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Aug 11 - Peter - Forgiven, Restored, and Called

John 21:15-19

Acts 4:1-15   

The last few weeks we have been exploring the life of a man from the New Testament named Peter.  Last week, we saw that Peter pledge to defend Jesus from all enemies, even if it cost Peter his own life.  Then within a matter of a few hours, we saw Peter deny ever knowing Jesus not one time but three times.  Today, I would like us to complete our review of Peter’s life by exploring what happened to Peter when Peter encountered Jesus again following Peter’s denials.  The conversation between Jesus and Peter was a powerful one for through it we can feel Peter experience his denial of Jesus but see Jesus forgiving Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus again, but see Jesus restoring Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus a third time, but see Jesus calling Peter.  Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation is important to us because we learn that God’s love compels Him to forgive, to restore, and to call each person who will receive Him.  God’s love transforms lives.

We do not talk enough about love; God’s real love.  We need to talk more about love.  Allow me to give you an illustration.  A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a two-day training program called, ASIST, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.  This training equips attendees to intervene in the life of someone who has become suicidal.  There were 32 people in my class.  Thirty-one people who were social workers of various stripes and one church pastor.  We learned that people who have suicidal thoughts often feel alone, isolated, and hopeless for the future.  We learned strategies to talk to suicidal people and to help them develop choices to keep themselves safe.  When the two days of training had been completed, the instructor asked the entire class, “Suppose you intervened and kept someone from suicide, what services could your agency offer to that person to help them move forward with their life?”  A couple of the social workers stood up and gave long and impressive lists of life skill training programs, workshops, and seminars offered by their agency.  I squirmed a bit in my seat because I thought the point was missed.  Life is not about programs, workshops, and seminars.  So, I stood up and said, “We offer love.”  The room was very quiet after I spoke because I think people know life without love cannot be sustained.  We just do not talk about love; genuine love.  And yet the Bible speaks over and over about love.  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).  “Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).  “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43, 44).

Jesus words about love were carefully chosen.  He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  While Jesus’ statement is about love, he showed how special God’s love is by included one of the most important words in our language.  That word is the word “but.”  I have spoken of this word in previous sermons.  Whenever we see or heard the word, “but,” we should pay attention because that small word is full of power.  The word but is intended to have the audience ignore what is said before the word “but” and give extra attention to the words that comes after the word “but.”  We might say in a tongue in cheek way, that what follows your “but” is most important.  Let me offer an illustration.  Two people get into a heated argument.  Harsh and angry words are exchanged.  The two people separate from each other for a time.  Then one person goes to the other and says, “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said...”  You can fill in the blank from your own experience.  The speaker offered an apology in the first part of the sentence and then took the apology away by using the word but leaving the focus on the second part of the sentence; that the fault lies with the other person.  Hear the sentence again.  “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said....”  The focus is on words following the “but.”  This is the essence of Peter’s experience with Jesus from today’s Bible reading.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus forgave Peter.  The focus is forgiving Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again, but Jesus restored Peter.  The focus is Peter’s restoration.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The focus is on giving Peter a mission.  Why would Jesus forgive, restore, and call Peter?  Simply because Jesus loved Peter.

Let’s revisit our New Testament reading from earlier today and listen in as Jesus speaks to Peter.  Please turn with me to the Gospel of John, Chapter 21, beginning with verse 15.

As we enter this scene, we find that Peter and six other disciples with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  They had just finished breakfast.  “15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Let’s pause there for a moment.  First, notice Jesus refers to Peter as “Simon, son of John.”  Jesus referred to Peter in this manner only one time previously.  That occurred when Jesus first met Peter.  John tells us, “And he [Andrew] brought him [his brother, Simon] to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him [Simon] and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:42).  Jesus began this conversation with Peter along the shores of the Sea of Galilee by referring to him in the manner Peter was known before he met Jesus.  This must have grabbed Peter’s attention.  Jesus’ words were penetrating Peter’s being.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  These meaning the other disciples.  “Peter do you love me more than these [other disciples] do [love me]?”  It is a reflective question about the inner heart of Peter.  Jesus question may have reminded Peter that when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, Peter said, “Though they [the other disciples may] all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33).  With those words of bravado, Peter was saying his love for Jesus was greater than the love of any other disciple for Jesus.  Peter’s words condemned the other disciples.  And yet, it is not hard to imagine that Jesus’ words “Do you love me?” brought Peter’s words of denying Jesus into Peter’s mind.  A servant girl had come up to Peter and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” Peter said, “I do not know what you mean” (Matthew 26:69-70).

Now, after Peter’s denial of Jesus, Peter was being asked by Jesus, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples] do?”  Peter thought for a moment taking in his bravado and denial of Jesus and said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

This was a humbling experience for Peter.  Peter had denied Jesus.  Now Jesus wanted to know if Peter still loved him.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  When we express our love for another person, especially for the first time, we wonder how that person will respond.  Will our words panic them or please them?  Peter wondered how Jesus would respond to Peter’s expression of love.  After some quiet moments, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.”  The Greek word used for feed means literally to provide nourishment and tend while grazing.  Jesus was telling Peter to care for Jesus’ disciples.  Peter must have felt relieved the conversation was over.  Jesus had received Peter’s love and Jesus called Peter back into his life.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had forgiven Peter.

But the conversation was not over.  Verse 16, “Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Peter must have wondered, “Why is Jesus asking me this question again?”  Perhaps, Peter recalled his second denial of Jesus.  Matthew recorded Peter’s second denial this way, “Then he [Peter] went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”  He [Peter] denied it again, with an oath: ‘I don’t know the man!’”  (Matthew 26:71-72).  Again, the strength of Peter dried up before the voice of servant girl and he denied ever knowing Jesus.  Peter now had to sit quietly and think about Jesus’ question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  After a few moments, Peter said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  After a moment of quiet reflection on those words, Jesus said to Peter, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16).  Peter affirmed he loved Jesus, the person he once denied ever knowing.  In response, Jesus commanded Peter to tend those most precious to Jesus, his flock, Jesus’ congregation.  This was a position of authority that before his denial Peter was told would be his.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had restored Peter.  I can imagine that Peter was relieved, believing this conversation was over.

But the conversation is not over.  Look at verse 17, “He [Jesus] said to him [Peter] the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he [Jesus] said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”  Scripture said Peter grieved.  In the Greek language of the original Gospel writings, the word used for grieving was λυπέω, lypeō, lü-pe'-ō, which means to be sorrowful, or to be thrown into sorrow and sadness.  Peter was crushed and he began to weep.  Perhaps Peter remembered the emotion of his third denial.  You see Scripture tells us, “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them [Jesus’ follower], for your accent betrays you.”  Then he [Peter] began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:73-74).  And after Peter’s third denial, Peter left his accusers and wept bitterly.  Now again on the beach in Galilee and Peter grieved because Jesus asked him for a third time, “Do you love me?”  Having collected himself enough, Peter replied to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)  Peter’s response carries an admission that nothing is hidden from Jesus.  Jesus knew the painful denials, for Peter had denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter to care for those who would become part of Jesus’ church.

Peter’s painful past has been dealt with and Peter had been reconciled and made right with Jesus.  Peter denied Jesus but Jesus forgave Peter.  Peter again denied Jesus but Jesus restored Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The forgiveness, restoration, and calling not because of Peter’s love for Jesus, but because of Jesus love for Peter.

Now here is the good news.  Jesus wants to do the same for you and me.  Jesus wants to remove the poison of sin from each one of us and gives us a new task, a new meaning to life.  “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

Suppose for a moment, you were sitting on the beach with Jesus beside you.  And Jesus said to you, “Do you love me?”  What behavior or disappointment in life might that cause you to recall?  Think about.  Now give it over to Jesus and do not carry it any longer because Jesus will forgive.  If after you have done that, Jesus asked again, “Do you love me?” what would come to our mind this time.  Think about it and give that moment of denial or disappointment over to him.  Jesus will restore you.  Finally, if Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?”  what then would come to mind.  Give that over to Jesus and he will call you to do great things for the kingdom of God.

Jesus promises to forgive, restore, and call each person who comes to him.  We may think we are not worthy but God’s word says to us, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I am glad you are hear today.  We have only one thing to offer you and that is “the love of God.”  Let us pray.

Jul 28 - Walking with Peter in Faith and Fear

Matthew 14:22-33

            As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good idea for us to explore some characters from the Bible to see how their lives and their experiences could help us in our walk with God.  The first character I chose for us to explore was a man named Simon, who Jesus nicknamed Peter.  We explored Peter’s first encounter with Jesus along the River Jordan and Peter’s first words of the New Testament when Peter asked Jesus to fish on the Sea of Galilee.

            Today, we have a chance to join Jesus and Peter, again on the Sea of Galilee.  The scene we are going to look at is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  It was an important event in Peter’s life but as powerful a moment that it turned out to be, Peter never spoke of it.  Peter is never quoted as telling the story to others except to say that in all he experienced with Jesus, Peter became convinced Jesus was the Son of God.  Sometimes, I think we get more interested in the details of the miracles described in the Gospels than to recognize the central point of the miracles and the entirety of the Gospels was to have us see that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Gospel of Matthew, a Roman officer at the crucifixion of Jesus summed up Jesus’ life this way, “Surely, he was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).  The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel says this, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  The ending of the Gospel of John says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30).  Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers came to believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God.  They believed God exists.  They believed that God sent Jesus, his Son, with a message of hope for all people.  They believed Jesus was different from all other people in part because of what they saw Jesus do but primarily they believed in the specialness of Jesus because he was raised from the dead.  Because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, they believed Jesus’ claims that he was the Son of God.  They trusted Jesus’ words that in believing in him they would be freed from the penalty of sin because he, Jesus, paid that penalty.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to an atheist that God existed.  They believed God existed based upon faith.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to those who believed in God that Jesus was God’s Son.  They believed Jesus was the Son of God based upon faith.  How someone comes to believe in God or Jesus has never changed over the centuries.  We only believe in Jesus because we have faith.  We cannot argue or force anyone else to believe either in God or in Jesus as his Son.  These are faith decisions.  So in this regard we are very much the same as those who saw Jesus in person, including Peter.  A life with God is based on faith.

            In one way though, we, at least in the United States, are very different from those who saw Jesus in person.  The original believers in Jesus believed by faith who Jesus was by overcoming their fear in believing.  For the early Christians, to believe in Jesus as the Son of God was a risky decision.  Believing in Jesus put their livelihood and life at risk.  If the religious leaders of the day did not attack you for your beliefs, the governmental authorities, the Romans, would and did attack.  The original believers had to deal with their fear.  We are a little different because we can believe, we can have faith in Jesus, without fear to life and limb.  And yet, for many people today, fear still prevents faith.  Fear of being different, or thought to be strange, or uneducated, and the list goes on keeps many from believing in God and Jesus.

            So we know, faith and fear have a relationship.  Faith and fear are opposite sides of the same coin.  In a coin toss, only one side of the coin can be showing.  If we are in fear, then faith is not present.  If faith is revealed, then fear is covered.  Peter had to deal with fear and faith.  Even though we can believe without fear that someone will arrest us or harm us for believing, we too must deal with our own fear and faith equation.  Let’s begin with the faith and fear of the disciples and Peter with words from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.

            As we enter this scene, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.  Verse 22, “Immediately [after the miraculous feeding] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”  The Jesus and his disciples were traveling back and forth and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee by boat.  Jesus told his disciples to leave by boat for the other side of the sea and he would join them later.  Verse 23, “23 After he [Jesus] had dismissed them [the disciples and the crowds], he [Jesus] went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”  Jesus took time to be alone to pray.  He did not want the distractions of people and noise to interfere with his time with God.  We should keep in our minds the image of Jesus praying alone and quiet as an example of we should be doing as well.  The story continued, “Later that night, he [Jesus] was there alone, 24 and the boat [with his disciples] was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them [the disciples in the boat], walking on the lake.  26 When the disciples saw him [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.”

            And the disciples cried out in fear.  Our story begins with fear.  Fear is something we all know about.  No one had to teach us to express fear; we know what fear is from the day we are born.  In fear, a newborn will cry out.  We later learn how to apply fear to different circumstances than just the discomforts of a newborn.  So fear is part instinct, part learned, and part taught.  Fear comes when we believe there is a threat to us.  Think for a moment that you are alone one night in a neighborhood that looks rough.  You are not sure where you are, how you got there, or where exactly to go.  You have no phone.  So you begin to walk cautiously down the street in the hopes you are heading toward safety.  You are anxious, you are fearful of the unknown, and then across the street from you stands a dark building.  Every little noise seems like a very large noise.  Suddenly, the door to the building across the street bursts open and there stands, six large teenage boys who shout words at you that you did not understand.  The six large boys start running toward you yelling and screaming that you should not to move.  Do you perceive them threat?  I suspect everyone here would feel threatened.  In response to the threat, you are in fear and you begin to prepare yourself to deal with this threat.  Your body tightens up.  Your heart starts beating faster.  You are listening more intently.  The boys come up to you and encircle you from all sides.  Now that they are only inches away from you, they seem much bigger and stronger looking.  They are laughing; not with you but at you.  You are in fear.  Finally, one of them speaks to you and tells you they saw you walking down their street alone.  They know you are not from here.  The boy speaking then says, “We decided we needed to leave our Bible Study to see if you needed some help in getting home.”  What did they say?  They left their Bible study to help you to get home safely.  I suspect everyone here would breathe a sigh of relief because you believe, you trust, you have faith, that these boys are not a threat; they are, in fact, going to provide you safety.  This little story teaches us that fear and faith have a relationship.  It also teaches us that being we believe being a Christian matters and that just saying, “You are a Christian” should be the source of comfort to others.  So we should be telling others we are Christians more often than we do.

            So fear is something we know and Jesus’ disciples were in fear because they believed Jesus was a ghost.  Who else could walk on water than a spirit?  Certainly, a man could not walk on the surface of the water. The disciples believed Jesus to be a ghost or a spirit.  Historians tell us that people in Jesus’ day believed that the bottom of the Sea of Galilee was a portal, a doorway, to the underworld of the dead.  The disciples may have perceived a spirit had escaped the underworld and was now threating the lives of the disciples; just like we might have perceived those 6 teenage boys presented a threat in our story from a couple of minutes ago.

            The screams and cries of the disciples altered Jesus that the men were afraid.  Verse 27, “But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  Fear cannot exist when trust or faith is in play.  Jesus’ words, at this point, changes nothing of the very real circumstances his disciples face.  It was dark.  The wind was howling.  The waves were rough.  The men were tired.  And they were afraid.  But Jesus said, “Take courage.  It is I.  There is no reason for fear.”  In a reassuring manner, Jesus was inviting his disciples to calm their bodies (Take Courage), to control their thoughts (It is I), and to confront their fears (Do not be afraid).  Reality had not changed but trust or faith is being brought into play.  By example, a child may be in bed asleep, but a disturbing dream scares them, and they scream out.  A parent enters the room and soothes the child reassuring them it was all just a bad dream.  The parent tucks the child back into bed, rubs the child’s head, and says, “It is OK, everything will be all right.”  The child goes back to sleep because they trust the comforting reassurances of the parent.  The parent has invited the child to calm their body, control their thoughts, and confront their fears.  Trust or faith in the parent is being brought into play.  We can understand that scene.  The same is occurring here between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus was inviting all his disciples to bring trust or faith into play.

            Now we come to the lesson about trust, faith, and fear uniquely from the disciple, Peter.  In verse 28, we read, “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  Peter wanted to trust Jesus even further, but he wanted to extend himself only if Jesus invited him to do so.  29 “Come,” he [Jesus] said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” 

Peter was doing so well.  He stepped out of the boat.  This is a wonderful illustration of faith replacing fear.  Peter charged with faith walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus. But then Peter looked away.  Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his focus.  Peter switched his attention to the wind and waves.  Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but his purpose became avoiding the winds and waves.  Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water.  When Peter acted in faith, when he trusted what Jesus told him to do, Peter became more and more like Jesus, even being able to walk on water.  But when Peter went back to his old ways of being concerned about the winds and waves, all was lost, and Peter sank.

Now came a crucial moment in the story.  Peter was sinking under the waves.  His life was at risk.  He had only time enough to make one choice for safety.  He could either ask for help from his fellow shipmates or he could call for help from Jesus.  Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  In Peter’s most desperate moment of fear, Peter placed his faith in Jesus to save him – and Jesus did so.  “32 And when they [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Fear and faith had a relationship in Peter’s life, and it has a relationship in your life and in mine.  This causes us to ask ourselves, “What do I fear?  Who do I fear?”  Think about those questions for a moment.  With those thoughts of fearful things in our minds, I am going to invite you to calm your bodies, control your thoughts, and confront your fears with these words from a man named Jesus who stands beside you at this moment.  “Take courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The man Jesus knows about your fears and mine.  This man Jesus knows we worry about living, pain, uncertainty, loneliness, disease, strife, and that these winds and waves of human life toss about and make life difficult, frustrating, and even pointless.  This man Jesus knows that God is above all these things and like a loving parent wants us to know, “It’s OK.  Everything will be all right.”  This man Jesus knows that our fear can eased and replaced by faith; not faith in ourselves or others who are in the same boat as we are in.  But by placing our faith or trust in God for our lives in the present and for all eternity, the winds and waves of life that toss us in fear will be stilled.  All we need to do to replace our fear with faith is say the words of Peter, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately, this man Jesus will reach out to you and grab hold of you.  Why will Jesus do so?  Because this man, Jesus, is the Son of God.  Have faith.

Jul 14 - Peter's First Words

Luke 5:1-11

One of the series of sermons every pastor puts together at least once in their ministry deals with Jesus’ last words.  These are the words Jesus spoke from the cross just before his death.  There are seven words, actually full sentences, that Jesus spoke before his death spread across the four Gospels.  They are powerful words.  Jesus said:

  • Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34
  • Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.  Luke 23:43
  • Woman, behold your son.  Son, behold your mother.  John 19:26, 27
  • My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34
  • I thirst.  John 19:28
  • It is finished.  John 19:30
  • Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Luke 23:46

There is a great deal of meaning we can gather from each of these sayings.  I offered my first sermon series on these words for the weeks prior to Easter in 2011.

People have a fascination with what are called “dying declarations,” the last words someone says just before that person dies.  There is a belief that in the final moments of life the person will be truthful because they have nothing to lose.  But I wonder if we could learn something equally important if we explored someone’s first words?  Now I know many of you are thinking, “There is not much to be learned from our first words as a child when are first words are likely ‘Momma’ or ‘Dadda.’”  That isn’t quite what I had in mind.  I was wondering if we could learn from someone’s first words when that person dies to themselves and follows Jesus as a new person.  Jesus said, ““Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  If you are born again, if you have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, then you have died to yourself and live through Jesus as a new creation.  As a newborn in Christ, do you remember your first words?  Do you remember what you said or what you thought when you decided to follow him?  Perhaps you do or maybe you do not recall.  Fortunately, we have some first words and thoughts of other people who encountered Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament.  Today, I would like us to look at the first words of a man named Peter.

As we talked last week, Peter was the nickname Jesus gave a man named Simon when the two men first met.  It seems that before Simon said anything, Jesus said to him, “From now on you will be called Cephas,” which is translated to mean Peter.  Cephas was an Aramaic word for rock or stone.  Jesus and Peter met along the banks of the River Jordan, about 100 miles from Peter’s home of Capernaum, where Peter worked as a fisherman.  As we open today’s New Testament passage, Chapter 5 of Luke, we find Jesus and Peter are together again.  Only this time, they are very near Peter’s hometown. 

Peter’s new acquaintance, Jesus, had returned with Peter to his hometown.  Jesus was preaching a message of repentance; encouraging everyone to who would listen to turn toward God.  Peter heard Jesus say that Jesus had been anointed by God to proclaim good news to the poor and that God sent him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:14-19).  These words from Jesus were received curiously at first by some people and by others with anger and outrage because they did not believe Jesus was from God.

Beyond the preaching, Peter saw Jesus cast out an evil spirit from a man.  Closer to home, Jesus came into Peter’s house and found that Peter’s mother-in-law suffering from a high fever; meaning she was seriously ill and would die.  Jesus spoke words of healing to her and immediately Peter’s mother-in-law got up from her bed.  Soon thereafter, Jesus began healing many people of their illnesses.  Peter was taking in all that he had seen and heard from Jesus and yet curiously, none of the Gospel writers record any of Peter’s words or reactions to Jesus’ teachings or miracles.  Then Jesus and Peter had an encounter that broke Peter’s silence.  Eventually, that is true for all of people.  Eventually, every person will have an encounter with Jesus that loosens their tongue and they will either accept Jesus or reject him.  Peter’s encounter where his first recorded words are found is in Chapter 5 of Luke starting at verse 1.

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.”  Luke painted for us a wonderful picture of people eager to hear the word of God.  So eager and so many were the people that they began crowding Jesus along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  I think it would be great to have a worship service like the one Luke described right along the edge of a peaceful lake.  I think that would be a very powerful moment.  In that scene along the lake that Luke described, Jesus seemed to have avoided being pushed into the water by the encroaching crowd by getting into a boat that was along the waters’ edge.

The boat was owned by our friendly fisherman, Simon, nicknamed Peter.  Peter was busy when Jesus got into his boat.  Peter had just returned from a night of fishing.  While Peter listened to Jesus, he and other fisherman, sat on shore cleaning and mending their nets.  Peter was a businessman and a property owner.  He had bills to pay and a family to feed.  He had a boat and nets that required care.  Peter had responsibilities and a lifestyle that was in many ways very similar to our own.  Up until this point, Jesus had not asked anything of Peter.  Now he does.  Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked Peter to move the boat into the shallow waters along the edge of the lake so Jesus could finish teaching the crowds.  Peter left the work he was engaged in and did as Jesus asked.

The significance of this simple exchange between Jesus and Peter could be easily overlooked.  What did Jesus do in this exchange?  He asked Peter to invest a little bit of his time and a small use of Peter’s property.  Peter agreed.  Peter’s words in response to Jesus’ requests were not recorded, but his first actions were telling.  We observe two things.  First, Peter obeyed Jesus by stopping what Peter was doing, cleaning nets, and doing what Jesus wanted him to do, getting in the boat.  That is called obedience.  We don’t like that word much these days unless it is us asking others to do as we ask.  Then we want obedience.  Second, Peter began using his time to further Jesus’ ministry and put his property, a boat, at Jesus’ disposal for a purpose it was not originally intended.  Peter gave us some important examples to follow.  First, we must be willing to put aside the things we want to do so that we can do what Jesus wants done.  I once asked someone to join a Bible study.  They said they would have to think about what they would have to sacrifice something else to join.  This is backwards thinking.  When we do something that is not with God, then that time is being sacrificed.  Second, we must be willing to invest a little bit of our time in Jesus’ ministry.  I spoke this past Thursday at a prayer breakfast and my topic was on loneliness.  I encouraged people to reach out someone who is lonely because real relief from the suffering of loneliness requires the cooperation of only one other person.  We can be that person if we give of our time for Jesus’ ministry.  Third, we must be willing to let our property be used in a way that it was not intended.  For example, we can let our homes be used for Bible studies or use our vehicle that we bought to help others get to doctors’ appointments or to church.  That is not why we bought our homes or our cars, but we can repurpose our property for Jesus’ ministry.  This is what Peter showed us here.  Doing so requires no words, just actions.

Our story continued, “When he [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon [Peter], ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’  Simon [Peter] answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

Jesus again asked Peter to follow his path.  This time, Jesus asked Peter to use his talent, time, and treasure and move away from the shore and let his net down.  Peter was free to say, “No.”  And at long last, Peter spoke.  Peter’s first words were, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”  Peter, the experienced fisherman, was sharing information about his profession with his friend, Jesus, who was raised as a carpenter.  Peter had fished all night under the favorable circumstances and caught nothing.  To now fish during the day seemed futile.  Peter was sharing with Jesus his belief that fishing now would be an unsuccessful event.  By experience, Peter should not lower his nets.  Peter shared with Jesus his human understanding.  Then Peter said something key for a faith walk.  Peter said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  As I have mentioned in previous messages, the word “but” is one of the most theologically important words in the Bible.  When we read the word “but” we should take notice because something important is going to be said or done.  Peter said, “But because you [Jesus] say so, I will let down the nets.”  Peter’s first words show that Peter was ready to walk a life based on faith in Jesus and not based on his own understanding.  This is not easy to walk in faith but it is essential to walk in faith to become the person Jesus wants us to be.  Every so often, Becky and I will talk about our lives just before we met.  We joke that if anyone had said that we would be married to each other, now for 33 years, and be serving two churches as pastor and pastor’s wife we would have laughed and called thought them a fool.  There was nothing in our mind or plans to do that; it would not have made any sense.  But God had other plans and fortunately we followed them.  Peter said, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  What is Jesus asking you to do that makes no practical sense and he awaits to hear from you to repeat Peter’s first words, “But because you say so, I will.”

Now Peter, the experienced fisherman put down his nets in the deeper water.  Luke wrote, “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.”  Peter went from catching nothing the night before to catching so many large fish that his property was at risk.  Peter’s nets were at risk of breaking and his boat was at risk of sinking.  So large was the catch that even the help of Peter’s partners and their boat put both boats at risk of sinking.  In the days prior to this moment, Peter witnessed Jesus cast out demons and heal the sick, but this was a new type of miracle.  Nature obeyed Jesus.  Who other than someone with God’s own powers could have control over nature?

The realization that Jesus was someone unique and beyond normal measures fell upon Peter.  “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’”  Peter saw things for the way they were.  Jesus was holy and empowered with the presence of God.  Peter confessed he was a sinful man and that sinful people have no place in the presence of holiness.  Peter believed that in his sinfulness he had nothing to offer to a holy person other than to contaminate the holy person with his sinfulness.  Peter was warning Jesus that Jesus must leave Peter’s presence before Peter’s sinfulness changed Jesus holiness.

Peter’s response shows us that Peter was an emotional man and Peter was right in some ways.  Peter was right that sinfulness and holiness cannot be together.  The Apostle Paul would later put it this way, “14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).  Peter was concerned his sinfulness would change Jesus’ holiness.  What Peter did not realize was that God works the other way around.  Jesus’ holiness would change Peter’s sinfulness.  This change, this transformation, of Peter would be so pronounced that Peter’s sinful would be eliminated and Peter’s record before God would be that of Jesus’ holiness.  And this same transformation is available to you and me.  Jesus reassured this would be so by telling Peter, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” With these words, Peter and his partners (Andrew, James, and John), “11 [So they] pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”  Peter was beginning his walk of faith with Jesus and their transformation to holiness.

Peter’s first recorded words were few, yet they are instructive for us.  Peter was obedient to Jesus.  Peter was willing to talk with Jesus and go a different direction in his life based on faith.  “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Peter confessed to his own sinful nature and confessed to the holiness of Jesus.  Peter received Jesus assurance that following Jesus would transform his life.

God has given each of us one life to live, forever.  We had nothing to do with or say in our first birth into this life.  But we have a say in being born again in Jesus and living a transformed life and being able to come into the presence of God’s holiness.  Peter’s first words in his new life give us an example to follow into that new life.  Therefore, we are left with the question, “What will be our first words in a new life with Jesus?”

July 7 - Simon Peter Encounters Jesus

John 1:19-42

I thought for the summer it would be worthwhile for us to explore some major and minor characters from the Bible to understand their life and how their examples can help us become closer to God.  The first person I want us to look at will take a few weeks to do.  He is known by a couple of different names because when he encountered Jesus he received a nickname.  How many of you have a nickname?  Now some nicknames are common.  A boy named Robert may have the nickname of Bob or Rob.  A girl named Margaret may have the nickname Maggie.  Those nicknames we understand, and the nickname carries no significance.  Other times, nicknames have some meaning on their own.  A nickname may speak of a quality about a person.  Someone may be given the nickname “Sugar,” because they are always a sweet towards others.  A nickname may be given reflecting a physical trait.  Near my hometown was a restaurant named “Tiny Jim’s.”  The owner, Jim, was short and weighed in around 400 pounds.  Being called Tiny Jim was an obvious play on Jim’s physical size.  Nicknames that carry significance can be positive or they can be quite negative because nicknames of significance reflect how others see that person.  Nicknames always start within a small group and become very powerful symbols for how that group views that person.  In the Bible, there are some people who receive nicknames.  Today, I want us to begin exploring the life of one such person who began his life with the name Simon bar Jonah; meaning Simon son of Jonah and later acquired the name Peter.

Our story about Simon begins in an out of the way place along the River Jordan.  The river has its headwaters at the Sea of Galilee, a body of fresh water, and the river travels through the wilderness for about 150 miles ending in the Dead Sea, a highly salty body of water.  The scene of today’s story was remote from the surrounding towns and cities and yet many people had come to this spot.  Simon was from the town of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He was about 100 miles from home.  People, including Simon, were drawn to this spot along the River Jordan to hear the message of a fiery preacher named John.  We know him by his nickname John the Baptist or John the Baptizer.  Let’s turn to that story as told in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1.

The story begins with a key character, the fiery preacher, John.  People were curious about John.  His message was simple and powerful.  He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  Then John called upon those who heard his words to be baptized in the river as a sign, a symbol, that they had repented, that is they turned to God.  The language used by John and his ability to draw crowds of people out into the wilderness to hear his message captured the attention of the religious leaders.  They wanted to know was John the special messenger from God called Messiah who they believed would restore Israel to its former glory?  The religious leaders wanted to know if John’s name be changed to Messiah?

Let’s begin at verse 19.  “19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”  21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”  He said, “I am not.”  “Are you the Prophet?”  He answered, “No.”  22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”  23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”  John was trying to be as clear as possible that he was calling people to come back to God.  His message was simple, turn your life toward God for God was about to do something marvelous.

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”  26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

So John received a nickname, John the Baptist or the Baptizer, because of the things he did.  He baptized people in water as a symbol of their commitment or recommitment to God.  We still follow John’s practice today and baptize people who have made the commitment to follow God.  Baptism is a wonderful and powerful moment of closeness with God.  In this church, we do not baptize infants but only young people and adults who are able to choose to be baptized because they understand the significance of their decision.  If you have never been baptized, I want to again encourage you to speak to me about expressing yourself to God through the waters of baptism.

Our story continues.  “29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”  32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

The Chosen One was another way of saying, “Messiah.”  John the Baptizer gave the name Messiah to Jesus as well as the name Lamb of God.  The name Messiah came about because John could see who Jesus was.  John could see that Jesus was sent by God to bring about a new kingdom of peace.  The name Lamb of God came about because John could see what Jesus would do.  Lambs were sacrificed as an expression of regret for sin.  John could see that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was superior in all ways because his sacrifice would remove not just the regret over the sin but would remove sin itself.  John’s use of names for Jesus was not an accident.  John was beginning the process of trying to describe the importance of Jesus to the people.  Others in the New Testament would add names to Jesus trying to describe the many dimensions of Jesus.  There would be about 50 titles and names given to Jesus.

As we continue with our story, we find John the Baptizer with two of his disciples.  “35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”  So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.”

Again, we see John name Jesus, “The Lamb of God.”  Two of John’s disciples leave him and follow Jesus.  When they approached Jesus, they gave Jesus another name, “Rabbi or Teacher.”  We learn two things from the use of the name Rabbi.  First, John’s disciples wanted to learn from Jesus because Rabbi’s taught their students or disciples.  Second, to call someone Rabbi was a sign, a signal, that you wanted to become like them.  It was a symbol that you wanted to be a devoted student.  Some ancient text suggest that students of a Rabbi tried to imitate everything about their Rabbi, including the way the Rabbi walked.  While we do not need to physically walk like Jesus, the key for us here is that when John’s disciples first encountered Jesus, their greatest desire was to spend time with Jesus.  So significant was this moment of first spending time with Jesus that the precise hour of the day was recorded as four in the afternoon.  Spending time with Jesus is key to our life.  I know a few people who engage with Jesus through reading a devotional or their Bible every day at 8:00 in the morning.  Their nickname might be “8:00-Cindy,” or “8:00 Mike,” because you can set your watch to the time they will be with Jesus.  Time with Jesus, learning or in prayer, or meditation is fuel for our life.  It is what makes straight our path. 

Now our story continues with one more encounter.  “40 Andrew, [Simon Peter’s brother], was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ [another name or title]). 42 And he [Andrew] brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him [Simon] and said, “You are Simon son of John. [In some translations it is “Simon bar Jonah.”]  You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).” 

We finally meet Simon and it seems that before Simon could say a word, Jesus gave Simon a nickname, Cephas.  In the language of Jesus day, which was Aramaic, Cephas meant rock or stone.  The original New Testament manuscripts were written in Greek, not Aramaic, so Cephas or stone in Aramaic was translated to stone in Greek which is Petras.  The English adaptation of the Greek “Petras,” becomes the familiar name to us “Peter.”

Jesus perceived Simon as a rock.  Was it Simon’s physical build that Jesus was referring to?  It is likely that Simon was a physically strong man since he was fisherman accustomed to rowing boats and hauling in nets of fish.  But is seems unlikely that Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, would waste his time giving someone a physical nickname.  What then was it that Jesus saw in Simon?  If it was not physical, then Jesus must have looked past the appearance of Simon and found something deeper.  Jesus said, “From now on you will be called Cephas, ‘the rock.’”  A rock is hard.  A rock is something people use to build upon.  A rock can be decorative and pretty but most often it is rough, strong, and not easily moved.  Jesus’ nickname for Simon, now Peter, started in a small group.  We only know that Jesus, Peter, and Andrew were present when Simon received this name.  Today, we see that the name Peter grew from this small group and is worldwide.  What did Jesus see in Simon that would later lead to millions of people being named Peter.  Cities, hospitals, churches, and universities bear Simon’s nickname, Peter.  Why?  As we will see, in nearly every episode of Jesus’ life and ministry, Peter was close at hand.  Jesus saw this would be so when he first met Simon.  Jesus could see past the person Simon was to see the person Peter would become.  What was it that Jesus saw?

We will explore the answer to that question in the next few weeks but at this point, I would like you to consider a question.  If Jesus were to give you a nickname describing the potential he saw in you, the person you could become in and through him, what nickname would you hope Jesus might choose for you?  What potential do you have with Jesus?  Maybe Jesus would call you Nahum, which means “comforter.”  Or perhaps Jesus would call you Alexis, which means “defender.”  Maybe you would be called Pacifica, meaning “peacemaker.”  Indeed, what nickname would you hope Jesus might choose for you?  Here is the key to know that answer to that question.  To know what nickname Jesus would give to you, you must be like Simon Peter, and encounter Jesus.  You must spend time with him so that Jesus can share with you his view of your potential in life with him.

One of the most intimate ways we spend time with Jesus is in the sharing of his table with the bread and the cup.  Just before Jesus’ arrest, death, and burial, that is the time Jesus fulfilled the potential in his name as the Lamb of God, Jesus placed before his disciples, including Peter, two elements; bread and wine.  Jesus renamed the bread calling it his body.  Jesus renamed the wine calling it his blood.  The bread and wine were still just bread and wine but the potential that Jesus saw in them calling one his body and one his blood was life changing.  His body he would give over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross that in doing so all sin could be heaped upon Jesus; Peter’s sin, my sin, and your sin.  His blood he would shed that in doing so a new covenant, a new promise from God, could be sealed in place for all people.  For through the body and the blood of Jesus, that though we may die, we who believe in Jesus shall never perish but we will have eternal life with God.

Peter received that bread and that cup.  He did so to follow and show his love for Jesus.  Come let us receive what Peter received as we encounter Jesus at the table.

Jun 30 - I Came to Serve

Matthew 20:20-28

Understanding Jesus’ Focus on Serving Others

            I had a curious conversation with a gentleman the other day.  I asked him what church he attended.  He said, “I don’t think you need to go to church to be a good Christian.” I have heard this response before and chose not to respond back to hom.  But this man’s response made me wonder how he would react if he had a serious medical condition and asked the doctor who was treating him what medical school he went to and heard that person say, “I don’t think you need to go to medical school to be a good doctor.”  I suspect this gentleman would leave the presence of that “doctor” because he would know that you cannot be a self-taught doctor.  Neither can we be a self-taught Christian.  We need read the Bible.  We need to be in church to hear the word of God proclaimed.  We need to be in prayer to God.  We need to experience the person of Jesus through our private times and through the community of believers called church.  How else could we hope to know what Jesus believed and what he calls us to do?  Today, as a church, I want us to look at the focus of Jesus towards others and how that focus should play out in our lives.  We begin with our first passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.  21 “What is it you want?” he asked.  She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  “We can,” they answered.  23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

            We begin today with this rather short exchange between Jesus and the mother of his apostles, James and John.  Mom, along with her two sons, approached Jesus with a request.  Mom said, “Jesus in your kingdom, make my sons equal and second only to you.”  Mom wanted her sons to people of power, prestige, and privilege.  Jesus said to them that they had no idea what they were asking.  The kingdom Jesus was bringing forth was not about power.  It was about humility, healing, and helping.  The other ten apostles realized what this private conversation was about, and they became very angry.  Who did James, John, and their mother think they were trying to secretly get Jesus to grant them special status?  Why those positions of status should be available to them as well!  The exchange among the apostles revealed a very human trait.  Whenever someone is perceived as grabbing control, others will be motivated to resist and seek to grab control themselves.  When we are in control, we feel less risk.  We can force circumstances (and people) to conform to our desires to keep risk to us very low.  When we are in control, then we are not dependent on others.  In the extreme, as in an ancient kingdom, everyone was dependent upon the king; the person in charge.  The more we feel we are in control, the less dependent we are on God.  The apostles, all of them, wanted control over the others in Jesus’ kingdom.

            Jesus corrected his twelve apostles and one mom who sought glory for her sons.  Jesus said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It cannot be that way with you.”  This is not at all what the apostles expected.  They thought the closer to Jesus, the more like him they became, the more power and control over others they would have.  Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be great (in my kingdom) must become a servant.”  The type of servant Jesus meant here was one who devoted himself or herself to another person disregarding their own personal interests.  This type of person serves not because they are required to do so; but because they want to do so.  This servant serves not because they expect to be repaid but precisely because they do not expect to be repaid.  This type of servant disregards their own needs believing those needs will be taken care of by God.  Life of this servant is dependent upon God and lived for the benefit of other people.  Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “You do not know what you are asking.”

            Jesus then capped this challenging conversation with these words, “Do as I did: The Son of Man [I] did not come for people to serve him [me]. He [I] came to serve others.”  How will I prove this?  “[I came] to give his [my] life to save many people.  [I am dependent upon God.  I am here to serve others disregarding my own interests for the sake of others.]”  Jesus called on those seeking to be closet to him, to be dependent upon God, and serve others.  How could we know this is what God desires us to do if we did not read Jesus’ words or explore His words within the community of church?  The answer is, we could not know.  Following Jesus by knowing what he desires may be difficult for us at times.  Without knowing what he desires, makes following him impossible.  Jesus came to serve and not be served.  We are called to do likewise.      

 

Understanding the Church’s Focus on Serving Others

            As we continue to explore God’s desire for our life toward others, I would like us to explore an often-told parable, or story, first told by Jesus.  We find this parable in the Gospel of Matthew.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’  44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’  46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Jesus revealed that there will come a time of accounting or judgment.  We don’t like to talk about judgment anymore unless it is to judge most harshly anyone who says there will be a judgment to come.  This philosophy of “no judgment” works fine for the fitness centers operating as “Plant Fitness,” where their corporate branded is to promote a judgement-free zone: a place where you can work out without ever being laughed at for the way you exercise or how you look.  Jesus was assuring his listeners that God does not operate a judgment free zone.  God does care what you believe and how you express that belief.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus said all the flock will be gathered but then portioned into two groups.  One group will show evidence of their hearts desire to love God.  That group will have served others out of their own provisions.  The first group will have served others with their time, talents, treasure, and tears giving without expecting to be served.  They will have given to the least among them as though that least person before them was the king of the land.  They will have given food, water, clothing, comfort, and companionship to those who were suffering.  This group will have displayed the true nature of church; it’s true identity.  This group will be judged and them embraced as children of God because they believed, and they expressed their dependence on God and their love for God and others by serving.

The second group seems to have mingled within the same flock until separated at judgment.  They, however, did not show evidence of their belief.  They kept their treasure, their talents, their time, and their tears to themselves.  The plight of others was not important unless they perceived there was a benefit to them.  This group most certainly would have helped the king because there would be a prize for doing so.  But help those who were beneath their station in life; never.  This group will be judged, and that judgment will be consistent with their conduct in life; it will be harsh.  In showing no regard for God’s desires that they serve others in life on earth, they shall be shown no regard for life eternal with God.

I know talking about judgments is both uncomfortable and reassuring.  Its all right; it is meant to be uncomfortable for those who have neglected the desires of God and reassuring to those who are following God’s desire.  Now ask yourself this question, “Does Jesus’ parable make me uncomfortable or reassured?”

 

Understanding Our Focus on Serving Others

            So we now understand that Jesus came to serve others and that there is a judgment for not following him.  What then must we think about on this topic?  The Apostle Peter finishes up for us today.

1 Peter 4:7-11

The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Peter’s words require very little amplification.  What does bear repeating are these words from Peter, “10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  There is no gift that is better than another.  All gifts from God are equal.  They are gifts that must be used and shared.  Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a bushel basket!”  Each of us has gifts that can be used to serve others and not hidden or kept to oneself.  It may be the gift of presence; to come along side a lonely person and just sit with them is an enough relief to the lonely person.  It may be the gift of tears in that you can walk with someone through the journey of grief.  There are so many people who struggle with the pain of grief compounded into suffering because they have no one who will listen to their pain.  It may be the gift of treasure, where you have an ability to encourage someone seeking to make a living or help with a bill.  You have at least one gift from God.

Let’s make our identity with Jesus, empowered to love God, and serve others with the gifts he has given us.  So that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Gospel Centered Hope

Romans 5:1-11

We have been exploring the last few weeks what it means to live a Gospel centered life individually and then corporately as a church.  We have come to see and experience that a Gospel centered life has at its foundation a profound sense of God’s love.  How can we describe that love?  The Gospel writer John described God’s love this way.  He wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  God gave his Son, Jesus, to the world as a demonstration of his love.  To give as God gave meant there was nothing about Jesus that was held back from the world.  Jesus gave of his time, of his spirit, of his wisdom, of his power, of his body, and of his blood.  Yes, Jesus who is the Son of God all so that the sin in your life and mine would be removed and that we could be made right before God.  God’s love is so unique that he gave his own son.

Earlier in our worship service, we heard the words of the Apostle Paul as he was inspired to speak of this love.  Paul wrote, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).  Paul saw Jesus as God’s demonstration of love sent to us in the hope that we would respond to him.  God did not send Jesus as a reward for us getting our act together.  God sent Jesus and Jesus died while we were still sinners.  Jesus came in and as hope.

At first Paul dismissed God’s love.  He believed in God, but he did not believe in Jesus.  So adamant was Paul in his unbelief that Paul tried to destroy those who did believe in Jesus.  Paul incited people into mobs to kill believers.  Paul help drag other believers from their homes and send them to prison simply for believing.  Then Paul’s life was touched by Jesus and Paul realized just how wrong he had been.  In another letter, Paul described his response to God’s love this way, “14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19).  God’s love surpasses what we can understand.  A contemporary pastor put it this way, “What shall I say to thee?  I lay my hand upon my mouth.  Your love is too wonderful for me; it is high; I can’t understand it.  But this I do: I dwell within it, silently, gratefully, faithfully, believing in it after all.”[1]  To live a Gospel centered life is live in God’s love with gratitude, faithfulness, believing in it after all.

We also learned that a Gospel centered life makes us free to do what God wants us to do.  In that freedom, we can be compassionate toward others and relieve their burdens and encourage them in a future in Jesus.  In that freedom and compassion, we can be forgiving people.  Over and over, Jesus, God’s love gift to the world, urged all who would listen that to forgive one another.  To forgive is to be transformed from our natural self to the image of God; the person of Jesus.

To live a Gospel centered life is to live a life based upon God’s love, that we accept by faith.  It is a life that gives us freedom to live compassionately and to forgive as God has forgiven us.  A Gospel centered life is a transformed life.  Paul’s words of transformation were spoken earlier today in the letter we call Romans.  I invite you to turn to that letter.  We are going to focus on the first 5 verses from chapter 5.

Paul began with these words, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”  Paul said our faith in God through Jesus gives us four things.  First, we are “justified.”  This is a bit of a technical term that means we are made right before God.  A way to think about it is that our record of sin has been exchanged for Jesus record of no sin, which makes it right for us to be in God’s presence.  Second, we have peace with God.  The best word for peace here is the Hebrew word, Shalom, which means a “whole and complete” relationship with God.  Peace of this type leads to an inner security and serenity because we have not just stopped being hostile toward God, but we now embrace him.  People who do not have peace with God will never have peace.  We are naturally hostile to God and to the things of God.  In our natural mind, we turn away from God, we refuse to worship him, we do not give thanks to him, we blame him for disappointments in life, and the list goes on.  This is being hostile toward God.  But when we accept Jesus and follow him, then our hostility toward God ends and shalom, or peace with God comes into our life.  Third, we have gained continuous access to God’s grace.  Meaning, we have access to God all the time.  Fourth, we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  A Gospel-centered life has hope.  We have hope because we are no longer alone in this life; God is always with us.  We have hope because we have a future; God now and forever.  We have hope because we have a purpose; to worship God and serve one another.  We have hope because we are loved.  Without hope, we no longer believe we belong to the future.  With God, we have hope.  So we “boast (we celebrate Paul says) in the hope of the glory of God.”

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings.”  Did Paul really say that?  Did Paul just move from peace with God and boasting of our hope in the glory of God to boasting in our sufferings?  Just a quick show of hands; how many people here today enjoy suffering? I know I do not enjoy suffering.  I do not think Paul enjoyed suffering.  He experienced a great deal as he was beaten with iron rods, stoned, whipped, and imprisoned.  I do not think Jesus enjoyed suffering and he experienced a great deal as he was punched, slapped, spat upon, whipped, and crucified.  What Jesus did do was gloried in his sufferings. 

Paul gloried in his sufferings; meaning suffering, though we do not wish it upon ourselves, gives a unique moment of faith in God.  Where suffering comes upon us, we often feel there is no plan for our lives.  Suffering occurs only in those spaces where what should be, is not.  We suffer over the death of a loved one; what should be is not there.  We suffer when our bodies are ill; what should work does not.  We suffer when others choose vengeance towards us and not kindness.  When suffer because we live in a world that is still hostile to God. 

Suffering, as we know, strips us down.  Now when we suffer, we learn that we can only depend upon God.  So in our suffering, we can boast that God did not cause the suffering and that suffering cannot chase God from us.  Suffering is a power faith moment.  Later in Romans, Paul came back to suffering and wrote, “18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Paul realized that suffering is a force of life that separates the natural person from all he or she holds dear.  Yet, not for the Christian who has been transformed by the love of God.  Paul said, “In all these things (sufferings) we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).  Suffering does not and cannot separate us from God and so we boast not for our sufferings but amid our suffering for God is with us.

Paul saw suffering as part of our transformation into the image of Jesus.  He said, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Our boasting in suffering gives way to perseverance; that inner strength that keeps us focused on the prize or the goal that lays ahead.  Paul would put it this way, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  This is perseverance that comes about through our reliance on God.  We keep our eyes focused on Jesus.

That perseverance develops within us a character, that is strong in faith.  I recently spoke with a person whose daughter died in a traffic accident just a few months ago.  As some of you know and others could imagine, it was a devastating loss that produced much pain and suffering.  In the immediate aftermath of that tragic moment, this person did not feel the presence of God and, in some ways, asked, “Where were you God?”  Suffering can cause us to question everything about our life.  Over the weeks since this accident, as the shock of that event has lifted just a bit, this person has come to see again that God was not the cause of this suffering and that indeed He has been present walking with this person each minute, hour, and day of intense grief.  In this walk, things of this world that once seemed so important and demanded tremendous attention no longer have the value they once held.  Why is that?  Because this person suffered and, in that suffering, came to fully depend upon God.  In that dependence, the things of the world are seen for what they are, a distraction to the goal, to the prize, God through Jesus.  This person is now patiently working with God to sooth the pain.  This person is certain that their child is safely in the arms of Jesus and that they will be reunited again.  This is the prize of hope. The poet expressed this transformation in the lyrics of the hymn, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.

Oh soul are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There's light for a look at the Savior
And life more abundant and free.

 

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

 

Paul kept his eye on the prize and he began his message of a Gospel centered life with hope and ended it with hope.  He said, “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

To live a Gospel centered life is know the love of God, to be transformed by it so that in all circumstances we may live a life of hope.  And even if we suffer in a world hostile to God we will never be separated from God.  This gives us the patience, the power, to keep our eye on the prize, forgetting what is behind us and straining forward to the light and glory of Christ.  Therefore, we should live as people of hope and invite others to walk with us in the hope of Jesus our savior.  Amen and Amen.


[1] Wangerin, Walter, Jr., Reliving the Passion, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1992), 56.

June 16 - Gospel-Centered Forgiveness

 

Genesis 50:15-21

Colossians 3:12-17

For the past few weeks, we have been exploring a Gospel-centered personal life and Gospel-centered church.  We said that a Gospel-centered life depends upon the love of God and the freedom that love gives us to think, speak, and act not as natural human beings but as those who have been touched by God.  Last week, we explored the power we have through God to act with compassion; to see and understand the pain of another, be moved to help, and then to immediately touch the lives of those who are suffering deeply like God has touched our lives.  Today, we will continue to explore one of the most powerful parts of a Gospel-centered life through forgiveness.

I would like to begin our exploration of forgiveness by looking at the first usage of the word in the Bible.  It is found in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Chapter 50.  I want to begin at verse 15.  I invite you to turn to that passage.

In this passage we find a man named Joseph.  His father, Jacob, loved Joseph.  Joseph had ten older brothers.  They were jealous of their father’s love for Joseph.  One day, while far from home and out of view of their father, the jealous brothers attacked Joseph, and sold Joseph into slavery.  To cover up their deed, the brothers took Joseph’s coat, a coat his father had made for Joseph, and dipped the coat in animal’s blood.  They brought the coat to their father saying, “Joseph had been attacked and killed by a wild animal.”  The father was devasted by grief. 

Over the years, God acted in Joseph’s life and would move Joseph from slave to a most powerful man in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.  The years passed.  Then drought and famine across the region forced the brothers to go to Egypt to obtain food.  In Egypt they encountered their brother Joseph.  Joseph, now a most powerful man, could have taken their lives, but he spared his brothers and ordered them to bring his father to him.  Joseph and his father, Jacob, were reunited.  Again, time passed by and Jacob died.  We now come to Genesis 50, verse 15.  “15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’”  Joseph’s brothers recognized they had mistreated Joseph and now with their father dead, there was nothing that would prevent Joseph from dealing harshly with his brothers.  The brothers knew that wrongs done to a person often build hatred and hatred coupled with power leads to thoughts of revenge.  The brothers were fearful Joseph would relieve that hatred by acting violently toward them.

            Verse 16, “16 So they [the brothers] sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I [Your father] ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’” There is no reason to believe their father ever said these words.  It appears the brothers were lying again to cover over their shameful behavior.  “When their [the brothers] message came to him, Joseph wept.”

            Joseph wept.  This is not a tear rolling down his face.  Joseph cried hard, with many tears wetting his face.  They were bitter tears.  Tears held back for being sold by his brothers.  Tears held back in anger at the grief their lies caused their father to experience.  Tears held back at missing his father.  Tears in seeing that his brothers felt the need to lie to him about their father’s dying wish.  Joseph had acted; not in vengeance but in tears.  In those moments of tears, in that release of all those human emotions, God again worked on Joseph’s heart.  Joseph could see the path God wanted him to choose with his brothers.

            Verse 18, “18 His [Joseph’s] brothers then came and threw themselves down before him [Joseph]. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said.  19 But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?  20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”  Joseph forgave all the lying and deceit of his brothers and rather than enslaving them or taking their lives, Joseph vowed to care for his brothers and their families.  Joseph was free to act in anyway he so desired.  Joseph used that freedom to act in love, not revenge.  Joseph’s love was not his own.  Joseph recognized his actions were born in and through the love God showed Joseph.  Joseph did not just wipe the slate of recorded wrongs clean, he promised to care for his brothers and their families, giving them a new and abundant life.  Joseph had been touched by God and he so he touched the lives of others.

            This story is the first in the Bible speaks of the forgiveness of sin.  It is not the last.  Sin and the need to forgive sin between humans and between humans and God continued long after Joseph and is still with us today.  The early Christian Church struggled to fully express the forgiveness that Jesus’ offered.  The nature of Jesus’ forgiveness broke the back of the words.  In our New Testament reading, the apostle Paul surrounded the concept of forgiveness, the heart of the Gospel message with powerful actions and sentiments.  It was Paul’s means of giving his readers a glimpse of the beauty of the forgiveness we have received.  We read those words earlier today and at the heart of Paul’s message were these simple words, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

            “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  I think, if we take these words seriously, we would be like Joseph and be brought to tears.  I think these words, “as the Lord forgave you,” were intended to remind us that through Jesus, God has touched us personally and deeply.  Just as personally and deeply as He touched Joseph.  “Forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  God forgave us freely and generously through Jesus.  God did not hold forgiveness over our heads saying, “You must earn my forgiveness.”  And so we are to withhold forgiveness from someone else or to forge forgiveness into a weapon of compliance.  We are not to say, “Unless you do as I demand, I will never forgive you!”  Instead, we are to forgive as the Lord forgave.

            To forgive is at the center of a Gospel-centered life.  Jesus, whose words and deeds, are the Gospel message itself, forgave generously.  He forgave those who were in sin.  He forgave those who drove nails through his body.  He forgave his closest friends who deserted him and denied him.  Jesus described his forgiveness and the extent to which he would go as the gate to a sheep’s pen and as the shepherd.  Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10).  The forgiveness of Jesus was costly.  He had to lay down his life to forgive us of all sin;  those of our past and of our future.  The forgiveness of Jesus had a purpose; we are saved and given life; a life that is full and without end.  Our slate of wrongs is not just wiped clean by Jesus so that we can live in our old ways.  It is wiped clean, and kept clean, so that we can have a new and abundant life.

            Our New Testament reading from Paul to Colossian Church was written for people who had been touched by Jesus; people with a new and abundant life.  Paul wrote, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience13 Bear with each other.”  Paul’s words seek to describe a life we lived in a state of forgiveness.  We should be holy, know that we are loved by God, and that we act compassionately, humbly, gently, and patiently.  We cannot be such a person naturally, but we can be supernaturally because of Jesus we do not have to carry around the burden of sin.  We cannot be such a person naturally because we are worried about the future and the need to control our surroundings.  But, because of Jesus, we know our future is secure.  Paul said because of Jesus, you can “forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

But Paul was not quite done.  Forgiveness, Gospel-centered forgiveness is such a powerful experience Paul felt more needed to be said about it.  He continued that forgiveness empowers us to put on, “14 And over all these virtues [compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience] put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  In such forgiveness and expression of grace toward others, Paul said, then we can “15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” This is the life God intends for us to life.  A life of peace and thankfulness that comes from the forgiveness we receive from God and extend to others.

Recently, someone spoke to me about an injustice done to them many years ago.  They said that the more they thought about this injustice, the angrier they got.  Their desire for revenge was demanding of their thoughts and emotions.  We spoke about the injustice; we will call that injustice, sin.  The person told me they had never forgiven the other person for what they had done.

Forgiveness requires action; so we worked together to act in forgiveness.  Together we wrote a short prayer laying out to God the offense, the effect the offense had on this person, and a release of the offender to God and God alone to act with justice and mercy for the sin.  Writing a prayer is an action of the mind to get the offense stated, to give voice to the intention to forgive the sin, and to ask God to intervene in the offender’s life.  When we were satisfied with the prayer, we continued with our actions.  We went to the sanctuary and we sat together quietly.  When the time was right, the other person read aloud the prayer.  The action of reading the prayer aloud moved the commitment to forgive from the mind to the heart.  We sat again in silence for a few minutes and then we took the written prayer and pinned it to the cross.  The action of pinning the written prayer to the cross created the visual image of placing our faith and trust in Jesus Christ through the symbol of the Gospel, the cross.  We talked quietly about the actions taken to define the offense, why it was an offense, the desire to forgive that offense, and the faith that God would deal justly with the offender.  The physical movements, particularly in pinning the prayer to the cross, created a strong visual personal and current memory of the acts to forgive.  The person was relieved they had forgiven the offender and now had a fresh memory of action taken to erase the pain of the past.  These fresh memories would help because while we may forgive with the grace of God, in our humanness, we still remember offenses.  So when the thoughts of the old offense returned, this person now had fresh and pleasant memory of forgiving that offense to replace the pain of the memories of the old offense.

To live a Gospel centered life, is to live a life able to forgive offenses of other people because God has forgiven us.  In the forgiveness through Jesus, God gives us fresh memories.  Memories that bring us peace and thanksgiving.  They are memories that allow us to express compassion, humility, kindness, gentleness, and patience all surrounded and united in love.  This is the full an abundant life of Jesus that he offers to each of us.  This is who we are to be individually.  This is who we are to be as a church.  Therefore, “forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  Let us pray.

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