Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
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“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.

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A Letter To My Son

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Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

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Months ago, while I was planning all of our worship services for the year ahead, I read this text from Galatians for the last Sunday of May and I thought it was perfect. I knew that Lindsey was pregnant and that, if the timing worked out, this would be the first Sunday and opportunity to preach after the birth of our son. All of you would have listened to other preachers for four weeks, and then I would be standing up here proclaiming God’s faithful Word from Galatians.

The text is so fitting for today because Paul, having worked with the Galatian churches for some time, has been absent from the community and catches wind about their lack of faithfulness. Perhaps after the community listened to a group of different preachers for four Sundays in a row, Paul felt inclined to write to them about the true gospel.

Now, keep in mind, most of Paul’s letters are filled with elevated language complimenting the community from the conception. Galatians begins in a very different way. Far from kind and pastoral, Paul’s tone is irritated and cranky. Paul whips through the customary pleasantries and gets right to the point: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel!”

So, here we are. I’ve been gone for about a month. I tried to keep away from my phone and email, I even attempted to avoid driving near the church on Sunday mornings, but I’ve heard through the grapevine about what’s really taken place. Our District Superintendent had the nerve to break four of his ribs shortly before preaching and called upon Larry Kreamer to fill in as best he good. Chris Markham had the nerve to get up here in the pulpit and preach about Mary Magdalene, calling all of us to recognize how quickly we lift proverbial stones to cast at one another, in particular toward people of a different sexual identity. Rick Maryman had the nerve to boldly call the church to remember the role of the Holy Spirit and never lose sight of the importance of Pentecost. And then Eric Fitzgerald stood up here last week and talked about how God’s ways are not our ways, and that there really is a time for everything; whether we recognize it or not.

I can’t believe it! I’ve only been gone four weeks and you all have fallen away from the gospel. You’ve listened to those who would rather distort the gospel of Jesus Christ and who offered something contrary to what has been offered previously! I knew I needed to pray for you in my absence but I didn’t know I needed to pray that much!

Of course, I am only joking. I am grateful for the witness and willingness of our gifted laity who faithfully proclaimed the gospel over the last four Sundays. It brings me a sense of peace that words cannot describe to know that, unlike the Galatians, all of you have held fast to the Good News and have continued to be servants of Jesus Christ.

For the sermon today, I decided to write a letter in the vein of Paul. Though instead of writing it to a wayward church in Galatia, I wrote it to my son Elijah. This passage is one that is easy to avoid, after all we’re reading a letter meant for somebody else’s church. We can write it off as a personal matter between Paul and the Galatians – except for the fact that this is God’s Word for us. Similarly, it is my hope that in the words I have written for my son, you will hear God speaking to you as well.

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Dear Elijah,

You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. You mother and I eagerly awaited your arrival, we prepared by purchasing everything we thought we could possibly need, we read books on how to raise a child, we sought out advice from friends, family, and at times even strangers. You are the first grandson in the family, and in your short month of life, your grandparents have become completely obsessed with you.

And more than the family, there is an entire community who knows nothing about you other than your existence, and yet you are loved. Preschoolers from the church have bombarded me with questions about you, and what you look like, and how you’re sleeping, and a slew of other inquiries. Members from the church have flooded my email inbox wanting to know if we need anything to take care of you. And for as long as we’ve known that you were joining our family, the entire community has lifted you up in prayer.

You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. But more than this church, and even more than your parents, God loves you with reckless abandon.

Over the years you will come to know more about God’s unending love through the stories of scripture that will be shared in worship. You will hear about God’s creative majesty in the foundation of the world, God’s calling of the people Israel to a new beginning, God’s persistence when the people fell away from the path, and even God’s grace made manifest in a manger.

In time you will experience the power and might of Jesus Christ. God in the flesh, born in a humble abode, who walked the roads of life with friends and strangers, healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, broke the law, fulfilled the scriptures, died on a cross, and rose from the grave.

Elijah, the church will strive to share with you the radical message of Jesus Christ in such a way that it transforms your life forever. The people in the pews will gather you in, proclaim God’s Word, respond to it, and send you forth week after week to be Christ’s body for the world. No small task.

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And Elijah, you will live and move and have your being in a world that few of us can even imagine…

As you become the person God is calling you to be, you will live in a world where the church is no longer the status quo for everyone. Christianity as Christendom has fallen away. You will be judged for your strange faith, rather than commended as many of us once were.

You will live in a world where homosexuality is normative. You will encounter couples that have otherwise been called incompatible with Christian teaching, but for you they will be perfectly compatible with Christian teaching. You will interact with people from such a wide plethora of diversity that you will want the world to be the mosaic it is, rather than hoping for birds of a feather to flock together.

Sadly, you will never know what it means to live into the mystery of life and faith. There will always be an answer for every one of your questions at just the click of a button. You will have to work harder to experience the profound wonder of God’s presence because you will rarely have to struggle for clarity.

And, I’m sad to say, you will never know of a life prior to September 11th. You will grow up in a world cowering in fear to the seemingly endless threat of international and domestic terrorism. You will be raised with the words Jesus gave to his disciples about striving for peace, while countless men and women are called to give their lives for the freedoms we hold so dear. Son, the world we live in is broken; we often succumb to the power of sin that pushes us to believe that violence and power control our destinies, and that death carries a strong sting.

Elijah, in time you will struggle and wrestle between the call of competing narratives and gospels that vie for your allegiance. Even though your mother and I, and your friends, and the church will do everything we can to hold fast to the gospel that was shared with us, at some point you will fall away. Whether through doubt, disillusionment, or some other reason, there will come a time when you will grow frustrated with this thing called church.

Elijah, it might happen when you start to understand the pressure that is constantly placed on churches to increase attendance, to raise the budget, to fill the pews, to do whatever it takes to improve the market share. You will see how many of us care more about being nice, or funny, or unassuming, that we make the church more about us than about God.

And on the other side, you will meet people who subvert the gospel to mean whatever they want it to mean; people who will use scripture like a weapon to attack others for their way of life and it will leave you feeling frustrated.

But Elijah, I want you to try to remember one thing: Jesus is Lord, and everything else is secondary.

Wherever you are led throughout your life, wherever the Spirit calls you to go, you will encounter Christians at both ends of the spectrum. Christians who will do whatever it takes, even at the expense of watering down the gospel, to make it as appealing as possible. And Christians who will take up the bible like a sword to mow down their enemies.

But Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned seeking the approval of his fellow human beings. He did not belittle the immense and profound qualities of God’s love to being something easy and trite. Jesus pushed his followers into uncomfortable arenas of love and respect in order to transform the world.

And at the same time Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned with attacking people for their differences and ostracizing them from the community. He did not use scripture to condemn the world. Instead, Jesus went out to the people that most of us would rather ignore and he told them that they deserved to be loved just as much as anyone else.

Elijah, God’s love in Jesus Christ is a mystery. Thanks be to God that there is not an easy and simple answer to that question of faith. Unlike almost everything else you will experience, it cannot be explained at the click of a button. Instead, you can only know the love of God through the table at which the church gathers, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. Only when God invites you to the table will you begin to enter the light from the darkness. Only in the sharing of communion will the competing narratives and false gospels begin to fade away. Only when you experience this little bit of heaven on earth, will you begin to rejoice in the mystery that is the grace of Jesus Christ.

Elijah, I love you. Your family loves you. The church loves you. But more importantly, God loves you.

-Dad

 

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 96.9

Psalm 96.9

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

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When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.

This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.

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However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.

Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.

Devotional – Acts 2.2

Devotional:

Acts 2.2

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

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By the time we arrived at the hospital at 10 pm, my wife had been experiencing contractions for more than 12 hours and they encouraged her to walk around the unit in order to speed up labor. We walked in a circle around the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, taking breaks every few minutes to let a contraction pass, when it started to really sink in that we were about to have a baby. Perhaps it was the professional photographs of newborns adorned on every conceivable wall, or maybe it was the audible hum of all the medical machinery, or maybe it was the cry of babies from the nursery, but the time had definitely come for us to enter into the strange arena of parenthood.

When 7am rolled around, it was time for Lindsey to start pushing. With every breath and grimace the last nine months of preparation flew through my mind. I thought about finding out she was pregnant and the joy of sharing the news with our families. I remembered standing in front of the entire congregation and announcing that we would be adding another member to our flock. I thought about all the items we purchased for the nursery. I thought about the well-worn and earmarked edition of What To Expect When You’re Expecting sitting on the table next to our bed. I remembered all of the tips and tools we were taught in our birthing class (and promptly forgot all of them). And before I knew it, Lindsey had given birth to our son Elijah Wolf and the doctor placed him on her chest.

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The moment will forever remain etched in my memory as I watched Lindsey wrap her arms around Elijah and spoke the first words he ever heard: “We love you.” Like the disciples sitting together on the day of Pentecost, it felt like a gust of wind swept through the delivery room and filled the entire area. The sounds of the doctor and nurses disappeared, the anxiety had evaporated, and it felt like the Holy Spirit was circling our son and us. While my eyes filled with tears, Lindsey continued to nurture Elijah with her sweet voice when he opened his eyes for the first time, stared deep into his mother’s gaze, lifted out his arms, and placed his fingertips on her lips.

The Holy Spirit is with us always: In our delivery rooms and at our dinner tables, in our conversations and with our prayers, in our relationships and in our churches. I have experienced the Spirit’s presence over the last nine months in your willingness to surround Lindsey and I in your prayers. Thank you.

During the next few weeks, as Lindsey and I settle into parental rhythms with Elijah, I will continue to keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers. Until we are reunited in worship, I encourage you to look for those sacred moments when the Spirit shows up, and give thanks.

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