Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Love – the basis for faith in public life

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)

We begin a 5-week series on faith and civics this week – a journey into what it means to be a Christian and participate in public life. In our baptism we are joined to Jesus and called to continue the ministry of Christ in the world. This work is called “the vocation of the baptized.” It is the way we live out our identity and the body of Christ in daily life.

We begin this series with Romans 13 because it is a place where Paul talks about living in a world governed by others. How are Christians to function? What guides our choices and behaviors? He eventually lands on the 10 Commandments and reminds people that these aren’t just about rules – they are about love. It is love that stands at the center of our identity as Christ’s people and it is love that will fulfill the law.

This simple principle becomes the basis for how Luther understands and explains the second table of the 10 Commandments – the ones that call for us to point our love toward our neighbors. It is not enough, Martin Luther reminds us, to just avoid doing bad things. We are called to work for good things and go the extra mile to be people who help our neighbors and make their lives better.

This is the underlying principle for Lutheran Christians way of engaging public life. We are loved by God in Christ. We then become a vehicle for that love as we act as God’s agents in the world. Love is the starting point for faith in public life. Love is the outcome when it goes well, too. We ask a simple question, “Which thing will produce the most loving outcome, not only or even primarily for me, but for my neighbors who need it most?”

A Spirit for Today

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  (1 Corinthians 12:8)

As Lutherans, we don’t often think of ourselves as Spirit-filled people. We think the Pentecostals focus on that. But Paul is very clear, all of us who trust Christ have the Spirit – it’s the only way to believe in Jesus. And the Spirit manifests itself through each of us to do God’s work.

God does this because as the church, we are to continue to do the work of Christ. The risen Jesus has ascended so that the Spirit could descend and bring Christ’s presence to us. But this is no longer just in one place where Jesus once walked, but in all the places where faith receives Jesus and serves him as Lord and Savior.

And this is how God gets many of the things God wants done done. God uses the gifts of each of us to make a difference. When we share them and do so faithfully, it adds up to something amazing. Jesus’ work continues. We are right at the center of it. And we and the world are blessed as we do.

This is the message of Pentecost today. The Spirit didn’t just come one day 2000 years ago. The Spirit is still stirring the pot and working today. We are a Spirit-filled people!

Are We One in the Spirit?

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you but that you be knit together in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 10:10)

I have worked in the church for almost 4 decades. Much of that has been in congregations as a parish pastor. But much has also been as a consultant to other congregations in my roles on a synod staff, on the national churchwide staff and as a church consultant. There is nothing uglier that a serious church fight.

The congregation where I first served was aging and angry. There had been issues of power, control and trust too numerous to give details to here. While people talk me they wanted a new way of being church when I arrived, I quickly found that they had a number of visions about what that meant. While there were some wonderful people there, there were also people who had become bitter and mean-spirited. They wanted to decide what church would be and enforce it with their authority.

It took over three years in that setting to get things turned around – realigning the ministry of the congregation with God’s call to continue the ministry of Jesus in that community. They were difficult years to get through. But when it was done, the church had a resurrection and began to do some amazing work.

The Apostle Paul is writing to a church like that. The people in Corinth had formed a new Christian community and then began to struggle for control. Who would be in charge? Factions formed. The church became divided and divisive. BY the time Paul writes to them, he is thoroughly disgusted with what has happened and he writes to them to help them realign their ministry with Jesus again.

A healthy ministry regularly reflects on what God wants and asks, “How are we called to be faithful in this time and place?” and “What does it mean to continue Jesus’ work here?” In our congregation we remind ourselves of that unity and calling in a simple phrase, “Grounded in Christ and sent to be a blessing.” As long as we remain rooted in Jesus and see ourselves as here to be agents of God’s blessings in the world, we’re likely to stay on track and not need Paul to write us our own letter setting us right. Keep your eyes on Jesus!

You Will Be My Witnesses

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

Imagine the disciples’ anticipation of finally getting some answers when they spent time with the risen Christ. But they had little satisfaction when they asked their question, “Is this the time…?” Jesus’ answer was, quite simply, “I don’t know” or if he did know then, “I can’t tell you.” What a bummer. Resurrection did not provide an end to the ambiguity of life – there are still things we just have to live into as they come.

So what do resurrection people do in the meantime?

According to Jesus, the answer is that we are to bear witness to Jesus everywhere we go – close to home or far away. Tell people about knowing the risen Christ and all that he did, does and will do.

As followers of Jesus, the task of bringing good news to people starts with a very simple premise. We’ve been claimed by Jesus and live with him fully present in all that we do. Being known by Christ and knowing Christ makes us capable of sharing what we know with others. That’s our job – sharing Christ with others. We don’t convert them. We don’t put pressure on them. We don’t decide who will believe when and who won’t. We just share Jesus and let the Holy Spirit do her work.

But the Holy Spirit works with words and faith comes by hearing, so the words we share as we witness are the stuff with which the Holy Spirit works. Say nothing and the Spirit has nothing to work with. Say something and now the Spirit can stir the pot and cultivate curiosity, wonder, engagement and faith.

So, as you go, bear witness to Jesus. Don’t try to argue people into believing. Just tell them (graciously but often) who Jesus is for you and what God has done for the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s what Jesus wants his disciples to be up to. And it’s the stuff that makes faith contagious. 

Finding Strength in Community

Mark 14:3-11

Nelson Mandela learned what Jesus knew: Struggles are harder when we go alone.

Jesus is now getting close to the end. He has to decide how to live out what are likely his last few days. He knows that most of the people in power are angry. He knows his disciples lack unity. He knows that as he came into the temporal world and joined us in our mortality that dying is the only doorway out.

So how will Jesus spend his time?

Mark tells us of a dinner at the house of Simon the leper, who lives in Bethany. Although Jesus grew up in Nazareth, Bethany is his home away from home. It is where Mary and Martha live.. It is where Lazarus was raised from tomb. It is where he goes for dinner at Simon’s house. Jesus wants to be sure that the stress of the week ahead is not more than he can bear. One way to do that is to be sure not to bear it alone.

We don’t know who this woman is. We do know she’s willing to come with some pretty valuable stuff and use it to honor Jesus. Not everyone is happy about this But Jesus defends her. She loves him and wants to support him in what lies ahead. She consciously or unconsciously is getting Jesus ready to be buried. Jesus feels cared for and supported in this incident – she is just what he needs when it seems like so many are turning against him.

By the end of this lesson, we see that Judas is one who has become disillusioned with Jesus. He wants Jesus to push harder and be more zealous about overturning the Romans and setting Israel on a new course as a nation. Of course, Jesus’ agenda is far bigger than that, he won’t be swayed by the delusions of people – even his own disciples.

Jesus simply accepts what is coming as the price of faithfulness to who he is and what he is about. But he doesn’t accept it without also finding ways to process it. And a key to this is dinner with friends. Jesus, like all of us in times of crisis, knows that struggles are best lived out with the love and support of others. He finds strength in community.

“Staying Alert – Not being afraid in changing times”

Based on Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

When Mark wrote his gospel, the world was a shifting mess. The Apostle Paul had recently been executed. Peter was likely in jail awaiting execution. The Roman emperor Nero hated Christians and was also likely to have been mentally ill. It was a scary time. People wondered, is this the end or is the end getting close? Worry was the norm, especially for Christians at the time.

This may not sound like a story from 2000 years ago. I hear and see the same thing now. Climate change is scary. Russia is talking about being willing to use nuclear weapons. There is dissatisfaction with leaders and in an election year the choices don’t satisfy a high percentage of people. People are wondering, is this the end or is the end getting close?

It is into this environment that Mark shares Jesus’ teaching about how to live in scary times. Jesus wants people to not cower down and hide from life. They will miss the only life they have! 

Instead, Jesus calls people to live with head up and to be alert to the work of God that is still happening and breaking into their reality. God is still at work. God can be trusted to act. Don’t live in fear and miss what is happening. Trust that God is still faithful and working and be alert! Watch and see what God is doing.

This advice is not restricted to a particular time. It is how followers of Jesus are called to live in any time and every place. We are called to trust that the God we meet in Jesus is working and that we are to engage the world faithfully and with our eyes up and alert. A lot of things will happen along the journey of life and throughout history. A lot of them will be scary and make us want to just retreat into a safe space and hunker down. But Jesus’ people know that we belong to a God who is trustworthy, involved in loving our world into wholeness, and will sometimes act in surprising ways. So we are to stay alert and watch for all that God is doing. And when God shows up to do what’s next, be ready to bear witness to God’s work and join in with God at work when we can.

Love at the Center

When challenged by the leaders of his time about what was the most important commandment, Jesus replied, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The entire work of God is based on who God is. 1 John tells us that “God is love.” It isn’t just that God loves – God IS love. The essence of God’s identity is love itself. All that God does, not only expresses love, it is truly grounded in love. 

When the scribe asks Jesus about the most important, greatest commandment, he’s really asking what the central message of the entire Old Testament is – that’s the scriptures they had at the time. Jesus’ reply is that it’s all about love.

This message is unchanging. God is who God is and does what God does out of love. The coming of Jesus means that “love has come down.” The God who rules the heavens with love and who created the world with love, now comes to embody love in our midst. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, love wins!

This is why we gather as God’s people. Jesus, love in the flesh, comes into our midst to love us and fill us with the love of God. We then go forth, reminded of our identity and calling to love the world, to take the love we have received and spread it as far and wide as we can.

 Have you watched the news lately? The world needs what we’ve got!

The Cross of Jesus Leads to Service for Us

Mark 10:32-52

This week we resume our blogging after a hiatus that started when we had to adjust for the Covid pandemic. As we have worked to decide what’s helpful since the pandemic status ended, we’ve done a lot of work assessing the community, the congregation and our ministry. Church Council agreed that this practice was a helpful one – a weekly blog based on the text for the coming Sunday. So this week we resume.

We are solidly in Lent now and the journey to the cross is well underway. This is the third time that Jesus predicts his coming passion. Each time he follows his prediction with some call to his followers. Because Jesus is going to the cross, we who follow him are called to be different and act in ways that continue the work he accomplishes in his life, death and resurrection.

So what is it that Jesus hopes happens to us?

In this case, Jesus’ prediction spawns a desire for some to achieve status as a result of their connection to him. James and John hope for good positions – it’s almost as if they weren’t listening to what Jesus said. They want to be in charge. When the rest of the disciples find out, they are furious at James and John for wanting this. An argument breaks out and Jesus almost immediately squashes it.

The bottom line for Jesus is that following Jesus to the cross will not get you status and power. In fact, quite the opposite. Greatness in the reign of God is measured not by how many you lord over, but by how graciously and humbly you serve. In fact, Jesus is going to the cross as an act of service for the many, an act of service to the whole of humankind.

The cross shaped life doesn’t mean we all die execution style. In fact, there is not need for too much of that – Jesus has already done it for all of us. But it does impact how we act every day. It opens us up to the needs of others. It shapes us for service. It makes us instruments of the ongoing work of Jesus, which includes the heart and the actions of servants. The word “minister” means to serve. At Zion, we know that we all share in the ministry. It is a way of reminding us that as Jesus’ people, we are marked serving each other and in the world around us. 

Return to the Lord… God will come to you

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing…Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; (Joel 2:12, 28)

Following Jesus is an odd thing. On the one hand, God calls us to be “all in.” The text above calls for the deep work of inner transformation and God wants us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” In other words, no mere show for the sake of looking good. Surface transformation is almost no transformation at all. In fact, the thought of putting on such a show is so contrary to real transformation that it may even result in a step backward!

So God want us to devote 110% to the real work of becoming who we have been created and called to be. “Leave nothing on the field,” my coach used to say.

But the irony of such a calling is that just as God asks us to devote everything we have to this work, God already knows that we can’t actually accomplish this ourselves. We will never, left to our own devices, become all that God desires and intends us to be.

That’s why Joel 2 having verses 28 and following is so amazing. After God calls the people to be different and devote themselves fully to the work of becoming new and “returning to God,” God then says, “I know you can’t actually do this – that’s why I include this promise: My Spirit will come to you. Even though I want you to be all in, I want you to know that I am committed to being “all in” and more. I call you to come to me but in your weakness I promise, “I will come to you.”

And the promise is wider than we could ever imagine. While God calls you and I to dig deep inside out hearts to our very core, God promises that the work God will do is far greater and will include not only you and I, but “all flesh.”

Advent is about being all in – so we are as ready as we can be for God to act. So, be sure you are all in – leave nothing on the field. But be sure that when you rend your heart, the tear you make opens your heart to be receptive. Because what you can never do for yourself, God has promised, in Christ it is already yours.

Give thanks IN all things

It is a difficult concept to grasp – the idea of being thankful in all things.

Ask any group of people what they are thankful FOR and the lists are even predictable. There isn’t a lot of variance. People tend to be thankful for family, friends, good health, food and shelter. There may be a few other items listed but they are all positive. It is why I am no longer in favor of the unmitigated exercise of people listing what they are thankful for. It continues to imply thank being thankful and the good things in life are linked. That is a half-truth and the easiest and most misleading half of the truth at that.

When scripture tells us to rejoice in all things and be thankful in all things, all means all (no footnotes). Being thankful for good things is easy. Once you get out an entitlement mode that you are certainly good enough to deserve them and move into a gift mode where these come from God, gratitude is a lot easier – almost naturally linked. But if all means all, then we are to be just as thankful in the rough spots as the smooth.

Gratitude in the Christian tradition is deeper than the moment – deeper than the current state of our lives. Gratitude is grounded in Jesus – the Jesus who went to the cross to show us the depth and commitment of God’s love. In Luther’s theology of the cross, the irony of God’s work and love is that God is most revealed beneath the very place where it appears God is least involved. Christian gratitude isn’t just in the good things (although it is there), it is also (especially) in the bad.

For this to work, a sacramental view of life lies at the core of who we are and what we teach. Are you celebrating something wonderful and rejoicing? Give thanks for the God we encounter in Jesus is there with you. Are you grieving a deep loss or struggling with an immense problem? Give thanks, for you are not alone. The God who went to the cross is there with you offering love and support as you journey through this season.

Christian gratitude is not limited to things we are thankful FOR. It is grounded at a way of life that sees God with us IN everything – always working toward life, love and the kingdom of God. Whether in good times or bad, God is still working. It is that which we can be thankful for, no matter what is going on at the moment.