Tuesday, May 26, 2009

He Who Has the Son Has Life

He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 1 John 5: 12

It all comes down to this. This is the line in the sand that God’s truth draws. What do you think about the Son of God? Do you have Jesus?
To the faithful, these words of John the Apostle make perfect sense. To have the Son is to have life lived to the full. And the converse is also true: those who do not have the Son do not have life. Oh, they may be alive. But they do not possess the kind of life that John is talking about. They may be breathing, walking, talking, sleeping, consuming, and so on, but that’s not the kind of life John is talking about. John is talking about life that springs from a connection with Jesus; a life of service that is deeply meaningful; a life that unafraid of death. Life joined to Jesus, the Son. He who does not have the Son doesn’t have any of these.
It all comes down to this: “He Who Has the Son Has Life; He who does not have the Son does not have life.” This is Christian truth at its most straightforward, and it either makes a person rejoice or curse. Take for instance, one of our culture’s preeminent daytime talk show hostesses. Just this week I watched a portion of an episode in which she used her microphone to declare, with utter conviction, that Jesus cannot be the only way to God. When a Christian woman in the audience refers to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, she vehemently disagrees and ultimately shuts the dialogue down. “He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life” is not allowed on this program. If the apostle John were her guest, he would have a battle on his hands. Something tells me the footage wouldn’t even air.
The media’s influence is deep and wide; but one wonders if it is setting the tone or is merely running with the current. Certainly, it speaks for many who will not hear of Jesus being the only way to heaven. It gives voice to the dark and self-centered hope that it really doesn’t matter what you believe.
We are under pressure to conform to a “choose-your-own-truth” spirituality. We don’t want to be perceived as unloving or judgmental, but when we speak the “foolish” message of the cross, we will be. So we have choices to make. We can simply not say anything, never bringing our private faith to light, and therefore never offend anyone. We can say that we’ll speak of Jesus when “the time is right,” banking on the fact that it never will be. We can even begin to buy it. We can be seduced by the opinions of those who seem so reasonable, so thoughtful, so successful, that they must be on to something. The sin that lurks within us is more than willing to listen to the question, “Did God really say...?” In a sense, isn’t that the oldest sin on record…to doubt that what God says is true?
Well, it all comes down to this. This is the line in the sand that God’s truth draws. The uniform, consistent message of God’s truth is: “He Who Has the Son Has Life; He who does not have the Son does not have life.” And here’s what it means to “have the Son.” It means that you have been drawn to Him. It means that you have heard Him say, “Repent and believe the good news.” It means that you have been challenged to repent, to admit your sinful actions and sinful nature, to come before the Lord with empty hands, empty pockets, just plain empty. It means to agree that God’s judgments are just and right—that we do deserve punishment and banishment because of our sin. To have the Son means that He sees you and He knows your condition and still offers you forgiveness that He earned. Your sins have sickened you, and He has the antidote. To have the Son means that He has given Himself to you; tying himself to you in Holy Baptism; covering you with His cloak of righteousness. To have the Son means you share in His resurrection and that all the questions that matter about “life after death” are answered in Him. To have the Son means to turn away from sin and to go in God’s direction, believing that you are claimed and forgiven by Jesus’ incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection. Or one could say that to have the Son is to believe that the Son has you. You are His by his gracious, merciful, loving choice.
Do you see that it is not unloving to preach this message? Do you see that it is not hateful to believe it? Having the Son is the only lifesaving remedy there is! How could we think that withholding it from someone is at all helpful to them?
Here’s a part of my biography that you probably didn’t know. I was a jaundiced baby. Jaundice is a liver disorder that can cause skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow. The doctor probably told my parents that this is a potentially devastating disease but it’s easily treated. All they had to do was put me under a special light for a while and this would stimulate my liver properly and I’d be all right. Now, my parents could have said, “That sounds too easy. How about instead if we scrubbed him with soap and dipped him in bleach? If we worked hard enough, I’m sure we could get his normal coloring back.”
But the doctor would have said, “No, there’s only one way to handle this.”They could have replied, “Well, how about if we just sort of ignore this and pretend everything’s OK? You know — the jaundice is your truth, Doc, not our truth. And if we sincerely believe that, things will work out for the best.”
The doctor would have said, “You’d jeopardize your baby if you did that. Look, there’s only one way to cure him. You’re hesitant because it sounds too easy, but look at the credentials hanging on my wall. I’ve studied at medical school and I’ve used what I’ve learned to cure countless babies like yours. Trust me!”
Would anybody accuse my parents of being narrow-minded for trusting the doctor and pursuing the only course of treatment that was going to cure their son?
To have the Son is to be healed of the terminal illness of sin. To have the Son is to live each day with a clear conscience as we repent and return to Jesus, drawing on our baptismal connection with Him. To have the Son is to have confidence in the face of death, when all other supports are washed away, because we stand on the Rock of Christ, who rose and who lives. He has opened the gate of everlasting life to you. If you have the Son, you have this life. Be thankful that the Son has given all to have you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happy Ascension Day

"And after that [Jesus] rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death, and finally ascended into heaven and assumed the government at the Father's right hand, so that the devil and all powers must be subject to Him and lie at His feet, until finally, at the last day, He will completely part and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, and sin."

Luther's Large Catechism, explanation of the Second Article of the Creed

Monday, May 18, 2009

Friendship with Jesus

9(A) As the Father has loved me,(B) so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10(C) If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as(D) I have kept(E) my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11These things I have spoken to you,(F) that my joy may be in you, and that(G) your joy may be full. 12(H) "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13(I) Greater love has no one than this,(J) that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are(K) my friends(L) if you do what I command you. 15(M) No longer do I call you servants,[a] for the servant[b](N) does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for(O) all that I have heard from my Father(P) I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but(Q) I chose you and appointed you that you should go and(R) bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that(S) whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you,(T) so that you will love one another. John 15: 9—17

A) Everyone who believes that(B) Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and(C) everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2(D) By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For(E) this is the love of God, that we(F) keep his commandments. And(G) his commandments are not burdensome. 4For(H) everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—(I) our faith. 5Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes(J) that Jesus is the Son of God? 6This is he who came(K) by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And(L) the Spirit is the one who testifies, because(M) the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. 1 John 5: 1—8

Jesus and his disciple John had a special bond. That is reflected in John calling himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is reflected in John taking Jesus’ mother Mary into his home at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. And it is really reflected in the writings that John left to the Church. The close relationship between John and Jesus is evident in the way John says things. You can hear Jesus all through it. Compare the two readings you just heard. It is as if the same person is talking. It sounds like John has absorbed Jesus’ teachings to the point that he speaks with his Master’s mannerisms. So it should not shock us too much to learn that what John says is challenging, uncompromising, and truthful.
Just like Jesus, John links love for God with obedience to his commandments. It’s easy enough to understand. It’s also pretty provocative. John equates love for God with obedience to God’s commands, and he goes onto say that “his commandments are not burdensome.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Oh really? Not burdensome? God’s command to always love and forgive—not burdensome? God’s command to love others as we do ourselves—not burdensome? Does John know what he’s talking about?
Well, yes he does—don’t forget, he was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend. And therein lies the key to understanding the link between love and obedience. Like the apostle John, you and I are invited into friendship with Almighty God. Jesus calls us his friends. His friends! If we think of obeying God’s commands in some kind of abstract, hypothetical way, then we will always be hit with the Law. That is to say: commands are rules, and by nature, we break rules. By nature, we resent anyone who tells us what to do. We will, however, on occasion, listen to a trusted friend. We will listen to the perspective of someone whom we know really cares. This is what Jesus is saying to you through the words of John 15.
He says, “I consider you my friend. I’m not some impersonal deity in the sky ordering you around, trying to make your life miserable. I am your friend who loves you. Jesus defines for us the greatest test of friendship: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Think of some of your best friends—the people you love spending time with—the people you have shared so much with—the people you can be yourself around. Now ask yourself—would you die for them? Sometimes there are heroic people who do just that. Consider the life and death of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham.
In April 2004, while leading a patrol of his Marines in an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, a nearby Marine convoy was ambushed. Corporal Dunham led his squad to the site of the attack, where he and his men stopped a convoy of cars that were trying to make an escape. As he moved to search one of the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and grabbed the Corporal by the throat. The Corporal engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. At one point he shouted to his fellow Marines, "No, no, no, watch his hand." Moments later, an grenade rolled out. Corporal Dunham did not hesitate; he jumped on the grenade to protect his fellow Marines, using his helmet and his body to absorb the blast.
A friend who was there that day put it this way: "Corporal Dunham had a gift from God. Everyone who came in contact with him wanted to be like him. He was the toughest Marine, but the nicest guy. He would do anything for you. Corporal Dunham was the kind of person everybody wants as their best friend." Despite surviving the initial blast and being given the best of medical care, Corporal Dunham ultimately succumbed to his wounds. And by giving his own life, Corporal Dunham saved the lives of two of his men.
Jesus would call that the ultimate expression of friendship. You may see where I’m going with this. Jesus can call you his friend because he laid down his life for you. He’s proven his friendship to you in the most extreme way possible. Because of our inability to love and obey, we deserve to be sentenced to hell and blasted with punishment. That’s not going to happen now, thanks to a Friend who loves so fully that he would voluntarily take the impact of your sin; your guilt; your punishment upon himself. He laid down on the cross beam for you. That is friendship. That is love. He did it to claim you as his friend forever. I’ve had great friends throughout my life, and they’ve been very good to me, but they’ve never done that. They didn’t suffer what I should have suffered. They didn’t die what should have been my death. Only Jesus did that. Only Jesus could. What a friend we have in Him!
Since He has done this for us; since it is His desire to call us His friends, that changes the whole way we look at the idea of obedience.
Think again, if you will, of someone you consider a close friend, if not your best friend. If they ask you to do something, how will you generally respond? Most of the time, you will do whatever you can to help out a friend. Even if it means shuffling your schedule and sacrificing valuable personal time, you’ll do it precisely because that person is your friend. You do it, not out of fear or obligation, but because of a bond of love and friendship. You might recall the image of one small boy carrying another on his back, with the caption, “He ain’t heavy Mister; he’s my brother.” That became the motto of what is now Girls and Boys Town, founded by the real-life Father Flanagan. And that captures how we feel and what we would do for a friend.
Since Jesus calls us His friends and demonstrated His friendship by laying down His very life for us, we, in turn, can call Him our Friend. More than that, the Holy Spirit enables us to treat Him as our Friend. That means we can come at the concept of obedience to his ways not in some detached, analytical way, but our response of faith and obedience is wrapped up in a relationship of friendship and love with the One who paid for our sins with His death! In other words, because Jesus has extended to you his nail-scarred hand of friendship, you can live His way, with Him, not out of fear or obligation, but because of a bond of love—because He is Friend and Savior to us. He and His ways ain’t heavy; He’s our Brother. As John writes, “His commandments are not burdensome.” Now we can see why. Friendship with Jesus transforms “ought to” into “want to” and “got to” into “get to,” because we know how far He is willing to go to help us.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Mike Dunlap, assistant basketball coach at the University of Oregon. We don’t have time to re-cap his career, but there’s a comment about him that is worth mentioning, that applies to what we’re talking about. Dunlap’s former athletic director says this about him: “He’s very demanding of his players, but he would run through a wall for them and they know that. So they run through walls for him.”
Jesus ran through the wall of death for us, and came out the other side alive. Let’s run through walls for Him, our Savior and Life giver. It is no burden to share in Jesus’ victory with him or to be called His friend.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What it Means to "Be Sheep"

Once upon a time, I learned a song at Vacation Bible School that said: “I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa baa baa. I just want to be a sheep, baa baa baa baa, and pray the Lord my soul to keep; I just want to be a sheep, baa baa baa baa.”

The same idea is expressed in a far more eloquent way in the hymn by schoolteacher Henrietta Luise von Hayn, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” Christians are familiar with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and following that analogy, you and I are His Sheep. {Today as: Thaddeus has been embraced by the Good Shepherd in Holy Baptism/you young people make confirmation that you follow the Good Shepherd}, we all have opportunity to think about this shepherd to sheep relationship. What does it really mean to be sheep, belonging to the Lord?

To start out, sheep have strong flocking and following instincts. They operate on two familiar principles: “Strength in numbers” and “follow the leader.” That can often have unintended consequences. As recently as 2004, there was a report of a lead sheep trying to jump over a small chasm and unfortunately missing—with the rest of the flock following suit, to their destruction. It’s not a stretch to suggest that we also have strong flocking and following instincts, with the same potential for disaster. At various times in your life, following the crowd may seem like the smart thing to do. Each of us wants to belong, to fit in somewhere. But if you get into a flock that is moving away from God, you can bet that you’re heading for a cliff. There is strength in numbers, but only when Jesus is the shepherd of your flock.

Sheep are fully domesticated animals. That means they have come to depend on interaction with humans in order to survive. So while it’s true that a sheep would instinctively eat, it takes a caregiver—a shepherd-- to lead them to the best areas for grazing and to supplement their diet, when necessary. Also, sheep need to be sheared and cleaned. They can’t do it themselves. This too captures our sheep-like qualities. We cannot spiritually clean ourselves. Like a sheep trying to operate an electric razor, it’s just not possible. But we can be cleansed. We can be sheared of our sins. It happens when forgiveness is announced in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It happened when you were washed in the water of rebirth in Holy Baptism. It happens when you take your place at the Lord’s Supper to feast on the body and blood of Jesus. And in this way your Shepherd feeds you. You need a steady diet of God’s forgiving Word to sustain your faith. All you have to do is be there when it’s feeding time.
But lest we think that being one of Jesus’ lambs is all green pastures and quiet waters, there is this reality check: It is doubtful that sheep could survive in the wild. In fact, it is almost a given that sheep would be quickly taken down by predators in they had to fend for themselves. It is no secret that as a Christian, you have some powerful enemies. Some of them are obvious and others far more subtle. All of them, however, would love to rob you of your faith, in one way or another. If we had to fend for ourselves, it is doubtful that we could survive the pressure. The attacks would become too hard to endure. It would be much easier to surrender to the herding instinct and follow the flock to our doom. Except, we are not left to try and defend ourselves. We have a shepherd who is willing and able to protect us. More than that, He would die to keep us safe. Listen to His words: 11"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
You have a shepherd who saw the wolf coming and who allowed himself to be devoured so that you could live. On the rod and staff of the cross Jesus laid down his life for the sheep. And then, after laying down his life, he takes it back up at his resurrection. His victory over evil and death is absolute. This is the shepherd who fights for you every day.
The story is told of a man who went to Ireland to visit his relatives. While he was staying at his cousin’s farm, they decided to have some fun with him. After doing some chores in the fields, they told him to come in for dinner just as soon as he was through rounding up the sheep into the pen. After nearly an hour of chasing after sheep, trying to push, poke, prod, and even pull them with no success, he gave up and asked his cousins to help. They sent out their five-year-old daughter, who simply called out to the sheep, and within minutes they had all followed her through the gate into the pen.
Being a sheep means you have a Shepherd who cleanses you, who feeds you, and who protects you for eternity by laying down his life for you and taking it back up again. Thankfully receive the care He gives you, and wherever life takes you, follow his voice. Amen.