MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (NLT)]

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MISTAKES HAPPEN

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrel - YellowstoneIt was late Saturday night when one of our pastors glanced at the next day’s church program and saw that Sunday’s sermon was titled “Epithet.” Since he wasn’t speaking about insults on social media but about the way we’ll be remembered when we’re gone, it should have read “Epitaph.” After spending the next hour trying to figure out a way to tie epithets into epitaphs, he realized it made more sense to own up to his spelling error, which he did at all three services.

Life gives us an abundance of opportunities to make mistakes and, sometimes, it seems as if we never miss one! We mishear, misinterpret, misjudge, misread, misspeak, misspell, misunderstand and, yes, we sin. We take wrong turns, say the wrong things, and believe the wrong person. Sometimes, that wrong person is an over-confident self. Overly confident, the pastor didn’t proofread, the builders of the Titanic didn’t provide enough life boats, and Napoleon thought he could successfully invade Russia in the winter.

Like the pastor, as much as we hate to do it, we need to own our mistakes and admit our responsibility for them. Sometimes, we can make the best of them, in which case they cease being mistakes. For example, while 3M’s Patty Sherman was trying to develop a rubber that wouldn’t deteriorate when exposed to jet fuel fumes, she made a mistake and spilled a few drops of one failed test batch on her shoe. Later, seeing that those spots were clean while the rest of her shoe had gotten stained and dirty, she made the most of that mistake with a product we call Scotchguard!

Sometimes, we can fix our mistakes. When KFC discovered their motto “Finger-lickin’ good!” became “Eat your fingers off!” in Chinese, they quickly corrected their clumsy translation. Sometimes, though, we just plow on ahead in the face of our errors. The Leaning Tower of Pisa started to lean five years after construction began but, rather than admit and correct the problem, building continued for another for 192 years. They kept compensating by making the uphill side shorter but, because mistakes don’t correct themselves, the tower kept leaning.

Like that learning tower, many of our mistakes are ones with which we must live. Hopefully, we learn from our errors as I imagine NASA did when they accidentally taped over their video of the moon landing. Rather than dwelling on our mistakes, we have to move out of the land of “what if” into the land of “what is.” This, however, is where we encounter the hardest part of making a mistake: forgiving ourselves.

Consider the mistakes of Judas and Peter: Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and Peter denied Him three times. Realizing Jesus would die for his betrayal, could Judas have been trying to undo his mistake by giving back the blood money? Filled with remorse and unable to change what had been done, he killed himself. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if only Judas had waited three days. I know Jesus would have forgiven Him. Think of the testimony Judas could have given if he’d forgiven himself and waited as did Peter. Like Judas, Peter betrayed Jesus but, unlike him, he forgave himself, lived with his mistake, and was in the room when Jesus appeared! Think of the powerful testimony Peter did give!

We have a choice about even our most grievous mistakes. Like Peter, we can live with them, forgive ourselves, accept God’s forgiveness, and move on with our lives in service to Him. Or, like Judas, we can hold on to them and refuse to forgive ourselves. Our guilt may not take our lives but it will take our peace, joy, self-confidence, hope, and even our faith in a forgiving God. We’re told we must forgive to be forgiven; it would seem that command means forgiving ourselves as much as it means forgiving others. Let our guilt be washed away!

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. [Hebrews 10:21-22 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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DON’T DO IT!

Again and again the Lord had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.” But the Israelites would not listen. They were as stubborn as their ancestors who had refused to believe in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13-14 (NLT)]

wrong wayWe were at the symphony watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho while the orchestra played Bernard Herrman’s chilling soundtrack. When Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, stepped into the shower, a man in the audience yelled, ”Don’t do it!” Since most of us saw the movie decades ago, we didn’t want her to take that fatal shower either. In spite of the warning, however, she did. Since Marion was at the Bates Motel because she’d embezzled $40,000 from her boss, perhaps that man should have yelled, “Don’t do it!” much sooner.

That’s sort of what it was like when rereading the books of Kings and Chronicles recently. I knew they would end badly for both Israel and Judah but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t want to read their sad history again any more than I wanted to see Marion Crane die in the shower a second time. But, just as I made it through the gruesome movie murder, I made it through the disheartening saga of God’s chosen people.

No one warned Marion about Norman Bates but the people of Judah and Israel got plenty of warnings from God. The prophets Amos and Hosea told the northern kingdom they’d be taken captive by the Assyrians and both kingdoms were warned of their tragic ends by Micah. Joel and Isaiah warned Judah to turn from their idolatry and sins. Habakkuk warned them that the Babylonians would be used as an instrument of judgment and Zephaniah and Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. God’s chosen people couldn’t claim they weren’t warned. In fact, the warnings are found as far back as Deuteronomy when God made clear the cost of disobedience.

Scripture warns us to repent, resist the enemy, be morally alert and obedient, and not to be misled by false teachers. It warns of persecution and the dangers of lust, drifting away, prejudice, hypocrisy, and God’s impending judgment. Romans 6:23 puts it bluntly: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Like the people of Israel and Judah, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! [Hebrews 12:25 (NLT)]

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AT HIS TABLE

“This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” … Anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. [1 Corinthians 11:25b, 27-28 (NLT)]

oregon grapeIn 2009, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America became full Communion partners. This agreement, while showing respect for each other’s differences, created a relationship based on a common confession of faith and a mutual recognition of Baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. That the partnership included a mutual recognition of ordained ministers of both denominations meant that a local Methodist church could hire a soon-to-be ordained Lutheran minister. Her ordination, done by the Lutheran bishop, was held in the Methodist church she would be serving. The only sticking point for the rite was the Lutheran Bishop’s insistence that actual wine be used for Communion. Methodists have a strong temperance tradition and this church uses only grape juice. The senior Methodist pastor managed to find an excellent compromise when he obtained a non-alcoholic wine that satisfied both Methodist and Lutheran sensibilities; the ordination went off without a hitch.

A week later, Lutheran and Methodist clergy from around the state attended an ecumenical service to celebrate their new partnership. After numerous speeches and prayers about Christian unity, the service culminated in Communion. There were, however, two cups of purple liquid on opposite sides of the sanctuary. The Methodists were instructed to go left to dip their wafers in grape juice while the Lutherans were directed to the right for the wine! Surely, with all of the great minds who’d put together the celebratory service of unanimity, a better solution (such as non-alcoholic wine) could have been found. Sadly, it wasn’t! The pastor who shared this story still shakes his head at the absurdity of it.

How silly are we? When we come to the Lord’s Table, we don’t come as individuals—as Bob, Mary, Marty, or Deb—nor do we come as Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, or Baptists. We come as brothers and sisters—members of Jesus’s family—members of the body of Christ. Communion is a sign of Christian unity and, in the early church, it was part of a communal dinner—a 1st century version of a potluck supper.

Potlucks, shared meals, covered dish dinners—whatever your church calls them—they’re pretty much the same across the denominations: at least one macaroni casserole, something made with gelatin, deviled eggs, and more desserts than vegetables. Meeting as friends and putting aside our differences, the commonality at a potluck is our love of food! That same sort of unity should happen whenever we eat at the Lord’s Table where the commonality is our love of Jesus.

Transubstantiation, divine mystery, consubstantiation, receptionism, or memorialism; wine or juice; wafers, crackers, or Wonder Bread; intinction, common cup, individual cups, or sealed cups with juice and wafer; taken separately or together, in the pews or at the altar rail—the Bible is rather silent on the “correct” way to take Communion. There really are only two commands: do this in remembrance of Him and examine ourselves before we partake of His meal. He is the Bread of Life; let us always welcome others to His table and celebrate our unity in Christ.

They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. [Acts 2:46-47 (NLT)]

When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body. [Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)]

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LET’S PRAY

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

snowy egretsThe eight of us were brainstorming a difficult and heartbreaking situation facing a family we know. We had plenty of ideas about getting them the assistance and guidance they needed but we could only direct them to the resources. They were the ones who needed to take action. Unfortunately, people often want the easy way out of their problems and desire money rather than counsel. Money, however, is usually only a stop gap measure and it frequently enables a bad situation to continue or get worse. The problem we were discussing required change, compromise, work and sacrifice far more than money. These people had to take action and, truth be told, I’m not so sure they wanted to step forward and act.

Those of us sitting around the table that day are people of action. Asking “What can I do? How can I help?” we wanted to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and make things right. This was one of those times, however, when there was nothing more we could do and no way we could make things right. There always will be hurts that we can’t heal, needs that we can’t satisfy, situations we can’t fix, and wrongs that we can’t make right. Sadly, this was one of them.

I learned something important that day, something even more important than understanding when it is time to step back from someone else’s problem. Our discussion had reached a dead end and we started repeating ourselves. At that point, we had a choice. We could beat a dead horse and keep talking which probably would have turned our constructive discussion into gossip and censure. On the other hand, we could stop and pray. Fortunately, understanding we were helpless onlookers and seeing we were dangerously close to becoming judge and jury, someone suggested prayer! Knowing we can’t fix everything but that we can love and pray for everyone, we prayed and handed the situation to God.

The thing I learned that day? While I’ve always believed in the power of prayer, I hadn’t realized the power of just saying, “Let’s pray!” Pausing for prayer changed the entire tenor of the discussion. The next time I’m in one of those conversations that starts to go downhill into the territory of gossip, disapproval, or scorn, I know to say, “Let’s pray!” Prayer can change more than situations and other people; it can change the people doing the praying!

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:26 (NLT)]

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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