Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Rejoice (Always)

Philippians - Paul's Letter of Joy

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)

Depending where you are in life, you may hear this and say, “You have to be kidding! Do you know what has happened to me in the last week? How can you tell me to rejoice always?”

We tend to confuse joy with happiness and happiness with joy. Because of that, it is hard to figure out how we are to rejoice when we aren’t happy. Part of this is a lack of awareness of what rejoicing involves and where it comes from.

Happiness is situational. Things go well and we are happy. Someone goes out of their way to do something nice for us and we are especially happy. But when things go poorly, we may replace happiness with sadness, anger, frustration, or any one of a variety of difficult emotions. One thing is clear: it is hard to be happy and sad at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive.

But joy is deeper than happiness. Joy comes from a place of wellbeing. In that sense it has more to do with the connection between hope and shalom (wholeness). Joy is the sense of wellbeing that comes from believing that God can and does work in all things and that difficult things may make us sad or mad, but they do not stop God from working in them and from the reign of God from coming in to our lives.

I saw this last week when, at a funeral, the son of a woman who had died shared memories about her. It was both a sad and a joyous occasion. The woman had been a faithful part of Christ’s church and knew that she belonged to Jesus. She had lived a long time and maintained a positive spirit through a variety of physical struggles during the last years of her life. As her death approached, she looked forward to it with the release from her struggles. It would be a right and fitting end to her journey and a chance for her to join with God in eternity. And so her son shared, with both sadness and joy, the completion of a life. The grief of saying goodbye combined with the faithful confidence that God was still at work and doing a good and wonderful thing.

When Paul urges us to rejoice always, he is hoping that our faith will always inform our circumstances. When that happens, while all things may not be good or bring us happiness, even in the midst of pain and struggle, the promises of God in Jesus continue to be at work as well. So, let your faith dwell deeply within you and rejoice (always!).

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Working Out Your Salvation…

Philippians 2-12

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

In general, Lutherans have heard a phrase like “work out your own salvation…” as heretical. It is our commitment to God’s grace coming to us as a gift. There are no works involved in salvation. We simply receive it through the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

As a result, Lutherans are often viewed as spiritually a bit lazy. While our theology has a definite place for works as a response to grace, we have always known that they aren’t required in order to make God love us. We could skip them altogether and simply trust that God loves is in Christ and the gates of hell would not be waiting for our arrival. God is good and we are graced by receiving that goodness!

But Paul is clear, and so are Lutherans who go more than an inch deep in their faith, that we are to work and that it is serious business to do so. This is not because God won’t love us if we mess up. But it is because we are actually joining in with God who has claimed us. We are now dealing with the very presence and power of God, being transformed by grace and figuring out what it means to live lives now as an extension of God’s work.

So, Paul says that we should do this with “fear and trembling.” The gift of life has been given to us in Christ by the giver of life. God is not only deeply in love with us, God is also deeply at work within us as well. God’s desired outcome is that our lives would both want what God wants and work toward that end.

So, while many Protestant traditions are clear that works are not needed to earn God’s favor, scripture is also equally clear, once you know that you are loved by God, becoming who and what God intends for you to be in Christ is a calling that will shape and focus your whole life.

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We Need Each Other

Thankfulness

I thank my God every time I remember you… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Philippians 1:3, 7)

It is truly an American characteristic to want to appear self-sufficient. In fact, often our pride requires we pretend to be fine when we are not or to take full credit for something that relies on the help of others. We all want to appear “self-made” and in political circles, the spin that someone is “self-made” carries all sorts of respect and sympathy and can sometimes even leverage a few extra votes. Nothing fosters the respect of Americans like being a self-made person.

But the truth is, no one is self-made. From the families we come from to the kinds of communities we live in, we have help and access that comes from a much wider circle of people. The healthiest people know this, honor this, are thankful for this, and admit it. But the temptation is to try to convince ourselves that because we work hard we have earned all that we have. We want to be indebted to no one.

The Christian life teaches us a different message. ALL of us are dependent on the grace of God. God always goes first and 100% of everything we do starts with God and not with us. That means pride is replaced by gratitude for all who are people of faith. In addition, it is the nature of life in general and the nature of the church in particular, to be communal and to live in relationship with the God we encounter in Jesus and with each other. Autonomy is not an option for the faithful.

Paul has no such self-made illusions about himself. Despite being a proud Jewish lawyer (Pharisee), he knows that his work depends on the work and support of others. The Philippians have been especially supportive and especially generous. His work has been heavily underwritten by their love and generosity. He depends on them and is deeply thankful for their support, companionship and partnership in the gospel.

The temptation to try to believe that we are responsible for ourselves will still be there. The world will send examples and try to make us forget the truth about God and about life. But if we believe that God is a God of grace, then we will all be humbled and grateful for the gifts that have come our way. We will be thankful to those who have shared them with us. And we will be generous in sharing them with others, for they are not ours anyway. It has all come, in one way or another, from God.

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Talking and Listening to Anyone

Paul in Athens

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” Acts 17:32

We live in a world of increasingly diverse people, religions, and ideas. In fact, the city in which we live is one of the 30 most diverse cities in America. There are people from all corners of the world and people who practice all faiths. They are people of all colors, people of all sexual orientations, people of a multitude of languages.

In America today, it is tempting to hide in a bubble. Social media makes this possible. I can read things from people I agree with and shut out the input from people I don’t. I can easily hang out with people who look, think and act like me. In many corners of our society, that’s what people do. In the process, it is easy to see something on TV or a story on the internet and then overgeneralize about people. “People from this group are…” and then we fill in the blank with stereotypes and generalizations that aren’t accurate.

I am amazed how often I talk to someone who says something negative about some group of people. Sometimes I ask them, “Which person in that group do you know who actually did that?” Almost always the answer is, “I don’t know anyone who did.” But whatever thing is on their mind: immigrants, Muslims, or something else – they have heard somewhere that what they think is true and have no actual experience to back it up. This is how the world slowly falls apart.

In our lesson this week, we see another approach. Plunged into a world of diversity, Paul is an Athens in the midst of people who think all sorts of things. They practice many religions and think thoughts based in many different philosophies. He takes time to listen and observe what they think and teach. He looks at the symbols and monuments they erect in order to see what matters most to them. He finds connections between his faith in Jesus and the things they value or wonder about. And he shares honestly and respectfully.

In the verse above, not everyone is convinced. Some think he’s teaching foolishness. That doesn’t bother him – he’s confident enough in his identity to not be threatened by the different beliefs of others. And some are intrigued. They are willing to listen to more and curious about Paul’s message about Jesus.

There are lessons for us today in this. One, we need to respectfully watch and listen to others and try to understand what they think and believe. Second, we need to maintain dialog with people who are different from us and try to maintain good relationships with them. Third, within a good relationship comes the ability to share what we think and listen to what they think – we can tell others about Jesus. And fourth, not everyone will be swayed by our view of the world in Christ. But some will be curious and open to more.

It is not our job to save the world. God in Christ is doing that. But we can share openly and respectfully what we see God doing and maintain good relationships with the people around us, whether they end up believing what we believe or not.

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Are You a Good Guest?

Guest

He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (Acts 16:34)

The people in many congregations are doing some amazing things. It is especially true here where we host and serve at Soup Kettle, we are a mainstay at Food for Greater Elgin, and we mentor in the schools. We are now looking at hosting a summer lunch program, starting an after school program and overhauling our Sunday School to use a new model called “Godly Play.”

In addition, we are growing in worship attendance. We are reaching people and some of them are seeing this as a place to call their spiritual home for this part of their faith journey. This week, as we worship, we will have a baptism and welcome five new adults through Affirmation of Faith. Overall, things are going well.

But the lesson this week raises a point that would still stretch us and can stretch us to do not more work, but actually make some shifts to also do better work.

Paul and Silas had been in prison for the missionary work they were doing. An earthquake has set them free and the jailer, essentially the night watchman who lives adjacent to the prison, encounters these prisoners in a new way and decides to join them. He is baptized and so is his family.

After the family is baptized, the story takes a twist. While in our ministry we often have a reception and provide a cake or snacks to welcome ne members, in this case the jailer and his family provide the food and Paul and Silas are their guests. This practice of “reverse hospitality” is a standard practice in the book of Acts. A missionary person shares the gospel, new people are baptized and welcomed into the faith, and the new people provide the food and hospitality.

Why is this? Because it is always easier to eat your own food than that of a stranger. It is always safer to serve the meal since you know what is in it. But a sign of true acceptance and trust, is to eat the food of someone else, especially if they are new to you and you don’t know their culture very well. It can make you wonder, “What’s in this?”  Reverse hospitality was a sign that these new people were truly in. They were fully accepted and trusted as new members of the community of faith.

As we continue to connect with and reach out to new people in our community, we will continue to meet new people who are different from us in many ways. It will be tempting to “play it safe” and stay in control of things. But biblical hospitality means being willing to not just be a good host, but to also be a good guest.

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The Courage to Obey

Ananias

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; (Acts 9:13)

While many of us know a lot about Saul, who we more commonly refer to as Paul – few of us give Ananias a second thought. Saul, a Jewish leader who wrote as a Christian under his gentile name of Paul, is the prototype for missionary activity and evangelism in the church.

But Ananias has to respond with courage and go against his best judgments in order for Paul to come out from under the blindness of his encounter with Christ, and be able to then move forward and do the work that God has chosen him to do.

Ananias knows that Saul is dangerous. Word of the persecutions that Saul has led is well known. The fact that Saul oversaw the murder of Stephen has been etched in the minds of every active Christian in what is still a relatively small community of people. The last thing that would have crossed Ananias’ mind was that he should do something to help Saul.

But God has a different eye for what we can do and who we can be. Saul’s opposition to Christ is the perfect platform for the transforming power of Jesus to be on display. And when Saul comes to grips with what has happened to him, the persistent, stubborn and driven nature that made him such a dangerous opponent will also be the same characteristics that will make him such a powerful worker to spread the word that God has done something amazing in Jesus.

So, while we all know that Saul/Paul was one of the keys to the early church spreading its wings to many places across the Mediterranean world, the courage of Ananias, who was willing to step back from his instincts and just listen and obey God’s guidance may be just as miraculous.

Each of us have the ability to simply react like usual, or step back from something and ask God, “What would you have me do?” Listening and then acting on God’s call can surprise even us, and the results might just change a life (or even the course of history).

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The Bible Hopes You Believe

Bible

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

This week’s lesson has a lot in it. The disciples meet Jesus in the Upper Room and he sends them out to do his work. Thomas isn’t there and doesn’t believe that the others saw Jesus. Jesus shows up and Thomas does believe. There are three several messages just in the summary of this paragraph!

But the verses at the top of this article are where we will focus today.

Jesus had a huge impact on the people who spent time with him. It was evident early on, that Jesus was not exactly like ordinary people. There was something different about him and that difference was amazing. Everywhere he went people noticed. After Jesus moved on, people who had seen him told stories about what he had done while they were there.

John’s gospel is one very transparent example of this. The author simply tells us that he saw Jesus do all sorts of things – way more than he shares in this book. That in itself is to expand your awe at who Jesus is. The things John shared are amazing and they only scratch the surface!

But John is also very clear. He picked these things so that you would know what he knows. Jesus is something special. He hoped that by reading this book and encountering Jesus in these pages, you would discover an amazing truth: God has come in Jesus to be the Messiah! Because if you believe that, John knows you will discover that there is life in his name.

Martin Luther called the Bible “the manger in which the Christ was laid.” By that he meant that the whole point of scripture was for us to meet and trust Jesus. So, when you read scripture, always be asking, “Where does what I am reading point me to Jesus?” When you encounter Christ and discover life in his name, the Bible will have done its work!

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To Be a Fool for Christ

Foolish Gospel

It is an odd thing for April Fools Day and Easter to fall on the same day. It isn’t unheard of – it has happened before and it will happen again. Because Easter is based on the date of the first full moon after the spring equinox, the date for Easter floats. If there is a full moon right after the first day of spring then Easter is early. The there is a full moon right before the first day of spring then the next full moon can be almost a month away and Easter is late. This year, Easter is fairly early and April 1st is the date.

If you are a member of the millennial generation, this is the first time Easter has happened on April Fools Day in your lifetime. As I write this, I am nearing the 30th anniversary of my ordination. I have never preached an Easter sermon on April Fools Day. If I live long enough, I may get another chance in 2029 when I am almost 69 years old. This may be a once in a career coincidence for me.

But April Fools Day does provide more than a chance to play tricks or act silly. The whole notion of foolishness has a long tradition with deep meaning in the Christian tradition. Grounded in Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:10, where Paul writes, “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” Paul was talking about the sacrifice that he and others were making to share the good news about what God had done in Jesus.

This term “fools for Christ,” was eventually taken up as a badge of honor. It was a title given to those people who had made the “foolish” decision to give up what they had in the world and to take up some sort of simpler and less affluent life. The dessert fathers and mothers (ancient wise leaders who lived in the wilderness and prayed, reflected and wrote about their life with God) gave much attention to the idea. The term was rooted in scripture and lived out in the life of the church. It came to mean “someone who had made apparently foolish worldly choices out of a desire to follow Jesus.”

Of course, Jesus was the ultimate fool. Unwilling to make logical choices all along the way, Jesus’ life stood out as an oddity. That’s what made him so interesting to the crowds. That’s what made it so hard for Pilate to figure him out. That’s what got him killed.

Easter morning will be a chance for all of us to reflect on our lives and discern how we are doing at following the risen Christ. Sometimes the things Christians do may need to look a bit crazy in the eyes of the world. But then again, there may be no greater badge of honor for us than to be so committed to following Jesus that people look at us and call us “fools for Christ.

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Deaths That Bear Fruit

John 12v24

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Life is fragile. As this post is being written, as a pastor this week I have been included in the pre-release viewing of a shooting during an arrest where a local police officer killed someone. There is pain, confusion, anger and a host of emotions from a wide range of people. Everyone wonders if it could have turned out differently. No matter what is determined, it cannot turn out differently now. And by the time many of you read this post, the video will be released to the media and a wide variety of reactions will be happening.

At the same time, two people lie in Critical Care units with serious health concerns. Both have had surgery that doctors say was needed just to keep them alive. Both have health issues that were not solved by the surgery and more time will be spent closer to the line between life and death than we would hope. No one knows how they will turn out.

The line between life and death is a troubling one for many of us. In fact, for some it is a terrifying line.

We don’t know what Jesus was feeling when he said the verse above about dying and bearing fruit. But we do know that he understood that as he spoke, he was standing closer to the line between life and death than at any other time in his ministry. He knew death was closing in.

Shortly after saying this profound word about death and bearing fruit, Jesus gathered with his disciples in their final night together and taught them as much as he could pack in to one night’s lessons. Foot washing, the primacy of love, his promise to prepare a place for them in the place where he is going, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the vine and the branches, the resistance and hatred they would face – all of these topics were covered in just one night! Then he went out and prayed that through all they would face, his followers would stay united

So, while we don’t know what he was feeling, we do know that he knew his time was short and that Judas was committed to having him arrested that night.

As we enter Holy Week, we are reminded that the line between the death and life of Jesus is what this week is all about. It will remind us all that we will eventually cross that same line. Death will one day take us all.

But the words of Jesus encourage us to approach our lives and our deaths with the confidence that God will be with us in them. And we do have some say as to what our lives and deaths will contribute to the lives of others. May we all discover ways for God to use us and in so doing, pray that God will use our lives and our deaths to bear much fruit as well.

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The Restraint of God

Jesus and Pilate

Jesus answered Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above;” (John 16:11a)

We hear platitudes all the time. People say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” When someone dies tragically we hear, “Don’t be sad. They are in a better place now.” Or even worse, “God took them early,” as if the tragedy was actually somehow orchestrated by God.

Into this world we then see Jesus go to the cross and see how he interacts with Pontius Pilate. Here, Jesus’ fate is in the hands of an enemy oppressor and the outcome means that Jesus will end up nailed to a cross and suffering a slow and torturous death. Pilate is feeling pretty smug about his position of power. Jesus seems unphased by the whole thing. In fact, when Pilate brags to Jesus and reminds him of how powerful he is and that Jesus’ life is in the balance, Jesus responds with the above verse. “You would have no power over me unless it has been given to you from above;”

What we see here is that whatever power God has, God relinquished power and control to the people of the world. God knows that it is risky. People are not a sure bet. We get things right. We get things wrong. Jesus’ gets people who will follow him – many will bail now that the pressure is on. Jesus finds people who will oppose him. They will eventually sentence him to die.

According to Jesus, God has permitted the world to do what the world decides to do with Jesus. Jesus will simply submit himself to the process. Death is the outcome but Jesus knows the power of God. Death does not appeal to him – he’d rather not go to the cross. But dying faithfully would be radically different than bailing to save his skin. To take power from Pilate to save himself, Jesus would deny who he is and what God is all about. Jesus calmly accepts death rather than doing that.

What we see here is a lesson in the restraint of God. To be in the image of God, human beings need to be able to freely make choices – even bad ones. And to be in the image of God, people need to see the impact of the choices that they make. The impact of human sinfulness is often death – in this case the death of Jesus. But rather than flee or bail on his identity, Jesus accepts his fate with the knowledge that when God is faithful, life wins. Even Pilate’s power is not enough to stop it. God’s restraint is more powerful than the mightiest powers in the world. It may hurt to get there, but Jesus will usher in the kingdom from a cross.

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