Good Works is Repentance?

Good Works is Repentance?

 

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday of Advent – Sunday, December 4, 2016):

Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

The new church year begins with the season of Advent, a time where we not only prepare ourselves for the first advent of Christ (the coming of God made flesh in the birth of Jesus), but we also focus on preparing ourselves for the second advent of Christ (the second coming of God when Jesus will return on that final Day of Judgment).  One way of preparing ourselves is in the hearing of these words from John the Baptist, standing in the wilderness saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1]  This word ‘repent’ literally means to turn around; to have a dramatic change of mind and direction.  So we are called to put aside all of those values and practices that lead us away from God, and come back to God and turning back to the foundations of our faith.

Now repentance is nothing more than your own recognition of your personal sin and your need to be saved.  Repentance is acknowledging that what you have done was wrong, you’re sorry for what you’ve done, and you’re now going to strive to be better.  A growing understanding of being a Christian is that you can be a good person without going to church, which is true.  I actually know some atheists who are good people, and do some wonderful things for people in this world.  And I know a lot of people who do some pretty wonderful things for others.  But doing good works and being a good person will NOT save you.  So when John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,”[2] he isn’t saying, “Do good works.”  After all, who at that time were the ones doing good works?  The Pharisees and Sadducees were doing everything they could to follow God’s Law to a T.  Plus they made sure that everyone knew that they were perfectly following what God wants.  So everyone should strive to be more like them.

Except, while he is standing in the wilderness, John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees not perfect children of God, but rather a “Brood of Vipers”[3] – children of the snake, children of Satan.  The reason?  Because repentance doesn’t mean to do more good works, but rather than you actually acknowledge your sin and realize your need for saving.  Bearing fruit of repentance then means that you believe that you indeed are a sinner and so you don’t act holier than thou, but act like a sinner.  And how does a sinner act?  By coming before God and saying, “I’m sorry.”

So John says that the ax is already lying at the root of the trees and “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit (meaning: every person that does not acknowledge that they are indeed a sinner in need of forgiveness and strives to change their sinful ways) will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”[4]  This really is a life or death matter because on the Last Day, Jesus will come again and He will baptize, or rather, wash the whole world with either fire or salvation.  All of those who bear fruit worthy of repentance will be gathered like wheat into the granary, but all of those who don’t believe, who can wake up at 4:00 am for a $20 crock-pot but can’t bother showing up at 10:30 am to hear God’s Word and receive the forgiveness of their sins will be like chaff that will be burned.

Even though that sounds harsh, that is what Judgment Day will look like.  But today we also hear of what our salvation will look like on that Judgment Day.  “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…the cow and the bear shall graze…and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”[5]  Predators will dwell in harmony with their prey.  Can you imagine staunch republicans and staunch democrats getting along?  Can you imagine all those who voted for Clinton dining together with all those who voted for Trump – and getting along?  It doesn’t really seem possible in today’s climate, but today’s climate is tainted with sin.  When Jesus comes back again, all of creation will be restored.  So the wolf shall live with the lamb, the conservatives and the liberals will dine together.  No one will be at odds with one another when the Messiah returns, for all of creation will be once again restored and Jesus will reign over His kingdom forever.

The kingdom of heaven is not a land or place like we think of an earthly kingdom that has territory and a palace.  Rather, with Jesus reigning as king, His kingdom is present wherever He reigns and is actively working His power.  So when John says that the kingdom of heaven is here, he means that God’s kingdom is present in the hearts and minds of all believers.  Even today, all of those who bear fruit worthy of repentance, who believe they are sinners and are in need of saving, all make up the kingdom of heaven.  Even though God’s kingdom is not a land or place, you occupy space and time.  So “God’s kingdom is plainly visible because its citizens live in the world as living signposts, pointing to Christ Jesus by what [you] say and do.”[6]  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here!”[7]  Through the Holy Spirit Jesus is here now, and on the Last Day Jesus will return in the flesh to separate the wheat from the chaff.

We have not had easy days recently as the church, with fewer and fewer people believing in God and choosing church over a $20 crock-pot.  And the future doesn’t look any easier, but remain steadfast in the faith for our God is gracious and merciful.  Keep your eyes and your faith fixed on Christ for we trust that one day Jesus will indeed return to gather all of His faithful wheat into His granary.  The kingdom of heaven is here!  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

[1] Matthew 3:2, NRSV

[2] Matthew 3:8, NRSV

[3] Matthew 3:7, NRSV

[4] Matthew 3:10, NRSV

[5] Isaiah 11:6-7, NRSV

[6] The Lutheran Study Bible, pg. 1566

[7] Matthew 3:2, NRSV

An Unchanged Identity

Readings for the day (Christ the King – Sunday, November 20, 2016):

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Often at funerals, I’ll list off many of the various titles that our brother or sister in Christ was known for.  I’ll say that they were a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a friend.  Throughout our lives we hold any number of titles that describe our various vocations.  Our line of work, our hobbies, our interests all contribute to describing who we are and form our identity.  Some aspects of our identity are created without our say or input; such as being an aunt, uncle, sibling, or grandparent.  Other parts of our identity come about by the choices that we make.  We choose to be a farmer, a nurse, a teacher, a pastor, a business owner.  And then there are parts of our identity that are self-inflicted such as being a Minnesota sports fan.

All of these aspects of our identity can and do change over the years.  Careers change, people retire, family members die, and hopes of championships for our beloved Vikings continue to slip away.  Our identities are always changing – life changes inevitably effect and change our identity.  Now what happens when your identity is completely centered in something that changes?  If the whole reason you are who you are is because you are a parent raising your kids, what happens when all the kids graduate and move out of the house?  Or if your entire identity is centered around being a wife or a husband.  What happens when your spouse is longer with us?  When our identity is centered in things that change it becomes very difficult to continue when change occurs.

People believed that Jesus was going to be their new king that would save them from the Roman oppression.  They centered their identity on this miracle worker who they followed around the countryside who they believed would save them.  They even welcomed Him into Jerusalem with some pretty high praise, waving palm branches and laying coats down in front of Him.  But when He didn’t form an uprising to overthrow the Romans, and instead landed himself nailed to a tree for all to see, there was huge disappointment for all.

As a congregation, we also have an identity.  If I asked you to describe our congregation would you be able to describe who we are in a sentence or two?  It might not be as easy as you think because the identity of our congregation has been changing over the years.  Who we are today is not who we were 10 years ago.  We’ve had members leave and new members join.  We’ve had beloved members die and we’ve welcomed new members into God’s family.  Anytime we have someone leave or come, our congregation changes, our identity changes.

All of the identities that we have whether it is family, career, hobby, interest, or political identity, are all temporary identities that can and do change over time.  There is another identity however, one that never changes over time.  In fact it is the most important identity that we have – child of God.  Your identity is formed by being a child of God; one of the shepherd’s sheep, someone in the King’s court.  All other identities are subject to change; except this one.  Your identity as a child of God will never change.  No matter what happens in this world.  No matter who lives or who dies.  No matter what happens with your family or your career.  No matter who is or is not elected president, this very important identity as ‘Child of God’ does not change.  No matter what happens in this world, no matter what changes, you will always be first and foremost a child of God, claimed through the waters of baptism.

Likewise, even though our congregation changes – pastors come and go, members come and go, beloved members die and babies are baptized – as Paul says, Jesus is the head of the church.  No matter how big or small this congregation.  No matter how much money we have.  No matter how many children we have in our congregation.  No matter what, Jesus has always been and will always be the head of the whole church, and specifically He will be the head of this church.  As a congregation, our first and foremost identity is that we are the body of Christ called to go and tell all of those in our community who are not involved in a congregation and who probably don’t believe in God that there is an identity out there for them that will never change.  Even in a world that is full of unpredictable changes, there is one thing that will never change; something that they can have hope in.

And not only will this identity never change, but it will also save you.  On the Day of Judgment, God isn’t going to ask what your career was or who your family members were or how much money you had.  Instead He’s going to ask for you to make a defense for all of the sins you are on trial for.  None of our earthly identities will hold up in God’s court.

But with your first and primary identity as a child of God, that will hold up.  None of the things in this world will be able to save you, no matter what people try to tell you.  Donald Trump will not be able to save you.  Hillary Clinton will not be able to save you.  The only one who has the power to save you from sin, death and devil is the one who is your King, the one who told the criminal hanging next to Him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  This is your King, the Messiah of God.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

The Resurrection – Truth or Fiction

Readings for the day (Lectionary 32 – Sunday, November 6, 2016):

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Well they did it.  After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs have finally won the World Series.  But there is one thing that is missing, Jesus hasn’t come back yet.  I guess we now have to hold out for the Vikings to win a Super Bowl.  Maybe Jesus is more of a Vikings fan than a Cubs fan.

You know, we joke about Jesus coming back as if Jesus will return when some big miracle happens, like the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.  I’m guilty of that as well.  But how seriously do we take these jokes?  Do we take them seriously enough that Jesus’ return sounds good, but we’re awfully skeptical that it will actually happen some day?  Or do we actually live our lives as though Jesus will come back again?

When things happen in life that we can’t control we’ll wish that we would have done it differently.  We’ll pray, but when the prayer isn’t answered we blame God for it, and that’s when the world tells us, “I told you so.  God isn’t real.”  So we start down a wild goose chase to prove the world wrong; to prove that God actually is real, that He actually does answer prayers, and He does care for His children.  And to get that proof we look to things in this temporal world.  And this is exactly how books like Heaven is for Real gain so much popularity among Christians; because we are looking for any sort of proof in this life that God actually does exist.  Except the only proof we have, and the only proof that we need is found in God’s Word and through the seed of faith that the Holy Spirit has planted in us at our baptisms.  A book that has sold over 12 million copies and a movie that has made a net profit of over $140 million dollars is not your proof that God exists.

Jesus alludes to this very thing in the Gospel reading today.  Jesus has already made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, and He spends most of His time teaching in the temple.  Of course this is where the Sadducees and the Pharisees spend most of their time as well because even though the two groups don’t like each other, they do have something in common: they don’t like Jesus and they want Him silenced.  So they quiz Him, hoping to catch Him saying something that would be grounds for dismissal.  And in today’s reading, the Sadducees are up next to take a swing at Jesus.  They ask him about marriage.  The Sadducees follow a very strict understanding of God’s Law found in the first five books of the Bible.  They don’t believe in the resurrection and God’s Law states that if you are a male and your brother dies without any children, then in order to carry on the family name, you are to marry your brother’s wife so that she may bear children and carry on the family name.  We don’t do that today, but that was common practice then.  So the Sadducees ask Jesus if there were seven brothers and they all died, who would the woman be married to in the resurrection?  And Jesus tells them that marriage is an important thing that we do in this life, but just as this life is temporary, so too is marriage; because the resurrection will be different.

Do you believe in the resurrection?  Do you believe that the resurrection will actually happen some day?  I pretty certain that many in our world today do not believe in the resurrection because if they did believe they would not be choosing deer hunting or football or sleeping in over coming to church.  So many have become so focused on living this life that they have completely neglected to prepare themselves for the resurrected life to come.  If people actually believed the Jesus will return, that the resurrection will happen, then people would be taking faith practices all more seriously.  Rather, people put all of their energy into living this life to the fullest as there is no hope of a life to come.  That’s why people are so afraid of death and take extreme measures to keep their loved ones alive even after the quality of life is beyond repair.  When there is no hope in anything beyond this life, the fear of death becomes impossible to bear.

It would be so much easier if we could have an eye-witness of what the resurrection will look like.  But we don’t.  So instead of believing what contemporary books and movies tell us what heaven will look like (because no one truly knows), we put our faith and trust in Jesus’ words which are true.  He says that we will not be able to die anymore because we will be like angels and as children of God we will be children of the resurrection.  We don’t know what our clothes will look like, or what the landscape will look like; but we do know that we will be with God, seeing Him face-to-face.  And that’s all we really need to know about the resurrection to come.

Now there’s certainly a time to mourn the loss of loved ones, but as Paul says, we don’t mourn as those who have no hope.  For Job, even though he lost everything that he had; his wife, his children, his animals, everything that he had was gone, he still has the ability to say, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”  This is where we put our hope; in that Jesus will indeed come back again, not for a sports time finally win a championship.  And we wait in hopeful anticipation of His return, for then we all will be reunited with all of those faithful saints who have died, including all of those who we have lit candles today in remembrance of them.  One day we, and all the dead, will be alive again.  Death will be no more.  Mourning, crying and pain will be no more.  Time will cease, and we will be with the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, for all of eternity.  For our redeemer does indeed live.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Climbing to See Jesus

Readings for the day (Lectionary 31 – Sunday, October 30, 2016):

Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32: 1-7

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

As of today, we are one year and a day away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.  499 years ago tomorrow is when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther took out a sheet of paper, a nail and a hammer, and proceeded to nail his 95 theses to the outer door of the castle church in Wittenburg Germany.  At that time, the exterior doors of churches were really bulletin boards for the church and the community as a whole.  The church was usually the center point of town.  Luther’s 95 theses, or statements, named 95 issues that he wanted to see resolved within the Roman Catholic Church.  He never intended to break away from the Catholic Church, start a new denomination, or set the framework for countless other denominations to form.  All Luther wanted to do was to see some changes made to the church that he was serving.

Of course, the Catholic Church did not see it that way at all.  They took Luther’s suggestions as threats; his comments as attacks.  Sound anything like today?  As a whole, wouldn’t you say that our society is very on edge?  For every statement that is made, a reaction is made and offense is taken.  It is getting so bad that I bet if I said that the sky is blue, I’m sure someone, somewhere would take that statement as offensive.  We have rather thin skins today.

The story of Zacchaeus is no different.  Jesus takes note of Zacchaeus, picks him out of the crowd, actually a tree, and all who saw it began to grumble and complained loudly.  They thought that is was offensive that this respected teacher of God’s Law would voluntarily be the guest of a sinner.  How dare he go and eat with a tax collector?  Do you know how corrupt this tax collector is?  The crowd saw Zacchaeus as someone who because of his occupation and social status, doesn’t deserve to have anything nice; especially important guests over at his house.  People still think like that today.  Does it really matter what a person’s occupation or social status is?  If they choose to use their money to get something nice isn’t that their choice?

Now since Zacchaeus was short, he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  There was too large of a crowd for him to be able to see over them.  Have you ever had someone taller than you blocking your sight?  A sycamore tree is a really good climbing tree with lots of low branches.  So Zacchaeus climbs the tree because there was something blocking him from seeing Jesus.  For Martin Luther, the issues that he saw with the Catholic Church were preventing him from seeing Jesus.  He couldn’t see how this God that we believe in could possibly be filled with grace and actually love his children when everyone has to remain in a waiting period after they die called purgatory.  And their time in purgatory is dependent on how many sins they committed in this life.  But if you bought an indulgence (aka donated more money to the church), you could decrease the length of time you or a loved one will spend in purgatory.  For Luther, he couldn’t see God’s grace in any of that.  These and other issues prevented him from seeing Jesus.  What is preventing you from seeing Jesus?  Maybe it’s a person, an object, an activity, a habit that is blocking you and prevents you from seeing Jesus clearly.

For as long as I can remember, Lutherans and Catholics have been in tension with one another.  We don’t want our worship service to look too much like the Catholics because we’re Lutheran after all, not Catholic.  Some churches even change the wording of the creed to read “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.”  That way they aren’t saying, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  When I was little I remember even saying, “one, holy, Lutheran, and apostolic church,” because you know, I wasn’t catholic.  Except the word catholic means universal, as in the whole universal church; meaning all of those Christian churches that believe in Jesus and want to see Jesus.  Catholic with a capital C refers to the Roman Catholic Church.

So for Luther, the Roman Catholic tree that he was perched in prevented him from seeing the gracious out pouring of God’s love and grace.  For some people the ELCA tree prevents them from seeing God’s grace.  And that’s okay, because there is one thing in common between the Catholic tree and the Lutheran tree, they both help people see Jesus.  And as a huge testament to that truth, tomorrow, on the 499th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church will be holding a joint commemoration service in Lund, Sweden where the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation is at.  And as a way of showing the healing our church bodies have been and will continue to do, Pope Francis himself will be attending this joint service tomorrow (beginning at 8:30 am our time).

The crowd began to grumble and upset that Jesus was picking Zacchaeus over any of them.  Often we compare ourselves to each other and grumble when things don’t happen just the way we want or expect them to be.  So we complain and grumble about this and that.  We compare ourselves to what the Catholic Church is or isn’t doing and we grumble about it.  We think that our tree is better, it’s taller, it’s brighter, it’s fuller.  Except that’s not what matters.  Zacchaeus didn’t climb that tree to be better.  He climbed it to see Jesus.  That’s my responsibility as your pastor – to show you Jesus.  That’s our responsibility as the body of Christ – to help people see Jesus.  That’s also the responsibility that our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ have been called to do.  That’s why nearly 500 years later, Lutherans and Catholics will be having a joint commemoration service.

At the end of the day, all that truly matters is that Jesus called out to Zacchaeus to come down from that tree and dine with the savior of the world.  Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists alike all believe that Jesus is the Son of Man, God made flesh, dying for the sins of the world, and rising to new life for all of eternity.  Our sin tells us that other denominations are like this chief tax collector named Zacchaeus.  Someone we should avoid and hate.  But Jesus shows us that we all are God’s children, called to show Jesus to the world.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Unjust Justice

Readings for the day (Lectionary 29 – Sunday, October 16, 2016):

Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 121

2 Timothy 3:14–4:5

Luke 18:1-8

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

As some of you may have heard, Waverly was broken into this past week.  In the darkness of the night, someone (or some people) came into the church and stole some of our electronics and other items – a TV, the video camera, some tools and quilting supplies, and cleaning products.  On Wednesday when I found out about the robbery, I felt defiled; I felt hurt.  All of the things that we have in our churches are not put here with the ultimate purpose for people to take whatever they want or need.  It is to support and enhance the ministry, education and outreach that we do as a church, all for the sake of proclaiming and sharing the Gospel message.

And yet, it doesn’t feel good that these items were stolen from us.  Remember the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal.”  Luther says that this commandment means that “We are to fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of making a living.”  I want to be upset, angry, and most of all, don’t you want justice?  And that is exactly what the woman in this parable wanted.  She wanted justice against her opponents.  She was a widow, and in that culture a widow had very low social status.  So she went to this judge; maybe she knew that he was an unjust judge, maybe she didn’t.  But regardless, she went seeking justice, seeking resolution to a problem.  And the judge ignores her; he wants nothing to do with her.  He doesn’t fear or respect God, meaning he doesn’t follow the Torah (God’s Law), nor does he have any respect for anyone.  All this judge cares about is himself.  Which is exactly what someone who steals from someone else is thinking about – only themselves.  Because if you actually cared about other people you wouldn’t take things that don’t belong to you.

Yet even though this judge is unjust and doesn’t have a care for anyone but himself, he grants the woman’s request for justice.  He does so because she was so persistent and irritating that in order to save his own reputation and quiet her down, he feels that it is necessary to do the right thing.

Then Jesus says to his disciples, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day or night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”  Now God’s justice doesn’t look the same as the kind of justice we are accustomed to seeing in this world.  Justice from our perspective would be that this criminal would see some jail time and hopefully Waverly would get their stuff back.  That’s justice.  That’s fair.  God’s justice is different though.

Wednesday morning is when I found out that things were stolen out of the church.  Then that night, I was teaching the children at Trinity about the story of Joseph.  You remember the story?  Jacob, the one in our first reading that wrestled with God and successfully persisted until daybreak.  And remember how Jacob had 12 sons, one of which was Joseph – the favorite.  So I told the children how Joseph’s brothers were jealous of what he had and how their father favored Joseph over his other siblings.  So they intended to do great harm to their brother.  And to make an extremely long story short, Joseph ends up in Egypt managing the food supply during the seven year famine.  Decades later, Joseph’s brothers hear that there is food in Egypt.  So they travel to find food and they run into their long lost brother (who they lost on purpose).  I asked the children, what do you think Joseph did when he saw his brothers again?  Remember, these brothers that tried to kill him and sold him into slavery.  I expected answers like: angry, mad, upset.  But none of those answers came up.  The first answer that was said, was, “Gave them a hug.”  Gave them a hug.  We can learn a lot from children.  They don’t hold grudges, or continually resent someone; they love them, they care for them, they forgive them.

Wednesday night, I learned from our children about what forgiveness looks like.  This is also what God’s justice looks like.  His justice is not one of holding grudges or continuing to resent someone because of doing something wrong.  Our God is an unjust judge, at least according to the world’s standards, to our standards.  Because our God willingly forgives and loves us unconditionally just like how our children show love and forgiveness.

Jesus then finishes the parable by saying, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  When Jesus comes, will he find forgiveness and love?  Or will he find grudges, resentment, and bantering tweets between people on Twitter?

I witnessed one other special moment in the midst of this awful situation.  The police were contacted in order to get a police report on file for insurance purposes and I was reminded how Paul tells the Christians in Rome that, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And Joseph tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”  At the conclusion of the police officer’s investigation, the ladies in the basement who were working on quilts asked if he needed any blankets or quilts for his car.  The officer responded that he typically does keep a blanket or two in his trunk just in case of an accident or fire in order to keep the victims warm when the weather is cold.  So the ladies gave him a couple handmade quilts.  Never mind that there was about $1,000 worth of property that was stolen from the church the night before.  You may have intended to do harm, but God intended it for good.

That’s what God’s justice looks like.  The woman that kept bothering the unjust judge, wasn’t seeking justice.  That word actually is justified.  She was wanted to be justified or seeking justification.  And where do we as Christians find justification?  Where are we made right in God’s sight?  No other place, but at the cross.  God’s justice looks different for us because our God is a different kind of judge.  In order for you to be justified and to find peace and justice in your life, the only way to accomplish this was for Jesus to die on the cross for you.  You may get frustrated with all of the injustice in the world and just long for things to be fair, but which is more important: justice in this world that is tainted with sin, or justice when the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the quick and the dead?  Our God certainly is an unjust judge, granting justice of forgiveness and love to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Faith is a Gift

Readings for the day (Lectionary 27 – Sunday, October 2, 2016):

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Psalm 37:1-9

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In 2009, a movie called “Angels and Demons” was released, starring Tom Hanks.  This movie is based on a book written by Dan Brown; the same one who wrote the Da Vinci Code.  The premise of the story is that there is a group in Rome that has threatened the Vatican with killing their priests, except they have left clues behind.  So Robert Langdon, a symbologist, played by Tom Hanks, is called in to give his interpretation of the clues.  Langdon is a scientist who doesn’t practice any sort of religion.  At one point in the movie, a priest asks him, “Do you believe in God?”  Langdon responds, “I’m an academic.  My mind tells me I will never understand God.”  The priest asks, “And your heart?”  Langdon replies, “Tells me I’m not meant to.  Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”

“Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”  Surprisingly, that’s some pretty good theology coming from Hollywood!  Faith, a gift.  Something that can’t be earned, can’t be bought, can’t be traded – only received.  And received is exactly how we all came to this faith of believing and trusting in God alone.  If you think back to when you first remember believing that God existed, I’m going to guess that for most of you, that belief came from the influence of a parent or grandparent; maybe an aunt or uncle.  For many of us, this is exactly how we have received our faith in God; from our parents, who likewise received their faith from their parents.  And this is how the church has continued to be in existence for nearly 2,000 years, because people have been passing the faith on to the next generation.

That’s even noticeable all the way back to Paul’s letter to Timothy, where Paul reminds Timothy of where his faith came from.  His faith, Paul says, began with his grandmother Lois, and she passed it on to his mother Eunice, and then she passed it on to him.

Of course that is the ideal scenario: the older generations passing on the faith to the younger generations (grandparents to parents to children).  Just like the ideal scenario in life is that one gets married, lives together, and then has children.  But we don’t need to look far to realize that this life is anything but perfect.  Rarely does life follow an ideal scenario.  Parents don’t always do a good job of passing on the faith to their children.  Babies don’t always come when we want them to.  Because of this sinful world, things come up that mess with our ideal scenario.  Sin also messes up God’s ideal scenario for us.

The story of Noah and the flood is a perfect example of that.  God had an idea on how His creation was going to look, but the sinfulness of humanity changed that, which led God to flood the world and start over.  In life, we don’t have an undo button like we do on our computers.  So that means we have had to learn to adapt and change to what comes our way.  As the seasons change, we have to adapt.  We already are preparing ourselves for changing to winter.  As the features on our vehicles and machinery change, we have to learn and adapt.  As the faith practices of our community change, we as a church have to learn and adapt.

I’ve had to adapt.  With many now in our communities, both children and adults, who have not been raised in the faith, I have had to adapt in how I teach confirmation.  For some students, their first confirmation class is their first real exposure to Christianity.  Each year we continue to have students that enter confirmation without knowing the Lord’s Prayer, or what the Apostles’ Creed is, or how to look up a verse in the Bible.

So if we are going to continue passing on the faith, we need to be willing to adapt.  I met someone this past week who recently moved into one of our communities.  This individual I believe is unmarried with a couple kids and has a few piercings and some colored hair.  This individual doesn’t look like most of us – are you ready for that?  Are you ready for something other than the “ideal scenario”?  Because that’s what is waiting for us.  In our community, we have people who have fallen away from the church because of various disagreements with the church.  There are also people who have never been to church, except maybe for a wedding or funeral.  Are you ready to learn and adapt?

When His disciples ask for Jesus to “increase their faith,” or to “add to their faith,” His response is that faith is something that can’t be quantified.  It’s not like a bank account where you can deposit or withdraw a certain amount of faith.  Faith is not about how much you have or don’t have.  It’s about in whom you have faith.  So we cannot say that those who go to church more often or spend more time giving of their time to the church means that they have more faith than someone who has never been to church or who has fallen away from the church.

Faith is a gift.  And you either have it or you don’t.  In the movie, Robert Langdon said that faith is a gift that he has yet to receive.  But now, faith is a gift that is received at baptism.  So all of those who are baptized have the same amount of faith.  Those that faithfully come to church every week have the same amount of faith as those who haven’t been to church in years.  Those who go to Sunday School and Bible studies week after week have the same amount of faith as those who haven’t been raised in the church.  No matter if you have a piercing, tattoo, or colored hair – looks do not affect how much faith someone has.  Jesus says that, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  A small amount of faith is all that is needed.

We all are called to take this mustard seed sized faith and pass that on to the next generations.  So maybe that is leading or participating in a Bible study.  Maybe that is teaching Sunday School or being a confirmation mentor.  Maybe that is reaching out to your neighbors that you know who are not active followers of Jesus.  Remember, all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed, and you could command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Faith is a gift that you all have received at your baptism.  You already have everything that you need to be a faithful follower of Christ.  Or should I say, a faithful servant (or slave) of Christ.  Jesus asks the question, that if you had a servant who was working in your field and just came in the house, what would you say?  Would you tell your servant to sit down at the table?  Or to make you something first?  This gift that you have received is that Jesus invites you to come and rest; come sit at the table and dine with your Lord.  Our God loves us so much that He doesn’t treat us like slaves or servants, but as His own children.

No matter who walks through our doors or what their history with or without the church has been, God sees us all as His children; called to pass on the faith to the best of our abilities and adapt as we go.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Willfully Ignorant

Readings for the day (Lectionary 26 – Sunday, September 26, 2016):

Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Psalm 146

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Scholars aren’t really sure if the Lazarus in this parable is the same Lazarus who was a brother to Mary and Martha that we read about in John’s Gospel.  But there is so much more to this parable than determining which Lazarus Jesus is talking about here.

With interpreting this parable, how far do we really take it?  Do we use the parable as a way to give us a glimpse into what will happen after we die?  We could.  In the parable, we see that both the rich man and Lazarus (the poor man) die about the exact same time; and it appears that they immediately either go to Hades (for the rich man) or rest in the arms of Abraham (for Lazarus).  Does that mean that immediately after we take our final breath that we will either be in the fires of hell or enjoying the comforts of heaven?  Maybe.  This parable also brings up questions of will those in heaven and those in hell be able to communicate with one another?  And this also brings up questions about the Resurrection and the New Jerusalem that we are told will be on this earth, in this place.  Is where the rich man and Lazarus at in the parable (heaven and hell) just a temporary place before the Final Judgement?  We could certainly try to carefully analyze this parable trying to find clues into something that none of us know anything about: what life after death might be like.

But this parable could also be taken in another way, as to say that if you’re rich you are bad and being poor should be the better desired social status.  Since none of us have our own private jets to fly us around or any dedicated chauffeurs to drive us places, it’s not too difficult for us to write ourselves out of this category and to say that people like Trump and Clinton are to be considered the rich.  We’re not rich like them, so we can’t possibly be the rich man in this parable.  And since we wouldn’t consider ourselves to be poor either, we can figure that maybe we’re just off the hook.

As Americans, we certainly aren’t poor, but we wouldn’t consider ourselves to be rich either.  Except, we are rich – especially compared to people in other countries.  We are rich in this country.  And we like being rich.  We like being comfortable.  We have nice clothes.  We have plenty of food to eat whenever we get hungry.  We have more possessions than what we really need.  We are rich with blessings.  We are rich.  Now being rich is not in itself a bad thing.  But we are like this unnamed rich man.  We sit in our comfortable homes, protected from many of the poverty issues in this world.  We don’t have fences or gates around our homes, but we do have corn fields that separate us from the poverty issues that many in urban areas face.  Let’s face it, living here in rural Minnesota, we are comfortable.

Being comfortable is not a bad thing, but there are poverty and hunger issues in our local community.  It’s just easier, however, to ignore the issues rather than to face them head on.  We prefer to enjoy our comforts and riches, and neglect the Lazarus’ in our community.  When talking with Abraham, the rich man makes a request that Lazarus come and dip the tip of his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue.  The rich man referred to Lazarus by name.  He knew who Lazarus was.  And why wouldn’t he know him?  Lazarus sat outside the rich man’s gate probably every day for quite some time.  Since the rich man was known for his fancy clothes and abundant feasts, Lazarus could pretty much be guaranteed some sort of meal, gathered through the table scraps that were thrown out to the dogs.  So Lazarus sat at the gate, or like sitting at the end of your driveway.  Lazarus would have been the first person any guest of the rich man would have seen.  And with all of the parties this rich man had, he and his guests certainly would have seen and known who this Lazarus was.  They just didn’t want to know.  Because of our riches and comforts, we too don’t want to know.  There are poverty and hunger issues in our own community, and in surrounding communities.  But it’s a whole lot easier to simply ignore the issues rather than facing them head on.  We prefer to enjoy our riches and neglect the Lazarus’ in our community.  However, just because we ignore the issues doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.  They do exist!  The problem for us is that if we acknowledge the real issues in our community, then we can no longer play the ignorance card.  If we’re ignorant, then we don’t feel guilty, for then we can simply say, “I didn’t know.”

But salvation is not dependent on how much or how little wealth you have.  There will be rich people who will be saved and poor people who aren’t.  And there will also be poor people who will be saved and rich people who aren’t.  The bigger question is: where do you find glory.  The faithless heart prefers to find glory in itself and to find its joy in this earth, in money and wealth and power.  But the faithful, even though they may have to fight off the dogs of this world to survive, find glory not in ourselves, but in Christ.  And we find joy in this earth, not in money and wealth, but in the Word of God.  This simple word that we say each year, so simple and yet so true, so real, so complete, that there can be no question in our hearts.  “He is risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

This is the reason why we don’t have to worry about what will happen after we die.  We don’t have to tirelessly try to figure out exactly what will happen when we do take our final breath.  Instead, we put our faith in God and trust that Jesus is indeed alive and real.  And we hold on to that same hope that Mary sang so long ago in her Magnificat, “Jesus has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  One day, when Jesus returns there will be no more rich and poor, no more powerful and lowly, for we all will simply be viewed as God’s children at that great heavenly banquet with feasting sumptuously every day for all of eternity.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.