Saturday, July 25, 2015

Strengthened in the Love of Christ

Ephesians 3:14-21 Jesus said:  “For God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son…”  Paul said:  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us…”  John said:  “Christ is the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins, but for the sins of the world…” 
From the beginning of the Bible unto the end, that is the great salvation story of God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ, a love that embraces and encompasses a world full of sinners.
No matter the sins that we have committed—no matter the opportunities for good that we have missed--no matter where we came from and no matter how many times we have wandered away and fallen away—God loves with an everlasting love that has no equal or parallel.  And that love of God in Christ is true for every person in the world.
In the verses preceding our text, Paul says that the love of God that embraces an entire world full of sinners is a “mystery”.  What he means is that the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for all people has to be revealed to us.  God’s love is not something that we cannot reason our way into or think our way into—it has to be revealed to us in Jesus Christ. 
We could never imagine a love that extends to those who disappoint us again and again.  We could never think of a love that seeks out those who have no interest in our love.  We could never conceive of a love that would sacrifice a Son for an enemy. 
That is the love that God has for us in Jesus Christ and it embraces and enfolds—without exception—every person in the world.  But for us to benefit from that love—for us to be changed by that love—for us to know that love and live in that love and live out that love in how we treat others, Christ must dwell in our hearts by faith.  The Apostle Paul says:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith
            I hope you know this but I will just say it so that you do:  your pastors pray for you.  It’s the first thing that I do each morning when I sit down at my desk and have my morning devotion.  I remember you in prayer. 
I pray for all of those requests that you share with me—for healing for you and those you love—for guidance and direction in life’s moments of transitions—for your marriage and children and family—for all of the blessings you need for your earthly life.  I pray that God would bless you and keep you safe.
But as your pastor I pray for even more than what pertains to just this life-- as important as those things are.  I ask God to bless you with spiritual blessings that only he can give.  And I especially ask God to bless you with the gift of faith in Jesus and that he would sustain and strengthen that faith in you.
That is what Paul is doing here for the congregation at Ephesus.  As great as the love of God is that embraces the world, as all-sufficient is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, Paul understood that for his congregation at Ephesus, each of them needed to believe that for themselves—each of them needed Christ to dwell in their hearts by faith.
And so Paul bowed his knees in prayer and asked the heavenly Father to powerfully strengthen them in their inner being so that Christ would dwell in their heart by faith. 
That is my prayer for you too-- because at the end of the day-- nothing else really matters, nothing else endures, nothing else will last forever-- but our life with God through faith in Jesus.  Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul”?  And of course the answer is:  nothing.  Now please understand…
I want you to be healed-- and so I pray for you.  I want you to have happy marriages and families-- and so I pray for you.  I want you to have direction and meaning in life-- and so I pray for you.  But above everything else, I pray that God would give you faith in Jesus, sustain your faith in Jesus, and strengthen your faith in Jesus by the powerful help of the Holy Spirit.
And I know that God graciously answers that prayer for the spiritual strengthening of his people because he gives us the gifts necessary for that strengthening in Word and Sacrament.
That is what our worship is—God the Holy Spirit working in our lives through the Word:  convicting us of our sins, convincing us of the truth of the Gospel, correcting us on life’s journey as to the way we should go. 
That is why we receive Holy Communion often as a regular, preferably weekly part of our worship—so that we can know that the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood offered on the cross for the world is for us personally and individually as we receive that same body that was pierced for us and that same blood that was shed for us. 
Pastors pray for the spiritual strengthening of their flock-- and God graciously answers that prayer-- by giving his Word and sacraments so that we can believe in Christ’s love and grow in Christ’s love and share Christ’s love with others.  God gives these gifts of love so:
that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 
            Rooted and grounded in love.  There are two images that God wants us to have about what our life looks like as we are strengthened by the Spirit.  The first is a majestic tree with roots that are deeply sunk into good soil that produces an abundant harvest of fruit. 
            The second image is that of a towering building whose foundation is sunk deep in the depths of the earth so that it cannot be moved even when others around it crumble and fall in the storms that come.
That’s what it means for us to be rooted and ground in love:  it means that our life with God is fruitful and enduring because it is rooted and grounded in his love for us in Jesus Christ.
Too often we are tempted to find our life with God in our own efforts, in our own feelings, in our own experiences.  But there is nothing in us that can provide that living soil and solid foundation that we need for our lives to stand the tests of time and eternity.  There is nothing in us that can make us love others like God loves them.
Only the love of God in Jesus Christ can do that-- which is why we need to be strengthened in that love and grow in the knowledge of that love that cannot be known or experienced apart from the help of the Holy Spirit as he works in our lives through Word and Sacrament.
The Spirit is the one who tells us of a love that the living God of the universe has for us that existed before the foundation of the world and that will continue when this world is no more. 
It is the Spirit who opens our eyes of faith so that we can see that the Baby who lies in  manger and the humble man who cares for all people and the suffering servant who dies a terrible death is that same God who has come to make us into new people who love others. 
It is the Spirit who speaks to us from the Bible to guide us and comfort us until the day we go to our heavenly home.
Only by the strengthening help of the Holy Spirit can we come to know and understand the breadth and height and length and depth of God’s love for us that would lead him to send his Son into the world to save us from sin and fill us with his good gifts and include us in his church.
And it is only by the strengthening help of the Holy Spirit that we can then live our lives in such a way that Christ’s love is shared with others.
When we really begin to understand that the love of Christ has taken us (who were enemies) and made us God’s children and part of the church, that same love moves us to be a part of that mission of love for the sake of others. 
The love that embraced us when were unworthy and unlovable also embraces those in the world who find themselves in the same place until we (who are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ) reach out to them with the same love that God poured out upon us in Christ. 
That is how God adds to his family—that is how God builds his temple—and for his great mercy and love and grace it is right to sing his praises.  The Apostle Paul writes:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
            I am, by nature, a little bit cynical, a little bit skeptical, a little bit pessimistic.  I used to excuse this by saying “I’m just being realistic.”  But one day in my study, as I was writing a wedding sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, I came across a verse that struck me to the heart.  It said, “Love always hopes.”  Love always hopes.  And right then and there I confessed my cynicism and skepticism and pessimism for the sinful lack of faith it was and resolved with God’s help to be a more hopeful Christian.
            You see, we believe in a God of love who is able to do more than we can possibly imagine.  We believe in a God of love who takes enemies and makes them children.  We believe in a God of love who gave his Son to die for us.  We believe in a God of love who has turned death into life.
All eternity will not be enough to sufficiently praise him for the love that he has shown to us in Jesus Christ but we can begin today, as a Christian congregation and as individual Christians who have been strengthened by the Holy Spirit, to step out in faith and ask God for the blessings we need, trusting that God is able to do more for us than we can possibly imagine.  Amen.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

We Are One in Christ

Ephesians 2:11-22 Once when Jesus was teaching the Jews who believed in him, the told them:  If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.  And they said, “What do you mean?  We’ve never been enslaved to anyone”.  That answer ought to make us gasp out loud and shake our head and our jaw drop down in disbelief!  How on earth could they say that?
What about the Egyptians?  What about the Assyrians?  What about the Babylonians?  What about the Romans?  History was filled with decades—even centuries—of the Jews being slaves and subjects of other nations.  Time and time and time again God came to their rescue and set them free.
Their forgetfulness regarding their own history was really a spiritual blindness to the mercy of God and their own great need for his deliverance.  It can happen to us too.  When it comes to our life with God, it’s important to remember where we came—that we all are one in our need of God’s grace--so that we understand the greatness of his mercy!  The Bible says:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
            When it comes to our relationship with God, it’s important to remember where we came from.  These words of our text that the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write were written to Gentiles—people who were not children of Israel by birth—people who grew up in paganism—people who had no knowledge of the Ten Commandments or the promises of a Savior to come.
And without this knowledge of the things of God, they had no life with God, no relationship with God, no hope for the future.  It was important for their life with God (now that they had become Christians) to remember how far they had come and how great was the mercy of God that brought them to Christ.
So it is for us.  For many of us, we are like those Jews who had forgotten their spiritual history and so our salvation and life with God doesn’t mean for us what it ought.
We were born to Christian parents, baptized within a few days of our birth, brought to Sunday School and confirmation, and grew up in the church.  We say:  I’ve always been a Christian!  And we’re spiritually complacent.  We don’t really understand that the great salvation story of slavery and freedom—of alienation and adoption-- is our story too.  But it is!
There is not one of us who was born into this world as God’s child, by nature.  All of us are alienated from God, by nature.  All of us are spiritually blind, by nature.  Adam’s sin affects us all and the consequence of sin (alienation from God and one another, spiritual blindness, and death) infects us all. 
That we are now children of God; that our sins are forgiven; that we have an eternal future in heaven is only because of what Jesus has done for us—and we need the remember that so that we understand how far we have come.  The Bible says:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 
            It was true for the Jews.  It was true for the Gentiles.  It is true for us and for every person in the world.  There is only one way out of spiritual slavery.  There is only one way into God’s family—and that is through the blood of Jesus Christ shed upon the cross. 
We cannot earn our freedom by works of the law or keeping the commandments or observing some religious ordinance.  We do not have a place in God’s family because our parents are there or because of our Lutheran heritage or because our name is on some church roll. Freedom from sin and fellowship with God comes only through the blood of Jesus shed upon the cross--blood that has made peace us and God and one another.  The Bible says that:
Jesus is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
            The people of the ancient world were divided into Jew and Gentile.  That division was seen in the flesh of every Jewish man.  That division was experienced in every aspect of how people lived their lives.  That division had eternal consequences in who was worshiped: the one true God of Israel or the many false gods of paganism. 
There was no division among men more significant—no wall separating mankind one from another more insurmountable-- than the division between Jews and Gentile.  Jews hated the Gentiles and Gentiles hated the Jews.
But in the one body of Jesus Christ, crucified upon the cross, all of that hostility came to an end.  In Jesus, it no longer mattered whether you were a Jews or Gentile. It no longer mattered what you ate.  It no longer mattered whether you were circumcised or not.  All that mattered was whether or not you believed in Jesus.  So it is for us.
Jesus was the one that fulfilled the countless demands of the Law that we cannot keep.  Jesus was the one who suffered God’s wrath on the cross and shed his blood to pay for all of our sin.  The hostility that existed between us and God—and the dividing wall that exists between us and others was all brought to an end by the peace offering Jesus made on the cross.  The Bible says that
in Christ Jesus we are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 
 So it still is today for those who are in Christ Jesus—that we are one in him.  We still recognize differences in the human race.  There are blacks and white, Asians and Hispanics.  There are people who are poor and people who are rich.  There are young and old.  There are still men and woman.  Both these human differences are not divisive for those who are in Christ.
That we are members of his body through faith blood is infinitely more important than the individual parts of this body.  That his blood has been shed for us is infinitely more important than the blood that runs through our veins and binds us together in our human relationships. 
Christ has made us one with all of those who confess him as Lord and Savior and has given us the same Spirit and the same Father.  The Bible says that:
Jesus came and preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
            When that madman killed all those people at the church in South Carolina, church leaders and church bodies sent letters of consolation and support and encouragement.  So did our church body and president as well as the other conservative Lutheran Churches.  Christian congregations around the country lifted up that congregation in prayer.  So did ours. 
It didn’t matter that the folks in South Carolina were African Methodist Episcopal and we are Lutheran.  It didn’t matter that they are African American and we are largely Anglo.  It didn’t matter that they are urban and we are rural.
They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  They gather for worship on the Lord’s Day just like we do.  They have Bible study just like we do.  They baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity just like we do.  They confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior just like we do.  We are one with them in the Body of Christ.
All Christians are gifted with the same Holy Spirit that allows us to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.  All Christians are members of the Body of Christ.  All Christians are children of the heavenly Father. 
And all Christians—from every nation, tribe, people, and language-- will one day stand shoulder to shoulder around the throne of the Lamb in his kingdom, clothed in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness and sing eternal praises to their Savior God.  The Bible says that:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
            Saints of God.  Children of the heavenly Father.  Citizens of an eternal kingdom.  That is not how we began—but that is who we are right now.  Repeat.
That is how far we have come—that those who were separated from God, alienated from his people, strangers to the things of God have been brought to faith through the testimony of the prophets and apostles concerning Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament so that now we are part of the church, the Lord’s temple, where God the Holy Spirit dwells on earth.
            It’s important that we remember that so that we understand how far we have come and never grow complacent about God’s grace.  But it is also important that we remember that so we understand others can make that journey too.
Much too often we look at people who are opposed to the things of God, people who are caught up in some besetting sin, people who reject Jesus as if they could never change.  But the Jews and Gentiles of Jesus’ day and our own lives are a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit who is able to take aliens and strangers and make them children of God.  And so it still is today.
The Church, the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit that is built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ is alive and well and growing.  Day by day the Holy Spirit is adding to it.  That is our mission as part of the Body of Christ—to speak the words of the prophets and apostles and bear witness to Jesus Christ so that others can make that same journey of faith that we have made and grow with us, as one people, in the Body of Christ.  Amen.