John 15:7-17

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

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Love is a feeling you feel you’re gonna get when you feel like you’re gonna feel like you’ve never felt before.” That little bit of wisdom accurately describes what many people consider love to be: a feeling. But Jesus speaks of something that is far more than a feeling. His teaching here is about abiding in God’s love, loving one another, bearing fruit, and praying with confidence. These practices are not driven by feelings, but by intentional acts of the will, and a spiritual connection to the true vine (cf. John 15:1). They are also connected to Jesus’ commands (cf. v. 7).

Jesus’ intent (v. 7) is that his followers would see love for one another as the true north of their moral, spiritual, ethical, and religious compass. His intent is not to build a new religious expression or a different mode of worship. The love that Jesus describes is sacrificial to the point of death. His love moved him toward these men who had no inclination toward him. His love allowed their relationship to move from followers, to acquaintances, to friends. His love compelled them to love one another, to bear fruit, and to experience joy.

If we are to embrace Jesus’ teachings fully we will be led to an intentional attitude of compassion, care, sacrifice, and a God-honoring lifestyle that is not driven by feelings, but by the incredible love of God in which we abide. We will offer ourselves to one another as far, and deep, and wide, and long, as necessary with motives as high as heaven is above the earth.

I want to keep that in mind today – no matter how I might feel. How about you?

Acts 3:1-10

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

This sandwich was  provided by a homeless relief ministry in downtown Houston.

This sandwich was part of a meal provided by a homeless relief ministry in downtown Houston.

There is a homeless man who frequents an intersection near our home. He has a bicycle, a beard, and a happy demeanor. I have given him money on more than one occasion. I’ve even asked him his name, and had a more significant conversation with him. It seems he wants to live outdoors. “I get sick every time I try to live in a house,” he told me. More recently I learned that he doesn’t need money; he apparently uses any money he is given for liquor. I was told that by a person who works with homeless people, providing food, clothing, and toiletries to them – including “Clarence”.

Clarence needs something I don’t have, and that troubles me. In fact, moreover, he needs something he seems unwilling to embrace, and that troubles me even more: why would anyone want to live a homeless lifestyle? Why is his way of life so appealing to him? Not only does he not want to live in doors (for health reasons, he claims), but why, also does he want to live by taking hand-outs from the local homeless ministry and passers-by at the intersection?

More important, what do I have that he really needs? Peter had the authority and power of Jesus Christ to heal the lame beggar at the entrance to the temple. He had the ability to look him in the eye and request that the man do the same to him. Through that his life was radically changed. Jesus was honored, and people were amazed.

We’ve seen all too many things to be amazed anymore. We’ve seen too many homeless people to engage them one-on-one. We have too much money to say we don’t have silver and gold. What we don’t seem to have is the time and energy to enter into their lives and make a difference. I’m wondering today about what I do have. I’m reflecting today about what how I might purposefully invest myself into Clarence’s life. If I am to do this, I will need better margins in my own life, more patience to see what I actually have that Clarence truly needs, and the courage and boldness that comes from the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart and life.

Job 29:1-5a

And Job again took up his discourse, and said:

“Oh, that I were as in the months of old,
    as in the days when God watched over me,
when his lamp shone upon my head,
    and by his light I walked through darkness,
as I was in my prime,
    when the friendship of God was upon my tent,
when the Almighty was yet with me,

I'm not certain why I like this photo, but it seems to say something about the glory of man. (Rome, 2014)

I’m not certain why I like this photo, but it seems to say something about the glory of man. (Rome, 2014)

Job’s description of the glory days is instructive: he helped the poor, stood up for the cause of the oppressed, cared for the widows, actively relieving the distress of the lame, weak and needy (see the rest of the chapter below). As I read this (even though I know the whole story) my heart goes out to Job. He yearns for the ability to be a blessing – though in his pain and trials he is unable to do so.

Job’s problem, we will learn, is that he and God just wasn’t enough. To be favored to be a son of God is high favor. To know God and be known by him is a rich blessing. But that is seldom enough for us. A closer look at Job’s lament reveals a sinister delight that arises from a corrupted heart. He was seen by others in his goodness and acts of righteousness. People honored him. Young men rose when he came in the room. Old men gave him their attention. He cut a wide swath and was known, publicly recognized, and honored because of all the good he did.

This is where I must confess my Job-likeness. All too deeply I want to be recognized, honored, known, and appreciated. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is true. Sometimes I am so crippled by that desire that I must retreat into the inner sanctum of God’s grace and mercy, in repentance and humility before him, praying for God’s help and salvation.

Truth is: life is not all about me, or Job, or you, dear reader. Somehow we must all reorient our understanding of our own identity, purpose, needs, and calling. Jesus himself taught this:

[Jesus says,] “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-6)

Job will learn this lesson in the stunning un-doing conversation with God himself (cf. Job 38:1-40:2). I need to learn that as well, and embrace the deeply freeing truth that it is enough to be known, loved, redeemed, forgiven and saved by God is enough: God and me is enough. Perhaps I will also learn that the glory days are not past, but before us.

Job 29:5b-25

    when my children were all around me,
when my steps were washed with butter,
    and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!
When I went out to the gate of the city,
    when I prepared my seat in the square,
the young men saw me and withdrew,
    and the aged rose and stood;
the princes refrained from talking
    and laid their hand on their mouth;
10 the voice of the nobles was hushed,
    and their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth.
11 When the ear heard, it called me blessed,
    and when the eye saw, it approved,
12 because I delivered the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to help him.
13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me,
    and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
    my justice was like a robe and a turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy,
    and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.
17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous
    and made him drop his prey from his teeth.
18 Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest,
    and I shall multiply my days as the sand,
19 my roots spread out to the waters,
    with the dew all night on my branches,
20 my glory fresh with me,
    and my bow ever new in my hand.’

21 “Men listened to me and waited
    and kept silence for my counsel.
22 After I spoke they did not speak again,
    and my word dropped upon them.
23 They waited for me as for the rain,
    and they opened their mouths as for the spring rain.
24 I smiled on them when they had no confidence,
    and the light of my face they did not cast down.
25 I chose their way and sat as chief,
    and I lived like a king among his troops,
    like one who comforts mourners.

John 10:11-19

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

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I had a very interesting experience on a large (100,000 acre) ranch in Wyoming in the spring of 1978. The day included “cutting” and branding calfs, watching sheep being sheered, and meeting a real shepherd, and watching sheep being herded. The day left me exhausted, sore, and enriched in many ways. The sheering process was accomplished remarkably quickly with large bundles of wool gathered from each sheep. The cutting and branding less apparently painful than you might imagine. The shepherd was quite a different kind of fellow – living alone out on the range with the comforts that only a conestoga wagon could afford.

But the herding of the sheep was most interesting to me. Getting the sheep to go in one direction was not difficult. Getting them to the specific location they needed to go (so they could be sheered) was easily accomplished. The challenge proved to be getting the sheep to go inside a barn to protect them from a coming storm (and to keep their wooly fleeces dry in anticipation of the sheering that would happen later that day.

The sheep ended up at the doorway of the barn that was in the inside corner of two wings of the barn that formed an “L”. The door was in the center of the corner. Sides of the barn formed a right angle. We were behind the sheep trying to get them to go in. But the barn was dark, and the flock refused to enter the door.

They told me that once one of the sheep entered the barn the whole flock would go in. But no sheep was going in so I took it upon myself to go and try to drag, push, or otherwise “encourage” a sheep to go into the barn. I was immediately and strongly warned away from my foolish attempt. I soon discovered why. Finally one of the sheep went into the barn and within 15 seconds the whole flock of 100 sheep were inside the barn. Had I been in that doorway I would have been trampled by 100 sheep!

Many lessons may be taken from my experience, least of which the idea of being one of Jesus’ sheep is not necessarily a complement. Sheep are dumb! They are vulnerable, ignorant, dangerous, and easily led astray.

But one lesson is comforting here. A good shepherd takes good care of his sheep. Whatever else we may know about sheep and shepherding, it is good to remember that Jesus is the good shepherd, who loves his sheep, cares for his sheep, dies for his sheep (but not foolishly, for he takes his life back up again after defeating the greatest enemy we sheep have), and calls his sheep to follow him. I wonder if he ever marvels at how apt his own analogy truly is!

Luke 24:44

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

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If the current trajectory of godlessness, immorality, and indecency continues unchanged the future of the Christian Church in the USA looks precarious at best. That is not to say that the Christian Church will ever cease to exist; Jesus promise that he would build his church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). But that is to say the world in which the church will continue to exist will certainly be much more hostile tomorrow than today.

We face uncertainties on the political scene, middle-east unrest, questions about the future of traditional understandings of human sexuality, marriage, and religious freedom itself. The world is a cauldron of uncertainty and noxious anxiety-producing unrest. Perhaps you think this is overly dramatic. But Isis, Israeli-Iranian-Palestinian relationships testify to the dangers before us. And if not us, our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps the international realities were not as well-known by the disciples who met Jesus on that first Easter. But their personal future was certainly in turmoil. When Jesus joined them to point them to a better hope and future. They were confused, distressed, and deeply disappointed, and all seemed lost. But what they saw as defeat and distress was actually God at work.

They would need some convincing even in the face of Jesus’ resurrection appearance. He provides that in part by eating a bit of fish in their presence (he is no apparition or ghost). But the greater convincing comes when Jesus opens the scripture to their minds and hearts. He makes the clear point that this was God’s plan, and that it is still unfolding.

If we think we are in uncertain times, here is a reminder of God’s faithfulness and love. In him we have hope and a future. So now we wait for his plan to unfold. We hope in his faithful goodness. We trust his promises.

As you face the future where especially is God calling you: Waiting; Hoping; or Trusting? In any case God has a plan of which he invites us to be a part.

Luke 24:36-49

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Acts 2:42-27

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

A few of the family of God from among the elders and staff of St. John Lutheran Church

A few of the family of God from among the elders and staff of St. John Lutheran Church

The earliest description of the life of new believers paints an idyllic picture. The new believers’ lives are marked by peace, harmony, focus, generosity, dedication, faithfulness, and humility. There is a sense of awe as they see remarkable displays of God’s power mediated through the apostles. But Luke’s description here ends with a telling comment; God is not content with only their faithfulness, but desires that others experience his grace and the fellowship of the saved. He will continue to add to the fellowship of the saved day by day. That’s good for you and me…and for those yet to believe in Jesus.

The rest of the book of Acts is testimony to God’s desire for more and more people to embrace this Good News of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and the invitation into the family of God. Notice how the description Luke offers is not merely an idyllic picture of the best church ever, it is truly a picture of the best family gathering you can imagine. People sharing their possessions, breaking bread in their homes, enjoying food together: this sounds like a wonderful Thanksgiving gathering.

Luke will record how the disciples of Jesus are active with Paul and his missionary band in support and encouragement of God’s mission. But after the book of Acts is written, the word disciple is not found in the rest of the New Testament. What Luke describes here (an extended family) becomes the building blocks of the New Testament Church. Families gather – large and extended families, together with others who are now part of God’s family – and God keeps adding to the family.

There is only one way this can happen in our modern day world. That is for people to re-prioritize their lives to make room for the extended family members who are part of God’s family, and do life together. Building relationships with those who are part of the family of God, and seeking to live out those relationships day by day. This is a huge challenge! But the blessings of being part of God’s family and actually living that out are many. It is also literally the best seat in the house to watch God at work.

Acts 2:36-41

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying,“Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

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I’m not certain I need to be cut to the heart, but I am certain that it is not a common experience for me. Of course we did not crucify Jesus, as had those people gathered there. Nor have we accused those who are God’s messengers of being filled with new wine; some had done that as well.

But an honest self assessment will yield plenty of reasons to stand with these people and acknowledge a deep need for God’s mercy. The most wonderful part of this is that when we do acknowledge our need, God pours out his grace in abundance: forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a sure promise for you and your children. What a blessing awaits those who acknowledge their need for God’s forgiveness and believe his promise of grace in Jesus.

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