Day of Pentecost – Sunday, May 24, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-35

Romans 8:22-27

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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

The day of Pentecost, a holiday in the church year that Hallmark doesn’t know about yet (and I think we should keep it that way).  Each year, we the church, celebrate Christmas (the birth of Christ, and the world gives us a jolly old fat guy), we celebrate Easter (the death and resurrection of Christ, and the world gives us a bunny), and we celebrate Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit and birthday of the church, but the world hasn’t figured out how to secularize this one yet).

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but who is the Holy Spirit?  Before being confirmed, all of our confirmation students have to write a faith statement which is facilitated by answering a series of questions to state what they believe.  One of those questions is to describe how the Holy Spirit is at work in their life.  Of all the questions they need to answer, this is the one that ends up being the most difficult and challenging one to answer.  Some of you are probably thinking, “I’m glad that I’m done with confirmation…I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question.”

We don’t like to talk about the Holy Spirit very much because there is a certain mystical feel about the Holy Spirit that is hard to describe.  We would much rather talk about Jesus since we know who he is and what he has done.  But the Holy Spirit does some wonderful things in our lives, even today.

As many of you know, I have a bachelor’s degree in Construction Management, but I don’t use that degree very much being a pastor.  Although many of you probably saw the papers this week about the Trimont Town Center’s groundbreaking.  If you didn’t get a chance to see it, yours truly was present at that groundbreaking ceremony not only to give the invocation, but also to help break ground on this community project.  This past winter I was asked to join the Town Center board of directors as a construction advisor as they begin the construction phase of this project.  I have wondered ever since starting seminary, how God would use this construction management degree while being in a full-time pastoral call.  I can only describe this as the Holy Spirit at work in my life.  The Holy Spirit led me to this call, to not only use my organizational and leadership skills to better the ministry of this new parish, but now I’m realizing that I was also called here to put my construction management degree to good use.  I’ve tried imagining how I would be able to do both ministry and construction, and none of the ideas that I came up with resembled anything close to what has taken shape over the last few months.

How is the Holy Spirit at work in your life?  What has happened throughout your life that has gotten you to where you are today?  Does any of it surprise you, maybe something that is out of the ordinary?  Does it appear that it happened by fate?  I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe in the Holy Spirit and the guiding, leading, encouraging work that he does.

You know it is okay to be confused by the work of the Holy Spirit; even on that first day of Pentecost, many people were confused.  Some even thought that the disciples were drunk.  The people thought this because Pentecost was a Jewish celebration 50 days after Passover where they celebrated Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.  So there were Jews from many different countries in Jerusalem – each with their own customs and languages.  And after the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, they each began sharing the Good News of God in different languages, so that everyone was able to know what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These people were so confused that these men, who weren’t from their country, were able to speak in their native language, so these disciples must have been drunk.  But Peter corrects them and says that the prophecy from Joel was just fulfilled with the coming of the Holy Spirit.  And the prophecy was to expect the unexpected.

Who would expect that God’s Word could be proclaimed by our sons and daughters?  Who would expect the young to receive visions from God?  Or who would expect the old to have dreams from God?  The Holy Spirit tends to surprise us with the unexpected.  Many times it may be doing something that seems out of the ordinary, like having disciples talking in our own native language, or calling a young pastor who could be your child or even grandchild, or getting an idea for an outreach ministry that is out of the ordinary, or bringing new businesses to a rural community in a non-traditional way.  The Holy Spirit works in ways that often surprise us, maybe to keep us alert and wondering what will happen next, but more so I think because God doesn’t play by our rules.  We have our traditions and ways of doing things that seem normal and natural, but with God, He plays by different rules.  We already know this through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Many rules were broken on that Easter weekend.  God is not supposed to die.  One man is not supposed to lay down His life for the world.  Sins should not be forgiven by the sacrifice of one spotless lamb.  And humans don’t come back to life after they die.  But then again, our God doesn’t play by our worldly rules because this is exactly what he did for you.  He did go to the cross, he did die, and he did rise from the dead…all for you, all so that you would have life in his name.

So when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, we should expect anything but the ordinary.  Who knows what the Holy Spirit is going to do next, He has already surprised me many times over.  Expect the unexpected for you never know when, where, or how God is going to use you and the gifts that he has given you to spread his Good News of Jesus Christ with the world…it may surprise you!  God has shown us time and time again that anything is possible.  Because of the Holy Spirit, expect the unexpected.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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7th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 17, 2015

Readings for the day:

Ephesians 6:10-17

Genesis 12:1-9

Mark 1:35-39

1 Kings 19:1-8

Philippians 3:12—4:1

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

I like to travel, experience new places and see new things.  And because of my type A personality, I like to have a plan for where we are going and what we need to pack.  I like to be prepared for the journey ahead.  This service that we are having today is a little different.  The readings, hymns and prayers are going to move us through the different stages that we go through in any given journey – whether that is a vacation or a trip, moving to a new place, or entering a new phase of life (like graduating from high school).  We begin with making plans and preparations for our journey, then we set out on that journey, we are on the road for a while, the way becomes difficult at times, and it always feels good to come home.

But now, this life, our lives, are also a journey – a journey that started before we were born.  Plans and preparations were made for our arrival.  Setting out and preparing for the world that we will live in usually begins with a cleansing and claiming by God through the waters of baptism.  And then we are on the road, striving to faithfully walk with God, but the road does become hard at times because of the sin that infects this world and our lives.  And finally our joyful homecoming will be when one day God calls us home to begin a new journey with Him, and this journey will be one without sin, without heartache, without pain.

Jesus promises us that wherever our journeys take us, His love for us will never be separated from us – no matter how hard life may be.  No matter what happens, Jesus will always be with you.  And to show just how many places Jesus goes with us, in your bulletins today you have flat Jesus.  Take flat Jesus home with you and color him, laminate him, put him on a stick, do whatever will make it easy for you to take pictures of him this summer.  I want you to take flat Jesus with you this summer and then take at least 3 pictures with him, showing that wherever we journey through life, Jesus always goes with us.  And with at least 1 of those pictures ask someone that you don’t know to take your picture.  When they ask what you are doing, you can tell them that you church is trying to see how many places that Jesus goes with us.  And just like that you shared the Good News of Jesus with someone.  Remember that for many of you your cell phone has a camera on it.  After you take a picture, send it to me with a caption on where you are at and I’ll get these pictures throughout the summer up on our Facebook page, website and in our monthly newsletter.

No matter where you travel or journey through this life, Jesus has promised you that He is always with you and that there is nothing that you can do to separate yourself from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.  In this world, the journey is not always easy and homecomings are not always joyful, but with God He is always with us on the journey and when God calls us home that will be certainly be a joyful homecoming.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

6th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 10, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 10:44-48

Psalm 98

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

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

You know, I really don’t enjoy watching, reading or listening to the news because the majority of the news that I hear is terrible.  I still keep up on the current events of the day, but most of the time I don’t like what I hear or see.  I’m sure some of you feel as equally as frustrated as I do.  And especially when we have a text like today where Jesus is commanding us to love one another.  Hardly any of the news stories we see or hear is about loving each other, rather it is about getting even with or killing each other.  And then to top it all off, when we come to church all we really want is for the pastor to tell us what we need to do to please God and get to heaven.  Tell me what to do and help me navigate through this troubled world.  That’s what the world tells us that we really need from the church – meet all of the requirements and then we’re good.  You can see this in how many students we have that continue to worship on a regular basis after they are confirmed; not many because they believe they have completed the requirements for their faith and the church.

All we really want to know is the requirements needed to get to heaven.  And it appears that this text today is fairly black and white with the requirements.  Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  So just love one another, don’t break any of the Ten Commandments and you’ll be good.  Except for the fact that you can’t faithfully keep all Ten Commandments.  Some of you use the Lord’s name in vain.  While others disrespect your parents or others in authority.  And I came from a small town, so I know there is gossip that takes place around here.  Plus we don’t always love one another the way that Jesus would like us to.

Well luckily for all of us, the command here is not to love one another, but rather that you would remain attached to the vine – meaning attached to Jesus since he says that he is the vine and we are the branches.  Today we are only hearing the second half of the larger story of Jesus saying that He is the vine and we are the branches.  If we do not remain connected to the vine, then we are branches that wither and die.  Jesus says that apart from Him we can do nothing.  So remain attached to the vine; that is the command.  In other words, Jesus is commanding you to remain or abide in God’s Word.  That is the single most important thing that he wants you to do – remain in God’s Word.  So read it, study it, listen to it, learn it.  Loving one another is what comes out of remaining in God’s Word.  When you abide in scripture you learn what God’s will is and loving one another then is the result of the love that God has shown towards you through the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.

You see, if Jesus’ command is for you to love one another, you certainly would do acts of love, for that is what your savior told you to do – such as donating food to the food shelf, helping out your neighbors, and giving to those in need.  Which none of these things are bad; actually they are quite good and we should be doing them.  But remember, you do not have to do any work in order to be saved from your sins.  Jesus has already done that for you.  Jesus chose you, you did not choose Jesus.  And because Jesus chose you, you can’t do anything to earn your way into heaven – including doing acts of love.

So then we don’t have to do acts of love?  On the contrary, when Jesus says that we are to love each other, we do and will love one another, but not because Jesus commanded us to do so.  Rather, if we follow His command to remain, or abide, with Jesus – so stay connected to the vine through His Word, then we will love one another as a result of the love that we ourselves have received from God through the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross.

You see, your acts of love that you do throughout your week are not done because you have to, but because of the sacrificial love that Jesus has for you.  So continue to love one another, but don’t do it out of obligation for if it is obligation, all you are really doing is helping out your neighbor with the expectation that your neighbor will repay the favor someday.  Rather, we help out our neighbors with no strings attached.  We help them out without the expectation that they will repay us; for Christ did not go to the cross with the expectation that He would save us but assumed that we would one day repay Him for that sacrifice.  No, this was an unconditional act of love.  This is what Jesus says we will do when we study, read, listen, learn, and abide in His Word.

If you don’t like that, too bad.  You did not choose this path, Jesus chose you.  Why?  Why has God chosen you?  Because He appointed or chose you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.  God chose you to further His kingdom by being a witness of this unconditional love that has been given to you.  Where shall we share this news?  How about starting with an alternative to the tragic news that we hear through the media all of the time.  Instead of hating each other and always trying to get even with one another, how about we share the love that Christ had for us by being an example to others.

Remember, whether you like it or not, Jesus chose you to go and bear fruit for God’s kingdom, but you can’t even begin to love one another in an unconditional sort of way unless you have first remained in God’s Word.  You are the branches to Christ’s vine and as the branches you will bear fruit for God because you did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose you.  And the Father will give you whatever you ask Him in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

5th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 3, 2015

Readings for the day:

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm 22:25-31

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

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

I am so glad that it is finally spring time.  For me, spring time means getting my hands dirty and working in the garden.  Last week my wife and I planted most of our garden, with the exception of the tomato and pepper plants.  I enjoy gardening.  The garden looks so nice after it has just been tilled.  The soil is so soft as I place those seeds in the ground every 3 inches.  And in a 10 foot row of green beans, that is going to amount to a lot of plants that will produce many green beans later this summer.

But you know, shortly after planting the garden, I have to do my least favorite part of gardening, the thinning and pruning of the seedlings.  On the back of the seed packages, it gives directions on how to plant and care for your new seeds.  And if I don’t follow the directions exactly, I may not get as much of an abundant harvest as I hope for.  One of the steps in caring for your new seeds says to thin or prune the new seedlings.  I may have sowed the seeds 3 inches apart, but now I am told that I need to thin out the row so that the plants are 6 inches apart.  I went through all of this trouble last week to put all of these seeds in the ground 3 inches apart, and now in the next couple of weeks as the seeds begin growing, I have to go and pull up some of these newly grown plants in order for the other plants to flourish.  Not always an easy thing to do, but it is a necessary thing to do.

Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches, and God is the gardener caring for the vine and the branches.  Any branch that doesn’t bear fruit for God will be removed from the vine.  Well that makes sense, if you have a tree branch that isn’t producing any leaves this spring, it probably needs to be removed.  The same is true with us – if we are not producing a harvest for God, if we are not pleasing God through our words and our actions, we might as well be removed – because we serve no purpose for God.  But if you are bearing fruit for God (meaning – doing what pleases God through words and actions), then God, as the good gardener, will prune your life.

Pruning is a very healthy thing for a plant, as I have learned in my own garden.  It is not an easy thing to do because it means breaking off parts of the plant that are still green and growing, but when you do prune the plant, it actually grows better, stronger, and produces a fuller harvest in the end.

What needs pruning in your life?  Are you so busy with everything that you don’t have time for anything?  When plants are pruned, they grow stronger because they can redirect their energy to the branches that are left.  If you feel like you are so busy that you can’t get anything done, then maybe you need to prune some things in your life, in order to strengthen the other areas.

And how strong is your relationship with God?  Is it just another one of the many things that you have to do?  Another thing that you have to check off your list?  I have school/work, practice, fireman’s meeting, legion meeting, church council meeting, the baseball/softball game tomorrow afternoon, and I know I should go to church.  Oh and better not forget to clean the house once in a while and figure out when and where we want to go on vacation this summer.  My kids aren’t even old enough yet for the school thing and all of the activities that go along with that, and I still feel like this on almost a weekly basis.  We are busy people who really have no time for anything.  So the only way that we can really thrive in any of these areas is to begin pruning certain things out of our lives.  And you know what usually gets pruned first?  You got it, the church.  Our relationship with God is usually one of the first things that gets pruned from our lives.  After all, Jesus said that he forgives me all of my sins, so I suppose he’ll forgive me for skipping church or forgetting to pray.

But remember what Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”[1]  You can do nothing apart from Jesus.  Nothing!  Without Jesus there is no point to living because our whole purpose in being alive is to bear fruit, to produce a harvest for our God.  When we do what God wants by worshipping Him and praying to Him, we please Him.

Zane, Jordan, Sarah, and Carlene – the four of you have completed your instructional portion of confirmation, learning about the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and various stories throughout scripture.  You have learned that apart from Jesus you will amount to nothing.  You may become a very successful adult, but without the church and without your faith in Jesus, you are nothing.  I can’t remember which one of you I told this to, but when we met to talk about your faith statements, I told one of you that we can either live our lives as faithful followers of Jesus, coming to church and doing what God has called us to do, or we can run away from God, reject Jesus and do whatever we feel like doing.  And we won’t know for sure if any of this faith stuff is actually true or not until we die.  And when we die, if none of this is true, that God really isn’t real and it is all just made up, then it won’t really matter because we’ll be dead.  But what if we reject Jesus and live our life doing whatever we want and when we die all of this was actually true?  Then I think we all would feel pretty foolish.  So for me, I am going to trust that when Jesus says that apart from Him we can do nothing and that if we abide (which means to remain) with Him and He remains with us, that one day we will be with God and enjoying the everlasting peace and rest that only God can truly give us.

Jesus is the vine and we are His branches.  Stay close to the vine and you will bear much fruit.  For the gardener is constantly pruning and caring for the vine and the branches to make you stronger and healthier in your relationship with God.  May God continue to bless and prune you until the day comes when you meet the gardener face-to-face when the harvest is collected on the Last Day.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] John 15:5, NRSV