Tag Archives: grace

Getting our ACTS together – sermon on Acts 4:12-19 Easter 2B

April 8, 2018

The New Testament is mostly letters – letters from Paul to various churches, letters from Peter, and from James, Jude, and John. It’s mostly letters, but not entirely letters. There’s the Revelation of John at the end of the New Testament, and the four gospels at the beginning. And sandwiched in between the gospels and the letters there’s a book called The Acts of the Apostles, or simply, “Acts.” Some Bible scholars like to call it “Second Luke” because it continues the story of Luke’s gospel beyond the resurrection of Jesus. So it’s appropriate that the assigned readings for the season of Eastertide include passages from Acts, or “Second Luke.” Because, as we learned last week, the story isn’t over when Jesus rises from death to life. It’s just beginning. Continue reading

A Fool for Love – Sermon on John 3:14-21 for Lent 4B

March 11, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Are you getting tired of Lent, yet? If this were the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’d be nearly done with the purple of penitence and preparation. We would be anticipating the celebration of Christ’s coming in less than a week – Christmas Eve would be just around the corner!

But this isn’t Advent. It’s Lent. We have a ways to go before the end of this 40-day journey into the wilderness. There are still two more weeks before we can wave palm branches at the entry into Holy Week. We have three more weeks to fast and pray and prepare our hearts for Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.

Here in the middle of Lent, we could sure use some joy. I think that’s why, centuries ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to make the fourth Sunday of Lent be Laetare Sunday, a Sunday when we get to ‘rejoice in the Lord.’ It’s kind of like that third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when we light a rose-colored candle instead of a dark purple one. And what better gospel passage to bring us joy, than the third chapter of John? This is where we find the famous verse that sums up the whole gospel message – “For God so loved the world…”

And this brings us to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a rabbi, who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness. Maybe Rabbi Nic comes to Jesus at night to keep his conversation a secret from the other Pharisees. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit publicly that he is in contact with Jesus. Continue reading

Discipleship 101: This is Jesus – Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

October 1, 2017

Note: The gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 21:23-32, and should be read immediately before this sermon.

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could.

We just heard Jesus describe two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, and the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? The Temple leaders gathered around Jesus hadn’t been able to answer the question he had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.”

What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” So Jesus uses this parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God.

Here’s how obedience and authority are connected. There is a difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority by their obedience.

Like the two sons in Jesus’ parable, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to.

But even more important than what we do and say, is our focus on the One we follow. Our identity lies in Christ Jesus, and we respond to his authority with our obedience. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Continue reading

The Advantage of Grace – sermon on Romans 6:12-23

July 2, 2017

We’re looking at a Wesleyan understanding of Grace this month. Two weeks ago, you examined God’s prevenient grace. Before we knew we needed it, God showed us his grace. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8) Last week, you heard the first part of chapter six in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It was all about the grace God offers through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. We call this justifying grace – becoming dead to sin, and alive in Christ, puts us right with God. We are justified through our faith in Christ Jesus.

Today we look at another aspect of God’s grace: sanctification. Sanctifying grace sets us apart as holy to the Lord. It is through the ongoing process of sanctification that we become more and more like Christ.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:12-23

“Therefore,” Paul writes, and immediately we realize we need to jump back to last week’s passage to understand what Paul is about to say. Here’s how that passage ended, in verse eleven: “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Now verse 12 makes sense! Therefore, don’t let sin overpower you, because obedience to sin leads to death.

Sin isn’t a very popular topic in today’s churches. We don’t like to hear about the ways we fall short of God’s plan for us. We don’t want anyone reminding us that our self-centered pursuit of what pleases us is not always pleasing to God. And it’s really easy, when we start talking about sin, to point out the sins of others, as if they might be more terrible than our own mediocre sins.

But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are all guilty, in one way or another. We all need grace. And even after we have accepted Christ’s justifying grace, even after we have begun to walk in newness of life, we keep on needing grace.

Paul tells us that we need to keep on choosing grace as we seek to become more and more like Christ. Whatever we obey, that is what rules us. If we obey sin, it leads to death, but if we obey God, it leads to life. And this is not just-barely-getting-by life. Obedience to God brings us abundant freedom for all eternity, beginning now.

But doesn’t this freedom simply mean that we can go ahead and sin, knowing that God will forgive us? In fact, shouldn’t we sin more, so we can experience even greater levels of God’s grace? No, Paul says. You’re missing the point. The point isn’t personal freedom to do whatever we want.

Theologian Rudolph Bultmann writes, “Genuine freedom … withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.” Harold Masback adds, “Mere ‘freedom from’ this law or that obligation never leads to flourishing life unless it is linked with ‘freedom for’ a higher, heartfelt commitment.” (Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 187.) The point of grace isn’t freedom. The point is sanctification.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear at the coffee shop during the week! That’s definitely a Sunday word, a great example of churchy language that we are supposed to avoid if we want to attract new people, people who might be put off by words that only the Christian insiders understand. But do we understand what sanctification means?

The biblical definition of sanctification is to be set apart for God’s glory. John Wesley used sanctification and perfection interchangeably. We don’t like that word, perfection, either. But Wesley wasn’t trying to set up an impossible standard for living.

For Wesley, “going on toward perfection” was a life-long process of Christian discipleship. Being perfected in grace means that we become more and more like Jesus, saying and doing the things that Jesus said and did, living our lives as he would live them if he were us. It’s a process of transformation.

One of the most frequent criticisms young adults offer the church is that we are hypocrites. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. We say we love Jesus, but we live our lives as if he didn’t exist (Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist).

Paul reminds us, “What advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death” (v 21). Walk the walk, Paul tells us. Live for Christ, now that you are dead to sin. Sanctification isn’t something that happens automatically; it’s a choice we make day by day, sometimes moment by moment.

Sanctification is what happens to us, by God’s grace, when we decide to center our lives on being disciples of Jesus Christ. It is that life of discipleship that sets us apart, and gives glory to God. And here’s the really wonderful thing: when we allow ourselves to be transformed in this way, we begin to transform the world around us.

At our recent Minnesota Annual Conference, Junius Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church, had this to say about the purpose of discipleship, or this process of sanctification:
“The point of discipleship is to influence the culture around us. We limit discipleship by segregating the secular from the sacred. We never take our faith public!
“The culture will have to live under the influence of Christ. In the world, [you] are each professionals who have been strategically positioned to reach new people and change their worldview, impacting the people around you. We don’t have to waste time in church meetings talking to death how to go beyond the church walls. We are already in every place in the community, in society.”

You have been strategically positioned to impact the people around you by the way you live out your faith, the way you ‘walk the walk.’ Think about that. How are you strategically placed to bring glory to God throughout the week?

It isn’t by our effort; we can’t strive for it. It is by God’s grace alone that we can be transformed. To what end? What’s the advantage of sanctifying grace? “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” The wages of sin is death – that’s what we earn, what is due to us right now. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – we can’t earn it. God gives us this gift through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Yet we must choose, and the choice is always before us – Obedience to sin that results in death, or obedience to God that results in eternal life, fully transformed into the likeness of the one we follow, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who invites us to this Table now. …

 

Salvation Has Come to this House – sermon on Luke 19:1-10

October 30, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

Last week, we heard Jesus tell a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. He told the story to some people who thought they were better than others, and in that story, the Really Bad Guy, the tax collector, goes home justified, while the Really Good Guy, the Pharisee, goes home no more righteous than he had been before he came to the Temple to pray.

Today’s story is about another tax collector, only this time Jesus isn’t setting up a hypothetical situation to teach a lesson. This time, the tax collector is a real person, a short man named Zacchaeus. But before we can hear this story, we have to know what has happened since last week. Because Jesus has been pretty busy in the last part of chapter 18. Continue reading

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

Remember your baptism

A picture hangs in my office, taken sometime in the mid-1950s. A young boy is standing waist-deep in a river, holding a list of names, candidates for baptism.  Next to him is his father, a pastor, preparing to baptize a young girl. The busy river flows around these three figures, and makes me grateful that, by the time that same pastor, who also happened to be my father, baptized me, it was in a heated baptistery filled with clean water.

This Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus going down into the Jordan River, where John was baptizing repentant sinners. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t asking to be baptized because of sin, but in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17).

There’s a story in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:1-14) about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. But Naaman didn’t do it voluntarily. In fact, he was angry that the prophet Elisha had told him to do such a degrading thing, and turned away in disgust. But his servants reminded him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’d been told to do? Naaman changed his mind, and was healed of his skin disease.

I see a connection between John’s baptism “with water for repentance” and Naaman’s repentant plunge into the Jordan River. But I see an even stronger connection between Naaman’s “baptism” and the baptism of Jesus, who had no need to repent, who knew no sin. Naaman may have balked at first, but in the end, he did what he was told to do.  John may have balked when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but in the end, Jesus did what he was told to do, too. Naaman was cleansed of his disease, while Jesus took on the sins of the world. Both  were obedient to God.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water this Sunday, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.