I Don’t Want To Be a Goat (Matt 25)

There is a valley south of Jerusalem that was once famous for being a center of toxic religion—idolatry is the name the Bible gives to toxic religion.  Seven centuries before Christ the place was called Tophet and a shrine was there, where the practitioners of various toxic religions sacrificed their children.  Tophet was in a valley once owned by the son of Hinnom.  Ge-ben-hinnom  is “valley of the son of Hinnom” in Hebrew.  Over time the name of the place was shortened to Gehenna.

King Josiah, the best king Judah ever had, destroyed the shrine of Tophet.  After that, the whole Hinnom valley was used as a garbage dump.  Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna, the rotten, smoldering, stinking center of toxic religion, as a warning.  Those who prey on children, those who slander others in their arrogant self-righteousness, are in danger of ending up in Gehenna.

Matthew 24 and 25 tell about the Day of Judgment, using several parables.  These parables give several disturbing images of the fate of those who fail the judgment.  In one parable a servant who got drunk and beat his fellow servants is punished by being “cut to pieces” and given a place with the hypocrites, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That one is puzzling.  If he is cut to pieces, it sounds like he is dead–but there is wailing, so it sounds like the hypocrites being punished there are still alive.

In another parable the punishment is being excluded, shut out.  Those who are not prepared miss out on the joy of the wedding.  They show up too late, the gates are closed and locked, and they are left outside in the darkness.  In another parable a lazy slave is thrown out into “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Then in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are thrown into the eternal fire, the place prepared for the devil and his angels, the place otherwise called Gehenna.

Jesus used imagery and he used hyperbole to make a point.  The point was always serious.  C.S. Lewis said we should be careful about being too certain about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s revivals swept across the frontier.  There were tent meetings that lasted for days and weeks.  And in the preaching there were always vivid descriptions of hell.  And people were terrified.  And worse, many of the preachers had a theology that said, “You are probably going to hell and there might not be anything you can do about it,” because God has already chosen those who are going to heaven.  Some people got saved and others just got scared.

In the 1800 hundreds, several new religions arose as a way of dealing with the revivalist teaching of Hell: The Seventh Day Adventists teach extinction.  Those who are not saved are just dead forever.  The Mormons teach there are several different degrees of afterlife, some get to live on the earth, and then there are lower and higher heavens that others go to.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that a few will go to heaven, many will be resurrected to a good life on earth in the Kingdom of God, and those who refuse to repent will be destroyed.

The Disciples taught nobody has to go to hell, anyone can be saved.  You are not saved by belonging to the right church but by trusting your life to Jesus.  He has given us easy ways to tell if we belong to the elect or not.  If you are willing to turn from your sins, declare your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name, you can have confidence that you are saved and on your way to heaven.

Many today are still disturbed by the idea of hell or eternal punishment after death.  What is most disturbing is that it sounds cruel and it seems arbitrary and unfair.

C.S. Lewis said “the Bible is meant for grownups,” by which he meant people who knew how to read literature.  Lewis was troubled by the idea of hell, but he also believed it was important.  He believed it was important to say that the choices we make in this life have consequences that extend throughout this life and beyond, even into eternity.  One of Lewis’s influences was G.K. Chesterton, who taught that “hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.”  Another influence was George McDonald, who was a universalist.  McDonald believed that Hell is a devise God uses to bring the lost to repentance.  It is like the pigsty the prodigal son found himself in. 

C.S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He also loved the Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, is a depiction of hell.  It is a place God in his mercy prepared for those who chose to reject God’s love.  Sinners get the choices they have made.  The sin one chooses is the punishment for sin.  Those who chose in life to be swept away by passion and lust, are swept off their feet forever in the Inferno, driven by relentless cold winds.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, again, hell is the result of human choice, God’s gift of freedom.  Satan describes himself as one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same?

C.S. Lewis wrote his own book on heaven and hell, called the Great Divorce.  It is a dream about a visit to the “gray world,” a joyless, lifeless place that is either Purgatory or Hell, depending on how long one stays.  A tour bus takes a group of the residents to heaven, which is a beautiful, joyous place; but they don’t like it.  It’s too real.  They are too used to their own alternative reality, they can’t handle true reality.  All but one of the tourists voluntarily get on the bus and go back where they are comfortable.

I think we have to say a few things about Jesus’ parables of judgment.  First, they use imagery.  The imagery points to something real and terrible: exclusion, missed opportunity, living in the land of toxic religion, fire, pain, and weeping.  The imagery points to end result of a life of blind self-indulgence as well as a life deceived by toxic religion.  Hell is “a place with the hypocrites.”  Judgment begins in this life.  The choice of sin is the punishment for sin.  The punishment for selfishness is loneliness, self-imposed exclusion from the joyous celebration God invites us to join.

Second, judgment is a reality.  We are responsible for how we live and we will be required to give an accounting.  The choices we make in life are serious, and we have no guarantee of a  second chance.

Third, God desires the salvation, the well-being and joy of all people.  God is love.  There are several ways Christians have tried to reconcile the biblical imagery of hell with the Love of God.  One way is that hell is the most gracious accommodation God can make for those who refuse his grace.  Hell is the painful refuge.  Rather than destroy his creation, God gives them a place where they can continue in the existence they have chosen. 

Another way is to say hell is redemptive punishment, meant to bring lost souls to repentance.  It is a second chance.  Is there a hint of hope in Jesus’ words, “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” 

Another way is to say hell is a warning.  It is a picture of what the hard-hearted deserve, but God has already provided the alternative.  Hell was not created for any human being, God does not desire anyone to be lost in this life or in eternity, and God has provided a way anyone can have the assurance that they are God’s children and nothing can separate them from his love.

There is one more issue that may trouble us.  What about those who have never heard of Jesus?

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us an answer if we reframe the question.  Make it, “What about those who have never met Jesus?”  And the answer is surprising. 

There is no one who has never met Jesus.  It’s just that he comes to us in disguise.

He comes to us in the form of those we consider least important.  He comes to us disguised as the hungry person we meet, or one who is thirsty, or in need of clothing, or homeless.  He comes to us as the refugee, the immigrant, or the one in prison.

You have probably heard that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus.  It’s true.  But what if he already came to you and you rejected him or ignored him?  You’ll meet him again.

Jesus is so gracious, he comes to us in many forms.  He comes to us in the word, the word in the Bible or in the sermon.  He comes to us in the form of his body the church.  He comes to us in the bread and the wine.  And he comes to us in the people we meet in the street.  But make sure we understand: If we have prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts–we are missing something if we don’t accept him when we see him in the street.

When the King comes he will separate the people of all nations into two groups: the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are those who welcomed Jesus when he came to them in disguise.  They will have a wonderful surprise.  The goats are those who rejected Jesus when he came to them in disguise.

I don’t want to be a goat.

I Am a Disciple and I Need Discipline (2)

(The Sunday I was scheduled to preach on Matthew 18 was interrupted by an ice storm.  I continued working on the written version, and it got a little long, so I broke it into two parts.)

Jesus established a church.  He formed his band of disciples into a family, a community with a mission.  The mission of his disciples is to be his eyes, ears, hands, and feet in the world.  The mission is to demonstrate, at least in small ways, what the kingdom of God will be like when it comes, what the world will be like when the Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  The church is a community with authority.  If you were shocked by Christ’s words to Simon Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” think about what he says in Matthew 18.  He gives that same authority to any two or three disciples gathered in his name.

The word church, ekklesia in Greek comes from Athens, Greece; the city that invented democracy.  The ekklesia in Athens was the assembly of citizens who gathered to debate and enact the city’s laws and business.  When Athens decided to go to war, it was by a vote of the ekklesia.  Every citizen was guaranteed the right of free speech and the right to an equal vote.  In the ekklesia of Christ, everyone is equal and the united decision of the assembled disciples has authority.

Matthew 18 shows us two things that were very important to Jesus.  The first is the well-being of children.  The second is reconciliation.

In the ancient world there was no public education, no laws guaranteeing food or medical treatment for children, no laws protecting children from dangerous work or even slavery.  Jesus disciples (we are always slow to learn) thought his work was too important to allow children to interrupt; but he rebuked them.  “Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”  When heaven comes to earth, when God’s will is done here, children will be the greatest.

Several years ago when I was in seminary we visited a juvenile detention center (a jail for kids).  The chaplain told us, “We think we are a youth culture, but we don’t care about kids.  People want to imagine that they are forever young, but they don’t want to help those who are young.”  He described how the facility was run down, overcrowded, and understaffed.  He described the brutal treatment the kids often received.  He said, “I know we as a nation have given up on the idea of rehabilitating adult criminals; but these are kids.  They can change if we show them a better way and give them hope of living a better life.”  He complained that instead of investing the money needed to help troubled youth, the state was building a new highway.

Jesus cared about children.  In fact, he said no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become like a child.  Children are naturally trusting.  The don’t learn how to be suspicious or how to hate until adults or older children teach them.

Jesus also cared about reconciliation.  So reconciliation is to be the rule for his followers.  Too often we wait for the other person to make the first move.  In Matthew 5 he says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you . . . go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister.”  In Matthew 18 he says, “if your brother or sister has sinned against you,” you should go to him or her and seek reconciliation.  The burden is on the one who is aware of the problem.  Notice he does not say we always have to turn the other cheek, or just take it.  We have the right and the responsibility to correct a brother or sister–one with whom we have a relationship.  We have the right to demand that they do what is necessary to make it right.

If the offender does not listen to us, we can enlist two mature, wise, sensitive people to accompany us on the next visit in hope of reconciliation.  Then if the offender still refuses to budge we bring him or her before the whole church.  The church then has the authority to give binding instruction to the offender, and if he or she refuses, the obstinate one is to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Those last words are a little ironic:  Matthew who wrote them was a tax collector when Jesus called him.  And Jesus heard the pleas of Gentiles when they came to him.  It does not mean we should regard them as an enemy.  There are some churches that practice a very harsh form of shunning; that is not what Jesus means.  It means we regard them as someone who needs to be converted.  They are like someone who betrays there own country or like someone who worships false gods.  They need to be instructed–if they will listen.  Otherwise, they are treated with basic human decency and respect, but they are no longer regarded as a follower of Jesus.

Then Jesus said something even more amazing.  Simon Peter (the Rock) knew there must be more to it.  I imagine him thinking to himself, “But I suppose he’s going to tell us now that we have to forgive him if he repents.”  So he asks the question, “How many times to I have to forgive someone who wrongs me?  Seven times?”  And Jesus responds with the answer, not seven times, but seventy times seven.  The purpose of discipline is redemption and reconciliation.

If your church has archives, it is interesting to look back at the records.  If you go back many years you will find that “Brother X” or “Sister Y” was removed from the membership roles for repeated gossiping, using vulgar language in the presence of a lady, lingering over strong drink, or other such offenses.  We don’t see that much any more, and I think for good reason.  We are aware of our own faults and don’t want to be judgmental.

I think there is one area at least where the church has to enforce discipline, and that is when it comes to the abuse of children and other vulnerable people.  Usually in cases of domestic violence, it is women who are more vulnerable and more in need of protection.  Sometimes the elderly suffer abuse.  We cannot tolerate abuse within our walls or in the private homes of our members.  When it happens the first priority has to be the protection of the innocent and vulnerable.

There is a danger of the misapplication of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness here.  When there is a conflict between the two priorities, the safety of children and the vulnerable comes first.  You don’t get a second chance to abuse children.

I Am a Disciple and I Need Discipline

Jesus established a church. He was not completely anti-institutional. But he wore sandals and had long hair! Paintings from fifteen centuries later show him with long hair. Sculptures and paintings from the first century show that most men had short hair. And everyone wore sandals back then. Jesus dressed like a traditional Jewish Rabbi. He had fringes on his garment as specified in the Torah.

I was a little too young to be either a Vietnam warrior or a hippie. I had uncles and cousins who served their country in Vietnam, and I respected them for that. But I was also a teenager and would have let my hair grow longer if my dad had let me. I listened to rock and roll. I liked to think of Jesus as a rebel. And there was some truth in that. The truth is he followed the will of his father wherever it took him.

But Jesus established a church. His band of disciples was somewhat organized. They collected funds for distribution to the poor. And they had a treasurer to manage the fund. Jesus had a house in Capernaum. It’s true he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I don’t know if he is referring to his traveling ministry, the many days he was away from home–or if he means what John said, “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” He may have had a home but he was not at home, not welcome in this world. But his band of disciples were organized into what would become his church.

We have four ways of thinking of the church.

1) The first is the church building, the house of worship, we may even call it the house of the Lord. My father made sure we understood that the church was the people not the building. He always referred to the church building as the church house, or inside where the pews were as the sanctuary. And he was right. But it’s also true that we need a place to gather, to worship, to fellowship, to do the church’s business. And it is also true that it is good to have a place that is beautiful and makes us look toward heaven.

Have you ever visited a medieval cathedral? You can’t help but feeling you are in a holy place. People sometimes say, “But couldn’t they have taken the money and given it to the poor?” Who do you think built those cathedrals? Craftsmen, carpenters, masons, skilled and unskilled workers who either were poor or would have been poor without the work. Some of the cathedrals were jobs programs for hundreds of years.

The early Christians met in the homes of those whose homes were spacious enough to host the church. In the Roman empire people who could afford it often had a room in their house dedicated as a private chapel for their favorite god or goddess. They also made sure to include a shrine for the worship of the emperor. They might would invite their close friends on occasion to participate in prayers or ritual worship.

Christians who dedicated their houses as centers of worship and fellowship welcomed all, rich and poor alike. Their fellowship also included meals in which the poor were included as equals. Think of the generosity of those who allowed their homes to be used multiple times each week as the gathering place of the church. Many of these homes eventually became what we think of as “churches.”

2) We also think of the church as an institution. We like things that are spontaneous. We like things that are new and fresh and not bound by tradition. Then we say, “that was great, let’s do it again!” And by the second time we do it, we already have traditions. Anything new and exciting and important will quickly fade away unless there are some kind of institutions to preserve it. Jesus proclaimed something absolutely new: The Kingdom of God is coming. God is going to rule on this earth. His Will, will be done here, as it is in heaven. Jesus entrusted the work of the kingdom to his church, to his disciples. And disciples need discipline.

3) The church is not just an institution. It is a family, a community. That’s what my father was trying to teach us. And he was right. When I was a child I used to wonder why my parents would take so long after church talking to everybody. Now I understand. That was family they were talking to, and they might not see them again until next week.

We’ve been talking here about the men’s fellowship. We already have a good women’s fellowship and a good everybody fellowship–but there is something about a men’s fellowship. It was important to my dad when he was a young father trying to bring his kids up right. He played on a church softball team. That had area men’s meetings. I know there was some serious teaching at those meetings, but I especially remember my dad telling about the fun they had. Once they played a joke on an area preacher at a fellowship meal. They served steak and baked potatoes. There was nothing wrong with the steaks, but they gave brother Keith a raw potato wrapped up in aluminum foil.

They also did service projects, helped widows and elderly people with repairs on their homes.

Jesus called his disciples to be a community, a family. He gave us the task of sharing his love with those around us.

4) When we say we are going to church, we usually are thinking of the worship service. The church is a community that gathers for prayer, praise, fellowship, the study of God’s word, celebration of the sacraments, seeking God’s presence and his grace. When we “go to church” we are the church gathered for worship.

The church also gathers at times to make decisions. I find it fascinating that the Bible chose the Greek word ekklesia as the name for the community of followers of Jesus. The word comes from Athenian democracy. In Athens every citizen had the right to speak freely in the public assembly. Every citizen had the right to vote on any important matter.

The Church is a community that has authority to enact decisions under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 16, Jesus gave that authority to Peter, the Rock. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” If that seems like a lot of authority to give to one man, look what Jesus says in Matthew 18:19-20. He gives the same authority to any two or three of his followers gathered in his name.

Obviously this could be misused and misunderstood. In the immediate context Jesus is talking about what we sometimes call church discipline, or excommunication.  He is also talking about the authority to forgive.  The purpose of disciplinary action is redemption and reconciliation.  The same community that may exclude also has the power to forgive and restore.

If I can share one more story passed on from my dad, he had a friend that belonged to another church. This church had some rules they took very seriously. One was that Sunday was observed as a strict Sabbath with no work, exertion, or worldly pursuits. My dad’s friend went coon hunting one Saturday night. This was a popular sport in the Ozarks. I used to think it was cruel since the game was not hunted for food; I changed my mind when a raccoon got into our friend Margaret’s chicken coop and tore the heads off about 18 hens. Anyway, the church was fine with hunting, but the man made the mistake of staying out past midnight when one of his hounds got on a hot trail. They put him out of the church for breaking the rules.

Jesus does give his followers authority to withdraw fellowship from a brother or sister who persists in harmful behavior after being counseled. It’s important to notice a couple of things. The purpose is reconciliation. Excommunication, is the end of a long process that begins with private communication. And, as soon as the person repents, he is to be forgiven and welcomed back.

This kind of church discipline is almost never seen in church today, and for good reason. We all have faults and failings and don’t want to think we are better than someone else. We would rather be merciful than judgmental.

I think there is one area where we should enforce church discipline, and that is domestic abuse, and especially child abuse. It is interesting that Jesus gives this teaching after saying it is better for a person to have a giant millstone put around his neck and be cast into the sea than to harm a child. That’s a pretty harsh teaching. But children are pretty important to Jesus.

Who Do You Say that I Am?

Caesarea Philippi was in the far north of Israel.  The city was located at the base of Mount Hermon.  Hermon is 9200 feet in elevation.  In Colorado, they are proud of their Fourteeners, mountains with an elevation above 14,000 feet.  But the base of the Fourteeners can be anywhere from 8000 to 10,000 feet.  Mt. Hermon is near the sea and is visible from the Dead Sea one hundred miles to the South at 1300 feet below sea level.  So, though I haven’t been there, I assume the view of Mt. Hermon would be just as impressive as Pike’s Peak. Image result for mount hermon

Any city named Caesarea was built in honor of one of the Caesars.  There is another Caesarea in Palestine, on the coast.  The Caesarea below Mt. Hermon was built by Herod’s son Philip.  Philip built a temple to Augustus Caesar there.  There were other temples and shrines there too.  Caesarea was a pagan city, barely part of Israel, at its northern boundary.  The ground is rocky, and there is a cave or grotto that had long been considered by the local inhabitants to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan.

There is an English word that comes from this god’s name–pan-ic.  One of his special abilities was believed to be spreading terror or panic among army troops.  The Greeks prayed for his assistance against their enemies.  They believed Pan could send mysterious noises among the ranks and make them think they were being bombarded by supernatural and human forces.  Pan-icked soldiers would drop their weapons and run or even turn on each other.

The human face of the god was ugly and frightening.  He had horns, and his image later became a model for medieval paintings of the devil.  His form was barely human on the top half, but below the waist he was a billy goat, and he was lusty and aggressive.

Before Pan, the ancient nemesis of Israel, Baal, was worshipped in the grotto.  The historian Josephus described the cave.  Naturally, it was dark and there was a sheer drop off into a bottomless pit.  As far as anyone could tell anyway, it was bottomless–except that far down there was water, and the water was deeper than anyone had ever been able to measure.  The water filtered down through Mount Hermon from melting snow, and sometimes it surged all the way up and spewed out of the mouth of the cave.

Because of its dangerous and mysterious nature, and because of its association with pagan gods, some ancient people considered this cave to be the gate (or one of the gates) of the Underworld (also known as Sheol, Hades, or Hell). 

Jesus took his disciples, and asked them a question as they stood on the bare rock near the cave of Pan.

Who do people say that I am?  Evidently the belief that one of the great prophets would return was strong at that time.  After all, the Lord had said in Malachi, “behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”  To this day, when Passover is observed an empty chair is left for Elijah.  At the end of the meal a young child is sent to open the door and look for Elijah.

Elijah had challenged the idolatry in his day, and many people evidently thought Jesus fit that role well.  Of course, before Jesus many thought John the Baptist fulfilled the return of Elijah prophesy.  Remember Herod’s son Philip?  His brother, Herod Antipas, had stolen Philip’s wife and John the Baptist rebuked him for it.  That angered the queen, and she demanded John’s head on a silver platter. 

Jesus was related to John and began his own ministry before John’s ended, but not everyone was aware of those details.  Jesus became well known after the death of John.  Many people wondered if Jesus was John come back.  Others saw him as the Baptist’s successor.  Maybe Jesus was the Elijah who was to come.

Other people said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  I wonder why Jeremiah?  Was it because he predicted the New Covenant?  Or was it because of his sympathy and tears for his own people?

Jesus spoke Aramaic.  About a dozen Aramaic words are preserved in the New Testament.  Twenty years ago when I was studying the languages of the Bible and the world where biblical history happened, I heard of a few villages in Iraq and Syria where Aramaic was still spoken.  The people in those villages were Christians who were convinced they spoke the language of Jesus exactly as he spoke it 2000 years ago.  I remember thinking it would be a great opportunity to go and study with those people and learn to speak their language as they spoke it.  I don’t know for sure what has happened to those people but I am afraid the opportunity to go and learn from them is gone forever.

The Aramaic word Kepha means ‘Rock.’  (In English it is spelled ‘Cephas’)  The ground around the grotto of pan was solid rock.  The rock rose up behind the cave toward Mount Hermon.  Maybe Jesus had a sense of humor–or maybe he saw a potential in his disciple Simon that no one else could see.  Jesus gave Simon a new name: Kephâ, Cephas, the ROCK.    One thing about Cephas.  When he didn’t know what to do, he would do something.  When he didn’t know what to say, he would say something.

So when Jesus asked, “But who do you say I am?”  Simon-Cephas spoke up.  By the way, when Greek speaking people started to follow Jesus, the name Cephas got translated for them into the Greek word for a rock, Petros, or Peter.  Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels were written, and he called the big Fisherman, Cephas.  But in the Gospels he is more often known as Peter.  His full name is Simon bar Jonah (son of Jonah), aka Cephas/Peter/the Rock.

Who do you say Jesus is?

Peter gave the right answer this time:

“You are the Messiah (the Christ) the one God anointed with his Spirit to bring his Kingdom, to bring peace and righteousness to the earth.  You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus is the one God the Father sent to bring us to him and to bring his love to earth.

Jesus answered him, “blessed are you Simon bar Jonah, for Flesh and Blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.  You are Cephas/Peter/the Rock, and on this Rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

What did he mean “on this Rock?”  Some say he means the faith he had just announced, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  This truth is the foundation of our faith.  Years later Paul would write, “No other foundation can anyone lay but the one that is already laid, Jesus Christ.”  The Truth of who Jesus is, is the foundation of our faith and of the church.

Or did he mean the church would be built on Cephas/Peter, the Rock?  “I will give to you the keys to the kingdom.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  Whatever you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.”  Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Peter used those keys.  He said two things: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  And he said, “God has made him both Lord and Christ (the Anointed redeemer), this Jesus whom you crucified.”  When they said what shall we do, he answered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”  In other words, when anyone prays to Jesus Christ, turns away from their sins and turns to him, and identifies with him by receiving the cleansing sacrament of baptism–Christ comes into their life, the Spirit of God enters their heart and soul and gives them a desire to do his will.  He had the keys.

Or when Jesus said, “on this ROCK” maybe he was being very literal.  Did he mean, “on this Rock-hard ground, right here in front of the gate of hell–I’m going to build my church–and the gates of hell will not be able to withstand my attack.

I am so glad Jesus didn’t call me to build his church.  When I look out and see all the potential in this church and this community, and when I think of the responsibility to build the church–I can’t do it.  But then I remember, he didn’t ask me to build his church.  He asked me to follow him.  He asks us all to build each other up in the faith.  He asks us to bear witness to what we have seen and heard, what we have experienced.

I am so glad Jesus didn’t call me to convince anyone of the reality of God or the truth of who he is. 

Those are two things we should all be glad of.  We don’t have to build his church.  We don’t have to convince anyone.  We just follow him.  We are disciples, followers and learners.  We are also witnesses.  Not eyewitnesses like Mary and Martha and Peter and John.  They saw the empty tomb, they saw the risen Lord.  We are faith witnesses, witnesses of what God has done in our lives through faith.

I have read a lot on theology, philosophy, history.  I enjoy discussing it.  I know there are reasons for my faith.  And if you want to talk about it over a cup of coffee, I am glad to do that.  Look me up.  But I can’t really argue or persuade anyone into believing in God or following Jesus. 

The reason I believe in God is because God is capable of making himself known.

God loves everyone; he wants everyone to know him.  But there is a timing that is known to God.  When the time is right, he will call individuals to come to him by faith.

Two things God used to convince me: One was seeing the presence of  God in the lives of other people.  I saw love, joy, peace . . . the fruit, the evidence of the Holy Spirit–which means the presence of God in someone’s life. 

The other thing God used was the Gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–or the person of Jesus in those books revealing the presence of God in the world.  The reason I believe in God is because of Jesus.  The more I read his story the more convinced I became.  It was not an idea.  It was a way of life.

As followers of Jesus, some bystanders will see him at work in our lives when we don’t even realize it.  Otherwise, we can say “come and see.”  The reason you should invite people to church is because they will see the love of Christ at work in his people.  They will see that this is a loving family.  And they will hear the gospel.

Who do you say that he is?  If you’ve never thought about that, maybe you should decide to start thinking about it.  Read the story.  This month, we are all trying to read the Gospel according to Matthew, the first book in the New Testament.

Maybe you have thought about it and you know the answer.  Maybe God has spoken directly to your heart.  If you can say, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then maybe it is time to ask him to come into your life.  Maybe it is time to stand up and declare it.