During the month of November, in the United States, we make a point to express our gratitude. A day is set aside every year to give thanks. The first National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued in 1777 by the Continental Congress “to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise.”* In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be:
“a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such…blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience… fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.”
It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress made the last Thursday in November a national holiday, although every President since Lincoln has proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving. As of the writing of this article, the last Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamation included the sentence, “On this holiday, we count our blessings and renew our commitment to giving back.” And it concluded with:
“I encourage the people of the United States to join together—whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors—and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.”
Give thanks and praise. Count your blessings. Express appreciation. Seek our Heavenly Father’s purposes. Renew your commitment to give back, and as followers of Jesus, commit to participate in the Almighty’s work in and through us, the Body of Christ on earth!
This month in particular, I hope you will reflect upon the goodness of our Lord to us—as individuals, as families, and as this congregation. The Lord has been good to us! The Lord is at work in us and through us! Give thanks! Rejoice! And at the same time, pray to discern how the Lord wants to continue to be at work in you and through you in the year to come. This is a time to give thanks and to pray for wisdom about how the Lord wants us to give of ourselves To Glorify God, by Making Disciples, Through Worship, Prayer and Service to Others.
In November, we will be having our Stewardship Campaign, which is a time to give thanks for God’s blessings, and prayerful discern how we individually are being called to participate in the Lord’s ministry in and through Unity Presbyterian Church this coming year. How shall we “share our bounty with others” through our giving of our time, talents, and treasures? Put differently: as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and out of profound gratitude for all God’s blessings, how can I live a life of gratitude, glorifying God with all my time, skills, and finances?
“Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb, forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13, NKJV)! Amen!
In Christ, Pastor Jeff
Five-hundred-years ago, on October 31, 1517, “the reverend father, Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer” posted Ninety-five Theses for the purpose of having an academic debate regarding “the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (489-490).* If you read the 95 Theses, you see that Luther is gracious but insistent that no one is “certain and assured of salvation…[nor]…absolved and saved from every penalty by” buying papal indulgences (492, #s 21 & 22). Luther wasn’t trying to break from the Catholic Church or start a new movement or church. He wrote these Theses and wanted to discuss them with others “out of love and concern for the truth, and with the [purpose] of eliciting [the truth]” (490). But doing so 500 years ago this month, Luther unwittingly began the Protestant Reformation!
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order says, “[In our Confessions of Faith, we uphold] the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation. The focus of these affirmations is God’s grace in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. The Protestant watchwords—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone—embody principles of understand that continue to guide and motivate the people of God in the life of faith” (F-2.04).
On September 6, 1520, Luther wrote an “Open Letter to Pope Leo X” explaining that he was not attacking the Pope but that he did very much want to root out false teachings prevalent in the Church. Attached to this letter, Luther included a treatise called “The Freedom of a Christian,” in which the above-mentioned watchwords and principles can be seen as Luther explains the freedom we have in Jesus Christ. Luther dedicated this “little treatise” to the Pope as a gift, writing that, “It is a small book if you regard its size. [But] Unless I am mistaken… it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form” (52). Enjoy the following excerpts!
“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ…” (54).
“The following statements are therefore true: ‘Good works do not make a good [person], but a good [person] does good works; evil works do not make a wicked [person], but a wicked [person] does evil works” (69).
“it is very evident that it is faith alone which, because of the pure mercy of God through Christ and in his Word, worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person. A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith he is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely. He seeks neither benefit nor salvation since he already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because in his faith he now seeks only to please God” (70).
“So let [those who] wish to do good works begin not with the doing of works, but with believing, which makes the person good, for nothing makes a [person] good except faith, or evil except unbelief… For the person is justified and saved, not by works or laws, but by the Word of God, that is, by the promise of his grace, and by faith, that the glory may remain God’s, who saved us not by works of righteousness which we have done [Titus 3:5], but by virtue of his mercy by the word of his grace when we believed [I Cor. 1:21]” (72).
“Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (81).
Amen! Grace & Peace in Christ,
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Martin Luther: Selections from his writings Edited by John Dillenberger, orginally published in the United States by Anchor Books in 1962.
Quid est veritas? asked the Roman Governor to the King of the Jews. “What is truth?”
I don’t know about you, sometimes I seek truth with a desire to prove a point—make a case, argue that I’m right (and, therefore someone else isn’t). Are “facts” the same thing as truth? Can truth be “used”—like facts—as a weapon of manipulation or self-justification? Is this the purpose of truth? What is truth?
Sometimes we don’t like to admit the truth—especially about ourselves. Truth can make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s painful. It’s like a blinding light in the darkness, and we want to scurry away… It feels like truth condemns us. Is truth used to make enemies? What is truth?
Sometimes truth is used to bully others into an intellectual corner where they cannot—at least without violating “reason”—deny it. It is used to try to force people to intellectually ascent to a proposition. Is truth meant to constrain or cage people? What is truth?
Far from simply being facts and figures, and much more than a tool, truth is not something to be wielded against others. Truth is a gift from God. Truth is to be received, and used for others to bless them. Truth is connected with grace, and love, and life. Truth is central to the existence of the Church and our ability to worship properly. Truth is how we live in freedom, and love, and joy! Truth is connected to Christ’s glory, our salvation, and is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. Truth is how we grow in Christ!
-And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).
-But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
-Jesus said…“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
-Jesus said… “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
- When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:13).
-Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said… “Father…Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we not ever delight in evil, or use truth in a self-seeking manner, but know that “love…rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). The truth is the gospel (see Eph 1:13)! The truth is Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us, that we might live for him—that we might live in the freedom, joy and love of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that truth without grace—truth divorced from love—ceases to be true truth!
So, may we practice “speaking the truth in love, [and] grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…so that [the Body of Christ] builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15-16). Amen!
Grace & Peace
Is there a purpose to life? Is there a bigger picture? Is everything just a “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)? What’s the grand story told in scripture? Let me tell you, it’s Spectacular!
June 11-July 2 I preached on the view of the world, history, humanity, and our future as pictured in the grand narrative of Scripture. If you weren’t here on those Sundays, I invite you to listen to the Sermon recordings on our website under the "Sunday Worship" tab.
In brief, just like any good story, the overarching “story” in the Holy Bible has a Setting, Conflict, Climax, and Denouement.
The Setting in Scripture is Creation. “In the beginning God created…[and] God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:1, 31). This includes humanity, made “in the image and likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26, 27). Humanity was in unhindered relationship with God, each other, the earth, and even with their own selves! They were “naked and they felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25, NIV). But then we sought wisdom, life and fulfillment outside of the Lord’s will, eating the forbidden fruit, those four relationships quickly deteriorated: fear, shame, blame, and toil enter the world. The biblical Conflict is called “the Fall,” when we let Death and sin shape our lives and all our relationships. In the Lord’s mercy, he is unwilling to let us stay stuck in this new, deadly status quo, and so the Climax of the story is Redemption. “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20, NIV). This is huge! Of course, we see that there is still brokenness, disease, and death. Things are not yet perfected. But the Denouement is the Consummation of all things, bringing to fruition and complete fulfillment all God’s promises in Christ, when the final enemy, Death, will be destroyed once and for all (see 1 Cor. 15:26). In the end, Jesus will return to make all things new, the dead in Christ will be raised imperishable, God will dwell on earth with humanity, and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4, NIV), and our relationship with God, each other, the earth, and ourselves will be as they are meant to be.
Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. CFRC. To me, this is the most helpful framework for understanding the full picture of Scripture. And even more importantly, this is our framework for understanding humanity, the world, God’s purposes, and our place in the story.
As we follow Jesus, having been Redeemed but awaiting the Consummation, we are to grow in faith and become more and more Christ-like. This takes intentionality on our part as disciples—students, learners, followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, in this Newsletter, you can learn about one of the opportunities for discipleship offered this year: Disciple One. With the CFRC framework of Scripture and life in mind, through Disciple we will dig deep into Scripture and let it work in our lives to the glory of God and for the life of the world. As we enter the last month of summer and begin to prepare for our regular schedule, I invite you to consider how the Lord wants you to grow this year, embracing more fully the Redeemed life Jesus has given us.
Grace and Peace in Christ,
Grace to you and peace, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting a lot on the Sacraments. The Reformed tradition recognizes two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (aka Communion, the Eucharist). I’ve been wrestling with them as the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order will be revised and replaced at the end of June, including the discussion of the Sacraments. Rather than trying to present some kind of systematic theology on the Sacraments, I’ve written a poem, and it’s included below for your consideration.
I pray that we would all be blessed as we reflect together on the Sacraments—these “gracious acts of God, by which Christ Jesus offers his life to us in the power of the Holy Spirit…[and] by which we offer our lives to God in love and service” (W-3.0401, forthcoming edition of the Book of Order).
Grace and Peace in Christ,
“Why do we do it this way?” Every denomination and congregation has their own particular way of doing things. Even if it’s not formal or intentional, every church has their own rhythms, their own rituals, their own liturgy (i.e. public service). Visit another congregation, especially within a different Christian tradition, and you may be struck by the differences in “how they do it,” and realize that there are particular rhythms of worship that you’re used to. John Burgess observes that our own “ritual is so well established that no one even notices it—until it is broken. Only then do people sit up and sense that something is not quite right” (Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again, WJK Press, 2013, p. 48). So…how is our worship service ordered; why do we do it this way?
Our liturgy has four basic movements: 1) Gathering, 2) Hearing and Proclaiming the Word, 3) Responding, 4) Being Sent Out.
Gathering to the Word is the first movement. The Church is the people of God in Christ. So we don’t “go to church” or “have church,” rather, the Church gathers together. The Church—the people of God—gathers to worship the Lord. We are gathered to the Word—that is, Jesus Christ. Before even saying “good morning” or announcing ministry opportunities, a brief Scripture is heard. In our Call to Worship we recognize that God calls us to worship. We pray to the Lord, sing our praises, confess how we “miss the mark” of living faithfully, we are declared forgiven, sing Glory to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and share the Peace of Christ with each other. All of this prepares us and gathers us in for the next movement of worship…
Hearing and Proclaiming the Word. Jesus commands us to “change and become like little children” so that we may “enter” and “receive the kingdom of God” (see Matt 18:3; Luke 18:17). So, in this movement, adults get to “listen in” as the youngest disciples of the church lead us all in listening for, recognizing, and following Jesus Christ—the Living Word. Then we pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate—light up, brighten—our hearts and minds as we listen intently for the Word of the Lord read and proclaimed from the Holy Bible and in a sermon. This part of the service includes proclaiming and hearing. This double-emphasis goes back to the Reformation and John Calvin who says that a church of God exists and is recognizable, in part, wherever the Word of God is sincerely preached and sincerely heard by those gathered (see Institutes, 4.1.9, and Book of Order, F-1.0303). So preparing to hear the Word of God rightly is just as important as preparing to proclaim the Word of God rightly. The first movement of our liturgy is meant to help us prepare to preach and hear the Word, but we would all do well throughout the week to prepare ourselves to encounter the Living Word of God in worship.
Responding to the Word comes next. Sometimes we respond in song or by affirming our faith. But as an act of worship, we always respond to the Word of God proclaimed and heard by praying together and offering our gifts—and ultimately our very selves—to the Lord. This is how we respond rightly: with lives lived in praise to God—in Doxology! Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are each a “sign and seal” of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ by the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, at least monthly, we respond to the Word by Sealing the Word in a Sacrament. Each of these responses to the Word is an act of worship and a (re-)commitment of discipleship.
Bearing and Following the Word into the World ‘concludes’ our liturgy. We are now sent back out into the world by the Word and with the Word—Jesus Christ—renewed within us, with a song on our lips and in our hearts. With a Charge and Blessing to bear and follow Christ, we re-enter the world so that others might see the Word of the Lord reflected in our lives. So, while our church’s weekly gathering ends at this point, our liturgy actually continues as we both bear Christ within us—offering him to the world—and we follow Christ into the world—going wherever the Holy Spirit leads us, by the grace of the Son, and to the glory of the Father. Amen!
Grace & Peace