Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

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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Belonging to the Truth

Truth - BelongingPilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”  (John 18:37-38)

Jesus does not operate like anyone else. He is clear about who he is. He understands why he exists. He knows what he is trying to accomplish. He has the ability to stay the course under pressure. These are all admirable if you like what he is up to. They are annoying if you are trying to get him to crack under pressure.

This text can lead to a number of insights. It can help us reflect on staying true to our calling when the costs are high. It can help us understand that what Jesus is all about is much bigger than the kingdoms of this world in which we live (all small potatoes compared to the kingdom of God).

But perhaps in today’s world, no insight is more helpful than the claim that Jesus makes about truth. He makes truth something different than we usually do. Truth is more than a proposition – more than the right ideas. Truth is something we belong to. It claims us. It possesses us. It takes us in. Truth, while it includes accurate information, is a place in which we ground our lives and in so doing live knowing that we belong to God.

That means that truth is really about relationships first. We tend to believe things that people we trust tell us. We tend to doubt things that people we don’t trust tell us. It is possible that the info from our non-trusted source is actually correct and the person we trust is wrong. But we don’t start with that assumption. In today’s world of “fake news” we don’t even entertain that notion. We write off some sources immediately, living in a bubble of our own making and in the process, cutting ourselves off from not only the information but the people as well.

Jesus tries to establish himself as the basis for connecting with the truth. As we belong to him, we belong to the truth. All who belong to him are connected to the same deeper truth that is the basis for life and for our shared lives together.

Sadly, Christians seem to have lost much of this. We spend more time and energy listening to sources that divide us and joining in the factions that are splitting up our society rather than spending time together listening to Jesus. Mainliners listen to and join in on one side. Conservative evangelicals listen to and join in on the other side. Perhaps none of us are spending enough time listening to Jesus. Perhaps this is a call for some of us to refocus and listen to Jesus. In him, we will both hear and belong to the truth. What is he saying to you and to us?

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When We Fall Short

Peter Denies Jesus

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” (John 18:25)

The pressure is on now. Jesus has been arrested and the forces that want him dead are closing in tighter and tighter. The levels of anxiety are high. The price to be paid is huge. Soon it appears that Jesus will be dead. His disciples are watching and calculating the costs and the risks and having to function under pressure. Every decision may cost them their lives.

Peter is one of Jesus’ closest companions. He has been with Jesus from the beginning. He has to know that the end is close. Jesus has made it more than clear and it has only been a few hours since they were all up around Jesus sharing dinner, getting their feet washed, and receiving what would be Jesus’ last words of teaching and advice. As shocking as things are, this was not a huge surprise. Jesus saw it coming. He was clear – they all saw it coming too.

But it is one thing to know what’s coming and be semi-prepared for it. It is another thing to actually carry things out well under pressure. As Peter watches from the sidelines, he is recognized. People who have seen Jesus have also seen Peter. They know he is part of Jesus’ team of people. Peter knows it too. But to admit it may mean he ends up right where Jesus is – captured and waiting to be jailed or even killed.

We all want to think we would have done better. The imagination won’t allow us to think we could have done worse. “If only I was there,” is almost an automatic response when we see a crisis and watch someone fail. We have heard it, even this week, when we saw the deputy outside the Parkland school during the shooting. People were shocked that he didn’t go in to confront the shooter. We heard people say, “If I were there, I would have gone in.”

But the truth is, under pressure, we all function differently than we think we might when we are able to watch and reflect from a distance. We often fail. And when we do, we see Jesus. His eyes were focused on his purpose and he knew than faithfulness would lead to crucifixion. It is not our faithfulness than saves us. It is the faithfulness of Jesus.

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Kneeling as a Way of Life

Footwashing B

Jesus said, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”  (John 13:15-16)

We are moving closer to the cross. Lent is unfolding for us and with it, we begin to see Jesus path to Golgotha and crucifixion starts to unfold as well. John 13 begins a long section of teaching. Jesus has one last shot to make an impression on the disciples. Soon, the fruits of his work will be in their hands.

Jesus starts with an object lesson. His goal is to embed an image so deep in the psyche of his followers that they cannot escape it. He has just washed their feet. As usual, Peter has resisted. But Jesus has persisted anyway. God is not stopped by our resistance. God is not willing to let our “no” replace God’s “yes.”

So, what is the lesson that Jesus wants to be unforgettable? Grounded in the love of God that is made tangible in Jesus, followers of Jesus are to make that same love tangible to others. How? By being humble servants. In a world where people want a return on their investment and want to maximize their profits, etc., Jesus shows a way of life that is focused on being available to others and being willing to step down from our place in order to love more fully. So what does Jesus, the king of kings and Lord of Lords do? He kneels. Kneeling is a sign of humility and honor. It is what disciples do to their teachers. No one remembers seeing a teacher kneel before their students.

Middle America is a place where accumulation is encouraged. It is a place where we all hope to find ways to move up the ladder and have and do what we want. It is a part of the freedom that we have to assume that succeeding and having and doing more comes with the territory. Entire industries thrive on making us want things that don’t even exist yet. In the middle of this, Jesus kneels before us, strips down to the bare minimum, wraps a towel around himself, and washes feet on his knees.

Everyone except Jesus is caught off guard. Everyone except Jesus is uncomfortable. But kneel he does and as a result, the lesson sticks. 2000 years later we still tell the story, practice the act on Maundy Thursday, and try to take in what Jesus is telling us: Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t ask, “What is in it for you?” Be generous, loving and sacrificial. Serve gladly and do so, not from the place in which you live, but from the attitude that comes to us when Christ abides in us. Love is the mark of Christ. Love is the mark of the church. In the end, kneeling is, for followers of Jesus, symbolic as a way of life.

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The Seventh Sign – Life Wins!

RaisingOfLazarus

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)

The picture above is from the St. John’s Bible that we just finished hosting in Elgin for the last few months. It depicts Jesus, in the bright light, calling in to Lazarus who is still inside the tomb and from whose perspective we see this event.

This is the seventh of seven signs that John provides in order to help his readers know who Jesus is and what God is up to in Jesus. This one is a humdinger! In fact, this one takes all the others – each of which deals with a single issue (blindness, wine shortages, etc.) and caps them all by showing the Jesus has the power to overturn death itself.

In this case, the sign is provided to people closest to Jesus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to be Jesus’ best friends. It is at their home that he will eventually spend his last night before being arrested, tried and crucified. It is in their company that he seems to feel most comfortable and at home. This sign is a big one. Mary and Martha are both hurt that Jesus didn’t come sooner and make Lazarus’ illness simply go away. The fact that he is now dead is painful for them. A few verses before the verse we have above, Jesus wept. It is painful for him.

This text is a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Jesus’ actions that lead to Lazarus being invited out of the tomb demonstrate in this final sign, that the God who created life in the first place is still able to crate life today, even when it looks like death has already won. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, there is amazement. No one saw that coming!

People’s reactions varied. Some were ecstatic. Lazarus was alive and grief was turned to joy. But others were nervous. Healing a blind man on the Sabbath was bad enough, but overturning death brought things to a new level. If Jesus could do this, perhaps nothing was outside the realm of possibility for him.

Although this week’s lesson ends with Lazarus alive and well, the verses that follow are keys to understanding the story. This is not one sign among many. It is the final, seventh sign. They now add up to a complete picture. John’s readers have everything they need to understand what God is up to in Jesus.

The leaders, in response to this sign, decide that Jesus must die. Everything else in John’s gospel will now lead to the cross. The goal of the establishment? A dead Jesus.

But the gospel writer knows how the story ends. There is an eighth sign that he will share. The death of Jesus will put Jesus in exactly the same place Lazarus has been – in the ground. And the resurrection of Jesus will demonstrate the ultimate goal of John writing his gospel. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and in him we all find life.

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When No One is to Blame

Questions

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:2-3)

Today’s lesson is based in a question we all struggle with sometimes. Why doesn’t (or can’t) God make everything right?

We are enamored with perfection. We want as close to perfect life and a perfect world as possible. And many of the images of God that we have constructed imply that God can make it so. And if it is not so then either God must be weaker than we thought or someone must deserve what he or she is getting.

But everywhere people struggle against some things that seem to know no context. People are born with limbs that don’t work or are missing, ears that don’t hear, and eyes that don’t see. People are injured or even killed by the actions of people they never even met. Why do these things happen? Who is to blame?

In the text above, Jesus’ disciples are trying to figure out how Jesus understands God to work in such situations. Something is wrong – someone must be to blame. Who is to blame here, that this man cannot see? Is it his fault that he can’t see? Or did his parents do something that made this happen? There is an imperfection – it must be someone’s fault. After all, things are supposed to be perfect!

Jesus opens the eyes of the man, but even more Jesus opens all of our eyes. Imperfections are part of the fabric of the world. It is a work in progress. It is not finished and until the reign of God comes in all its fullness, it will not be finished. Each “imperfection” is simply a place to get involved and show the ongoing power of God at work in the world. God is not finished yet.

We think we wish that God was done. We think we want perfection, but each thing that we think is wrong is not necessarily a mistake nor is there necessarily someone to blame. Each incomplete project, each “imperfection,” is yet another place for love to enter into the story and complete the act. Sometimes, God simply isn’t done working yet. And if we watch, in these places we will find amazing signs that God is still working, in our times and in our lives.

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God Knows Your Story

Come-and-See-Church-1

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  (John 4:29)

In John’s gospel, Jesus makes direct contact with all sorts of people from all sorts of groups. In this case, as he travels he passes through Samaria. This is a region where most Jews would not go. Often they would travel around the perimeter of Samaria because the Samaritans were viewed as a sort of mongrel group, a mixed race people of Jewish and non-Jewish heritage and who practiced a mix of practices – some of them somewhat Jewish but many of them from other sources. Samaritans were looked down upon and many Jewish people simply wanted to avoid them altogether.

But John tells us that Jesus goes right through the region, apparently unafraid of the whole thing. Thirsty, he stops to rest near a well and this text shares an encounter with a Samaritan woman. As a Samaritan and as a woman, she is shocked twice that he speaks to her. Jewish men aren’t supposed to do that! And as the conversation deepens it becomes strikingly clear that Jesus is no ordinary person. He clearly sees things about her life and knows things about her as a person that no one would be likely to know.

Eventually, she decides to start to ask him questions. Maybe she’s curious. Maybe she’s just a little nervous about how personal Jesus seems to be getting and how close to home his comments are. But whatever reason, she asks him about some key differences between the religion of her people and the religion of Jesus’ people. Jesus tells her that one day the focus of both will change and they will worship God in “Spirit and in truth.” As the conversation unfolds further, Jesus makes a claim. He is the Messiah, the one she has been waiting for.

When this woman hears the claim of Jesus, it all makes almost instant sense. Of course that’s why he’s not like anyone else. He’s different because he’s the one she and everyone else has been waiting for! And off she runs to tell the town, who stream out to meet Jesus for themselves.

People today are not as different from this woman and the people of her town as we may often think. Like the woman, many of us have stories that we’d rather not tell and that make us uncomfortable. Like the woman, we all long for a closer and very real connection to God. And like the woman, when we feel closest to God and experience something that makes us think, “Wow! God is right here with me now” then our hearts leap and we are filled with something akin to joy.

This week, spend a little time reflecting on your story. Go ahead, it’s just you and God in this – you don’t need to tell anyone else about the specifics. Then think about how God has been involved or used the biggest events in your life (good or bad) to show love, life and grace to you. And if you discover what the woman discover, that God is close to you and knows you very, very well, then take a risk and share your story with someone else. It may bring you joy to tell it. It may bring life and faith to someone you tell it to.

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