A New Command or a New Commissioning?

Readings for the day (5th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 24, 2016):

Acts 11:1-18

Psalm 148

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

 

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

 

The 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.  That’s the Gospel reading for not just Maundy Thursday, but also today; the fifth Sunday of Easter.  Why?  I wonder if it is because on Maundy Thursday we usually focus more on the act of what Jesus was doing and less on what he says.  And now in the season of Easter, we focus in more so on what he was saying that night he was betrayed by Judas.

After the meal, Judas vanishes into the darkness of the night, while Jesus gives his remaining eleven faithful disciples a new commandment, or rather a commissioning.  A commissioning to tell just how the Son of Man was glorified.  How did Jesus of Nazareth really become so famous and save the world?  By loving us so much that he went to the cross, dying for the sins of all.

Yes we could read this as a simple command from Jesus to love each other.  Loving each other is not a bad thing.  It’s actually a good thing.  It’s better than hating each other.  But simply loving each other doesn’t glorify God.  Loving each other just shows that you aren’t a jerk or mean to one another.  So instead of this being a command to love each other, it is a commissioning to confess your faith in Jesus Christ to the world.  And when you truly have faith in Jesus, the result will be that you love each other.  If all the command is, is to love one another, then you have to work on it.  But if you are commissioned to share this faith with others, you won’t actually share this faith unless you truly believe and confess this faith as well.  And out of your faith comes love for one another – and you didn’t even have to work at it to reach that goal.

I can try to love eating mushrooms, but no matter how much I try, I can’t love them.  It probably doesn’t help that I usually don’t try all that hard either.  But regardless, I have to work at loving them.  But, each time in the months leading up to the birth of my children, I put my trust in God that they would be healthy.  And when they were born, I didn’t have to work at loving them, it just happened.

It is similar with our church family.  We can try to love each other, treating one another with respect, loving everyone who walks in our doors as a fellow brother or sister in Christ.  But when we try it doesn’t work.  It’s like me trying to eat mushrooms, it just doesn’t work.  But instead when we put our faith in God with Christ at the center of everything that we do – and I do mean everything that we do; from worship, to Bible Studies, meetings to serving in the kitchen, mowing the lawn to taking out the trash.  When Christ is at the center of everything that we do, then love for one another will just naturally happen.  And the world will know that we are followers of Christ and have put our faith in God because of not only our love for one another, but also because of the faith that we confess.

As a church we have some similarities with the first century church.  The outlook looks maybe a little frightening with the decrease of attendance and involvement, the increased pastor shortage, and persecutions (and persecutions doesn’t have to take the form of killing someone because of their faith).  By the time that John had received his vision from Jesus, the majority of the twelve disciples had been either arrested or killed; John himself was exiled.  The church really had no stable leadership or any sense of direction.  They felt lost.  So John’s vision, which is recorded in the book of Revelation is a message to the church to keep their eyes focused on Christ.  Jerusalem was going to soon be overrun by the Romans, including the destruction of the temple.  So John tells the church not only of the looming reality, but also hope that is found in Christ.  Jesus tells John that his presence is revealed through the breaking of the bread and the hearing of his word.  So John tells the church that heaven actually comes down to us during our worship each week.  And this is just a glimpse of what is in store for us, for those of us who confess faith in Jesus Christ.  That one day, heaven will descend onto earth.  All of the old things will pass away and God will make everything new.  The graves of all the dead will be opened.  God will be living among his creatures again.  And this time he will put an end to death once and for all.  Death will be no more.  Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  Every tear will be wiped from your face.  For finally, the glorification that God began through Jesus’ death and resurrection will finally be ultimately complete.

This is the faith that we confess.  This is the mission that Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry out.  This is what you are commissioned to go and do.  Tell the world.  If the world is too big for you, tell your neighbors.  This is what the church is commissioned to go and do.  With Christ’s death and resurrection at the center of everything that we do, we will have love for one another, it’s inevitable, it will happen.  And people will know that you are a follower of Christ, because of the faith that you confess, the mission that we share, and the love that you have for one another.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

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Recognizing the Shepherd’s Voice

Readings for the day (4th Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 17, 2016):

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

Revelation 7:9-17

John 10:22-30

 

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

 

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  Traditionally, on the fourth Sunday of Easter each year, we hear how the crucified and risen Jesus calls Himself, the Good Shepherd, our Good Shepherd.  In the segment that we have before us today, Jesus has already referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd and now He says that His sheep (that’s us) hear His voice and follow Him.

A couple weeks ago, Stephanie and I went to a retreat for first call pastors – that is, those who are serving within their first three years of ministry.  Since we are both considered “first call pastors,” at least for another 2 months, we had to go.  And since their parents are both pastors, our kids came too.  Now thankfully there was child care provided during portions of the retreat.  However, the game room where they were at was just down the hall from us.  After riding in the car for 2 hours, our boys had had enough.  No more sitting, they wanted to run.  Luckily for us, this is when the child care help came upstairs and took to boys to the game room.  Now everything was peaceful and fine until, in the faint distance, just barely being heard over the speaker, we could hear a child crying.  Immediately all of the parents in the room who brought children to the retreat, stood up and bolted down the hall.  From a distance no one could tell whose child it was that was crying.  By the time I got to the closed door where the children were playing on the other side, I could tell (without even opening the door) that the child that was crying was not mine.

How do you recognize someone else’s voice?  It certainly doesn’t just happen; it is learned.  It is learned by spending time listening to that person’s voice.  Children learn the voice of their parents over time.  Parents learn the voice of their children over time.  Students even become good at doing impressions of their teachers because they have spent enough time listening to them that they have learned how to mimic their voice.  Before caller id, what did we do?  Most of the time when we answered the phone, if the person on the other end didn’t say who they were, we’d have to ask them.  But we didn’t have to do that with the voices that we recognized – our family members, our close friends, our neighbors.

Voice recognition comes only through listening.  If you have a smartphone, then you probably already know that your phone comes with voice recognition software.  You can speak into it and it will do whatever you tell it to do.  It’ll look something up for you, set a reminder for later, and even give you directions when you’re lost.  Now you could try using the voice recognition immediately, but it might not work just right and that’s because you first have to go through a series of steps, listening steps, so that the phone can listen to you and learn to recognize your voice.

Likewise, we don’t just automatically recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we have to learn it.  And the only way to learn the Good Shepherd’s voice is through listening to it.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is always with us (He has promised us this), but do you recognize Him)?  Are you spending enough time with Him to recognize Jesus when He shows up?

Jesus certainly shows up in our worship.  We are promised that He shows up in the reading and our hearing of God’s Word proclaimed through scripture.  Jesus has told us that He shows up in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of communion.  But Jesus also shows up in the people around us; the people that we encounter every day.  And yes, even in the people that we would least expect.

This week I ran across a story out of Michigan about an innocent man and a crooked cop.  Eleven years ago, a man named Jameel was accused and arrested for dealing drugs.  Except, there was one probably, he never dealt with drugs.  Officer Collins had decided that morning that he was going to make another drug arrest before he went home at the end of the day.  So he put an innocent man in jail.  The officer was eventually caught and served 18 months in jail.  Jameel was released after serving four years in prison.  Last year, both of them, having served time, ended up at a faith-based employment agency, and they now work side by side in the same café.  All Officer Collins could do when they met was to apologize and say that he was sorry for what he did.  And that’s all Jameel needed to hear.  Today these men are friends, a friendship that is rooted in forgiveness and redemption.[1]

Officer Collins saw Jesus in the willingness of Jameel to grant forgiveness.  By our world’s standards, Jameel would have every right to avoid speaking to this officer that falsely accused him and destroyed four years of his life.  And yet, when they meet, Jameel knows what he should do – forgive him.

And you know, this is what God has done for us.  We falsify the truth, we break promises, we hurt people, put our desires ahead of what God asks of us.  For all of these things and more, we have wronged Jesus.  Many times I think that we take Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross too much for granted that we become the one’s swinging that hammer, hitting those nails on the cross (kind of like how Officer Collins wrongly put Jameel in jail for four years for something that he did not do).

And yet, Jesus forgave us.  Jesus forgave us because the shepherd always lays down his life for the sheep.  No matter if it is because of the accuracy of our swing of a hammer on Jesus’ cross, or our inability to always listen and follow our Lord, or our unwillingness to trust that our Good Shepherd will indeed lead us to calm waters and green pastures, not to the chaos and burnt areas of the world.  No matter what, Jesus says that His sheep hear His voice, and we follow Him.  No one will be able to snatch you out of Jesus’ hand, for the Father and the Son are one.  You are united with Jesus through your baptism and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  Therefore you are united with God and can recognize God’s voice because the Father and Jesus are one.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/on-the-road-innocent-michigan-man-ends-up-working-alongside-crooked-cop-that-locked-him/

Just the Promotion We Need

Readings for the day (3rd Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 10, 2016):

Acts 9:1-20

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

 

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

 

What do you do when crisis strikes?  When a loved one dies.  When part of your field, your income for the next year gets flooded.  When you lose your job or things at work go south.  What does one do when the whole world gets thrown upside down and you doesn’t even know which way is up anymore?  What do you do when you would rather select “None of the above” when voting for the next president.  You know what the disciples did?  Peter tells his fellow disciples, “I’m going fishing.”  So Peter watches as his teacher gets publicly murdered, they lay his body in a tomb, a few days later some women tell them that his body is missing, and then Jesus shows up in a locked room, fully alive and says, “Hey guys, I’m alive!”  And then they don’t see Jesus again for a while.  So with all of these crazy, mind blowing events that had taken place in a matter of a couple weeks, Peter decides to go fishing.

Now this fishing isn’t like our view of fishing.  My opinion of fishing is that I want to go, sit in a boat, relax, listen to the water splash against the side of the boat, enjoy the gentle breeze, and not worry about life away from the lake.  Fishing, for me, is a time to get away from responsibilities and away from work for a while.  For Peter, fishing is getting back to his responsibilities and his work.  Life has been crazy for him these last few weeks and all he wants to do is get back to something normal, something routine.

Can you relate?  When life gets crazy and a crisis enters into your life whether it is a major life change, or a death in the family, or a medical procedure that requires recovery time, don’t you just long for something that is not only routine, but also something that you can control?  For Peter that was fishing.  But fishing in the darkness of the night, Peter and the other disciples still have empty nets by morning.  Now in John’s Gospel, a theme of contrasting darkness and light continually comes up.  And in this story it is no different.  The disciples fish all night long, when it is dark, and by morning they come up with nothing.  And it is at dawn when Jesus appears to them and he almost sarcastically asks, “You have no fish, do you?”  It’s almost like he is saying, “Ha ha, you thought that you could do this on your own without me.  And how far did that get you?  Real far I see!”

We can’t do this on our own.  When we try, we fail.  We can try to live life without God’s help, but no matter how hard we try, we will fail.  The disciples tried to go back to their normal lives and act like nothing ever happened, but when they tried, they failed.  They didn’t catch any fish.  We can try, but alone we can do nothing.  We want Jesus.  We need Jesus.  We can’t live without Jesus.

And now when Peter realizes that it is Jesus on the shore who miraculously gave them this catch of 153 fish, and not just 153 fish, but 153 LARGE fish.  Peter jumps into the lake and comes ashore to see Jesus.  He is excited to see Jesus, but shouldn’t Peter also be a little bit embarrassed to see Jesus at this point?  After all, he is the one who said “Let’s go fishing (or basically said ‘Let’s go back to doing what we used to do’)”.  Plus, Peter is the one that denied ever knowing Jesus three times between Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  I heard someone describe this encounter like Peter’s dreadful performance review as a disciple.  And I think there is some truth to that.  Jesus calls Peter over and asks him, “Do you love me?”  He asks him not once, but three times if he loves Jesus.  He asks Peter if he loves Him once for each time that Peter denied him.  Kind of sounds like a performance review.  Peter, do you really love me?  Do you really care about the Gospel message?  Do you really want to be one of my disciples?  And each time he responds with, “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.”

Now for Peter it’s like going into the dreadful performance review, thinking that you’re going to get in some trouble for skipping work to go fishing, or avoiding the work when crisis hits.  And yet Peter doesn’t get in trouble, instead he gets promoted, offered a new position of caring for the Good Shepherd’s sheep.

A similar thing happened with Saul.  He was breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.  With Saul there was no mercy for anyone who was Christian, and God calls on Saul and instead of him getting in trouble for what he had been doing, God promotes him to bring this Good News message to the Gentiles (all of those non-Jews).

Even though our lives can be filled with crisis and chaos, Jesus doesn’t hang our bad choices over our heads.  Rather, he forgives us and promotes us, saying, “I forgive you.  Now go and share this good news.”  With Jesus we can find peace and order in the midst of chaos, sanity in the midst of crazy, and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

God’s love knows no bounds.  Jesus took someone who was completely against the church and was even persecuting her and transformed Saul into one of the greatest evangelists in the church.  Jesus took these seven disciples, who had seen Jesus after the resurrection.  They saw that Jesus was not dead, but alive, and yet, they still go back to their ordinary lives of catching fish.  Jesus took them, especially Peter, and transformed them into leaders of the church.

God’s love and forgiveness is transformative.  You can try to do stuff on your own.  You can try to rely on your own abilities.  But no matter how much you try, God’s forgiveness, God’s love, and God mission will always be what truly defines us as children of God.  God does call on us for a performance review, but in that review we don’t get into trouble.  Instead Jesus forgives us and promotes us, giving us something to do in God’s kingdom.  And it is God’s kingdom, which you are a part of, that will reign forever and ever.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

What Locked Doors Are You Hiding Behind?

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 3, 2016):

Acts 5:27-32

Psalm 118:14-29

Revelation 1:4-8

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.

 

The disciples have locked themselves in a house on the evening of that first Easter.  It was just that morning when the women found the tomb empty.  Accusations were arising, claiming that the disciples hid Jesus’ body to convince the crowds that He really had risen from the dead.  But with them actually not knowing where Jesus’ body was, they did what we probably would have done in that situation, driven by fear, they went into hiding.

Fear can drive us mad.  Fear can drive us crazy.  Fear can cause us to be less willing to take any chances or risks.  Fear has a way of controlling us. When the economic projections don’t look the greatest, we becoming fearful of losing what we have worked so hard for.  So in the interest of protecting ourselves, we don’t take many risks.  I’m sure many of you heard about the church fire at St. James Lutheran in Northrop on Wednesday morning.  After thinking about how awful it is for this congregation, did you think, “What if this happened here, to our church?”  I did.  We know we live in a troubled world where brokenness can be found everywhere.  And when that brokenness gets really close to home, our level of fear increases because it is no longer something happening somewhere in the world to some people that we don’t know.  But now it’s in our own backyard.  The brokenness is effecting people and places that we know.  This brokenness could now even happen to us!

Even if the brokenness isn’t happening directly to you, fear still finds its way of creeping in when the outlook doesn’t look promising.  Whether it is with your farm, your family, your job, your church – when the future looks grim, we become fearful of what could happen.  And fear drives us to turn inwardly on ourselves.  Fear moves us to negativity.  Fear diminishes our willingness to take a risk on something.  Fear pushes doors shut rather than holding them open.

The disciples are certainly fearful.  They probably aren’t even 100% certain that Jesus is alive.  But even if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, none of these disciples have any intensions right now of going out and spreading the word that Jesus is alive.  That’s their whole mission, right?  And that’s our mission too!  But the disciples don’t care about the mission right now.  They are too fearful of what the world thinks of them and what the world could do to them.  So out of fear, they lock themselves in a house.  Some disciples, huh?  These are the guys that we are supposed to be looking to as our role models.  These eleven apostles are the ones that got the closest to Jesus, and yet the mission is so terrifying that they hid behind locked doors.  The mission doesn’t bring joy, but fear.

And we are a lot like these disciples aren’t we.  We will talk to each other (fellow disciples) about the events that happened in Jerusalem (his crucifixion, his death, his empty tomb).  We don’t have a problem talking about it here, in this place, with these people.  But it’s the world that scares us.  It’s the world that causes us to be fearful.  It’s the world that makes us no different than these eleven apostles that have locked themselves in a house for fear of what the world will think.

What locked doors are you hiding behind?  What is holding you back from doing God’s mission?  Is it your busyness?  Do you feel weak in your faith?  Do you think you are ill-equipped to do God’s work?  Are you afraid that something might change?  We like to hide behind the locked doors because behind the locked doors it is a safe, secure area that doesn’t change much.  Not many people get in and not many people get out.  This is comfortable.  This is peaceful.

The disciples probably had similar feelings.  And yet, behind the locked doors, Jesus enters.  Jesus breaks in and doesn’t criticize or condemn the disciples for hiding, but rather He offers the disciples His peace, breathes on them (giving them the Holy Spirit), essentially forgives them for being fearful and hiding behind locked doors, and then He sends them out to forgive the sins of others.

Even our greatest fear cannot prevent Jesus from coming in.  No matter what locked door you are hiding behind, that cannot keep Jesus out.  Sometimes we fear.  Sometimes we doubt.  Sometimes we refuse to forgive our neighbors and family members.  Sometimes we deny forgiveness to our friends and coworkers.  Sometimes we don’t offer forgiveness to our classmates and enemies.  And yet, Jesus still comes in.  He comes in despite the locked doors that we close and he comes, offering us His peace, forgiving us, and sending us out.

And we are in good company with the eleven apostles.  Peter denied ever knowing Jesus.  Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive without seeing him in the flesh.  All the other disciples abandoned Jesus out of fear.  And yet, Jesus still forgives them and gives them the responsibility of spreading His Word to the world.  Because it is not their will, but God’s will that is done.

So we too, even though at times we are like Peter and deny knowing Jesus; even though at times we are like Thomas and refuse to believe that Jesus is alive without seeing him in the flesh; even though at times we are like the rest of the disciples and abandon Jesus out of fear, Jesus still offers us His peace, His forgiveness, and His love.  No matter what your fears are.  No matter what locked doors you are hiding behind.  No matter who you haven’t forgiven yet.  Jesus still comes in and says, “Peace be with you.”  And it is exactly in this peace where we see Jesus.  When we make peace with each other.  When we make peace with God, we find comfort and we see Jesus the Risen Christ.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.

Death Will Not Get the Last Word

Readings for the day (Resurrection of Our Lord – Sunday, March 27, 2016):

Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Luke 24:1-12

 

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

 

The Easter story of Jesus rising from the dead isn’t the easiest to believe.  I mean, really, who would believe that a dead corpse that was publicly crucified is now living again?  The Resurrection is hard to believe.  People don’t rise from the dead.  We certainly haven’t seen anyone rise from the dead.  It would be so much easier if we had proof.  It is always easier to believe something if there is proof.  This Easter story would be so much easier to believe if Jesus actually showed up on this Easter morning.  But instead of seeing Jesus in the flesh, all we have is the word, God’s Word, telling us that Jesus is alive.

This Word that we hear this morning is the same Word that the women received when they went to the tomb on that first Easter morn.  They were going to the tomb expecting to visit a dead body.  Instead, they don’t see the dead body in the tomb.  Rather they are told that Jesus is not dead but alive.  When the women go and give the apostles this Word, the apostles don’t believe it.  They call it nonsense or an idle tail.  Surely these women are crazy and must have made that story up; the dead don’t live again (except they are forgetting that they did see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead).  But regardless, they don’t believe the Word that the women tell them.

There are many in this world that are like the apostles and don’t believe this Word.  Many were raised in the church, but no longer find the importance of being involved in the church or having a relationship with God because after all, God’s Word is just an idle tale, it’s not really true.  It’s just something to make you feel good and waste your time on.  So many choose not to believe this Word for there is no proof anyway.  So why bother with the church?  The dead don’t come back to life.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.

I tell our confirmation students every year that when it comes to God’s Word there are really only two possibilities: either God’s Word is a very carefully crafted, completely made up thing, or it actually is true.  So if we live our lives believing God’s Word and all of this church stuff and then at the end of our life it turns out that all of this was indeed completely made up (an idle tail), then at least we lived a good life.  We really aren’t out anything.  But, what if we live our lives not believing God’s Word, rejecting Jesus, rejecting His church, hardening our hearts and refusing to follow Jesus and then at the end of our life it turns out that God’s Word actually is true – that Jesus really did rise from the dead?  Then what?  Then there will be a lot of disappointed people.  All of those who rejected Jesus, avoided the church, or came to the church just to make someone else happy but didn’t come to actually worship God and follow Jesus and believe in this Easter story will certainly be disappointed at the end of their lives when they find out that God’s Word actually is true – that Jesus really did rise from the dead!

Yes, this Easter story is a challenging one to believe, because death is all around us.  From loved ones dying, to terror attacks, to fatal accidents, from anyone’s point of view death appears to be complete, to be final.  We say our final good byes, have a nice little service remembering their life and then we see their body lowered into the grave where they remain – never to be seen again.  We have never see these graves reopened.  And we certainly haven’t see anyone come back to life after being dead.  Death is final, death gets the last word.

And yet, that’s not so with God.  With God, death is not final, death does not get the last word.  For Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead.  Yes it would certainly be easier to believe that he was raised if he would just show up here in our midst this morning.  But all we have is God’s Word.  So is that enough?  Is God’s Word enough for you to believe that Jesus willingly went to the cross, suffering and dying in your place, taking the punishment for your sins unto himself, so that even in dying you may have life in him?  Is just hearing that enough?  Many times it isn’t enough.  Why is it that we try so hard to reject and ignore the grace that we have been given from God?  God gave up Jesus, his only Son, to be sacrificed for you.  And this is a FREE gift.  Nothing in this world is free anymore.  In some places water and air aren’t even free anymore.  But God’s forgiveness and his mercy is still free and will always be free!

Yes, the dead are supposed to remain dead, but God plays by different rules than what we play by.  According to our rules, when someone dies that’s the end, but with God all things are possible.  Even the cold grip of death cannot contain our God.  By raising Jesus from the dead, God overcame both death and concurred the grave, all for you, because of his love for you.  This is how much God loves you.  That he would willingly give up his own Son for you.  Death will not be the end for you.  We are told that all of those who are baptized and believe this Word, that we are united with Jesus in a death like his.  We too, will die someday.  We have seen loved ones die and we are reminded of our own mortality.  But if we have been united with Jesus in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  Death will not get the last word on us.  For just as God raised Jesus from the dead, we too (and all of our departed loved ones) will be raised from the dead on the Last Day.

Sure, this Easter story is an unbelievable story that without proof can be challenging to believe.  And you can certainly choose not to believe that Jesus is alive.  But regardless of what you believe, that doesn’t change the fact that God loves you.  And out of that deeply, compassionate love for you, God willingly sacrificed his one Son, so that you too may spend all of eternity with God, dining and partying with all of those faithful saints at the Great Heavenly Banquet, feasting with our Lord and Savior, Jesus the risen Christ.  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  Used with permission.