Monthly Archives: April 2008

04-20-08 DISICPLESHIP

DISICPLESHIP

Micah 6: 1-8; Mark 8: 33-37

 

This week I learned that one of our young adults is enlisting in the Marines. My brother was a Marine and my father-in-law was a Marine.  They are both changed by their experience with in the armed forces. When this young man joins, a boot camp will steel him; unexpected demands will tax him; his body will ache and his mind will best tested. He will be changed into a different young man; one with different loyalties and devotions. One of the hallmarks of the Marines is discipline, taken from the Latin root “disciplina” which means “instruction or knowledge.” A similar word, discipleship, is our theme for today, coming from the same root but a different form of it; in Latin a disciple is a “discipulus,” a learner. Notice that neither root has a punitive nature; a Marine exhibits discipline as he is taught the ways of justice, mercy, and in some cases, reverence, as he gains knowledge for his job; a disciple is a life-long learner also, learning about- incidentally- justice, mercy, and reverence.  The young man I saw this week will be going through some major life transformations over the next months; whether or not his parents support or have concerns about his choice, he will be taking this step on his own; his drill sergeant will be his teacher for this new stage of his life. Many people who have been in a church since they were born have little understanding of how becoming a converted disciple of Jesus is not unlike an enlisted man or woman undergoes disciplined military training. People change under such life choices as serving God and/or serving country. Sometimes young disciples follow Jesus, either with parent support or without it. New disciples “set their face towards Jerusalem” if they are to give of their best to the Master.  In other words, they think kingdom thoughts, deciding how they can do the right thing in all their work and personal relationships; how they can show justice (according to Micah how they can be gentle in some instances and principled in them all, showing kindness even in their harshest of conflicts; and how to put Jesus first instead of themselves. Like the instruction a football coach teaches his players (there’s no “I” in team!) or like the Marine who leaves no Marine wounded on a battlefield and protects one another in battle, thinking about others and being a team becomes a new way of living. Disciples of Jesus begin thinking that way as well, thinking about others, and walking humbly with their God.

 

The teacher training manual for DISCIPLE Bible Study lists 34; count them, 34 marks of discipleship, which you will gladly note we will not cover here. But discipleship matters. Principled Christian and caring human being Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only 39 when he, as a Christian protesting against the Third Reich, was executed in the concentration camp in Flossenburg on April 9, 1945. He had stood with brothers and sisters in the human race, as he believed his Lord Jesus would have done, and the cost of his discipleship was high. He once wrote “What can the call to discipleship mean today for the worker, the business man, the squire, and the soldier? … And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. …May we be enabled to say ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to the sinner. May we withstand our foes and yet hold out to them the Word of the gospel which woos and wins their souls.” THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP, 1963, MacMillan, p. 41-42. Likewise, in his popular work called MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST, Oswald Chambers reminds other workers for God that “Our work is not to save souls, but to disciple them. Salvation and sanctification are the work of God’s sovereign grace, and our work as His disciples is to disciple other’s lives until they are totally yielded to God.” [Discovery House Publishers, 1992, p. 4-24] Discipleship, it seems is to fulfill the high calling, originally described by Micah and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth.

 

As Jesus walked around Galilee preaching, or confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem, there were many layers of people who heard him. Some were those who happened by, caught a word, and stopped to listen. You have done that, perhaps listening in at a check out stand, a restaurant, or watching a political rally, overhearing a strident discussion. You listen, you consider, but the words don’t cause you to commit to a new cause, and your life is not measurably changed by it. Those are people who just happen by, like those who first heard Jesus. Some go to church that way and some are likely even here today. They were invited by a friend, or drove by and thought they’d try it, or are just church shopping. Some are looking to sample what is being marketed, and so they window shop or taste the message or the meal. Neither Jesus nor his message of salvation for the world and living differently appears to affect them.  They just are there, but not committed. Neither in this life or the next will they know Jesus as Savior nor will Jesus know them as saved. That’s the down side of not getting involved or expressing commitment.

 

Another group in Jesus’ day was the curious. They came around Jesus and stayed to listen; they wandered from place to place with him, staying for a morsel of fish or a piece of bread, or to witness Jesus talking with old men and outcast women. They didn’t throw their heart into following him, by speaking up and committing themselves to Jesus, but they were, as they still are called today, seekers; seekers after Jesus; seekers after learning; seekers after the truth. Some of you might be seekers today.  Seekers are not yet ready for commitment; they don’t believe they’ve learned enough to decide for Jesus.  Being a good learner is a wonderful life attribute; but for those who are ONLY learners without being willing to learn on the job, they stay at a youngster level of spiritual development while those willing to work or try take leadership roles. There is a place to be a seeker; but it is not a place to get stuck. Jesus had plenty of seekers following him; but he could not count on them or commission them for the urgent Kingdom work that was on his plate. Jesus worked with flawed disciples who followed him.  

 

We know that there were 12 that Jesus called apostles; but if we were naming disciples, we would certainly have to add Zacchaeus, Martha, her brother John, and sister Mary, Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus to name a few.  They were devoted to Jesus, supporting him as they worked to understand his teachings. They sought to let others see the great work that meant the Kingdom of God was at hand; and we can believe that they worked for justice and for God in loving ways during their lives.  Those who did that were changed people. They were called disciples.

 

Now Jesus is not asking you to join the Marines today; but ages of faith songs have asked us to be “soldiers of the cross.” Some cringe at that language. But if your body, mind, and soul are declared, “fit for duty,” then it is by personal decision that you offer yourself in service to him. That means you will seek to do justice in your work and in your school, to love kindness in they way you carry out your life among others, and some will have to step down from their worldly princess or prince throne, and let the Prince of Peace and King of Kings take his place on the throne of your life.  If you just happen by a church, you may experience hospitality but without commitment to him you are not a disciple. If you are just curious about Christ, remember that learning about him does not sign you up for him to know that he can count on you. Instead, you are still a seeker, a learner about a Kingdom where Jesus really needs leaders. Jesus even chose flawed leaders-like Peter and Martha, the brother of Lazarus- as his support team for ministry. Jesus needs you too! So if you do decide to be a disciple of the Lord, like the young man who enlisted, you will change from a wandering or wondering child to a committed follower, ready to work for a cause and learn along the way. Perhaps you have already done that. Disciples fail too, but they have steadfastly decided for Christ. The Church needs disciples; the world needs disciples; Jesus needs disciples, not only in the first century, but in the twenty-first century. Is Jesus calling you softly and tenderly; is he calling you urgently and repeatedly? How will you respond? Disciples have the blessing of knowing Jesus through a fervent prayer life and study life; Jesus knows them as well like a shepherd knows his sheep; and there is great reward in the final victory after living a life of Christian blessings and opportunities. What will you do? What have you said? Make it clear again where you stand, as we offer our prayers to Jesus:

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Lord: some here are ready to sign up today: sign them up as your disciples, willing to learn, and work, and serve. Some have been disciples for a long time, and we pray that you feel blessed by them. Perhaps some will move today from seeker to disciple, or from passer-by to seeker.  All that we do is for you, dear Lord Jesus, and all you do is for the glory of your Father. To God, our Three in One we say: envelope us with your hope for justice, mercy, and humble and holy living, and give us ears to hear and hearts to respond. Here we are Lord. Send and use your disciples. In your precious name we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  April 20, 2008

04-13-08 WHAT IS WORSHIP

What is Worship

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

 

    16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

 

What is worship?

 

Well, first of all, I have a secret to tell you. Sitting here today isn’t necessarily worshipping God.

 

Today is April 13th and if you’re mind is more on the taxes due Tuesday than on God right now, you aren’t worshipping God.

 

The beautiful sanctuary with its wonderfully set communion table, the choir and its sacred music, the mighty organ, the fellowship of believers around you, all mean nothing if you aren’t responding to God.

 

The Lord is here today not because this is a church. Scripture tells us that God does not dwell in temples made with hands. So God isn’t here because this is a church building. The truth is that God’s come this morning because you came, and even if two people come together in his name, he is in their midst.

 

Where you are at isn’t what matters. It is what is in the mind and heart that matter. See, this worship service isn’t for you. Its for God. And the service doesn’t just consist of me and Jeff and the choir – it includes all of you sitting out there as well. You are not the audience – God is.

 

So if God’s glance happens to fall upon you sitting there on the stage of this worship service for him, would what you are doing be pleasing? Would you be an enthusiastic participant in our service or only a bored extra?

 

Is what you are doing today truly for God?

 

Perhaps the most powerful description of authentic worship comes from the lips of Jesus in John 4. Here we find the Savior in the midst of a deep discussion with a Samaritan woman, the famed “woman at the well.” After speaking of water, both physical and spiritual, and after Jesus tells her of her own private life, she changes the subject to religion.

 

She hooks her thumb toward Mount Gerazim and says: Our fathers worshiped on this mountain and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.

 

Jesus skillfully sidesteps the question of location and drives for the subject of motivation in verses 21 and 22. It was not an issue of Mount Gerazim or Jerusalem. Worship was and is an issue of the heart. Jesus says “true worshipers” worship the Father “in spirit and truth.” He says that “the Father is seeking such to worship him.” He says that “God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

 

Worship of God in spirit and truth does not point to an internal, spiritualized worship but to a form of worship that reflects and is shaped by the character of God. “God is spirit” not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit.

 

It seems to me that churches tend to major on one or the other but rarely are balanced with both aspects of worship. On one hand, you have those who emphasize the spirit to the point of extreme. Jump a pew, laugh your guts out or fall over and pass out. Sway your arms and close your eyes, but it doesn’t matter what you are saying as long as you feel connected to God and the world around you.

 

But the thing is, it does matter what you say. We are clearly asked to worship God in truth – and speak faithfully to Scripture. What we feel when we are not in the truth is generated entirely by us and not by God’s presence at all.

 

Just as guilty are those who take such a high view of truth that they have neglected the spirit. Speaking of this, Gene Getz writes, “Our greatest strength has helped create some of our greatest problems.” He indicates that we have so elevated the Bible and Bible teachers that we ignore the spiritual, emotional aspects of worship. He says, further: “Our failure to provide balanced New Testament experiences for believers has resulted in an emphasis on correct doctrine and knowledge of the Scripture, but has neglected other important needs that create mature Christian personalities. Consequently, we have moved toward a sterile, though biblical, orthodoxy—a very dangerous move in the direction of institutionalized religion.”

 

We need to seek both truth and the spirit. One without the other is folly. Who says we can’t interpret the Scripture with integrity and yet have worship that touches the heart? Our goal should be balance.

 

Whatever else we might believe about Christian worship, it is essentially and necessarily a response to God. It is our reaction to a God who has initiated relationship with us, reaching out to us in love and grace through Jesus Christ.

 

Yet have you any idea how easy it is to substitute human traditions for that response to God?

 

I’ve noticed that there’s some little thing for everyone that makes a church service right. For some it’s the correct hymns, others it’s the design of the sanctuary or the arrangement of the communion table. For me it was the benediction my dad used when I was a child. He used the same one for awhile, and it was about the age when I started paying attention in church. Before long I had it memorized and would mouth the words along with him as he spoke. Whenever he didn’t say it, or we were visiting another church, I noticed the absence and the whole experience meant less for me.

 

Yet, we need to understand that these are external things. These do help, but they’re not necessary. Having straight candles and a pretty sanctuary are indeed nice, but God is still there if something isn’t perfect. Hearing the benediction I was used to was a comfort to me, but it didn’t mean that God wasn’t there if I heard something else.

 

Rev. Terry Fullam tells a story about a small-town church in upstate New York. They’d had a rector in that church for over 35 years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young priest. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.

 

Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I have a feeling that there’s something wrong.”

 

The man said, “Well, Father, that’s true. I hate to say it, but it’s the way you do the Communion service.”

 

“The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?”

 

“Well, it’s not so much what you do as what you leave out.”

 

“I don’t think I leave out anything from the Communion service.”

 

“Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalice and wine to the people, he’d always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would—”

 

“Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition.”

 

So the younger man called the former rector. He said, “I haven’t even been here a month, and I’m in trouble.”

 

“In trouble? Why?”

 

“Well, it’s something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?”

 

“Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn’t shock them.”

 

For over 35 years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, “The Church of the Holy Radiator.” That’s a ludicrous example, but often it’s nothing more profound than that. Traditions get started, and people endure traditions for a long time. They mix it up with practical obedience to the living God. All of us know that practical obedience to the Word of God takes precedence over our traditions; still, we need reminders.

 

So, what do you have to do to have worship? Do you have to have a building? A pulpit? A communion table? What do you have to have beyond a people who gather in the name of Jesus Christ, who are assured of his presence with them as they come together to hear the Word and celebrate with their God?

 

During the middle school lock-in recently, we got up early enough to walk over to the beach at sunrise. We faced the ocean and took turns reading prayers. Sometimes it was hard to hear each other over the sound of the surf. Sometimes words were said incorrectly. But since it was done both in spirit, we each had picked prayers that moved us, and in truth, we had studied about prayer the night before so we knew why we were doing it, our little service was true worship.

 

We are here to respond to God in spirit and truth. Our worship is for God! Naturally, this lends itself to our praise of God.

 

Now, let me give you a definition of praise: Praise is the spontaneous overflow of enjoyment. Maybe that’s why praise often seems so artificial in church. I wonder if it’s because our people have rarely understood that we are bidden to enjoy the Lord.

 

 

 

The Lord says, “I delight myself in you.” If the Lord said, “I endure you,” we’d understand it. If he said, “I forgive you,” we’d know we need it. But what he said is “I delight myself in you.” Some days I have trouble imagining why God, who has the fellowship of all creation, would want such a close relationship with you and me. Let’s face it: as human beings we tend to mess up. A lot. Why would he want to fellowship with us? Yet our God says he delights in us.

 

Here’s the other thing. The Scripture bids us to delight ourselves also in God. In a lot of churches, we’ve never learned that. We’ve learned to keep God in honor and reverence. To a lot of people, that means keeping the Lord at arm’s length. “Don’t get too close,” we say. The idea that we should actually enjoy the Lord seems indecent to people. Church is probably good for you, like medicine. But the idea that you’re supposed to enjoy it or delight in it is not firmly rooted in the hearts of a lot of American churchgoers. Other people in other churches and other denominations have gone way beyond us in understanding that we are to delight in the Lord. Praise is the spontaneous overflow of enjoyment. It’s the heavy on the Spirit part again.

 

So the real question is: Do you enjoy your God? If there’s no enjoyment there, there’ll be no praise. You may say the words and sing the songs, but there’ll be no praise there. Praise arises naturally. It just overflows when there’s delight in the heart. We Presbyterians have a great catechism, and the first question is this: “What is the chief end of man?” And we answer, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” For once, we’ve got it exactly right. It couldn’t be said better because to glorify God rightly would certainly be to enjoy him, and to enjoy him rightly would certainly be to glorify him. Now, how many of us can answer that way truthfully?

 

All of life is an act of worship and an opportunity to serve and please God. Your whole life—your waking, sleeping, eating, playing, making music, hitting a softball, making soup, discovering earthworms, worshiping, and serving—matters to the God of the universe. Go out and worship him with your whole heart, doing everything for the glory of our amazing, glorious God!

04-06-08 THE SACRAMENTS

THE SACRAMENTS

Exodus 12: 14-28; Mark 14: 12-26

 

 

Thank me if you choose; forgive me if you wish, but a primer in the sacraments is what is called for by our topic today.  According to church doctrine in the Protestant tradition, the sacraments are two- Baptism and Holy Communion, also called the Lord’ Supper or the Eucharist. In the Roman Catholic tradition there are seven. A sacrament (and Confirmation class members should take note of all of this since it will be on your test!) is something Jesus told us to continue to do until he comes again. Instructions for Baptism- which is the entrance into the community of faith- may be found in the Great Commission of Matthew 28: the instruction is to go into all the world baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it is understood it is with water, water set apart from common uses. We know that it is holy only in the fact that it is set apart; it can be Jordan River water or St. John’s River water from a local tap or other water as available. It is an act that says that God put his Holy Spirit in you as Jesus received upon his baptism as an example. It is an act that, like circumcision, says a child is part of God’s covenant, or like Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ,” it is a human act of devotion to Jesus as Savior. It is your day to have been born from above.  When Protestants took their stand describing beliefs different from Roman Catholicism teachings in the 16th century, they still said that those who were baptized twice were heretics, and they drowned convicted offenders by fastening weights to their tied-up bodies, heaving overboard from boats. Dreadful stuff, but they were quite serious about it: there is but one baptism as we will affirm in the Creed today, and being baptized twice offends God, Reformation Christians said.

 

The Sacrament of Holy Communion liturgy can be found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11. But as with Baptism, divisions regarding the Sacrament of Holy Communion also run deep today as well; all Christians have tried to faithfully interpret clues in Scripture, we nevertheless have Roman Catholics proclaiming that the bread is Christ’s actual body and the wine is his actual blood; Lutherans believe that Christ is “in and around” the bread; those who are Congregationalists like Baptists believe communion is a mostly a memorial for Jesus, and Presbyterians affirm the real presence of Christ, that is, he is truly present with us Spiritually in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. Are you tired from all of that doctrinal wrestling?  Again, those in the infancy of Protestantism in the 16th century said wrong belief would send them to eternal darkness. Churches began dividing into denominations with well-intended but different concluding results from each reading of Scripture. 

 

Presbyterians have been called “People of the Book.”  We believe in the Authority of the Word in Scripture as the inspired Word of God. But a minister is still ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. The old stereotype that Sacraments mattered to Catholics and preaching matters to Protestants is neither true nor accurate. Kimberly Bracken Long, one of Jenny’s instructors at Columbia Seminary, wrote “Again and again we see what John Calvin taught us: that the Word is food to us. To the psalmist, God’s word is like honey. Wisdom serves up a feast of bread and wine. Jesus is born in Bethlehem (a word meaning ‘House of Bread to give himself as the bread of life. As he teaches, he feeds, multiplying bread like manna in the desert. He cooks up an Easter breakfast on the beach. He reveals himself on the road to Emmaus in the breaking open of the word and in the breaking of bread. He who is the Word is shown forth in words and in meals [Italics mine] It is no wonder, then, that Augustine and then Calvin—to name just two—saw Word and Sacrament not as two separate entities but as two parts of one whole.” [CALL TO WORSHIP, Vol. 40.4, p. v.]

 

Of course, there are also other events that may be considered “sacramental,” times when, through mysterious blessing or a guiding light from above, we receive the grace of God.  Those born again events are pivotal in the lives of followers. There are those who were lost and are found in sacramental moments; there are also those who like deer thirsting for water, find it and drink with generous gladness. Finally, to paraphrase D. T. Niles, there is one beggar telling another where to find bread. Sacramental moments indeed! And the angels of Heaven, off in the distance, sing Holy, Holy, Holy!” or as we will hear with the Latin phrase in our sacrament today, “Sanctus!” Something ordinary gets set apart from common usage to make an extraordinary event holy in the sight of God.  Something is given to us that hits our “restart button;” sacramental moments can bless us with a do over! A voice whispers in our ears or is known in our hearts: “Go with God.” And we leave sacramental moments different from how we entered them.

 

Today is a day of sacrament. Remembering the mighty acts of God in the holy days Jews call Passover, we see that God wants to save us. Remembering the precious gift of God in Christ in the meal we now call the Lord’s Supper, we take the bread of life and the cup of salvation. On this side of Easter, it is the feast of victory for our God! So whatever is your burden, leave it for Jesus, and take his yoke upon you instead.  There is a reminder of blessing at the font, and there is food and drink at the table.  If you have been baptized you have been welcomed; if you partake of this food, you will be fed. What blessings we have from God! Prepare with me, for the sacramental moments that can make you hopeful, or breathless, or encouraged.  Let us sing praise to the God who wants to save us even now!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  April 6, 2008