Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Saved by Grace through Faith

“Saved by Grace through Faith”

 

Rom 3-24 justified by grace

Romans 3:23-24 – October 28, 2018

I have been called for jury duty four times. Yes, one of those times I did serve on a jury, and I was one of that jury in a murder trial. I vividly remember the judge and his instructions to us as the jury. This particular judge had quite a presence. I could see everyone in that courtroom sitting up a little straighter, or paying more close attention when he spoke.

Is that your idea of a judge? Someone in black robes, sitting in judgment on a case with fairness and equity? A judge, someone evenhanded, listening to both sides of the legal question at hand before making a final decision on the case?

I am afraid that not all people think of judges in this way. In some parts of the world, judges can be less than fair, not exactly honest, and even mean or hurtful. I wanted to point out that this kind of flawed judge was certainly not what the Apostle Paul was thinking about here. Not here in Romans chapter 3.

We need to consider some background, if we are going to look at the book of Romans. This letter was written by Paul at a time when he was in prison. Paul had never been to Rome, even though he was born a Roman citizen. He knew a number of people who had over the years relocated to Rome. In fact, the small group of believers in Rome had probably written to Paul first, and they asked Paul to answer some theological and religious questions, and give them some of the Godly wisdom that comes from above.

The majority of Christ-followers at this time were Jewish, but not all of them. Paul started this section of the letter with a discussion of the Mosaic Law. I can just hear the responding comments by the Roman Christians who are also Gentiles: “Why are you talking about the Jewish Law Code?” In these beginning chapters of Romans, Paul is setting up an argument. He tells the Roman believers that ALL have sinned. Not just the Jews, under the Jewish or Mosaic Law Code. ALL have fallen short of God’s expectations.

Here in Romans 3 Paul highlighted the Law of Moses, and how difficult it is that anyone could be considered righteous. Another way of saying this is: The Law, in which the Jew boasted and the possession of which the Jew took for righteousness, is not able to make any one righteous but only to show them to be unrighteous. [1]

Sure, there is a whole lot of talk about unrighteousness in Romans. Paul comes right out and says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23 is a verse countless Christians have used over the centuries to let people know what a rotten state we are all in. Notice that this verse does not say “For some have sinned,” or even “For most have sinned.” No. we ALL have sinned. We ALL have shown how unrighteous we are. We ALL fall short of the glory of God, that glory that goes so far beyond words.

Just between you and me, I am very glad we do not use the Mosaic Law to be our rulebook now for the believers’ faith. Paul even says so a couple of verses before, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” In other words, ALL have fallen short of God’s expectations.

If that were the case, I do not know how anyone could pass through such strong judgment and find reconciliation with God. That is, without Jesus. He is the whole point of Romans, and Paul returns to Him again and again. Thank God we do not need to stop at Romans 3:23! Paul does not stop there, either, but instead goes on: “ 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

That is good news! I don’t know whether we fully understand it, but that’s good news!

Grace. That word is a simple enough word. However, I don’t want to put anyone on the spot and ask them what exactly “grace” means. I do remember an acrostic definition, from years ago. Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Notice, please, that these two verses of Romans 3 tell us the whole Gospel. The whole Good News. The first, Romans 3:23, tells us why we are sunk, separated from God for eternity. The second, Romans 3:24, tells us we are justified by grace. We are drawn back into God’s presence, and are redeemed by Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’ve related this before, I am proud to say that I was raised as a Lutheran on the northwest side of Chicago. I was baptized and confirmed at that Lutheran church. I was fascinated by Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran denomination. When I was in high school, I learned as much as I could about Martin and his soul-wrenching journey to better understand this blessed fact—that he was saved by grace through faith.

Martin was a learned theologian, yes. But Martin felt sinful and unlovable, too. What’s more, even after lots and lots of good works and all these years of reading and study, he still felt so inadequate. Martin felt God could not possibly love or forgive him. He knew lots of things about Jesus intellectually, but he still did not grasp this central understanding.

Remember Romans 3:23? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes. Yes! That is true. But—that isn’t the whole story! Reading, starting from 3:21: “21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

I can almost see Martin falling off his chair, once he realizes how huge this is. Our sin is taken away through the redeeming that came through Jesus. We are made lovable through God’s grace. Our low self-worth and low self-esteem is now viewed by God through Jesus. God looks at all of us, each one of us, through Jesus-tinted lenses.

            We are all saved by grace, through faith. What tremendous Good News. No, it’s Great News! It’s the most marvelous News of all time!

We will not be tried in a court of law, with all of our sins playing out on a huge screen behind us as God the Judge bangs the gavel in some heavenly courtroom. Jesus took our sins upon Himself, so we do not have to carry them any longer.

That is the best of all possible Good News! Jesus died for our sins. Jesus showed us radical, God-sized grace, and radical, God-sized love.

As I proclaim each week after the Confession of Sin during the Assurance of Pardon, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!”

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/b-righteousness-it%E2%80%99s-not-what-you-know-or-who-you-are-romans-11-326

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

By Faith Alone

“By Faith Alone”

sola gratia, scriptura, fide - Lutheran

Romans 3:19-28 (3:28) – October 29, 2017

Today is a festive day in the church. Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October every year when we remember the bravery and determination of Father Martin Luther, Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.

This year is not just an anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, countless people throughout the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door in Wittenberg.

As I have said during the past few weeks, I care very much about this celebration. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two full years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I can tell you that Martin Luther had his ups and downs as he was traveling the religious road through life. He really, truly wanted to know exactly how to get right with God.

Our New Testament reading today comes from Romans 3, and it starts in a not-very-good place. The apostle Paul talks about the Law of Moses. All of its statutes and ordinances and restrictions would tie people up in knots as they tried to follow every single little rule. That’s the situation everyone finds themselves in, if we start with Romans 3:19-20. We are all in the same sinking boat. From Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation The Message: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the other people? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it:”

Martin started out as a monk, became a priest, and eventually earned his doctorate in theology. He was extremely intelligent, and knew lots of different kinds of stuff. Bible, theology, mathematics, rhetoric, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. However, he seemed to have an inferiority complex. Or, to say it in a different way, Martin was scared to death that he would never measure up to God’s standards and the way God wanted him to live.

Martin Luther tried really hard to get into God’s good graces, for years. He was quite earnest about it. He would try and try to pray and meditate, to do things that would get him on the plus side of God’s righteousness ledger. However, he never could measure up, not on his own. Not even because he was trying as hard as he could to get on God’s good side.

Does that sound familiar to anyone here, today? Is anyone here trying desperately to have God approve of them? Did we all hear the scripture reading from the book of Romans? We are all—all of us—in the same sinking boat. What is more, there is no one who can say they are living the right way, God’s way. Everyone falls short.

From time to time, I look at an online discussion board where ministers share their ideas and insights about scripture readings for sermons and bible studies. This was a few years ago, but Pastor Erik from Wisconsin shared the following comment in a discussion about these particular verses from Romans 3:

“This Sunday we celebrate confirmation. As a part of their confirmation requirements, students have to meet with me for a brief discussion/interview. I ask them about faith, life, God, etcetera – see if they learned anything during confirmation. One question I always ask is “How will you get into heaven? How are you saved?” Most often I get the answers – “Pray. Go to church. Do good deeds.[1]

Martin Luther went to the extreme, in this respect. That would have been his answer, for years and years. Martin spent hours every week on his knees, asking God for forgiveness and confessing his sins to God and to his own personal confessor and spiritual director. He fasted, depriving himself of food and drink, regularly. Martin even went on pilgrimages, to try to gain special favor with God and show himself to be extra specially deserving of coming into God’s presence.

And then, he would meticulously chalk up the good deeds he did. Not to be loving and giving, as our Lord had told us to do, but in order to be super-religious, and to show everyone just how religious Martin was being. Just in the same way that the Pharisees were super religious and meticulous in their rule-following in the first century, when our Lord Jesus walked the earth.

What does Romans 3:23 tell us? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever used a bow and arrow. Has anyone? (I would really like to know.) One of my daughters has, plus one of my close friends. The apostle Paul uses an expression here used for shooting arrows—falling short and missing the mark.  Not hitting the target. What’s more, we can never, ever hit the target that God has set for us to hit, no matter how hard we try, because of sin. All of us sin. That’s everyone. No exceptions.

One of my favorite commentators had this weighty insight about sin. Dr. David Lose tells us that “When we talk about sin, it’s almost always in the plural – sins – as in describing bad things we’ve done. But sin described in [Paul’s writings] is not so much a thing as it is a force – the power that seeks to rob the children of God of abundant life.” [2] How about that? We are all stopped from hitting the bull’s eye by this unstoppable force called sin.

But, wait! There’s more from Dr. Lose. Sin is also “a condition in which we are trapped. In this second sense, the condition of sin is very much a state of existential insecurity – being fearful or anxious that you are not safe, not sufficient, not worthy of love and respect.” [3]

Worse and worse! We not only are being stopped by a force that eternally keeps us from hitting this bull’s eye of living God’s way, but this same unstoppable force convinces us that we are not safe, not sufficient, not able even to use a Godly, heavenly bow and arrow—so to speak. It’s the ultimate feeling of insecurity, of feeling less-than, fearful and anxious that we will never get to heaven and never be in God’s presence.

But, who will save us from this wretched situation? From this unstoppable force and condition of sin? How can we come into God’s presence and live God’s way, the way our Lord meant us to live?

Martin Luther was also a diligent student of the Bible. He would pour over Scripture for hours each week. Finally, in 1513, he found this mind-blowing idea in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers.   Verse 3:28:” 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”   Thanks be to God.

“God also loves us, accepting and loving the insecure, wayward persons we are. Not the person we’ve tried to be or promised to but, but the person we really are. And so God not only forgives us those sins (plural) we commit, but also promises us God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and regard.” [4]

Again, thanks be to God for God’s unspeakable, marvelous, glorious gift!

This sermon is called “By Faith Alone:” Sola fide! Last Sunday’s sermon was “By Grace Alone:” Sola gratia! Last week we looked at Ephesians 2:8-9, which says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

We know from Paul’s straight account that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that no one can boast about their good works, “that none of us can brag that we earned some spiritual star a long time ago. If anyone will boast, we will not boast of our faith; we will not boast about our good works.  If anyone will boast, we will boast about God, the God who forgives us and loves us.  We will boast about Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and me. We will boast about the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.” [5]

We are gathered here in this building because of Jesus Christ, because of what He did for us on the Cross, because He conquered death, and because we are now His followers. What more wonderful expression of our faith is there than to say Soli Deo Gloria! Or, to God alone be the glory. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://javacasa.ipower.com/resources/dps_form_results/roma3_19.htm

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/ref-day-pen-20-original-insecurity/  “Original Insecurity and the Power of Love,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mother Teresa, Good Works and Faith  Romans 3:19-28 – ·  Reformation Sermons, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Grace Alone

“By Grace Alone”

 

sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide

Ephesians 2:4-10 (2:8) – October 22, 2017

How many people catch their breath or look troubled when they see an ambulance whiz by, sirens blaring, and lights flaring? I think that is a common reaction. I feel that way from time to time, too. Sometimes, I feel helpless, even useless, just watching from the sidelines. Or, in some cases, the sidewalk. Working as a chaplain, I met ambulances in the Emergency Department where they would unload their critically ill patients.

This is so like the situation that the apostle Paul talks about in our scripture reading for this morning. Let’s read Ephesians 2:4-5. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”

I know how difficult this discussion is for some people. Some of you or some of your friends or relatives might have traveled to the hospital, following that ambulance. I know, because I met with many families and loved ones in the Emergency Department. I’ve sat next to beds in the intensive care unit or other critical care units and prayed with seriously ill patients. I’ve comforted both patients and their loved ones. Sadly, I have been with a large number of people who died in the hospital. That is what Paul is talking about here. This is the situation. Paul says we—all of us—are dead in transgressions.

This is looking at things from a really dismal point of view. Absolutely! Sure, we might be walking around, physically breathing, hearts pumping. But as Paul tells us, we are dead because of our trespasses. Our transgressions. Our sins. Our thoughts, words and deeds that are not what God wants from us, and not who God wants us to be.

If you think of it in contemporary, even humorous terms, think of the whole human race like zombies—spiritual zombies. Sure, our bodies are walking and breathing, but we are all spiritually dead.

The apostle Paul is really clear about this. We—all of us—are spiritually dead in our trespasses and transgressions. Because of sin. What can we possibly do to heal ourselves from this spiritual death?

Some people might think they are not too bad off, not as bad as other people. I can hear them now: “I haven’t murdered or cheated anybody. I can’t be that sinful.” Or, “Look at that gal. She did all that illegal, nasty stuff. I’m not half as bad as she is.” Well, I have news for you. Really bad news. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Same apostle, different New Testament letter.)

For some, it might help if you can picture this. It’s as if each of us is in a spiritual boxing ring, boxing with the Devil. The tricky Devil flattens us with the one-two punch of temptation and sin. On our own, we are permanently knocked out, down for the count, forever.

Sin hits different people in different ways. Sometimes it’s sin like anger or envy or jealousy. Other times it’s the sin of pride or gossip or nasty words. Sometimes it’s the sin of mean, unkind thoughts—like Jesus told us, wishing you had something that belonged to somebody else—that is called coveting. Or, getting so angry at a friend or relative you call them, “You idiotic fool!” And, really mean worse than that. Jesus called all of that sin, too.

Let’s read from Ephesians 2:4-5 again: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Wait a minute. I’ve heard some people with another take on this sin thing. They try to work their way onto God’s good side. “There must be something I can do! Maybe, pray a bunch of times a day—really earnest prayers, too!” Or, “Maybe bringing some extra special offerings will make God happy. Maybe that will take away some of the black marks against me.” Or, “Maybe doing lots of good deeds. Maybe God will look at that and be satisfied.”

Paul says there is a problem with that. We cannot work our way to heaven by ourselves. What does Ephesians 2:8-9 say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” In other words, the only way we can be accepted by God is only God’s doing. It is all God’s mercy, love, kindness and grace. Especially grace. Grace alone. Sola gratia. Not grace plus good works, no!

“Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace apart from works. If we were saved based on our works we would all be going to hell because our greatest works are filthy rags before God.[1] All we need to do to check that out is to read Isaiah 64:6 – “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

Stan Mast from Calvin Theological Seminary had this to say: “I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So, was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.” [2]

God’s grace. Amazing grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord.

As I said to the children at the beginning of the service today, grace is undeserved. We do not deserve it. A newborn baby cannot do anything to make his or her parents or grandparents love him or her. We don’t expect them to! Can the newborn baby say “I love you?” Can the newborn baby give people hugs? Yet, the baby’s family loves that tiny human very much.

Remember the definition of grace (actually, Carolyn Brown’s definition): “grace is loving someone even when they don’t deserve it and God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.” [3]

I used to enjoy taking my children to the park, to the playground with all of the play equipment. I would often bring a book and read while the children played for a good long time. Sooner or later, it would be time to go home. Occasionally, when I would call my children, one or the other of them wouldn’t be ready to leave. Every once in a while, they would take off running in the opposite direction. I would have to go running after them.

Sure, I’d get upset. Sometimes, I’d be afraid and even angry, because they might wander off the playground and run near a busy street. But, I wouldn’t stop loving them. I’m a human, fallible parent. How much more does God love my children? And, how much more does God love me? And, you?

I am okay with God speaking of me—of us—as a small child (which the Bible does, on several occasions). When you or I disobey or run away from God, does God keep loving us? Remember Carolyn Brown’s definition of grace? “God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.”

From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, we all are saved, justified by God’s grace alone. By God’s grace, “we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.” [4]

God’s grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Amazing grace. Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] God’s Grace…… Earned or Freely Given?  http://www.reformedgnome.com/  Posted on February 9, 2016

[2] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

[3] Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 2012http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

[4] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

To God Alone Be Glory

“To God Alone Be Glory”

1 Tim 1-17 immortal, invisible, words

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (1:17) – October 8, 2017

When I was young, I was a member of a Lutheran church on the northwest side of Chicago, baptized and confirmed Lutheran, and well trained in liturgical practice and classic hymnody. Later in high school and into my twenties, I spent a number of years in Evangelical churches. I memorized dozens of bible verses, learned pietistic practices, and completed an undergraduate degree in church music from a local bible college. I sang many beloved old hymns and gospel songs, including “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “To God Be the Glory.”

It’s this last gospel song I would like to quote: “To God be the glory—great things He hath done! So loved He the world that He gave us His Son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the Life-gate that all may go in.”

“To God be the glory!” Exactly the topic of my sermon today. Pastor Kevin asked me to preach on one of the “solas,” the foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. Soli Deo Gloria is one of the “solas” or “onlies” of the Reformation. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg in October 1517, this October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

“Soli Deo Gloria,” or, to God alone be glory, is one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this principle meant that all glory (and honor and worship) is due to God, alone. Not God plus the saints, not God plus the Virgin Mary, not God plus the church hierarchy. God alone is worthy of our glory—and only God is to be worshipped. That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

Our Scripture reading today comes from 1 Timothy 1, starting at verse 12. Paul states: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service.” Paul is just overflowing with thankfulness here. He is absolutely grateful to the Lord Jesus for extending His grace to Paul and designating Paul a worker for God, in the service of Jesus Christ.

Just to refresh everyone’s memories, the Apostle Paul was not always a follower of Christ. Before he had that sudden, come-to-Jesus experience on the Damascus Road, Paul was called Saul. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and an up-and-coming member of the Sanhedrin—the ruling council of the Jews in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul had studied at the equivalent of the University of Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city where he grew up, in modern-day Turkey. He saw this breakaway sect of Jews following some “false Messiah” as a clear danger to the worship of the one God who made heaven and earth.

Paul tells us himself what his personal situation was—in brief—in the next verse of 1 Timothy 1: “13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Sure, Saul/Paul was a fire-breathing zealot, ready to grab these “Christians” off the street and throw them in prison. As he himself states, Paul was formerly “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”

How on earth could God use someone awful like this? A self-admitted bad guy, too! But, wait. This isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Jesus steps into the picture.

What does Paul say in the next verse? “14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” What happened? Jesus Christ happened. God’s grace was poured out on Paul, and he had a true conversion experience. He once was blind but suddenly was given the gift of sight—spiritual sight.

Here in this letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives his testimony. He tells everyone what a rotten guy he was, and how God reached down and saved him, and what’s more, put Paul into his service. In many Baptist and Evangelical churches, “the sharing of testimony was [and is] a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting.” [1]

Paul certainly had a different kind of past life, before coming to Christ, and he definitely remembered aspects of that life. We can see that from these two verses: “15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.”

We can hear rumblings of several other “solas” from our Reformation in these verses, can’t we? Sola Fide—faith alone, and Sola Gratia—grace alone, and certainly Solus Christus—by Christ alone. It is at this earthshaking, deep emotional point that Paul can’t stand it any more and breaks into a glorious doxology: “17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

If we are paying close attention to what he just said, it is at this point that we—all of us—ought to join Paul on our knees and lift our arms to God in praise and awe and honor and glory. Here, in brief, is the tremendous order of events that Paul wrote about at the beginning of his letter to Timothy. Saul/Paul was “the chief of sinners,” came face to face with Jesus, went into God’s service, had his life amazingly changed, and wrote a glorious doxology about it.

Look at this Protestant principle from the point of view of the 1500’s. Was it God—plus the saints, or the Virgin Mary—that caused such a life-changing experience for Paul? I think not. Was it God—plus the church hierarchy—that made Paul do a complete 180 degree turn? No, not that either. It was God alone who brought Paul to his knees. God alone, God’s grace and mercy in Paul’s life, heart and soul had a life-changing effect on Paul. Heart-changing and soul-changing, too!

Sadly, in Martin Luther’s day, many people had (in effect) contingency plans for their salvation. Or, add-ons to get to heaven. For example, they would believe in Jesus Christ and His atonement—plus prayers to the saints; or Jesus Christ and His blood shed on the cross—plus the petitions of the Virgin Mary. All of these additional things were and are blessings, and were and are embraced by people all over the world. Just not to be elevated to the point of worship.

However, Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other Reformers said that it is God alone who was to receive our worship, honor and glory. That is what bursts out of Paul here in 1 Timothy 1. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, victorious—Thy great name we praise.”

Which leads us to our response. Yes, we can celebrate! Yes, such a marvelous God is truly to be given all praise. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God and to the Lamb.

But, some of us do not readily burst into speech that might be mistaken as quotes from the King James version of the Bible. I was moved by several paragraphs of a recent book by the noted Christian author Anne Lamott. It comes from the third section of the book “Help Thanks Wow,” which is an exploration of three essential prayers that we all pray at one time or another.

“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” [2]

Isn’t this another way of expressing Paul’s glorious doxology? It might not be as elegant, but if the Holy Spirit can take the deep, wordless groanings of our hearts and make them understood in prayer, why not the heartfelt, or exuberant, or awestruck simple “Wow!”

As the Reformers tell us, all of us are sinners, saved by God’s grace. So, all of us can say with Paul that God alone is to be worshiped—to God alone be the glory.

We can see from the life of the apostle Paul as well as from the lives of countless followers of Christ throughout the centuries, God can use anyone whom God wishes to use. Paul’s heart-stirring testimony can move us to pray, to serve, to live for God. Our Lord Jesus can take us, wherever and whomever we are, and use us. Here I am, God. Here are we. Send me. Send us.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3034 , September 11, 2016, Eric Barreto

[2] Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott, (United States of America: Riverhead Books, published by the Penguin Group, 2012) 71.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Scripture Alone

“By Scripture Alone”

2 Tim 3-16 Scripture God-breathed, script

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (3:16) – October 1, 2017

Who remembers going to Sunday school? Remember the bible lessons, and learning about God’s faithfulness? How God was faithful to people over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, and how God is faithful to us, today? Who remembers going to confirmation classes, and learning about God’s grace? How God extends abundant grace to us, today? Who remembers learning about Jesus, and how He came into the world to save sinners, including us?

The young Timothy learned lots of that kind of bible stuff, too. He grew up reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and was carefully taught about God and the ways of salvation and faith. Except, timid Timothy needed a knowledgeable mentor, an older brother in the faith, and he found one in the Apostle Paul. Paul zeroed in on the fact that Timothy grew up with the Scriptures. He praised Timothy for learning the Bible; “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

I mentioned last week that I will be preaching this month on the five “Solas,” the five foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

This week, I am preaching on Sola Scriptura, or by Scripture alone. This foundational principle sets Protestants apart. This was a big deal in Martin Luther’s day. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, by Scripture alone was not the case in the minds of many, many people in Martin’s day. Not only clergy but also lay people in the 1500’s thought that they needed more stuff to add to the Bible, for salvation—to get them to heaven.

“I need the Scriptures plus the Pope to save me.” That was what some people thought. They considered the Pope’s pronouncements to be equal in weight to the Scriptures. That was one thing that Martin Luther publicly denounced in his 95 Theses, in several pointed statements.

Don’t get me wrong; I have highly praised both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II from this pulpit, on several occasions. Francis is a spiritual, kind, caring and devout man, a marvelous representative for the Catholic Church worldwide. I could say similar things about John Paul II, may he rest in peace. Great leaders, and wonderful examples. Just not elevating their pronouncements to the level of the Holy Scriptures.

“I need the Scriptures plus church tradition to save me.” That was what some people thought. Yes, Holy Scripture was important. But many, many people for centuries thought that the doctrines and traditions of the Church Universal were of equal importance. The creeds and confessions and catechisms of the church were considered of equal importance, too.

Guess what? Doctrines, traditions, and creeds are all human creations. That means that humans made them. In most cases, very carefully. They checked and double-checked to make certain they agreed with Scripture. However, sometimes these faulty humans made mistakes. Sometimes these fallible, sinful humans goofed and put down their goofs on paper, for posterity to see. Sometimes sincere people of good conscience passed rules stating that certain things were good or positive or “the way things should be” or “it’s always been that way.”

“Over the centuries, doctrines have been developed with the interests of the Church in mind.  These doctrines have come to us from human hands and minds.  They are imperfect.” [1]

One vivid example? In 2017, we now understand that slavery is immoral. 150 years ago at the beginning of the American Civil War, sincere people of good conscience in certain denominations split ways over the biblical condition of slavery, described numerous times in the Scriptures. They did not reconcile for many decades. Similar to people at the time of Martin Luther, many were bound to tradition and following the church leaders of past centuries.

What about today? Is this still true? I think, yes. Today, “men use the Bible to enforce patriarchy.  Bigots use the Bible to justify discrimination.  The calling to serve the poor falls on deaf ears.  ‘Healing the sick’ is not a community responsibility, lest we have to pay more in taxes.  [Many] Christians use the Bible to satisfy their desires, promote their own interests, and express their own fears and bigotry.” [2]

How can people so blindly follow tradition, we might ask? To illustrate , here is a short story. “The new bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Her husband thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

Bothered by this, the young bride calls her mother and asks, “You know the roast brisket recipe? Why do you cut off the ends of the roast before you put it in the pan?” Her mother answers, “That’s the way your grandmother always made it.”

“The next week, they go to the grandmother’s house, and she prepares the famous roast brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she asks her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “My dear, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” [3]

What does Paul tell Timothy? “How from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. We, too, have learned Scripture in Sunday school, in confirmation classes, in bible studies and sermons over the years. “The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” That is a foundation stone of our faith. By Scripture alone.

Returning to the words of the Apostle Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So, Scripture is God-breathed. Divinely inspired. Breathed out by the Ruach ha Kodesh, the Holy Spirit.

The important part? “The descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The Scripture invites us into a pattern of gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma.” [4] What the Bible does offer us—these blessed, holy Scriptures invite us into a pattern or example of gospel living. In other words, live like Jesus.

Is this an easy example to follow? No, but it is straight-forward. What would Jesus do?

As John 1 tell us, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Do you hear? Holy Scripture equals the Word. The Word equals Jesus, the Word made flesh, come down from heaven.

We look to Scripture for our nurture, our faith, and our salvation. We look to our Lord Jesus to save us from our sins. We look to the Word made flesh, the Word we celebrate and remember in Communion, today. Praise God for salvation. Praise God for Scripture.

[1] https://modernlectionaries.blogspot.com/2013/10/making-sense-of-god-sound-doctrine-and_20.html

“Making Sense of God: ‘Sound Doctrine’ and Divine Inspiration,” Richard Mario Procida, Modern Lectionaries, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.snopes.com/weddings/newlywed/secret.asp , adapted.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=725

Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Our Debt? Love One Another

“Our Debt? Love One Another”

Rom 13-8 love one another, script

Romans 13:8-11 (13:8) – September 24, 2017

I am very pleased to announce that a big anniversary is coming up at the end of October. It is not just a big anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door at Wittenberg University, in Germany.

Many people do not even know anything about this event. Some people really could not care less. However, I care very much. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I was not your typical teenager.

Today, I want to finish up our short series on the book of Romans, our Epistle readings from the Revised Common Lectionary that we have focused on for the past weeks. The Apostle Paul was also one of Martin Luther’s favorite biblical authors.

The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap from some people. True, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He came from impeccable bloodlines, from the tribe of Benjamin, trained at the secular college in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, and mentored by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He was puffed up about his ancestry and about his superior schooling.

Can you imagine the high-and-mighty Pharisee Saul-that-was, suddenly transformed into lowly Paul, a follower of the Messiah Jesus? Losing all that prestige, losing his position on the Sanhedrin, and also his position as an up-and-coming leader of the religious Jews. After all that, after such a come-down, Paul is not only following Jesus, but he is using his substantial rhetorical skills at persuading anyone who comes by that they ought to follow Jesus, too! That’s the situation right here, in the letter to the Roman church. We are in the middle of the practical section of the letter, where Paul gives advice and commands for his readers to listen to, and heed.

When it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures and the commands listed there, we recall the Big Ten, the Commandments given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. The Ten Commandments were the ultimate in the commands given to the people of Israel. Even though there were more than six hundred various laws in the Law Code of Moses as written down by various biblical scholars and religious lawyers in centuries following, the Big Ten commands led the list.

Here, in our reading today, Paul lists four of these commandments, the chief commands that refer to our relationships with each other. Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, and do not covet. As a former Pharisee, I suspect Paul had learned them when very young. Repeating them was something the devout followers of the Law of Moses did on a regular basis.

Paul could have given us a repetition of the Commandments and left it at that.

But, no. Paul wanted to go beyond just a rote repetition of the Law of Moses, of the Commandments—even the Ten Commandments that the Lord God gave on Mount Sinai. What he says in this reading today is nothing short of amazing, especially coming from a former Pharisee. Listen again to verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Full stop. Period.

And, again in verse 10, just in case anyone was not clear about what Paul was saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Going back to our discussion about the Reformation of the 1500’s, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Church is the Heidelberg Catechism, completed in 1562. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the first question at the beginning: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The response: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head.”

This Catechism was written in uncertain times, when religious wars were causing upheaval over large parts of Europe. Yet, the writers of this document have the sure certainty that Jesus Christ is, indeed, our faithful Savior, protecting us from ultimate, eternal separation from God our Heavenly Father.

Look more closely at this Catechism, which talks of human redemption, God the Father, Son and Spirit, the sacraments, prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

The section on the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” went right to my heart. Question 111 says: “What does God require of you in this commandment?” The response: “That I work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him/her as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.” What was it that Paul just said in Romans 13:10? ““Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Okay, love one another. But, what does that look like? How do we go about loving each other? The Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm preached on this reading from Romans, several years ago. He said, “loving your neighbor means, “if your neighbor is hungry, feed him.” It means “if your neighbor is thirsty, give her something to drink.” If there are people who are sick or hurting or suffering or alone in the world, visit them. It’s not rocket science! But it’s not easy.” [1]

The problem is, with us fallible people who sin from time to time, we forget. We fall back into old patterns, familiar but not-so-good habits. It’s all very well for Paul and the other Apostles to tell us, “love one another.” Martin Luther would be the first to tell us of his struggles with this very thing! How do we go against the grain and “love one another?” I mean, love all others? No matter who they are? I think we just heard from Dr. Brehm.

As Dr. Brehm tells us, our sinful, fallible selves are “always in the mode of “what’s in it for me?” But that’s not the kind of love the Bible teaches us. The kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and that the Apostles taught us to practice is a kind of love that simply gives to another person—without any wish to get anything in return.” [2]

The Apostle Paul gives us a big challenge today, and also a big blessing. God wants us to love one another! The Lord is so pleased when we try to love each other. As we try to love more and more, we draw closer and closer to God, and to each other. No matter who they are.

I know—from experience!—how difficult this can be. Some of us are stubborn. Some of us are afraid. Loving one another can be a really, really hard challenge. I want all of us to help each other. We can all think of one or two people we encounter on a regular basis who are difficult for us to love. I invite you all to write their names on a piece of paper. We will collect the names and the ushers will bring them forward for us all to pray over. We can ask God’s forgiveness for not loving them, and ask Jesus for His help to love one another as He loved us.

The last question in the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is the meaning of the little word ‘Amen?’” The answer: “Amen means: this shall truly and certainly be. For my prayer is much more certainly heard by God than I am persuaded in my heart that I desire such things from Him.” We can all say, “Alleluia, amen” to that earnest, heartfelt prayer to God.

[1] http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2011/09/charity-never-fails-rom.html

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]  Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)