Who Do YOU Say That Jesus Is?

Sermon,  September 16, 2018 –  Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B
Mark 8:27-38

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

“Who do you say that I am?”  With this question Jesus asks his disciples one of the most important questions any of them would ever have to answer.  It’s also the most important question we will ever have to answer.

Who do you say that Jesus is?  It’s important to get this right.

This isn’t a school quiz or a question on Jeopardy though.  It’s not a matter of scoring a right answer so you can be rewarded with an A, or even rewarded with a lifetime in heaven.  That’s not what this is about.

It is important to get right because your answer to this question will determine how you live the rest of your life, and what your relationship with God will be.

This past week, the news featured stories on the preparations in Virginia and the Carolinas for Hurricane Florence.  About a million people were evacuated from their homes, while many others prepared their homes, boats, businesses, and animals for the coming storm.

What did these residents of Virginia and the Carolinas say that Hurricane Florence was?  Why would such a question be important?  If you lived there, and you thought Hurricane Florence was just a minor weather event and no big deal, chances are you wouldn’t bother evacuating or boarding up your house.  On the other hand, if you believed and understood that Hurricane Florence was a potentially deadly storm, capable of great destruction and flooding, you would prepare.  Your answer to the question of what you believed Hurricane Florence was could have life or death consequences for you.  Answering this question wouldn’t just be academic, it would be foundational to determining how you spent your week.

Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is a question like that.  It’s not a debating point to distract us from our real lives, or an irrelevant question.  This should be the foundational question for how we live our lives.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel passage and see what we can learn about this question.  Jesus begins by asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples tell Jesus that they’ve heard the people mention John the Baptist, Elijah, and one of the Old Testament prophets.  It sounds pretty apocryphal to me.  Was Jesus really a guy who had been beheaded a few months earlier?  Or an Old Testament hero returned to earth?  I get the sense that the disciples were probably enjoying themselves at this point, recounting to Jesus the wilder suggestions they had heard the people make.

But notice how Jesus immediately turns the question to the disciples.  “But what about you?” Jesus asks. “Who do you say I am?”  Suddenly the disciples are put on the spot.  No more poking fun at the silly crowds, they now have to answer the question themselves.  Peter answers “You are the Messiah.”  Now you are probably thinking, like I did at first, that Peter answered correctly.  But as I studied this passage, I realize that he did not.  His answer was as wrong as the crowds.  You see, Peter had a different idea of what the messiah was than we do.

In order to understand Peter’s answer, we first need to understand the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people at this time.  Last weekend, Barbara and I attended a retreat in which we learned all about how the Old and New Testaments form one overall story about God’s work in the world.  It is really important to understand the whole context when looking at any one part of the Bible.  One of the things we learned about was the messianic expectations of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.

Let me give you a very quick history lesson of the Jewish people.  The nation of Israel reached its zenith during the time of King David and his son King Solomon.  King David established Israel as a military power in the region and secured Israel as its own independent kingdom.  King Solomon used the stability that his father had won to build the great Temple in Jerusalem.  However, after Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two squabbling kingdoms and experienced ups and down until they were finally conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.  The Jewish people were sent into exile.  Eventually, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians, who let the Jews return to the land of Israel and to become a semi-autonomous state known as Judea.

The Persian Empire fell to the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and eventually to Rome.  During this time, Judea was sometimes permitted to exist semi-autonomously, but was often persecuted.  Judea was never independent.  They were always under the thumb of the Persians, Greeks or Romans.  The Jews longed for a leader who would defeat all their enemies and re-establish Israel as a military power just as it had been under King David.

As you may know, the Old Testament prophets promised that the Messiah would come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel.  This messiah was prophesied to be the son of David, meaning not only that he would be of true royal blood, but that he would be victorious.  And so the Jewish people were expecting a King David-like military hero messiah to come and defeat the Romans for them.

When I was younger I loved to read about King Arthur of Britain.  I vividly recall being entranced by the title bestowed on him – “the once and future king.”  This title suggests that Arthur was not only king in the past, but that he would be the future king also.  King Arthur was the great storybook king of Britain in the Dark Ages.  But legend was that the wizard Merlin had magically hidden King Arthur in a cave from which he would emerge at Britain’s darkest hour, vanquish Britain’s enemies and rule Britain once again as the mighty king.

This is the sort of figure that Peter and the crowds were expecting.  When Peter answers Jesus’ question by saying “You are the Messiah”, he meant that he thought Jesus was a King Arthur figure.  Peter was saying that he thought that Jesus was going to become a great military leader who would liberate Judea from Roman rule, and re-establish a powerful nation of Israel.

We often miss this, because we have been conditioned to have a different concept of what is meant when we call Jesus the Messiah.  We think that Peter answered correctly, because we know that Jesus is the Messiah.  The problem lies in what it means to be the Messiah.  Peter badly misunderstood this.  Jesus realizes this, and this realization of how wrong the disciples were is probably why Jesus orders them to keep quiet and not tell others about him.  Jesus knows that before the disciples tell others about him, they must first truly understand who he is.

Jesus starts to tell them what being the Messiah really means.  He tells them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by Jewish leaders, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.  Jesus is telling them that the Messiah would be more like the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53, and a lot less like a returning military champion.

Listen to some excerpts from Isaiah’s suffering servant prophesy:  “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.  [H]e was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that being the Messiah would not bring him military victory but rather suffering, scorn, rejection, and even death.

This upset the disciples.  It was not what they wanted to hear.  Peter started to argue with Jesus, rebuking him.  Peter thought that he could argue Jesus into being the military hero messiah that he wanted Jesus to be.  And think about it from Jesus’ perspective.  Which would you rather be – a conquering hero, beloved by all, or the suffering servant, despised and rejected, and put to death for the sins of others?  This is why Jesus reacted so strongly to Peter.  Peter is tempting Jesus in just the same way that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry.

And so Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Peter wanted Jesus to be a messiah who would make his life easier.  A messiah who would give him all the advantages in this life.  A messiah who would make him popular, as the exalted follower of the guy who liberated the Jews from the Roman superpower.

This is the Jesus we so often want, even today.  For many years, when Christianity was the dominant faith in society, claiming Jesus did give you an advantage in this life.  If you wanted better job prospects or to be accepted in the best circles of society, you made sure that everybody knew you went to church.  It was the socially expected thing to do.  But much has changed over the last fifty years.  Today, Jesus doesn’t bring you social advantages.  In fact, today, associating with Jesus can be career or social suicide.

We often hear a lot about how so many people have fallen away from Christianity.  But I think that most of the people who have left the faith were only nominal Christians – Christians only because Jesus gave them a social advantage.  And once that advantage ended, they stopped claiming to follow Jesus.  They wanted the messiah that brought them victories, not the messiah that brought them suffering.

At last weekend’s retreat, the speaker said that the primary tool Jesus Christ uses to extend his Kingdom here on earth is a persecuted and suffering church.  This is how the early Church expanded across the Roman Empire.  It was constantly persecuted and there were many martyrs, but the Church spread mightily.  Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must be prepared to put aside all, and follow him alone.  He said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  We must be prepared to pay this ultimate cost.  This is following the example of Jesus who gave his life for us.

Our retreat speaker told us an amazing story about his encounter with a former al Qaida fighter.  When he was part of al Qaida, this man believed that God called on him to kill those who disobeyed God.  But at some point, he began to question this.  Eventually, he encountered the Gospel, and he learned about Jesus Christ who was God, and who died for the sins of the people in order that they might be saved.   When he heard this, he knew he had found the truth.  God wasn’t calling on him to kill others because they disobeyed, but rather God was calling him to follow Jesus Christ who gave his life to save his people from their disobedience.  What an amazing contrast!

This is the Gospel.  Who do you say that Jesus is?  If you say that he is the Son of God who gave his life to save you from your sins and allow you to become redeemed and transformed sons and daughters of God, then you will be willing to offer your whole self as a living sacrifice in service of Jesus.  It will affect how you live your life.  Jesus puts this in very stark terms when he asks “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”  Think carefully when you decide which messiah you want to follow.  The messiah of worldly advantage or the messiah who is the suffering Savior who gave his life for you?

Who do you say that Jesus is?  Let us choose wisely, because our lives and our souls depend on our answer.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that Jesus Christ is reconciling the world to you through his suffering and death for our sins: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you.  We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Sermon  August 19, 2018  Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year B
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

There is a saying in the computer world that says “garbage in, garbage out.”  When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand what this meant.  But I do now.  It is used by computer programmers to suggest that no matter how good their program is, if the user enters in bad information to the computer, they will get bad information out.  Let me give you a specific example from my work as the church treasurer.  We use the QuickBooks program to keep track of finances.  At the end of each month, I need to print out information to let both the Mission Committee and the diocese know about the financial situation of the church.  Suppose I just spend the month entering nonsense into QuickBooks.  Would I magically then get an accurate monthly report?  No, of course not.  I will only get an accurate report if I accurate enter all the information in.

The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” can also apply to each one of us, as individual human beings.  If we fill ourselves with garbage, chances are that it’s going to be garbage coming out of us.  Think about our diet.  If we constantly eat junk food, we’re probably going to be very unhealthy and experience serious health consequences.  If we eat too much fattening food, we won’t lose weight.  Think about our environment.  If we constantly breathe in polluted air, or are exposed to dangerous chemicals, we can expect to be faced with sickness and disease.

This concept goes beyond the physical though.  It also applies to the intellectual and the spiritual.  If we are immersed in rude and dismissive behavior – whether this is on social media platforms, or by watching television or movies, or the way we interact with friends and family – then we are very likely to become rude and dismissive to others.  I watched a news story this past week about a formerly racist man who spoke about how he was drawn into the racist lifestyle.  He started out as an angry young man just out of the military but he immersed himself in racist thought.  He filled his mind with hate, and he became what he filled himself with.

Many studies show that men who consume pornography, become unable to develop real relationships with women, and sometimes are unable to even perform sexually.  Pornography can also have a similar effect of women.  Young people are immersed in a hook up culture that teaches them that others are simply there to meet their sexual needs.  The end result is the same – more loneliness and sexual and relationship dysfunction.

It matters what we fill ourselves with.  If we fill ourselves with ideas, thoughts, ideologies, and worldviews that are antithetical to God, then we will not live obediently to God.  If we fill ourselves with hatred, we will not be loving.  If we fill ourselves with self-centered lust, we will not be good husbands or wives.  If we fill ourselves with greedy thoughts of money, we will not be generous to others.

Our culture is constantly trying to fill us with bad and unhealthy things.  Unhealthy food, overly individualistic attitudes in areas of money, sexuality, and personal achievement.  We are taught that life is all about us, that we are the only ones that matter.  And we wonder at how our society has become so coarse and vile.  If we fill ourselves with things that are displeasing to God, then it is a good bet that we will live lives that are displeasing to God.  We need to fill ourselves with God pleasing things.

This is the theme that runs through all of our readings today.  In our readings from the book of Kings, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and from the Gospel of John, we learn how important it is that we fill ourselves with the right things.  Each passage discusses something important with which we can fill ourselves, and so become more obedient disciples of Jesus.  And so let’s consider each reading in turn.

Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Kings, and looks to an event at the very beginning of King Solomon’s reign over Israel.  Solomon was the son of the great King David, who God had used to establish a strong kingdom for Israel.  We read that God came to Solomon one night and said to him “Ask what I shall give you.”  That’s a pretty awe inspiring question to come from God.  I remember when I was a kid discussing with friends what three things you would ask for if a wizard gave you three wishes.  I always thought that the smart move was to leave the final wish very open ended, saying “and my third wish is that you will keep granting me whatever I want.”  I am sure that God would not have been impressed.

Solomon could have asked for anything from God.  He might not have gotten it, but he could have asked.  He could have asked for even greater military success than his father David.  He could have asked for great riches.  Or he could have asked to be the most handsome guy in the world.  But he didn’t.  Instead Solomon replied to God saying “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”  Solomon asked for wisdom and a discerning mind, and he made this request from a position of humility and service to God’s people.

This pleased God because Solomon did not ask for something that would benefit himself, but for something that would allow him to serve both God and the people.  Solomon asked that he would have the understanding to discern right from wrong.  God honored Solomon’s request, and responded by saying “if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”  Wisdom, understanding and the discernment of right from wrong is all about walking in the ways of God and being obedient to him.

Psalm 111, which we read together today, tells of the goodness of God and of how he has redeemed his people and then concludes by saying “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.”  Being wise means to humble ourselves before God, seeking out his ways, his commandments, and his calling on our lives.

And so, this is the first thing that we should fill ourselves with.  Beginning from a place of humility before God, let us fill ourselves with a knowledge of God, his precepts and his commandments.  Let us fill ourselves with everything that God has revealed of himself to us in the Bible.  Let us fill ourselves with obedience, awe, and the fear of the Lord.

Our second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, concluding a larger passage in which Paul urges the Ephesians to reject the sinful behaviors that had characterized their lives before they heard the Gospel.  Paul tells them “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.”  And he gives them advice on how they can do this.  Paul writes “and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He is telling us not to fill ourselves with things that will draw us away from God, but instead to fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit.  And we can do this most effectively by praising God both in outwardly and in our hearts, and by “giving thanks always” to God.

Paul’s advice accomplishes a number of things.  First, when we praise God, we won’t be praising ourselves.  When we praise God, we are giving him the glory, and doing this should give us a spirit of humility before God.  When we thank God, we will develop a spirit of gratitude towards him, and we won’t be focused on all of our perceived injustices and demands.  Instead we will be focused on our own shortcomings, and thankful that God has saved us from sin.  In turn, our gratitude towards God will make us more generous to others.  So let us fill ourselves with praise and thanksgiving towards God.

In our passage from the Gospel of John, we read about filling ourselves with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As I read what various commentators have said about this passage, I learned that many argue that this is not primarily about the Eucharist.  This passage comes well before Jesus introduced the Lord’s Supper, and so while we can apply this teaching to the Eucharist, we need to ask what John’s primary objective was in including it.

I think that this is a passage that is very rich and deep in meaning.  It communicates many truths to us via the illustration of eating the body of Jesus and drinking his blood.  I want to highlight a few layers.  First, Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  With this comment Jesus is pointing back to the time when the people of Israel had escaped captivity in Egypt in the time of the Exodus.  They had been wandering in the desert and were going hungry.  The Lord sent manna to the people so that they would survive.  Jesus is declaring that he is like this manna, except whereas people had to keep eating the manna again and again to stay alive, with Jesus we will live forever.  Jesus is telling us that he is our lifeline, that if we fill ourselves with him, we will have eternal life.

The second way of looking at this comes from Bishop N.T. Wright of the Church of England.  He suggests that concept of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood means that we are taking on ourselves the benefit that Jesus gave us by giving his body and blood for us in the crucifixion.  Bishop Wright points to a story in the Old Testament when David refuses to drink some water that men had risked their lives to bring him.  David says that to drink the water would be akin to drinking their blood because they had placed their lives on the line.  And so when John writes “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” what he means that unless we accept and take hold of the forgiveness of our sins that Jesus Christ won for us through his death on the cross, then we have no life in us.  This sort of language would have been shocking for the people to hear from Jesus.  We need to eat his body and drink his blood?  What craziness is this?  And yet, the truth that this points to is that Jesus put his body and his blood on the line for us when he died on the cross in our place.  Shocking, for sure, but an absolute necessity.  This is a complicated concept, but a very important one.

I think that these are the two main points of our Gospel passage, and they both point to the Lord’s Supper.  We need to fill ourselves with Jesus because there is nothing else that will sustain us.  Just like the manna in the desert was the only option for life for the people of Israel in the time of the Exodus, so is Jesus Christ our only option for life today.  And we need to realize the shocking reality of what the crucifixion of Jesus means for us today, and that our only hope for eternal life is to accept his death and the forgiveness that the sacrifice of his body and blood won for us.

We need to fill ourselves with Jesus Christ.  We need to fill ourselves with faith in him as the only source of true life in this world.  We need to fill ourselves with the awesome reality that he gave his body and blood on the cross to win for us eternal life.  If we fill ourselves with Jesus in this way, we can’t but help become his disciples and live for him.

And so what will we fill ourselves with?  Garbage in will mean garbage out.  Is that what we want?  I don’t think so.  Let’s fill ourselves with wisdom, discernment, humility before God, praise and thanksgiving towards God, and finally with Jesus Christ.  When we fill ourselves with these things, we have become part of the Kingdom, abiding with God and God abiding in us.  Amen.

Let us pray.

God of constant mercy, who sent your Son to save us: you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we deserve: fill us with wisdom, discernment, praise and thanksgiving, and most of all with the knowledge of your Son Jesus Christ.  Increase your grace within us, that our thankfulness may grow, through Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen.

Faith in Power, or Power in Faith?

Sermon,  July 1, 2018 –  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Mark 5:21-43

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s gospel reading brings into focus two concepts – power and faith.  As I thought about these two things during the course of this week, I watched the news unfold.  I realize what a stark contrast exists between our human view of power and our shallow faith in such power, and the Gospel’s description of God’s power, and the critical importance of our faith in Jesus.

This week, an elderly man who has a connection to the law school where I work decided to retire.  That makes it sound rather ordinary, right?  Well, this elderly man was Justice Anthony Kennedy and he decided to retire from the United States Supreme Court.  Many people are declaring that this is the most significant event in our generation.  It has dominated the news and social media cycles for the rest of the week.  And if you paid attention to everything that was said, you would see the human view of power is on stark display.

Many commentators said that Justice Kennedy was the second most powerful man in the United States after the President.  He was the swing vote on the Supreme Court, which many argue has become too powerful for the good of the nation.  The Supreme Court can tell people and governments what they can and can’t do, and sometimes what they must do.  The court is powerful because it can permit government to force others or forbid them from forcing others to do things.

We see the secular view of power in other aspects of this development.  The Republicans are happy because they have the power to choose Justice Kennedy’s replacement.  The Democrats are very angry and upset because they lost that power when they lost the last election.  In all these examples, the secular view of power has to do with control and coercion over others.  It’s the same view of power that Satan tempted Jesus with at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  If only Jesus would bow before Satan, Satan would give him power over the earth.

We also can see the secular view of faith in this event.  Republicans have faith that with a newly minted conservative majority on the Court, their valued rights will be protected for the next generation and all will be well.  In contrast, Democrats are in despair, with many feeling that all their political hopes depended on having a friendly Supreme Court majority.  Without that, they believe the country will devolve into dystopia.  One individual tweeted: “Literally in tears. Haven’t felt this hopeless in a long time.”

This is secular faith in secular power.  In his masterpiece trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien addressed this issue of secular faith and power.  In this story, there was a Ring of Power, which could be used to control others and bend their wills to the service of whoever held the ring.  This Ring symbolized secular power, and Tolkien wrote about it as follows “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

For those of you who do not know the book, the basic plot is that the forces of good find the magic ring, while the Dark Lord seeks to take it away from them.  Part of the plot revolves around a disagreement within the forces of good, with some arguing that the leaders of the forces of good should take the ring and use its power to bring about good.  But their wise leader, Gandalf the Wizard, knows that such power will always corrupt those who would wield it.

And so both Republicans and Democrats thirst for the Ring of Power, convinced that they need it in order to create the society they desire.  But faith in secular power is a dangerous thing.  It will never bring about lasting justice or peace, but it always threatens to corrupt those who wield it.

In today’s Gospel passage, we learn some important lessons about God’s power, and where we as Christians ought to place our faith.  In our story, Jesus is approached by Jairus, a local religious leader who asked him to come and heal his daughter.  Jesus agrees and begins to walk to Jairus’ house.  He is surrounded by a crowd and on the way, a sick woman reaches out to touch him.  Jesus feels power flowing out of him and he seeks out the woman who touched him.  But then, messengers from Jairus’ house come to report that his daughter has died.  Nevertheless, Jesus presses on and raises the little girl back to life.

We have one story of a healing, embedded within another.  I learned in my sermon preparation that embedding one story within another is common in the Gospel of Mark, and is sometimes referred to as a Markan sandwich.  One story sandwiched within another.  In any case, both of these stories tell us about the power of Jesus and faith in him.

Both Jairus and the sick woman had heard about the healing power of Jesus and made the decision to reach out to him to gain access to it.  Jairus came up and asked Jesus to come and heal his daughter, while the woman simply got close enough to touch him.  The power of Jesus was well known and apparently with good reason.  At the end of the day, both the little girl and the sick woman had been healed.

Let’s think a little bit more about the power of Jesus.  It wasn’t used to control anyone, to coerce anyone, or to boss anyone.  It was not wielded against anyone; it did not have a selfish agenda.  The power of Jesus was used to heal.  It healed a woman who had a long-standing blood disease, and it raised a little girl from a premature death.  Jesus turned down secular power when the Devil tempted him with it in the wilderness.  But Jesus still had God’s power.  And he wielded that power for healing.  Last week, we heard in the Gospel reading the story when Jesus used his power to calm a storm that was threatening to drown the disciples on a boat.

And on Good Friday, and then Easter morning, God used his power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, to free us from our sins, and guarantee us that we will all be resurrected at the end of time.  God’s power is not used to advance a partisan or selfish agenda.  It is not used to manipulate or to gain an advantage.  God’s power is used to heal, to calm a storm, and to raise the dead to new life.

This is power to have faith in.  And both Jairus and the woman had faith.  Let’s look at the woman to begin with.  I think that she responds in faith, twice over.  First, despite her illness, she braves the crowd and jostles through the people so that she can touch Jesus.  She knew that if she could only touch Jesus, she would be healed.  And she was healed.  But it didn’t end there.  Jesus knew that he was touched and so he stopped and asked who touched him.

Here is where it gets interesting.  You see, the woman had a blood disease.  Biblical scholars believe that the disease was almost certainly a constant menstrual bleeding, which would have made her ritually unclean.  Because she was ritually unclean, she should not be out in a crowd, and anyone she touched would also be rendered ritually unclean.  And so, she wasn’t just touching Jesus, but she was touching him in a way that would have been seriously frowned upon.  Think of it this way – suppose I came to church with a bad head cold, and just as we were passing the peace, I sneezed all over my hand.  Then without washing it off, I held it out to you to shake.  Gross, right?  Well, what this woman did was ten times worse than that.

And so, when Jesus turned around and said “Who touched me?” this woman had a legitimate reason to panic.  She could have been in serious trouble.  And so she took her biggest step of faith in the story.  She “came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”  This woman trusted Jesus.  She had faith that she could tell him what she had done.  How many of us would have had the courage or faith to do such a thing?  She trusted that the power of God was power for healing.  She had reached out for physical healing, and now she reached out for spiritual healing.  And Jesus told her “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

We also learn about faith from Jairus and his story.  Jairus approached Jesus openly and asked him to come heal his daughter.  He told Jesus that his daughter was at the point of death.  You know that his summons to Jesus was an urgent one.  And yet, as Jesus was on his way, they were delayed by the sick woman.  And, sure enough, no sooner had Jesus dealt with her, than messengers came from the home where Jairus’ daughter was, with word that she had died.

The servants of Jairus told him that it was too late, and to forget about Jesus coming to heal his daughter.  But Jesus said to Jairus “Do not fear, only believe.”  And although it is not stated, Jairus must have listened to Jesus, as they continued on to his home where his daughter lay.  Once they got to the home, Jesus told the crowd that the girl was not dead, but they laughed at him.  They did not believe him and so he sent them out.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus, and Jesus brought them in to where their daughter lay.  Jesus raised their daughter from her apparent death.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus in the midst of others’ disbelief.  And their faith was proved well founded.

While Jesus did do many healings when he was on earth, he did not heal everyone.  His healings and miracles were done to show people what his mission was all about.  Jesus was demonstrating that the Kingdom of God was being revealed through him.  He was giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom and what the power of God could do in the world.  The Gospel stories tell us how people joined with Jesus in the revelation of his kingdom.  We see in today’s Gospel how the woman with the blood disease, and Jairus and his wife and daughter, joined Jesus in the Kingdom.  They joined Jesus by having faith.

Having faith does not always mean the absence of fear.  When Jesus tells Jairus “do not fear, only believe”, I don’t think that he was chastising him or issuing a directive.  Rather, I think that Jesus was encouraging him.  I have heard it said that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it.  This is true for faith in Jesus as well.  We may still fear, we may still doubt, but we do need to trust Jesus enough to follow him to the next step.  Because we know that we can rely on him in the end.

In Romans, Paul writes “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“

We are called to trust Jesus and join with Him in bringing his kingdom here on earth.  We are called to share what God’s power is all about.  Human power will not bring lasting joy, truth or justice.  Faith in human power will corrupt us.  Human power will ultimately fail us.  By placing our faith in human power, we are setting ourselves up to remain mired in sin and death.

Jesus calls us to put our trust in him.  “Do not fear, only believe.”  Only Jesus has the power to heal our world, bring about mercy and justice, and assure us that in the end we will live in resurrected bodies in the new heaven and new earth, where God will dwell with us.  This is power that will neither corrupt nor fail us.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken, you feed us at the table of life and hope: give us faith in you and teach us the ways of gentleness and peace, that all the world may acknowledge the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.; Amen.

Let Us Not Lose Heart

Sermon,  June 10, 2018 –  Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

How often do you feel discouraged?  That things just seem to be going downhill too quickly?  Our best laid financial plans may be falling apart.  Or perhaps we have a debilitating disease that spreads within our bodies.  Maybe we are watching our aging parents, or even ourselves, lose the battle with age.  Or it could just be that we see the growing malaise and sickness within our society and culture.  So much that is wrong, painful or evil continues an inexorable march forward.  It can be easy to lose heart.

And if you did lose heart, you wouldn’t be alone.  We heard this week about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both wealthy celebrities.  The media is talking about a crisis of suicide in our country.  I read that the suicide rate in the United States has risen by 30% over the past 20 years.  Depression has surged over the past decade, most notably amongst young people.  Losing heart is apparently becoming easier to do.

Some Christian leaders confront this sea of brokenness and tell us that we can overcome it if only we do the right things.  Those who preach the prosperity gospel tell us that if only we follow some cherry-picked verses from the Old Testament and adopt a positive attitude, that God will bless us and give us financial success.  Some will tell us that if only we have the right faith, our physical ailments can be healed.  Still others teach us that if we all would act with love, we could fix the world’s problems of poverty and discrimination.

Now some of these proposed solutions contain a kernel of truth.  Some more than just a kernel.  Surely, if we did follow the good advice given in Proverbs and other parts of the Old Testament to work hard, rise early, act prudently, and the like, some of us would probably find that we might have some greater financial success than we currently do.  And surely also, God still can perform miracles today, including miracles of healing.  And surely, God does call us to act lovingly and put the needs of others first, and that if we did this, the world would be a better place.

But none of these proposals are the Gospel, and none can give us the hope that the Gospel does.  The Gospel gives us hope even in the midst of continuing despair and brokenness.  This is the theme in our passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.

Our passage begins with the statement: “It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.””  This may seem like rather stilted language to our ears, but Paul is actually quoting Psalm 116 verse 10, and he is doing so to set the stage for what he is about to say.  In Psalm 116, the psalmist writes of how God rescued him from the snares of death, distress and anguish.  In the part that Paul quotes, verse 10, the psalmist is indicating that he is calling out to God for help because he first believed in God’s goodness and love.

And so Paul is declaring that we can have this same faith in God’s love for us.  We can have this faith, Paul says “because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.”  Jesus Christ died for our sins on Good Friday, and then he overcame death, ushering in the new creation, when he rose from the grave on Easter.  By taking our sins upon him on the cross, Jesus removed the barrier to our becoming sons and daughters of God.  By conquering death by his resurrection, he showed us that our bodies would be transformed and renewed as part of his coming kingdom.  The resurrected Jesus is our hope of what awaits each one of us.

There are two things that flow from this that will keep us from losing heart.  First, it plants within us a response of gratitude and thanksgiving towards God.  Paul writes “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”  It is always important to maintain an attitude of gratitude towards God.  One thing that we can do to help us in this area is to seek out and learn about how the Kingdom of Heaven is growing here on earth.  Next week, we will be hosting April Dobbs and Father David from Uganda who will update us on the work done in Uganda at the school, orphanage and home for the aged.  We can give thanks to God for how the Shepherd’s Love organization assists the marginalized in Uganda and shares the Gospel with them.

Second, we should not lose heart even though we still see sickness and evil all around us.  How can this be?  How can we not lose heart if sickness and death keeps coming up?  Paul writes “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”  For Paul, the outward refers to those parts of our lives that belong to this current age, whereas the inward refers to that belonging to the age to come – the Kingdom of Heaven.  The current age is the age we live in right now and see all around us.  It is the decaying world before it is transformed by Christ.  It is the world of sin, greed, sickness and death.  The age to come is the Kingdom of Heaven that is being ushered in by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  This age began on Easter with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is the age which will be finally consummated with the New Heaven and New Earth described at the end of Revelation.

And the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the current age.  It is present among us, yet not fully realized.  Even in the midst of the evil and sickness around us, the seeds of our renewal and transformation are being planted within us.  Paul writes that we are being “renewed day by day.”  This is not a sudden transformation, but a thing that is ongoing and gradual.  When we became followers of Christ and invited the Holy Spirit to renew our lives, the seeds were sown within us.  We are even now in the process of being transformed.  As we deepen our relationship with God and follow him more closely by studying the Bible, engaging with him in prayer, and being a part of the body of Christ hear on earth, we become transformed into being more of what God has called us to be.

But we are still awaiting the final consummation.  We aren’t there yet.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible can be found in Romans 8 where Paul addresses this issue head on.  Paul writes

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We are being “renewed day by day” even though we still live in a world of sin, suffering and decay.  We know what the end result will be.  We have the promise that we will be raised with Jesus.  We know that God is creating within our inward nature new people, so that when the time comes, we will be raised up into new, transformed bodies, and we will inhabit the New Heaven and New Earth as sons and daughters of God.  And so, Paul tells us that the troubles we are facing in our lives today are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Paul tells us to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  What we can see is this world about us, and it is full of sin, sickness and tragedy.  But this will pass away.  What we want to focus on is what is invisible – that is God.

I read that glory is what God chooses to reveal of himself to us humans.  God is invisible, but we can see God’s glory when we see God’s revelation of himself.  Through the Gospel, God shines his light into our hearts, and this is God’s glory shining within us.  The Holy Spirit increases this glory in our lives as we are increasingly being transformed into being sons and daughters of God in Christ.  This is part of our being renewed day by day.  The great Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote that “the decay is visible, and the renovation is invisible.”

Interestingly, the lectionary concludes today’s reading with the first verse in chapter 5.  Many commentators argue, rightly, that verse 1 actually properly belongs with the rest of chapter 5.  But I think that it was included because it provides a wonderful concluding thought to our passage today.  Paul writes “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  And so, as one of the commentators I read to prepare my sermon put it – at our death, God will remove the scaffolding of our outward frame – that is of our old lives which will have then passed away –  and will unveil our new selves – our new home not built by human hands which will last for eternity in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, grant that we may always keep our hearts and minds focused on you; and we pray that you send your Holy Spirit into our lives to transform us day by day, as we listen for your voice in reading your Word and prayer.  We ask this in your name; Amen.

Our Gospel Lives Are Like Fine Wine

Sermon,  May 6, 2018 –  Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

John 15:9-17

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

The last thing I wrote in today’s sermon is this opening paragraph.  I had everything else down but needed the opening hook.  Then it occurred to me.  Today’s Gospel passage talks about vines, grapes, and love.  Well, I do love my glass of red wine every evening with my meal and we are in the middle of wine country, so maybe we have a fruitful direction in which I can take this sermon?  Well, no, sorry about that.  But as we learned last week, it really helps to understand how grapes are grown and harvested when hearing this passage.  And in some respects, living fruitful lives rooted in Jesus, does bear some similarity to making fine wine, because both take preparation and dedication.

Today’s Gospel reading is the second half of the passage that we started reading last week.  The lectionary divides it up, but the whole passage should really be read in one sitting.  Reading today’s part only, without having read and understood last week’s part would be like watching a TV show half-way through.  You might get something out of it, but chances are you would miss a lot.  And believe me when I say that there is some very important information in this passage and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.

If I was a college professor and this was my class, I would say that last week’s sermon by Pastor Barbara would be a pre-requisite.  You need to understand what she said last week in order to fully understand our passage today.  Before we begin then, let’s listen to the overall passage and then we’ll review some of the key points that Pastor Barbara covered last week.  As I read this passage, I want you to listen for three key words – “remain”, “fruit” and “love”.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.   He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.   You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.   Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.   If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.   I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.   My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.   You are my friends if you do what I command.   I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.   You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.   This is my command: Love each other.

The first part of this passage speaks of Jesus being the vine, while we are the branches.  Pastor Barbara told us how, with grapes, the vine is the thick root of the plant, out of which the many branches grow.  The grapes grow on the branches.  She explained that it is very important for grape vines to be pruned every year after the grape harvest.  In fact, if you drive through grape growing country in the winter, you will notice that the vines look very barren – like thin stumps.  You might almost think that they are dead.  But when spring comes, the branches sprout and grow and eventually produce the harvest of grapes.  This is the imagery John is using in our passage.

Pastor Barbara explained that we can only bear fruit if we are connected to Jesus and draw our sustenance and strength from him.  If we are not connected to Jesus, and think we can do it on our own, we will bear no fruit, but will become like dead and withered branches that are thrown away and burned.  This was John’s message – we either remain rooted in Jesus and bear good fruit in service of the Kingdom of God, or we separate ourselves from Jesus and become like dead branches that bear no fruit.

This theme of remaining connected to Jesus in order to bear fruit is expanded upon in today’s reading.  John explains that as we are connected to Jesus, we will remain in his love, just as Jesus’ connection with the Father connects Jesus to the Father’s love.  If we do not understand the concept of our being branches rooted in the sustenance of Jesus, we might misunderstand some of what John says.  For example, John writes “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” and “You are my friends if you do what I command”.  This might sound like conditional love to us.  We will only be loved by Jesus if we do what he says.

The overall message of this verse shows that John isn’t suggesting that the love of Jesus is conditional though.  If I find a fruitful vine branch in a neighbor’s vineyard, and I say to myself “what a fruitful branch.  I will cut it off and then bring it and put in next to my own grapevine”, what will happen?  The branch will die and that branch will no longer bear fruit.  Branches of a grapevine only bear fruit because they are connected to the vine.  And so, we can only love if we are first connected to Jesus.

John makes this clear when he quotes Jesus as saying, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit.”  Jesus chose us and connected us to him so that we will bear fruit.  We did not choose God and win his favor by becoming obedient on our own.  No, Jesus chose us, and so through him, gave us the ability to bear fruit and show love.

When Jesus says, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love”, he is speaking to those of us who are already connected to him.  Jesus is telling us that if we are truly living as his disciples, and if we are living as members of the Kingdom of God, then we will be keeping God’s commands, and will certainly be remaining in his love.  Jesus is speaking here to his disciples, and that includes us, and his point is that we are really only his disciples if we follow him and do what he teaches us to do.

This brings up another point.  What does it mean to remain in his love and to love one another?  Love is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our world today.  And so, we need to ask – what does it mean to remain in God’s love?  Is it some sort of state of spiritual nirvana, where we feel warm and tingly and spiritually connected, and good about ourselves?  And what does it mean to love others?  Are we called to be nice to each other, and blandly affirm each other without taking any particular interest in anyone else?  Are we called to just have nice feelings for others?

A few years ago, a scholar suggested that two foundational truths for many Americans are: “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions” and “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”  Isn’t this what the world tells us?  Love is being nice and fair to others, while feeling good about yourself?  But is this what John is writing about when he speaks of remaining in the love of Jesus and loving each other?

No.  Rather, I think that John is making it clear that there is a direct connection between remaining in God’s love, obeying God’s commands and loving each other.  For John, and for Jesus, love is not a feeling or an emotion, but sacrificial action in service of others.  Jesus holds up his own pending death as the supreme example of love when he says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  If we are about to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down our lives for another, I doubt that we will be feeling warm and fuzzy.  Love is a decision and not an emotion.  We know love is present not by our feelings, but rather by our actions in service of others.

We can only truly love God and love each other if we live our lives patterned on Christ.  And in order to live such lives, we need to study God’s word and submit our stubborn, selfish wills to the will of the Holy Spirit.  Only then, can we live lives of love towards God and each other.  This is what Jesus means when he says that we must remain rooted in him as the vine.

The final point I want to share with you is the importance of prayer.  Jesus says, “whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”  Jesus doesn’t say “whatever you ask, you will get”, but rather “whatever you ask in my name.”  Jesus is teaching us that prayer is important but that when we pray, we need to pray in his name.  This means that we are to pray for the things Jesus wants, which means again that we must study God’s word to us and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  It’s all about conforming our wills and desires to God, and then doing to others as God would have us do.

This is true love, and this is the fruit that will be borne in our lives if we are disciples of Jesus, studying the Scriptures, being open to the Spirit, and praying to God in the name of Jesus.  Like fine wine, it is only possible with grapes born on branches rooted in the vine, and then carefully and thoughtfully prepared by those dedicated to following the direction of the master vintner.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, grant us so to put away any identity that is not rooted in you; and nourish us with your words in the Scriptures; your guidance through the Holy Spirit; and communion with you through prayer; that we may bear much fruit and show forth your love to the world; Amen.

In Our Age of Identity Politics, What Is Your Identity?

Sermon,  April 15, 2018 –  Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

1 John 3:1-7

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

One of the more troubling aspects of contemporary American culture is our decline into political tribalism, which many commentators believe has been accelerated by social media.  Individuals choose an identity – often a partisan identity – and then allow that chosen identity to define who they are, how they are perceived by others, and what opinions they might be expected to hold on a variety of issues.  In the past we had to interact with others, who were real, breathing and complex human beings.  Most people were shades of grey instead of being black and white.  Today many of us interact via social media where we can carefully hone our identities, choose our friends and shield ourselves from any points of view that might challenge us, and make social media posts to reassure our tribe that we hold all the proper stances on the important issues of the day.  We choose an identity and then let that identity tell us how we ought to live our lives and what opinions we ought to hold.

We are rightfully troubled by this development, but I think it points to an underlying truth about identity.  We all long for a distinct identify, a place to call home.  I think that this is a need that comes from deep within us.  Some scientists might suggest that this is how we developed in an evolutionary sense, in that those of us who could securely identify with a group were more likely to survive.

It is very important for each of us to have an identity.  This need, however, like so many things in life, can take a very dark turn and become a sinful idol.  We see this in the vitriol in social media or in political discourse these days.  Even worse, group identity can become the bitter root of racism or warmongering nationalism.  Making an idol out of a wrong identity can lead to much evil.  Properly understood, however, knowing our identity can be a very good thing, being of great comfort and a source of grace, which enables us to be what God is calling us to be.

Today’s reading from the first letter of John is all about our identity and what that means for us in our daily lives.  As Christians, who we are effects how we live.  And so, hearing what John is saying to us is very important for us today.  We need to set aside what the world is telling us about our identities and, instead, listen to what God is telling us.

John writes “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

God loves us so much that he has made us his children.  We are God’s children.  As John emphatically declares “And that is what we are!”  This is great news.  But you need to realize that this doesn’t mean that the world will recognize or approve of our true identity.  John tells us that the world does not know us because it does not know God.  What does this mean?  Think about it this way.  Suppose visitors from a far off land came to visit you.  Imagine that they have never before been to the United States, nor watched American television, read American newspapers, or had any access to the internet.  What do you think their reaction would be if you took them to a Sacramento Kings basketball game?  What if you met a Kings player outside dressed in his jersey and ready to sign autographs?  Your visitor would have no idea who this person was, or why he was dressed like that.

John tells us that the world does not know God, and so it will not know us, given that our primary identities are as children of God.  We ourselves don’t fully understand what it means to be God’s children, but we do know that our one clue to what it means is Jesus Christ.  John gives us some more clues in the second part of our passage, where he writes about what being a child of God means in our lives today.

John writes “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”

Let me clarify one thing for you about this passage.  It is something that initially had me scratching my head about this passage.  It has to do with John’s comments about sinning when he writes “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”  At first blush, this sounds like John is suggesting that once we become a Christian, we will no longer sin.  Or put another way, if you sin, you cannot be a Christian.  And yet, we know that this is not true.  So what does John mean?

To understand, we can look to something that John wrote earlier in this letter.  John wrote “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”  (1 John 1:8-10).  So I think we can safely say that John knows that we are sinners, and that even though we follow Jesus, we still need to ask Jesus for forgiveness.  Also, John knows that it is Jesus who will purify us from unrighteousness, and not our own actions.

So what is John saying in our passage then?  Well, John is telling us that if we are children of God, and if that is our true identity, then we will be different.  We will start to live as children of God.  And children of God live their lives focused on God and his kingdom, and not on our selfish interests.  This new life comes about after we are transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.

One commentator writes “Grace saves but if you really received it, grace transforms.  Inevitably.  So if you keep abusing people, keep hurting people, keep hating people, keep committing adultery or stealing or lying or any number of things and have no desire either to stop such activity much less confess it as wrong, well then, that’s not a mistake.  It’s a different world altogether that has nothing to do with being children of the heavenly Father.”

Being children of God means that we know what sin is, and that we re-orient our lives away from it.  This requires the grace of God, and it comes from a renewal and transformation of our minds.  We can not claim to be children of God and still wallow in our old lives of sin.  The two are not compatible with each other.  We can be one or the other, but not both.  And our identities will be seen in our actions.  Our actions don’t determine our identities, but rather they flow from our identities.  If we return to our sports analogy, if you are truly a dyed in the wool Sacramento Kings fan, and you go to the arena to watch them play, you won’t dress up in the other team’s jersey and cheer when the Kings get scored against.  A true Kings fan will cheer the Kings.  It can be no other way for a true fan.  And so it is with us as children of God.  If we are God’s children, we will act like his children.

God gives us our identities as being his children.  This identity should inform and govern everything that we do in this life, including our attitudes towards others, our values, and how we spend our time.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians some things that will flow from having the identity of children of God.  He wrote “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  These things will point to God’s power within us, and they will help further the kingdom of God in the world.

And so, when people look on you, what will they see?  What will they see as your identity?  And what clues will you give them?

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the any identity that is not rooted in you; that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; Amen.

Not What We Do, But What Was Done For Us

Sermon,  March 11, 2018  – Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Numbers 21:4-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s Gospel reading includes one of the best known verses in the Bible – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  We often read this verse as if it was a stand alone statement, and doing so does not distort the meaning of this verse, but it is part of a larger passage that gives us an even richer message.  This message is echoed by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians which we also heard.

Our Gospel is actually the second half of a passage made up of the first half of chapter 3.  It involves a conversation between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, which is then followed by an editorial comment by John, the author of this gospel.  We heard only the tail end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus but all of John’s commentary.

Before we get to today’s reading, let’s review the first part of the overall story.  A highly placed Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night.  Their conversation is mostly about what it means to be born again into the kingdom of God and Jesus tells him “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  Nicodemus has a hard time understanding this and he asks Jesus how this is possible.

The rest of the conversation concerns Jesus explaining what it means to be born again.  I think that Nicodemus, as a good Pharisee, was probably looking for Jesus to tell him the steps he needed to take so he could be born again.  Nicodemus wanted to know exactly how this could be accomplished.  Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus the answers that he would like, and his answers are very informative as to what the Gospel is all about.

First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born again is like the wind.  Jesus says that the wind blows where it pleases, and that we really have no control over it.  So it is, he says, with those born of the Spirit.  In saying this, I think Jesus was telling Nicodemus that being born again isn’t something that we control, but rather something that God bestows on us.

Nicodemus is still confused, and Jesus then provides another example.  This is where our lectionary joins the larger passage.   Jesus makes reference to a story from the Old Testament, which we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  In that story, the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness after they had escaped from Egypt.  They were constantly disobeying God, but instead of taking responsibility for their disobedience, they complained incessantly to God.  Finally God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites leading to many deaths.  When the people begged God for mercy, God had Moses erect a pillar with a bronze serpent on its tip.  Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, all they needed to do was look at the bronze serpent and they would live.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  This cure that God effected in the Old Testament did not involve any action on the part of the Israelites.  All they had to do was look at the serpent.  And so Jesus is making the point again that being born again isn’t something that we accomplish for ourselves, but something that God gives to us.

This illustration from Numbers also communicates another important truth about the Gospel.  What has long puzzled me is why God decided that a bronze snake on a pole would be the best symbol to heal the Israelites from snake bites.  After all, it seemed odd that God would make a representation of the very thing that is causing all the harm to be the symbol to save the people from that harm.

But it turns out that this is a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus on the cross.  Think about the symbolism closely here.  Moses raised up the symbol of a snake – the very thing that was causing death amongst the Israelites, as the thing that would heal them.  And now it is Jesus Christ on the cross – the very picture of a criminal being punished for his sins, which is the thing that will heal us from our sin.  We often forget that the image of a cross is an image of death – it would be like an image of an electric chair or a noose today.  And so when we see the cross, it should serve as a constant reminder not just that we are saved, but that we are saved from our due punishment of eternal death.

At this point in the passage, John offers his comments.  He begins with his comment reflecting on the idea of Jesus being lifted up for us like the image of the serpent in the Old Testament.  In vs. 16, which is justly famous as one of the most concise summaries of the Gospel found in Scripture, John writes:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Just as the Israelites who were bitten by snakes only needed to look upon the bronze serpent for healing, so we only need believe in Jesus in order to be saved from our sin and have eternal life.

John follows this up by declaring “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  This is very important for us to hear.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the Pharisees had developed the unfortunate mindset that it was a failure to adhere to the Law that condemned people.  Indeed, this attitude even went beyond the Pharisees.  In John chapter 9, there is a story in which Jesus encounters a man born blind.  His disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  There is a belief that it is disobedience to the Law that condemns someone, as if there were no Law to disobey, there would be no sin.  But it is not the Law that condemns us, but our sin.  If we think, like the Pharisees did, that we can obey the Law on our own, then indeed it would be the Law that condemns us.  Obedience to the Law would be the deciding issue of whether we were condemned or not.

But this is the point that John is arguing against here.  John says very clearly that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.  John says that our pre-existing condition is one of sin.  We are all living in darkness.  We do not have the power to earn our salvation by obeying the Law.  Paul makes this point very clear in our reading from Ephesians.  He writes “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”  The Law makes it clear how far we have fallen short, and how great our need is for a savior.  It has no power to condemn us nor save us.  Regardless of the Law, we are dead in sin.  And so when we encounter Jesus, there is only one direction we can go, and that is up.

This is why John says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  We are like the Israelites in the wilderness after they have been bitten by poisonous snakes.  We are dead men and dead women walking.  The venom is in us.  The only choice that the Israelites had was whether they would look to the bronze serpent and live, or whether they would refuse God’s rescue plan and die.  Our choice today is whether we look to God’s son Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sins on the cross for our salvation, and become born again into the kingdom of God; or whether we remain mired in our sin.

Put another way, Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, because if Jesus had not come, the world would still be condemned.  Without Jesus, the only option is condemnation.  With the entry of Jesus into the world, another option was added – the option of salvation.

John puts it in the well-known words of chapter 3 verse 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Paul has the same message for us in his letter to the Ephesians which we read today, when he says “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

This is what the Gospel is all about.  It is not about following moral directives to become better people.  It is not even about our choice to follow Jesus and be obedient to him.  No, it is all about us being dead in sin, unable to save ourselves from the deadly muck, only to have God send Jesus Christ to become one of us, take our sins upon himself and thereby open a path by which we can be born again as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel is not about us or what we do or don’t do.  The Gospel is all about the fact that God saved us from our sin, and lifted us up to be members of the kingdom of God.  This is what we look forward to in this season of Lent.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; Amen.

Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

Sermon,  February 11, 2018 – Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we remember the Transfiguration of Jesus.  We heard this story in our Gospel reading when the glory of Jesus shone before the disciples.  The lectionary seeks to build on this theme and add in Old and New Testament readings on the glory of God.  Our second reading fits the bill as it looks at how the Gospel may be veiled to the lost, but how the glory of God points us to Jesus.  Rather than look at the Transfiguration story as I did when I preached on this Sunday a few years ago, today I want to look at the passage from Second Corinthians.

Over the last several weeks, we have been hearing passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  In that letter, Paul was responding to a number of issues which were disturbing the church in Corinth, undermining the Gospel and causing disunity amongst the believers.  Today’s passage is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  In this letter Paul was responding to some in the church at Corinth who were seeking to undermine his ministry.

As we read Paul’s words, it is important to understand this context.  From the preceding two verses, we know that Paul’s opponents were accusing him of using deceptive practices to distort, misrepresent and veil the word of God.  Paul responds to these charges by declaring “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

This gives important context to our lectionary passage.  Let’s listen to the preceding verse again, and then the first two verses of our lectionary passage.  Paul says “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”

Paul is admitting that not everyone will be see the Gospel clearly and be convicted by it.  But this is not because the Gospel is somehow unclear or hidden from us.  No, the problem is that the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers, so that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  This brings to mind an interesting experiment on awareness and perception that I came across last year during some training I had at my work.

We were attending a workshop on diversity, and we were learning about our penchant to only see the things we want to see.  We were shown a video of eight people tossing basketballs to each other.  Four were dressed in black and four were dressed in white.  We were instructed to count the number of times white clad individuals passed a basketball to each other.  Given that there were several basketballs in play and that we needed to count only white to white passes, our focus was on getting an accurate count.  We were all very immersed in counting basketball passes.

When the video was paused, and we were asked “how many of you noticed the guy dressed up like a gorilla moonwalk through the middle of the video?”  We all laughed and thought this was a joke, but the video was rewound and sure enough, smack dab in the middle of the screen, we all saw the moonwalking gorilla.  Because we had been intentionally preoccupied with counting basketball passes, the moonwalking gorilla had become veiled to our sight.  Not because the gorilla was disguised or hidden, but because we were focusing on the wrong thing.  We were successfully distracted.

This is what Paul is telling us.  The Gospel is very clear and can be plainly discerned if we care to see it.  But the problem is that we are distracted by god of this age.  Scholars believe that Paul was referring to Satan when he spoke of the god of this age, but I think that Paul’s statement can apply to all of the distractions of our lives.  We are so distracted by the noise of our lives and our culture, things that should be secondary, but which we make primary.  And in so doing, we can veil our minds to the Gospel.

These distractions can be finances, money, material goods, our job, our pride, politics, social media, and even religion.  Anything that keeps us from putting Jesus Christ first in our lives is a distraction that veils our minds.  What can be so insidious is the normality of these distractions.  Without realizing it, we can let all the unimportant things in life become so pressing that we lose sight of the only thing that really matters.  The first lesson from today’s passage is to stay focused on Jesus Christ.  It’s the moonwalking Jesus that really matters folks, not the basketballs.

The rest of the passage tells us that our ministry ought to be about preaching the Gospel and how the light and glory of Jesus Christ can burn through the chaos and darkness that veils our minds from him.  Let’s break this all down a bit.  First, we need to understand what Paul meant when he used the word preaching.  Unfortunately, the concept of preaching has developed something of a bad reputation for many people.  It’s never a complement when someone is referred to as “preachy” and you know that someone is not happy when they tell you that a friend preached at them for an hour.

Even Christians can misunderstand what Paul meant.  The American church has made two basic errors over the years.  The first error, assumes that the job of parishioners is to somehow convince their skeptical friends to come to church, where they will hear the wonderful preaching of the minister and become a follower of Jesus.  The second error is that it is our job to go around and badger people with preaching until they tell us that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior.  Both of these approaches are wrong.

The word that Paul uses for “preaching” is better thought of as the sort of thing that a TV news anchor does when announcing a piece of major news.  When Paul says “preach Jesus Christ”, he is simply saying that we need to tell others of Jesus.  And this is the job of everyone – not just whoever happens to be giving the sermon on Sunday.  As for the other error, it is not the job of a newscaster to come and browbeat you until you believe her news report.  So it is not our job to browbeat anyone into a confession.  We can tell others about Jesus, but it is the Holy Spirit that will work in that person to actually convert them.

Paul writes that “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”  Our job is to point others to Jesus, and not to ourselves.  There is a common saying that is commonly, but erroneously attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”  I think that this saying can lead us astray if we are not careful because it can lead to a misunderstanding about what we are to preach.  We are not to focus on ourselves, our good works, our virtue, our social service, or anything like that.  We need to focus on Jesus Christ.  And I don’t know how we can tell others about Jesus if we don’t tell them the story of Jesus, and that requires words.

Jesus Christ is what we should preach, not ourselves.  If we focus on ourselves, we distract from the Gospel.  This is true for church and worship as well.  Church should not be about us, our desires or our tastes.  Worship should not be about the great music, good coffee, or personable preacher.  The whole purpose of church and worship is to point us to the Good News of Jesus Christ and to equip us to tell others about him.

When we tell others about Jesus, Paul tells us that we have important things to say.  Paul makes two very specific points as to how Jesus Christ reflects the glory of God.  He first says “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” and then about how we have “the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”  Paul’s point in these comments is to make it clear that Jesus Christ is God.  As Christians, we may think that this is well established, but it wasn’t in Paul’s time, and it isn’t really in our time either.

Whether Jesus Christ is God or not is absolutely foundational to the Gospel.  If we regard Jesus as just another wise teacher among many, then we can adopt whatever teachings we want and ignore the rest.  Maybe another wise teacher has some more palatable teaching.  This was the general approach in the pagan world of the New Testament.  There were a plethora of gods and goddesses and people would pick and choose which religious rituals worked best for them.  Today, we face a very similar situation.  To accept Jesus Christ as God requires us to take seriously his claims.  And if we believe that Jesus Christ is God, then we have no choice but to follow him, and him alone.  This is a very unpopular position to take in a pluralistic religious culture such as the one we live in.  But this is what Paul sets before us.

Paul concludes by telling us of the power of the light of the Gospel.  Our passage began with Paul admitting that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  But he concludes by asserting that the light of the gospel has the power to break through the sin and darkness to shine in our hearts and give us the knowledge of Jesus.  Paul writes “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

This statement had a special meaning for Paul, because, as you might recall, Paul was not always a great apostle for Jesus.  In his earlier life he was a leading persecutor of Christians, riding from town to town to shut down the church.  But when Paul was on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to Paul in great glory, shining his light into Paul’s heart.  And from that time on, Paul became one of the great apostles, spreading the gospel across the Roman Empire.

Paul’s comment also points back to the story of creation when God created light.  In the creation story, the light came to chase away the darkness and chaos.  Paul is telling us that in just that way, the light of the Gospel can chase away the sin and darkness in our own lives, those things that veil our minds to the Gospel.  So while Satan and the distractions of the world can keep us from seeing the truth of the gospel, the gospel is powerful enough to break through.  Satan can blind us to the Gospel, but God can restore our sight.

Our ministry is to preach Christ simply and forthrightly.  Point others to him, and let the glory of Christ and the simple truth of the Gospel burn away the sin and distraction.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, your Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; Amen.