Let the Gospel Do its Thing

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S (Scripture): Matthew 22:35 One of the Pharisees, a legal expert, tested Jesus. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

O (Observation): Jesus emphasizes Old Testament scriptures that point out the call to love God and neighbor. The Pharisees – legal experts in the law – placed later upon layer of teachings and regulations concerning how to keep the law. Once that is decided, one could figure out how to use those laws to decipher who is “in” and who is “out.

Jesus comes along and turns that whole system on its ear.

And just to refresh their memories of the Law from God (and not just the laws and interpretations of laws of the Pharisees), Jesus pulls out Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Gospel was always there. They just piled their own junk on top of it, obscuring the Gospel from shining forth.

A (Application): How can we keep the main thing the main thing? How do we keep from covering up the Gospel?

Quite often in our own desire to be clear about faith and belief, we tell folks what they need to believe. As ELCA Lutherans we share in a Creed and basic beliefs around the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Those are powerful symbols (pointers) for Christ.

As we share these symbols, who do we let in to that circle? Does it behoove us to expand that circle? Do we cheapen God’s grace when ask folks to come into those circles? Do we teach and preach about the symbols first before we let them in?

I leave these questions here today for you to struggle with. I have opinions, but I’m looking for the collective thought process, and just my own understanding.

May you keep in prayer all of those who are fearful this day from the potential of the coronavirus spreading and for those recovering in Middle Tennessee.

If you want some guidance on resources for worship, or how to respond to the tornado relief effort, please visit the ELCA-Southeastern Synod website (ELCA-ses.org).

P (Prayer): Lord, helps us to see beneath the stuff we place on top of the Gospel. What is helpful for teaching the Gospel, help us to embrace. Help us to find the cure for the coronavirus, that all may be made well. Also, we give thanks for the thousands of volunteers and dollars being dedicated to tornado relief in middle TN. Amen.

No Need to Look Over Your Shoulder

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S (Scripture): Matthew 9:18 While Jesus was speaking to them, a ruler came and knelt in front of him, saying, “My daughter has just died. But come and place your hand on her, and she’ll live.” 19 So Jesus and his disciples got up and went with him. 20 Then a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the hem of his clothes. 21 She thought, If I only touch his robe I’ll be healed.

22 When Jesus turned and saw her, he said, “Be encouraged, daughter. Your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed from that time on.

23 When Jesus went into the ruler’s house, he saw the flute players and the distressed crowd. 24 He said, “Go away, because the little girl isn’t dead but is asleep”; but they laughed at him. 25 After he had sent the crowd away, Jesus went in and touched her hand, and the little girl rose up. 26 News about this spread throughout that whole region.

O (Observation): Some scholars debate whether or not Jesus broke the religious purity codes in this episode. Most say he does not, but a fine line exists between being defiled and bring “in the clear” in this case.

Jesus is on his way to raise a young girl from the dead. Along the way, a woman who has been bleeding for some time – which makes her impure, by the way…according to the religious standards of the day – and Jesus receives this touch without condemning the woman. In fact, Jesus commends the faith of this woman.

This bleeding woman , not Jesus, proves that purity is more contagious than impurity. So she reached out to Jesus.

Jesus follows the call to raise a young woman from the dead. Again, a possible impurity awaits Jesus. Yet he engages and raises her.

New things are afoot…

A (Application): What does it mean to us to have the Gospel, but never use it? To have salvation, but no one with which to share it.

Many Christians think their call is to live better than others. I’m not saying we should all devolve into the worst people we can be; no! Rather I propose that we can all grow by sharing the Gospel more and more in the places most people won’t wish to go.

Sharing the Gospel means loving others as they are. Showing them that someone cares.

Sharing the Gospel means crossing boundaries that most take for granted, or that we assume should never be broached.

Yet in Jesus we have our hope and our example. With our salvation well in check, we can look to Jesus as our guide for making a way forward – living out the Gospel, without looking over our shoulder to see what others think. If we have shared the Good News, we have done our part.

P (Prayer): Lord, teach us to look forward to the work you have called us into, being not afraid to live out the Gospel truth. Amen.

Ever-Present Grace

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S (Scripture): 2 Peter 3:11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

O (Observation): Peter is getting on everyone to be ready for the coming of the Lord. Perhaps folks have started to wane in their commitment to Jesus; many think the days are dragging on. Shouldn’t Jesus be here by now? Perhaps, but maybe one day to us is a 1,000 years to God? What if Jesus doesn’t come back for a really long time?

Peter suggests we be ready nonetheless.

Peter speaks of fire bringing forth the new heaven and the new earth. Sounds quite scary! Is fire the path to a new heaven and earth? A purifying fire?

A (Application): I never quite get the fire and brimstone speeches of the later parts of the New Testament. Folks who speak of exhortation (like today’s piece) seem to like to use these texts in ways that describe Christianity as a “be saved or die” ethic.

Folks who lean mostly on these texts create a new Law. They treat this new Law as the Gospel. They think saving power lies in the “believe or die” approach. They think Christianity is about making sure people believe exactly the right things.

The truth seems to be that our call is to keep on reminding one another of the grace of God, and to try not to take for granted the beautiful gifts of our baptism and the grace offered at the Table. We have God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. No need to squander it!

So, let us tell others of this kind of love that our God shows to the whole world. Let others know that they are encompassed with God’s Grace.

God will do the judging, not us. God will refine our hearts and minds, so that we might more clearly see the deep, deep value of God’s Grace freely offered and freely given.

Stay humble, my friends! Stay humble.

P (Prayer): Grace-filled God, remind us of your love and grace in our places of mission this day. Amen.

Doubt and Despair

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S (Scripture):

Lamentations 1:9 

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;

her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction![b]

Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 

Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.

They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.

Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

Hebrews 7:26 It’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. 27 He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself. 28 The Law appoints people who are prone to weakness as high priests, but the content of the solemn pledge, which came after the Law, appointed a Son who has been made perfect forever.

O (Observation): Today’s texts remind us of two very different points in the revelation of God and God’s overall story. In Lamentations, God’s people sense that God – in the form of Instruction, or Torah – has “left the building” so to speak. Their understanding of God’s presence was wrapped up in the physical presence of God in the book of Instruction and in the Temple, neither of which were present any longer (at least not perceived to be present). God’s people begin their Babylonian exile.

Fast forward to God’s story post-ascension of Jesus, post-Acts. Now we have a God being understood as a priest forever. But not just any priest. Jesus is now the priest forever. Nothing can separate God’s presence from God’s people now. For our priest is perfect, now and forever.

God is always “in the building.”

A (Application): In our heads, we get what the Hebrews text is speaking to. In our hearts, we can get mired down in the world of Lamentations.

THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL FOR US!!!

No shame is found in doubt or despair. As we discover (and re-discover) the story of God’s people, we are constantly being reminded that God’s people have (and will) experience moments or even seasons of doubt or despair.

How do we recall that our priest – Jesus – speaks to God for us, giving us freedom to act out of grace? We gather around the story as individuals and as community. We worship together. We serve together. We find ways to build relationships and ways to give to God and neighbor. Here, we rediscover God’s presence.

The story of God includes you. You are made in God’s image. Remember that this day. Remember that Jesus intercedes for you and brings your prayers to God. Jesus encourages you and me and all that seek grace.

Turn to God. Do so in community. See the grace flow.

P (Prayer): Gracious Jesus, sing for us, speak for us, when we can do neither. Amen.

A Slave to Righteousness

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S (Scripture): Romans 7:5 When we were self-centered, the sinful passions aroused through the Law were at work in all the parts of our body, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the Law. We have died with respect to the thing that controlled us, so that we can be slaves in the new life under the Spirit, not in the old life under the written Law.

O (Observation): Paul is still riffing about about the Law. Is one under the Law if also under Christ? No! How is this? The Law is for the living. In Christ, especially in baptism, we die and are re-born. Thus, we are released from the Law, and at the same time, are now slaves to righteousness, under the Spirit.

The Spirit’s calling compels us to respond…not just an obligation to pass or fail…but as an opening for doing God’s ministry.

A (Application): I see us constantly using the new Spirit in us as a new Law. We set up markers to see who is “really” doing God’s work. We measure public appearances, an abundance or a lack of social media presence, or popularity to decide who is being “faithful.”

The time that I spend in personal devotion and prayer helps me to remember that God is with me day in and day out, regardless of the standards I mentioned above. When I get away from this practice, I get out of focus.

The time I spend “digging daily” is a way of “mining for God’s presence.” I do this practice with several other folks. Something life-giving comes from doing this work with others. Is this devotion a new Law? Absolutely not! The practice of digging into God’s word daily is a great way to see the Spirit alive and well in my life and all around me…especially in troublesome times.

P (Prayer): Lord, sustain me in my journey as a space to righteousness. Amen.

The Law…The Rules

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S (Scripture): Romans 3:28b We consider that a person is treated as righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t God the God of Gentiles also? Yes, God is also the God of Gentiles. 30 Since God is one, then the one who makes the circumcised righteous by faith will also make the one who isn’t circumcised righteous through faith. 31 Do we then cancel the Law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law.

O (Observation): Paul is once again speaking to the Jewish Christians (those who were Jewish and now following Christ). He points out that their adherence to the Law (or lack there of) had nothing to do with their salvation.

When a Jew expresses the Law, this comes from faith in God. The mark of circumcision is the outward expression of an internal faith.

If that external marker was removed, what then? Could someone…say…a Gentile show faith in God? Yes! And if so, that person would not need the Law to become righteous…for God instills faith in both the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Anyone who believes in Christ has been joined to Christ’s righteousness. This is a free gift. The Law stands as a reminder of who we are called to be as God’s people. The Law was a guide and identity marker, not a path to salvation. Salvation is about faith in God.

So, should the Law be thrown out? Absolutely NOT!

A (Application): What barriers are we putting up as God’s people? What rules do we put in place for members and church leaders that make us stumble along the way? Shouldn’t we throw them all out? Well, not so fast : )

Just like we don’t throw out the Law, we don’t throw out everything that are good boundary markers in organized religion.

Healthy boundaries can be good, so that we can care for each other and build up healthy community. When we don’t trust one another and break down these barriers, we can lean on forgiveness and reconciliation, which we have first received from Christ.

Now, following the rules of the Church is not the goal…faith in Christ is the goal. As such, when the rules of the Church inhibit certain groups of people from access to faithful community, then perhaps the rules need to be updated.

The Law guides us and is an outward expression of what it means to have faith in God. Rules of the Church exist to guide us into community. But faith in God is what makes us righteous. And this righteousness comes through Christ, who gave himself for us. Believing in Christ – thanks to the Holy Spirit instilling faith in us – brings us to righteousness. The Law…the rules…don’t make us righteous. Christ does.

P (Prayer): Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. Amen.

Pushing Others Down

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S (Scripture): Romans 2:28 It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. 29 Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.

O (Observation): Most of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was about reconciling the differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. His beef with the Jewish Christians was that they were acting arrogant. They believed that with their outward customs, they were better than Gentiles who became Christian. Or that somehow Gentile Christians should adopt the outward custom of circumcision to be on equal ground with Jewish Christians.

The problem that Paul points out is that nothing is gained from the outward practice. He says that the real change God seeks is one of the heart (or spirit). If someone comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, the change doesn’t come from the outside in. The outside marker is just an indication of the internal change that God enacts in someone’s being.

So do the Jews have an advantage? If they do, it’s only because God established a covenant with them first, and revealed the Law and Scriptures to the Jews first…but this gift has always been available to all people.

A (Application): “They’re not Christian.” Quite often I hear people say things like this about other people. The ones making the accusations go to church (or at least say they do) and act all prim and proper. But when it comes to living like Jesus and acting out of grace, they come up way short. I do, too.

The problem with lifting up one’s self over another usually comes because we are insecure about our own faith. We recognize we don’t do the Law, and so we try to make ourselves feel better than others by pushing them down, rather than asking God to lift us all up.

We do this by class, race, sexual orientation, and other ways. We simply are insecure. And that scares us. And thus, we get defensive.

We don’t do The Law. It is a guide, and it is meant to show us our shortcomings. And in the wake of that realization, God hears our cries and welcomes us back with the Gospel.

What would it look like if instead of hiding the ways we break The Law, we face the music and let God redeem us. Then, maybe, we can do less judging of others and more inviting into relationships so that we can share this Gospel message with others. We can speak from our own brokenness and let God come to others.

P (Prayer): Lord, redeem us and make us whole, as only you can. Amen.