Sunday, January 26, 2014

Let There Be No Divisions Among Us!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Our congregation is 102 years old.  During those years we have been served by 14 different pastors.  Some of these pastors spoke German—some English.  Some of these pastors were older men—some younger.  Some of these men were fiery, “pound the pulpit” kinds of preachers—others more soft-spoken.  Each pastor was different from the man who came before him—different than the man who came after him.
            Now, we all have our preferences from among these men who have served as pastor in this place.  For the children and young people of the congregation I am the only pastor they have ever known—they don’t have a lot to choose from.  But for long-time members, the differences between all the pastors you have known are vivid.
            And yet as different as these pastors were—one from another--what unites all them was a shared faith—a shared pastoral practice when it comes to administering the sacraments—and a shared commitment to provide spiritual care for the folks here. 
For over 100 years the people of God at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Kingsville, Texas have been able to come to church on Sunday morning and be confident that you will hear the Word of God faithfully preached and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.  This is a profound blessing from God! 
            But what we see today in God’s Word is that this is a blessing that can be undermined when individual preferences and personalities become more important than the shared faith and practice that binds us together as a congregation.  Paul writes:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
Paul began this letter to the Corinthians by reminding them of their identity—that by virtue of Christ’s saving work—they were now children of the heavenly Father—members of the same family—brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when he begins to address the troubles in their congregation, he continues in the same way:  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...
That appeal rings out across the centuries to us sitting here today since we share in that same apostolic faith that was believed and practiced in Corinth.  And so the admonition of Paul is spoken to us too—that there be no divisions among us—for divisiveness undermines the identity that God bestows upon us.
When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what name we bear on earth—all of us bear the name of Christ as his people—we have the same spiritual family name.  When there are divisions in the Christian congregation-- it is a denial of our identity as Christ’s people. 
On the other hand, when we are united in the same mind and the same judgment—that unity is a powerful affirmation of the truth of our identity:  that we are the heavenly Father’s children and that Jesus is our brother.
It’s the living out of this baptismal identity that is always the challenge—but we must never become reconciled to anything or anyone that undermines and destroys our identity and identity.  That’s what was happening in Corinth as they let their own personal preferences.  Paul writes:
It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
            Like our own congregation here in Kingsville, Corinth had been served by a number of pastors and teachers.  And like our congregation’s pastors, Paul and Apollos and Cephas and the others, taught and practiced the same Christian faith. 
They were very different men to be sure --with different gifts and abilities and personalities—but they were perfectly united in the Christian faith that they taught and practiced as pastors.
 But their common faith and common witness was being undermined by a “cult of personality” that the Corinthians had allowed to grow up in their midst.  The Corinthians were identifying themselves with a particular pastor --and allowing their personal preferences  divide them from one another.
Now, there is nothing wrong with personal preferences—we all have them—and it is natural to identify more strongly with one person more than another.  This happens even with our pastors.  We prefer this guy’s style- or we identify with another guy because he’s in the same place in life as we are- or we prefer another man’s personality. 
And there is no problem with that UNTIL those personal preferences take precedence over the truth of God’s Word that unites us together.  Then those preferences begin to undermine who we are and what we are called to be about as a congregation.
Such was the bitterness and quarreling in the Corinthian congregation that it had gotten outside the walls of the church into the greater Christian community. 
All of us need this reminder that when there is division and quarreling in a church—it is not just that church that is wounded—but the mission of Christ is undermined.  We need this timely reminder that what UNITES us in this congregation is infinitely greater than what DIVIDES us.  Paul writes:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
            Any time we are tempted to let personality or preference, divide us as Christians we need to remember these words.  In the strongest terms Paul points out the sinfulness of divisiveness in the Christian congregation.
  By virtue of our baptism into Christ, each of us are members of his body.  Is it possible that Christ is divided?  Of course not! 
Is Paul or Cephas or Apollos or some individual pastor whom we prefer to another greater than our Savior who shed his life’s blood for us?  Blasphemous! 
Does one pastor’s baptism make us more of a Christian than the Holy Trinity who adopted us in Holy Baptism?  It’s outrageous to even suggest such a thing! 
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—one God and Father of us all and that God-given unity in the congregation must not be torn asunder by some individual preference on our part.
So strongly does Paul make this point that he goes on to say that he is glad that he only baptized a few folks there in Corinth so that he has as little part in this divisiveness as possible. 
Now this is an incredible thing for a pastor to say!  The greatest blessing for a pastor is to baptize—to see someone go from being an enemy of God to a child of God—to bestow the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation upon someone in the waters of Holy Baptism is a profound joy!   
But such was Paul’s opposition to their divisiveness that he is glad that he only baptized a few so that his name is not drawn into it.  He says:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
            The power of the cross unites.  The cross united God and man by the atoning sacrifice that was offered there.  The cross united Jew and Gentile into one family of faith.  The cross of Christ is the power that restores life for us as it was in the beginning.
To preach the Good News of the cross:  Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world-- was the great mission that Jesus had called Paul to undertake.
Other men would follow him who would baptize and commune and absolve and do the “day-to-day” work of a pastor in a congregation and together they would work to see that the apostolic message of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself went out into the world.
Nothing could be allowed to rob this message of its saving power—not fine-sounding philosophical arguments that left people unsure of what was being preached—not personality differences between pastors--and certainly not divided congregations that were a denial of the very thing that they were proclaiming.  
Over the last nearly sixteen years that I have served St. Paul—Kingsville we have been blessed by God with the spiritual gift of unity.  With very few exceptions, personal preferences and individual personalities have never threatened to undermine our unity.  I am profoundly grateful to the saints in this place for your spiritual maturity and respect for the pastoral office no matter who the incumbent of that office is.
But today’s lesson applies to us too if for no other reason than as a timely reminder that congregational unity is a blessing to be sought and carefully nurtured because the consequences of division cuts to the heart of the Christian faith and undermines the saving mission of Christ in this world.  God grant that there be no divisions among us!  Amen.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

God's Answers to Life's Great Questions

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 There are three great questions that lie at the heart of our human existence—questions that speak to our identity and the meaning and value of our lives—questions that must be answered if we are to be truly happy—questions that find their only real answer in Christ.
Those questions are:  Who am I?  What am I doing here?  Where am I going?  These are the questions that the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gives answer to today as he writes to the congregation at Corinth and to believers in every time and place—including us here today.  Paul writes:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes…
            When you go into Barnes and Noble Bookstore—one of the largest sections in the whole store are those books devoted to:  “self help”.  Row after row after row of books trying to answer life’s great questions—all of them offering nothing more than the limited perspectives of their human authors.
            But the words we hear today about our identity, purpose, and value are the words of God himself through the apostle Paul who was called by God for that purpose:  to tell the us that the answers to the questions that lie at the deepest part of our human existence are found in Jesus Christ and a life with God through him. 
God has created us for fellowship with him and that is why he sent Jesus—to remake and restore what sin has destroyed in us.  And that is why he called Paul to be an apostle—so that the we would know the real answers—God’s answers-- to life’s great questions-- beginning with our true identity.  Paul writes:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.    
            This letter to the Christian congregation at Corinth is one of the most timely, relevant books of the Bible with a profound connection to our modern existence because Corinth was a place that would be familiar to us.  Corinth was a place of wealth and commerce.  It was religiously diverse.  It was full of sexual immorality.  Material things were valued above all else.  A place much like our nation today.
And the reason that Paul wrote this letter was that the Corinthian Christians much too readily identified themselves with the culture around them.  They were not immune to sexual immorality even in their own congregation—and in fact, bragged about how their freedom in Christ allowed them to live like this.  They were very aware of financial differences among their own members and looked down upon those with limited means.  They valued spiritual celebrities.   
They had an identity crisis like so many in our world today because they had forgotten who they were—that they were called to be saints.
From the Bible’s perspective, to be a saint is not just someone who lived in Bible times- or someone fantastically holy- or someone listed on a liturgical calendar of a church.  To be a saint is to be someone set apart for God.  That’s what the word means --and to put it terms from the beginning of our sermon it means that we find our identity in terms of our relationship with God.
That is what Christ does.  He sets us apart for God—sanctifies us—by forgiving our sins with his blood on the cross—and living in our hearts by his Spirit—restoring us to the life we had with our heavenly Father in the beginning of time. 
These words from the apostle Paul about our identity were not just written for the Corinthians—they were written for us too-- for we also call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and confess him to be our Lord.  
The Good News for us today is that we do not have to find our identity in the world or wonder who we are-- for we know that we are God’s sons and daughters—set apart for him in Holy Baptism and this identity gives answer to the next great question of our human existence:  Why am I here?  Paul writes:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—  even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—  so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,
            The Corinthians were a spiritually gifted congregation.  There were those who had the gift of discernment and those who had the gift of speaking and those who had the gift of healing and those who had the gifts of serving and giving and administration.
When God gave them the gift of faith in Jesus Christ-- he also lavished upon them spiritual gifts that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.  Paul told them:  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… so that there may be no divisions in the body but that the members may have the same care for one another. 
But what was happening in that congregation is that the gifts given by God were not uniting them as members of the same body—they were not serving the common good—but they were dividing them-- and instead of caring for one another—they were living for themselves.
That is what we see so much of in our world today—so many people living for themselves—living as if they sand at the center of the universe.  But lives devoted to the service of a “god” as small as ourselves cannot help but leave us feeling as if our life does not count for much.
But when we find our identity in Christ, God himself breaks into our narrow little world and gives us a purpose that is above the bounds of time and space.  His eternal purposes and plans now include us-- as we serve him and his people.  That is the purpose of our lives—to serve God and those around us! 
To that end, he gives each of us spiritual gifts—gifts of administration and giving and leading and speaking and teaching and serving so that we can help those around us.  This is what Paul means when he says that the testimony about Christ was confirmed among them:  the Gospel converts us to Christ and the spiritual fruits of that re-birth will be seen in our lives in this world.
As children of God, our lives have meaning and purpose:  to know God and his ways—to speak of him to others—to serve those around us in the context of our daily vocations.  The life of the Christian in this world is the most exciting, fulfilling way to live because it is what we were created to do:  to love God and love our neighbor.  Paul says that this is the way we are to live:
As we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
            There is an emotional and psychological and spiritual toll that is taken on us when we do not know who we are and what the purpose of our life really is.  This is especially true when we do not know the answer to the third great question of life:  where are going?  Are we simply going into a grave and that’s it?  Will our lives end in futility and nothingness? 
All you have to do is look around at the culture we live in to see what happens to people when they do not know where they are going when this life is over:  mind-numbing addictions—constantly seeking one new experience after another—grasping for their fifteen minutes of fame—trying to fight the fear of death. 
All of us, by nature, are afraid of death because deep within us is the realization—that futility and death is not the way it is supposed to be for the human person.  We know in our hearts that we were created to live forever. 
The hopes and dreams and aspirations we have for the future are not a cruel hoax perpetuated on us by evolution-- but have been placed within us by God to draw us back to him as he source of a life that death cannot end.
Jesus Christ has made the way back for us to God.  He has taken away our sins that keep us from a holy God.  He has conquered death for us in his own resurrection from the dead.  His ascension to heaven is the assurance that our own bodies will rise from the grave and live eternally with God. 
To that end, Christ works continually in our lives to keep us in faith until the Last Day.  That same faithful God who:  chose us from eternity -and sent his Son to live and die and rise again for us- and called us into fellowship with him by the Holy Spirit—WILL work in our lives through Word and Sacrament with that same powerful love to keep us in faith and bring us safely to our heavenly home.
The Good News for us today is that God answers life’s great questions about our identity and purpose and value:  We are God’s children, living lives of loving service here on earth, headed to heaven when we die.  May God grant his faith to us all for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How Can We Who Died To SIn Still Live In It?

Romans 6:1-11 Our text is taken from the sixth chapter of Romans and everything that Paul wrote up until these verses can be summarized in one sentence:  We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus apart from deeds of the law.  This is what the Bible teaches regarding salvation.  This is what we believe.
But almost from the day that these words were written, there have been those within the church who misused them—who turned God’s grace into license for our sin. 
It began in Galatia where Paul told the people the Good News that it was for freedom that Christ had set them free but then had to warn them to walk by the Spirit so that they did not use their freedom to gratify the desires of the flesh.
The misuse of God’s grace continued during the Reformation when there pastors and teachers who were actually teaching that good works are detrimental to salvation.
And the misuse of God’s grace continues in our own day where there are entire church bodies that have separated a Christian confession of faith from the Christian morals of the Bible so that they can confess the Nicene Creed and at the same time deny what the Bible teaches on marriage and sexuality and abortion and the roles of men and women.
Of course, it is easy to point the finger at others but in our own lives we are tempted to misuse God’s grace and turn it into a license for sin. 
We get caught up in besetting sins.  We know they are wrong.  We say that we are sorry.  But we never really take any concrete steps to end them.  We are not zealous for good works and tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to be too catholic.  We draw a distinction between our confession of faith and our life of faith and soothe our conscience with God’s grace when what we ought to do is repent.
There are countless people-- who have their names on some church’s membership roll-- who haven’t stepped foot in church in years-who are living with people who are not their spouses—whose lives are no different than the unbelievers around them—who tell themselves that they are Christians.  Is this possible?  The answer is no!  The Bible says:  What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!
            The Christian must not continue IN sin.  Now I know what you are thinking:  “But pastor, I sin all the time!  What do you think I’m doing when we come to the confession and absolution?  I’m confessing my sins!”  Me too!
Yes, we sin.  We lose our temper.  We speak unkind words.  We think ugly thoughts.  But that is a very different thing than CONTINUING IN SIN!  Continuing in sin is living in sin—be identified with some sin—never repenting of sin.  Continuing in sin is making an excuse for our sin or even saying that it is no sin at all.  This is incompatible with a true and living faith in Christ.  In fact, the Bible says that:  Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.  No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. 
This modern idea that just because someone knows the story of Jesus and can parrot the right words like grace and faith and yet lives like the devil is somehow a Christian and will be saved-- is absolutely unknown to the writers of the Bible.  Paul asks us:
How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 
            The unbelieving world and the apostate church and our own flesh might think that we can, at the same time, have a true and saving faith and continue in sin but Paul does not!  How can we who died to sin still live in it he asks us?  And the answer is:  we can’t—because we have died to sin in Baptism.
At the cross, all of our sins were laid on the Lord Jesus Christ and he died in our place.  When we were baptized, we died with Christ and were buried with Christ and were raised with Christ and the salvation of the world accomplished on the cross was given to us as a gift (personally and individually) in Holy Baptism.
This is why living in sin—continuing in sin—abiding with sin-- is absolutely, positively incompatible with a true and living faith in Christ—because that kind of life is an abject denial:  of Jesus- and the cross- and the salvation he accomplished for us there and gave to us in Holy Baptism.  The fact of the matter is that Christ has died and been raised from the dead and we have been saved—so that we can live a new life.  The Bible says:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
  Do you see those three words “in order that”?  In the original Greek, there is only one word there and it denotes purpose.  In other words, Christ died and was raised and you were baptized FOR THIS PURPOSE:  that you would walk in newness of life.  That is what salvation is about!  God’s plan and Christ’s death and your baptism is for this purpose:  that you would walk in newness of life. 
As certainly as Christ was raised from the dead—so it is the saving purpose of God from eternity to eternity—from the first moment of your life to the last—that you would possess and live out a brand new life both in time and eternity.  The Bible says that:
If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
            Christ died on the cross, was buried, and on the third day rose from his grave.  All of those who have died with him will certainly rise from their graves just like he did.  United with him in death—we WILL be united with him in a resurrection life his.  What will that life be like?
            First of all we will rise from our graves just like he did.  When Christ comes again—whether it is ten years from now or ten thousand years from now—no matter what has happened to our body—whether we still look “natural” as my grandmother would say or we have turned to dust—we will come forth from our graves just as Christ did from his.
Our bodies will be changed like that of Christ’s resurrection body—no longer subject to pain and death—body and soul united forever.  And like Christ’s own ascension to his heavenly Father, we will ascend to heaven where we will live forever.  That is the resurrection promise of eternal life that God makes to us in Holy Baptism. 
But already- right here and right now- we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ and been given the gift of a new life to live on here on earth—a new life that is to be different than the lives of those who do not believe.  The Bible says that:
Our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
            All of us are born with Adam’s sin.  The Bible calls it our flesh—the old Adam within each of us that does not know God or believe in God—and, in fact, is war against God.  This Old Adam cannot be reformed—he cannot be cleaned up a bit here and there—he must be put to death—he must be crucified! 
That is what happened when we were baptized—the Old Adam was crucified—and he must continue to be crucified daily as we return to our baptism:  repenting of our sins and being renewed in our faith in Jesus so that, more and more, his life become our own. 
Baptism is a once in a lifetime event—it cannot be repeated—but WE CAN return to it again and again because it is a promise that God made to us, that we are no longer slaves to sin because we have died with Christ in Holy Baptism.
Occasionally you will hear someone say:  The devil made me do it.  Or they will excuse some sin with:  Well, I’m just a sinner!  But the baptismal promise of God is that we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are now the children of God.  Our identity is found in Christ.
This is the life of the Christian—the life of baptism.  This is why we Lutherans make the sign of the cross:  in the morning to remind ourselves that as baptized children of God we are to walk in newness of life throughout our daily tasks --and in the evening to remind ourselves that as baptized children of God we have been forgiven of our sins and promised a new, eternal life with God.  The sign of the cross is emblematic of our entire life where Jesus is both Lord and Savior.  The bible says that:
If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
            All of us are born into this world as God’s enemies, enslaved by sin, subject to death.  That is our birthright as Adam’s children.  But Christ came into this world to change that.  He died the death on the cross that we deserve and he rose again to give us a new life here on earth and forever in heaven. 
Jesus is our Savior-- but he is also our Lord—our master-- and our king—and he calls us to live a life here on earth like his—doing his Father’s will and speaking his Father’s words.  Every moment of his life lived for his heavenly Father.  So it is for us. 
That kind of life began for you in Holy Baptism where God spoke the same words about you that he did about Jesus:  this is my beloved son—this is my beloved daughter.  And your life will be changed when you begin to see yourselves as God sees you:  dead to sin but alive in Christ.  Is it possible for a person who is dead to sin and alive in Christ to continue in sin?  No!  God grant it to us all for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.