You Don’t Say?

May 7, 2018

If you grew up in the Christian Church, how much do you remember of the sermons and Sunday Schools and Bible studies?  If you grew up in a tradition where there was a rite of Confirmation – a period of study culminating in a statement of faith – what do you remember of what you studied?

I don’t remember much of anything.  I was far more concerned with hanging out with friends and the shenanigans we might get into together than the Confirmation studies I hastily scribbled answers to as I sat down at in my seat before class.  I know I was not a good student, despite knowing the answers for the most part.  As with some clever kids (who are not so clever as they think) I abused my understanding to make more time for my own interests and pleasures.

Not everyone is so clever.  Or, more likely, they are more clever.  So I know that this essay doesn’t apply universally.  Just because some don’t pay as much attention as they should doesn’t mean nobody does.  And I’ve met more than a few octogenarians who still remember a great deal (at least comparably) of their Confirmation class and teachings.

But at the end of the day I know that I felt like a failure for my inability to keep my oaths, and that knowing that I was better than some (and worse than others) at doing so was no comfort.  At the end of the day, it was nearly five more years before I really had a grasp of the Gospel and the promises of Christ that I was to cling to, rather than my own promises.  And as I in turn now familiarize others with God’s Word in Confirmation (including my own children), I am far less inclined to assign memory work than I am to keep talking about the big picture, hopefully encouraging them not towards licentiousness but towards a freedom and wonder in a God who could love them so much when they are so unlovable at times even to themselves.

There’s a balance between the two I’m sure I’m missing, but I strive to keep aiming towards.

 

 

 

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Reading Ramblings – May 13, 2018

May 6, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2018

Texts: Acts 1; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-15; John 17:1b-19

Context: This is the last Sunday in the liturgical season of Easter. It also follows the celebration of our Lord’s ascension (always on a Thursday). As such, technically the reading is only the second half of Acts 1 (12-26), but I like to include the ascension account. It is here that Luke overlaps his Gospel with the book of Acts. The ascension is described twice. The account in the Gospel of Luke is very succinct, while the account in Acts provides a bit more detail. I just finished reading an excellent theological paper from one of my former seminary professors on the book of Acts. He makes the point that we frequently err in referring to the book of Acts as primarily a history of the Church, or concerned with the Church’s actions after Christ’s ascension. Rather, he argues (as others have) that Acts is anchored around the subject of the Word of God that continues to be active in the world, through the Church. This shifts the focus from a story primarily about what the disciples and the Church did (and therefore might prompt us to erroneously presume that we are to be identical in all respects) to what God was doing in his wisdom and plan at that time (which may or may not look similar in some respects to what He chooses to do here and now in his wisdom and plan).

Acts 1 – Luke introduces the second section of his writings, which focus on what happened after Jesus’ ascension. The topic of the Gospel was all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up. Acts will continue from that moment of being taken up. However we are mistaken if we don’t see the power of God still very much at work in the world and through the disciples and the Church, even if the Word made flesh is no longer dwelling among them. As soon as Jesus can’t be seen any longer God is still using his Word to guide the disciples, brought first by angels (vs.10-11) and next by the Holy Spirit (vs. 24-26). The emphasis rightly belongs on the power of God still at work through his Word, rather than on the unique qualities of the disciples (aside from their singular proximity to the Incarnate Son of God).

Psalm 1 – The opening psalm sets the tone for all the rest of the psalms. Their focus and topic will be the Word of God. Why is this their focus? Because the Word separates the blessed from the foolish, who delights in God’s Word rather than the machinations of humanity. Oftentimes these blessings are obvious – a life that is fruitful and rewarding. But reading this as simply a promise of physical, material blessings seems rather shallow. Surely for the person who delights in God’s Word they are spiritually fruitful and do not wither regardless of the twists and turns of life and the efforts of our enemy Satan. And ultimately, the poorest Christian anchored in the Word of God receives eternal riches whereas the wealthy and successful person without Christ is shown to be eternally poor. A righteous and holy God will indeed punish wickedness, and those who reject God and his salvation in Jesus certainly will – by their own desire – be excluded from eternal fellowship with those for whom God and his Word are their central hope and joy.

1 John 5:9-15 – What is the Word that matters most, that has ultimate authority, that we must not only compare but submit our wisdom and knowledge to? God’s Word. God’s testimony is what matters most and finally. And that Word speaks most importantly and urgently not necessarily to the many things that occupy our thoughts and concerns and feelings (however transiently) but rather it speaks to the centrality of the Son of God. Whatever I am going through or dealing with, whatever thrills or terrifies me, whatever brings me joy or causes me pain, my relationship to the Son of God remains paramount. Nothing can displace the Son of God as the center of my life and identity. What I say about the Son of God ultimately says a great deal more about me. Our relationship to the Son of God is our soul source of life both here and now and eternally. This is the central matter of Scripture and the Christian faith. Not morality or ethics per se, not political or economic insight, not historical insight but rather the Son of God as the source of our eternal life. When the Church speaks on any issue separately and unrelated to this central topic, we ultimately speak falsely or at least inadequately.

John 17:1b-19 – Jesus’ high priestly prayer, his prayer for his people and most especially his disciples centers repeatedly on the concept of unity. It begins in his unity of will and purpose with God the Father, which results in a unity of glory between the two (vs.1-5). The next 14 verses deal with a unity of being in the persons of the apostles. While it is possible that Jesus is speaking of others who have followed him extensively (such as Justus and Matthias in Acts 1:23), and while in some sense He can be said to be speaking of all those who will eventually call him Lord, it is most natural to read this with the Twelve in mind. God the Father created them and entrusted them to the care and presence of the Incarnate God the Son. The Son entrusted to them the words of God the Father, words ultimately concerning himself and his purpose as the Son. A unity resulted – a unity of belief that Jesus was conveying the Words of God to them and should therefore be believed. He prays for their unity of presence after his departure, a unity of presence comprised at least in part by their physical preservation. He prays for their lives, for their safety, and for their continued unity together around the Words He has given them. The unity created between them by the Word of God will create a unity of opposition to them. The world – all of creation in some sense – will be united against them and the Word they carry and share. They need to remain unified in the face of overwhelming opposition and denial, unified not merely as brothers-in-arms, as the deepest of friends, but rather unified by the Word that will continue to dwell among them and through them continue to go out into the world.

Unity is something that the Church seems to have given up on in large part. And certainly from the world’s perspective, there is little unity, and talk of being brothers and sisters in Christ is compromised by what appears to be a competition-based approach with new congregations coming and going and old denominations entrenched in separate theological and physical spaces. Jesus indicates a few verses later that this unity is part of what will be convincing to the world of the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus’ person and work. While theological differences seem inevitable, one can’t help but wonder if those differences should be considered of less importance than the greater goal of unity in Christ as a witness to the world.

YFA – May 6, 2018

May 6, 2018
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday – Reflect on this morning’s Service & Sermon
  • Monday – First Reading – Acts 1
    • Should we obsess about when Jesus is going to return (vs.7-8)?
    • How do you feel about how the apostles chose Judas’ replacement?
  • Tuesday – Epistle Lesson – 1 John 5:9-17
    • What is the center of God’s Word to us (vs.11-12)?
    • What additional things do you wish Scripture had told us?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 17:1b-19
    • How would you summarize the major points of this prayer?
    • What comfort do you draw from this prayer?
  • Thursday Psalm 1
    • What two sources of wisdom are identified?
    • What comfort do you draw from verse 6?
  • Friday Luther’s Small CatechismThe Lord’s Prayer – 7th Petition
    • Does Luther’s explanation match how you think about these words?
    • What form or shape of evil do you most fear?
  • Saturday – Hymn – The Day of Resurrection
    • How is Easter our passover (v.1)
    • What is one of the effects of evil in us (v.2)?

 

Laughing at Satan

May 4, 2018

One of the nice things about pastoral ministry is that there can be a variety of things and issues that you are called to attend to.  This suits my ADHD personality very well!

I’ve been called on several times over the past decade to do house blessings.  Sometimes there was a concern about a new apartment or home and what or who might have lived there before.  It’s a beautiful opportunity to think  and pray about what happens in a home and each room of a home, and invite God’s blessings and presence to infuse and direct everything that happens there.  I enjoy doing these.  And I enjoyed doing one two weeks ago in response to some reports of possible apparitions appearing to some of the members of the family.

But that didn’t put an end to the apparitions, and in fact things seemed to escalate until this week I was trying to provide wisdom and counsel in a situation of possible demonic oppression and possibly possession.

This is an area that Lutherans are not known to shine in, frankly.  The Roman Catholics tend to be the go-to source on dealing with demonic powers, and my initial attempts to locate resources were failures.  Fortunately I have a friend and colleague with many decades of experience in counseling church workers and dealing with a myriad of issues at play in their lives.  He was able to direct me to the following resources which I am ordering to help learn more about this topic.  A buddy forwarded me this anecdotal resource, a collection of some of Martin Luther’s writings on the topic.

I have to admit I like Luther’s basic approach.  What does Satan want us to do, in regards to him?  I think C.S. Lewis said it well when he said that the goal of Satan is to make us magicians or materialists – to drive us either to obsessing about demonic activity and being terrified by it, or by driving us to consider the spiritual topic all bunk and fluff, glancing skeptically at any notion of the demonic but also, more importantly of the divine. Either one is desirable but each has drawbacks, and the combination of the two is preferred.  When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians.  On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.  (The Screwtape Letters).

Or, to quote Verbal (Kevin Spacey) from The Usual Suspects, The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Biblical Christians will acknowledge based on Biblical authority that demons (as well as angels) exist and are assumed to be active in the world.  We are called to acknowledge a spiritual realm that works around us and in us just as we acknowledge our personal natures as both physical and spiritual.  We are called to reject philosophical (as well as, but different from, economic) materialism – philosophically the notion that there is no spiritual realm and there is only the material realm.  We are called to be on guard against an enemy we cannot see, who is not flesh and blood, and who is supported and aided by a host of spiritual entities united in their hatred of God.  Being unable to hurt God, they seek to destroy what God loves – his creation.  Which includes us.

That’s kind of terrifying.

Except we aren’t called to be terrified.  We’re called to be wise and discerning.  We’re called to be on guard.  But we aren’t called to be terrified.  And this is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God promised Eve in Genesis 3:15 that one day one of her descendants would crush the serpent’s head, even as the serpent struck his heel.  One day one of Eve’s descendants (a human being) would destroy the power of sin introduced into the world through Satan (the serpent), but that the serpent would seek to destroy him and his work.  But whereas the human’s blow would be fatal, the serpent’s would not.  Satan sought to derail God’s plan of salvation in stirring up opposition to the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, and culminating in his betrayal, arrest, execution, and burial.  Under the terms of the Law, that should have been the end of it, but Satan’s estimation.  The tomb is the indignity from which there is no escape.

However Satan forgot or misunderstood that the Law condemns to death only the disobedient, only those who fail to perfectly live out the will of God the Father as revealed in his Word.  Jesus, without sin (Hebrews 4:15), could be put to death physically, but could not be kept their by his moral guilt.  Satan sank his teeth into the heel of God’s Son, but God’s Son crushed the serpent’s head in the process.

So what is to be the Christian’s response to the reality of a mortally wounded Satan and his minions in the world?  That’s what I like about Luther’s approach.  As I started my research to try and figure out how to do an exorcism, I presumed that it would be a complicated affair.  Should I have a cross or crucifix?  Should I make commands in the name of Jesus?  Should there be candles or incense or holy water – things that under normal circumstances I dismiss as superstition or aesthetics, but which maybe have special use or power against demons?  Am I preparing to enter a battle where I contend with the spiritual?

Naw.

We are called to resist and protect ourselves against the machinations of the spiritual world (James 4:7, Ephesians 6:10-17, 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 12:21, 1 Peter 5:8-9, etc.).  We are called to remember that we share in Christ’s victory and therefore have already overcome the powers of evil (1 John 4:4, Isaiah 54:17, Romans 8:37, etc.).  There are accounts of people casting out demons (Acts 16:18, etc.) , and there are also accounts where even Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out demons (Mark 9:14-29).  We have victory over evil spirits and need not fear them, but we may not always be able to make them do what we want.

But we don’t have to grant them any more power or influence than absolutely necessary.  We don’t have to make a big deal about it, puff it way up, blow it out of proportion, or grant that they have any real power or authority.  We can make ourselves and our environments inhospitable.  If God the Holy Spirit chooses to chase them off, thanks be to God.  If the spirits grow tired or annoyed at their lack of influence, thanks be to God.

Our power is not in things – not even in things that are helpful like crosses or rosaries or Bibles.  Our power is in the Word of God and our faith and trust that God’s Word is to us and for us, tangible in the spilled blood of the Word made Flesh, tangible in the tomb that was filled for three days and then empty forever.  God’s Word and assurance to us is our power.  We let that Word do what it will.  We dwell on that word rather than on anything that would lead us to obsess over the hypothetical powers or methodologies or names of evil spirits.  C.S. Lewis said the devil can’t stand to be mocked.  Luther seems to have been of the same frame of mind.

That’s helpful to me.  Hopefully it’s helpful to you.  Whether you’re seeing things or not.  Whether you’re feeling the presence of evil or not.  Be aware.  Be watchful and on guard.  But most of all be in the Word of God, trusting in that Word rather than any other, so that no matter what does or does not happen, your life in Christ is secure.

 

Change Is Hard

May 2, 2018

It is.

Not just convincing people to change, not just getting them to go along with it.  But actually helping them to see the possibilities, the beauty, the potential, the danger, so that they don’t just agree to it but demand it, insist on it, and stop at nothing to accomplish it?

That’s hard.

Like many traditional denominational congregations, we struggle.  We’ve grown.  We’re financially stable.  But our population is overwhelmingly post-retired age.  Active involvement and engagement in ministry to and with people outside of our doors is very limited.  Not just by age and energy and the other challenges of aging, but perhaps at a fundamental level just by forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness, perhaps, about what it feels like to be engaging new people and inviting them into our lives both privately and as a corporate entity.  Forgetful about how we can still be a part of that sort of community regardless of our age or health condition.  Forgetful that people need to be invited in.  Not always to church, but certainly always into relationship (on that topic, this is a great little appetite-whetter !)  Forgetful that there’s more to look towards to than making it through the week, making it to church on Sunday morning and maybe Bible study during the week.

Those are good things.  Necessary things.  But as we get older we focus on those touchstones, on those milemarkers, on those accomplishments.  We focus more diligently on being careful, watching our step, not doing anything that might lead us to our final breaths any faster than absolutely necessary.  We focus on preserving what we spent our lives building and creating and accumulating.  And perhaps we forget to look up.  Look around.  To see that there are people in other stages of life and other situations – stages and situations that we once were in ourselves, and that they’re just as self-absorbed in their moments, their challenges, their reality as we are in ours.  It’s easy not to realize unless there is change, intentional, desired, persistent change, we continue in our circuit of habits and routines and preferences and they in theirs and never the two shall meet.

I’m frustrated and irritated with my denominational polity because of their emphasis on planting new congregations rather than standing with the ones who are already here.  Struggling, but still here after decades and sometimes (like ours) after a century and more.  I’m frustrated that they find talk of new churches more exciting than grappling with how to help the ones we have.

Like ours.

But I understand at another level, too.  At one level, planting new churches is a focus, a direction, a kind of change to rally people around.  Or perhaps to rally the larger congregations around, since most smaller congregations (which are the overwhelming majority in our denomination) don’t think about planting another congregation when they’re trying to save their own.

And I understand better and better that the statistical wisdom that it’s far easier to start something new than change something existing is very true.  Very real.  Very tangible.  That you can’t want and pray and model and wish and dream people into change easily or quickly.  Sometimes you can force them, which most times still ends in failure.  But it’s hard to inspire it.  To cast a vision that people are willing to risk things for – their comfort and routines and traditions – like they did earlier in their lives when they threw themselves into building campaigns and other initiatives.  When they could better see the connection between what they hoped to achieve and the risks and change necessary to stand a chance of reaching it.

It undoubtedly is easier to start from scratch.  But for everyone out there struggling for change, for something different, for a vision bigger than just to keep on keepin’ on, don’t give up.  We’re blessed in that, despite our sometimes stubborn insistence and nearsightedness to the contrary, we aren’t in this alone. Not by a long shot.  God is loose in the world and not even the most regimented routines or cherished traditions can stand against the Holy Spirit.  Keep loving people.  Try not to confuse confusion or uncertainty for stubbornness.  Keep trusting that change can happen.  That odds can be defied.  That trends can be bucked.     It happens.  Not often, perhaps, but it happens.  By the grace of the wild, boundless Spirit of God at loose in creation, it happens.

And I’m praying for that, personally and for the people I serve and love, and for the people who need to hear, or hear again, or hear correctly about the God who made them and died for them and calls to them now.  All of that – all of them – are worth changing for.

Reading Ramblings – May 6, 2018

April 29, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter ~ May 6, 2018

Texts: Acts 10:34-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-8; John 15:9-17

Context: We continue our exploration of the effects of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a little awkward to be reading from Acts and events that happen after the Ascension and Pentecost, without having dealt with those events yet. But thematically we are emphasizing the power of the Word of God – the Word made flesh who dwelt among us as well as the continued speaking of that Word by Jesus’ followers. Life-changing power comes from the Word of God. Peter speaks the Word and Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Those who hear and receive the Word also gain divine power in the struggle to both identify sin (last week’s reading from 1 John) as well as to resist sin. And what does abiding in the Word like branches to the vine (last week’s reading from John 15) look like? Jesus says it looks like obedience. Like the struggle and desire to be obedient to the Word and to take comfort in the Word made flesh.

Acts 10:34-48 – It is truly fascinating, this encounter between Peter and Cornelius. While Cornelius is certainly not some hedonistic pagan (10:1-2), neither is he a Jew. Peter, in obedience to the visionary Word of God he received in 10:9-23 is able to actually sit down with this man and his household. And what does Peter choose to say? He doesn’t begin with a condemnation of this man or his life, or exhort him to receive circumcision and fully convert to Judaism. He doesn’t talk about how wonderful he, Peter, is in coming to spend time with someone no other Jew would want to be seen associating closely with. The content of Peter’s message is praise to God that accurately summarizes God’s intent as expressed through Scripture for all of humanity (vs.34-35). And then he moves on to summarize the key events of Jesus’ life and ministry. Peter acknowledges that Cornelius has some knowledge of these things already, so Peter builds on what is there rather than denigrating Cornelius and trying to start from scratch in his proclamation. Peter simply talks about Jesus and the events that Peter and the other Apostles witnessed. And as the Word is spoken, the Holy Spirit is present and at work and Cornelius and everyone else listening received faith. Peter is stunned by this (vs. 44-46) but doesn’t let that keep him from following the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

Psalm 98 – Like Peter’s sermon to Cornelius, this psalm praises the works of God, things that are not only objectively impressive (creation, etc.) but rather subjectively impressive (salvation). God is never to be worshiped as some distant and uninvolved creative force (deism) but rather as the deeply personal Creator who remains committed to his rebellious and wayward creation with the goal of saving us from ourselves. It is this personal and involved nature of God that elicits true worship and praise in every form and from every direction possible. And lest we rely too heavily on our rationalistic conceptions, even nature is capable of and therefore exalted to praise God. What an amazing day it will be when our Lord returns and we watch in amazement as the seas and rivers and mountains lift up praise to their creator just as we will!

1 John 5:1-8 – John continues his explanation of what love for God means, and in doing so, elaborates on Jesus’ summary of the Commandments (Matthew 22:38-39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). Love seems straightforward enough, or perhaps it once did. Now we are presented with regular proclamations and reinterpretations about what constitutes love of neighbor and what doesn’t. Currently the basic formula is that to love your neighbor you need to completely affirm them in whatever it is they think or feel or do. Unless of course those things are bad or criminal, but those definitions are changing constantly and therefore complicated to say the least. John, echoing Jesus in the gospel reading this morning, understands that love of neighbor can in no way deviate from obedience to God. God the Creator alone knows what is best for each person, and therefore is uniquely equipped to tell us how to love our neighbor. If we want to love our neighbor in a way that contradicts how God has told us to be, then we aren’t really loving our neighbor, no matter if that’s our goal or if that’s how they perceive it. Love cannot be separated from obedience not to the fluctuating ideas and standards of the world but to God’s Word alone.

John 15:9-17 – We continue reading some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the Last Supper. The themes between 1 John and the Gospel are obvious. Further, Peter demonstrates obedience towards Jesus’ Great Commission in his interactions with Cornelius, despite tremendous cultural and cultic pressure to act otherwise. Abiding in Christ must mean obedience to him. And obedience to God will naturally result in love to our neighbor, love even that could lead us to sacrifice ourselves for them. Jesus presumes that this obedience is done willingly, not grudgingly. A servant or slave obeys out of the requirements of duty, but a friend or a family member obeys out of love for the master, out of a shared recognition of the true goodness and rightness of what is being commanded.

This is what God the Father does in God the Son, Jesus the Christ. He reconciles us to himself, and creates not slaves who chafe under his rule, but rather joyfully seek to obey him and in so doing expres love towards him and towards all of his creation. Certainly there will be times when obedience is difficult and we will struggle with it. Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, but He abided in the love of God the Father by committing himself to obedience, whatever that might mean for him. Likewise, despite our moments of doubt or fear or even irritation or anger, we are to constantly train and shape our thinking and speaking and doing to obedience to what God commands.

This is an active process, not something that simply magically appears in the lives of believers. We have an enemy whom we can expect to frustrate us and complicate things for us, who will use all of the weapons at his disposal to divert our eyes from Christ and therefore from obedience. But our Lord is stronger and greater, and we trust in his protection to shield us and restore our focus on him whenever we waver. The empty tomb is the evidence that Jesus has overcome the world and all temptation, all sin, and even death itself, and therefore can promise to us – and we can trust him! – that He will enable us to overcome these things as well. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Your Family Altar – April 29, 2018

April 29, 2018
A Weekly Devotional Resource
  • Sunday – Reflect on This Morning’s Service & Sermon
  • Monday – First Reading – Acts 10:34-48
    • What prompts Peter’s discourse (vs.30-33)?
    • What convinces Peter that the Holy Spirit is at work?
  • Tuesday – Epistle Lesson – 1 John 5:1-8
    • What is the definition of love (v.2)?
    • What is our victory that overcomes the world (v.4)?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 15:9-17
    • How does Jesus define love (v.10)?
    • What is the result of abiding in the love of God (v.11)?
  • Thursday Psalm 98
    • What marvelous things are specifically listed?
    • Are humans the only parts of creation capable of praising God?
  • Friday – Luther’s Small Catechism – The Lord’s Prayer 6th Petition
    • Does God tempt anyone?
    • Why might God allow us to be tempted?
  • Saturday – Hymn – Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me
    • Does this song seem to imply that Christians will be spared the tempests of life (v.1)?
    • On what basis should we trust and obey Jesus (v.2)?

 

Shepherds and Sheep

April 23, 2018

These things have been on my mind a fair bit the past week or so, since these were prominent themes in the readings  (John 10:11-18, Psalm 23) for this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.

I’ve been trying to think of analogies that would be easier for people in America in the 21st century to link to then shepherds and sheep, but what I find is that there isn’t an easy one that comes to mind.  Particularly as Americans, we largely disregard and further reject any forms of such persistent leadership.  We may have bosses or supervisors or employers, but these are recognized to be temporary, and subject to our dismissal at any time (through quitting our job).  The leadership of the father in a family unit has been steady denigrated over the past 40 years to the point where it is not only widely viewed as irrelevant but inappropriate and even offensive.  I struggle to find any suitable replacement analogy in our culture today.

I suspect this is not a good thing.

The Christian life is one of sheep and shepherds.  Jesus is, of course, ultimately the Good Shepherd.  Yet Christian leaders from the apostles on down are charged to imitate Jesus’ shepherd role in regards to God’s people.  Jesus commissions Peter in John 21:15-17 to continue the work of shepherding God’s people, as an extension, no doubt, of how Jesus shepherded Peter and the other disciples.   They are to do for and with others what Jesus has done for and with them.  Their efforts of course will fall short of the perfection of Jesus’ work with them, but the spirit of the work is to continue, and this ultimately presumes a degree of authority.  And it is authority that Americans have problems with, including in the Church.

That this authority is intended not just for the Apostles but rather for all leaders of God’s people is made clear by Peter himself, in 1 Peter 5:1-11.  His appeal presumes multiple things:

  1. there are sheep the faithful in Jesus Christ, therefore
  2. there are and need to be shepherds which naturally
  3. exercise oversight – willingly rather than grudgingly and
  4. this oversight is for the benefit of the sheep, not the benefit of the shepherds and
  5. not as a means for satisfying personal desires for control, or as an excuse to insist on doing things your particular way but rather
  6. consists of leading in large part by example rather than coercion, a method that may be effective in the long-run but is not nearly as easy or simple as demanding obedience, and therefore requires that
  7. shepherds should exercise humility, even as they carry out their duties as shepherds

Sheep need shepherds.  Jesus acknowledges in his Good Shepherd discourse of John 10 that there are shepherds who are unfaithful or more concerned with personal gain than the welfare of the sheep.  But these realities of a sinful world full of sinful sheep and shepherds don’t alter the fact that sheep still need shepherds.  And the fact that the shepherds are also themselves sheep doesn’t seem to preclude Jesus and the Apostles for maintaining this motif.

How does this dynamic play out in a culture where everyone is expected to be or encouraged to be their own – and largely only – shepherd?  Certainly it can and does lead to a lot of confusion in the sheep pens and pastures that are the Church.  Certainly it will lead to the idea that shepherds in Christ are really no different than supervisors or employers – that people are free to reject their leadership in search of a preferred leadership style.  Or it may lead to the notion that the sheep are really the ones calling the shots – all of the shots, and that shepherds are only there to affirm and carry out the will of the sheep.  And certainly it does at times lead to shepherds who abuse their authority for their own benefit, or insist on a vision the sheep have no ability or interest in following.

But sheep and shepherds remain, 2000 years after Jesus observed them day in and day out and saw fit to utilize this motif, and despite the fact that sheep and shepherds are both equally scarce these days for the vast majority of people and Christians.  Which means we have to keep trying to figure out how to be faithful shepherds and sheep.  Together.

Reading Ramblings – April 29, 2018

April 22, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-11; John 15:1-8

Context: Listening seems to be a dying art. Without a doubt people have always been more inclined to speak rather than to listen, but it was once considered a social grace to temper this with a willingness (feigned if necessary) to listen. The readings for today emphasize the importance of listening. We need to listen to those around us for clues and indicators as to how best to share our faith in Jesus Christ in a way that is both helpful and loving (Acts 8). We need to listen to those purporting to know and love God to be sure that what they say is consistent with the witness to Jesus of Nazareth as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary/Eve. And of course we most need to listen to what God says to us, whether through his creation (Psalm 150) or through his Son (John 15). If we are not listening, what do we really have to say that is either helpful or truthful?

Acts 8:26-40 – We continue with readings from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles to see the continued effects of the resurrection in the lives of those closest to Jesus. The good news of Jesus resurrected from the dead as vindication of his identity and purpose as the incarnate Son of God continues to be preached. From the beginning it has been preached to people from a variety of places and backgrounds (Acts 2:1-13). Here we see yet another foreigner – albeit a foreigner who worships the one true God – struggling to understand the word of God in Scripture. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Philip seizes upon this as an opportunity. He hears the eunuch’s dilemma and is willing to engage with him on that topic, rather than changing the topic to something else. In a culture where listening continues to decline in respect, one of the greatest signs of love Christians can offer is to truly listen and hear another person, and then to respond to what has been expressed rather than trying to drive another agenda or topic into the picture. We can and should trust that God the Holy Spirit is willing and able to work in any and all of our interchanges with other people, whether we see that interchange as evangelistic or not. This is how we love our neighbors as ourselves – we listen to them and pray that God will direct our conversations towards his glory and the mutual blessing of all those speaking and hearing.

Psalm 150 – A raucous, rowdy call to praise and worship of God the creator. A call to praise God in as many different ways and means as God has gifted us with. Is this an exhaustive list of the appropriate instruments of praise (there are some who might claim this!)? Hardly! Rather it reads as a spur to creativity! Can you conceive of a way to praise God, whether through electric guitar or Gregorian chanting, through polka music (I know a congregation who does this!) or through guitars or an organ? God is to be praised! This is the point and purpose, the reason for which we were created, that we might praise God for and in and as his marvelous creation!

1 John 4:1-11 – Listening is hard work, but essential work. If we don’t listen, we’re apt to hear what we expect or want to hear rather than what is actually being said. And contrary to the popular self-improvement or self-image or self-validation or tolerance mantras of today, not everything said is either good or helpful or true, either for the person(s) saying it or the person(s) hearing it. Those Christians (and others) who demand that Christians not judge, not evaluate others as some sort of cardinal sin would do well to listen to the Apostle John in this passage. Just like St. Paul, he calls and warns his hearers and readers to do exactly what so many Christians think is unkind or unloving – judge. Evaluate. Listen. Hear. Decide. We are limited in our ability to perceive truth, but we can determine the basics. It is possible that St. John is dealing with the early appearance of what will later be called docetism – a heretical idea that Jesus was not truly the incarnate Son of God, but rather that He simply pretended to be truly human and physical. The name is based on the Greek word for seeming or appearing, and implies that what is seen is not true reality, or that what is seen is mistaken in its essence. Perhaps St. John is dealing with early instances of this in Christian communities (the term is first identified in a late 2nd century letter from Bishop Serapion of Antioch, but of course there might have been earlier references that have been lost to history). St. John’s point is that the essence of the Gospel – that Jesus of Nazareth is also the Messiah and the divine Son of God – cannot be compromised or tweaked. It is the reality experienced firsthand by John and the other apostles, and anyone who would prefer to alter that reality to suit their predisposed philosophical or theological preferences is not faithful in so doing and is actually speaking contrary to the Holy Spirit of God (regardless of their self-identified motivations). John furthermore exhorts Christians to practice love amongst themselves. If we are unable to love our brothers and sisters with whom we will share eternity, how can we truly say that we love our neighbor?

John 15:1-8 – It isn’t all about you and Jesus. It’s just about Jesus. Without Jesus, there is no you. Not really. Not in the most important of way – the eternal relationship with the God who created and died and rose again for you. Either you are connected with this God through faith and trust and obedience to the incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ, or you have cut yourself off from the only source of life. You are either alive in Christ or not. And what makes us alive is not our personal piety or the approbations of those around us, but whether we have heard or the saving Word of God, the Word made flesh that dwelt among us (John 1:14). To hear and receive that Word is life. Anything else is not life, no matter how much we may like it or prefer it or wish it to be true. John’s strong warnings and admonitions in 1 John 4 stem from the very straightforward word of Jesus himself. Truth is truth. It is real and objective and not subject to our redefinition or our renegotiation of terms and conditions. We either receive truth as it is and in doing so, receive all of the attendant blessings that this reality confers, or we live outside that truth. And just as in every other aspect of our lives, when we try to create a reality that does not match the objective truth of reality around us, we are liable to hurt ourselves. If we say that the fire is not hot and will not burn us and that we can create and summon our own reality to this effect simply by wishing or thinking it so, we are going to get burned. Perhaps just a little or perhaps tremendously, corresponding to the amount of faith and trust and confidence we place in the lie rather than the truth. So it should not surprise us that in trusting our entire selves to the reality and truth of the Son of God, we benefit tremendously, eternally! He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

YFA – April 22, 2018

April 22, 2018
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday – Reflect on Today’s Sermon & Service
  • Monday – First Reading – Acts 8:26-40
    • Why might Luke have included the last part of v.26?
    • How does the last part of v.26 relate to v.27?
  • Tuesday – Epistle Lesson – 1 John 4:1-11
    • Why must Christians be discerning about what and who they believe?
    • Are we to fear these false prophets?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 15:1-18
    • Why is it inevitable that followers of Jesus will bear fruit?
    • How is it that we are to abide in the love of Jesus?
  • Thursday Psalm 150
    • What is a lute?
    • Where is God to be praised?
  • Friday – Small Catechism – The Lord’s Prayer, 5th Petition
    • Read Matthew 18.  How does it relate to this petition?
    • According to Luther, does God answer prayer on the basis of our merit?
  • Saturday – Hymn – Listen, God Is Calling
    • What is the good news we are commanded to share (v.1)?
    • Who is the good news intended for (v.2)?