Friday, August 10, 2012

1 Corinthians 12:1 - 11 On Spiritual Gifts

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            A while ago I read a long book about the last 500 years in western countries. The author claims that we live now in a time of decadence. Our society lacks direction and this floundering around affects the daily lives of millions of people, for many folks struggle with boredom, routine, frustration, and repetition. It’s not God’s intention, however, for people he made in his image, redeemed in Christ, and whom he loves with an intensity that we can’t imagine to lead mediocre lives.  His will is that people live fruitfully, abundantly, and joyfully in faith. The church provides God’s remedy for the problems that the scholar I read believes afflict many people now. The church doesn’t offer a temporary cure or one that changes with the fashions. Jesus’ death clears a pathway between us and God. He comes to us with friendship and forgiveness and life. He gives direction. He blesses his people with active, meaningful days. He uses us to build up his kingdom, as Paul wrote in this morning’s epistle reading, to which we’ll return in a moment.      
            By our knowledge of God and the times, we Christians say that the troubles that afflict our neighbors and sometimes even ourselves, such as frustration, boredom, and lack of direction have a spiritual cause that is resolved through faith in Christ. You probably remember that just before he performed the miracle of the loaves and the fish, Jesus looked on a large crowd and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The same applies today. Folks without a shepherd stumble into all kinds of frustrations. We find relief through faith in Christ and our appreciation of the fact that he works through his church and by the Holy Spirit.
            Paul tells us how the Spirit proceeds. He blesses God’s people with a variety of gifts that serve the common good. We’ll mention some of them now – the ability to speak wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, and prophesy. These spiritual gifts aren’t the same thing as talents, though the use of them may involve talents, and each  person has one or more gift. Our Saviour surely has a good share of gifted people. 
            We’ll use a made-up example. Suppose someone who has persistently declined invitations to attend Sunday worship finally admits to us that he’s bored with his work and that his relationships don’t bring him any joy. He feels as if he’s on a treadmill repeating the same actions day after day so that they no longer have any meaning for him. He asks for help. We reached into the store of wisdom God has blessed us with and tell him that while he may find work that suits him better he probably won’t be able to change radically the external circumstances of his life, since most people contend with the same limitations, but with the help of God he can find new ways of thinking. We tell him about Jesus’ love for him and the new dimension he brought to life on earth with his life, death, and resurrection. We assure him that as time goes by, the Lord will turn liabilities into blessings, and burdens will become joys as he learns that he is walking in the footsteps of the Savior. Wisdom like that is a great blessing, so somebody said that the ability to spread the gospel is the highest gift from God.
            The knowledge that Paul mentions is related to wisdom, but it has a different emphasis. It has to do with the good news of Jesus, of course, but it involves explanations and teachings and the application of gospel truths to daily life. Let’s take another imaginary example, a member of Our Saviour who has decided that that the balance of the Lutheran way doesn’t help him cope with the frustrations and tedium that now characterize his life. He’s made up his mind to join a cult that promises its members a direct, personal encounter with God. He says that this will give him a lift. We remind him that the Cross is the center point of the Christian faith, by means of which Christ redeemed the world and calls all people to repentance and faith. Anything that detracts from salvation by way of the cross distorts the faith. What’s more, God does not promise to come to us directly. He uses the Bible and the sacraments to communicate his good news to us. If he reads his Bible faithfully and comes to worship regularly, our friend will discover that the Christian faith as Lutherans practice it is the best way to contend with the conditions of life. The church uses this kind of knowledge – and we have a lot of it – to build up the body of Christ.
            Paul also mentions faith as a spiritual gift. He doesn’t mean in this case the saving faith that brings us life with God now and the expectation of happiness in heaven. He means the faith to endure in hope, to overcome boredom, say, and the God-given ability to rise above ourselves when times get tough. I bet the folks of Our Saviour have this kind of faith in abundance – steadiness when youngsters are ill, coolness in crisis, the ability to endure discomfort, and cheerfulness in stormy weather. This kind of faith includes the belief that troubles will end and that difficulties will turn out well. This practical faith, a gift from God, benefits ourselves and makes a powerful witness to others. Who knows what questions our neighbors ask in the privacy of their hearts?  Where does their ability to keep on going come from? How can I get it for myself? We have the answers should anyone ask us. Everything good comes because of our tie with Christ.
            I suspect you noticed that Paul included healing as a gift of the Spirit for the building up of the church. Many miraculous healings took place in the days of Paul and the other Apostles. Some are recorded in the New Testament. These cases of healing are very selective and they took place at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Cures that seem to be miracles take place in the world today and maybe you know of a case or two, and we thank God for them. we praise him for the skills he gives to physicians and other health care workers. We also thank him for the freedom to approach him with our prayers for the sick, which benefit the ailing and comfort those who offer them. Even though out situations are very different from the apostles, we take part in the work of healing. Our prayers and our visits to the sick help to build up his kingdom, as God intends.
            We mention prophesy last of all. For Christians, prophesy doesn’t mean simply telling the future. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of prophesy in the Bible. One is to receive and pass on to others direct messages from God. The apostles were prophets in this sense of the word – Jesus spoke to them directly. Another kind of prophesy is the ability to talk about the saving will of God to others. We are prophets in this sense of the word. We may tell erring neighbors that a certain way of behaving will get them into trouble, but they have time to repent and turn to God’s Word for guidance and find better ways. We also prophesy that no matter how frustrating and tedious life can be, God is stronger than all life’s negatives put together and he’ll continue to work through his Word and the church to pull us out of the swamp of boredom and repetition onto the joyous, lively path that leads to him.
            So God addresses the spiritual illnesses of our time and any time by building up his church with spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophesy and others that Paul mentions. God blesses us with a strong spiritual framework that enables us overcome in our own lives the decadence of the world around us. Our Saviour’s people have what our neighbors need and God wants them to have. He provides opportunities for her people to bring them into Our Saviour’s gifted community.
            We thank our Lord, then, for giving us a picture of the world today and how the church fits into it. He teaches us about his cure for spiritual ailments and equips us to take part in the solution. It’s important work, so we never need to ask if Jesus has anything for us to do. He wants us to use our spiritual gifts in faith and confidence. In our Savior’s name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart s and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.                              

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

John 6:22 - 35 Three Hungers

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
            We learn a lot from Jesus’ meetings with various people during his earthly ministry.  These conversations focus on common human problems – illness, want, what to believe.  They show the solutions that we frail humans think up and then the solution that God brings to us.  Folks don’t always accept his answers, and so conflict arises between mankind and heaven.  Jesus solved that problem, too, when he died for the sins of all and rose again from the grave.  We can always be sure of his friendship for us.
            We need him because earthly life is full of troubles and challenges.  This morning’s gospel text deals with one of them – different forms of hunger: physical hunger, hunger for life, and hunger for God.  The point of the passage from John is that God satisfies all these needs for people who look in faith to his Son.
            I’m sure you remember the time when Jesus turned a small quantity of bread and fish into enough food to feed a crowd of thousands of people.  Then he walked across the Sea of Galilee to catch up with his disciples who were traveling ahead of him in a boat.  Now he’s in another town.  Some of the people who’d seen the miracle the day before followed Jesus to Capernaum.  We know that people don’t all think alike, but when folks gather into crowds they form a collective personality, and the crowd that sought the Lord did not have worship on their minds.  Jesus suggests they were looking for more food.
            Food is a necessity.  We won’t stop needing it till we die.  The search for food takes up a lot of our time.  We know that some people don’t have enough, a problem that Our Savior’s food bank helps to resolve.  It’s not God’s intention that anyone go hungry, and so he enables the fortunate to help out the ones in need.  This is part of good stewardship, not to hoard, but to share, in imitation of our Lord.
            But Scripture doesn’t tell us that the folks who went to Capernaum were starving or in great need.  They were ordinary people looking for a way to solve the problem of food supply.  Perhaps they could get more out of the Lord than he had already given – a week’s worth of food or a month’s.  What if he had the secret of everlasting abundance, so they wouldn’t have to work again?  This is a normal human question, especially for people who consider the duties of life to be impositions on their free time.  They didn’t mind going to a wonder-worker in search of a favor.
            Jesus understood their need for food and other material things, as he understands ours and provides for us out of his abundance.  Because he promises to provide, he didn’t want them and he doesn’t want us to focus exclusively on earthly things, which are useful for a time, but they perish.  Who wants to spend their lives in a search for stuff that fades away?  Jesus invited the folks in the crowd to put their need for material goods in second place and work instead for God’s kingdom, which will last forever.  He brought them a wonderful opportunity.  The search for our daily bread can be monotonous and uninspiring.  It can reduce our horizons and shrivel our souls.  Jesus lifted the crowd’s spirits and invited them to focus on something worthy of people made in God’s image, to think about their souls more than their bodies, and not their own souls only but also their neighbors and families.  Jesus worked a great miracle the day before, not so that people would come looking for more but so that they would recognize him as God, who solves the problem of hunger for food and other challenges as well, for those who trust him.
            Once the need for food is met, another hunger can swoop in and take its place – a desire for more and more life.  Generally speaking, there are two kinds of life, the eternal life that God gives us that includes mercy, forgiveness, love, and faith in Christ, and then ordinary daily life that is never certain and always changing.  This morning’s texts don’t give a favorable picture of every day earthly ways.  The Israelites in the desert grumbled when they discovered that life in the wilderness was less luxurious than the slavery they’d left behind.  In later chapters in Ephesians, Paul wrote that pagans give themselves over to every kind of impurity and constantly lust for more.  When the crowd that followed Jesus heard about eternal life, they responded in an earthly way and asked what they themselves must do to acquire it.
            Knowing ourselves, we may wonder if the hunger for earthly life will get the best of us, too, so that we forfeit the eternal life that Jesus brought to earth.   Paul warned his readers not to live like pagans, for the lure of pagan life is very strong.  We’d be lost on our own, but Paul said that God’s Spirit works on us so that we put off the old self that deceitful desires corrupt, while God makes us new in our minds so that we put on new selves.  God works on his children to rebuild and renew us.  He creates in us a hunger for this kind of life rather than for the perishing fascinations of the world.
            More than this, he pardons us through our faith in his Son, he washes away our sins, he restores us to favor.  The world and the devil do work on us so that we come to desire earthly finery more and more.  Gods’ people are constantly tempted.  We waver.  Sometimes we give way.  His mercy picks us up.  His forgiveness saves us.  His compassion for us, which he showed most sublimely in his death on the cross, works against the influence of the world so that we ache for the world less and less and desire him more and more.
            There is, we don’t forget, an ineffective kind of hunger for God, the sort the crowd expressed when they asked what they needed to do to do the works of God.  Human nature loves to assert itself before God.  Look what I have done. See my wonderful life and my exceptional abilities.  Surely you must be pleased with me.  Such pride in ourselves succeeds only in turning the Lord away from us.  It’s to add sin to sin.  What God wants from us is that we believe in Jesus – that he lived and died for us and rose again.   He asks us to be sorry for our sins and to take hold of his forgiveness in faith.  Repentance isn’t easy for proud human flesh, but it’s a joy for those who seek God in a way that pleases him, not with the ravenous appetites of those who assert themselves, but with humble and grateful hearts that his love doesn’t fail, that his mercies are new every day, and that he has included us in his embrace.
            Now, the Lord knows we are people of strong appetites, so he spoke to the people of Capernaum in language that they and we would understand.  He used an intentionally vivid, maybe even unrefined picture, to make people think.  He said that he is the bread of life.  If people want to live, they should come to him.
            Martin Luther said in an old sermon that Jesus is referring to a hunger and a thirst of the soul.  The soul longs to live forever.  It doesn’t want to stand condemned.  It desires a gracious God and wants to stand victoriously before the judgment seat on the last day.  The soul doesn’t want to be accused by sin or the law and go to hell.   To satisfy this spiritual hunger and thirst, spiritual food and drink are offered to us, when the Holy Spirit draws near and says, “If you do not want to die and be condemned, come to Christ, believe in him, cling to him, eat this spiritual food.”
            This offer is intended for our comfort and the strengthening of our faith.  Luther said that Christ’s promise that everyone who comes to him shall not hunger and thirst should be inscribed in every heart with golden letters.  Then everyone will know where to entrust his soul and where he will go after this life is over.  Anyone on earth may acquire this knowledge and be able to say at night when retiring or early in the morning or when engaged in the day’s activities: “My soul remains with Christ.  I will never hunger or thirst.  Jesus will not lie to me.”  We should go on to say that whether we sleep, wake, work, or go out walking, our soul remains with Jesus.  Even if everyone around us goes to pieces – father, mother, friend, enemy, employer, neighbor, we run to Jesus and find help from him, for his words are true.  He says: “Hold on to me!  Come to me and you shall live.”  But isn’t it true that we’ll die, we might ask.  Jesus answers this way: “Though you die, yet shall you live.  Come to me.”
            Luther said that the sixth chapter of John is precious.  We should not only hear it, but believe it and accept it and impress it on our consciences.  We regard his promises as true, come what may, believing that he is trustworthy and that he never lies.  Like the people of Capernaum, we should say to Jesus, “Give us this bread always,” and he will reply, “Yes, I will give it with all my heart, for that is why I came from heaven.  Accept only me.  Let me be your food.  Do not pin your hope on another food.  Beware of that, for I am the bread, not prince or ruler or any other person on earth.  No one expect me will help you.  And if you cling to me, no person or devil will do you any harm, for here is the bread that won’t let you go hungry.”
            Our Lord chose a vivid image to deal with a serious problem – spiritual hunger.  When we eat bread, we take it into ourselves.   When we draw near to the Lord in faith, we take him into ourselves.  In reality, he is already there, knocking on the doors of our hearts, waiting to fill our empty spaces with the fullness of his love.  The important thing is that we trust him and welcome him.  It’s so easy to let our faith turn into an automatic thing, a question of words and customs, and this apathy is what Jesus wants to prevent.  He uses startling language to wake us up and get us turning to him, not top grumble or to think that we can do everything on our own, but to accept him and receive him always as our true bread.  He can satisfy any hunger; he can fill any need.  Our part is to believe in him, to trust him, to be grateful that he is  part of us, like our breathing.  May he continually come to us.  May he never let us go.  We ask the Heavenly Father to keep the bread of life as our one true sustenance.  In our Savior’s name, we rejoice.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Jesus.  AMEN.