"No Boasting, Just Belonging"#88-08
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 25, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Romans 3: 19-31
***Special Main Street Living Television Program Message***
At the sandlot, baseball wasn't just the game. It was life if Benny had anything to say about it. And belonging came before performing. In the 1993 movie, The Sandlot, it's a coming-of-age story situated in the summer of 1962 told from the perspective of Scott Smalls. Smalls remembers being the new kid in town and seeing this group of boys playing baseball at the sandlot, and he can close his eyes and still see it.
It was like their own little baseball kingdom or something. It's the greatest thing I'd ever seen anyway. They were good. Real good. All I had was this plastic toy mitt that my grandmother had given me for my birthday when I was six. But when I finally got up the guts to go out there and see if I could make some friends, I found out that they didn't keep score. They didn't choose sides. They never even really stopped playing the game. It just went on forever. Every day, they would pick up right where they left off the day before. It was like an endless dream game. There were only eight of them, so he didn't have a whole team. So I figured that even though I didn't know how to play, I could be their ninth man. Maybe just stand in the outfield somewhere and take up space. The kingdom of God is like a sandlot baseball game.
Now, if you're listening to this, there's a good chance you're already part of the kingdom. You're an insider to the kingdom. You already belong. Or maybe this has come to you and you're like Scott Smalls, and you're looking in from the outside. Now, if you're an outsider to the kingdom, you might have some misconceptions about what the kingdom is like. On the one hand, maybe you dismiss the kingdom. It's just a game. Or on the other hand, maybe you desire the kingdom, but like Smalls, you doubt if you're good enough to belong to it.
Let's talk about these two misconceptions, starting with the first. That is, dismissing the kingdom. It's just a game. Now, you know some people like this—some Christians or people who call themselves Christians, treat the kingdom like it's a game, like it's a pastime. They're trying to use the kingdom. They're trying to use their spirituality, their religion, their church attendance to get something else that they want—maybe it's entertainment, maybe it's power, maybe it's just good feelings. They're trying to use the kingdom. But if we hold up that conception that the kingdom is just a game to the light of the Christian faith's foundational documents, it's clear that it falls short.
Let's just look at one of those foundational documents. The letter to the Romans. The letter to the Romans was written by a guy named Paul. Paul was raised Jewish, and Jewish people like Paul took the kingdom really seriously. It wasn't just a game for them because they believed that the God who created the universe had chosen them. He promised to work through them to heal the world, to right every wrong, to return what was lost. God gave His people a sign that they were His chosen people. He gave them His Law. His Law was a playbook for them to live by.
But if you look at the stats of God's people in the Old Testament, their losing record makes the Cubs' 100-year curse look like little league. Season after season, God's people failed. God, like this diehard devoted fan, yeah, He gets frustrated with them. He curses them and cajoles them, but He never gives up on them. He promises to send them a King who will save them, who will redeem them from their guilt and their captivity to their sin. This King—He would be called the anointed King—it means he would be covered with God's Spirit and filled with God's Spirit and the word for this in Hebrew is Messiah, and translated into Greek it's Christ.
So picture it. Paul, this Jewish guy from the first century, he's gallivanting around the Roman Empire. And he's making speeches and he's writing letters, and you're watching this from the stands and you're like, "Why is Paul so devoted to this guy, Jesus of Nazareth, a miracle worker, a wonder worker, a teacher who had been crucified, dead and buried by the authority of the Roman Empire. Why is Paul so devoted to this guy?"
Well, it's because he believes that God raised Jesus from the dead thereby proving Him to be that King we've all been waiting for. So Paul has come out of the stands and onto the field so that everybody would know Jesus and trust in Him and obey Him as their King. It's not a game for Paul and his co-workers. The Kingdom is life, and their message has come down through the generations, and it's come to me and it's come to others, and it's become our life. I pray that it'd become your life.
So maybe you don't dismiss the Kingdom as just a game, but maybe you doubt that you're good enough to belong to it—like Scott Smalls. Now in Small's case, he had good reason to doubt. He didn't even know how to play baseball. When he came out with his plastic toy mitt that his grandmother had given him, everybody practically laughed him off the field. Everybody except Benny. Benny was the one who had invited Scott to come out on the field. Now Benny was the king of the sandlot. Everybody knew that Benny alone was destined for the big leagues. He could outperform every player at every position. He was the best player in town. Without Benny, these guys were an insult to the game. Benny was the one who made them something when they were nothing. Next to Benny, nobody had anything to boast about, but it didn't stop Alan from trying.
If you've seen the movie, everybody calls Alan, "Yeah, Yeah" because he has a habit of repeating himself like that. "Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah." They're all laughing at Smalls with his toy mitt and his puny throwing arm and, and Yeah, Yeah is like "Yeah, yeah, Benny. Yeah, yeah. The kid's a weenie. Oscar Meyer. Foot-long. Weenie." Everybody's laughing at Yeah, Yeah's joke, and Benny's like "What are you laughing at, Yeah, Yeah? You run like a duck." "Ooh," everybody says, and then Yeah, Yeah's like, "KK, but I, but I ...." Benny says, "But you're a part of the game, right? So how come he don't get to be?"
Maybe you doubt that you're good enough to belong to God's kingdom. Maybe it's because some insider like me made you feel that we thought we were better than you. We're not. But sometimes we act that way. See, we insiders have our own misconceptions and our own temptations to deal with—sometimes not intentionally. Maybe not even out loud. We might say like, "Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I did something good to get in good with God. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I did the right things to get where I am. Yeah, yeah. I got something to boast about. Right?" Wrong. It's not right that any insider would elevate himself or herself over you, but it happens. I'm sorry that it does. This is a perennial problem in God's kingdom. It's a problem today, and it was a problem back when Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. So I want you to listen to that letter with me, an excerpt from the third chapter. And listen to how Paul deals with the problem of insider boasting.
He says, "What do we conclude then? Are we any better? No, not at all. We've already laid out the charge that Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders alike, are under the power of sin. As it is written, there is no one righteous, not even one. No one who understands. No one who seeks God. All have turned aside. They have all together become useless. There is no one who does good, not even one. So then, we know that whatever the Law speaks, it says to those under the Law so that every mouth would be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God so that no human being will be declared to be in the right because of works, because of performance of the Law. But rather through the Law, we come to recognize sin: our sin. But now a right standing with God has been revealed apart from the Law.
"Although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it, this right standing with God comes into effect through the trustworthiness of Jesus, the anointed King. For everyone. everyone who trusts. You see there is no distinction. There is no difference. All have sinned and are falling short of God's glory. Yet as a free gift by God's grace, they are declared to be in the right, through the redemption that is in the anointed King Jesus. God publicly put forward Jesus in the place of mercy, as an atoning sacrifice through faith by His blood. God did it to prove that He is in the right, on account of Him passing over sins from beforehand in His patience. God did it to prove that He is in the right now, in this momentous time, and for Him to be in the right and to declare to be in the right the one who trusts in the trustworthiness of Jesus. So then what happens to our boasting?
"It is shut out. By what sort of law? By law of works of performance? No, by a law of faith. For we hold that a person is declared to be in the right by faith, not by works, not by performance of the Law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles as well? Yeah, yeah. Of the Gentiles as well, because God is One, and He will declare the circumcised: the insider in the right through faith, and the uncircumcised: the outsider in the right by faith. So then by faith, do we abolish the Law? Absolutely not. By faith, we uphold the Law." The Word of the Lord from Romans 3.
The kingdom of God is not a game. Our performance matters. The Law is our playbook. The Law teaches us how to love others as God first loved us. Our performance matters, but in God's kingdom, just like on Benny's sandlot, belonging comes before performing. Remember that: belonging comes before performing. And belonging is a gift from Jesus received by faith. Not because we've earned it by our performance. See, without Jesus, we're nothing. We're an insult to the Kingdom without Him. Every time we come up scoreless, hitless, winless. All our boasting has been shut out, and yet our King, diehard devoted, He steps onto the field in our place—and He lives for us and He dies for us, and He rises again to make a place for us on the field. Because Jesus performed, you belong.
Some years back, I went to go play baseball with my three boys. We went to the local park. There was just four of us. So we couldn't play a game, but we were going to do some batting and hitting and throwing the ball around. But when we got to the field, we saw that it was already taken. So I said to the boys, "Hey, boys, let's just go over here and play until they're done." This strange thought occurred to me. What if you played with them? With them?
Their hair was black and their skin was dark brown. I could hear them speaking in Spanish to one another. Could we play with them, or do we need to have separate games? Sort of like how we have separate neighborhoods and separate schools and separate churches. So I went to the oldest and I said, "Hey, can we play with you guys?" He said, "Yes." We found out their names were Louis, Joshua, and Alex. For the next hour, we played sandlot-style baseball with them. We didn't keep score. We didn't count strikes or outs or errors. We just played the game.
For a moment we all belonged. Baseball is just a game. But that game made me think about the Kingdom that will never end. And when all these games that we play come to their end, and all our boasting has been shut out forever, then we will sing a song to King Jesus. Worthy are You Jesus. Because You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God, people from every tribe and language and nation, and You made them a Kingdom. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for October 25, 2020
Title: No Boasting, Just Belonging
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, celebrating 90 years of "Bringing Christ to the Nations—and the Nations to the Church." For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today I am delighted to be talking with Dr. John Nunes. He's the president of Concordia College in Bronxville, New York. Welcome to the program, Dr. Nunes.
John Nunes: It's great to be with you, Michael. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Mike Zeigler: John, this week is the anniversary of the Reformation. It's an important moment in the history of Christianity. And many Christians around the world still celebrate it today, including Lutherans. You and I, we would say we are Lutherans. But John, if someone is unfamiliar with the term Lutheran, how would you briefly introduce them to what it means to be a Lutheran?
John Nunes: So, I think people have heard of Catholics, I would use Catholic with a small C, and people have heard of evangelicals, I would use evangelical with a large E. Lutherans are about the Gospel. Yeah, they're people of the Gospel, and they are people who are part of this Western Christian tradition, people who really are about a reform movement within the church catholic. But the particular gift, I think, that Lutherans bring, is this gift of God's grace, what God has done for us, uniquely in Jesus Christ, that we could never do for ourselves.
Mike Zeigler: Small C catholic, catholic just meaning universal, all around the world, all times, all places. So we're a part of a deep tradition. We saw how, at a point in the church ... the church, for a moment, lost sight of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and that's what Lutherans are about.
John Nunes: Lutherans serve as a constant reminder about Christo-centricity, which is a million-dollar word, which means that Christ is at the center of who we are, of what we do, and Christ's work is at the center of our lives.
Mike Zeigler: Now, when people, perhaps if they're familiar with the term "Lutheran," they imagine what a Lutheran looks like, what a Lutheran sounds like, their minds might go to, I don't know, stories of Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon. And they think a person's primarily of Scandinavian or Germanic descent. That's true for many people, but it's not an accurate picture of what Lutherans look like globally. John, I know in your previous work, you've traveled around the world and you've met a lot of Lutherans. How might what you've seen expand our image of what a Lutheran looks like and where Lutherans live?
John Nunes: I think it's an exciting time to be Lutheran around the world. You know, Michael, on this day, there are more Lutherans alive now than there have ever been in the history of the world.
Mike Zeigler: Really?
John Nunes: Now, sometimes if you look at Lutherans in the United States, you may not think that. But, I mean, the church is burgeoning, is exploding, especially in East Africa. In Ethiopia for example, where one out of every 10 people in Ethiopia is a Lutheran. They have 80 million people in their country, they have over 8 million Lutherans in Ethiopia. There are more Lutherans in Ethiopia than there are Lutherans in North America, which is stunning. Tanzania, Madagascar, and the Asian churches are also showing great signs of life. The Lutheran movement is quite alive around the world.
Mike Zeigler: You mentioned that sometimes we have this narrative of decreasing numbers in North America, but that's really ... it is exciting to know that the faith is alive around the world.
John Nunes: Yeah. So sometimes I think, as you mentioned, Michael, we reduce Lutheran to Scandinavian or Germanic people, or people who walk like us, and talk like us, and look like us, and cook like us, and dance like us, and eat the same kind of German potato salad and jello, whatever it is when you put the fruit in jello. We almost define those things as if they are Lutheran, but Lutheranism is a movement that is dynamic, and it really is not about any demographic group of people, or any cultural group of people. It is about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mike Zeigler: John, you've co-authored a book with Dr. Alberto Garcia. The title is Wittenberg Meets the World: Re-imagining the Reformation at the Margins. In the book, you suggest that there's a lot that we can learn from Lutherans around the world. Specifically, I'd like to hear more about this conversation that you had with an Ethiopian pastor, who was the president of that largest Lutheran church body in the world that you mentioned, the Mekane Yesus church in Ethiopia. What could we learn from that church in Ethiopia?
John Nunes: That's a great question. The way I thought this through, Michael, was, we in North America have struggled in terms of stabilizing churches and church ... and we're graying, and we're thinning in terms of our membership. So in a place where Lutheranism is incredibly dynamic ... I mean, this church body started in 1959 with 65,000 people, and they now have over 8 million people. So I asked him, "What are some of the reasons that you would attribute growth to your church?"
Of course, he said, "It's all the work of God through the Holy spirit. But if you ask me again, I'll tell you a few other things that we have done." He says, "The first thing that we've done is we emphasize the ministry of lay people. That is, people who are not pastors. That every single baptized person of God is called into ministry, and has gifts that God has given her or him through the Holy spirit, and has a responsibility and an opportunity to put those gifts into action." One of the points he made is that when you equip the saints, Ephesians 4 talks about equipping the saints, when you equip the saints, the church grows.
The second thing he said is, "We've been in revival since we were founded." Now, in North America, Lutherans are not really comfortable sometimes with that term, "revival," but revival simply means that we renew the baptismal promises that God made to us when God named us and claimed us in three splashes of water, and said that we belong to Him forever. So part of the point that was made by Iteffa was that to be in renewal, to be in revival, is a sign and a reason for growth.
Then he said that, "We're in ministry to the whole person," reason number three. In other words, we're not just ministering to people's souls to save their souls for heaven, but we understand that people have needs in their body. They have human needs, and they have needs for health, and for food, and for clothing, and for livelihood, and for access to employment. "So we have a whole system," he said, "in our church body, that does social service and outreach ministries, and that's the third reason that they have grown."
The fourth reason, he said, is, and this is pretty stark, he said, "We are prepared to die for our faith." In other words, they are prepared, as one of the church fathers said in the 2nd century, Tertullian was his name, he said that, "The blood of the martyrs, those who bear witness to Christ and give their life for Christ, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and we're prepared to die." They put their faith on the line for what they believe.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for joining us, John. Would you come back next week, and we could talk some more?
John Nunes: That'd be great. If you invite me, I'll be here.
Mike Zeigler: All right. Well, we'll see you then.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)