The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today we hear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written sometime in the middle of the first century. At that time the early Christian movement was still tied to Judaism, though many of the new converts were Gentiles. Paul’s travels to spread the gospel meant that most of those he evangelized were not Jews. One of the early conflicts within the developing church had to do with how to handle these Gentile believers. Would they be required to follow Jewish law or not? In this letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his view of the controversy, which was formed by knowing the Gentiles among whom he preached. Paul does not do this in a theoretical way but rather in answer for actual people, actual places, and actual situations. As his missionary work continued, he became even stronger in his views supporting that Gentile Christians do not need to follow Jewish law and customs. Paul firmly believed that this is not a condition for their belief in the risen Lord. And as we know that is the position that eventually won out.
Last week we heard the much-quoted verse from Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the core of Paul’s belief, all are one. In today’s passage Paul’s strong remarks are a reminder that in the arguments regarding Jewish law, Jesus’ basic commandment had gotten overlooked. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As children of God, this is the crucial part of our identity. Through Jesus Christ we are members in community with one another. And that community is formed and based on love, God’s love for us and our reflection of that same love to others. In this passage Paul uses the word “flesh” as a shorthand for self-centered living and he gives a list of the results of that. He also names the opposite of the flesh and lists the results of God-centered living, a life of loving service for the benefit of others.
In theory it seems simple, but of course in living it out, it is not always that way. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, can sometimes be difficult. People with whom we do not agree, …are still our neighbor. People whom we do not necessarily like, …are still our neighbor. People who do not focus on the same priorities as we do,… are still our neighbor. Our neighbors are children of God, as are we, and we are to love them.
Whenever we are in community with other people, there will occasionally be conflict. It is how that conflict is discussed and resolved that matters. Putting our love of others ahead of the argument we fervently we believe in, takes practice! And at its best, the church can be a laboratory for learning and practicing love and mercy as Jesus intended.
In pre-Covid times most of us were a part of several communities. And this was good. It gave us socialization, a place to have fun, people with whom to share ideas and more. Perhaps these were with members of our physical neighborhoods, or people with whom we worked or attended school, or others in our extended family or those we met in a favorite coffee shop. And perhaps we found community here at Emmanuel as a part of the choir or a particular congregation, the 8 o-clockers, or a common age group, pub theology and so on.
During the shutdown some may have formed new communities through zoom or by taking walks masked and six feet apart in the neighborhood, but for many this was a time of loss of community connections. And now as we are learning how to make our way being with other people again, it can be a time of more intentional community formation. In fact, Emmanuel has made forming Christian community as one of its common themes as we reorganize some ministries.
I wonder today, what makes a church a community, a Christian community, that can be different from other groups?
One thing is a common faith. We say the creed together each time we worship. We profess to believe in Christ is risen and Christ will come again. Even if we do not all believe exactly the same way, at the basic level we believe in our Lord Jesus.
Another thing that sets us apart is common worship. The services here have a recognizable pattern and while the lessons and hymns change daily the structure is the same. Common faith, common worship. I suppose we might combine those two and say one characteristic that sets us apart is the book of common prayer that we share.
Another is Common scripture that we hear and read.
Through these, faith, worship, prayer, and scripture, we have common experiences that are grounded in Christ’s love. This is our foundation.
And yet, we can share these things and still have room to grow as a Christian community, a place where love and mercy are practiced and allowed to deepen.
A step forward in this is learning to use our words about our faith and speaking about what God has done for us. While this may seem awkward at first, it becomes easier with doing it and talking with a smaller number of people, one or two perhaps. If you are involved with Common Table there will be a chance to practice this in a very approachable and easy way this week.
The same is true of the sacred spaces ministry or inter-generational formation, one of the Bible study groups, doing a Meals on Wheels delivery with someone you want to know better, or to get involved with volunteering for the DREAAM program to name a few of the opportunities found here.
This is how we build Christian community by being a safe place to express God’s love for us, as well as our love of God, in both word and action. Christ is at the center of the community and for that to be so, we must acknowledge His presence in our lives. This is what makes Christian community different from the other secular communities in which we live. We can talk about our favorite baseball team in any community (and we do). We can talk about our experience of Christ’s love and mercy in any community, but it is easier to learn how we do this in a group where Christ is the center.
Some of the things we can do consciously to help to foster Christian community are the same as with any other community, but some are not.
The first thing step is to come together regularly. For relationships to grow being together frequently is important, at least at first. If too much time elapses between being in the same place, we have to start over, and this can keep us from forming those common bonds. Getting to know our neighbor is an important part of loving our neighbor.
Being able to express our own experience, the truth as you know it, comes next. Trust can only be built by taking that step of speaking about what is meaningful to you. Take it in small steps! In several of the groups that have met over the last year listening to a passage of scripture together and then saying the word or phrase that stands out to each person has been an easy way to begin. Letting others know us is another important part of loving our neighbor.
Perhaps most importantly we need to allow God to lead us in the process of forming community. Praying specifically about how we might be more involved or perhaps how we might get to know another Emmanuelite is an intentional way to begin. As time goes on, you will find your unique place in the group and learn to know others special gifts. The awkwardness will disappear with practice. And we will be able to see how despite surface differences we do meet Paul’s statement that in Christ, all are one.
With the support of the community, we can then spread out that love, our reflection of God’s love, to others who may or may not be a Christian. I have seen this happen here at Emmanuel many, many times in the past. I look forward to us widening our vision of loving our neighbors through strengthening these community bonds in the months ahead.
While our current day issues and conflicts are not the same as in Paul’s time, the principles and foundation that he speaks are the same.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today’s Gospel is just cinematic: the howling hulk of a man who lives in the cemetery like someone’s worst nightmare, the Legion of demons, the herd of pigs rushing to their death, the local citizenry showing up to find this guy who used to wander around the tombs half naked ranting to himself, who has been the bogey man for their whole generation, sitting calm, clothed, rational and chatting politely -- and then finally the absolutely hilarious request the locals make of Jesus, “Could you just go away? Could you leave our town?” And Jesus gets in the boat and sails off into the sunset. (It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…)
But what I want us to look at in particular is the last couple sentences of the reading. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
He wants to just hang around Jesus, but instead Jesus immediately sends him out to take an action. But notice that it’s an action that is fairly small, fairly local, and fairly easy. Not: go begin a lecture series on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not go raise enough money to found a nonprofit counseling service for other troubled outcasts. Not go become chairman of the board of the regional association of synagogues. No. What Jesus asks him is this: In the place where you already are, take this one simple action step. Say what happened to you. Do this one thing, straight out of your own life experience. Anybody can do that. And when the man set free from the legion of demons does it, when he takes a simple step of faith in the place he already is with the people he already knows, God backs him up. God works through him to spread life to others.
That’s what so many of the laypeople at Emmanuel are doing. And I am not exaggerating or being pious when I say that. God sometimes works dramatically in ways that seem like striking interventions. I’ve seen it. But very, very often God works incognito, through small actions, ordinary daily steps people take. I think he prefers that strategy for several reasons, but one of them is that it makes the formative and encouraging experience of having God work through you accessible at absolutely any time to absolutely anybody.
You don’t have to have a license, you don’t have to be theologically literate, you don’t have to be over 18. You don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the Bible. You don’t have to have a title. All you have to do is take some step, right where you are, for the sake of your faith in Jesus Christ. And I should have said: you don’t even need to think you have all that solid a faith in Jesus Christ! Just take the step. And then as you take the step for Jesus’ sake, you discover something under your feet that feels just a little more solid than you remember things feeling before.
You may not initially give that feeling a spiritual name. If you volunteer to be an Emmanuel driver for Meals on Wheels in July, or to help support kindergarteners this summer through our partner DREAAM, you may call what you feel a sense of helping the needy, say. If you decide to give being a greeter for Mass a try, you may call it building community. If you set up a recurring financial pledge via your Breeze account, you may call it the glow of generosity. If you choose one day a week to start coming to 5:15 pm Evening Prayer, you may call it the peacefulness of taking a pause. There’s nothing wrong with those names. They’re true as far as they go. But there’s more to it, because along with all of that, the Holy Spirit is also using your act of offering to strengthen your spirit. As long as you aren’t merely offering a sacrifice on the altar of guilt or duty, as long as there is the tiniest flicker of intentionality towards the living God, you have an incognito collaborator called the Holy Spirit. A quiet inner coach who delights in even your first glimmers of desire to belong more fully to God.
Actually a coach isn’t a bad metaphor. I sometimes tell people that the Christian life is a little bit like going to the gym: you can’t hang around the building, watching someone else do Downward Dog or a set of tricep dips, and expect to get stronger. Christianity is not a spectator sport. As they say in the 12 step groups, the program works if you work it. That’s why Christian communities are always touting opportunities for people to get involved: we want you to work this life so it will work for you.
See, the man who had the legion was hoping to hang around and watch Jesus some more. But Jesus says no, go to your town, and tell what God has done for you. He might have argued back, “But I’m barely getting started. Can’t the apostles do it? Can’t the vestry do it? I don’t have enough faith.” And I think Jesus would have replied, “Of course you don’t. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to do something.” Taking one small local step of furthering the life of the kingdom is how you have faith. It is the exercise by which faith grows stronger.
I don’t mean to make it sound this morning as if a ministry at Emmanuel is the only place someone from Emmanuel can or should exercise their faith. You can just as well do that in your neighborhood or in your workplace, and I hope you are! Learning how to see yourself as an ambassador for Christ in more public venues is, I think, a very important lesson for nearly every member of nearly every institutional church today. So those are great places to serve God.
But this is your spiritual home. We’re all here because, in at least some way, however we’d frame it, we think Jesus wants us to be here and wants us to serve and know him better through the life of this parish. So we’re all standing with each other, at least I hope we are, in that quest. We’re all on each other’s sides, at least I hope we are, in wanting this to be a safe and encouraging place for absolutely anybody, any age, any background, any tenure at the church, any level of prior knowledge, to try out some small step that’s going to help them grow in spiritual maturity.
And here’s how the story often goes; I’ve heard this story over and over. So you take that step, and it’s easier than you thought, and then you find yourself strong enough to do a little more, and then you’re looking forward to the next time, and then one day you find yourself looking back on the past year and realizing that you’ve changed a little, that there’s more to you somehow. And then later maybe something bad happens, something that’s really hard, and you find yourself wondering where you’d be inside if you’d never gotten involved at Emmanuel. And then after you’ve been through all that, you discover you’ve got this stuff, this empathy, this groundedness, these things to say to people who need help. Where did that come from? And then eventually, people take time to express gratitude. They tell you how much it means to them that you got involved, that they wouldn’t be where they were if it weren’t for you: You!
And through every one of their words, God is also speaking, saying: Thank you. I’m proud of you. We built this together, you and I. You thought you were just driving groceries to a family every few months, you thought you were just handing our bulletins, you thought you were just cleaning the silver and setting up the altar, you thought you were just taking 5 minutes to read a few sentences from the lectern. You weren’t. You were helping me, Father Son and Holy Spirit, change someone’s life. I’m proud of you. Thank you.
And that, friends, is an experience not to be missed.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peace be with you. God’s peace. Peace. Peace of the Lord.
We say it — we share it every Sunday; but what does God’s peace really mean? What does it look like, sound like, taste like, feel like? Are these words we say to one another just wishful thinking? Or is God’s peace something else entirely?
I begin there on this Trinity Sunday because we worship a God who is peace at his very core. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who nevertheless reside in perfect harmony with one another, resting in the beauty and holiness of their shared being, always one and always three. It’s a doctrine that at once “bewilders the intellect and comforts the soul.”
And I think that’s because we live in a world where true peace, definitive peace, doesn't seem to exist. Even in the closest of families or among the best of friends, friction arises because someone left socks on the floor or had a sudden, unexplained change in political opinion. We all want peace, we all want there to be perfect understanding and perfect communion, but the world in which we live says that is impossible. There is simply too much hate, too much violence, too much selfishness for anyone to truly rest.
But according to St Paul in our epistle passage today, that’s not the case at all. “Therefore,” he writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have peace with God. We have peace with God now. This is not just wishful thinking, not just something we’ll enjoy one day. It’s ours. It is in our midst now.
To understand the magnitude of Paul’s assertion, to actually believe and to feel that this peace we’re given is a now-thing and not just a later-thing, we have to back up a little bit. See, the word “therefore” means that we’re stepping into the middle of an argument. Paul has spent the first part of his letter to the Roman church explaining that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. To put it simply: Apart from Christ, we are all God’s enemies. No matter our personal piety, our appearance, or our power, we are all unrighteous, permanently out-of-sync with the one who made us. And that affects everything else. If we were to flip back to the first chapters of Genesis, or even if we were just to reflect on history for a few moments, we would find that the vertical fracture between humankind and God leads to ruptures in every other relationship we have. Humankind is a messy, broken, sometimes well-intentioned but more often cruel race. In a world apart from God, we do not have peace; and yet, thanks be to God, his faithfulness infinitely exceeds our faithlessness, and his generosity, his willingness to share the goodness and joy and peace and love that is his knows no bounds.
And so it is that God in his mercy sent his only Son, so that we might be reconciled with the one who made us. We have peace with God because he decided that no matter our mistakes, no matter our rebelliousness, he would free us from slavery to sin and bring us home. And so God himself acted. Jesus emptied himself, living and dying as one of us, so that the rift between us and our Creator might be healed – and more. His work, the grace that Christ extends, is a gift that reveals new treasures with every passing day because it is the gift of God’s own self to us. As we celebrated last Sunday, we live and move and breathe in the company of the Holy Spirit. He is with us every day and every moment, speaking the words of the Father and the Son, guiding us in the way of all truth.
Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are swept up into the life of the creator God and are made citizens of a realm ruled by the One who is perfect peace and love and justice and mercy, Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are made one people, where every tribe and every nation comes together to worship the Lamb.
This is a reality that is fixed on an unshakeable cornerstone, a reality that shines brightly despite the pernicious and persistent evil in this world. And that’s because it’s peace that doesn’t end when we snap at our friends or family. It’s peace that doesn’t rely on political correctness or adhering to an unspoken social contract. It’s peace that is God’s, that comes from his very nature. When we say, “The Peace of the Lord be Always With You,” we confess that that peace is present now. In our midst. We confess that we are a community bound by love of the Triune God that somehow manifests that peace — the peace of the world to come — in the world that is. And we see that happening when people of every class and color break bread together. We see that when the rich and the poor, the young and the old, confess that Christ is our center, that he reigns, and that we are citizens of his kingdom.
We worship a God who has adopted us as his children, that we might share in the life and peace that constantly makes room for more. And so I say again, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” AMEN.
The feast of Pentecost is a great day to have a nine o’clock service. As you will have seen in your Messenger, we will be going back to 8 and 10:15 Masses in August, but right now, Pentecost is a great day to have a 9:00 service. We actually know the time that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, because it was preserved for us in the text of our first lesson today. The disciples are proclaiming the power of God so loudly and so enthusiastically, speaking in multiple languages at the same time, that a crowd begins to gather and someone suggests that they’re obviously all just drunk. Peter, rebutting the accusation, argues that nobody gets drunk at nine o clock in the morning.
So because Peter made that point, we know what time Pentecost happened, and here we are, at nine o’clock, a couple of thousand years later, wearing our red and singing our hymns and celebrating that the Spirit is still poured out, on you and on me, and that as Peter explains by quoting the Old Testament, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
People often focus on the miracle of speaking that happened that first Pentecost at 9AM. The book of Acts tells us, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” So there’s a miracle of speaking, which seems here to be of speaking several known human languages, although that word “other languages” is also used later in the New Testament to describe the Spirit inspiring people to speak unknown languages in prayer and praise to God.
But in this case, the miracle of speaking seems to be known languages, which commentators usually theorize symbolizes the way that the Gospel will spread, thanks to the power of the Spirit, through all cultures and all nations. It’s for everyone, not just for us. God’s disciples need to be able to speak every language so that every person can hear the Gospel.
So there’s a miracle of speaking. But if you read a little farther, it seems to imply that at Pentecost there is also a miracle of hearing. The crowd is listening to the disciples proclaiming what God has done, and the book of Acts depicts them as saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (And then there’s that long list of countries we get every Pentecost:) “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.”
The disciples are speaking a lot of languages, but whether or not the disciples are actually speaking in every single one that happens to be spoken in that big crowd, the people are hearing in their own languages. (Except, perhaps, the ones who think the disciples are just drunk, whom the text says “sneered”; they apparently are so closed to the work of the Spirit that they don’t hear the Gospel, they don’t hear joy. They just hear chaos.) But for many of the crowd, the message of God’s power and love is coming across so that they can understand it in the language that is the most natural and intuitive to them; they don’t have to translate, because the Spirit is translating for them. A miracle of speaking, and a miracle of hearing.
Now there are many things the Holy Spirit does in us and through us – it’s quite a fascinating study to go through the Bible and try to pick out sort of the job description of the Holy Spirit. But Spirit-empowered speaking and Spirit-empowered listening are the two I want to talk about a little today.
As most of you know, I hope, we are reworking the ministry of small group meals in homes that we call Common Table. When Fr. Caleb began Common Table, it was only for our 20s-30s, and at a pilot event this spring we expanded it so that it was part of Emmanuel’s efforts at intergenerational ministry, something for all ages. The first round of the new version of Common Table meals will take place this summer. If you sign up to take part, you’ll be invited once in June, once in July, and once in August into the home or yard of an Emmanuelite host, along with maybe 7-11 other Emmanuel members. It’s a true potluck, so we’ll all bring a dish of any kind to share. Everyone will enjoy conversation and social time, and along the way your host will make sure everyone gets to respond to a few accessible discussion prompts designed to help us have a relaxed exchange about things that are important to us as Christians and Episcopalians. If you came to the pilot this spring, you saw how that worked. Each evening will conclude with Compline.
So what does this Common Table ministry have to do with inviting the Holy Spirit to be part of our speaking and part of our listening? A great deal. One of the main ways the Spirit works is through groups of Christians; through using several of us as a team. While you can experience the Spirit individually, a central way we see the Spirit working throughout the New Testament is by empowering and deploying a collection of believers. We each have different gifts and different personalities, and God uses those as he expresses himself through us together. Even some of the New Testament people that we think of, because of our modern American biases, as working individually actually didn’t. Paul traveled with a team, and what we think of as his letters are frequently signed not just by him, but by the whole team. 1st Corinthians is signed Paul and Sosthenes. 1st Thessalonians is from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
So if we want to experience what God has for us in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we need to experience gathering in groups of Christians who are together specifically as groups of Christians. You could hypothetically experience the Holy Spirit working through both of you when you run into someone who goes to this church at Prairie Gardens or a high school graduation, but it could also be just the same as running into anybody. The intentionality of making time to be together as Christians, open to the Holy Spirit, speaking and listening as Christians, is extremely important.
This is an area we’ve been growing in somewhat at Emmanuel this year, thanks to the way our Sacred Spaces group and our Intergenerational Formation Group and the Revive lay leadership program have engaged their work. And I think people taking part in any of those are seeing that the nervousness they may have had was unnecessary, and that actually it’s rewarding and enjoyable to speak and listen to one another as Christians. That the Spirit does move among us when we gather as Christians in order to grow as Christians.
So we want to build on these successes, and Common Table is one of the ways. We want to offer the Spirit more places to work among Emmanuelites, as we gather to get to know one another better, to enjoy fellowship over food, to speak in simple and accessible ways about things that are important to us as followers of Jesus Christ, and to listen as others speak. The first meal will take place at 5pm on Sunday, June 26th and there is a signup sheet for the summer round of Common Table in your bulletin today. You can just fill it in and leave it in the Offertory bowl here by the pulpit. There’s also an online signup via Breeze that went out in the Mini Messenger. Either way will work, but we do want to know how big the pool of participants is soon, so we can tell our hosts when we need them.
Of course signing up doesn’t obligate you to come to all three meals, but it does ensure that you can take advantage of this chance to get to know your fellow Emmanuelites better, to build relationships based on Christian belonging, and to enjoy some great food – we have a lot of terrific cooks here! Join us this summer at Common Table, speak and listen to words about our Lord, and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Driving up to one of my grandchildren’s school this past week I saw the flag at half-mast and the reality of evil in the world became very personal again. I am certain that many of us felt the same. Regardless of our political views on how to counteract gun violence, I think we can agree that evil is real. People’s unnecessary pain is real.
Today is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. And I, for one, am grateful we are still in this season for a bit longer. The paschal candle remains in the front of the church, lit at every service over the past 7 weeks to remind us the Risen Lord Jesus is with us every day of our lives. It is a time of deliberate celebration. Jesus promised our sorrow would turn to joy. We need this reminder of true joy, true life all the time, but especially this week. The contrast with the world and its events is dramatic; it is no wonder we seek to be together as the church community on a regular basis. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is real. We remember and celebrate this today. Evil does not win. Jesus the Christ has triumphed and does triumph still. Thanks be to God each and every day for this.
Easter is real. If you hear nothing else today keep those words close. Our risen Lord is with us always.
But don’t think I will sit down now, not yet. I want to say a few things about two of today’s lessons.
First, the gospel. Although we are hearing it on the last Sunday of Easter, the event described occurred on the last night before Jesus’ crucifixion. As Mother Beth explained in a recent sermon most of the private conversations the risen Christ had with his disciples during the 50 days following his resurrection was not recorded.
Instead, the gospels on these last few weeks have been Jesus’ conversation with those closest to him on the night before he died. Taken together these passages were intentional to prepare those disciples for what would happen the next day and for their future.
This was an intimate time Jesus spent with his closest friends. They had gathered for a special meal and peaceful moments together. Jesus spoke openly with them. He assured them of his deep love and gratitude for them. He let them know his confidence in them, that they will be able to carry out the work he has given them. On that night, this small group shared bread and wine and conversation and simply enjoyed being together. Then as the private time for assurance and explanation ended, Jesus prayed for his disciples. Today’s gospel is the end of that prayer.
At the heart of the entire prayer is Jesus’s love for his companions. He recognized and acknowledged the gift God gave him in these friends. The prayer contains the certainty of God the Father’s love for them also. The prayer is both an expression of Jesus’ gratitude for these companions, as well as a look to the future for what those dearest to him will need in order to continue the work that He has begun.
Looking at the entire 17th chapter of John, Jesus specifically prays for the disciple’s protection, protection from the evil one, protection from all that can harm their souls. While he had protected them while he has been physically with them, in this prayer, Jesus turns the disciple’s safety over to His father.
Jesus prays for the disciple’s unity. He prays that those he is leaving behind become one with each other and one with him and His father. The Trinity is echoed in this portion of the prayer. Jesus knows his strength comes from his bond with His Father and with the Holy Spirit. Wherever Jesus has been, the will of God has been present and carried out. Jesus seeks for his followers to have this same bond of unity that is between him and his Father.
“ As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”, Jesus says.
Jesus also prays for his disciples to become sanctified, or “set apart” to do His work. His joy will be complete when they are the ones doing the will of the Father to spread His kingdom throughout the world.
Protection, unity, sanctification are all specific requests of God that Jesus, in his deep love for his disciples, prays in the first part of the17th chapter of John. The passage read this morning then expands Jesus’ prayer beyond that small group of original disciples to include all who will be his disciples throughout time. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that all may be one.” It is a powerful prayer, a lasting show of Jesus’ love for his followers across time. That means today it is Jesus’ prayer for us.
During Eastertide as a part of the Sunday lectionary there is a passage from the book of Acts. This is so we can learn how the early disciples accepted Jesus’ charge to continue in his work, spreading his message in the early times after Jesus’ ascension as we became the church.
Today’s story begins with a slave girl who earned a great deal of money for her owners telling others’ fortunes. She followed and pestered Paul and Silas for many days saying that basically they are the same as she—slaves of an owner. (Their owner being God.) However, Paul and Silas were not the same as the girl. They had chosen to follow Jesus and chosen to accept his call of continuing his work of spreading the gospel. They were not slaves as was she, having been bought against her will and used for the owners economic gain. Rather than argue with her about her choice of words, Paul, ever an interesting man, Paul, in his annoyance, asks in the name of Jesus for the spirit to come out from her. Perhaps impetuous, Paul who is tired of her bothering them ends it. This lead to trouble for Paul and Silas as her owners lost their source of income from her.
Eventually these two disciples are beaten, locked and shackled in a deep prison.
Remember Jesus prayed for protection, unity, and sanctification for his disciples. This particular story points out an example of how God answered that prayer. God sent an earthquake that shook the prison open and released the disciples from their chains. The circumstances of their release then became an evangelism opportunity as the gospel is shared with the jailer and he and his family become believers in Christ. God protected Silas and Paul. He and they were unified in love, and they were able to carry out their Christ-given purpose, of making new disciples. Jesus prayer was answered.
Some two thousand years ago Jesus prayed for his disciples. Today we are assured in this gospel that prayer carries on to us in current times. How humbling and yet strengthening this is. We are invited into the relationship that Jesus and his father have; we are invited to be one with them. It is our time now to hear this prayer. We make our choice to accept his love and then are made one with Jesus and His father. We are protected and set apart to carry on Jesus work in the world.
Oh, yes, we have a part to fulfill in this relationship. We have a large responsibility to God to share His love with the world around us. We are not just on the receiving end of God’s love. Neither are we slaves of God, but rather willing servants. It is our time now. Acknowledging the evil in the world is not enough. We must each do our part to bring God’s healing message of love to those nearby.
I am encouraged to see how our local communities are working on multiple levels to address the prevention of gun violence. Emmanuel is involved in a some of these too. There is much to be done and much help needed. Take some time to learn about these initiatives and pray about how you might work to share God’s love with all. And remember Jesus’ prayer today is for us. Easter is real.
May there be no more half-masts for the death of children; Jesus continue to pray for us.
At a time of great trial, when many of the apostles had been killed or exiled, when the persecution of Christians was rampant, when the future looked bleak, St. John had a vision. Alone on the Island of Patmos, John opened his eyes one day and saw the end of history unfolding before him. Angels and demons, saints and sinners fought a final battle, in which the Crucified Lamb emerged victorious. And then the heavenly Jerusalem — a perfect city with jeweled walls and pearly gates, where there is only light and never darkness — descends from on high and the Lord declares, “It is done.”
And then we have to imagine that John woke up. He woke up to the damp cold of his prison cell on an island hundreds of miles from everyone that he loved.
And we have to wonder, How does that help? How does a vision of a heavenly Jerusalem help now when bad circumstances don’t change? What does it matter that one day Heaven will come to earth when countless people are suffering and dying today?
Critics as diverse as that one guy we all knew in high school to someone like Karl Marx would say it doesn’t help. To them, Christian hope is just an anesthetic, a trick the powerful use to subjugate the weak. The hope of a heavenly Jerusalem, of a God who holds the whole world and all of history in his hand is foolishness. A refusal to grapple with reality.
And yet the church has been saying since its very beginning that, actually, the hope of heaven is what allows us to see reality for what it truly is.
With the words of Christ still ringing in his ears, John knew that though he did not and likely would not experience paradise before his death or Christ’s return, God was always bending the course of history in that direction. No matter what emperor arose, no matter what dragons the church might encounter, God had said, It is done. And John knew that. He had seen it, heard it, felt it in his bones. It was true — from the outside, his future looked bleak. There were days when even he felt like it was hopeless. Still, John knew that his life was simply one chapter in a larger story that ends in victory. And no one could take that away from him.
From the church’s earliest existence, Christians have had to wrestle with the undeniable fact that sin and death are terribly powerful, even in defeat. Plagues, wars, mass shootings — sometimes it appears as though the victory hasn’t been won.
But it has — and we know it has — because the crucified Lamb sits on the throne, and he has declared it to be so. “I am the beginning and the end,” he says. “I died and behold I live forever more.” That is the story in which we live. It is a story of good coming from evil and life coming from death. It is a story of a gracious God showing boundless mercy to a creation that never seems to learn its lesson. It is a story of Love conquering hate and bringing enemies together not simply as friends but as brothers and sisters of Christ.
Despite what the world believes, despite the evidence that would everyday seem to pile up against the eternal victory of God, the heavenly city stands true. And we know this not only because of the Revelation of John passed down to us through the centuries. We know God’s victory is sure because we taste it. We drink it. We proclaim its reality every week when we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Today, in this church, in our hearts, imperfect as we are and imperfect as this place is, God dwells with his people and we with him. And while night still falls and wars still rage, we carry in our bodies the light of that city, the waters of that city, showing the world a vision of what is possible when those made in God’s image reclaim it.
When John woke up from his dream, he was still imprisoned and exiled. His circumstances were the same — but he was different.
And so are we. For today in the words of holy Scripture, we have encountered the risen Lord, who tells us of the future that awaits those who overcome. That is not a false hope but is rather the warp and weft of a story bigger than all of us, a story that wraps us in the fine robes and precious jewels that belong to the children of God. Our hope in heaven, in a world where there will be no more tears or pain, in a world that is ruled by a God whose fullest revelation of himself is the cross. That is what enables us to live even in the darkest of times.
“Then one of the . . . [angels] said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. . . . and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light and they will reign forever and ever.” AMEN.
One of the lines in our Gospel reading, spoken by Jesus, is a well known Bible quotation, and that is "Love one another." The full line Jesus says, of course, is "love one another as I have loved you," which is a pretty high standard. People have a tendency to quote the line "Love one another" as if it refers to how all human beings ought to treat all other human beings. And I have nothing against that basic idea: the world would be a much better place if everyone could love everyone else. However, history shows that that usually isn't so simple. And Christians explain why that isn't so simple by means of a doctrine called "sin," which maybe we'll talk about in more detail another day.
But it’s important to read the Bible in context, and in context, the direction to "love one another as I have loved you" is given specifically by Jesus to his inner group of disciples. You might remember that after Jesus was raised from the dead he spent a period of time, 50 days to be exact, teaching his disciples in private before he ascended into heaven. Of course, we can't recreate exactly that experience. We can use the number 50 to set how many days we will observe the Easter season, which we do. But we can't quote any of the teaching the Risen Christ gave his disciples during these 50 days, because nobody wrote any of it down. Or if they did, it must not have been God’s will for us to have it in our Bible, because it was not preserved.
So our lectionary, our schedule of readings, can't use any of that intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' ascension. But it can use the intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' crucifixion, because that was preserved. That gives you a little background as to why we have the kind of Gospel readings we do in this season -- to duplicate that sense of close-knit, heartfelt teaching within the community of disciples.
Do you see, though, why especially given that context, we can’t quote "love one another" as if it were a generic slogan? Christians are asked to be loving towards all kinds of people, but this verse is not about that. "Love one another as I have loved you" is a statement spoken to a committed group of disciples as part of their final training by Jesus in how to be the church, what the standards within the Christian community are to be. "Love one another as I have loved you." And that line is only one statement about what ought to define the inner workings of a Christian community. In fact, there are many more teachings in exactly that form -- Verb + One Another -- in the New Testament. Each of them also addresses the inner workings of any circle of believers, and calls us to show forth the presence of the Spirit specifically in how we deal with each other. We’ve talked at Emmanuel this year about Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging, and these verses give a picture of Christian belonging which helps us see that by the power of God, a church can be a very different thing than a club or an office or a family reunion.
We’re going to look quickly at eight of those "one anothers." And as I do, think over how well they characterize us Christians, us Episcopalians, or us Emmanuelites. How well these commands from the Bible are being lived out in our own communities.
1. We've already cited the first one, which is Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)—Jesus’ kind of love is unselfish and sacrificial. What would the church look like if each one was willing to sacrifice their own preferences so that others could grow closer to God?
2. Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)—Another direction spoken by Christ himself. I'm sure most of you have heard stories in the press, or maybe a little closer than that, about churches that were at war with their clergy or with their Bishop or with other parts of their denomination. If you haven’t, just open Twitter. Think of the damage those battles do to the credibility of Christianity. How would church life change if Christians made a conscious choice to live in internal peace -- not a phony niceness, but the costly unity that comes from speaking the truth while prioritizing Jesus over getting your own way?
3. Honor one another (Romans 12:10)—Christ honored even the most lowly people. Who here at Emmanuel needs to feel honored and valued, needs someone to say "I'm proud of you?" Often churches are good at honoring the most visible people, people who have power in some way, but in the eyes of Jesus everybody counts. Look around the room and ask yourself: Whom can you take a moment to honor before you leave today?
4. Accept one another (Romans 15:7)—It’s not the role of Christians to change other people; that's in God’s job description. I'm not saying that we condone any and all actions, but that we accept each person as a beloved child of God first and foremost. Do you think that this attitude is something people associate with followers of Jesus? Or do they expect us to be judgmental?
5. Carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)—This means willingly and humbly walking beside others when they’re hurting or struggling. We have some wonderful examples of people doing this for each other at Emmanuel, especially if they were already friends outside the church. But how can the list of members whose burdens get noticed grow longer? Who is there in this congregation whose load you could help to bear? Or let me turn it around -- have you chosen to disobey this verse and carry a burden by yourself because in the world, your problem is something embarrassing, rather than let some fellow believers shoulder it with you in a community that plays by different rules than the world?
6. Be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2)— There are probably other followers of Jesus in this world, maybe in this room who, in worldly terms, drive you nuts. Rub you the wrong way. In Christ, there are resources so that our relationship with those people can look different than it would if we were not believers in the same Lord. You may never find all your fellow disciples to your taste, but you can display patience with them if you seek it from Christ.
7. Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)—Harboring a grudge creates stressed and unbalanced relationships, and according to Jesus, it also blocks the action of the Spirit. If you are nursing hostility against another follower of Christ, could you imagine letting go of ego and pride to forgive them – not to excuse them, but to forgive them -- for the sake of strengthening the church and your own relationship with God?
And finally 8. Serve one another (1 Peter 4:10)—According to the New Testament, every Christian is given at least one spiritual gift. While it is very fun and fulfilling to put a spiritual gift to work, they aren't given for selfish use. How would our church change if every single person in this building started actively using their gifts for God and to meet some of the very significant needs Emmanuel’s ministries have right now? For one thing, we’d be back to two services immediately, I’ll tell you that much.
There are more "one anothers," but eight are enough for now. As we've asked these questions and looked at these verses, you may have thought, "Hey, you know, we're doing pretty well." Or you may have said, "Gosh, we do some of those things, but it's more based on human friendships than on our common faith in Christ. How can we open up more?" You may have muttered, "The lousy institutional church, never ever lives up to what Jesus wants." Or you may have said to yourself, "This community is on the way to that kind of life, and I want to see us get there."
Love one another, Be at peace with one another, Honor one another, Accept one another, Carry one another’s burdens, Be patient with one another, Forgive one another, Serve one another. Whatever your reaction to the list, this is what a community life that flows from Christ looks like. Now, the actual life of any Christian community, including this one, probably never flows 100% from Christ -- back to that doctrine of sin again. But his life and his power are available to help us live out those "one anothers" -- to behave within this community according to what Scripture says. And if we first open ourselves to receive that life and power, and if we next use that life and power, and if then by that life and power we start to live out those "one anothers" in our own Christian belonging here at Emmanuel, the prediction Jesus made at the end of today's Gospel will come true. "By this everyone will know that we are his disciples."
“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads.”
These words are from our collect for the day, and they echo what is stated in the Gospel from John. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the scriptures point to the attributes of Jesus as our Good Shepherd.
Jesus leads and follows us. He keeps us safe from behind and before. Remember the shepherd’s staff, one end to pull us out of danger and one end to prod us into where we need to go. Jesus provides for us. He revives us when we are worn out and guides us with goodness and mercy. He desires the best for us. He comforts us when we are sad and lonely. He wipes away our tears. He is with us in all times and in all things. In his presence we will not be hungry nor thirsty nor unprotected. And then, through his resurrection, Jesus gives us the ultimate gift of eternal life. These are strong characteristics of one who loves us deeply. This is how we know that He is the Good Shepherd of us all.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She knew what was ahead of her which is a sad part of the disease. What she was most concerned about was that she would forget my name. While this was how she expressed it she was also concerned that eventually she would forget everyone’s name whom she loved. And even, perhaps, she would get to the point when she would no longer remember her own. Names were very important to her. She saw them as encompassing all that there was to be known by another. A name summed up your individuality, your personhood and what made you different from all others. She desired to be able to call each loved one by their name and her great fear was that she could not.
As is true of those with memory loss, we had this same conversation many times. Each time I was able to reassure her, I would not forget her name and whenever she could not recall mine, I would quietly remind her. Near the end, of her life what she was most afraid of was Jesus would forget her name. Alzheimer’s is an awful disease. Her fear was real and yet, the assurance we hear today is that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, does not ever forget our name. And, more importantly we are promised that He is with us in every circumstance of life.
Today we are in the middle of the Easter season, the time when we walk with the risen Lord. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. These are not empty words but true promises that we know especially during this season. Over the past few weeks, we have heard about occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples. Jesus walked and talked with his followers in his risen body. He made himself known in various ways through breaking bread, through eating with them, through showing them his wounds. Jesus calmed their fears each time with his voice and by calling them by name. He knew what each person needed to believe in him and he provided that for them. Each of these gospels we have heard stressed his great love for all his followers, both those who were in his physical presence and those who have believed and worked for God’s kingdom throughout time. Jesus voice and Jesus’ presence bring comfort.
Then we come to today’s lessons, and they seemingly do not fit the pattern of the past few weeks. Instead of hearing about events of the resurrected Christ, today’s gospel event took place just before the crucifixion. As Jesus walked in the temple those around him questioned him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Tell us plainly. Those words may be our words at some point or points in our lives. Show us. Give us a sign, we say in our desperation. Let us know the truth. Now, probably the question put to Jesus in this passage was not a genuine desire to know but rather another attempt to trick him. For the most part those asking the question were not sincere in wanting an answer. They believed Jesus to be a troublemaker and a threat to their power and authority. They hoped his answer would give them the evidence to prosecute him and get rid of him once and for all. But we who hear the words today understand their question, at least in part, Jesus, tell me plainly. Are you the Messiah?
What answer would you and I want? What signs would we need? Perhaps a sign would be the answer to our prayer that our children, our loved ones are kept safe. Or perhaps a sign would be a complete recovery for a particular person’s illness; or maybe the sign we seek is that nothing bad will ever happen to us and those we love. We are often worn out with what is going on in this world, the almost daily news brings stories of nearby disaster. We read of violence in our cities, of rising rates of disease, poverty and war. What sign would work for us here and now?
Jesus’ answer to those original questioners is the same answer he gives us now. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life. This answer is not about an extraneous sign or work. Rather it is about relationship, our relationship with Jesus, and Jesus’ relationship with us. He loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for us. Today’s gospel reminds us of what the resurrection is all about. It is about the depth of God’s love, God’s love for us. We hear his voice; he knows us by name, and we follow him because of that relationship. Our proof comes from Jesus knowing us, loving us and being present with us in all things. He is our good shepherd. Regardless of what is going on in the outside world, Jesus will not abandon us nor forget us.
Our proof is our relationship with him. The love God has for us through Jesus cannot necessarily prevent our being hurt or having bad things happen to us, but Jesus will be with us in all. He knows us. He knows our name. He knows our fears and joys. And He knows our need of him. Our shepherd is with us. More than this, though and most importantly Jesus gives us eternal life. There is no greater comfort. There can be no way to state it any more plainly. Jesus is the Christ; he is our Messiah. He invites us into his presence. We do not ever have to be alone. The proof we seek is in our relationship with Him.
We are also reminded today that every relationship has at least two participants. The shepherd calls and the sheep follow. In this morning’s collect we pray that we may follow where Jesus leads. As have disciples throughout time, we have a responsibility to this relationship. Belonging to our loving and protecting shepherd means that we will follow him. We will return his love through our worship of him as we do here this morning. We will return his love by following his example of loving others and by sharing the good news of His story with them.
Today’s lessons are an Easter message. Jesus calls us by name. He cares for us; he guides us and supports us. He gives us eternal life.
Let us pray,
O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today’s story of the conversion of Saul has been incredibly influential in Christianity. Saul is so thoroughly turned around that he gets renamed Paul. He who was once a main enemy of Jesus becomes a main representative of Jesus. He who once wanted to wipe every disciple of Christ from the earth ends up writing over half of the New Testament to help others understand how to be disciples of Christ.
So it’s no wonder this story has been incredibly influential. And on top of that, it’s a great story –
Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
They lead him into Damascus blind and incapacitated, and God sends over an apprentice of Jesus named Ananias – one of the guys he’d been coming to Damascus to arrest. Ananias lays hands on him and not only is Paul suddenly able to see again, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, infused with divine power and life. They do a baptism right there in the house, and the rest is history.
No wonder this story has been so influential. There are hymns, movies, paintings, feast days, songs, t-shirts, all based on the Damascus road conversion of St. Paul. And I love Paul. I absolutely love him. The Spirit used him to put on paper – parchment, really – some of the most beautiful and deepest and most liberating truths that have ever been written.
But sometimes I wonder if Christian readers look to this influential story of his conversion and let the wrong part of it influence us. We pick out an aspect that is actually less important, and we ignore the part that is more important. What I mean here is this: you will sometimes hear people use this story as a model for how people “should” make a commitment to Christ. You will hear people say that unless you have had a Damascus Road experience, unless you can point to a time that, like Paul, you were dramatically turned from not having faith to having it, your commitment to Christ doesn’t “count.” But this is generalizing from the wrong part of the story. People commit to Christ in all kinds of ways.
Deacon Chris talked about this last week in her sermon on Thomas. Some people have been in an atmosphere of living faith all their lives, and can’t remember a time when they didn’t know Christ. They never had a sudden bright light strike them blind on the road to Damascus. They may tell you their faith journey is like the light in a room just gradually, gently getting brighter as if someone was turning up a dimmer switch.
Some find that their following Jesus is always a struggle. Questions and wrestling and doubt are simply a part of their relationship with God. If they ever do have a sudden bright light, things often look murky again a few days later. The connection to Jesus is there, but it’s not a simple before and after picture; it’s more like the light from a Tiffany lamp, refracted and multi-colored.
Those are different ways that a commitment to Christ looks. And there are probably others. One isn’t more right or wrong than another. They are just different. So we get in trouble if we try to generalize from one part of Paul’s conversion, the part you might call God’s technique. How God brought Paul specifically into new life in Christ. God isn’t going to use that same technique with everybody – he’s too smart, and too subtle for that.
So if we can’t generalize from God’s technique, the how, then maybe we should try generalizing from the what. What happens as we are converted? No matter how we turn to Christ -- whether it’s dark to light, or gradually like a dimmer switch, or back and forth with lots of colors and questions – what changes for us as we do?
Well, I’d suggest that one major thing that changes is perspective. As we follow Christ, whatever the technique God uses in our lives, we experience a change in our perspective on things. We see this very dramatically illustrated in Paul’s story: he comes into the story believing Jesus is evil, and the image for how off that perspective is, is that he actually becomes blind. He cannot see things as they are. He cannot see truth. And then as his sight returns his eyes are opened on the actual reality of the world. That is a shift in perspective.
Before you come to know Christ, you assess the world and set goals based on what seems good to you, you take advice from other people about what should be treated as most important, you think about how things affect you and your family and your country. And that’s automatically going to distort the way you view life, because life isn’t about you.
So with knowing Christ comes a shift, whether gradual or dramatic, into a more accurate, God-centered perspective. And you begin asking, in every situation you face: What has God said about this? What does God think is important? What does God say is good? Rather than trying to guess, you have a reference point which finally allows you to see life more clearly. So perspective always changes as a person is converted.
Another thing that changes, again whether gradually or dramatically, is your sense of purpose. When you think about that, it’s obvious. God created you, he designed you, and so he knows what you’re here for. If you don’t know what God has revealed, all you can do is speculate, guess. But as you turn to Christ, you get reliable information about your purpose. Paul had guessed that his purpose was to safeguard the religion he was brought up in and prevent anyone from changing it. Well, God had a really, really, different purpose in mind for him, and when Paul found out the truth, his life was transformed. So will ours be, as we learn and live out what we’re actually here for.
So you get a true perspective on life, and you get knowledge of your purpose: what is important, and what you are here for. Another thing that comes as we turn to Christ is community. Paul cannot get out of his dilemma alone. He has to receive help from another follower of Jesus. He has to be vulnerable and real and willing to connect with people who are not like him.
One of the biggest needs of our contemporary world is community. We are becoming a more and more fragmented, isolated nation: the family is breaking down, social institutions are breaking down, and people are starving for meaningful, in-person connections with others. There is an epidemic of loneliness, because we need to belong. Turning to Christ gives you that belonging, not in the sense of signing up with an organization, but of being adopted into a household. They say blood is thicker than water, but Christ’s divine life inside us is thicker than both. So as you turn to Christ, you discover what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. And there are many more discoveries, but these are enough for this morning. Perspective, purpose, and community.
Now you may have had a dramatic conversion like Paul, you may have been walking with Jesus since you were a tiny child, you may be locked in a perpetual arm wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. Or you may be trying to decide what you think of all this. But as you turn to Christ, you will discover like Paul did what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. In Christ you truly can find perspective, purpose, and community. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. Amen.
Today we continue in our Easter celebration and as we will throughout this season, we hear the stories of Jesus’ followers who were witnesses to his resurrection. We read this particular Gospel each year on the second Sunday of Easter, perhaps you remember it because of that. In part, this story has an important place in the resurrection stories because it speaks directly to us, the current disciples of Christ. Thomas’ story of how he came to belief in the resurrected Christ belongs to the generations of believers who came after those original witnesses.
The story begins. Jesus has come to stand with the frightened disciples shut into a room and locked away from those who might harm them. He calms them by speaking to them; then he shows them his hands and his side and reminds them of their purpose. They are to go out into the world to take his message of love and forgiveness to all. They will be his voice, his hands, his feet.
Later, Thomas, who was not with the others, did not believe what they told him, that they had seen the resurrected Lord. He said to them, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” These are strong words from one who was a practical man.
Now Jesus was then and still is a good teacher. We have numerous examples of his teaching. He used parables; he talked about God directly; he demonstrated his message in ways that formed a lasting picture of what he wanted to convey; he gave short assignments and discussed the results.
His teaching methods were varied, sometimes simple and sometimes complex, always involving his disciples in the learning process. When faced with Thomas’ doubts in this morning’s gospel Jesus did not give up on him and think that Thomas just did not get it. Rather Jesus patiently gave the lesson to Thomas in a personal way.
Jesus came a second time to that same room with the gathered disciples, only this time Thomas was present. Jesus then offers Thomas exactly what he said he needed in order to believe. Of course, Thomas did not need the physical proof he thought he needed. It was enough that he saw Jesus and heard his voice. His response was immediate: “My Lord and my God”.
Jesus knew what Thomas needed in order to believe in him and he offered it to him.
In thinking about Thomas this morning, I wonder, “How did you and I come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord?” How were we able to say “My Lord and my God” with Thomas?
What has the teacher, Jesus, provided to you, for you to come to belief?
Each person’s answer is different. It is personal.
I once knew someone who had worked it out mathematically why there was a God. It made perfect sense to her, all the formulas pointing to the existence of God. Now, I must admit when I see pictures of fractals and the beauty of them, I know that this is not a random event. But in this case, I had trouble following the logic. Yet, these formulas worked for her. I am sure that the good teacher, Jesus, knew that for her it was the way to belief. Perhaps some of you here this morning may have come to belief through mathematics or some other scientific knowledge.
Others I have known came to belief by asking philosophical questions of another person they admired and then listened intently to that person’s explanation why it is that they believe.
For many, it is a process coming to belief; it takes time. And there are others, more like Thomas, who knew the exact moment that they believed, at 9:13 on May the first, they will say. Some may have heard Jesus speak to them in a moment of crisis perhaps with that same word, peace, that Jesus gave to his original disciples.
How have you come to believe? I am sure that you had teachers and mentors along the way for you to be here this morning.
In the words of a favorite collect, maybe you were one who lived and moved and had your being surrounded by God from earliest life. This was my experience. I was rocked to sleep by a loving grandmother who sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in her deep alto voice. I learned Bible stories from my babysitter each day. Of course, she taught all the usual ones, but she left nothing of the scary ones out either: Shadrach, Meschak, and Abendigo the three young believers locked up in the fire and Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac. She made me love all the thrilling stories of God’s presence in all times and all experiences we may face. Without question I went to church every Sunday. My grandfather sat next to me often with his arms around me and fed me wintergreen lifesavers to keep me quiet. I knew church to be a place of being loved. In the summers I would go to Bible school for weeks at a time, moving from one denomination to another. I was one who lived and moved and had my being surrounded by God. And for this I am very grateful. This was my beginning and my foundation. I can honestly say I do not remember a time when I was not a believer.
I look forward to hearing your story!
Of course, like all long-term relationships there are times that our belief will be stronger, without a doubt, and then there will be lower times of questioning, concerns, and longings. We are human beings, after all.
Thomas had traveled with Jesus. He had learned from him and believed in him. But then the crucifixion happened, and he was at the lowest of low. Thomas’ story in this morning’s gospel is a story of longing, not of doubt. What he had been told by others, Thomas wanted to experience for himself. Thomas thought he needed concrete proof of the risen Lord but then the appearance of Jesus transformed him completely. He no longer needed to touch the wounds when in the presence of Christ. While before his idea of faith and belief was an intellectual agreement of observable facts, in a moment, it became a personal trust in a living God.
What Thomas had been told by others he wanted to experience himself. What we have been told by others about Christ we eventually want to know for ourselves. When we have questions and concerns it is a sign of our desire to go beyond secondhand knowledge of Christ to come to know Jesus himself. We, too, want to touch and be touched by Him, perhaps to hear his voice, or perhaps to see his hand in what is happening in our lives. Like Thomas there is a time for our acceptance of what we have been told.
Being a believer is not a matter of accepting data. None of us believe simply because we have been given the right set of facts. Being a believer is a mature act of faith, a gift offered by Jesus himself.
Jesus is a master teacher. He will use a variety of ways and experiences to bring to us into his life. He reaches out to each one of us. He invites us to real life and then it is our decision to join with those over the past two thousand years and accept what he offers.
How have you come to believe? Today on this second Sunday of Easter give thanks for your own journey and give thanks for those who have witnessed Christ’s love to you. For this Easter gospel is ours.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. An “idle tale.” When the women give the apostles the news of the resurrection of Jesus, that’s what the Bible says the apostles thought of it. Actually, “idle tale” is a fairly polite translation of the Greek word Luke uses. You might better say nonsense. What the apostles meant was that the women were out of their minds and their story was ridiculous on the face of it.
That is, probably, the most sensible response to the proclamation we make this Easter morning, and that those women made the first Easter morning. The claim that Jesus was killed by state-sponsored torture and then raised to new life in his body on the third day, to any normal person, sounds like nonsense.
It’s well, I think, to start on this Easter morning by recognizing that. We all know that dead bodies do not rise. But, say Mary and Joanna and Mary Magdalene today, Jesus has risen. He has been brought by God through death into a whole new kind of embodied life that he’s going to spread to everyone and everything. That’s the message, and fantastically improbable as it is, soon the apostles will have been convinced, the risen Christ will have shown himself to over 500 people at one time, the malicious skeptic Paul will have had his mind changed and begun spreading the very claim he once fought to destroy: that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that after his execution and burial the life of the world to come invaded this world through the very molecules of his body, raising him from the dead and changing what is possible forever.
This news was not an idle tale, but it’s so hard to believe that generations of people have sought ways to turn it into one. To reduce what happened into something that is simpler and easier, more in line with what we’d prefer to think. You’ve all seen examples of that. I’d guess some of you here are in that camp yourselves, looking for some “out” which will let you enjoy the festivity and tradition of Easter Sunday without having to take a position on whether the resurrection of Jesus itself is an idle tale, or a revolutionary act of God.
I’m not going to go through all the ways people can try to make Easter easier for themselves, but I will namecheck a couple. Here’s the first: We could make sweeping assumptions about how gullible people used to be and how much smarter we are now. This is obviously falsified by the Biblical texts themselves which describe how flummoxed, panicked, and skeptical everybody was, but nevertheless, you will hear the idea bandied about that somehow men and women who lived in the first century were so childlike and naïve that they just hadn’t figured out, the poor dears, that dead people stay dead 100% of the time. And of course we know better. Well, that is absolutely absurd. First century people knew what death is, probably based on far more direct experience than most of us have. The Gospels make clear that just as we would, the women and men of the New Testament find the idea of resurrection intrinsically unbelievable.
Another way: we could theorize that the apostles agreed to spread the story that Jesus had been raised as a way of trying to continue his movement and retain their power. (Not that they had any power, if you actually read the texts, but we all like to blame things on power these days.) One does have to wonder, though, how long this scheme would have endured under torture and threats of capital punishment; I mean, really? Nobody says, “Please don’t kill me, we were just making it up,” ever? Not one person?
It doesn’t stand up once you think it through, but even more, anyone who has studied second temple Judaism knows that inventing a resurrection would not have fit their mentality anyway. Historians have documented several other Jewish messianic movements during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Those movements routinely ended with the violent death of the proposed Messiah, and the adherents routinely did one of two things: they gave up and got on with their lives, or they chose a new leader. The concept of one person being resurrected now, rather than at the end of time, was inconceivable to Jews of that era. That’s a whole other sermon, but no 1st century messianic movement ever thought to claim that anybody rose from the dead – except one.
I’m only going to mention one more example of ways people try to make Easter easier. This may be the most popular. We could take this narrative and abstract it as much from its details as possible, pulling it further and further out of its Jewish and historical context until it becomes a generic, inspiring platitude nobody would really bother to challenge. There’s always hope. Or a little less generic, Jesus lives on in our memories, like every other dead person. Or again, Jesus did die, but then he went to heaven.
Any downgrading of what happened at the tomb like that would have made things so easy for the apostles, just like it does for people today. It’s almost surprising they refused to do it. If the facts of the matter had left them free to respond, ‘please understand, when we say “resurrection”, that’s a metaphor. What we really mean is that Jesus is still with us spiritually and his message will live on,’ nobody would have thrown them in prison or called them a menace to society.
The empire wouldn’t have been bothered a bit by that kind of abstraction, nor does it really offend our contemporary mentality either. You have a sense that some spiritual something is with you inspiring you, and that your soul will live on? No problem. If that works for you, awesome. Go ahead, call it Jesus! Call it whatever you like, as long as you keep it to yourself. As long as it’s interior and private and doesn’t require of you any action that challenges anything about the systems of the Roman empire -- or of course, of the American one, either.
A claim that in the risen flesh of Jesus Christ a whole new world has begun, though? Well, that’s going to be trouble. But in the words of the late John Lewis, it’s good trouble. In fact, it’s just the trouble we need. One million people have been taken from us by Covid. Champaign has seen 36 shootings so far this year. The world is watching war crimes, and not for the first time. We’re getting offered second boosters here, while just 15% of the African continent is fully vaccinated. Kids are still bullied. Women are still harassed. I could go on. How, in the face of that, can we settle for soothing ourselves with private spirituality and soft-focus inspiration?
On Good Friday, the African-American Biblical scholar Esau McCaulley wrote in the New York Times: “If a Black body can be hanged from a tree and burned, never to be restored again, what kind of victory is the survival of a soul? …. Either give me a bodily resurrection or God must step aside. He is of no use to us.”
See, you lose so much when you try to redefine Easter to make it easier. Because Christ is risen, mainstream Christianity is entitled to teach that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: full of justice and love, freed from oppression and mourning. It can give a plausible account of how that transformation began in the flesh of Jesus Christ on Easter morning, saying that he is the prototype, the down payment, or in Biblical terms the “first fruits” of the risen life with which God will flood all creation.
God feeds us with that life in the sacraments. God sends us into the world to make good trouble as we share that life with others. But it has to have begun in the resurrection first. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen in mine or yours, or in the carbon-dioxide choked earth, or in the cynical halls of power, or in the redlined neighborhoods, or in all the bodies who have been bombed, machine-gunned, unjustly incarcerated, assaulted, dehumanized. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen anywhere. But.
Esau McCaulley already knows it. Mary and Joanna and Mary Madgalene knew it. Generations of Christians have known it. St. Paul knew it and wrote it in today’s epistle: in fact Christ has been raised from the dead and we can count on it. We can count on God to bring his new world to fulfillment. We can count on resurrection to take us through to the end. We can count on justice to be done and every tear to be wiped away, because Christ is risen. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, says Paul, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…. [and finally will come] the end, when Christ hands over the universe to God the Father. That is not an idle tale. Amen. Alleluia.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Today begins the Triduum, a time of remembering, honoring, and walking with Jesus on the road to his death. This day, Maundy Thursday, we hear the words and see the actions of Jesus on his last night with his closest and dearest friends. What Jesus did on that long ago night helped those original disciples, and the generations of disciples to come, to know him and his message of deep love.
Holy Week offers us many once-a-year images. All that we do this week is in remembrance of Jesus. There were the palms we carried on Palm Sunday as we walked through the alley and into the church. There will be the stripping of the altar tonight, removing everything that makes this building a church. Late tonight and Friday morning some will sit in the garden watching and waiting with Jesus. Tomorrow we will sing the reproaches as we venerate the cross and then on Saturday, we will light the new fire and bring the light into the worship space. We will be sprinkled with holy water and ring the bells to accompany the great proclamation of Easter and more. And probably even if this is your twentieth holy week you will still see or hear something you had not noticed in the past. Each action, each sight, each smell, each sound is intended to involve us with all our senses and to imprint on our bodies what happened that first holy week and Easter. Just as it was for Jesus’ disciples, so much happens in such a short period of time, it can be overwhelming. Actually, it is supposed to be overwhelming! We can process later; for now, we experience.
It is fitting that tonight’s actions begin with the Passover celebration. As one of my Jewish-born friends, who became a Christian as an adult, describes it, Passover is like the Easter Vigil and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. It has the rite of scripture and prayer as well as the joy of being with extended family and friends, using special dishes, eating special foods that only are served once a year at Passover.
Jesus wanted to spend his last night with his friends in celebration of God’s leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom. The plagues that were to convince Pharoah to let God’s people go are named with a special remembrance of the 10th plague, the death of all first-borns. The Hebrews were to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would know to leave those households intact. God’s people were protected by the blood of a lamb. This Exodus brought redemption and liberation for the Hebrews from the Egyptians. The Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples on that last night set the stage for the events ahead. What Jesus would do over those next few days brought freedom from sin and darkness and death for all. He is that lamb whose blood will mark his followers as God’s own people and protect them forever. So it is meaningful that Jesus actions tonight begin with the Passover.
For three years Jesus had used his time with his disciples readying them for these next few days and what would happen to him and what God would accomplish through him. Ever since he called his disciples, he had fed them, taught them, and set an example for them. At first what we see happening this day may seem the same. Jesus does teach them; he does feed them, and he does set an example for them. Yet there is more in his actions. Today Jesus is also equipping these disciples for their life ahead. Jesus has been their master, their teacher, their leader. They have been his students, his followers, and his aides. Today Jesus shows them that their relationship is about to change.
Through being with him daily he has taught them love, love for each other and love for God. This group of ordinary people had at some level come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the one sent by God. They had experienced his love overflowing in so many ways. Theirs was a deep relationship. They knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. He knew their human characteristics with all the pluses and the minuses and his love for them included and accepted their human qualities. Jesus knew that these friends would be the ones to carry out his ministry. He depended on them. On this night so long ago, Jesus gives them what will sustain, nourish and help them to be able to do just that.
Near the end of the Passover observance, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In English remembrance; in Greek anamnesis. The Greek word means a little bit more than the English translation. Let me explain using an example from Laurence Stookey’s book on the Eucharist. If you were asked to remember an event in your life, let’s say your high school graduation you could probably come up with some thoughts. You might mentally picture the building, remembering that you had a party afterwards, and with a bit of time, perhaps who had come to see you walk across the stage. But if you “remember” in the way of the ancient Hebrews you would put on a cap and gown, play a version of Pomp and Circumstance on you- tube while you walked in a very dignified manner across the room. You would have invited many of your friends and relatives and had a party following. This is what is meant by the word anamnesis. It is bringing to life again what you are remembering. And this is precisely what we do in these days of Holy Week. Carrying the palms, shouting the words, “crucify him” lighting our candles, ringing our bells, it is our actions in addition to our thoughts that connect us to the truth of what Jesus did for us.
And it is more than Holy Week where this type of remembrance happens. Jesus knew our human frailty too, and how much we need his continuing presence to be able to carry out His work on earth. This remembrance, this anamnesis, is what we participate in at each and every Eucharist. The priest takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us. The very same actions that our Lord did at that last supper with his friends. We do this now following Jesus’ instruction, “do this in remembrance of me”. The actions of the Eucharist are not just something done once many years ago and on only that particular night. Rather those actions connect the past, the present and the future. Jesus gives himself for us in the bread and the wine. They are his real presence, his body and his blood given for us. This ritual meal lets us know that God does not forget us, nor do we forget God. He is with us in all. He gives us his strength to bear what we have to bear and do what He calls us to do.
We are under the blood of Christ now, and marked and protected and guided by his holy body and blood. Jesus, the living Christ, is among us still, giving himself to us. And we receive him giving ourselves to him in witness to his great love.
We do this, with our actions, we do this in remembrance of him.
The actions of the Triduum continue—don’t miss this once a year experience! Amen.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, God himself — wholly innocent Love incarnate — was brutally murdered. And for what reason?
We could fill in the blank with any number of answers: Christ died because humankind wanted to kill him. Christ died because Sin was too powerful for us to escape on our own. Christ died because God required some kind of satisfaction for the rebellion and hatred shown him by his creation. All correct answers as far as theology goes.
But what I want to focus on tonight is the reason underlying them all. Jesus took up his cross because he wanted to. Jesus took up his cross because God so loved the world that he chose to die for it.
Which is an idea almost too big for us to grasp. If we were to imagine ourselves in the most extreme circumstances, we might just approach something resembling that love. We might think of the parents who have died for their children. Or of the men and women who have died for their country. Or the saying, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.
But Jesus — Jesus laid down his life for his enemies. Jesus picked up his cross so that even those who cried “Crucify him” might be saved.
Why would he do this? Why would he who knew infinite power and perfect contentment count it all as nothing so that he might in every respect be tested as we are?
“To redeem a servant, the Father did not spare his Son.” Nor did the Son spare himself. He shouldered our burdens and carried our iniquities. He drank the cup that the Father had given him, all so that he might bring us before God, not as slaves or exiles but as brothers and sisters of the King.
In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Who could believe the story we’re telling? The love of God is so extravagant, so prodigal, so ill-advised according to even the smallest amount of common sense that the life and death of Jesus will always be something of a mystery to us, a tale of bloodshed and tears that continues to teach and to touch and to heal those who hear it.
And so we call today “good.” We call today “good” — though centuries and societies have passed since Christ’s crucifixion — because Jesus’ love has not and will never change. As it was then, so it is now: Jesus loves us so deeply, so tenderly that he would die a thousand deaths if that was what it took to save a single one of us.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
In the Cross of Christ we are given the incontrovertible proof of God’s commitment to all of creation: God so loved the world that he died for us — not because we were good enough to merit saving but simply because God’s love won’t rest until everything and everyone is reunited with him. Jesus chose to pour his life out on the altar of our salvation, knowing that no stain, no sin, no separation could withstand the power of his blood. This is the God we worship. A God who loves those he has made so profoundly that he would lay down his life to lift up ours.
On this, the darkest night of the church year, the altar is bare and our voices are hushed. But even in the darkness, light shines. Look on our Savior. See the blood from his wounds. Listen as he draws his last breath. His arms are stretched wide to embrace us all. He loves us. He loves us. He loves us. AMEN.
Why is this cross beautiful? When we look at the Emmanuel rood screen, we are looking at death and suffering, after all. This sculpture enshrines agony, mockery, abandonment -- all the things human beings normally want to turn our eyes away from. Why is this cross beautiful?
Today we begin the solemn 6-day journey through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that has been the centerpiece of Christian community life since the 3rd or 4th century. The Bible texts the Church feeds us with today orient us as we go through Holy Week, and in particular as we experience the three great evenings of the Triduum, one liturgy extended over three nights.
Other minor services and devotions are available between now and Saturday night, but above all what the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church asks of her members is to participate in the Triduum: Maundy Thursday at 7pm, Good Friday at 7pm, and the Great Vigil and first Mass of Easter, Saturday at 8:30pm. There is nothing else like this: as I’ve said many times, the Triduum is the Church’s strongest medicine, but it only works if you take it as directed.
So on Palm Sunday as we enter this priceless experience, the Church orients us with Scripture, helping us know where to stand and what to understand. We hear the voice of Jesus addressing us prophetically in Isaiah, recounting his heroic act of trust in God: I gave my back to those who struck me, he says, I did not hide my face from insult, because God who vindicates me is near.
We hear the voice of the first century church in Philippians, an early hymn celebrating how Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto the point of death, even death on a cross, and that therefore God highly exalted him, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. These readings help us stand in a place where we can experience the shame, in light of the glory. We can feel the agony, made even more poignant in light of how astonishingly God used it for good.
And today we stand, and hear, and speak in the voices of all those who participated in the Passion, experiencing the truth of what Jesus went though, experiencing the truth of how we prefer to make God suffer rather than sacrifice our own illusions of power or our own illusions of security. How we’d rather kill him than let him love us.
This is our place to stand: this is where the Church will keep on putting us this week, if we have the integrity and the courage to show up for it. We stand inside the experience of Holy Week, living it night by night, shaped by the meaning Scripture tells us it has.
We don’t just think or debate or watch this: we live it, we stand inside of it, and we let Scripture interpret it for us, because we could never, ever figure Holy Week out for ourselves. It’s too vast and too powerful for that. We have to physically experience these three nights of liturgical action, and we have to let Scripture be our guide, or we’ll never even get close. So let’s hear it once more:
Though Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Why is this Cross beautiful? That’s why. It’s beautiful because Holy Week is not a set of ideas or a topic of discussion, not an act of regrettable violence or a political process, not an historical curiosity or a religious ideology. This Cross is beautiful because through Holy Week God made the ugly beautiful. This Cross is a work of art because Holy Week is a work of art.
Because Holy Week is what Scripture says it is: God himself, entering into the world at its ugliest, and taking all the world’s ugliness into his own body in order to redeem it. Holy Week is the experience of how God can make beauty out of any suffering, even the most obscene or outrageous, even the act of God’s own creatures killing him, even the suffering you and I carry in our bodies and our minds and our hearts right now, if we show up for it. Whatever you are carrying, put it all in this process over the next six days. Don’t be afraid. God knows what he’s doing. Just show up. God knew how to make this Cross beautiful, and he knows how to make all your crosses beautiful too.
Thanks be to God for all he will do here between now and Saturday night.
Back in the 1990s when Mark and I were living on the North Shore of Boston, his parents came to visit us, and we took them up to Gloucester for a whale watch. It was a stormy day, though, and we didn’t see any whales. In fact, not only didn’t we see any whales, but the whole boat got seasick. And I mean truly seasick. People were collapsed all over the place, groaning.
When we started pitching around, somebody announced: go up top, stand out on the deck, and focus on the horizon. Most people paid no attention, but I staggered up the stairs, and that’s what I did, for the next half hour as they turned around and took the boat back into the harbor. I stood in the drizzle and the wind and stared with all my might at the furthest thing I could see. One other person came up too, and I didn’t even glance at her once. We exchanged one grim sentence of conversation, and then we both stared at that horizon as hard as we could. And it worked. Worst boat ride of my life, but I got through it by keeping my focus in the distance rather than on the immediate surroundings.
I looked up later why that works. And the deal is that motion sickness is caused when your brain receives conflicting messages about whether you're moving or not. If you’re reading a book or looking at something right next to you, your eyes are telling your brain that you’re still. But because your body can feel movement going on, it sends the opposite message. And the result is that your brain gets disoriented. So if you look at an object in the distance, that helps your eyes realize that yes, you are moving after all, and it resolves some of the confusion and you feel better.
So this is a physical phenomenon. But it is just as true in the mental world and the spiritual world. Focusing on more than just what’s right next to you helps you stay oriented. It’s true in business, it’s true in relationships, and it’s true in our life with God.
In business: I read an interview recently with Horst Schulze who founded the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. He grew up in a small German village and had never even seen a hotel as a kid, but he talked about how the success that brand achieved was because they focused not on daily tasks, but on the horizon, the ideal of service, which as a Christian he sees as rooted in love of neighbor. Schulze said, “Service always implies caring. If we settle for lesser goals — meeting the budget, for example, or safeguarding jobs in a tough economy — we will miss the most important work.”
In relationships: Talk to anybody who has maintained lifelong friendships, ask them how they did it, and they will tell you that at least part of it was learning not to sweat the small stuff. You keep your focus on your overall love for the person, on your shared values and goals, and not on the ordinary ways that they might fall short or fail you.
And in our life with God. There’s no better example of that than today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Let’s look at it. Paul starts by listing lots of his concrete qualifications, and then says, Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
That temporary stuff, good or bad, even if somebody else would consider it a gain, says Paul, all that stuff is rubbish compared to the goal I can see on the horizon. Paul loves strong language, and in fact if we translated the word he uses for rubbish literally, you couldn’t say it from the pulpit. That’s how high a value he puts on Jesus as his horizon.
And Paul continues: Not that I have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. A well known civil rights slogan came from this passage: Keep your eyes on the prize. Instead of interpreting your life by its current inconveniences or its current successes, interpret it by your main goal. Focus not on the deck chair next to you, but on the horizon. Keep your eyes on the prize.
For many people, the focus point we have is too close for us not to get a kind of spiritual motion sickness. Rather than looking up to the horizon, the surpassing value of knowing Christ, we look at what’s right around us -- the paycheck, say, or spending time with family. What we’re keeping our eyes on is better health, the next set of deadlines, the favorite leisure pursuits, the screen of our phone.
Nothing wrong with those things. Helps to have a paycheck, helps to be in good health. But if we focus on them as our ultimate goals, doing that is just like what happens with motion sickness. Your mind and your body may be trying to convince you you’re fulfilled, but the spiritual part of you is telling you you’re empty. And the result is that you get disoriented, you get out of whack. Until you know where the horizon is and can focus on it, you will have spiritual motion sickness.
Spiritual motion sickness is not cured by non-spiritual methods, though many people are trying. Some people try making something else into their horizon, usually something that has a sort of cosmic, beyond feel to it – like great art, or sex, or passionate political causes, or getting intoxicated. Some try keeping so busy and distracted that the disorienting input telling them they’re spiritually empty is temporarily drowned out. Some try dumbing down the spiritual life into another close-at-hand consumer product they can buy and control without having to look beyond themselves to the real horizon. All of those things will work for awhile, but none of them work forever, because they get the whole structure of the thing wrong.
See, in the Christian understanding of the universe – and you may not share that understanding, I’m just telling you what it is – in the Christian understanding of the universe, spirituality will not function as advertised until you put it in its proper place. If knowing Jesus Christ is not the ultimate value for you, as it was for Paul, the Christian life won’t work right. You will always have that inner disorientation, that spiritual motion sickness, until you deal honestly with Jesus.
In the Christian vision, there is no greater horizon for a human being than the one who is both human and divine, Jesus Christ. In him we see who we are, and through him we are welcomed into infinite love and purpose. Compared to that, as Paul says, everything else is a poor, shortsighted second. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
You can try to avoid the horizon and keep rearranging the deck chairs, as the boat of life pitches around you and you pass from calm to storm and back again. You can try and hang on to a table that isn’t nailed down. You can surround yourself with people who tell you there is no storm and you aren’t actually seasick. But doesn’t it make more sense to raise your eyes to the horizon and see Jesus Christ there, who has made you his own and is waiting for you? To give him his proper place as the ultimate goal, as the prize you always have your eyes on?
And as Lent comes to a close this week, I have to advise you that there is no better way to experience what that means than to block out next week so you can be sure to experience the major services of Holy Week and walk through death and resurrection with Jesus. Entering fully into the Triduum will reorient you to the horizon God has given us. Holy Week is the strongest medicine the Church has, but you have to take it as directed. You can’t just drop in a couple times and then show up on Easter morning and expect to be cured of your spiritual seasickness. You have to give yourself over to the orienting power of the full process. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. That is the horizon of the universe. Navigate by it, and you’ll find home.
Over the past four or so weeks we have joined as a parish in the Lenten practices of fasting and praying and (soon-to-be-added) almsgiving. These spiritual disciplines have long been recognized as really good tools for connecting us with God — and for revealing just how little we have our spiritual stuff together. We fast, and, um, fail. We pray, and, um, get distracted. We try and try and try and end up finding out that we are seemingly incurable sinners.
People have often remarked that Lent can be a serious downer for precisely that reason. Now more than at any other time in the church year, we are reminded of how imperfect we are, how easily we submit to temptation, and how even the best of us make mistakes. In the words of one of my favorite hymns, we are “Prone to wander, . . . prone to leave the God we love.”
So if that’s the case, where does that leave us?
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear one of the most famous stories in the Bible. There once was a man with two sons. One day, the younger of the brothers came to his father and said, “Give me my inheritance,” which is essentially the same thing as telling your dad you’d rather him be dead than alive. But our protagonist (?) doesn’t care. He gets what he wants, and then he leaves, going as far away as he possibly could go from the man to whom he owed his very existence. And, as we know, once he got to where he was going, the younger son spent all of his money on booze and sex and every pleasure he could get his hands on. But then his money ran out and a famine arrived and no one cared that this once-wealthy man was now relegated to the pig pen.
Sitting in the mud, watching the pigs eat and hating them for it, the younger son wept. He was dirty and ashamed of the dirt and the actions that had brought him there. But what could he do? He had no money, no friends, no back-up plans. All he had was the man he once called father, a man he knew to be just but also gracious. “My father treated his slaves better than this. Perhaps he will have mercy on me, though I am no longer worthy to be called his son.” Picking himself up out of the mud, he began his journey home.
Now we don’t really get a description of what was going on in the Prodigal Son’s mind at this point. Was he repentant? Maybe. Was he just making the best of a bad situation? Perhaps. Jesus doesn’t care about that backstory because the focus of his story, the goal it has all been moving toward is the moment I’m about to describe.
Coming around the bend in the road, while he was still far off, “His father saw [his son] and was filled with compassion.” His father, the one he had abandoned, had wished dead, was suddenly running toward him. And before this wastrel child could get a confession out of his mouth, his father grabbed him up in his arms and called to his servants and said, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
No one, least of all the Prodigal son, expected such an ending from the way our story began. That kind of unquenchable mercy is almost unimaginable. It sounds like a bad idea. We catch ourselves thinking, the father is just setting himself up to be hurt again. Chances are his son will leave again. But none of that matters to the one who had been so terribly wronged in the first place.
All those years, the Father waited and watched. He walked the boundaries of his property. He lingered at the door. More than anything else in the world, he longed to welcome the son who had been lost home. Because nothing was more important than the reconciliation and restoration of his family.
Did you know that that’s how God feels about all of us? Did you know that God wants to gather us up in his arms, safe and secure forever, no matter what we’ve done or who we’ve been? It can be easy for us to miss the extravagance of God’s mercy because we’ve heard so much about it, that it’s just a given, something we don’t really think about as we run from one activity to the next. But the reality that Lent shows us is that we need a savior just as surely as both brothers needed their father.
For try as we might to keep our feet on the path of life, we will all absolutely wander off from time to time. We may not notice it. Or we may try and pretend we’re doing just fine. Whatever the case, getting back on track doesn’t mean we should sit in the mud and stew in our sins. Getting back on track means remembering who God is. It means allowing him to show us mercy. It means focusing and refocusing, turning and returning to the one who has made us new.
As we all have said here before and will all continue to say, God is merciful always. He is faithful in the face of our faithlessness. He would take any chance to bring us home again. And he in fact does. For there is one very important difference between the father in our Gospel lesson today and our Father above. And that is this: God didn’t wait for us to come back. He sent his Son to find us. AMEN.
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Part of the benefit of the season of Lent is recognizing how much we desire God. The psalmist today says, “My soul thirsts for you”. When we remove some of our distractions it can become very clear to us of how much we need and want God in our lives.
During this Lent, Emmanuel’s focus is on the three pillars of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. For the past two weeks the intergenerational formation team helped us to learn more about fasting, both the why we do it, as well as what distractions may keep us away from God. For these next two weeks the focus is on prayer, inviting God into our lives. Come to their presentation after the service and you will be presented a variety of approaches to prayer. In the week ahead, I encourage you to try at least one of them.
This morning I want to describe a traditional way to pray, called Lectio Divina. Lectio and its offshoots can also be used as a method of Bible study.
There are variations of Lectio. We have used a few of these at Emmanuel in the past. One variation is the basis for the program “Pray as you Go”. By the way, this is still available on the web and can be used by individuals or groups. Just google “Pray as you Go”.
The traditional form of Lectio Divina has four basic steps.
As one begins this type of prayer, it is important to be in a quiet environment without disturbances. And then to sit still for a moment or two to calm your thoughts. As you begin say a short prayer to the Holy Spirit to bring guidance during this time.
The first step is Lectio.
Read the scripture passage you are using aloud. Do this slowly and prayerfully. Don’t just skim the passage and say, “I remember this story”. For this type of prayer, the story is not the point. Instead listen as you slowly read for a word or phrase that God has prepared for you on that day. You may want to read the passage more than once, if at first no phrase or word stands out to you.
The second step is Meditatio.
When a word or phrase strikes you, stop reading and rest with it. Repeat the word to yourself. Ponder it, reflecting on what it means to you. Let it interact with your thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires. Your mind may take you to something in your history; let that memory soak in. Or it might take you to something you hope for the future; stay with that for a moment. Return to the word or phrase and repeat it.
The third step is Oratio.
After you have focused on the word, formulate a prayer from your heart. What do you want to say to the Lord in response to the Word he has given you? Enter into the conversation with God.
The fourth step is Contemplatio.
Rest in God’s presence. Sit still with God. Empty your mind. Remember that contemplation is not your action but rather it is allowing God to act in you. Sit at peace in this time of quiet rest with God.
Then, as you finish say a short prayer of thanks for this time spent with God.
Those steps again are Reading God’s word, Hearing God’s word, Responding to God and Resting with God. Lectio Divina is a quiet and slow process. It will not be rushed. You must give the scripture time to work into you.
I chose to use this method with today’s story of Moses and his call from God. Over a period of a couple of weeks I used the Lectio method with today’s Old Testament passage and each time a different phrase or word stood out. I am going to tell you the phrases as well as some thoughts that came to me in my reflections on them. Remember that these did not all happen at one time. This was a process I did over many days. I will tell you these in the order they appear in the passage, though this is not the order they came to me.
Here are my reflections.
“The bush was blazing and yet it was not consumed”
For those of us who enjoy fire pits or fireplaces with real logs we know how fascinating a controlled fire is. However, fire is dangerous, and it can quickly destroy everything in its path if we are not careful. It is no wonder that when Moses saw this fiery bush that would not burn up, he had to pause and give it his full attention. Moses stopped what he was doing to focus on this bush and when he did, he was rewarded by hearing God call his name. God uses many ways to get our attention. Some are more dramatic than others, but He will get our attention.
Sometimes these attention getters are in a church season, like Lent or the Triduum. These yearly events offer reward if we make use of them. Sometimes God will grab our attention in seeing something in the natural world. If we pause, the beauty of God’s creation is overwhelming. It could be a sunset or the stark nature of trees without their leaves, or a particularly large group of deer in a field, or …Again we see God’s hand and hear his word if we stop and see. Sometimes unfortunately our attention does not turn to God unless it is a time of sorrow, a death or serious illness of ourselves or a loved one.
God will get our attention.
“God called to him.”
What special times these are when God calls using words! We have no control over when, or even if, we might ever hear God’s call in words. It would be nice if we would have this type of clear message. In so many ways Moses was fortunate to have heard God speak to him in such a direct fashion.
In last week’s Old Testament passage Abram received God’s message to him in a vision or dream. And that is also a way for us to hear God’s direction for our lives. Sometimes though, our sense of call is not this straight forward and yet it is no less a call from our Lord. We might experience God’s will for our lives through other people and what they may say to us, or ask of us. At other times we will find a great sense of calm as we are considering the options facing us and we will know in our selves that this is what God would have us choose.
These times of discerning God’s will may be lengthy or may be short. Prayer, spending time with scripture, discussing the choices with a trusted advisor can be helpful. Sitting quietly with the question and not thinking of the options is also a very special way of prayer. Giving God the time to speak and yourself the place to listen is what most often brings resolution to your questions.
Moses was most fortunate that he heard God speak directly to him, giving him the task that God had chosen for him. For us, most often, discernment is work. Answers unfold over time rather than quickly.
God does call us.
“I will be with you.”
Moses’ reaction was the same as yours or mine would have been, why me God? Why do you choose me; I cannot do this. God reassures with these words, “I will be with you”. In effect, God reminds Moses, and us, that we are not ever doing something we are called to do on our own. This phrase offers comfort and reassurance to God’s people throughout time.
He will be with us.
God’s name is I AM, not I do or I will be or I was, but I AM. God is the one in charge. We as human beings respond to God’s I am. We are not human do-ings but human be-ings. Spending time being with God is as important as what we do. We need this time of being nurtured by God in order to accomplish anything he has called us to do.
Moses is told God’s name for all time is “I am.” He is the one in charge.
“The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” God will get our attention.
“God called to him.” God calls to us.
“I will be with you.” God will be with us.
“I am.” God is all.
Preparing for this sermon, using the Lectio method, was fruitful for me. I encourage you, again, to try a new way to pray in the week ahead. As the psalmist reminds us, we are hungry for God, our soul thirsts for him.
Prayer is one way God will feed us.
We land somewhere near the beginning of the middle of Abraham’s story in our OT lesson today. It’s been a few years since God showed up in Abram’s tent and said, “Pack up your belongings, grab your wife, and leave everything you’ve ever known to go somewhere you know absolutely nothing about.” Which, of course, Abraham does. He and his household strike out into the wilderness, following a God he’s just met — not because Abram felt 100% confident in the divine voice that upended his life and not even because he thought this was a chance to make it big on his own. Abram takes this radical leap of faith because God has promised him the one thing he really wants. A son. A boy to call his own. And so our protagonist leaves his past. He says goodbye to everything that ever gave his life meaning, and steps into the unknown, hoping beyond hope that this God would do what he had promised.
Years go by. Abram becomes wealthy. He ends up a military hero. He is clearly blessed by the LORD; but the promised child has not appeared. And though we’ve heard in our OT lesson today that Abram’s very own son will be the heir of his household, 14 more years pass before that promise is realized.
Which sounds kind of awful. Most of us here know someone who has struggled with infertility or who has had an adoption fall through last-minute. Waiting for the test results or the court date can be excruciating. Now imagine that going on for roughly two decades. To us it almost seems cruel or negligent for an all-powerful God to delay something so precious. But Abram doesn’t take it that way.
Instead, Abram believes that the LORD will do what he says — and more. “Look at the stars. Can you count them? So shall your offspring be.”
The baby boy. The innumerable descendants. The prospect of a land where the Creator God and his people live together. All of it is so far beyond the power of any human being to accomplish or attain that we would totally understand if Abram just gave up. But he doesn’t. Even after years of waiting, Abram sticks with the LORD — because he realizes that his only hope of receiving the promise is waiting on the one who made it.
Which is sort of a basic, churchy truth statement to make. But there’s a reason that statement is important. As we ask God for what we want, for what we need, as we wait on his timing, what are we doing but getting to know him? What was Abram doing over the years of waiting but getting to know this God who appeared out of nowhere to bless him for apparently no reason?
And so it is that even in the midst of his own unfulfilled desires, Abram discovers the bent of God’s heart, the direction his will moves: which is toward goodness and blessing, healing and wholeness. Abram learns that God is so committed to his people that he would willingly walk through the valley of death so that we might be saved.
The LORD said to Abram, “‘Bring me a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And Abram brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. . . . When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day, the LORD made a covenant with Abram.”
Between the bloody halves of these sacred animals, our light and our salvation — God himself — walks. And in so doing, he binds himself to Abram and his family, saying in word and deed that if he goes back on his promise, may such an end as these animals met be done to him. For the sake of a people yet unborn, for no reason other than his own radical grace, God calls down a curse on himself. May I die, God says, if I do not do all in my power to bring humankind back into relationship with me.
Knowing what we know, this happens — not because God broke his promise but because he kept it, even though it cost him his life.
Such is the love God has for us.
God wants to save us. He wants to bring his wayward sheep home. He wants to lead us, guide us, feed us as we walk through what is all too often a bloody and cruel world. And yet in our rush to meet every need and want that arises in the chaos and confusion of our lives, we’re prone to forgetting that or missing it entirely. We, like Abraham does in the very next chapter, will all too often look for protection and nourishment that fits our schedules and our terms rather than trusting in the one who is our only true refuge.
Still, God remains the same: Faithful in the face of our faithlessness. In the words of our collect today, God’s glory is always to have mercy, to be gracious to all who have gone astray, to bring us again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of his Word, Jesus Christ — who would gather us up, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, even if it means death on a cross.
As one of our great Anglican writers said, the Christian life is a perpetual Lent — which is a lovely and liturgical way of saying that the Christian life is made up of a lot of waiting. We have received the promise of eternal life and perfect happiness in beholding the face of God, but we haven’t gotten there yet. May we all, as we fast, as we pray, as we give, hold tight to what we have attained. And, together with our psalmist say, “O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the LORD.” AMEN.
We began the journey through Lent together on Wednesday, and today we read, as we always do on First Lent, the story of Jesus going into the wilderness right after his Baptism, to fast and seek God for 40 days. At the culmination of this time, just as you might think he’s be ready to begin his ministry, Jesus is confronted by three plausible temptations, each of which he rejects.
As most of you know by now, Emmanuel is focusing this season on what are often called the Three Pillars of Lent – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The Intergenerational Formation group has designed Sunday activities to engage them across the generations, we have an adult book by Evan Armatas on the same topic to read, and we have a family and kids book to recommend as well. So I hope all of us will find a way to plug into these practices over the next 6 weeks.
In the Gospel we hear every Ash Wednesday, Jesus refers to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as givens for us. He doesn’t say “you should try and pray,” or “fasting now and again is a good idea.” He says “When you pray… When you fast… When you give alms,” this is how you should do it -- with integrity and sincerity. Jesus takes for granted that we will do those three things: Fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Not just Jesus himself, but Christians throughout the ages have highlighted those three tools as basic building blocks of a spiritual life. That’s because they counteract some of the main temptations each of us faces, the same temptations Jesus faces in today’s Gospel. These two readings together give us, in essence, the dangerous sickness of sin and the healing remedy against sin. So as Emmanuel embarks on this journey, I’d like us to look at each temptation the devil lays before Jesus in today’s Gospel, and how the pillars of Lent he taught about in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel directly address the sickness underlying those temptations.
So the first temptation: The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" The temptation here: satisfy yourself. Your hunger, your wants, your whims: gratifying those, this temptation suggests, is first, morally neutral and second, it’s all up to you. This aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature tells us that we create your own satisfaction, with not just food, but all kinds of little or big comforts or conquests.
Jesus could have turned a stone into bread, or into anything he desired, but his reply shows that he understands that our wants are not reliable pointers to what’s best for us. "It is written, he says, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" What is the practical medicine against the disease that tells us we live by self-gratification? Fasting.
Whether fasting from food, from alcohol, from social media, from Netflix, the Christian tool of leaving a space of hunger inside us helps teach us that our wants are not sovereign, and that in fact we don’t have to have the things the sickness of sin tells us to go on and indulge in. Fasting helps us notice where zoning out in front of a screen or pouring a glass of wine has numbed us to our hunger for God and ultimately to the experience of conscious, full life that God wants for us. So one pillar of Lent: Fasting.
Here’s the second temptation: Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
If you have ever watched “My Lottery Dream Home” or pored over magazines about luxury cars or high end couture, if you’ve ever imagined a VIP lifestyle where you are waited on hand and foot, if you’ve ever checked and rechecked and rechecked again your Instagram likes, you understand this temptation.
The devil offers Jesus all this – glory, prestige, VIP status, power. But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows that those things are an empty shell compared to the true glory and power of God. Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" And what is the practical medicine against this aspect of how the sickness of sin has infected human nature? Against the disease that tells us having prestige and possessions will give us satisfaction? Almsgiving.
Perhaps when we hear that word we think of just making a donation to the poor, but it really means giving in general – viewing our resources not as something to hoard and benefit from ourselves, but something to share and give away. Being people who deliberately don’t just keep our power if we have power, or our money if we have money, but give it to others. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Almsgiving.
And the third temptation: Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Here the devil is actually quoting the Bible to Jesus, just out of context. He hopes to persuade Jesus to employ the power he has as God incarnate in a way that does not reflect God’s mission and love. He is trying to get Jesus to use religion, to use the Bible, to use God, without connecting with God and acting in harmony with God’s will. (Something we Christians would never do, right?) But Jesus’ reply shows that he knows God’s will is paramount. Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Sin tells us that we have no need to humble ourselves before God and hear God's wisdom. We have enough wisdom on our own. We already know what God thinks without checking with him or his Word (and by the way, he agrees with us). So what’s the practical medicine against how the sickness of this kind of sin has infected human nature? Prayer. Whether it’s silent prayer, prayer with Scripture, prayer in your own words, prayer from the Prayer Book, that living connection with God resets our presumption and self-obsession. Prayer starts to heal the sickness that tells us we know better than God does and it puts things in their true proportions. So another Christian tool, another pillar of Lent: Prayer.
On Ash Wednesday Jesus reminded us that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be regular parts of our life. Today, he battles on our behalf the three temptations that these tools are designed to help us defeat. He prescribes the medicine for these three ways in which the sickness of sin infects human nature.
If you are addicted to satisfying your wants and whims, fast.
If you are addicted to thinking you know better than God, pray.
If you are addicted to status and financial security, give alms.
If you struggle with all three, as nearly everyone does, fast, pray and give alms. That’s what Emmanuel is doing for Lent.
There are only two times in most people’s lives when they solemnly get dirt put on their heads. One is on Ash Wednesday, and the other is at their own funeral. If you have attended an Episcopal graveside service, you know the words: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." And if you have attended an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service, you know the other words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The first time words like these were ever spoken was way back in the story of the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve rebel against God. They eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ensuring that they will, after all, have funerals themselves, even though God had originally wanted them to live forever. In describing the consequences Adam and Eve bring on themselves by declaring independence from him, God says to them, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a stark reminder of both where we came from and where we’re going. There is not much value in ashes. Basically they’re worthless. In fact, dust and dirt are often less than worthless – they can be a hindrance and a liability. They fall onto the carpet and get rubbed in, they stain your hands and clog your machinery. You can't make dirt pretty by painting it, or improve ashes by spaying perfume on them. All other factors being equal, we are by nature a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And we remember that tonight; we mark ourselves with ashes to remind ourselves. When all is said and done – our self-made righteousness is like rags covering us; our virtue-signaling for others to see leaves us less clean rather than more; our half-hearted kindnesses are a squirt of perfume on things done and left undone that are all too dusty and unappealing. All other factors being equal, we remain a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And yet, the truth is that all other factors are not equal. God has offered us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can know – and not just know, verify in our own experience – that God will give anyone who asks a different kind of life than the kind that leads to the dust heap and the ash pit. Our Epistle tonight pleads with us today to enter into that life, or to re-enter if we have let it grow a little stale: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
And all that God requires of us in this is that we accept his mercy, that we remember we are dust, and that -- instead of trying to become better, prettier dust – that we turn to Jesus Christ and put our whole trust in his grace and love. No trust in the ashes. No hope in the dust. All our trust and all our hope in the strong mercy of Christ.
So as this Lent begins, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But don’t stop there. Don’t just repent; repent and believe. Join in our parish deep dive into the three things Jesus taught about in today’s Gospel - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving - to remind yourself that through Jesus, even dust and ashes like us can inherit the Kingdom. Be reconciled to God. Remember and relish what Christ has done for you. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Today on this last Sunday of the Epiphany it is time to say goodbye to the green as well as to the spoken and sung Alleluias. By Wednesday this holy space will be quite different. These few days ahead are a time of transition as we move from Epiphany-tide into the season of Lent.
Today completes a cycle of readings in which we have heard of God’s encounters in the world in several special ways. We began with the arrival of the Magi who had followed a star to see this poor infant who is the long-predicted Messiah.
At the Baptism of Jesus in the rush of a dove’s wings, God said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” In the next Sunday reading Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana, as the first of his signs. And then we heard the lesson of Jesus reading from the Torah in the synagogue in Nazareth, and his incredible announcement that the text was fulfilled in their hearing that day. Another Epiphany gospel told when Jesus called his first disciples, they were convinced to follow him by the sign of a miraculously large catch of fish. God in Jesus has shown himself present in the world throughout this entire season. Epiphany includes many wonderful declarations of who Jesus is and the incredible power he has.
Today’s lesson is the ultimate in the season’s overall message. Hearing these texts on Sunday mornings it may seem as if God’s presence was self-evident and easy to believe. These incidents, from our perspective, post resurrection, seem clear cut. However, if we read them more closely, and perhaps in an entire gospel rather than in short excerpts, we see that for the original disciples, those who experienced these events in time certain, it was not as understandable.
With each occurrence they needed time to talk with Jesus and each other about what had happened to begin to understand what they had seen and heard. Each incident was an incredible statement that the man Jesus whom they knew, was in fact God’s son. This was a major change for them. Those disciples needed time to process this reality, a time of transition, to be able to say yes to the call to move into God’s future.
Transitions in life are not easy for any of us. Whether it is a major move we are facing or a different school or job, or in being born or in dying, times of significant change are not easy. In giving birth, before the end stage of pushing the new life into the world there is a brief period called transition. The baby is still firmly in the womb and yet most definitely ready to come out. It is a recognizable moment that something life altering is beginning and there is no way to stop it.
The same is true of death, the time of wanting to hold onto life to keep things as they have been, changes. In this transition, the person who is dying surrenders to what is coming next. Those with them may see them move their lips or cry out the names of those who have already passed or raise their arms upward reaching out to Jesus. These transitions between life and death are generally short; there is no turning back after all. In major life changes the transition time allows those affected to come to acceptance of what is about to happen and to emotionally be able to move ahead.
Today’s gospel lesson is about such a time of transition. Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus, away from everyone else, experience a glorious moment. They see Jesus with Moses and Elijah. They want to hold onto this moment, Jesus standing with the ancient ones who represent the law and the prophets all glowing, shining with bright white. How magnificent! There can be no denying who Jesus is at that precise moment, and they do not want it to end!
Perhaps they yearned to hold onto the way of life they knew well, to cling to familiar ways of being faithful and of understanding they have known through the presence of Moses and Elijah. But suddenly the vision changes and Jesus alone remains. It becomes clear that a new thing is coming into being. And in this most powerful moment they hear God’s voice echoing what they heard at Jesus baptism. God tells them without a doubt that Jesus is his beloved son and that they are to listen to him.
This event is a significant turning point for Jesus, himself. Before going up the mountain, his primary focus has been on his ministry to the people. After coming down the mountain he begins his journey to the cross, death and resurrection. He no longer is focused on healing and doing miracles, or teaching about how to live life as God intended. Rather his focus is solely on fulfilling his purpose for coming to earth as savior and messiah.
The transfiguration is an important gift given to Jesus and to the three disciples as affirmation of the reality that is, before what is to come. Jesus receives a sort of pep talk from the ancients; that yes this is the time; it is starting now. And the disciples see Jesus in his glory and majesty before they are going to walk with him through his agony. They receive the unmistakable message of knowing Jesus as Messiah and are told to trust what will happen next.
Yet, seeing Jesus in his glory did not remove all the difficulties from those disciple’s lives. They could not remain on that mountain top. When they did come down, they were in the middle of opposition, of struggles and of confusion. The road to Golgotha was long and difficult. But the experience on the mountain gave them the courage to keep going. And more importantly the knowledge that through trusting God and listening to Jesus they would know this glory again.
Where does this leave us as we experience changes and difficulties in our lives? When we face our transition moments? While most of us have probably not had such a vision as did these disciples at the transfiguration, or of any of the other Epiphany stories, we have had moments of grace. Our moments may not have had the magnitude of those disciples, but we have had those times when we knew clearly that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. However, like the disciples, our visions of grace will not make our life struggles go away. With reflection these moments help us to remember who is in charge and to whom we belong. Our perspective changes through these experiences as we are pulled back to God.
We are grateful for those mountain top experiences as we are able to see and feel God’s glorious presence. We are grateful for these moments when we know without a doubt that God is in charge. These are the times that support us and give us courage and strength to continue through the changes that life inevitably brings. God is with us all the time, whether we can perceive him or not. There is great comfort in remembering this.
Epiphany season is almost over; This gospel passage of the transfiguration is the final one of every Epiphany tide; we are in transition again. May this be our lasting message of the season: From the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.
Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same...
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
With phrase after phrase in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus ruthlessly decouples love and goodwill from personal interest and relational connection. This decoupling is something he does more than once, but it’s particularly uncompromising here. And what he says does not, intuitively, make much sense to anybody.
Don’t love just people who have some pattern of connection with you, but people whom you know wish you harm? Don’t show kindness just to those who will be kind in return, but to those you expect to take advantage? Don’t lend at a normal interest rate, but without even asking for your principal back? The Greek and Roman culture which surrounded early Christianity found teachings like this laughable when they first heard them. One Roman writer called it “depraved, excessive superstition,” and another said that Christians just treat “all things indiscriminately and consider them common property,” making ourselves easy prey for “any charlatan or trickster” who comes along.
Now because we live in a culture that still retains some vestige of respect for Christian thought, we may not be ready to laugh in the face of this text the way the Romans did, but we aren’t likely to obey it, either. If you don’t believe me, let’s do a little thought experiment. So I’d like to invite you first to think of someone you have a connection with: a sibling, a cousin, a close friend or colleague. Imagine that person asking you to do something for them: give them a ride to Bloomington Normal, say. Go with them to a cancer treatment. Most of us would feel, I would guess, that it’s natural to provide those kinds of things to a friend or family member. There is a mutual connection, because of the existing bonds of relationship, that makes it easy for you both to take an attitude of kindness and responsibility for one another. We may even tell the person, “there’s no need to thank me; I know you’d do the same for me.”
Now invent in your head, if you will, someone you have never met before. Just for fun, let’s make it a person of a different gender identity, race and age than you are. Imagine that person ringing your doorbell unannounced and telling you they need a ride to Bloomington Normal or that they want you to sit with them at a cancer treatment. I am willing to wager that barely a single person here would agree, and that most of us would find the request ridiculous and totally out of line. We would say to our housemates when we got back to the TV room, “Some guy just showed up at the door and asked me out of nowhere to take him to Bloomington Normal!” Everyone laughs, and maybe you tweet about it, and the story’s over.
But what Jesus is describing here is a goodwill, a readiness to give, that is so indiscriminate, so decoupled from normal connections, that anyone who had it would be as willing to inconvenience themselves or take a risk for a stranger as they would for a spouse. Jesus is describing a benevolence that is boundless, impartial and unafraid of consequences. Your heavenly father, Jesus says, is merciful to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Now the title of this sermon is not “Go out and give rides to Bloomington Normal to random people.” I’m just trying to get us to see how outlandish what Jesus is saying is by our standards. Jesus is claiming that it’s at least possible that ordinary Christian people could love and give with the very same indiscriminate free generosity we see in God himself. So let’s ask: What could underlie this way of living he’s telling us about? What could enable someone to do that? -- to put aside their own natural interests and live from a love that was merciful and generous and indiscriminate in the very same way that God is merciful and generous and indiscriminate?
I want to turn to perhaps an unlikely source to try and start answering that. Some of you may have seen this video clip already. A couple of weeks ago on the Late Show, the singer Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert about how his Christian faith and his comedic sense overlap. His answer, to me, is a pointer to the mental shift we would have to undergo to love our enemies and to give even when we get nothing in return. You may or may not like Colbert’s show, but the answer he gave about how his faith enables him to be joyful in the face of defeat was really profound.
Here's what Colbert told Dua Lipa. “I’m a Christian and a Catholic,” he said, “and my faith is always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people, and that death is not defeat….” He commented if you don’t have confidence that God has defeated death, you will turn to what he called “evil devices” to try and protect yourself from negative experiences. But when we are confident that God is victorious, we have less need to try and prevent defeat ourselves. Colbert concluded, “If there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that [I know that] no matter what happens you are never defeated; you must see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”
Love and sacrifice are related. No matter what happens you are never defeated. You must see this in the light of eternity. Whatever your opinion of Stephen Colbert, that is Christian thought at its finest, applied directly to life as we all live it. If you believe you are in charge of preventing your defeat, of course you will be less likely to perform a loving action for a stranger, because that’s more likely to result in a negative, defeating experience than performing a loving action for a friend. We dismiss Jesus’ decoupling of love from personal connections and reciprocal benefits because we’re trying to protect our own finite resources and manage them to avoid as many experiences of defeat as possible.
But Jesus has no need to do that. He knows that death is not defeat. He knows what it is to see daily decisions and priorities in the light of eternity. He has unshakeable confidence in the ultimate victory of love, such that actions based on the victory of love are always a better idea than actions that based on his own self-interest. And so Jesus is totally free to abandon self-protection and put himself at immense risk for the sake of that love. And he does. And we kill him for it. But God raises him from the dead, and through Jesus, just keeps on offering indiscriminate, infinite love to us who killed and refused him. He loves us, the very people who made ourselves his enemies.
So what might change for you, if you were convinced that for a Christian, no matter what happens you are never defeated? What would change in our behavior, if we were absolutely convinced of the ultimate victory of love? If we saw things in the light of eternity? Might we just risk lending and not asking for anything back? Might we just risk being a servant to a stranger we don’t even know? Might we just risk loving someone for whose opinions we have contempt? Might we just refocus our priorities away from caring for our own to caring, period? If we put our full and unqualified trust in the God Jesus reveals, I think we just might.
What does it mean to be blessed?
It’s not a word we really use anymore, unless you’re on Instagram or you’re around someone who sneezes. “Blessed” has been demoted. Once it was an adjective applied to a person or a family we envied, people with virtues or money we could only dream of having. Now it just captions the perfect snapshot or proves we have good manners.
To Jesus, though, “blessedness” means much more.
In our Gospel lesson today, Luke tells us that Jesus, after a night of prayer, hikes down a mountain only to find an enormous crowd waiting for him at its base. People had come from all over that region. Some were there for healing. Some were there for hope. And some people just wanted to have a good time.
But before he began speaking, before Jesus launched into the blessings and woes we heard just a few minutes ago, he did something else. He looked at the crowd. He looked at the crowd and saw how desperate all of them were. He saw how much they needed him.
He saw the wealthy merchant who could barely contain his grief at the death of his child. He saw the beggar who would steal his mother’s last coin for one more night at the bar. He saw the life of the party, the guy everyone likes, who was hungry for something more.
Jesus looked at the crowd; and he loved them, even though he knew the secrets of their hearts and the direction of their thoughts. And so it is that before he told them what his kingdom is like, he showed them.
Walking from group to group, Jesus stretched out his hands to the blind and the lame. He greeted the women and the children. He saw the grief and the anger and the pain that plague humankind and he didn’t look away. He came down the mountain for a purpose. And that is to lead us back up.
When he descended from on high, Jesus knew that every person — regardless of their physical health or social standing — needed a healer. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote, the human heart is sick and deceitful. No one can understand it. We can’t understand it. Only God, who knows our innermost thoughts and desires, can do so. And he still wants to save us.
We may seek him out for healing or for hope or for one of the many other reasons people look for the divine. But as we stand in his presence, as we gaze at the one who knows us more completely than we do ourselves, we are changed. For it is the nature of God to bring wholeness to what is broken, to bring life where there is death. To show us what blessing really looks like by giving us his Son.
And there we have found our answer: To be blessed is to be with Christ, to look at him as he looks at us and to stay there, no matter what he says next. To be blessed is to cling to him, the Blessed One. Jesus is our sure hope. Our only trust during feast or famine. Jesus is our blessedness because he was never swayed by the counsel of the wicked or tempted by the way of sinners. His delight — all his energy and motivation and desire — was and is and will forever be caught up in love for the LORD.
So it is that when we follow him around, when we refuse to leave his side for money or success or respect, our hearts grow healthier, our sight clearer and we begin to see that what he says is true. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the happiest people are those who choose Christ above everything else.
And that changes things. The paycheck becomes less about us and more about serving others. The daily grind of life becomes less about success and more about seeing Christ in our neighbors. The desire for respect and clout and power becomes less about earthly blessings and more about seeking God’s blessing – which is seeking Christ.
And that is what it means to live under God’s reign, to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. Blessed are those who seek Christ over everything else. Blessed are those who find their life in Life himself. We will not fear, for we are connected with Life and Love himself.” AMEN.
Today Peter cries, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. Today Isaiah cries “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!" when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. In both these readings, and throughout Scripture, we hear the shock and shame human beings experience when they see God’s infinite holiness in contrast to who they themselves are. When it hits home how big the gap between the two is.
In both our readings today, God also immediately responds in love. In Isaiah, we hear how God acts to purify and redeem his overwhelmed servant. The seraph touched my mouth with a coal, and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" God moves Isaiah from trembling recognition of his uncleanness to being commissioned as the messenger of God.
Peter has a similar experience on the lakeshore with Jesus. As soon as he sees the presence and power of God, he also sees his own sin, but immediately Jesus replies, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Jesus moves Peter from trembling fear at his sinfulness to being commissioned as a follower of Jesus.
When we read the whole story, what stands out most is how God reaches out in love and forgiveness, despite each person’s unworthiness. God instantly moves to heal and transform. Yet both these stories of transformation begin with the person’s clear-eyed realization of their unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!"
Because sentences like that sound negative, there are all kinds of forces around and within us that encourage us to avoid them. Almost anybody living in the West in the 21st century will be tempted either to denounce this kind of talk as unhealthy, or to pass over it as outdated, or to give it only a superficial glance before turning to something that feels more affirming and encouraging. Now in one sense I understand this.
Scriptural language of judgment and sin (what a priest I once knew used to call “miserable worm” language) can be misused, and has been, in ways that can all too easily end up suggesting a kind of self-loathing. In some quarters, the church gets a reputation of teaching that not feeling good about yourself is almost the goal of Christianity. And then part 2 of that reputation, I suppose, would be the idea that this teaching produces in church members an addiction to pointing at other people and telling them they should feel bad about themselves.
If and when this happens in the church, though, we need to name that it’s wrong. It’s a misrepresentation and a misuse of Scripture. And the best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. Let me say that again. The best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. You have to read the whole story, rather than only the parts that sting – or, by the way, only the parts that comfort.
The climate we live in, though, means we have trouble sticking around for the whole story. We are sorely tempted to just stop reading as soon as a text gives any critique of the self, as soon as sin or unworthiness is mentioned at all. Contemporary Americans tend to be very, very cautious about allowing people to encounter any language that might lead to not feeling good about themselves. Affirming your self, accepting your self, in your own way and on your own terms, has come to feel like a sacred duty to us, something almost holy.
So I understand the desire not to talk about sin or unworthiness. And particularly in terms of correcting for past mistakes of the church, I think there are some good reasons for that desire.
But there are also a lot of bad reasons, short-sighted reasons, and honestly, those are the ones that more often motivate me to avoid the topic of my own sin and my own limitations. But what I’ve learned in the years I’ve been a Christian is that the more I downplay my sinfulness, the less I will be able to appreciate the infinite love of God. We see this dynamic hinted at in our readings today: the two go together, and in fact the two are proportional.
The extent to which we admit our own finite limitations, for example, is the extent to which we will marvel at what it means for God to make creatures like us partakers of his infinite divine nature. The extent to which we acknowledge our own mortality is proportional to the extent to which we will grasp how gracious God’s gift of everlasting life really is. The extent to which we recognize our own sins and the fallenness of the world is the extent to which our hearts will be melted by the lengths God went to in saving us and restoring his creation.
And that proportional effect works from the other direction too, as we saw in Isaiah and Peter today. When we discover God’s holy beauty, we will realize our shabbiness in a new way by comparison. When we get a wider vision of, say, God’s compassion for people we’ve scorned or feared, that itself will point up how small and confined our compassion has been. When the reconciling love of Christ starts to dissolve a chronic logjam in our family or friendships, and we watch in awe as this intractable problem is actually healed by Jesus, that itself will point up how absolutely powerless we were to do anything about it alone. The gap was too big. We couldn’t stretch ourselves far enough to overcome it.
I mean, think what kind of scale we’re talking about here. In the long run, if you really take a good look across that gap in both directions, we’re talking about two, by definition, irreconcilable opposites – however we name them -- sin and holiness, death and life, judgment and mercy, limits and limitlessness, utter powerlessness and effortless tender power. The two sides of the gap between humanity and deity have many names.
But however we name them, like Peter, like Isaiah, once we see the gap it’s overwhelming. We can barely conceive, much less hold, those two irreconcilable opposites. We want to shrink it. We want something easier and smaller. Or we want one side of the story without the other. Because we can’t hold them together by ourselves.
But here’s the thing. Those opposites were held, once. The whole story was encompassed, once. Not by you, not by me, but this gap, these two irreconcilable opposites – however we name them – they were brought together at a single meeting point, in a single body, on a Friday outside Jerusalem on the hill they called the place of the skull. Sin met holiness in Jesus’ body on the Cross. Jesus held them both for us. Judgment met mercy. Jesus held them both for us. Powerlessness met power. Death met life that day on the Cross, and you know, after that death was just never the same again. And life? Well, life was so different after that day, you almost need a whole new word for it. In the New Testament, there actually is one.
What Jesus did in his cross and resurrection unites the whole story, this story that doesn’t skirt sin and thus also doesn’t skirt mercy. This story that doesn’t shrink everything down to feeling good about yourself, but has room for overthrowing the power of death and sin, and redeeming all of creation. Thanks to that moment of God in Christ holding death and life for us, bridging that gap in one crucified body that became a risen body, we can face sin fully and find full redemption. We can encounter a love that overcomes every gap between the finite us and the infinite God. And we can see how much Jesus has done for us that we could never do for ourselves.
Simon Peter said "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" But Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And they left everything and followed him.
One evening last week I came across the 1984 Sally Field’s movie, “Places in the Heart”. It had been a long time since I had seen it and I did not remember a lot of the details. The themes of the movie include poverty, oppression, sexism, and racism. Coincidently I was preparing for today’s sermon, and I was very surprised to hear today’s passage from First Corinthians read in the closing scene. It is a powerful scene, and I don’t want to give it away if you have not seen it but for me it spoke to the all-encompassing power of God’s love, and how humans can strive to demonstrate God’s love even though they will sometimes fall short.
While I was surprised to hear Corinthians 13 in a movie, I cannot remember how many times I have heard today’s second lesson read at a wedding. I have been the reader myself at least five times and I am certain I have listened to it at many others. Perhaps you used it in your marriage ceremony. (I can see a few of you nodding.) It is a wonderful passage for use at a wedding, reminding both the congregation and the couple being married of the actions involved in loving. Love that endures involves much more than a romantic feeling. The love we heard about in this lesson is lived day-by-day through our behavior and in how we treat others. Much can be gained by hearing these words at a marriage rite. However, the love between a couple and a conclusion to a movie about society’s outcasts, were not the original purposes when St. Paul wrote these words.
Rather, the entire epistle to the church at Corinth was written to address a time of conflicts within that church. The Corinthians were very divided in their opinions. Each group believed they were “right” in whatever the issues were. This division caused them to split into various groups and the groups had become deeply rooted in their conflicts. When the groups came together there were many arguments. Not discussions, which would involve listening as well as putting forth their points, but arguments. Much time was spent within the groups preparing their arguments as to why they were right and why their position made them better than the other. Paul wrote to address their behavior towards each other and the separation this had caused. Earlier in this letter Paul spoke about spiritual gifts and the importance of all gifts being necessary for the benefit of the whole. Today’s passage is a part of Paul’s charge to the Corinthians to find unity in the middle of their differences. And Paul says that the key to unity in a Christian community is love.
In this I think Paul’s words can speak directly to us in the 21st century. We are divided now into multiple camps. We are different from each other, perhaps physically in terms of our race or who we love or who and what we support. We have certain and opposite understandings on multiple issues. While true for our society in general it is also true in the church. Often, we have become so entrenched in the issues that divide us that we are like the Corinthians. As Paul would point out, we too have lost sight of our central belief, our belief in God.
We are different, yet wouldn’t it be boring and lackluster if we were all the same. Difference, diversity can make us stronger. Differences can make us collectively more beautiful and more interesting, and able to accomplish much more when we work together. God’s created world intended humans to have diversity just as his created world of plants and animals is full of differences. Paul reminds us that what enables a community to embrace and respect differences is when love is the foundation.
This love that Paul speaks about today is an action or collection of actions, rather than an emotion or feeling. Without the actions involved in love we are empty. Love must be at the center of our being leading us, guiding us,, directing us, encouraging us and this love is God’s love. The attributes that Paul uses to describe love are in fact attributes of God.
I want to look at verses 4-7 from this 13th chapter of First Corinthians again. This paragraph begins with “Love is patient” and finishes with “Love never ends”. You may check on your bulletin for this paragraph if you want. Or not, it is a familiar passage. I want to read it again using the word God in place of the word Love.
God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.
In fact, all the positives in this paragraph, being patient, kind, (and so on) are descriptions of who God is and how God loves us.
And the opposite, the negatives in the paragraph, those actions of envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, insisting on its own way, (and so on) are all qualities that the Corinthians were exhibiting at the time. Those attributes got in the way of their relationship not just with others of the opposing groups, but with God.
Human beings are not perfect. The Corinthians were not perfect, nor are we! We cannot love as God loves all the time. God knows that about us, perhaps better than we do. We need his presence in our lives to even attempt this type of love. He must be our center. When we waiver off that path of love it is time to re-focus, to re-focus on God in Christ and the love that we have received and are asked to demonstrate.
The Corinthians had gotten off-track. They had replaced God with being “right” as the center of their community. And throughout the time following the early Christians, there have been occasions when groups have also gotten off track, multiple times actually, if we look at history. Perhaps if we reflect now, we might find ourselves in that same place also. Is God and God’s love at the center of our Christian community?
When that is so, it is wonderful and encouraging to the world around us. We live as beacons of light to the world showing how unity can exist with differences.
Is God’s love at our core? If not, how might we re-focus to become so?
It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Hitting the pause button is the start of remembering God’s love is at the center of all we do and say and in how we act. Go back to the basics and take a little quiet time apart from others to read this passage aloud and listen to what God is saying to you through it. Maybe even read a little more of 1 Corinthians—we have been using it as the Epistle for the past few weeks—or choose some other scripture that has meaning to you.
Read and reflect and then discuss what you have heard with a trusted friend to go a little deeper into God’s word. Most of all, think about how God loves you and accepts you as his beloved child. And then remember, God accepts us all as his beloved. God is patient; God is kind. God bears all things, hopes all things; God’s love never ends. There is unity in God’s kingdom that includes our differences.
This world of ours needs God’s love and we are called to be the agents of his love. Without His love at our core, we are lost. His love is our anchor. No matter our circumstances at the moment, God’s love will never end.
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.