Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Testing the Truth

Truth Test

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

When 1 John was written, Christianity was new and on the margins. There was no reason to claim the name of Jesus to gain credibility with most people. The name of Jesus carried now real weight in a world where most people were not Christians and where in many cases, it was illegal to be one. So, when the author tells the audience to listen to see if someone brings something in the name of Jesus, it made a lot of sense as criteria. Why would anyone link himself or herself to Jesus unless they really had something from God in Christ to say?

Fast forward a couple of thousand years and things are very different. Christianity is the biggest religion in the world with over a billion adherents. In our country, even thought religion is generally declining, Christianity is far and away the biggest and most powerful religious force in our society. Today, especially in some circles, claiming the name “Christian” will get you and audience and even some clout. So, today there is incentive to use the name of Jesus, even if your message isn’t from God.

That’s why the above verse is so important.  Jesus has already warned that there will be many false prophets in his name. Today, with the internet, you can find all sorts of “Christian” messages that make Jesus cringe. You can find “fake news” that starts with rumors and Internet bait, but can even find its way to major papers and network news. If we aren’t careful, almost everything we pass on may be false!

So scripture reminds us that we need to take the time to sort through things. If something seems too good to be true, it likely is. If something tries to get you to fall back into judgment and condemnation of others, it is probably not from God. If something announces that God in Christ loves you (and the people you struggle to love as well), then that probably sounds like the gospel. Odds are good that it might have come from God.

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The Need for Grace

Savior Needed

“If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)

We all want to feel good about ourselves. Our instincts and our culture both base our self-worth on being good, useful and morally upright. Often, when someone we know dies, we comfort one another by saying, “They were such a good person.”

But scripture reminds us that all of us are sinful. All of us make mistakes, think and act based on our own desires rather than God’s, and often ignore the needs of others while taking more than enough care of ourselves. Most of us try to do the right thing most of the time at what we do. But most of also all too easily ignore all that we don’t do. In fact, it may be that our sins of omission are often greater than the sins we commit.

That’s why confession is such a central part of what it means to be a Christian. The ability to own our sins allows us to rely on God’s grace. It reminds us that God is God and that we aren’t. It points us to our need for the love of God that comes to us in Christ. And when it goes well, it shapes us to be more gracious and less judgmental with others when their sins cause us pain or annoyance. To admit to needing grace is a humbling thing. Humble people are less likely to beat up others when they make mistakes.

Oddly enough, our imperfections are not the disaster we often make them out to be. In fact, if we would all simply admit that we are fallible and need grace, many of our attitudes and relationships would change almost immediately. So, don’t resist admitting that you need grace. It is the path to grace and because of grace we discover that in the end – love wins.

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It Starts With Love

1 John 1

“We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)

Why share the faith we have in Christ? So that the fellowship we have with God that Jesus makes possible is something others can have as well.

Many of us have been raised to think that the central part of being a Christian is belonging to a church. Being a “member” was a sign of respectability and an important part of American life only a few decades ago. Many of us grew up with that notion.

But over the last few decades a lot has changed. If someone asks, “Do you belong to a church?” it may be followed by, “Why?” or even, “Really?” Many have seen the institution decline, heard leaders proclaim hate and bigotry from the pulpit, or seen stories of scandals. Why belong to a church?

But the Bible proclaims a reality that is deeper and older than the struggles of the American church. In 1 John we read a letter from someone who knows Jesus loves them. In Christ they have discovered a living and vibrant relationship with the God who made the universe. It has been life changing and even worldview changing for him.

Part of that reality is that once someone discovers that the Christian faith is more about a relationship with God than it is about belonging to an institution that there is a deep joy that emerges from within the believer’s heart. That joy presses outward and the same love that is received from God in Christ now presses out to others. The goal: that others know and discover the love and grace of the God that made them as well.

This is the Christian life. We are loved and we love. And we show and tell others about the place where love begins – within the heart of God.

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The Fruits of the Spirit

Holy Spirit F

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)

A lot of brands of Christianity are most concerned with what you are not supposed to do. They have lists of right and wrong, in and out. And of course, there are things we are not supposed to do! So sometimes the things on these lists can be helpful reminders of things to avoid or eradicate from our behavior.

But we have to be careful. Often we overstep and decide that since we as Christians aren’t supposed to do it, neither should anyone else. We judge, legislate and even punish. We can easily (and often are) be seen as people who are more likely to condemn. Many people, especially younger adults, say that the main thing they see in Christians is judgment. And they want little to do with it.

The list of the fruits of the Spirit above is not things that are forbidden. Rather, these are things the Holy Spirit inspires. God is working to encourage us and transform us to look more like Jesus, not with rules and prohibitions, but by inspiring us to be filled with goodness and caring that can only come from God.

This week is Pentecost. We celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. In our congregation, we will celebrate the confirmation of three young people at the early service. They will stand and share how the Spirit is working in their lives and affirm their baptisms with the love and support and in the presence of the congregation. Our prayer for them, and for all of us, is that we are able to see the fruits of the Holy Spirit in all that we do.

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A Jumble of People

Unity in the Church

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

The early church discovered something amazing. When the God of Jesus gets involved in human life lots of things change! People who would never have anything to do with each other are suddenly thrust into a life of faith with each other. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians they have found that there are both Jews and Greeks in the church (who could have imagined?). They have discovered that men and women are sharing leadership (a radical thing at the time). And they have found that slaves and their owners are all sitting around the communion table together (slaves were used to serving their masters but not sitting with them to eat!). It was unimaginable and yet it was happening.

The church is filled with all sorts of people. Some of the people in the church seem a lot like us and we click. It seems like old friends or family. Hang around long enough and they become old friends and family.

On the other hand, the church is also filled with people we would never choose to hang out with. But if we are honest, over time we find ourselves just as connected to these people who are different as we are to the people with whom we clicked right away. We find that our church family is more diverse than many of our homes and we discover that our circle of friends is stretched and even filled with compassion for people with whom we have little in common.

The reason for this is that we share the most precious thing in all the world. We are all connected to Jesus and made into the body of Christ through faith. It is not our own doing. It is a gift. And with it comes the miracle of a community of people that the world might never imagine. But to be within it requires no imagination. It is already present in our shared life together.

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Christ-bearers

Christ in Us

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

The early church had a lot to sort out. After all, the most history-changing event ever had just taken place in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. People saw things one way before the coming of Christ. But his coming called many things into question and his death and resurrection literally called everything into question. If God had come in Jesus and if Jesus had died and rose again, then what did that mean? And how were followers of Jesus supposed to live in the new light that had come to us in Christ?

Galatians was written to people still trying to figure this out. The Apostle Paul has helped start communities of faith but as he has moved on to other places, they have had to figure out how to continue his work without him. That has resulted in ongoing struggles between within group of new Christians. How should they let people in? What are the rules for everyone once they are in? Is this a new kind of Jewish group or is it something completely new?

In response to the news of this debate, Paul writes a letter back to his friends in Galatia. His focus is that putting too many restrictions on new people is not helpful. There are already plenty of places with too many rules for people. This is not about a new way to apply the law. This is all about grace and we belong and participate in this because of what God has done in Jesus. In fact, once we are part of this new community our old selves are no longer at issue. For we our old selves are crucified with Christ. Just as he died on the cross, so when we are connected to him, our old selves die as well. And what is in their place? Jesus Christ now lives in us!

The word Christian implies that we are “Christ-bearers.” Where we go, Jesus goes. What we do, it is the ongoing work of Christ. We are not alone. In fact, we bring Christ with us in all that we do.

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A Changing Church for a Changing World

Choices A 

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. (Acts 15:6)

There has always been a need to figure out difficult things, debate different ideas and make important decisions. Because people do not live only as individuals, doing what we want, we have to figure out how to connect, live and work together. While it would seemingly be wonderful to simply adopt a libertarian attitude toward life – doing what we want – the nature of God and the gospel means we have clear responsibilities toward each other. We don’t live in a vacuum. We live in community.

The early church discovered that this truth pertained to them pretty early. As the excitement of the gospel brought new people into the church, the desire to contain and control was still real. While the Spirit was offering new life, we are both saint and sinner at the same time. We are called and shaped by Jesus and declared righteous by God. We are easily self absorbed and selfish and still fully human and in need of grace. This tension is the tension in which we live.

The tension that caused the meeting mentioned in the verse above was related to how new people became part of God’s church. The early church was Jewish at its core. The people were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Not all Jews believed this, of course. But the new Christians thought of themselves as a movement within Judaism. To join the church was to be a Jew and to confess Jesus as Lord.

But things had happened where people had come to faith in Jesus who weren’t Jewish. Peter had baptized a bunch of them by now and these new Christians seemed to be as excited and authentic in their faith as the ones who had been Jewish. Could you be Christian without being Jewish? The leaders came together, listened to the stories people shared, listened to how Peter had experienced God at work in his ministry, and reflected on what to do. In the end, they decided that faith in Jesus was what was needed to be part of Christ’s church. That was it – faith in Jesus.

In a changing world the church is always called to stay alert to the movement of God. Just as God had led the church to reach new people in new ways during the first century, God continues to call the church to be open to changing in ways to include new people in new ways within the life of the church today. This is not easy. Many of our instincts call us to put up barriers and retain control in ways that get in the way of what God is up to. But we are called to join in with what God is up to, always open to God’s ever widening circle of grace.

We live in a world that is increasingly diverse. In our schools families speak dozens of languages and come from nations all around the globe. In our neighborhood, people from a multitude of racial and ethnic backgrounds are now our neighbors. And each of these people are both people whom God made and loves and our neighbors. To do God’s work, we will have to be as open to change as the first disciples. But as we are, we will see amazing things happen and discover the miracle of God’s ever widening circle of grace.

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A New Day is Here

Philip and Eunich

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:35)

There may have been a time in America when you could assume that if someone was looking at a Bible passage that they would have some basic context and awareness to make sense of it. It’s possible that there was enough general Christian awareness for people to hear a bit of the gospel story and put it into some framework that made sense. But in 2017, those days are gone!

Studies today show that people are less religious than ever. That means that the way that religion organizes ideas and helps people experience and make sense of spiritual issues is less accessible than before. There is not a framework that people have enough confidence in to work out their issues within the context of a religious worldview.

Those same studies also show that people are still spiritually curious. They want to know about the Bible. They want to know who Jesus is and what he did. They are hungry to discover meaning and purpose for their lives. In other words, the core things that good religion provides are still human needs that people want. While people may not want the church – they still want some of what the church has. They do want to know how to make sense of God and life. And Jesus still intrigues most people!

So the world in which Philip spoke in the verse above is a lot like the world we live in today. Philip has been talking to an Ethiopian eunuch who worked in the queen’s court. The eunuch has a scroll from the prophet Isaiah that points to some things that help make sense of Jesus. But the eunuch doesn’t know much about Jesus and struggles to make sense of what he is reading. Philip asks him if he’d like help understanding it and gets a positive response. With an open door to share, Philip starts to explain Isaiah’s words and then makes the connection to Jesus. Eventually, the eunuch will believe and be baptized.

All of this started with a conversation between someone who believed Jesus mattered and someone who was open and curious. Like people today, the eunuch couldn’t put his concerns into the story of Jesus without some help. And also like people today, the eunuch was spiritually curious and open to learning more about how Jesus connected him to God and to a more enriched life.

Each of us can be that open door to a new way of seeing God. As we walk with others who are spiritually hungry, curious and open to hearing what we share, God’s Spirit will work in those conversations to share a message of hope and life.

In some ways the twenty-first century is a lot like the first century. More people don’t know much about Jesus than do. As times have changed, the Bible gives us a clearer look into the kind of church and people God is calling us to be today. Who knows – you may be the next person God uses to help someone understand the good news of God in Jesus Christ!

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Raising Up New Leaders

Leadership E

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly…” (Acts 6:7a)

The book of Acts is about the start of the early church and the growth it experienced as the gospel was proclaimed, lives were changed, and new people came to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The official title is “The Acts of the Apostles,” but many scholars say that the book could easily be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The work of the early church was driven by God’s guidance and the Spirit was listened to as the church did God’s work.

The verse above talks about the results of a decision to expand the church’s leadership to include more people. While the earliest church was dependent on the Apostles at the core, it soon became clear that keeping the work of the church flowing through them would quickly limit the ability to care for people, share the gospel and continue to help people come to faith in Jesus.

As was (and is) often the case, the people on the margins are the first to be left out. In this case, gentile widows were being excluded from food distribution in a church that was still mostly Jewish. It was clear that this was not what God wanted and so the church leaders had to figure out what to do about it. Dividing up the work and expanding the leadership and workers was the solution. The first deacons, seven men of good standing, faith and character, were selected to take on the responsibility.

This is a continual lesson to be learned over and over again. We often settle for the ones who are doing things to be the ones who do most things. But the church is most effective when we continue to listen to the stirring of the Spirit that calls all of us to be involved and for leaders to be watching for others to raise up and help take on new leadership roles.

Where this is happening, the church is effective in doing God’s work and like in the early church, “The word of God spreads and the number of disciples (in the Elgin area) increases rapidly.”

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Seeing Jesus in the Bread

Communion Emmaus

When he was at the table with them, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; (Luke 24:30-31)

The Easter story is one that is more than an event. It unfolds over time. First there are women who find the tomb empty. Then two men/angels who try to help them make sense of it. Then the disciples come to see for themselves and they also find the tomb empty. In each case the encounter points to the fact that Jesus maybe alive, but there is still not any signs that make sense of this whole thing.

The verses above are ones that Lutherans have loved and are ones that stand at the core of how we practice our faith together. They are from a story about two people walking to Emmaus and on their way they encounter a stranger. They detail to him all the events of Holy Week – the arrest and death of Jesus, his burial in the tomb, and rumors that he is risen. The man walking with them listens intently, asking a few questions to clarify the events as the two disciples talk to him.

It gets late and it is time to stop for the night and to find an evening meal. The two men impress on the stranger to stay with them – they have enjoyed his company and want more of it. And as they eat their meal, the stranger (Jesus) took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. It is in the breaking of the bread that they recognize the man for who he is – the risen Jesus.

Each Sunday when we gather, we come like the two men on the road. Like them we are on life’s journey. We have heard the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But the events of each week mean that we may still live more like Jesus is dead than alive. It is easy to get caught up in the issues of the world, work and family and lose sight of the risen Christ. We may even come wondering if he’s even alive at all.

But when we break bread and share this simple thing, in the midst of this we recognize Jesus. He is with us all the time but we often fail to recognize him. But as we eat the bread and drink from the cup we hear these words, “The body of Christ given for you.” and “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Jesus is with us. Our lives are put back in focus. So each week, take time to gather and “take and eat.” In so doing, you will renew your connection to the crucified and risen Christ.

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