They Saw Jesus

He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

There is a special sort of energy to this saying, isn’t there? When a believer says it, there is a sense of the world spinning in the opposite direction, as if what was once undone is now being turned back, as if our view of Eden has become a little less blurry.

Amen. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

“He is risen” is the cheering of the Church of all ages. She sings out to the world in praise of her Savior who died, and yet, did not fall short of His goal, no matter the apparent dreadfulness of the Good Friday wreckage. Jesus gave Himself over into Death. He did it willingly and without our asking. He turned His face toward the events with an unmatchable steadfastness, and like a juggernaut, He could not be stopped. He pressed through and into Death’s deepest hideousness, ultimately defeating it for all time from the inside.

Saint Paul makes clear for those who may still be wondering what the resurrection has to do with God’s plan of redemption, saying, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). He says this so his readers will know there’s nothing left to be accomplished between sinners and God. Christ has done it all.

How do we know? Indeed, Paul warns of the concern if Christ hasn’t been raised, having already announced, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17).

But Christ has been raised. Paul is a witness. And not only Paul but hundreds of others were visited by the bodily-resurrected Jesus (15:3-8). Would Paul lie? Would he trade his life of promise and ease for prison and execution? Would they all lie? Would they all be able to maintain such deception, keeping the story straight among such a large number? Perhaps like Paul, when the lives of these firsthand witnesses, and the lives of their families, were found teetering at the edge of grisly death, with their only safety being found in recantation, would courage built on a lie be able to see them through the moment?

Of course not, because they saw Jesus.

So, rejoice. It’s all true. Christ is risen, and your Easter faith is secure. You have staked a claim in the Lord who faced off with Death and won. His labor removed your Sin, and His resurrection victory justified you before the Father (Romans 4:25), granting to you the first-fruit spoils of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20).

God bless and keep you in this peace, not only today but always.

Sometime, Just Sometimes

Considering that today is Reformation Day—a day marked by actions resulting in events that changed the course of the entire world—I suppose I’ll just go ahead and put this out there to see what happens.

I sure am glad that Martin Luther didn’t just pray for his enemies, but that he actually fought back, having engaged them in ways that eventually stopped the wheels of a dreadful machine intent on stripping humanity completely clean of the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ alone.

Thanks, Martin, for reminding us that there’s more to Christian faithfulness than prayers, pious intentions, and potlucks. Thanks for showing us that sometimes—just sometimes—blades need to be sharpened and armor needs to be fastened as battle lines are drawn against the cosmic powers aligned in opposition to Christ and His Church.

Allow me to keep going.

I suppose while I’m sharing these things, I’ll add that I’m glad David went toe to toe with Goliath instead of staying home and figuring that God would sort it all out in His own way (1 Samuel 17). And speaking of this same future monarch, I’m glad the prophet Nathan was willing to risk his own life to confront King David regarding his murderous affair with Bathsheba. I imagine a prophet facing off with a king would be quite the sight.

I should say I appreciate the trifecta of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When King Nebuchadnezzar imposed mandates that stripped away their religious liberty, they stood against him. Indeed, rather than simply—and much more easily—excusing themselves from faithfulness by saying it was their duty to obey the governing authorities, they demonstrated a better sense, one proving that sometimes the government is genuinely honored when it is resisted (Daniel 3:1-30).

I’m sincerely thankful for John the Baptist’s exemplary stand before King Herod, namely his unequivocal devotion to God’s moral and natural law in relation to marriage. Too many clergy believe it isn’t their place to deal in such things. Sure, they give their theological reasons. And they sound really smart, too. Personally, I think it’s because they’re scared. And why wouldn’t they be? They know, just as John knew, that their actions might spell their end (Mark 6:17–29).

Oh, what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26)? I’ll say this can start when a person gets over his or herself.

Let’s keep going.

I’m grateful that Saint Peter finally put his often misplaced boldness to a better use, having told the Sanhedrin to go fly a kite when they attempted to strip the Apostles of their freedom to preach and teach the Gospel. “We must obey God rather than men,” Peter said, so dryly, and yet so robustly by faith (Acts 5:29).

I really appreciate Saint Paul. For example, right after Saint Paul and his fellow missionary, Silas, had been unjustly beaten and thrown into prison, once the treachery to their rights as Roman citizens was discovered, rather than letting their persecutors off the hook, Paul demanded they be paraded through the city in their shame (Acts 16:35-37). I don’t know if such scenes in the Scriptures are supposed to make me smile, but admittedly, this one does.

Even better, while standing before Festus, instead of accepting what seemed to be the inevitable fate of the “little man,” Paul refused to go quietly into the night, as the poets would say. He worked the system, appealing his rights as a citizen before Caesar, rather than sheepishly shrinking into the easier assumption that he was outclassed and done for, relegating his fate to the simpler hope that God would just have to handle it (Acts 25:9-12).

I suppose lastly, I’m also quite fond of the fact that Paul wasn’t beyond calling out the Church’s enemies by name in his Epistles, effectively neutralizing particular characters’ attempts to corrupt or destroy the Gospel both in public and private (1 Timothy 1:19-20). In other words, move in ways that hinder or pervert the people of God and the Gospel for faith and Paul won’t hesitate to make you famous.

I’m not sure if it’s a good thing, but that, too, has the potential for making me grin.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. You should pray for those who are enemies of the Church, offering regular petitions to God that He would change their hearts. This means laboring in love for them, not only trusting that God will keep His promises to work things for the benefit of salvation, but also bearing in mind that you, too, were once at enmity with your Creator, and yet He loved you enough to redeem you by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s by His sacrifice that Christians have real peace, and as a result, they’ve been recreated to desire peace with their foes. Still, having said all of this, I sure do appreciate Amelia Earhart’s practical observation, which offered, “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.” I think she was right by these words. And the examples from God’s Word I described above are proof. They remind us we shouldn’t step from the Gospel assuming that the postures of a bowed head or a turned cheek will be all that’s required when engaging with the world around us. There may be times God shows His love for the world through you by putting you out in front of a giant. It may be that He expects you to take an uncompromising, and quite possibly a personally damaging, position against a bully. He may expect you to be a shield for Christian liberty. He may lead you into an unexpected fray to speak a firm word to a liar, or expose a shameful parade of fools, or publicly decry false theology, or call someone out by name who must be marked and avoided by others.

He may require that you demonstrate genuine honor for the government by resisting it.

In short, faithfulness to Christ may mean stepping up. It may actually mean getting in the way of the Gospel’s enemies and doing what you can to crush them. Yes, crush them. It may mean warring against them, not only to bring their godless ways to a halt, but to do so through deliberate actions that confuse their efforts, threaten their power, and eventually retake the fields they’ve seemingly conquered.

As a side note, clergy who preach against this—or do what they can to get in the way of Christians engaging in these ways—are wrong, and they should be told as much. Perhaps at a minimum, they need to read Saint James’ Epistle in its entirety, being sure not to skip over the more uncomfortable portions describing the loveless spirit that would say to a person in need, “Be warm and well fed” (James 2:16). After that, they might give Luther a quick perusal. They’ll find more than enough content relaying something similar to:

“Our works are God’s masks, behind which He remains hidden, although He does all things. If Gideon had not obeyed and gone to battle with Midian, the Midianites would never have been conquered, even though God could, of course, have conquered them without Gideon. He could also give you corn and fruit without your plowing and planting, but that is not His will” (Exposition of Psalm 138, W.A. 31. I. 435 f.).

Finally, after a little light reading from Luther, may I be so bold as to suggest listening to what I said at our recent conference? Click here to view the video.

Remember, the opposite of Biblical love is not hate. It’s apathy. It’s inaction. For God to have lacked love means for Him to have forsaken us in our condition of Sin. But He didn’t. He reached to us. He acted. Even better, God recreated us by His Gospel to be people who are ready to respond when things are out of kilter. Some of the required actions sting. Some of the required actions are very hard to do. No one wants to be wrong. No one enjoys being told they’re out of line. No one prefers to be told “no.” But God’s holy Law reminds us of just how wrong we are in ways that reach into our very cores. In a sense, the discipline God shows us in this regard is an emanation of His love. It is a warning given to those He’d rather not to lose to eternal condemnation. Because we’ve been recreated by that same love, this is our desire, too. If it isn’t, then we need to check our faith.

And so, to bring this morning’s thoughts to a close, Christians love through action, whether that be by rebuking and correcting, or through gentleness and care. Either way, through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit provides discernment, all the while reminding us that such love will take different forms in different contexts. And part of my point: sometimes—just sometimes—this love must roll up its sleeves and get dirt under its fingernails.

Strumming the Chords of Memory

I’m once again taking the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the eNews for this week.

You know how it goes for me. The sermon is done, and so now whatever comes to mind this morning is going to be quarried for gems.

I suppose with today being the 66th anniversary of our congregation, and since anniversaries are something of meaning, how about this?

It might sound somewhat absurd, but last week I spent about $12 to buy specialized batteries for a ramshackle calculator I’ve had since high school. But that’s only the half of it. I spent another $10 to buy three weirdly-sized batteries for a miniature, and equally bedraggled, R2D2 toy I’ve had for nearly as long.

For reference, the calculator’s screen is being held together with tape. The device’s black metal face is more than well-worn, with plenty of age-betraying scratches and dents. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at. And technologically speaking, it’s not even that advanced, especially in comparison to the calculators of today. For the twelve dollars I spent to revive it, I could’ve bought a brand new one with far greater capabilities.

The same goes for my R2D2, which by the way, sits on my desk just below my computer monitor. His white plastic case has yellowed with time, not to mention at some point along the way, the foot from one of his robotic legs came loose. It took superglue and surgeon-like skill to repair and reattach it in a way that it could still function. Like my calculator, he’s pretty beat up, which means he’s not going to be winning any astrodroid beauty pageants in this galaxy anytime soon. And yet, with the new batteries, at least he continues to be as I remember and expect. When you press his button, he whirs, boops, and beeps with glee. Even better, the tiny light on his dome still twinkles magnificently.

To look at these items, you’d think I was crazy for keeping them around, let alone spending as much as I did on batteries to keep them functioning. The thing is, for as immaterial as they might seem, they’re mine. They mean something to me.

I remember the store in my hometown of Danville, Illinois, where I bought the calculator. The last time I visited, I discovered the store no longer exists. Nevertheless, the calculator I got from one of its shelves is still helping me with math problems. I remember loaning the calculator to an old girlfriend—Estella—who, by the way, is the reason behind the tape holding it together.

As far as R2D2 goes, sure, I could buy another miniature figure just like him to adorn my workspace, and it would probably have more articulating parts and cooler sounds. But this is my R2D2. Again, he might not be much to look at, but he’s mine. And truth be told, even if he somehow loses all functions, or I discover him in a completely unrepairable state, I’ll never throw him away. He means something to me. I have memories stored away in my brain that only he can stir. Rest assured that even if he becomes nothing more than a pile of parts to be scooped up and put into a ziplock bag, I’ll keep R2 for as long as my mind will recognize him.

I suppose in a broad sense, when I consider all of this as a Christian, I can’t help but be reminded of how our God thinks on all of us in love. The human race is coming undone, and for the most part, it isn’t much to speak of. We lie. We cheat. We steal. Heck, we even have it in us to grind up babies in the womb. Overall, if there’s a line marking the borderland of horribleness, at some point along the way we’ll cross it. Still, God thinks on us in love. Even Saint Paul, at one time a devilish persecutor of Christians, couldn’t help but share how astounded he was with God’s mercy.

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Of course Paul didn’t just aim that honesty at himself. He turned it toward the entire human race, making sure we’re all fully aware of the predicament we’re in, while at the same time showing the divergence of God’s actions.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The contrast is astounding. Paul didn’t use the term “sinners” lightly. He knew the core of the word. He knew he was referring to all of mankind, himself included, as rebelliously hateful enemies of God and completely dead to righteousness with every fiber of our being. And yet, it’s in this condition that God reached to us. Our yellowing nature, our lives barely being held together by the flimsy tape of human frailty, our broken efforts and our pummeled pasts—God sees all of this. And yet He doesn’t throw us away. We mean something to Him, and so He was willing to do the work and to pay the seemingly craziest price to restore what would otherwise be considered as junk.

That has me thinking from another perspective.

As I noted already, when I plink away at my old calculator or I admire my old R2D2 toy, some pretty substantial memories are stirred. I did quite a bit of reading last fall from Abraham Lincoln’s various writings, and at one point along the way I remember him saying something about how memories are like mystic chords that swell a chorus when strummed. This pathetic old calculator, this silly little R2D2, as trivial as they both may be, are tools for strumming. When I see them, I remember former days. When I reach out to touch them, I reconnect with a vastness of people, places, times and the like, all of which—through the lens of faith—leave me marveling at what, how, and to where God has carried me along the timeline of my own life.

Everything along the way has value. Unfortunately, and as the French novelist Georges Duhamel once said, it’s often true that we don’t know the true value of our life’s moments until they have undergone the test of memory. In other words, what’s happening right now matters, and it will either be remembered with fondness, or it will haunt us like the chains strung around the neck of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

As we navigate life, this can be a petrifying thought, even for Christians.

But be comforted. One thing is for sure, God thinks on and reaches to us in love. The death of Jesus Christ for sinners is the all-surpassing Gospel announcement of this. The One who was given over for our redemption, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). I don’t know how it is for you, but knowing He was and is always with me, I can look back at the things in my life that I regret and be reminded that I meant something to Him then and I mean something to Him now, that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that each day is a new day in His loving kindness, that His grace is fresh and bountiful every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). I can ponder the fact that even my worst day filled with my most grievous Sins has been long forgotten by the One who, by virtue of His atoning sacrifice, looks me in the eye through the words of Isaiah 43:25 and says with a certain and thundering voice, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

With this Gospel at the ready each and every day, when my course in this life finally comes to an end and I draw my final breath, both the joys and regrets of life will all be found resting in the promise of a tearless future in the nearest presence of Jesus Christ, my Savior—the One who promised never to leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Through this lens of faith, even my calculator can be a reminder—a weird reminder, but a reminder nonetheless. It whispers that the same Savior who was with me as I tapped away in 10th grade math class in Danville, Illinois, is the same one who is with me now as I prepare to do a little computing with the average attendance numbers for a church and school four hundred miles away in Hartland, Michigan.

And a small, motionless R2D2 with a similar story looks on in twinkling affirmation.

The Cruel Grave of Jealousy

I’m wondering… have you ever experienced a moment when you felt like you were at the bottom of the barrel in your station? Like you were the worst accountant in the firm? Like you were the least valuable engineer on the project or the worst teacher in your school? Like you were the least relevant mother in the PTL? Like you brought the least muscle to the team?

On second thought, what am I saying? Of course you’ve had these thoughts. Everyone has. Only a narcissist can exist in a way that preserves the “self” from such honest reflection. Only a narcissist would believe his or herself to always be right, to always know what to do, to have no imperfections, and to be the brightest star in the sky.

I’ll admit to having had a moment not too long ago when I felt like the most useless pastor on the planet, that everything about who I am as a person in comparison to others who hold the same office—the things I appreciate, the activities I enjoy, my personality that communicates my very real humanity—all of it was of little value, and maybe even in complete contradiction to the office I hold.

I suppose when it comes to serving in the church, that’s probably about as close as one can get to reconsidering one’s future in any role.

But again, I presume we all go through this. I have to believe that Saint Paul felt this way sometimes. There was a time when he was a persecutor of the Church. He hunted and killed Christians, and yet God made him an essential asset in the proclamation and spread of the Gospel of justification for the sake of Christ. The proof of this rests in the simple fact that Paul wrote most of the New Testament. We receive the words of our Lord by way of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But so often we see how Paul was put into place to help us see how it all fits together.

Just thinking out loud, I wonder if one reason we find ourselves in such low points, perhaps as I hinted to before, is because of a kind of jealousy born from comparison between individuals. In other words, I wonder if Paul ever slipped into comparing himself with Peter. I wonder if he ever found himself jealous that Peter was with Jesus from the beginning. Peter saw the miracles. He was with the Lord for the Transfiguration. He walked on water, even if only for a moment. He saw the Lord on Easter Day. Peter certainly didn’t have a past like Paul’s. He hadn’t been complicit in the unjust executions.

I wonder if Paul was ever jealous of Peter in these things.

This certainly is an itch that I sometimes need to scratch. I see other pastors—their seemingly carefree schedules, casual workloads, the freedom to pursue higher degrees in education—and I get a little jealous. But it’s also in those moments that I have to be mindful of just how easy it is to fool myself. The jealousy of self-comparison has a way of sharpening the eyesight, but in reality, it only sees in part. It’s only fixing itself on one piece while missing the bigger picture. It sees what another person has, but really, it’s seeing what it “thinks” the other person has. It’s not seeing that perhaps Peter, as a normal human, sometimes feels as though he’s doing all he can to stay afloat. It’s not seeing that he still wrestles day and night with his betrayal of Jesus. It’s not seeing that he’s still pit against his bumbling inadequacies that not only played out with regularity right in front of Jesus and the other disciples, but because of his personality, they probably still do. It only sees the Peter it wants to see (and maybe even expects to see), rather than the one who’s truly there in a very holistic way—someone with flaws, someone who’s often burdened by the cares of this life, someone who struggles with relationships, someone whose efforts in the ministry are by no means perfect because he is not perfect.

I like the way the King James Bible translates Song of Songs 8:6. It reads, “Jealousy is a cruel grave.” It sure is. It buries us with unnecessary and unrealistic concerns. It tempts us to measure our worth in the Kingdom of God according to the wrong standards.

I suppose in conclusion, and being as honest as I can, if everything I’m doing is a product of my intellect and muscle, then the only kind of pastor I can be is a bad one. In fact, the only kind of father, husband, or friend I can be is a bad one. I’m of the same mind as Paul when he said that when it comes to sinners, I’m the chief (1 Timothy 1:15). As a sinner, I’m not fit for any of these roles, let alone the job of pastor, and I’ll never produce anything by way of these roles that would ever meet the Lord’s lawful expectations. I just can’t do it.

But on the other hand, if it’s the Lord who is at work in my life and labors by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, if He’s the One who has taken such a flawed and quirky individual and set him here and there in the world, all the while knowing the flaws—sometimes using them and other times sequestering them—then I can be content with where I am and happy with what I have. I can be found willing and able to change the aspects of my person that seem to get in the way, and I can pursue enhancing the more helpful ones. In all of this, I can be faithful and keep on keeping on, knowing that I’m right where God wants me.

This is His gig, not mine. It’s His plan. It’s His work. By faith, I know it’s all for my good—and God-willing, yours, too.

Having said all this, I know what I’ve rambled on with this morning might seem somewhat relative to me, but I’m hopeful there’s something here that you can take and apply to your own circumstances, especially when you’re feeling down. Remember that God loves you, and if you ever question your value, look to the cross. He exchanged the life of His only begotten Son for your life. That’s a pretty big deal.