Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Let Us Fulfill the Law of Christ!

Galatians 6:1-10 In every human relationship—marriage, family, church, the workplace and school-- there are going to be times when someone sins—and someone gets hurt by that sin.  A spouse commits adultery.  Angry words are spoken between family members about a will.  A fellow employee takes credit for our work.  Gossip destroys a friendship. 
The temptation is to wash our hands of that person or to give back just as good as we got.  We have a terrible human capacity to carry around grudges for years and lash out in anger.  But that is the way of the world.  What are to do as Christ’s disciples when sin has hurt a relationship? The Bible says: 
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him…
Like so many things in the Kingdom of God—this is counter-intuitive.  When we have a conflict, we expect the one who was wrong to come to us and try to make things right—preferably on their knees.  “I’m not going to her—she’s gotta come to me!”  But Jesus says it’s to be just the opposite with his disciples:  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” 
As God’s people we are called to work for the sinner’s restoration—to bring them to that place where they can be reconciled to those they have hurt and reconciled to God. 
That reconciliation always begins in the same place—with the hard truth about the sin and the sinner revealed in the Law.  That is why Paul tells us that we are to restore those who have fallen into sin with a spirit of gentleness. 
It is a painful thing to see the truth about ourselves when we’ve sinned.  None of us enjoys having our failures pointed out.  That is why we are to be gentle with others when they fall short of what God expects them to be so that they can come to the place where they can say:  You’re right.  I’m sorry.  What I did was wrong.  Please forgive me.
At that moment, the most powerful words that we will ever speak are spoken:  “I forgive you”.  Jesus promised his disciples that if they forgave the sins of anyone—they were forgiven—not just on earth but in heaven. 
That promise of powerful forgiveness was not just for the twelve- and it is not just for pastors- but the call to forgive is for all of Christ’s people because those words find their power in the cross of Jesus Christ where all forgiveness is found.
When Christians say “I forgive you” to those who have sinned we assure them that our relationship with them- and their relationship with God- has been restored by the atoning death of Jesus on the cross.  And in speaking those words to others we remind ourselves that we too need the forgiveness of Christ.  The Bible says we are to:
Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted-for if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.    
When someone has sinned and there has been a conflict we like to tell ourselves “that of course we would never treat someone that way”—“I’m not that kind of person”.  But we must not kid ourselves that we are somehow magically immune from the failures of our fellow human beings--we are in this sin-mess together with all people.  That is why Paul tells us that we are to Bear one another's burdens…
   There are all kinds of things that people use to identify themselves as true Christians.  In Galatia it was circumcision and keeping the Mosaic Law.  Today it’s worship style—denominational affiliation—clothing—school choice—personal piety--and so on that people mistakenly use to identify themselves as Christians. 
But there is one thing that is a sure sign of whether or not we are Christ’s people:  whether or not we are people of forgiveness.  It is in our willingness to forgive that we show true Christ-likeness because forgiveness is the story of our own salvation.
Our heavenly Father looked upon a world full of people that were alienated from him—a world full of people that sinned against him—and He loved them and longed for their restoration as his children. 
He sent his Son Jesus into this world of sinners and he carried our sin burden to the cross where it was forgiven in his shed blood--speaking the words that changed our lives for times and eternity:  “Father, forgive them” spoken to every person into the world whose sins burdened him and brought him to the cross that day.
“Forgive them.”  That is how we do good to all people—that is how we bear one another’s burdens—that is how we fulfill the law of Christ. 
The word “law” in this verse does not mean an oppressive command that must be obeyed but an example that is followed by Christ’s disciples.  And so the question for us this morning is this, “How are we doing showing the forgiveness of Christ to others”?  The Bible says:   Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 
            When we test our lives in this (in forgiving others just as Christ forgave us) how do we measure up?  Do we still carry some ill will in our hearts towards someone that has wounded us?  Are we constantly bringing up some past hurt that we have told someone has been forgiven?  Are we still bearing some grudge against this person or that? 
If we are, it does US no good to say:  “Well, they made me mad” or “It’s all their fault” or “They shouldn’t have done that or said that.”  The Bible says that “Each will have to bear his own load.” 
That means that it is we, and we alone, who bear the responsibility for the anger and bitterness in our heart.  Yes, that other person genuinely hurt us and sinned against us.  Yes, they have a responsibility to repent and confess and seek God’s forgiveness.  But all of that is between them and the Lord.  We are the ones who have to deal with our own spiritual life and what we have in our hearts.
When we measure our lives as Christ’s people against the pure standard of our Savior’s forgiving love—when we try to fit our actions and attitudes into the mold of the cross--we can’t help but see that we haven’t always followed Jesus’ example.
We have carried grudges—we have kept others at arm’s length—we have looked for opportunities for revenge—we’ve put the worst construction on what others have said and done. 
Today is the day to be done with that—to confess it for the sin that it is and to seek Christ’s never-ending forgiveness and the Spirit’s help to began again as his people to live out his life in this world.
It is not easy to do—this forgiving thing-- and we would never even begin to realize that we needed to do it if the Holy Spirit did not speak to us about it in God’s Word.  That is why the Bible says that the “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.”  
What a blessing it is for me to commend this congregation in the way that you gladly fulfill this apostolic command in sharing with your pastor and so there is nothing self-serving in my pointing out how important the office of the Holy Ministry. 
Left to ourselves we have a terrible capacity (even when it comes to our own private study of the Word of God) to seek out those words that validate our own behavior and those words that judge the behavior of others.
That is why we need the office of the Holy Ministry—so that we can hear that Word of God that is outside of us—maybe a word of rebuke that we would just as soon have avoided—maybe a word of forgiveness that we would have never dared to apply to ourselves—but we needed to hear it for what it is—a Word from the Lord--because what’s at stake in our spiritual lives is serious and eternal.  The Bible says: 
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.   And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.  
These words of Paul point us to the Last Day when there will be a final judgment for the living and the dead—with eternal life or eternal death as the judgment-- and when it comes to conflict and hard feelings between ourselves and others that is a helpful thing to remember because what we sow in this life we will reap in eternity. 
What does our fussing and fighting and feuding with one another in our marriages, homes, friendships, and congregations look like in the light of eternity but a bunch of petty, childish silliness?  Now picture this in the light of eternity:  a life of Christian love spent doing good to others, bearing their burdens, and forgiving their sins.    
There is nothing easy about the Christian life.  It is not an accident that Jesus likes it to taking up a cross because this kind of life requires us to die to ourselves and live for Christ and others.  But we have the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and is strengthened in us today through God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament. 
And so we begin again today to live lives of forgiveness, doing good to all because our hearts have been transformed by the cross and our eyes are fixed on the Last Day when all of Christ’s faithful people will receive the reward of eternal life.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Free in Christ, We Walk by the Spirit

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 God HAS NOT not created us- and redeemed us by Jesus by the blood of Jesus--and sanctified us by the Holy Spirit to live our lives as slaves.  The relationship he wants for us is that of a Father and his children.  And anything- and any teaching- and any person- that would take away that glorious freedom that is ours as God’s children—must be resisted. 
But we also have to understand that those things and people and teachings that would imprison us once again—that would take away our status as the free children of God—are not just outside of us—but are also within us.  Let me explain.
As children of God we delight to do God’s will and we desire to do nothing other than that which will bring glory to our heavenly Father.  But this new person that we are through faith in Jesus still has to contend with our old sinful flesh. 
And so there is always the temptation us to use our glorious freedom as the children of God as a license to do whatever we want:  the idea that since Christ has done it all, I can live however I please. 
But this is not Christian freedom!  It is a return to slavery—not to slavery under the law—but slavery to our own sinful flesh-- which is much, much worse!  The Bible says:
It is for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers.
Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Genuine Christian freedom means freedom to serve one another in love—freedom to live as God’s sons and daughters remade in the image of Jesus who loved us and served us and laid down his life for us on the cross.
We have been set free from the curse and condemnation of the law- and we have been set free from the tyranny of our own flesh-- so that we can serve God and others in love. 
This is what we have been saved FOR.  This then is the measure of true Christian freedom:  freedom to be like Christ—glorifying our heavenly Father through loving service to those around us.  The Bible says that:    
The whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
            As children of God, we want to know how we can please the One who saved us.  We want to know how we can bring glory to our heavenly Father for all that he has done for us.
And so God does not leave us to our own devices in this—he does not leave us without guidance on what truly pleases him—our heavenly Father has a will for us and how we live our lives and that will is found in the law. 
But isn’t the law the very thing that Paul says we have been set free from?  Well, yes, if we are using it to try to earn our salvation.  If we are trying to earn our way to God by keeping the law it will always be a curse and condemnation for we can never meet God’s perfect standard that is revealed there. 
But for the child of God who knows that his salvation has been won by Jesus and given as a gift of God’s grace, the law is the Father’s answer to his children when they ask:  How then should I live?  What pleases you?  How can I thank you for all that you have freely given to me in Jesus? 
And this life of love (love for God and love for one another that is the fulfillment of the law and God’s will for our lives) stands in stark contrast to our old way of life that lifts us up and tears down others.  The Bible says that we are to:
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
            From the moment we came to faith in Jesus Christ and his Spirit took up residence in our lives, a battle has raged within us—and we ought not be surprised by it.
            Paul deals with this inner, spiritual battle within the Christian in vivid terms in Romans chapter 7 where he talks about the conflict between the good he wants to do and the evil he often times finds himself doing instead. 
This was Paul’s battle and it is every Christian’s battle-- for who we are as new people re-created in the image of God-- and what our flesh is, turned in upon itself—these two spiritual realities within us are diametrically opposed to one another and at war with one another.
            When Paul finishes describing this battle within the believer’s heart between the spirit and the flesh he cries out:  Who will deliver me from this body of death?—and then gives the answer:  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for we have been set free from the law of sin and death!
We who have been called by the Father- and forgiven by Jesus- and filled with the Holy Spirit no longer have to fear the condemnation of the law-- for that has fallen upon Jesus.  No longer do we have to fear the outcome of the battle within us because we have been filled with the Spirit of God as a guarantee of all that he has promised—including our final perseverance in the faith. 
The saving work of the Holy Trinity who has elected us in eternity- and redeemed us in Jesus- and filled us with the Holy Spirit makes all the difference in how we actually live our lives—for the spirit takes the lead rather than the flesh—and the difference between who we are now and our old way of life is obvious.  The Bible says that:
The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
            It is so very easy and so very tempting to selectively read this list of sins and check off the ones we are not doing:  sorcery-nope—orgies—nope—sexual immorality—nope. 
But what about envy—desiring the success of a fellow student or co-worker?  What about strife in our marriage or family?  What about divisions—taking sides in someone else’s strife?  What about fits of anger when the folks in line in front of you aren’t moving fast enough or you get caught behind the train?  What about idolatry when we worry rather than trust and when we find confidence in the bank rather than God’s provision?  Anger. Strife.  Divisions. Envy.  Jealousy.
Now the list hits a little bit closer to home-- and the warning of Paul—that those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God—finds its proper object—which is not the sins of others-- but my own sins. 
It’s important to note what Paul is (and is not) talking about.  He is not talking about our former way of life before we became Christians—for if some sins were excluded from Christ’s cleansing blood then none of us could be saved.  And he is not talking about the Christian’s occasional fall into these sins so long as we repent of them.
What he is talking about is those who continue in these sins.  We should be very, very clear:  Those who continue in unrepentant sin WILL NOT inherit the kingdom of God.  That is what the Bible teaches-- and the old Adam in each of us needs to hear this warning for the sake of our eternal souls. 
To live in continuous, unrepentant sin—whether it is strife within our families or some sexual sin or substance abuse or anger and bitterness in our heart—is to forfeit eternal life because it is:  a denial of the Father’s holy will for our lives—a denial of the Savior’s redeeming work—and a denial of the Spirit’s presence within us. 
The only solution for the sin in our lives is to immediately repent of it, ask for Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness for it, and by the power of the Holy Spirit show forth the fruits of faith in a new and different kind of life that is led by the Spirit.  The Bible describes spiritually fruitful Christian lives this way:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
            Fruit is seen—you see apples on apple trees and peaches on peach trees—when you see it there is no doubt what kind of tree you are looking at.  So it is to be with the Christian’s daily life. 
That the Spirit of Christ dwells in us is self-evident in how we live our lives and how we act towards others.  The Fruit of the Spirit that Paul lists- and the life they reveal- could not be more different than the works of the flesh- because one of them shows the absence of Christ and the other the presence of Christ.
The connection to Christ that was begun in us in Holy Baptism is to be continued throughout our life as we repent of our sins and hear God’s Word and receive his sacraments to strengthen our faith in Jesus.  This is how our flesh is crucified and our life with Jesus is renewed in us again and again. 
His life is to be evident in our lives.  Paul says it this way:  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  In other words, if we claim to be Christian—if it is or confession that Jesus Christ has set us free from sin and death—if he lives in us-- then let us show that in how we live our lives.  This is what we have been set free FOR.  Amen.