Who Is My Neighbor? Colossians 1:1–14; Luke 10:25–37. July 10, 2016.

The answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” is: people who are hurting, whose injuries call for our compassionate response. Those people are our neighbors.

I attended the 62nd Annual Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches held in Detroit two weeks ago. Congregations across America formed this association in 1955 as a means by which likeminded, yet independent and autonomous churches could work together without sacrificing their individuality and character.Messengers from congregations across the country gather to attend to organizational matters, to hear reports from mission work at home and abroad, and to enjoy fellowship with one another. We received instruction and inspiration from both our Bible sessions and our Congregational lecture. I was happy to represent our congregation at this gathering.

There was great unity at our meeting. At the first business meeting, when the moderator was reviewing the standing rules of order, one of the messengers brought a motion to the effect that all motions and resolutions that were not unanimously passed be subject to a division of the house, that is, a show of hands or standing vote. This was approved, and I am happy to report that all votes passed unanimously. We also approved 10 new congregations for membership in the National Association.

I feel a bit like Paul, whom we heard earlier in his letter to the Colossians. He didn’t get to see these brothers and sisters in Christ. Early in his ministry when the Christian movement was small, he went to every congregation. However, as the redemptive message of Christ’s death and resurrection flourished in the ancient world, there were congregations he’d never been to. The Colossians’ church was one of these.  

To them he wrote, “Each time we pray for you, we thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have heard of your faith in Christ and of your love for all of God’s people, because what you hope for is kept safe for you in heaven. You first heard about this hope when you believed the true message, which is the good news.”

Like Paul, we congregational messengers at the conference heard that the good news is spreading all over the world through the National Association. Our missionaries gave encouraging reports of God’s work, just as Epaphras had given. Paul was thrilled to hear that the message of Christ had spread in that same way among the Colossians, ever since the first day they learned the truth about God’s grace.

We were also challenged to consider the question: “Who is my neighbor?” This question arose in Luke 10 when a man asked Jesus about eternal life. Jesus asked him what was written in the Bible. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” the man replied, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do this and you will live,” Jesus said. “But who is my neighbor?” the man persisted. Jesus then told this parable about a Samaritan who helped an injured man, after a priest and a levite ignored him when he needed help.

Before we go any further, I want to highlight something that is easy to overlook in the way we talk about this parable. Jesus never called this story ‘the Good Samaritan.’ It’s something that we have added in the years since Jesus originally told it. A better title for this parable might have been “The Priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.”

We’ve heard many times about the animosity of the Jews and the Samaritans. For a Jew to call another Jew a Samaritan was an insult. In John 8:48, the Jewish leaders said this to Jesus: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed on top of it?” Biochemist and author Isaac Asimov wrote, “To the Jews, there were no good Samaritans.” The level of ill-will between these two groups was off the charts. Jesus was not prejudiced himself, but was using the prejudices of his listeners to make a point. 

What if this story had been told in a different time and culture? In the 1800’s this story might have been called “the Good Indian.” The 1900’s might’ve called it “the Good Negro.” Maybe today the story might be about “the Good Muslim.” The point is that people often view minorities in a bad light, with an occasional exception, you know, the good one. Again, Jesus did not say this. The idea that there was one Good Samaritan was added later.

If we could see the Samaritan beside the priest and the levite, we’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. They would’ve looked very much alike to us. In this parable Jesus revealed where the real difference between them lay. We find it in the verb, “had compassion.” This word in Greek is the word, spleen. The ancient people thought the spleen was the center of emotions. When they cared about other people, they had a spleen. In a word, they had compassion.

The difference between the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan wasn’t racial. It wasn’t something that could be seen. It was internal. Quite literally, this verse says that when he saw the injured man, the Samaritan had a spleen. Apparently, neither the priest nor the levite had a spleen. 

Our real spleens lie in the upper left abdomen. They’re reddish-brown and somewhat elongated, about 1″ x 3″ x 5″. Virtually all vertebrates have spleens. They remove old red blood cells and keep a supply of blood in reserve. As part of the lymphatic system, they support the immune response by processing antibodies. 

Surgeons often remove spleens from people who have abdominal injuries. People can live without their spleens, though not as well as with them. A study of 740 World War II veterans who had their spleens removed due to battlefield injuries showed a significant increase in the death rate from pneumonia.

Pneumonia is a disease of the breathing system. In fact, pneuma means breath, but in the Bible it is usually translated spirit. Just as the veterans without spleens had trouble getting their breath, so Christians without compassion have trouble getting the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we may experience spiritual death.

Christians who have no compassion have had spiritual splenectomies. They can see the worst catastrophes and not have a spleen about it, that is, they have no compassion. They sigh and say, “oh, isn’t that terrible,” and they change the channel. Like the spleen-less priest and levite, they walk away on the other side. They have no spleen.

The answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” is this: people who are hurting, whose injuries call for our compassionate response. Those people are our neighbors. If we don’t have a spleen, if we don’t have compassion, we’ll walk away. Without compassion, however, we won’t be able to get the Spirit. It goes both ways: our neighbors are people who need help, and we need to help them. 

The water situation of Flint, Michigan has been much in the news. We at the Annual Conference felt compassion on the residents of that city not far from Detroit where we were meeting. You might say it aroused our spleen! We collected hundreds of gallons of water and close to $5,000.00 to purchase water filters which will be distributed free by a reputable non-governmental agency there. The people of Flint are our neighbors.

“Who is our neighbor?” The answer is that anyone who has a need, is our neighbor indeed. Let’s have compassion on others, even as our God has had compassion on us.

We pray. O God, you looked down on us and saw our need. You were moved with compassion and sent Your Son, Jesus Christ, to help us. We thank You for doing this, even though our attitudes and actions were and are often offensive to you. Enable us by the Spirit to be moved to help others around us who are also in need. Amen.

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Canceled Debt. Galatians 2:15–21; Luke 7:36–8:3. 12 June, 2016. 

We are forgiven by faith in Christ and set free to live the kind of life God has for us.
There is a crisis gripping America, one which affects approximately one out of every five Americans. It’s a crisis of debt, medical debt, which accumulates to over 100 billion dollars per year. This debt is sold by doctors and hospitals to bill collecting agencies for pennies on the dollar. These agencies are legally empowered to collect those debts. They can and will call at any time of the day or night. They plead, they threaten, they cajole, they call your boss, your relatives, even people who rent the house after you move out. They will do whatever it takes to get at least one payment. Often people do make a payment, but then the remainder of the debt can be sold to another agency, then another, and so on. 
Of course, insurance can help, but it does not always pay the whole bill. It’s true that these folks should have paid their bills in a timely fashion, but medical expenses can be exorbitant, and sometimes illness results in job loss. With no income, how are people to pay? Loss of insurance often accompanies loss of employment. It’s a dreadful cycle that leads to poverty and ruined lives. 

Borrowing does not make us debtors, however. We are only in debt when we don’t pay it back. When we take out a house mortgage or car loan, we are actually signing a contract. As long as we meet the terms of the contract, we are not in debt.

God has loaned us life. The terms of this loan are that we should live our lives for God. That doesn’t mean that everyone of us should go into the ministry, but it means, in the words of Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for people, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” We often hear, “it’s my life, and I can do with it whatever I want.” That’s not right. It’s not our life; it’s God’s life, and the trouble is that we are in debt, for we have not met God’s terms for our life loan. 

In Bible days, people had dinners outdoors. Houses were small and windowless. Inside, the air was stuffy and full of the odors of cooking food, unwashed bodies, and maybe the donkey tied it front. Nicer houses had a courtyard surrounded by a low wall. When Simon the Pharisee had this party in honor of Jesus, everyone walking on the street outside the wall could see who was there and even interact with them.

A woman came to Jesus while he was having dinner with Simon. She was so overcome with Jesus’ message of God’s love and acceptance for all people, that she responded by honoring Jesus as best she could. Simon was offended at this. He knew what she was: a sinner. Of course, we’re all sinners, but for him to identify her in this way meant he thought her sexually immoral. He didn’t say it out loud, but Jesus could tell what he was offended by this woman who had interrupted his nice dinner party.

Jesus told Simon a parable. Two debtors owed a certain moneylender varying amounts, one greater, the other lesser. For reasons known only to himself, the lender canceled their debts. “Which one, do you suppose, loved the lender more?” Jesus asked. Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” 

“Have you noticed this woman?” Jesus continued. “You didn’t give me any water to wash my feet. But she washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t even pour olive oil on my head, but she has poured expensive perfume on my feet. So I tell you that all her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven for only a little will show only a little love.”

He then said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” This caused even greater scandal, for only God can forgive sins. Jesus ignored the others, and focused on the woman. “Your faith has saved you,” he said, “Go in peace.”

Only God can forgive sins, and it’s a good thing that God does. Otherwise, we would have no peace. As it is, by grace through faith, God forgives us for not meeting the terms of the loan of life. Through forgiveness, we have peace with our Creator, and that peace enables us, whatever we do, in word or deed, to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

We no longer owe a legal debt, but a debt of love. We don’t live in fear of penalty for non-payment. We have no fear of repossession, of dunning calls from the bill collector of our souls. God isn’t some collection agency who calls and threatens us for non-payment. Through Christ, we are free from fear, so now we can afford to live the kind of life God wants for us. We can live in love: love for God and love for others. 

Jesus said it was this woman’s faith that saved her. In Galatians 2, we read earlier, “We are not put right with God by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Observing the law puts no one in right standing before God, but only having faith in Christ.”

The Galatians came to Christ through Paul’s preaching. Other preachers tried to convince them that the way to please God was by legalism. Paul, however, insisted that God accepts us by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Galatians had been set free by the Gospel, and Paul was not willing to see them exchange their freedom in Christ for the bondage of legalism. 

The Law with its list of “do this” and “don’t do that” doesn’t offer us any peace. It only shows that we are sinners. When we try to find life through legalism, we find only death. Through grace, however, we discover the life that God wants us to have. 

John Oliver, the talk show host, recently had a program about the debt issue. As a comic, he loves a good stunt, so, to illustrate the situation, he bought $15 million in bad debt for $60k. He had the right to call everyone on the list he’d bought and get them to pay. Instead, he erased it all! $15,000,000 in debt disappeared, and 9,000 people were set free! They don’t know that their debt has been paid, so John Oliver contacted RIP Medical Debt who will tell the good news to people on the list. 

When the Romans crucified people, they posted a notice explaining their crimes. Jesus had such a notice on his cross. Paul said that we, too, were crucified with Christ. The Law is the notice of our crimes. When Christ died, we died, too, but now we live by faith in the son of God who loved us and gave his life for us. The notice of the Law is no longer in effect.

Our task as followers of Christ is to let people know that their debt has been forgiven, that the notice of the Law is no longer in effect. When they hear this, they can be at peace. That’s why it’s called “Good News!”

Sometimes churches down through history have substituted legalism for grace. They’ve insisted that God can only be pleased if we keep a list of do’s and don’ts. Sometimes they get their list from Old Testament law, but sometimes they make up their own list. Wherever it comes from, legalism has damaged the testimony of the church.

The Christian life, however, is not about lists, but about love. Because we are forgiven, we can afford to love God and to love one another. Let’s not argue with one another or judge one another. Let’s just spread the Good News!

We pray. Lord of life and God of love, You did not lend us this life so that we could spend ourselves into debt. Through Christ, You have delivered us from the accuser of our souls. Now without fear, we rely on your Spirit to guide us into lives of love. Amen.

Rise Up! Galatians 1:11–24. Luke 7:11–17. June 5, 2016.

Jesus raised Paul from dead legalism to a life of grace. Jesus raised the young man of Nain from death to life. God raises us to new life in Christ.
Today is the birthday of the Marshall Plan. In a speech at Harvard University on this date in 1947, United States Secretary of State George Marshall called for economic aid to both our allies and our former enemies. The war had devastated Europe. Bombing had badly damaged the major cities, especially industrial facilities and critical infrastructure. More than five million houses and apartments were in ruins, and food was in short supply. Millions of people lived in refugee camps, subsisting on 1,500 calories per day. The Marshall Plan was crucial in bringing those countries back to life.
From death to life! That is the theme of our readings today; indeed, it is the underlying message of the entire Christian gospel! Jesus came preaching God’s reign over the hearts and minds of people who would follow Him. To participate in the coming kingdom, they would need a radical re-orientation of their lives. This is illustrated by Paul’s experience in coming from a rigid adherence to the Law that brings death to the message of grace that brings life.

The Apostle Paul was a man who was steeped in the study of the Jewish Law from childhood to adulthood. He was from the city of Tarsus in a part of the world known as Asia Minor, though today it is called the country of Turkey. The Jewish people had been scattered all over the ancient world from Asia to Europe and Africa. They had settled into their adopted communities, but never forgot their homeland. We call this dispersion of the Jewish race, the diaspora. Paul was part of that diaspora.

He was of the tribe of Benjamin, and had dedicated his life from early on to be a teacher of the Law. He followed the Pharisees, which was one of the major sects of Judaism. Many rabbis came from this movement and taught in the synagogues. Though he was known among the Gentiles by the Roman name, Paul, he received the Hebrew name, Saul, at birth, in honor of King Saul, the greatest Benjamite who ever lived.  

Tarsus was a city of political, economic, and military significance. Caesar named it a colonia, a formal title that gave its citizens the rights and privileges of those who lived in the city of Rome itself. Ex-legionnaires could settle in a colony and expect to find work and other benefits when they retired from a life of war across Rome’s vast empire. 

From his childhood, Paul had studied the Law of Moses. In fact he was well-versed in all the sacred writings of the Jewish faith. As a young man, he had gone to Jerusalem where he studied the Law all the more intensely under Gamaliel, a well-known rabbi himself and a mentor of young men preparing for the ministry. Paul was a sincere and enthusiastic follower of the religion of his people. 

He lived at the same time as Jesus, but it does not appear that he ever heard the Master speak or see any of his miracles. We don’t find out about Paul until, as Saul, he began to persecute the newly-founded church in Jerusalem. “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the tradition of my fathers,” he wrote. This included arranging for the death or imprisonment of any and all church members. Until he personally had a vision of Jesus, he saw Christ and his followers as a hindrance to Judaism.

When he finally came face to face with Jesus, his life was totally transformed. The experience humbled him. “God called me by grace,” he wrote. He was ashamed of his life before Christ, even referring to himself at one point as ‘the greatest of all sinners.’ He felt that his former experience was more like death, and that by grace through faith in Jesus he had come to life. He redirected his former zeal to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His life was changed: he was a new man with a new mission!

Not only was he changed inwardly, but he also experienced an outer transformation. Previously, he had tried to destroy the church; now he wanted to be part of it. Considering that he had been their worst nightmare, they were understandably wary of him. His change, however, was so amazing, that the report about him began to spread. “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he tried to destroy,” is what they were saying, and praised God because of him.

We can experience a similar transformation in our lives, too. It may not be as dramatic as Paul’s. After all, none of us has tried to destroy churches! When we begin to follow the Lord, however, we, too, can be changed. Will it show on the outside? Again, though it may not be as dramatic, our lives certainly will feel the effect of our faith.

Our gospel reading concerning the widow’s son of Nain also carries the theme of coming from death to life. In this case, it literally involves life restored from the dead. 

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the town of Nain, and a big crowd was with them. As they came near the city gate, they saw people carrying out the body of a widow’s only son. Many people from the town were walking with her.

The loss of any child is tragic. Grieving parents feel the pain the rest of their lives, if the child is 6 months old or 60 years old, whether an only child or one of many. This mother, however, felt the loss all the more keenly because she was a widow, and this was her only child. Her husband’s death left her dependent on her son. Now she faced an even bleaker future. The death of any child is awful, but this death especially so.

When the Lord saw the woman, he felt sorry for her and said, “Don’t cry!” Jesus went over and touched the stretcher on which the people were carrying the dead boy. They stopped, and Jesus said, “Young man, rise up!” The boy sat up and began to speak. Jesus then gave him back to his mother.

The text says they were frightened: terrified might be a better word! Can you imagine being a pallbearer carrying the casket out when the deceased pops open the lid and says, “Hey! What’s up?” It’s a wonder they didn’t drop him and run! 

New life from death can be startling! Those around us may not know how to take us! Nicky Cruz, gang leader of the Mau Maus in New York, was converted to Christ under David Wilkerson’s ministry in the 50’s. Before his conversion, however, his girlfriend junkie came clean. He said to her, “I liked you better when you were a junkie! I know junkies! You’re a fanatic! Nobody from our turf ever became a fanatic!” When we begin to follow Christ, others may not understand us, yet through kind words and acts of compassion, we may convince them to follow the Savior, too.

Not all of Europe received the aid offered by the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union and their satellite states refused to accept any help from the U.S. or Canada. People in Eastern Europe continue to suffer for decades to come because the communists were afraid of American influence.  

We won’t convince everyone to follow Jesus, but those who do will find as we did, new life and hope. In word and deed, then, let us be faithful to the message of Christ.

We pray. Lord, we desire to move from death unto life. We long to be made new, both inside and out. Spirit of God, do your work within us by grace through faith, that we might be your people not just in word, but in deed and in truth. We pray through Christ our risen Savior and source of life, Amen.

Such Great Faith. Galatians 1:1–12. Luke 7:1–10. May 29, 2016.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” G. K. Chesterton
Today is the birthday of Gilbert Keith Chesterton in 1874. G.K., as he was better known, was an English writer and social commentator. He expressed himself in many disciplines: poetry, philosophy, drama, theology, and so on. He was well known for his fictional priest-detective Father Brown, but he also spoke in defense of Christianity. He could put a great deal of truth into a short sentence. I thought that, in honor of his birthday, we might start today with one of those sentences. In his book, What’s Wrong With The World (1910) he wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

The Christian ideal includes many things, but it is based on the faith of Jesus Christ. To live the Christian ideal takes faith, but many people find that difficult. We like to say, “seeing is believing,” yet to have faith is to believe without seeing. Folks from Missouri say, “Show me,” but faith means trusting in that which cannot be shown. Among all the things that make what Chesterton called ‘the Christian ideal,’ faith is the place to start.

Our first reading relates the content of this faith. It is the letter of Paul to congregations in the region of Galatia. Today this is part of the country of Turkey and is populated by descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. They took over the country and drove out the native population in the Middle Ages. Before that, Asia Minor was a mix of peoples, but mostly of Greek descent. Paul had started several churches there.

Galatia was an area settled by Celtic people. This may sound surprising, as we often think of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as traditional Celtic lands. The fact is, however, that the Celts were nomads who wandered all over Western and Eastern Europe. These Celtic pilgrims left colonies wherever they went, and some settled in Western Asia.

They were accustomed to change. They could move into an area and adapt to local customs and languages. The Celts were not just absorbing new cultures, but rather mixed the new with their traditions. When Paul preached the message of Christ there, they were quick to adopt the new religion. Later, however, as Paul noted, they were just as quick to change when they heard a new variety of the Christian message from others.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” The message of the Christian faith is that Christ has reconciled us to the Creator, through his life, death, and resurrection. Spiritual liberation does not come by our righteousness, but by the righteousness of Christ. We obtain it by grace through faith. This is what Paul preached, but others had come to the Galatians, twisting the Gospel message.

“There really isn’t another gospel,” he continued, “but someone is confusing you by perverting the good news of Christ.” The perversion these other preachers offered went something like this: “The Good News is that through Jesus, you Gentiles can now be born again as Jews! God doesn’t care that you’re Gentiles. From now on, you can keep the Law of Moses!” That message is not true; in fact, it isn’t really good news at all!

Paul had strong language to describe these other teachers. “Even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” If saying it once wasn’t enough, he said it again: “Curses on anybody who proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received.”

Does anybody want to live on charity? Of course not! We all want to take care of ourselves, thank you very much! Did you know that the word, ‘charity,’ is the same Greek word that is usually translated as ‘grace?’ When we say that we are saved by grace, we’re actually saying we’re saved by charity! We are all God’s charity cases!

That’s why Paul wrote, “Am I now seeking human approval or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people?” If he wanted to please people, his message would be a list of things to do. Instead, he says the exact opposite: Nothing we can do will save us. It’s all on Christ. We are saved not because of what we do, but in spite of what we do! That’s the message God approves, and it’s the message we preach.

Those who are trying by their own goodness to gain God’s acceptance need to give it up. It’s not about trying; it’s about trusting. This is the Christian ideal. The very essence of our faith is that God doesn’t accept us because of our goodness. God accepts us because of the goodness of Christ.

We saw another aspect of the Christian ideal in our second reading today. Jesus was in Capernaum, a town on the north shore of Lake Galilee. In that town the representative of Roman law was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in charge of 100 men. 

This man had a servant that he really cared about who was sick and about to die. He’d heard of Jesus and sent some Jewish leaders to ask him to come and heal the servant. The leaders went to Jesus and begged him to do something. “This man deserves your help!” they said. “He loves our nation! He even built our synagogue!” So Jesus went with them.

When Jesus was close to the house, the centurion sent some friends to tell him, “Lord, don’t go to any trouble for me! I am not good enough for you to come into my house, and I am certainly not worthy to come to you. Just say the word, and my servant will get well. I have officers who give orders to me, and I have soldiers who take orders from me. I can say to one of them, ‘Go!’ and he goes. I can say to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes. I can say to my servant, ‘Do this!’ and he will do it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised that he turned and said to the crowd following him, “In all of Israel I’ve never found anyone with such great faith!” The centurion’s friends returned and found the servant well.

Representatives of the Roman Empire, such as this centurion, could order the conquered people around. If soldiers had heavy packs, they could compel citizens to carry them for a mile. If soldiers wanted something, food or clothing, they could just take whatever they wanted. This centurion didn’t have to ask.

If Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the content of faith, then humility is the attitude of faith. This man had respect for Jesus’ position. He understood how authority worked. He was used to ordering people around and was willing to trust that, if Jesus would just say the word, it would get done. The centurion, though he had the power and authority to do otherwise, showed an attitude of humility in coming to Jesus.

When we come to God by grace through faith in Christ, we don’t come demanding our rights. We don’t come blaming God for the things that have happened. James 4:6 says “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” God doesn’t need our approval. We need God’s approval, and we get it when we come humbly putting our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  

We pray. Lord, it’s only because of your grace that we can be reconciled to you. You loved us enough to send Christ to die and rise again on our behalf. It only remains to believe it. Give us such great faith that we can put our trust in You for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Faithful. Hopeful. Loving. Colossians 3:1–7. John 16:12–15. May 22, 2016.

People of God, do not give up hope! Jesus is not done with us. The Spirit of hope will lead us into lives that are more faithful and loving.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a shocking defeat for the American people. The sneak attack left 101 burning and shattered warships in its wake. Even as the smoke cleared, however, the US Navy was hard at work salvaging the fleet. Within three months most of the smaller ships and three of the battleships were either returned to service or refloated and steamed to the continental US for final repairs. Restoration of the rest of the fleet took longer, but by late May, 1943 the U.S. Navy announced that, except for the U.S.S. Arizona, U.S.S. Utah, and U.S.S. Oklahoma, all warships sunk at Pearl Harbor had been repaired and returned to sea. The news brought hope to the American people.  

Hope! It’s what enables us to get up every morning and face a new day that very well may be filled with challenges and difficulties that we cannot see. When we’re down and out or feeling low, even the smallest squib of hope can help us to go on another day.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ fill us with hope. By grace through faith, we know that the life we have here on earth has meaning and purpose. Death will come to us all, but fear of it does not keep us in bondage. Part of our hope is that life will go on in a new and meaningful way.

Hope is the theme of the opening sentences of the Book of Colossians. Written by Paul, chosen by God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, accompanied by Timothy, his young protege, the letter was sent to the First Congregational Church of Colossae who were faithful followers of Christ. Colossae was a city in Asia Minor, not far from the city of Ephesus, where there was a large congregation of Christ’s followers.

Paul had spent much time in Ephesus starting the church, and his work had paid off. From there, missionaries had gone out to the surrounding area starting daughter congregations, one of which was in Colossae. As far as we know, Paul never went to Colossae himself, but an enterprising fellow named Epaphras, who came to faith under Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, had taken the message of Christ to Colossae, his hometown. 

Paul was a man of prayer. He prayed for all the churches he had started and others as well. His prayer for the Colossians included a request that God the Father would bless them with a sense of grace and peace.

It also included a note of thanks. “I can’t pray for you,” he wrote, “without also giving thanks for you!” He had heard about their faith in Christ and their love for all of God’s people. He credited their faithfulness and their love to the hope that they had found in the Lord. “You first heard about this hope,” he wrote, “when you believed the true message, which is the good news.”

When Paul wrote this in the mid 50s A.D. the good news seemed to be spreading all over the world. This was certainly true in Paul’s world, around the Mediterranean Sea. New congregations of Christ–followers were popping up, and not only through his efforts. God is at work through us and you, Paul wrote to the Colossians.

Hope had transformed the lives of Paul, Timothy, Epaphras and the other workers who were faithful in carrying the good news wherever they went. That’s what hope will do for us. It brings our faith to life, then leads us to loving service to others. 

The Christian life is a virtuous life. Patience is important, of course, as is joy. The peace that Jesus brings us is beyond comprehension. Kindness and gentleness in word and deed ought to be expressed by all who follow Jesus. Self-control is also vital, as a lack of self-control will soon be obvious. These virtues are markers of the Christian life.

Of all these virtues, faith, hope, and love are primary. Spiritual gifts pass away, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, and knowledge will also not last. Only three things really abide, and they are faith, hope, and love.

In that famous passage, Paul identified love as the greatest. Perhaps this is because it is the most outward, the most practical. We can’t say that we love others without doing something about it. Love is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It’s rooted in the hope that Christ brings to us. Loving others can be risky, but because we have hope, it’s a risk we can afford to take.

Our faith is also inseparable from the hope we have in Christ. When doubts arise, our hope also swells up within us. When we think our faith has gone dry, we send it down into the well of hope one more time. Life is more than what we see! It does not end in the grave, and because of our hope, we can dare to believe even the impossible.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus said, “I have much more to say to you than you can now bear.” The disciples were not up to hearing any more. They had information overload. They could barely process what Jesus had already said. To hear Jesus say that he had much more might have seemed overwhelming.

In this statement, Jesus used one word more than any other: the word will. It’s the helping verb that shows future tense. When Jesus said he had much more to say to them, he meant for the disciples to be hopeful. By using the word will, he was saying that he wasn’t done with them. They might not be able to take it now, but they would be able to in the future. The word will is a word of hope.

Listen again to what Jesus said: “The Spirit of truth will come and will guide you into full truth. The Spirit won’t be making things up, but will tell you only what the Spirit has heard from me. The Spirit will let you know what is going to happen, and will bring glory to me by taking my message and telling it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine. That is why I said that the Spirit will take my message and will tell it to you.”

Listen, People of God! Jesus was not done with the disciples, and Jesus is not done with us, either. The Spirit will come to us, over and over and over again, to lead us in all truth. The disciples didn’t get the full truth the first time, and neither will we. The Spirit keeps coming back to us, to lead us, to guide us, and to teach us. I could add “until we finally get it,” but that’s not going to happen until we get to glory. It may not even happen then, but the point is that Jesus is not done with us!

Things looked bleak in 1943, but news of the restoration of the Pearl Harbor fleet brought hope to everyone. We may have been knocked down, but we were not knocked out.  

This is true in a spiritual sense also. We can be knocked down, but we’re never knocked out. We can look at ourselves as hopeless, thinking we’ll never get it, or we can be hopeful. The message of faith in Christ is a message of hope. Whatever has happened to us, be it the result of our own mistakes or something that someone else has done, God is not done with us. We have a hope in Christ that abides forever. Never give up hope!

We pray. Lord of the church, do not let us be overcome by the thought of all there is to know and do. Help us to allow the Spirit of hope to open new ways in which the light of faith will shine ever brighter, and in which we will find new opportunities to show our love for you and others. We pray hopefully in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Spirited Living. Romans 8:9–14. John 14:15–27. May 15, 2016

The spirited life, a life lived in the Spirit of Jesus, is a guided life, a comforted life, and an instructed life. It is the life God wants for us.

Has anyone here ever lived through a tornado? I’ve lived in parts of the Midwest where such wind events are common, yet the only damage to any house I’ve lived in came when a straight-line wind broke the top off an old tree and dropped it crashing down on the roof of my house. The remains of the tree had to be cleared away, and some roof work done, but it was more frightening than it was damaging. The first part of May, 2008 was marked by a much more serious wind storm. A low pressure system developed into a line of storms from Mississippi to the Great Lakes. There was wide-spread devastation from 63 confirmed tornados and derecho winds. Derecho is a Spanish word and the technical word for straight line wind events.

The storm lasted 30 hours and when it was over, 1 person was dead, 45 were injured, and there was $81.4 million in property damage. It received national attention at the time, but 8 years later only those who were directly affected by it remember it. Make no mistake, however: when the wind blows like that, peoples’ lives are changed forever.

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Originally a Jewish festival occurring 50 days after Passover marking the beginning of the harvest season in that part of the world, it took on new meaning for followers of Christ everywhere since on this date in the first century, the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem. They heard the sound of a mighty wind, and their lives were never the same again.

I’ve entitled this message, ‘Spirited Living,’ and that introduces a couple of questions: What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and of its members, and what does spirited living look like today?

Our first reading comes from the gospel according to John and represents that time in the life of Jesus when was explaining to them that, after he died, the Spirit of God would come upon them and be in them. Since we who follow the way of Christ today also live in that post-resurrection time, we, too, have the Spirit living in our lives. What can we expect from having the Wind of God blowing through our lives?

Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, a Greek word meaning one who is called along side to help. We might think of a tugboat helping a large ship maneuver in a tight harbor or a tow truck rendering road side assistance by coming along side a disabled automobile.

The spirited life is a guided life. Various translators have used words such as advocate and counsellor to describe Paraclete. These words carry the idea of someone who can guide us. A therapist might be such a person today, helping us cope with problems or a wealth advisor who can suggest make wise investments. The guidance that the Spirit gives will help us in our life with God.

The spirited life is a comforted life. Notice that I did not say comfortable. Life in the spirit may not be comfortable in the sense of ease, but the Comforter will be with us when we experience pain or loss. Jesus said to the disciples, “I will not leave you alone; I will come to you.” Being with us at such times is the work of the Spirit.

We need the Spirit because we do not live in a perfect world. We hope in Christ to see such a world some day, but in the mean time, we have to live in this one. The world cannot accept the way of Christ because of sin. The heart of sin is self-centered-ness, while the heart of the life that God desires is self-less-ness. We are on this earth not to serve ourselves, but to serve God, and this means giving consideration to others.  

Jesus himself gave us this example by giving himself. The world did not accept Jesus’ words and example, and this resulted in his death on the cross. The Spirit today will lead us in such self-less-ness even as the Spirit led Christ. God showed us through Christ, what a life dedicated to knowing and doing God’s will should look like.

The spirited life is an instructed life. Jesus said the Spirit would be our teacher. Again, the way of Christ does not come naturally to us. We need instruction from someone who knows the very mind of God. The Spirit, Jesus said, will guide us into all truth. This means more than mental assent to a doctrinal statement, but requires a commitment of life. The spirited life is indeed a life of faith, but it is also a life of following, not just of belief, but also of behavior.

According to Jesus, then, the spirited life, that is, a life lived in the Spirit of Jesus, is a guided life, a comforted life, and an instructed life. The Holy Spirit who has been with us, Jesus said, is now in us. As we follow the Spirit’s guidance, experience the Spirit’s comfort, and receive the Spirit’s instruction, we will have the life God wants for us.

Our reading from Romans today expands on this idea. It says that we are no longer to be ruled by our desires, but by God’s Spirit, who lives in us. People who don’t have the Spirit of Christ in them don’t belong to him, but Christ does live in us. In fact, we are spiritually alive because God has accepted us. 

This is true, even though our bodies must die because of our sins. In some way that we do not understand, sin is connected with our bodies. Though we are alive in the spirit, our bodies are dead because of our sinfulness. Yet God raised Jesus to life, and God will someday raise even our bodies to life by the Spirit that already lives in us.

In a way, the voice of the Spirit of God is not unlike the voice of an air traffic controller. The controller is not in the cockpit, but the voice of the controller comes through the air to the pilot. I’ve listened to recordings of the instructions of air traffic controllers, and I must say, they are, to a certain degree, incomprehensible to me. A pilot, on the other hand is trained to listen and understand. The pilot also has a chart, compass, altimeter and other tools and instruments. The pilot dare not ignore the chart nor the voice.

So it is that we, as the children of God, must be trained to listen to and understand the voice of the Spirit of God. We sometimes say that Christ lives in our hearts, but the fact is, Christ has ascended to heaven. We have the Spirit of Christ, who speaks to us what the Lord wants us to know and desires for us to do. Our chart is the Word of God, and we interpret it in light of the Spirit. We dare not ignore the Word nor the Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must not live to satisfy our desires. If we do, we will die. On the other hand, we will live, if by the help of God’s Spirit we say “No” to our desires. This is how we show outwardly that we are led by the Spirit: we say ‘no’ to what we want and ‘yes’ to what God wants. 

It would be great if we only had to say ‘no’ to wrong desires and ‘yes’ to God one time, but we find that we have to say this every day, even several times a day. We who follow God’s desires show that we are people who are led by God’s Spirit.

The wind storms that shook the American heartland in May, 2008, changed many lives. That was a bad thing, of course, but it is a good thing when the Spirit blows through our lives. We may lose some things, but we will have much to gain also. Once we experience the wind of God, our lives will never be the same.

We pray. Spirit of the living God, we acknowledge that you are the Lord and Giver of life. You must have your way in our lives every day if we are to walk in the way of Christ in this world. We gratefully need your comfort, we humbly submit to your guidance, and we wait to receive your instruction, Amen.

The Mystery of the Ascension. Dan. 7:13-14; Eph.1:15-23; John 6:60-69 5/8/16

The Ascension of Christ gives us not only the Spirit and the Word for personal growth and development, but also for effective service for Christ.

Why is it that aviation accidents both horrify and fascinate us? Remember Amelia Earhart? The famous woman aviator is best known for the mystery of her last flight, July 2, 1937. Another well-known aviation mystery is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared on March 8, 2014. Yet how many of us have heard of the mystery of the last flight of The White Bird? On this date, May 8, 1927 while attempting the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Paris to New York, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli disappeared in their biplane called The White Bird. They went up in the air, but were never seen again. Some think they went down in the Atlantic, others that they crashed in Maine or Newfoundland, but apart from one unconfirmed sighting over Ireland, the two-man crew disappeared without a trace, another aviation mystery.Cynics and skeptics might think the same thing about Jesus Christ. Thursday marked the annual observance of his Ascension. He left the planet, promising to return, but, apart from a couple of sightings recorded in the Book of Acts, he’s never been seen again. What happened to Jesus? Where did He go and what is he doing now?

In our Gospel lesson, the Master had been speaking to his disciples in an extended metaphor. We call this passage, the Bread of Life discourse. Not all of those listening appreciated what he was trying to say. They objected that it was a hard saying, that no one would be able to accept it. They couldn’t enter into the analogy because they insisted on taking his words literally.

Jesus responded to their objections by comparing this metaphor to his eventual Ascension. In this future event, he would return to heaven after his death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. “If my saying that I am the Bread of Life bothers you,” he asked, “what will you do when I ascend to where I was before?” We take the Ascension of Christ for granted, but it was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the life of Christ that we should really take more seriously.

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus completed the work he came here to do. We might think it would’ve been valuable for him to stick around to continue to work, but the rest was (and still is) up to us, his followers. In these verses from John, Jesus explained that the work now involves the Spirit and the word. Though his work was finished, Christ continues to accomplish much in and through us.

On the night before Jesus died on the Cross, he explained to the disciples that, if they were going to receive the Holy Spirit, it was necessary for him to go. We do not understand the inner workings of relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We must simply accept Jesus’ words by faith that he had to leave before he could send the Spirit to us.

The Ascension, then, is a very important event to us. It means that we can receive the Spirit of God, Who works through the Word of God to conform us into the likeness of the Master. We could try to follow Christ with the power of our own flesh, but as Jesus told the disciples, “the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life.” Following the Lord takes effort, but it does not depend on effort. Depending on our sinful selves to live the life of Christ would be like a new driver trying to fix a car by trial and error. There will be many trials and not a few errors. We need the manual and an instructor. That is why Jesus promised the Spirit and the Word. Both of these are ours because of the Ascension.

Modern plastic injection molding can serve as an illustration of the process of conformation. Many years ago, we took the children to the zoo to see “Big Mac,” a gorilla that the McDonald Restaurant company had donated. There, outside Big Mac’s house, was a machine with a clear cover. By inserting a coin, the buyer could watch the device make a plastic model of Big Mac. Two halves of the model came together, soft plastic was injected into it, a small compressor created a vacuum, and after a moment, a model gorilla slid into a chute. The pliable nature of the plastic was conformed by heat and pressure. That’s how plastic injection molding works.

In this illustration, we who follow Christ are the plastic material, the mold is Christ, and the pressure is applied by the Spirit and the Word. Of course, the Spirit cannot use the Word to conform us to the image of Christ if we do not expose ourselves to the Word. We need to pay attention to God’s Word. We may not always understand it, but there is much that we can understand. If we give up and say that the Bible is too hard, the Spirit will not be able effectively to make us to be like Jesus.

Jesus is not here on the earth anymore. People can only see him in us. That is why we must be conformed to the image of Christ. Through the Spirit and the Word, we can be.

That is one side of the mystery of Christ’s Ascension. We might call it “our side” since we are direct recipients of its benefits, that is, the Spirit and the Word. There is another side, though we do not see it yet.

Our reading from the Prophet Daniel predicted it long before it ever happened. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 606 B.C. they took many captives, especially the children of leading Jewish families. The Babylonians made them eunuchs and trained them for the emperor’s service. They received new names, were fed new foods, and taught a new language. Daniel, however, never forgot who he was, where he came from, nor his God. As a prophet he saw visions of the restored kingdom.

We read earlier from one of his visions which can be interpreted as the scene in heaven as Christ returns after his Ascension. “In a night vision,” Daniel wrote, “I saw the son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He stood before the Eternal God and received a kingly crown with power and glory. People of every nation and race will serve him. He will rule forever, and his kingdom is eternal, never to be destroyed.”

Here is another side of the humble carpenter turned itinerant rabbi. When he left his disciples on the mount of Ascension, a cloud covered him from their sight. Transported by the power of God, Jesus returned to his home and received great honor from his Father. From there he will return in power and great glory. He’s still the same person, but now he is revealed as the Son of God who will rule the World.

In Ephesians 1, the apostle Paul alluded to this side the life of our Savior with these words: “God, Who raised Christ from death, gave him a seat at the right hand of God’s throne. There Christ rules over heavenly beings and over all beings in this world. He will rule in the future world as well. God has put all things under Christ’s power, and for the good of the church Christ is now the head of everything. The church is Christ’s body and under his control.”

Christ did not have an accident like the French aviators who took off on this date and were never seen again, but an Ascension like no one else. Because of the Ascension, He can be seen in us who live according to the Spirit and the Word. Let us, then, live as though we are already in Christ’s kingdom, because we are. Someday we will live under the direct reign of God, but even now we can have a foretaste of that life. This is what we pray for when we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” The Ascension of Christ gives us not only the Spirit and the Word for personal growth and development, but also for effective service in Christ’s kingdom now.

We pray. O Lord, through your Ascension you have given us access to your Spirit and your word. Help us with the process of becoming like you, so the world may see you in us. We look forward to the day when you come into your kingdom, Amen.