14th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 22) – Sunday, August 30, 2015

Readings for the day:

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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

So in Mark’s Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is getting after the Pharisees and the scribes for being so worried about an old cleansing tradition.  They get after Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat with defiled hands (meaning they ate before washing them).  The Pharisees argue, “We have always done it this way.  How dare they go against tradition?”  These Pharisees and scribes were so concerned about cleanliness and what was going in the body.

Now we are quite similar actually; many if not all of us here this morning are mindful and concerned about what goes in our bodies.  You make decisions about healthy versus unhealthy foods that you eat.  You’re probably quite mindful of the pills and other medicines that you are putting in your body.  Hopefully you’re paying attention to how much water you are drinking in a day.  Plus we try to limit the amount of unhealthy beverages that we consume; like pop, alcohol and caffeine.  You see, we are very concerned about what is going in our bodies.  The Pharisees were concerned because those who ate with dirty hands were considered defiled or spoiled or desecrated.

But Jesus turns this tradition around on the Pharisees and says it’s not what goes in the body that defiles someone, but it is what comes out that defiles.  With how concerned we are about what goes in our bodies, Jesus is also talking to us.  It is not what goes in your body that defiles you and makes you a sinner, it is what comes out of it.  And Jesus backs up his argument, when you put something in your body, where does it go?  As Jesus says, “it enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer; never once entering the heart.”  And the heart is what matters most to God.

What defiles us, making us unclean, making us a sinner, is not what goes in our bodies, but what comes out of our hearts through our words, our actions, and our thoughts.  So what is coming out of your heart through your words, actions and thoughts?  What message are you sending to your family with your words and actions?  Do they hear that you care about them and love them or that they really don’t matter much?  What message do your friends and co-workers or your boss hear – that you’re dedicated or you could really care less?  What message are you sending to God?  Do you act in a way that you fully trust and believe in God?  Or do you only call on God when you need help?  That God should be there when you need him, but otherwise you don’t need to bother with God, nor should he bother you.

Or how about the church, the body of Christ.  What message do our words and actions say about this church, about us?  Are we welcoming to visitors that we don’t know?  Do we go out of our way to welcome these visitors into the church?  Or do we just ignore them and when they leave ask around, “So who was that sitting in the third pew from the back?”

Jesus’ point could be described by how a clay pot is formed.  How many of you have ever worked with clay?  In 7th grade art, I had to make a clay pot for an assignment and let’s just say that I didn’t keep the pot.  But anyway, as you are forming this clay pot, you begin with a center and work outwards.  And as you do that, it becomes quite easy to lose the center of the pot (that’s what happened with me, my clay pot was not circular, it was more oval to almost rectanglish).  But as you are forming this pot, your goal is to keep focus on the center.  And this is what Jesus is trying to get across to us, focusing on ourselves and what goes in the body, and focusing on old traditions because we’ve always done it this way, takes our focus off of the center, off of Christ at the center.

Whatever comes out of your mouth reveals who you really are.  So as the reading from James today reminds us, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  Be doers of the word, not merely hearers of it.  If you come here and listen to God’s Word through song, scripture and sermon and go “Oh that was nice”, but don’t do anything (meaning you don’t change your attitude or your lifestyle or your devotion with God), then that message from James is for you.  He’s telling us, don’t simply hear God’s Word, God’s Word is intended to move you to act on something.  So when you hear that Christ is to be at your center (and the only one at your center), then do something about that to keep Christ as your center.  And the same is true for our church.  Is Christ at the center of everything that we do, from council decisions, to the maintenance of our building, to how the sanctuary is decorated, to how we act and treat one another?

If Christ is not at the center then we’re doing something wrong, and He will stop at nothing to be at the center for our God is a jealous God.  He doesn’t want to be one of many in our lives, he wants to be the only one in our lives.  And He will stop at nothing to get there.  Jesus is constantly working on us to become the ONLY priority in our lives and He will not rest until He has reached His goal.

During Jesus’ ministry, He also had one goal, and that was to go to the cross, to take your sins (all of those things that defile you including your obsession about yourself instead of caring for others).  You don’t like that, well too bad.  Jesus took all of those sins that you enjoy and love, every last one of them, and they were nailed to the tree.  Jesus took your sins away so that He could be the only one at the center of your life.  Trust the word of God over yourself and your traditions because Jesus is indeed the answer to it all.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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13th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 21) – Sunday, August 23, 2015

Readings for the day:

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

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

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Does that offend you?  Jesus’ ministry was and still should be quite offensive.  He wasn’t running with the high political rulers or with the high religious leaders of his time.  He wasn’t even spending time with the average Joe.  He was dining with sinners; associating himself with the outcasts, the sick, and even the dead.  Jesus WAS countercultural.  He was pushing against the status quo.  The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, he said.  He didn’t care about making people happy, or satisfying people’s desires.  His objective was much bigger.

But even though you already know where this sermon is going to go, because you know what Christ’s bigger objective was, where (or who) is it that you look to for your salvation, your freedom from the hurts and pains of this life?  Where do you go for the freedom from your sin?  Of course your answer should be Jesus, and Jesus only.  But it’s not always is it?  Sometimes our answer to that question is not Jesus; even though we would consider ourselves to be better Christians than those who rarely come to church.  There are many other things in this world that we try to substitute in place of Jesus.  We will look to shopping, or alcohol, or putting our hope in a new political figure like Donald Trump, or running away to avoid our problems.  Wherever, or whoever we put our trust in, that is our god.  Our god, let it be money, or fame, or knowledge, or celebrities, or nature, or activities like athletics or outdoor sports.  Wherever we look to for our salvation, the freedom from our hurts, pains, and sins of this world that becomes our god.

Now in the Old Testament reading for today, the Jews were facing military defeat and exile, and so they were looking to earthly things to serve as their gods.  And Joshua gathers all of the tribes together and he tells them that they need to make a decision, which god are they going to put your complete trust in and follow.  They had plenty of choices to choose from, they just needed to pick one.

Many of Jesus’ followers were rather wishy washy too.  They were drawn to him only because he fed all of those people with very little bread.  They figured that if they kept following him, then they wouldn’t have to worry about their next meal.  They saw Jesus as their salvation, but only because they wanted more bread and he could provide that for them, not because he was the bread of life.

But then Jesus had to go and make it hard and even offend them when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Now that was taking it too far.  It was fine when he was just multiplying the loaves of bread, but now he says that they have to eat his flesh, drink his blood and abide in him.  Well that doesn’t sound like much fun.  So they began saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  They were looking for an earthly solution to a spiritual problem.  Their lives were broken because of their sin.  Their sinful actions kept separating them from God.   But they figured if they followed this new guy around, someone who at least has powers to feed them and heal them, they just might stand a chance against the Romans.

We too, look for earthly solutions to our spiritual problems.  And many times the solutions that we find are temporary and fail.  Money, fame, alcohol, knowledge, celebrities, nature, athletics or outdoor sports can all free us from the sense of brokenness of this world, for a time.  But they all fail us, eventually.

There is only one solution that can forever save us from our problems and our issues.  This solution is very offensive to people and has even been the cause for many people to leave the church, it’s called Jesus!  Many of Jesus’ ‘followers’ turned back and no longer followed him because they realized that they weren’t going to get any more bread (at least not the bread that they were looking for).  Jesus wasn’t going to give them what they wanted; Jesus was going to give them what they needed, and they didn’t like that.

Joshua tells the Jews that they can chose whichever god they want to follow and serve, but “as for me and my household (Joshua says), we will serve the Lord.”  After many of Jesus’ followers leave him, he turns to his faithful 12 disciples and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?”  And then Peter gives this wonderful answer, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

Now whether you knew it or not, I bet you came here today, choosing to come over many other things that you could have done, because you wanted something more.  The earthly solutions that we can come up with are only temporary.  We need something more; something more permanent, something bigger, something eternal.  Well you found it.  “Lord, to whom can we go?”  We can’t go anywhere else to find relief from our sin or the brokenness of this world, except to come to you, O Lord.

Yes, this faith is hard, it is offensive, it is challenging, but that’s because it is something completely foreign to this world.  Who would lay down their life and sacrifice everything for people whom they don’t even know?  Jesus did!  Who would tell their followers to eat their body and drink their blood so that they may be nourished and have life?  Jesus did!  Who can possibly forgive someone of their sins AND not hold a grudge against that person?  Jesus can!  Who has the authority to promise and give life beyond the death of this world?  Jesus does!

Our Lord, who having faith in is hard, made it easy for us to be part of his family by claiming us in baptism.

Our Lord, who’s ministry is offensive to many, will defend and protect those whom he loves.

Our Lord, who challenges us through his teachings, gives us spiritual nourishment through a simple meal of bread and wine, his own body and blood.

All of this, and more, Jesus has done for you because he loves you, cares about you, and wants to spend eternity with you.  Oh where can we go, for our Lord has the words of eternal life.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

12th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 20) – Sunday, August 16, 2015

Readings for the day:

Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:9-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

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

So a little boy was waiting for his mother to come out of the grocery store.  A stranger approached and asked, “Son, can you tell me where the Post Office is?”  “Sure!” said the boy, “Just go straight down this street a couple blocks and turn to your right.”  “Thank you,” said the man.  “I’m the new pastor in town.  Why don’t you come to church on Sunday?  I’ll show you how to get to Heaven.”  “Awww, come on…” said the boy.  “You don’t even know the way to the Post Office.”[1]

Jesus told the crowd and his disciples that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”[2]  Unfortunately, it is very easy to see communion not as a spiritual meal, but as a magic act, or that it is just a symbol, a representation of what Jesus did the night he was betrayed.  Or we will doubt the promises that are made to us through our eating and drinking.  We’ll question if we really are forgiven of our sins.  Do we really have a future with God?  Does heaven actually exist and will Jesus really give us eternal life?

It is not uncommon to have these doubts.  You know, eternal life is something that is actually quite hard to understand.  To believe in eternal life, means to put our complete trust in God’s Word.  Eternal life is that one promise that we have no way of receiving any sort of validation from someone who had been there before.  As our family was preparing for our trip to Wyoming and Colorado this summer, we would ask people, who have been there before, what we should go and see.  Are we going to like it?  What should we do?  And what should we not waste our time on?  With eternal life we can’t do that.  We can’t just call or text grandma and ask, “So what’s it like?”  “Am I going to like it?”  “Would going to church be a good use of my time?”

Unfortunately we can’t do that.  This whole faith thing would be a lot easier if it was that simple, but it’s not.  We can’t just call or text our loved ones who have died to get a read on if eternal life is for us or not.  We have to completely trust and rely on God’s Word.  We have to go throughout life believing and hoping that this eternal life will meet our expectations.  But it’s hard to do this day in and day out because other people’s words have failed us.  And when enough of people’s advice turn up to be duds, then it’s rather easy to just assume that God’s Word and promises are also going to be duds.

And then Jesus has to go and say, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  Great, so now unless we turn into cannibals, we are lifeless, we are duds.  Of course we don’t think that we are cannibals when we come and feast at the table of our Lord, but this is why the Jews got so confused by Jesus’ teaching.  They thought that Jesus was talking about cutting off one of his arms and that they were going to have to eat part of his flesh and drink his blood.  Which is true; he did say that, but on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus instituted (or established) how his followers were to eat his body and drink his blood – through the breaking of the bread and the cup of the vine.  Jesus told his disciples that this bread IS my body and this wine IS my blood, eat of my body and drink of my blood.  For those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

So when we come to the table of our Lord, we feast on the body and blood of Jesus.  And when you do so, Jesus has promised that just as you will abide with him, he will abide (or remain or stay) with you forever.  And when Christ abides with you, you are given life, given purpose, given direction for this life.  Jesus also forgives you all of your sins and promises that when your earthly life is over, you need not fear, for your death will not be the end for you.  You have more to come.  For when you abide with Christ, you will be given eternal life.  All of this comes to you through a very simple meal that Christ himself prepares for us through bread and wine.

With how difficult this world can be with all of the necessary requirements that we have to meet just to get an education, or to qualify for healthcare, to apply for a loan, or to even buy a car.  There are so many hoops to jump through that at times it becomes easier to just give of and say forget it, I don’t need the car that badly.  But with Jesus, he gives a long list of things that you will receive: the forgiveness of all your sins, purpose and life in this troubled world, and eternal life with God in paradise without sin.  And all of this you received at your baptism.

So when you come to eat of Christ’s body and drink of his blood, this simple meal is not only a reminder of your life with God, but it is also a physical and spiritual nourishment.  In this world there are many distractions, so it is very easy to forget these things that we received at our baptisms, but when we come to the Lord’s Table to feast on the Bread of Life, we are nourished and physically reminded that Jesus is our savior and we do indeed belong to God.

Through your eating and drinking, God has forgiven you all of your sins, including those doubts about the likelihood of eternal life and if Jesus truly is present in this meal that we are about to receive.  God forgives you, gives you life, gives you purpose, and gives you eternal life in his name.  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] http://ralphmiltonsrumors.blogspot.com/2009/08/preaching-materials-for-august-16-2009.html

[2] John 6:54, NRSV

11th Sunday after Pentecost (Lect 19) – Sunday, August 9, 2015

Readings for the day:

1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25–5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

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

Today is now the third Sunday in a row that we are celebrating Holy Communion, something that is out of the ordinary for us.  So thinking back, when was the first time that you received Holy Communion?  Was is it on your confirmation day?  And when was Holy Communion celebrated?  Once a month?  Usually on the first Sunday of the month?  Well that’s how it was for me too.  I finally received Holy Communion for the first time at the end of my 9th grade year when I was confirmed.  Plus confirmation Sunday was on the first Sunday of May so that we could celebrate Holy Communion since we only celebrated on the first Sunday of the month, with the exception of Maundy Thursday and Easter.

So why did I have to wait until I was confirmed in order to receive the Sacrament?  I don’t know.  Honestly I didn’t even know what the Sacrament really was when I was confirmed.  And I saw the first Sunday of the month as the one Sunday each month that meant we had a longer church service.  Actually, I believe our 3 year old has a better understanding of what Communion is than I did when I was confirmed.  2 weeks ago I was at Waverly on a Monday evening for a small wedding ceremony.  The couple wanted to celebrate Holy Communion as they began their new life together.  After the ceremony, I was cleaning up from Communion and there were a few leftover cups filled with wine as well as grape juice.  As is proper custom for disposing of the remaining bread and wine, we either consume the leftovers or return the elements to the ground from which it came.  Since there were only a few cups leftover, I drank the remaining cups.  As I was doing that, Nicholas comes into the sacristy and points to one of the cups and says completely unprompted, “That’s Jesus!”  Stephanie and I were blown away.  So we asked him if he wanted to have Communion.  He said yes, so we gave him a wafer and a cup of grape juice.  And he was so excited to be receiving Jesus.

Whereas my son understood what this bread and wine really is, the Jews did not understand Jesus at all when He said that He was the Bread of Life.  Jesus had just got done feeding the multitude by turning their scarcity into an abundance.  Their physical hunger was satisfied, but they did not understand Him when He said that He was the bread that came down from heaven.  They couldn’t understand how He could have come down from heaven when they knew who His parents were – Mary and Joseph.  And so they began complaining or grumbling amongst themselves.  Now in the church I know that there is never any complaining or grumbling, right?  We don’t complain about how the church is decorated, or how special worship services are conducted, or how things are done (or not done), and can you imagine the horror if the younger generation actually does start coming to church and begins making decisions for this church?  You know, actually our complaining makes us no better off than the Israelites who were in the wilderness and ate the manna, bread from heaven.  And all who ate this bread in the wilderness died in the wilderness because even though they were being nourished by heaven through daily bread, they still walked by sight and not by faith.  We too, walk by sight and not by faith quite often.  We listen to what this world tells us to do and we put our trust in the ol’ mighty dollar instead of putting our trust in our God who has referred to Himself as the Bread of Life.  All the Israelites had to do was to trust that every morning when they woke up, that there would be bread on the ground for them.  All the Jews had to do is see beyond the miracle of a multitude of people being fed with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, but instead of seeing their Savior standing right in front of them, all they wanted was more bread.  All we have to do is believe that God is here, present with us; trust that He has our back.  But it’s hard.  It’s hard to believe and trust when it appears that He is nowhere to be found.  Accidents, shootings, cancer, miscarriages, layoffs, and instable markets all put our faith into question.  In the midst of all of this evil, where is the good?  Or better yet, where is God?

Well, He has actually never left.  In fact, every Sunday is considered to be Easter Sunday, where we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.  So every 7 days we get to celebrate the reality that our God went to the cross, sacrificing Himself for us and overcoming death and devil by rising to new life.  And when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, not just the first Sunday of the month, but every Sunday of the month, then we get to feast of the Bread of Life – the One who said that anyone who eats of this bread will live forever.  Through our feasting, we physically receive the complete forgiveness of our sins.  Plus we are giving the reassurance that God is still present with us in this troubled world – that even though throughout the week it appears that the devil is winning more and more each day.  But the true reality is that Christ got the final victory over the devil and all of his evil ways, which are still present, but will not last forever, because Jesus overcame all of this on the cross.  Death has been swallowed up in the victory of our Lord.

Come to the feast!  Receive the forgiveness of your complaints, grumblings, and all other sins in the most physical way possible!  Rest assured that God is present with us in this troubled world!  And get a foretaste of that heavenly feast to come!  Amen.

© 2015 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.