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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.

June 9 - Gospel Centered Compassion

Colossians 3:1-14

            A few weeks ago, we began talking about what it means to be a Gospel Centered church.  We said that such a church is founded in the love of God and that such love gives us the freedom to be a new creation in Christ.  The Gospel was the center of the early Christian church.  There was nothing else to contemplate other than the Gospel.  The Gospel unified all churches and all believers because they believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his return from the dead, fundamentally altered everything about the present and future.  The Books of the Gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, give us the story of Jesus through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection.  The Book of Acts and the letters from Paul, Peter, and John trace the movement of the Holy Spirit working through the early church to come to terms with the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection to their lives and to the life of Jesus’ newest creation, church.  The early Christians were trying to show how “doing Christianity” was a natural outgrowth of “being Christian.” 

In working out what the Gospel meant to the believer in the here and now, the Apostle Paul observed that the love of the Gospel gave freedom and having been set free, Christians were to live a life above moral reproach.  To live such a life in Christ is live not only wide with respect to reaching out to other people but also deep in terms of the impact on their lives.  In living such a Gospel centered life, believers have the privilege of revealing God’s glory in Christ.  If you are a believer in Jesus, just keep in mind, to the next person you meet, you may represent the closest thing to the Jesus that they have ever met.

When believers live such a life in collectively, in what we call church, it is attractive to non-believers not because of our creativity with worship songs, instruments, lighting, and programs.  It is to be attractive because we are different from the world.  We are different because Jesus has made a deep, fundamental change to our hearts that allow His love to shine through all we do.  We are different because Jesus living through us causes us to seek after the things of God with our minds.  Being the church, a Gospel centered church, should be central to our identity.

            From our Scripture reading from early today, Paul talked about the identity of the church, believers in Christ.  I invite you to turn with me to Colossians, Chapter 3, beginning at verse 1.

              Paul said, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  Paul was defining that a Gospel centered person makes two deliberate decisions.  First, we set our hearts on things above, on Christ.  Jesus becomes central to the desires of our heart.  Just as the heart pumps blood through our body to give our body strength and life, Paul was saying, our spiritual hearts must be set to Jesus who gives us strength for life now and for all eternity.  Let me assure you that setting your heart on things above is radical in our culture today.  Contemporary culture writers say such things as health, family, friends, purpose, freedom, peace, self-development, love, food, water, oxygen, and sleep all rank higher than religion.  Paul said choose, decide, to turn cultural thinking on its head and put Christ first in your heart and see all other things through Him.  If you do, you are developing depth in Christ. 

Second, Paul said you must choose to set your mind on the things above, not earthly things.  What we think matters.  Surveys show that increasingly, the first thought of the day for most Americans is their finances.  Increasingly, the first thing of the morning most people fill their minds with is found on their smartphone.  What we bring into our life first, colors the way we see events of the day.  Paul said choose to set your mind on things that are above; not earthly things.

Paul concluded that in making the choice to set your heart and mind on things above, you will come to realize that Christ “is your life.”  If you recognize it, Jesus recognizes it and others will recognize Jesus in you.  Jesus becomes fundamental to your identity.  Think about what Paul is saying this way.  You meet someone for the first time.  You do not know anything about them, and they do not know anything about you.  The other person says to you, “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”  You reply, “I am a Christian; a follower of Jesus Christ,” and then stop talking.  Your identity, the focus of your heart and mind would be made known to the other person.

Paul continued that setting our focus on what is above, we must set aside behaviors that are earthly and worldly.  He said, “Give these personal behaviors a death sentence because they are not heart desires that take you away from Jesus.”  He said, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.”  Paul was not saying sex is bad or money is bad.  He was saying when we pervert sexual relationships intended by God, when those relationships become our purpose for being then we have taken what God intended for good and made it an idol.  We have made it more important than God.  The same is true of evil desires and greed.  There is nothing wrong with wages from honest work.  But when we pervert our work to make it the center of our life, to gather more and more money, then we have made it an idol because we love it more than God.  Paul said when we set our hearts on things that are above, we must end our heart relationship with worldly desires.

Paul then turned our attention to those things, those behaviors, that destroy unity and community.  He said, “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other.”  These behaviors all focus on our relationships with one another.  Anger, rage, malice, slander, and the like make no sense in a world changed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These behaviors build walls between people.  The resurrection of Jesus breaks down all walls between all people.  Anger, malice, slander, and filthy language were never part of the life of Jesus.  For those who would come to Jesus, he offered a family relationship.  Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Jesus removed barriers between people.  Paul said as much as he concluded this thought.  Paul said do not do those things that destroy community “since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  A Gospel centered life cuts across all manmade boundaries and boarders.  Being a follower of Jesus was a radically different way of life than was present elsewhere in the world and it still is intended to be a radical life. 

Paul, having given his readers the type of thinking and behaviors they must put to death, turned his attention to the behaviors to which believers in the resurrection of Jesus must give birth to.  Paul said, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Therefore, because you believe that Jesus gave his life for you and that he lives in and through you, there are some character traits that should be evident.  These traits should be as evident as the clothing you wear.  Today, I would like to focus on the first character trait, compassion.

What is compassion?  In our modern definition, compassion is an emotional response to the perceived suffering of another person and involves a deep desire to help.  Said most simply, we see someone’s suffering and we genuinely desire to help relieve that suffering.  But is this two part definition, to see suffering and have a desire to help, a good definition of Gospel centered compassion?  Let’s turn to the Gospels and see a few examples of compassion as expressed by Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark reported that Jesus wanted to spend some time teaching quietly with his disciples.  So Jesus and the disciples got into a boat and headed for a solitary place along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  But the people around Jesus saw them leaving in the boat and so the people “ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them [Jesus and his disciples]. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:33, 34).  Jesus had compassion on the people because he saw their spiritual suffering.  The people did not have someone to teach them about God.  Jesus desired to help them, so he began teaching them.  Jesus saw their suffering and desired to help but there seems to be a third step to Gospel centered compassion.  Gospel centered compassion involves immediate action; even when if that action requires changing one’s plans.  Jesus acted for the people and laid aside his desire for solitude with his disciples.

The Gospel of Matthew recorded for us that Jesus learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded.  “13 He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”  Jesus was aware of the peoples’ suffering with illnesses, he desired to help, immediately engaged in action; changing his plans to do so.

The Gospel of Luke recorded for us that Jesus knew his time to die was near.  He would soon be arrested, tried, and hung upon a cross.  So Jesus took the bread from the table.  He gave thanks.  He broke the bread and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Then he took the cup and again gave thanks.  He gave the cup to his disciples and said, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood, which is pour out for you.” (Luke 22:19, 20).  Jesus was aware that neither his disciples, and neither you nor I, can remove sin from our lives.  Jesus desired to help us.  He immediately engaged in action and gave up his life to do so.

Paul’s point was that a new life in Jesus gives us the capacity to be compassionate like Jesus.  A Gospel centered life is a compassionate life.  It is a life aware of the needs of others.  It is a life able to recognize suffering.  It is a life that genuinely, authentically desires to relieve spiritual, emotional, and mental suffering; not sometime in the future or when it might be convenient.  It is a life willing to place that suffering above their own wants and desires.

Some years ago, the Princeton Theological Seminary conducted a study of prospective pastors and their concept of compassion.  Unknown to the pastoral students, their professor was working with a behavioral science researcher.  The professor assigned sermon topics to each student.  Half the students were assigned topics throughout the Bible and half the students were assigned to preach on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is a well-known story Jesus told of two religious men who refused to help an injured man they encountered along the side of the road.  The man was later helped by a commoner, a Samaritan.  After the students had some time to think about their topic, the professor released them one at a time to go to a building across the campus to present their sermon at a specific time.  As each student left one building to go to the other, they encountered a man lying on the ground moaning and coughing.  The man was physically fine; he was just part of the experiment to see what these prospective pastors would inquire of the man’ needs.  The results were surprising.  When students did not feel pressed for time in getting to the location to present their sermon, only 4 out of every 10 students stopped to ask the man if they could help.  When the test was conducted with students who felt very pressed to arrive on time to present their sermon, only 1 out of every 10 students stopped.  In a few cases, the students had to step over the man to get into the building.  Preparing for a sermon, even one on the parable of the Good Samaritan, had not brought to minds of many of those students Gospel centered compassion.  They were very much focused on earthly things.

Compassion as an emotional response to someone’s Suffering is not enough.  Compassion must involve an action.  It would seem the hurriedness drains compassion from us, even those who would hope to lead churches.  Do you feel hurried in your life?  Do you feel like your heart and mind are focused on worldly things and not the things above?  Have you thought about compassion lately?

 He is the point of what Paul was saying.  God loves you.  He had compassion on you and me.  God sent Jesus to relieve the suffering of our soul and to give us life abundant and free now and forever.  These are the higher things we should set our hearts upon.  These are the higher things we should set our minds toward.  With hearts and minds attuned to God, with Jesus as our example, and Paul as our coach, we are equipped to be compassionate.  Can we slowdown a little bit and see the suffering of others?  Is it necessary to step over people who are suffering so that we can do what we want, when we want to do it?  Paul said to clothe yourself in compassion.  Can we see, feel, desire, and act in the best interest of others?  If we can, then we are Gospel-centered people organizing ourselves into a Gospel-centered church.  That is our identity.  What wonderful bless we can be as we extend the grace of our wonderful God through compassion.  Let us pray that we can be such people.

June 2 - Gospel Centered Freedom

1 Timothy 1: 8-17

            Last week we began a conversation about being a Gospel Centered church and what that meant individually and as a church.  As we began our conversation, we read from the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy in which Paul encouraged Timothy to correct those within the church who were preaching personal philosophies and not the Gospel message.  Paul’s said his instruction to Timothy was born in love. 

Paul saw the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the church, and the heart of his heart was love.  In another letter, Paul spoke about that kind of love.  He said, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love [for others growing out of God’s love for me], then I have become only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal [just an annoying distraction].  And if I have the gift of prophecy [and speak a new message from God to the people], and understand all mysteries, and [possess] all knowledge; and if I have all [sufficient] faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love [reaching out to others], I am nothing.  If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it does me no good at all” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, AMP).

            This was Paul’s understanding of love.  Such love is not a feeling or bit of excitement.  Such love was an inward spirit, strength, and freedom.  This type of love was not something Paul knew at birth or learned from his parents.  As we will explore in a few minutes, in one point in Paul’s life he lived a life very far from this sort of love for others.  So how did Paul acquire such love?  Paul shared the source of love he had in a letter to the church in Galatia.  He said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  Paul’s life was changed by Jesus’ love for him.  Paul would later say that it was Jesus’ love that compelled him [literally made him] do what he did (2 Corinthians 5:14).  This was Paul’s understanding of the love with which he instructed Timothy to preach and teach others; even to those who were in error.  Do it in and with Jesus’ love.

            Paul’s understanding of love and his desire to share such love are at the heart of a Gospel centered life.  It is this love that God desires for each of us to have and share.  Paul, in his letter to Timothy, explained that such love is a gift.  It is not a reward or earned.  Paul explained this gift in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 1, beginning at verse 12, which was read from the pulpit earlier in our service.  I invite you to turn to that passage of your Bibles.

            Paul wrote, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.”  Paul began by saying, “Thank you,” to Jesus.  Gratitude is an emotional response to what one has or one has been given.  The type of gratitude Paul expressed is not like our common expressions of “Thanks,” we might at times express to someone.  A common expression of thanks might result as being thankful to someone for their courtesy in holding open a door so that we could pass through.  We say, “Thanks.”  Someone did a task for us, opening the door, that we could have done for ourselves, but someone intervened and made our life a little easier.  Such acts of kindness and civility are very welcomed, and we should say, “Thank you.”  But gratitude is different from saying, “Thanks.”  Gratitude, the deep gratitude Paul expressed here, occurs when someone has done something for us that we could not do for ourselves.  A few weeks ago, my wife fell dislocation her shoulder and fracturing her arm.  She could not put her shoulder back into place on her own.  Doctors in the emergency room tugged and pulled her arm to restore her shoulder to its original position.  While this was something my wife could not do for herself and she was thankful they did it, even that does not give rise to the gratitude Paul was expressing here for two reasons.  First, the doctors were paid to put her shoulder back in place.  Second, and more importantly, the best the doctors would be to make my wife “as good as new,” not better than new.  The gratitude Paul was expressing was for something Jesus did for him that Paul could not do for himself and Jesus’ action remade Paul into someone better than new.  Paul was changed.

            Paul said, Jesus had given him strength.  This strength is not a brute force strength of muscle.  This is a strength of Christian character; a capacity to think, speak, and act like Jesus.  Paul was changed from within and given the strength of Jesus’ character.  Paul explained this change in his character.  Paul recalled who he was to Timothy in verse 13, saying Jesus gave him strength, found him trustworthy, and set Paul into service, “Even though I [Paul] was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”  Paul was blasphemer.  He denied works of God.  He denied Jesus; God in the flesh.  Paul persecuted the church.  Paul dragged Christians from their homes and sent them to prison.  He hunted Christians in foreign lands to put an end to the Christian thought.  Paul was a violent man.  Paul helped incite a mob to kill a man named Stephen.  Paul was as far from a Gospel centered life as he could get and he was actively defying the Gospel of Jesus.  And yet, Jesus saved Paul from that life.  Because Paul was changed, Jesus found him to be trustworthy.  Jesus could now depend upon Paul to speak the truth always and in all ways.  With that changed and trust, Paul became a servant of Jesus.

            How was such a changed life possible?  In verse 13 ends, Paul said, “I was shown mercy.”  God showed Paul mercy.  Paul could not change on his own but he could change if God gave him mercy.  Paul’s slate of bad deeds was not simply wiped away, so that Paul could be as good as new again.  Paul was made better than new because he was a new creation in Christ.  This was a gift and not something Paul could do for himself or earn.  God’s mercy freed Paul from his prior ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.  In that freedom, Paul could imitate Jesus.  Paul concluded this thought on mercy with verse 14, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

            Paul was sharing his own testimony of God’s intervention.  The Gospel of Jesus, the good news story of Jesus, is a story of God intervening in the world.  Paul explained God’s plan beginning in verse 15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

            The Gospel message made simple.  Jesus came into this world.  He sought to save sinners from being bound to sin and to have freedom in God.  That calling of sinners, that giving of life, is done through mercy.  Jesus is tremendously patient with us.  He wants all of us to have freedom in God.

            Sometimes I think we struggle a bit with understanding the freedom Paul was speaking about here because in our American culture today we are awash in personal freedoms.  We can travel anywhere in this country whenever we want to.  We can eat in any restaurant we want.  We can shop in any store we want.  We can speak against the government or for any political figure we want.  We can change jobs, choose doctors, switch churches, not work, not choose a doctor, or not go to church and people will defend our freedom to do so or not do so.

            I came to recognized my own personal difficulty with understanding freedom some 30 years ago.  We were visiting my parents in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  My eldest sister, Marie, was visiting at the same time with her family, which included at that time a foreign exchange student named Lucky.  Lucky was from South Africa.  My parents invited both families to dinner at a local restaurant.  We sat together at a large table.  The waitress came to the table, introduced herself and then asked each person what she could bring them to drink while we looked over the menu.  When the waitress left, Lucky was in shock said he had never experienced anything like this before.  Lucky was black and at that time in South Africa he was not free to walk into any restaurant and he would never have a white waitress ask what she could do for him.  Lucky was not free.  It was the first time I experience first-hand someone tasting freedom for their first time.  I had always tasted freedom and therefore did not understand how sweet freedom tasted when compared to the bitterness of bondage.  Sadly, it was also the first time I was confronted with the realization that many black Americans, my countryman, had not experienced freedom they were entitled to within our own country.

            Paul was encouraging Timothy to know and to share the taste of freedom in Christ.  A freedom to be like Jesus.  The freedom to love like Jesus.  The freedom not to keep on sinning with selfish behaviors but instead to have the strength to reach out to others.  It was a freedom born in love.  Paul was so taken by this Gospel centered freedom coming from the love of Jesus Christ that he wrote these wonderfully grace filled words about the freedom of love.  Paul said, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”  Paul had tasted freedom in Christ and it tasted so good because it freed Paul to be like Jesus.

            In a few minutes, we too will taste the taste of freedom born in love.  We will taste the bread and drink placed on Lord’s Table for us.  Paul shared his experience at the table this way, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  For Paul, the bread and the cup reminded him of the taste of freedom in Christ.

            The elements of the table remind us as well that the Gospel must be at the center of our life.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.  17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen ” (1 Timothy 1:15-17).  Please join me at the table.  Let us pray.

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