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In the picture words of the Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters -- one represents danger and the other represents opportunity. It is that conjunctive point where one either flees in fear or faces the future with optimism and hope.
How does one go on when life seems to have been torn apart at the seams? Loved ones die; others turn away from us; we are forced to assume responsibility we never chose. We want things to be what they were before, but we know that they never will be. The world is just not the same, and we are not sure that we like it the way it is.
There is a word that has been lingering in the back of my mind this week. That word is liminal. It’s defined as the in-between, transitional stage. It comes from the Latin limin, which means threshold, like the threshold of a doorway, separating two distinct areas.
Some examples Of Liminality include
Stairwells and Elevators are quite clearly in-between spaces or thresholds. ...
Empty Art Galleries. ...
Hotel Hallways Late At Night. ...
Schools During Breaks. ...
Empty Parking Lots. ...
All of these suggest something in-between what their space is intended for.
I like to play with words, as you know, so finding forms of the word is interesting.
For example, the word subliminal literally means below the threshold. Think of music that’s just below your ability to make it out, but you know it’s there. Subliminal suggestion was once used in advertising, with quick frames of products spliced into film that the eye and mind couldn’t quite make out but was still implanted on the brain.
Something that’s preliminary – introductory, preparatory - clearing away encumbering details before that liminal moment arrives. Even the word eliminate speaks of moving something unnecessary or unwanted “out of the threshold.”
Psychology speaks of the area between the unconscious (subliminal) and the conscious (supraliminal) as the liminal state.
In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. Think graduation from school and not yet knowing what will come next. Will I get a job that supports me or am I moving back in with Mom and Dad? I heard a struggling comedian say that he was a “stay-at-home son.”
Liturgically, we are in a liminal stage, a time “in between.” The risen Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, but the Spirit has not yet descended. Following the Easter story, we read that Jesus has gone; the group of Twelve is missing a member; and Peter steps forward to lead the “early church” in one of its first administrative decisions. The world is not the same for any of them either.
So how are we to act in this liminal stage? The first reading offers us a glimpse of early church life. It shows a leader who involves the entire community in an important ecclesial decision, and a community that takes this ecclesial responsibility seriously. As our country today struggles with issues of leadership and communal responsibility, we would do well to learn from this model of collegiality.
The second reading on most of the Sundays of the Easter season comes from 1 John and it directs our attention to love—the love that God has for us and, flowing from this love, the love we must have for one another. We are constantly reminded of its breadth and depth and of its ability to transform us into new people. There is a lesson to be learned here as well.
Today’s Gospel depicts a very tender moment. Jesus prays for us; he prays that we might be embraced by God’s protective love as we continue life in this world. Jesus knew its challenges, its disappointments, even its hostility. We may not be happy with certain aspects of this world, but this is where we are and this is what we have. At times we may feel betrayed by church or political leaders; we may be disappointed by those with whom we are in community, but we have not been betrayed by nor will we be disappointed with God. We live “in between” the world we knew and loved and the one that is yet to appear, but we are not alone. We have a God who loves us, a redeemer who prays for us, and we also have one another.
Definition of liminal
- of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold: barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response
- of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: IN-BETWEEN, TRANSITIONAL
Chris Drew, PhD, the helpful professor at helpfulprofessor.com has written an excellent explanation of that liminal space (https://helpfulprofessor.com/liminal-space/).
Liminal space is an in-between space. It is the space when you are ‘on the verge’ of something new: you are between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be’. You are waiting and not knowing about what will come.
You can use the term literally to explain spaces between two others. An example is a waiting room in a dentist’s office, feeling anxious about what the dentist will say.
It can also be an in-between state of mind (‘liminality’) such as when you’re half asleep, half awake, or when you’re waiting for an important phone call.
You often experience liminality in transformative moments in your life. These are moments of uncertainty, but that also are ripe with possibility.
Examples of liminal space include:
After a breakup; Just before starting a new job; When finishing high school but you’ve not yet started the next chapter in your life.
A liminal space is often uncomfortable and disorienting. It is characterized by uncertainty because you don’t know what’s about to come when you cross the threshold into the new space beyond.
Liminal space is an in-between space. It can be defined as a space that is:
- A threshold between two spaces
- A transitional space
- A transformative space
- A space where you don’t know what is coming, but where many things are possible in the near future
Here is another definition from Richard Rohr: “Liminality is a form of holding the tension between one space and another. It is in these transitional moments of our lives that authentic transformation can happen.”
4 Key Features of Liminal Spaces
- It is an in-between space
- It can be a literal space between two others
- It can also be an abstract space between two states of mind
- It is a space full of contradictory emotions. Liminal space is full of possibility, potential and renewal as we await what is to come. However, it also often feels uncomfortable and disorienting when we don’t know what is coming beyond the threshold
- So there are both advantages and disadvantages in liminal space.
- Liminal space is a space where change can occur. It can therefore be full of excitement and opportunity. New and good things could be coming, just around the corner. Richard Rohr explains that it is “a good space where genuine newness can begin.”
- A fresh start People also often say liminal space gives us a fresh start. We can put aside the things we didn’t like from a past situation and start afresh with a new positive outlook.
- Creativity and innovation Because liminality brings up strong emotions, a lot of creativity occurs when you are in a liminal space. Songs, works of art, and books are created to represent the strong emotions that liminality brings up.
1. Discomfort Liminal spaces can be scary and uncomfortable. When we don’t know what’s coming, we’ll often feel anxious and sick in the stomach. Physically, they can also be empty and spooky, such as empty stairwells.
2. Feeling unprepared Another disadvantage of liminality is that we often feel unprepared for it. When we are waiting for a diagnosis from a doctor, we might not want to face the reality. When we’re graduating university, we might feel like it’s too soon to start a job because we feel unprepared.
3. Need for support Due to this discomfort and uncertainty in liminal space, many people seek help during times of transition. They could seek out professional help or look for the unconditional love and support of their family, loved ones and community during this time.
4. Fear Many times a liminal space makes us afraid. This is especially true when it seems like there are many cons of passing through the threshold to the next chapter of life and not many pros.
A couple Examples Of Liminality In Movies
1. The Lion King (Movie)
After Simba’s father dies, he runs away from home to live with Timon the meerkat and Pumba the warthog in exile. Here, Simba lives in a state of liminality: he is stuck here during his adolescence, afraid to return to his tribe. The audience is also well aware that Simba will not stay in exile forever. We are left waiting to see what will happen to Simba after he eventually leaves this moment of liminality to return to his tribe and challenge his uncle, Scar.
2. The Terminal (Movie)
Steven Spielberg’s movie The Terminal follows the life of Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) when he gets stuck in JFK Airport in New York. Viktor is denied entry to the United States but is also unable to return home due to a military coup that took place in his home country during his flight. The story is loosely based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian who was stuck in Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris for 18 years. This is a perfect example of a liminal space: the character is stuck between ‘what was’ (his life back home) and ‘what will be’ after he is eventually provided a country within which to live, inevitably Belgium. It is full of possibility (which nation will accept him, if any?) and uncertainty.
I submit to you that those Disciples gathered together in the upper room, where they are spending their time in intense prayer have found themselves in liminal space: think of their calendar – these are the 10 days between Ascension and Pentecost, where all of those senses and feelings are working among them – excitement and discomfort; a fresh start and a feeling of unpreparedness; creativity and innovation surging, but fear and a sense of aloneness prevail. Jesus is gone, the promised Spirit has not yet arrived… What will it all be like?
Sisters and brothers, we also ought to consider just how we are in a liminal space. We have spent the past year and a half studying “Who Broke My Church?”; discovering our windows; discerning our spiritual giftedness; walking the Road to Damascus in order to understand how we are all missionaries for God’s Kingdom right where we are. And we have done this right in the midst of a dangerous disease which has cut us off from family, friend, and neighbor like nothing else we have ever experienced in our lives. And we are just now beginning to come out of that time, as things begin to open up because of the success of social distancing, masking, hand-washing and now vaccinations that are curtailing the incidence of Covid 19 in our communities. Folks, we’re on the threshold of what may be the renewed explosion of Christ’s church, leaving behind old unsuccessful means of sharing the gospel and making the most of the opportunity that our new-found faith-walk affords us. As the church experiences an awakening, it is being prepared to receive the revival of the community that is coming.
What’s involved in that? Excitement and discomfort; a fresh start and a feeling of
unpreparedness; creativity and innovation surging, but fear and a sense of aloneness prevail.
Times of liminality occur regularly in our lives. These are the times between chapters in our story. It is the time when a ‘new chapter in our life story’ begins. And here is a clue as to how to prepare for such a time: after naming the 11 apostles in verse 13, Acts 1:14, the verse just before our text for this morning says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts 2:42 will speak of the nascent church after Pentecost: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” In Acts 6:4 the apostles, overwhelmed by the labors of caring for a burgeoning church, hand over the tasks of service to 7 deacons, stating that instead they would “give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Getting the point? Pray, people, pray!
What is liminal space? The word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘threshold’. There are both pros and cons of liminality. While it offers new beginnings, we may also feel a sense of loss for what has passed. It may also bring mixed emotions of excitement and fear.
We move from a maintenance oriented existence as church, which seeks to attract enough members to keep worship attendance and financial giving at comfortable, viable levels, to a missionally oriented church – one that seeks to live out its call as a sign, a witness, and a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. It is a sign that God is at work in this place and world; it is a witness, because we have a story to tell; and it is a foretaste of the kingdom where care for one another is exhibited and nurtured as we love one another.
We live in that liminal place; like the disciples caught in between Ascension and Pentecost, we are caught between Pentecost and Christ’s Second Coming, and somewhere between “the modern church in a post-modern world” and what is yet to be revealed. It is a pregnant place, full of hope and possibility. And we are not left alone – We are filled with God’s Holy Spirit, supported and held up by Christ’s high-priestly prayer, one with God and one with one another in the faith. We’ve a story to tell to the nations. Let us move out!
Desperately seeking something
After briefly flirting with church attendance, one TV sitcom character chalks up his experience as generally beneficial. “I finally learned what that guy in the end zone holding up the big card that says ‘John 3:16’ on it is talking about!”
It may come as a big surprise to longtime churchgoers, steeped in a biblical, Christian experience, accustomed to hearing religious-sounding words and seeing religious-looking symbols, that we now live in what experts call a genuinely post-Christian culture, or what I prefer to call pre-Christian culture, because it differs little from the first century culture to which the apostles ministered. Our society is defined far more by all those people who have no clue as to what that guy in the end zone is trying to say than it is by those recognizing the citation of a biblical chapter and verse.
Let me first define another term: postmodernism is defined as having at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies, characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; having a general suspicion of reason and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. So you can see that a post-modern society would view nearly any cultural, political or religious authority, indeed, any authority, with a great deal of skepticism.
On the other hand, a pre-Christian culture does not mean that there is a lack of spiritual interest or slacking of spiritual hunger. On the contrary, this postmodern and pre-Christian age has recently awakened with a start to the fact that it is spiritually starving – and the hunger pains are leading to a frantic feeding frenzy. Without the table of tradition to offer them nourishment, spiritual seekers have embarked on a smorgasbord of what they hope will be soul-satisfying samples.
For example, there is a renewed interest in prayer and the condition of the spirit in healing and health issues. Native American, Indian, Asian, and Eastern European traditions have been grafted into the middle of suburban American culture in order to try to inject new depth and meaning into our daily existence. Nature and the new Eco-spirituality attempt to reconnect our human spirit to the environment it lives in. Astrophysicists, genetic researchers, and computer scientists studying artificial intelligence are increasingly introducing spiritual questions into their technological studies.
As we have been praying for the Islamic world during this season of Ramadan we have likewise discovered the deep searching in so many of their hearts and lives for a relationship with the God they do not know.
From the book of Acts, chapter 8, 21st century Christians need to take Phillip’s evangelical style and enthusiasm to heart. Instead of standing around trying to determine if we should wade into all this haphazard spiritual seeking, let us stride right into the middle of the stream, confident in the strength of our own spiritual tradition. Like Philip, we should not hesitate to go where the Spirit sends us, no matter how unlikely the territory or how odd its inhabitants.
The Ethiopian eunuch embodies a classic model of the spiritual seeker. In fact, by following the same rules of engagement, Phillip demonstrates in today’s text from the Book of Acts, we can reach out to our postmodern, pre-Christian, but “desperately seeking God” culture that is in such soul pain. Here are the 5M’s of seeker outreach: Messenger; Movement; Mandate; Method; Message.
The first reality Philip accepted was that no matter how spiritually hungry seekers may be, they are not going to come to Christ by themselves. They need an escort, a guide, a messenger. The Great Commission is the mandate, not of religious professionals, but of all believers. Every single one of us is called to “…do the work of an evangelist,” as Paul directed his disciple Timothy (remember, disciples making disciples making disciples?) (2 Timothy 4:5).
Faith in Jesus does not come about “naturally.” The story of Christ’s life and ministry, his crucifixion for our sakes, and his resurrection from the dead cannot be discerned simply by gazing at the mountaintops or praying at a river’s edge.
Christ requires our witness, the excited retelling of the story from one generation to the next, in order for the good news of the gospel to be heard. One of the great truths of Christianity is its “scandal of particularity.” Christians dared to declare that one man, in one event, at one time, in one place made a difference for all eternity and for all humanity. That is why every Christian must be a voice, telling the story, passing the message along. We are all escorts for a stumbling culture that has lost all sense of spiritual direction. Philip willingly wandered out into the middle of the barren desert to find a single individual on a roadway in order to offer the greatest words of guidance any traveler could ever hope to hear – that Jesus Christ is the way. Philip, like you, was a messenger.
When Philip saw the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot approaching, he ran after the traveler. Philip didn’t expect the Ethiopian to stop and ask him if he wanted a lift. He didn’t complain that he didn’t have a horse to ride alongside. He simply did what he could with what he had. He used his own 2 legs to catch up to him. He adapted himself to the circumstances and took off running.
Adapting ourselves to circumstances is not something we really like to do. We’d rather they conform to our norms, our conditions. Change to adapt to what’s going on around us? Let them come to us!
We had better get used to change, for in this postmodern culture, it’s the only thing that’s not changing. Does anyone need to have it pointed out that the future is hardly sauntering along? What is more, the nature of change itself has changed. Change is no longer incremental, but exponential. The invention of the microchip is having a greater impact on this planet than the invention of fire. As anyone who has to update their technology understands, the speed of a micro-processing chip, which doubles in power and halves in cost every 18 months, begins to reveal the rate of change and development in almost all of society.
Increasingly our very lives are being forced to move along with that same kind of speed. If we want to reach out and capture the attention of the spiritual seekers in this age, then Christians also must learn to “run alongside” the fast-paced chariot of postmodern life. In this past year alone we’ve had to learn how to operate with online church services, multiple zoom meetings, blogs, and socially distanced fellowship, which certainly is an oxymoron. And this old dog has had a difficult time keeping pace. But change we have. And that’s movement.
After Philip catches up to the Ethiopian’s chariot, he doesn’t insist that the man stop so that they can have a quiet talk. Instead, he earned himself a seat aboard that fast-moving vehicle by speaking to the eunuch about that which is obviously of most immediate concern to him. The eunuch is reading from Isaiah, obviously musing about the contents of that scroll. Philip doesn’t begin by asking the eunuch the state of his soul or what kind of life he is living. Instead he focuses on the matter squarely before this man – the contents of the scroll: “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asks.
We must be willing to meet all people in spiritual quest at the point of their own individual concerns and needs. The church’s witness will only reach postmodern seekers if it sits alongside them and fearlessly steps into the world they must live in every day. For some, this may mean feeding their stomachs before attempting to feed their souls. For some others, this might mean offering a physical space of peace and quiet before revealing to them the peace of Christ. For still others, this might mean an offering of human warmth and loving concern before sharing the joy of God’s ultimate love and salvation through Christ. In each case, we earn the right to share the message by developing a relationship. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. We must master a variety of outreach: individual outreach, small cell outreach, social outreach, niche outreach, justice outreach, etc. That’s our mandate.
No matter what tack Philip might’ve considered to be best in order to address the Isaiah text the eunuch was reading, he let the seeker ask his own questions and answered those first. The eunuch asked about whom the prophet was speaking, himself or someone else – a question that might not seem to point to a personal lesson on salvation. But Philip lets the eunuch ask his own questions and direct the course of the conversation so that he will feel the answer he receives is genuinely directed toward him.
Likewise, a Christian on mission must deal with the agenda spiritual seekers bring to the table. Christian tradition from an earlier, more confident age declared that “all roads lead to Christ.” Those of you who have followed along on the “Road to Damascus” small group study will remember that missionaries operate from a centered set, where a closed set says “I believe what I believe and that’s what’s right,” excluding all other thoughts and people who think differently; an open set includes anything and everything, with no boundaries whatsoever, leading to universalism, every philosophy is acceptable and everybody’s in no matter what they believe; and then there’s proper understanding of the centered set where the cross of Jesus is at the center of everything and cannot be removed, and every person is somewhere on their journey to the cross, whether they know it or not. We must have the same confidence in our faith that Philip exemplified. Listening as the Holy Spirit gives direction, praying for the proper response, and watching for the right moment of receptivity will give us the needed insight to help a person along their way to the cross. That’s method.
This culture is in the midst of a huge lower-case “god rush.” A few years back, the number one high-fashion magazine in the world, the high-gloss W, even went so far as to say that anyone who is anybody (i.e., “Star”), has a new addition to his or her entourage. Along with the requisite agent, accountant, lawyer, chauffeur, life-coach, health guru, and bodyguards, there is now another person: a spiritual guide. I googled “importance of a spiritual guide” and got 121 million hits across faith traditions from Christianity to Islam, Buddhism to Wiccanism.
But like earlier “gold rushes” in American history, there is a lot of “fool’s gold” out there.
Counterfeit spiritualities abound. While all questions can lead to Christ, all roads don’t lead to God. When Philip shared “the good news about Jesus” (verse 35), he let the eunuch know that the real God in his own personal God Rush, the only real gold in the hills and vales of his own life, was the God of Israel, who revealed the essence of who God is in Jesus, the Christ. Philip “Good Newsed” the eunuch with the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
Sisters and brothers, as missionaries in the Kingdom of God, while we may not have the gift of evangelism, each and every baptized believer has the role of missionary, being on mission wherever we are to whomever we encounter to share the one truth we possess – that Jesus Christ has died to pay for the sins of all people, has been raised again to glory, and will yet come again. The proclamation is: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. In the midst of that is the Good News that God so loved the world, God so loves that person with whom you are led to share, that he gave his only Son to bring them all the way to the cross.
5 M’s. Messenger; Movement; Mandate; Method; Message. And the question is, “Who will you good news with Christ’s love this week?”
An old Chinese proverb tells the story of a fox that was captured by a tiger. The fox said, "You can't eat me because the gods have made me the leader of all the animals." The tiger did not believe him, but the fox said, "Follow me and see if any animal challenges me." The tiger agreed to this and followed directly behind the fox as the fox began his walk through the forest. To the tiger's amazement it turned out to be exactly as the fox had said. Not a single animal they encountered challenged the fox. Indeed every animal they met fled in sheer panic. After several such encounters the tiger finally agreed that the fox was the leader of all the animals and let him go. The proverb teaches that it is easy to remove obstacles that oppose us when we have a tiger behind us.
The King of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
And he is mine forever.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
With thee, dear Lord, beside me,
Thy rod and staff my comfort still;
Thy cross before to guide me.
And with the Good Shepherd in our company, we need not fear…
In Scripture, there are various pictures of the intimate relationship between Christ and the Christian:
We are branches in Christ, the vine;
We are members of his body;
We are his bride;
We are stones in the spiritual Temple.
The most familiar picture of all, however, is that of the Shepherd and his sheep.
References to sheep in the Bible occur more than 500 times. That the sheep was domesticated early is suggested by the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. Sheep represented the chief wealth and the total livelihood of pastoral peoples, providing the people of the Bible with food to eat, milk to drink, wool for the weaving of clothes, and even rough clothing and covering for tents with their skins. Inevitably sheep also served as a medium of exchange, and even as an exchange for sin as they figured centrally in the sacrificial system, being offered, as described in Leviticus 1 through 5, for a burnt offering, a sin offering, a guilt offering, and a peace offering, as well as at Passover, when the sheep’s blood on the doorpost and lintel of the door alerted the angel of death to “pass over” the home of those who lived there.
In view of the very nature of the sheep – affectionate, nonaggressive, relatively defenseless, and in constant need of care and supervision – and the corresponding relationship between the sheep and the shepherd, it is not at all surprising that in figurative and theological language the sheep and the shepherd are repeated, and often movingly employed in Scripture. From the Old Testament you remember at once such lines as:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Or from Ezekiel, looking forward to Israel’s remnant being re-gathered into the Promised Land, when he writes:
“They shall all have one shepherd…
They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt…
I will make a covenant of peace with them…
And I will bless them.”
Or from Jeremiah, earlier, looking in faith toward the same event of Israel’s re-creation:
“I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says Yahweh.”
Or from Isaiah, again announcing that very same redemptive event, the re-gathering of the remnant of Israel after its disbursement and banishment from the land, seeing Yahweh in the role of the shepherd:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those who are with young.”
In the New Testament, of course, the figure of the shepherd and the sheep finds its most profound application in Christ as the Good Shepherd of all sheep. This is boldly proclaimed in the closing benediction of Hebrews in the simple phrase, “Our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.” The shepherd/sheep relationship between Christ and people is briefly but powerfully expressed again in Mark 6:34, when Jesus, “…saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
The 2 most extended biblical allegories of the shepherd are in Ezekiel 34, and John 10, which includes our gospel text for today. The Old Testament passage from Ezekiel opens with the prophetic condemnation of the shepherds of Israel who been have been feeding, not the sheep, the people under their care, but only themselves, and moves on to the declaration of Yahweh’s own compassionate assumption of the role of shepherd over Israel: “I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a Shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them.”
This passage doubtless brings to mind the moving parable of the 99 sheep gathered safely together and the one sheep lost, sought out by Christ in the role of the Good Shepherd.
The allegory in Ezekiel continues:
“I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains…
I will feed them with good pasture…
There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak,
and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.”
In the New Testament passage, Christ is the shepherd, who saves, sustains, and redeems the life of all who will come into his fold. “I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
But for what follows, the Old Testament has no precedent. Prophetic faith can conceive of Israel or the Servant of Yahweh suffering or dying on behalf of the cause of the knowledge and reign of God in the world, but it cannot conceive of the suffering or death of God personally, nor the son of God. Prophetic allegory never sees the shepherd dying for his sheep. Yet the New Testament allegory of John 10 is clear and amazing: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… “
But there is more. “The good shepherd lays down his life… So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” His shepherding of the flock brings about its unity. This statement can be easily misunderstood. The idea of one flock does not mean that we need to become more like each other in our lives of faith. We don’t become “cookie-cutter” Christians. We don’t need to have identical faith experiences, nor do we have to see “eye to eye” on everything relating to the life and ministry of the church. Indeed, we are all gifted differently for ministry. The image of “one flock” means that we are to live and act more like the shepherd, more like Jesus himself. Jesus has set the example. He is a model of how we are to live and move through the world. As one person has put it, the nearer we draw to Jesus individually, the closer we become to each other.
Our text today also speaks about a hired hand who looks after the sheep. We’re not to be like the hired hand because a hired hand is the one who runs away when a wolf appears. The hired hand does not care for the sheep, but let’s the wolf snatch some of them and scatter the others.
We, like the Good Shepherd, should care about what happens to the sheep entrusted to us. We should not run away from wolves in our daily lives. When things get messy, when conflicts arise, when our faith or leadership is challenged, we must continue to care about those around us. We must continue to help others to do their ministry so they are not lost or scattered. We must continue to give of ourselves rather than covet our own ministry and power. God may not ask us to die for each other. That was God’s design and will for Jesus. It was within the power of Jesus to lay down his life and to take it up again. But God does ask us to let go of parts of ourselves, to let those parts die that get in the way of his plan, so that we can take up new lives in ministry because, with Jesus, this is within our powers to do. Letting parts of ourselves go, sacrificing bad attitudes and resentments, our needs to be “number 1,” can be life-giving to others.
This is because the ministry of pastor, the Greek word translates as shepherd, is really the ministry of all the people of God. There is no one person, no single group, who can do it alone. There is just the body of Christ, the people of God, who, together, continue to do the work of the Lord Jesus, the work of the kingdom, in the world. We are, after all, kingdom people, members of God’s flock, called individually and collectively to gather the flock, to care for one another, to welcome, to heal, and to walk together into mature and trusting faith in the one Good Shepherd.
During World War I, some Turkish soldiers tried to steal a flock of sheep from a hillside near Jerusalem. The shepherd, who had been sleeping, suddenly awakened to see his sheep being driven off on the other side of the ravine. He could not hope to recapture his flock by force single-handedly, but suddenly had an idea. Standing up on his side of the ravine, he put his hands to his mouth and gave his own peculiar call, which he used each day to gather his sheep to him. The sheep heard the familiar sound. For a moment they stopped and listened, and then, hearing it again, they turned and rushed down one side of the ravine and up the other to redjoin their shepherd. It was quite impossible for the soldiers to stop the animals. The shepherd was away with them to a place of safety before the soldiers could make up their minds to pursue them – and all because his sheep knew their master’s voice.
There is an intimate picture of relationship drawn in the imagery and allegory of the Good Shepherd and his sheep. It is one in which the sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow him as he lovingly cares for them. It is one in which the shepherd keeps his promise to provide for them life that is abundant. It is a relationship of protection, provision, and freedom to enter into and go out of the sheepfold under the shepherd’s care. It is a relationship in which the shepherd indeed does lay down his life for us, that we may become one flock, under the leading of one Good Shepherd.
As sheep in the flock of our Good Shepherd, hearing his voice and following him, sharing in the unity of the flock, along with the communion of saints may we take up the Great Commission to go and gather his lost sheep into his Kingdom, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Christ our Lord, to the glory of the Father.
April 18, 2018
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. (Luke 24:36-37)
It may be a huge understatement to say we live in difficult, even fearful times. We may be wondering what comes next. A surprising rise in new Covid19 infections? Another summer full of wildfires and endless days of smoke-filled skies and lungs? More protests and riots in the streets? Higher taxes, more undocumented immigrants, less cooperation in Washington? The list is endless, and no one knows what new anxiety may raise its head.
John’s gospel from last week told us the disciples gathered behind locked doors out of fear. And our gospel this week takes up the story from Luke’s perspective, and again tells us of disciples who are “startled and frightened, …troubled …and doubting, … disbelieving and wondering.” To these Jesus comes and offers his peace.
And Jesus himself stands among us and says, “Peace be with you.”
When are the doors “locked… for fear,” for us?
When the doctor says “cancer”?
When, during the layoff, the boss calls you to his office ?
When the heart monitor sounds its monotone?
When the news reports new Covid outbreaks, suicide bombers, or mass shootings?
When the ground shakes, the sky falls, the rivers overflow?
Luke tells us that two of the disciples have just reported about the man who walked with and taught them on the road to Emmaus, and “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Their witness had proclaimed: ““The Lord has risen indeed…”
To which the disciples shouted and jumped and danced a few!
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41[YET] in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…
“Did someone forget to lock the door?”
This week’s gospel reading gives us better insight into the emotional state of the other disciples while taking the heat off Thomas, as last week’s text from John did. In Luke, too, these disciples were “startled,” “terrified,” and “disbelieving.” Doubts and wonderings arose in their hearts as well. They too required physical proof. Though they did not place their fingers in the marks of the nails, Jesus did have to eat food to prove that he was real and not simply an apparition.
6 things occur in this text, by which Jesus deals with their fear:
1. Jesus proves that he’s not a ghost!
He shows them himself, his hands and feet, his wounds, assuring them it is himself, and then says, “…a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Their response: disbelieving and still wondering
So he continues. He says to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
I am… with you…
“corporeality” we call it. Merriam Webster’s synonyms include: actuality, existence, reality, subsistence, thingness – you gotta love that one! Thingness – in the dictionary!
We don’t hear of their response; the text moves on. Are they settled? Are they believing? Has their wondering turned into sheer wonder?!
It may be easier to testify to the risen Christ by making a trip to the empty tomb than by eating around a table. A trip to an empty tomb confines Easter to very early morning on that first day of the week when women went to anoint Jesus' body. We know when, where and how resurrection happened. We know when Easter is over.
Celebrating Easter by eating means that Jesus could show up, that resurrection could happen, at any table, at every table. We have no way of knowing when, where and how the risen Christ will bring new life. Rather than being confined to one day, or to 50, Jesus' Easter feast continues as one meal leads to another, and tables get larger and larger, and closer and closer together.
And so rather than making an annual trip to the empty tomb, we celebrate Easter by eating together and sharing scripture until that day when Jesus, risen from the dead and standing in our midst, overcomes time and space and everything else that separates the tables around which we gather.
2. Jesus proves himself from the scriptures
4Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
A gentle, “I told you so!”
The expanse of the Word –
The Law – includes the Torah, the writings of Moses, which lay the groundwork for God’s mighty act of redemption, which would be carried out when the age old serpent wounds Eve’s descendant on the heel, and he would in turn crush the serpent’s head. It also includes the books of history that lead up to fulfillment.
The Prophets – all of those texts which looked forward to the coming of Messiah, with it’s hundreds of prophecies, each of which Jesus himself fulfills.
The Psalms include the wisdom literature, of Proverbs, Eccleisastes.
In other words, Jesus gives them a tour of the entire OT, and shows them just how everything points directly to him. God’s plan is laid out… and finds it’s fulfillment in Jesus alone.
3. Jesus deepens their understanding
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
One wonders how long this takes! – 5 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours… instantaneous…
But more is going on – here is a call to biblical literacy. Without understanding of the scriptures the relationship between the resurrection of Christ and the call of God to repentance and forgiveness of sins is sketchy at best. As Jesus opened the mind of the disciples to the meaning of scripture and as Peter, in our first lesson from Acts, pointed the Jews to their own scriptures, so also we need to be called to a deeper understanding of the Word.
There is also the recognition, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, that “God is greater than my imagination; wiser than my wisdom; more dazzling than the Universe; as present as the air I breath and utterly beyond my control.”
4. Jesus explained what occured
46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…,”
Yes, he had been telling them for some time, but they didn’t get it, even after the fact. Hence, their fear and doubt.
Now he makes clear what he has been telling them all along. Suffering is a part of his rising again. A part of the fulfillment of redemption. A part of his living with and for and in and through us…
5. Jesus then proclaims his purpose
47...that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Notice “repentance…is to be proclaimed” right alongside of “…forgiveness.” The street preacher shouting, “Repent or be condemned,” only tells part of the story. The proclamation declares its very solution – that coming to the Father in repentance through the blood of Jesus Christ brings forgiveness of sins and a welcome back into full communion with the Father Creator.
Notice those words, “to be proclaimed… to all nations,” the panta ta eqne we’ve been learning about in our small groups. The concept is something the early disciples wouldn’t even get for a while, up to two years before the message goes beyond the Jews alone. It was hard for them to imagine that God was reaching out to “ALL” the people, but that’s just what Jesus is aiming at.
6. Jesus charges their ministry
48You are witnesses of these things.”
Presages Pentecost – in Acts 1:8 where it says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.”
The community that follows Jesus is charged with giving testimony to his saving work -- and that work is to be visible in the world. In the gospel Jesus himself says, “Look at me, touch me,” and eats in the disciples presence. We live in an increasingly visual culture [as evidenced by the conversation about the English singer getting a makeover, citing “professional standards,” on NPR], where the biblical and Reformation admonishments to listen feel hollow to many who base their lives on the evidence of what they see.
Today’s gospel is nothing less than an invitation to enter into a new world order. The disciples are invited, called, and welcomed into a new creation, and it will be their task to share this invitation with the rest of the world, beginning always with the Easter story.
We too are invited, called, and welcomed into a new creation, and, empowered by the same Holy Spirit, it will be our task to share this invitation with the rest of the world, beginning always with the Easter story.
Perhaps our invitation should begin with the gentle question, “do you believe in Easter?”
Edith Burns was a wonderful Christian who lived in San Antonio, Texas.
She was the patient of a doctor by the name of Will Phillips. Dr. Phillips was a gentle doctor who saw patients as people. His favorite patient was Edith Burns.
One morning he went to his office with a heavy heart and it was because of Edith Burns. When he walked into that waiting room, there sat Edith with her big black Bible in her lap earnestly talking to a young mother sitting beside her.
Edith Burns had a habit of introducing herself in this way:
"Hello, my name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?"
Then she would explain the meaning of Easter, and many times people would have their minds open to understand and thus be saved.
Dr. Phillips walked into the office and there he saw the head nurse, Beverly. Beverly had first met Edith when she was taking her blood pressure.
Edith began by saying, "My name is Edith Burns. Do you believe in Easter?"
Beverly said, "Why yes I do."
Edith said, "Well, what do you believe about Easter?"
Beverly said, "Well, it's all about egg hunts, going to church, and dressing up."
On that earlier day Edith kept pressing her about the real meaning of Easter, and finally led Beverly to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
On this day, Dr. Phillips said, "Beverly, don't call Edith into the office quite yet. I believe there is another delivery taking place in the waiting room.
After finally being called back in the doctor's office, Edith sat down and when she took a look at the doctor she said,
"Dr. Will, why are you so sad? Are you reading your Bible? Are you praying?"
Dr. Phillips said gently, "Edith, I'm the doctor and you're the patient." With a heavy heart he said, "Edith, your lab report came back and it says you have cancer, and Edith, you're not going to live very long."
Edith said, "Why Will Phillips, shame on you. Why are you so sad? Do you think God makes mistakes? You have just told me I'm going to see my precious Lord Jesus, my husband, and my friends. You have just told me that I am going to celebrate Easter forever, and here you are having difficulty giving me my ticket!"
Dr. Phillips thought to himself, "What a magnificent woman this Edith Burns is!"
Edith continued coming to Dr. Phillips.
Christmas came and the office was closed through January 3rd. On the day the office opened, Edith did not show up.
Later that afternoon, Edith called Dr. Phillips and said she would have to be moving her story to the hospital and said, "Will, I'm very near home, so would you make sure that they put women in here next to me in my room who need to know about Easter."
Well, they did just that and women began to come in and share that room with Edith. They would come and go during her time there, and many women were saved.
Everybody on that floor from staff to patients were so excited about Edith, that they started calling her Edith Easter. That is everyone except Phyllis Cross, the department’s head nurse.
Phyllis made it plain that she wanted nothing to do with Edith because she was a "religious nut".
She had been a nurse in an army hospital. She had seen it all and heard it all. She was the original G.I. Jane. She had been married three times, she was hard, cold, and did everything by the book.
One morning the two nurses who were to attend to Edith were sick. Edith had the flu and Phyllis Cross had to go in and give her a shot. When she walked in, Edith had a big smile on her face and said, "Phyllis, God loves you and I love you, and I have been praying for you."
As she administered the shot, Phyllis Cross said, "Well, you can quit praying for me, it won't work. I'm not interested."
Edith said, "Well, I will pray and I have asked God not to let me go home until you come into the family."
Phyllis Cross said, "Then you will never die because that will never happen," and curtly walked out of the room.
Every day Phyllis Cross would walk into the room and Edith would say, "God loves you Phyllis and I love you, and I'm praying for you."
One day Phyllis Cross said she was literally drawn to Edith's room like a magnet would draw iron. She sat down on the bed and Edith said, "I'm so glad you have come, because God told me that today is your special day."
Phyllis Cross said, "Edith, you have asked everybody here the question, 'Do you believe in Easter?' but you have never asked me."
Edith said, "Phyllis, I wanted to many times, but God told me to wait until you asked, and now that you have asked..."
Edith Burns took her Bible and shared with Phyllis Cross the Easter Story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Edith said, "Phyllis, do you believe in Easter? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is alive and that He wants to live in your heart?"
Phyllis Cross said, "Oh I want to believe that with all of my heart, and I do want Jesus in my life.”
Right there, Phyllis Cross prayed and invited Jesus Christ into her heart. For the first time Phyllis Cross did not walk out of a hospital room, she was carried out on the wings of angels.
Two days later, Phyllis Cross came in and Edith said, "Do you know what day it is?"
Phyllis Cross said, "Why Edith, its Good Friday."
Edith said, "Oh, no, for you every day is Easter. Happy Easter Phyllis!"
Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Phyllis Cross came into work, did some of her duties and then went down to the flower shop and got some Easter lilies because she wanted to go up to see Edith and give her some Easter lilies and wish her a Happy Easter. When she walked into Edith's room, Edith was in bed. That big black Bible was on her lap. Her hands were in that Bible. There was a sweet smile on her face. When Phyllis Cross went to pick up Edith's hand, she realized Edith was dead.
Her left hand was on John 14: "In my Father's house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also."
Her right hand was on Revelation 21:4, " And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."
Phyllis Cross took one look at that dead body, and then lifted her face toward heaven, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, said, "Happy Easter, Edith - Happy Easter!"
Phyllis Cross left Edith's body, walked out of the room, and over to a table where two student nurses were sitting.
And she said, "My name is Phyllis Cross. Do you believe in Easter?"
Disciples making disciples making disciples…
God… is always in the present tense.
Jurgen Moltmann wrote “The continuing presence of the Spirit in Jesus is the true beginning of the kingdom of God.”
Paul Tillich said, Spirit is another word for "God present."
The fact is, in the face of our fears, Jesus is still present, in the room, sharing the meal, revealing the Word, leading us to understand, proclaiming his purpose and charging our ministry.
Unlock the doors, unbar the gates, let the Son shine into and through you as the Holy Spirit empowers your witness for the glory of God and the building up of God’s Kingdom, as it is in heaven so may it be on earth.
And Jesus says, “Can I get a witness?!”
You’ll remember the name Quasimodo from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” most likely because of Walt Disney. The name means, literally, “like a just-born infant.”
Because the name “Quasimodo” is most frequently associated with an ugly but lovable character from a fictional story, some may be surprised to learn that the hunchback’s name is actually liturgical.
In Hugo’s novel, Quasimodo, rejected by his parents for his deformities, is abandoned inside Notre Dame Cathedral, at a place where orphans and unwanted children were dropped off.
Hugo wrote that Monseigneur Claude Frollo finds the child on “Quasimodo Sunday” and “called him Quasimodo; whether it was that he chose thereby to commemorate the day when he had found him, or that he meant to mark by that name how incomplete and imperfectly molded the poor little creature was.”
On the church’s calendar, today is called by the delightful name Quasimodogeniti Sunday – Newborn Baby Sunday. The reference is to baptism and to the preparations made by those who came for baptism during Lent. The newborn believer in Christ, buried into Jesus’ death and raised in the new life of Jesus in the water of baptism, is gathered to the breast of the Church to feed on the milk of God’s word as a newborn baby. 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
And so, as newborn babies, today we feed on the milk of John 20 and the first Easter appearance of Jesus to the disciples, and again one week later, to Thomas. With his words and his wounds, his breath and his Spirit, Jesus makes apostles, the word literally means “one who is sent off,” out of his disciples and sends them with the authority to forgive and retain sins in his name. He gives the gift, the Office of the Keys – a wedding gift from the risen bridegroom to his bride, the church.
Our Lord had risen. Peter and John had seen his open, empty tomb. John had observed the folded burial cloths and believed that Jesus had risen. Mary had seen and touched Jesus. He had called her by name, and Mary had believed. She told the news to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Jesus’ work was done. His battle cry of victory, “It is finished,” had thundered from the cross. Redemption had been won for all. Now Jesus was out to win all for his redemption.
It was late afternoon, just before sundown, on that first Easter, the first day of the week, a Sunday. The disciples were all together in one place. The doors were shut and locked. They are set apart from the world, in the world but not of the world, in the world by themselves. The little room sounds a bit like church, doesn’t it? It is.
Fear brought the disciples together under one roof. They were afraid for their lives, afraid for their future, afraid of those who had clamored for the crucifixion of Jesus. Those who would kill Jesus would surely come for them now that the rumors of his resurrection were beginning to circulate.
What is it that you fear? What keeps you locked in, locked up, locked away? Where are the locks and bolts in your life? Is it fear of violence, suffering, disease, death? Fear of persecution, punishment, mockery, loneliness, isolation? Fear limits us. It locks us into ourselves, locks us up in our own little rooms, locks us away from one another. Fear makes life a prison house, a fortress against the forces that threaten us, both real and imagined. Our fortress may be the car, the bedroom, our office cubicle, a bar, wherever it is that we go to hide from others, from the world, from our family and community, from ourselves, from God. Here is the fruit of unbelief, failure to stand in awe, love, and trust before God above all things. Here is what happens when we trust in things, and ourselves, above God.
In that little fortress of fear, filled with the adrenaline of anxiety, comes the gentle, wounded Shepherd, once for sinners slain. Jesus comes humbly, quietly. He doesn’t break down the doors. The one who burst from the tomb with no actual need to roll away the stone has no need to break down locked doors. He doesn’t even bother to knock on them. Would the fearful band of disciples even have let Jesus in had he knocked and waited for their invitation? Would we today? Probably not. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Jesus.” “Yeah, sure. Bolt the door, Peter!”
The Good Shepherd comes to his sheep; the sheep do not come to him. He comes as the Lamb who had given his life to save them. He comes and stands in their midst. Jesus had been there all along, really present but not seen. Now he permits his disciples to see him as he is, risen from the dead. The one who died and now lives is really present for his disciples in a new and profound way.
The first words Jesus speaks to them are words of absolution: “Peace be with you.” His words give what they say. Peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) His peace comes in the midst of turmoil and unrest. “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The Lamb had conquered death by dying and now comes in peace to bring life.
What comfort Jesus’ words of peace must have brought to the disciples! They had all failed him in his hour of glory. Peter had denied him three times. The disciples had abandoned him. None of them had believed his words – that on this day, the first day of the week, he would rise from the dead. None of them had trusted Jesus with his own death. Nor did they now trust him with their life. Their hearts were filled with fear. Yet Jesus does not berate them for their unbelief or chide them for their lack of faith. Instead, he comes graciously to them to speak his peace.
His peace is real peace, as real as his wounds, the nail marks on his hands and the scar of the spear that had pierced his side. From these rich wounds come the peace that Jesus speaks. “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed,” as the prophet Isaiah put it. (Isaiah 53:5) Note well these wounds, for by these wounds you are healed from the disease of your sin and your death. Recall these wounds when your life is in turmoil and upheaval, when you are threatened and filled with fear, locked up in your room, despairing of your life. His are the wounds from which the cleansing blood of God’s Son flowed upon the wood of the cross for you. They are your peace.
The wounds mark Jesus the crucified one, the one whose body was nailed to the cross. This was no imposter or spiritualized phantom Jesus, but a genuine flesh and blood Jesus, risen from the dead. This Jesus is recognized by his wounds, the marks of Calvary. His words and his wounds turn the disciples’ fear to joy and gladness. “They were glad when they saw the Lord.” Quite the understatement. Jesus was with them; there was nothing for the disciples to fear. His wounds swallow up fear. Nothing can be done to us that hasn’t already been done to Jesus, and he has done it all for us to death on the cross.
Jesus presents his same words and wounds to us in the Water of Baptism, the Word of Good News, the Body and the Blood of communion. In the supper of his body and blood, Jesus shows forth his wounds and his words, the sacrifice that bought redemption, together with the words of peace that deliver his redemption to us. “For as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
A second time Jesus speaks his word of peace, “Peace be with you.” With his first word of peace Jesus absolves his disciples and quenches their fear. With his second word of peace he sends them to absolve others and quench their fears. He continues, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” As Jesus was sent by the Father to be his authorized representative, to speak on his behalf, so now Jesus was sending his disciples to speak on his behalf, to give out the gifts he won by dying on the cross for a dying and condemned world that refused him.
He breathed on them and spoke the words that deliver the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With his breath, God made dead clay into a living being. With his breath, God breathed life into the dry dead bones that Ezekiel saw. The psalmist writes, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.” (Psalm 33:6) His breath and his words create and renew. With his breath, Jesus breathes the life of the resurrection and resuscitates his church.
This is a “little Pentecost,” anticipating the big Pentecost which would come seven Sundays after Easter. Then Jesus would breathe upon his whole church, with the sound of a mighty, rushing wind.
Jesus breathes his words and Spirit into his disciples so that the forgiveness of sins might be heard in his church and throughout the world. “Anyone whose sins you forgive are forgiven; anyone whose sins you retain are retained.” He binds his words to their mouths; his forgiveness to their forgiveness. He puts his disciples under holy orders to deal decisively with sin by applying his saving death. Dealing decisively with sin is what the church is here for. It is a place where forgiveness is spoken – to forgive the sins of those who wish to be rid of their sin and live now and forever, and also, sadly, to retain the sins of those who would rather choose to die and be condemned forever.
Forgiveness belongs to Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, the One who died and rose for you and for all. It was his to win by dying, and it is his to speak through those he sends to speak it.
As we all know, Thomas was not with them that first Easter Sunday. He hadn’t been to church that day. Poor Thomas. Skip out on church and you miss out on the giving out of the gifts. The other disciples do not leave Thomas impoverished for long, however. In their joy, they go out and find him. “We have seen the Lord,” they tell him. We might call that “outreach” or “evangelism.” Notice that they didn’t create a committee to do it, they just did it. And they don’t berate poor old Thomas for having missed church or load a heap of guilt on his head. “Where were you last Sunday? We didn’t see you in church.” Instead they tell him about the risen Lord and his gifts.
But Thomas doesn’t yet believe. He has not yet heard Jesus words or seen his wounds, as the others had. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas is correct, more correct then perhaps he realized. Without the words and wounds of Jesus, he could not believe. Luther put it this way: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. With his words and his wounds, his breath and his Spirit, Jesus creates faith and feeds the newborn faith he creates.
Eight days later, the following Sunday, the disciples are together again. Again the doors are shut and locked. Again they are set apart from the world in a world by themselves. This time Thomas is with them. Again Jesus appears in their midst. Again he speaks his words of peace: “Peace be with you.” Again he shows them his wounds, and invites Thomas to touch them, to put his finger in the nail prints, and his hand into Jesus’ side. “Be not doubting but believing.” Jesus’ words and wounds have their faith-creating way with Thomas. I imagine that he falls to the ground as he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Who is Thomas for us? Whoever has not heard Jesus’ words or seen his wounds. He is your unchurched neighbor, a spouse, a coworker, a family member or classmate, even a congregation member, anyone in your network, whoever is dying without the words and wounds of Jesus. Thomas must be sought out, called on, gathered in, brought into the real presence of Jesus, invited and welcomed into relationship. Thomas is of concern to all who have reclined at Jesus’ table, who have heard his words and handled his wounds.
We too are Thomas. We were not there at Calvary when they crucified our Lord. We were not there on that first day of the week, when Jesus appeared to the disciples. And we weren’t there on the second Sunday either. But not to worry. We can’t go to Jesus, but he can come to us. There isn’t a first day of the week that Jesus doesn’t come to his disciples. That’s John’s point. Every Sunday is an Easter, and every day is the first day of the week, a new creation, when the crucified and risen Lord is present with his disciples with his words and his wounds, his breath and his Spirit.
We are not given to see Jesus, but he is no less present for us then he was for his disciples in that locked little room, and we are no poorer for it. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe,” Jesus says. Indeed we are blessed and are not seeing. We have his words of forgiveness spoken to us and his Spirit breathed upon us. We eat and drink his body and blood, his rich wounds visible before the throne of his Father gloriously presented to us in the lowly forms of bread and wine. Jesus gives out his gifts through the office he established with his words and his breath, so that you too may believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who died and rose for you, and believing you would have life in his name.
And, my beloved, Jesus speaks to us when he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes on us that same Holy Spirit at our baptism. We too are sent ones, sent out to proclaim the good news of peace, salvation, forgiveness. “As the Father sent me…” means that we are sent in the same way and for the same task for which Jesus was sent into the world. Jesus identified his task with these words: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) These, then, are our marching orders; as the Father sent the Son, so he sends us.
Jesus is here among us with his words and his wounds, his breath and his Spirit, his forgiveness and his peace. Word and supper. Holy ministry. These are the resurrection gifts of the Bridegroom Jesus to his bride the church. They are his gifts to you, here today, on this the first day of the week. And we receive them as new creations in Christ, as Quasimodogeniti, blessed newborn babes.
In the name of Jesus.
Message: “Draw Near to God”
Since other copyists have added text to Mark’s gospel, as I’ll speak about in a bit, I’m tempted to add my own thoughts. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of John, and Salome bought expensive spices and brought them to the tomb to anoint the body that is not to be found. As they’re walking away, I can’t help it, but I imagine Magdalene leaned over and said to Salome: “Please tell me you kept the receipt!”
General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, commanded the victorious forces at the great battle of Waterloo that effectively ended the Napoleonic wars. The story has been told that when the battle was over, Wellington sent the great news of his victory to England. A series of stations, one within sight of the next, had been established to send coded messages between the continent and England. The message to be sent was, “Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.” Meanwhile the fog set in and interrupted the message-sending. As a result, people only saw the sad news of “Wellington defeated….” Later, the fog cleared and the full message continued, which was quite different from the outcome that the people originally thought had happened!
The same is true of this day. When many look at what happened on Good Friday, in the death of Jesus they see only “defeat.” Yet, on Easter, at the resurrection, God’s message was completed. The resurrection spells out “victory.”
That the cross is empty should come as no surprise. No cross ever held its victim forever. But that the tomb is empty, that is a fact that ought to silence the world. Even the women who came to the tomb on a bright Sunday morning, who had heard the predictions from his own mouth, and were visited by an angel who brought the proclamation, “He is not here, he is risen,” even they ran from this truth, distressed and terrified. Even they were afraid to admit what they had seen. Nevertheless, the world experiences its first and last part-time tomb.
The angelic greeting begins, “Don’t be alarmed.” The sad thing is that many today are not even amazed. Jesus is risen from the dead, and this great feast day has become centered around a fictional bunny and Cadbury eggs, so much marketing to pull us out of our economic plight. Instead of the church going out into the world, we find the world making headway into the church. He is risen, and churches in normal times overflow, for one Sunday morning, only to return to “normal” the following week, as if his resurrection has no meaning for life.
What does it mean then that he is risen? What effect will it have on us to be confronted with the empty tomb?
That my friends is what the Gospel of Mark is all about. It is a literary equivalent of the old Greek fable of the Princess and the Lion. You’ll recall that story in which there was a young peasant boy who loved the Princess with all of his heart. When the king discovered this fact he devised a scheme by which this young man might be tested by the gods. Thrown into the arena, the young man was given the choice of two doors. Behind the one was a beautiful princess, and by choosing that one he would be awarded her hand. But, behind the other a ravenous lion lurked, waiting to spring out and devour the unlucky one who opened that door. The young man stepped forward, reached out for the door of his choice and… The story ends. There is no ending but the one you provide yourself. You may choose to end the story anyway you please, but you are given neither the simple happy ending nor the terror of the wrong choice by the author. You decide its conclusion, and the exercise will tell you more about you than about the story itself. When I was young, I hated that story because it left me hanging, in suspense.
May I suggest to you, that is exactly what the author of the Gospel of Mark has done as well. Your own Bible undoubtedly notes that the most ancient Bibles bring the book of Mark to a close with the text we have this morning. It is believed by many that the succeeding verses were the equivalent of someone completing the story for the benefit of the reader. But Mark intentionally leaves us at the entrance to the tomb, the women who came to anoint his body having fled the scene. And how we end the story will tell a great deal more about us than we might expect. If we marvel at the empty tomb only to turn away and go about life as usual, maybe it is because we have not found any meaning for ourselves in that empty tomb. So what if he lives.
But if we go on ahead to Galilee, as Jesus advises his disciples, and the angel reminds them, that is, to discover more about the Savior who died and yet no longer is dead, then we have before us the opportunity of a lifetime, the opportunity to learn of a Savior who spread his arms to gather us in, and died. And not only that, we will see that the death of Christ signals the death of death itself. For it is a death which will not keep him, which cannot hold him. He is risen, he is not to be found here where death lingers. He moves on ahead of us, to be there when we arrive.
3 Buddies were discussing death and they were talking about what they would like people to say about them at their funeral?
The first one said, "I’d like them to say, He was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community."
The second said, "I hope they’ll say, He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow."
The third said, "I’m thinking I’d like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!!’"
Here are Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on “proclaiming” the resurrection, from “The Secret in the Dark” found in his book The Longing for Home:
It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection. The Jesus who was dead is not dead anymore. He has risen. He is here. According to the Gospels there was no choir of angels to proclaim it. There was no sudden explosion of light in the sky. Not a single soul was around to see it happen. When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb afterward, she thought at first that it must be a gardener standing there in the shadows, and when she saw who it really was and tried to embrace him, he told her not to, as if for fear that once she had him in her arms she would never let him go, the way I suspect that if you and I were ever to have him in our arms, we would never let him go either. When the disciples heard he was alive again, they tended to dismiss it as too good to be true, and even when they finally saw him for themselves, Thomas still wasn't convinced until Jesus let him touch his wounds with his own hands. Later on, when they were out fishing at daybreak, they saw him on the beach, and there again they failed to recognize him until he asked them to come join him at the charcoal fire he had started on the sand and cooked them breakfast.
The way the Gospel writers tell it, in other words, Jesus came back from death not in a blaze of glory, but more like a candle flame in the dark, flickering first in this place, then in that place, then in no place at all. If they had been making the whole thing up for the purpose of converting the world, presumably they would have described it more the way the book of Revelation describes how he will come back the next time at the end of time, with "the armies of heaven arrayed in fine linen, white and pure" and his eyes "like a flame of fire, and on his head many diadems" (19:14, 12). But that is not the way the Gospels tell it. They are not trying to describe it as convincingly as they can. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can. It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are telling. They tell it as softly as a secret, as something so precious, and holy, and fragile, and unbelievable, and true, that to tell it any other way would be somehow to dishonor it. To proclaim the resurrection the way they do, you would have to say it in whispers: "Christ has risen." Like that. (end quote)
There is no greater faith issue in all of scripture than the resurrection. And why not?! It is a bit unbelievable, in human terms at least. The empty tomb doesn’t quite evoke great faith on the part of Jesus’ own disciples, at first. In Mark’s gospel, the three women fled and told no one. The other gospels tell how Mary Magdalene, in great despair, asks of the “gardener” where she might find the body which someone has “taken away.” Peter and John run to the tomb on Mary’s announcement. With Peter there is seemingly no response; John, at first afraid to enter the tomb, “sees and believes,” but is still as shocked as all the rest when Jesus appears to them all later that very night. And Thomas, well, it will take him a very lonely week to come to terms with the resurrection.
In the first two lessons today, no less than Peter and Paul, unarguably pillars of the Christian Church (with Jesus as its foundation), assert the central importance of the resurrection of Jesus.
Peter says, “We are witnesses to all that he did…” and then relates only the death and resurrection of Jesus as fundamental.
The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says. Then he goes on to say later in chapter 15, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” (vss.17-20).
See, it’s not so hard believing in God; most people do, throughout the world, so it’s not really the greatest issue of faith. What is hard to believe is that God cares, that God would do anything about our plight, that God would come near, that God would send his only Son into this place...
Martin Luther once cried, "If I were God, and the world had treated me as it treated Him, I would kick the wretched thing to pieces."
But God does not. Instead, he sends his Son to save it.
Bette Midler sang “God is watching us… from a distance.” Christian faith says God is not distant, that God, out of a great and consuming love for you and me, sent the Son into our existence to bridge the gap created by sin, and bring us back into the intimate fellowship for which we were created, which is a basic design principle of human life.
God is not only not distant, but wants to be close, wants to be “with you always,” wants to be within you by the Holy Spirit’s companionship and partnership in the temple of your body, wants to walk with you in the garden in the cool of the evening. That was and is and will continue to be God’s forever desire.
And that’s what’s so hard to believe.
It’s easy to believe in a God who is “out there” in some ethereal kind of way, but a God who comes near?!
Paul relates the death and resurrection of Jesus as “according to the scriptures.” He’s not talking about the New Testament – it’s not available to the Church just yet – as a matter of fact, Paul’s busy writing part it with this first letter to the Corinthians! He’s pointing back to the Old Testament, which repeatedly proclaimed, with detailed clarity, the coming Messiah, something that was accepted by faith, for centuries before the birth of Jesus.
“According to the scriptures” is a statement of faith, something that had been held in confident assurance as true, even though not yet seen – Paul says, “we knew it was going to happen; all the prophesies foretold it and we trusted it to happen, and here it is, just like scripture said!”
Then Paul cites the testimony of contemporary witnesses to the resurrection as well, over 500 hundred of them, he says including “many of whom are still alive” – in other words, if you wanted to check it out, there were plenty of witnesses left at the time of the writing of this letter.
But here’s the rub – we followers of Jesus tend to hold the resurrection as near or as far as we want, the same as we do with God. It certainly means more to some than it does to others.
Years ago I heard a story about a family that tragically lost three of their four children within just two weeks to a deadly, virulent disease. One child was left--a four year old boy. The family had buried the third child just two weeks before Easter.
On Easter morning the parents and the remaining child went to church. The mother taught her Sunday School class about the resurrection of Jesus and the father read the Easter story as he led the opening Sunday School devotion. People who knew about their great loss wondered how they could do it. One family of the church was in their car on the way home after church when their 16-year-old asked his father, "Dad, that couple must believe everything about the Easter Story, don’t they?"
"Of course they believe it," said the father, "all Christians do!"
The young man then said, "But not like they do!"
James writes, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”
I am reminded of what happened to a tribe in the jungles of East Asia, when missionaries showed them “The Jesus Film.” The Jesus Film, released in 1979, is a wonderful evangelistic tool that has been translated into 1600 different languages, with more being added each month. The movie is being shown to people all over the world—in deserts, in high-rises, in high-tech theaters, and in the jungles. For some of these folks, not only have they never heard of Jesus, they have never even seen a motion picture. And on that one unforgettable evening, in this jungle setting, the people, ta ethne, saw it all—the gospel in their own language, visible and real. Imagine again how it felt to see this good man Jesus, who healed the sick and was adored by children, held without trial and beaten by jeering soldiers. As these tribal people watched this, they came unglued. They stood up and began to shout at the cruel men on the screen, demanding that this outrage stop. When nothing happened, they attacked the missionary that was running the projector. Perhaps he was responsible for this injustice. He was forced to stop the film and explain that the story wasn’t over yet, that there was more. So they settled back onto the ground, holding their emotions in tenuous check. Then came the crucifixion. Again, the people could not hold back. They began to weep and wail with such loud grief that once again the film had to be stopped. The missionary again tried to calm them, explaining that the story still wasn’t over, that there was more. So they composed themselves and sat down to see what happened next. Then came the resurrection. Pandemonium broke out this time, but for a different reason. The gathering had spontaneously erupted into a party. The noise now was of jubilation, and it was deafening. The people were dancing and slapping each other on the back. Christ is risen, indeed! Again the missionary had to shut off the projector. But this time he didn’t tell them to calm down and wait for what was next. All that was supposed to happen—in the story and in their lives—was happening.
For the first time in their lives, they were drawing near to God.
The summer after my second year in seminary, in Iowa, my dad was living in Connecticut, a part of this country in which I had never been. He invited us out, me, Ann, and our three children, who were 14, 12, and 10 at the time. Now you have to know I was excited, because as a kid, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with my dad. I have nine siblings – with a name like Fitzgerald, you figure it out – and it took a lot of time out of dad’s life to support such a big family. And after my parents’ divorce, he and I had a pretty rough time, though by this time we had reconciled pretty well. So, I was really excited to go, and the thing that let me know how much he wanted to see us was this – he sent me his credit card. The whole trip was on him, gas, food, lodging, the works. He paid for it all.
Here’s my point. I expect you get as close to God as you want to get, same as you let the resurrection affect your life as much as you’d like. But I think a God who says, “Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you,” wants nothing more than to be near you. And if his word on it isn’t enough for you, then consider this – he paid the entire price for you to make the journey.
March 28, 2021
The Vulnerability of Love
March 28, 2021
This is Palm Sunday. This Sunday is also called Passion Sunday. But I want to tell you about the parade on Palm Sunday. I want to tell you about the people shouting and singing, about how they broke branches off palm trees, about how they waved the branches in order to show the intensity of their joy and expectation, about people taking off their jackets and spreading them on the ground before Jesus just as their ancestors had done for Jehu upon his return from battle. I want to tell you about how they sang from Psalm 118 of one coming in the name of their beloved King David, in the name of the ancient king to whom God promised an eternal Kingdom. I want to tell you about the parade.
I want to tell you of the little children caught up in the excitement and empowered to become part of the parade because of Jesus' blessing of them. I want to tell you of the man with the withered hand who was now cutting down the branches and passing them out to others. I want to tell you of the one who was deaf and mute who is now leading the singing. I want to tell you of the lame who were dancing in the streets. I want to tell you of the outcast who was now part of the parade. I want to tell you of the woman who had been bleeding for years and had once touched the hem of Jesus' garment and who now ran alongside the donkey singing. I want to tell you of the blind man, who once saw people as trees, walking and who now clearly saw Jesus entering the city on a donkey. I want to tell you of a little girl whom Jesus raised from her deathbed and who now brought her parents to the parade. I want to tell you of those Jesus fed on the hillside who this time brought food to share with others along the parade route. I want to tell you of Jesus' mother and brothers who gazed up and down the street realizing that all these people were now part of Jesus' family. I want to tell you of the father who had brought his son to Jesus, laid the boy at Jesus' feet, saying, "I believe. Help my unbelief." This man now stood on the sidelines with his son, both of them healed--the son healed of his seizures, the father healed of his doubt. I want to tell you about the parade. ...Read more .
March 21, 2021
Point of No Return
Anyone who has ever taken a journey knows that in the process you inevitably reach a place that is called the point of no return. In some cases it is the half-way mark; you have gone so far that there is no point in going back. No matter what happens you might as well press on and you either reach the goal or your journey is a failure. In days of extensive air travel we are frequently aware of this point of no return, for by its very nature air travel stresses the importance of this point beyond which there is no turning back. Something you may never hear, because it is spoken in the cockpit behind closed and locked doors, is the co-pilot calling out “V1” to the captain as he or she is taking off. It is the point on the runway where you either stop safely or take to the air, and the moment comes suddenly, and is gone equally as suddenly.
The point of no return (PNR or PONR) is the point beyond which one must continue on one's current course of action because turning back is dangerous, physically impossible or difficult, or prohibitively expensive. The point of no return can be a calculated point during a continuous action (such as in aviation). A particular irreversible action (such as setting off an explosion or signing a contract) can be a point of no return.
The phrase "point of no return" originated as a technical term in air navigation to refer to the point on a flight at which a plane is no longer capable of returning to the airfield from which it took off.
An example of the “V1” point reference was Charles Lindbergh's takeoff in The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 in which there was uncertainty about the plane's ability to take off from a 5,000 foot, mud-soaked runway while fully loaded with aviation fuel. History tells of his success from his “point of no return.”
I’m sure you’ve all experienced it at some point or another. It may have been during a hike or bike ride or road trip or project or conversation or relationship. It is that point at which it is too late to turn around and go back to the beginning. You are officially into too deep and you must follow through to the finish.
I, like many of you, have experienced passing the point of no return and needing to draw deep in order to persevere to the finish. Whether it was hiking the mountains of Colorado and discovering a little too late that I was a bit beyond my element, that I bit off more than I could chew, but with no recourse but to continue putting one foot in front of the other – – or running out of money after quitting the job to go back to school – – or the impossibly difficult philosophy class that I didn’t drop in time, taught by the virulently atheistic son of a Lutheran pastor, I am well acquainted with that moment of realizing that turning back now is no longer an option.
The point of no return often coincides with the moment that we are considering giving up. It is the thigh-burning switchback or the lung-piercing mile, or the impossible amount of overtime, or ridiculous mileage to the next rest area or gas station. Usually the knowledge that we cannot turn back originates in the desire to turn back.
I am reminded of the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It is a song of commitment, a pledge of dedication, a promise. “The cross before me, the world behind me…” “Though none go with me, I still will follow…” “No turning back, no turning back…”
I wonder how often we have sung it with a slight misspelling: “I half decided to follow Jesus…”
In their own way, each of the appointed texts for this fifth Sunday in Lent reminds us that the work of transformation is God’s work and not ours. In Jeremiah, Yahweh dreams of a time when the people of Israel will live by the law of love inscribed on their hearts – when they will live and love intuitively, without striving, with effortless joy, deep in the heart of God. In contrast to “thou shalt not,” and “thou shalt,” now come the words, “I will put,” “I will write,” “I will forgive.” God promises essentially the same thing in Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you…” (Ezekiel 36:26- 27)
In the epistle to the Hebrews, we come face-to-face with the high priest, and not one like all the others. This high priest is one “after the order of Melchizedek,” that shadowy figure who blessed Abram and to whom Abram gave his tithe. This is a priesthood of another order, a higher order, one who is both from God and knows our own weaknesses and is yet without sin. The ancient Christian formula states it this way: “He was not as we are and therefore can help; he was as we are and therefore will help.” He has met the enemy and overcome.
In the Gospel lesson, after Jesus struggles momentarily with his destiny (“What should I say, Father, save me from this hour?”), he declares firmly that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. God, in and through the cross and resurrection, will do the saving. Our task, to borrow a line from Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel, Gilead, is to “put ourselves in the way of the gift” – to be still long enough, to pay careful attention, so as to avail ourselves of the Spirit’s power to reform, conform, transform us into God’s image.
We can’t do it on our own – the only way it is done is by lifting Christ up, by “putting ourselves in the way of the gift” and being drawn into him.
But instead of lifting Jesus up, what does humankind lift up, replacing what God has in mind? Career; education; notoriety; fame; the bottle…?
And how high do we lift Jesus up? – halfway, halfheartedly, I half decided to follow…
The height of the covenant relationship is established when God states as a done deal, with no irony whatsoever: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:23)
This morning’s Gospel describes a moment where Christ openly discusses his passing through the point of no return. It is where Jesus – fully God and fully man – acknowledges that he is troubled.
He goes on to declare that he would follow through on the task that he came to earth to do: to save the world through his suffering, death, and resurrection. But Christ admits that he is aware of the difficulty of the task that he is about to accomplish; it is not easy.
The conversation depicted in John 12 comes after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, which was the beginning of the arduous path to the cross. Jesus is found hanging out in Jerusalem when the disciples came to him with word of some seekers that wanted to meet him.
Instead of doing what seems like the natural thing and acknowledging the admirers, Jesus begins to tell the disciples just how he is supposed to die. Jesus is famous for his seemingly strange timing. Although it may seem off, his timing is always perfect.
He began to share with the disciples what it means to be a servant of his and what it will take for those who want to participate in his life. He spoke of how a single seed will remain only a small, impotent seed, unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce many seeds. He continued with the teaching by telling them that if they love their life they will lose it, but only if a person hates his life in this world will that person have it for eternity. And then, if the idea of death to self and living as if hating one’s own life was not dramatic enough, he declared that the true servant of his will be found in him – will follow him and be where he is…
And a few days later he walked intentionally to the cross…
Feel the burn.
For this was not only the point of no return for Christ, but it is also the point of no return for discipleship. It is the point of no return for the followers of Christ. For the disciples and for others throughout history, including us, who may sit in comfortably padded seats at home today or in church sometime soon here in 2021, this is the point of no return. For if we take Christ up on this offer, we will either lose everything or gain everything. This kind of a challenge does not come with conservative, middle of the road options. It is an all or nothing, let go or hold onto your measly, weak life forever, live in the light or remain in darkness, kind of decision.
Being truly found in Christ – not just saying you are a Christian, not just putting a Jesus fish on your car, not just showing up at a church on Sunday mornings – being a follower of Jesus will require that we go where he goes. It will require that we are willing to die to ourselves so that we might live in him. It will require that we take a good, hard look at our lives and start cutting things out that come between us and our ability to serve God and serve others. It will mean that we will not get to stand up for ourselves but instead rely on God.
What God sent Christ to do was not an easy or simple thing to do; what God calls us to do will not be easy or simple either. If Jesus Christ was “troubled” by the magnitude of the sacrifice required of him, we too will need to push through fear and trepidation to do what is required of us to follow him – and following him means to “Go into the world!”
Thankfully, Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection is sufficient for all time; we will not have to save the world or save ourselves. Only Jesus could do that for us; he did, and it is amazing. But following him into life will require that we persevere through the difficult stretches.
There is no courage in not admitting fear; there is courage in acknowledging fear and moving forward anyway. For directly after we see Jesus acknowledge his troubled heart, we see his resolve to do what he had been sent to do. Jesus declares, “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again!”
The text says that the voice was for the benefit of the followers of Jesus who were gathered together. It was a reminder that what Jesus said and what he was about to do was sanctioned and blessed by the Father. It was an endorsement from heaven for Jesus. The followers of Christ were about to experience a very difficult time and they needed to be reminded who Jesus is and that this difficult time will bring glory to God.
If we are able to cut through the fear that is keeping us from giving our whole lives over to God, we will be able to see the glory of God in new and amazing ways. This Lent you can take the time to purposely let go so that you can start to follow him. …Let go so that you can begin to explore through prayer and repentance what it might mean for you to die to self so that you might give new life to whatever circumstance you find yourself in. …Let go so that you can learn to value nothing higher than eternal life in God. Remember, the seed dies in the soil for the express purpose of rising to new life and reproducing itself, thirty fold, sixty fold, a hundred fold. Tie that into “disciples who make disciples, who make disciples,” and you begin to catch the vision of God’s Kingdom.
Although at first glance it seems strange that Jesus goes from hearing about people who wanted to meet him to talking about his death, I don’t think that the timing was an accident. For just as his disciples came to him with the news of more who wanted to meet him, Jesus began to explain the way in which all people – throughout history – regardless of age or race or country of origin would seek after him and come to know him.
These Greeks wanted to have a “selfie” taken with Jesus, they wanted “a Kodak moment,” but instead Christ spoke of how he would accomplish what it would take to save them from death. Jesus not only made it possible for these Greeks to meet him by the power of his sacrifice and resurrection, he made sure that every person ever born would have the same chance to meet him. Jesus walked to the cross so that you and I and our children’s children could all equally receive him.
Notice the last verses of this passage: he states that he will be driven out and despised, but then he claims the inheritance of the children of God. Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” He did this so that all could know life that is truly life, and be set free from the bondage of sin and death.
Is that the Holy Spirit calling out, “V1!”? This morning we are faced with passing through the point of no return with Jesus. We have a choice: We can go where he goes, do what he does, be led by the Holy Spirit, and motivated by the power of his love to enter into new places of intimacy with God… Or we may sit in our homes and continue with business as usual, continuing to be slaves to the same old insecurities and frustrations. We can choose to focus on service to others and the love that Christ died to share with us… Or we can choose the way of the world in service to self. We can use this time of Lent as an exercise in letting go, or we can just plan an Easter egg hunt for the kids. The choice is yours, mine, ours… – no turning back, no turning back.
March 14, 2021
Look to Jesus
Songs rattling around in my brain all week long…
On a hill faraway stands an Old Rugged Cross
You Led Me to the Cross and I saw your face of mercy in that place of love
The Wonderful Cross, Oh the wonderful cross
At the Cross, he died for our sin
When I survey the Wondrous Cross
Lift High the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Are you beginning to sense a theme here?
In this Lenten season we move unalterably toward the cross.
But we haven’t quite arrived.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure Jesus out. From the opening sentence of the gospel for this morning, the passage begins in the midst of Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”
Jesus, like a serpent in the wilderness? Hunh?
That’s quite the reference that Jesus inserts into their little chat, a potent image that he brings into a conversation already drenched with symbolism and metaphor. Jesus and Nicodemus have been talking, after all, about being born again, with its attendant imagery of birthing, water, womb, spirit, and wind.
Being a good Pharisee, however, Nicodemus would have known the snaky reference. It comes from Numbers 21:4-9, our OT text for today.
Consider the Israelites wanderings…
It’s been a long journey
Endless, “Are we there, yet’s?”
The 40 years is drawing to a close. The Hebrew people have turned over a new generation, but they haven’t turned over a new leaf. Before they reenter the Promised Land they must reenter their relationship with God. They still complain as much as their ancestors: “We’re thirsty; we’re hungry; we hate this manna stuff!” Who could blame them. 40 years of manna stir fry, fricassee of manna, spaghetti and mannaballs, manna parmesan… ad infinitum, ad nauseum…
But the thing they’ve become best at is grumbling, whining, petulance, complaining. Their constant tantrums are like serpents, writhing and striking with toxic poison that destroys their relationship with each other and with their God.
“I will be your God and you will be my pains-in-the-neck.”
From north to south, on the eastern side of the Promised Land, bordered by the Jordan river and the Dead Sea, are the nations of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, and the Israelites must either skirt them or invade them in order to get to their destination. They set out to go around the land of Edom because the king of Edom has forbidden them passage. The shortcut has been blocked and now they have to detour, the long way ‘round, once again.
“But the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’” (Numbers 21:5)
Biting the hand that feeds you…
What better way to fend off one poison but with another.
The Lord sends poisonous serpents…,
And the serpents bite the people…,
And many people die…,
And the people are very, very sorry.
It’s amazing how quickly the fear of death will bring about repentance.
Or maybe, more specifically, it’s the fear of snakes…
Snakes can travel six miles an hour without feet. They can climb trees with no hands. They can shed their skin and start all over again. In a 1999 Harris Poll, 40% of Americans listed snakes as that thing in life that they feared most. Snakes beat out speaking in public, the fear of heights, arachnophobia. Nothing else even came close.
The people of Israel come to Moses, full of remorse for being grumbly, and they beg him to pray to God to take the serpents away. Moses prays. In a curious move, God does not take the serpents away. Instead God sends a strange remedy. God tells Moses to make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. Moses makes one out of bronze. As God has told Moses, whenever a serpent bit someone, “…everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Did I mention it’s a strange tale? For now, let’s just say that part of its point is this: the people are saved by seeing. When the poisonous serpents come among them, those who succumb to snakebite know where to turn their attention, and thereby live.
Recognize before we leave the story, it’s not the serpent that saves them; it’s following God’s command, looking to the serpent, and trusting God for the healing that brings it all about.
We join the gospel for today in the dark of night. Nicodemus, a leader among the Pharisees, slinks up, hoping to remain secure in the gloom, to hold this personal interview with the rabbi, Jesus. Does he reveal insider information when he informs Jesus, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God….” It takes a plurality of witnesses to build a case. Note the conversation revolves less around what Nicodemus asks and more around what Nicodemus needs: Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again from above… the wind blows where it chooses…, so it is with those who are born of the Spirit.” Jesus turns the tables on Nicodemus when he says, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen…” Who is the “we” of which Jesus speaks to affirm his testimony? He could be alluding to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, though Nicodemus would not have grasped that idea at all. Though notice Jesus has proclaimed it to him already: after noting that “what is born of the Spirit is spirit…” (vs. 6), he also says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” Indeed!
But Jesus turns to the OT witness, something of which this Pharisee would have certain knowledge.He reaches back into time and draws up the imagery of Moses’ fiery “snake on a stick.” “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (vss. 14-15)
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus accrues this meaning to himself. “Look on me and live,” he says. Turn your gaze, your attention, your focus to me, and you will be saved by the hand of the God who sent me, not for the punishment of the world but for the utter love of it.
The imagery that Jesus offers Nicodemus could hardly be more potent in our own time. Amid the perils of the present, amid the terrors and dangers, God essentially chooses not to remove the hazards from us but continues to provide a remedy for us. In the person of Jesus, God put on flesh and came not only to walk among the dangers with us but also to help make a way through them. And he says, turn to me, look to me, trust in me, and live.
On this fourth Sunday of our Lenten journey, the biblical imagery keeps moving us toward the cross, where Jesus will be “lifted up” in humiliation and exaltation. Just like Moses’ bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness, this one lifted up will bring healing and salvation to all who look on him and believe.
Rejecting a relationship with Jesus does not call down judgment – separation from
him is the judgment, and it already exists, prior to Jesus’ coming, all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Christ’s judgment is never separate from God’s love for the world, which Jesus incarnates. Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully…. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy.”
Just as the snake on the pole draws the poison out of those who look to it, out of trust in God’s faithfulness, just so, those who look to the cross, where Jesus bore the sin of all humankind, will find ultimate healing from the deadliest of poisons, sin and death and the devil.
Video -- Plot Outline: The Last Sin Eater
In 1850's Appalachia, 10-year-old Callie Forbes is wracked with guilt over the death of her sister. She feels responsible for the loss and sets out to find the only man, known as The Sin Eater, who can take away her guilt. But while seeking redemption, Callie learns a devastating secret that has the potential to tear apart her family and community.
The Fox Universal movie, “The Last Sin Eater” is a dramatic tale of a small town, burdened by the guilt of an Indian massacre, which uses a bizarre religious practice to rid themselves of a lifetime of sin. Until an innocent young girl, whose quest for personal forgiveness, ultimately leads herself and the entire town to something new.
In the climactic sequence of the film, Callie runs into a young preacher who hears her story about going to see the sin eater. She relates that he has offered to eat her sin, but not until she dies. The preacher shares the story of the true and ever-living sin eater, who has already born her sin and the sin of the whole community. She doesn’t have to wait until her death to live in freedom. She asks if the preacher knows the name of this sin eater, and he introduces her to Jesus.
David’s “Weekly Hymn” post this week is “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” The familiar chorus goes:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.
Another song (titled Untitled Hymn) goes like this:
Weak and wounded sinner Lost and left to die
O raise your head for Love is passin' by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus, Come to Jesus and live
Now your burden's lifted And carried far away
And precious blood has washed away the stain
So sing to Jesus
Sing to Jesus, Sing to Jesus and live
Turn to Jesus, turn to Jesus, turn to Jesus, and live
Paul sums it all up in his letter to the Ephesians, 2:1-10
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
And Jesus said,
God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:16-17)
Look to the cross…
Turn to Jesus…
March 7, 2021
God Brought You Out
This a wonderful bundle of texts we have this morning!
Let me explain…
We begin in the Old Testament, just as the people of Israel have busted out of Egypt following God’s miraculous rescue and a pillar of fire and smoke. Moses has gone up the mountainside at Sinai to get what we have unfortunately labeled “The 10 Commandments,” and which seem more to be considered 10 suggestions these days. In fact, practitioners of Judaism call them, simply, “The Ten Words.” The thing is, when you look at that list of “Thou Shalt Nots” as commands, we humans tend to hunker down a bit and wonder just who thinks they have the right to command us to do anything. Do you remember the saying -- "When all else fails... read the directions?" But these directions have lost so much credence in today’s society that they’ve been banned from every national property in this country…
Thomas G. Long, in an article on Religion Online entitled “Dancing the Decalogue,” writes:
Something’s missing in the current culture war over the Ten Commandments. I knew about Judge Roy Moore, the now-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who waged and lost a stubborn fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. What slipped past me is just how much this monument of his weighs: 5,280 pounds, 528 pounds per commandment.
Judge Moore has been lugging this hefty monster around from one public appearance to another on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, "a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one -- a five-ton crane! -- buckles visibly under the weight." I know that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.
Let’s take a different tack on Exodus 20 for a moment. Notice most importantly how it begins:
GOD spoke all these words:
I am GOD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of a life of slavery.
We begin where we should always begin, acknowledging both the identity and accomplishment of our God on our behalf. By his action, he set Israel free from the bondage of slavery – he gave them freedom. The same is true for us, the freedom we gained from sin and death at the cross of our Lord. God then proceeds, after that important introductory phrase, to list what we have come to, and I say unfortunately, call commandments. But looking at that from a different angle, God, “who brought you out” first gives freedom, and then he describes just how one is able to live within that freedom. I’ve noticed in my life when I go against God’s ideals that I end up bound up in sin, guilt, recrimination, and self-accusation. If only I had followed God’s plan in the first place I would not have lost the freedom, the liberty only he can provide. Seeing the “Decalogue” in this way helps us understand them as parameters rather than a long list of “Thou Shall Nots” which get us eternal damnation if we break them. And here’s another point: We need to recognize that without God’s liberating act, we are all already condemned; from Adam and Eve on, humankind has been tarnished by sin, destined for death. Only Christ’s saving work at the cross sets us free from that. You see, it’s not really about keeping the commandments that gets us condemned – that’s already the case. It’s about embracing the salvation we’ve been provided in the cross of Jesus Christ and then working within those parameters God provides to live out our faith in him.
Robert Wuthnow talks about how we transmit our ethical ideals to future generations by telling stories. "Stories do more than keep memories alive," says Wuthnow. "Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully."
Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, "Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens." When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.
This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said to him so many years before, "Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere." Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. "You were an idiot" he said to Jack. "You know that thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up." In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.
That’s the way the commandments work. First comes the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in the form of a narrative. Then there follows the life shaped ethically around that profound story. A nurse saying "I’ll be right here beside you" becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery" prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God.
Kent Hunter notes that about every 500 years, the Christian movement has a rummage sale, when the church unloads all of the cultural baggage it has adopted and adapted, moving out the strategies that used to work but don’t anymore, and returning to its roots.
“I am God, who…” invites us to stop and consider, before any of the “thou shalts” (as we used to shout them) just how God set us free. And then God shows us how to live in that liberty as he guides us with what we call the 10 Commandments, which are far better described as parameters for keeping God in his rightful place in our lives, so that we can live abundant lives.
Look at how Jesus challenges the Temple culture that has deteriorated to be an economic engine for the benefit of a few. When Jesus chases out the money changers in the temple, he singles out the dove sellers with his words:
He told the dove merchants, “Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall!” That’s when his disciples remembered the Scripture, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” (John 2:16-17)
Now why does he single out the dove sellers? Levitical law allowed those who could not afford sheep to sacrifice doves or pigeons because they were plentiful and could be caught by anyone (Lev. 5:7). The purpose of this provision was to allow anyone of any means to access God. Selling doves for sacrifice was particularly exploitive of the poor. Requiring people to purchase the sheep offered at the Temple rather than bring their own disconnected them from the personal connection to the reason for their sacrifice of their animal, distancing them even more from God in the process. That brings us back to the very personal nature of God’s claim in Exodus:
I am GOD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of a life of slavery.
In other words, Jesus is saying here, “The Temple is God’s provision for you to come and walk in the Father’s presence, repent, and see that God forgives your sins, and that the sacrifice is a picture of how I, Jesus, will accomplish your salvation, your freedom from slavery to sin,” as Jesus himself becomes the once and for all eternal sacrifice for sin, precluding the need for the Temple completely. And that’s exactly what he means when he says: “Tear down this Temple and in three days I’ll put it back together.”
20–22 They were indignant: “It took forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to rebuild it in three days?” But Jesus was talking about his body as the Temple. Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this. They then put two and two together and believed both what was written in Scripture and what Jesus had said.
What he’s saying is that the practices of the Temple sacrifice will no longer be necessary after the Temple which is his body is “torn down,” that is crucified, and then raised again from the dead. The whole purpose of the Temple is rebuilt in those three days – it’s no longer needed to provide what comfort it was supposed to give, and certainly wasn’t delivering under the leadership of the High Priest and Pharisees in Jesus’ day.
We may not be able to be described as a “den of thieves” but consider how the established church has drifted from Kingdom protocol to fulfill its own designs.
Will the church be willing to set aside the baggage in order to better represent its Lord? Will we decide to have more dreams for the future than memories about the past? Those are the questions that will begin to lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be on mission for Christ in this place.
Why is that important? I hesitate to use the cliché, but look around you. If Jesus is the way, and we sincerely believe that to be the truth, than this culture is headed for “hell in a handbasket.” In government bickering, religious practice, decadence in the arts and media, education as indoctrination, unethical and greed driven business practices, and family breakdown, this society is majoring in basket-weaving! We make demagogues into little gods, and acclaim them as the next savior of our culture. We make vain philosophies into grand ideals as if they’re full of wisdom. We make immorality out to be simply amoral, neither wrong or right one way or another, though on closer examination they surely aren’t God’s ways.
Let me reread our epistle for today:
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,
I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.
So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
22–25 While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tiny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”
Certainly we don’t think our generation is any better than what has gone before us as far as God is concerned, do we? Of course, we have technology, computers, the internet, faceplant, tweeker and the rest, which means, of course, that we can get things wrong all the quicker! And then spread that foolishness at lightning speed to folks waiting to lap it up.
2 weeks ago, with the OT story of Noah and the Gospel retelling of Jesus’ own baptism, and then being driven out into the wilderness, before starting on his mission, all in 7 short verses (Mark 1:9-15) we were reminded of God’s first covenant: the baptismal covenant – from water to wilderness to witness, identity to reflection to task.
Last week we took a look at the 2nd covenant: Abram’s covenant from the Old Testament and Jesus’ call to “Take up your cross” in the gospel. As descendants of Abraham, by adoption, we follow in his footsteps in that grand promise: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And that leads us to consider just what it means to get behind Jesus.
This week we have the 3rd covenant: the covenant of the law. It is the central one of Israel’s history: the gift of the law to those God freed from slavery. The Ten Commandments are one of the chief parts of Luther’s Catechism, a core piece of baptismal instruction. They begin with the statement that because God alone has freed us from the powers that oppressed us, we are to let nothing else claim first place in our lives. When Jesus throws the merchants out of the temple, he is defending the worship of God alone and rejecting the ways commerce and profit-making can become our gods.
I began this morning by saying this is a wonderful bundle of texts we have for our consideration. These texts all point back to just how we worship God, accentuated in the first three Commandments – though by now you know why I hesitate to label them as such. God’s name, God’s image, God’s day are meant for our benefit and should not be tarnished in any way. “The Sabbath was made to serve us, we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) That’s not a command to simply fall into lockstep behind. Worshipping God is one of the primary reasons we were created in the first place. We were designed to worship, and the problem comes in when we worship money, wisdom, signs, anything but God. And what Jesus finds in the Temple at Passover was, in the least, distracting, and at its worst, damaging the worship that God’s people were intent on bringing to him.
Brian Stoffregen asks the question:
What would Jesus find in our churches? Although he probably wouldn't find cattle or sheep, although there may be a few doves/pigeons or bats flying around (He notes that he had a bat visit a worship service once); would he find the same attitude -- religious rituals being just a business? Is the church building simply a place where people and God take care of business? Can worship become centered on the things we do, rather than the God who is present, giving to us and forgiving us in Word and Sacrament?
We have this wonderful Word, these “commands,” and we make them into do’s and don’ts, mistaking our doing for our being in relationship with the God of the universe, who calls us as we are, claimed in the waters of baptism, to become a part of the family of God, and invited to live lives of worship and devotion that all begin with the “God who brought you out.”
So what will it be? Living in the freedom we’ve been given within the parameters shown to be healthy and true, or making a shamble of God’s Temple where his Holy Spirit resides? As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord! How about you?
February 28, 2021, Second Sunday in Lent
“Take up Your Cross”
Ernest Gordon, who served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University in the late 20th century, describes a redemptive journey through suffering. A British soldier during World War II, Gordon was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Burma. He tells of the experience in his book, Through the Valley of the Kwai.
It was in the P.O.W. camp that Gordon met a soldier nicknamed “Dodger.” Dodger suffered from serious stomach ulcers, a condition that caused him almost unbearable pain. More than that, he suffered from a despair so black that his fellow prisoners feared it would kill him before the ulcers would.
But then, Dodger came to trust Jesus Christ in a special way. He became a Christian, there in the camp: And one of the first things he did was to look around for a way he could be of service.
The filthiest job in camp was collecting the rags the prisoners used as bandages to cover the sores on their arms and legs. The rags had to be collected, scraped clean of infection and then boiled, before being returned so others could use them. “A smelly, unpleasant job it was,” Gordon writes, “but Dodger volunteered for it. Regularly I would see him going from hut to hut, carrying his can of rags, and whistling as he walked.”
Gordon asks, rhetorically, “Who but a Christian would whistle as he carried a cross?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
When we hear that text today, 20 centuries after the death and resurrection of our Lord, we hardly bat an eye. It’s the season of Lent, after all, and we know Jesus is headed up to Jerusalem, even as we’re following along on that journey. But we’re also well aware that Jesus’ passion narrative, where he tells his disciples beforehand the purpose for going to Jerusalem is his arrest, trial and death, precedes the glory of his resurrection 3 days later. We get that.
We might also discern that the folks to whom Mark writes his gospel are in much the same place as we are, some thirty years after the fact.
But put yourselves in the sandals of the disciples on that final ascent and things look a bit more dicey.
Our text this morning follows along after Jesus’ initial prediction of his fate in Mark’s gospel, Peter’s brash statement that nothing of the sort could ever occur, and Jesus essentially calling Peter the spawn of Satan. Jesus tells them of his impending suffering, rejection, trial, and death. He knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem. He’s headed for suffering in the extreme. And in those days, prisoners on death row didn’t get a last wish, a last meal or a “last” of anything except a last breath. Condemned persons didn’t die quickly. They were staring at a slow and painful execution on a cross.
In the scripture text, Jesus is aware of this: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed …” Then he adds, as if an afterthought, “…and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) You might think he’d lean a little more heavily into that last part, giving a bit of reassurance: “Hey, guys, sure, I’m going to die in Jerusalem, but don’t worry! After three days in the ground, something amazing is going to happen. I will be with you again. No worries!”
But he doesn’t do that. He just lets his declaration hang there in the air; Peter reacts and is put in his place. And then Jesus starts to teach them about the cost of discipleship.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Consider for a moment what those words sounded like to the disciples before the fact. Did those who heard those words from Jesus about his death and suffering understand that he would die such a horrible death – crucifixion is one of the most grisly means of execution – could they even conceive that this amazing teacher, this powerful healer and deliverer, this righteous and Godly man would die in such a detestable and humiliating way?
Of course not. They didn’t get it. They didn’t yet have ears to hear.
So, before they could even begin to wrap their heads around his death, by crucifixion, Jesus tells THEM that they have to “take up their cross.” When Jesus says this here, a while yet before Golgotha, these words would have had to sting and confuse the ears of his listeners.
Take up our cross? What cross? You mean a cross of crucifixion? The instrument of death for a slave or foreign criminal? Before they have time to even register the thought, Jesus moves on:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Perhaps this thought is the climax of the conversation with his disciples, the point Jesus was driving at. When you follow Jesus it means putting everything, including your own self-survival, in the backseat. The transformation that takes place in the growing disciple is a re-ordering of priorities and principles in order to “get behind” Jesus and follow along in the way of the Kingdom.
We’ve been studying a good deal about that in our small groups with “The Road to Damascus: Where Christians Become Missionaries.” Kent Hunter talks about aligning ourselves with God’s vision in five categories:
Values: What we consider/identify as important
Beliefs: What we demonstrate we believe is true
Attitudes: How we position our lives before God
Priorities: What we consistently, always do first
Worldviews: The way we see the world and the way it works
So, listen carefully. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is saying that getting behind him means your focus is no longer about saving your life or preserving the values, beliefs, attitudes, priorities, or worldviews this current world and culture sets out as standards. On the contrary, following Jesus means that your priority is to lose your life for his sake.
And, what better way to talk about that than the cross. It’s an instrument where not only are you condemned to a tortuous death, but you’re also succumbing to a dishonorable death. A slave’s death. A death that even the Old Testament calls “accursed.” On the cross you don’t just lose your life, but you do so in a wholly unfashionable way. You lose everything. Life. Honor. Pride.
But, Jesus says that in such a loss everything is, in fact, gained.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
And, just in case Jesus’ first audience didn’t get it—because they were scandalized at the thought of dropping those last few pitiful rungs on the societal ladder—Jesus himself follows this up with showing them how it’s done.
How to lose. And how to triumph. For God and His Kingdom.
Look at Abraham for a moment. He doesn’t die on a cross when he decides to follow God’s will for his life. But he does give up just about everything he might have hoped for: home, family, country, security. He lays aside his own priorities and “takes up his cross” and follows where God leads him in order to establish a new nation out of which God will deliver all of humankind. He packs up his wife and servants, invites his nephew Lot along for the journey (probably a mistake), and leaves everything he knows and loves behind for a perilous life ahead. God promises him a child when he’s around 75 years old, and then waits another 25 years to bring the promise to fruition. Paul talks about that in Romans when he writes,
Hoping against hope, [Abraham] believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
I love that phrase “considered his own body, which was already as good as dead.” The Hebrew word translated into that cute little colloquialism is nenekromenon, literally “to be deadened.” Sure Abraham’s faith wavered along the way, as witnessed by his lie about Sarah being his sister and the birth narrative of Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. But his faith was still “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
And don’t overlook Paul himself. He suffered greatly for the faith, suffering that was predicted for him even before his conversion. In Acts 9, after he was struck down and blinded on the road to Damascus while setting out to persecute the church, a disciple named Ananias balks at the idea of going to pray over him to receive his sight. In a vision, the Lord says to Ananias:
“Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Ac 9:15–16).
Paul “takes up his cross,” just as he describes in 2 Corinthians:
I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. (2 Co 11:23–28 The Message)
You might conclude that Paul knew what it meant to be “as good as dead” as he considered what it meant to “take up his cross and follow Jesus.”
When we hear the stories from Scripture we might be tempted to think that they record the faith experiences of super-human believers, people for whom faith is simple, following God is a snap, folks like Abraham and David, Daniel and Paul, yes, even Peter. Historically we have even had the tendency to categorize these folks as saints, forgetting that God makes no distinction – we are all sinners saved by grace through faith.
For early Christians, persecution and pressure worked to prevent them from practicing their faith. In that environment, one could hardly practice their faith by accident – it had to be intentional. Today, in our culture, other public and private pressures (particularly the busyness of work and activities) can push one’s faith to the margins. Like the early Christians, we also must look at what we are willing to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus intentionally.
Let’s go back to that text once more:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
In calling us back to the basics, Lent reminds us of what really counts: following Jesus. In these texts today we are encouraged to understand and tell the truth about discipleship, both its costs – losing one’s life – and its promises – receiving one’s life back, and that abundantly blessed.
In Jesus’ words to Peter, “Get behind me,” Mark uses a Greek preposition that appears mainly when Jesus calls people to follow “behind” him. Peter is called to get behind Jesus, to follow him, instead of setting his mind on human things. When we follow Jesus it means a careful look at “human things” is required. When and where are we drifting into the cultural biases of the world, and failing to follow in Jesus’ way, behind him?
In this gospel from Mark, discipleship means “getting behind” Jesus, even in the midst of pressure to save one’s own life and preserve one’s own habits. It means believing in God’s promises – even ones that seem far-fetched – and living as if they are true. It may mean giving something up for Lent, but even beyond that it means giving up anything that prevents us from receiving the eternal, abundant life that Jesus longs to give us and would die for us to have.
In God’s eyes, what counts? Jesus tells us that the life he gives us is what really counts, rather than “gaining the whole world.” Paul tells us that Abraham’s faith, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, counted: “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Considering then what it means to “Take up your cross and follow” Jesus – both the burdens and the blessings – let us also “get behind” Jesus and seek to do his will. “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” right here, right now, that he might receive all the glory, now and forever.
February 21, 2021...First Sunday of Lent
Water to Wilderness to Witness
The gospel text for this morning probably sounds familiar to you. It should. We read it just 6 weeks ago as we observed the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. The reason we get it again here is multi-fold. First, it establishes the preparation of Jesus for the task that is before him – with 40 days in the wilderness corresponding with the 40 days of Lent that will lead up to his passion, persecution, and death. Next, it focuses on the origins of Lent, that is a 40 day period of preparation for adult Baptism which would occur at the Vigil of Easter, practiced as far back as the second century. And then there is the idea that Jesus enters into his wilderness experience just as we enter the wilderness of Lent, to contemplate, struggle with temptation, and turn back to God in repentance (though Jesus never required that element).
There is movement in our text for this morning: from Baptism to temptation to action; from being to struggling to doing; from water to wilderness to witness; from identity to reflection to task.
Let’s first look at identity as it occurs in baptism
What happens at baptism?
Well, the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us. Three things happened in the story. The heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son.” Each of these events has great significance for us.
The beginning is about tearing and it goes like this: heaven is open to you. Look at what happens in the story of Jesus: the gospel of Mark begins with the tearing of the heavens and ends with the tearing of the Temple curtain. The veil between you and God has been torn apart. Heaven is open to you. There is no limit to God’s purpose for your life: it is an eternal purpose.
The text says, “He saw the heavens torn apart” (Mark 1:10). Here is a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God. Jesus is the point of intersection.
There’s a lot of talk about global warming, dire predictions that the ozone layer is thinning to the point of being torn apart. There is an understandable fear of catastrophe. In contrast, this phrase that describes the heavens being torn apart, with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, through the tear, suggests a more uplifting theme, of God being present in the tear. On that Friday that will ironically be known as “Good,” the Temple curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies is torn in two as Jesus dies (Mark 15:38). The result of this tearing is the opening up of the way of salvation for all who believe.
As the letter to the Hebrews records:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
This “tearing of the heavens” has to do with access, welcome, invitation, presence…
The second point is about the dove: God’s Spirit is in you. Remember the end of the flood, when the dove brought the twig of new life back to Noah? Well, here is the dove descending on Jesus, bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit, affirming new life. In the same way, in your baptism, the Holy Spirit has come to indwell you; you are now the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit. You are the place where others will encounter God and his new life. God’s Spirit is in you. And this Spirit’s coming is attended with power – dunamis – for the purpose of telling others that they may share in this same relationship.
So, in baptism, heaven is open to you, God’s Spirit is in you. The third detail of baptism is about the beloved: the focus is on the relationship rather than the genealogy, let alone the genetics. This is the Son with whom God is well pleased. What is being said here is this: you mean everything to God. God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are, “This is my beloved Son.” These words mean that Jesus means everything to God, and everything God gives to Jesus he gives to us. You mean everything to God.
I read a brief article entitled “What love means to a 4-8 year-old.” Children were asked to explain what love means, and out of the mouths of babes came some remarkably touching words.
Bobby said, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
Jessica said, “You really shouldn’t say “I love you” unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
The one that really caught me was Billy. “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
I love that!
God knows your name, and it’s safe in his mouth…
In the latest baptismal liturgy it states “The triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the church.” (ELW, 225) Which is simply another way of saying heaven is open to you, God’s Spirit is in you, and you mean everything to God.
As Christians, we are drowned in the flood waters of baptism and raised up with the promise of new life as God’s children. In baptism we receive a sign of God’s unfailing commitment and love for us. It is not a bow in the clouds but the sign of Christ’s cross marked on our foreheads. As we begin the season of Lent, we receive the sign of God’s promise in the form of ashes on our forehead. As we approach the Easter vigil, again the sign of the cross is traced on the foreheads of those newly baptized.
We move on…
From identity to reflection
Jesus’ baptism leads to reflection: the wilderness
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)
As much as we would want, you don’t stay at baptism – the world, life, is full of wilderness experience. Luther put it this way: baptism takes only a few minutes to do, but a whole lifetime to finish.
Given the framework of thought within which Mark celebrates Jesus, and in his prologue presents him to the reader, we are doubtless correct to see the time in the wilderness as both preparation and struggle from which Jesus emerges victorious. The victory here promises victory everywhere. Jesus is in the desert. The desert is a primal place of wild forces and wonders. It is a place of hope and new beginnings. Israel passed through the waters of the sea and set out for the wilderness, where they stayed for 40 years. Jesus is like Israel. He passes through the baptismal waters and moves out into the wilderness for 40 days.
The fact is, we can’t escape the wilderness. Even Jesus needed to enter it.
The theme here might be “life after baptism” – it’s a life full of testing. The fact is, “life after baptism” is “life in the real world.” And Jesus knows this “real world” of temptations, and undeserved suffering and death.
In Mark’s Gospel, the Spirit is literally “casting out” or “throwing out” Jesus into the wilderness. Our text says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Matthew and Luke are a bit less graphic with the spirit “leading” Jesus.) In the wilderness Jesus is to be tested by Satan. I wonder how many people really want to be led by the Spirit – if this is where the Spirit leads!
Let’s look at the word “testing” – the Greek word is peirazo. Translators have to decide if the word means “to test” or “to tempt.” Because it has both meanings. In a “test” the tester is not trying to make the testee fail, but to determine what they know or what they can do. In a “temptation” the tempter is trying to make the temptee fail.
A closely related word is used in Deuteronomy 8:2 – Moses is speaking to the generation that will enter the promised land when he says, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” I think the purpose of Jesus’ “testing” in the wilderness is closely related to Deuteronomy 8.
Generally when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the testee, but to help discover what they know and what they can do – their ability to do what is required of them. In “proving” them, they are also instilling confidence for the task. Doctors and lawyers and accountants among other professions have to pass tests so that the public can be assured that these people know what they are doing. But it also provides us reassurance to the one being tested that they have made it, they are accomplished at the task ahead of them.
This is a story of preparation. In part, it functions to establish the credibility of Jesus.
A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“And what are they, please?”
The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word! May I have it, please?” The seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”
“What are they, pray tell?”
This is God’s purpose in times of testing – to help us grow – to show us that we have the faith and ability to stand up to the testing – that we will trust God in difficult times – to strengthen our faith and Christian character. However, we must know at the same time, Satan has his own purpose – to turn the testee away from God – to “tempt” them to sin. Both elements or at work here in the wilderness. And, unfortunately, there will be “wrong choices” along the way, by which we just might grow. The truth is, this is…
A matter of the will
From whomever it comes, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something. Temptation is not the same as coercion. The serpent in the garden didn’t make Eve and then Adam eat the forbidden fruit. Satan in our text can’t make Jesus turn against God. “To tempt” means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempter’s can’t make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don’t take away the will, rather, they try to change one’s will.
In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not a problem of knowledge. I usually know what is good and bad – we’ve known that since the time of Adam and Eve. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad. Or there are times I just don’t want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance – of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one’s will or conviction – what do I want to do and what will I do. Martin Luther once noted that the problem with free will is that we most often use it to choose what is wrong.
It is the responsibility of parents and sponsors end of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. Satan (and much of human society) is still around, trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.
Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for a period of testing, surrounded by wild animals, Satan, and ministering angels – all in order to prepare him to declare the good news of the kingdom of God. So finally we move…
From reflection to task
The task: spreading the good news
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
The story ends in good news because God is determined to have the last word.
When life’s struggles overwhelm us, God’s promises comfort us with the assurance of God’s abiding presence and healing touch. The cross and the rainbow are visual images reminding us of this promise.
Having been baptized and tested, Jesus’ purpose is to tell others that everything that is true for him in his relationship with the Father is true for us as well. The heavens are torn; God’s spirit can be in you; you mean everything to God.
That’s good news!
Our Lutheran worship traditionally ends with the dismissal, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” To which the church responds “Thanks be to God.” We have been very intentional here about this sending. We say “Go in peace,” then “Thanks be to God!” “Serve the Lord” is no throwaway line – it is a call to discipleship, to commitment. It is Jesus leaving the wilderness to do what he was prepared to do – to take up his task – to invite others in. It is our commissioning for the everyday task of sharing the great good news. So we respond with, “Yes, Lord! We will!”
As I think about times when my faith has been tested/strengthened, often the best service that others can do for me, is to let me share the experience. Perhaps that is why this event is followed with Jesus first public announcement. Maybe there is a connection between the Holy Spirit leading in times of testing and the Holy Spirit speaking through us.
From identity to reflection to task.
Those are the elements we see in the gospel this morning. Jesus’ experience is a foreshadowing of our own. Our baptism is intended to prepare us for both the wilderness and the witness. With our identity firmly established in God our Father, we are ready for the wilderness, which empowers us for the witness. From water to wilderness to witness, from identity to reflection to task, from being to struggling to doing, in this Lenten season we are being prepared for Kingdom work. May we be inspired by the same Spirit that leads Jesus Christ to endure, for heaven’s sake.