Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Holy Trinity: God For Us!

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 This morning we confessed our Christian faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  We confessed that “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.”  We confessed that Jesus is one Christ “not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.” 
As we did so--as the lines of this Creed went on and on, carefully distinguishing between, and defining, the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, perhaps there was the temptation to say to ourselves, “What on earth does this have to do with me?”
Hopefully we will felt a little bit of guilt and unease in thinking that way because at the beginning and end of the Creed we affirmed that those who do not believe in the Christian Faith confessed in the Athanasian Creed—those who do not keep it whole and undefiled—those who do not hold to it faithfully and firmly—cannot be saved-- and will instead perish eternally.
That’s a sobering thought-- and it is meant to be-- for the Creeds deal with the questions at the center of our human existence:  who is God- and how can I know him- and what must I believe to be saved? 
The Creeds of the Church answer those questions this way:  1. There is one God in three distinct, yet equal persons and 2. Jesus Christ, the God/Man is the only Savior of the world and 3. we must believe in him and what he has done to be saved.
The truth about the Trinity and the truth about Jesus as they are confessed in the creeds are the two irreducible biblical truths that must be believed for salvation. 
In stark contrast to the religious pluralism that is so prevalent in the world today, and especially in our own country, the Christian Church confesses (and has always confessed) that those who do not believe in this one true faith confessed in the creeds—no matter how outwardly pious or kind or religious they might be—will not be saved.
You see, it matters eternally what we believe—salvation is at stake--which is why for a lot of Christians Trinity Sundays makes us a little bit uneasy. We want to believe that these things about God and Christ are true—but the Athanasian Creed in all its careful details seems difficult to understand.  We can’t quite get our minds around the central mysteries of the faith.
That is why it is important for us to recognize and remember that the ecumenical creeds—even the Athanasian Creed--are simply a summary of what the Bible teaches-- and so long as we believe what is written in the Bible we can be confident that we are abiding in the Truth and will be saved.
 In our lesson from Acts we have a beautiful picture of the truths about God and Christ that we confess in the Creeds, that:  the gift of the Spirit was given by the Father so that the world could call upon the Son and be saved.  The Bible says:
Hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 
            If you knew nothing else from the Bible, if you had never heard of the Athanasian Creed, it would be enough for salvation to know what the Bible says in these verses:  That God loves you and that he has sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and rise again so that you might have eternal life through faith in him. 
God is not content that even one of his children should not live with him forever --and so before we were ever born—God knew us and loved us and planned for our salvation—and to do that, the Father sacrificed that which was most precious to him—his own Son—so that WE could be his sons and daughters through Spirit-worked faith.
And so, in light of the Holy Trinity’s saving work, let me ask you a question in all seriousness:  Since our salvation is GOD’S first priority for our lives—shouldn’t it be ours too—shouldn’t every thing we do and say and hope for and plan for--be done with a view towards strengthening our life with God? 
We have all kinds of plans for our lives—all kinds of things that we want to accomplish—so many things that compete for the first place on our “to-do” lists—but God has only one:  that we live with him as his children for time and eternity—and everything else that he allows in our lives and accomplishes in our lives is done for that one, loving purpose:  that we would be his own precious children in time and eternity.
When we live apart from his purpose—when we show with our decisions that we are headed in a direction away from God—when we break our fellowship with him through our sinful choices—when we are unconcerned for taking care of our spiritual life--what we discover about ourselves is that it is not just Adam’s disobedience that has wrecked our lives and broken our relationship with God—but our disobedience as well. 
That is why God sent Jesus—to be that obedient Son he desired each of us to be and to restore what we have destroyed by our sins. 
The words of our text are such a wonderful summary of what Jesus did to save us from sin and death—a summary that is beautifully mirrored in the Creeds:  that by Jesus’ birth to the Virgin Mary he was the promised heir of David--that he was crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men—that God raised Jesus from the dead-- and at his ascension the Father exalted him to his right hand where he rules over the world for us. 
That is what Jesus has done for our salvation and for the salvation of the world and God has made him both Lord and Christ.  In other words:  our Savior and our master. 
The question for us on this Trinity Sunday:  Do we believe it?  Not just the historical data about Jesus—even the devil knows that is true.  Not just that we can say the words of the Creed—even atheists can do that. 
But do we believe that this Jesus of Nazareth that the Bible reveals and the creeds confess-- is our one and only Savior from sin and death?  Do we believe that Jesus is our one and only King-- who has the right to rule over every part of our lives? 
Do we believe that is was for us men and for our salvation that Jesus came down from heaven?  Or do our lives reveal something else?  Sadly, often times they do.  The Bible says: 
“Know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  “WHOM YOU CRUCIFIED.”
The Jews to whom Peter is preaching, thousands of them assembled for the harvest feast of Pentecost, may have been in Jerusalem for the previous Passover when Jesus died—but many of them were not.  Some of them may have raised their voices when the crowds called out to crucify Jesus—but many of them did not.  Some of them may have mocked the Lord as he died—but many of them did not. 
And yet by their sins they crucified Jesus just as surely as Judas and Caiphas and Pilate and the soldiers who drove the nails—and so did we! 
From God’s perspective the consequences of our sins is not just that we have harmed our neighbor—not just that we have hurt feelings of others- but that we have offended the Almighty God and contributed to the death of his Son by our sin. 
This is why the words of the Creed must never be for us a dry recitation of the facts of ancient history or a testimony of what some Christians believe or merely one perspective among many when it comes to who God is.  No!  The words of the Creed are the story of God’s saving work for sinners.
God the Father knows our helplessness in the face of sin and death and has planned for our salvation.  God the Son has accomplished our salvation by his death, resurrection, and ascension.  The Holy Spirit has called us to faith in Jesus and has joined us together in a confessing community known as the Church where that same saving faith in the Holy Trinity is confessed and taught and lived out.
The truth about God and the truth about Jesus confessed in the Creeds is not some theological abstraction that has nothing to do with our lives.  But rather, it is the truth about God revealed in the Bible—truth that changes our lives for time and eternity.
In that light, I hope that when we confess our faith in the word of the creeds you will give them your thoughtful attention because the biblical doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the most wonderful and comforting doctrine in the Bible.
It tells us of the Father who has known us and loved us from eternity.  It tells us of the Son who has saved us by his death and resurrection.  It tells us of the Holy Spirit who has brought us to faith and into fellowship with one another in the church.  Father-Son-and Holy Spirit.  One God in three persons:  the Holy Trinity.  Amen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Easter 6C General Prayer

Gracious heavenly Father, open our ears to hear the cry of those around the world who need to hear the Gospel.  Prosper and protect all those who share the Gospel in foreign lands.

As You guided Paul and Silas in the way You wanted them to go, so guide and direct our own congregation as we consider the opportunities for mission and service You place before us.

Continue to open the hearts of all of those like Lydia who hear the Good News of salvation so that they can believe in Jesus and be saved.  Remind us that our witness begins with those who are closest to us.

When we are discouraged by persecution and opposition set before our eyes of faith the vision of the church as You see it:  radiant and without blemish and having Your glory.  Protect those in Your church who are persecuted for their faith.

Raise up faithful pastors and teachers who will faithfully work to build Your Church on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. 

We give You thanks and praise that the Holy Spirit has written our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life through faith in Your Son Jesus Christ.  Help us to walk in Your light until we reach heaven.

You have promised that the honor of nations and the gory of kings belongs to You.  Guide us and our fellow citizens in this election year so that we choose leaders who will do Your will.

Because nothing unclean or detestable or false will enter into Your presence, forgive us each day by the blood of Jesus and empower us in holy living.  Grant that our lives would be so different than the sinful world around us that those who know us would ask us about the reason for the hope we have.

Help us to believe the promise of Your Son Jesus that whatever we ask in his name, You will give to us because we are Your children through faith in Him.  As You were with Jesus, so be with us, particularly those who are suffering the tribulations of this world.  Grant healing to those who re ill and comfort those who mourn and meet the needs of all those who suffer want. 

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and glorifies You and extends Your kingdom; grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Conversion of Lydia

Acts 16:9-15 A common criticism of biblical Christianity is that it is patriarchal, outdated, and antagonistic towards women.  And my response when I hear this criticism is always the same:  why don’t you actually open up and a Bible and read it.
            When you do so, what any honest student of the Bible will find is that God tells the story of his love for the world not just in the lives of Adam and Abraham and Joseph and Paul and the Twelve--but also in the lives of Eve and Sarah and Mary and in the faithful women of the cross and empty tomb. 
The story of God’s love and grace and forgiveness is a story that embraces all people—including women-- and that the gift of God’s Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is for:  slave and free—Jew and Gentile—men and women.
We see how true that is in the Book of Acts.  Not only does God use Paul, the Hebrew scholar and free Roman citizen, to accomplish his mission—but he also uses the gentile Timothy and the slave Onesimus and the woman Lydia to share the Good News of his salvation with the world. 
We can rejoice to see how Christian wives and mothers and daughters and church workers and businesswomen have changed the lives of those around them for the better—for time and eternity.  We see these biblical truths vividly portrayed in the story of Lydia—an early Christian believer. Luke writes:
A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days.  And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 
Every time you hear someone tell you how terrible and oppressive the church has been to women, and how women have been short-changed by bible-believing Christians, I want you to remember how, from the very beginning, the church has reached out especially to women with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We read this story about Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke purposefully seeking out the place where the women of Philippi gathered for prayer so that they could speak to them about Jesus-- and two thousand years later we say, “well of course—why wouldn’t they?” 
But what we don’t see (because the world and humanity has changed so dramatically in the intervening years) is what a radical act this was on the part of these Christian men—how different their attitudes toward women were than the prevailing societal views.  Rabbinic Judaism of that day regarded women as second-class citizens at best and beasts of burden at worst.
But the leaders of the early church knew and believed something totally different about women:  they knew from the Lord’s own example that women were objects of God’s love and concern no less than men—they knew that that women’s souls were eternally valuable to God—they knew that that God wanted all people, men and women, to have a life with him through faith in his Son.
This attitude of God towards women was beautifully modeled by the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry.  Women were his followers.  Women were his students.  Women supported his ministry.  Women were used as positive examples in his teaching again and again. 
Where men of his day refused to acknowledge women as fully human—Jesus sought them out and taught them and welcomed them and made a place at this table for them and engaged them in conversation again and again.
Where men abandoned our Lord in his moment of deepest need at Calvary-- it was faithful women who were found at the foot of the cross.
And where men were hiding out in fear after the resurrection-- it was the faithful women who were charged by Jesus with the first apostolic mission of taking the Good News of the resurrection to the disciples.
Paul and Timothy and Silas and Luke knew the example of the Lord and his love and concern for women and modeled that same kind of love and concern as they took the Good News about forgiveness in Jesus out into the world. 
And that there were just a few women gathered together for prayer that day in Philippi made no difference—those few women were just as important to them as the thousands of pilgrims that had gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost- and the hundreds of learned scholars assembled on Mars Hill- and the emperor himself in Rome. 
The Good News for us is that the love of God in Christ is meant for all people and would be taken to all people—including women.  Luke writes about one of these women:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God.
Every time you hear someone complain that Christianity is hostile to women I want you to remember that the very first convert to Jesus Christ in Europe was a woman that even modern people two thousand years later can recognize. 
We know from ancient Roman history that, at this time, Philippi had a corporate guild of dyers and Lydia was no doubt a member of that guild-- and because purple was the most sought after color of all in the ancient world we know that Lydia was capable, successful, and wealthy. 
The fact that Lydia had an economic life outside the home is a special comfort for modern, Christian women.
The majority of Christian women today work outside of the home and I know that this is not done without some degree of guilt.  Most of us were raised by moms who were able to stay at home and be full-time homemakers and many women today wish that they could do the same.  But the world has changed- and now many women work and feel guilty about it- wondering if they are doing the right thing by their families.
There are some parts of the church that are not particularly helpful to women in this—some preachers and teachers—and other women—who add to working moms self-imposed guilt by almost equating being a stay at home mom with being a true Christian and a working mom as coming in a distant second in their piety. These folks are wrong.
The love and mercy of God in Christ did not pass Lydia by because she was a working woman—but was given to her too. Luke writes that:  The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
Before her conversion to Christ, Lydia was a Gentile believer in the God of Israel.  She would have known that a Messiah had been promised but she did not know that the Messiah had taken on flesh and bone and was named Jesus. 
If she were to be saved and have a life with God, she still needed to hear that Good News that the apostles were sent to bring and so she listened to what they had to say.  Paul wrote in Romans chapter ten that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” 
That is how conversion worked in Lydia’s life and it is how conversion works in every believer’s life.  The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power of God unto salvation and the Word of God is sent into the world and does not return to the Lord without accomplishing the saving purpose for which it is sent.
That is exactly what Lydia experienced that day as she heard for the first time the Good News about Jesus who was crucified and raised for her salvation.
Lydia’s conversion is a picture of every conversion—no ranting of some wild-eyed preacher to work up his subject—no manipulative altar call with soft music in the background to get us to come to the front—no emotionally agitated decision on the part of the hearer. 
Simply the still, small voice of the Spirit of God powerfully working in our hearts through the Good News about Jesus and giving us the faith to say: “I believe”—just like with Lydia.  Luke writes that, after hearing the Good News:  she was baptized, and her household as well,   
When Jesus gave his church the Great Commission he said:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.
Now it is self-evident that in the word “nations” Jesus was not talking about baptizing geographic areas delineated by physical boundaries and ruled by some particular form of government.  He was talking about the people in the those areas—all the people without restriction--and so Lydia, a gentile woman, was baptized-- and so were those in her household—no matter their age or gender or ethnicity. 
The Good News about Jesus-- and Holy Baptism-- and the gift of the Holy Spirit is that God intends them for all people and Lydia wanted to make sure that her family and friends heard about Jesus and believed in him.  Luke writes:
She urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.  And she prevailed upon us.
In Lydia’s example of taking the Gospel to her home, we see a beautiful picture of Christian womanhood that has repeated itself countless millions of times over the last two thousand years of the church’s history:  faithful Christian women, making it their first priority in life that everyone in their homes knows Jesus as well. 
There is simply no way to calculate the spiritual good that Christian women have accomplished over the course of salvation history for the eternal welfare of their friends and families through their Christian lives and through their witness to Jesus Christ and the Good News that his love is for all people—including women.  Amen.