Celebrating the Risen Savior

cropped-caravaggio.jpgBy Joe LaGuardia

Religion has been in the news lately.  ISIS is marching across the Middle East decimating thousands of lives while recruiting thousands a day. A religious liberty law in Indiana recently clogged the news cycle.  An HBO documentary scrutinized the church of Scientology, if that can be considered a religion at all.

A few weekends ago, churches were packed with people who wanted to be present for Easter.  It is, for many, a religious observance.  For others, it is a family obligation.

Truth is, we have just enough religion to be comfortable.  We have just enough religion to make us care about our causes, attend church a few times a year, and check the “I Believe in God” box on surveys.

In some cases, we can live up to the old saying by Jonathon Swift: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love one another.”

Our Christian faith is more than a religion, however.  We don’t attend church or have a nice, family Easter meal because we celebrate a religion.  We do so because we celebrate a Risen Savior.

We believers serve a living Lord, a King of all kings, and a God who is not a name among other religious names, but the Name above all names.

Perhaps we only live our lives with a marginal sense of religiosity because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are Christians.  We adhere to the religion of our upbringing and consider ourselves a “religious voter,” but having a relationship with Jesus Christ, who lives with us today, is not on the agenda.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my religion.  I love rituals, too.  Just as brushing my teeth daily keeps me healthy, so too does going through the religious motions keep my faith fresh even when it threatens to go stale.

My relationship with Jesus is the only life-giving source of my religion because that relationship is actually what saves and sustains me.  Ours is a faith not of some stuffy creeds or sacred texts hidden in the vaults of time; ours is a faith of sacrifice to the Living Lamb of God.

Jesus once said, “I came that my disciples may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  This life of abundance and redemption is predicated on believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).

But believing in a religion is not enough.  In fact, you can believe in anything you want.  Atheists believe that there is no god.  The Bible says that, “Even the demons believe and tremble” (James 2:19).

When you believe in a real, living person, however, belief must translate into trust.

Several children in my community of faith (some families who attend Crosspoint Church, and some at Trinity Baptist), including my son, were baptized in the last few weeks.  Despite, their age, they know in their hearts that they love and believe in Jesus.

But their baptism is only a beginning for them. It is like a wedding day that launches a life-long journey of faith, hope, and love.

More significantly, it is a journey in which belief must become trust, and aspiration into concrete hope in a living, loving God.

When I got married to my wife, we were young–20 and 21 years of age.  We believed in our marriage, vows, and commitment to one another.  We went through the religious routine that accompany weddings.  But trust?  That came with time–in learning one another’s habits and preferences, in caring deeply for each other even in the midst of hard times, and in giving our life for the sake of the other.

In a day when religion is prevalent and people who believe in something are a dime a dozen, we who serve a Risen Savior must live as resurrected people who can prove that we not only believe in God, but trust God too.

Leading others to Christ

street By Joe LaGuardia

I can’t remember the first time someone with an over-zealous type of faith asked me how many people I have led to Christ.  It’s an old evangelist question with the main concern of leading non-believers to the saving knowledge and relationship with Jesus.

It’s a question that asks how many notches we have in our war-against-sin belt, one that puts us on the spot and assumes we are actively asking others to make that decision of faith wherever we go.

Around these parts, its hard to find people who don’t believe in Jesus.  And if its difficult to find or befriend a non-believer, then there is a chance that the answer to said question is “not very many, I’m afraid.”

This was the case when I was a young Christian and first asked this question. At the encouragement of my church, I put distance between my non-believing friends and me when I made a decision to follow Christ.   It lessened my chances of being tempted to make any unwise and immoral actions, but it also decreased my exposure to those very people I needed to “lead to Christ.”

That brought a great deal of guilt.  I thought that I needed to lead many to Christ in order to be a good Christian.

I found out later that I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.

Over the years, I still think about how to lead people to Christ and be intentional about sharing the gospel, but my feelings have changed. Now, when I think about leading people to Christ, it no longer means confronting people with a snap decision on the street corner or in the supermarket.  The meaning of that phrase has expanded.

There are as many ways to lead people to Christ as there are ways to meet people.  And just as the Bible has four gospels to tell the single story of Jesus Christ in different ways, we too need a variety of ways of introducing people to Jesus.

Leading people to Christ does not have to be confrontational.  In fact, it can happen as a result of quiet fortitude in the face of crisis.

Nor does it have to be systematic, as if following Christ is merely the result of finding the correct answer to an equation (or the right words to say in a prayer).

Leading people to Christ can happen in the midst of conversation over coffee or at supper, at the ballpark with a group of people who aren’t all Christians, or at the business conference among peers and colleagues.

Most often, leading others to Christ happens over a long period of time.  It usually happens because we live the life of a Christ-follower, and we show others how to follow Christ too. We lead by example, and sometimes the only gospel you need to preach is the life you live.

We like to think of “leading people to Christ” as some grand, climactic confrontation in which a lost soul is saved miraculously, in the midst of a chance encounter. I’ve seen that happen before, but the “leader” who tries to evangelize others in this manner runs the risk of grandstanding instead.

Leadership happens all the time in the quiet and mundane routine of our daily lives.  It happens when we least expect it. And, yes–when someone decides to call Christ Lord, it is miraculous–but it is a major decision that needs to be sustainable by a life-long commitment to seek God and God’s righteousness.

Following Christ is being a disciples of Christ, for as Jesus said, “”Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me . . . and those who lose their life for my sake find it” (Matthew 10:38, 39).

That’s more than a decision; that goes to the heart of conversion.

“One Like Us:” Discovering God’s True Love for Us

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Text: Hebrews 2

I.

Did anyone catch the season finale of the reality show, The Bachelor, last week?

I’ll fill you in on the premise: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with two dozen women contestants to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left whom he wants to marry.

Ever since I heard about the show, I thought it preposterous that people would actually sign up for this show, much less buy into the premise.  This past season was the 13th season, which means that, apparently, there are many people who are eager to get on to find the love of their life.

This doesn’t include the other long-running companion show, The Bachelorette, just as ridiculous to watch. Ridiculous yes, but very addictive at times.

My wife and I watched only a few episodes this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras of how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she loves him.  Gosh, there’s a lot of love on that show.

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings, or break that one’s heart.  But its inevitable.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life  with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.  He’ll never find a family because he’s rotten.  How could he be such an animal?

Well, this past finale was a real whopper.  Mr. Always-Right apparently found Miss Probably Right, and the big point of contention was that Mr. Always-Right had yet to say the big three words:  “I love you.”

Now granted, we know Miss Probably-Right loves him.  She wants to be with him for the rest of her life.  Why wouldn’t he tell her the same?  And where was that engagement ring he was supposed to offer her?

So the host spent nearly 10 minutes of the finale trying to get Mr. Always-Right to say that he loved her. The studio audience scoffed; but, Kristina and I actually thought he was being pretty smart.  I mean, here is this guy who really likes this girl, and he doesn’t want to say the big “L” word because he wants to take things slow.

I don’t know why the show’s host didn’t see this as honorable.  Out of 12 bachelors who have appeared on previous seasons, only 3 got married.  The rest broke off the relationship in less than a year.

I think the real mockery in all of this is the victim of this reality show: No, not the victim who’s wife insists that we shouldn’t change the channel to find something else worth watching.  Rather, the victim I am talking about is love.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

II.

We think that this infatuation (no pun intended) with love is new in our society.  Well, at least we think its something that erupted only in the past five decades, a result not of new psychological methods of defining love, but of the “free love” era of the 1960s.  “Peace, man.  Let’s just love one another.”

Striving for love, however, is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  Astute Bible readers will note that throughout the Old Testament, God is indeed a God of love more than the myth that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath.  But Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people in a posture, not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

I can’t help but to think of the anxiety of the author who wrote Psalm 8, when he wrote of God’s love in a perplexing manner and asked, “What are we humans that you visit us?”

God visited His people.  God was intimate with His people. It didn’t seem to be enough.  Something was incomplete, not because God was incomplete but because I think God knew that something was missing in our life the minute we humans decided to sin against Him and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

You remember what it was like in the Garden way back in Genesis 1 and 2?  Scripture tells us that God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.   There is an intimacy there that only the Hebrew poetry of the first few chapters of Genesis can evoke.

But then sin happened, and humans got eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine driven by angles, and then tell the camera, “Oh, who does that God think he is anyway?   That God isn’t about love after all!”

No wonder Cain killed Abel.  Imagine growing up in that household?  Might have drove me mad too.

III.

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  Something changes for us that we may not have seen coming:  God decided on a course of action that would, once and for all, reveal the extent and length and breadth of His love for us:  God visited earth in a real, flesh and blood sort of way, in the form of a baby—in the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel: “God with us.”

Something amazing happens.  God goes beyond merely visiting humans, God becomes ever intimate with humans.  God touches them—the lepers, the women, the children, the poor.  God heals them.  God interacts with them.  God cooks them breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee and gathers them around the table with scriptures on the tip of his tongue and bread in his hands.

This is the sentiment of the book of Hebrews, out of which our scripture lesson comes today.

The book is what many scholars believe to be a sermon that tells of this unfolding drama of God’s visitation to earth.  It begins like the Gospels: With a declaration that God helps conceive a Son, a beloved child, who is God’s very own, who bridges the gap between heaven and earth.

It explains in high prose and majestic poetry that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God visits humanity in a new, climactic way that inaugurates the kingdom of God as well as the divine love of God.

I am intrigued today by Hebrews 2 as the author makes some bold statements about the nature of this divine love of God.

God’s divine love doesn’t come in the form of a rose or a ring, but in the form of a cross.   Verse 13 says this:

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect [or complete] through sufferings.”

In other words, in becoming human, God goes one step further with this notion of love: God loves us so much that God chooses to suffer and experience death in one of the most humiliating ways ever—on the cross—in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

The language here almost evokes that something was incomplete, that the love under the Jewish law was not enough, that it still evoked feelings of longing and desire in humans that was somehow inadequate, if not too fragile.

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.

IV.

One of the hardest classes a seminarian takes is pastoral care.  Basically, it’s a class on how to do pastoral visitation without making a fool of yourself.

It’s a nerve-racking, heart-wrenching class, because PC doesn’t just give you resources for these different situations, it also tests a student’s response to those situations.

Students make visits and then write up a “case study” or the basic script of the conversation.   The student then brings copies of the case study to class, hands it out to peers and teacher alike, and basically reads through the conversation.

This is really difficult, because when you read through an actual conversation you had with someone you visited by the bedside, you start to see things that make you really insecure.

Have you ever gone into an awkward situation with someone facing hardship, and on your way out of the hospital room, you wonder whether you said the right things?  Some of you ask, “What did I even say?”

Many students who visit someone find that they say to the patient, “I know how you feel,” in order to make that person feel better.

Or a student will say, “I understand, please tell me more.”

Or, “That is terrible for you, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

You too can probably recall a time in your life when you’ve visited someone in need and said one of these things.

Now, none of these responses are bad.  In fact, if you are visiting a friend who has cancer, and you know how they feel because you’ve had cancer, then it can be very assuring and very comforting to say, “I know how you feel.”  It lets the other person know that he or she is not alone in this journey, and that you will not let them go it alone.

But for many students in pastoral care, these statements are not true.  Many students don’t understand what people are going through in times of trauma.  Many students don’t know how a person feels.  And, many students are unable to be sorry for what is happening in another person’s life; there is no way to be sorry—there is nothing the student can do to change or help the situation.

God’s love is so profound, that the only way to fully express it was to pass through the very suffering, temptations, and hardships of life so that when God says, “I love you,” God means it.   God was willing to taste the very sting of death and brokenness that touch all of our lives.  God knows what it feels like to pass through hardship; God understands; God can make a difference.

Hebrews 2:14 says it this way:  “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

I wonder if those men and women go on those reality shows not just to “find love” but to fill that void in all our hearts that comes with the knowledge that all of us are, well, human.  We don’t want to be alone in life or in death.

The epistle of 1 John, often called one of the love letters of the Bible, says this about God and love:

3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

3:18:  “Little Children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

4:8-12:  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The biblical theme is always the same:  We get at God’s love through the very cross of Christ, by the very fact that God “knows” and “understands what we are going through.”

V.

I’ve met a lot of people who suffer or have faced hardship who have been resentful towards God.  I can’t say that I blame them, and I certainly don’t condemn them or tell them they are wrong.  Often, I’ll just encourage people to be honest with God.

But many folks resent God because they still feel God is distant.  They feel that God is somehow detached from human affairs.  God’s only involvement, they assume, comes in the form of judgment or the dishing out of consequences for sins committed.

The sermon that is Hebrews paints a different picture:  God is so intimate, so loving, that God is directly involved with us with every step we take.   Jesus is not ashamed of this intimacy; Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  Jesus was not ashamed to suffer and be humiliated on the way to death.

And Jesus is not afraid to let us bear our crosses a time or two either, because it is in our own fragility that we find the very beautiful tapestry that allows us to embrace, love, and nurture others.

I like the poem by late Archbishop of Argentina, Oscar Romero, that appears in your bulletin:

We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear.  Otherwise, it will not have a lot of resurrection.  An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.

Just as God’s symbol of love is the cross, so too does our symbol of love for each other and the world around us become the very crosses we bear, so that when we meet others by a bedside, we too can say, “I love you.  I am present with you, and Jesus is present with you too because He knows how you feel.  He is one just like us.”