4th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 26, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

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

When I was in college, I was the manager of a non-profit, volunteer run coffee house in Fargo, ND.  As the manager I was responsible for the ordering and maintaining of the supplies, determining and setting the prices of the beverages, and the recruiting and coordinating of student volunteers to come and work in the coffee house as a volunteer – meaning no pay.  And I was amazed at how many college students actually said yes, that they would voluntarily spend time working in the coffee house without any financial compensation.  We did allow them to receive one free beverage per shift as a thank you for their service.  On average we had around 30 volunteers that helped out in the coffee house.

But since these were volunteers, we saw lots of turnover and while most of the volunteers were reliable and if they said they were going to be there, they would.  Some however, we not reliable at all.  Some would say that they were going to show up, but then if something came up, they would just not show up for their shift.  After all it was a volunteer position.  So I struggled with how to create an incentive for people to follow through on their commitments.

This is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel lesson about a shepherd and sheep.  Jesus says that there are some hired hands working with the shepherd in tending the sheep.  But since the hired hands don’t own the sheep, they have no vested interest in protecting the sheep when the wolf comes.  So they run away; they aren’t at all reliable.

I’m sure that you can think of a time where someone let you down.  They weren’t there for you when you needed them the most.  Maybe it was your spouse (or ex-spouse).  Maybe it was your mom or your dad.  Maybe it was a brother or sister, aunt or uncle.  Maybe, it was a close friend (or so you thought).  All of us have someone who let us down and made us question how much they really care about us.  “Well if he couldn’t even show up to my baseball game, then he must not care about me.”  “Well if she promised me that we would hang out this afternoon but couldn’t bother letting me know her plans changed, then she must not care about me.”  Have you ever felt like that?

Politicians seem to let us down all the time – they say one thing during the campaign and then do something completely different while they are in office.  Our boss may make a promise about a raise, but then months go by and the paycheck hasn’t changed.  This world is full of unreliable people and information.  The internet can be great, but we don’t know what or who to believe anymore.  Even the church and our pastors can let us down.  I’ve heard the stories about some of the former pastors who have served this congregation and how some of you felt that the pastor and the synod were unfair; that they let you down.

With everyone else letting us down, it becomes very easy to feel like even God has let us down.  When a prayer isn’t answered the way we would like it to be answered.  Or when a friend moves away.  Or a loved one dies before we expected them to.  Or what God calls us to do is really not what we want to do.  Then we feel like God has let us down.  God has failed us.  Why even bother with a god because our God apparently doesn’t care about us.

This is exactly what Jesus is getting at when He is talking to the Pharisees.  He calls them, and really everything and everyone else in the world that lets us down, that all of them are the hired hands who run away from God’s sheep (that’s you) when they see the wolf (or trouble) coming towards them.  Our parents, friends, bosses, pastors, and even our church can and will at times let us down because they all are part of this sinful world we live in.  But Jesus says that He will NEVER let us down because He is the Good Shepherd and the shepherd is the one who owns the sheep.

At your baptism, the shepherd put his brand on you.  (I know that people brand their cattle, but I don’t know if they actually brand sheep.)  The brand that the Good Shepherd put on you is in the form of a cross on your forehead.  God marked you as one of his.  Kasey, in just a few minutes, we all get to witness and praise God for soon he will put his brand on you.

When the world abandons us at the first sign of danger, God says, “I’m not leaving your side.”  When you feel like no one is reliable or trustworthy anymore, God says, “I haven’t broken a promise with you yet, and I don’t intend to start now.”  Jesus is indeed our Good Shepherd, who always has our best interest at hand.  He may not always do what we WANT, but what he does is always what we NEED.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who claimed us through the waters of baptism, promises to ALWAYS be with us through the good times of life and especially through the tough times in life – when volunteers just decide not to show up to work their shift in a coffee house, when a parent lets us down, when a spouse chooses their own interest over the interest of your family, when a so-called friend turns out to be not a friend at all, when your boss could care less about you, and when it feels like the entire world is against you…Jesus, your Good Shepherd, will stop at nothing to ensure the safety, security, and needs of ALL of His sheep in His flock – including YOU!  And to show that He would do anything for you, Jesus laid down His life, of His own choosing, in order to take it up again so that just as Jesus was raise from the dead, you too have the promise from God of having a resurrection like Christ’s and eternal life with God.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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3rd Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 19, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 3:12-19

Psalm 4

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

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

If you were in Jesus’ shoes, what would be the first thing you would say to your disciples upon seeing them after rising from the dead?  I’d probably say something to the effect of, “Thanks jerks!  Why’d you all flee when I got arrested?”  If I were Jesus, I probably wouldn’t be very happy with my disciples when I saw them after rising from the dead.  But instead, Jesus says, “Peace be with you!”  Instead of being angry or upset, Jesus offers his peace to all of them.

In the Acts reading, Peter has just healed a man and a crowd begins to form, oohing and awing over what Peter just did.  They think that it is pretty cool to see this man healed from his illness.  But instead, Peter goes off on these people; telling them that this man was healed not because of what he did, but because of what Jesus did.  But none of them would know this because they rejected Jesus and asked for a murderer instead.  Plus they are the ones who killed Jesus, the one who made it possible for this man to be healed.  But even though they acted out of ignorance, God used their ignorance to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets.  Peter admits to the crowd that he has sinned as well; he too rejected Jesus, fleeing and denying that he even knew who Jesus was.  But when Jesus appears to the disciples, including Peter, after his resurrection, Jesus forgives all of them, including Peter.  So since Peter has sinned and has received forgiveness from Jesus, he confidently and boldly tells the people in Acts that they too have sinned and with their repentance will come forgiveness from Jesus.

Now, do you know how many times Peter and the rest of the disciples saw Jesus after the resurrection?  Once?  Twice?  We aren’t entirely sure how many times Jesus appeared to his disciples, but we do know that it was multiple times.  And each time that he appears to his disciples he always greets them with the phrase, “Peace be with you.”  And almost every time Jesus encounters his disciples after Easter, some are frightened by his appearance and others doubt that he really has risen from the dead.  So Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection multiple times in order to prove to them that he really has risen from the dead and to calm their fears and dispel their doubts.

So where do we, Jesus’ disciples of today, encounter Jesus?  Certainly in the people that we meet and the places where we go, but Jesus has promised that he will always show up at the church through bread and wine, but not today.  You see, we meet Jesus when we come to this place.  So when you are inviting people to come to church, are you inviting them to come and meet Jesus or are you actually inviting them just to fill the pews (which satisfies your own desire to see a fuller church on Sunday mornings)?  Or is your motivation to get more people in the church so that there would be more money in the offering plate (which satisfies your own desire to not have to give as much money to God and Christ’s church)?  You see, if our motivation to get people in the church is for the purpose of increasing our average worship attendance and increasing the amount of money that we take in each Sunday, then we are in the wrong business and you are in the wrong church.  The only reason why we are here and have been in existence for as long as we have been is because here, in this place, we meet Jesus!

How often do you think we need to meet Jesus?  Every once in a while?  When it is most convenient for you?  When we aren’t regularly attending church, to meet Jesus, we can become frightened by God and begin doubting if Jesus actually died for me.  The only way to truly calm our fears from this life and the world we live in, is to meet Jesus on an ongoing basis.  The only way to dispel our doubts about God’s forgiveness and love for us, is to meet Jesus on an ongoing basis.

So you want Jesus on your terms, and your sole desire to have more people coming to church is to fill the pews and give the checking account a boost.  Where does that leave you?  Honestly, no better than the people that Peter criticized for wanting to see a man healed but were the same ones that wanted Jesus crucified.  Luckily for them and especially you, Peter reassures all of us that there is forgiveness from Jesus.  Peter, who sinned against Jesus, was fully forgiven of his sins and was even entrusted to be the leader of the church.  So it is also with you, who has sinned against Christ’s church.  Jesus has fully forgiven you all of your sins.  And Jesus calls all of us to invite people to come to His church, not to fill the pews or to boost the checking account balance, but to meet Jesus, through bread and wine.  You are witnesses of these things.  Not because you have to, but because why wouldn’t you want everyone to meet our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ?  God really did resurrect Jesus from the dead.  Even though Jesus was resurrected, he continues to bear the marks of his suffering for you.  We can’t fully understand why Jesus would do this for us, but he commissions us to share this good news.  And this good news is for everyone!  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

2nd Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 12, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1–2:2

John 20:19-31

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

So where is everyone today?  Was the empty tomb so terrifying that people didn’t want to come back?  Or maybe hearing that reminder that Jesus died and rose just to forgive your sins was enough of church for the next 6 months or so.  Regardless, the Sunday after Easter is typically a low attendance day and it has been this way for centuries.  I think what many people fail to realize is that Easter is a celebration that lasts in the church for 50 days.  By Easter Monday, all the stores are greatly discounting all of their Easter candy and decorations, but the church is still having a party – we are still celebrating.

But you know, even in the text that we have this morning, the disciples are not celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord.  No, they heard about the empty tomb and they immediately fled and locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews.  The Jews put guards at Jesus’ tomb in order to keep Jesus where he was, dead and in the tomb, for they were afraid that the disciples might steal the body and make it look like Jesus was raised from the dead.  So when the disciples hear about the empty tomb, they lock themselves in a room for fear that the Jews may come to them looking for Jesus’ body.  And Jesus appears to ten of the disciples anyway and gave them his peace, which is an eternal, never-ending Sabbath rest.

But Thomas, one of his disciples, wasn’t there.  We don’t know exactly why he wasn’t present with the other ten, but regardless, Thomas wasn’t present.  And when he finds out that Jesus visited the other ten, he gets jealous.  Now I’m sure none of you here today ever get jealous of other people!  You are always perfectly content with what you have and how your life is, right?

Now Thomas was not only jealous but also arrogant and an unbeliever.  Usually you hear Thomas referred to as the doubter or Doubting Thomas.  Today I’m going to give you a different perspective of Thomas; he was explicitly choosing to not believe in Jesus’ resurrection.  Here are three words for you: faith, doubt, and unbelief.  Faith is having complete trust and confidence in God.  So when you have faith in God, you trust with complete confidence that God will stay true to the promises that he made to you in your baptism (specifically those promises related to forgiving all of your sins and giving you everlasting life with Him).  Doubt is feeling uncertain about God’s plan.  So when you doubt God, you are doubting those promises that you were given in baptism.  And really, how can we be completely certain that these things will actually happen – that ALL of our sins will indeed truly be forgiven, and will we actually be with God with an everlasting Sabbath rest for all of eternity?  We certainly have times when we doubt God don’t we?  And then there is unbelief which is the complete absence of faith in God – the complete absence of trust and confidence in God.  This is what Thomas had.  He was beyond the doubting part, he was unbelieving.  He didn’t want to believe that Jesus was alive.  He was certain that there was no way for Jesus to come back from the dead, so he told the disciples that he would not believe unless he sees the marks of the nails and puts his fingers in those marks and his hand in his side where the soldier pierced Jesus’ side.  It is like telling someone that you will do something that you don’t really want to do, only if they can overcome the impossible.  For example, I’ll shave my head if someone would give me a million dollars.  I know that no one is going to come forward with a million dollars, so I feel pretty safe in making that statement.  The same is true with Thomas, he feels pretty safe in making the statement that he will believe that Jesus rose from the dead because he is certain that it is not possible.  So Thomas thinks that he is in the clear, except 8 days later, Jesus does appear to the disciples (with Thomas) and Jesus offers to Thomas his hands and his side for him to see and touch.  But all Thomas can do is say, “My Lord and my God!”

I don’t think that any of us are as bad as Thomas – blatantly refusing to believe in God, but we aren’t as good as Jesus either – faithfully following wherever and whenever God calls us.  So we are somewhere in between.  Probably Peter or one of the other disciples.  We want God on our terms and when it is most convenient for us.  If God works into our schedule, then we’ll follow, otherwise God has to take a raincheck – the church has to take a raincheck.  At times, such as on Easter Sunday, we want to have faith in God and believe that he rose from the grave, but other times throughout the year, we struggle with that faith and are left more with doubts and questions rather than faith and answers.  The letter from 1 John this morning gives us hope in the midst of our doubts and questions:

The writer writes, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.  My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[1]

It is bound to happen that you will sin and you will continue to sin, but when you come to church, confessing your sins and even your doubts about God, you are promised that God who is faithful and just will forgive your sins and completely cleanse you from all of those things which are unrighteous.  And God is able to fully cleanse you of all of your sins and wipe away all of the darkness that is in your life because Jesus went to the cross, and with him he took all of your sins, having them nailed to the tree in order to leave you naked with nothing at all (no sin).  But you are not alone.  Jesus is indeed with you and he breathes on you and says, “Peace be with you!”  And this peace that comes only from God is an everlasting Sabbath rest for all of eternity.  This peace is what we hope for.  This peace is what we should feel when we come for worship.  This peace is what was promised to you!  God’s love and forgiveness for you will never cease no matter how much you doubt.  For we walk by faith and not by sight.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] 1 John 1:5-2:2, NRSV

Resurrection of Our Lord – Sunday, April 5, 2015

Readings for the day:

Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Acts 10:34-43

Mark 16:1-8

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

The Gospel reading this morning is exactly how not only the Easter story ends in Mark’s Gospel, but actually the enter book of Mark ends this way – with the women fleeing from the empty tomb in terror and amazement and saying nothing to anyone for they were afraid.  Although if you look in your Bibles you will notice that there are multiple endings to Mark’s Gospel because some people were uncomfortable with having Mark’s Gospel end with the women fleeing the empty tomb.  So some added another 11 verses to tie everything up in a nice little bow.  But God breaking open the chains of hell and overcoming death and the grave isn’t orderly and justifiable – it is messy, it is dangerous, it is unfair, it is terrifying!

The women come to the tomb as soon as they can; in fact right away after the sun rises the day after the Sabbath.  They are still overcome by their emotions for Jesus their friend and their Lord not only died but they watched from a distance as soldiers murdered him.  And now when they get to the tomb, they find that the stone has already been rolled away (which would have actually been a relief for them as they questioned how the three of them were going to move the large stone).  But what they find inside the tomb was not a relief – their friend and their Lord missing.  Well no wonder they fled from the tomb in terror and amazement – Jesus was gone and whether the Pharisees broke into the tomb and stole his body or he was a dead man walking the earth – either possibility is terrifying enough to flee the scene, in my opinion!

We know that this is not how the story ends because Jesus does meet with his disciples after his resurrection and 40 days later he ascends into heaven.  But even though we know how the story goes, Mark is intentionally ending the Easter story and his entire account of the Good News of God with three terrified women who flee the empty tomb.  Why?  Why leave the story open ended?  I think Mark does this because realistically, this is all we NEED to know about the Good News of God.  All we really need to know is that God became incarnate (meaning that God took on human form to be like us) so that he would know what it was like to be us and so that he could finally save us from our sins.  God became incarnate through Jesus, walking this earth and remaining faithful to his mission, Jesus goes to the cross, having absorbed all of our sins, and dies on the cross in one of the most humiliating ways to die.  But the devil does not get the last word here, for death could not and will not keep our God dead.  Instead God breaks open the tomb and in rising from the dead, Jesus has not only forgiven us all of our sins, but has also opened to us the way to eternal life – which is only through faith in Jesus.  So really, what more do you need to know than that God came into the world to save it and he did so by suffering, dying, and rising from the dead.

But you know, even though that is the gospel in a nutshell, the world desires more.  Even though this is the full and complete Good News of God, WE still desire more.  We are consumerists who are always desiring more – whether that is more material things or more information, more knowledge – we want more.  That’s why some people even added the additional endings to Mark’s Gospel.

So you want more and you will get more, but you don’t have to look past these original eight verses to get more.  Notice in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t anywhere near the tomb – he is on his way to Galilee and the angel tells the women that he will meet them and his disciples there.  In other Gospel accounts, Jesus does make an appearance at the tomb, but not in Mark.  This is because, for Mark, we don’t sit around waiting at the tomb for our loved one to rise from the dead for there is still work to be done.  Jesus doesn’t meet his disciples in a cemetery, for there is no work to be done among the dead.  Rather he returns to Galilee where most of his ministry took place, and there the disciples will find work to be done among the living.

We too, have work to do – not among the dead, but among the living.  But we don’t do this work alone, for Jesus goes on ahead of us to the site of his ministry.  With his disciples, he went on ahead of them to Galilee and with us (his disciples today), Jesus goes on ahead of us too.  Whatever Jesus has in store for the future of his church will probably not be what we would first suspect.  We simply go where Jesus leads us.  When we first began talking and planning the Easter Vigil for last night, we honestly said that we would have considered this to be a success if we got about 20 people involved and a total of about 40 people to show up.  God ended up getting 95 people involved and a total of nearly 250 people showing up to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord!  Jesus goes on ahead of us; we do not carry on Christ’s ministry in the world on our own.  We have help!  And that help comes from God!

Believe it or not, God is doing some wonderful, amazing things in the western side of Martin County.  And we can either flee the scene in terror, or we can follow our risen Lord with amazement to wherever he leads.  Jesus went to the cross, died and rose from the dead – forgiving sins and giving the promise of eternal life to not only you, but also your neighbor.  And not just to you and your neighbor, but the whole world.  Jesus continues to be at work in the world and he will stop at nothing to bring all people to himself, even if that means bringing an Easter Vigil service back to Martin County.  Jesus uses his church to do whatever it takes because it was not out of necessity but love for you that Jesus willingly went to the cross.  Jesus died and rose from the dead for YOU, a poor sinful being who was in desperate need of saving – and that is exactly what Jesus did.  Jesus has forgiven and saved YOU!  Christ has risen!  He has risen indeed, alleluia!  AMEN!

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.