shamefully selfish thinking in my context today. I never have to wonder where and when my next meal is coming from. I need to live into this blessing of God to be ever more willing to share from what God has first given me. God has proved faithful in every circumstance, I can certainly trust that to continue should I give some money or other items to someone in need.
But more disturbing than that first thought is the judgment that wants to rear its ugly head in my head. Thoughts like, “He probably deserves what he is experiencing” is one that pops up. Or, “if he would only apply himself, he could make improvements in his life situation.”
Maybe as you consider this, some other thoughts come to your mind. If they do, please know that neither I or anyone condemn you for them. God’s grace and forgiveness is big enough for all!
What I am asking, of myself and you too, Dear Reader, is to take that extra moment when you are confronted with an obvious need of someone and in so doing, consider just what you might do in that moment to help alleviate someone’s trouble. There are countless ways we can do so in each of our own context. And hopefully as we act to help in an individual case, we might all be working toward ways to eliminate the social ills that can leave people in such vulnerable positions in the first place.
I have had the privilige of sharing a meditation during our Wednesday Evening Lenten worship. Each one considers a characteristic of Jesus that can be gleaned from Philippians 2:5-11. This was the first in the series. It considers humility.
If we think about it, Jesus really can turn our worldview upside down. Especially in a purely American context, where rugged individualism and striving for the top have influenced many for a long time. To be the best often meant climbing over others to reach the pinnacle.
Jesus directly challenges that approach to life. In fact, of the many words that could be used to describe Jesus, “humility” ranks toward the top. Humility: by definition is to have a modest or low view of one’s own importance.
That’s what Paul is saying in this passage from Philippians. And I think it a very appropriate place for us to dwell upon in this season of Lent. Lent is a time for introspection. I believe these words of Scripture are encouraging us to do just that. Jesus, being fully divine, still did not consider that to be flaunted during Hs time among people. The word ‘exploited’ carries the meaning taking in a robbery. It wasn’t by using others that the Lord was going to leave a mark on the world. Instead, Jesus reversed the “normal” outlook of the best being at the very top. His humble servant heart placed him at the bottom, holding us all up. I think of it as an inverted pyramid, where Jesus is at the bottom point, holding all of humankind up.
It is in doing the smaller things that can speak such volume to others.
Please consider these words from the first stanza of the poem The Things That Count written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.
Next, Jesus further modeled humility, to a point where I dare say I would have trouble going: He emptied himself. What does that mean? He set aside any personal agenda, placing the needs of the many over any individual want/need He might have felt. And He did it every day, even in the ‘little’ things. The Lord did these things of his own accord. He chose to simply to be obedient to God’s plan.
More of Wheeler’s poem:
And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a groan –
Dear, these are the things that count.
It is in the obedience, not only exhibited by Jesus, but by you and me as well. We are to empty ourselves as well, whatever that entails in our own circumstance. For me, I refer to the words of John the Baptist when he said speaking of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30 NRSV). Humility does not seek applause or even recognition. In fact, humility is its own goal and end. To be truly humble is not to think less of myself, but instead it is to think of myself less often.
May our Lenten journey lead us all to a deeper, more meaningful and effective faith. I leave you with the final stanza of the poem I’ve been reading from:
My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God, not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when the way seems long –
I recently preached a message based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, 3:17-4:1. In it the Apostle marks a stark difference between those who do not follow God from those that do. In stating this difference, he used a phrase that piqued my interest and was the motivation behind this message.
Paul talks about this difference in this way:
… many live as enemies of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. (vv. 18b-20a)
Citizenship in heaven? What does that entail? As I pondered this, I began to consider what it is to be a citizen of the country I live in, the United States.
The Declaration of Independence states that all of us are created equal, that we are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Like many, I suppose, I have a tendency to take these rights for granted. I am attempting to stay more aware of these things so that I might be better attuned to try to effect change for those who are not being treated equally.
As I think about my rights and responsibilities with regard to being a citizen of heaven, I find that here as well I am a work in progress.
Considering your heavenly citizenship will call you to think and act in ways that will seem contrary to the world around you. And though it will present its own unique set of challenges for each of us, our goal is to simply stay aware of what I’m calling: dual citizenship. Attempting to keep our hearts and mind focused on Christ will, even if it is ever so slowly, work change into us. It is a process.
The process of transformation that Paul mentions in the letter to the Philippians is an on-going event. You and I are being transformed into the image of Christ. Image: something like or reflecting the presence of. I’m not saying that we are to walk piously around with our hands folded.
In fact, the very opposite. Citizenship in heaven does not negate our responsibilities to our fellow humans (and all of creation)! A heart and mind focused on Christ and living as a citizen of heaven should be helping to open our eyes to the world around us. The process of transformation, as it brings us closer to the heart of God, will make our hearts more compassionate. It will show us things to pray for, always a good first response! It will allow you to see with concern the pain or suffering or uncertainty of another without also casting a judgment about them or their condition or its cause. For some, it will inspire toward actions that seek not only the relief of symptoms, but will work for change that can eliminate some of the systemic things that plague us still today.
To sum up, being an active participant as a citizen of heaven will allow us to get closer to the heart of Jesus that Luke talks in the gospel that bears his name. In the 13th Chapter he quotes Jesus as saying that He has often felt as a mother-hen as He laments over Jerusalem. This is a loving and tender picture of a mother-hen gathering and protecting her brood under her wings. This was Jesus’ desire for those who opposed the kingdom of heaven then. I firmly believe it still is today. Jesus invites everyone under the protective wings of God, that includes you and me. May we all, in this Lenten season and beyond, allow that on-going transformation to take place in us; that we grow in our love for God, realizing the blessing of being a child of the Almighty. And may this growing awareness increase our own hearts capacity and willingness to love. With our true desire being to simply honor God as we live in the reality of being a citizen of heaven even as we still live as citizens in the world today. Amen.
Greetings my siblings in Christ! Though it seems we just put the Christmas decorations away, March 2nd is Ash Wednesday and just like that, another season of Lent is upon us.
Lent has traditionally been a time when followers of Christ prepare themselves, both physically and spiritually, for the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday.
Some will give up certain foods over the next six weeks. Others might desire to pray more and perhaps read from the Scriptures each day. These and many other ways can help us draw closer to God and if they do, I say “Yes and amen” to them!
But I would ask, “What are your actual expectations for the Lenten season?” I hope for me and for you that we are not simply doing the same things we have done in the past without giving them much thought. We seemingly get out of Lent exactly what we put into it, making it easy to set the bar low with regard to our expectations.
I have a tendency to do this. I might tell myself this is a defense against getting disappointed, but it is a shallow approach to things, especially in things related to God.
As we journey through Lent together this year, I ask you to consider Simon of Cyrene as someone who had their expectations jarred by an encounter with God. We don’t know much about him other than what the gospel tells us: As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26 NRSV)
We can infer from the text that Simon was coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. No doubt this was a journey he had taken year after year. If he shared our common tendency to expect the usual, we can assume what a shock it was to be thrust into the Passion of the Lord. In other words, was he really expecting an encounter with God, or was he going through the familiar motions of tradition? Where do we land when we apply this thought to ourselves?
My hope and prayer for all of us is that we continue to raise the bar of expectation: God is big enough to handle it! And not only that God would do something extraordinary, but maybe more so that God be revealed to each of us in new ways in the ‘usualness’ of our lives. May we use this Lenten season to help us draw nearer to God and as we do, that our expectations are raised to higher levels.
We’ve been wearing and removing masks for a long time now. But it is not the N-95 type I want to talk about now. Instead, I ask you to consider some of the other masks we wear at times, masks that are not easily seen, but all too often just as real.
Sometimes I wear a mask to veil my emotions. It is an easy one to wear. You ask me simply, “How are you?” My reply, “Just fine, thanks.” Nothing too terribly earth shattering about this mask, unless we wear it as a defense mechanism all the time.
No, the masks on my mind today are the hidden ones, or at the least the ones that hide our true identity. A devoted follower of the Lord Jesus is to be growing in God’s likeness day by day. No mask should hide this progress. Yet, speaking for myself, I must admit that I do put on various masks from time to time that obscure the living God within me.
One of the many of these is: the mask of indifference. Wearing this one prevents me from being able to empathize with the hurting world and worse yet, can keep me from trying to help. Much like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, my preoccupation with something ‘more important’ can cause me to give a wide birth to a need I might see.
Another ugly mask I slip on from time to time is one of self-satisfaction. This mask keeps me satisfied in my little world, not wanting anything or anyone to change the status quo I have worked so hard to establish. It is like the old 2 filter HEPA mask I wore when doing industrial painting: I had my own ‘fresh air’ supplied and didn’t want anything to contaminate it.
This mask of self-satisfaction can easily be turned inside out to be worn as a mask of judgment. Behind this covering I can easily judge folks as being unworthy of my time or stuff. This mask would have me say, “If they would only work a job, they wouldn’t be so poor.” This makes it too easy to categorize people instead of searching for ways to help them in their immediate need and to work for change that would prevent systemic poverty. Wearing this mask can prevent me from seeing others simply as another sojourner here on earth as I attempt to rationalize my lack of response to their need. An ugly mask indeed.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Much as the protective mask prevalent today hides some of our face, so these less obvious ones often hide our true heart and intentions. Wearing these less visible masks is in no way proper for a disciple of Christ.
Because we keep ourselves hidden behind these types of masks, we are hindered from truly seeing and loving those around us. To the extent we stay behind these veils is to the extent we do not care for creation. These masks can blind us to the needs of those we term as ‘different.’ Or ‘difficult’ or even ‘an enemy.’ They can prevent us from seeing the poor, the needy and the hungry. Perhaps even worse, wearing the mask that judges others may well keep us from seeing the shining face of Jesus on them.
Peter, John and James got an up close and personal look at the glory of God with no barrier at the Transfiguration. Peter’s reaction: “Let’s stay here!” is understandable, but not practical and certainly not why God allowed them to see the incredible sight of the Transfiguration. We do sometimes have ‘mountain top’ experiences in our walk of faith. There is a certain appeal to wanting to stay in that moment, to not risk losing what it is that is going so wonderfully.
But staying on the mountaintop is not what we are commissioned to do. We are to come down, hopefully with our faces aglow, sharing God’s love with the world around us.
Now I have never been witness to anything like the Transfiguration, or have I? For sure, I have not seen Jesus engaged in conversation with Moses and Elijah, but that fact should not dull my eyes to the activity of God around me.
For example, can I/we not see God at work when we marvel at a newborn child/grandchild? Isn’t God’s light shining brightly when we witness someone caught in addiction getting set free from it? Or when we see reconciliation where there has been long-term strife perhaps in family members speaking to each other after a time self-imposed separation. Or how about when someone is able to truly forgive another who has seriously broken trust with them.
Be it in examples like these or others you may have been privy to, I encourage us all to shine radiantly from a fresh experience with God. How? First, let’s discard all the masks I mentioned at the beginning. Being judgmental or uncaring are certain ways we can hide the love of God from others (and ourselves).
Next we need to overcome the fear that might be there. Ridding those negative masks may appear to make us vulnerable or at least more transparent. Recognizing these feelings does not mean we are held captive to them. Rather, letting the love of God shine from you radiantly is taking a step out in faith. I firmly believe that the God who has showered grace on us will not leave us high and dry as we do.
The God who loves you so much does not want you to be inactive in your reaction to that love. As God continues to come down to us through the Sacraments and the Word, so we are to ‘come down,’ if your will, and live our life of faith in the midst of our own context. Live into the love God has freely given you. Then let the love from God lead you in all you do, making your entire countenance glow. Don’t mask that in any way, but rather let that love shine as a beacon of hope for all. Amen.
Fringe benefits. We’ve all heard the term and know basically what they are: things above and beyond basic compensation from an employer. It can be an extensive list that includes paid time off, health insurance, profit sharing and retirement plans, to name just a few.
Where’s this heading, you may be wondering. I’m glad you asked!
I was reading from the Gospel of Mark earlier, and came upon this passage describing Jesus in his travels: And wherever he went, into villages, or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:56 NRSV)
There you have it! The benefit of touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment. People had heard the stories of miraculous healings being done by this Jesus and in their desperation were hoping to just touch what he was wearing that they might experience a miracle too. And the gospel accounts tells us of many such folks who received healing from Jesus. He sometimes laid a hand on the sick or at other times and over a distance simply spoke a word and healing happened.
As wonderful as these accounts are, they truly represent only the fringe of Jesus’ ministry and purpose. He healed because of his compassion toward the hurting. Yet the driving force behind any of the miracles attributed to Jesus was to point people toward God. Physical healings are great, but to the best of my knowledge everyone restored by Jesus still eventually died a natural death.
None of what I’ve said is meant to minimize the wonder of Jesus’ actions, both then and now. My point is this: supernatural healing is a fringe benefit; of having faith.
If you have faith, you have already received the greatest healing you can ever get: You know the love of God! And the news gets even better: Faith is not something you and I have to develop, it is the gift of God! We are not given faith as a result of our good efforts or stiving for perfection. Rather, God knows we need it and that we are incapable of truly developing it on our own.
Enter Jesus, the Great(est) Physician! No matter how far modern medicine progresses, it will never attain the ability to cure us on an eternal level. And that’s ok, because Jesus has already seen to that for everyone. In so doing, our Savior has provided the vehicle of faith for us to grab on to. And we don’t have to reach for the edge of the Savior’s garment because through the blessing and activity of the Holy Spirit we have 24/7 access to the Lord.
So don’t be satisfied with touching just the fringe, but wrap yourself up from head to toe in the love of God; a love that is for all, always, forever and ever! Amen.
Do you remember playing musical chairs as a youngster? That supposedly fun game that had you march around a circle of chairs only to try to sit down in one when the music stopped. The object, of course, was to sit before everyone else because there were less chairs than people. The number of chairs would then be reduced and the music started again. The process continued until there were two kids and one chair with the winner being the last one to sit. It was plenty of fun for the winner, but I can recall feeling pretty lousy at not making it to the end.
I can also remember that sinking feeling of being the last one chosen to play baseball and off to right field I would go. There was also the pain in the pit of the stomach sensation when I had been excluded from a gathering of the other kids in the neighborhood.
It’s not my purpose to dredge up old feelings of being left out this Christmas, actually quite the opposite. Instead I would point your attention to the miraculous fact that the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, came to the world as the infant whose birth we celebrate today. An infant, it turns out, that wants all people everywhere to feel included by the love of God.
The King as an infant! What a radical way to set a salvation plan into motion! As a father of two children, I can recall the total and complete dependence of my kids when we first brought them home. There was nothing (well maybe one thing) they could do without adult help. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Yet, the bible tells as that the Son of God spent his early hours wrapped in rags and lying in a barn or cave inside a feeding trough! Hardly an A-list reception.
Pondering this momentous occasion again, I can see the love and logic in the divine plan. Jesus, so the theologians tell us, had to be both fully divine and fully human in order to perfectly carry out the plan of salvation for all humankind. Though I’d be lying if I said I fully understand this, I take it on faith because God has proved totally faithful in all things.
The great comfort that comes to me today is the fact that Jesus, growing up from that baby to pre-teen to teen and finally adult, experienced all the feelings and emotions that I did and do. All those left out feelings I mentioned, the Lord felt them too! And what is even more wonderful than simply knowing that Jesus can relate is the fact that if I bring my pain and hurts to Him, He will minister to my heart in a way tailor made for me and all the while assuring me/us of the love of God that will care for us now and forevermore!
So take please take a moment as you unwrap those beautifully done up gifts today, to consider the absolutely most awesome gift ever given once again, Jesus Christ; the life giving present that did not come to us in a perfectly prepared package, but instead was wrapped in old rags, lying in a manger. And as you do, allow the love of God to minister to all the old hurts you might have so that you can more fully rejoice this day (and always) in the love that was given to us all in Jesus Christ.
The following is a sermon I wrote for seminary this semester to be shared with the church I am now serving at.
We are the Church
A Sermon based on Acts 2:37-47
Presented by Vicar Chuck Copps
Greetings my siblings in Christ. Please take a moment to look around at those gathered here today. Familiar faces for the most part, I can safely assume. Now please close your eyes and in your mind’s eye see the church. Thanks.
Hopefully the pictures in your mind of church consisted of many of the faces you looked at a moment ago, for that is the church. Let’s define church this way: It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel (Augsburg Confession; VII, p. 42, paragraph 1).
Now what if asked how you got here today? Motor vehicle would be one correct response. But for the purposes of our time together this morning, please consider another equally correct answer to that question:
We are brought to church, according to Luther’s Large Catechism, 3rd Article of the Creed (Book of Concord, p. 435) by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to the community of faith and places us in the lap of the church as he was fond of saying. The Holy Spirit then, working through the proclaimed Word of God and the sacraments, teaches us about God’s undying love as evidenced through the forgiveness of our sins. Presented with God’s love in this way, the Spirit pours into us the gift of faith by which we come to understand that God has redeemed and renewed us.
To sum up, the church is made up in and by the hearts of the faithful. To be clear, the church welcomes everyone in regardless of where they may be in their journey. There is no ‘heart monitor’ prior to coming through the doors!
Next let’s consider the example of the growing church we just heard about in our reading from the Book of Acts to see how we might deepen our own ideas about church, our place and purpose in it, and how our faith plays a role in all of this.
We, as the body of Christ, operate on a level playing field. There is no hierarchy of power. We as individuals are called to different vocations, and because of this we all bring something of value to the assembly. Of great blessing to this gathering of the faithful is Pastor Hannah. Because she is called to be our pastor, she is in a position of leadership and guidance for this assembly, not because she is a super-spiritual or an otherwise special recipient of God’s blessings. We are all the recipients of God’s grace as individuals but as a church we do not mediate this grace. Grace is a pure gift of God, given only by God to us through the means of the sacraments and proclaimed Word as the Holy Spirit works through them.
If this brief description of what the church, do these facts apply to the church we read about in Acts earlier? Here’s the short answer: Yes! Let’s review the activities of the Acts church to discover how this is true.
Those first members of that faith community had heard the Word of God proclaimed to them as Peter spoke. As they listened, the Holy Spirit moved in them in such a way that they received this gift, repented of their sins and were baptized and the church, as we defined above, was born! I am sure many of them then thought, “This is wonderful but what is next?
Our text gives the answer: They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. It should be easy to see the similarities between then and now. We have gathered to pray, to hear the teaching of the gospel, the sharing of the communion meal and fellowship. Of these features, it is safe to assume that the teaching uses different examples and analogies now than it did then, but the pure gospel is still proclaimed here as it was then. Likewise, our prayers our different and certainly the time of fellowship would have many differences. Can you imagine a fellowship time without coffee?
Please note, however, that the breaking of bread would essentially be the same. Both the early church and we remember what Christ has done for all humankind as we share the bread and wine at his table. We are aware, as the first church was, that Jesus is present in this meal and by partaking of it, our spirits are nourished and our souls comforted as we remember again what the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus as gained for us all.
Our text tells us that those who received God’s forgiveness that day were then baptized. Obviously, those mentioned in Acts were adults. Why do we baptize infants then? An excellent question that deserves to be answered.
In the Lutheran Church, we believe baptism to be a divine action by God. The use of water, with the proclaimed Word of God is how we receive the gift of faith. As with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the water is a material means by which the Holy Spirit imparts faith to us. We baptize infants then not only to have this gift poured into them early in life, but also a sign to the community of faith of God at work. As a person grows in faith, he or she becomes aware of their shortcomings. At the same time, that gift of faith poured into the person at Baptism continues to bring comfort as it brings to mind that we are renewed and redeemed by God.
This all sound good, but does it mean that we, as Lutherans, have the inside track to God? Of course not. Other churches and other denominations can be seen as ‘different flavors’, if you will. As long as the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are properly administered, the format of worship or the type of songs that are sung can vary significantly. The point to remember when looking at other Christian faith communities is this: Those things that are commanded by God are necessary for worship; traditions placed by humans, so long as they do not detract from what God decrees, are acceptable, though they be different from what we practice.
For example think about fasting. The giving up of food for a period of time may well be a valuable spiritual discipline for some, but the act itself has no bearing on our salvation. Hence, one church may practice fasting while another does not. Doing so does not make one community holier or closer to God, it is merely a practice that one group chooses to follow.
The preaching in the church today should be recognizable as similar to what was preached in the early church. Salvation is from God to us made possible by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. As we gather to worship God, we are reminded of God’s grace as we hear the gospel explained. The early church eagerly sought this teaching and God blessed them by growing them in numbers. We would do well to anticipate God moving likewise in this gathering should we digest the gospel message as first church goers did.
Concluding thoughts: It is my hope that during this time together we have developed a deeper understanding of what the church truly is. Simply put, church is a state of mind, not a destination. Although a well-kept building and fine trimmed lawn is appealing to the eye, it is when the church is seen in the hearts of the faithful that God’s message of hope is spread.
As I’ve said, the church exists in each of our hearts, as it did in the hearts of those in the Acts church. God has put the same call in our hearts that was put into theirs all the centuries ago: We are sent into the world to proclaim and live out God’s justification of us through Jesus Christ.
As the Holy Spirit guided those folks in Acts to gather for worship, teaching and fellowship, so too are we to express God’s love to others as we do the same.
We can do this in confidence because we see the evidence of God’s love here in the Word and Sacrament. Through these God has initiated trust in our hearts. We know therefore, as the first church did, that salvation comes only from God. We play no active part, it is purely God’s gift to all. As the Holy Spirit works in us, both individually and as a church, we are transformed more and more into God’s likeness in order that we can better share this Good News with others, regardless of our personal vocation.
The passage we read from Acts Chapter 2 ended on a very encouraging note after describing the life and activities of that early church: And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (V. 47b NRSV)
As much as I would like to tell you that the same will happen here if we all truly embrace the idea that the church is made up within us. However, I’m just not privy to God’s plans.
I can make several informed opinions if we do though. First, God will bless us with increased faith as we more fully grasp what the church is to be and that we all have a part, or function, in its growth. I believe that we will grow in our trust of God as we take to heart the things that make up a vibrant church.
Although I cannot say that God will add to our numbers on a daily basis, I am confident in the Almighty’s plan to deepen the faith of all of us and that as we come to trust the promises of God with greater certainty, each of us will grow in our love of God and our willingness to share that love with all the world around us. Amen.
While working on a sermon for the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mind wandered back to early grade school times and the lessons we were taught about that first Thanksgiving. The pilgrims, we were told, gathered to have a dinner of thanksgiving, though by today’s standards the amount of food was paltry. That first Thanksgiving was more about being thankful for being alive as opposed to being grateful for an abundance of food.
As I continued to ponder the differences between now and then, I began to feel convicted about taking the blessings of God for granted. How often or how deeply do I reflect on the fact that my every day needs are met. I am faced daily with deciding what to eat, not wonder if I will.
With these thoughts in my mind, I decided I wanted to be more intentional and genuine in my thoughts, words and deeds with regard to being grateful. The idea struck me, as I continued to contemplate the first Thanksgiving, to put thanksgiving first.
As you who have been with me in the blog-o-sphere for a while might guess, I found the inspiration to do this in the Scriptures.
The Bible is full of passages that encourage the reader to be thankful. Here are just a few from the New International Version:
1 Thessalonians 5:18:give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Psalm 107:1:Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 100:4:Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise
I could go on, but you get the idea; being thankful to God encompasses all of the human experience. Realizing this, I still was not sure if my being grateful for the blessings I receive does not sometimes get delayed because I am distracted by this or that.
To help me with this issue, I came across the solution in another favorite passage of Scripture of mine: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)
Did you catch it? We are first told to pray instead of worrying. And then we pray with thanksgiving as we are making our requests of God. Don’t wait for an answer, instead be thankful as you pray. This is how we keep God in the forefront of our hearts and minds. Basically, we thank God for being God. And if I might add, the request we might make most often is that the Almighty increase our trust in Him.
The wonder of the promise here in being a thanksgiving first people is that we are promised the peace of God. Let that sink in a moment. The peace of God. It is given to guard our hearts and our minds according to this verse from the Letter to the Philippians. In my opinion, the primary role of God’s peace is guarding our hearts and minds from worry.
I pray for all of us that we become willing to be thanksgiving first people and that as we do, the Holy Spirit will draw us to a place of deeper trust in God. As this trust continues to grow, we will experience more and more of God’s promised peace as our tendency to worry becomes less pronounced.
So not only a Happy Thanksgiving to you all, but also one that grows you and me in our love and trust of God as we give thanks for all God has done for us and as we do, pray that God keeps our eyes open for the opportunities to share these abundant blessings with the world around us.