One Faith, One Hope, One Lord

At Christmas we often receive a composite picture of a family, which consists of many individual pictures. It is always interesting to study the individual pictures as they relate to the family as a unit and wonder what is happening in the household.

In one of the pictures sits Bob and his wife with a beautiful black child whom they adopted. Then there is Mary and her husband who is an oriental and has just received his Ph.D. from MIT. Pete, one of the grandchildren, is pictured in his baseball uniform. His cousin, Larry, sits all dressed up at the piano. In the front row of the family picture sits grandma, who looks like she is fifty and ready for anything. Grandpa, who has health problems, is not as spry.

As the parents looked at this picture I can just imagine what their conversation was. Grandpa says, Who would have imagined fifty years ago that we would have a black grandchild and an oriental son-in-law?

Our parents were from German and Norway. Most of our generation never went to college. Now all of our children have college degrees, and our son-in-law owns a doctorate from one of the most prestigious schools in the land. After arriving in Iowa from Europe our parents never left the state, but our children and grandchildren have traveled to many parts of the world. Yes, things have changed but one thing is the same: we are a family who love one another and appreciate the contributions each member has to make.

Is this not a picture of the Church? Although the family of God is a beautiful montage of different cultures, temperaments, colors, and gifts, she is united in one faith, one hope, and one Lord, yet celebrating her different contributions in making Christ known to our world. Our Lord prayed that His Church would be one. “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

In my theological education we studied in depth some of the great theological dogmas. On the shelves in my study are many books that deal with theology. I am convinced that a clergy person needs to be well instructed in theology and remain fresh on what is happening in the theological world. However, it is not necessary that we have theological agreement in all matters of theology to be one in Christ Jesus.

Five years ago a young professional man came to my office and asked me to summarize the Christian faith for him in fifteen minutes. I was thankful that in my evangelism training I had thought through the basics of the faith, which were essential for a Christian to believe. Here is what I told him.

1. You are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This means that you have a mind with which you can think, a will with which you can make a decision, and a soul that is eternal. You are the crowning work of God’s creation.

2. You exercised your will and chose to walk away from God. This sin, with which people were born and in which we live, has separated you from God. You are out of a relationship with God. You can talk about Him, but you cannot by your own nature know Him as your Father (Romans 5:12, 3:23).

3. God sent a Redeemer to rescue you. God could have discarded you and said, Let them go. I will begin all over with a new creation. This He did not do, but sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ into this world. He suffered and died on the cross for our sins, on the third day He was raised from the dead and won victory for us over sin, death, and the devil. Full payment has been made for the sins of the world.

4. If in faith you will receive Christ as your Savior, your sins will be forgiven. You will be restored into a personal relationship with God to enjoy His presence while on this earth and then to live with Him in heaven for all eternity.

5. As His child your life will be changed and you will have a desire to live for Him. He has called you as a believer to be His ambassador and will make His appeal to this world through you.

This man was satisfied with this simple presentation of the Christian faith. I ask you, friend, is this not the core of the Gospel? Is this not enough? Can we not find our unity in Christ as presented in these basic truths? I feel positive about what is happening in the Church of Christ today. I see a unity being demonstrated as never before.

Some years ago my wife and I were a part of a group touring East Germany. The wall separating the east from the west was still up, and security was very tight. Our guide, a fifty-year-old woman, seemed to watch every move we made. As we were approaching Leipzig, I asked if we could take a particular highway that would lead us past a factory that once was owned by the father of a man who had become my friend at home. Permission was not granted.

Then came the day when I stood outside the castle church door in Wittenberg where Luther had nailed the 95 theses. As I stood there thinking about what had happened on that very spot 450 years ago, Esther, our guide, came and stood beside me. “This is holy ground,” she said.

Looking into her face I asked, “Are you a Christian?”

She replied back with a smile on her face, “By the grace of God I am.”

“Then you are my sister in Christ, we are one,” I said.

And Esther replied, “You are my brother.” She game me a hug.

Think of it, an employee of the Communist Government acknowledged me as her brother in Christ and demonstrated our unity with a hug. For the rest of our visit in East Germany the wall between Esther and our group came down. I explained to her that we were Christian people traveling through her country. She sensed this oneness and became a part of our group. When we left Esther in East Berlin, she cried and said, “We will meet again.” That is what it means to have one faith, one hope, and one Lord.

A few years ago I attended a meeting of Promise Keepers. The speaker was Chuck Colson. As Mr. Colson preached the Gospel in a powerful way, I, a Lutheran, listened to him. Chuck was led to Christ by Tom Philips, an Episcopalian. Tom Philips had been led to Christ by Billy Graham, a Baptist. Whether we were Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Baptist was not important. We were one in Christ Jesus, Lord of all who confess Him as Savior and Lord.

At the University of Northern Iowa each Thursday evening a group of students numbering from 500 to 1,000 meet to share Christ. This is an organization called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ). No one asks from what denomination they come; Christ is the one who unites these young people.

When our congregation members move to another community, many of them write and ask for their transfer. Often it is not a church of our denomination. When we asked how they chose this particular congregation, the answer was always about the same. “It is the church where we are best fed and have an opportunity to serve Him.”

But what about the denomination where we have been raised? We appreciate our heritage and wish to remain in the church that has been our home since we were children. By all means, stay there. The style of worship in our churches vary. Some are very liturgical and sacramental. Others are charismatic, and people love to give bodily expression of the message they are hearing. Others are quite contemporary.

At the last service in the church where I served as pastor for 43 years, the contemporary service has become very popular. At that service 750 people can gather to sing the praise songs. The organ is replaced with the guitar, drums, and other instruments. This is not the service for me, but I can’t overlook the fact that hundreds of people prefer this worship experience and are hearing the same message: Christ is Savior and Lord.

It is obvious that the hymns used in our different denominations vary. I need to sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and Grundtvig’s great hymn of Pentecost, “O Day Full of Grace”. I want to sing all five verses, for that last verse says: “When we on that final journey go that Christ is for us preparing to go. We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow; All joy of the heaven’s sharing; And walk in the light of God’s own place; With angels his name adoring.”

Having said all of this about the hymns that have fed my soul since I was a child, I need to hear Fanny Crosby’s mighty hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” and Ira Sankey’s great hymn, “Under His Wings, I am Safely Abiding . . .” In our hymns we lift our voices to sing praises to God. Truly we are one in the Spirit.

But what about our theological differences? They cannot be swept under the rug. No, we must continue to discuss the great teachings of the Church as the reformers did. But if we are united in Christ, which is the will of our Lord, let us not let our theological differences destroy our unity in Christ.

If a person says, “I do not believe that Jesus is true God. I do not believe that through His suffering and death at the cross He paid the price for my sins,” there is no unity.

If, however, we are united in the biblical truth that Christ has died for all, there is a lot of room to discuss our theological differences. No one is damned because of a wrong understanding of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Let us be bound together in Christ and continue to struggle with the meanings of those parts of Scripture that are unclear to us, for today we see through a mirror dimly and know only in part. One faith, one hope, one Lord. Jesus pray for this unity. The disciples preached about our oneness in Christ. Let this unity be experienced in our midst not only today but everyday.

Truths That Shape Our Lives

When I hear people say that they seldom read the Bible, I feel sorry for them. They are depriving themselves of some great help that can make their lives much more pleasant, secure, and challenging. I wonder if most of us do not have to battle unhealthy thoughts that create fears, depressions, low-self images, and guilt just to mention a few enemies of happiness. One of my best helps in battling these unhealthy thoughts is reading God’s Word. I need to hear these words which can shape my life.

Here are a few samples:

“Then God said, ‘Let us create man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). I have a mind with which I can think, a will with which I can make a decision, and a soul that is eternal. I am the crowning work of God’s creation.

“As your day is, so will your strength be. The eternal God is your resting place and underneath are His everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:25, 27). These words brought comfort to my wife’s soul after a major stroke and she was not able to express herself. With these promises her soul was at peace.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4). I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I know He will be with me.

“He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (I Corinthians 10:12). Satan never leaves us alone but he cannot destroy us since God will sustain and comfort us His children if they will call on Him.

Then look at this verse, which is our text today. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of Him called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Peter 2:9-10). Here are a few examples showing how biblical truths can and have spoken to unhealthy thoughts.

I AM A NOBODY

Jim, five years younger than Bob, is asked, “Are you Bob’s brother?”

“Yes, I am,” Jim answers, but he is sick and tired of being asked that question. What Jim would like to say is, Don’t expect as much of me as you got from Bob. When the talents were passed out in our family, they were not divided equally. There are many people who have lived an entire life feeling they were a nobody.

As much as some of us enjoy athletics, not having enough athletic talent to be a part of the team has had some serious affects on a lot of young people. A member of our family was fortunate enough to play professional baseball for many years. Then injury and age caught up with him and he was let go by the professional team.

In talking with him about his experience in the athletic world he told us that sooner or later the athlete will experience getting dropped from the team’s roster. Some have this experience in junior high school, others in high school while still others are not released from the team’s line up until they get to the college or professional level. Whether it be at 14 or 35 the athlete leaves feeling that he or she is no longer wanted. But then we are told that the athletic world prepares the person to face life as it is.

Two people are enjoying the responsible jobs of being bank presidents until the two banks are merged and then only one can be president. The one person celebrates his election to the new position, and the defeated person, who has given some of the best years of his life to the organization, is without employment. While he appears confident that something better is awaiting him in other employ, he shares his real feelings with his wife when he says, “I am a failure. No one wants me, and I am only 54 years old!”

It is in situations like these that God’s Word speaks. “You are a chosen person, you belong to a royal priesthood. You are God’s child, and He has an important place for you in His Kingdom.” It doesn’t mean that egos are not hurt. Fewer dollars may call for adjustments in the style of living, and sitting on the bench can be heart breaking, but underneath all of these feelings I can know that God has called me. He has a place for me. That’s the encouragement that God gives us in His Word. Isn’t it marvelous that while we are rejected by humans, God accepts us in Christ. He who has called us will never reject us. In His eyes we are important and precious, not because of what we have accomplished in life, but because of who we are – the crowning work of His creation.

I DON’T FIT IN

A person who has lost his or her spouse often has the feeling they do not fit in to society. While this is not true when the widow or widower is with friends, it is a reality to them at least until they work through their grief over the loss of the husband or wife. During those days of feeling like a misfit, the Bible gives us another picture: “You are a living stone being built into a spiritual house.” The house is Christ’s Church. He is the cornerstone and without you the wall is not complete. You are not a brick that is lying alone on the ground. God has picked you up and made you a part of His Church. All those who confess their faith in Christ are your brothers and sisters in Christ who make up this eternal Kingdom. Yes, there are those times when we feel that we are misfits in a segment of our society, but underneath these feelings we know that God is our Father, Christ is our Savior, and throughout this big world we find our brothers and sisters. In Christ we are one family. This is the security we have in Christ. What a pity to live with this conviction that we do fit in. There is always a place for us. We are needed.

I AM VIEWED AS A “FALLEN PERSON”

How easy it is for us to experience the coldness of human judgment, which can be ruthless.” Don’t you have mercy for a person when he has fallen?” the broken person asks. “Whatever happened to forgiveness?”

This agonizing person has a point. There is not a lot of mercy shown in our culture, but God has a word: “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Christ has given His life that you might have another chance. “Neither do I condemn you,” were Jesus’ words to the woman accused of falling in adultery. They are the same words which come to the repentant sinner in any age and any culture. Isn’t it marvelous to be called out of darkness where there is no hope of starting over and into the light of the Gospel where there is always a new beginning. That’s grace, which makes all things new.

LIFE IS OVER

And then there is a word that can come from people of all ages, but is heard often among those who have left the working world and entered those years known as retirement. “There is nothing left for me in life. When I left my chosen work, all of life’s challenges went with it.”

“Not so,” God says. “You are called to declare the praises of him who saved you. You are Christ’s ambassador. He makes His appeal to this world through you.” Have you heard the cobbler’s answer when asked, “What do you do for a living?” He replied, “I make shoes to feed, house, and clothe my family. My job is to tell others of Christ.” The time came when he no longer worked as a cobbler, yet his witness for Christ continued until he died. The Christian’s witness grows stronger and stronger with the years. The enthusiasm of the new convert is thrilling to hear, but there are those who could well ask, “How long will his or her new found faith last?” The mature witness of the person who has walked with the Lord throughout his or her life has a genuineness to it which calls for respect and a listening ear.

Think of what blessings God can bring to our lives if we will take a few minutes every day to let Him shape our lives. Many of those unhealthy thoughts that we battle will no longer mold our personalities. The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will open our eyes and lead us out of the darkness and into the light as He guides us to face each event in life with God as our refuge and strength.

The Last Word

A husband and wife exchange opinions on a subject where they have different points of view. Both make their feelings known and the wife considers the conversation closed when her husband makes one last statement which irritates his wife. “There you go again,” the wife says. “Why must you always have the last word?” Have you ever been accused of demanding the last word?

Our text raises a similar question in my mind. There are times when God and I are having a discussion on a particular subject. We both express our viewpoints on the matter. He through His Word and I through my prayers let our desires be known. It is obvious that we do not agree, but I am willing to let the subject remain unsettled. Then I can go my own way and God’s Word can remain unchanged. But then God gives one more statement showing how wrong I am and how right He is. This irritates me and under my breath I say, “Why must You always have the last word, God?” He answers by saying, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever (vs. 24).

God is saying, “You people have your own ideas about many subjects that I have spoke about in my Word. You don’t agree with me feeling that times have changed since I spoke and adjustments must be made if I am to remain relevant. I let you humans speak as millions of others have spoken in past generations, for what you believe and voice will also pass, but My Word is eternal.”

Peter had experienced such a conversation with the Lord. One day Jesus said, “Today all you disciples will leave me.”

Peter answered, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

Jesus says to him, “I tell you the truth, this very night before the rooster crows, Peter, you will deny me three times.”

Peter is angry that Jesus demands the last word and says (perhaps under his breath), “Even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you. Just wait and see if I am not right about this.”

In only a few hours Peter and the other disciples did just what Jesus predicted would happen: they all fled from Jesus. Peter denied Jesus with a curse. It was then that Peter realized that the Lord has reserved the right to the last word. Our words fade away, but God’s word is eternal. We may deny His Word. We may seek to change it in the name of scholarship and scientific research of one kind or another, but before we close our eyes in death we too will acknowledge that God’s word stands forever. Thus Peter spoke from personal experience when he included these words about the fallibility of human words, but the infallibility of God’s Word. God has the last word simply because He is God.

Our culture challenges this claim made in God’s Word. Does God’s Word mold our culture or does our culture mold God’s Word? It’s a rather important question for Christians to answer. The rationalist believes that only that part of the Christian faith which can be explained by human reason makes any significant contribution to our culture. Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is rational and should continue to be taught. However, the core of the Christian faith, which presents Christ as true God and the Savior of the world, cannot be rationally understood and has no significant value for society. God’s Word teaches that what reason we can comprehend because of human limitation, faith can receive as divine truth. Here God claims to have the last word.

Humanism has long rejected the Bible teaching, “While we were yet helpless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 3:25). Humanistic philosophy teaches that we are basically good and have the capacity within our own being to right what is wrong. We can pick ourselves up and move on without God’s help. Human experience teaches that we are inadequate to solve our spiritual problems and stand in need of God’s grace. When I asked the psychiatrist, who cared for my wife during her depression brought on by a major stroke, how she had been healed, he said, “Our medication and shock treatments were not very effective. God was her healer.” Fortunate is the person who can accept himself or herself for who he or she is and let God have the final word.

As our world grows smaller and pluralism becomes a greater factor than it was in the past, God still has the last word. His word, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me,” is not well received in a pluralistic society. How much more popular is the thought that there are many ways to God, and who are we to judge others. Here the Christian, who believes that Jesus has spoken the last word on how one is restored into fellowship with the Creator, is labeled a bigot, prejudiced, and narrow minded by others who refuse to give Jesus the last word on how we are saved.

God’s law states clearly, “Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, covet, or bear false witness against your neighbor.” Such teachings are debatable by some in society. They might have worked well in another culture but rights and wrongs are relative in an educated society. It is better to determine what is right and wrong as it applies to the individual person in a given situation. God’s word declares such thinking naive and foolish and our Heavenly Father says, “I am the Lord God. I have spoken and I have the last word.”

It was tough for Peter to accept that Christ had the last word, but his denial taught the disciple that God was right. However, God’s last word to Peter was not spoken that night when he betrayed his Master. No, it came some days later after Jesus’ resurrection when the Lord met Peter by the sea and said, “Peter, go and feed my lambs. Your sins are forgiven, and I can use you to tell people of my love for them. If they will repent of their sins and trust me, I will walk with them through life and bring them safely home to heaven.”

That is the last word. It is the Gospel.

Can We Be Free and Christian at the Same Time?

Can we be free and Christian at the same time?

Many who equate Christianity as only moralism say no. Christianity forces its laws upon you, and this legalism takes away your freedom.

However, the Bible teaches that only in Christ is a person free. Peter writes, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (I Peter 2:16). Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31). Paul writes, “For freedom, Christ has set you free” (Galatians 5:1).

Who is right Ð the Bible or those who say that Christianity robs you of the freedom you deserve? Can we be Christian and free at the same time?

Karl Barth, the well-known theologian of the last generation, said, “A Christian should read the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.” His point was that God’s Word needs to be applied to what is happening around us. As I write this sermon, I sit with the Bible and the book, “Losing Our Virtues” before me. This book, written by David Wills, is presenting some thinking in our culture and what the Bible has to say about it. Dr. Wills is a professor of theology at the Gordon Cornwall Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. One question addressed in this book is, Who robs us of our freedom?

The political enemy is obviously a frightening enemy. The leaders of Communism and Nazism would have rejoiced to destroy democracy as we know it in the United States. From the days of the Revolutionary War with George Washington at Valley Forge to the present time with our pilots flying over Kosovo dropping their bombs for seventy-eight days, great sacrifices have been made so that people might be politically free.

Those of us who have lived through a good part of this twentieth century know well the price paid for the freedom we enjoy. I will never forget the last letter my childhood buddy, Christian, wrote to me only hours before he died in Italy during World War II. I will always remember Bob, the young man I had in my confirmation class, who was killed in Viet Nam. These are but two of the hundreds of thousands who have given their lives that we might live as free people. Americans are committed to defend this freedom, which we have enjoyed for more than two centuries.

Government regulations and bureaucracy also threaten us as people of the free world. “Once I could run my business as I thought best. Now the government is telling me what I can do.” This is a common statement heard in the coffee shops and service clubs. A good friend, who is trying to be successful in the business community, says that regulations put on him by Washington are forcing him to lock the doors of his little factory and go fishing. Yet we see the need for some regulations to protect society.

Forty-three years ago our congregation built a home for the aged. It was truly a home. If a resident wanted a particular food, she would ask the cook for it to be served. The cook promised to oblige if the woman wanting this food would help her in preparing it. What fun they had! How the residents enjoyed those efforts to make life as close as possible to the way it was at home. Then one government regulation after another was added and soon the home was an institution. I complained about these interferences until my daughter reminded me that, while we wanted to serve people to the best of our ability, many in the business were primarily concerned about the profit of caring for the elderly. Then came her punch line, “Remember that nursing home that had such a strong odor of urine we could hardly visit our neighbor who moved there? Those were days when there were no regulations.”

So we battle. Republicans criticize Democrats for too much government and Democrats say government is necessary to protect the rights of our people. The battle between political philosophies continues. Can we be free and be Christian?

Yet there are other enemies Ð and some people would list Christianity as one Ð that takes away some of our freedoms. A young person tells me that one day he will be more devout in his Christianity, but at the present there are things he wants to do. Being committed to Christ would not permit him to do these things. A businessperson is reluctant to become a committed Christian, because he would have to change some policies practiced in his operation that at the present are financially very profitable.

In his book, Dr. Will quotes James Lincoln Collier who writes, “Between the years of 1910 -1970 the United States turned from a social code, in which self restraint was a cardinal virtue, to one in which self gratification is a central idea.” Once we asked the question, “Is it right?” Today we ask, “Is it right for me or will it take away some of my freedom?” I will not allow anyone to take this freedom from me, not even Jesus Christ and His Church.

Because of this need to do our own thing, we have to acknowledge some statistics that are not easy to accept. In 1960 the illegitimacy rate in America was at 5%. Now it has increased 400% since 1960.

Pornography has blossomed to a four billion-dollar industry that accounts for a quarter of all the videos rented in shops, seen in thriving hotel business, or on cable. Only 2 percent experience guilt about watching it. Away with Christianity and its teachings about impure living, we are free to live as we please.

Since 1973 when we legalized abortion, an estimated 28 million, unborn children have lost their lives. Abortion was virtually unknown in the last century. Dr. Wills reminds us that once we had rules that automatically governed our behavior. Many of these rules existed because of our Christian heritage. This was our culture’s understanding of how life should be lived. This made much of our behavior automatic because these rules pointed out what was right and wrong. Today this traditional culture is dying. We have dismantled the former rules and the only rule left is, What is good for me? How do I want to live? This is a freedom that I cherish and it will not be taken from me.

All of this adds up to the sad truth that those who consider themselves free live in the midst of captivity being captive to their own selves, and the emotions that drive them farther and farther away from God, who is their only liberator.

God’s Word teaches that Christ is the one who makes us free. Through His death and resurrection our sins can be forgiven, which restores us into fellowship with God. It is in this relationship that we experience our greatest freedom. The selfishness that once dominated our souls, but never brought happiness, is replaced with a desire to live for others. As husbands and wives, we enjoy a faithfulness that never needs to be questioned, for we love each other. This has replaced the constant threat of sexual promiscuity. The minds captured by pornography are captured by a picture of Christ, who attends us daily. The hatred that made us miserable has given way to loving even those who were our worst enemies. Our anxieties are eased as we find peace in trusting Christ to see us through the worst difficulties of life.

Can we be free and Christian at the same time? Christ gives us a clear answer by telling us that we can not only be free and followers of his, but he also tells us that the only way we can be free in the true sense of the word is to become captives of Christ.

On this Independence Day, we thank God for our political freedom. Let us also realize that, even if this freedom were taken away, we are still free people of God in Christ.