Sunday, July 29, 2007

What Do You Think About Jesus?

**This appears as an article in our current church newsletter**

Today as much as ever, people always have an opinion about anything and everything. Maybe the only difference is that nowadays people are more unabashed about making their opinions known. And yet political correctness and a fear of causing offense often hangs in tension with this tendency. Perhaps we may find it difficult to enter the “marketplace of ideas” as Christians.

Yet as Christians who seek to have meaningful interaction with the world around us, we may wonder how to engage those around us in conversation about The Faith. Here at Emmanuel Lutheran Church we desire to do evangelism—the spreading of the Good News about Jesus. Sunday mornings in adult Bible class we are trying to equip ourselves for this task. However, like many things, it is easier said than done. After all, the world is increasingly full of “opinions” and many which are hostile to the Christian Faith. We may be intimidated into silence.

But I would like to suggest that our “opinionated” society can actually work to our advantage in the task of evangelism. The question “What do you think of Jesus?” (which is also the title of a book by a professor of mine) is an “opinion” question that you can ask anyone, and be fairly certain that they will be willing to volunteer their opinion, even if they are not a Christian. I think it might be an easier entryway into conversation than some other ways, simply because even if they haven’t thought about it before, most people will have at least a knee-jerk response to the question. And that opens the door to further discussion if they haven’t thought it through. (I’ll give some examples later)

So why this question? The reason I think that this is such an important question is because it gets right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and what we believe, because it confronts us with the person of Jesus Himself. The question really comes from Jesus, when He was asking His disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13ff) Like you might expect today, Jesus got a variety of answers: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when Jesus pressed the question further, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s confession of faith was not his own, it was given to him by God, for no one can confess “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3) Of course, Peter gave the only correct answer to the question, and that is the answer to which we would direct our conversation with those we talk with.

But when we ask the question, “What do you think of Jesus?” out in the world, you may expect to get all sorts of answers. Ranging from the fairly neutral to the more hostile, we might hear something like these: “Well, I think he was a really nice guy, and taught people to love each other…I respect that.” Or “He always put others first, and ended up getting a bad rap and then he died, but I’m not sure why…” Or “I’m not really sure if he ever really existed, but I guess he inspired a lot of folks.” Or “He was certainly a great teacher, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God or the Messiah.” Or “I think he was a promoter of dangerous ideas and was delusional about himself.” All these we might expect to hear from a non-Christian, and each provides its own avenue into further discussion.

How might such a talk start? With all the media attention and books out about Jesus and supposed lost gospels and conspiracy theories, there are plenty of opportunities to ask someone, “Hey, did you hear about such and such that they are saying about Jesus?….So what do you think about Jesus anyhow?” The conversation might start over coffee or lunch break, or while your at some sporting event with other parents. The nice thing about having an “opinionated” society is that most people don’t mind sharing theirs. As Christians, we can use that as a doorway to tell the real story about Jesus—who He said He was (the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and mankind’s only Savior), and what He did for us (died on the cross for our sins and rose to eternal life).

Having these conversations can get people to confront the figure of Jesus in a way to consider who He really is, and why His life was such a turning point for human history. We can help people to see the inconsistency different opinions they might have about Jesus, and how ultimately only Peter’s confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” fully explains the person of Jesus Christ. So you are still uncertain about how to answer the questions your friend might raise after you’ve broached this topic? No problem! Get yourself involved in one of the many Bible studies at Emmauel, study the Bible yourself for the answers, or talk to one of your pastors! All are at your fingertips and ready to help equip each of you to help engage in this exciting task. To God be the Glory!

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, "Distracted from the One Thing Needful"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, Luke 10:38-42. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today as we are gathered here again for worship, as we Christians have been doing for 2,000 years every Lord’s Day, I ask you this question: Why are we here today? What are we about? Are we here because we are offering our service to God, or are we first and foremost here to receive service from Him?

In the Gospel for today, we see Jesus coming to the house of Mary and Martha, and they open their home to Him. Both Martha and Mary extend hospitality to Jesus, but in two very different forms. Martha offers the obvious hospitality, of active work and busy preparation. She is quickly occupied with all sorts of household tasks, most likely in preparing a meal for her guests, and possibly some cleaning. Martha was distracted. She had much to do, and was eager to serve her Lord Jesus, to make Him feel welcome. Martha was so distracted by these preparations, and the fact that Mary wasn’t helping that she tried to enlist Jesus to convince Mary to come help her with the work. Kind of an embarrassing lapse of etiquette, pressuring your guest into blaming your sister for laziness! Fortunately, Jesus is not embarrassed.

Instead, He gently opens Martha’s eyes to the fact that Mary too was extending Him hospitality, and not only that, but of a much better kind! Mary’s hospitality was not the active hospitality of cooking and cleaning (which did need to be done, but could wait). Rather, Mary’s hospitality was a passive hospitality of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to His Word. Jesus commends Mary for finding the “one thing needful,” which is the better part that will not be taken away from her. Mary had found something far more important than the preparations, and she was not distracted by them. So…is the point of Jesus’ encounter here a lesson in hospitality? Not at all! The point is not even really about hospitality, but about the guest! Mary recognized that here was a guest unlike any other, who came speaking the very words of eternal life. If it had been some relative or other guest, Mary very well might have been working alongside Martha in the kitchen making preparations.

But we are gathered here today, with the same guest among us! And what are we about? We gather on Sundays, to hear the one thing needful, from Jesus Christ who is present among us in His Word and in His Supper. Like Mary we assume the posture of faith—to sit at the feet of Jesus, hearing His Word. Mary’s posture is that of a disciple attending to the words of her teacher. You assume that posture today, not as disciples of me or Pastor Fricke or any other pastor, but as we all are disciples of the one whom we proclaim, Jesus Christ. We come in the posture of faith, to receive, to hear and learn Christ’s Word. So again, are we here because we are offering our service to God, or are we first and foremost here to receive service from Him?

We all realize that even if we came like Mary, for the purpose of hearing the one thing needful, we nevertheless often end up like Martha: distracted by much service, busy about many things, our minds constantly pulled in a dozen directions. Jesus then speaks to us, “you are worried and upset about many things, but there is one thing needful.” Sometimes our bodies are here, but our minds are off on the preparations that need to be made for guests, the bills that are waiting to be paid, the cleaning that must be done. Is it even possible that we sometimes plead to God that there are just too many things to do and get done, for us to attend to His Word right now? Maybe there are even many excellent things that we can be doing, even in service to our Lord! Activities, community service, volunteerism. All excellent things! It reminds me a certain “Martha-church” that I heard about. They advertised in their community something to this effect: “Don’t go to church, be the church!” Sounds great, doesn’t it? What they did was stop worshipping every Sunday, but instead gathered to do community projects and service as a congregation Sunday mornings. Like Jesus, we cannot fault them for the good they are doing, but they are missing the one thing needful. As noble as these service activities may be, they too can become distractions from the one thing needful.

We need to learn the lesson that Martha did; that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve us. The lesson that Martha learned was that the first thing Jesus wanted her to do, was receive. Become a passive recipient of His gifts and teachings. For Him to serve us, as He did by giving His life as a ransom for many. Listen to this quote about what it means to be a Christian: “Therefore a man becomes a Christian, not by working but by listening. And so anyone who wants to exert himself toward righteousness must first exert himself in listening to the Gospel. Now when he has heard and accepted this, let him joyfully give thanks to God, and then let him exert himself in good works that are commanded in the Law; thus the Law and works will follow hearing with faith.” That was from Luther. And we as Lutherans also teach that the highest worship of God is faith. Faith is the highest and best worship of God, because it concerns itself with receiving God’s gifts and teaching. To be like Mary, focused on the one thing needful—the better part.

Why is it that we come here, to church on Sunday? Are we just a group of like-minded individuals? Are we here for socializing? Are we here for lessons in self-help? No. We can find all those things elswhere in the world. The reason we are here is to sit at the feet of Christ and hear His Word. Here we do not come together for what the world has to offer, what the world has to teach or say to us. No where else than from the church and her Scriptures, the Bible, do we hear such astonishing news as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mary knew what we should also learn, that the Word of Christ is worth sitting down for, and setting aside your troubles and worries for. So come, lay aside your troubles and worries, the busyness of your service. Today is a day of rest! Come and listen to the word of our Master. Mary knew what Peter elsewhere confessed, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

It’s not hard to guess what things Jesus spoke of to her. His Words abound elsewhere in the Scripture. The one who we gather to hear speaks of the coming of the kingdom of God, for which we must prepare our hearts by repenting from our sins, and He speaks the blessed Gospel of sins forgiven through His atoning death on the cross. He speaks of the road He must take, the road of suffering, before He reaches the glory of His resurrection. He speaks of the sonship He grants to us through His death and resurrection—how heaven is opened to those who trust in Him. Why we are here at church today is for this precise reason. We have been brought to the one thing needful, and we listen to God’s Word that renews and strengthens and forgives. God imprints on our heart the message of Christ, that it will not be taken away from us. We come because Christ is present to divinely serve us with His gifts, to forgive us through His Word and Sacrament. Today we are stunned by the realization that we are not here first to offer service to Jesus, our guest, but rather we discover that Jesus Himself is our Host, and that He is serving us with His life poured out to death as a ransom for our sins. He is here to serve us with His dying and rising again from the cross, the payment for our forgiveness, that He shares with us personally in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.

We came distracted by many things, worry in our hearts about things that God can handle, troubled and upset about the uncertainties of life. Yet we still came with a will to serve our Lord and show our hospitality to Him. And He receives it gladly, but more importantly He turns us from our busyness and distraction to Him. He turns the tables on us and becomes our host, giving out divine hospitality that is found no where else. He gently pulls us from the distractions of life, and turns our attention to Jesus, and His Word, the one thing needful. By faith we become the humble recipients of His service, as Christ refreshes our hearts with His better portion, that will not be taken away from us.

Think about the joy in that simple phrase Jesus spoke to Mary: “it will not be taken away from her.” This is what persecuted and martyred Christians have clung to in times of great distress. When there are real worries and troubles in life that we cannot escape—there is the Word of Christ that cannot be wrestled from our hearts. Where Christ has spoken His Words of forgiveness and peace to a person’s heart—there in His Word is an invincible refuge to guard us against anything that life can throw at us. Our emotions cannot fully be shielded from the sorrows of life—nor could we be human if they were. Christ Himself wept with great sorrow when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died—even though He was to raise Him from the dead. Having those unshakeable promises and the invincible refuge of God’s Word does not spare us from grief or sadness in this life, but it gives us the one thing that can bear us through them: hope. And hope that is not just wishful thinking, but hope that is founded in the risen and everlasting Lord Jesus, who will one day deliver us completely from this veil of tears, and bring us into the everlasting joy of His presence. So what are we about? What are we here for? We are here for the one thing needful: Jesus Christ and His Word, which is a treasure that cannot be taken away from us, but a treasure we can joyfully share. Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.