In the Hands of Jesus

Matthew 14:13-21

Do you ever have problems so large, you can’t cope from your own strength? What do you do? Where do you turn? In the story of Jesus and the miracle of feeding the five thousand, the disciples and Jesus were facing a problem that required supernatural power to solve it.

Jesus had just been rejected in His hometown of Nazareth and said that He could do no miracles there because of their unbelief. He also just learned that His soul mate – His cousin John the Baptist (the forerunner to the Messiah) – had been beheaded by the king because John the Baptist confronted him for the sin of sleeping with his brother’s wife.

Jesus was grieving the death of John the Baptist. But the crowds, it says in the Gospel, still came. Large crowds with great need. The compassion of Jesus was stirred for them, so He healed the sick and taught about the kingdom of God. All through the day, they still came with their tremendous need.

Jesus was tired, and now there were 5,000 men – if you counted women and children, it may have been up to 15,000 people – in a desolate wilderness area without food. That’s a problem. The disciples, perhaps because they were tired or indifferent, said to Jesus, Send these people away to the nearby village so they can eat. We can’t feed them.

Jesus said, They don’t have to go away. You feed them. There is a contrast here between the attitude of the disciples – indifference or dismissal of the problem, not wishing to deal with it at all, running from it – and Jesus’ compassion – engage the problem in a practical way and offer help.

I can understand the attitude of the disciples, not only what I meet problems in my life so big I can’t cope with them, but even when God calls me to do something about world issues that feel too big for me. If I hear on the news of a child who has been abducted and missing, I grieve. If I see a video on TV about a poor, starving person, I know the complexities of the problem are so deep that a few dollars offered isn’t going to solve it, and yet Jesus asked me to do something about it.

When I hear stories about white supremacists who literally believe they should rule or dominate and control and put down other people because of the color of their skin or their nationality, I get angry at the injustice, at the prejudice. But I’m blind at the prejudices that operate in my own soul. Or I hear stories around the world of terrorists who have put innocent people to death senselessly, like not long ago in Barcelona, Spain. I wonder, Where will it end? and How can I fix it? I’m kind of like an ostrich that puts his head in the sand and says, ‘It’s not my problem.’ My resources are limited. I can’t fix it. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t want to deal with it. Send them away, Jesus. But Jesus in compassion says, ‘You help them. You love them.’

So I ask you again, when you face life’s problems, do you focus on your limits and your lack of capacity, or do you look to Jesus and invite His power to be released into the problem or into the context of the challenge? Remember the verse in Ephesians 3:20, “God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly beyond all we ask or think according to His power that works within us.” Maybe you’ve heard this faith quote, “God is never at His extremity. Therefore we are never at our extremity.” We put our problems and our lives into the hands of Jesus, and then miraculous things can happen.

In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples bring five loaves and two fish, but protest, “What is this among so many?” They are focused on their limits. But remember, they are in the presence of the all-powerful Lord Jesus. From John’s telling of the story, we actually learn that it was a boy who brought the five loaves and two fish to the disciples. This boy’s generosity becomes the means by which Jesus turns the impossible into the possible. When we put our problems into Jesus’ hands, He does miraculous things for us and with us. We actually are invited to become participants in Jesus’ miracle to bless the people.

God uses imperfect, limited people to experience the thrill of having God work through us. God is never at His extremity, therefore we are never at our extremity. We have learned in the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation that God takes impossible circumstances and reveals His power and grace are possible for a word of hope for all people.

Remember when Abraham and Sarah were promised a child who would be the beginning of a great nation? Twenty-five years later when Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety, a child was born. A miracle. They named him Isaac, which means, “He laughs.” The Lord had asked, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The answer, of course, is no!

Moses stood before Pharaoh, the most powerful leader of Egypt, who refused to let his country’s slaves (God’s people) go. Ten supernatural plagues later, God’s power convinced Pharaoh to let them go. They no sooner left Egypt when they were confronted by yet another problem – the Red Sea as a barrier. But then, by the calling of Moses and the people, the Red Sea divides and they cross over into the promised land. Now that, which was the problem, becomes the very means God uses to defeat Pharaoh and his army and give them the victory.

David slays the giant Goliath saying, The battle is the Lord’s. And of course, in the incarnation story of sweet Jesus Himself, an all-powerful God takes on limits in an emptying of His power and glory. A child is conceived within the womb of a virgin named Mary. God becomes a man, and the impossible becomes possible in the context of human history.

Jesus goes on to live a perfect life; He goes to the cross on false charges. He dies for the sins of the world of all time; and God raises Him from the dead so that in His name the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to all who would believe. That is how the impossible becomes possible in individual lives like yours and mine as we are invited to be reconciled into a relationship with the living God.

God is in the business of the impossible becoming possible. An extraordinary God lives in the hearts of ordinary people to do miraculous things. This miracle shows us He truly is the Son of God. One man feeding five thousand, everybody eating until they are satisfied with twelve baskets left over, shows us the power of Jesus – that He truly is the Son of God. He is the Lord. He is the Savior of the world. Just like God fed His people in the wilderness with manna, now Jesus as the bread of life satisfies the soul of all people.

The miracle also shows us the compassion of Jesus that always meets us at the point of our need.

What is your problem today? Where do you struggle? You can invite Jesus into that very point of life, and His compassion will release power and love into your life context.

The miracle also shows that Jesus desires to come into our lives and bless us abundantly, to lavish His grace upon us. The same compassion that released Jesus’ power to feed the five thousand, took Jesus all the way to the cross. The ultimate need of humanity was that our sins would be forgiven so we could be reconciled into a relationship of love and peace with the Creator God who made us. We can place, not just our problems, but our very lives into the hands of Jesus Christ.

We can pray as intercessors for other people who have needs inviting God’s power to work for them.

I love the story told by Bill Bright in his magazine Campus Crusade for Christ. The article was called, “How You Can Pray With Confidence.” He tells the story from the mid-1950s of the Mau Mau terrorist uprising in the country of Kenya. This uprising was a terrorist plot to overthrow a certain segment of the people. During that time, missionaries located in Kenyan named Matt and Laura Higgins had to drive through the heart of Mau Mau territory on their way to the city of Nairobi. They were well aware that many had met a violent death at the hands of terrorists in that very area.

It was after dark, and they were still 17 miles from Nairobi when their Land Rover stalled. Missionary Matt tried in vain to repair the vehicle in the dark, but he was unable to get it started. Fearfully the couple locked themselves in the car and prayed aloud Psalm 4. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone make me dwell in safety.” When they awakened in the morning in the daylight, Matt repaired the Land Rover and they were able to get to Nairobi.

The following week, a local pastor – their friend – told Matt and Laura what happened while they slept. Three Mau Mau terrorists, in fact, had crept up to the car intending to do them in, but they saw sixteen men surrounding their vehicle, and so they fled in fear. Matt, and Laura were thrilled but bewildered by that strange story. “What sixteen men?” they wondered.

Sometime later, they were on furlough back in America, and the rest of the story came to light when Matt’s dear friend asked him, “Have you been in any danger lately?” Matt told his friend about the Mau Mau rebellion, their stalled vehicle, and the sixteen men. The friend nodded excitedly. “Yes! It was March 23!” he said. “God burned my heart for you. I called the men of our church, and sixteen of us met for emergency prayer, praying on your behalf.”

Now, God does not always work that way in our human lives. He does not always release miraculous power to deliver us from all harm or spare us from all suffering, but in this particular case, the intercessory prayer of dear friends delivered those missionaries. We can, in prayer, put our life problems in the hands of Jesus.

Author Stephen Ambrose in the book, Band of Brothers, told the story of an American paratrooper unit during World War II. One of the stories was about one Sgt. “Skinny” Sisk, who was one of the few to survive from beginning to end. After the war, Skinny Sisk had a hard time shaking his wartime memories. In July 1991, he wrote a letter to explain to his old captain, Dick Winters, what happened after the war. My career after the war was trying to drink away the truckload of Krauts I had stopped in Holland, and the diehard Nazi as I went up into the Bavarian Alps and ended his life. Old Mo Alley made a statement that all the killings I did was going to jump into bed with me one of these days, and they surely did. I had a lot of flashbacks that haunted me after the war, and I started drinking.

Then my sister’s little daughter, my four-year-old niece, came into my bedroom. I was too unbearable for the rest of the family – either hung over or drunk. So she came in the bedroom and told me that Jesus loved me, and she loved me, and if I would repent God would forgive me for all the men I kept trying to kill all over again. That little girl got to me. I put her out of the room, and sent her back to her mommy. But there and then I bowed my head on my mother’s old featherbed. I repented of all my sins, and I asked God to forgive me for the war and for all the other bad things I had done down through the years. I later was ordained into the gospel ministry in 1949.

I love that story that skinny Sisk tells about how the Lord redeemed him, because it tells me two things: the Lord is still in the business of redeeming lives. Jesus is still pouring grace and power into lives to redeem us and start over again. But also it tells me that even a little four-year-old girl can be the one who shares the message of Jesus Christ.

In prayer, we can place our problems and our guilt and our very lives into the hands of Jesus Christ, and when we do, powerful life-changing things happen. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg
Christian Crusaders

This Is Us – The Bride of Christ

Ephesians 5:25-32

Some people in the world today enjoy poking fun at the church, even running it down and talking negatively about it. In some parts of the globe, people persecute the church. Sometimes we will hear criticisms of the church even from within. Someone once compared his church to Noah’s ark. “If the flood on the outside were not so bad, you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.” That’s not exactly a positive thing to say about the church, is it?

Some will make statements such as, The church is full of hypocrites or It’s irrelevant; it’s behind the times. Some from the outside will point to some of the sordid history, such as the Crusades or more recently of clergy misconduct. Others tend to treat the church as kind of an extra in life, a non-necessity, nice to have around. What matters though is my personal walk with the Lord, they’ll say.

Let me ask you, What is your attitude toward the church? Do you love her or are you a critic? Do you cherish her or do you treat her as an extra in your relationship with the Lord? We have been talking about the Church of Jesus Christ for the past two Sundays in our series called, “This Is Us.” Along the way we’ve learned that there are two ways of talking about the church. The Church can be talked about as the Church Universal – all believers in Christ on earth. As we say in our Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” Or we can talk about the church as a local congregation of believers in Christ who are called together and then sent out into the world to serve Him.

In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul uses various images to help us better understand what a special and glorious thing the Church of Jesus Christ really is. We’ve seen that He calls us the family of Christ, Christ’s body with many parts – each one important.

Today he uses another interesting image to describe the wonder of the Church, one which we don’t talk about much. We find it in the fifth chapter of Ephesians as he is instructing husbands how to treat their wives. In the instruction, he describes the Church as the Bride of Christ. In verse 25 he makes this very interesting statement: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church.”

Now we have a marriage imagery. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and Jesus loves her. He cherishes her with a superior type of love. Sometimes after we’re married, we will jokingly say, Well, the honeymoon is over! But the love Christ has for His Church is a superior type of love, and the honeymoon for Him is never over. He is affectionate; He loves His church.

How has He loved her? In verse 25 we see that He gave Himself up for her to make her holy, which means set apart for Him. He has cleansed her for Himself with the forgiveness of sins. You see, this bridegroom was willing to pay any price for her – even going to a cross. He sacrificed His life for her good.

I love the way Martin Luther talks about this in his writing, The Freedom of a Christian. Listen to this: “Who can understand the riches of the glory of His grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom, Christ, marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has the righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and Hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ in whom I believe has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his.’”

Isn’t that a beautiful statement of how Christ has loved His Church? He went all the way to the cross to make us His own.

We also see in verse 23, prior to today’s reading, that He leads the Church. Christ is the head of the Church. He has been given responsibility for the Church, to care for her, to lead her, to take the initiative for her welfare, to help her be all she was meant to be. He’s always up to something good on behalf of His bride.

The Church has no idea what Christ is up to a lot of the time. He surprises us with all kinds of things. Sometimes in history He surprised the Church with revivals. He moves in ways that surprise the Church with joy and health and growth. I’ve seen this in my own congregation. Jesus has led us through some exciting adventures with the evangelism ministry and outreach ministry and small groups ministry and prayer ministry. He even took us into a relocation we never anticipated. He was leading. He was the initiator, the head.

In verse 29 we also read that He nourishes and cares for His church as one cares for his or her own body. How does He do that? He feeds the Church through His Word and the sacraments. In that Word, He cleanses her with the water and the word. This is a reference to Ezekiel 16 where God is cleansing His bride Israel, making a covenant with her. He protects her, takes care of her. He builds her up. He sees what she needs and what she can become, and He provides for her. He does everything in His power to shape and mold His body through the Holy Spirit’s work. He cares for her as we care for our own bodies.

Finally, we learned He actually has a stake in her future. He holds her future, her destiny. In verse 27 it says He is preparing us for the great wedding day. Listen to these words of Paul: “So as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so she may be holy (set apart) and without blemish.” The beautiful bride on the day of the wedding. I think of my beautiful bride of 40 years ago this year on our wedding day coming down the aisle. All I could say as she came toward me was, She’s beautiful!

Jesus will present her to Himself on the great consummation day without stain or wrinkle. We were betrothed to Him at our salvation; at the consummation we are received as His bride. At the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, the Apostle John is given a vision of the wedding of the Lamb. There is a great shout – hallelujah and praise – for Christ has made His bride ready. The Church has a great destiny awaiting us.

So this is us! In this world, which can be so critical and condescending to the Church, remember – we are the bride of Christ! Are we perfect? By no means! We won’t be without blemish until the great wedding day of the Lamb. We are still a group of saints and sinners. It resides within each of us. We are blemished, in need of God’s grace and forgiveness time and again. But we are forgiven, and we are loved by Jesus. We are a covenant people being shaped and molded by His Holy Spirit, and called into service for the glory of God. We are the bride of Christ.

I hope you understand the passion, the love this bridegroom, Jesus, has for the bride. I hope you see and understand the value of the bride in the bridegroom’s sight. You will find joy and assurance in that. I hope you can feel your attitude toward the Church rise a little bit under the Word of God as we look at the image of the bride of Christ, and I hope you are coming to understand that the hymn writer is right when he says, “She’s the Apple of His Eye.”

Now the question is, If Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride, how then would He have us view the bride and treat the bride (our local church)? Listen to this statement: If you love the bridegroom, then you will love the bride. For as Paul says, “They are one.” There is a special union of the two becoming one. Hear His words from the last part of this reading for today: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”

Remember when Paul, who once was called Saul – the great, persecutor of the Church – was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and had a conversion? He saw a bright light and heard these words: “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you?”

The voice of Jesus replied, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When you persecute the bride, you are persecuting the bridegroom. Then Jesus called Saul (who became Paul) into service for the bride. If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride.

Imagine a scenario – A man invites a friend into his home for dinner. They enjoy a delicious meal the man’s wife has graciously offered to make. The man and his friend casually catch up on life, but then halfway through the meal the invited guest starts to do something unbelievable. He starts listing things his wife’s friend could’ve done better. The chicken’s too tough, he says. You should have marinated it longer. And the broccoli’s overcooked. My twelve-year-old daughter could cook a better meal than that! And you really should do something else with your hair. Then he begins to criticize her character and even ridicule her.

I’m guessing his visit would be cut short and the guest would simply be sent away with a few choice words by the husband. Even if he might’ve been right about certain things, the typical husband simply wouldn’t tolerate someone openly and caustically criticizing his wife. He loves her, and for a husband that means accepting and honoring his wife despite her quirks and shortcomings. On the other hand, if someone reaches out and helps my wife, I consider them my friend. When you’re good to the bride, you bring pleasure to the bridegroom. Grasp that truth, and you will think in new and different ways about your local church.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am to love what Jesus loves. He loves the Church as His bride. How can I do otherwise?

When we talk about love in the Church, we’re not simply talking about a feeling but a superior sort of love, the love Jesus has that led Him to the cross. Love is a verb, not a noun. It’s an action word. Just think of what we do for those whom we love, those whom we are committed to. We talk of them and to them with words of affirmation. We say, I love you. I appreciate you. When we pray, we thank God for those we love. We give them words of value and honor. For those we love, we make time for them, and make them a priority even when we have a busy schedule.

Likewise, if you love the Church, you make her a priority, time wise, in your busy schedule.

We give thoughtful gifts to those we love. We think long and hard about how to give a special gift to the person we care about. Likewise in the church, we give thoughtful gifts if we love her – resources of our time and our talents and our treasures – and we give them passionately. Those we love – such as in our own marriage – we serve one another. We serve together. Are you serving in your church’s ministries?

And of course, we meaningfully touch those whom we love.

Are you committed to be at worship every week? That is expressing your love to Christ and to His bride.

This is the appeal I make to you today. Christ loves His bride, the Church. If you love Jesus, love your church. She’s not perfect, but she is very near and dear to Jesus.

You might be thinking, That church hurt me somewhere along the way. Let me remind you that to love also means to forgive and start over.

Okay, where do I start? you might be wondering. Pray for her to be the light of the world for Christ – great commission people as well as great commandment people. In your prayers, give thanks to God for your church and what she’s done for you in the past. Pray for the bride’s health and growth.

Ask God to show you where you can serve and contribute to the mission of His bride. Then dare to take the next step after you’ve prayed. Put that love to work for the bride. Ask your pastor, for instance, where you can help in the church because this is us, the church, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ through whom Christ works, the family of Christ, belonging to Christ. We are the bride, loved by Christ and valued by Christ, attentive to her. He delights in us.

If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride, and count yourself blessed that you belong to the church. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

This Is Us – We Are the Body

Ephesians 4:4-16

Are you a member of the church? This is not such a far-fetched question these days. Back in the 50s, even 60s, we were what might be termed as more of a churched culture.

However, changes are taking place and people often choose not to be affiliated with any church or religion for that matter. They are referred to as the “Nones,” meaning when filling out forms asking religious affiliation, they just check “none of the above.” But if you are a member of the church, then my next question would be, What does your church membership mean to you? This is the subject I want to spend a few moments talking with you about today – membership and what it means for the Christian. ‘

I believe church membership is one of the most important things the church needs to get right today in this 21st century if we’re going to be healthy and growing for the cause of Christ! Many churches are weak because we have members who have turned the meaning of membership upside down in their minds, and it’s time to get it right.

Some have come to think of church membership like membership in a club – such as a country club. You pay your dues each year and receive some perks and privileges. Certain amenities come along with it that you come to expect – the use of the pool, a discount on meals at the restaurant, a discount on a golf cart, or priority treatment on the golf course. Join the club and you will be served well.

Tragically, though, this understanding of membership sometimes gets carried over into the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s a view many church members hold. We hear in statements such as these:
▸ This is my church! You better play the music the way I want it!
▸ Look, pastor. Don’t forget who pays your salary.
▸ If you don’t do this program, I will withhold my check to the church.
▸ I have been a member of the church for more than 30 years, so I have a right to get what I want!

This kind of thinking is not biblical nor faithful to what God had in mind when He first envisioned His Church. It’s important to ask the question, Where did the term “member” come from when it comes to belonging to a church?

First of all, it’s not something that was just pulled out of thin air or taken from the business world. There’s a biblical background to using this term “church member.” It comes from a metaphor the Apostle Paul used to describe the Christian Church. Listen to his words again: “We are all one body. We have the same spirit; we’ve been called to the same glorious future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there’s only one God and Father who is over us all and in us all, living through us all.”

This is us, folks! We are one body – like the human body with its many members – all connected, all necessary. The same Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to Jesus Christ and to the telling of the Good News of what He did for us on the cross. We have one resurrection, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father watching over us all. We have the same glorious future together – eternal life.

We are the body of Christ – not an organization but a living, breathing organism. We have a calling and a mission to represent Jesus in this world and bring others to Him so they might be rescued from sin and death, and experience the abundant life God had in mind for us when He created us all in the first place. Each of us are body members. This is the origin of “church member.”

The human body has different members that do different things – like eyes, feet, arms, legs, and so on. Each is necessary and important for the body as a whole in order for it to function well. So also in the body of Christ are members who play diverse, yet needful, roles for the whole body. Each member is different and valuable for the common good. Each one has a role, a function to work together with the other parts like a body. Each member has a special gift, Paul tells us, to be used for the common good of the body. These gifts were given by the Holy Spirit when a person receives Christ into their life and follows Him as Lord and Savior.

Paul lists a few spiritual gifts in today’s portion of Scripture. He says, “However, he has given each of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ. He is the one who gave his gifts to the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.”

In this particular letter to the Ephesians, you see, Paul is only listing a few teaching gifts. But oh how important those teaching gifts are for all of us! How important it is for the Church to have good, biblical teaching and doctrines to keep us in the truth so we don’t get confused by what the world and other religions would have us believe. God has provided us with teachers who help us stick to the Good News of Jesus and what He has done for us at the cross – dying to pay for our sins and rising so we might have forgiveness and salvation. We need to be reminded that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him. In this pluralistic day of ours, many are questioning this truth, even within the Church. We need to be reminded that Scripture is God-breathed and our only authority in matters of faith and life. If we are looking for answers, we need to look to the Bible.

However, not just teaching is important. In other places like I Corinthians or Romans, Paul lists a variety of other gifts people have been given to be used for the common good of Christ’s body. The Apostle Peter lists some as well. Here are a few: Serving, mercy, encouragement, administration, wisdom, knowledge, giving, leadership, assistance, healing, tongues of the prayer language, and interpretation of tongues.

Every member is powered and gifted by the Holy Spirit to do something in the life of the local church! God never intended for the clergy to do all the ministry. It was never His intent for the pastor to use his gifts and everyone else to sit and watch, applaud or criticize. We all are called to ministry for the common good in the Church. Notice, there is no gift of sitting and watching, being spectators, demanding, waiting around for people to serve us. Spiritual gifts are meant to do something for someone else, functioning for the common good. They are mutually interdependent just like a human body. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” as Paul says in I Corinthians. We need each other to be effective for Christ in the world. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that if one part does not do its job, the whole body doesn’t function very well. We all lose out.

The motivation behind using what God has given you in the church, of course, is love – love for Christ and what He has done for us – and love for His Church that He loves. You know He loves His Church. It’s a big deal to Him. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13, right in the center of talking about gifts, It’s all about love.

Paul then goes on in Ephesians to share an important truth with those of us who are willing to be functioning members of the body. Under His direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow so the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

First of all, notice it’s under His direction. He’s talking about Jesus Christ. He is the head of the body, the control center. He is the Lord of the Church. We walk to His drumbeat, and as each member of the body uses their gifts, the whole body then benefits, Paul tells us. It grows healthy and mature and full of love. As you, as a member, involve yourself in the life of the church by exercising your abilities, you become a blessing to others in your local church.

Paul doesn’t tell us this, but there’s a bonus to consider. Jesus talked about the beauty of serving one another in the church and the joy that comes along with it. There is joy in serving others and making a difference in others’ lives for the cause of Christ as you operate out of the sweet spot God has given you.

I think of Kate headed off to college this year. She has figured out she has a gift of hospitality and mercy. She is good at making people feel like they belong and someone cares that they are there. She just returned from a mission trip with a large group of teenagers. Typically a few hang back out of shyness and don’t get connected. Kate noticed one particular person whom she did not know. So she reached out, made the approach, and befriended this person who looked very alone. At the end of the trip, this person told her their relationship became the high point of her trip. She felt like she belonged.

I think of Chuck. He has strong leadership skills with team projects. He ran our last two building programs. We couldn’t have completed the project without him using his gifts. The funny thing is, when I thank him for all he’s doing, he typically says, “Well, thanks for letting me be a part of it. This is fun!”

Being a biblical member of the church means being a person who is always on the lookout to contribute and serve in order to make the body stronger. That is what church membership is about, according to Scripture.

So, where does one begin? First, pray and ask God to reveal your gift, your special abilities and where you might use them in your congregation.

Study Scripture. Use a commentary with it. Examine sections on the gifts to learn what they mean. You could take an inventory. Perhaps your church has a tool for it. If not, get on the Internet and Google “spiritual gift inventories.” You’ll get all kinds of things to look up. Try the short forms.

Ask someone who really knows you spiritually about your area of giftedness, then try it out by serving roles requiring that gift. What kind of satisfaction is there for you? What kind of results occur for the kingdom of God? That is what church members do.

Talk to your pastor. Ask God where you can use your gift, your abilities.

I came across this little article I found to be very thought-provoking. It was written by a woman named Elyse Fitzpatrick. She wrote, “My husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to vacation in Europe. In about 3 1/2 weeks, we visited 13 different nations. When we’d enter a country, we would get our passport stamped, exchange currencies, learn a few key phrases, and off we’d go to visit the locals. We’d wander through outdoor markets, peruse museums, and sample the cuisine. We’d exchange a few niceties with the local folks, sit on the steps of the cathedrals, watch the life of the town go by, take a picture or two, and even purchase something to remind us of our time there. Then we were off to another place. We had a wonderful vacation! Our hearts weren’t changed in any significant ways by these visits, but then they weren’t meant to be. We were tourists.”

It seems to me that what I just described is very close to many people’s understanding of the congregational life of the local church. On any given weekend, many tourists can be found in church. They pop in for 45 minutes or an hour, sing a chorus or two, and exchange niceties with the locals. They sample some of the local cuisine. They might purchase a book or CD to remind them of their visit. And then they race to their cars to get to their favorite restaurant or rush to their home before the game. For many people, church is simply about being a tourist. Our land is becoming filled with tourist-friendly churches.

A personal question for you, dear friend. What role are you playing in your local church? Are you a functioning member or a tourist? We need members. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

This Is Us – We’re Family

Ephesians 2:14-19

What do you think of when you hear the word “church”? Someone might say, Well, I think of a building, a nice-looking place. Or, It’s a place you go on Sunday. Others may say, Well, I think of the denomination – like ‘I go to the Lutheran Church.’

Some people have rather distorted images of the church. For some, the church is like a gas station. It’s where you go to fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. It’s where you can get a good sermon to keep you going for the week.

For others the church is like a movie theater, it’s a place to offer some entertainment. For an hour you can escape, get comfortable seats, leave your problems at the door, and come out feeling better than when you went in.

For others, the church is like a drugstore where you can fill a prescription to deal with the pain in your life. Many churches are therapeutic.

The church is seen by some as a big-box retailer. They see it as a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. It offers great services at a low price – an all-in-one stop.

The church is a producer of programs for children, young people.

Some see the church in a negative light. A book came out years ago that said, “People love Jesus, but they don’t like His Church.”

Some see the church as an afterthought, something man-made. But really, we know from reading the Gospels, the Church was God’s idea.

John Stott, an evangelical scholar from the last century wrote, “The Church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It’s not a divine afterthought. It’s not an accident of history. On the contrary, the Church is God’s new community.”

Today I would propose to you that the Church is not something you go to; it’s not something to be devalued. It is what you are if you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

This past year, a show came on television that was a very surprising blockbuster entitled, This Is Us. It’s the story about a family looking back on their past as they deal with the present and come to grips with who they are within the family. In the New Testament is a book that could very well be entitled the same thing – “This Is Us”. It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul to some Christians who were trying to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

He tells them in the opening parts of the letter how wonderful it is to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what has happened to them. Once they were dead, but now they are alive.

But then, in the nitty-gritty of the whole letter itself, is a talk about what it means to be Church. Paul says, I want to talk Church with you. He holds up different images for them and says, This is us – you and I – the Church. One image he uses is today’s passage where we read we are family. “So now, you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.” When you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you inherit brothers and sisters who are connected through Christ to each other.

An interesting thought to consider is, How does one become a member of our earthly family? It is through birth or adoption, right? Well, we enter Christ’s family the same way.

In John chapter 3, we find Jesus talking with a religious man named Nicodemus about the importance of being born again – born into the family of God, becoming a new person in Christ. We’re adopted into God’s family through baptism.  This description of church families is a very intimate image when you think about it. We, as families, would probably die for each other. As a parent, I would die for my kids. Some of us would even admit that we would be willing to kill for each other.

Family is where they have to take you in. It’s a place where you belong! I imagine those people who received this letter from Paul sat up straight in their seats when this line about them being members of a family was read to them. The Jews and the Gentiles had a history of hostility and suspicion. After all, they were different cultures, different backgrounds, different bloodlines, different religious beliefs. In the early years the only thing they held in common was their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. The only thing they have in common now is their forgiveness in Jesus Christ, which makes them family. It must’ve caught them off guard.

You’ve heard the adage – Blood is thicker than water. Well, God turns this phrase on its head and says to us in this passage today, Water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism are thicker than blood. Now you are family, Paul says. The walls are down. You are no longer Jews and non-Jews, but now family in Christ! 

I tease my congregation – “You’re no longer Vikings fans and Packer fans. Now you’re family in Christ. You’re no longer Republicans and Democrats; now you’re God’s family in Christ. No longer black, or white, or yellow, or red, or brown, but family – brothers and sisters in Christ. No longer employers and employees but family on equal footing in Christ. No longer Dane, or German, Norwegian, or Swedish, but family. This is us; we’re family, Paul says.

We have privileges and responsibilities as a part of the family. In our earthly families, we have family privileges. I had a key to my parents’ house. I knew I had a roof over my head and the security of a loving father and mother. The refrigerator was mine to open and help myself to food. When I was old enough, I had the family car to drive.

In the same way in Christ’s Church – the family – we enjoy privileges as well. We have one Father in whom we can rest securely in knowing He loves us all the same. We belong. Everybody who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ. We don’t have to go through life facing situations alone; we have a family to lean on. We weep with one another, and we rejoice with one another. We are sharers in Christ’s promises and the promise of eternal life. The day will come when I will breathe my last, but I know I will be with Him in eternity. I have a place that has been prepared for me. I have forgiveness for my sins. I do not have to live any longer carrying old regrets. I take it to the cross. I have His Holy Spirit working in me, shaping me, molding me, empowering me, being with me.

Of course, along with privileges come responsibilities. Families take care of one another. They honor and respect one another. They serve one another. They love one another. I know it sounds good on paper, but as we all know, it’s not always an easy thing to do. All kinds of personalities are in families. Some are rather odd, peculiar, and difficult to be around.

The same is true in the family of God. So we need to do an honest inventory of ourselves as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Is anyone in your life being excluded? Ignored? Written off? Treated as a little less? Is everybody getting loved by you? How about the low-income person who oftentimes is overlooked in our society in favor of the “haves,” those who can financially give more to the church?

How about the shy, introverted person standing on the fringe of the lobby area at church, wishing someone would notice them? They can be kind of hard to talk to. How about the loud, obnoxious one who is inappropriately seeking attention all the time and causing trouble? How about the kid who smells funny, is always dirty, and wears clothes that aren’t very nice? No one wants to sit next to him in school. Will anybody want to sit with him in Sunday school? How about you?

How about the person struggling with his or her sexual identity? How about the less intelligent student who can’t pay attention in class, can’t keep up, and sometimes acts out? How about the person who votes differently than you at election time? How about the special needs person who can be difficult to communicate with? The person in the wheelchair who sometimes is made to feel as if they’re invisible?

Or the person whose body is covered with tattoos and piercings and their hair is strange? Or the single person who wonders, Does anyone care about single people in the church? Everything I hear is about the family. Or how about the person whose marriage has failed, or the addict who struggles to stay sober and keeps slipping back? How about the person whose theology is a little different from yours, a different slant. You can’t come to an agreement.

The list goes on and on. These are your brothers and sisters, your family in Christ, created in God’s image, redeemed by Jesus Christ at the cross and filled with the Holy Spirit. They are your family. My family. Are they getting our love? How are you doing as a brother or sister these days?

I am sure you’ve heard the statement used in our country – “No child left behind.” The church’s theme must be, No child of God left behind! You are family, called to love one another, serve one another. It’s not something we just talk about it. It begins with you doing just that. Love with your eyes for instance. Start noticing each other. Is someone standing on the fringe? Go to them, make the approach, look at them. Observe to see if you’re seeing troubled looks in people’s faces.

Love with your mouth. Ask good questions and be prepared then to let them respond. Talk kindly to one another. Encourage and affirm.

How about loving with your ears? God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason. You can do a lot of love with your ears. Listen to that person. Pay attention, be interested, make them feel as if they are the most important person on the planet as they talk with you.

Love them with your hands and feet. It might be through service. It might be by writing them a card to encourage them or going just to be with them, not needing to say anything, just being present. Let your feet carry you over.

Be committed enough to show up and do for one another. This is what it means to love one another. It’s not always convenient. It’s sometimes painful and may not get noticed or receive a word of thanks or appreciation. But this is what Jesus was talking about when He calls us His family.

Perfect? No! No, no, no. No such thing as a perfect family, as you know, this side of heaven because we’re all sinners. We have a tendency to fall and fail, to look out after number one all too often.

What a vision this is of what could be for this broken world! Think of it! Look at how they love each other! I want some of that. Jesus knew that. He said, “Love one another. By this all people will know that you’re my disciples” (John 13:35). Love one another. “Let your light shine, and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

I like an image I came across about the church as a family. It’s like a bad high school band. But God will use the imperfect us – with our imperfect love – to display His glory.

Earl Palmer, an author, and former pastor wrote this. When California’s Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is rather appalling. He wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave . . .  You might ask: ‘Why bother? Why inflict on those poor kids and their parents the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even a great symphony orchestra can attain that perfection.’ My answer is this: the Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in the audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will ever hear Beethoven’s message.”

What Palmer is pointing out is that the only way a starving, thirsty, deluded, and suffering world will ever hear the music of the gospel is through the family of Christ. It may arguably be the worst “high school orchestra” ever to appear on a bandstand, but it’s God’s orchestra. It’s God’s ragtag, big band, and He’s chosen to use us as His family to attract others in.

Church! This is us. We’re family. Love one another. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer