Category Archives: Discipleship

Awakening to Surrender – Sermon on John 14:1-14

May 14, 2017
Mothers’ Day – Easter 5A

What troubles your heart these days?

There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars all over the globe, crime, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.

I grew up in a church that was convinced it had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved.

We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.

We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table on the night Jesus was betrayed.

We had answers. … The disciples had questions.

We were full of assurance. … The disciples were full of fear.

We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion. … Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”

We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out. … The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”

As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of resurrection.

But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.

For us, the question “who are we following?” never even comes up. We all know from the beginning that the faith we are exploring is Christian faith. Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. As Jews, they were still caught up in thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out.

They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Have we made a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?

So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”

A couple of weeks ago, the Wednesday night Bible study group took a look at the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. We heard two of them last week, when Jesus announced, “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the gate for the sheep.” Now, to answer Thomas, Jesus makes another claim to his identity.

“Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth. The Word was made flesh – that’s me. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”

At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and only me, or else!” Jesus was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun.

We need to be careful about the way we interpret this particular “I AM” statement. We need to make sure we keep it in the context of this conversation between Jesus and the chosen few who have followed him most closely throughout his ministry.

When we pull this statement out of its setting, Karoline Lewis writes, it “stands as contradictory to every other “I AM” statement in the Fourth Gospel. ‘I AM the way, the truth, and the life’ becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence,” rather than a word of promise.

Lewis continues, “These are words of comfort, not condition, for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure.”[1] In other words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” is a promise for believers, not a threat for unbelievers.

Thomas must have been paying attention. We know that, after the Resurrection, Thomas will make the most powerful declaration of faith found in any of the gospels. He will kneel at Jesus’ feet and proclaim with certainty, “My Lord and my God.”

And that is what we are called to do. We are called to say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.” Accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. This is the promise Christ makes when he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m how you get to the Father.”

David Lose writes that this statement is “Sheer promise. And just in case we’re not sure, Jesus heaps on another promise to boot: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” All of which adds a twist to our usual conception of heaven. When Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us, we tend to think in very far-off, eternal terms. And yet Jesus’ departure to the Father not only secures our place in God’s presence but also creates the possibility to follow Jesus, do his works, and even do greater works … right now, in this very present moment. Heaven, for John, is as much a present-tense category as it is future one.”[2]

But let’s back up for a moment. Let’s go back to that first verse again, the one where Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” This week, I studied these familiar words as they fit into the broader story, and I was suddenly struck by their connection to something Jesus says way back in chapter 12.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in the Palm Procession, and some Greeks have come to Phillip to ask, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (12:21). When Philip tells Jesus about their request, Jesus begins to talk about his impending death. Listen to what he says in verses 27 and 28: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

Shortly after this conversation, Jesus will gather his friends in the upper room. Just as his own soul was troubled back in chapter 12, he will see that his disciples’ hearts are troubled as they gather around his table. They will argue about who is to be the greatest in his kingdom, and he will wrap a towel around his waist and get down on his knees to do the job of the lowliest servant. He will wash their stinky feet.

When Jesus’ soul is troubled, instead of asking the Father to save him from what is coming, he surrenders to God’s will, to glorify God’s name.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, and then tells them, “ Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me,” he is inviting them to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

When Jesus says, “Those who believe in me will do the works I do, and even greater works than these, because I’m going to the Father,” he is inviting us to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

Becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love.

But we can only do this when our service comes out of humble surrender to God’s will, giving glory to God’s name. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what it means to come to the Father through him. It means surrender.

The Way is the way of surrender to God’s will for us. The Truth is that giving God glory is all that really matters. The Life is a life of surrender, lived in relationship with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

David Lose points out that the questions Thomas and Philip pose aren’t really questions of “How.” They are “why” questions. Why do you have to leave us now, Jesus? Why can’t we go with you? Why are you leaving us in this broken, miserable world? We might wonder the same thing. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What reason do we have to continue on the journey toward Christ-likeness?

Often, when we want answers, what we really need is relationship. The answer Jesus gives to “Why?” is not “Because.” The answer Jesus gives is his very self. ”Whatever the disciples may ask, Jesus will keep offering not simply answers but himself.”[3]

This is what he means when he says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14) Jesus does not promise to be our short order cook, serving up whatever we demand of him to satisfy our own desires.

Jesus promises himself, fully surrendered to glorify the Father. As we act on his behalf to do the works he did, and even greater works than these, he invites us to that same life of surrender.

[1] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1994
[2] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218
[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-5-a-jesus-real-presence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

Awakening to Faith – Sermon on John 20:19-31 for Easter 2A

April 23, 2017
Watch the video here.

It’s still Easter. Put yourself in the upper room for a moment. Imagine what it was like to have waited there together over the Sabbath, hiding behind locked doors. All your hopes and dreams have been crushed. The One you thought would free you from oppression has been brutally executed. You are afraid.

Then something happens that you can’t quite explain, and you aren’t sure you can believe. Some of the women have gone to the tomb early in the morning, and they come back breathlessly exclaiming that the tomb is empty. He isn’t there. They babble on about seeing angels. Something about “he is risen!” Could it be true?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

If you compare these two appearances of the risen Christ, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.

But John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Believe the Good News!

And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” And believing – or “faithing,” if there were such a word in English – is such an important concept that this verb appears six times in this passage, and 90 more times throughout the rest of John’s gospel.

Believing is more than intellectual agreement. It’s more than understanding or accepting an idea as true. Believing means trusting, or having faith in something. Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

If those Jesus sends fail to share their faith effectively, others will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be retained. They won’t experience forgiveness. (20:23) The stakes of this mission are high. And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing for John. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the gospel story. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (John 1:39).

A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34).

In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and ‘seeing’ means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up unexpectedly until they get it. He offers shalom three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Shalom. The disciples were afraid, but this time, when Jesus appears, he doesn’t give the “Stop being afraid, fear not” greeting that we have come to expect when a messenger from God shows up. Instead, he offers peace. Over and over again.

But notice that this risen Christ also offers some astounding evidence to prove he is who they can barely believe he is. Instead of showing them himself in flawless resurrected glory, he holds out his hands, and shows them his side. He offers his wounds, symbols of his own vulnerable humanity, as proof of his identity.

This is the same Christ who breathes Holy Spirit on a room full of people mere hours after walking out of a tomb. And here he is, not once but twice, offering peace from wounded hands that have felt the ultimate pain and suffering a human can experience. But pain, grief, and wounds are not signs of weakness. Rachael Keefe [2] writes,

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that perfection is to be prized and that we should keep other things quiet. This mindset is causing us harm. If the risen Christ identified himself by his wounds, then why do we go to such extremes to hide our own?

We are enamored with perfection in western culture. We must look perfect, act perfect, be perfect. We shy away from any displays of imperfection. … How many people are afraid to be honest about their own struggles for fear of judgment? For fear of being seen as weak or in need?

Funny how we have done this to one another when we worship a God who conquered death, but saw no reason to remove the marks of human frailty. The … marks of sin and death were clearly still visible, reminding us of our true nature. We are fragile and finite. We can bruise, bend, and break in countless ways for reasons sometimes beyond our understanding. Many things can wound us deeply. Why deny that? Why hide it?”

Keefe goes on to consider what it might look like in our worship if we offered each other our wounds, our pain, our vulnerability as frail human beings when we “pass the peace.” This might give “Peace be with you,” a new and profound meaning. It could help us recognize that we, as the church, embody a Christ who is both wounded and whole, just as we are. “Peace be with you” then becomes a reminder of healing and hope, not just a casual “Glad to see you” greeting.

“If the Son of God, the risen Christ, can use his wounds as proof of his life, experience, and identity, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? Here I am. Here are my wounds. Touch them if you need to. I am God’s beloved. Peace be with you.” (Rachael Keefe)

This brings us to the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think, when we call him “Doubting Thomas.” After all, his confession of Jesus as Lord and God is the strongest statement of faith we can find in the gospels. Thomas is the one who told the others, “if he’s determined to go to Bethany, where his life has already been threatened, we might as well go die with him, too.”

This kind of faith, this kind of believing, includes a healthy dose of doubt. Frederick Buechner, put it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[3]

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for building faith. It is only when we ask the hard questions that God can provide us with answers to deepen our relationship with him. This is how God gives us tools to share our faith with others when life throws hard questions at them.

And maybe this is the reason John gives us the story of Thomas a week after the resurrection. To remind us that it is healthy to doubt, so that our believing, our “faithing” keeps awake and moving. And it is also healthy to recognize our risen Lord – not because of his white raiment or the halo artists paint around his head – but because of his deep wounds, still evident and fresh a week after he has conquered death once and for all.

Like Thomas, may you see those wounds and know that Christ sees yours.
Like Thomas, may you own your doubts, so that your faith may grow.
Like Thomas, may you bow before Jesus and say with assurance, “My Lord, and my God.” And through the very act of believing, amid your doubts, revealing your wounds, may you have life in his name.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2, 397.
[2] Rachael Keefe: https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/blood-sweat-and-tears/
[3] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt

Heading for Deep Water – Sermon on Luke 5:1-10

March 12, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

If you’re a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God! We’re spending the 6 weeks of Lent together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to. The Spirit of God is moving in our church. Some of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.

Would you like to join us? There’s still time to join a small group this week. In fact, one group meets right after coffee time in the pastor’s study today. There’s one early on Tuesday morning, and a couple of groups meet on Wednesday night as part of Family Night. Thursday options include an afternoon study and an evening group. Whichever group you join, we’ll bring you up to speed!

Here’s what we know so far: mainline Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership and influence in our country. We’ve grown reluctant to bring new people into Christian faith, and that reluctance prevents us from sharing our faith with others.

Last week, we explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who don’t have a faith. We considered that some of us don’t have a dramatic faith story to share, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Some of us are more like Ananias. Our personal stories might not be very dramatic, but God can use us as the domino that tips someone else into following Jesus.

In fact, there’s someone here today who has had just that kind of experience. I’d like to invite her to come share her story with you. Kris?

Continue reading

The Great Invitation: This, Not That – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2017
Epiphany 6A
View a video of this sermon here.

Effective teachers know that good corrective instruction starts with an evaluation of what the student has already mastered. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s easier to help a student fix what needs to be fixed if you start by affirming what’s already going well. Good teachers point out the positives before they get to what needs to be improved. So, Jesus has begun his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with the good news: You are blessed, you are salt and light.

Jesus reminds us that God is at work, and we already are salt and light to the world, seasoning it with God’s love and shining God’s light into every dark corner. We also heard him insist that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

As Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. In this week’s passage, Jesus is moving from the positives to what we, his students, need to improve, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. Continue reading

The Good Confession – Sermon on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

October 2, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

We’ve been reading through Adam Hamilton’s book “Half Truths” on Wednesday night. Each chapter considers a common saying that sounds like it could come from the Bible – but it doesn’t. For example, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is often meant to encourage someone going through a difficult time. But the Bible verse most people associate with this saying is talking about temptation, not hardship.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” So, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is a half truth. It’s partly true, but the scripture verse is actually talking about withstanding temptation, not suffering through hardship.

There are a couple more copies of the book out on the table, and you are welcome to pick one up if you’d like to read the last couple of chapters with us.

I think Adam Hamilton could have added a chapter to his book, with a half truth that comes from the passage we are about to read today. You’ve probably heard “Money is the root of all evil” – and maybe you’ve even said it yourself. But in the first letter to Timothy, this isn’t exactly what we hear, if we listen carefully.

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:6-19)

We began this series four weeks ago, as we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. Jesus demands our complete commitment. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Our journey through the letters to Timothy has shown us that the call to discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s grace. It’s a call to prayer, and to sharing our stories of faith with each new generation, so we can remain faithful to right teaching.

Jesus did a lot of teaching about money, so it may be fitting that we close out this series with a look at what stewardship means to faithful followers of Christ, especially since our annual stewardship drive begins next week! But is this passage really about money? Or is that just another half truth? Let’s take a closer look.

If this passage of scripture were a sandwich, the “bread” would certainly be those verses about money. The top slice of bread includes that often-misquoted verse about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Note that it isn’t money itself, but loving money that is the problem. Loving money is just another form of idolatry.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” we hear in the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27). Loving money instead of God and neighbor, or more than God and neighbor, gets us into all sorts of trouble. And that trouble affects everyone around us.

Like the pastor who left ministry because his church wouldn’t give him a raise when his family grew to include 5 kids. So he left the church. He went into business, and was pretty successful. But something shifted somewhere along the line, and getting more money became the most important thing in his life. He forged some checks, and spent fifteen years in prison. When he was finally released on parole, he was too ashamed to stay in contact with his children. Within five years, he was a homeless, unemployable alcoholic who died by suicide. Not only was his own life ruined by his desire for money, but his family suffered, his business associates suffered, and the church he left suffered. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

But thanks be to God, the letter to Timothy doesn’t end there! Having bitten into the bread of warning about loving money, we get to the meat of this passage: the Good Confession.

There are basically two kinds of confession found in the New Testament – confessions of sin, and confessions of faith. Confession of sin leads us to repentance and newness of life. Confessing our sin looks backward to what we have been and what we have done, and says “I’m sorry. I don’t want to live that way anymore. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Confession of faith looks forward to what God promises us in the person of Jesus Christ. It gives us something firm to grasp, as we live in new ways as children of God. What does this new life of discipleship look like?

“But as for you, man of God,” the letter to Timothy reads, “shun all this” – in other words, flee from pursuing material wealth. Instead, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (v 11).

Does this list sound familiar? Some of these attributes sound a lot like the list of spiritual gifts we find in Galatians 5:22-23 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

And it isn’t just Paul who writes about these things. In 2 Peter 1:5-7 we read, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”

These are attributes of a true disciple of Jesus Christ:

Righteousness
Godliness
Faith
Love
Endurance
Gentleness

The letter continues:
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

Make the good confession, just as you did when you were baptized. Just as Jesus did when he stood before Pilate on the night he was betrayed.

When Pilate asked him if he was a king, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. … my kingdom is from another place, … In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (John 18:36-37).

In Romans 10:9-10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.”

This is the good confession that Peter made when Jesus asked “But who do you say that I am?” Peter didn’t hesitate: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:15-16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20) There is no greater truth than this, that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This sums up the core of Christian teaching and belief.

God is the Living God, ever eternally always God – not like those idols of wealth and power that do not last – and Jesus is his only Son, who came to give us life. No wonder this letter breaks out into a hymn of praise!

“He … is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

This is the meat, the good confession, that Jesus is Lord.

Which brings us to the bottom slice of bread – the proper use of money, now that we have tasted the goodness of the Lord.

In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He didn’t hold up poverty as a virtue, any more than Jesus did. Jesus went to the poor to offer them abundance, and Wesley advises us to use that abundance wisely – earning, saving, and giving as much as possible in faithful stewardship.

In another sermon (Sermon 92  “On Zeal,” point 5), Wesley lists character traits that are very similar to Paul’s list of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. He says that these traits lie close to the center of lives ruled by the love of God and neighbor. Wesley tells us that we develop these traits as we engage in acts of mercy and personal piety.

Dawn Chesser writes,Despite all he has written about the dangers of pursuing wealth (verses 9-10), Paul does not advise cutting the wealthy off from the congregation, nor in any way condemning them for their wealth. Not at all. Rather he advises that leaders guide the wealthy among them to “do good, be rich in good works, generous, ready to share” (verse 18, NRSV). In short, pursue the works of mercy, not neglecting the works of piety. Take time, intentionally, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit jails and prisons, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, make peace and resolve conflicts, and work for the common good. Works of mercy are for all a means of cultivating both personal spiritual growth and the greater good of the wider community.

Wealth is neither the reward nor the measure of a church for saving sinners. Love is. And so [followers of Jesus] are to invest themselves, their time, their energy, and their financial and physical resources in engaging the works of mercy by which the fruit of the Spirit becomes most fully known, exercised, and improved within and through us.”

“We pursue what we love, or want to love. Paul is clear. The love of money is completely inconsistent with saving sinners … To be consistent with saving sinners, [we] first must … actively pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (verse 11, NRSV).”[1]

Next week, we begin our stewardship campaign. You’ll be hearing from members of our congregation each week, as they share their own personal experiences of God’s activity in their lives. They will tell us how they have seen that activity bear fruits of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Following Jesus isn’t always about the money – in fact, it usually is not about the money. It’s about consistently making the good confession that Jesus is Lord, so that we may “take hold of the life that really is life.” Amen.

 

 

[1] Dawn Chesser , http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/nineteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016

Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else.

Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple. Receiving mercy requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

Counting the Cost – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

One of the first phrases I learned to speak when I lived in Germany was, “Wie viel kostet es?” “How much does it cost?” I had to know how much things were worth, to stay within the budget dictated by the cash in my hand whenever I went to the market. What we ate depended on its cost. If the cost was too high, we didn’t eat it!

I am not a “shopper.” I don’t enjoy looking at rows and rows of merchandise with an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude. It may be because whenever I see something I really like, it’s way outside my budget. I know I’m in trouble if the price tag isn’t visible, because: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. He knows that this will be his last journey, that the price tag on this trip is high, and it isn’t negotiable.

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)

Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him! Have you ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch. Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. So he turns to the crowd and tells them, “Unless you’re serious about following me, you might as well go home!”

But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers. He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple. We need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus, because the cost is high.

Specifically, Jesus says we must hate our families if we want to follow him. This was pretty strong stuff in a culture where family was everything, and loyalty to one’s family was the highest loyalty expected. So let’s take a look at that word, “hate,” to see what Jesus means.

First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. So, the Greek word misew can be translated as “hate” but it also means disregard, be indifferent to, or to love one thing less than something else. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you. Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”

Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion.

To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.

Jesus must have seen the faces around him turn somber as his words started to sink in. Whenever Jesus found that his words were too hard for people to hear, he turned to one of his favorite teaching strategies – telling parables.

“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if you could afford it? You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well! And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if your army was strong enough to defeat the enemy?”

But there are three things about these little parables we may miss if we read them too quickly. First, Jesus tells us that the process of building or going to battle starts with sitting down. Counting the cost requires some thoughtful pondering before any action can take place. In the same way, we can’t follow Jesus any old way it suits us. We have to carefully consider the commitment we are making.

Second, Jesus focuses on outcomes. Counting the cost indicates that there is some end in mind, some goal to be reached. You don’t start building a tower unless you plan to finish it. You don’t head into battle unless you think you can overcome the enemy. You don’t follow Jesus unless you want your life to be changed forever.

Finally, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient. There is no price tag visible, so you can’t afford it.

But Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Not only do we need to count the cost, that cost is everything we hold valuable. We have to bid farewell to everything we call our own. We have to leave behind everything that matters most to us.

And when Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind. This isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done thing. It’s an ongoing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment surrender to God’s grace and mercy.

To be a disciple of Jesus you must know that the cost will be putting Jesus first, and everything else last. That starts the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus, and it does not stop. Ever. There is no 401K plan for being a Christian. You don’t retire from following Jesus, to live off the investment of your past discipleship. Every day starts anew. Every moment requires your full commitment. And if you aren’t willing to give your all, Jesus says, you cannot call yourself one of his followers.

All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home. We can’t hold anything back, if we want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Because there is no way to “sort of” take up your cross. There is no way to follow Jesus on your own terms, when it is convenient to you. You can’t follow Jesus for the way it makes you feel about yourself or the way others admire your piety. You must surrender everything to Christ, or you aren’t really a follower.

The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? In his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard lists the things we lose if we don’t follow Jesus with our whole being. He writes:

“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.”

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth giving up abiding peace to live life on your own terms? Is it worth sacrificing a life penetrated by love to settle for having things the way you like them? Is it worth cutting yourself off from faith that trusts in God’s overarching plan for your good, in order to run your life the way you want to? Is it worth giving up hope, and the power to stand in the face of evil? Is it worth it to you to say “No” to God’s abundance, so you can skimp by on your own meager resources? Because that’s what it costs to not take up your cross.

Notice that I am not talking about salvation here. I am talking about discipleship. I grew up in a church that focused all its attention on getting people saved, but it failed to teach those new believers how to follow Jesus and make him Lord of their lives once they’d experienced that salvation. Jesus wants to do more for us than save us from our sins, as important as that is. Jesus wants to give us abundant life, to deepen our relationship with him as we grow in faith. Jesus wants us to be his true disciples.

When we say “yes” to following Jesus, when we surrender our will to his will, something amazing happens. Bit by bit, we are changed. Each time we keep saying “yes, Lord, I leave behind everything to follow you,” we are re-formed. We are transformed, becoming more and more like Christ. We experience abundant life, by God’s grace. And we discover that the cost of following Jesus, that we thought we couldn’t possibly afford, is worth it all. Because the price has already been paid out of God’s deep love for us, and when we give our all to Christ, we receive so much more!

As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him. Amen.