Thursday, July 20, 2017

Brotherly-love and Hospitality

This week in “From Fr. Tom” I want to focus on two words that are crucial for the life of a Christian: “hospitality” and “brotherly-love.” Without these two things active and lively in a church, a church is a shell of what God intends it to be.

The Greek word for hospitality is literally “the love of the stranger,” it is loving the people we encounter, but we don’t know. Brotherly-love is a concept that comes from one of the Greek words for love: “philadelphia.” This kind of love stems from the love of deep friendship, love we show towards people we know well, with whom we have deep ties, loyalty, and affection.

Christians are called to love BOTH the stranger AND the familiar friend. Note what Paul says to the Galatian Church: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, AND especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal 6:10)  Yes, emphasis is laid on the Church here, but BOTH those inside and out are mentioned. We are called to a “both/and” love by the author of Hebrews as well: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:1–2)

This is a both/and scenario: We cannot merely love “new people” all the time and ignore our deeper friendships and associations. Nor can we “hole up” with our close friends and become cliquish Christians. Usually, because of temperament and circumstance, we have a bent towards one or the other. 

Which are you more inclined to do? 

In a social setting, which are you more likely to do: talk to someone new? or talk to someone you already know?  My guess is that most in our church would rather talk to somebody we already know. This has huge implications for us as if we are to obey God’s commands to welcome the stranger. Like many areas of the Christian life, it means we must ask for God’s grace to live differently than our natural inclinations.

Certainly this love of the stranger is something we need to consider for our daily lives. How open are you to new people? Do you acknowledge that the people you run into day-in and day-out at the grocery store or at work or at school are not just faces in the crowd: they are made in God’s image, and loved dearly by him. Do we remember that we are constantly ambassadors for Christ, daily called to be a friendly and faithful witness… no matter who is around? I confess that the busyness of my life over the last two years has led me to be more closed off than I’ve ever been. I need to repent and pray for the help of God’s Holy Spirit.

This love of the stranger also relates to our life together as a Church. Let me share two stories:
  • Recently a woman came to join us in worship on a Sunday. She wandered past the greeters, past a crowd of Good Shepherd members and regulars in the main hall, and stood just past the elevators, not sure where to go. She looked lost. Finally someone noticed her, asking her if she was here for church, and if so, did she know where to go. 

  • I talked with a family earlier this year who shared with me that even though they had attended for months, they did not feel like they really knew anyone. They knew some people’s names, and many knew their names, but they confessed to me that the church was mostly full of strangers to them.

While I’m thankful that these two stories are the exception and not the rule, I’d like to ask us two questions in light of the Bible’s teaching on this:

1. Are we strangers to each other? When they command us to love the stranger, the writers of the New Testament assume that the people in our church with us will NOT be strangers to us. But is that the case? One marker of deep community is that we “know others and are known by others.” Does anyone at church know your struggles?  Joys?  Hopes? While I’m encouraged by the depth of relationships at Good Shepherd, I think we may still be “strange” to one another. How do we bridge that strangeness gap? We can start by saying “Hi” on a Sunday. Sitting with someone at Church on a Sunday. Confessing that we don’t know their name, and reintroducing ourselves (again)…. maybe grabbing a coffee or lunch. This summer we will be having some dinners together that I pray will make us less “strange” to one another. (Though, we might find out how “strange/weird” we all really are!)

2. How can we love new people who visit on Sundays?  I am so thankful that our church is a welcoming church. I’ve been told many times by people who have visited (and then who later stayed with us) that our church was welcoming, but not overbearing. What a great thing! However, like most gifts, if we don’t keep living into them, we will lose them.

Here a few practical ways we can continue to live into being a church who “let[s] brotherly love continue... [and does] not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…"
  • Pray for a loving heart. Let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t give a rip. Sometimes our hearts are cold, small, dark… Let’s pray for “enlarged hearts”!
  • Wear a name tag.  If only the visitors are wearing name tags they feel branded. And if you’re not wearing a name tag, it makes it harder for others to remember your name. How many times have you forgotten someone’s name that you’ve met before? Save everyone else that embarrassment, and wear a name tag each week. 
  • Act like a host.  One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever heard about how to meet new people is to act like the host at every party you go to. If you’re the host, you care if a guest is alone, or not having a good time. Even if you’re not a “greeter” on Sunday, greet one person each Sunday. Look for someone who may be alone or that may be new. 
  • Sit near those who are alone. No one should have to sit alone in church. Nobody. Whether you know someone or not, if you see them sitting by themselves, sit near by. 

Remember, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are God’s hands and face. Sometimes people show up to Church hurting, lonely, and tired. Sometimes the sermon doesn’t speak to us, the songs are unfamiliar, and the prayers don’t touch us. But in addition to the Word, prayers, and Sacrament, God may use YOU to love on someone… whether a friend or stranger. Your kindness may be the only message the person sitting next to you can hear. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Rom 15:7)

Remember who loved on you, remember who included you.  Go and do likewise… and who knows if someone’s eternal destiny (or even just their week!) may be changed?

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Knowing God to Make Him Known

In the previous weeks in “From Father Tom,” we’ve look at John 14:15-21, specifically the tripartite evidence Jesus gives for his exclusive claim in (v. 6): “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me.” Jesus says that his teachings, his miracles and his Church are the evidence for this claim (John 14:10-12), and we’ve spent the last few weeks examining how the Church, corrupt as she may be, can be a living witness to the testimony of Jesus.  

First, we looked at how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians to make us a sign of Jesus’s Lordship and reality.  This was covered in a sermon at Church of the Good Shepherd.  

Second, we looked at how the Resurrection of Jesus gives Christians a hope that causes us to live differently.  We covered this in a blog post a few weeks back

Finally in this article, we will look at (John 14:21-23) and see how our ongoing relationship with God makes us people who are an effective, living testimony of the gospel.  

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him…If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:21–23)

One basic part of being Jesus’s disciple is loving him.  We love Him because of his love for us. (1 John 4:9) It is impossible to have received the love of Jesus expressed to us on the cross and NOT love Him. In this sense, if we don’t love Jesus it is because we’re not Christians in any meaningful sense.  

Our love for Jesus is expressed through affections and obedience, and it is this loving obedience that is primarily in view in John 14 (and most of Bible).  Those who love Jesus, obey Him.  We cannot say “I love Jesus” or “I’m a Christian,” if we do not listen to what He says, and then do it.  As Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21)  Many people will claim to be Christians, but their lives will show that their faith is fake.  (James 2:26)

For those who truly have received Jesus love, who truly love Him in return, and who obey his commands, the greatest possible treasure awaits.  This is expressed in two ways in John 14.  

  • I will love him and manifest myself to him.”  In one sense Jesus loves everyone (see John 3:16), but in another sense, Jesus’s deeper love and friendship is only for those who love him and obey him.  (See John 15:14-15; Ps 25:14) For those who love and obey Jesus, they will actually get to know him in a profound and personal way.  That is what is mean when Jesus says He will reveal/manifest/show himself to them.  We will get to know him now in this life (1 John 1:3), and we have a promise that we will know him more fully in the years to come (1 John 3:1-3). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matt 5:8) J.I. Packer records the comments of a friend whose scholarly ambitions had been crushed by opponents who thought his faith was interfering too much with his work.  His career was over, and all the years of his life spent in study would result in nothing.  Thought pained, the man’s attitude was almost cavalier “But it doesn’t matter… for I’ve known God and they haven’t.”  (Knowing God, Ch. 2)  Knowing God (and not merely knowing about God) is the great privilege of every true Christian. 
  • “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Not only does Jesus promise that we will be his friends, but He also tells us that those who obey his commands will also find home with the Triune God.  This is not just the promise of a heavenly home (See John 14:1-4), but is speaking of the God of the Universe coming and living with us.  Note the language Jesus uses: “We will come TO him, and make our home WITH him.”  This is not a reference our spirits going to heaven after we die but to the indwelling presence of God through the Holy Spirit.  Quite literally, God promises us a taste of heaven now, a bit of Home wherever we go.  This too is a kind of knowing God, something akin to bliss of an ideal domesticity: a loving family, the comfort of our own bed, a warm meal on a cold night, a cool drink on our porch on a sunny day. Home is where the heart lives.

In sum, the great treasure offered to us who obey the commands of Jesus is knowing God.  And knowing God is itself eternal life (John 17:3).  Knowing God is an end in and of itself.  To know him is better than anything else (see Phil 3:8ff).  Relationship with God, knowing Him is the only thing that satisfies the human heart fully.  

Indeed, we were made to know him.  That’s part of what it means to be made in God’s image and God’s likeness (Gen 1:26ff).  When a human being receives the love of Christ offered in the gospel and begins a life of turning from self to God, she will find she is fulfilling the very purpose for which she was made.  As the prayer says: “In your infinite love O Lord, you made us for yourself…”  You have heard it said: “It’s all about who you know.”  As it turns out, this is more true than most people think.  If we know God, we have found Life that is truly Life.   

Indeed, in knowing God, we ourselves are elevated to a higher plain of existence.  I know that sounds crazy, but it is true.  Our nearness to God lifts us higher than we were before.   C.S. Lewis says it this way:  “But is it so strange really?  Is not that how the higher thing always raises the lower? A mother teachers her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does.  We treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human;’ that is why they really become ‘almost human’ in the end.”  (Mere Christianity, Book 4, Ch. 7) And as St. Peter said: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life
and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Pet 1:3–4, emphasis added)

Christians who know God like this are faithful, living testimonies of the truth and reality of Jesus.  People who are fulfilled don’t need to take from others, and therefore can love with the greatest freedom and give with the greatest sacrifice.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Concrete Hope

This Sunday, the sermon at Good Shepherd was from John 14:15-21.  Earlier in John 14, Jesus makes an incredible claim, namely, that He is "the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through [Him]."  (John 14:6)  In order to back this claim, Jesus offers three things as evidence:  His words (v. 10), his works (v. 11), and, surprisingly, the Church, that is, God's work among those who are his disciples (vv.12-15).  

Jesus's plan is to have his Church following his commandments in such a way that we will truly be the light of the world (Matt 5:14-16).  

But when we look at the Church, both past and present, we may question whether Jesus's third piece of evidence is helping at all.  We might say to Jesus, "Yes, everyone who reads your teachings finds them compelling, and yes, your miracles are clear testimony that you are the God of the Old Testament.  But Jesus, have you ever read Church history?  I'm not sure we are helping out that much." 

And yet, this is indeed Jesus plan.  God is so great, so powerful, that in his hand the humblest instrument can play the greatest music ever heard.  God can even use us to be evidence of the gospel.

In John 14:16-21, Jesus lays out HOW this great miracle can be accomplished.  How is it that sinful, broken people can be transformed to the point that the world would look at them and say: "Yes, because of the way these people live, I am compelled to follow Jesus.". 

Jesus gives three things in this passage that make this possible:
  1. The indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (v. 15-17)
  2. The tangible hope of our own resurrection (vv. 18-20)
  3. The life-giving relationship we have with the Father (vv. 21) 

On Sunday, we looked at the first of these three: the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  And in “From Fr. Tom” for this week and next we will look at the latter two: the objection reality of Christ's Resurrection and how impacts the way we live now, and the life-giving relationship Christians can have with God, and how that relationship transforms us for the better.  

Concrete Hope

In (vv. 18-19), Jesus says: ““I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:18–19) 

While some scholars see Jesus making a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit here, I think that this is a reference to Jesus upcoming resurrection.  Yes, it is true that the Holy Spirit (sometimes called the Spirit of Christ, e.g. Romans 8:9) is Jesus’s presence among us (thus fulfilling Matthew 28:20).  And it is true that because of the Holy Spirit in us, we have new life (See Rom 8:11).  And so if we took the passage that way, we would not be too far off base.  

However, the logic of Jesus’s statement “Because I live, you will also live” makes more sense in light of the Resurrection way.  Here’s why…

Because we are in union with Christ through faith and the waters of baptism (Rom 6:1-10), everything that happens to Him happens to us:
    • Since Jesus died, so do we - “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom 6:3)
    • Since Jesus rose from the dead, so do we - We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4, see also 1 Cor 15:20–22; Phil 3:20-21; Col 3:4)
When we look at the Resurrection of Jesus, the historical fact that it is, we have great confidence that we too, though we may die for a while, whether in suffering for the gospel, working hard to live holy lives or even physically dying, in the end we will have life.  

Proof of Life

Indeed, it is the resurrection of Jesus that is our hope that God will complete the work he started with us. Not only does Jesus’s resurrection itself provide grounds for faith in his claims (See John 14:11, 20), but it also provides great hope for his people.  

It is worth asking this question:  Why did Jesus make you his in the first place?  Was it so you could endless fall back into sin forever?  NO!  As we strive with God to become his faithful witnesses (see Phil 2:12-16), we have confidence that God Himself will complete the work.  (Phil 1:6)  Though we may fail, though we may lose strength, God will not fail.  Though the battle with sin in our hearts can seem hopeless, in reality, it is not.  If God can raise Christ from death itself, and if he promises to raise YOU to that same kind of holy life, then He will see you to then.  “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim 2:11–13)