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“Simon Peter’s voice rings out with one short sentence: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!’”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 16: 13-20

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Whether or not you’ve looked at the bulletin or the screen, you know we’ve come to the time in the service called the sermon. Thursday morning is my normal “sermon writing time,” and so, as I sat at my desk once again, I asked myself, “Self, how many sermons have I written over the 28 years I have been a pastor?” It’s hard to come up with an exact number, but a little pad-scratching produced the number 1400, not counting chapel services, funerals, weddings and all sorts of other services that required some speaking. 1,400! How does one pick out the best?

Generally, remembering sermons is like remembering mom’s cooking years after leaving home. What DO you remember about your mom’s cooking? Mainly you remember that you ate, you got enough and you left the table feeling better than when you sat down. If mom was a “meat and potatoes” cook or if she was a “pasta-mama” that’s what we remember. But, every once in a while, mom might just surprise us with something truly memorable!

Speeches are like that too, and in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 16, Jesus gives His disciples an opportunity to say something really GREAT. They had left Capernaum after another confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees and walked 20 miles north to Caesarea Philippi, where King Herod had built a huge temple to Caesar Augustus……the first and greatest of all the Roman emperors. (He was the Caesar Augustus of the Christmas Story, who ruled from BC31 to AD14.) It was a very pagan area and a place where Jesus could be alone with just His disciples.

Imagine the setting. They were surrounded by pagan temples and a very secular culture when Jesus turned to the twelve and asked them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Today we might ask “what’s the buzz on this Jesus” or something like that. “Tell me,” Jesus said to the disciples, “what people are saying about me.”

It didn’t take long to get a whole list of answers. Some, like Herod Antipas (see Matt 14:1-2) say you are John the Baptist come back to life. Others are convinced that you are Elijah the Prophet, the one prophesied by Malachi to come back before the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Mal 4:5) Some say you are Jeremiah…..or another prophet from the old days who has come back. And, our text doesn’t say this but we can be fairly certain it was thought if not said, some probably didn’t have a clue whom Jesus was.

It’s not hard to imagine the disciples, all sitting around Jesus, just buzzing with answers to His question…..they say you are John, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Jonah, Zechariah, Daniel…..until Jesus raises His hand, stops the conversation and changes NOT the topic, but the FOCUS!

What about YOU? Who do YOU say that I am? These are the men who have been with Jesus for two years now. They’ve witnessed miracles, listened to sermons, participated in hundreds of conversations, heard Jesus pray……they’re the ones who should have a crystal-clear idea as to who He is! So Jesus gives each one of them a chance to voice their own opinion. Who do you believe me to be?

A few moments ago Jesus had a chorus of answers. Now only ONE voice speaks up. One man gives ONE answer to Jesus’ question. Simon Peter’s voice rings out with one short sentence: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!’

How would YOU have answered? What would YOU have said?

Peter’s declaration was truly a great moment that grew out of a great opportunity that literally changed the course of his life and set the groundwork for the entire Christian church to follow, all springing from a few words from a sincere heart at just the right time. It was a great speech.

OK, maybe it wasn’t a speech in the technical sense of the word. Maybe it was the “greatest comment ever made” or the “greatest answer ever given” but it really was great!

What was it, given all the speeches and sermons all of us have heard and all the words that JESUS must have heard, that made Simon Peter’s statement so powerful? It’s like the “perfect storm,” the right combination of ingredients. Here it was words by the right person, at the right moment, with the right vision, and the right understanding. (This should be repeated.)

All this is true for Peter when he makes his declaration about Jesus. And all of this can be true of US as well! Let’s examine why.

For starters, Peter is the right person. He’s NOT an extraordinary person…..he had the same strengths and weaknesses all the other disciples had. He’ll argue with Jesus when He starts talking about going to the cross. He’ll jump out of the boat to walk on the water without a second thought….till he sees the waves and then sinks! He blows it totally after Jesus was arrested, but races to the tomb on Easter morning. But because he is SO human, SO much like you and me that he’s the right person to make such a great statement about Jesus.

Peter also speaks up at the right moment. At this point in Jesus’ ministry, He is finished with the work in Galilee and is about ready to head towards Jerusalem and the cross. But first Jesus has to be sure that His disciples are clear about who He is and what He is about and what the community of believes will look like, so it’s the right time for Peter to speak up as he does.

When he speaks up, Peter also has the right understanding. He senses that Jesus is no ordinary prophet; but that He is far MORE than Isaiah or Jeremiah or the others before Him. No, Peter sees that Jesus IS the Messiah, the one who has been anointed by God….that’s literally what Messiah means…… to do what He was to do. Peter considers Jesus to be his KING, the one who rules over his life. He “gets it” that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God,” the one who shows God’s love and power and grace more clearly than anyone ever had. And imagine how much deeper Peter’s understanding becomes in the very next chapter when Jesus reveals Himself to him on the Mountain of the Transfiguration!

All told, Jesus is impressed; so impressed, in fact, that He says to Peter, Blessed are you, son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. Jesus knew that Peter’s “speech,” his declaration of faith, was nothing less than a true Gift from God! What Jesus said to Peter reminds all of us that the very core of Christianity, faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior, is GIVEN TO US as a gift from God! Peter didn’t come up with this by himself…..it was the Holy Spirit who authored it in Peter’s heart, mind and finally, voice!

“You are Peter,” Jesus says, “and on this ROCK I will build my church, and the gates of hell itself will not prevail against it!” Given what some have done with this verse (Roman Catholics especially) it would be wise to parse it out a bit farther. You’re a petros, “a chip off the old block,” Jesus says to Peter, and on this petra, on this huge, rocky cliff of faith I will build my church and not even all the forces of hell itself will be able to overcome it!

The Christian Church, which began on Pentecost by the Holy Spirit, was not founded on a man or on the confession of a man, Peter or any other. It was founded on the saving revelation of God’s grace to humankind through Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. It’s not Peter’s church….it’s God’s church, with Christ as the foundation.

That is what I NEED TO HEAR from Jesus as I look at the world of today. I see Christians suffering and dying at the hands of persecutors everywhere. I see our Christian cultural values under attack from all sides. I see fewer people in church and fewer kids in Sunday School. That’s why I NEED to HEAR that God is STILL IN CHARGE of HIS CHURCH, and that NOTHING, not even hell itself, will defeat it……and us.

That is why we, who are no different than dear old saint Simon himself, are the right people in our age and time to make the very same declaration of faith that Peter did. We are the people who KNOW Jesus is the Messiah. We are the people who trust Him for salvation. We are the Church who knows He is the King!

That’s why we are able to speak up, as Peter did, at just the right moments for others to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior also. We can speak words of peace when conflict erupts. We can speak words of encouragement when others are discouraged. We can bring words of HOPE when friends feel hopeless. We can share words of guidance when others are lost. And, by God’s Holy Spirit, we can do it at JUST THE RIGHT TIME…and know it’s a “God-thing!”

That’s because we have the right understanding of Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who has created us in our world and redeemed us by His grace. We KNOW and trust that God is alive and well in this world and in our lives.

Peter was given the opportunity to give a “testimony” about Jesus and it turned into the greatest speech ever. He didn’t miss the moment. Neither, dear ones, should we!

Amen.

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I like peace, far too much sometimes. That’s true with most of us: when things change, whether it’s in families or in churches or in politics, we get unsettled and anxious and we want peace….

So it’s peace at all costs, people pretending that everything is “fine” in the name of “live and let live,” even when it comes to the cost of eternal souls spending their eternity away from the God who created them and the Savior who died for them.

That’s a high cost for a false peace, isn’t it?

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We are well into another season of graduations……from universities, colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. Today even kindergarteners are being feted with graduation ceremonies. Usually graduation ceremonies include words from the head of the school, a speech from some person of status in the community and, unless political correctness has claimed more victims, addresses from the valedictorian and salutatorian. (These are the kids who have worked very hard and are actually being recognized for their academic success!) All these speeches are usually filled with all sorts of good advice for the graduates, like “you won’t get to the top by sitting on your bottom,” or “you have nothing to fear but fear itself,” you know….real wisdom. Then the graduates parade across a stage to receive their sheepskins and head off into the next phase of their lives.

That’s what today’s Gospel actually is: Jesus’ baccalaureate address to His twelve disciples. They’ve been under His tutelage for about a year and no doubt learned a lot. Now, in Matthew 10, after we actually get introduced to all twelve of them by name for the first time, Jesus gives them a final set of instructions before sending them out to preach to the Jews who were lost. There’s a lot in this chapter, so much so that the lectionary skips the first section (5-20) and breaks the rest of it into readings for two Sundays!

Jesus’ address isn’t the typical “feel good-all the world is your oyster” kind of speech. He includes three reminders of “have no fear,” but the fact that Jesus does that shows that He knows that there IS a lot for us…..as His disciples….to be afraid of, at least from a human perspective. In verse 16 Jesus even acknowledges that He is sending them not just TO the “lost sheep of Israel,” but also “AS” sheep among the wolves.

That is a real no-brainer: sheep don’t do well with wolves. Jesus knows it and He wants us to know it too. This “sermon” of Jesus, which is what a baccalaureate address is supposed to be…a sermon….is a reminder to those of us who follow Jesus that from an earthly perspective, we have almost everything to fear!

Then Jesus, ever the master teacher, makes a list for us. Lists are good things. Parents love lists. Teachers love lists. Preachers love lists. So do learners. There are four points to Jesus’ list of those things His followers have to fear.

A. The first thing we have to fear is REJECTION. Nobody likes being rejected. I’m sure you don’t and I know I don’t. ALL of us have at least some experience dealing with it rejection: that person you were madly in love with who gave you the “let’s just be friends” line….or those rejected college applications….or, worst case scenario: “I want a divorce.” Rejection HURTS, and because we know how much it hurts, simply out of self-preservation, we shrink back from doing things that might cause us to BE rejected: which includes proclaiming the Word of God!
B. Second on Jesus’ list is INTIMIDATION. He warns His disciples (vs 16-17) that the world will use all sorts of tactics to keep them from proclaiming the Gospel. Last Friday, after I gave the invocation at David Stone’s retirement from the USAF, the two Navy first-classes who gave me a ride thanked me profusely for praying in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They told me that their chaplains weren’t allowed to DO that…..at risk of their careers. That’s intimidation, pure and simple, and it’s right here. Maybe you’ve been told not to have a cross in your cubicle or a Bible on your desk: more intimidation. It may be subtle but the “our team practices on Sunday and if you’re not here you’re out” is another verse of the same tune.
C. Third, and worse still, Jesus minces no words as He describes the PERSECUTION that ….in His words WILL be encountered by believers. It happened to Him. It happened to each of His disciples. It happens to Christians across the world today, although to this point, Christians in America have largely been spared this so far. The mainstream media generally ignores the persecution of Christians, but spend a few minutes reading between the lines and you will probably begin to cry at what is happening to our brother and sister Christians all over the world. We should not be so smug as to think that what happens to others won’t someday happen to us.
D. Finally, Jesus clearly and explicitly warned the twelve (v 21) that they needed to be prepared to be “put to death” as a result of sinful opposition to the Gospel. EXECUTION is the final step in Jesus’ list of four, and again, He experienced it and so did all of the disciples. “Christians today (quoting from Catholic OnLine) are the most persecuted religious group in the world today, with the greatest number of victims. The most outrageous human rights abuses are committed against Christians solely because of their religious beliefs and activities.”

Obviously this isn’t the kind of message that a pastor would preach to a bunch of 8th grade confirmands, but it’s what Jesus said to His disciples before He sent them out to “make disciples of all nations” and it’s what is written down for us to reach and believe. In other words, it is the truth. There is a lot to be afraid of “out there.”

So what is our normal response? We keep quiet. We don’t witness. We aren’t willing to stand up and stand out. We want to keep the peace……at all costs. And honestly, who doesn’t like peace? Peace is easy. Peace is comfortable. Peace is the preferred mode of living. There is so much conflict in our world and in our lives that the idea of peace, no matter what or how we get there, seems to be the best thing to have.

There’s a lot of human reality in the quest for peace. I like peace. I grew up in a family where conflict resolution wasn’t modeled or taught and where difficult topics were off limits for discussion. So I like peace, far too much sometimes. That’s true with most of us: when things change, whether it’s in families or in churches or in politics, we get unsettled and anxious and we want peace. No one wants to come home to a house where people are arguing all the time or abusing each other. Ask any child who has grown up in a house where the parents are in conflict: these kids are on edge for whatever might set mom or dad off into round 353 of their domestic war, and it’s exhausting for them. So the kids become peacemakers….and that’s not good.

It’s what keeps a woman trapped in domestic abuse situations: she knows it’s unhealthy and even dangerous, but it’s familiar and safe in its own way, so she’ll do whatever she can to “keep the peace.” Even in our churches we tolerate huge amounts of bad and even sinful behavior, not saying anything so we don’t upset or offend anyone.

So it’s peace at all costs, people pretending that everything is “fine” in the name of “live and let live,” even when it comes to the cost of eternal souls spending their eternity away from the God who created them and the Savior who died for them.

That’s a high cost for a false peace, isn’t it?

Every fear we have is grounded in the knowledge that we have something or someone to lose. I can lose a friend, a job, my family, my house, my money to the robber, my records in a computer crash, my freedom, my health – life itself. It is all at stake and I can win or I can lose based on how I deal with Rejection and all the rest.

In good Lutheran parlance, “what does this mean?” Remember how Luther begins so many of his lessons for us: “We should fear and love and trust in God above ALL things!” In simple terms it means this for us: the more we love, respect, trust in and honor God, the less we have to fear from ANYTHING the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh throws at us, even if it’s rejection, intimidation, persecution or martyrdom.

Today’s gospel reminds us that from the perspective of Christ, there is life beyond this paralyzing fear of rejection and loss and that in the whole scheme of things, there are much more important things to be concerned with. In verse 28, Jesus puts it this way: don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body, rather, be afraid of the one who can send both soul and body to hell!

Imagine what the world would be like with a Christian church that was unafraid of losing worldly praise and esteem, unafraid of the truth of God’s Word, unafraid of losing its possessions, its buildings, its stained glass, its tax-exempt status, its politically- protected position, and its freedom to assemble! What would you have?

You’d have the church in China, which is experiencing an exponential explosion of growth! You’d have the church in INDIA, where people are flocking to Jesus they did on Pentecost Sunday, even if it costs them everything.

Let’s end on a really neat little story about the legend of a rich, first century merchant who scoured the Mediterranean world in search of the apostle Paul. The man finally met Timothy, who arranged for a visit with Paul, who was in prison in Rome. Entering the jail cell, the merchant found a rather old man who was physically broken down after all the rejection, intimidation and persecution he had endured for the sake of his faith.

But after speaking with Paul, he was amazed at the peace and serenity that St. Paul displayed. They talked for hours, and finally the merchant left with Paul’s blessing.

Outside the jail, the man asked Timothy, “What is his secret? I’ve never seen anyone as peaceful and confident as he is!”

“Don’t you get it? Haven’t you figured it out?” the young preacher answered the man. “Paul is in love……Paul is in love with Jesus!”

The merchant looked even more confused. “Is that all?” He asked.

With a smile on his face, Timothy answered, “Ah, yes, but that is everything!”

The world will never understand the peace that we Christians can have when we do “fear, love and trust in God above all things.” After all, it’s only through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that we can even believe in Jesus or even come to Jesus or even say “Jesus is Lord!” But it’s what we have…..and it’s what they need. And they will only get it if we share it.

Amen.

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Discipling isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus, whose very Spirit lives inside of you.

Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 28
Holy Trinity Sunday

Our Gospel reading today is so direct and so familiar that it we might have done it from memory. Jesus met his disciples on a mountain near Galilee and said to them,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, 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 all that I have commanded you.”

I’m going to suggest to you that these words are familiar, and at the same time their reality would completely change how we “do church.” We’re going to talk about some challenging things, and probably some scary things, and I only ask that you don’t tune out before we get to the end.

So, let’s get started. Who was Jesus talking to? Well, the short answer is the 11 disciples… it says so right there in the text. But who are the words for? The command to make disciples is for disciples. So, pretty much, if you are one of the made disciples you are commanded to make disciples.

I’ll put it a different way: this great commission of Jesus was not to make “church members.” It wasn’t to simply pass on the faith – although that is really important. The target audience is all nations, and the goal is to make them into disciples. Jesus doesn’t set up two classes of believers: disciples and the rest of Christians. It seems to me that Jesus is saying that all Christians are disciples, and non-disciples are not yet Christian. Discipleship isn’t optional for Christians.

I know it seems like I’m belaboring the point, but if you aren’t with me on this basic point, the great commission won’t make any sense. The basic work of the church is making disciples.

So, what does that mean? Jesus keeps it pretty simple: “Baptize people, and teach them to obey my commands.” Notice, He doesn’t just say “baptize.” If He had, then our job would be done at the moment that someone comes to faith. But that’s really just the beginning of making a disciple.

You will also notice, Jesus doesn’t just say to baptize and educate. His command is to teach disciples to obey His commands. We aren’t talking about a 10-week new members’ orientation course. How long does it take to learn obedience to Jesus’ commands? I think that’s akin to asking at what point a parent’s job is over.

So, as I stand in the pulpit and look out over the scores of faces here at church today, I have a pretty serious dilemma. I can preach to a few hundred people every week. I can explain scripture and lead worship. I can encourage you to be disciples of Jesus, but how many people can I realistically make into disciples? How many folks can I really teach to obey Jesus’ commands?

Or, to take it from a different angle, how many disciples did Jesus make? He preached to tens of thousands, healed and ministered to countless hurting people. But on that mountaintop were His eleven disciples. THE Eleven Disciples.

So, assuming that Pastor Nieting and I aren’t more able to make disciples than Jesus himself, how many folks can your pastors really disciple? A couple dozen? How is Hope ever going to make disciples of all nations at that rate?

Brothers and sisters, Pastor Nieting and I need your help. If you are mature in the faith, if you are a disciple of Jesus, then it is your responsibility to be actively engaged in making disciples. In fact, I will suggest that each one of you ought to have at least three kinds of relationships in your life.

First, you should have someone who is discipling you. It doesn’t matter how mature you may think you are, you need someone in your life who will encourage you and hold you accountable. Have a look around today. I know there are mature and godly people here today who would be honored and blessed to enter into that kind of relationship with you. I have a few brothers in the faith whose counsel and admonishment are vital to me.

Second, you should also seek out some folks who could benefit from your experience. This isn’t the opportunity for you to become a know-it-all, nor do you need to undergo some specialized training. What you need are a humble and generous attitude, ears to listen to the Spirit’s guidance, and the courage to be honest with your brother or sister. We’re in this together, and some of the folks around here are hurting in isolation or stumbling in ignorance. There is probably someone here today who needs you to be there big brother or big sister in Christ. And if you pray that God will show you who that is, I promise He will answer that prayer.

Thirdly, you should have some friendships with people who aren’t yet Christian. If we are going to “make disciples of all nations,” that won’t happen if we only cultivate relationships with people already in the church. You don’t have to force the Bible into every exchange you have with those folks – but if you “just don’t talk about religion,” you won’t make any headway either. We shouldn’t be ashamed of Jesus, and we shouldn’t act like our faith is secretive or private.

Jesus words today aren’t just for pastors. It is His plan for the whole church to be disciples who make disciples. For some of us – maybe most of us – this is a scary and uncomfortable topic. “Who am I to take a disciple under my wing? I’m just a regular old sinner.”

I know it’s scary, and a little weird to think about. In fact, I’m convinced the 11 disciples probably felt the exact same way. But the good news is this: Discipling isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus, whose very Spirit lives inside of you. He will give you the words you need. God doesn’t leave us on our own to fulfill his commands. He will never ask you to do something that He won’t also make you able to do.

Last week we celebrated the birth of the church at Pentecost. You and I have that same Spirit indwelling us. Today, Jesus is sending you out with that Spirit to do exactly what those Galilean regular guys did: make disciples of all nations, confident that Jesus is surely with us, even to the end of time.

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Pentecost IS the coming of the Holy Spirit! Pentecost IS the church! It’s you and me and all God’s people who have been FILLED with the power of the Holy Spirit so we can CHANGE the world!

Pastor Mark Nieting
Acts 2: 1-21
Pentecost

Grace, mercy, peace and especially POWER from the Holy Spirit and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we celebrate the birthday of the Holy Christian Church on earth.

Take a moment and look around. What do you see this morning? What do you feel? Our church is “dressed in red.” Most of US are dressed in red. There’s an exciting “feel” to the day that even a visitor would pick up on, or at least there should be!

If you remember, last Sunday we explored what it means for us to be Christians who are living IN this world but not really being OF this world. That happens by virtue of our baptisms; we become “unwelcomed citizens” in this world. We ticked through five “strategies for survival” that Christians have used for 2000 years now, but just so we are all on the same page, let’s review them.

1) It is important to embrace our “foreignness.” As Christians, we believe, think and act differently from the world around us (or at least we should!); and we should celebrate the difference!
2) We do live under God’s protection, something we ask for on a regular basis and something which Jesus both taught us to do and promised to each of us.
3) There is strength and protection in numbers, which is why we belong to congregations and why we come together regularly around Word, the Sacrament and Fellowship. Solo-Christians are Satan’s easy pickings…they don’t last long.
4) Our attitude is important. In John 17, Jesus prayed to His Father that we would experience JOY, no matter what happens to us or around us. If being forgiven of our sins and having one of those “many mansions” reserved for us doesn’t bring us JOY, honestly, we need a good “heart-check!”
5) And finally, we need to remember that God left us here for a reason. We have a purpose and a mission: to bring glory to Him by being witnesses of Jesus!

I wish we had the time to “pass the microphone” and let each one of us share how these five strategies impact our lives, but there’s something even bigger and better to focus on this day of Pentecost: the day of the Holy Spirit. The world has usurped at least two of our holidays with multicolored marshmallow peeps and pot-bellied Santas dressed in red, but Pentecost? I’ve never seen a chocolate-covered dove or heard Pentecost-based elevator music. Pentecost belongs to the church! Pentecost IS the coming of the Holy Spirit! Pentecost IS the church! It’s you and me and all God’s people who have been FILLED with the power of the Holy Spirit so we can CHANGE the world!!! (Let God’s people say AMEN!)

Just a few minutes ago we heard the Pentecost story read again; those first 120 believers waiting fearfully together after Jesus ascended into heaven, the sound of the rushing, mighty wind, the tongues of fire alighting (pun intended) on their heads and finally the multiplication of languages with everyone hearing the Gospel reversing the curse of the Tower of Babel. It’s a fabulous and wonderful story that we need to hear over and over again. It’s truly exciting, but there IS one caution flag I need to wave before we go on. Let’s not get so involved in the details of that day that we forget that the same Holy Spirit is just as alive and present and powerful within US right now!

Let’s talk about the Holy Spirit, AKA the “Third Person in the Holy Trinity.” The Holy Spirit is the topic of the 3rd article of each of the three creeds of Christendom. The one we remember easiest is the….Apostles’ Creed. Remember the words? Say them with me: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.

Quite honestly, that doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on, so let’s dig deeper. On the screens we’ll bring up the first part of Luther’s MEANING of the Third Article:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

Have you ever tried to convert someone to something? Like maybe convert a Steelers fan to become a Packers fan or turn a Ford person into a Chevy person? That’s some really tough sledding, but let’s say you succeed in doing it. Who made it happen? You might have been very persuasive and given the right facts and overcome all their objections, but in the end, they made the choice. They decided.

That can work with earthly things, but NOT in the spiritual realm. Without the Holy Spirit, we are “completely dead.” I’ve seen more than my share of dead people and one thing they have in common is this: they are completely and totally powerless. They just lie there. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, everyone would remain spiritually dead forever; lost because of their sins. That’s why St. Paul uses the language of being “born again” to describe what the Holy Spirit does to us. Remember when YOU were born? You did NOTHING. Your mom did all the work….babies can’t even ask to be born!

Call it “being born again,” or “conversion” or “regeneration” or even “subjective justification,” but it doesn’t happen to any of us without the Spirit!

It goes even farther than that! Once the Holy Spirit claims us for Christ, He begins a life-long “urban renewal project” in our lives. As we said last week, this is where our attitudes change, our values change, our language changes, our behaviors change. This is where the world begins to recognize that we truly ARE different. And it is only then that the things we do are seen as “Good Works” in the eyes of God the Father. Before the Spirit brought us to life, nothing we did pleased God. Now….with the Spirit’s leading and guiding, we live to glorify God!

Look at just the four verbs in the second sentence: called, enlightened, sanctified and kept. Each of those is what the Holy Spirit has done TO US! And that’s individually! It gets bigger and better when we move to the second section:

In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and KEEPS it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.

That’s why we call Pentecost the birth of the church: it’s the collective action of the Spirit first on the 120 believers, next on the 3000 who were led to faith on that day, and it keeps happening across space and time and it will keep on happening until the moment that Jesus Christ returns. Remember Jesus’ promise? This is MY church, “and the gates of hell will not overcome it!” (Matt 16:18) From the moment of our baptism, we LIVE in and under that promise, and Satan has no victories unless we allow them!

The third paragraph makes it even more personal: In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. Until we cross from this life to the next, we NEED daily forgiveness, and the church is where it is offered, “daily and richly,” as Luther says. It’s where God forgives us and we forgive one another. Outside the church there is no forgiveness. Only inside the church does the Holy Spirit continue His divine process of making us less worldly and more heavenly on a daily basis.

Finally we come to the one piece of faith that still lies in the future for each of us. Let’s read Luther’s last paragraph: On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true!

Creation is past. Redemption was accomplished on the cross. But the Holy Spirit carries on His work both IN us and THROUGH us. He will continue to do so until that very last day when those who die in Christ are welcomed home and those who die apart from Christ are condemned forever.

By this time it ought to be obvious that there’s something radically different about us, and by “us,” I mean Christians. In Acts 1, just before His ascension, Jesus made this promise to His disciples: you will receive POWER when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

That promise wasn’t just for the 11. It wasn’t just for the 120. It wasn’t just a first-century promise. It’s His promise to US as well; and it has come true. We HAVE received the Holy Spirit. We HAVE been filled with His power. We ARE His witnesses. That means that while we still live and breathe, we have work to do. Jesus has named us as His witnesses to the world that is lost around us. We are the ones who have been commissioned to “make disciples of all nations.”

It’s sad to say, but some of us seem to be waiting for another Pentecost. We’ve gotten good at sequestering the Spirit off into some far corner of our beings. We’ve forgotten to listen to what He whispers to us. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be afraid of the world and those lost in it.

Last week we focused on five strategies for us as “strangers and aliens in a hostile world,” and we reviewed those when we started today. This week we’ll end with five more, this time five steps in tuning into the Holy Spirit and His will and work for us.

1) GET ON OUR KNEES and OPEN OUR EARS. This is step one in every Christian’s day. First we pray for forgiveness; we offer our thanksgiving and then we pray for guidance. We pray that God would be clear about His will for us and His plans for our day. God does speak to us through His Word, but we won’t know if we don’t read it. God does whisper to us in still-small-voices, but we won’t hear if we’re too busy with our own agenda to listen.
2) SUBMIT to the Spirit’s assignment. This is the “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Once we discern what God is asking us to do, we bend our will to His will. It’s that moment where we can be rebellious……or obedient. If we chose rebellion, we also choose the consequences. If we’re obedient, we receive the blessings.
3) TAKE A RISK AND RELY on THE POWER. What God calls us to do may not be safe. It may not be politically correct. It may offend someone. But remember what we have inside us: the power of the Triune God! Imagine how bold we can be it may make an eternal difference in someone’s life.
4) WATCH GOD DO HIS THING! We can only imagine how amazed Peter and the disciples were when that first Pentecost Day came to an end. They must have had their minds completely blown by what God did. How often do we really reflect on what God is doing around us? And when we get involved in “WIND of the SPIRIT, we SHOULD be blown away!
5) RAISE OUR HANDS and give thanks to God. That’s what happens at the end of each of our days, as we sleep in His care and ready ourselves for what He has in store for us tomorrow.

That is LIFE in the SPIRIT. That is the ADVENTURE of the Christian Faith! That is who we….Easter People and Spirit People alike….live, enjoy and celebrate. Amen.

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There’s no mistaking the text on this: Jesus IS the cornerstone, the foundation, the rock, and we, through baptism, are added to God’s great construction project as He builds up His great “Spiritual House,” the community of believers in the Holy Christian Church!

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:1-10

Anyone here like to play the game Jenga? You know the game: start with a tall tower of wooden blocks. In turn, each player takes OUT one of the blocks and adds it back onto the top of the tower. With each move the tower gets taller…. but it also gets shakier. You can see the end coming: the one who causes it to fall looses the game! My sister and her husband like Jenga so much they custom-make the games with blocks so big that their tower is 5 feet tall! Some game, bigger noise when it all falls down. It’s tricky and it’s fun, and the nice thing……with blocks you can always start over.

Let’s tweak the game a bit. What if there was one special Jenga block at the base that anchored the whole thing together, and as long as that block was in place, the entire tower was secure and solid? And then, another “what-if,” if you took that block out, the entire structure could never be rebuilt? That’s one very crucial block, isn’t it?

In today’s epistle, and I do hope you have kept your Scripture open to 1 Peter 2, that one crucial stone, that one special block IS Jesus. The New Testament offers a lot of metaphors for Jesus: He is the Good Shepherd, the Gate, the Vine, the list goes on…… and in this text, Peter calls Jesus the Cornerstone to whom we can come “like living stones being built into a spiritual house.”

It’s a Sunday when new members are joining our congregation, so using the Jenga metaphor, more “blocks” are added to the tower. We praise God for that, but it also begs the question: our “tower” might be getting taller but is it getting shakier? Another way to ask the same question might be this: is bigger better?

The answer, my friends, is found in the text. Maybe you heard what I heard in Peter’s words: an echo of Genesis 2, the creation of Adam. God shaped and formed him…..the image of a sculptor working in clay comes to mind quite easily…..and that’s what Adam became: a statue made of red clay…UNTIL….and here things could have gone one of two ways. God could have put His “red clay man” into the oven, dried and baked him and that would have been it: a lifeless statue suitable only for display. But that’s not what God did. Instead, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7b) It was clay, brought to life with the “breath of Spirit of God.”

Let’s be clear on this: Peter isn’t talking about “A” living stone. He is “talking plural” here: living STONES! Peter’s language isn’t that we are God’s “person,” but we are God’s PEOPLE. The only singular in Peter’s metaphor is Jesus. The word picture that Peter ends up painting here is a picture of the church, made up of Jesus….and US. There’s no mistaking the text on this: Jesus IS the cornerstone, the foundation, the rock, and we, through baptism, are added to God’s great construction project as He builds up His great “Spiritual House,” the community of believers in the Holy Christian Church!

Peter’s “living stones” metaphor goes even farther. Both the “cornerstone” and the “stumbling block” images mark the dividing line between believers who claim Christ from those who reject Christ. Instead of rejecting the “living stone” who is Christ, new Christians are invited to share in being part of the construction of a new “spiritual house” (v.5). This “house” is, let’s repeat this, the church itself, the God-designed community of faith which is bonded together through the cement of its commitment to Christ.

Isn’t that what’s happening again at Hope today? God has led new believers to commit themselves to Christ and to be built into a part of the community of faith that He has gathered here in this place around Christ! That’s real “living stones stuff,” and we praise God for it!

Before we apply all this to our own lives, let’s take a historical side trip to see what Peter’s words must have meant to those early Christians in Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. These were believers who were being persecuted and killed, some of them in very horrible ways, all of it happening under orders from Nero (the Nut-Job).

For them, the image of being part of such a secure house, a spiritual home with a solid foundation, had to have been both comforting and encouraging. Like Adam when God “breathed life into him,” Christians who are shaped into a close-knit community through the spiritual power of Christ the Cornerstone, undergo a miraculous transformation. In verse 9, 1 Peter reveals that while they might still feel like “newborn infants” (v.2), new believers are nonetheless “a chosen people, royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” all out of glory and honor to the God who had saved them and as a witness to the very same people who were rejecting them, persecuting them and even putting some of them to death!

Farther on in Peter’s letter, in 2:11, he gives his fellow believers two rather unique labels: aliens and strangers in the world. In other words, the Christians were living IN the world but they weren’t a part OF the world anymore. Peter and Paul both urge Christians to live their lives in such a way that the people OF the world couldn’t find fault with them, even though they were persecuting them.

It’s the same today. Nothing has changed. We are still, dear ones, exactly as St. Peter described us roughly 1950 years ago. We are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation belonging to God.” Look around! That’s who we are, not because WE made it happen, but because God called it all into being. Once we weren’t, Peter wrote, and now we are. Once we lived outside God’s mercy, now we live under it and in it! Once we weren’t Easter People…..now we ARE!

If we are paying any attention to what’s going on around us, and I think most of us are, we KNOW that we are different from the world. Define it however you like, the “world” has an entirely different set of standards than Christians do……or at least we should. Look back to 2:1 and hear Peter one more time: “RID yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” I’m sure Peter knew the Ten Commandments as well as we do, but it wasn’t his intention to quote them all. What Peter WANTED to do was to teach us and remind us that we are DIFFERENT from the world.

Remember the expression You are what you eat? We aren’t supposed to live on a worldly diet, Peter is saying, because then we will be like the people who exist entirely on junk food and have no taste at all, no appreciation of the “Good stuff!” Instead, in verse 2 he says that we are to be like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up into your salvation………now that you have tasted that the Lord is good!

Look at how well the verbs link together: taste….. crave…..and grow. Once God brings us into His family; once we “taste” His grace, mercy and forgiveness…..then it’s only natural that we will CRAVE His word and GROW up being fed by it. That’s what makes us LIVING STONES and not just a bunch of worldly “gold bricks,” who might be pretty on the outside but are worthless on the inside!

There are two goals in all of this. The first, obviously, is the salvation of our souls…. Praise God for that! The second is the witness we make through our lives to the world around us…..the world that maybe even persecutes us…..that because of Jesus we ARE different and through Christ THEY can be different with us…..forever!

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We can’t become the church God is calling us to be in one hour a week. We can’t be that church just in this place. Church isn’t something you come to. It’s something you go be.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47

I sometimes wonder what we as a church need to be more attractive to the unchurched. After all, we should try and reckon our progress by how the kingdom of God is growing. If, for example, we get 50 new members to transfer from the church up the road to Hope, how much has the kingdom of God grown? Not at all. And if we bid farewell to some of our folk as the Navy sends them to the ends of the earth, how much as the kingdom of God shrunk? Assuming they stay connected to Christ, we haven’t lost a soul.

If that’s so, then that should give us pause as we think about the things we normally expect will help the church grow. High quality music, a comfortable and inviting worship environment, winsome and persuasive preaching, coffee and baked goods are all fine things – and they are things that people looking for a church are often looking for. But when we say, “people looking for a church,” the overwhelming majority of those folks are actually looking for a new church. And we love those folks…. But we need to be clear that that isn’t expanding God’s kingdom.

You see, Jesus isn’t a product we need to market. He isn’t simply the best option of what’s available… But sometimes our thoughts about church are consumer oriented. We want our brand to be memorable, positive, and accessible.

Interestingly, when you read through Acts 2 (as we’ve done this morning), you’ll notice that the list above isn’t what is mentioned as causing the church to grow. They don’t have slick presentations, dedicated buildings… And coffee isn’t even mentioned! It is godly people living out their faith unreservedly that expands the church.

Church wasn’t something they went to. Church is who they were. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Can we say the same is true of us?

When we read, “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles,” this isn’t an academic enterprise. This is about both learning and doing. Christianity isn’t just a belief system – it isn’t just a philosophical explanation of the world. It is an overhaul to your entire life. Scripture says that we are to die to ourselves and the old patterns of life, and to rise to a new life in Christ. This isn’t just a lovely metaphor for salvation – it is a call to a different life.

But sadly, in the America of today, Christians are virtually indistinguishable from the rest of society – except maybe the bumper stickers on their cars, and where they spend their Sunday mornings. Why do you suppose that is? It’s because our priorities are the same as our neighbor’s. One may call himself a Christian, but he spends more of his itinerary and affections on his career than his family. Another may call herself a Christian, but she spends more time on making her home beautiful than on the hungry and homeless around her. The world looks at the church and it sees a reflection of itself and wonders why we think they need us.

And then you read about this post-Pentecost church, and how “The Lord added to their number day by day.” Don’t you just wish that was true of us? How do we become that church again?

It’s going to require a serious change in who we are and how we “do life” as a church. And it starts with this simple idea: church isn’t something you come to, it’s something you go be.

Where did the folks in our reading “do” church? In the temple? Sure! But also, in their homes. Seven days a week. It wasn’t a part of their weekly schedule – church was their whole week.

“Sure, pastor, that sounds good. But they lived in a different world.” You’re right. For them, publicly speaking about Christ could get you locked up or killed. The beautiful community of believers we read about wasn’t the result of living in a utopian society – it was a stark contrast to the environment in which they lived. They were loving and generous and bold in spite of the prevailing culture.

“Yeah but, we’re so busy. I don’t see how I can fit any more in my schedule.” You probably can’t. In fact, many of our families can’t really maintain the schedules we’re currently keeping. We’re too busy. And yet, I can say with certainty that you always have time for what’s most important in your life… We all have 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week – and how you spend that time is what is (in reality) most important to you.

So, what was most important to the Jerusalem church we read about? Learning and living God’s Word. Sharing meals with one another. Giving sacrificially to help out the poor and needy. Giving thanks for daily bread.

It really isn’t as complicated as you might think, but being that kind of a church isn’t something you can shoehorn into your life. It is your lifestyle. It means saying “no” to a lot of good things, for the sake of clinging to the better things. It means accepting your brothers and sisters in Christ as your legitimate family. It means ministering to the sick, the heartbroken, and the poor compassionately and sacrificially.

The power is in the Holy Spirit. There is no question about that – remember that this reading follows immediately after the account of Pentecost, and He was still manifesting Himself in “signs and wonders.” But you simply cannot downplay the importance of the kind of life that this early church led – a lifestyle of giving over control and ownership of our time and possessions to Christ. When they said, “Jesus is Lord,” they meant exactly that!

We can’t become the church God is calling us to be in one hour a week. We can’t be that church just in this place. Church isn’t something you come to. It’s something you go be.

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As we deal with the concept of philoxenia in our lives, each of us is faced with two questions: do we see Jesus in others, and do others see Christ in us?

By Pastor Mark Nieting
3rd Sunday of Easter
Luke 24:13-25

Before I take my text, please allow me a moment to thank all of you for your thoughts, prayers, expressions of sympathy and support over the “home-going” of my father. Although he passed before we arrived, I was able to have a prayer with him over the phone and to say “See you in heaven,” to which he answered, “amen!” I was also allowed the privilege of preaching for his funeral, which was both extremely difficult and yet so easy, because his life was my sermon. He was a baptized child of God, living every day in the service of Christ his Savior. That, my friends, is the strength, the hope and the reality of the faith we share! Can I have a “Christ is Risen?”

When we needed to get to Milwaukee in a hurry, we did what most everyone would do: called the airline, booked the first flight we could (we didn’t even get to sit together) and within about 5 hours we were home. It was no-nonsense travel……zip, bump, there. I don’t know WHY it is, but on a plane, people don’t talk. They sit. They read. They sleep. (Notice, I skipped eat, unless you count the peanuts.)

But coming home was entirely different. No surprise to most of you, we took Amtrak. On the train, when it’s time to eat, you go to the dining car and the steward seats you……at the table of HIS choice……with OTHER people! With STRANGERS! Unless you’re a total xenophobe, it doesn’t take long for strangers to become guests at the same table……and when it came time to pray over our dinner that we were sharing with a gentleman from California, I became the host.

Stranger. Guest. Host. We take all three of these roles seriously here at Hope, and all three roles are played by Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus. He appears to these disciples first as a stranger, then as a guest and finally as their host. It’s a wonderful story in which Jesus models for us what will be our word for the day: “philoxenia.”

Today’s Gospel is, at least for most of us, a very familiar story. When two disciples are traveling to the village of Emmaus on Easter afternoon, the risen Jesus comes near and walks with them. But their eyes are kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks about the events they’re discussing, and one of them says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

Jesus is initially depicted as a stranger, giving His disciples the challenge of showing hospitality. They practice philoxenia. It might sound like a variety of flower, but it means literally the “love of the stranger.” Philoxenia is one of the Greek words used in the New Testament for hospitality. This approach stands in stark contrast to the attitude so prevalent in society, and even in churches today — xenophobia, “fear of the stranger.”

What would it mean for us, for you and for me to practice philoxenia in congregational life? We do it every time we enroll a new child in our school or welcome a new teen to our youth ministry. We do it when we slide down the pew instead of making people crawl over us. We do it every time we speak to strangers in the narthex after worship, instead of chatting only with our friends or heading straight out the door. We do it every time we make an effort to get to know a person who is new to us and maybe even different from us.

This is philoxenia — love of the stranger. When we practice it, we discover that strangers really aren’t so strange. The question is: do we practice it?

Fortunately, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus rise to the challenge. As they come near the village that is their destination, Jesus walks ahead as if he is going on. But the disciples urge him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So Jesus goes in to stay with them, and He becomes their guest. They welcome and include Him in their lives, and invite Him to stay with them.

Jesus wants us to take good care of the guests who come to us. He challenges us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and bring in the outcasts as He did throughout His ministry. Since we, the members of the church, are the physical body of Christ in the world today, we’re supposed to be His hands. We are supposed to continue His work. It happens every time we show His presence in the world; every time we practice hospitality in his name; every time we feed the hungry through a food pantry and every time we welcome a guest to worship with us.

Guests are important to Jesus, which is why He played that role on the road to Emmaus. He wanted to challenge His followers to see Him as a guest and take good care of him.

There’s a scene in the gospel of Matthew that stresses the importance of this kind of care. In the final judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, Jesus announces that He frequently appears to us as a guest. Specifically, He comes in the form of people who are in need of food, drink and a warm welcome. He says to his followers, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The followers of Jesus hear these words, but they’re confused. They don’t remember seeing Jesus. They don’t remember helping Him, so they ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry … thirsty … a stranger?” Jesus answers them simply, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (vv. 37-40).

Even today, Jesus comes into our lives as a guest. When we help a person in need, we’re really helping Jesus. It might be in church, on the street, in school or on the job. This can be tough to do at the office, because the workplace has become such a competitive and anxious place, with political correctness being inflicted on us all, but even there, when you help a person in need, you’re helping Jesus.

But notice what happens next on the road to Emmaus. Jesus, the stranger, becomes a guest of the disciples when he accepts their invitation to stay. But then He quickly changes roles again. When He’s sitting at the table with them, He becomes their host — He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize Him — and He vanishes from their sight (vv. 30-31). Like Abraham and Sarah, who practiced hospitality by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15), the disciples discover that, when they welcome a stranger, they welcome the Lord.

The role of Jesus changes from stranger to guest to host when He sits at the table and breaks the bread. This transition continues to happen Sunday after Sunday…..each Sunday a “little Easter” in our worship vocabulary, when the risen Christ nourishes us through the Lord’s Supper. He comes to feed us and fill us with his power and presence.

It’s critically important for us to permit Jesus to be our host; to eat His bread, drink His cup and allow His body and blood to become part of our body and blood; to accept the forgiveness He offers and to allow ourselves to be strengthened and inspired.

Sometimes, it’s easier for us to help others than to receive help. We would rather be a host than let someone else be a host. But, at the Lord’s Supper, permit Jesus to be your host. Open yourself to what He wants to give you. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, your eyes will be opened and you’ll recognize Him.

The passage ends with the two disciples racing for miles back to Jerusalem to share the news of their experience with the other disciples. They tell them what happened on the road, and how Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Their message was a proclamation, and it’s something we’re all challenged to do. To make a proclamation is simply to talk about how we’ve experienced the activity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Imagine the “moment of Hope” that occurred when the Emmaus disciples broke into the upper room and shared their stories!

Stranger. Guest. Host. Jesus models each of these roles in today’s Gospel: first as the stranger, next as the guest, and finally as the host. None of these are foreign to us. None of these roles even needs to be threatening. But there IS one role that doesn’t “fit” into this story. There’s one role that neither Jesus nor the Emmaus-road disciples assumes that is far too common in church life today……the role of “church member.” It’s a neutral role, and there is No One in this story who sits passively by as a mere observer of the facts. No one in this story remains untouched or unknown. No one in this story remains unchanged. When we, as God’s people, as EASTER PEOPLE, live out our Philoxenia, no one needs to remain a stranger.

Emmaus is where we learn how to welcome one another around a table, and then go out into the world with a proclamation. Emmaus is where we come together and strengthen our bonds with Jesus and with each other. Emmaus is where we can see Jesus in strangers and guests and where we can act as Jesus when we take on the role as host.

As we come to the end of this message, and as we deal with the concept of philoxenia in our lives, each of us is faced with two questions: do we see Jesus in others, and do others see Christ in us?

We’re going to end our day today with “pizza with the pastor.” It’s a simple invitation for those who are strangers to become guests and for us to receive them as hosts. We might not be breaking the body of Christ, but we will be building the bonds of Christian fellowship…..and that, and places like that, dear friends, is where we have the opportunity become part of a mighty spiritual movement — one that can overcome divisions in a terribly polarized world. It all begins when Jesus breaks the bread, our eyes are opened and we recognize Him.

Christ is Risen…..death is conquered……no one need ever be a stranger again!

Amen.

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Almost everything you do in this world will eventually pass away – but when you forgive sins in Jesus’ name, you are doing something eternal. And it’s a power that’s given to everyone in whom the Holy Spirit lives.

But, let’s be honest, do we think in those terms on a daily basis? Do we – for instance – gauge the success of our church by how many sins we’ve forgiven or by how many people show up on Sunday Morning (or worse, how much is in the offering plate)?

By Pastor Michael Cofer
2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

Have you ever given any thought to what goes into successfully starting a church? Now, there maybe some here today who were at Hope when it was founded almost 40 years ago – and so maybe you have some insight into this question. And I think if we sat down to try and list what is needed, that list would go something like this:

A capable and experienced “planting pastor,” a good location to conduct worship, some manner of an office/homebase, someone (or some few) talented musicians to lead worship, a critical mass of committed attendees, some reliable revenue stream (district funding, or outside sponsorship), some really impressive branding/advertisements to get the word out about our church, and so on.

It is a very big deal to try to start a church, and many of them don’t get off the ground. Which is why the story we read in John 20 should strike us as extraordinary. Jesus commissions his disciples to start the first Christian church the world has ever seen, and he doesn’t give them anything off of that list we just made. No building. No experienced and gifted “planting pastor.” And not a single penny to fund this endeavor.

So what gives? Doesn’t Jesus want them to succeed? Why does he give them so little and expect so much? Perhaps He gave them more than we think.

Listen again to Jesus’ words to His disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you…” Of course there is more to it than that, but let’s not skip over those words, “As the Father has sent me…”

It should beg the question: how did the Father send Jesus? He came in the lowliest state imaginable – born to an unwed mother in a borrowed stable. He grew up in a blue-collar community where many lived day to day on the edge of starvation. He was a homeless wanderer for the length of his ministry, and He was misunderstood by just about every, single person he met. Many people refused to believe He was the Messiah simply because He didn’t have all of the outward signs of success – no money, no political power, no military might, not even the accreditation of the Bible scholars of His day. How could a man like that accomplish anything meaningful in the real world? But that is how the Father sent Him out.

And yet, Jesus in his short life on earth accomplished more than anyone in history ever had or ever will. Jesus, quite literally changed the world.

Now, remember that this is all happening on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead. Where are the disciples now? Hiding behind a locked door in an upper room. Why are they there? They are pretty sure that if people recognize them as Jesus’ disciples, they will be killed too.

But Jesus has told them that the time for hiding is over. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” It’s time to face the world, and they don’t need to be afraid – because here is Jesus, victorious over even their worst fear (death) and He has brought with them His peace. He is sending them into a world that hates them and all that they stand for – a world that may well want them dead, but Jesus is bringing peace.

Now, as He is sending them out, He does give them something. Not money, or an armed escort, or even a 5-year plan. No, He gives them the Holy Spirit, and with the Spirit he gives them the authority to forgive sins. That’s it. That’s all the resources He has to offer – and as it turns out it is all that they need.

Doesn’t it turn your mind back to the first time Jesus sent out His disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves…” Again, not exactly a pep-talk. But here stands Jesus – the shepherd of the sheep, and himself the sacrificial lamb – and the wolves have lost. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t defend himself. He simply followed the call of the Father, and forgave even those who were killing Him while they were in the middle of the act. And He breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples and says, “Go and do likewise.”

Or, consider Stephen – the first person to ever be killed for being a Christian. He was stoned to death because he was preaching Christ, but even as they hurling rocks at him, he did exactly as Jesus had done. He commended his spirit into God’s hands and prayed that God would forgive his attackers. Not only had he learned from Jesus how to live; he learned from Him how to die as well!

But what happened as a result of his death? Was the church defeated? Was the gospel buried? Not at all! It was the catalyst that started the spread of the gospel into the world outside of Judea! No funding. No savvy marketing campaign. Just fired up people, filled with the Holy Spirit on a mission to proclaim God’s forgiveness.

You see, the power to forgive sins is the most awesome thing there is in the universe. Almost everything you do in this world will eventually pass away – but when you forgive sins in Jesus’ name, you are doing something eternal. And it’s a power that’s given to everyone in whom the Holy Spirit lives.

But, let’s be honest, do we think in those terms on a daily basis? Do we – for instance – gauge the success of our church by how many sins we’ve forgiven or by how many people show up on Sunday Morning (or worse, how much is in the offering plate)?

Truth is, we don’t really live in a forgiveness culture anymore. We live in an excuses culture. Now, before you agree with me, hear me out. What I mean is that our typical apology goes like this… “Hey, I’m really sorry about ______. But you have to understand, I was just _____________.” And, assuming the apology is deemed adequate, the other person says, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

So on the side of the offender, there is an apology with a list of reasons (excuses) that make the offense a little less bad if you really think about it, right? And on the side of the one who was wronged, you see the offense being dismissed (excused), because it isn’t really that big a deal anyways, right? That pattern is not how the church is supposed to do forgiveness – because it’s centered around trying to talk ourselves into believing that an injury or a sin isn’t as bad as it seems – and if it’s not so bad we can just gloss it over.

That’s not how Jesus forgives, and it isn’t what He is asking of us. Forgiveness starts by calling a sin what it is – whether it’s a hurtful word, an angry thought, or a wicked and selfish action. Forgiveness starts with owning up to just how bad that thing is. And when the forgiver says (as we need to learn to do), “I forgive you,” what he or she is saying is, “yes, that was a sin (and it might be a big deal), but we’re going to give it to Jesus now – and that means I can’t hold it against you.”

Jesus is sending us out, just like those disciples, with the very same gifts – the Holy Spirit living in us, and His power to forgive sins. Let’s stop being the people of excuses and take up the call to be the people of repentance and forgiveness.

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If Jesus didn’t come back from the dead, then what good would all of this be? If Jesus is just a teacher, or a political activist, or miracle worker, we’d still have no hope. Even if Jesus was just the sacrifice for our sins, but was not raised, then it’d all be for nothing, because death would still be the end.

But Jesus Christ lives! And because He lives, we will live.

Easter Sunday Altar

Pastor Michael Cofer
Easter Sunday 2014
Matthew 28:1-10

Where Are You Now?

Jesus,
Where are you now?
In the midst of this suffering.
In the midst of this pain.
In the midst of this thing I can’t quite explain.
Where are you now?
Are you in the sky?
Are you in the ground?
Are you anywhere you can be found?
Where are you now?
Am I all alone?
Am I all alone?
Am I…
Where are you now?
I’ve come to pay respects.
I’ve come to settle debts.
I’ve come to say good bye.
So tell me where and why
Are you now?
You’re not in the ground
Nor in the grave.
You’re right behind me
Like you said.
You’re not dead.
What was I thinking?
Why was my hope so small
You told me this would happen,
It was destined from the fall
But today it has all changed.
The universe is rearranged
Today you overcame the grave.
Today you live and so I say
Hallelujah, Risen King.
It’s you and you alone who brings
Life eternal, nothing less
Bought with your blood and righteousness
And so, on this
Your Holy day,
We share your triumph and we say:

Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed.

I think many of us have gone through some of those times – times when you look at your life and you ask, “Jesus, where are you now?” It’s often in those times when we’re knocked down and we feel like there is no getting back up. You’re still searching for a job, and it hasn’t come through yet. You’re family is falling apart no matter what you do. You have a loved one who is chronically ill and is just getting worse.

Some of you are living through those times right now. And maybe you’ve even asked the question aloud, “Jesus, where are you now?”

I imagine the days after Jesus was crucified must have been some of the hardest in the lives of Jesus’ followers. Jesus had told them that no servant is greater than their master, and that if the world mistreated Jesus they would do just as bad to his followers. How full of fear and worry must those days have been – hiding away from the world, hoping that they would eventually be forgotten?

Meanwhile the body of their teacher and friend was under lockdown by armed guards – not exactly a tranquil scene to pay their last respects at. But the women steeled themselves, mustered their courage, and went out to the tomb anyways. (And where were the men to escort them?)

They looked for Him in the grave, but he wasn’t there. You know, to this day people are still looking for Jesus in a grave. They think that somewhere out there are the remains of Jesus of Nazareth, and when they are discovered it’ll finally put an end to all of this “Christian nonsense.” And they can keep on looking for all I care, because I know that they will not find Him.

See, if you look for Jesus among the dead, you will not find Him. But that’s exactly what Peter and John did. It’s exactly what the Marys did. And, I believe it’s what you and I do sometimes, too.

You see, there is the Jesus of our expectations – the Jesus who wants us to be nice, and to have comfortable lives, and who has lots of moral things to teach us – and then there is the real Jesus. The real Jesus is always bigger than our expectations. His aims and hopes and plans for you are bigger than your own, because He sees you from the perspective of eternity. He sees you with the resurrection in mind.

Jesus doesn’t fit in a tidy box that you draw around him. He isn’t waiting for you to ask Him into your plans for life. He isn’t your personal assistant or cheerleader. He is your Lord, and won’t settle for less. And why should He?

We want him to give us a little more comfort and wealth on earth, when He wants to give us the incomparable riches of heaven. We want him to give us predictability and stability, when he wants to give us an adventurous and extraordinary life. We want him to end this pain or heal this disease – and maybe he wants that too – but in the end He won’t settle for being just a healer, when He is in fact the resurrection and the life.

Certainly you should pray (and pray BIG) over the needs and hardships in your life, but no matter how those prayers are answered today, we should never forget that every need, every hurt, every disease, even death itself will be brought to an end in the resurrection.

You know, as John tells the story of the women going to the tomb to see Jesus, he shares an interesting detail. Mary, turns away from the tomb and is weeping and a man comes to comfort her. He says, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it your are looking for?”

Mary replies that she is looking for her Lord and says, “tell me where you have put him…”

Now, you and I both know who that man is… it’s Jesus himself! Think about that for a moment. Mary asks Jesus where Jesus went to.

And we’re just as silly. We serve the resurrected Christ who promised explicitly, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” So every time we ask, or cry, or pray, “Jesus, where are you?” it’s Him we are asking, and He’s right there with us.

He’s not dead. He’s not hidden. He’s not far off. He is with you, right here and now. He is walking with you through the pain and the trials. And today He is point you to look right into that empty tomb, because He can and will carry you through the worst this world has to offer – even through death itself – and by his power you will make it through to the other side. That’s why this Jesus can say to us, “In this world you will have many troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

That’s why Easter is such a big deal for us. If Jesus didn’t come back from the dead, then what good would all of this be? If Jesus is just a teacher, or a political activist, or miracle worker, we’d still have no hope. Even if Jesus was just the sacrifice for our sins, but was not raised, then it’d all be for nothing, because death would still be the end.

But Jesus Christ lives! And because He lives, we will live. And there is now nothing that can separate us from Him. Not life, not death, not your past mistakes, not your present circumstances, not any obstacle on the horizon… There is simply no escaping His love.

Where is Jesus now? Right here, with his beloved people. Right here, with you.

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By Pastor Mark Nieting

Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
John 19:28: I thirst.
John 19:29-30: It is finished.
Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

If there was ever a day when evil ran rampant in the world, it was the day we now call Good Friday. Satan, the hound of hell, had been on Jesus’ heels ever since he missed his chance to get the ‘babe in Bethlehem.’ He must have sensed that of all days, this was it. This was his chance. This was his opportunity. Evil could reign supreme. Evil could win its victory.

That’s why, as we once again stand, at least spiritually, at the foot of Jesus’ cross, one phrase from Jesus’ own prayer literally screams out: “deliver us from evil.” There are times when the Lord’s Prayer may seem a tad rote or even sentimental, but not today. “DELIVER US FROM EVIL” is real because on Good Friday, Evil comes front and center. The devil was out for blood; Jesus’ blood first, and ours to follow. That is the truth.

The stakes were high. Our eternal destiny was on the line. For just a moment, we can examine all this from two perspectives, the two “male-factors” on the cross. Two thieves. Two criminals. Before that one special Friday, death for them had been, well, theoretical…shall we say. But now, hanging as they were on Jesus’ right and left, death loomed large. If either knew anything about Jesus, it was less than most people do today, even those who don’t believe.

Both hung alongside Jesus, who is the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE. The same Holy Spirit would tug at each one’s heart. One would listen and hear; the other would listen and mock. One would enter paradise; the other would not. One was Delivered from Evil; the other would spend eternity with Evil.

As you listen to Jesus’ seven last words, no matter how many times you’ve heard them before, remember what He came to do: give HIS life in exchange for yours. That is the deliverance that matters; and it matters eternally.

Amen.

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