Monthly Archives: October 2017

Through Christ: Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

An earlier version of this sermon was preached on October 19, 2014, and has been updated here for October 22, 2017.

We’ve completed all the coursework for Discipleship 101 and have jumped to the graduate level of learning to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate the vows of our baptismal covenant that call each of us to be a minister, through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

How is God calling each of us to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? If we really want to stay centered on Christ and offer Christ by doing everything through Christ, we will want to pay close attention to what Christ himself has to say.

Our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness.

Because the kingdom of God is already present, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Here’s the story so far: We’re in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting for the story.

The characters include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat from earlier in the story. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds.

In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have enlisted the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious. They were political leaders who supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we give our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

When you think about it, the world we live in today is becoming an increasingly polarized society. Everything is ‘either/or’ and if you don’t land on the same side of an issue as your neighbor, that makes you an immediate enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians lived in a similarly polarized world. You either paid allegiance to Caesar, or to God. But Jesus says that looking at this question from a polarized perspective gets it all wrong. If we insist on ‘either/or’ we miss the point.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist.

And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama.

Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, leaving you without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. You are here simply out of curiosity.

Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. You are here, not as a believer necessarily, but as a skeptic. And if this Jesus can embarrass those self-righteous religious leaders, you want to be around to see the show.

Or maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all.

Whatever has brought you into this crowd, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy.

But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question.

But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours has.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all.

It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:15-16,

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is why we say, here at First UMC New Ulm, that we are centered on Christ, and that we offer Christ, doing all things through Christ. We bear the image of Christ to the world around us, and how we bear that image determines how willing others may be to receive the good news that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them eternal life.

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of a discipleship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge or your commitment to service or worship attendance or prayer. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve in a leadership position. As much as I would love to see your deepening faith expressed in all these ways, I’m not asking any of those things.

I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Our identity as beloved children of God, bearing God’s own image, shapes our behavior and our thinking. It urges us to become the people Christ calls us to be, centered on Christ, offering Christ, doing all things through Christ, to the glory of God the Father. ###

 

Discipleship 101: Through Christ – sermon on Philippians 4:8-13

October 15, 2017

This week concludes our Discipleship 101 series with an introduction to our next season of focus. We could call it “Discipleship 201” and bring everything to the next level, but in reality, this is more of a graduate course in following Jesus. From this point forward, we have to decide if this Jesus-following path is really something to which we want to commit our entire lives.

I’m reminded of the time that Jesus’ teachings became too difficult for his disciples to understand, and some turned away from following him. Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” And Simon Peter answered with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Coming to know Christ in the same deeply personal way as those first disciples did brings us to a new level of maturity in faith. This level can only be found when, like those first disciples, we decide to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul addresses this kind of Christian maturity in his letter to the church at Philippi.

It’s interesting that the verses we will read in a few moments do not appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. The lectionary only goes as far as verse 9 in this 4th chapter of Philippians. I find this curious, because it omits one of the most popular verses found in scripture – right up there with John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm: Continue reading

Staying Centered on Christ

Back in September, I started a sermon series called “Discipleship 101.” In my planning, I thought it would last about 4 weeks, maybe six. It was intended to help the congregation of First United Methodist Church live into its mission to “stay centered on Christ and offer Christ.” We do pretty well at “offering Christ” through various ministries, but it’s that “staying centered on Christ” part that is often a struggle. This sermon series was originally intended to help us go deeper into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a handy bullet-pointed list of things we can do to grow in faith. Wow, was I wrong.
youth.bibleThe scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary kept bringing me to messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and living in community with fellow believers. As I prayed over these passages and listened for a theme to emerge, I discovered that the path to true discipleship isn’t a “to do” list at all. In fact, nothing we do in our own strength will bring us closer to Jesus or deepen our faith. Discipleship isn’t about what I do, it’s about the One I follow.
Followers of Jesus stay focused on the One they follow. Everything else – Bible study, prayer, spiritual practices, equipping people for ministry, generosity, hospitality – these are simply evidence of a life devoted to Christ. They aren’t the “how to” steps for getting there. The only way to become a better follower of Jesus is to ….follow Jesus.
Yes, it really is that simple. And that hard.
The next few weeks will bring us to the completion of this particular series, as we slide into “Discipleship 201” – but where will God lead us on this journey? I invite you to join us on Sunday mornings at 9:30 at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN to discover “what’s next?” And if you can’t make it to worship with us, check back here for a link to the sermon each week. Together, let’s stay centered on Christ and offer Christ to one another. Peace be with you. – Pastor Jo Anne

Discipleship 101: Pressing On -Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-16

October 8, 2017

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul describes a life of discipleship. He tells us in no uncertain terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But he begins by telling us what a disciple is not, and he uses his own life as an example. Paul writes:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained
. -Philippians 3:4b-16

“I regard everything as loss
because of the surpassing value
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (v.8)

Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He belonged to the most elite and religious sect within Judaism. In this letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addresses a growing concern among the  churches. The big question then was, “do you have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian?” As more and more non-Jewish believers joined the church, this question became a point of deep discord, and the division it caused threatened the order of this new movement. Members were more focused on their disagreement over circumcision than on following Jesus.

So Paul sets out, in this letter, to remind the Christians in Philippi that adhering to strict Jewish laws means nothing. And he ought to know, because he himself had lived like that. The kind of life that was bound up in rules was “rubbish” – a nicer word than the one Paul actually uses, by the way. The only thing that has any value is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul is willing to give up everything that was important to him before, “… in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, …” (vv 8b-9)

Knowing Christ, gaining Christ, … this is what matters. Not how many times we pray each day, or how many chapters of the Bible we read, or how much we put in the offering plate, as good as all those things are. Knowing Christ, in order that I may gain Christ. This is the goal toward which we run as followers of Jesus. “I want to know Christ,” Paul writes again, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” (v 10)

Whoa, Paul. Hang on there a minute. Knowing Jesus, that’s all well and good. I like that part about the power of his resurrection. But what’s this stuff about sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death? Do you remember the passage from last week, back in chapter two, that included the ancient hymn to Christ? Here’s a refresher:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8

Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death – this is how we gain Christ, how we come to really know him. Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient, even to the point of death on a cross.

On Friday, I was invited by the bishop to attend a workshop on discipleship and evangelism. In his message during the opening worship, Bishop Ough described his own experience of coming to know Christ. He had grown up attending church, and his parents were faithful Christians, but it was not until he was a teenager that he gave his life to Christ. Bishop Ough told us that he could sum up that experience in one word: surrender.

This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” Becoming like Jesus in his death means giving our all to obeying God, no matter what it costs us. A life of following Jesus is a life of surrender.

Even a super-Christian like Paul has a long way to go when it comes to complete surrender. “Not that I have already attained the goal …” he writes, “but I press on to make it my own…” And why? What motivates Paul to this kind of surrender?

Because Jesus has made me his own.

It might sound like Paul is describing his own effort, his own striving to become like Christ. But the truth is that Paul is “pressing on” – or leaning into the realization that he belongs to Jesus.

Several times each week, people come into my office to tell me about the particular struggles they are experiencing. When I ask if I can pray for them, they almost always respond with eagerness. As I pray, I ask God to remind them that they are God’s own beloved children. I can’t tell you how many times people respond to this simple prayer with sobs. No one has ever told them before that they are God’s beloved children.

They have never experienced what Paul is describing here, what we who claim to follow Jesus should also know: Jesus has made us his own. That’s a truth worth leaning into. That’s a reality worthy of our complete surrender.

The next sentence Paul writes is full of prepositional phrases that drive deep into this truth:
I press on
toward the goal
for the prize
of the heavenly call
of God
in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14  

This is what discipleship means, friends. It is answering the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus with full surrender. Pressing on toward this goal yields a prize, and that prize is God calling us in Christ Jesus. You see, it isn’t what we do that makes us good disciples – it’s what Jesus did. All our effort, all our striving to be righteous and live according to the “good Christian” rules, is just like Paul’s former life as a Pharisee – it’s rubbish.

If you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, answer the call God extends to you. Press on toward the goal of knowing Christ – not just knowing about Christ, but developing a personal relationship with Jesus. And as that relationship grows, the evidence of your maturing faith will be seen in the way you live your life.

Paul writes, “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” (vv15-16) Paul brings us back to unity of thinking, having the same mind as Christ Jesus, as he encourages us to hang onto the level of maturity we have reached in our faith.

Discipleship is not what we do, it’s who we follow. All the marks of a mature follower of Jesus are evidence of following, not the means by which we follow. In his book, From Membership to Discipleship, Phil Maynard identifies five areas of discipleship that contribute to this picture:

  • A life of worship
  • A life of hospitality
  • A life open to Jesus (spiritual practices)
  • A life obedient to Jesus
  • A life of service
  • A life of Generosity

But we don’t necessarily arrive at full maturity in all of these areas at the same moment. If you were to plot your spiritual development the same way a pediatrician tracks a growing child’s physical development, you would notice that you grow faster in some areas, and others take longer.

But let me emphasize that each of these areas of discipleship do not come about by our own effort or design. Our efforts to become more hospitable or more generous can’t be sustained for any length of time by our trying. They aren’t the means to become better followers of Jesus. They are the evidence of a whole-hearted surrender to Christ.

This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but …

  • If you want to become more generous, you don’t doing by giving more – you do it by knowing Christ more intimately.
  • If you want to improve your worship life, you don’t do it by singing louder or lifting your hands higher – you do it by surrendering your life to Jesus.
  • If you want to experience a life of more effective spiritual practices, such as prayer and Bible study and fasting, you don’t do it by scheduling more prayer time or signing up for another Bible study group or skipping more meals. You do it by drawing near to the heart of God in Christ Jesus, and centering your life in him.
  • If you want to engage in more meaningful service, you don’t do it by signing up for every serving opportunity that shows up on the bulletin board. You do it by diving deeper into your relationship with Christ, and letting him guide you into a more profound awareness of how he wants you to use your gifts.
  • If you want to be more obedient to Christ, you do it by listening more closely for his direction, and leaning into a life of full surrender to his will.

And as you devote yourself completely to following Jesus, you will find yourself growing in faith, developing into a mature and robust way of living that reflects Christ more and more in your worship, your hospitality, your service, your spiritual practice, your obedience, and your generosity.

Next week, you will receive a letter inviting you into a commitment to become more Christ-like in the coming year. It will ask you to consider growing in your faith through the promises that we make in the baptismal covenant. These are promises to offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

There will be some very concrete suggestions for fulfilling your commitment to develop a more mature faith – things like committing to attending worship a specific number of times each month, engaging in a specific number of serving opportunities during the year, and inviting a specific number of people to join you in worship or service.

The numbers you write into the blanks won’t make you a better Christian. They aren’t the means for you to grow in your own discipleship, and they aren’t the goal of your walk with Christ. They represent a promise you make every time we renew our baptismal vows. It’s a promise to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus. It’s a promise to grow into a mature follower of Jesus. It’s a promise to want to know Christ, who has made you his own. Let it be so.