The Use of Sacraments / Ritual

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S (Scripture): Romans 4

7 

Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven,

        and whose sins are covered.

Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.

9 Is this state of happiness only for the circumcised or is it also for those who aren’t circumcised? We say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 So how was it credited? When he was circumcised, or when he wasn’t circumcised? In fact, it was credited while he still wasn’t circumcised, not after he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that comes from the faith he had while he still wasn’t circumcised. It happened this way so that Abraham could be the ancestor of all those people who aren’t circumcised, who have faith in God, and so are counted as righteous. 12 He could also be the ancestor of those circumcised people, who aren’t only circumcised but who also walk in the path of faith, like our ancestor Abraham did while he wasn’t circumcised.

O (Observation): Paul dissects the point at which their spiritual father (Abraham) became righteous. Was it before or after he was circumcised.

Yes, Paul is still ranting about circumcision. Why? This issue was just the most prominent of MANY issues that divided Christians that were formerly Jewish from those Christians who had no Jewish background.

Paul points out that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness BEFORE he became circumcised. In this way those who are circumcised AND those who are not have Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.

In making this point, Paul makes something else even more clear: our external responses (like circumcision) do not dictate whether or not a person can have faith in God.

Persons of faith need not throw away customs, nor do they have to adopt them, in order to respond in faith to God’s grace given to all people who wish to receive that grace.

A (Application): As Christians, we have certain external markers that declare grace to us: namely, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. I’m big fans of both. HUGE fans of both : )

These “means of grace” (as we call them in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) remind us of God’s gracious Spirit being poured out into our very beings. This Spirit joins us to the body of Christ, and gives us grace and forgiveness to live out our lives in hope.

These means of grace, however, remain external signs. Sort of like what circumcision meant for Abraham. Not exactly, but close.

Baptism remains our way of joining to Christ’s body. In baptism we are marked with the promised Holy Spirit. I wonder, though, what the non-Christian journeys through when they look at the Church? Are we using Baptism as a means of pushing others away? Or are we inviting them to consider – first – becoming a part of our community. Then, after a time of deliberation, continue to encourage these persons to consider being baptized…to show that on a particular day and time, in a faith community willing to love and support one another, that the Spirit has joined them to the body of Christ.

Personally, I see everything to gain in Baptism and Holy Communion. The old self being washed away for the new life in Christ to come forth. Yet our journeys are not all the same.

More can be said regarding Communion, but I digress.

Let us not use the Means of Grace as a means to divide us into classes (the Baptized OVER the non-Baptized; those who attend worship or commune weekly OVER those who attend worship and commune once or twice per month). Let us, instead, focus on the joy that comes from these means of grace, such that those who do not yet know of these gifts might be inspired by the Spirit to receive them gratefully. And if not, that we not disparage them, but instead, meet them where they are in their faith journey.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us grace, that we might share it bountifully with others. Amen.

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Jesus – the Great “I Am”

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S (Scripture): John 8:56 (Jesus said to the Jewish leaders) “Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy.”

57 “You aren’t even 50 years old!” the Jewish opposition replied. “How can you say that you have seen Abraham?”

58 “I assure you,” Jesus replied, “before Abraham was, I Am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the temple.

O (Observation): The Jewish leaders were quite upset that Jesus would dare to equate himself with the great “I AM”! They were so indignant they wished to throw stones at Jesus! A visceral response to such a bold statement. They didn’t even try to think it through or pray about it. Just a knee-jerk reaction.

Jesus was right, but the Jewish leaders couldn’t let go of their systemic religious priorities: God is one! No other God comes before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God’s people were wrong.

A (Application): Feels nice to have 2,000 years of the Christian Church to look back and say to these Jewish leaders: “Fools!” Don’t you know?!?! This is Jesus, the one promised of old to Abraham, David, and the prophets. Jesus is the ONE to make all things new!”

But wait…we have had 2,000 years to decipher this truth.

And to this day, we still struggle with believing. In fact even Jesus’ disciples struggled.

So, what do we make of all this? Should we throw faith and belief away? Certainly not!

Perhaps knowing that God’s people got God wrong leads us to remember that we can also get God wring from time to time. Maybe we can be so wrong about how God works.

But we hold on to faith that Jesus is the I AM. Jesus is God in the flesh. He heals. He makes us one with God.

Perhaps that is enough. To know that I was baptized into a death like his, that I might walk around today as one forgiven and set free to love God and neighbor.

P (Prayer): Lord, may we receive your Spirit to help guide and direct us this day. Amen.

We Pray: God Provide!

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S (Scripture): Genesis 22:6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

O (Observation): A very interesting story, indeed. Some look at this story and are appalled at such a disturbing set of circumstances. Some see this story as supporting child sacrifice (which cannot be further from the truth). Some see this story as the beginning of support for animal sacrifice.

Abraham has done almost everything God has asked, to this point. Abraham has been willing to follow God, but took one interesting part into his own hands (fathering a son, Ishmael, with his servant, Hagar). God called Abraham. God does not control Abraham.

So, God sets out for one final test…and does not fail Abraham. Isaac is bound (“akedah” in Hebrew). Bound, Isaac is about to be sacrificed to God. Abraham has been faithful, knowing all along that in some way, God will provide. Will God being Isaac back from the dead? What will happen?

God provides. God provides a ram, caught in the thicket. Abraham is faithful, even to the point of giving full dependence upon God. Even giving up the son that he loves dearly…the son promised by God.

A (Application): The father / son language is reiterated over and over again. You see very clearly the connection and relationship and wonder where the Good News is in this story.

As Abraham knows, God provides. In my study on this text, I came across the following, and leave it here for your reading, in hopes that you can see the Good News in such a text….the Good News that foreshadows Jesus the Christ:

The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,5 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God.

– Kathryn M. S Hoffner decker, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138

P (Prayer): Lord, you always provide for us. Help us to see your provisions around us. Amen.

Stepping Out in Faith

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S (Scripture): Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out without knowing where he was going.

9 By faith he lived in the land he had been promised as a stranger. He lived in tents along with Isaac and Jacob, who were coheirs of the same promise. 10 He was looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

11 By faith even Sarah received the ability to have a child, though she herself was barren and past the age for having children, because she believed that the one who promised was faithful. 12 So descendants were born from one man (and he was as good as dead). They were as many as the number of the stars in the sky and as countless as the grains of sand on the seashore.

O (Observation):  Faith is the result of God making promises and fulfilling those promises.  Here, the author of Hebrews shows how God made good on promises to Abraham and Sarah, and the resulting actions made based on faith.  

God promised Abraham that a new place would exist to which he and Sarah could go.  God promised that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars, as the grains of sand on the beach.   

Abraham and Sarah never could see the fullness of God’s promises…but then, many never do.  That doesn’t mean that the promises are not kept…just that we might not see the promises fulfilled with our own eyes.  

A (Application):  How often do we see the fulfillment of God’s promises in our own time?  

We see some promises fulfilled.   Others, we must trust that God sees them through.  

Often, we must recall the promises made by God to those in former times in order to see that God has been faithful.    We look to Abraham and Sarah, and see promises fulfilled.  We look to the dark ages, and see how monks and many others kept the faith.  We look to modern natural disasters and see God in the response efforts.  We see God comforting the afflicted in the wake of a mass shooting – the worst in US history.  

What a challenging line of succession to follow.  Seeing God’s promises fulfilled is tricky work sometimes, in the midst of the hazy fog of mass murder and natural disasters.  

In times like these, the long view is necessary.   We can feel like our small individual actions don’t amount to much.  But when we see God giving us strength, those small acts of love are effective, indeed.  

This is faith: doing the thing God called you to do.  And trusting that God will make it effective.  

Go.  Do.  Pray.  

P (Prayer): Lord, you call us out through faith to love and serve our neighbors.  Be with us.  Amen.  

All-Access Pass

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S (Scripture):Hebrews 6: 13 When God gave Abraham his promise, he swore by himself since he couldn’t swear by anyone greater. 14 He said, I will certainly bless you and multiply your descendants. 15 So Abraham obtained the promise by showing patience. 16 People pledge by something greater than themselves. A solemn pledge guarantees what they say and shuts down any argument. 17 When God wanted to further demonstrate to the heirs of the promise that his purpose doesn’t change, he guaranteed it with a solemn pledge. 18 So these are two things that don’t change, because it’s impossible for God to lie. He did this so that we, who have taken refuge in him, can be encouraged to grasp the hope that is lying in front of us. 19 This hope, which is a safe and secure anchor for our whole being, enters the sanctuary behind the curtain. 20 That’s where Jesus went in advance and entered for us, since he became a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

O (Observation):  God promises to Abraham that God will bring about many descendants from Abraham.  Abraham had little to do with this, other than to be patient and let God prove trustworthy.  Generation after generation are born, and we have proof of God making good on a pledge.  

Knowing that God makes good on pledges, this gives God’s people hope.   That hope includes access to what was known as the “inner sanctuary” of the temple.   This was the “holy of holies.”   This space was where only the high priests could be admitted.   And this was also where God was believed to be most fully present on earth during the times of Temple worship of God.  

And yet, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the temple curtain was torn, and God made it known that ALL have access to God – Jesus being the first with full access to God.  Now, Jesus makes it possible for all of us to access God fully.  

A (Application):  When was the last time someone broke a promise to you?   When was the last time you broke a promise you made to someone else? 

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”   “Yeah, I can help you move.” “Yeah, I’m open that day.”

Unfortunately, as a parent, I break promises to my kids: “I’ll be there in a second,” “we can go to the playground after school,” “we will go out to see that movie.”
Whether for time or budgetary issues, I break promises, and that hurts me and my kids.   My pledges are not always kept.  I repent of that and wish to be wiser in my commitments.  

But thanks be to God that God makes good on God’s pledges to us all.  God continues to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants.  And in some amazing turn of events, we are seeing many different groups of folks blessing one another.  

The world isn’t perfect, but I can see some perfect things in the world:  the innocence in my 5 year old; people helping in response to natural disasters; my wife, as she begins working as an educational assistant for special education (and putting up with me on a full-time basis).  

Blessings abound, since we have full access to God, just as Jesus does.  God promises to make many descendants from Abraham.  God also promises to bless the world through Abraham.  

What blessings can you see?   How has God blessed you?   Or perhaps a better questions is this: How is God working through you to bless others?

P (Prayer):  Lord, help us to have hope in your pledge to be present in the world and to have access to your full presence.  Amen.  

Through Faith Alone

S (Scripture): Romans 4:13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified…20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness.

23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.

O (Observation):  Paul is starting to dig a bit deeper into the identity of the Jewish people.  Over time, they have become convinced that the works of the Law made them who they were: God’s people.  

Paul is helping them to see that Abraham’s faith in God was not a work of the law, but rather, came about as a gift of faith that originated in God, and thus allowed Abraham to believe at all. Salvation came to Abraham NOT because he performed a “good work” by believing.   Rather, seeing the blessing available to him and Sarah, he responded to the blessing by actually believing in the blessings to come.  

Salvation came to Abraham OUTSIDE OF his own doing.   He recognized that, and ONLY THROUGH FAITH APART FROM THE LAW did Abraham believe.   

Faith was the key to Abraham’s salvation and blessing.  The same goes for those who believe in  the one who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  Paul tells the Jewish Christians in Rome:  just as Jews credited faith in God with Abraham as a model of faith, so too is the opportunity available for ALL to believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, apart from any understanding in the Law or Jewish customs.  

In other words, Gentile Christians have just as much opportunity to be a part of the Church as Jewish Christians.  

A (Application):  I have learned from Mike Breen’s book on discipleship, Building a Discipling Culture, that our identity as Christians stems not from our work towards God, but in God claiming us and bestowing faith upon us.  (This is illustrated in the triangle picture above.). Once that identity in God is established, then we are able to do the work that God calls us to do.   The summation of this, found in Breen’s book is this:  God >> Identity >> Obedience; God is the originator of our identity, which leads to our confidence to be obedient to do God’s work (albeit imperfectly).  

Here is how lots of people express faith in a way that says we earn God’s grace.  Notice how it is the opposite of Breen’s (and Scripture’s) suggestion:

Obedience leads to >> Identity as God’s children >> which then grants us access to God.  

This breaks down when you think about all of the times that we slip up, like when we are angry at someone and speak ill of someone or when we blatantly sin in any way (we’ve all done this, unfortunately).   In this sense, we are always exhausting ourselves to stay in God’s good graces.  Yet this is not the way that the Scriptures describe our relationship with God.  

Rather, God claims us, gathers us, enlightens us, and makes us holy, in order that we might then fulfill God’s will by doing God’s deeds on earth.  The way of God looks like this:

God claims us >> that we might be indentified as God’s children >> that we might be obedient to do God’s deeds.   

Abraham was chosen by God.  Abraham knew (through faith alone) that God would bless him and Sarah and that he and Sarah would be a blessing to others.   Then God brought about righteousness through Abraham’s lineage.  

May we know that God has chosen us and that God can choose to help anyone believe…even those who might not look and act like us…who might not speak our language…who might live a different part of the world.   

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to see that the path to you is by faith alone.  Amen. 

Who Belongs Here?


S (Scripture):John 10:14 [Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd…”

O (Observation): The fact that Jesus states that other sheep belong to his fold can be simultaneously offensive and hopeful.  The offense is to those who see Abraham as their ancestor (I.e. The Jewish leaders).   The hopeful tone is to those Gentiles who believe in Jesus (and don’t share the “privilege” of being a descendant of Abraham).

Jesus seems to want his followers to know that his own commitment to them is greater than any part of their past or present circumstances.   He is their shepherd now.  And he is the one who admits all who wish to follow.   No special ancestor required.  

The Jewish leaders didn’t like that.   The Gentile believers rejoiced.  

A (Application):  I’d say that the biggest reason for people leaving the Church is the Church itself.   “You’re sitting in my pew.”  “We’ve never done it that way before.” “That’s not how you do it.”  We say these things to new folks, then watch them walk out the door and never come back.  

Anybody who has been a part of a church long enough has seen or heard or felt these sentiments before.  And these assaults wound people, deeply. 

Jockeying for position is not required with God.  In fact, that is shunned by God.  But the world says, “Go get yours!  You deserve it!  You’ve never done anything really wrong.”

But God’s viewpoint doesn’t seem to run along the same standards as the world.  Jesus doesn’t require a certain set of practices if they get in the way of the Gospel. 

Some church practices are great: liturgy, the means of grace (Baptism and Communion), preaching, small groups, etc.   But the Church can also get stuck in detrimental practices: only certain people taking leadership roles, no children allowed to lead worship, shunning those who have divorced or who are gay or lesbian.  

We have to own the wrong we’ve done as the church and realize that Jesus is the Shepherd, not our long-standing traditions.   

What traditions have you seen get in the way of the Gospel?

P (Prayer): Lord, we are grateful that you are the Shepherd.  Amen.