The Other Side of Christianity

My wife and I enjoy going to Northern Iowa basketball games. Sitting in a crowd of eight thousand fans is very exciting. Another great evening for us was when we attended the high school orchestra concert and listened to the young people, including our granddaughter, make beautiful music.

We have many great experiences where people entertain us. Sometimes we forget these events did not just happen; many hours of hard work went into preparing for the event. Athletes practice shooting and spend many hours running, learning the plays, and working in the weight room to strengthen their muscles. Musicians spend many hours practicing their instrument.

It is like that for Jesus’ disciples in every age. Our peace and joy, which comes from experiencing His love for us, comes at a great price. We were bought with a great price Ð Jesus’ suffering and death at the cross. Christianity brings us the promise of an abundant and eternal life, but these gifts come at a great cost. Today I want to visit with you on the general theme, “The Other Side of Christianity.”

The twelve disciples were on a three-year training program with Jesus. These were great days with many inspiring and joyous moments. What a shock to see Jesus turn water into wine! What an experience to see the friends of a sick man cut a hole in the roof so Jesus could touch him and make him well! What would happen next?

One evening Jesus really confused the Pharisees by going to Matthew’s party. Matthew, who was a new disciple, wanted his friends, who were also tax collectors, to meet Jesus. So he invited them and had Jesus as the guest of honor. “How can he eat with such sinners?” was the Pharisees’ question. Jesus had the answer: “Only the sick need a physician.”

Then we see the other side of the story. In verse 21, we read, “From then on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

He went on to describe the next few days. One disciple would betray him and another would deny him. The Roman soldiers would arrest him and try him unjustly. Jesus would be falsely accused by his enemies, mocked and beaten. All of this would happen before his crucifixion.

This was too much for Peter, and he said to Jesus, “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you” (22).

Jesus answered Peter sharply, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (23).

Satan was using Peter to be Jesus’ tempter. He had tough days facing him, and he did not need someone to talk him out of what had to be done for humankind’s salvation. If Jesus did not die, Peter would have to die eternally for his own sins. Friends can sometimes bring us temptation when they are trying to protect us from discomfort.

If you are not a Christian, this text has a word from God for you: If you are seeking to learn more about the faith, Jesus Christ offers you the abundant life while here on earth. Then, when death comes to you, he will receive you into a heavenly home prepared for you. It is his gift to you. It is free. This salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ.

Christians also find some words in this text that raise some questions. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” This does not mean just giving up dessert for Lent. It means giving up those things in life that might destroy your relationship with Jesus or your relation for him.

Jesus uses an example: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” A real temptation exists that the false god of materialism can, and often has, made a relationship between God and the person impossible. Material ease, and all that goes with it, can be the idol that stands between Christ and the person who otherwise might like to be a Christian.

This was Judas’ problem. While salvation is free, if you worship money, it might have to be put in its right place in your life. This is the denial that Jesus is talking about in his words to the disciples.

Another word is ashamed. Jesus said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory” (Luke 9:26).

Is it because we are ashamed of him that our behavior does not identify with his will in a given situation? Is it because of him that we are mute when there is a marvelous opportunity to tell others what Jesus is doing for you? Those are difficult questions to answer for another person. Only we have the answers in our hearts. Peter was ashamed of Jesus the night he was on trial. To be identified with him was the kiss of death, and that was a price too high for Peter to pay at that particular time.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” were Jesus’ words to his disciples. To identify with him could have meant death. The Romans believed in capital punishment. Suffering means different things for different people in different times and places. It is good for us to ask ourselves from time to time what have we suffered for Christ during the past year. If we find no suffering, does it say something about the closeness of our relationship with the Savior?

There is no question that to be a Christian is a glorious experience. But that does not mean that difficult hours will not come. They will. A sinful world does not accept Christianity with open arms. It is possible for us to emphasize the glory of Christ so much that we have a distorted view of the faith. We dare not forget the other side of Christianity, or in theological language, the theology of the cross.

If you want to know more about that subject, read some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books on the subject. He was a Christian theologian who left a comfortable livelihood and a promising future to go home to his native Germany and die at the hands of the Nazis for the cause of Christ and his people.

The Freeing of the Gospel

Its Monday morning, and I am preparing another sermon, which is always a challenge for me. God has something that He wants to tell us.

I thought of my pastor’s sermon last Sunday, and I share it with you. When he looks at his Bible, it is evident that some parts of it show a lot of wear, and other parts look new. Some are not ready nearly as often as other parts. Some messages he likes to hear, other messages cause him more difficulty in applying to his life. Some portions of God’s Word comfort him, and other parts are very disturbing.

Do you have that same problem? I do.

Our text today is one of those portions of the Bible that can be very disturbing. It deals with change, and I feel very comfortable without too much change. Neither did the Pharisees like change. Listen to verse 18: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ÔHow is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?'”

Who were these Pharisees? They were the religious leaders who emphasized the strict keeping of the Law. On this day, their concern was Jesus’ disciples treating the law of fasting carelessly.

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” Our Lord is teaching them that the discipline of fasting is good, but it must not be treated legalistically. Rather, it should be used to strengthen them in their relationship with God. This was a change for the Pharisees, because they fasted to fulfill an obligation according to the Law.

What a change! The Law can enslave us; the Gospel sets us free to live for Christ. The message puts a new joy in our hearts and new smiles on our faces. The Gospel ushers in a new day.

Think of our secular life. Have we entered a new day? Yes, we have. If you question that answer, read the book, The world is Flat. Technology has given us a new day. Once the world looked to the United States to produce its many conveniences. Today, we live in a competitive market. General Motors and Ford are having trouble keeping up with the automobile manufacturers from other parts of the world who have become very competitive. Read the labels on your clothing: Made in China, Japan, Taiwan, and other places around the world.

Do we like these changes? My answer is, yes and no. I like my computer and cell phone, that is, as long as I can make them work. Otherwise, they are very frustrating, and I hear myself saying, “Oh, for the good old days,” which I don’t really men, but my frustration is showing.

But what about change in our Christian faith? God’s Word does not change. The Gospel has not changed. Jesus died for all people, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, they must receive him or they are lost. People, within the church in some cases have tried to change this biblical truth and taught that all people are saved. Where such a change is made, it is disastrous. Christ alone is the only way to heaven. He said it, and the Church is called to proclaim this evangelical truth.

God’s Law has not changed. Cohabitation is sin. Self-centeredness is sin, self-righteousness is sin. The message of God’s Word has not changed, but has the way of bringing the message to this world changed? Here is where I become uncomfortable, because I am 81 years old and the old way is good enough for me. B ut does a more informal way of presenting the Gospel communicate the message better for a fifteen year old? Is so, shouldn’t we change/ that is a hot issue in many congregations today. I am thankful that my church still has a traditional service, and this is where I find myself worshiping, but I am also thankful that there are other types of services that seem to reach other people better. That is a little difficult for me to say, because I don’t like change.

Well, the freedom to fast when it is most beneficial for the believers was another lesson for the disciples to learn as they continued their daily walk with the Lord. We have many changes to learn from time to time while holding on to the unchangeable Word of God.

A Faith Story

All people have a story to tell, be it simple or complex. I love to read their stories, because it reveals how interesting each human being is. How exciting to read the biographies of people like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton and George Bush. However, lesser-known people also have great stories to tell.

It is also true that all people have a faith story to tell about their relationship with God. Some might say, “I don’t have a faith story because I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God. That is their faith story.”

Agnostics might say, “My faith story is really not a faith story, because I only believe what my mind can comprehend or what seems logical.” Then that is their faith story.

Christians have a faith story, as we use that term. It tells how they came to Christ and what the years of experience as a Christian have meant.

Today our text tells how Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples, gives an insight into his faith story. Let’s break this story into three parts.

First, Matthew lets his readers know that he lived in Capernaum where he worked as a tax collector. Although he was a Jew, the Jewish faithful hated Matthew. How could he stoop so low as to collect money from God’s people for the Roman government, which used some of this income to finance a heathen religion? This infuriated the Jews.

In spite of the Pharisees’ feelings about Matthew, he was not spiritually dead. He had seen Jesus and probably heard him preach in Capernaum. If you asked Matthew about his impression of Jesus, he probably would have said, “I like what I hear from him. His followers are so happy! I wish I had what they have. Then the day came when my wish was granted. Jesus invited me to follow him, and that is all it took. I left the tax collector’s table, never to return.”

As we read this faith story, we pause for a moment and notice how many people today would tell you they had a similar invitation from Jesus. Some left their line of work and enrolled at the theological seminary to become pastors in the church. Many of today’s pastors are second-career people. Others keep right on doing the same work they have done for years, but have become a strong witness for Jesus both in word and action. They see no need to become a member of the clergy. In fact, they tell us their witness for Christ as a layperson is more dynamic than if they had become a preacher.

Second, Matthew writes in his faith story, “Many tax collectors came and ate with Jesus and his disciples.” Matthew had a party, and he invited friends of many years who were tax collectors. He wanted to assure them that what the Savior had done for him, Jesus could do for them. They had a great evening! You can be sure that Jesus did not condone their lifestyle, where it was contrary to what God’s Word taught. Yet He wanted them to know that God loved them and wanted them in His kingdom. Jesus could change their lives.

Outside the banquet hall, the Pharisees were terribly upset and asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Matthew’s faith story has a real lesson for Christians. It is important that we mingle with the world without denying our faith or compromising our convictions. At the same time, we need to let the world know how much God loves them and wants them in his kingdom, which is possible only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Outreach is something that we talk about in the church, but do not do much with. We have meetings and go to conferences, sometimes hundreds of miles from home, to learn how to evangelize. Then we come home and do little or nothing with that knowledge. Having our own little group is so comfortable. Go into some smaller churches in our town or out in the countryside. They are small for a purpose; the people want it that way. They have people of their own race, nationality, social and financial status, and lifestyle. They even talk about one family dominating what went on in that congregation for so long others felt uncomfortable being there. Well, Matthew would not go along with that thinking. In the short time he had been with Jesus, he reminded everyone that Jesus was for all people.

Third, Matthew thought it was just great when Jesus told the Pharisees and teachers of the law why He was enjoying the banquet with people whom they called sinners, unworthy with whom to fellowship. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew was impressed with Christ’s love. He was a Jew who spoke and wrote to the Jews. However, he still had a big place in his heart for the publicans with whom he had worked and grown to love. They, too, could be saved.

We don’t know much more about Matthew after the resurrection. However, I am convinced that he did not want to have anything to do with spiritual isolation. Can’t you hear Matthew say, “If you want to bring the world the Gospel, you must walk with them. You will find many unsaved people to be pleasant, sometimes nicer than those who are Christians. Yet, they are without a Savior, and they know something is missing in their lives. These are the people to whom Jesus went. He is calling us to go to these same lost souls today. Why do we linger when the words of our Lord to go are so clear?”

Well, this is Matthew’s faith story. I am so glad it was included in the New Testament.

By the way, what is your faith story? If you have one, are you sharing it with someone?

The Greater Gift

I asked a woman who is unable to walk without assistance, “If Jesus asked you, ÔWhich would you prefer that I heal your immobility or assure you that your sins are forgiven?’ how would you answer Him?” With no hesitation she replied, “I would ask for the forgiveness of my sins.”

“Tell me why?” I asked. “Think of all the joy could have, the things you could do and the places you could go if you were able to walk without assistance.

She answered with great confidence, “As a forgiven person, I can live in a personal relationship with God. The sin that separates the natural person from God has been taken away. God is my Father to whom I can turn for comfort, strength, direction, and peace. Sure, I wish that I could walk and drive my car as I once did, but if I can only have one gift, grant me the forgiveness of my sins. Besides the years go by rapidly, and soon all of our running will leave our earthly home, but when we have been restored into fellowship with God by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, we have the assurance of a heavenly home, which is eternal. Furthermore, when I have been bathed in God’s forgiveness, I can learn to be a forgiving person. I can forgive myself and not have to live with guilt, which is painful. I can forgive others and get rid of much garbage, which would rob me of much happiness.”

This discussion has gone on for a decade. This person to whom I refer is my wife, and on a regular basis this is the topic of our discussion over many meals. When we lie in bed at night just before we close our eyes, often she will say, “I love you. Sleep well in Jesus’ name.”

Not every one would prefer to be forgiven rather than to be healed. That’s human nature. Rather, the common answer would be, “I will deal with my sin in some way, but just let me be physically able to enjoy fully this world of ours.

Back in Capernaum two thousand years ago, they brought to a paralytic to Jesus. The crowd was large, so those who brought their friend to Jesus could not use the entrance way, but they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the mat the man was lying on so he was right in front of Jesus. When Christ saw their faith, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Some of the teachers of the law were angered by Jesus’ statement that his sins were forgiven. Only God can forgive sins. Jesus was guilty of blasphemy for certainly He was not God. Our Lord heard their mumbling comments and saw the disgust on their faces, so He asked them, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ÔYour sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ÔGet up, take your mate and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” He said to the paralytic, ” I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

The man got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all. The group had witnessed two miracle Ð the paralytic could walk, and his sins were forgiven. Now comes the important question, “Which was the greater miracle Ð healing or forgiveness?

The people of Capernaum had been blessed with Jesus’ presence, yet the majority did not receive Him as God and the Savior of the world. J. C. Ryle writes in his commentary, ÔWe forget that the people of Capernaum heard the most faultless preaching, and saw it confirmed by the most surprising miracles, and yet remained dead in their trespasses and sins. Nothing seems to harden man’s heart so much as to hear the Gospel regularly and deliberately prefer the service of sin and the world. Never was there a people so highly favored as the people of Capernaum and never was there a people who appear to have become so hard. Let us beware of walking in their steps.

Never has there been a people ore blessed than the people of America. On a daily basis we can heard God’s Word over Christian radio and television. The book stores are flooded with Christian literature. Our churches are blessed with faithful teachers of God’s Word. We have a rich tradition in our hymns, which assist us in singing praises to our Lord. Yet so many of these blessings are taken for granted.

The gift of forgiveness does not cause us to be excited. We are not so sure that sin can destroy us. We laugh at our sins and make light of them. In fact, in this post-modern age we ask the question, What is sin? We often do not blame sin Ð going contrary to God’s will Ð for destroying beautiful lives or breaking up homes. We do not think of sin as the cause for destroyed health, money wasted, or congregations divided. We change our state laws and build casinos that give birth to gambling addicts who helplessly leave their pay check at the slot machines. This is justified by saying the “slots” provide a time of entertainment for those who are not addicted to gambling and whose activity at the black jack table brings hardship to no one.

It is when we understand sin for what it I and confess with St. Paul, “Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me?” Christ’s absolution, “Your sins are forgiven,” becomes our biggest blessing.

Wouldn’t you agree that God’s gift of forgiveness is our greatest blessing, for then we are united with Him for all eternity