God’s Love Makes All Things New

Sunday – April 24, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 13:31-35

 

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…”

How would someone know if you or I were a Christian? We don’t walk around with a sign on us, although maybe we might wear a cross. But even someone who is not a Christian may wear a cross because they think it a nice piece of jewelry. You can’t always tell by our clothing because most Christians dress like everyone else, unless perhaps your denomination is one that wears special clothes like Mennonites or Amish in which case it is very easy to identify them. It’s nearly impossible to tell if someone is a Christian just by looking at them, unless perhaps you are a pastor or some other religious leader who wears certain clothing that identifies you as a Christian. Most Christians don’t have a tattoo on their body that says, “I’m a Christian.” Actually, a lot of Christians often judge people who have a lot of tattoos, or who smoke, or drink, or…..fill in the blank. Unfortunately, this leads many people to think you can identify a Christian by their judgementalism.

It’s certainly how many people see Christians. One of my co-workers many years ago said he was an atheist, but I’m not really sure that was true. I think he just ran into too many Christians who rubbed him the wrong way. We used to get into some very great theological discussions at lunch and I learned a lot. You see, Bob, used to say that one of the things he noticed about “church people” as he called them, was that they would make negative comments about people who didn’t go to church rather than try to understand why they weren’t there or that they talked bad about one another or other people. He thought “church people” often had a click going of who was “in” and who was “out” and you felt really uncomfortable if you were “out.” And Bob used to say many Christians he met were so negative all the time. He used to say, “If Christians really believed Jesus rose from the dead they would be happy all the time.” He had a good point.

With that kind of spectacular, earth-shattering news, why would we ever be in the depths of despair? Why would we ever doubt that God is walking with us right here and now if Jesus is alive? Here it is the fifth Sunday after Easter and are we still walking on air celebrating the resurrection? Or have we already forgotten about Easter as if was a one day event rather than something we as disciples are called to celebrate every day, especially every Sunday?  Yes, Bob brought up some really good points. And he made me wonder, do people know I am a Christian? That’s the question each of us needs to ask ourselves.

I’ve said it before, but one of my favorite phrases is from St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” St. Francis was saying what Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So how do we tell if a person is a Christian? By their great love. Not an ordinary I love you when you love me back, or I love you if I am going to get something from you, but I love you because you are a child of God, whether you know it or not and whether I like you or not.. Love was the focus of everything that Jesus talked about. Other than money – and Jesus talked about money a lot – Jesus talked about love more than anything else. That was the entire reason Jesus came into this world – out of love.

A friend of mine who is a retired pastor now, received criticism all the time from a member of his congregation because he talked about love and loving all people all the time. But isn’t that what Jesus talked about all the time? Isn’t that what Jesus said was the most important of all the commandments. He said, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. “ Just as I have loved you…..that’s not an easy kind of love that Jesus is talking about here. Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to die for us so that we would never be separated from God. Is Jesus asking us to die for one another? Not necessarily, but he is commanding us to die to ourselves, and live a life based on following Jesus and listening to his voice. He is commanding us to love people – all people – in a self-sacrificing way. The kind of love Jesus is asking us to do is not an easy kind of love, at times it may be the hardest thing we will ever do.

Our reading today is a flashback to Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus was arrested, suffered, and died. Jesus knew what was going to happen and that’s what made the events of that night so significant. He knew one of his disciples was going to betray him. He knew one of his disciples was going to deny him. He knew the other disciples and followers would abandon him. Yet knowing all this, Jesus gathered them together and shared a meal with them and knelt down and washed their feet like a servant. Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of the one who was about to betray him. Jesus showed love and tenderness even to Judas, the one who was about to betray him because that’s what real, true, honest love looks like. And that is the kind of love being a disciple of Jesus demands of us. That kind of love at times, goes against our very nature.

When someone close to us, perhaps a family member or a friend, disappoints or betrays us our nature is to hold a grudge or seek vengeance and fight back, but loving like Jesus means we forgive them. That doesn’t mean we pardon what they did, but it does mean we put it behind us and move forward without carrying it with us forever and hardening our heart. This was the case for the families of the victims of the West Nickel Mines School Shooting in Lancaster in 2006, the Newtown, CT shootings in 2013, and the countless other senseless murders that happen every day where the families choose not to let hatred fill their hearts, but instead choose love.

Every day we have the choice to love like Jesus or not and we many never know the impact of our actions, but Jesus assures us that whatever we do to others we do to him. Those are words that can either comfort or afflict us, yet if we take them to heart they can transform us, others, and even the world. Even the way we treat our planet – caring for the earth – is a reflection of our love for God and all God has made. Loving like Jesus means if you’ve had a fight with someone, don’t wait for the other person to make the first move, go to them and tell them you want the relationship to be better. Maybe someone in your past has hurt you deeply, loving like Jesus means letting go of that pain and asking Jesus to fill you with his peace and joy. Maybe you have deep regrets – things you’ve done or wished you did – again, loving like Jesus means letting those things go and accepting the forgiveness and grace that Jesus offers every time we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Loving like Jesus means being hungry for the word of God. Jesus grounded himself with Scripture and prayed constantly to always do God’s will. Worshipping God needs to be our first priority as well. Loving like Jesus means doing the hard things in life with a confidence that God walks with us and the Holy Spirit will make all things new if we have the courage to love like Jesus. That means loving without strings, without expectations, without limits – just like Jesus.

Jesus commands us both individually and communally as a church to participate in this transformative kind of love. He commands us to change lives by letting God’s love flow through us. Where there is love, there is real compassion, devotion, and commitment. That is what the churches of today need – real commitment. And when we are committed to love like Jesus that leads to real ministry because that is the core of ministry – not focusing on the budget, or how many members strong we are, but how much we love like Jesus. Jesus’ love is powerful. Jesus’ love is transforming. Jesus’ love makes all things new.

This week let the Jesus’ love shine through you in everything you do and say. Look for the ways God’s love is revealed to you and pray that the Holy Spirit will use you to reveal God’s love through you. This is how people will know we are His disciples, by the way we love one another. Amen.

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A Voice to Follow

Sunday – April 17, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 10:22-30

Voices. Today we’re bombarded with so many voices – from the news, media, and especially right now in the political climate of the debates that are going on. Voices that are critical of one another, voices that tell us what the other person is guilty of so we won’t vote for them, angry voices that tell us who is the enemy. People are vilified to the point that they just become a statistic. The voices are cruel, degrading, and demoralizing. Yet these candidates’ angry voices get stuck in our heads and people feed into the rhetoric. Or the temptation is to just ignore all the voices and not even care about the political outcome. Yet the danger in that is that by ignoring it, we ignore the other voices. The voices that are crying out for justice. The voices that are crying out in hunger, that are crying out for employment and a decent wage, the voices that want a better life for themselves and their families in a country that’s free from the dangers of war. With so many voices crying out it’s easy to get confused and know which voices to listen to.

Jesus gives us the answer in our gospel today. Jesus tells us to listen to his voice. His voice is the one that speaks the words of truth. His voice is the one that brings unity and peace. His voice is the voice of love and grace that brings salvation and eternal life. Yet if Jesus’ voice is the one that we can believe and the one that is filled with so much hope and promise then why do these other voices seem to be so much louder? Why do these other voices carry so much weight? Why are we so easily confused and led astray by these other voices?

Because, as Jesus says, we are like sheep. Most of us haven’t had a lot of interaction with sheep, but several years ago I spent an afternoon at a sheep farm. The sheep were all huddled together, standing around taking in the nice weather. They looked so peaceful and then all of a sudden one of the sheep made a noise and bolted across the field. He just started running and immediately all the other sheep ran after him. I asked the farmer why the sheep all followed this one sheep without even knowing where it was going? He said, “that’s what sheep do.” They just follow. They didn’t know where the other sheep was going. It could have led them right into danger, but that didn’t matter. That sheep said something and they just all followed it without even thinking of the consequences. I understood that day what Jesus was talking about when he called us sheep. What Jesus was saying is we are easily led astray and we need a shepherd, a Good Shepherd to keep us safe. Jesus is that Good Shepherd and it is his voice that we need to listen to.

There’s so many other competing voices that can lead us astray, that can drown out the voice of Jesus. One of those voices is fear. Fear can start off like a quiet whisper, but quickly build to a deafening scream drowning out all other voices. It’s what some people use to make others afraid, because when people are afraid they can easily be manipulated and led astray. When people are afraid they can easily make poor decisions. They can sell their own soul out of fear both real and imagined. And when we are faced with problems it’s easy for us to be led astray by the voices of fear from others or ourselves. These fears may start out as simple doubts, but can soon lead to full out panic. We don’t know where to turn and can be tempted to do things our way instead of Jesus’ way. And groups of people, like congregational communities are not immune to this. One person may plant the seed that our church is in danger of closing, or that we don’t have enough money, or enough resources, or enough of any number of things, and it’s easy to be lead astray into thinking that there is no point in trying anything new because what’s the point. The voices of fear and doubt can paralyze people into giving up on their communities, themselves, and even God.

But today we gather together and hear the words of promise from Jesus that God never gives up on us. Jesus said, “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” No matter what happens to us as God’s sheep, Jesus will never let us go. There’s no problem that’s so big, no person that’s so strong, no force on earth that’s so powerful that we can be snatched away from the Good Shepherd. That’s an amazing word of promise! That’s an amazing word of hope!

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter and we continue to celebrate the resurrection when Jesus proved that God is even more powerful than death! We are Jesus’ sheep and we need to listen to his voice because it’s one of hope, and promise, and eternal life. He says so. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, promises that no one is going to get between us and him. That’s the voice we need to listen to, not the other competing voices that try to lure us away with false information or empty promises of quick fixes.

And that’s why we gather here every week. We gather to be led by the voice of the Good Shepherd. To hear his words of promise, and hope, and grace. To be fed and forgiven of our sins so that the voices of our guilt, or worry, or fear, or selfishness do not lead us astray. No other event that we attend and no other person can make a promise like that to us. Jesus’ words of promise that no one will snatch us away from him are meant to fill us with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment. They are meant to fill us with hope, and joy, and peace. Because hearing these words from Jesus we can then go out in gratitude and live lives that reflect that gratitude. Jesus said, “the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” The works that we do also testify to Jesus and give glory to God. The money that we raise at our Valentine Day Dinner/Auction to support the Northeastern Food Pantry is a result of hearing Jesus’ voice and following him to serve others. The stories that our children learn in Sunday School and the songs that they sing is a result of hearing Jesus’ voice and following him to serve others through song. The various ministries of this congregation are all a result of listening to Jesus’ voice and following him to serve others. It means serving by giving of our time, serving by working with our hands, and serving by giving back to God with the financial resources God has first given to us even if others may say we are foolish to do so. Don’t listen to the voices that tell you what we do doesn’t matter. Don’t listen to the voices that say it’s not worth trying.Don’t listen to the voices that say than you or anyone else is anything less than a beloved child of God. Don’t listen to the voices that try to isolate you.

We are God’s sheep and that means that we live in community just like the early disciples. Jesus doesn’t call us to live for ourselves, but to live and work and serve together as his followers. The Holy Spirit compels us to listen to Jesus’ voice so that we can follow him and serve him and give glory to God. Often Jesus’ voice is spoken through others. In our first reading we heard how Peter listened to the men who asked him to come and help Tabitha. Jesus is speaking to us as well through other people. We all need to listen carefully for Jesus’ voice. Listen to Jesus’ voice and hold tight with faith to the hand that he promises will never let us go. This week pay attention to the voices you hear and to the words you yourself speak. The voices that speak love, grace, forgives, hope, peace, and joy are the voices that reflect Jesus’ voice. What is Jesus calling us to do or say? This week let’s commit to praying to the Holy Spirit to open our ears so that we can really hear what it is that Jesus is saying to us. Amen!

Do You Love Me?

Sunday – April 10, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church- Manchester, PA
John 21:1-19

(Singing) “Do you love me?” That’s the question Tevye asks – or should I say sings – to his wife Golde in the great musical Fiddler on the Roof (If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it.). Tevye and Golde have been married 25 years and Tevye asks Golde three times, (sing) “Do you love me?” She responds with shock, “Do I love you?” And the song continues as Golde talks about all that she and Tevye have done over the past twenty five years. And I wonder if that is what is going on with Peter and Jesus.

Jesus says to Peter, (sing) “Do you love me?” And Peter: asks, “Do I love you?” After three years of giving up my fishing and following you around, three years of miracles, dying and rising again, why talk about love right now?” “Peter, I’m asking you a question,” says Jesus. (sing) “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Peter responds, “Lord, you know I love you.” But in Peter’s mind there is guilt. He is certain that Jesus has to be angry with him. He is certain Jesus has to be disappointed in him. For heaven’s sake, Peter is angry at himself, and disappointed, and disgusted with his own behavior. He knows Jesus has to be thinking about that night when he denied him. Why else would Jesus be tormenting him with these questions!

As Peter stared into the charcoal fire that morning on the beach he was reminded of the last time he was around a charcoal fire. You see, the last time Peter sat around a charcoal fire warming himself was the night Jesus was handed over to the authorities. Jesus was about to be interrogated, whipped, persecuted….while Peter was denying he even knew Jesus. Peter was terrified! Wouldn’t we be? Anyone associated with Jesus was bound to get killed too. Peter professed Jesus to be the Son of God, but dying? No, Peter didn’t want to suffer!
Peter didn’t want to die! Peter wanted to live! Peter wanted life to go back to the way it was before he ever met Jesus, when life was simple. Maybe it wasn’t great. Maybe they were under Roman occupation, but at least he could live the simple life of a fisherman without worrying about being killed for following Jesus.

Peter was in agony. How could he have denied Jesus! After everything that Jesus said, after everything that Jesus did, how could he deny the man he grew to love so much! That’s what ran through Peter’s mind every day since the denial and it haunted him. Jesus appeared to him and the other disciples after He was raised on Easter, yet Peter couldn’t let go of the guilt. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into all of them that day when He appeared in the locked room, but even with the Holy Spirit, Peter couldn’t let go of the guilt. So Peter went back to what felt comfortable. He went fishing. That’s what he knew. Fishing was what Peter was good at. Fishing was what Peter and the other disciples were familiar with. It was something that Peter couldn’t mess up. But they fished all night and they didn’t catch anything. “I can’t even do this right anymore,” Peter must have said.

Until Jesus told him to try something different. Instead of doing it Peter’s way, Jesus asked Peter to do it his way. And the results were astonishing! Peter didn’t see that coming. They were astonishing because Jesus’ way is always filled with abundance, but it requires risk. It means risking the comfort of the status quo and trying something totally different. It requires a leap of faith. The question Jesus asks around the fire that morning on the beach is about faith. It’s about taking a risk. (Sing) “Do you love me?” Peter didn’t see that coming either. But he was certain as he looked into the fire that it wasn’t good.

But that’s not what was on Jesus’ mind. Jesus only looks at Peter with compassion and asks again, “Peter, do you love me? Tend my sheep.” And Peter is going crazy inside right now! He’s about to burst! Why doesn’t Jesus just say it! Why doesn’t Jesus just say, “Peter, you don’t really love me or you wouldn’t have denied me. You can’t even catch fish without my help. You are good for nothing.!” But Peter just says, “Yes, yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But inside Peter doubts it himself. If he really loved Jesus would he really act the way he does? And Jesus asks a third time, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

By this time Peter is about to throw himself onto the fire and burn the way he feels he should, but he says, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you!” (Or better yet, Peter says to himself, You know that I really don’t because I denied you! Just say it, just say it Jesus, say, “No, Peter, you really don’t love me. You are guilty. You couldn’t feed my sheep if you tried! You aren’t worthy enough to feed my sheep!” And Peter has to wonder, “How can Jesus love me?”

But the truth was that Jesus did love Peter and he knew Peter was carrying that guilt around for a long time. So Jesus took Peter right back to the scene of the crime. He brought him right back to the charcoal fire only this time Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to start over. This time Peter didn’t deny Jesus. This time Peter declared that he loved Jesus. And he really did. Jesus’ love changed Peter. He wasn’t the same man since knowing Jesus. Peter needed to say out loud that he loved Jesus. Jesus forgave Peter a long time ago. He forgave him on the cross. Now it was time for Peter to accept that forgiveness and move forward. Now it is time for us to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and move forward and feed His sheep.

Jesus invites us to breakfast every Sunday. He invites us to feast on his very self, so that we can be forgiven, so that we can be strengthened, so that we can feed his sheep. Jesus gives us – like Peter – a new identity and a new purpose. Today we celebrate Girl Scout Sunday and they will tell us all about their purpose, a purpose that as Jesus commands us to do involves service. They promise to serve God and their country and to help people at all times. They know what their purpose is and they do whatever is necessary to carry it out. They take action. Today we also will be having a congregational meeting and we will be asked to reflect on our purpose as a congregation. A purpose that is intricately connected to the question that Jesus asks all of us, “Do you love me?” If we do, then we have to do more than just say so, we have to prove it with our actions.

Love is not a word. Love is not a poem or a song. It’s not just a feeling or declaration. Love is a verb. It’s an action. Love means doing something. Love means feeding the sheep. It means caring for those in need even if it’s scary. It means forgiving even if it’s hard. It means standing up against any kind of injustice. It means casting your nets in a different place. It means doing something new if it requires great risk. It means trusting that God will provide. It means putting God first in our lives above everything else. It means never giving up. Love means dying if that’s what it takes – ask Jesus. He died and rose again, so we would live forever. Jesus asks, (sing) “Do you love me?” That’s not an easy question. What’s our response? Are we willing to step up to the challenge? Amen.