Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sermon for 4/15/12 "Stewards of Christ's Resurrection"

Sermon Stewards of Christ's Resurrection

Lord of all, who gathers us and joins us together into one body, grant us your grace so we may hear your word, believe you, and be good stewards of the Gospel, this we pray through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Stewardship Sunday – even hearing those words has been known to make me cringe in fright. And maybe it has the same effect on you. There's a habit in some churches of gathering everyone together, pointing out the budget to the congregation, discussing some of the goals we would like to accomplish to show our faithfulness to the Lord, and then pressuring people to make pledges which will cause them to give sacrificially, the more pain, the more gain. Give until it hurts! And the Scotsman in me says, “Aye, the very thought of givin' hurts.”

Today's readings, though, give us a different view of stewardship. The first reading, not Old Testament during this time of the year, is from Acts. It tells about the gathered Christians. How are they showing their stewardship? They are caring for one another out of the abundance that the Lord has blessed them with. Nobody twisted their arms. Nobody had to push any pledge cards at anybody. There was none of this, “You write on the card and I'll tell you what to write. Need me to steady your hand for you?” Not anything of the sort. We saw that “there were no needy people among them.” But does that mean that everyone was prosperous in business? No, it doesn't. We see that some people who had means occasionally sold an asset or made some other sort of profit and gave the proceeds to the apostles so they could distribute it as it was needed. There were needs, but the believers helped one another.

How has our church done with this? Are we being good financial stewards? Last year somehow went by without a very active stewardship committee. I'm probably not the only person who was at the council meetings and found it humorous that for several months there was no report from the stewardship committee. And we finished calendar year 2011 with an intriguing financial picture. You who have seen the 2011 annual report know that we wrapped up the budget year with offerings below budget and expenses even a little farther below budget. I wonder if anyone has been watching this year's numbers? We passed a smaller budget this year. So what would we predict? Nobody has been twisting anybody's arm for offerings. I even forgot about an offering at one of the midweek services this year, I think it was the Ash Wednesday service. Our budget is smaller. Does anybody know what's happened to the offerings? It sounds like we might be in big trouble, right? Actually, offerings this year are up compared to last year and we are right on track with the budget to date. Giving as of the end of March was above budget. That doesn’t mean that we should cut back on our giving. It means that the Lord is providing for you, his people, and you are bringing out of your abundance to meet the needs of others. If we have too much in the coffers we’ll be able to increase some of the mission giving we have for here and other places in our world.

But financial stewardship is not the do-all, end-all of stewardship. I don't know why we seem to have this idea that stewardship has to do with money and only money. It isn't the case at all. Throughout history, what has a steward done? The steward takes care of the master's possessions and household. There is an important role of money, but there's a lot more than that. The steward also guards the master's plans, his goals, his values, his priorities. It's a lot like being an ambassador. What other kind of stewardship do we see in today's readings?

In our epistle reading from 1 John we see that the believers are being encouraged to be good stewards of the resurrection. Their lives have been changed by the risen Lord. That change, the realization that Jesus is the one proclaimed to them, results in prayers, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Jesus is the one who took our sins. He is the one who intercedes for us. He is the one who was a sufficient sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but the sins of the whole world. We realize that no matter what our sin is, we can confess it before the Lord and he will forgive it. Jesus is in the business of cleansing us from all sin. What sin is it that you bear today? Is anything too difficult for our Lord? What kind of sin do you confront at your workplace, in your home, in your friends and neighbors? Are any of those sins that the Lord has not given himself for? We saw in 1 John 2:2 that Jesus gave himself for the sins of the whole world. And he is the sufficient sacrifice who makes peace with God. That word that the NIV translates as “atoning sacrifice” is a difficult one. There's some debate about how to translate it. And the reason is that it's an unusually meaningful word. It indicates the one who dies but whose death is sufficient to either take away the cause of offense or cover the cause of offense so that it can no longer be found, and who does it on the behalf of someone else. That's not something we want to pull into our translation of the Scripture in the places the word shows up. So the NIV editors made it an “atoning sacrifice.” Some translations have made it say “a propitiation.” And then some people argue with one another about the meanings of the words “atonement” and “propitiation.” They can be viewed theologically as opposite sides of the same coin. The fact is, when you believe Jesus, you get the whole coin. That's the great thing about coins, after all. When you get one side, you also get the other side. Jesus takes away our sin. Jesus also takes away the offense that our sin causes God. He does it all.

Through faith in Christ, we are made stewards of that news. We are representatives of Jesus in this world. We are the people who carry the news of the work of Christ on our behalf. And we do it, not through our own strength or righteousness but simply as we are made witnesses of Jesus. One of the ways we are his witnesses is through our generosity and care for others. As God has loved us, we love one another. As Jesus gave himself for us, we give ourselves for one another. And it isn't a matter of law-keeping. Nobody twisted your arm and made you give generously to meet the needs of God's people. Nobody twisted your arm and made you pledge more money for our missions program this year than last year. Not at all. It's a matter of being a steward of the message of the resurrection. Jesus has called us his children, his friends, his fellow heirs. We just act like the forgiven, cleansed, and renewed people that we are, and we walk in his paths, since he has laid them open to us.

But what of the times we are bad stewards? Maybe we find that we are too often like Thomas, that apostle who ran away and didn't believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Maybe we're like those people we've been reading about in Judges as we have followed the Bible reading challenge – the people who were rescued and then gladly returned to their old ways, the worship of idols, setting priorities that couldn't be distinguished from the nations around them. Knowing that God is the God of deliverance doesn't always get the message through to us, does it? What did Jesus do for Thomas? He came to Thomas. That's just what Thomas needed. Thomas was doubtful. Actually, Thomas was unbelieving. That's what Jesus says of him. He didn't believe the resurrection. But far worse, even if he did come to believe the resurrection, he didn't believe it was for him. What did Jesus do for Thomas? He did an astounding thing. He came to speak with Thomas. He knew what Thomas had been saying. Unless he saw the wounds and touched them he would not believe. This is a high standard of proof, isn't it? Can you show your friends and neighbors the wounds that Jesus bore for him? No, you can't and I can't either. And there are some people for whom no amount of proof of the resurrection will be adequate. When talking to someone who denies that Jesus could have risen from the dead sometimes we want to ask what information would be adequate. If the person we're talking to says that there's no way we can convince him that Jesus rose from the dead, the conversation is over. We may as well talk about lawn mowers or hybrid soybeans or Cajun cooking. That person is like unbelieving Thomas.

What got through to Thomas? The power of Jesus in his resurrection. Remember that Thomas would not believe unless he touched the wounds of Jesus? What did Jesus offer? “Touch my wounds, go ahead.” What did Thomas do? He believed. He didn't need to touch the wounds. He needed to know that Jesus was raised from the dead. He needed the Holy Spirit to grant him faith. He needed the powerful message of the resurrection. Do we have that message? Yes, we do. Jesus has made us stewards of the Gospel. He has made us stewards of the message of Christ, crucified for sinners, raised again from the dead as the firstfruits of the resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! We preach Jesus, the power of God. The POWER of God! Salvation is of the Lord. And Jesus has given his Church the message of the Gospel to be proclaimed. Notice I say “proclaimed” rather than “argued.” I can't argue you to faith in Christ, any more than Peter, James, and John could argue Thomas to belief. I can't do it. Even the lawyers we have in the congregation, who are professionally trained in arguing can't do it. There's no amount of reasoning that can give us the Gospel. It is the proclamation of Jesus' victorious death, burial, and resurrection that gives us the Gospel. This is the deliverance we need. And this is the message that we received and that we carry as stewards for our Lord. We proclaim the Gospel in Word through the liturgy, the reading of the Word, and the preaching, Sunday after Sunday. We proclaim the Gospel in the sacrament of baptism when we have the opportunity. One pastor I know refers to baptism as his opportunity to make Christians. It struck me as odd at first. But he's right. We confess that baptism saves you, giving you the pledge of a clear conscience before God. We confess that it washes sins away. This is the Gospel. We proclaim the Gospel in the sacrament of the altar, where we confess that Jesus is truly and bodily present to deliver the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through his body and blood under the bread and the wine. We proclaim the Gospel in the Parish Education classes – Sunday school and adult Bible class and the other opportunities we have for training. Those are opportunities to see how the Gospel applies to us, to receive the encouragement that God’s Word gives us grace, to find out how we can bring the grace of our Lord to our world. Do we have open discussion? We sure do, especially in the Bible classes. But all in all, we don't argue it about the Gospel, we proclaim it. We let the Holy Spirit do the arguing and convince people. And we confess that we are recipients of all these promises of grace, given to us by one and the same Lord.

As recipients of the promises of God we then become stewards of his promises. May the Lord make us faithful stewards of his resurrection, looking in hope to the time when we will rise with him. Amen.

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