Recipients of God’s Grace; Dispensers of His Love

A friend, who was experiencing serious personal problems, asked, “What’s God up to in my life now? I wonder if He is on vacation. I pray, but receive no answers.”

I sensed a little anger in his voice, and his facial expression revealed his doubts. Haven’t we all asked this question? “How can everything be so bad all at once?” However, it is not only when things seem difficult that we wonder about God’s presence in our lives. It is a question people ask when they wonder where they stand with God. Be assured of this: God wants you in a personal relationship with Him. He loves you.

If you are a person who believes God exists, and you are convinced by pure logic that a complex universe such as ours could never have happened without a creator, He rejoices. However, God is anxious to build a much closer relationship with you. He longs for the day when you will think of Him as your Father and not simply as a strong creative force that has no personal interest in you.

The Apostle Peter, in his first New Testament letter, writes about Christ loving us so much that He died for us. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (I Peter 1:18-19).

Why was it necessary for God to send His Son to die for us? Because if we were going to live in fellowship with God, someone had to take away our sins. This is what Jesus did through His sacrificial death on the cross. He died in our place. Peter describes Jesus’ death by writing, “He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (I Peter 2:24-25).

God’s grace reaches down and receives us, not because we deserve this kind of treatment, for we are by nature sinful and unclean. He pursues this because this Creator wants to be our Father and live with us both now and for all eternity. Becoming a recipient of God’s grace is the starting point of this great relationship with God. So if you are not a Christian and you are wondering what God is up to in your life, you now have the answer. He is seeking to create faith in your life so that you will receive Christ as Savior and Lord.

However, it does not stop here. He wants to see you mature in that faith and become a joy to Him, your Heavenly Father. This is a work that He will be doing in all of his children until we get to Heaven. He wants us not only to be recipients of His grace, but dispensers of His love also.

When Peter wrote his first letter to the Jewish Christians in Asia Minor, they were suffering great persecution. This persecution was not as much of a physical nature. The enemies were the false prophets who attacked the Christians’ faith and said the Law of God (Ten Commandments) had no effect on their lifestyle. Christ had set them free from the Law. Therefore, they should enjoy their freedom and not be bound by any law. Some carried this philosophy so far that it became “live as you please.”

Addressing this heresy, Peter tells us his second letter that this teaching is not correct. In fact, when Christ has been received in faith, the Christian will long to become more Christ like in his or her living. God is not done with us. What is He up to in the life of the Christian? He seeks to have us grow in our faith and love for the Lord Jesus. It is summarized quite well in the Gospel hymn Living for Jesus.

“Living for Jesus a life that is true,

Striving to please Him in all that I do;

Yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free

This is the pathway of blessing for me.

“O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee

For Thou in Thy atonement, didst give Thyself for me.

I own no other Master; my heart shall be Thy throne.

My life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ for Thee alone.”

Thomas Chisholm

To be more specific about the kind of life the Christian should live, Peter writes, “Make every effort to add to your life goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:5-8). Let’s just consider three of these attributes.

First, there is knowledge.

What is God up to in our lives as Christians? He has been working to make us wise enough that our thinking is dominated by God’s teaching. For example, if a friend should say, “I am in love with a woman and would like to live with her without taking on the responsibilities of marriage,” how would you feel about this kind of relationship?

Filled with the knowledge of God’s Word on the subject, you would answer, “It really does not matter what I think or say. It is what God says in His Word. There He clearly teaches that sexual relations are limited to the married state.” Then you could take your friend to specific passages in the Bible and show him where God forbids such a relationship.”

Take another example. It is Sunday morning and you are placing your money in the envelope to be given to the Lord. You ask how much you should give to the Lord. If your mind and soul are saturated with the teachings of II Corinthians 8 and 9, there would be sufficient knowledge to answer that question. He would remind you that your offering is a gift to Him. He would remind you that God loves a cheerful giver, so do not give begrudgingly. He would tell you that the amount you are placing in the offering plate could help you understand whether you are growing in your relationship with God, since the more you trust God, the greater the gift will be. These are examples of Biblical knowledge.

Second, we find self-control.

Peter goes on to talk about becoming more Christ like by being more self-controlled. Letting our tempers get out of control is quite easy for some of us. I remember as a young boy getting into fights with my friends. I would come home with a bloody nose, and he would have a black eye. How funny it was that just a few hours later we were the best of friends.

That temper sometimes stays with us right on into adult life. We do not run around punching people in the nose, but we fight with words. Some words we utter can hurt a lot more than a couple of blows to the jaw.

Surprising, that verbal attack is long remembered. I cannot remember all the physical blows I received and gave in my childhood. However, today I remember well those cutting remarks that I received from adults. Some of them will never leave me.

What makes it even worse is to know that I was not only the recipient of these cruel words, I was also the dispenser of them. Without a doubt, there are people who recall some unkind words I said to them. It is with this kind of fragile nature and short fuse that we have to ask God to help us with this whole matter of self-control.

Third, there is godliness.

Charles Swindall has written a book entitled, A Man of Grace and Grit Ð St. Paul. In this book Swindall writes, “The deeper life is a subject greatly admired, but rarely experienced. In fact, it is seldom discussed, although most people would consider it of highest importance. We sing of its virtues, but we do not embrace them. We long for its sequencing water, but rarely dip into its well. We know the benefits it affords, but our frenzied lifestyles crowd out their significance. Unless we are compelled by the Lord Himself to accept the ingredients of the hidden life, either through a lengthy period of illness or some cataclysmic event, depth of character remains a distant dream.” This is the author’s plea for more godliness in the lives of Christians.

I thought of this one evening as I listened to an emotional appeal for the citizens of our community to pass a recommendation that would allow a casino to operate in our area. This gentleman told us how many millions of dollars would be received each year, and a good share of this amount would be returned to the community. We could then use this money for property tax relief, benevolence, and capital improvements. “How better off our city would be with the gambling revenue!”

What bothered me most is that this gentleman truly believes, according to his presentation, that the good life is very much dependent on money. I agree that money is necessary to purchase some of the good things of life. However, it is not true that the more money you have, the happier you will be, because you have more conveniences or things.

I love my town the way it is. We have good churches, an excellent school system, three fine hospitals, art facilities, a new performing arts center, parks, recreational facilities, and profitable industries that pay the workers well. All of this has come without a casino, which is known for bringing many problems into a community. Is it not a part of godliness to ponder what the Lord’s will would be on an issue like this and then follow Him?

How can God continue His work in us? Such gifts as knowledge, self-control, and godliness will come only as we spend time with God in His Word and prayer.

What is God up to? He is working to make us more Christ like each day. His desire is that we might be the recipients of His love and dispensers of His grace.

There Is Life Beyond the Grave

TEXT: Philippians 1:21-26

Since my retirement, people often ask me if I preferred to officiate at weddings or funerals. Which do you think was my preference? It was funerals.

Most weddings were fun. They usually involved laughter, good food, delightful music, and a young couple beginning their life together. So you may wonder why I preferred officiating at funerals where there was sorrow, and life had ended.

I did not enjoy seeing people die. However, once this had happened, I found a great opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those who mourned. This is not so at most weddings. Yes, weddings have a meditation where the pastor can present the Gospel, but I always questioned how many people listened. Excitement was so abundant that people’s minds were on other things, such as how beautiful the bride was, how well-planned everything was, how beautiful the flowers were, and how delicious the food was. This is as it should be.

However, at funerals people are quiet. They have seen a life end. One question that weighs on their mind is, why now? This is especially true if the deceased was young. People are naturally more open to the Christian message in this setting.

Today, in the last of our sermons on Basic Teachings of the Christian Faith, let us look at three questions relating to death. They are:

  • Is there life after death?
  • What will it be like?
  • How can I live today with the reality of death?

Remember, these are biblical answers that may go far beyond human comprehension.

Is there life after death?

The common responses are, “I do not know; I will take my chances.” “I have a feeling there is something after death, but what is it?”

Many funerals use eulogies to replace funeral sermons. Occasionally a funeral service for a celebrity is televised. Do you hear a pastor preach a Biblical message? I don’t. They find some equally well-known person to deliver a well-planned message elevating the worth of the person who has died and lauding him or her for the many accomplishments in their lifetime. In later years this has crept into the funeral services for less-prominent people. I have to wonder if some of this is done to escape the hard question of whether there is life after death.

Listen to Jesus. He tells us there is a life after death. All will live – some in heaven and others in hell. The thought of a person living in hell is off-limits in the thinking of some people. “How could a loving and righteous God send anyone to hell?”

Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus recorded in Luke 16:19-31. These two verses hit us hard: “In hell, where he (the rich man) was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham, far away with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’” (vs. 23-24). We do not preach much about hell in our day, and yet the teaching of Jesus on the subject still stands.

On the more positive side, Jesus gives us a glorious picture of heaven, which has been prepared for all people, but enjoyed only by those who die trusting Christ as their Savior. This is a gift coming from our Lord. Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

What will eternity be like?

We can best describe hell as eternal separation from God.

Heaven is well described in general terms by John. In Revelation 7:9 he writes “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

There was a large crowd. Through the years millions have responded to the Gospel and have received Christ as their Savior. These people live in heaven. This is the fruit of Gospel preaching.

It is good to note that there is no segregation. They have come from all parts of the planet earth. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of the world. When we trust Him to be our Savior, His blood cleanses us from all of our sins. You can read this in I John 1:7.

While living on earth, there have been many tribulations, but in heaven this is gone. “Never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). All of this sounds quite good, does it not? Then why would someone walk away from such a glorious offer?

The answer is that we must receive these truths in faith. Unless the human can prove them, he continues to wonder. As the years have gone by and people have supposedly increased in learning, they simply smile and say, “No rational mind could buy this.” This is the response of many unless the mind of the intellectual, as well as we of lesser learning, have had our minds and souls opened by the Holy Spirit to say, I believe.

How can I live today with the reality of death?

The theme for this sermon, There is Life Beyond the Grave, may be questioned by some, but the fact that death is a reality is undeniable. We read about terrible accidents, murders, and suicides daily in our newspapers. There are so many of these premature deaths where parents are taken from their children and children from their parents. We are told in our doctor’s office that we have serious symptoms of an illness that could be terminal. We are forced to face death. How so we live with this reality?

Paul was facing death in a Roman prison. He concluded, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul knew that living was great, but dying was greater. Can we get to that spiritual level, or is this just pious talk?

For me to hear someone, in the prime of their life, say “I want to die,” seems quite abnormal. However, when the old tent is worn out, sickness makes life less desirable, and the person trusts Christ as his or her Savior, hearing them say, “I am ready, Lord. I want to go home,” is understandable.

Death is not the end. The Christian lives with a song in his or her heart. These are the lyrics written by St. Paul:

“O death, where is thy sting; O death where is thy victory?
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen.

Rev. Homer Larsen

“Is the Church Divided?”

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Last Sunday, in our series on Basic Biblical Teachings of the Christian Faith, we talked about the Church. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ established the Church. He has given the promise that the Church will be here when He returns. The Head of the Church comforts us in assuring that the members of this body will experience a oneness and unity that will give them security in being Christ’s witnesses in a hostile world.

However, someone looking at the Church today could say, “This is not the Church we read about in the newspapers and live with each day. This Church is divided to the extent that one denomination will not worship with another denomination. They will not pray with each other. Neither will they share the Lord’s Supper. The disunity goes on even within the denomination. There they might give allegiance to the denomination’s confessional statement, but there is sharp disagreement on ethical and social issues. For example, in both the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations, there is no agreement within the body itself regarding same sex marriages, and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Where is the unity in this Church?”

Let’s look at the church in Corinth. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you, and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ÔI follow Paul’; another, ÔI follow Apollos’; another ÔI follow Cephas’; still another, ÔI follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius so no one can say that you were baptized into my name” (I Corinthians 1:10-15).

Paul’s group was made up of Gentile Christians. The Apollos group was attracted to Apollos who was known to be a very gifts speaker. The Cephas group were the Jewish Christians who were uncomfortable that no reference was made to the importance of keeping the ceremonial laws such dietary laws and the observance of certain festivals.

Seeing this division, Paul expressed his concern, because it brought a poor witness to an unbelieving world. “These Christians cannot even agree among themselves about what they believe,” some critics of the Church were saying. “Deliver us from being a part of them.”

But what did Paul mean when he said, “I appeal to you, brothers, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

Did Paul think it was possible not to disagreements among them? They not only had the scriptures, but they had to interpret them also. Different people would bring different interpretations to some of these biblical passages. Hadn’t Paul admitted, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully . . .” (I Corinthians 13:12). He and Peter had not always agreed on all matters of the faith. The writer of the book of Acts writes, “Paul and Barnabas had sharp disagreements” (Acts 15:38).

Certainly Paul was enough of a student of the human personality to realize that wherever you have people, different ideas bring forth different convictions, and there you can have divisions.

Paul was counseling the Corinthian church not to have a quarrelsome spirit among them. Let the Spirit of Christ bind you together, and then a difference of opinion on certain matters in the church would not become seriously divisive. In our diversity we can have the oneness that Christ talked about in His prayer (John 17).

Now let us apply this teaching to the Church in our day. Jesus prayed, “Father, that all of them may be one . . .” (John 17:21). Here is a modern-day picture of the church in my town. Clumped together in one neighborhood are Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians. A couple of blocks down the street is an Evangelical Free Church with another Methodist group across the street and down three or four blocks. As you drive south you will find two Lutheran Churches and a United Church of Christ. A bit further on there are an Episcopal Church and a Reformed Church. Wow! The unchurched people laugh and say, “Why don’t these people get together? It would be so much more economical!”

Can there be a unity among the people who worship in these churches? Yes, there can. Within most of these congregations there are those who trust Christ and those who do not trust Him. In other words, there are Christians within these congregations, but there are also people who are not Christian. Does it surprise you that not all church members are Christian?

I can understand, but it is obvious that there are many reasons for people to join a congregation. They like the exposure. It makes a good impression in the community. It keeps peace in a family when an unbelieving spouse is willing to join with the husband or wife.

Those who are believers in these respective congregations constitute the Church. Although there might be different interpretations on some teachings, there is complete agreement on the Gospel that Christ Jesus has come into the world to be our Savior. Through His suffering, death, and resurrection He has atoned for our sins, and grants us forgiveness and salvation. This is the core of the faith.

In this we are united. There can be no division on this teaching if we are Christian. Thus, the Christian Church, that declares with Peter “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), is one.

I am a Lutheran. Many of my friends belong to the Baptist church. We do not understand the teaching of baptism in the same way, but we have our unity in Jesus Christ. Several years ago my son and I attended a meeting of the Promise Keepers. What an experience it was to see thousands of men gather representing many denominations, yet celebrating our oneness in Christ. That was the experience as we stood and sang, “We are not divided.”

Some Christians are blessed with a worship service that is quite formal. We call this a liturgical worship service. I was raised in such a church, and consequently I love the liturgy. Many of my friends belong to churches that have an informal type of worship. They much prefer this type of service. No matter what the form of worship is, Jesus Christ unites us.

As I wonder about the future of the Church, I find concerns in my old soul. However, there are many bright spots for which my soul rejoices. One of the most exciting things is that denominationalism is fading into the background. In the evangelical world, we are seeing people move from one denomination to another. When I was growing up, the policy was once a Lutheran, always a Lutheran. This is not so with our grandchildren.

“I go where I am fed with the Gospel, and where I can best serve the Lord in the building of His kingdom,” they tell me. I believe this is healthy. Why would you go to a worship service, except for tradition’s sake, if you are not being spiritually fed? Why would you worship in a church that does not believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word and the authority in all matters of faith and life?

Is the Church divided? It might look like it is, but visit with a person whose life is committed to Jesus Christ, and you will soon sense a oneness. This is true Christian unity.

Can One Be a Christian Without the Church?

In the creation story God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). God created us as social people; we need the fellowship of others.

This also applies in our spiritual life. We need spiritual brothers and sisters around us. We need a Christian family. Many experience the difficulty of being the only Christian in their physical family. I have heard several people say, “We have a good marriage, but my spouse is not a Christian, and that means there is something missing in our relationship.”

It is because of this need for Christian fellowship that Jesus established and continues to build the Christian family. Let us look briefly at the beginning of the Church.

It was in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus said to his disciples, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:8). He has given us the promise that His Church will still be here when he returns. Cruel and powerful men, such as Hitler and Stalin, have tried to destroy this Church. They died, and yet the Church lives on.

That Church, prophesied about in Caesarea Philippi, was born on Pentecost Sunday in Jerusalem when 3,000 people confessed their faith in Christ and were baptized. A baptized believer in Jesus Christ is a member of this Church.

Soon the disciples were on their way to tell the story of God’s plan of salvation, and groups of believers were found in such places as Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colosse. Wherever this Gospel of Christ was preached, people came to faith, and the Church was established.

From the very beginning, Christians saw the importance of being together in a body. It was an old principle: It is not good that man should be alone. The disciples were together on that first Easter morning. We read: “On the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.”

Imagine what the conversation could have been that night. The weaker disciples could have had second thoughts about Jesus. “We are in trouble. Perhaps we should try to leave Jerusalem unseen,” Thomas might have said.

“Yea, we are in some kind of mess,” Philip might have added.

Then Andrew, a more stable follower, would have shown a little anger with the group. “Come on, now. What is the matter with you guys? What do you think He meant when he said, ÔTake up your cross and follow me.’ He never said it would be easy.”

Matthew might have joined with Andrew. “Don’t you remember that evening when he warned us that our lives would not be without suffering? He comforted us with these words: ÔCome unto me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.’ We are weary. The last days have been filled with emotion. Let us take it to Him.” And they could well have had their first prayer meeting without Jesus being physically present.

Christians need the support that comes from the body of believers. While I personally do not suffer much persecution, I sense the need of being together each Lord’s Day in His Church to be strengthened by fellow believers. There we sing the same hymns that people of God have been singing for years. We pray together. We read His Word and meditate on His message.

During the week, we need the help that can come only from Christians. Have you ever had a phone call like this: “I just received terrible news. Can you come over? I need you.” You might have been surprised that this friend called you. You were friends, but not that close. Why didn’t he call a fellow he socialized with much more than he does with you? The answer is clear. He knew that you would have a word from God, and that is what he needed to hear.

I remember those tough calls. The long vigils at the hospital in the hours of despair. Standing at the police station when a child had been arrested. Holding the hand of a spouse when the husband or wife had left, and the marriage was over. What impressed me at so many of those calls was to see the believing friends gather just to be with the one who was hurting. That is the Church, and Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them.”

Think of the dynamic ministries that have been going on in the Church throughout its history. These ministries would never have happened had Christians not bound themselves together and provided the number of people and money that was necessary to bring the Gospel of Christ to this world. What one Christian could not do alone, a group accomplished together.

The ministries of the church are many. Our Sunday schools, youth organizations, Bible studies, hospitals, orphanages, social services, homes for the aged, colleges, and seminaries. These ministries came to be because believers joined and gave of their time, talent, and money to make them a reality.

Think about the opening question in this sermon. Can a person be a Christian without the Church? I imagine he or she could, but this person would be a selfish Christian. They would have had no part in being a part of this great enterprise that is heralding the good news of Christ to our world. What would society be like had Christ not established His Church to minister to our world?

If the Church weakens, our society weakens. If one spiritual loner wants to go it without the Church, so be it. We know that our civilization needs Christ, and what a privilege it is for us to be a part of that body of believers.