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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THE REASON FOR MORE THAN A SEASON

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. [Hebrews 2:14-15 (NLT)]

The Holy Family - Willow TreeAlthough Epiphany celebrates the magi’s visit to the Christ child, for many people it simply marks the official end to the holiday season. It’s the day the tree goes down, lights are removed, and nativity scenes get stowed for another year. British tradition holds that if you haven’t removed the holiday décor by January 6, you must leave it in place all year long to avoid misfortune. I don’t know about misfortune but, in our community, you’ll face a fine if holiday lights or decorations remain after this week!

This year, my five-year old grand helped me take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations. Along with the ornaments, candle holders, stockings, and two Santas, we put away four nativity sets. As the little guy placed the Christ child in one of the boxes, he asked me why I had so many figures of baby Jesus. I reminded him that Jesus (not Santa) is the reason for the season and that we always want to keep Christ in Christmas.

After everything Christmas was packed up and put away, I realized a small resin figurine of the Holy Family remained on a shelf in the living room. The crates in the garage were filled to the brim and, just as on that first Christmas, there was no room anywhere for Mary, Joseph and the newborn King. Rather than having them spend the next eleven months in a high cabinet with assorted vases, I decided to keep them on my desk.

That figurine will serve as a reminder of how God deliberately chose to humble Himself: to be born of woman and live as a mortal man. That was God Himself who entered our world through a birth canal amidst blood and amniotic fluid. The baby who nursed at Mary’s breast and peed, pooped, spit up and drooled was God! He who created man was so helpless He couldn’t even roll over for the first few months of His life and had to learn to crawl and walk. The God who gave mankind the gift of speech had to learn to speak, the One who invented numbers had to learn to count, and He who spoke the law to Moses had to learn how to read His own words! The God who spoke light into existence had to light a candle at night and our omnipresent God had to walk to get from one place to another. The God who never gets tired, thirsty or hungry became a man who did. Jesus humbled Himself by living as a man and endured everything mankind does: blisters, bruises, colds, waiting, toothaches, bug bites, stubbed toes, hangnails, exhaustion, sunburn, skinned knees, and probably diarrhea. He even endured temptation but, unlike us, He remained sinless!

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the human part of Jesus: that our infinite God chose to live in a finite world with all of its limitations. That figurine will remain on my desk this year as a reminder that our invincible and invulnerable God freely chose to live as a man so that He could die as a man in my place. Fully man and fully God at the same time, Jesus is more than just the reason for the Christmas season; He is the reason for our salvation. Christ belongs in far more than Christmas; He belongs in everything we think, say and do.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.  Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. [Hebrews 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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HE CAME FOR US ALL

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:10-11 (NLT)]

nativityMost of us probably speed-read through the long genealogies found in the Old Testament. The New Testament begins with a lengthy genealogy, as well, but it’s worth more than a quick skim through a list of often unpronounceable names. Because it was prophesized that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham and from the line of David, Matthew takes us through Jesus’s family tree to firmly establish His royal lineage. While there are three notable omissions in the line of ancestors—the vile kings Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah, all of whom “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”—there are five remarkable additions. While highly unusual to mention women in a genealogy, Matthew mentions five women of rather questionable reputations.

We start with Tamar. Widow of Judah’s son Er, she was done wrong both by her brother-in-law Onan and father-in-law Judah. Taking matters into her hands and pretending to be a prostitute, she duped Judah into having sex with her and gave birth to Perez and Zerah. Her unconventional behavior is a blemish on the family tree but it’s nothing when compared to the next woman mentioned: Rahab. Although she saved Joshua’s spies in Jericho and married an Israelite, she’d been a Canaanite prostitute. making her another blot on the pedigree of the Prince of Peace. Ruth, the widow who accompanied Naomi back to Bethlehem, is the next woman mentioned. This devoted daughter-in-law and grandmother to King David was a hated Moabite. Because Moab had opposed the Israelites and tried to curse them, her people were cursed and could not enter into the assembly. A hated foreigner is hardly the ancestor you’d expect of the man who came to save the Jews. We then come to Bathsheba; whether the innocent victim of rape or a seductive adulteress, her husband was murdered by King David and her first child conceived in adultery. While we know little more of her, we’ve got the plot line of a soap opera now! The genealogy finishes with Mary, the mother of Jesus: a poor young girl from Nazareth who became pregnant before marriage!

These are hardly the kind of women about whom a good Jew would boast: a woman who used sex to trick a man, a prostitute from Canaan, a cursed Moabite, an adulteress, and an unwed mother! After neglecting to mention three kings, why did Matthew include these women? If women were to be mentioned at all, there must have been a few upstanding ones whose reputations were without blemish. Yet, in Tamar, we have a woman who sought justice on her own terms; in Rahab, a woman with enough faith in the Israelites’ God to commit treason; in Ruth, a woman who abandoned her pagan gods and became a sacrificial servant to Naomi; in Bathsheba, a woman resilient in the face of the loss of both husband and child; and in Mary, a woman who faced scorn and shame because of other peoples’ assumptions. Damaged and vulnerable, these are the kind of people to whom we all can relate.

Matthew’s list tells us that Jesus came for all people: men and women, rich and poor, native and foreigner, accepted and unwelcome, famous and infamous, strong and weak, honored and scorned, Jews and Gentiles: sinners all. He came to save each and every one of us and to make us members of the same family! Thank you, God, for the Christmas gift of salvation for all who believe.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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PUT IN ORDER

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-23 (NLT)]

bird houseIn both Matthew 12 and Luke 11, Jesus tells a rather confusing parable about a demon. After leaving a person, it searches for rest; finding none, the demon returns to its former home. Discovering it empty, swept, and in order, the demon brings seven more demons to live there. A rather puzzling parable, I can’t help but think of the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” First postulated in 485 BC by Parminedes and restated around 350 BC by Aristotle, it states that empty space is unnatural and goes against the laws of physics; therefore, every empty space in nature needs to be filled. I know nothing of vacuum theory, physics, or thermodynamics but, from this parable, it appears that sin abhors an empty mind or, as my mother used to say, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground!” I don’t know if Jesus was familiar with the Greek philosophers but, having exorcised several demons, he certainly was familiar with them. Empty minds and hearts must be filled by something—if not by God and good, then sin and evil.

Nevertheless, there seems to be more to this parable. Having just healed a demon-possessed man, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, people he frequently criticized for being more concerned with appearing righteous than actually being righteous. When reading that the house had been put in order, we probably think of it as neat and organized (like a file cabinet). The original Greek, however, used the word kosmeo which means to adorn, beautify or make attractive by having the right arrangement and the King James translation, which uses “garnished” instead of “put in order,” is probably closer to the original meaning. Kosmeo is the root word of cosmetics. While make-up may conceal, enhance, and even deceive, it does not change the underlying reality. The house may have looked good but the demons weren’t tricked and moved right back in. Sin isn’t deceived by appearances and will always return to hollow hearts and empty lives. Although God will take away our sins and banish our demons, it’s not enough to sweep out the old and redecorate; we must fill our lives with the new!

While they may look fine from the street, empty homes don’t do well; eventually they succumb to vermin like ants, box elder bugs, flies, termites, dust, spiders, mold, leaks, and dry rot. Empty lives are no different; they soon will be filled with demons like selfishness, anger, greed, addiction, pride, lust, pessimism, scorn, envy, prejudice and hate. But, if those same lives are filled with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that come from the Holy Spirit, there will be no room for demons.

The first and the great work of a Christian is about his heart. Do not be content with seeming to do good in “outward acts” while your heart is bad, and you are a stranger to the greater internal heart duties. See that your chief study be about your heart—that there God’s image may be planted; that there His interests be advanced; that there the world and flesh are subdued; that there the love of every sin is cast out; that there the love of holiness grows. [Jonathan Edwards]

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

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. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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WITHOUT THE CROSS, THERE IS NO CHRISTMAS

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost. [Luke 19:10 (NLT)]

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Matthew 20:28 (NLT)]

I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. [John 12:46 (NLT)]

St. NicholasEveryone loves Christmas—in fact, in our extended family it is our Hindu relatives who seem to make the most of this holiday with copious gifts, family get-togethers, peppermint bark, visits to and from Santa, cards, lights festooned around the yard, a beautifully decorated tree, wreaths, candles, and holiday attire. While driving through a nearby neighborhood famed for its decorations, I couldn’t help but wonder what sleighs, Rudolph, reindeer, trains, inflatable snowmen, igloos, teddy bears, toy soldiers, Disney characters, candy cane arches, icicle lights, meteor shower light shows and blow mold Snoopys and Grinches have to do with Jesus. Yes, there were a few blow mold nativities but even they were surrounded by gingerbread men and polar bears.

In our secular world, Christianity has little or nothing to do with many of today’s holiday traditions yet Christmas means nothing without the cross. Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to the holiday stories, traditions, and decor that surround this day that many people have forgotten its true meaning. Sadly, like my Hindu extended family, some people neither know nor care about it

Christmas isn’t about presents, tinsel, ornaments, or even family and it certainly isn’t about the birthday of a great moral teacher. Jesus was not a righteous man who came to make the world a better place. He was God incarnate and He came to seek and save the lost. He came not to be served but to serve. He came to give His life as a ransom for all mankind. He came to bring light into the dark world and save it. Jesus said nothing about jingle bells, stockings hung by the chimney with care, or elves on shelves. As the Apostle Paul said: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [1 Timothy 1:15] That would not have happened without the cross.

We are in the season of Advent: a season of both remembrance and anticipation. During these weeks, we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming over 2000 years ago but we also prepare ourselves for His second coming, when He’ll return, not as a baby, but as a King. The first time, Jesus Christ came to save us; the second time, He will come to judge us. One of my little grands lost the Jesus from her nativity set. With all of the hoopla surrounding Christmas, let’s not make the same mistake with our lives. Just as there is no Christmas without that baby in the manger, there is no reason for the season without the cross.

Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” [Charles Wesley]

I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken. [John 12:47-48 (NLT)]

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