Sunday, June 26, 2005

Romans 6:1-7 - “Passive Restraint System”

6th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, June 23, and Sunday, June 26, 2005

A woman on an Internet message board wrote about an accident she was in. The woman writes, “I was waiting at a light in my affordable, compact car at a major eight-lane intersection here in Jacksonville, Florida, on the day before Thanksgiving. I was hit head-on by a man driving a full-size Ford truck who crossed the center lane. He basically plowed over me with his truck. My vehicle was pushed back about 25 feet, at which time my car was hit in the rear by another full-size truck. My air bag deployed and I was wearing my seat belt, which I credit with saving my life. One cannot imagine the feeling of powerlessness I experienced when I saw that truck heading straight for me and knowing there was NOTHING I could do to stop it. I am a spiritual person, and despite everything, I feel blessed to be alive.”

The woman was saved from death by the air bag and seat belt in her car. She gives the air bag and the seat belt all of the credit for being alive, but imagine if she tried to take the credit. Imagine if this is how it happened. . .

“I was hit head-on by a man driving a full-size Ford truck who crossed the center lane. He basically plowed over me with his truck. My vehicle was pushed back about 25 feet, at which time my car was hit in the rear by another full-size truck. I quickly inflated my air bag and made my seat belt go as tight as possible. My quick thinking and action saved my life.”

If that is the story the woman told, you’d definitely believe that she hit her head pretty hard in the crash. There’s no way that we could react fast enough in a crash to be the one to activate the air bag or make the seat belt go tight. Apparently, a typical car crash lasts 12 hundredths of a second. In order for an air bag to inflate in time, it has to be deploy in 6 hundredths of a second. No one can think and act fast enough to do what an air bag and seat belt do.

Therefore, the air bag is called a passive restraint system. It is passive; it doesn’t require anything from the driver. It does the work.

Now, that’s all well and good, you might say, but what does it have to do with the Bible? Our reading today from Romans chapter 6 could be called the passive restraint chapter. These verses at the beginning of chapter 6 are filled with passive verbs, verbs that talk about what has been done to us instead of talking about our action.

Take a look at the Romans passage in your bulletin. Paul here is talking about what happens in baptism, and he is focused on what has been done to us in baptism. Baptism is God’s action. Look at all of the passive verbs, starting in verse 3. “We were baptized.” We didn’t baptize ourselves; someone else did the action. “We were buried.” “We have been united with Jesus.” “Our old self was crucified.” “So that the body of sin might be done away with.” “We have been freed from sin.” Those are all passive verbs; those are all things that have been done to you.

Like an air bag that deploys without you having to do anything, baptism has its power and effect without you doing the action. God is the one who triggers that spiritual air bag to go off. Baptism is a passive restraint system for your soul. You don’t have to flick a switch, act fast, think faster, inflate your safety net. Instead, God comes to do these incredible, beyond belief, beyond our ability actions—He puts us to death, even while we’re still alive. He links us to Jesus, so that everything that has been done to Jesus, everything that Jesus has is now ours. He gives us new life even while we’re still sinners. God does all of this through water and His Word. He’s the active one; we’re the passive one. The air bag goes off, and we give God all of the credit for saving our lives.

Now it seemed rather silly to think that someone would try to take credit for inflating their own air bag and making their seat belt go tight in order to be saved in a crash. However, spiritually, that’s exactly what some churches teach; they’re teaching that being saved from death involves our actions, that baptism isn’t a passive restraint system but rather an active system, a way that we help in saving ourselves.

I’m studying some books about this passage in Romans, and one of them says, “This is Paul’s main point. We can no longer live under the power of sin because in our baptism we signified that we have died to that power.” Did you see what the author did there? He changed the meaning of baptism from passive to active, from something God does to something we do. The author said, “In our baptism we signified that we have died to that power.” We showed this. In baptism, we are making this statement. That’s making it sound like we inflate the air bag, we save ourselves.

Yet, that’s not what Paul says. It’s not about what we say or what we do in baptism. Rather, God is the actor in baptism. God buries us with Christ. God raises us to new life with Christ. God has put to death the sinful nature in us. God freed us from sin. Baptism is a passive restraint system. God activates the air bag, protecting us from sin and death. God knows we could never save ourselves from crashing into the devil and the grave, so He makes sure that He protects us, He saves us, He rescues us.

What’s wrong with saying that baptism is our action, that baptism is our statement? It takes away the credit from God. I meet Christians who don’t believe in infant baptism, saying that it has to be our action, and infants can’t do it. But then those same Christians say, “Give God all the glory.” Well, if we want to say that baptism is our action, that by getting ourselves baptized that we somehow put ourselves to death and raise ourselves up with Christ, that doesn’t sound like giving God the glory. It sounds like taking the credit for inflating the air bag; it sounds like giving ourselves the glory.

When we baptize infants, it’s one of the clearest times of seeing how it is God who does the saving, God who does the action, God who creates faith, God who rescues our life from the terrible crash we had with sin and death. When you see an infant, you know that they couldn’t ask for this or do this themselves. Yet, it’s a reminder that whether we were baptized as a small child or as an adult, God gets the glory. God is the one who gives us faith and salvation. So it is vitally important to remember that baptism is a passive restraint system, an action that is done to us. God is the only one who gets credit for saving us.

Let’s look at some of passive verbs again, just to make sure we realize that Paul here is giving God all of the credit. God is doing all of the action in baptism and in saving us. No matter how old you were when you were baptized, you didn’t do that baptizing. Someone else sprinkled water, and more than that, God did the powerful work of creating faith and bringing forgiveness in baptism. Baptism isn’t our action; it’s God’s action. Baptism is a passive restraint.

“We were buried with Christ through baptism.” We didn’t bury ourselves; God buried us.

“We have been united with Jesus.” We didn’t make ourselves to be one with Jesus. There’s no way that we could even claim that, making ourselves one with the Creator of the Universe, the almighty, eternal God. By my actions, by my sins, I make it pretty clear that I am completely separate from God, just trash and evil compared to Him. No, to be united with Jesus, to be one with Jesus, that’s not my action. That’s God’s passive restraint system kicking in. That’s God’s action.

“Our old self was crucified.” “So that the body of sin might be done away with.” Nothing much has been different about my life since I was baptized as a child. I still sin; I’m still turned away from God. By myself, I can’t change that reality. My sinful nature being crucified, being done away with, that’s got to be God’s action. I can’t just get rid of the sin coursing through my body, my sinful desires, thoughts, and actions. I can’t do that by myself. That’s a God thing. That’s the spiritual air bag inflating to save me, and I can’t take the credit for it.

“We have been freed from sin.” Breaking free from sin isn’t something I can do by my actions. When I was little, my shoelaces used to get caught in the chain of my bicycle all of the time. I figured out that if I moved over to the grass, and kind of laid myself down, then I could get my shoe off and free myself. Sin’s not like that. No matter how much you try, you can’t untie it, unzip it, unbutton it, unstick it. Your life is like one big shoelace stuck in an impossible combination of gears and chains and spokes. You’re stuck to that bicycle called sin, and it takes God to free us from sin. You can’t get your own shoelace out of this one!

So if baptism is a passive restraint system where God does the action, God does the saving, does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do after we are baptized? Does that mean we can sin all we want, never think about our baptism and Jesus again, and still have eternal life?

Well, let’s take the metaphor of the car accident and air bags one step further. Imagine that our spiritual lives are like one long car crash. If you ever watched the TV show ChiPS, every episode had a major highway accident which usually included one or two cars that apparently didn’t see the huge pile up right in front of them. Those cars would hit the pile and go flying into the sky. Spiritually, those cars are constantly coming at us. We are constantly crashing into sin, temptations, the devil, and death. If the crash is constant, if our souls are constantly in danger from sin, then that air bag has to remain inflated. We need God’s passive restraint system, we need baptism throughout our lives.

However, spiritually, you and I could get out of the car. Even though there are cars and trucks and trains and stampeding buffalo smashing into our car, you and I could get out. In the car, we have the protection of the air bag, but as soon as we step out of the car, well, it’s very likely that we’re going to get hit.

Getting out of the car, that’s like walking away from your baptism, your church, your faith. The air bag can’t protect you outside of the car; your baptism can’t protect you if you reject the faith, reject Jesus. If you walk away from Jesus, decide that you can go it alone, you’re rejecting His protection, His forgiveness, His promise of life after death. Sin will defeat you if you’re alone; death will be the end if you’re alone.

Instead, stay in the car. Stay with the air bag. Life is going to be constantly throwing sin and temptation at you, so stay where there’s protection. Stay in the faith. Stay in Jesus. Remain in your baptism.

That’s why we talk so much about making church a habit. There’s a lot of crashes out there, and here in church, here with God’s Word, you can find that air bag, that passive restraint system, the reminder that your baptism saves you through Jesus Christ. That’s why we talk so much about studying God’s Word, talking to each other about Jesus, spending time with Christian friends, because those are all ways that God keeps us in the car, keeps us surrounded by the air bag, gives us the protection from sin, death, and the devil.

Maybe as you picture this, it seems a little awkward to imagine that you always have an air bag inflated in front of you. You walk up to shake someone’s hand, and it’s like (extend hand really far, reaching around invisible air bag), “How you doing?” You have to wait until there’s no one else in the elevator, because your air bag takes up too much space.

The picture is a bit silly of having a personal air bag inflated, surrounding you at all times, but that’s what I want you to think about today. Spiritually, you’ve got that air bag to keep from being hurt by sin, being killed by the devil’s plan. Spiritually, Jesus has given you a passive restraint system in baptism, has done the work to protect you. Spiritually, you are protected from death, not because of something you did, but because of what God did.

So I look forward to greeting you at the door (mimic awkward hand shake), and remembering that God’s air bag, baptism, protects us all.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Matthew 10:27,32-33 - “Shout It From the Rooftops”

5th Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Sunday, June 19, 2005

There was this guy I knew in college, Scott, who seemed to take the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 10 to the extreme.

Jesus tells the disciples that they’re supposed to tell everyone the message of salvation. What He whispered in their ears, meaning all of the things that Jesus taught the disciples when they were alone, Jesus tells them to shout those things from the rooftops.

Instead of rooftops, Scott shouted about Jesus from the top of a table in the cafeteria. Scott would talk the cafeteria attendant into letting him into the cafeteria without paying. He’d then stand on a table and start talking about Jesus. The message was Jesus, forgiveness, and life after death. It was the message that people need to hear, and I guess He was following what Jesus said about shouting it from rooftops and table tops.

But most people ignored Scott. A lot of people laughed. Some people started to yell back, mean stuff, or wanted to debate him. Scott would then ask all of the Christians in the room to stand up and to show that we believed in Jesus.

I didn’t want to stand up. I didn’t want to hide the fact that I was a Christian. I firmly believe in Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. I didn’t want to be ashamed of Jesus.

But I didn’t want to stand up, because I didn’t want to be associated with Scott’s table top, pushy, yelling preaching in the cafeteria. I wanted to stand up and say, “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t think Scott’s going about this the right way.” I’m not sure that would’ve worked, though.

So I remember one time standing there with my Christian friends, a little humiliated. Another time I didn’t stand up, kind of slunking out of the cafeteria as soon as I knew Scott was about to get to that part.

The whole experience made me really wonder: was Scott doing what Jesus meant us to do when He told the disciples to shout the message from the rooftops? When I saw Scott getting on the table in college, I felt like there was no way I’d ever be able to follow the commandment of Jesus to shout from the rooftops. I’m not that bold; I don’t like breaking the rules.

Yet, I don’t think Jesus meant for the disciples to trespass and go on people’s rooftops without their permission. And Scott essentially was trespassing. He didn’t pay to eat in the cafeteria; I’m sure his actions broke a rule of the cafeteria about solicitation; and Scott had to talk an employee into letting him in and break those rules. I don’t think Jesus meant for us to break rules, not respect people, break laws, when sharing the Gospel.

That’s why after reading today’s Gospel lesson, I’m not telling you all to go outside into Menasha Avenue and block traffic while we tell people about Jesus. If we did that, it might seem like we’re shouting from the rooftops, but in the process, we’re breaking the law. We have to respect the laws and rules of society as we look for ways to tell people about Jesus.

For instance, during the second half of the school year, I went to be a lunch monitor at Washington Junior High every other week. I was there to get to know the students, help keep order, and generally just encourage the youth. I was there by invitation of the administration. While I could tell the kids that my name is Pastor Squires, that I’m a pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, I couldn’t preach or teach. I was there to make a connection with the students, but I had to respect the rules of the school.

So maybe you’ve had the idea that you had to be some rebel and make a scene in order to tell people about Jesus, but then this is your first reminder: Jesus isn’t sending you out to trespass on rooftops. He’s sending you to look for ways to tell people about salvation according to the rules and laws of society. It’s not that radical to shout from the rooftops; it’s more a part of how we already live.

So the disciples didn’t go out two by two to trespass, and Jesus also told the disciples to go and preach in places where they’d be accepted. Jesus even said that if a village doesn’t welcome them that they should leave. In other words, Jesus sent them to shout from the rooftops of places where they were invited to speak, where they earned the right to speak.

Back in college, Scott wasn’t invited to speak in the cafeteria. Scott didn’t earn the right to speak. In the end, people didn’t listen, he turned some people off, and a few times he was escorted from the cafeteria for breaking the rules.

Watching Scott, you’d think that in order to follow the commandment of Jesus to shout from rooftops that you’d have to barge in, break down doors, grab the microphone at public events, steal the show, run onto the field, send SPAM emails. Yet, again, that isn’t what Jesus told the disciples to do; that’s not even what Jesus did.

Jesus taught in the synagogues, places that were set aside for discussion about God. He taught at the invitation of the leaders, because Jesus was known as a teacher. He taught at people’s homes when they invited Him to dinner. He taught in the streets when people gathered to hear Him speak. Jesus taught at times and places where He had earned the right to speak.

You’ve given me the right to preach in this pulpit, called me to be your pastor, told me that you’d allow me to preach in this place. That’s earning the right.

Many of you have told me about situations where you’ve earned the right to speak about God. Public school teachers say that if a student asks, then they can tell the student about their faith. Others have said they have gotten to talk about their faith with relatives when those relatives say they want to know more about church.

It’s not about barging into the cafeteria to stand on a table. It’s about seeing all of the times and places where people will give you the right, allow you, encourage you to tell them about the hope you have in Jesus.

So as Jesus commands us all to go out to tell people about salvation, these are hopeful, freeing reminders about what that means. We don’t have to trespass, and we don’t have to barge our way in. Jesus is calling you to speak in the appropriate places and times in your life.

Of course, even when we earn the right to speak, we’re not always so good at using those opportunities. At the State Youth Gathering from which the youth, leaders, and I just got back from on Friday, I led one of the workshops and talked about U2, a rock band. For those of you not familiar with U2, just know that for my generation U2 are a bit like Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, or the Beatles, an artist that helped define our generation. That’s why I’m passionate about U2, plus the band includes 3 Christians. U2 has become one of the biggest bands in the world, and they’ve often used their music, concerts, and lives to talk about their faith in Jesus. U2 has earned the right to speak about their faith. Lots of people would love for them to shout on their rooftops.

However, U2’s life is also a very public example of how we often fail to shout from the rooftops, skipping opportunities to point to Jesus, or even denying Jesus by our lifestyle.

That’s been the problem for U2. They earned the right to speak. Millions of people around the world listen to their music—even as it clearly points to God. Yet, they spent a good part of the 1990’s living like rock stars, enjoying sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They talked about helping people around the world, but then lived like kings in wild excess. Even though they continued to talk about believing in Jesus, their lives didn’t match what they said. As far as I could see, they weren’t shouting the truth from the rooftops anymore. They were on top of the world, and yet, they weren’t using that opportunity to keep pointing to hope and salvation in Jesus.

Since then, though, U2’s music has been more focused on faith in God. The most recent album includes a song called “Yahweh,” the name of God the Father in Hebrew. So while it might have seemed like U2 had walked away from Jesus ten years ago, I think it’s probably just a very public, very big example of failing to be disciples of Jesus.

Sure, when you and I fail to talk about Jesus, we don’t fail in front of thousands of screaming fans, on CDs that are sold worldwide, or in interviews with magazines, but still we’re not that different from U2, are we? You have times and places in your life when you’ve earned the right to speak, but then you don’t tell people about Jesus. You have times when people are expecting you to live like a Christian, but then you end up going against the values of Jesus.

And that’s when you know that you left the rooftop, crept down the stairs, and are hiding in the basement. That’s when you know that you’re trying to hide your faith in Jesus.

So is that it, then? When you skip those opportunities to speak, when you sin instead of living for Christ, is that it? We break the commandment of Jesus, and so that’s the end of our relationship with Jesus, the end of being His disciples?

Well, that’d be skipping right over the message that we’re supposed to talk about in the first place. Jesus came to forgive all of our sins—even when we sin by not telling people we believe in Jesus. Jesus forgives us for mumbling instead of speaking clearly; of saying we “kind of” believe in Him instead of saying we “without a doubt” believe in Him.

We’re not talking about denying Jesus in our hearts. If you don’t believe in Jesus, there is no forgiveness or salvation. Instead here we’re talking about how our words and lives don’t always match what we believe in our hearts.

We’re talking about what those 12 disciples did. Jesus gathers this inner circle of disciples and tells them to go and out to preach in His Name. Yet, the whole crew ran away when Jesus was arrested. Peter denied Him three times in that public square. These guys weren’t much different than U2—they didn’t always shout from the rooftops. These guys weren’t much different than you and me—we don’t always speak clearly about our faith in Jesus.

Yet, if failure meant the end of our relationship with God, well, then, there’d be no Good News to preach. You and I have failed too many times to count. Failure just helps us to understand all the more our need for Jesus and forgiveness.

If failure meant that God couldn’t use us anymore, well, then, there’d no one to tell others about the Gospel. There are no perfect Christians, no perfect preachers, teachers, evangelists. God keeps using us despite the fact that we fail. U2’s music still helps people realize the truth of Jesus. Somehow God’s Word still comes through my words. God still uses you to help other people know about the love of Jesus.

Forgiveness for our failures. Using us even though we’re failures. That’s the kind of thing that makes you want to shout from the rooftops. I mean, there’s a lot of good messages out there, helpful ways to live your life, but there’s nothing as incredible as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That’s why when Jesus invites us to shout from the rooftops, it’s not like He gave us a boring message. God forgives your sins! God gives you eternal life! It’s a big message made for rooftops, billboards, and rock concerts.

But more than being some big message to put on the side of a building, it’s a message that we get to speak to individuals, people we know, people we meet. It’s a big message, because it changes lives.

You meet someone who feels lonely, like no one in world cares for them, and you get to tell them that God cares about them very deeply. You might be saying this in a normal-sized voice, but for that person, it’s a shout, it’s a huge cheer for their heart.

You’re talking to someone who feels like they’ve done so many bad things that God would never accept them, and you get to tell them that God forgives all of their sins, mistakes, and failures. You might be saying this in a comforting, quiet voice, but for that person, it’s a shout, it’s an electric guitar solo raising the hope in their heart.

You see, Jesus isn’t so much telling us how to do evangelism: 1) go up on roof, 2) shout about me. Instead, He has given us a message that is so powerful, so incredible, so hopeful that wherever we are, however we speak about Jesus, it’s like shouting from the rooftops. It’s that kind of message, the kind that makes the heart leap for joy.

We’re going to shout from the rooftop a little longer here today, sing and pray and talk about Jesus, but then we’re going to go out of this place, shouting from the rooftops, talking about Jesus wherever we’ve earned the right to speak, telling everyone the message of God’s forgiveness.

Last night the sound of the Smithereens playing at MetroJam in Manitowoc, that sound reverberated around town, but trust me, the sound of you all going out there to talk about Jesus—now that’s an even better, bigger sound echoing around this community, a sound powered by Jesus.