When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us. The two arrows on the picture on the right represent this choice: one arrow going up toward God, the other arrow moving us sideways, away from God.
Do you remember the first time you heard about Jesus?
I first heard about Jesus when I was a junior in High School. I played clarinet in the Band and Orchestra during high school; my friend Jan played piano and bassoon, and she was my piano accompanist at various solo and ensemble contests. She suggested that we play special music at her church, and I thought that was a great idea. Any chance I could get to hang out with Jan, and to play music, was a “win-win” situation!
Youth group took place after evening service where we often played, and I started going with her. I remember one night during the winter of that Junior year, sitting on the floor of the church basement, listening to the youth pastor, Dennis, describe simply and clearly the brokenness that sin creates in each of us, and the wholeness that comes through the forgiveness Jesus offers us in his life, death and resurrection.
Now, I was raised in a great family; I was blessed with good parents that passed on to me their values and morals. I didn’t lack for anything that was important. But I understood from what Dennis said that night that something was still missing in my life, and that God would provide that missing piece for me if I wanted it. It wasn’t at all hard to respond with “I want that” at the end of Dennis’ talk.
There have been times in my life when my response to the gospel has been more reluctant or resistant. The consequence of that desire to follow Jesus has brought both joy and sorrow at times. Joys of entering into people’s lives in a meaningful way. Sorrow of having to leave when God calls me elsewhere. Joy at getting to walk with folks as they discover the gospel’s gift of new life and restored hope. Sorrow associated with leaving Fresno, first in the 80s, and again in the 90s. Challenge of leaving the ELCA in 2011 because of my own heartache with the direction that community was taking. In many respects, it would have been easier to stay where we were.
When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the power of God’s word when he says,
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (55.10-11, ESV)
Our readings today highlight the two frequent responses we humans have to the gospel: upward, towards God; and sideways, away from God.
Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and the work of the Holy Spirit, engender an upward response toward God.
The believers and the Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem have just experienced God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church. They’ve heard the disciples speaking in the different languages of the world, even though all of the disciples at this point are from Israel and shouldn’t know any of those languages. Clearly, something is up; something unusual and cosmic in scope.
Peter’s words pierced their hearts. In his sermon, Peter drew the connection between God and Jesus, showing how God worked through Jesus to heal humanity’s sin. He pointed out how the Jewish leaders had killed him, but how God had overpowered even death by raising Jesus from the tomb. Peter pointed out how even the iconic king, David, had anticipated such feat, and that his resurrection confirmed Jesus’ status as Lord and Messiah.
Peter’s words pierced their hearts. The clear gospel message drove the assembled hearers to their knees, spiritually, prompting them to ask what they needed to do to make things right. “Repent and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Christ,” Peter said. And they did; that day more than 3,000 people were added to the Church. What a miracle!!
On the other hand, Jesus’ encounter with the religious authorities in John 8 reading uncovers increasingly strong animosity between them; shows how sideways the leaders are moving away from God, though they didn’t think so at the time. The entire chapter is a series of increasingly hostile encounters between Jesus and the leaders; the Pharisees and the Scribes.
Part of the scandal was the claim that Jesus the Nazarene, the son of Joseph and Mary, was God’s Messiah, and that this Messiah had died and been raised to new life.
Part of the scandal involved Jesus’ claim that the Jews were slaves to sin, and that their religious system of teachings and laws and sacrifices had become part of the problem rather than the solution God meant it to be. Nowadays, the gospel message can trigger an equally strong push back from within us as it did for the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. The context is different, but the spiritual struggle is not very different.
Part of the scandal is that faith transforms us from sinner to saint; from being estranged from God, to being part of God’s extended family – and we like that. We want that. It’s what appealed to me as I sat on the floor of the church basement my junior year of High School, listening to my youth pastor, Dennis.
But this transformation does something else for us: it calls us to die to ourselves and our desires, and to take on God’s will for our life. That may not sit so well for us.
Part of the scandal is that faith involves forgiveness of sins (and, interestingly enough, the financial debts!) – a reordering of society that is symbolically reflected in the Christian community (Acts 2.41ff; 4.32ff.). A reordering that affects our lives and our choices as well.
It calls us from a perspective that says “my stuff belongs to me” to one that says “my stuff is God’s to use.” It calls from us a perspective of seeing the church as a place to “serve us” to one of “service.” It calls us to see church primarily as a vehicle of God’s grace in the community, and not merely a social fellowship that meets our needs.
This gospel message is not unique; it is part of God’s ongoing story in Scripture of his relationship with us. God first came to Abraham and Sarah and blessed them so they and their descendant would be instruments of that blessing. It’s something that God continues to do with us today, giving us the gift of forgiveness of sin and a new community called the church. Gifts we’re not meant to hoard for ourselves, but to share freely and unreservedly with those around us.
We cannot do that ourselves, certainly no more effectively than the Jews did throughout the OT. We need help, and God is gracious enough to give it.
Luther’s explanations of the Creed: Second article: Jesus redeems us; Jesus frees us from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. And more, that salvation changes us: it frees us to live in obedience to him and to serve him in some way throughout the rest of my life.
And the third article: we cannot believe in Jesus or respond to him this way by ourselves. But the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and unites us in this faith. This Holy Spirit continues to empower the church to be faithful as it continues to convey God’s forgiveness each day to all who seek it. Through our participation in the worship life and ministry of the congregation. Our experience of the Word and Sacraments are God’s means to shape us more and more into God’s likeness.
When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us: upward, towards God; or sideways, away from God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, may we always go towards God.