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Toshiki Toma

Grace – love without being asked

13. júní 2016

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

1.
Today’s parable by Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke is very famous. It is called “parable of the lost sheep” in English. Jesus teaches us that a good shepherd goes into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, even leaving the other 99 sheep in the field.

This parable is rather easy to understand. God cares for a single person who has lost his way. It would be no different if this lost sheep were one among 1.000, or even among 10.000 sheep.

The number of the group to which the lost one belongs has nothing to do with Jesus’s lesson. It is as simple as this: as one sheep is important to the shepherd, one individual is important for God.

God creates one person with inestimable value, so that person should live his life in accordance with that value that God has given to him. If he has lost his way, then God seeks for him and tries to bring him back to the right place.

And when it is said that God helps a lost man so that he may come back to the right place, the place in accordance with his given value as a person, we can see that there are two kinds of standard.

The first one is that a man should live in human circumstances and conditions, even though there might be the sort of hardships that occur, realistically, in a man’s earthly life.

There are conditions which apply to everybody, like human rights, irrespective of one’s religion, nationality, gender or social status. This might be called a “civil standard”, but nevertheless it is also a religious standard if we consider that everybody is a child of God, being created by Him.

The second standard is a more directly religious one, and it is that a man should live in the company of Jesus, that a man should live his life in the salvation of God.

2.
Several different patterns could characterize a life with Jesus. There are people who have always been in the church, and will continue to do so in the future. Others attend the mass only at Christmas and Easter.

Some people come back to the church after a long absence, exactly like lost sheep. Last month I spent a lot of time with a young, pretty photographer from New York, you know Annie, for two weeks, since she was taking photos of asylum-seeking people in Iceland. She came to our prayer meetings, as you all know.

When we said our good-byes, she told me this: “Toshiki, honestly, it’s been a while since I left the church. But now, having spent time with these people, I found it is good to be in the church again, for myself”.

I was very happy to hear that, because I knew it was not a diplomatic compliment. She felt something in our meetings, something good from you, actually.

On the other hand, when someone comes to the church for the first time or just begins to join, and wishes to have a new life with accompany of Jesus, then he has to be baptized.

Through our Seekers-prayer meetings, both in the Laugarnes-church and Hjalla-church, 20 people have been baptized during the last 10 months. 19 adults and one child. And there are still many in the preparation class for baptism. And I feel very happy about this as a pastor of course.

Unfortunately, some of those new brothers in Christ have since been deported to other European countries. But still, I am comforted by one fact: at least something good had happened in their lives while they were here. The days they had spent in Iceland were not in vain, because they were brought to Jesus here.

And I believe that this change will bring them a great difference, a positive difference, not the life danger, in their futures, wherever they may be.

3.
One of my colleagues in Germany told me this some time ago, but it is also very common, that asylum-seeking people go to church and ask for baptism.

But the German authorities doubt if those people are really converting to Christianity: perhaps they are just pretending, trying to gain some sort of advantage in their asylum applications by becoming Christians.

So the authorities have them take small exams during their interviews with them, letting the applicants recite the Ten Commandments of Moses; or asking how many days there are between Easter and Pentecost. The German churches criticize this attitude from the authorities.

I recently saw a news video from Germany, profiling a congregation in which many refugees were baptized. In the pastor’s opinion, half of the people who were baptized in his congregation were aiming at getting a practical advantage by being baptized, and the another half really believed in Jesus.

Two weeks ago, Fréttatíminn, one of the newspapers in Iceland, introduced our prayer meetings in the Laugarnes-church and Hjalla-church. And I have heard some responses from the Icelandic people, something like: “Do these converted refugees really believe in Jesus? Maybe they want just to make their asylum application look better.” OK, this is about some of you.

I have no doubt about whether you are really trying to follow Jesus or just pretending. You meet regularly at the Laugarnes-church or Hjalla-church, many of you even attend both of them. And more than that, I can see you feel good in the churches.

The fact you feel good in the church, and you are having a delightful time there, is the best way to answer the silly doubts from people who attend church services once or twice a year.

4.
When somebody comes to me saying that he wants to get baptized, I make it my standard to have the class for the baptism and it is to help someone to understand the Bible and Christianity better. Usually the class is composed with 6 lessons.

Some people ask: “Are those six times lessons enough for the preparation for the baptism?” in a negative nuance. Ok, this is a question to me.

Are six lessons enough for baptism? Yes. I would say they are enough for the baptism. Because the baptism is not the goal, but it is the beginning. The real lessons for the Christian faith begins with the baptism.

So even if someone newly baptized cannot believe in certain aspects of Christianity 100% just yet, I would say: “No problem. Don’t worry, nobody can believe everything from the first day!”

I myself went to church for the first time when I was 19 years old. And I was baptized when I was 21 years old. Honestly speaking, I was still wondering if Jesus was truly the Son of God, or just somebody like a god, even after my baptism. I didn’t understand the Holy Trinity. Things just took time.

It’s the same with you. Having many questions about Christianity and the Christian faith is a natural thing. Our faith grows as we grow. Your faith gets strengthened through your life-experiences.

I have heard other surprising news from Norway and Denmark, too. I was told that the Norwegian church and the Danish church, both in the Lutheran tradition like this Breiðholts-church, don’t baptize the asylum seekers if they don’t have their passports or some ID documents. In Denmark, the politicians demand it. In Norway, priests are insisting on not baptizing “the paperless refugees”.

I don’t understand this, honestly. Did Jesus have his “Kennitala”? Did Jesus require seeing an ID card when people came to him asking for his help?

5.
In the handbook for us priests in the Icelandic church, we find this sentence in the section of Holy Baptism: “Guð og faðir Drottins vors Jesú Krists hefur elskað oss að fyrra bragði”, which means: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has loved us without being asked” or “God has loved us from His side”.

God doesn’t love us because we love Him. Jesus believes us not because that we believe in him. God loves us first. Jesus calls us first. This is how God looks at us. That is how God gives us his grace.

And baptism is the greatest grace from God, because it is built on the redeeming love and the precious death of Jesus on the cross. Baptism is not a reward for saying the Moses’ Ten Commandments from memory. Baptism is not a reward for the preparation class we take. First of all, it is grace from God, the grace of the forgiveness of God.

And if we are aware of this grace and want to receive that grace from God, if we want to receive it and decide to do so, it becomes to the grace of beginning life with Jesus.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works (…)” (Efe. 2:8-9)

So in every single baptism, we can see the joy of the shepherd who has got back the lost sheep. In every single baptism, we can hear the delight of the fellow sheep in the field, in the congregation. Thanks to God, thanks to Jesus.

The Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Amen.

Texts:

Ephesians 2:8-10

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Luke 15:1-7

Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’

I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

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