Tag Archives: Matthew

Reflections on Christian Unity – January 24, 2016

Note: The following sermon was prepared for the Falls City Area Service of Prayer for Christian Unity, held the afternoon of January 24, 2016, at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

+ Sisters, brothers, colleagues, dear friends: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

It is truly an honor and a privilege to welcome you here to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church as we gather to worship our good and gracious God during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There’s so much to say about this theme and about the excellent passages of Scripture that have been set before us this afternoon, but before I get there I want to acknowledge where we are as the people of God in Christ. On the one hand, as I survey the Christian world and consider the progress that has been made toward more visible unity, my heart leaps with joy. In broad terms, the desire to create opportunities for mutual dialogue, shared ministry, and greater communion have their roots in the rise of the “ecumenical movement” in the early 20th century. Through those efforts, many of the Christian traditions represented here today have come to a deeper appreciation of our common faith in Jesus, and situations that have been unthinkable even within my relatively short lifetime are now welcomed and celebrated.

How many of you, for example, would have imagined thirty years ago t-hat those sisters among us who have been called to the pastoral ministry would be invited to preach the gospel in Roman Catholic parishes? Or that Lutherans would be invited to preside at the table in Episcopal churches? Or that Episcopalians would be invited in turn to baptize and teach in Lutheran churches? Or that Christians from the Methodist and Reformed and Presbyterian and Congregationalist and Lutheran and Anglican and Nazarene and Holiness and Baptist and Anabaptist and Roman Catholic traditions would find common ground in the midst of their sometimes widely divergent practices and beliefs? Or that baptisms in all kinds of different denominations would be recognized as equally valid? Or that nine days ago a Lutheran delegation from Finland to the Vatican was invited to receive Holy Communion at St. Peter’s Basilica? On both the global and local levels, we are seeing expressions of commonality and good will and cooperation that haven’t been seen since the apostles Peter and Paul walked the earth shortly after the resurrection of Christ himself.

On the other hand, in spite of all that encouraging news, our brokenness is no less apparent than it has always been. Christians from the same denominational families squabble over relatively minor differences in belief or practice and exacerbate divisions. Liberal and conservative Christians seal themselves in their respective echo chambers and then emerge to demean and demonize fellow believers in Christ. If we’re honest with ourselves, the societal ills of racism and sexism and xenophobia are as depressingly prevalent in our churches as they are in the world beyond our walls. In far too many circumstances, the table of the Lord remains closed to people who profess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11, NRSV). The very fact that this service is called an “ecumenical celebration of the Word” and not also “an ecumenical celebration of Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist” or “the Divine Service” or “the Sacrament of the Altar” (or whatever other names we might use to describe the Lord’s Supper) is as clear a demonstration of the divisions that remain as I can envision.

So what are we to say as we gather this afternoon to be reminded of our common calling to “proclaim the mighty acts of God”? First, of course, we must acknowledge the source of the brokenness that besets the Church of Jesus Christ. To that end, we must be absolutely clear that the divisions in Christ’s body find their origin not in God or in Christ or in the work of the Holy Spirit, but in our own spiritual myopia. I say that as an heir to the theological legacy of Martin Luther, who was undoubtedly a teacher and preacher inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, but whose stubbornness and self-righteousness also led him to express ideas and opinions that have undergirded some of the most horrendous acts of religiously motivated violence in human history. Each of us – if we search our own traditions and histories with brutal honesty – could find our own tragic examples. So we begin with confession, with owning our part in the fear and distrust and ignorance that have perpetuated the brokenness of the Church.

But guilt alone does nothing. It does not lead us to healing or to reconciliation. To receive those gifts anew, we must tune our hearts again to the Word that has formed us to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation, nothing less than God’s holy people, graciously grafted onto the vine alongside Israel and heirs to the irrevocable calling and promise of God (1 Peter 2:9; Romans 11:17ff, NRSV). We must hear again the invitation to find in God the source of our nourishment: wine and milk and bread without price, sustenance for our weary hearts and anxious souls, the meal around which we can gather together in all our diversity and find fulfillment and reconciliation (Isaiah 55:1-3, NRSV). We must allow ourselves to see Christ as the one who mediates all of our relationships. We must look to Christ to gather each one of us – each living stone, each unrepeatable expression of the image of God – and to build us into a spiritual house that offers welcome and compassion and healing and salvation to the whole world in the name of Jesus, the chosen and precious cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4-7, NRSV). We must resolve together to walk in the marvelous light of God, and to ask for the wisdom and humility and strength and grace to guard our hearts and minds against the all-too human impulse to return to the oppressive darkness that once enveloped our world (1 Peter 2:10, NRSV).

When we do those things, brothers and sisters, we are not pursuing in a shallow unity that seeks the least common denominator and erases the diversity that makes the body of Christ so beautiful. Rather, we are pursuing unity by walking the most difficult way possible: the way of the cross, the way that calls us to die to our stubbornness and pride and self-righteousness and to rise as new people who can be unapologetic about our stories and selves because we know that both find their meaning not in themselves but in the mighty acts of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s more, that unity then enables us to follow Jesus’ call to disciples with the confidence that comes from knowing that we are not alone in being salt for the earth. Instead, we can go about the business of enlivening the world with the endlessly interesting savor of God’s grace and love for creation (Matthew 5:15, NRSV). In the same way, we can let our light shine with the confidence of knowing that our unique reflections of God’s splendor will amplify one another rather than detract from one another (Matthew 5:16, NRSV).

There is much work to be done, my friends, and yet – thanks be to God – the end of this work ultimately lies less in our striving and more in the trustworthy and true promise of Jesus, who declares that we will one day be perfect, whole, fully integrated, just as Christ and the Father and the Holy Spirit are perfect, whole, and eternally one (Matthew 5:48, NRSV). In the meantime, perhaps our task is simply to get out of the way, to fix our eyes on the one who makes us one, and to trust that, as we see the image of God reflected in the faces of all people, God will continue to bring us closer together in faith, hope and love as we await the day when the whole creation will be united and God will be all in all. May it be so. Amen.

Paul’s Mission (Fourth Sunday of Easter) – April 26, 2015 (NL Week 34)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 10:40-42
Preaching Text: Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

At the risk of sounding like a broken record – and not for the first time this year, I suspect – the story of the early church is a truly amazing story of transformation. Just think about the Scripture passages that we’ve read during the month of April: We started three weeks ago on Easter Sunday with the world-changing events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, continued with the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on that mountaintop in Galilee and their commission to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of God to every nation, and then heard the story of Peter’s Spirit-inspired vision that demonstrated how God was moving even among the Gentiles, people who had previously been considered outside the scope of God’s care and concern. Each of these narratives is the story of radical change – Jesus’ triumphant Passover from death into new life, the disciples’ transformation from terrified deserters to bold witnesses to the power of God in Christ, Peter’s new-found understanding that God shows no partiality and receives anyone who holds God in reverent awe – and each of them helped to expand the Gospel’s reach into new and different places.

Today we enter the final weeks of this year’s journey through the broad sweep of the Scriptures by taking time to consider the ministry of perhaps the most influential figure in the history of the early church – excepting Jesus, of course. That person, the man whose name is associated with half of the books of the New Testament, is the Apostle Paul, and the story of how he came to be in Lystra in today’s text is another one of these amazing stories of transformation.

Let’s back up a little bit to Acts Chapter 7, in which another early church leader named Stephen is brought before a crowd of angry religious leaders in Jerusalem to face trial. Stephen boldly proclaims the good news of Jesus, so inflaming the crowd that had gathered to pass judgment on him that they immediately dragged him outside the city walls and pummeled him with stones until he was killed. On the margins of that crowd was Paul, a young Pharisee who also bore the Hebrew name “Saul” and who wholeheartedly agreed with the stoning of Stephen. Before we can even blink, Paul is on his way north, to the city of Damascus in Syria, with a commission from the high priest to round up all of the Christians he can find and bring them back to Jerusalem to face trial. By this time, his reputation as one of the foremost persecutors of Jesus’ followers had spread far and wide, as he approached Damascus Acts tells us that he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Suddenly, Paul was blinded by an encounter with the risen Christ, and his life was turned upside down. Healed by a Christian in Damascus, Paul receives the good news about Jesus, is baptized into Christ, and becomes one of the most fervent preachers of the gospel message.

Following Peter’s vision and the baptism of the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius, the church in Jerusalem and this new apostle of Jesus come into conflict over the proclamation of the gospel to non-Jewish people. The Jerusalem church believed strongly that those who heard the gospel needed to accept the marks of Jewish identity, including circumcision and the kosher diet that forbid the eating of certain foods. Paul, whose conversion carried with it a commission to bring the good news to the Gentiles, was convinced that the message should be presented to all people freely, without the expectation that those who received it would need to become Jewish in order to be joined to Christ. After much debate, it was finally decided that Paul would take responsibility for the mission to the Gentiles, while Peter and the representatives of the church in Jerusalem would be responsible for proclaiming the good news to the people of Israel.

Fast forward again to Acts 13 and 14, where Paul (and his companion Barnabas) are preaching to the people of Lystra, a Greek city that was home to a large temple honoring the chief Greek God, Zeus. In the midst of his sermon to the curious crowds that had gathered to hear this stranger, Paul noticed a man who was unable to walk listening intently to his message, and he demonstrated the power of God in Christ by commanding the man to rise up and walk. To his horror, the people of the city misinterpreted what he had done, believing that Paul and Barnabas were incarnations of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and rushing to offer sacrifices to them. The apostles had to use everything at their disposal to convince the people that they were not gods, but mere mortals bringing a message of good news and salvation.

It’s sort of a funny story when you think about it, but it also demonstrates some really important things about the mission of Paul and the ministry that we share with him as people who gather in the name of Christ and belong to a community that bears the name of this apostle to the Gentiles.

First, this story provides a cautionary tale as we carry out the mission that God has given to each one of us in our baptism: We are merely messengers. Paul ran into trouble when people failed to see that he was pointing beyond himself to God, whose grace and favor was available to all people. It’s natural for us to fall into the trap of thinking that the good news is about us, and we feel good when we receive recognition from others for what we do in service to God. As followers of Christ, we are first and foremost recipients of God’s amazing grace, and the great gift of this life of faith is being able to share the source of that grace with others, so that they can experience the abundant life that God offers to us in Jesus.

Second, this story provides one of those great examples of Paul trying to meet people where they are in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. Paul invites the citizens of Lystra to look around, to recognize the signs of God’s goodness revealed in the constancy of the seasons, in the gifts of grain and fruit at harvest, in the wonder of nature that sustains them. Paul is willing to acknowledge the truth wherever he can find it in order to bring people to faith. In the same way, we are called to meet our friends and neighbors and families where they are, bearing witness to God’s presence with them in the midst of their concerns, their struggles, their joys and sorrows, showing them where God has already been active in their lives.

Finally, we need to remember the first part of today’s reading, the seemingly unremarkable verses that set up the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. In this short passage, we are reminded that Paul and Barnabas are not free agents acting on their own whims and by their own authority. The community of Christians at Antioch laid hands on them and blessed them for the ministry of the gospel, surrounded them with prayer, and sent them out to do the work that they believed God had called them to do. They went in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit given to them in baptism and affirmed by the community that sent them out in mission. In the same way, we who are joined to Christ in the waters of baptism are sent out each week with the blessing of God and the prayers of our congregation, filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit to carry out the ministries that God has given to each of us – ministries of friendship and companionship, fatherhood and motherhood and mentorship, teaching and learning, sharing and caring, supporting and praying, serving and loving, discovering and questioning, all of which help to make God known. Brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be encouraged by the knowledge that you are one of God’s witnesses this week, sent out to meet people where they are, and gifted with your own unique ministry by the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Great Commission (Second Sunday of Easter) – April 12, 2015

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 40:9-10
Preaching Text: Matthew 28:16-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If you’ve ever wondered if God is capable of making miracles happen, I’ve got the proof you need: just look around! Look around at the gathering that’s taking place this morning here at St. Paul’s, and then listen again to this verse from today’s reading: When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Think about what’s happening here. Last Sunday, we heard the story of Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary walking in the early morning hours to visit the grave of their teacher and Lord, who had been brutally killed by a contingent of Roman soldiers after a sham of a trial. When they arrived, they felt the earth shake, saw a messenger from God roll away the massive stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, and then heard the unbelievable news: Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him!” The Marys left immediately, and on the way home encountered Jesus himself, who repeated the message and urged the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

Now, those other followers, the remaining eleven disciples chosen by Jesus, had made the trek up a steep hill in the Galilean countryside in the hopes of seeing Jesus for themselves. When he finally appeared, they bowed down to worship him, although some of them still weren’t sure that they were really seeing what they thought they were seeing. With that hesitation hanging in the air, the risen Jesus gives his final command to the eleven men standing on that hillside: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And then they did it. Those eleven disciples traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem and Damascus and Antioch and Alexandria and Athens and Rome and Spain and beyond. They worshiped, and – yes – they doubted, but they went, and, because they went, the gospel of Jesus Christ survived and spread and was handed down from generation to generation, over decades and centuries and millennia, so that we could continue to hear it and trust it and be transformed by it today.

It’s truly amazing that this message, entrusted to eleven uncertain, unlettered, unremarkable men, has found its way here. The journey of the good news of Jesus to this time and place has sometimes been marked with hardship and struggle. At other times, it spread in brutal and oppressive ways that have done a disservice to both the message and the messenger who first sent those disciples out. In countless other circumstances, it has provided hope and dignity and value and worth to those who received it. On the whole, that message has been a great gift to humanity and to this world.

We who gather today are part of the community who has found grace and renewal and life in the Word of God that comes to us in Scripture, in the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for our sake and for the sake of the world, and in the sacraments that have been given to the community of Christ as a sign and seal of God’s love. This morning, we especially rejoice in the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, commanded by Christ in his final instructions to his disciples and preserved by the Church in remembrance of God’s promise – I am with you always, to the end of the age.  As Cooper is brought to the font to receive this gift of grace, the good news of Jesus will wash over him, and he will become a part of the unfolding story of Christ’s Church, an heir of both the responsibilities of discipleship and the rewards of God’s faithfulness. In Holy Baptism, God promises to claim Cooper as a beloved child, to join him to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to give him a part to play in the expansion of God’s righteous reign of justice and peace for the whole world. As Cooper learns to worship God – and, at various times in his life, hesitates in the face of hardship and struggle – he can draw strength from the knowledge that God’s promise is trustworthy and true, that he has been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, come what may. In the same way, we who have already received this precious gift can be encouraged by the knowledge that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, each of whom in their own way trusted in that promise and advanced the cause of Christ in the world.

Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate the command and the promise of God, who calls us to remember what Jesus has taught us, and who sends us out to make the good news of Jesus known in thought, word, and deed. As followers of the risen Christ, we have the responsibility to participate in God’s mission for the life of the world, in the midst of our doubts, so that others might receive the word of truth that has been handed down to us. As we continue through this season of Easter, may we be inspired by the stories of those who heeded that call and who, by their obedience, helped the gospel to survive so that we might hear it and be transformed once again. May we hold fast the lessons we have learned through the Scriptures over these past seven months, so that our witness might be enriched by the many examples of God’s love, faithfulness, and commitment to the whole world communicated by this Holy Word. Finally, may we remember with joy God’s gift of baptism, freely given so that we might be joined to Christ and live as his people today and every day, and so that God might be glorified by all that we say and do. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Resurrection (Easter Sunday) – April 5, 2015

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

On Friday evening, when Jesus had breathed his last, it must have felt as though the world was coming to an end. I’m not just talking about the disciples’ world, though they probably felt like everything was crashing down around them. No, I mean the entire world, the world of earth and sky and sea. The way Matthew tells it, when Jesus gave up his spirit, the very ground shook and rocks split apart, as though earth itself was caught up in heaving sighs at the death of God’s anointed. I imagine that as they made their way to the place of Jesus’ burial on that sorrowful night, the two Marys were still feeling unsteady, their balance thrown off by the crushing blow they had just received.

Obviously, the world had not ended, and as the sun rose on Saturday, it must have seemed to shine more dimly; the light that gives light to everyone was trapped under soil and stone, and the world was a darker place to live. Most of us can only imagine what that day must have felt like, the day after the day that changed everything, the day after the day their hopes and dreams had been snuffed out like a candle.

Then, somehow, it was the first day of the week again, and the women dutifully made their way to the tomb once again, hoping against hope that the events of that terrible day had been just a nightmare. But as they approached the grave and saw the huge stone lying against the entrance, their worst fears were confirmed. He really was gone, and the world might as well have ended on Friday after all.

Suddenly, the earth shook again, but this time it was different. This time the ground swelled as though it was bursting at the seams, as though what had been trapped beneath it could no longer be contained. There also appeared a dazzling light, and with it a messenger of the Lord bringing news that was almost too good to be believed. Before they knew it, the stone was rolled away, the messenger was seated on it, and the soldiers who had been dispatched to guard the Lord’s body looked like dead men themselves! Don’t be afraid, the messenger said, I know that it is Jesus, the one who has been crucified, whom you are seeking. He is no longer here, for he was raised just as he said he would be. Come now! See the place where he was laid! (Matthew 28:5-6) The women crept toward the opening in the rock, and – in what is surely a rarity in our world – rejoiced to see absolutely nothing there. The messenger wasn’t done, though. He had further instructions for them: Go and tell his disciples that he was raised up from the dead. Now pay attention! He is going ahead of you into Galilee, and you’ll see him there. Remember what I told you!”

If the earthquake on Friday afternoon had perfectly mirrored the shattering of the disciples’ reality, then the one on Sunday morning signaled the dismantling of everyone else’s reality. In raising Christ from the dead, God shook up our world and put an end to life – and death – as we know them. The women who had stuck with Jesus until the end became the first to encounter him in his glory. The disciples who had abandoned Jesus in his time of need were called together to enjoy his presence once again. Because of what God has done in Christ, failure is no longer final. Because of what God has done in Christ, death no longer has the last word. Because of what God has done in Christ, we have the promise that God accompanies us through our darkest days, our deepest struggles, even through death and hell, and has the power to bring light and peace and life to our lives and our world.

This word of promise is just as important today as it was to those who first heard it. We continue to live in a world marked by sin and veiled by death. With the whole earth we groan as we await the fulfillment of God’s will for us, and the coming of God’s kingdom. And so, on this Easter Sunday, we are called to heed the words of the messenger of God: Remember what I told you! Remember that Jesus is risen, and that this world will never again be the same. Remember that Jesus goes ahead of us, and that he promises to be present with us always and everywhere. Remember the good news: Christ is risen, and in him we shall also rise. Thanks be to God, alleluia, and amen!