Disobedient Mercy

"The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). That is St. Paul's emphatic conclusion to any questions that may arise about backsliding, rejecting God's will, or even feeling sin hanging around you. Whatever trials, accusations or guilt you are experiencing, trust that when God gives a gift and when God calls you through the gospel, God did not make a mistake and is not looking for a reason to drop you out of his kingdom. God gave you, sinner that you are, a gift and calling without any chance of taking it back. That's what irrevocable means.

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But why then do we continue to experience these troubles? In the strangest turn of events in the entire Bible, we hear what nobody could have expected. God imprisoned, bound, and held us in disobedience in order to show his mercy toward us (Romans 11:31-32!). This means that it is not God's will that we all be perfectly obedient, good little girls and boys. But rather, knowing our disobedient hearts, God's will is done when he has been merciful to us. That is nothing short of amazing.

And what is more, is that God will show mercy to sinners no matter what. So he is always showing mercy to the wrong sort of people. How else could it truly be mercy?

See you in worship,
Pastor Lars

Control

Control.

This little word embodies our struggle to find our way in the world. The more we try to maintain control, the more we struggle when we lose it. Narcissism runs rampant in our culture; trying to control every outcome.  But what happens when we lose control? Where do we turn? We also want to try to control who is in, and who is out.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 10 that those who try to maintain control of their own faith, and especially of their own righteousness, will struggle to do it. When we believe that we can live up to the demands of perfection as laid out by the law, and expected from those around us, we are dependent on maintaining control; and because it is demanded since birth, who of us has really done this?

Paul says that it is impossible, nor necessary for those in Christ. And how do we hear of this great relief? By someone telling us His word of promise, and claim us in Christ’s name. What Paul is demanding is for each of us to tell those around us of the good news of Jesus Christ. That Jesus is in control and the he has the final word over you and your life.

Come to worship this weekend to hear Jesus’ claiming word for you, a word so near to you that it is on your lips, and in your heart!

Jeff Backer, Intern Pastor

The Choosy God

Being chosen is a distant second to being the chooser, but it is still better than being completely ignored. The only thing worse is to be chosen and then un-chosen. Any kid on the playground can attest to it, and big kids being drafted to professional sports can too. You want to be selected first, but if that doesn't happen you just want your name to be called. But what happens if the chooser chooses you, but then suddenly says, "I meant the one next to you." That's devastating.

St. Paul has been arguing that God is the chooser, and that he has chosen you in baptism. He chose the unrighteous (the old you) in order to make you righteous (the new you) simply because he chose you. He sent a preacher to choose you in baptism, to take you away from sin and death and give you forgiveness and life. That's his choice for you. But now comes Romans 9 along with the questions: "Didn't he choose others first? What about the Israelites?" 

Just how choosy is God? Has he turned his back on his "chosen people" because they rejected Jesus? If so, will he not just choose the best Christians and un-choose the rest? Can God just choose to ignore his previous choosing? No. God is faithful to his promise. Each one. Every choice. Always keeping his promise.

More Certain Than the Sun

Ben Franklin once said that, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes!” If we really think about it, there are very few certainties that we can count on. It is pretty much assumed that the sun will rise and the sun will set. This does not mean you can actually see the sun every day, because it could be covered by clouds, or obstructed from view, like in a forest. But we still see its light, and most days, feel its warmth. The sun is there; we can count on it.

The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the people in Rome who had come to believe in Jesus Christ. Though Paul himself had not yet traveled to Rome to establish a church there, he writes to them in what Luther calls “the purest gospel proclamation in all of the New Testament.” Chapter 8 from Romans is where we can hear the promise from God that is more certain than the sun rising, and because he gave His Son to claim those whom he has called through the gospel, it is even more certain than death, because Jesus has even overcome that “certainty.”

We are called and claimed through the gospel as God’s children, adopted … chosen to be a part of the royal family along with Jesus as the firstborn. Join us for worship this weekend as through the witness of St. Paul, we proclaim the certainty that nothing … absolutely nothing in all of creation (because God created ALL!) can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus! Amen.

Inarticulate Prayer

Romans 8:12-27
“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [the] Spirit [of God] intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words”  (Romans 8:26; RSV)  

Have you at times in your life, known this witness of St. Paul of “sighs too deep for words”? Times when you just flat-out collapse, failing to find words to bear the heavy freight of life’s struggles … Times when you just come to the end of yourself? … A time when someone asks you to pray, but you don’t even know where to begin? … And so, what strange comfort it is to hear that even the esteemed Apostle Paul confesses such times when he himself – like us – doesn’t know how to pray. We think that ease and fluency at prayer comes with great spiritual achievement and intense faith. But here, one of Christendom’s greatest representatives witnesses how he finds it impossible at times to pray as he ought. (In this our summer series on the book of Roman, think back a couple of weeks, where St. Paul also creates “solidarity of faith” with us – confessing the civil war of failed will-power that goes on within us every day. Cf. Rom. 7:15f.)

“With sighs too deep for words …”  Inarticulate prayer. 

So, what is the Bible teaching us here? What is St. Paul “unloading”? … Could it be that the truest prayers do not easily find words? Could it be that prayer that bubbles-up to fall “trippingly from the tongue” is neither rooted very deep nor ascends to much effect? The truth is this: the more real the need to pray, the harder it is to express that need. Jacques Ellul, the 20th century French theologian has perhaps the best one-word-definition for prayer: “Help!”“With sighs too deep for words …” 

My friends, if there is any one theme that binds all of Holy Scripture together, from Israel’s family tree in Genesis to St. John the Seer’s vision of the future in the apocalypse of Revelation, it is this: that bios (“life”) can only be understood fully in relation to Theos (“God”). In this relationship, there’s often little language but a sigh or a cry. As a mother interprets by some secret wisdom of her own the meaning of her child’s feeble cry, and hears that cry before anyone else … so God looks into our hearts and understands the need for which we can find no words. As St. Paul counsels us: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:15b-16). 

And as children of God, come join us for worship this weekend, as we hear again God’s Spirit speaking to us through St. Paul witness as well as in the well-beloved assurance of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

The Spirit is Life

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Romans 8:6 (NRSV)

I want more life and peace – so why can’t I just set my mind on the Spirit? Daily I am pulled between “the things of the flesh” and “the things of the Spirit.” Or as St. Paul said in our reading from Romans 7 last week, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (v. 15, 19)

If St. Paul struggled mightily, in his call to follow Jesus, what chance do I have? O Lord, what will end this struggle within me?

Would more maturity allow me to follow Christ more devotedly? That is, wait a few years and the struggle will be nonexistent? I don’t think so. I’m turning forty this year, so there’s no denying anymore that I am an actual adult. Although I have a little more self-control than the days of my youth, the struggle between the flesh and the mind is as real as it ever was.

Would more money free me from earthly cares and desires and help me follow him more single-mindedly? Pretty sure that would just cause me to struggle more between the spirit and flesh, so that’s a no. Would more free time allow me to achieve a Spirit-based mindset? Well, if how I use my free time now is any indicator, I’d probably find a way to squander that too. What about more sleep? Would that help me in this struggle? Real talk: as someone who has only had a handful of uninterrupted nights over the past ten years, I’m going to mark this one as a maybe.

No, the struggle isn’t ever going to end as long as I am in this body. In other words, the struggle will actually kill me. But here’s some amazing news: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

Christ dwells in me – that’s not something I have achieved, it’s the promise of my baptism. That knowledge leads me on through the struggle. Knowing that I’m surrounded on every side by the support of a Christian community, like the one we’re in together at First Lutheran, encourages me too. And we have the gift of the promised Spirit among us to “help us in our weakness” and daily forgive our sins in the name of Jesus Christ. Yes, the struggle is real, but God is greater!

See you in church,
Pastor Katherine

The [Ongoing] Struggle of Faith

The [Ongoing] Struggle of Faith
Pugnat Fides
(Romans 7:7-25a)

This coming weekend, we will be tackling a classic text in our ongoing summer series on Romans, where St. Paul the diagnostician absolutely nails what we so often experience: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  And this experience is especially exacerbated for the Christian, because we think, “Hey, if I’m baptized … I’m free from sin … and I’ll be like this amazingly wonderful and perfect person.” Not! But why not? What’s going on here?!

In his recent work entitled, Lutheran Theology (which is basically a biblical-theological analysis of the book of Romans) … my cherished friend and theologian extraordinaire of now some four-score-and-more-years … Dr. Steve Paulson leads us into this discussion of: “What’s going on here?" with the following observation:

"Fresh up from the water and preached word of baptism, united with Christ in his death and by faith in his resurrection, one expects the full glory of God (the Hebrew tikkun when all creation is mended and Israel is rectified). But instead of glory, the baptized immediately endure a spiritual attack fiercer than before! Who could have anticipated the justification of sinners did not end life’s struggles, but started it? What other struggle is left in life once sin is over? The legal [self-help] schemes’ struggle is conceived as a ladder of perfection that sinners seek to climb, but faith’s struggle (pugnat fides) is to listen only to Christ’s promise against all contrary experience – and [as we all experience] nothing is more contrary than death. … If baptism worked, shouldn’t the law be silent and ‘I’ be without sin? No. The difficulty is that the law is right; sin remains after baptism – and we feel it. Does this not put the lie to Christ, or at least to church teaching on baptism? This is the [heart of the matter] of Chapter 7 [of Romans] (p.170-171, 174)."

 So, what is the concluding response to this our question, placed in the voice of St. Paul at the end of Chapter 7: “Wretched person that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And … what is this "promise of Christ" – contrary to all experience, even death – that we should constantly be reminding one another, and listening to, as a Christian family? Come and give a listen this weekend at Saturday night Vespers and again come Sunday morning worship. We’ll also be drawing upon the sage, J.R.R. Tolkien and his famous Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring story for some illustrative “fire-power.”

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Roots and Fruits

“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). This Sunday we explore what it means to live in Christ, without the possibility to sin.

Baptism into Christ is both a Christian’s greatest comfort and assurance, and the sinners' greatest fear. Therefore you are always caught in the middle between new and old, comfort and fear. On one hand, you have the promise of forgiveness and eternal life from Christ – but it’s only a promise. And on the other hand, you have yourself, your talents, your accomplishments and (most importantly) your heart. Which one rules you?

We all hope, in vain, that we can keep both. We imagine that baptism is just a washing off of some dirt that surrounds our life. But Romans 6 insists that it is far more. Baptism unites us with Christ, specifically it unites us with his death and life, and therefore baptism is both the beginning of our life in Christ and the end of our life in ourselves. It cannot be any other way. For all that you do, earn, or produce leads to death, and everything that Christ gives is life. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Death Un – Done

Tennessee Williams

At the conclusion of this week’s focus on Chapter 6, in our summer series on the Book of Romans, St. Paul witnesses: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23; RSV). A good deal of the first half of St. Paul’s letter is spent showing how Sin and Death go together. He wants us to understand that death is not simply a natural process, but a Power (cf. Ephesians 6:11) linked with Sin to deal destruction to our human race.

This is not a popular concept in our optimistic, positive-thinking America, but the great writers have understood it – especially the great prophetic playwrights of 20th century America. One such playwright was Tennessee Williams. Today, if you take a walking tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans, you’ll see the house on St. Peter Street where “Tennessee” wrote his most famous play – while living on the third floor. He’d been tinkering with various titles for it – making his final decision when he realized that the house he was living in was located between two streetcar lines. One streetcar went in one direction to Desire, the other went the opposite direction to Cemeteries. There it is: Sin (desire) and Death (cemeteries). The devices and desire of our own hearts’ imprison us in Sin, and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23; cf. 7:24). And we all live in this house. So are we stuck here? … Is this our permanent address? …

 In Chapter 6 of Romans, St. Paul leaves behind the long descriptions of how we have fallen into the grip of Sin and launches into a kind of rhapsody about what happens to Christians when we are baptized.  

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,
so that [and here comes the life-giving good news!] as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
(Romans 6:3-4)

This coming weekend, think about your own baptism and the baptism of your children, and others whom you love (such as little Michael, Christian, and Carson who will be baptized into the life of Christ this weekend, among our family of faith at First Lutheran). Think also on this: all the things we find upsetting about ourselves, the habits we cannot seem to shake, the personality traits that get us in trouble, the secret obsessions and perversions that we struggle to hide even from ourselves – all of this has been put to death. Yes, as St. Paul and Martin Luther observe: the old Adam in us still weighs us down with sin; however, because we now live in Christ, the new Adam … sin and death no longer determine us (Romans 5:12-18; cf. I Corinthians 5:15). We are sinners, yes, but everything has changed because we are now justified sinners by God’s saving grace in Christ – who has overcome our Sin and Death by taking it upon himself.

In the biography, "Conversations with Tennessee Williams" by Albert Devlin, we learn that the house Williams finally owned and lived in on Toulouse Street was not his first choice. Rather, he had wanted to buy a large old Victorian on the corner of Orleans and Dauphine. The reason he wanted it was that the upper windows afforded a view of the statue of Christ behind the St. Louis Cathedral. Christ is lifting his hands in blessing, and at night the spotlights cast a shadow much larger than the statue itself, making the statue’s embrace seem universal. Tennessee said that it seemed to him as if Christ was comforting the suffering world and it gave him a sense of peace to look at it. Perhaps Tennessee had the Psalmist’s word of blessed assurance in mind, even in the valley of the shadow: “And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6b). Another sage author, with deep insight into our fallen, yet redeemed human condition in Christ’s resurrection, shares this amazing witness:

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …
Why swellest thou thee? One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

(John Donne; Holy Sonnets #10)

Bring your “swim-suits” this weekend…
We’ll be having baptisms at every worship service :) How perfect!

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Hope in the Face of Suffering

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This Sunday, we'll begin a summer sermon series on the Book of Romans. Out of our selected scripture passage for Sunday, we will focus in on these famous words, written by the Apostle Paul:

"We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Yes, we'll reflect on what it means to live in this world as people of hope, even in the midst of suffering. We'll also reflect on how God alone, by the power of the Spirit, can lead us from a place of suffering into hopeful and joyful living.

We'll also keep coming back to this question: "How can we continue to live in this world as people of hope, even though many of our wishes may remain unfulfilled?"

I'll be honest; I still have a lot of work to do on my message for Sunday! For now, I will leave you with a prayer written by Henri Nouwen in his wonderful little book “With Open Hands.” In God's hands alone we place our reflections, questions, and prayers regarding suffering – for it is in God that we ultimately find rest for our aching and longing souls. 

Dear God,
I am full of wishes, 
full of desires,
full of expectations.
Some of them may be realized, many may not, but in the
midst of all my satisfactions and disappointments,
I hope in you.
I know that you will never leave me alone
and will fulfill your divine promises.
Even when it seems that things are not going my way,
I know that they are going your way
and in the end your way is the best way for me.
O Lord, strengthen my hope,
especially when my many wishes are not fulfilled.
Let me never forget that your name is Love.
Amen.

Amen, indeed. See you in church,
Pastor Katherine

All Authority

Holy Trinity

Jesus says that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). In the word authority, we normally hear echos of power and permission, like calling the “authorities.” The police show up, order is restored, and peace in the community resumes. That is certainly part of what Jesus is saying, but there is a whole other level to Jesus’ authority that is closer to that of an author of a novel, who writes and creates the story. Even more than enforcing peace and protecting freedom, Jesus has the authority to create an original peace, and to bestow freedom upon those bound in sin.

This is the work of the triune God, the Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God comes into creation, which God created and called good - even though we experience it as sometimes bad - to redeem us from all that would hold us captive. Jesus is the author and giver of life, light, peace, and freedom to all who are powerless against death, darkness, chaos and bondage and by his creating word he sends us out to bring his creative and redeeming world to all in need.

That’s called the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19). Sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God, God’s new creation in Christ, not on our authority, but on Jesus’ authority. For he promises to be with us always, to the end of the age.

The Frozen Chosen

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi, 2013

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi, 2013

This weekend we celebrate the festival Sunday of Pentecost.  As you will note from its etymology, the word Pente-cost comes from the Latin or Greek root words for “fifty.”  Thus, it symbolizes the fullness of fifty days after the Passover/Easter events, when the Spirit of the risen Christ descended upon the disciples who were gathered together in Jerusalem, and then filled-to-the-brim with the Geist (“Spirit”) and gusto of Christ – to share his saving, gospel word.  Ten days prior to Pentecost, before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he had prepared his disciples hearts with these words of promised presence and divine direction: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; RSV.  Cf. Matthew 28:18-20).

And so, as you’ve probably already inferred, Pentecost is often referred to by biblical scholars as “the birthday of the church.”  Note how Dr. Luke depicts the Pentecost event for us in our reading for this coming Sunday, in Acts 2.  I mean, it’s a real Barn-Burner!  Dr. Luke is drawing upon imagery here from Exodus 19 when God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai: the wind is whipping, lightning and fire is flashing, the mountain top is enveloped in clouds of thick smoke.  And now, some 3500 years later, we see the disciples in the Acts 2 account so jazzed by the power of the Holy Spirit that they come down from their upper room apartment, running-out into the crowded streets of Jerusalem, and appearing as though they’d drunk a whole case of Red Bull with Tequila chasers!  They’re speaking in foreign tongues, waving their arms with joy, and sharing the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin and new life – with total strangers!  Just like any typical Lutheran congregation.  Right?!  However … there’s another account of Pentecost in the New Testament that we too often gloss-over, because it’s, well, too familiar.  Or maybe we just don’t pay close enough attention to the gentle breath marks of the score …

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This second account is not as hopped-up on adrenaline or full of bravado as most 21st century dramas go.  It’s not entertaining enough.  And … let’s be honest, it’s perhaps just too personal.  This second account of Pentecost I’m referring to is in our Gospel text for this weekend: from John 20:11-23.  It’s about locked doors and disciples hiding in the dark.  They’re frozen stiff.  They’re afraid of death.  I mean, look what happened to Jesus! … And so there’s a chilling silence of guilt and shame (as they had abandoned Christ, and had not yet heard anything more than just rumors of Jesus’ resurrection).  They felt like dirt.  But more importantly, through those locked doors and hearts enters the risen Christ, whose very presence begins to create a new body. Drawing here upon the imagery of Genesis 2:7, where God blows life even into the dirt of the earth – John’s account speaks of the dirt of sin and death that Jesus has also pushed back on that Easter morning.  And then, from out of nowhere … Jesus appears there … in the very midst of his cowering disciples, saying gently: “Peace be with you … as the Father has sent me, so now I send you … receive my Holy Spirit.”  And Jesus breathed on them.  And the Church was born.  Even among these Frozen Chosen.  And they are moved to tears of joy … melted for mission.

“People are the words through whom God continues to tell his story of  salvation.” (Edward Schillebeeckx; Church: The Human Story of God, p.xiii) 

 j.r. christopherson                                                                                                                                        

God’s Work, Our… Hands?

Arbeit Macht Frei [Work makes {you} free]. These words were found at the entrance gates to Nazi concentration camps in Europe during WWII. They were meant to instill a false sense of hope for the Jewish people brought to the camps – if you worked hard while there, you could earn your freedom. We all know how that turned out…

After Jesus ascension, the early church began to get the idea that by working to live according to the Law of Moses, you could earn your way into God’s favor (righteousness). The Apostle Paul writes his letter to the church in Galatia reminding them righteousness does not come by works, but that freedom comes through faith by what they have heard. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul reiterates that through the work of the Holy Spirit, freedom is only found when in faith we trust in God’s promises received in baptism and through hearing His Word.

We too struggle with works verses faith today. In recent years, the ELCA has utilized the mantra of “God’s Work. Our Hands.” This slogan encourages the social gospel, faith comes by what we do. In fact, our culture even demands it. As we send graduates out into the world, we tell them their success is measured by what they accomplish – what they do. Running on the hamster wheel of life, seeking freedom through wealth, title, status. What we are really accomplishing is  not freedom, but an early death. Freedom is never found in this cycle because it continues to demand more and more from you. This is success and it is never enough. While we are called to serve our neighbor, serving will never be freedom for you. Serving those you love is never freeing for you. It is the demand of the law.

If we lean into this Galatians chapter 3 text and hear what St. Paul is teaching, we too will turn from ourselves and what we do to chase freedom. We will turn to the work of the Holy Spirit, to God’s proper work. “God’s Work. Our Ears!” Freedom is found through the ear, not through a strong back and calloused hands. Freedom only comes most fully in faith, and faith comes by what is heard; God’s Word of promise made in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Christ who lives in me

When Jesus tells his followers, including us, that we must lose our lives, deny ourselves, and leave our old life behind to find our life in him, we become truly disciples. This isn't because we now understand everything clearly and know just what Jesus means, but on the contrary we are like disciples who hear Jesus' word but quickly move beyond because we don't know what it means. It seems too spiritual, theoretical, perhaps philosophical. How are we to understand what it means to die in order to live?

At the very center of the Christian Church stands the witness of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. That is that he was crucified and died at the hands of sinners, and three days later he rose from the dead to proclaim peace and forgiveness to those same sinners. We know the facts, but we struggle - as do the disciples in every generation - to grasp what it means for us. 

In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul insists that Christian faith stands not in our understanding, but in trusting in Christ, not in theory, philosophy, or generic spirituality. For we live by faith, by which "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:11).

No small dissension and debate (Acts 15:2a)

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It was now a few months after the Pentecost event (i.e. the birthday of the church; see Acts 2). And already, a “council meeting” had to be called at church headquarters in Jerusalem. Why? Because there was, to use the language of our scripture for today … “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) … that was stirring in one of the newly created congregations in Antioch. Can you believe it?! Only a few months into this new creation called “church,” and there was already trouble in paradise. Go figure. (Not really.  Whenever human critters are involved – even in church.) And it was brewing to become a real doozy…

O, Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) … and then the creation of the Church as his Spirited ongoing body in the world (Acts 1:6-9) started off rather beautifully … one might even say, intoxicatingly so (Acts 2:13). Again, as our text bears witnesses: “[People] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). But then, when the proverbial sandal began to hit the road …

So, the apostles and elders have now gathered in Jerusalem to settle what had become a rather serious division … What was the issue? Once more, our text sets the stage: “Then certain individuals (most likely Pharisees) came down from Judea and were teaching the [new Christian] brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). Do you agree? What does Scripture say? What do you suppose the apostles and elders are going to say? As with Shylock, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Pharisees certainly wanted to exact their “pound of flesh.”

Peter was presiding as the chairman. (He was after all, the Pope now, right?). “Microphone One, please state your case.” The response: “Ah, yes … Mr. Chairman, we’re here from Antioch. And we have good Bible study groups every Wednesday night. We’ve been studying Ezra. And we believe the Bible and Ezra says, ‘Get rid of the foreigners. Even if you’re married to one. Get rid of the foreigners.’ That’s all I have to say.  Thank you.”

“OK,” said Peter. “Microphone Two, we’ll now hear from you.” … “Well, we also have a nice Bible study group back home in our little fishing town of Capernaum, and we’re studying Ruth. Such a wonderful lady.  She was the ancestress of King David, and of our Lord, Jesus you know. And she was a Moabite. And if our Lord had Moabite blood in his veins, isn’t this OK for us to do this?  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”    

“I see one of our distinguished Pharisee brothers coming to Microphone Three,” said Peter.  “Go ahead …” “Yes, we’re here from First Temple Christian here in Jerusalem. And it’s clear to us from the reading of Torah and the Prophets, that ‘It is necessary for [any new converts to Christianity] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and addressed all who were attending that first council meeting … See you on Sunday (if possible, please read Acts 1-15 beforehand for a better understanding), as we hear how the whole case comes to rest upon God’s grace, in Christ.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Good Questions

This Sunday’s Scripture reading tells the story of an Ethiopian court official whose encounter with the evangelist Philip led him to faith in Christ (Acts 8:26-39). This Ethiopian Jew (yes, they exist!) of very high ranking and stature had recently traveled in his fancy “company chariot” to worship in Jerusalem and was headed back home on a wilderness road when Philip encountered him there, reading from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Philip (who was something of a “nobody” in the presence of this powerful official) boldly asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

I’m struck by the humility with which the Ethiopian responded to Philip’s inquiry. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that this court official was much more highly educated than the evangelist, and this distinction of status, class and education probably was evident to them both. I wouldn’t blame the Ethiopian for responding defensively to Philip’s line of questioning. “Excuse me? Don’t you know who I am? Are you aware of my qualifications, and the many responsibilities that my queen entrusts to me? And just who are you, anyway?” But no, his response to Philip is nothing like that. His question, “How can I, unless someone guides me,” indicates this foreigner’s openness to learning more, receiving new insight and growing as a person of faith. In fact, everything out of this man’s mouth in the rest of the story is a question – and these questions, good questions, are what the Holy Spirit uses to finally draw him into faith in Jesus Christ.

Questions – we shouldn’t be afraid of having them, we shouldn’t be afraid of asking them. We shouldn’t be afraid of looking stupid or think that the only purpose of questions is to harm faith or keep God at arms’ length. The Ethiopian official used questions as a way to invite another man of faith to help him achieve deeper insight, and in order to draw even closer to the truth found in God’s word. At the end of the story, the Ethiopian was claimed by Christ in the waters of baptism and became filled with newfound joy. Is it any surprise that the church in Ethiopia traces its origins back to this humble and inquisitive fellow, and the church in Ethiopia is strong and vibrant still today?

He Never Stops

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The Holy Spirit comforts, encourages, pushes and pulls upon us so that our lives give witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This happens in ways that we don't often recognize. In our families as we pray together, with our friends as we listen with care, and to visitors and guests of our congregation simply by gathering for worship. In fact, God has called each of us into specific service, work, jobs and relationships where by our lives we give thanks, praise and witness to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. 

Our scripture lesson from Acts 6 & 7 this weekend make this very clear. Stephen (and six others) are selected to run a new ministry that has one goal: make sure the widows get food. The apostles will take care of preaching the Word of God, so you know just what is going to happen. The rest of Acts 6 & 7 is Stephen preaching. His ministry, his service, is intertwined with his preaching the gospel. It's as if the Holy Spirit called him into a job in order that he would witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus in his food ministry.

Be careful, however. For where the gospel is preached in this world, opposition arises, and the distinction between witness and martyrs vanish. So be bold in your witness, and never stop caring, encouraging and forgiving in Jesus' name.

Pastor Lars

Between Emmaus and Us … The Word of Hope!

“That very day [Easter Sunday] two of the disciples were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened [Jesus’ crucifixion the precious Friday]. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad. … [And they answered:] “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet might in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one [the Messiah] to redeem Israel.’” (Luke 24:13-17, 19-21a)

Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem just three days before – right before their eyes. And now … well, there was nothing left for these two disciples in our gospel story to do but get out of town. And where did they go? They went to a little town called Emmaus. And where is Emmaus? And why did they go there? It was no place in particular really – most likely their home (though we can only infer this from Luke 24:28-29), some seven miles from Jerusalem. And the main reason they went “back home” is that their future hopes had been heartbreakingly crushed. Did you hear it? “But we had hoped …” (v.21)

Do you understand what I mean when I say that there is not a one of us who’s not gone to some Emmaus with them? Emmaus can be a night at the movies just for the sake of seeing a movie, or to a bar just for the sake of a bar, or yes, just going for a walk. Emmaus may be buying a new article of clothing or getting some groceries we don’t need, or just “surfing the net” or flicking through the channels on the TV, vegging-out.

In many ways, we too are like these two early disciples, depicted by St. Luke in our Gospel story for this weekend … Carrying this empty hole in our hearts that speaks of loss … Loss of loved ones or friends, or just flat out, love! Loss of health or some great expectations. Or perhaps the deepest loss of all, as already referenced, echoed in v.21 of our Gospel story: “But we had hoped …” Four of the loneliest words in Holy Scripture.

Think on this with me: Do you remember a time as well, when Jesus was so real for you that you had no question about his presence in your life. He was your most intimate friend. A comforter. An inspiration. But now you don’t really think of him very often. You no longer have that special feeling. He’s become unrecognizable, a “stranger” (v.16). Somehow you feel you’ve lost him? Hmm?

So what do we do with this huge sense of loss – “but we had hoped” – that hits our lives? Try to fill it with stuff or distraction? Blame someone else? Try to “strut-and-fret” but really not signifying anything with honesty? I love this line from Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter: “The man kept speaking of his gracious heart, but it seemed that a long deep surgical operation would have been required to find it” (Penguin Books, 1977; p.47).

No amount of make-up will cover it all… However, there’s another possibility; and that is this, to grieve our losses. To grieve is to allow our losses to soften and break apart our feelings of security and self-centeredness and lead us to the painful truth of our brokenness. And this is where our journey of faith begins anew – as this gospel word of God in Christ – comes to us on our Emmaus Road, beginning with the Kyrie in our order of worship this coming weekend. These two Greek words are short-hand for Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”). It’s a grieving, contrite heart that recognizes our co-responsibility for the evil that surrounds us and is in us, and that we need a saving hope, a resurrecting power that’s beyond our human strength or worldly power. And so the early disciples confess: “… our chief priests and rulers [and we ourselves] delivered Jesus up to be condemned to death” (v.20)

Again, there is this wonderful “however” … something amazing, life-giving, hope-renewing that’s about to happen in this story for the disciples and for us as well … Come and see. Come and hear. Come and be renewed … that your hearts as well might “burn within you,” (Luke 24:32). Yes, with hope … as God’s Word comes and speaks to you, afresh, anew.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

This Is Easter!

 “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him
in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘My Teacher’).”
–John 20:16

Mary! This is Jesus’ shortest sermon in the Gospel of John and, one of the most dramatic and life changing: Mary! The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and “calls them by name” … AND his sheep “know his voice” (John 10:3-4). This one life giving Word, as at creation (“And God said …” see Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26; cf. John 1:1-5; 20:1), Mary’s own name – spoken by the very death conquering Word of God, “the Word made flesh” himself (John 1:18) – changed her whole life.

 “And she turned … In the one or two seconds this turn took, the world shifting ever so slightly on its axis and at about this turn’s one-second midpoint trajectory, history, too, moved almost imperceptively from B.C. to A.D. A second before this turn there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of inconquerable death; a second after the beginning of this turn there is a woman in the deepest possible human elation, in the presence of the death-conquering Central Figure of history. The rush that must have come over Mary in her two-second turn is unimaginable. She is the first person, ever, to experience the personal presence of the Risen Lord. When she turns to Jesus at this moment, as his voice broke the darkness of it all into light (cf. John 1:4-5), human history took a turn into the light of a hope that is eternal.

And Mary said to Jesus in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni! (which means ‘My Teacher’). In five short syllables, “Mar-y” and “Rab-bon-i” … and in just about that many seconds the world became a whole new place. Death, once final, has met its match. There is a reality – Someone – more final than death who calls Mary’s name into his very breath of new life. And so it is for you, this Easter day. And Jesus said: “____________” (Say your name here.)

 And so listen-in to this powerfully poetic reflection by one of our former senior pastors of First Lutheran Church (1952-1955), later President of Luther Theological Seminary … a great patriarch and witness in the faith for many, Dr. Al Rogness:  

“The Easter resurrection is as cataclysmic an event today as it was then. Death is
destroyed! It does not have the last word. In the wake of Christ’s resurrection, a new life
 is in store for everyone who hears and believes it. Because Christ lives, we too can live – in
a kingdom and among riches that are as glorious as they are endless. … 

Without Easter the world would spin on its melancholy axis with no great morn
dawning, doomed to keep people in bondage to their anxieties and cupidities, in aimless
repetition until death overtakes them. The best they could hope for would be simply to endure.
Why long for something better? Why aspire to something new? 

Nothing in all the world has so enchanted and haunted people down through the
centuries as has the event of Easter. Whole civilizations have been changed because people
have [heard and believed the good news] that death does not have the last word. They have
clung to the Risen Christ, and he has clung to them, and together they have reshaped the hopes of the world. There is forgiveness, there is victory, there is love and courage and
an everlasting future. This is Easter!” (The Word For Every Day; p.376)

 Come and join the family of faith, gathered at First Lutheran this coming Sunday – in all of its joy-filled, festive fanfare of brass, choirs of all ages, holy communion, and pipe-organ … with all the stops pulled – including Widor’s famous Toccata!

Click to view the Easter Worship bulletins.

Dr. John R. Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Locked In

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem

It's easy to miss the triumphant tragedy in Palm Sunday's scriptures, as Jesus enters into Jerusalem. The crowds are cheering, singing, honoring and giving Jesus a hero's welcome into the city. There is great excitement, and high expectations, for Jesus to be the new king to bring in peace and glory. Our eyes are blind and our ears clogged with images of power and might on a festival day like this, just as the crowds were in Jerusalem that day. Jesus already sees what we do not. He sees that we are all locked in. He is locked in to the cross and can see nothing else. He is on his way to die for the sins of the world. We are all locked into Jesus being a glorious new king and refuse to see and hear any truth but what we already know. 

So Jesus enters Jerusalem, not as the end point of his ministry, but an intensification. He has already born the guilt and shame of sinners, endured the rejection of the world, and won acclaim for his teaching, healing and miracles. Yet now, he will suffer. He is locked into suffering at the hands of everyone who is locked into to sinning against him. While the crowds cheer him on, he weeps for them, for the things of God are hidden from their eyes. 

The cheers acclaiming his arrival will, within the week, turn to cheers for his crucifixion. There is no avoiding or escaping it. 

Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, where we pray that you would see not Jesus in his glorious acceptance by the powers of the world, but instead would hear his word of forgiveness and new life given to the world that rejects and despises him. Come and experience the glory of Jesus on his cross and the suffering he endured for the people he loves so much.

Maundy Thursday we celebrate Jesus' Last Supper, where he gives the disciples – those who betray, deny, and forsake him – his last will and testament, his promise of an inheritance upon his death, so that when he dies they will have exactly what he left for them: forgiveness of sin.

Good Friday we listen to Jesus suffer and die, giving himself over to sinners, dying at their hands, losing a no-win situation whereby death itself will be killed. 

All this so that we can celebrate Easter Sunday, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Click for Holy Week worship times