heart 16070cMessage for Pentecost 13 on Matthew 16:13-20 and Acts 2:42-47 on August 27, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. Because we are launching Life Groups in the fall, I changed the New Testament Reading to Acts 2.

This week we are continuing our theme of “Together in the Boat” (which is funny because again, there are no boats in our readings today!). It refers to our Gospel two weeks ago when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. Peter walks on the water briefly before the wind scares him, but the storm only calms down when Jesus and Peter get back in the boat together with the rest of the disciples. Dealing with life’s storms and challenges is more successful when we are together in the boat with Jesus. One of life's challenges is asking for forgiveness and repairing relationships.

It’s no surprise that one of my sins is over-functioning and over-working—it’s a sin of pride—like everything is up to me. When I am organized, I work from a To-Do List, but when I am overwhelmed, I lose the list and then I try to hold it all in my head, which is what I have been trying to do the last week to 10 days. It’s been hard to take the time to sit and write a new list or keep track of the list I already made. When I hold things in my head, especially now—it worked pretty well 20 years ago—I forget things—especially all the little details.

This week I realized I had given Pr. Janet the wrong starting date for the Life Groups for the Red Letter Spiritual Growth Challenge. And I thought, “what a major screw up—this affects curriculum and all the Luke’s Learners teachers, and I have really messed this up.” So on Thursday, I asked her into my office and confessed that I had misspoke on the date and I was afraid I had therefore messed up her whole curriculum plan. I apologized and asked her to please forgive me, and how could I help make it right.

And in her especially loving way, Pr. Janet said, "you do not need forgiveness, you are already loved as you are, and it will all be ok." But of course, being me, I still felt bad anyway. Without even thinking I just blurted out, “but being forgiven by you helps me know that I am also forgiven by God.”

So being a wonderful friend and pastor, she said, “I forgive you.” And I felt so much better—forgiven and renewed—not just for giving the wrong date on the schedule, but for the whole thing—being my sinful self over and over again, no matter how much I try not to be.

Then the Holy Spirit gave me a nudge right then and said, “this is why we are launching Life Groups here—so everyone can have this kind of forgiveness moment. Everyone needs this moment when being forgiven personally by another Christian, helps you know and experience being forgiven by God—Intimately, completely—in friendship and in trust." 

Such forgiveness a crucial part of being in the boat together with Jesus.

This is because forgiveness and grace are not something we can easily give ourselves. We need forgiveness announced, proclaimed, declared, told to us. It’s why it’s so often the opening ritual of our worship service—the point is not that we are so depraved, but that we cannot proclaim God’s audacious, radical, and overflowing free grace and forgiveness to ourselves.

Just like an announcement of true love, someone has to declare it to us, “God loves you! You are forgiven, you are set free, you are accepted, you are loved. We see you and know you as you are and we love you, and God does, too! That’s why he sent us Jesus!"

Experiencing this forgiveness in Life Groups where people have come to know us well over time, carries personal and spiritual power with intimacy and trust at a level we cannot create in corporate worship. They are both wonderful gifts and serve different purposes.

Offering and receiving forgiveness is called the “office of the keys” in our Gospel reading, and Jesus gives this gift to the church—the body of Christ, who like Peter, confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Life Groups take our spiritual life to the next level because they offer us a unique chance to loosen whatever binds us, limits us, holds us back and through community, to release those things to God. Being loosened with forgiveness in the safety of the boat with other believers on the journey, gives us greater freedom and love to serve as disciples in daily life because we are unbound from guilt or shame, loneliness or isolation.

This liberating faith is what happened to the early church as they gathered in small groups and house churches. Our Acts passage shows they were together in the boat of faith, sharing meals and possessions, they worshipped together, and celebrated the Lord’s supper, they declared the forgiveness of sins the name of Jesus, the Son of the Living God, and they were filled with glad and generous hearts. They felt the forgiveness and presence of the living God through the embodiment of each other and their good will, fellowship and joy became contagious! People witnessed their life and wanted it for themselves!

• People saw how much joy they had,
• people experienced how much goodwill and generosity they shared;
• people witnessed how much overflowing love they exhibited,
• people discovered how many burdens and bound up resentments and sins had been released and they all wanted what those early Christians had.

So day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is called building the church through attraction not aggression, through magnetism not manipulation, through authenticity, not argumentation.

I wonder if this is why Jesus tells them at the end of our Matthew reading not to tell anyone he was the Messiah—because he wanted their lives to speak louder, more truthfully, and more effectively than their words.

Yes, words of forgiveness need to be proclaimed; yes words that confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of God need to be spoken—but disciples then must live these words out in deeds and in action. For it is Matthew Gospel that tells us that it is not just earthly forgiveness—binding and loosing—that has heavenly consequences. It is Matthew’s Gospel who makes plan that our actions toward others also have a heavenly impact on the living Lord. In Matthew 25, Jesus says the righteous will ask the Son of Man in all his glory,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Life Groups are to help us, like the early church, practice the words and confessions of our faith—but they also enable us to engage in the behaviors and actions of our faith. Some of those actions will be in service to our neighbor like in Matthew 25, and some of those actions will be toward well-being for ourselves and our relationships. The action part of our faith matters, because forgiveness and repentance that shifts our life is best followed by a change in behavior. So, after the forgiveness I received this week, I actually took my full day off instead of working for half of it, which I was still tempted to do (sin is pernicious!). Dan and I went to lunch and then I took a nap. Yesterday, we ran a practice Life Group with 4 of the facilitators, and they laid hands on me and prayed for me to help me make different choices. And I found my list!

I tell you these things, so you know that I only invite you to do what I am willing to do, or already am doing myself. I am not in a different boat. None of the retired pastors in the congregation are in a different boat. I am in the same boat you are, so are they. We are all together in the boat with Jesus.

This week, if there is someone you need to ask for forgiveness, I invite you to have this conversation. If you’re not ready and need help first, then take that step this week and ask for help from a trusted Christian friend, a family member, or one of the retired pastors or me—you do not have to wait for Life Groups to start to be released!

Then I invite you to continue to pray about joining a Life Group. Facilitators are wearing one of these nifty arem bands if you want to talk with one of them. If you are interested in facilitating a group, you still can, so please talk with me!

The Red Letter Challenge Books are in the Gathering Area—some people love having a book, other people with work and family will not have time—that’s okay to do whatever fits into your life. The book is not needed for the Life Group—since there’s a video for that. The book is for your own devotional time. Lets grow together in forgiveness and grace and be that magnetic chuch where everyone wants the love and joy that we exhibit and attract!

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