Category Archives: Connections Articles

Personal Witness

Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:45-49)

When I think of God’s Commandment that we should not bear false witness against our neighbor, I can’t help but think about what kind of witness we should give to our neighbors. If “bearing false witness” means to misrepresent, lie, and deceive, then bearing true witness means to give honest testimony to what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

This kind of witness is important both in a courtroom and in our everyday dealings with other people. But it is even more important when it comes to our Christian calling to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) by bearing witness to Christ. Bearing truthful witness is not only required under the Law, it is critical to the ministry of the Gospel.

There is a way of proclaiming the Gospel in the abstract, apart from subjective experience. Like the evangelists of Scripture, it is good and right to speak to others of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. In the victory of the cross, Christ has overcome sin, death, and the power of the devil.

As Christians, we believe that this is a message of objective truth in Christ, and we have been called to speak this good news on his behalf, proclaiming: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) This is most certainly true.

But there is also a way of speaking the Gospel that is much more personal and subjective. Not only are we called to tell the good news of what Christ has done for the world, we are also called to bear witness to what Christ has done for us in particular.

For example, when Martin Luther spoke of the promise of God that we have in Christ, he liked to emphasize the words “for me” and “for you.” Like when we come to the altar in Holy Communion, Luther emphasized that the promise in the Sacrament is not simply that Christ is present in bread and wine, but that the body and blood of Christ is given for you, and his forgiveness is for you in particular. This provides a target for the promise, by placing a bulls-eye on us, to help us see that his Word of grace and mercy is aimed at our hearts.

When I think of why our personal Christian witness is so important to evangelism, it is for this same reason. One of the best ways to share our faith with others is simply to talk about how we have experienced the power of God at work in our own lives. These moments of faith may not be earth-shattering events, or radical transformations in our way of life, but may be simple instances where God was with us to comfort or encourage us. Some of the best stories we can tell of Jesus are of times when we were weak or when circumstances were beyond our control, and we learned we had to trust in God alone. As the Apostle Paul once said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

By being honest about the struggles we experience and our daily need for God, we bear witness to what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We become examples of a faith that does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ alone. We have the privilege of letting others know that Jesus is not just the Savior; he is our Savior.

This again shows the sacramental nature of our daily discipleship. God uses us as his “means of grace” by demonstrating that the real power of faith belongs to God, and not to us as human beings. By being honest about our struggles, doubts, and weaknesses, we can give our neighbors hope and faith that God is at work in their lives as well. Others will see in us that “no temptation has overtaken us that is not common to all people, but God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In making us his witnesses, God reveals his Gospel incarnate in us. We become the instrument and the example of his light shining in the darkness. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).  It is to Him that we bear witness.

– Pastor Steven E. King

Respecting the Stewardship of Others

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, directly after the day of Pentecost, we are given a glimpse of the first days of the early Church, and how the first fledgling congregation “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We also hear of how they loved and cared for one another in faith, by sharing what they had and providing for those who were in need.

Scripture says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Some interpreters have suggested that this verse is evidence our Lord had taught his disciples to practice and enforce an economic system that requires the equal distribution of wealth. Some argue that this kind of system is necessary in our world for us to have a true and just society. Others argue that since all we have belongs to God, there should not even be such things as individual ownership or property, and that all resources must be made free and available to everyone.  Creating such a fair and equitable system, they imagine, would usher in the very kingdom of God on earth.

Yet, the truth is, there have always been differences among people, in wealth, in resources, in riches – and in less tangible things as well like personal skills, talents, and natural abilities. This is the case among those outside the Church as well as among believers. We see this reality illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus describes a Master who entrusts differing amounts to each of his servants. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one — to each according to his ability” (Matthew 15:15). Even in the comparable Parable of the Minas, in Luke 19, where the Master gave each servant the same amount, the resulting return on the Master’s investment was different in every case.

Nowhere in these stories does the Master tell the servants, “Since all the resources belong to me, the return is irrelevant.” Nor does the Master allow one steward to lay claim to the resources he entrusted to another, as if a servant had the right to steal from their fellow servants or were entitled to an equal share. No, the Master held each of his servants accountable for their own individual stewardship, and responsible for the way they used the resources of the Master to engage in his business.

But are we not called as disciples – commanded even – to care for our neighbors in love? Is not generosity and concern for the well-being of others part of what it means to be a steward of God? Indeed it is. As Jesus once asked his disciples:

“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes (Luke 12:41-43).  

Being a follower of Jesus means we trust in God enough to be generous and merciful. We have the promise from our Lord, himself, who said:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

As disciples, we are called to be faithful and wise stewards of all that God has given us. But our individual stewardship is not measured according to what has been entrusted to others, it is according to what we have been given that each of us are accountable.

Imagine several cashiers working in the same store, side-by-side, in a row of registers. At the end of a shift, each cashier knows that they are responsible for the cash in their drawer, any checks written or coupons they have redeemed for their customers, in addition to the record of transactions that were made electronically. During the shift, if one cashier were to secretly remove $100 from a co-worker’s register and put it in her own drawer, could she make the argument that this is not stealing? None of the money belongs to the cashiers anyway; it all belongs to the store. However, she would know full well that other cashier will come up short at the end of the night, and that other cashier will be accountable for the missing money.

The Commandment, “Thou shall not steal” is not made irrelevant by the fact that all things belong to God. Nor can the biblical example of the early Church caring for each other’s needs be used as a pretext for stealing from one steward to benefit another – whether it be by force, by deceit, or by political-economic systems.

Jesus did not come into the world to set up a new societal system for the distribution of goods and services. He did not come to create a system of economic equity or any other kind of “kingdom of this world.” He came into the world to give his life for us, that our hearts would be grasped by his love, so that in faith we would show that same love to others.

Christ has called us as his disciples, and has given us many and varied gifts — not for the sake of making us equal, but for the sake of doing his work in the world. We are each entrusted with different amounts the Master’s resources, not to make things “fair”for us, but engage in the Master’s business of showing mercy, grace, and love in his name — for his sake.

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus came to the family home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in thanks for all the Lord had done for them, Mary of Bethany came forward to anoint Jesus with a jar of expensive perfumed oil, and wipe his feet with her hair. Judas spoke out against what he considered to be an act of economic injustice, saying,“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Scripture tells us, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief…” (12:6).

Jesus responded to the accusation of Judas by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). Jesus lets us know that in our lives we will have unending opportunities to show love to those who are poor, just as the early Church showed love to one another by “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This, indeed, is what it means to love our neighbor.

But we do it, not for the sake of equity — for we know that in this world things will never be equal, and the poor we will always have with us. We do it, not for the sake of some abstract ideal or system of economic justice; we do it for the sake of Christ himself. We demonstrate his love to the least of his brothers and sisters, because in caring and serving and loving our neighbors, we are doing it for Him.

– Pastor Steven E. King

A Profound Mystery

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

In the Book of Ephesians, as Paul is talking about what faith means for our human relationships, and how God calls husband and wife to love and respect one another, it’s as if he can’t keep himself limited to the topic at hand. Like the good preacher he is, he finds it necessary to point back to Christ and what Christ has done for us.  Regarding the ordinary and everyday relationship experienced by husbands and wives throughout the world, he says:  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (v. 5:32).

Lest we think that marriage is just one of those things that people do – some kind of quaint, old-fashioned tradition from times gone by, that has no meaning for our modern world – Paul says that it is something that teaches us about the very nature of our relationship with God.

On a surface level, we can recognize that both marriage and faith are relationships of love. Just as our spouse is a person for whom we have affection, we know that our love for God is based on his love for us (1 John 4:19). In a similar way, we know that the love a mother and father have for their children is a reflection of the love that our Father in heaven has for us. But I think Paul is saying more than this.

The “profound mystery” of which he speaks is more than just a metaphorical comparison or simile – i.e. this is like that. Paul is speaking here of something that strikes to the heart of what it means to call Christ our Savior. It is a deeper reference to trust and dependence, and what it means to know that our life and well-being rests in the hands of another.

One of my favorite images in all of Scripture is when Jesus speaks of himself as the “stronger man” who rescues us from the powers of sin, death, and the devil.  In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus was accused of casting out demons in the name of the devil, Jesus pointed out how foolish that accusation was. He says:

“If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.” (Mark 3:26-27)

Satan is the strong man who holds us prisoner in his dungeon. Far from being on Satan’s side, Jesus shows that He is the one who is stronger than Satan! Jesus has the power to bind the strong man and rescue us from the devil. Jesus breaks in and plunders hell itself, to bring us back to God.  Truly, “Nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:39).

As a disciple of Christ, who trusts and believes in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I know that I cannot save myself. I need someone to break in from the outside, not only just to save me from the devil – but frankly, to save me from myself. Sometimes I fancy myself as the “strong man;” I cling and hold on to my goods, thinking that somehow I can save myself. But then Christ comes, and proves me wrong.

The irony I have found is that it is most often my wife who shows me this. In my vocation as a husband or a father – or simply as a sinner trying to live my life in faith – I depend upon someone from outside myself to intervene.  I need someone, beyond myself, who sees me bound in sin and does not turn away. I need someone who has the strength and the love and the courage to speak the Word of Christ to me in my weakness. I need someone who is not afraid to speak God’s grace and forgiveness into my captivity, so that Christ himself would set me free.

As Christians, I believe that is the very thing we are all called to do for one another. But no where is this more true than in the relationship between husband and wife.

Martin Luther once said of his own experience as a husband to his wife Katie, “A Christian is supposed to love his neighbor, and since his wife is his nearest neighbor, she should be his deepest love.” (Of course, the same could be said of wife to husband.)

But the love of which Luther spoke in these words is more than a simple attraction of male to female. It is even more than the affection we feel toward one with which we are in love. Like Paul, the love of which Luther speaks is the greater love of God that can only come from outside of ourselves. It is a love spoken in real-life words of grace and mercy in Christ that are lived out within a life of weakness and genuine need.

So when I think about why it is that God created such a thing as marriage, I don’t see it as just a human tradition or a out-dated contract between two people in this world. I see marriage as a way that God has built the gospel itself into who we are.

I am blessed to say, both a spirit of confession and as a matter of dependence and trust, it is for this reason that I left my father and mother and now hold fast to my wife. For I know that tied up within this marital bond is the very means of grace by which I am able to live from day to day. My wife is a channel of divine love to me, and the one in whom I most clearly see the face of God. Indeed, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

God’s Purview

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”  (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Throughout the Scriptures we hear directly from God claims that would not be true if spoken by any other being. In the face of all god-like pretenders, the Lord Almighty asserts divine sovereignty – even over life and death itself. Scripture maintains a monotheistic view of one God who is above all. In fact, the very word “holy” means “set apart.”

When it comes to the Commandments, people often seem to forget this radical “otherness” of God. We talk as if we think God is (or ought to be) subject to the same standards and limitations that we are. We point out places in the Bible where God does not seem to follow his own rules, and are troubled when God does things that he told us not to do.

But that is precisely the point.  Strictly speaking, good and evil, right and wrong — these are standards given to us for how we are to live as God’s creatures. They are not laws to which God is subject.

We all know that God is able to do things that human beings cannot (Matthew 19:6); but what we often forget is that God may do things that we may not.  That is to say, God, as Ruler of the Universe, may legitimately do things that we, as limited finite creatures, are not allowed to do. In fact, the very reason that we are not allowed to do some things, is because those things are functions reserved for God alone.

Take killing for example. God has made it a commandment that, “You shall not kill.” Yet, in Scripture we see God killing as a matter of course (in examples such as the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, the Egyptians at the Red Sea, etc.). It seems like a contradiction, with God breaking his own rules.  But God is not subject to the rules he made for us; we — and the rules — are subject to God.

To put it crudely, what if the reason we, as human beings, are not allowed to kill each other, is because killing is God’s job. The reason we may not kill or take life is because life and death are under God’s purview alone. To take such matters into our own hands is to put ourselves in the place of God — the kind of idolatry that is the very foundation of sin itself (Genesis 3:5).

This is why, in the verse above, God says: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

And lest we, like the heretic Marcion, think this is just the “Old Testament God of Wrath” talking, we should pay attention to what the New Testament says about Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:8-9)

The very center of the Gospel — the death and resurrection of Christ himself — is founded on the logic of there being One God to whom all things belong, even our own life and death.

So what does all this have to do with Christian discipleship?

It shows that being a follower of Christ is more than just being the adherent of some moral code. Christ is not simply a wise guru whose advice we heed in a personal effort to live a more spiritual or religious life. Christ is not simply an ethical teacher who has found enlightenment and has now become a motivational speaker or life-coach to teach us his “best practices.”

Jesus Christ is Lord of the Living and the Dead. He himself is the end goal and basis of our faith. To be a disciple of Jesus is not simply to follow the example of a great teacher, but rather, to be captured by his lordship as the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, and to be transformed by his sovereign will at work in us.

When it comes to discipleship — whether it be in regard to the Ten Commandments, or “the Law” in general – God’s purpose is not to lay out a path by which we navigate our way through right and wrong to reach spiritual perfection.  Faith is simple obedience to our Master, for his sake alone, brought about by the Holy Spirit of God. It is Christ’s own work in us, exercised in his sovereign lordship over life and death, which puts to death the sinner in us in order to raise us up to new life. This is something only God can do.

As Luther observed: “He has done all this in order that I might be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

– Pastor Steven E. King

Bearers of the Word

“As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

From the very first pages of Scripture, we hear of a God who brings order from chaos and establishes the universe according to his good pleasure. By his powerful Word, God spoke the heavens and the earth into existence – “all that is seen and unseen.” And in the midst of this created order, God formed and placed us into each other’s lives as human beings.

Our God is not only the Creator of things, but the Creator of our lives and relationships. From the start God made it clear that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Scripture shows us that we were never meant to be solitary creatures. We were created to be in relationship with our Lord and with one another.

Jesus not only affirmed this as God’s intention for humankind, he also reminded us that God had provided for there to be a perpetual renewal of these relationships down through the generations. He said:

“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:6-8)

According to Jesus, God himself created marriage as the first and primary relationship from which others would flow. As husbands and wives grow to become fathers and mothers, this primary human relationship serve as the foundation for many others. Around the family, God builds friendships, neighborhoods, communities, and nations. We care for each other through the web of relationships we have with one another.

It was in this sense that Martin Luther often spoke of marriage as an “estate” established by God. That is to say, Luther talked about parenthood as a “standing” or “office” that God has set up for the service of the neighbor. This notion of family fits well with Luther’s understanding of how God uses his people as instruments and channels of his divine love. For Luther, an estate or standing is more than just a title or position; it is a function and activity in which we engage for the sake of others.

Just as some Christians are called to serve in the office of ministry in Word and Sacrament, being a father and mother is another form of ministry by which the Word of God is communicated from one generation to another. Luther recognized that this was one of the reasons God places us in families in the first place, so that we would have others close at hand to speak God’s Word to us. He wrote:

“Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. For whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, on “The Estate of Marriage”)

This is what makes the Fourth Commandment and the role of mother and father so important. On this familial relationship depends the continued propagation of God’s Word through time. Just as Luther’s explanation of the Sabbath Commandment rested in our human need for God’s Word and time set aside “to hear and learn it”—so also, the Commandment to “honor our father and mother” reminds us of the importance of the ones from whom we hear and learn it.

Our earthly fathers and mothers are bearers of God Word. Not only are parents communicate values and moral character as their children grow as human beings, parents are the primary teachers in faith development. Beyond respect and obedience in our life under the law, parents serve an even deeper evangelical role in communicating the grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.

In honoring father and mother, we learn the nature of faith in Christ. We remember the people who were the first to pick us up when we fell, the first who tended to our wounds, and first who held us in their arms. But it is not simply that parents are patterns or reflections of God’s grace, they are ones through whom God actually shows us his love and mercy.

God continues and multiplies lesson through the people with whom we share all our relationships. In honoring our father and mother, we also honor grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, pastors, and “others in authority” who protect us and provide for our daily needs. In return, we are given by God a host of other whom the opportunity to serve. We are given the opportunity to live as Christ’s disciples, with a world full of people to help and defend, to encourage and support, and to hear and forgive.

The Fourth Commandment recognizes that human beings never meant to be alone. It creates a confluence of relationships that lift us up in small and large ways. God knows we can’t make it on our own, so he places in our lives people on whom we can depend on and provide his help and strength. We are able to “continue in what we have learned and believed” because we honor and remember the ones “from whom we learned it” and how from childhood we have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which were able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

– Pastor Steven E. King

Work and Rest

Jesus said: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  (John 9:4-5)

In the sacristy of the church I served, there was a whole drawer of old, used candles. After being on the altar for a season, it seemed like all old candles would somehow end up in this particular drawer. I never knew why. Perhaps it was a member of the altar guild, the church custodian, or an usher readying the sanctuary for worship who changed out the candles. Most people knew where the new ones were stored for when they were needed.

But it was the drawer of old candles that always intrigued me. Like a solemn funerary vault that held the remains of the faithful dead, candles that had burned on the altar would be laid to rest in that drawer after fulfilling their purpose. It was as if people were reluctant to throw away something that had been made holy by its use in worship. Or maybe it was just an old habit that people absent-mindedly followed because it had always been done that way.

In that drawer, many of the old candles were mere nubs, burned down to about an inch or so of wax remaining. But too often, there were candles in the drawer that were still of a decent length, four or five inches long. I wondered who felt the need to retire a half-burned candle before its time. It seemed to me like such a waste – poor stewardship, I would probably call it.

So when the occasion presented itself, I would go to that drawer to get those old candles and put them to use. Usually, it was because I wanted candles for an object lesson in teaching. Or it might be for a special evening service, where I would put out clusters of candles of various heights. In one way or another, the candles were not wasted.

As I reflect on Discipleship and what it means to live out our faith in everyday lives, giving ourselves in service to our Lord, I am reminded of what candles are meant for, and what they represent. When Jesus tells his disciples, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work,” I remember that we, like the old candles in that drawer, will someday be put to rest. This is the “promised rest” of which the Scriptures speak. Following a life well lived in faith, God has prepared for each one of us a final Sabbath, where we, like Lazarus, rest in the bosom of our ancestors.

But until that day, we must do the work of him who sent Jesus. For not only is Christ “The Light of the World” (Jn. 9:5), but he has sent us out as his disciples to be lights to the world ourselves:

 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

It is my hope, prayer, and intention as a disciple of Christ, that I would be one of those candles that is burned down to a nub by the time I am put in that drawer. I want to have given what I have and what I am in the Lord’s service, so that when there is nothing left to give, I will have been “used up” by God.

I realize to some, this may not seem like a comforting image, or one to be desired. Many people don’t like to think of death as an end, but prefer to talk about it as simply a “transition” from one active state to another. But speaking for myself, I look forward to the Sabbath that God has prepared at the end of all things. To rest in peace, to rest in the Lord, is the consummation of a life of faithful service. God himself rested of his labors after the work of his creation.

This gives me hope because I know that after the Sabbath a new week dawns. In Christ, we are promised a new creation – a Resurrection from the Dead – where we will once again be put to work in his kingdom, where we will be lights surrounding the One Light, in “the city (that) has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).

Until then, let us burn brightly in this world as his disciples, as God uses us to reveal His light in our lives.  As Scripture says: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…˝ (Hebrews 4:9-11a)

– Pastor Steven E. King

In His Name Alone

If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. (Acts 4:9-10)

When Peter and John were brought before the Jewish Council to explain the healing of the lame man they had encountered in the Temple (Acts 3-4), they made it clear that it was not by their own power or skill that the man had been healed, but rather, it was the power of Jesus — and in His name alone — that the man was made well.

Peter and John had every opportunity to take credit for themselves. These disciples, who had both followed along with Jesus after his arrest, had  been witnesses to the Lord’s suffering and death. These same two were among the first to run to the tomb in response to the witness of Mary, who told them of the empty tomb. Peter and John were among those who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and had boldly announced the Good News to people of many nations, when earlier, they hid in silence.  Now, through them, the Holy Spirit was actually working miracles of healing similar to those performed by Jesus himself!

It would have been easy, at that point, for Peter and John to talk about the spiritual progress they had made as disciples. In a very short time, they had advanced from doubt and wonder to certainty and conviction, surpassing the other disciples of lesser faith, who had no such miracles about which to boast.

Yet Peter and John did not boast. The made no claim to progress or power. Instead, they denied that they had accomplished anything. They said that Jesus’ name had done it all. Scripture tells us:

When Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus… To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. (Acts 3:12-13,16)

In this story, Scripture gives us another example of how Sanctification really happens in our lives as disciples of Christ.  Too often, we like to speak of our discipleship in terms of moral progress and of our efforts to become “better” Christians. The more we accomplish, the more apparent we can be in showing the effects of our ministry, the higher on the “leader’s board” we can get … and by comparison, show how much further ahead of others we are in our discipleship.

Ironically, in the lives of the disciples in Scripture, the opposite is true. It seems the greater the ministry, the further the outreach, and the more miraculous the results – the less credit they took for themselves, and the more they gave to Jesus. They had learned the lesson that discipleship is a not a personal step-ladder to attain spiritual heights, but rather, it is coming to better appreciation for how God alone is the source of our strength and power. Like Peter and John, we are simply the living “means of grace” that God uses to accomplish his purpose to bring glory to His name.

To put this in terms of the Second Commandment, and what it means that we should “not take the name of the Lord our God in vain” – it means that we who bear the name of Christ take no credit for ourselves but give all glory to his name. It means that as people of faith we do not boast of our own power or piety, but bear witness to the name of the One who is at work in us and through us.

As disciples, we confess that “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). We live our lives in His service, to His glory.  For we know that God’s name is indeed holy in itself and we pray that it may be kept holy among us.

Disciples of One Master

Jesus said:  “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25a)

I remember hearing an observation about life in the military and the difference in status between officers and enlisted personnel. It is said, “There is no one more private than a General, and there is no one more general than a Private.”

Perhaps it is the nature of leadership to reflect a pyramid-like structure, with just a few individual leaders at the top and multitude of followers at the bottom. We see this not only in the military, but in corporations, government, and athletic organizations. We often see it in our local congregations and the Church in general. Over the history of Christianity, believers have wrestled with questions of ecclesiology, and how best to structure the institution of the Church for service in the world. Even in the most equitable of systems, there are leaders and there are followers.

But when we speak of Christian Discipleship, it should be obvious who is the Leader and who are the followers. We as individual believers follow our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, together as his disciples. We are the many; he is the One.  As John wrote of the vision that was revealed to him:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

This attribution of unique greatness to Christ as Lord embodies the very spirit of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no others gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The heavenly doxology expresses our praise to the One who is above all. It is in harmony with what Christ himself called the first and greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37-38).

There is no one more faithful than Christ, and there is no one who sees the need for Christ more than the faithful. This is the confession of a true disciple.

So when our Lord gave us the commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and we seek to carry out that commission, we should be clear about what this means. Christ is not calling us to create a cadre of followers for ourselves, making others our students; but rather, he is calling us to enjoin others to be his followers. In the army of the Lord, we are all the very “general” privates who serve the same unique General.

As one who encourages people live out their faith in relationships of “life-to-life” discipleship, it is important for me to remember and emphasize that “where two or three are gathered” there is only one Master – and that master is not me!  Occasionally, I have heard experienced pastors casually say things like, “I have been discipling (so-and-so) for several years…” — and, of course, I know what they mean. They have been serving as a mentor to help this person in their journey of faith.

Like Philip who was sent by the Spirit to come alongside the eunuch on the Gaza road (Acts 8), it is essential to recognize that Jesus calls us to walk with one another and to help each other understand and live out his promise in our daily lives. But at the same time, it is important for us to keep in mind that – wherever we may find ourselves on that journey — we are all disciples of the same Lord. On that day in Gaza, Philip did not make a disciple for himself, but Christ made his own new disciple of the eunuch through Philip. Philip was merely the earthly means of grace through which God carried out his purpose.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master,” Jesus said. For us, as Christians, Jesus himself is that Teacher and Master.

So as we walk together in faith as Christ’s disciples, we must remind ourselves that we all look to the same Lord. God has brought us together to help each other and lift each other up along the way. We  share lives of mutual discipleship, so that, “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

– Pastor Steven E. King

For Us and In Us

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8)

When I teach confirmation students about the Holy Spirit, I always talk about what it means to believe that God himself is at work in our lives –- not only about what God does for us but also about what God does in us.  Both of these are key to what Christian discipleship is about.

Disciples of Jesus are not simply updated versions of the disciples of Moses or the disciples of the Pharisees, who live according to the Law. The disciples of the Law were empowered by their own human spirit –- i.e. by their own righteousness and obedience to the standards set by God and subject to their own human traditions. What empowered their actions was a desire to achieve a higher moral status. They wanted to be able to show that they were better than all others who followed the law.

The way the Law works is a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” proposition. It is a transactional bargain based on the premise that if you follow God’s commandments, God, in turn, will reward you for your obedience. The Law assumes a back-and-forth reciprocity in our relationship with God, where we do our part for God, then God does his part for us.  Just like in John’s baptism of repentance, where each party fulfills their obligations in a divine-human contract, in such a law-based scenario, the Holy Spirit is not present or required.

When it comes to following Jesus, some Christians use the same back-and-forth logic of the Law. Recognizing that God is the one who takes the initiative in grace, they define “discipleship” by simply change the order of the transaction, saying: “Because God has done all this for us, we must now do this for God.” In such a view, works of discipleship and lives of obedience are not required pre-conditions for God’s grace, but they are disguised as necessary “post-conditions” — in a sort of retroactive transaction — as if that is somehow better.  Discipleship is understood to be a “no money down, no payments until January” sort of bargain. But all parties are aware that, eventually, the bill must be paid. The Law is still the Law.

The Gospel, however, is not simply a pay-after-the-fact deal. The good works produced by faith are not our human settlement of delayed payment plan. Rather, the good that is produced by faith is fruit of God’s own Holy Spirit at work in us.  The logic is of the Gospel is not like the transactional logic of the Law that says: “If you do this for God, God will do this for you.” Nor is the Gospel merely the same Law in reverse, that says: “If God does this for you, you must do this for God.”

The Gospel, from start to finish, is the work of God’s Holy Spirit — both for us and in us. Our lives of discipleship are not our payback for God’s prior grace, but are lives in which the very Spirit of God is at work through us. Discipleship is not an act of our own human will in payment of debt; it is the active expression of God’s own will being done by God, in and among us.  We are simply the earthen vessels; the transcendent power belongs to God (2 Corinthians 4:7).

The hammer does not pay back the carpenter by doing its own work, apart from the carpenter’s hand; the hammer is used by the carpenter to do his work. In the same way, we are simply a tool in the Carpenter’s hand. Just as God uses the physical sacraments as his means of grace, God uses our lives as his disciples in a sacramental way to convey his grace and love to others.

When Luther made his famous statement in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has …” — he was not merely speaking of Justification, or simply the grace by which we are saved. Nor was he speaking of some prevenient deposit of grace, for which we must later pay in full. He was speaking of Sanctification, and the power of the Holy Spirit – past, present, and future — by which we are made holy before God. All this is the fruit of God’s own Spirit.

When Jesus promised his disciples on the day he ascended to heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8), he was not speaking of our work in response to God, he was speaking of the work that God himself will do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what I believe. This is the truth I act upon. Regardless of what others may say about their faith, let the Spirit bear witness in me:

“I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort live as a disciple of Jesus or follow him, but the Holy Spirit is living and active in me, so that it is not my will that is done, but the will of him who is at work in me.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

Gain or Loss?

“He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.”  (Luther’s Small Catechism)

Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). In doing so, he showed us that being his follower has a sacrificial quality, not unlike Jesus’ own sacrifice for our sake on the cross. Jesus taught that Christian discipleship is not about gain for the self but more about the loss of the self.

It is popular these days among preachers of the “prosperty gospel” to tell listeners that faith is the means to gain personal success. Such preachers are not above promising earthly “silver and gold” as the reward for faithful discipleship. Of course, if one does not become magically wealthy and successful, they explain it as a sign that the loser’s faith must not be strong or sincere enough.

But as Luther says in the catechism, Jesus’ sacrifice for us had nothing to do with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood. Jesus gave his life for us that we might new life. This new life of faith means that the old life in us ends. Through Jesus’ death we die to ourselves, and through his resurrection, we are raised to a different kind of life.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6, 11)

But what does it mean die to sin, and “be brought to nothing”? It means that as disciples of Christ, we don’t look to ourselves and our own desires as the goal of our personal lives. It means that we don’t measure our lives by selfish success, whether it be in earthly wealth or in spiritual superiority over others. Dying to self is living a life of sacrificial humility, where “we do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but think with sober judgment,” remembering that “though many, we are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:3, 5).

Ironically, this is where we find our true value and purpose in Christ. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility does not mean we think less of ourselves, but that we think of ourselves less.”

As disciples of Jesus, we do not measure ourselves as better than others, but regard all we have as the tools and resources to serve others. Though we may be simple earthen vessels, jars of clay, we are also the living means of grace by which God’s transcendent power is revealed as he works daily to bring salvation to the world.

Pastor Steven E. King