Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: G2A 2014 Series

G2A #12: "Spiritual High-Fives" – Acts 1–2

It’s not uncommon for people to be very afraid or apprehensive to speak about the Holy Spirit. There’s an understanding among Christians (among mainline denominations, especially) that the Holy Spirit is the part of the Trinity that is hard to define and even harder to explain.

Actually, the Holy Spirit can be explained in one phrase: at its most basic, the Holy Spirit is the on-going presence of the crucified and risen Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is actively working on us to conform our lives to resemble Jesus.

Here’s one example of how I saw this in action. A few years ago my wife, my oldest son (who was 2.5 at the time), and I were at a park in Ohio. As we were walking back to the car, we crossed paths with another little boy. He was a tiny kid with big eyes, dark skin and curly black hair. The boys cautiously approached each other; each waved and took turns saying, “Hi.” And before we knew it, our son reached out his arms and gave the little boy a big bear hug. I’m sure the boy was startled, but before he could respond, our son let go, reached up, removed his own red baseball hat, and placed it on the little boy’s head.

You should have seen our son’s smile; and you should have seen the other little boy’s smile; and you should have seen the other little boy’s mom smile; and you should have seen my wife’s smile; and you should have seen the smiles of the people in the parking lot after they witnessed this encounter.

Thirty seconds earlier every person in that area was leading an independent life. We would have all been content to pass by one another and not speak one word between us. But, thanks to an innocent gesture by an ornery and big-hearted two-year old, we were suddenly connected in a profound way. Even if it was only for a second, we all realized we were a part of something greater – something that connects us all. These are what I like to call “thin moments,” where we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ ongoing work in our world. Moments when the division between the sacred and the mundane seem to vanish. I once worked with a high school student who called these moments “spiritual high fives.”

The next day, as we were driving home, we stopped to eat at a restaurant. When I went to pay the bill I noticed that there was a 20% deduction on our total bill. Turns out that the family next to us had a coupon and they had instructed the waiter to apply it to our bill. I was astonished. Again, there was no reason for our paths to intersect like that. I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants but cannot recall anyone going out of their way to make a connection with me. I felt Jesus’ presence in that moment. That was another “spiritual high five.”

These two stories are unremarkable–little gestures, so innocent and simple–but they are incredibly vivid examples of the Holy Spirit that have inspired and nurtured my faith.

My purpose today is not just to tell these stories, but it is also to ask that the Holy Spirit would cause us to act in such a way as to invite others to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Or, to put it another way, I want God to give spiritual high fives through us–his church.

But that’s where things get sticky.

God is ready and willing to let the Holy Spirit work in and through us to give spiritual high fives to the world. The problem is that God needs us to be willing to take risks and be open to failure and rejection.

Remember, the Holy Spirit is on-going presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, crucified and risen. In order for resurrection to take place, something must die. Before God can create a new spirit in us, our old spirit must die. After all, Jesus took incredible risks, and he endured epic failure and rejection. Why should our lives look any different?

Is the risk of failure and rejection too high a price for us to pay?

What are we willing to give up in order to make the world a better place? Would we give up our red baseball hats? Would we give up our 20% coupons? Would we smile at a complete stranger and possibly strike up a conversation? Would we invite someone to worship with us? Would we be willing to accept changes in the church that would make it more welcoming and mission-oriented for people who would otherwise never darken the doorstep of a church?

There is a whole lot of discussion about the church, both universal and local, centering on the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being the church in the world. There is a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit being the catalyst for change in the church – change that sounds scary to a lot of people, but could very well open the door for a whole new generation of people who are not darkening the doorstep of churches today. Perhaps more so now than ever before (at least, since the Reformation began) Lutherans are getting excited about the prospect of change! Imagine that!

We, as the congregation of Cross of Grace Lutheran Church, come together today to celebrate the ongoing radical presence of Jesus in our world today. We come together today understanding that in order for our individual and corporate lives to resemble the resurrected Jesus, we will be called upon to leave any apprehension, close-mindedness, or fear of failure at the foot of the cross. God is poised and ready to use us to give spiritual high-fives throughout this community, nation and world.

On this day and every other day I am grateful for your openness and willingness to let God work through you. It isn’t always easy, and we all require reminders to choose God’s path instead of our own, but the peace and love of a life in Christ Jesus is a beautiful gift.

And with that, we’ve concluded our twelve-week journey through the Bible; although, we did end up skipping over quite a bit of material! That being said, we have touched on some of the most important themes and learned more about the structure of the Biblical narrative–the story of our faith. In a phrase, it can be summed up like this:

“There is one God. This God created the universe; and with it: the earth and every human being, plant, animal, mountain, and valley. This world was created good and will be completely redeemed and restored one day. However, we live in the in-between years, caught up in the swirling winds of strife, misunderstanding, distrust, selfishness, as well as beauty, grace, peace, and hope. God’s people regularly fail to live up to the expectations and possibilities God has provided. There are many forces vying for our attention and allegiance; however God has constantly advocated from the beginning of time our complete surrender to the mysterious ways of love. The life, death, and resurrection of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, demonstrates once and for all that love conquers all and that we are heirs of the promise of grace.”

And for that we say, "Amen."

G2A #11: "Salvaging Salvation" – Matthew 26-28

Now that I once again subscribe to cable-television, I’ve rediscovered the show Chopped on the Food Network. For those of you who are not familiar, the show brings in four chefs who compete against each other to create three meals based on ingredients in a mystery basket, which they do not open until the timer starts. After each round, the chef with the worst plate is eliminated (i.e., "chopped").

I’ve watched this show many times before but it had never provided any theological insights until an episode this week. With less than two minutes left in the entrée round, one of the chefs burnt one of his mystery ingredients (each of the mystery ingredients has to make it on the plate in order to continue to the next round). When he discovered the burning ingredient he said, “OK, now I’m in salvation mode.” So he went to work trying to fix his mistake and put something edible on his plate.

I’m sure what the chef meant to say was, “OK, now I'm in salvage mode” instead of “salvation mode;” but the lexical mix-up really stuck with me. The two words are similar and have the same Anglo-French root (salver - “to save”), but their usage brings to mind very different images.

So often we think of the concept of salvation as a neat, tidy, beautiful, perfect thing. We use words like victory, peace, and glory to describe salvation. We picture salvation as being lifted up out of the muck of daily existence, far removed from pain, sin, and the powers of death.

This concept of salvation is precisely what the Israelites had been waiting for from the very beginning of the Biblical narrative, upon Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. After generation upon generations of suffering, oppression, mistakes, faithfulness, faithlessness, greed, victory, and defeat, the Hebrew people were expecting and praying for a Messiah who would usher in a tidy, beautiful perfect salvation leading to victory, peace, and glory, enabling them to be lifted up out of the muck of daily existence, far removed from pain, sin, and the powers of death.

However, the Messiah whom God revealed to the world in Jesus of Nazareth was radically different than the one the Hebrew people had expected. Consequently, the salvation that Jesus procured for the world was anything but neat and tidy. It looked less like salvation and more like a salvage effort – similar to a chef frantically running around trying to figure out some way of turning a burnt ingredient into something palatable.

The traditional way to think about the salvation through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to recall Jesus’ suffering for the sole reason of explaining the greatness of his victory. The bad stuff makes us appreciate the good stuff all the more.

This is a basis for any captivating story. We love stories about a football team down by three touchdowns in the 4th quarter that comes back to win the game. We love stories about how an ignored and hopeless school in the inner city overcomes all the obstacles to learning and sends kids off to college, where they excel, graduate, and thrive in careers. We love stories about people who are down on their luck, but a twist of fate gives them a second chance to do something incredible.

But what of the football team that is down by three touchdowns in the 4th quarter, sticks together and continues to fight hard, but fails to win? What about the students and teachers of the school who reluctantly show up to school, each knowing there is little hope for academic success? What about people who are down on their luck, only to have more and more problems thrown on their shoulders?

Is salvation possible in these situations?

It is, if we realize salvation is less about a neat and tidy victory and more about salvaging a life and hope in the midst of pain and pressure.

The salvation we have in Jesus Christ is two-fold. One part is the certain promise of victory over death as evidenced by his resurrection. The second, and just as important part, is the extent to which God fully embraced our suffering, pain, disappointment, fear, and death in order to prove God is with us in our suffering, pain, disappointment, fear, and death.

Salvation is not just the victorious ascent; it is also the salvaging of hope in the midst of the descent.

At this point you could well be saying, “So what? What possible implication could such theological hair-splitting mean for our daily lives?”

Well, if you feel as though your life is heading in a downward direction, it should make all the difference in the world.

If life is spinning out of control; if you find yourself doubting your personal worth or your faith in a peace and hope that shines in the darkness; if you feel hopeless, alone, or consumed with hatred and intolerance; if you are sick, close to death, or absolutely terrified of the idea of death…God is there, salvaging life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, peace out of pain.

If you feel like life is heading in a downward direction, know that God at work and the work of salvation has begun. You don’t have to wait for your life to get back on track; you don’t have to wait until your problems are solved; you don’t have to wait until you are healed to experience the life, hope, and peace of God.

Picture the image of Jesus hanging bruised, beaten, and bloodied, on the cross. This was not a necessary and noble sacrifice to appease an angry God. Rather, this is an image of God working to salvage life, hope, and peace, out of a world that had rejected him. This was proof that God has experienced the depth of human suffering and pain.

Picture the empty tomb, with Jesus’ grave clothes tossed to the ground. This was God working to salvage life, hope, and peace out of a world that had rejected him.

The message that we, as people whom God has called together to bear witness to the world, have to share with all people who are suffering is this: “God is present in the suffering; and it is there that God is salvaging life, hope and peace.”

This is a message the world desperately needs to hear. This is a message the world desperately needs to see us enact.

May you be attentive to the parts of your life where God is salvaging life, hope, and peace out of pain, disappointment, and death. May you be attentive to the parts of the lives of others where God is salvaging life, hope, and peace out of pain, disappointment, and death. And may you be bold to declare that God is present in those places.

Thank you for bearing the good and necessary news to the world.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.