Monthly Archives: April 2013

Do not Make a Distinction Between Them and Us

Acts 11:1-18

I wonder if you share this thinking: I have this default setting that keeps telling me that God uses Godly people to make good things happen; and God also spends quite a bit of time trying to reform the ungodly people. Do you have that assumption—that God is better able to use Godly people because they are on the same page? And part of that assumption is that we know who the Godly people are. Right? You can name them.

Exactly what the church leaders in Jerusalem thought in this text from Acts. You see, they were Godly people, committed followers of Jesus. They were doing good things. They were organizing a new church in a culture that wasn’t exactly supportive of their efforts. They were so sure of their Godliness that they called Peter out on some of his behavior because it didn’t line up with that. They understood that God only works through the Godly people. Which, of course, was them.

Before we judge them too harshly, understand that they had some reason to think that. Up until then, all believers in Jesus were Jewish. Male circumcision was the sign of inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham—and there’s no one more Godly than Abraham. Every believer—every Christian—was circumcised. It had always been God’s way. It was a covenant of trust, of relationship, of commitment, of a life given to God. It was Godly. You could tell who the Godly people were. Or at least you could tell who they weren’t.

So they called Peter out on his ungodly behavior, saying, “You had dinner with uncircumcised people? What were you thinking?! Those people know nothing of God. They aren’t Godly—they don’t even know what it means! Now, because of you, they will assume that they are Godly, and will have no reason to actually become Godly.”

But Peter had a different perspective because he was told by God what God was doing. He tells the church leaders exactly what happened. He had a vision of all the ungodly animals coming down in a large sheet. Every food animal that was forbidden, sinful, that separated one from God was lowered in front of him. God not only tolerated, this, God commanded Peter to eat them. Three times this happened, each time Peter refused, saying that he knew that no believer in Jesus could ever eat these things. And each time God answered telling Peter that God decides what is Godly and what isn’t.

While he’s puzzling about this some unbelievers came from Caesarea. “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Make no distinction between us as Godly people and them as unbelieving, ungodly, unrighteous people. So he ended up baptizing them.

What are our assumptions today about who is Godly and who isn’t? By what standard do we impose status of Godliness? Who do we assume God will bless? Those who pray a certain way? Who wear certain clothes? Whose children behave in particular ways? Who live a life-style we approve of? Think for a minute about who you believe to be “ungodly.” . . . “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So you imagine Peter’s surprise when he was informed by God to go with these pagan unbelievers. You can imagine Peter’s shock when God said I’m coming to them, too, just the way they are. Even though they believe differently than you and understand differently than you. You see, Peter, God is powerfully at work well outside your standards.

Well, God is powerfully at work well outside our standards, too. God can and does reveal God’s reign through people with dirty clothes, through disruptive children, through people who don’t pray articulately, through those whose morals and ethics are different than mine.

Peter finally got that. God will do what God does, through those God calls to do it. God decides who is Godly and who isn’t. Not us. And God declared these people from Caesarea to be Godly. “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So he told the leaders in Jerusalem. And (here’s the miracle) all those pastors in Jerusalem got it too. They came to understand that they weren’t any more Godly than anyone else. If they saw God at work somewhere, somehow, they were to get on board. If they understood God to be loving people different than them, they were to love them too. And so they did. They praised God for working in the lives of people they had previously considered ungodly.

The honest question for us is who do we consider to be ungodly? What if God is teaching us something about God through them? What if God is working in Godly ways through them? “The Spirit tells us to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” That’s hard enough.

But here’s the really difficult thing. What if God is working in Godly ways through you, just the way you are right now? What if you have something to teach the world about who God is and how God works, today? What if, even if you think of yourself as not particularly Godly, God is showing love in the world through you right now? What if God has declared you Godly.

God will do what God does, through those God calls to do it. God decides who is Godly and who isn’t. Not us. And God declares you Godly people today, right now. “The Spirit tells us to go with each other and not to make a distinction between us.” God made you to reveal God to the world. Just the way you are.

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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Sermon


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Non Christians, Please Keep Complaining About the Church!

John 21:1-19

Here’s where we pick up the story. Jesus has been raised from the dead, appeared to Mary Magdalene, appeared to the disciples in a locked room, appeared to the disciples again with Thomas there, and now he appears for the last time to them in John’s gospel.

I’m really thinking Peter just isn’t getting this. After hearing Mary tell how she saw Jesus, then after seeing Jesus himself twice—raised from the dead, mind you—now, at the beginning of this text, Peter wants to go fishing. Like this was a normal day. Like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Some other disciples decide to tag along—again, as if everything was the same.

Then there’s Thomas, who made such a big deal out of seeing Jesus, touching the nail prints in his hands, then falling on his face and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

Not to mention that at that time all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out by Jesus on a mission of forgiveness. A new job. Now they’re just heading out fishing. Nothing like the first day of a new job taking a vacation day.

So Jesus stands on the beach while they’re out fishing, but they can’t tell who it is. Now several of these disciples are professional fishermen. Fishing is their life, their livelihood, their skill. But they aren’t catching a thing.

So this guy is standing there on the shore yelling at them. They don’t know it’s Jesus, they don’t recognize him at all. But whoever it is, is giving them fishing advice. Do you know how annoying that must have been?

I remember playing baseball and going several at bats without a hit. Frustrated, I began goofing around with the bat. In the on-deck circle I’m swinging left-handed, changing my grip, anything to kind of break out this slump. I heard one of the moms from the other team—who I’d never seen before—say rather loudly, “Look at the way that kid’s swinging the bat. No wonder he can’t get a hit! Why don’t you hold the bat right, kid!” That was frustrating. I can’t remember what happened, but I most certainly did not appreciate her so-called advice.

I wonder if the disciples felt the same way. Some guy on the beach telling these professionals their nets are on the wrong side of the boat. The last thing they’re wanting to do is listen to advice from someone on the shore.

But these fishermen/disciples did hear. They did listen. They did what the stranger suggested—tossing their nets out of the other side of the boat. I don’t understand why, but they did. And they caught a huge load of fish. If they had known it was Jesus, sure they would have done what he said. But they didn’t know it was him. Just some stranger who, as likely as not, had no business telling them what to do.

Only later did they recognize this stranger as Jesus. Then once they knew it was Jesus they shared a meal; and Peter was given the chance to redeem his previous denial of Jesus. Earlier, while Jesus was on trial, Peter had publicly denied that he knew him three times. Now he publicly affirms his love for Jesus three times.

But for some reason they heard the voice of Jesus in this perceived stranger—enough to follow. They put aside their pride and life-long experience, recognizing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and did what he suggested. Maybe they get this resurrection thing better than I give them credit for.

Here’s where I think this gospel text is hard to hear. This is where these disciples leave me behind. Lots of us, including me, have been Christian for a long time—even Lutheran for a long time. Some of us have never known anything else. We believe we’re pretty good at this Jesus thing, this faith thing, this discipleship thing. So for many of us, it’s easy to disregard the voices of those on the shore, who have left the church or never been part of it. Those who find the church irrelevant, out of touch, judgmental. It’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus in those critiques because, after all, we know Christianity better than they do.

When people outside the church say things like, “I have no problem with Jesus but no use for the church,” it’s easy for us to brush it off as ignorance. When they tell us that they don’t feel welcomed, that we’re out of touch, that when they look at Christians they see no difference from any other person (except more hypocrisy), we just casually disregard it because they just don’t know. They can’t know. We’ve been in the church a lot longer. We are the professionals; they’re just yelling advice from the shore.

But here’s what gives me hope. They keep yelling advice. I can’t help but wonder that if Jesus wasn’t speaking through them, they wouldn’t be yelling at us at all. If it wasn’t Jesus coming to us they would simply ignore us and let us go on our way fishing from the wrong side of the boat. Why should they care?

I wonder if we heard the voices from outside the church, if we listened for the voice of Jesus might be there, we might end up sitting down with Jesus and having a meal with them. We might recognize our new life in the resurrected Christ, and more live it more fully, following him more closely in the world. We might trust that the resurrected Jesus comes to us, even when we’re fishing. Even when we’re not listening. Even in our arrogance. Jesus comes. He’s speaking. Like it or not, he’s bringing life and hope and newness to the world. Even to us. Life is new, because Jesus is raised from the dead.

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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Sermon


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Thumbing Our Noses Is Different than Forgiveness. 2 Easter B

John 20:19-31

Why is Jesus appearing to people after the resurrection?

The two appearances by Jesus in this reading from John happen on two consecutive Sundays evenings: the day Jesus was resurrected and a week later on the following Sunday. We have the 2nd and the 3rd post-resurrection appearances of Jesus here.

So why is he appearing? What is he trying to accomplish?

He can’t just be convincing disciples that he is raised from the dead. If that was what he was trying to do, he’d be appearing all over the place to all kinds of people. But he’s not. He’s appearing to a select bunch. The disciples. Those he had chosen as his followers. Not just the twelve apostles, but all of his disciples—all who had been following him, learning from him, believing him. He’s not appearing as a divine “I told you so” or thumbing his nose at those who doubt or aren’t sure. He’s got a message for his disciples. And that message isn’t about convincing people he’s alive. He could do that much better than we could. All he has to do is keep appearing to people. So that, apparently, isn’t the reason he appears to his disciples.

Rather, this is all about the continuation of God’s mission in Christ. Here in John, the resurrection of Jesus is less about proving something and more about sending the disciples to continue his work.

You are sent, he says; with the power of the Holy Spirit, he says; to forgive sins, he says. If you do it, it’s done. If you don’t, it isn’t. That’s why he’s appearing to them. To empower them with the Holy Spirit; to send them out to forgive.

“Forgive” is a word we use all the time. But I’m not convinced we get it.

Forgive=has its root meaning in the idea of “moving past.” That doesn’t mean forgetting, ignoring, or pretending, but moving beyond. In this context it means moving past the offense of the other to see the image of God within them. The offense, the brokenness, the hurt doesn’t stop us from seeing God’s love, God’s light, God’s life in them. With forgiveness, we look past the offense to recognize the image of God in the other.

Retain=root meaning in “power or strength.” So here, it means that the offense, the hurt does, in fact, have the power to block the image of God. Our vision is blocked by the offense and our own hurt; and the image of God present in the other isn’t recognized.

Forgiving–the offense and brokenness is less of a barrier. You can see beyond it. Like a Dutch door. It’s there, but you can recognize what’s beyond.

Retaining–the offense and brokenness is more like a solid door that is locked. Can’t see what’s on the other side.

So Jesus comes to his disciples to fill them with the Holy Spirit and send them to look past people’s offenses and see these broken people in the world as the very people God loves. Jesus fills the disciples with the Holy Spirit – the breath of God, the essence of God – to make sure they are able to do this forgiveness thing. Because it’s at the heart of who God is, therefore it’s at the heart of his disciples. In forgiving, they reveal God.

Isn’t this what Jesus came for in the first place: to show us God’s heart? What God is like? And now he’s commissioning all his disciples to continue that same mission. To show the world what God is like. To reveal the heart of God. Which means to be about forgiveness.

And that is what happens when we recognize the image of God in broken people. When we can look past our own hurt and see God’s giftedness, God’s love, God’s handiwork as the center of who they are.

That’s who Jesus is for us, isn’t he? One who looks past our brokenness and sees us as people in the image of God’s love—who are cared about, gifted, and loved by God. Without condition, without measure. That’s how Jesus looks at us. Because that’s who we are.

Therefore, who better than Jesus’ own disciples to look beyond the brokenness, the hurt, the sin of the world and see the light of God’s love there? We, the broken people that God loves; we, the sinful people that God still is gracious to; we, the prideful people God continues to shower mercy upon; we are the ones called now to do the same in the world.

It is in this activity of forgiving in the world that the church reveals Jesus. That’s it. Not in proving the resurrection; not in discovering empirical evidence that God exists; not in debating whether Jesus looked more Norwegian or Australian. According to the gospel-writer John, forgiveness is really the purpose we are empowered by the Spirit and sent by Jesus to do. That’s our focus. That’s the Spirit at work in us. That’s why Jesus kept appearing to his disciples: to send them to continue his work of forgiveness—even today.

The Holy Spirit is guiding us and empowering us along this line anyway. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to deal with the world the way God deals with us. So we follow the leading of the Spirit—we don’t need to argue with people, we just start forgiving them. We don’t need to debate with them, we just start recognizing God’s love in them. We don’t need to think we’re superior to them, we just start seeing what we can learn about God from them. They, too, are created in God’s image, loved by God, and gifted by God. We are called and empowered to recognize that.

The resurrected Jesus comes to us. Not so those who believe can thumb their noses at those who don’t, but so that we can see God’s light and life in others. Baptized into Christ, our very deepest identity now is rooted in forgiveness—moving past brokenness to the image of God recognized in those we meet. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.

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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in Sermon


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