Sermon Series on the Sacraments #2
Text: Rom 5.12-6.11; 1 Pet 3.18-22; Lk 9.23-27
A few weeks ago when I was visiting family with my dad, I met one of his second cousins. When I told her I was a pastor, she responded, “Oh, that’s wonderful! You must have been saved at a pretty early age, then!” I don’t know about you, but I cringe internally when I hear people talk about ‘being saved.’ It doesn’t fit with what I believe about God. But, to be polite and to honor her point of view, I simply answered, “You could say that, yes.” “That’s so great,” she replied, “I wasn’t saved until I was 19!”
At least for me, I get really uncomfortable when people talk about ‘being saved’ like it is a landmark moment in their life that occurs when they decide to accept Jesus into their heart. To me, it doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that Jesus died and rose again to save us all, but instead makes it about a personal realization. I’m sure I’m not alone here in that feeling. Talk of “salvation” as such tends to make us Lutherans uneasy. That’s because it is a part of a larger question within the Church: how are we saved? Are we saved by Jesus’ action on the cross, or by our acceptance of that action as being for us personally?
I think that the answer is both. Actually, to be more clear, I think that there are two distinct ways in which God saves us. The first is eternal salvation, where God saves us from eternal death or punishment in hell to rise from death with Christ. The second is earthly, or temporal, salvation. This is the kind of salvation that we experience now, in our lives today, the kind of salvation that changes how we experience the world.
That first kind of salvation, eternal salvation, is a once-and-forever event that happened at the cross. Paul uses the example of Adam: Adam’s life of disobedience condemned us all to death, and Christ’s life of obedience frees us from that death. If Adam’s sin brings death for all, then certainly Christ’s sinlessness brings life for all, since Adam was only a man, but Christ is the Son of God. This is why when somebody asks a Lutheran, “when were you saved?” we sometimes reply with a little bit of snark, “2000 years ago.”
But none of us has yet experienced this kind of salvation—it only happens to us after we die; and yet, for all of us, our lives are somehow different because we know that this salvation is assured. The experience of salvation in the midst of our lives is the earthly kind of salvation, the temporal salvation. It is the experience of being saved from despair, from anger, from holding grudges, from whatever else our faith saves us from experiencing.
Martin Luther was plagued by guilt all his life. He felt the presence of Satan in a very real way. He wrote that when he felt beset by evil and darkness, he turned to his baptism to remind him that he was claimed by God and that Satan had no hold over him. This is the kind of salvation that our baptism offers: it is a tangible sign for us that God’s eternal salvation is ours, and so it saves us from the doubt that we might not be good enough for God’s love.
About 10 years ago, I worked at Lutheran bible camp. We had two counselors on staff for the summer who had never been baptized. They had strong faith and had strong connections with congregations; they believed wholeheartedly that God’s promise was for them. So, they wondered, why should they need to be baptized? The deeper question here is this: is baptism necessary for salvation?
The answer, according to the bible, seems to be both yes and no. No because, as Paul says, if Adam’s sin can affect all of us, then Christ’s obedience, which is so much stronger than Adam’s sin, must be able to do the same. However, elsewhere in the bible—in the book of Acts, the letter to the Ephesians, and other places—we are told that baptism is how God reaches out to us to give us that forgiveness of sin.
It would appear that God’s eternal salvation—the promise of eternal life—is a free gift for all, regardless of anything we might do or not do, or believe or not believe. It is how God has promised to complete creation. However, it is only through baptism that we are able to experience God’s temporal salvation—the salvation we feel in our daily lives. Since my fellow counselors already had a sense of having been saved like this, so why should they need to be baptized?
Peter describes baptism as an “appeal to God for a good conscience.” We know that we are flawed, broken people, and that in order to follow Christ, we need to be better than we are able to be on our own. Through baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, which helps conform our wills to God’s and helps us figure out how to live as God commands us; the Holy Spirit becomes our “good conscience.”
One of the ways that the Holy Spirit becomes our “good conscience” is by making us the Church. In the Church, we are connected with all God’s people across time and space so that together we can figure out where God is calling us. Baptism is what unites us. It is through baptism that we receive the Holy Spirit and are united into the Body of Christ. In a very real way, baptism saves us from our isolation and our sin by giving us a loving, forgiving, caring community of faith to support us and grow with us as we ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.’ (Philippians 2:12)
Is it the act of getting wet that saves us? Luther asks the question this way in the Small Catechism: “How can water do such great things?” His response is that “It is not the water but God’s word with the water and our trust in God’s word.” Think of baptism like a wedding ring. The ring is meaningless without the marriage, and people can be married without having rings, but the rings are a tangible sign of that promise that they carry with them their whole lives. In some ways, baptism is like a wedding ring, a sign that we carry with us of God’s love, though unlike a ring, it cannot be taken off or lost.
Those camp counselors eventually came to see that baptism was something God wanted for them, and they were baptized in the lake. When they emerged, all of us were there to receive them into the Church. Though they had already been saved through Christ’s death and resurrection, on that day they were saved by their baptism and united with all of us in the one baptism into Christ Jesus.
That baptism we share, Paul reminds us, is baptism into Christ’s death. Baptism is able to assure us of our eternal salvation because in baptism, we die to sin. The punishment for sin is death, and because we are sinners, death is the price we must pay. In our baptism, we die with Christ, and so that price is paid. Then, because Christ has risen to new life, we are also raised to new life with him by our baptism. That new life is just another name for the salvation we have received: God has saved us from the consequences of our sin and from our isolation from one another by bringing us into the Church. That existence is different from what we knew before—it is new. Our lives are literally renewed in baptism, and we share in Christ’s resurrection, even before we taste death.
This kind of salvation that occurs through baptism is not a one-time event, but an continual, ongoing action. We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, just like it says in the creed, but our struggle against sin is daily. Through our baptism, we daily drown the sinner that lives within us and daily rise to new life with Christ. God’s saving act in baptism is experienced anew every day.
We might not use the same language to talk about salvation as my dad’s cousin, but we as Lutherans have a lot to learn from them about appreciating our baptism as a defining moment, a turning point in our lives. Though we were assured of God’s salvation long before we were ever born, at the moment of our baptism, something happens to us, something that frees us from the old system of sin accounting that the world likes to live by, and turns us loose knowing that God is always with us.
God saves us like this through baptism not just because God loves us, but because God loves the world and everyone in it. Freed from the fear of punishment and failure by God’s grace in baptism, we are free to love and serve our neighbors without worrying about doing it wrong, or believing in the wrong thing. We are free to be Church without worrying about the mistakes we will make. We are free to share the good news that God’s eternal salvation for all without feeling like our own salvation depends on how well we share that news.
In order to be his disciple, Jesus said, we must take up our cross and follow him. As Christians, washed at the font, we receive the Holy Spirit that allows us to take up that cross—the cross inscribed on our brow at baptism—and carry it out into the world to be living signs of God’s salvation. In the immortal words of St. John, “God so loved the world that God sent the Son so that all who trust him might not perish, but have eternal life.” Likewise, the Son sends us, through baptism, so that all might come to trust in that promise of salvation.
Sermon Series on the Sacraments #1
Text: 2 Sam 6.1-15; Isa 6.1-8; Matt 5.27-48
I carry a pocketknife with me wherever I go. It’s a practice I picked up from my dad. I find it is very helpful for cutting strings, opening cans and bottles, digging rocks out of my shoes, opening letters and occasionally cutting food. This is completely gross to my stepmom. She will not eat anything that I have cut with my pocketknife. For her, even if I wipe it clean, it’s still dirty. I probably do get a little bit of germs or dirt with my slice of cheese, though not enough to hurt me, but that’s not the point. It’s dirty.
Ancient Israelites viewed cleanliness in the same way. You’ve heard bible stories talk about people being made unclean by leprosy or blood or by something they have done, and about being made clean by performing some ritual like washing or by going to see a priest. That’s the same thing: a person somehow becomes dirty, and must be cleansed before they can rejoin society, or before they can have any contact with God. It has nothing to do with germs or actual dirt, but that sense of generally being icky. This is a core concern of the old Jewish religious system, because God is holy, and what is holy must never get dirty.
Holy is a word we use a lot, but don’t ever really talk about what it means. Simply put, to be holy means to be set apart, to be designated for something special. For example, my wife sometimes uses our kitchen knives for to pot plants or cut cardboard, and though I cannot explain way, this really, really bothers me. The kitchen knives are for food and food alone—they shouldn’t get dirty. In some sense, to me those knives are sacred, or holy.
More than that, though, holiness also means that something belongs to God. Something that is holy, then, is specifically set apart for God, something that God has designated for a special task. These things are holy because God is holy.
To understand what holy means, we look at two stories. The first is about the Ark of the Covenant, the chest in which the 10 commandments were placed. The Ark was holy—it belonged to God and was set aside for God’s special purpose of bearing these important artifacts. Because it was holy, it absolutely could not get dirty.
King David was bringing the Ark to Jerusalem on an oxcart. Along the way, the cart shook, and it looked as though the Ark might fall in the mud. Uzzah, one of the men driving the cart, reached out to steady it. The problem was that Uzzah was was dirty. All people are dirty. We are nowhere near God’s standards of holiness, of acceptable behavior or character. We call this dirtiness “sin.” Sin is contrary to God, and so once a year, the priests would go before God to make an offering for sin. This was done at the Ark of the Covenant. And even the priests—God’s holy servants, specially appointed for the task—had to ritually cleanse themselves and undergo all kinds of purification before they could come into the Lord’s presence at the temple, because they, too, were dirty.
So, when Uzzah reached out to protect the Ark, there was nothing to protect him from God’s holiness, and he was killed. King David became afraid: how could he ever manage to keep something so incredibly holy and special in Jerusalem, a place filled with dirty people like himself and Uzzah? So he sent the Ark away.
This explains why, hundreds of years later, Isaiah quakes and quails when he sees God with his own eyes in the temple in Jerusalem. If Uzzah could die simply from touching the Ark, what would happen to him when his eyes beheld God in person? “Woe is me!” he cried, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and yet my eyes have beheld the Lord, the God of Hosts!” As a sinful human being, he was unworthy to be anywhere near God, and yet here was God before his very face.
God is perfect—perfect in power, perfect in goodness, perfect in love. We represent God to people with holy things, things like the Ark. To represent God with anything less than perfection sullies God’s holy name. If I were to offer my stepmom a slice of apple that I cut with my pocketknife—the same knife I just used to clean gum off my shoe—she would’t eat it, because my knife has made it dirty. Likewise, if we use sinful, imperfect, dirty things and people to present God to the world, we make God out to be as dirty. That is why Uzzah died, and that is why David and Isaiah were so afraid: as sinful, dirty human beings, they were unworthy to come into contact with God’s perfection.
But Isaiah didn’t die. Instead, one of the angels with God took a coal from the brazier in the temple and touched it to Isaiah’s lips. Fire has long been used for purification because it burns away what is weak and contaminated and leaves only what is pure. When smelting iron or gold, fire burns off the dross, leaving only the metal. So, with the coal, Isaiah and his unclean lips are purified and made holy—set apart for God’s task of speaking God’s word to the people.
One of God’s great mysteries is that God, who is perfect and holy, chooses to work through imperfect, sinful, dirty human beings—people like Isaiah. Yet, God’s tools and messengers must be holy. So, like Isaiah, God chooses to make these people holy, to sanctify them. The people that God chooses to sanctify are called the Church.
That’s us! Our job as the Church is to represent God to the world. Yet, we know that, like Isaiah, we are just as broken and dirty as the rest of the world. How can we ever hope to love or forgive or act like God? Jesus tells us that we must be perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect. This goes beyond simply avoiding adultery or swearing oaths, it means loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, welcoming people we hate… How can we ever live up to that?
Like Isaiah in the temple, God offers us a solution, burning coals to purify us. The coals that God extends to us is the sacraments. In baptism, we are claimed by God, adopted forever as God’s child in a bond that can never be broken. We are filled with God’s own Holy Spirit and enlisted into God’s service forever. In order to do God’s work in spite of our own unworthiness, God continues to sanctify us with Holy Communion, filling us with the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh who alone was perfectly obedient to God’s will. With the strength of Jesus’ body and blood, we are able to go out and be Jesus for the world, our own dirtiness notwithstanding.
The work of sanctifying us is done by God through these sacraments; our work is to then use what God has given us to share God’s message of love and forgiveness—of God’s holiness—with the world. That is the job for which God has set us apart and claimed us.
We absolutely cannot match God’s holiness. It is beyond us. That is precisely why God comes to us in word and water, bread and wine—so that what we share with the world comes not from us, but from God. Because God chooses to come to the world through Christ—and through us—we know that in spite of all the ways we fall short, in spite of our dirtiness, God loves us and cares for us. Instead of spreading our own dirtiness like a well-used pocketknife, thanks to God, we are able to spread God’s holiness because God has claimed us in baptism and fed us with Jesus’ very self.
God’s goal with all of this is not to make more Christians, or to fill pews, or to ensure the survival of congregations like ours, but to make the world holy, to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, so that there will be no more mourning or crying or pain. God has chosen us to do this. That’s the job we’ve been given, and with God’s help, someday we just might do it.
Although I’ve not been posting sermons lately, there is a good reason. At our congregations, we have been using the Narrative Lectionary, a cycle of readings which follows the arc of the biblical narrative beginning with creation and going through Exodus, the fulfillment of God’s covenant, exile, the prophets and then follows one gospel through the spring. The NL only runs September through Pentecost, so these weeks during the summer, preachers are able to focus on topical series or other themes.
In addition to this, my colleague and I rotate our time between our two congregations. During the summer, we spend 6 weeks at one congregation and then 6 weeks at the other. As such, we have elected to each prepare one six-week series and preach it at both congregations. Based on conversations which have been happening at both congregations about who is welcome to communion and how we treat confirmation, I’ve decided to focus my topic on the sacraments.
I never feel that my sermons are ever ‘complete.’ Even after I give a sermon, I always find better (I hope!) ways to communicate my point. That is one way that this blog is especially helpful: it gives me the chance to iron out the manuscript after having given it. So, I have elected to wait until the second time around to post these sermons so that I can feel they best represent what I feel called to proclaim. You will see them beginning the week of July 20th. Until then, I want to thank you for your readership and assure you that, though we’re on a short break here, there is more to come. I hope everyone is enjoying their summer!
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Pentecost Day, NL Year 4.
Text: Acts 2.1-21; Phil 4.4-7
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all gathered together in one place. They didn’t know what to do next, so they just did what they always did: they got together, sang some songs, prayed and wondered what do to now. They were afraid. They were afraid that everything they’d done up until now was for nothing. They were afraid that their little community would slowly die out, and that after a while there would be no one left.
Outside, there were lots of people. The trouble is, they didn’t know how to get those people out there to come in here with them, why they would ever want to join their little community. All those people had commitments and responsibilities of their own. They had their own neighborhoods and communities to keep them busy. How were they supposed to get any of those outside people to come in?
This is the story of Pentecost. It is the story of those disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, but it is also the story of the disciples of Jesus at Our Redeemer’s in Benson, and of countless other congregations. Whether those disciples are Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, or even Pentecostal, we are all asking ourselves the same question: how do we get those people out there to come in here?
It’s a natural question. We want our little community here to outlast us. We want to pass on our faith to our children and hope that this congregation will be here for them the same way it has been for us. We know that in order for this congregation to keep going, we need more people; and when we look around at how many are here, we sometimes get a little worried.
Acts tells us that that first congregation of disciples was about one hundred and twenty people; and you can bet that they were all adults. Like us, they were afraid of what the future might hold for them, how they were going to survive as a community. They were daunted by the task of trying to convince anybody out there to come join them in here. It was while they were stewing over that problem that something incredible happened: the Holy Spirit came and gave them another problem.
We sometimes think that the miracle of Pentecost is that when those first disciples began preaching, the people around them heard them speak in so many different languages. I think the miracle of Pentecost is that somehow God got a bunch of Christians to get out of the room they were in and start telling people about Jesus. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, they all had a burning desire to go out and talk about Jesus. They left all that fear and worry and concern inside and they went outside and just started telling their story; and that was a problem. It was scary, it was uncomfortable, and it was dangerous. Yet, this problem that the Spirit gave them ended up solving their other problem of how to get the people outside to come in. The answer came when God’s Spirit sent them outside.
It’s okay to admit that this makes us nervous. Why should anybody listen to us? We don’t want to be obnoxious or nosy or to sound like one of “those” Christians. When we think of getting out and telling people about Jesus, we think of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, going door to door asking, “Have you heard the good news about Jesus?” We know that those people often get the door slammed in their face, because we are sometimes the ones doing the slamming. In a world that is so thoroughly saturated in the Christian story, everybody knows about Jesus, and everybody has their own faith or their own ideas about God, so why would they want to hear ours?
But that’s not true anymore. Not everybody has heard about Jesus, not everybody knows about God’s love. We live in a world where almost everybody around us has heard of Christians and knows something about what we believe, but a lot of those things they think know about Jesus and his disciples are wrong. Lots of people believe God is angry and judgmental, that Christians are hypocritical and willfully ignorant, that we choose to believe the fairy stories of an old book over the cold, hard facts of science. Lots of people have never heard that God loves them deeply and that Jesus came to save them, or if they have, they don’t understand what they mean. They think it’s all about some magic, pie-in-the-sky afterlife that is supposed to make up for all the bad stuff that happens here on earth.
Just like those disciples in Jerusalem so long ago, we still have a story to tell; the story is about God who loved us enough to become like us, and even though we killed him, he continues to love us and to offer us something better. That story is worth sharing. It is a story that people want to hear. When the disciples in Jerusalem told that story, 3,000 people in one day believed and were baptized. In one day, the Church went from only 120 to over 3,000. That is a powerful story. That story is our story.
In one way, this story from Acts is wonderful because it reminds us that we are not alone in our fear and our worry, and that we have the same Holy Spirit available to us that those first disciples had. However, in another way, this story is also not so helpful. This story can make us think that we’re supposed to all preach eloquent sermons like Peter’s, that if we do it right, people will join by the thousands. It puts a lot of pressure on us. What if we don’t know our bible that well? What if we can’t find the words to say? What if we can’t find an audience? What if we do it wrong?
Sometimes the Spirit does big things like that, but she can be subtle, too. The work of the Spirit is not just in preaching elaborate sermons or asking people, “have you heard about Jesus?” The Spirit is at work in us in all kinds of quiet ways, from how we answer our children’s questions about faith to how we treat people in line for the checkout counter at the grocery story. The Spirit gives us a multitude of languages to preach with: kindness, patience, compassion, courage, solidarity, love. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, everything we say or do is potentially a sermon that can teach somebody about God.
My point is this: it is easy to be afraid and to worry about the future, whether our own, or that of our congregation, or that of our children. If we give in to this fear and worry, we’ll never get out of that room. Instead, we have to learn to trust God, to let the Spirit guide us outside to tell our story. We don’t need silver-tongued sermons that quote scripture and impress everyone with our theological prowess.
When you were baptized, you received the Holy Spirit. You may not have a tongue of fire over your head right now, but just as surely as those disciples in Jerusalem, you are filled right now with the Holy Spirit. You have a story to tell about God’s love and about Jesus’ faithfulness. You have the motive and the means to go out from here and preach the good news of Jesus Christ. You are a well-equipped, capable child of God.
Each of us already has a story to tell, an account of how you’ve seen God at work in your lives, a memory of how God’s love has changed you. It may be a story of a teacher or grandparent who taught you something profound, or wonder at the birth of a child, or an inexplicable peace you felt in the face of deep grief, or any number of things where you saw God’s hand at work. These stories are the Spirit’s sermon. These stories are the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit is at work in us. It may not always feel like it, but we need to remember that. It is still Pentecost; the tongues of fire are harder to see and the rushing sound of the wind is much fainter, but the Spirit is still here among us—always blowing, always at work, always prodding us to get out and share these stories. It’s a big problem, but it’s also the answer to our prayers. Trust her. She knows what she’s doing.
I was asked this year to give the invocation and benediction at our town’s Memorial Day observance. I believe it is absolutely right that we should remember and honor our veterans and the people who lay their lives on the line for us. I do not believe that the United States has any special place in God’s heart. As such, I am grateful to participate in Memorial Day activities, but I am uneasy about all the super-American flavor to it all. I tried to express the difference in the following invocation and benediction.
We gather here to remember the lives of service and sacrifice led by the brave women and men of our armed services. However, we know that they do not need us to remember them. What they have given, they have given not for glory, nor for pride, nor for personal gain, but because their country needed them. Some have even given their very lives, all for the sake of their fellow citizens, including those among us who may not care about their sacrifice, even those who may have hated them. Those honored dead have already earned their just reward.
No, these servants of our country do not need to be remembered. We gather here today because it is we who need to remember them. Let us not dishonor these brave citizens by believing that it is only in their deaths that they have showed heroism, and not in the lives they lived in service to others.
We look to them to know what it is to live a life of sacrifice, to protect and serve even those whom we might find intolerable, simply because a greater power calls us to love them.
It is in the name of that power that we gather today; it is in the name of that power that we honor these veterans, living and dead, and look to them to teach us how to answer that call to live as one community among division, as one nation [under God]. [We gather in the name of that power, the name the Living God. Amen.]
God of All Nations,
Your love knows no boundaries. It does not stop at the edges of countries, it is not contained by the platforms of political parties or competing ideologies. We give you thanks for your love shown to us through the lives of service lived by these veterans, and for the service given by women and men everywhere to protect their homes, their communities, and their principles. Strengthen and nurture us to love and serve one another as selflessly as these brave people have done for us, so that in the end we will outgrow the need for bloodshed, war and violence, and come to live in a world of peace for all humankind. [With this vision of hope, we pray in the name of the crucified and resurrected One, who gives us all the power to become your children.] Amen.
N.B. In my community, the entire population is Christian or post-Christian. However, Memorial Day does not belong just to Christians. The phrases in brackets are part of my original manuscript, but could easily be left out in honor of our sisters and brothers of other faiths who have served in the military and who observe Memorial Day.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Easter 6, NL Year 4.
Text: Phil 1.1-18
About 5 years ago my grandma passed away, and I flew back to Montana for the funeral. We had cleaned out a lot of her stuff when she moved into the retirement home a few years before, but there were still several boxes of papers to go through. So, one afternoon at the church, several of us kids and grandkids spread out and began sifting through these papers—church bulletins, recipes, newspaper clippings, and old letters from family and friends.
The bulletins and newspapers were certainly interesting, but what caught my attention the most was the letters. I found an entire series of letters between my grandfather and one of his brothers in Thief River Falls. Grandpa had died before I was born, so I never got to meet him; but here in these letters from his brother, I began to learn about his family, and even got to know him a little bit by piecing together what he had written to which his brother was now replying.
These letters that we have from Paul are very similar to those letters we found in my grandma’s things. They tell us about Paul and about the people to whom he was writing, but as all letters are, these are profoundly personal: they are written by one person to another (or, in this case, to a group of people) about very specific things. None of those things I found in Grandpa’s letters applied to me, but they were still interesting to read because they helped me learn a little more about my family history. Paul’s letters to his friends are interesting for the same reason.
However, “interesting” by itself is not enough to make it into the Bible. In the end, we threw out most of those old letters after we read them, because they weren’t worth the space and the trouble to store them. Paul’s letters weren’t thrown out, though. Instead, they were treasured not only by the communities that first received them, but by later generations of Christ’s followers down into the centuries. In addition to telling us about Paul and the people to whom he was writing, these letters also tell us about God.
Like those old letters that my grandma had, not everything in these letters applies directly to us. For example, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul talks about whether Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. That particular problem has never come up for us. However, many of the things that Paul wrote to them about God, about how to be Church together, about living together in community and leading God-fearing lives do still apply to us, and that is why we have saved these old letters and re-read them so much. Even in Paul’s advice about meat sacrificed to idols, we can find guidance and instruction on how to love and respect one another as God wants us to.
With this in mind, we begin reading Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi. You might remember hearing about Paul’s trip to Philippi a couple weeks ago in Acts. That was where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after Paul cast a spirit out of a slave girl. They were beaten and imprisoned, but in the middle of the night, an earthquake came and broke the chains and opened the doors; yet, out of compassion for the jailor, they stayed. On that trip to Philippi, Paul first gathered the community of people that became the congregation to whom this letter was written.
Like that first trip, Paul again finds himself in chains as he writes to the Philippians; and, like that night in the Philippian jail, he is not unhappy or angry, but joyful. Seeing as how ancient prisons were even less hospitable and pleasant than modern prisons, it is remarkable that Paul could feel such joy while he is locked up. Here he tells us what is the source of his joy: it is the Philippian church, the people there who have loved and supported him throughout his ministry and continue to do so even now while he is in jail.
Paul is able to be joyful even in prison because he knows that though he is locked up, the work of spreading the gospel continues through people like the disciples in Philippi. Even where he is in prison, people are coming to know Christ: the imperial guard who hold him in captivity and the people of the city all know that it is for Christ’s sake that he is imprisoned.
So what can we learn from this bit of Paul’s letter? Maybe nothing, except that he is inexplicably happy even while he is suffering; or maybe we have lots to learn from Paul’s joy.
The first thing I notice is that Paul’s happiness comes from Christ, and it comes because he knows he is not alone. Wherever he goes—to Philippi, to Athens, even to jail—Christ is there with him, and Christ is in the hearts of his friends throughout the world who share the good news of God’s love. Even if he dies in his cell that night, he knows that Christ will continue to be with them—and him—and that the gospel will continue to spread. No matter what happens to him, other people will come to know the same joy he himself has in Christ.
The second thing I notice is how important community is to Paul and to his work. The disciples in Philippi organized themselves into a congregation, just like the disciples in the other cities where Paul visited, just like all the Jews did in their synagogues. The people who heard Paul’s message and believed didn’t simply go off by themselves and worship alone, but joined themselves to a community so that they could love and support one another, and so that they could continue to love and support Paul, who first shared that good news with them. Because of these people, even in prison, Paul was never alone, but was always surrounded by a tight-knit family of Christians, a “great cloud of witnesses,” some of whom he may never have even met.
These are important lessons for us to learn. If we believe ourselves to be alone in our work to spread this good news, then it becomes easy for us to fall into fear and despair, especially when we consider the troubles we have. When our congregation suffers through economic hardship, when we see empty places in the pews or shrinking Sunday school classes, we begin to worry about our own mortality and fear for our future. Like Paul, we are caught up in circumstances that are often beyond our control; but where we are fearful, he is joyful, because he remembers that he is a part of something larger.
The same is true for us. Shepherd of the Hills is not alone in our goal of nurturing the disciples of Swift Falls and spreading the good news of the risen Jesus. We have partner congregations to work with us, and we have a whole community of support through the Southwestern Minnesota Synod and the greater Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Through those expressions of Christ’s Church, we have resources and people available to help us that we wouldn’t have on our own.
Just think about the call process: I’m here today because people like Bishop Jon Anderson and Pastor Linda Pederson helped me find this call. I was trained by several professors at an ELCA seminary in Pennsylvania, which is supported by many Lutheran congregations just like this one. I was raised in a Lutheran Church where I was surrounded with loving people who taught me what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and I was slowly guided into realizing God’s call for me to be a pastor by experiences I had a Lutheran camps like Luther Crest and Lutheran Campus Ministry like we have in Morris. It is thanks to the work of those hundreds upon hundreds of people that I am able to be here today. And, when this congregation contributes to the work of our synod or the ELCA with financial gifts or offerings of time and effort, we are supporting other Christians in the same way, both near and far.
The reason God pulls us together into a Church is so that we can share one another’s joy, like Paul is able to share the Philippians’ joy, even in prison. Joy is both the starting point and the end goal of what we do: we begin with the joy of God’s love and Jesus’ resurrection, and we aim to share that joy with others. It’s good for us to remember that, even in the midst of fear and suffering, joy is at the core of who we are as God’s people.
Thankfully, we have the letters of Paul, writing to congregations who, though they lived thousands of years ago, were a lot like us. Thanks to these letters, we not only have the people of the SW MN synod and the ELCA supporting us, but also the people of Philippi and Corinth, Thessalonika and Rome, and many others, as well as our friend Paul; all reminding us what it is we are here to do: we get to share the joy of God’s love with the world! Even when it looks like we are failing, that joy continues to spread; so rejoice!