Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

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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God Will Be Praised

Praise

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

One of the foundations of the Christian faith is that God is acting on our behalf to bring life and love to us. This spirit is captured in the familiar worship call and response:

  • L: “God is good.”
  • C: “All the time.”
  • L: “All the time.”
  • C: “God is good.”

As we prepare to enter Holy Week we will find that Jesus’ actions are becoming an irritant to people in power.

The crowds that Jesus has gathered and the clear sense that these crowds see life and freedom in his work irritate civil authorities. There is a clear risk that he will foster an uprising and the throngs that come out to greet him will soon be rebelling and that will mean trouble.

The shouts of the people singing Jesus’ praises are a threat to the religious authorities, too. If the focus is on Jesus and the work that he claims God is doing through him, then the focus will be off of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the religious things that they want to be at the center of the people’s lives.

Whether your work is religious or secular, spiritual or political, Jesus has something that bothers almost everyone in power.

In the verses above, it is the religious authorities who urge Jesus to tell people to get in line and be quiet. They are especially threatened and bothered by the response of the crowds. But when they order Jesus to make the crowds be quiet, Jesus response is simple. Praise is the right response. If they don’t offer it then God will bring praise out of the stones that lie at their feet. God is praiseworthy and God will be praised. We can choose to join in the praise but we cannot choose for the praise to end. God in Christ will be praised.

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Meeting Jesus Can Change You

Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. (Luke 19:3-4)

The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one for many people. Much of this is likely due to the popular children’s song that paraphrases the above verses, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…”

Zacchaeus is intriguing to us not only because of his size. He intrigues us because he climbed the tree. Something from the news that he had heard about Jesus made him want to see what was up with this itinerant preacher. And he was not alone. The crowds around Jesus made it hard to get close to him. Climbing a tree seemed the only option if he was going to see and hear what Jesus had to say

How wrong Zacchaeus was! While climbing the tree allowed him to see Jesus, it also allowed Jesus to see him. What followed was not just Zacchaeus being a part of the crowd. He was changed from audience to host as Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. During the meal, Zacchaeus repents of his old life and not only starts a new one but makes restitution fourfold for the places where he has cheated people before.

At various times in peoples’ lives they are more alert and open to encountering Jesus. The upcoming weeks are times when more people will be in a place like Zacchaeus was. The Easter season brings awareness and awakens a hunger in people about the work of Jesus. TV specials will highlight Jesus and the History Channel will likely have some programs on the historical Jesus. Church attendance will be up on Easter morning and many people who don’t come to church on Easter Sunday would likely have accepted an invitation from a friend if one had been offered.

You may find yourself hungry for a life-changing encounter with Jesus. You may know others who are hungry for the new life that Jesus brings. Zacchaeus is a reminder to all of us that meeting Jesus can change a life.

 

 

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The Poor Man Has a Name

Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,…” (Luke 16:19-20)

In all the parables of the Bible, this is the only story with a character with a name. We have parables about sheep and shepherds, widows and coins, unjust judges, a sower who went out to sow seeds, and many more. But in every story the character is identified by a description and not by a name. The parable for this week is the only exception.

Why does Jesus make this exception? What is there about this story that the poor man needs a name?

We often put people in categories. Well to do people almost always find a way to get the personal attention they need. If need be, they might even be able to pay someone to pay attention to them and know their name. The gardener and the maid always know the name of the rich person where their check comes from. But often the wealthy owner doesn’t know the names of many of the people who provide care for them or their property.

In this parable, Jesus knows that the poor man almost certainly knows the rich man’s name. He also knows that the rich man had a gate and drove by the poor man in the street outside his property many, many times without stopping. While the poor man saw the rich man as a person, the rich man probably worked hard to ignore the poor man and when he saw him was probably annoyed and thinking, “There’s that good for nothing beggar again.”

So in this story, Jesus finally does the poor man justice. He was not a category or a label. He was a person. He had hopes and dreams. He had needs. And he had a name” Lazarus.

Each of us would do well to be reminded from time to time. We often categorize people and make assumptions as a result. But each person is not simply a member of a category. Each person has a name and is a unique gift of God made in the image of God.

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God Waits. God Seeks.

Prodigal Son

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;” Luke 15:20

“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” Luke 15:8

The two verses above give opposing views about the nature of God. Is God a God who waits and watches compassionately for us to return? Or, is God a God seeks diligently and hunts and hunts until we have been found?

The parables in Luke 15 are about seeking and waiting. The shepherd seeks the lost sheep. The woman sweeps and searches for the lost coin. The Father waits for his prodigal son to return. We worship a God who both pursues us with passion and waits for us with patience.

How do we know whether God is waiting for us or pursuing us at any given time? We may not know. In fact, it may be that God (who is not limited by our experiences or imagination) is doing both most of the time. God is passionately pursuing us, always pressing to love us more fully. God is patiently waiting for us, never coercing us to move faster than we are willing. So God may “find” us yet also find that we are not yet ready to be “found.” So God, like the father in the prodigal son, simply watches for openings and changes in our life and in our souls and then loves us. In other words, sometimes God sets the schedule. Sometimes God abides by the schedule we set. But in either case, God continues to love us and God promises to be there for us.

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A God of Second Chances

Repentance A

Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:7

When Martin Luther proposed changes to the church 500 years ago, there were many things that he put on the table. These had to do with both theology and practice. The Lutherans who would eventually take on his name adopted some of his ideas. Others ideas were somewhat lost or minimized.

One of the things that Luther changed but didn’t want to lose was the idea of repentance and confession. While he was opposed to mandating private confession before communion, Luther was both in favor of emphasizing confession and also favored keeping private confession as a both a sacrament and a voluntary but regularly provided for option. While few Lutheran congregations provide for this with any regularity, his goal was to maintain the call to renewal and new life in the gospel. It was not enough to declare that God loves us. That news should transform us and allow us to turn from our old selves and toward new selves. In other words, the gospel declares love but also causes new life.

In the text above, Jesus is teaching about the myth that some people are good enough on their own while others are not. He is making the case that all of us fall short of what God hopes for us. We all need to receive the grace that only God can give. And we all need to therefore repent and receive the new life that it provides.

The words sound ominous on the surface. It sounds like a threat. But Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree that is not producing figs. There is a desire to cut it down – why keep a fruit tree that won’t produce fruit? But the story then takes a surprising turn. “Don’t cut it down. Fertilize it and see if things change.” God is oriented toward giving more opportunities for life.

Feel like you are falling short? You may be. If so, don’t keep doing things the same way. Repent (turn) and try something new in a new way. But do so giving thanks for a basic truth: We worship a God of second chances!

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Crossing Boundaries with Love

Love A 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27

People often look at religious people and view them as judgmental, hypocritical and mean-spirited. Young adults who don’t participate in church life, when surveyed about Christians, list the above characteristics as top ideas that come to mind. It is a sad but true reality that religious people are often viewed as “people I wouldn’t want to get to know.”

So when we look at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching, it is helpful to remember that love stands at the center. Jesus teaches that the above statement summarizes the core of the Old Testament. Everything in the Law and the Prophets points to one thing: love.

Jesus goes on to show what love looks like in the telling of a familiar story: The Good Samaritan. The story uses a despised foreigner as the hero and respectable insiders as the foil to tell a story showing that true love is bold, courageous, unconcerned about human divisions, and ultimately generous. The hearers of this story would have been both impressed by the message and offended by the plot. But Jesus tells it to remind us that real work that pleases God is not concerned with human categories – it is grounded in people helping people when they need it.

In a world of division, Jesus calls us as his followers to share love indiscriminately. Where other see “us” and “them” and want to love “us” and shun “them,” Jesus only see all of us as created by God, loved by God and worthy of loving. As Christ lives in us, may that be true for all of us who claim the title of disciples as well.

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