Article: Gentiles

I was reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians recently and I was struck by the “big issue” Paul needed to address within the church. Literally, it is an issue that might seem irrelevant to us or a “thing of the past.” Yet, if we look at the same issue thematically, it is still an topic that we still wrestle with today.

The big issue? Gentiles. Yeah, horrible isn’t it? Paul brings up Gentiles in his letter to the church of Ephesus. Now this big issue wasn’t limited to that church. It was an issue for the entire Church (capitalized C was intentional).

Originally the church was made up of Jewish people because Jesus was (and still is) Jewish. Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism. The early church believed that to be a Christian, you had to be Jewish. This was problematic for several reasons.

First, it is was understood that one was born Jewish back then. You don’t convert to Judaism or become Jewish. It was very simple, you either were born Jewish or you were not. If you were not, you were a Gentile. You didn’t get to change teams. On top of that, Gentiles were beyond the love and salvation of God, period. This was not a matter of evangelism. You can’t become something you are not. Only God’s chosen people were loved by God.

Even with that understanding, some Gentiles started believing in Jesus as their Savior after hearing Peter preach about Jesus and His death and resurrection. (Silly Gentiles breaking the rules.) This did not fit the early church’s understanding of God or Gentiles. The prevailing thought within the early church was this, “They couldn’t possibly believe in Jesus Christ, they weren’t Jewish and they were beyond the love of God. This was simply impossible.”

What did the early Church do? They made these Gentiles convert to Judaism before they could be recognized as believers of Jesus. Seems a little odd to convert to Judaism since they already believed that you had to be born into Judaism and could not convert, but ok. Let us not forget that these Gentile believers ALREADY believed in Jesus. Yet, the church amended the rules to let the Gentiles in as long as they converted to Judaism, followed the Law of Moses (and the males were circumcised).

Some Jewish Christians went along with this “accommodation” and some objected and thought it seemed ludicrous to do all this “hoop jumping” to become a Christian especially if the Gentiles in question already believed in Jesus! This caused conflict… a big conflict.

Soon the very first Church “Council” was convened. Not like our monthly church council meetings at church; this was more like a synod assembly or our national churchwide assembly. This was a big deal. After hearing arguments on both sides, the decision was made to “allow” (ha!) Gentiles to be Christian without converting to Judaism. There were some small caveats (See Acts 15:1-21) but essentially the “non-converting to Judaism first group” won and the “must convert to Judaism first group” lost.

As in many conflicts, there were winners and losers but that’s just how it goes, right? Nope. You would think that once a decision was made it was a done deal. But it wasn’t. The “losers” continued to tell Gentile Christians that in order to be a “real Christian” they still needed to follow the Old Testament Law (Law of Moses) including being circumcised (if you were a male). The big issue was still a big issue even when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 14 years after the decision was made to let the Gentiles join the church.

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul continues to affirm that Gentiles are not second class citizens and that following the Law of Moses (Old Testament Law) has nothing to do with being a Christian because we are under grace. Imagine that 14 years later, Paul is still trying to convince people that anyone who believes in Jesus is welcome in the church and not somehow a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God or worse, not a citizen at all.

It is not hard for me to see that Christ’s Church is still struggling with who is welcome and who is not 2000 years later. It is no longer Gentile or Jew, it is other distinctions that some wish to say is beyond the love of God or other related proclamations.

Thankfully, the portions of the Church have changed…
We have condemned slavery, bigotry and racism… and yet racism still exists
We have ordained women… and yet some churches won’t
We have condemned hatred… and yet churches still hate others
We have said God’s love is for all… and some churches don’t believe that

We are far from arriving, but we have come a long way.

There are those who are like the Gentile believers of Christ even today. They believe in Jesus but are not welcome in portions of His Church.

I believe it is a good thing to clarify who we are as the children of God. It is good to own who we are and to whom we belong. And it is good to remember that as a Gentile, we too were once on the outside of the Church because of something beyond our control and choice.

As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 when dealing with this very issue…

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We are one because we believe in Jesus. There is no “us and them” within Christianity. There are no “outsiders and insiders” among believers. There is no distinction, dichotomy or point of difference that we point to within a fellow believer in Jesus and say that disqualifies you from the love of God.

We do not need to re-litigate the first church council decision, but we do need to wrestle with the same issue of who is welcome in every generation.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Connection

We begin a new sermon series looking at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Paul has an overwhelming joy in the face of grim circumstance. We have something to learn from this letter over the next 4 weeks.

 

Article: Flawed

‘Cause I am a sinner
If it’s not one thing it’s another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
But You are a Savior
And You take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful
Song: Brokenness Aside by All Sons and Daughters

King David wrote a song (psalm) after being called out for committing adultery and then murder to cover that up. Here is a portion of that song from Psalm 51…

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom  in the inmost place. (v.5-6) NIV

Or

I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born. What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life. (v.5-6) The Message

 Psalm 51 is King David’s song of repentance. He bears his heart in song and these words reflect: shame, embarrassment, a disconnection from fellowship with God and a need for forgiveness.

We can look at this in two ways.

  1. This is a snapshot in time. King David’s “royal” mess up is really ugly and he knows it as well as other people. David is not just sad he got caught, he is sad that he did a terrible thing. Note: People are often sorry they got caught and NOT that they did something hurtful.
  2. Or we can take a step back and see that King David’s story is our story.

These two points of view are not mutually exclusive. This is King David’s experience and it is our story.

When we take a look at a macro-view of the Bible, one of the major themes (if not the primary) is this: People are flawed.

What I find interesting is that some want to argue (and dismiss scripture in the process) that we (orthodox Christianity) harp on sin, sinfulness, judgment and that is our agenda for control over others. Many go on to say, this is not God’s agenda… because God really wants us to be happy, prosperous, successful or whatever.

I do not have the time to write a treatise on this (and I am sure you wouldn’t read it if I did) but let me remind you that within the first three chapters of the Bible we are told a story about why life is so hard. Spoiler alert: Humanity caused it because we are flawed. (This is an un-nuanced theological response but when you boil it down to its essence; we are flawed.)

God’s story begins with creating a perfect world (and universe) and then people mess up perfection because we are flawed.

This story doesn’t sit in isolation, does it? God cares about flawed people… His creation. This brokenness is so concerning to God that He addresses it head on and comes to earth in the person of Jesus to deal with our flaws once and for all.

How can anyone argue that sin is not an important theme in scripture and concerning to God?

I don’t know why people want to argue that humanity as a whole are “good people” and that there are only a few “bad apples.” I don’t get it.  My personal experience tells me that I need help in life. I am a “better” person when I turn to God and I am a “better” person when I surround myself with like-minded Christians. Yes, you help me be a better person. Thank you.

Equally troubling to me are Christians who believe that we are all flawed yet some people are too flawed for God.  Honestly, that makes me sick and it makes my blood boil. NO ONE IS BEYOND THE GRACE AND LOVE OF GOD. Not even “those people” whoever they are.

So let me be clear, no one beyond the love and grace of Jesus. Nothing is more powerful than what the cross of Christ represents.

If someone enters a church on a Sunday morning wanting to connect with God they should be welcomed. You and both know that many Christian churches have a litmus test when it comes to who is welcome. Whether it is skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, physical appearance (economic factors), or a known past history, many churches make it clear who is welcome to experience the love of Jesus and who is beyond divine love. Sometimes that rejection has nothing to do with someone else’s flaws!!! The sin of exclusion and rejection is the problem not the other person’s identity (see list above).  With standards like this, King David wouldn’t be welcomed in most churches.

We are all flawed. We all need Jesus. Our doors are unlocked on Sunday morning for a reason.

Let us rejoice that God loves sinners…I mean people… you know what I mean.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Helicopters, Beach Balls and Servanthood

Why would any one volunteer at church and serve? There are many reasons and they all point to a better life. Listen in and find out why! Click here for the slides used on the screen: Serving Others

Article: Dig Deeper

Jesus said…

“And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

 Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him,  saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

 Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.  In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27-33

 Jesus tells a group of people, before you make the decision to follow me, you better weigh the cost. You should know what you are getting into. Putting it another way, use your head and not just your heart. I can imagine that many people got caught up in the moment when they encountered Jesus. Their hearts were full to overflowing and that often leads to hasty decisions.  Don’t get me wrong, we should also engage our hearts along with our minds. However, emotional decision making can lead to trouble and even Jesus remind us to use our heads and not just our hearts.

Now Jesus is not the only one who reminds us think things through. King Solomon also reminds us to use our minds too.

A simple person believes anything, but a prudent person gives thought to their steps. Proverbs 14:15

And…

It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. Proverbs 19:2

God created us to think…to use our minds. God wants us to dig deeper into things to: form opinions, gain understanding, grasp faith, plan for the future and make the world a better place. We are reminded in scripture to use our heads for all things and not just matters of faith. We have been created with a brain and God wants us to use it! It is not an extraneous organ like an appendix (yes I know it serves a purpose, but as kid teachers told us it didn’t have a use)!

There is an encouragement to dig deeper and that requires to use our minds! When the call committee was interviewing me, they asked for and received lots of information about me. I filled out paperwork (it was like a 30 page questionnaire), gave them my website to review, gave them references to call and they still wanted to meet with me several times to grill me! The call committee had to dig deep to discern if I was the right candidate to Bethel’s next pastor. They did a lot of thinking and discerning before making a decision. What if I told them I wouldn’t give them any paperwork? They wouldn’t have had everything they needed to make a proper evaluation of me  (and they would not have put up with a response like that)!

I give thanks that God gave us minds to use. I give thanks for scientists and engineers. I give thanks for accountants and finance people! I give thanks for teachers, professors and pastors! I give thanks for all who use their minds to make the world a better place.

Even when Thomas the disciple who ran off after the crucifixion was using his brain. He knew following Jesus was over. Jesus was dead and people don’t come back from the grave. Even when the other disciples came to tell him that Jesus was alive, Thomas didn’t believe them. (See, he was using his mind.) He told them that he couldn’t take their word for it, Thomas needed to dig deeper. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

They convinced Thomas to go with them despite his critical mind (which is a good thing). When Jesus appeared, He wasn’t upset at Thomas. He didn’t say, “You should have believed the disciples when they told you.” Not at all. Instead he invited Thomas  closer and said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Jesus was literally telling Thomas to dig deeper and check it out for himself. Of course, Thomas saw and believed.

Thinking and looking at things more closely is a good thing. Whether it is our finances, our future plans and of course our faith… digging deeper is a faithful action and it is a gift from God.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Practice Not Perfect

We spend a little time looking at the theme of the Labor Day Retreat… Practice Not Perfect. We also hear about how this change help us through any storm of life.

Article: Sabbath Rest

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day God rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. Genesis 2:2-3

 This comes from the first story of creation. (Yes, there are two creation stories, but you knew that already.) The first one is told incrementally, in days. By day six God is done creating. God “rests” on the seventh day, as you can see in the above text.

Just so you know, God isn’t really resting. God doesn’t need to nap. Remember Psalm 121?    God will not let your foot slip— God who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, God who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Does Psalm 121 contradict Genesis 2? Only if you read the Bible literally. (Reminder: we Lutherans in the ELCA don’t read the Bible literally. Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters who don’t read the Hebrew Bible literally.)

This part in Genesis 2 is less about God resting and more about God being “large and in charge” over His creation (see Psalm 121, no contradictions) and the blessing of the seventh day. Since Sunday is the first day of the week, Saturday is that blessed day. This is why our Jewish brothers and sisters rest and worship on Saturday (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). We worship on Sunday because it is the day of resurrection!

Later on in Exodus we find out why this day is special:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lordyour God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lordmade the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lordblessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11

 God models for us a day of rest. God doesn’t need rest, but models a healthy rhythm of human life.

It is good for us to have a sabbath rest. A day to refrain from work. We honor God by resting (no, not all the time). I forgot how important that is until I took last week off and literally did close to nothing. See, I often do a little work on my day off, just so I can lighten my load on my work days. There are always emails that demand a response.

 

The truth is this, it is difficult to take a Sabbath day when you work for God. I didn’t realize how much I needed some down time until I went on vacation with Mrs. Pastor Ben this past week. I literally rested all week, I was either in bed, by the pool (in the shade) or on the beach. I actually cleared my head. Often when I stare off, I am thinking about something. This past week when I would stare off, I wasn’t thinking about anything. That was new for me.

Taking a sabbath day may honor God, but it is good for us. I discovered that this past week.  God is good and made sure I didn’t do any work  and so did Rachel.

I will try to rest more on my day off too.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: The Essential Teachings of Jesus

Today we hear Jesus tell us that God’s family is connected to Him even when we don’t feel it. Jesus never lets go. He is as persistent as vine that won’t stop growing and we are his branches.

Article: Perfection?

We are moving closer to the Labor Day Retreat… and revisiting the theme, “Practice, Not Perfect.”  This was the same theme that our high school group “Common Ground” explored on their musical tour.

There is no doubt that some believe that being a Christian means striving for perfection. You know, be a really, really good person. Isn’t that what God wants? Yes and no.

Sure, we should want to be decent human beings. If you only watch the news, you would question whether there are any decent people out there. Even if you don’t believe in God, I would hope one wants to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good co-worker and so on.  I think it is safe to say, that God created us for community. In order for community to “work” we all must contribute in a positive way. So yes, God wants us to be a good person for the sake of the other.

And no. God has zero expectation that you can be a good person…on your own. God knows we are a mess and need help. Jesus came to us- not to tell us to “be good or else.” No! Jesus came to fix the problem of us not being good people. Within the church we call that “sin.”

Let’s face it, we can be pretty selfish. It is easier to think about myself than it is about other people.  I am certain that I am not the only one. Yet God offers a refreshing alternative to being selfish…forgiveness. A chance to start over, a chance to go in a new direction and a chance to be self-less. When you fully grasp the fact that Jesus died a brutal death because he loves us so much… it will change you. Jesus didn’t want to leave us a selfish mess! He wanted to provide a way to move forward in life.

This forgiveness can change your entire life! God’s love for me (and you too) inspires me to live beyond myself and be the best version of myself! I want to honor God with my actions even though God knows I can’t do that on my own. I always need help. Thank God for Jesus.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: The Essential Teachings of Jesus: Stuff

We continue looking at some of the essential teachings of Jesus. In this message we hear what Jesus’ perspective on greed and our preoccupation with possessions.