Thursday, January 26, 2017

Character Traits of Disciples of Jesus Christ

If you could make a list describing what you thought a Christian should be like, what would be on your list?  We all make judgments about others in which we determine whether or not they are Christians.  We size them up and decide that certain characteristics either include or exclude them from being part of the Christian family.  Sometimes our list is determined by earlier teachings we received from religious teachers or pastors or even from politicians or well meaning relatives.  When the criteria for Christianity is composed by human beings, there will always be a slant or view based upon the beliefs of the one making the list.

In the scripture we will read from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives us a list of the kinds of people who are truly his disciples.  We call this list "The Beatitudes" as they all begin with the word "Blessed" which means "happy" or "fortunate"  whose meanings are taken from the Greek word "markarios".
Jesus taught his disciples that those who followed him would be poor in spirit, they would mourn, they would be meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and they would hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Jesus said that those persons would receive from God gifts in response to their spiritual longings or qualities.

If someone mourns for a loss or for the world's situation that they can do little about, God will comfort them.  If someone admits that they they are dependent on God (poor in spirit), they will be drawn closer to God.  If someone is meek (agreeable), then others on earth will want to be around them.  Those kinds of persons yearn for God's righteousness to be made a reality in the world around them.  As humble, agreeable people admit their dependence upon God, and hunger for God's righteousness to be made real in their lives, they will not be disappointed.

In turn, such persons live lives where they are merciful, where they are peacemakers, where they seek God's cleansing of their lives, their thoughts, they actions.  These will be called the Children of God.  Sometimes such persons are persecuted by others because of their desire to belong to God's Realm rather than this earthly realm in which we live.  They are often misunderstood or judged by others because they see the world in a way that is not as the majority do.  They may be looked upon as different than others because their lives are in God's stream of bringing about justice and righteousness for those who are despised or oppressed by many in the mainstream.

It is not always popular to stand up for those who are being looked down upon by society.  Most of us would shy away from making a public stand in favor of our views.  We do not want to call attention to ourselves and may stay quiet when it comes to speaking up on behalf of persons who have little power in the face of the powerful.  Perhaps Jesus was preparing his disciples for the road ahead that h he knew would be rough.  Jesus knew that his vision of God's Kingdom was so different from the everyday world in which they lives in the First Century that opposition was going to happen.  He described what God's Kingdom looks like and then warned them that having those blessed characteristics may not be a popular thing among their fellow citizens.

Today, those of us who claim the name "Christian" must evaluate our own lives and determine if we are truly merciful, humble, agreeable people who seek God's righteousness to the point that we hunger for it.  We must determine if God's direction in life is more important to us than the human viewpoint that the majority possess.  We must decide if we can be silent in the face of racism and oppression of minorities or if we will work for a better way of life for those who have few friends to support them.

Happy, blessed, fortunate are you if you can make those traits a goal in your life that Jesus described to his followers in his day.  You will find a desire to be closer to God to be a part of the life that you live daily as you go about your normal way of being.  You will find a satisfaction that cannot come from simply existing but you will have a goal of serving God and neighbor as part of who are you each day that you live.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bring a Friend to Church--or to Jesus--or Both

There is a story in John's Gospel that we will examine in worship this week that tells the beginnings of Jesus calling the disciples to follow him.  This week, however, we do not see Jesus walking by the seashore calling out for people to learn how to "fish for people".  Instead, we see Jesus just walking by the banks of the Jordan River where John the Baptist continues to be busy with his baptizing business when suddenly John proclaims, "Look, here is the Lamb of God."  Two of John's disciples (yes, he had disciples too) looked up to see who John was referring to and then they wandered off to meet this elusive lamb person.

We do not know the names of both of those disciples but we know the name of one, Andrew, who stayed with Jesus where he was staying after receiving the invitation, "Come and See."  Andrew must have been very taken with Jesus because the scripture then says that Andrew found his brother, Simon, and took him to meet Jesus, telling him, "We have found the Messiah."  Jesus recognizes that Simon has some special aura about him and tells him, "You are Simon, son of John.  You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)."  Jesus immediately changes Simon's name to Peter better known as "The Rock".

I have always admired Andrew because he was the first person to bring another person to meet Jesus.  Andrew brought his brother to meet Jesus once he had met him and was very impressed by what he learned from and saw in this teacher.  Andrew wanted Peter to know Jesus in the same way that he had learned to know him from his short visit with him.  I have to believe that Andrew was excited about the prospect that he had latched on to the man whom he believed was the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel, who would bring freedom to the people of Israel.

Most mainline Christians that I know are very shy about telling anyone about their church or their Christian experience.  It may be because they have encountered very zealous Christians who want to tell everyone they meet about Jesus and they have embarrassed many by their enthusiasm out in the public sector where everyone can see them.  Even if it was not out in public, many enthusiastic religious people have strong-armed others into listening to a lengthy testimony about their faith or required others to make a "decision for Christ" right then and there, much like a used car salesman wants a potential buyer to make a decision to buy the car on the spot, lest it get away from them and someone else purchases it.

So, many people who grew up in mainline Christian churches are a bit shy about sharing their Christian testimony with other people.  They may not have the language to do so or feel ill prepared to tell others about their feelings regarding their Christian experience.  So, they do not do this at all.

Jesus' words to Andrew and the other unnamed disciple who asked Jesus where he was staying was direct---"Come and See" and perhaps that is a better way to invite people to know more about Jesus or our church then in words---"Come and See".  It invites them to experience for themselves what you value about going to your church or believing in Jesus.  It invites them to see and hear and relate to the experience you find meaningful for your life.

Friendship Evangelism was a movement many years ago that encouraged people to simply invite their friends to attend their church, with them.  "Come and See" was a good motto for the movement as it expressed the idea that "Seeing is Believing" when it comes to knowing more about an experience that is very personal and unknowable, at least when any personal experience cannot be truly known by another person until that person has the experience for himself/herself.

Invite someone to come to church WITH you, to sit beside you during worship, to gather cues from you as to what we do in church during worship in case they have not attended a church before.  Invite them to stay for coffee during the fellowship hour that follows to get to know others and stay by their side to give them the security that they are not alone in this new and strange place.  Simply be with them and for them as they experience what it means to be part of a Christian community of faith.

"Come and See" may be the only words you need in order to tell someone else what your faith means to you.  

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Does Baptism Mean to You?

The act of baptism as a rite of initiation into the Christian faith is understood differently from one part of the Christian family to another.  To most mainline Protestant denominations, as well as those of the Roman Catholic faith, baptism is a rite that is done one time in a person's life.  It is not to be repeated because it is seen as a work of God (a sacrament) which does not need to be done again because God's promises to us revealed through our baptism as sure and permanent for our entire lives.  Churches that practice infant baptism, which is done in most mainline denominations and in the Roman Catholic Church, usually link baptism to confirmation which is the teaching of the faith and accepting of baptismal vows by a person when that person becomes a young adult.  In this way, the vows made by parents at the baptism of an infant are confirmed by that infant when he/she has reached an age to understand what the promises made on his/her behalf really meant.

In other churches, baptism is an act that can be repeated many times in one's life.  Instead of being viewed as an act of God toward the one being baptized, it is seen as an act of a human in response to religious conversion or renewal.  Some churches baptize all new members because they see baptism as a rite of initiation into church membership so one must be re-baptized each time one becomes a member of a new congregation.  Others see it as a sign of Christian commitment that is done as one feels revived or renewed in one's spirit.  All of these view baptism as an act that is done by a human in response to something God has done instead of an act of God done on behalf of a human to show God's grace working in their life.

The Early Church wrestled with how much water was required for someone to be baptized.  The dry conditions of the Middle East often did not allow enough water for immersion to take place so the Early Church finally decided that 3 drops of water were all that were required for Christian baptism to be valid, a drop for each of the 3 members of the Godhead.  That may be why so little water is used in baptizing infants or consenting adults in mainline Christianity.  Immersion is accepted in those churches but rarely do people choose it as their preferred method of baptism.

Baptizing infants is linked to the Early Church through scripture passages primarily in the book of Acts that say that when a leader of a household was converted to Christianity, he and his entire household was baptized.  Christian scholars believe that children who were part of the household would also have been baptized along with the adults.  Infant baptism because the accepted rule of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church and was adopted by mainline churches that resulted from the Reformation that practiced sacraments similar to what they had known in their life within Catholicism.  Today, infant baptism is the rule in many churches but older children and adults are given the choice of methods of baptism when they are baptized at an age when they can speak for themselves.

So, what does this mean to Christians who may wonder why we need to be baptized at all?  Baptism is an act that one does to show one's desire to follow Christ and imitate his life.  Since Jesus was baptized then the followers of Jesus are also to be baptized.  Baptism is an act that marks the beginning of the Christian journey through life.  We believe and teach that one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of one's baptism and the Spirit continues to refill and bless that one to empower and equip him/her for the journey.  Receiving Holy Communion, studying Holy Scriptures, and praying also invites the activity of the Spirit within the life of believers.  Baptism marks the beginning of the walk with Christ.  Then, Christians receive the means of grace to sustain them on their journey of life.

Remember your baptism, and be thankful---we often hear this phrase at a renewal of baptismal vows or when we see a baptism done in our churches.  What it means to us as individual Christians is to be thankful that God has claimed us through baptism and is reviving us daily as we look to God as the source of our faith and strength.