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"Bridge Builders"

#90-35
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 30, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries


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Text: 1 Peter 2:11-12

In the city of Berlin, Germany, there is a concrete monument. It's gray and flat and rectangular, stretching about 60 feet into the sky, like an unfinished highway leading heavenward. The structure isn't completely vertical though. It's curved slightly like the beginning of an unfinished arch. From one perspective it does look like the beginnings of a highway to heaven, but from another perspective it looks like a big claw. And I'm told that many locals in Berlin refer to this monument as a claw, or some say that it looks like a three-pronged rake. They call it the Hunger Rake or the Hunger Claw.

This monument was the first major monument constructed in Berlin after World War II and it commemorates a time scarred by hunger. After World War II, the city of Berlin, being the capital of the defeated Nazi regime, was divided with the western half going to the Allied Forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom and the eastern half under the control of the Soviet Union—these world powers which shared jurisdiction over post-war Berlin but not a vision for Berlin's future. The Soviets wanted Berlin to pay for her war crimes. They wanted to exact harsh war reparations from a city already starving from a failing war effort. But the Allies, with the Nazis now defeated, wanted to see Berlin rebuilt. Tensions mounted and 1948 was almost the start of a third world war. The Soviet army surrounded Berlin. They set up a blockade and cut off all supply lines into the city.

The goal was to force the Allies and the Berliners to bow to Soviet will, and if not, the city's inhabitants would all starve, all two million of them. But the Allies had a crazy idea. General Lucius Clay, the American military governor of Germany, explained his idea to Ernst Reuter, Berlin's mayor. He said, "I may be the craziest man in the world, but I'm going to try the experiment of feeding this city by air." And for over a year, that's exactly what they did. For the next 15 months, on average 600 cargo-carrying airplanes landed in Berlin every day. That's about one every three minutes. The "Berlin Airlift," as it has come to be called, carried out by these Allied airmen, was one of the most impressive humanitarian operations in history.

At the beginning of the operation, one American military officer stationed in Berlin explained it this way: "As the planes touched down and bags of flour began to spill from their bellies, I realized that this was the beginning of something wonderful, a way to crack the blockade. I went back to my office almost breathless with elation, like a man who has made a discovery and cannot hide his joy."

That malnourished city had been clawing for survival, raking hungrily toward the heavens, but the Allies were building a bridge through the air to save them. The Berlin Airlift wasn't a physical bridge, but it was like a bridge because bridges—whether literal land bridges or metaphorical ones through the air—all bridges have the same purpose: access. They link people that would otherwise be separated.

On this program, we've started listening to a letter from the New Testament of the Bible, a letter written by one of the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a man named Peter. It's called 1 Peter because it's the first of two letters he wrote. In chapter 2 of his first letter, Peter addresses his audience like a man who has made a discovery and cannot hide his joy. He is speaking to followers of Jesus then and now. He calls them a royal priesthood. That is, a group, a fellowship of priests. So what is a priest? One of the more picturesque words for priest is the Latin word pontifex. A pontifex is a priest in the Latin language, and the word "pontifex" comes from the Latin word "pons," which means "bridge." And a pontifex is one who builds bridges. A priest is a bridge-builder, not a builder of physical bridges but of relational ones. A priest gives access. A priest builds bridges.

So why does Peter call the recipients of his letter royal bridge-builders? Well, Peter is a devoutly Jewish follower of Jesus and Peter believes that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Jewish Messiah. And when he writes the letter, Peter shows how the whole Old Testament story of the Bible was fulfilled in Jesus. And when he calls the people a priesthood, in some ways Peter is going all the way back to the beginning of the story, to when God created heaven and earth and everything in them. Heaven was God's realm, a spiritual realm that God fills like a city God created and filled with spiritual beings He created, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. So God had His city, the spiritual realm, and He also created an earthly city, the physical realm. And from the beginning, God wanted these two cities to be united, heaven and earth joined together. And to accomplish this, God began what may have looked to some like the craziest experiment ever. He created a special sort of creature, creatures made from the dust of the earth yet filled with God's own Spirit, God's breath. God made these creatures to be His bridge, to join heaven and earth together. As it says in Genesis chapter 1, "God created humankind in His own image. In the image of God, He created him, male and female He created them." And God blessed them to be His bridge-builders, His priests.

Now, there's a lot more to the Bible's story about how things went terribly wrong. How some of those spiritual beings in heaven rebelled against God, how they were thrown out of heaven, how they came down to earth to lead humans in a spiritual rebellion and how humankind voluntarily became trapped under a spiritual blockade, lost in sin, spiritually starving, supply lines cut off, and the image of God lost. There is a lot more to the Bible's story and how it makes sense of our miserable war-torn human history. But before we go back there—let's just pause the story here a moment, back at the beginning, and remember what all human beings were created to be. You, whoever you are, whatever damage sin has done to your life, you were made to be a bridge- builder.

Consider your eyes. They aren't just highly attuned instruments for detecting light and color. Your eyes, when they contact the eyes of another human being, they have the power to instantly build a bridge. And your vocal cords, your mouth, your ears, they are for bridge-building, too. Even a brief exchange of words, even a smile without a word, even a hand on someone's shoulder can build a bridge. You've acknowledged your God-given power as a bridge-builder anytime you've ignored someone, avoided them, or given them the silent treatment. You've sensed it when you've isolated someone or when you were isolated. Despite the damage our sin has done, we were created to be bridge-builders. And this is because God our Creator is a bridge-builder by nature. He is an accessible God. From the moment God created our first father and mother, Adam and Eve, God showed them that He is by nature a builder of bridges.

God built a bridge to them by His Word, through His Spirit. He talked with them and walked with them and gave them access to Himself. By building this bridge to Adam and Eve, God gave them the awesome power to become bridge-builders like Him. In time however, Adam and Eve acquired another power: power to isolate themselves. And the Bible tells how God, when He came to find them in their rebellion, called to Adam in the garden, "Where are you?"

"I heard the sound of you," Adam answered, "and I was afraid and I hid myself."

Imagine a city that's been surrounded by an enemy. They are cut off from the outside world. But some in the city don't immediately realize what this means. They still have their local bridges and roads to supply them. They still have their social networks to support them. "Why do we need anything outside of ourselves," they ask. But the truth will hit them when the shelves of their stores run empty. In the pain of starvation, they will feel the truth. When it comes to spiritual starvation, when it comes to our need for God, we may not see the truth so quickly. You and I can hide from God, dragging our guilt, raking out an existence, clawing our way to some sort of higher purpose. But there is not enough in this city to sustain us. We need access to the city of God. We need a bridge. We need a priest. We need a bridge-builder.

In his letter, Peter tells us that God sent His Word, His Son, Jesus, the Messiah, to be the bridge humankind had failed to be. Peter tells us that the Messiah, the Christ, suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. Jesus came to restore our access to God, to reunite heaven and earth. Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. Jesus came to die and to lead us through death. Death to our old selves so that we could be reborn by His resurrection from the dead, born again in Jesus. Peter says, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, so that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light." To trust Jesus, to be baptized as part of His people, is to become what you were created to be, a bridge-builder. To reunite heaven and earth, to connect people with people and all to God.

Before I became a pastor, I served in the Air Force. My job was to help fix airplanes, big airplanes that are a part of a fleet of big airplanes designed to carry cargo and fuel and passengers all around the globe. And within that mobility division of the Air Force, we love to tell the story of the Berlin Airlift. How an air bridge once saved a city. Since becoming a pastor, I've continued to serve in the Air Force Reserves. I'm not a chaplain. I still do my old job as an aircraft maintenance officer. It's not the most spiritual-sounding part-time job for a pastor I admit. It's an earthly calling among salty people with colorful language. And my job in that context is not to preach sermons to people; my job is to help fix airplanes by taking care of the people who turn the wrenches. And yet even there, I am still a priest. I am a bridge-builder for King Jesus. And so you are called. See, you live and work in the city of man. This city is a good place to be with good work to do and if we don't do the work, people will go hungry. But there is more to reality than just physical hunger pains. We are in a spiritual crisis that is more dangerous. We are under a spiritual blockade that could cut us off from God forever, that could confine us in hell. But God remains ever committed to what some still say is a crazy plan. God wants to restore the city through us with Jesus, God's Word leading us, God's Spirit in us. Call it crazy if you like, but God calls us to be His royal priests, to be bridge-builders. And you, with your jobs, with your stations and your social networks, you're able to reach people in this city that no one else can. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you are called to be a bridge-builder for the King.

Once when I was serving on Air Force Reserve duty, the base where I'm assigned was having suicide prevention meetings to address an alarming number of suicides that plague the military. After the meeting, I was back in the office when an old sergeant walks in. Most of the others hadn't returned yet. It was just the two of us. It looked like something was bothering him, so I asked him how he was doing. "Not too well," he said. The meeting had dredged up some painful memories for him, but he said he didn't want to talk about it.

I said, "Okay." And I waited. And they teach us all this stuff about being good wingmen, about being there for your fellow airmen when they need you so I figured I'd just wait and see if he wanted to say more. And then the old sergeant just started talking. It was like someone turned on a valve and years of repressed pain and trauma just start to drain out of him, unspoken memories, then silence, then tears. I wasn't sure what to do. I walked over to him and put my hand on his shoulder as he sobbed and he actually apologized for losing his bearing in front of me, typical military guy. After a few minutes, I said to him, "I don't know if you're a praying man, but I am. Could I pray for you?"

He said, "Yes." And with my hand on his shoulder, I talked to God for both of us in the Name of Jesus. God used me as a bridge there not because I'm a pastor. That sergeant wasn't going to come to my church and he didn't know I was some preacher on the radio, but he let me pray for him because I happened to be the airman there when he needed a wingman. Some of the locals in Berlin refer to that airlift monument as the Hunger Claw as a symbol of desperate people trying to rake out an existence, to grab hold of some fulfillment.

But officially, the monument is called a "Luftbrucke" in German, which means "air bridge." In a certain light, a horizontal shadow is cast like a beam through the middle track so that it looks like a great cross, high enough to join heaven and earth. When God calls you into the priesthood of all believers, He doesn't mean that you already use your best arguments to help people claw their way into heaven, because God has already made a way: through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. One day Jesus will return to crack this spiritual blockade forever, not with a highway to heaven, but with God's kingdom come on earth as in heaven. And you, as you wait with your feet grounded exactly where God has called you with His Word in your heart and your hand on someone's shoulder, you're called to be a bridge-builder. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.




Reflections for April 30, 2023
Title: Bridge Builders

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Today I'm visiting again with Dr. Dale Meyer, who spoke on this very program from 1989 to 2001, 12 years almost, and he's been a frequent guest since. Welcome back, Dale.

Dale Meyer: I'm glad to be back. I want to tell you, those years with The Lutheran Hour was such a great blessing. Not only the work, but the spiritual growth that I was able to receive by being associated with this great program.

Mike Zeigler: I can relate to that, wrestling with the Word week in and week out to find the message that God has for His people. It's a great place to grow spiritually. And that's what we're doing in this series on 1 Peter. We are walking through this letter, listening to this letter of Peter that's recorded in the New Testament.

Dale, I think you would agree that sometimes we have beliefs that may be true of how things are today, but simply were not true of how things were in Bible times when Peter was writing. And these beliefs can sometimes become blinders which might conceal Peter's message or distort it. For example, we might be wearing blinders when we try to picture Peter's description of the church. What does he mean when he's talking about the people of God? So how is our picture of church today different from how Peter would've pictured church?

Dale Meyer: That's a great example. What comes to your mind when you hear the word "church"? Any number of images can pop up: a building, a gathering of people, the time of worship—Diane and I go to eight o'clock church—a denomination, bylaws, budgets, personnel. And some people will say, rightly, the body of Christ. But most of our thoughts about the word church are about the church as an institution. That wasn't the case in the first century. The church was a movement. First, it was a sect within Judaism. In the book of Acts, it's called the "sect of the Nazarenes" or "the people of the Way." And then this movement got into the Gentile world. It did not have the institutional trappings that we associate with the church today. But the church in the New Testament was people called by God who gathered around the Good News of Jesus.

Mike Zeigler: So, what would be some distortions in thinking of church primarily or only as an institution as we listen to Peter's letter?

Dale Meyer: Well, there are many. Consider people who are outside the church. They might perceive us as another civic institution like the Rotary, the American Legion, Meals on Wheels, Goodwill, what have you. And those are good institutions. And a lot of people might think of us as just another public-minded institution. There are consequences also for church members if we only think institutionally. One I see all the time is that we become more concerned with preserving the institution than with getting into the community with the Good News of Jesus.

Mike Zeigler: What would have the recipients of Peter's letter seen on an average morning when they go to church?

Dale Meyer: Well, it would've been a lot different. Jesus would've been the same. They would've heard the Old Testament Scriptures. They would've received writings from the New Testament apostles and evangelists. But so much else was different. For example, they did not have dedicated church buildings back then. Church buildings, as we know them, did not come until the fourth century. The early church met in houses, and the head of the house led the beliefs of the family members and slaves. You can see that familial way in Acts chapter 10 where Peter speaks to Cornelius, but the whole household comes to faith in Jesus. So one of the differences when Peter talks about spiritual house in chapter 2, verse 5, that was literal.

Mike Zeigler: It's a household. There's a father and a mother of the house. They've got children, household slaves, maybe some people who come from other families that don't have the whole household as Christians. They're visiting. So there's some hospitality that's being practiced. That's what we should imagine for an early church service.

Dale Meyer: Exactly. The father of the home, the patres familias in Latin, as a Christian, would want to gather all his family together for the Christian assembly, which would happen every week, and it might be joined by others. In chapter 3 verses 1-6, Peter talks about wives whose husbands do not believe. And so as you said that woman several doors down who has come to believe in Jesus but her husband doesn't. Now that was a dangerous situation for her. She comes to join the Christian household meeting at Dale or Mike's house.

Mike Zeigler: How should we then today try to incorporate this understanding, Peter's understanding, of what the church looked like in his day? What does it mean for us?

Dale Meyer: No, I don't think we want to get rid of our buildings, but by the same token, we shouldn't idolize them. I think one of the best things we can do is make our community aware that our church building is where people gather to worship. But then we go out into the community to do good works. I'm afraid many who are not believers in Jesus look at church buildings as relics or museums of the past. Our churches historically were in neighborhoods and served the neighborhood. But now reflect upon the membership of your congregation or mine. A lot of people drive in and sometimes we're not serving the very neighborhood where the church is located. And so getting back to the idea of the spiritual house, my family inviting other families to come to my first-century Christian assembly, that's something that we would do well to do again.




Music Selections for this program:


"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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