Tag Archives: Witness

The Christian Life: Consolation – May 22, 2016

Sunday’s Reading:
2 Corinthians 1:1-11

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

What is the Christian life supposed to look like? How are we called to live together as the people of God who bear the name of Christ? What are some of the characteristics of life in Christ? If the confusion and noise in the church and the world today has you asking questions like that, then these next six weeks are for you. Today we begin working our way through Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth, a letter that has a lot to say about those fundamental questions. Before we dig in, though, a word about why Second Corinthians is a good place to turn to find clues about being members of this community.

I mentioned the confusion that is swirling around us at present. It turns out that the church at Corinth was having a crisis of its own at the time of this letter. The church had been established sometime between the years 50 and 52 AD by the preaching of the apostle Paul, and, in his absence, had found itself divided on the question of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-13), confused about the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15), and infiltrated by a rival group of preachers who questioned the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry among them. Many in the congregation had been persuaded to doubt the message Paul had preached among them, and to see him as a false teacher who was leading them astray. The letter before us, though it is commonly called Second Corinthians, may have been fourth or later in a series of letters sent by Paul to restore that congregation to relationship with him and to the truth about Jesus Christ. Over the course of this letter, Paul has challenging words to say about what defines Christian identity and community, words that, I would venture to say, the church of today needs to hear just as much as the church at Corinth did in the mid-first century.

So let’s get to it, starting with the opening of this letter. It might seem odd for us to begin with “consolation” as a key characteristic of the Christian life, but that’s precisely where Paul jumps in with both feet. He acknowledges that both he and the community at Corinth have experienced significant pain, both in their relationship with one another, and in their lives as citizens of the Roman Empire who dared to be followers of Jesus. In a very real sense, their presence in society and their identification with Christ marked them out for suffering – if not physical suffering, then certainly the kind of social isolation that made life as a citizen more difficult. There was all kinds of pressure to make accommodations, to deny their life in Christ to make their lives in society easier, and yet Paul urged them to stand firm in their faith, and to trust in the promise that their suffering would be eased by the consolation that comes from God.

That message of comfort and consolation has continued to be important for Christians throughout the centuries. Whatever we might face, we share Paul’s conviction that God in Christ will be present to us by the Holy Spirit, soothing us with his boundless mercy and love. Part of what it means to be Christian is to trust in the Spirit’s power to grant us what we need to hang on and step forward in faith – whether our need is for consolation, comfort, or encouragement. Paul doesn’t stop there, however. Notice the reason that he blesses God in the opening verses of his appeal to the Corinthians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NRSV) This consolation, comfort, encouragement, is not just something that we receive from God, but something that we are called to extend to one another as members of God’s beloved community.

On the one hand, being a caring presence for others is a matter of basic human decency; in a way, it’s what we expect people to do if they care about us at all. What makes this such a critical part of our life together as Christians is that it is a reflection of the character of our God. With Paul, we bless God – “the Father of mercies – for the consolation we receive in our time of need. With the church, we give thanks to God for the obedience of Jesus Christ, who became human and suffered both alongside us and in our place so that we might know the grace and love of God that surpasses our understanding. With all the baptized, we experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who continues to make God known to us and present to us in ways that defy our comprehension and our ability to speak about them, but which are nevertheless powerful markers of the life we share with God in Christ. All three persons of the Triune God are in the business of consolation, and as people who have been invited into relationship with one another and with God, we are now part of a community that carries that work forward.

That’s why I’ve been so adamant about the fact that the Christian life is about so much more than God and me. As important as that relationship is, we are created to be in relationship with others, both within the community of faith and outside that community. Our faith moves us to care about the suffering of others, to offer prayer for the sake of the whole world and not just ourselves, to be mindful of people in need around us. It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s who we are, and who we are called to be in the world, and, believe it or not, it something that people notice. Through the work of Lutheran Disaster Response, we have a reputation for being among the first groups of people on the scene when disaster strikes, and among the last to leave. Because of the ELCA Youth Gathering, the cities of New Orleans and Detroit have experienced what it means to have a committed group of Christians take the time to listen to the stories of people in need, to live among them, and to commit to working as partners to help bring healing and hope in situations of hardship and struggle. This congregation has also shown the importance of caring for those in need in ways large and small, from serving luncheons to grieving families to offering expressions of support and encouragement to one another in times of trouble, and many others. Consolation is part of our DNA, and to the extent that we commit to extending this great gift – a gift first given to us in Christ – to those around us, we bear witness to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to bring healing and wholeness out of suffering and loss. As Paul writes, 5For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:5, NRSV)

Next week, brothers and sisters, our survey of the Christian life leads us to reflect on forgiveness. Until then, let us pray that God might lead us to grant consolation to one another and to our neighbors as we have opportunity, and let us bless God for the consolation that makes it possible for us to face each day in confidence and hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Church at Thessalonica (Easter IIII) – April 17, 2016 (NL Week 32)

Sunday’s Readings:
Acts 17:1-9
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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

Last week we looked at the ministry of Peter and John in Jerusalem, a ministry that brought salvation to many and, in the case of the particular text appointed for us, gave the gift of healing to a man who had been unable to walk his entire life. The two men at the center of that story bore public witness to the powerful name of Jesus, and through that witness brought many to faith in the crucified and risen Lord.

Today, we turn to the other pillar of the early church, our congregation’s namesake, and one of the most influential people in the history of the world: the apostle Paul. During his approximately two decades of ministry in the Mediterranean, Paul was responsible for founding a number of churches in important imperial cities, thereby aiding the spread of the gospel into the West and making the name of Jesus known far and wide. In weeks to come we’ll focus on the church he founded in the city of Corinth, and reflect on both the joys and struggles of discipleship then and now. First, however, we have the opportunity to look at one of the first churches established by Paul – the assembly of Christians in the city of Thessalonica. By way of introduction, let’s look at the opening of the first letter to the Thessalonians, which you can find in your bulletin insert:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, NRSV)

These are beautiful, stirring words that continue to inspire Christians today. They paint a picture of a church in harmony with itself and others, an image to which many congregations aspire. They also may give us a slightly biased picture of what was going on in Thessalonica. To give us a little more context, let’s revisit our other reading from Acts, in which the Christian community in that city finds itself at odds with much of the surrounding populace. The way they describe the presence of the church in their midst is quite different from the way Paul describes it. Just look at verses six and seven: When [the people of the city] couldn’t find [Paul and Silas], they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests!”

It’s true, of course, that Paul and Silas were on the receiving end of that charge, but it’s also true that the charge against them can’t be limited to them. After all, Paul says that the Thessalonian Christians were known throughout neighboring regions of the empire for being imitators of them and of the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 1:6, NRSV) What happens if we put both of these accounts of the church at Thessalonica together? We see that the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” that was so highly regarded by Paul and other Christians was seen by people outside the church as “turning the world upside down”!

That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? The first Christians in Thessalonica were best described by the rest of their fellow citizens as outside agitators, the kind of people who threatened the very fabric of society, and they were treated accordingly. That relationship didn’t last, of course. In time, Christianity and the state became so closely bound up with one another that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began, a state of affairs that persisted for the better part of fifteen hundred years in most of the Western world. Much of the recent discomfort in our communities, in fact, has to do with the fact that this long-standing cooperation between the church and the state has been eroded in recent decades, with the result that many of us probably feel much like the church at Thessalonica once did.

If that’s true – if our situation today is starting to resemble the situation in the first century – then we have some choices to make. How are we called to live in this world that is beginning to look so different from the way it has for so long? Should we seek to hold onto the way things were, fighting tooth and nail to preserve our privileged place over and against others? That was how the crowds that dragged Jason and the believers before the city authorities reacted to this new things happening around them. Or should we, instead, seek to “turn the world upside down”, not by raising our voices in anger or fear, but by unleashing the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” that is our heritage, an example begun by the Thessalonians and repeated throughout the centuries by faithful men and women who spent their lives serving a living and true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ?

As society wrestles with the change that is besetting all of us – some positive and some negative – what will be said about us and our witness? Do others look at us and see people who are willing to step out in faith to turn the world upside down with the grace and love of Christ? Does the way we live demonstrate our trust in God so completely that others take our faith and faithfulness for granted? Are we prepared to speak the message of the gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, not as a bludgeon, but as an invitation to a transformed life?

If these questions are scary or daunting, remember that like the Thessalonians were are beloved by God and chosen to live this way. This is not a matter of law, a picture of something that we must do to be regarded as faithful by God, but a matter of grace, a picture of the life to which God invites us through Jesus by the Spirit. As we strive to be imitators of Paul, the Thessalonians, and the Lord, we are promised the gifts of grace that make that imitation possible – faith, hope, and love, virtues that God has poured out upon us in Christ and energized by the divine breath that filled us at baptism and continues to move in us and in our world. As we celebrate these gifts and the promise of resurrection that speaks life in the midst of our fears and opens up new possibilities, we call to mind how God is strengthening us to turn the world upside down, so that suspicion gives way to trust, despair gives way to hope, and hatred gives way to love. May it be so among us. Amen.

You Shall Be My Witnesses (Easter II) – April 3, 2016 (NL Week 30)

Sunday’s Reading:
Acts 1:1-14

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

 

Say what you want about Mark, the Evangelist, but he certainly knew how to keep an audience wanting more. The end of his account of the life of Jesus left us hanging with the images of an empty tomb, a young man wearing a white robe, and three women running away in terror and amazement. Even more importantly, Mark tells us that the women did not heed the command of that young man to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection; instead, the gospel writer tells us that they said nothing to anyone.

As we shift from Mark’s Gospel to the story of the early church that follows Christ’s rising from the tomb, we are jumping smack dab into the middle of Luke’s two volume account of the church’s history. In Luke’s version of “the first Easter” we are told that the women who showed up at the tomb that morning were confused and frightened. Again, we can’t exactly blame them. They were greeted in that garden by the sight of an empty tomb, and by two men in dazzling white clothes, who reminded them of everything that Jesus had told them about his death and resurrection while he was still alive. Immediately, they rushed back to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard, and the disciples responded to the news they brought by dismissing it outright as an idle tale. Later in the day, the women’s story was confirmed by two appearances of the risen Christ, and the church as we know it sprang to life. Today’s reading recounts the last in a series of appearances by Jesus to the disciples, including those women who had faithfully proclaimed the good news about the Lord’s death and resurrection. During this final visit, the Lord commands the eleven remaining disciples – and anyone else within earshot – to be prepared to give an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to tell the good news of Jesus to people in every language and tongue. After this commissioning, the disciples watch as Jesus is taken up to heaven, and just like the women at the tomb in Mark, they end up getting stuck. Maybe it’s the wonder of it all; maybe it’s the fear of moving forward without their teacher and Lord; whatever the reason, they stand rooted to the spot, their eyes raised up to the heavens to follow the ascent of Jesus, until a very sharp question from another couple of heavenly visitors brings them back to reality: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into the sky? Why, indeed? Why, in the midst of this incredible display of power, didn’t they simply listen to what the messengers told them about Jesus?

I think it’s likely that – with apologies to the musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – they had “too much heaven on their minds.” They saw Jesus taken up and away from them, and because they had built their entire lives around their fellowship with him, they weren’t sure what to do now that he was no longer bodily present with them. It’s understandable that they would want to be where their Lord was. But that wasn’t what they were called to do. Their mission had changed. Instead of “Follow me,” they were now being sent out to be witnesses to the power of God in Christ, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the very ends of the earth.

What does that have to do with us? Well, it seems to me that we modern Christians sometimes suffer from the same problem that those first disciples did – namely, that we are in danger of having too much heaven on our minds. It’s popular to say that this life is training for the next life, and in a way that’s an indisputable fact. All the Biblical language about accountability and judgment suggests that what we do matters. But it doesn’t just matter because of how it sets us up for eternity. It matters because what we do in this life has the ability to make the gospel real for the people around us. It matters because when we are inspired by the grace and love of God to go out in service to God and our neighbors, when we bear witness to the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil, we are participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Where life and love and joy and peace are made known to our neighbors and friends – and even (especially!) our enemies – the gospel takes on flesh and blood, and people can encounter the risen Christ in real, tangible ways that make a difference in their lives. If, like the women at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel, we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear, we miss out on the chance to share good news with people who need to hear it. If, like the disciples who stand around with their heads in the clouds, we allow ourselves to be distracted by what is yet to come, we miss out on the chance to be Christ’s witnesses today. We would do well to emulate the women in Luke’s account of the first Easter, who were so eager to tell what they saw that they didn’t even need to be commanded to go and share the news! Their bold witness to the resurrection of Christ made the story of the early church – and, by extension, our story – possible.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore how the church’s early witness played out in the lives of real people in real places. We’ll learn about the ministry of Peter, the missionary zeal of the apostle Paul, the gift of the Holy Spirit that empowered those early Christians to risk life and limb in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll ponder what lessons we can glean from our forerunners in the faith as we seek to proclaim the good news in a world that is rapidly changing around us. Today, we celebrate the first apostles, those women who brought the good news of Jesus to light, and whose example continues to inspire men and women alike to acts of bold and faithful service within this congregation, in our community, throughout our state, across the nation, and around the world. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will surround and fill us, and give us the courage to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, so that we can journey in faith toward a world in need, and bear witness to the power and presence of Jesus in this and every place. Thanks be to God! Amen!