Judas or Peter

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not feeling all that inspired this morning as I plink away at the keyboard to write my weekly eNews. Of course there are plenty of things happening, so there should be something worth observing and then sharing for the benefit of others.

I’m definitely an observer. I’m always watching. Well, that sounded a little creepy, didn’t it? Perhaps a better way to say it is that I’m always sorting. I’m always taking in as much of what’s going on around me as I can, and as I process it, I’m sorting it. I’m putting it into categories of thought.

But I’m not the only one who does this. You do it, too. We all do. In my case, after everything has been processed, the written word is its regular release valve.

But this morning, I’m sort of disinterested in opening the valve. And yet, here we are. I’m typing anyway. You’re reading. Now what?

I’ve established this regular duty that has blossomed into an expectation. That’s what. A good number have come to expect something from me by this eNewsletter every week all year long, and so now it is my responsibility to persevere—to filter my disinterest away and get the job done.

Maybe that’s where this free-thinking ramble is leading—to the topic of perseverance.

I don’t know about you, but I experience those times in my life where my resolve seems somewhat flimsy, my courage is minimal, and my strength feels as though it’s waning. Sometimes things are silent and dark, and I’ll catch myself mumbling beneath a breath, “I can’t go on.”

Everyone has those moments.

As I type this, what immediately comes to mind is a discussion we had in the Adult Bible study here at Our Savior a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how as human beings, when it comes to a right understanding of our Sin and what actually justifies us before God, we can find ourselves teetering at the edge of two categories of personality: Judas and Peter.

Both of these disciples found themselves steeped in the thickest mires of atrocious betrayal. Judas sold the Lord to His enemies. Peter denied association with Him, even calling down divine curses upon himself in order to mask his lies. Face to face with Jesus in both circumstances, who can survive such an act of deliberate dreadfulness against the one true God?

Judas gave up and is no more. But Peter persevered and was restored to the brethren.

What gives?

Faith in the all-availing sacrifice of Christ. Faith in the One whose love is greater than our betrayals. That’s what.

I don’t always know where I am in any given moment on the timeline. The darkness swirls. The headwinds are strong. I’ll say I can’t go on. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, I’ll know I can. I’ll know I must—and not because my relationship with Him requires that I earn my way back into His graces, but because He loves me. That love changes things completely. I must go on.

I mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago that I never usually go in the “what this means to me personally” direction while preaching, but I did anyway that day. Pondering the “Good Shepherd” text from John 10, I mentioned that from everything we’d heard from all of the readings combined (Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; John 10:11-16), the most meaningful part for me as an individual was the real, down in the trenches context in which the Word of God was leading. Side by side, the texts communicated that Jesus is truly the only One who can look upon me in my dreadful, filthy, ungrateful, and wandering state and still love me so incomparably that He would tuck me into His arm while He fights off the circling wolf packs of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Knowing that these monsters have been defanged through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my resolve becomes sturdier. My courage begins to overtake my fears. My strength returns. I can persevere.

I learn and relearn a valuable lesson each time I find myself despairing for the strength to take another step. I learn that for the Christian, perseverance doesn’t emerge from within any one of us. It comes from the outside. It’s given to us and then worked within us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. With that, perseverance becomes synonymous with faith. Christians persevere—we press forward even when pressing forward seems foolish—because our eyes are on Christ. He has our trust.

“I can’t go on,” I’ll sometimes say.

“Yes, you can,” the powerful Gospel for faith always replies. “Look. There’s Jesus. He’s already broken through the enemy’s fiercest strongholds. Do you see His cross? And His empty tomb? He’s made a way through. The ramparts are crumbling. The opposing forces, while they remain fiercely vicious, they are in disarray and are weakening. Get back in behind Him and follow. He more than has you in His care.”

Courage is Courage

He is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

It feels great to say “Alleluia” again, especially after giving it up for the lengthy nine weeks of pre-Lent (Gesima Sundays) and Lent. There are other things I’d much rather give up. Like snow… which it appears just missed us here in Michigan. You know, there are folks who revel in regularly bringing charges against the state of Michigan, most notably pointing to our roads, taxes, and other such things. For the most part, I love Michigan. But if I were to level a charge, it would be against the trickster months of April and May. These two months in Michigan are more than capable of snow.

Personally, after five months of snow, I’ve had enough.

“Well, you chose to live here, Chris.”

Actually, no, I didn’t choose to live here. I was sent here on an internship out of college. I chose to stay here, and it had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the woman who would eventually be my wife… which I try to bring to her remembrance with regularity. As often as I can, I remind her that I so courageously suffer the dreadfully gloomy Michigan winters for her sake.

Humor aside… and speaking of courage… what happened to it? To courage, that is.

I was a guest speaker at the MiCPAC conference this past Saturday, and after my speech, I had a conversation in the back of the auditorium with a person who expressed a gladness for the presenters being willing to speak out on some crucial issues facing our nation. I encouraged my conversation partner to do the same as she went about her daily routines. And her response: “I’m not brave enough to do what you guys are doing.”

“Unfortunately, we have no other choice, now,” was the essence of my reply. What I wanted to say more precisely, but didn’t, was that it isn’t necessarily a courageous thing to fight when fighting is your only choice. On the battlefield, when a soldier is found in the situation of “kill or be killed,” the choice to fight isn’t necessarily stirred by courage. It’s stirred by the need for survival. We’re getting very close to that these days. As people remain unwilling to step up and speak out, hoping to stay off of the enemy’s radar, more and more among us are finding themselves cornered.

I think it’s sort of disingenuous how so many in our own ranks will deal with those who show forth a level of discerning courage. Aristotle described it well when he said something like, “The coward calls the brave man rash, and the rash man calls him a coward.” In other words, far too many people will criticize the courageous among us while finding reasons to escape the need to be brave in the same circumstances. Whether it’s as simple as admitting to one’s own failings in a relationship in order to preserve its integrity or as seemingly grand as needing to take a stand for the sake of the Gospel before the princes of this world, in the end, they’ll bow out when they’re needed most.

But true courage is borne out not just when it’s needed, but even as it first sees the need coming. And in the end, faithfulness is faithfulness no matter how pressing the situation might eventually become. It’s what a courageous one is and does both when no one else is watching and when the TV cameras are taking aim for a whole world of criticizing voices.

Among Christians, there’s a reason for us to claim such courage. Our courage isn’t human courage. It’s otherworldly courage.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 27:1, which is a rhetorical rendition of divinely inspired courage expressed by King David.

“The LORD is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Couple King David’s words with the fact that the same Lord to whom he is referring—the One who would be born of a virgin, born under the Law, born to suffer Death in David’s place that he would receive the merits of His victory over Sin, Death, and the power of the devil—joined to that Gospel, we already call out, “He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” Those aren’t empty words. They are words of courage. They are words that herald to every single terrifying noun in this life—every person, place, thing, and idea—that we are no longer bound by the rules of their game for survival. We have recreated innards that can act before acting is even required. We can know and confess our sinful selves before the accusations come. We can go to church to be fed by the Gospel of our Lord’s love before we find ourselves in a situation where we feel like it’s our only option for peace. We can speak boldly in the world around us without needing to be prompted.

And why? Well, I like the way G.K. Chesterton said it:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

He wrote those words understanding that in Christ we’ve already died to this world and have now been made alive (Romans 6:11). Knowing this, not even Death’s stare is so terrifying that we need to cower. Faith has its eyes fixed to the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is our resurrection. And if that’s true—if not even Death can level itself against us—then what do we have to fear when it comes to the darker situations this world sends our way? Not much.

Be courageous. Be faithful. Steer right into the challenges you face in your families, in your vocations, in this world. No matter what happens, by the power of the Holy Spirit, trust that the Lord is your light and salvation. You have nothing to fear. With such a knowledge in one’s guts, it’s pretty amazing how the clouds of fearful concern will dissipate from any situation stirring dread.

And trust me, like so many of you, I can say what I’ve said because I’ve experienced it myself.

Persistence and Determination

If you’ve ever been in my office, then you may know that right behind where I sit at my desk there are bookshelves, and on them, I’ve taped little quotations that I appreciate. Over time, as I’ve pulled books from the shelves, some of the quotations have torn away and ended up in the garbage. The ones that remain are tattered, and eventually, they’ll come off, too. But whatever. I’ll replace them with other tidbits from various folks from across a wide spectrum of thought.

And no matter what I put there or what happens to the paper after I do, I’ll remember the words. I’ll have looked at them so many times, they’ll be written into me.

If you were to look at all of them as a singular item, you’d notice a similarity to the words I choose to put there. In one way or another, they all speak to courage and resolve. For example, there’s one from Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist. When Amorth was asked if he was afraid of the devil, he answered, “Afraid of that beast? He’s the one who should be afraid of me because I work in the name of the Lord of the world. He is only an ape of God.”

Those who know me best wouldn’t be surprised that a few of the quotations are from Shakespeare. I like Shakespeare a lot. In Act II of Julius Caesar, he wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Apart from the likes of Shakespeare, one of my favorites is from Calvin Coolidge. I’m not necessarily a fan of Coolidge, but he did offer rather memorably: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Okay, so maybe he’s a little off when he says that persistence and determination are omnipotent. Only God is all-powerful. But I think we get his point. He’s trying to say that within the field of any particular endeavor, not even the brightest and most talented have a chance against the one who persists undeterred. The persistent and determined are most likely to win the prize.

As God’s people, how does this measure against us?

Well, first we begin with God. We can actually say that when we consider who God is, persistence and determination are divine qualities. When we think on our Sin, we truly learn this. He has His heart set on us, and so He continues to chase after us with His Gospel. His holy will is laser-focused on what is needed to save us, and He accomplishes it. No one can argue the loving persistence and determination of God to save us as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Look to Calvary and see for yourself. The passersby cursing and taunting Him as He hung there, and still He cried, “Father, forgive them.”

He loves us when we are most unlovable. He cares for us when in our darkened hearts we want nothing to do with Him. He provides for us even when we reject what we need from Him the most—His grace. In all of this, our God is the preeminent image of persistence and determination.

But now, how about us?

I already noted the relationship of our Sin-nature to God’s fortitude. They don’t even compare. And yet, God still calls for us to persist. He says in 1 Peter 5:9 that we are to stand firm against the devil. He says in Ephesians 6:13 that we are to hold the line against evil. In 1 Corinthians 15:58 He says that we are to be steadfast and immovable in and against this world. In James 1:12, God says that as we remain strong during trial, we are certain to receive the crown of eternal life. In Matthew 5:12, Jesus calls for His Christians to endure, knowing that the reward for such stamina is great in heaven. Revelation 2:10 so eloquently chimes that we are to be faithful to the point of death and thereby receive the crown of life.

How can God mandate all of this knowing who we are in our ill-footed weaknesses?

The answer is simple. He must do it through us. Of course with that, I could visit with an equal number of texts that teach this, but instead think on just one.

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

Christians already know by God’s Word (at least they should) that the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel and sanctifies us with His gifts in order to make us His own. This happens in the ways He says it happens. It happens through baptism. It happens through the Lord’s Supper. It happens through the preaching. It happens by way of His holy Word. In all of these Word and Sacrament means, the Holy Spirit is calling us by the Gospel. These are means of certainty by which God reaches to and takes up residence in us.

In the text I mentioned from Philippians 2, Saint Paul is making the point that as God is at work in us, He is sure to flex the muscle of His divine determination to accomplish His will and work, or as the text describes, “His good pleasure.”

By the way, Paul describes the heart of God’s good pleasure in 1 Timothy 2:4 where he writes, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus gives it even more contour when He says pretty straightforwardly in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

In the end, do you know what all of this means, how it all fits together in relation to the topic at hand? It means that for believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Jesus, the divine attributes of persistence and determination become available to us.

As believers, we can withstand because God withstands. We can persist because God persists. We can endure because the One who loves us and is at work in us endures. We can trust Him as He both mandates and promises, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

I probably don’t need to describe for you just how important this is in today’s society. We’re teetering rather closely to the persecutions experienced by the early church. Christians are being put in jail. Christian business owners are being fined and taken to court for following the doctrines of their faith.

It’s a mess out there. Yes, even here in America.

So what do we do? Maybe the better question is what do we have to lose? What’s the worst that could happen for taking a stand with Christ? Death, I suppose. Death is pretty scary. I suppose to avoid it we could settle into quietly subdued positions of fear. We could remain silent and hope that the storms that threaten the Christian Church will just pass us by. Yeah, we could do that.

Or we could be determined to persist.

“Cowards die many times before their death, but the valiant never taste of death but once.”

“Afraid of that beast? He’s the one who should be afraid of me.”

“Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Even better—“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Revelation 14:13).

Did you like how the Holy Spirit interrupted and sealed the conversation regarding those who remained faithful until the end? He capped the discussion by inserting, “Indeed!” You need to know that when the Holy Spirit speaks, it’s pretty significant. In fact, it’s something absolutely worthy of resonation throughout the very corridors of heaven itself.

There is no fear in Jesus. I pray you will know and believe this. I pray that when the time comes—no matter what any particular moment may set before you—you will remain faithful. You should know that I pray this for you daily. I know God hears my prayers—that He is hearing your prayers, too—and in that knowledge, I have peace. Even better, I am persistently determined to continue asking alongside Saint Paul the rhetorical question “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Now He Took Courage

Holy Week is upon us, we know that the whole church is bound toward remembering the incomparable events of Good Friday and the joyous celebration of Easter. Still, as was preached yesterday, we make our way there having first followed the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Yesterday’s Palm Sunday worship service was truly exceptional. This is true not just because we heard and received the gifts of God for faith, but because we had the opportunity to bear witness to that same faith being confessed by the five confirmands and confirmed in the midst of the Rite of Confirmation.

Were you listening to the questions being asked of the confirmands? Do you recall that I asked the question twice about adherence to God’s Word as the inerrant and inspired source of faith, life, and practice? I did this because of the current enormity of that one particular part of the Christian life as it meets with our world today. In my opinion, the confirmands answered it somewhat rotely in that moment, and I wanted them to hear the question again and to know the immense nature of its gravity. I—we—needed to hear from them that they truly confess and align to the Word of God with all their heart. The world is seeking each and every day to snatch it away more and more each day.

Further into the rite, Even as I was the one asking the questions, the words still pierced through my own heart to a sense of remembrance. I’m a long way from my confirmation, and yet part of the point is that I’d answer the questions the same way today as I did then. And perhaps most stunning are those two sequential questions that ask the students if they intend to remain faithful to the Lord, even to the point of death.

I hope the Rite of Confirmation was a chance for you to consider and ultimately do the same. There’s a reason it has been a longstanding tradition on Palm Sunday in the midst of the worshipping community.

Lastly, I wanted to share a something I wrote and shared on Facebook last Thursday. It’s the result of last Wednesday’s midweek reading of the Passion narrative, and I thought it might be edifying to you.

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I don’t know about you, but the reading of the final portion of the Passion Narrative drawn from the four Gospels is always an exceptionally moving event for me during Lent. As the one called to stand before God’s people and read it, I sometimes struggle. Every year I choke a little at certain moments, doing my best to keep the sadness from seeping over and into my voice and facial expressions. I mean, what use is a weeping clergyman in the middle of a service? Although, I’m sure it’s a sight well worth experiencing for some. It certainly has the potential for displaying your pastor’s sense of God’s Word.

Anyway, last night’s reading, which began with Jesus being assigned to His cross and ends with Pilate shooing away the Pharisees who continue to pester him even after the body of Jesus is in the tomb and the stone has been sealed, this time asking for guards to be stationed at the sepulcher lest the disciples come and steal away the body and tell everyone that Jesus arose. In between these monumental book ends, there were two moments in particular that caught my attention.

The first came by way of the phrase, “Those who had known Him stood at a distance, as also the women who had followed Him…”

Even as I kept reading, I sorted through to the thought that we are to know by these words that Jesus went into the battle of all battles completely and utterly alone. The disciples had scattered, and if any had turned back to brave the scene, they did so from a place of personal safety, a place where they could see the Son of God on the cross, but they couldn’t see the blood-soaked details, the immensity of the sacrifice as He gave Himself over in totality for the sins of the world. Even the women who had gathered near to the cross, and the disciple John, whom Jesus, in shortness of breath, gave as a son to His mother Mary, even they had moved away into the distance, unable to bear the event.

The dreadful enormity of Jesus’ cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” comes into incredible focus. The incredible pull of the scene’s gravity is felt.

The second phrase that caught my eye came a few paragraphs later. Joseph of Arimathea is unfavorably noted as not having consented to the purpose of the Sanhedrin and yet was one who kept his faith in Jesus a secret for fear of what his fellow Jews might do to him if they discovered it. We are to know by this that Joseph did nothing to defend the innocence of Jesus. We are to know that when the mocking and spitting and pummeling began, Joseph was there, but he turned away, too.

And then suddenly, just as the hope in this description of Joseph is snuffed, the tenor changes and we learn something happened to Joseph when he saw the Savior sentenced and ultimately killed. We read, “Now he took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

Now he took courage…

Again, still standing there last night and reading to God’s people, I managed to sort through in that moment to the realization that even as the cross is a stumbling stone of offense, it is also the moment of moments situated at the heart of a message with the power to turn the world backward on its axis. Even before the resurrection could be added to its glory, it penetrated Joseph’s fear and it gave to him a valor for streaming past what would have been the Sanhedrin’s desire for an irreverent disposal of the criminal Jesus’ remains and go straight to the civil authority, Pilate, to request the body for burial.

The Sanhedrin would know what he did. The ruling civil authority already in disposition against Jesus and His followers would have his name and know who he was. His life of safety and respect and honor and comfort in the community was about to come undone.

Now he took courage…

Most merciful God, grant that I would not keep my distance from the Lord and his cross, but that it would be well known that I am a believer who fears not the principalities of this world but only unfaithfulness to the One who so faithfully won my eternity. In the holy and most precious name of Jesus I plead. Amen.

The Tragedy in Las Vegas

Last night in Las Vegas, a gunmen on the 30th floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino opened fire on an outside gathering of concert goers below. The last I heard, 50 people were killed and over 400 were seriously injured. The news report I was just listening to said that even as this is already the largest mass-shooting in America’s history, with the condition of many of the injured, most likely the death toll will continue to rise.

Why…?

What…?

How…?

We’re left breathless and without words.

Just this morning, I was sitting with the school staff, and after reading a portion from Ephesians 3 (v. 16 in particular, where Paul speaks of the strength given by the power of the Holy Spirit), these were the words from Luther that I shared as they related to the text:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days.

I read another report from, of all places, CNN, which is a news network that is typically hostile to Christianity. Interestingly, the reporter was speaking with a survivor of the incident whose words came back as rather startling, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.” While I don’t know the fullness of what he means, I’m going to assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs—that is, the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith or disbelief—this man’s agnostic position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he’s willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, either way, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church, you heard of that rescue. You met with and received from the One who provides that rescue. You were forearmed for today’s news. You were fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food met you where you were, and it instilled the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope. You heard, quite literally that Christ, on the cross, gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You learned that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and that One is Jesus.

My prayer for you—dearest Christian of Our Savior Lutheran Church and School—is that even as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the hopelessness, that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel—a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our greatest need. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through Jesus Christ.

This is who you are in the Savior, someone with a resilient hope that not even a barrage of bullets can kill.

Share that hope with others right now. We all know they need it.