Easter Sunday (April 1): “Resurrected Where?”

Someone told me that this sermon was interesting and well-done, but not the typical feel-good Easter sermon one expects. That seems very fair to me.  I think what I wanted to do was to provide for those occasional church visitors who would consider being more involved, but who find the central message of the resurrection hard to believe, a way to think about Easter that both makes more sense and points to the importance of the current community gathered in Jesus’ name.  That probably wasn’t many folks!  So if that isn’t you, I’d love to know what you got out of it or would have likes.  Click on “comment” on the bottom. 

Scripture: Ephesians 1:17-23 ;Mark 16:1-8

Like any book, the Bible can sometimes be inadvertently funny. Some will think it sacrilegious of me to say so, on Easter morning of all times. But one of my favorites amusing passages is at the famous end of Matthew (on your sermon guide): “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (And this seems to be continuing the story from the end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard.) “When they saw him, they worshipped him. But some doubted.” And I want to say: O come on! What’s the matter with you disciples! The women found the empty tomb, then in Matthew, as we heard the choir read earlier, Jesus appeared to them and says, “Greetings. Go tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where you will see me.” Now, you disciples did that, lo! There he was. And some of you are still doubting!” If only we had it so easy. Did you ever hear the Car Talk guys talk about a dope slap? I know it is not pious to think so, but I want to slap these disciples upside the head—what’s the matter with you?

Here’s the lesson: there is no perfect faith. Even the disciples were doubting with the risen Jesus right in front of them! Why should we expect perfect faith from ourselves? Now, you all have Easter faith. You are here because you love Easter—the joyous triumph of it, expressed in the liturgy and music and the good feeling that rightly animates us all today. But of course, some still doubt. Indeed, who can say, “Oh, I understand the resurrection perfectly!” Jesus was dead, see, but then by God’s power, his body came back to life. Then he walked around and ran into some of his old buddies. And after he got to see everyone he wanted to, he floated up on a cloud to the sky, as Acts tells it, and now he sits at the right hand of God, just like Paul said. / What’s to doubt about that?

What becomes clear from a close reading of all the resurrection accounts is that Scripture is trying to describe something that doesn’t fit any of our normal categories. Sometimes the risen Jesus appears, and his disciples recognize his face and body as their once dead master. He even eats something in front of them, in some stories. But he also walks through walls and doors, in other stories. And he walks with two on the road to Emmaus and they don’t recognize him, and then he disappears just as he’s breaking the bread. What’s up? Now, there is a hard-edged realism to the story of Jesus arrest, crucifixion, and death. It’s equally a terrible and wondrous story, but there’s nothing inconceivable about the events leading up to his death. But the resurrection is not an ordinary event, and no written account of it is going to capture it perfectly. The gospels only gesture at doing so; they don’t even try very hard to present his resurrection in the exact same way.

So indeed, the gospels seem unconcerned with trying to explain exactly what happened. What they want to make clear is the point of it, and don’t miss this: the resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did while he was with them: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. The disciples experienced this and they knew it to be true; and we too can and do experience this and know it. But when the disciples try to explain how it happened, in story form, things get a little fuzzy.

For most of the past 2000 years, this fuzziness has not been much of a problem. But we modern people like to explain things. It’s an admirable quality in us. We like science, and it has given us a confidence that anything really valuable to know can be explained and understood. Sometimes we are too confident about science. But our refusal to just accept teachings without questioning is a very noble quality.

I wish I had a complete explanation of the resurrection. I wish I were never among those “some still doubted” disciples. But if I’m good for anything at all as your teacher, I should be able to get you maybe half way to understanding what happened at the resurrection.

The gospels give us various stories of the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples. None of the accounts, except the version in Luke and the book of Acts, tries to describe where the body of Jesus went. What happened to the body? Isn’t that what we want to know, if we are curious types? The tomb was empty, they say. Ok; no body there. Don’t you wish we had had a time-lapse camera there in the tomb to record what happened? We can imagine Jesus just waking up at some point, and then getting up an encountering Mary later in the garden, as John’s account tells us. But in many of the stories, his body is no ordinary body, as if a dead body began walking around again. Acts tells us that Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Christ that clearly is like a vision; he sees and hears the risen Jesus speaking to him, while those around him see and hear nothing. In fact, in all the stories, no one who does not believe in him sees the risen Christ. Now, they don’t all believe immediately; but seeing and believing go together. The soldiers don’t see Jesus walking out of the tomb. So I don’t think his body was there for all to be seen, like a normal body. / I have no idea where the physical body went. And in my opinion, neither do the Scriptures, frankly.

But we end up with the phrase, which Paul also uses, “God raised him from the dead and seated him at this right hand in the heavenly places.” It sounds as if God has a literal throne, and Jesus is sitting there to the right of God (never mind the weird fact that Jesus is also God). So then we imagine that Jesus and his body are ‘up there,’ somewhere, in heaven, as if heaven were a place in space. Now we know better than that. And so did Paul, whose language on the whole is never childish but wonderfully mysterious. But the first Christians had to describe this mystery they experienced, and they reached for familiar language. And the Psalms are filled with this phrase, “The right hand of God,” and Psalm 110 has God saying to his chosen one, “Sit at my right hand.” So they used that.

Now this question, what happened to the body, is not just a speculative question. It concerns us personally; it’s about the destiny of our bodies. In the Vigil service this morning, we read from Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” So if we are left with this image of Jesus’ body seated at the right hand of God, hanging out with God as if God had a body, then we are likely to picture ourselves up there, in this place called heaven, hanging out with God and Jesus. And imagining our bodies up there in heaven makes us think that our resurrection will be much like our life now, hanging out with our family and friends. We won’t be on the earth anymore, so we might wonder what we’ll be doing up there, forever. I’ve heard people use the phrase, “dancing down those streets paved with gold,” which is colorful enough.

But lots of earnest people, who rightly don’t settle for explanations that seem implausible, find it hard to believe that there could be bodies hanging out with a bodily God and Jesus somewhere in a space called heaven that does not seem to exist in the space we can observe. They will say to themselves, “Well, if that’s what supposedly happened to Jesus’ body and happens also to our bodies, I just can’t believe it. Our bodies die and decay, I know that. So our spirits must just float away, perhaps existing with God in some spiritual realm, perhaps “going to the light” as some with near death experiences have said. Or perhaps our spirits just dissipate.”

Well, like I said, I don’t have any complete explanation. But before we jump to one of these conclusions—bodies in a place called heaven, or spirits absorbed into the light—we should ask, carefully, Is the Bible saying that Jesus’ body went up to heaven, or even just his spirit, leaving the earth behind to live in some other realm with God? I don’t think so.

Let’s go back to Ephesians. Paul first prays for the Ephesians, and I’m sure he’d pray the same for us, that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…so that you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.” He knows this risen Christ business is not easy to grasp; God willing, it will come as we get to know the God of Christ our Lord better. And this wisdom is going to take time, because Paul is talking about “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s or Christ’s] power for us who believe.” Now this immeasurably great power is not the sinful power that we talked about last week, the power to make others cower before you and do whatever you tell them. God’s power is never the power of sin, or of a weapon. It is good power, the power to give. And a giving power often looks weak by the standards of a power that takes and forces—and crucifies. Paul prays that we can understand this immeasurably good power, which is often ignored in the world.

Then Paul continues: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This isn’t about the body literally being at God’s right; the right hand of God is God’s good power, God’s power to save. It just means that the power of the Christ is God’s good power, and is above all earthly powers of domination, more real than those false and bad powers, even though they often look very fearsome and impressive. Christ’s power of giving, the power of love, really is above all these false claimants to the throne of the world.

And here’s the kicker: “And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” I told you Paul was not childish, but wonderfully mysterious. You see that here. But he does give us the answer to our question. Where’s the body of the Risen Christ? Did it float up to heaven? No, it’s right here. We are the body. After the tomb was emptied, Jesus only appeared where the disciples were gathered, as the church. We are his resurrected life. Go ahead, take a look around. I admit it, we might not look like “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power,” but we are the community, the social body, that lives by the power of giving, and never by the power of domination. (And of course, this congregation fails to live perfectly and purely by the power of giving all the time, and when we fail, we are not being the church. God is our judge.)   We know very well that we fail and so we need a reminder that who we really are is simply the embodiment of Jesus’ giving. That’s exactly why we need to celebrate communion, so that we remember that what we are as the church is simply is the collective embodiment of that power of giving revealed in Jesus. And in partaking of this giving that is our very food and drink, we, this congregation, are of course not alone but we are part of the boundless and endless communion of the church as the embodiment of God’s power at work.

And that power is also at work everywhere; you can find it in other religions and in ordinary human goodness and in nature and in secular movements and organizations. Jesus Christ is the “head over all things,” right? The only power that really counts throughout all creation. But this power is especially “for the church,” as Paul said. In baptism we die to our own bodies to be risen into Christ’s body, which by the power of God can be here, in our gathered flesh, even while it is everywhere and in all things. The church simply is the embodiment of the power of love—love is our only Lord—or else we face God’s judgment for failing to be what we are. So no, Jesus Christ in his amazing resurrected power is not here alone; yet the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We are, in the truth of our social body, nothing but this power, and so its fullness.

Now, I’m done with explanations (unless you are joining the adult re-confirmation class, if you like this kind of thing). I’ve probably already killed the spirit of Easter with explanations, but only so that some of you—maybe all of us—might be less distracted by our questions—like, “So what happened to the body?” I’ll leave it to you to reflect on what the resurrection of Christ’s body as the church means for your own resurrection. But now it’s time to go back to the point of Easter: The resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did among us his body: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. I don’t have anything to add to that. What we should do is sing about it together, and then gather around the table and be the feast of Christ’s body.

 

Advertisements

Palm & Passion Sunday (Sixth in Lent, 3/25): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Nothing at All?”

Helpful, constructive criticism is often difficult to come by for a preacher.  Thank God I have a wife who is more than capable.  Her view accorded with my own feelings about this sermon, that it was not tight and to the point.  I think the asides (all those parentheses below–like this one!) were just distracting.  And when I thought about them, it seemed I was trying to tie some off-the-cuff comments on contemporary “relevant” events into a rich, complex theological point that I should have just left speak for itself.  And that point is this: at the end of Lent, we must be ready to recognize that Jesus does something for the world that we can never do, regardless of how hard we try to repent–Jesus inaugurates through his faithfulness, and in a way that only someone living at his time could do, a new way of being human before God. 

John 12:12-16;       Philippians 2:5-11

We’ve been asking ourselves this Lent, what must we give up? Some people give up things like chocolate or alcohol for the 40 days, and then enjoy gorging themselves on them come Easter. I’ve done that. It may do some good. It is like a test of will, I suppose. Or it confirms the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. But this kind of giving up has nothing to do with the repentance we are called to during Lent. Recall that Jesus’ message was very simple: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” This repentance, in response to Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom near, is about shedding your sin and adapting the good spirit revealed in Jesus. Now once you shed your sin, you’re not supposed to take it back up again after Easter. So every Lent we should be looking inward for ways we can become a better Christian outward, to God and to others, and these changes we make are supposed to be permanent.

So we talked about giving up our fear of death, and social media, and too much attachment to our religious ideas and spiritual experiences personal, and our sins; none of these are absolutely necessary. But we also remembered the higher life to which we are called, a life like Christ’s, for the whole world. These are all good, permanent changes to make, and there are many more besides.

Now, Lent is almost over. But why stop? Why shouldn’t we repent all year long? (I know that’s what you were secretly hoping for.) Well, it’s exhausting if you do it well; we are creatures with limits of attention.

But more importantly, too much turning inward, like we do at Lent, is not a good thing. It can make you a naval gazer, turned in on yourself. It shouldn’t, but it can fill you with guilt and regret and discouragement. But we are not called to be introspective individuals dolefully dealing with our own issues. No: Because first of all, we are a church, and our most important work as the Body of Christ is that which we do together. But secondly and more importantly, we are more than our work, whether we are working on ourselves or working as a community. Two weeks ago we read in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Remember that? In Lent we have been doing hard work, and really it is God’s work in us, but it’s still work. Now maybe you think that the church is here to promote good works and good values. Yes, absolutely. But today we especially recall that works and values are not at the heart of who we are.

Neither would you want to sum up who your family is by listing all the jobs and chores that you all do. Jessica teaches classes; I run a church; Silas sets the table… Yuk. Even your family’s ethos doesn’t get to the heart. The heart of your family is the celebratory love that unites you all, whether that happens around the dinner table, or during a family vacation, or just play time. And in the midst of that celebration the parents might tell the story about how they fell in love and committed to one another, for that is the very origin of the family’s love. Usually there’s a first move by one spouse—was that so?

So also with this family. Who we are is not just what we do, our work. In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether we should even have a “mission statement.” Mission statements are fine for corporations; they are what they do. There is no celebration of love for its own sake at the heart of a corporation. But at our heart is a celebration of the love that we are. And at Easter, we tell the story of how all that love first began: how Jesus made the first move, and took us as his bride.

So who we are as a church is not what we do, as might be stated in a mission statement; it goes back to who Jesus was and what he did, and even further to who God is and what God did. At our heart is telling this story, and worshipping the God who brought that story to us. Now, when we worship we are doing something, yes, but fundamentally what we are doing is passively acknowledging and thanking and offering praise for what God did in Jesus, and so what Jesus our savior did for us, did in our place, what he did as a substitute for us.

Now I might lose some of you with that language—those who have a hard time conceiving how Jesus could do something for us. You might believe he was a good guy but basically a person just like us. That’s fine. My point can be made more simply: everything good about us goes back to a divine destiny that lies deep in the heart of all that exists. You and I did not set that destiny. God set it, and God is that destiny. That’s a useful way to put it without even mentioning Jesus. But if you join me in the adult re-confirmation class, I’ll make the case why I think it’s better to explain that destiny with the story of Jesus. (Shameless promotion)

Paul in our passage from Philippians does just that; he tells us about how our destiny and calling was set by God before we were born—maybe before creation—and he does so with a short story about Jesus. Well, it’s kind of a story about Jesus. And it’s famous, because Paul is apparently quoting a hymn or poem that the Philippians already knew, making this passage perhaps the earliest piece of Christian poetry. And strikingly, it doesn’t tell a story about Jesus like we find in the gospels.

The story seems to begin before Jesus was born (and my Greek reading buddy, Peter, helped me understand that scholars disagree wildly on the interpretation of this passage): “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or grasped at], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness [or having become like a human being].” It sounds like Jesus was equal with God or had a chance to be equal with God, but instead emptied himself, taking a human form, the form of one who serves. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” As Peter pointed out to me, this is the reverse of Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God but grasped at taking God’s place; and we all do that, for the story of Adam, a Hebrew word which means “human being,” is just a story about humanity, about us. Remember that Adam, we, after disobeying and gobbling our way to knowledge of good and evil, had to be prevented from eating of the tree of life and living forever, which would have made us like gods. (And our technology might get us there yet!)

Jesus does the opposite. Whether before or after he was born, he realizes that he is God’s very image, but instead of trying to rule, he decides to serve, and instead of grasping at ruling forever (perhaps like a certain Russian leader we know), he serves, even though it will lead to his own death.

In this way, Jesus redefines what it means to be human before God. Human beings have always thought about God or the gods. Even when we don’t pray or believe in literal divine beings, we’ve always found the idea of infinite power, infinite control, to be tantalizing; that power seems to lie within our very impressive human potential. We’ve so often said to ourselves, if I could just acquire power, I’d be able to do some real good. (Because of course we think we know what is good and what is evil.) The infinite idea of divinity, of unlimited potential, is deeply implanted in us, and it is one of our greatest temptations.

Now you might not get all this from reading your favorite passage in the gospels, but I think still the passage in Philippians is getting to the real heart of the gospel story. Jesus rejects that temptation of power once for all, even though he himself knew how deeply God is implanted in us. And so he begins a new way of being human, a new way of living as the image of God—the way of service, obedience, humility before God, even when that costs you your own life. Because when you live in obedience to God, conflict is inevitable. What the gospels show us so well is how obedience and humility before God makes Jesus anything but obedient and humble before the forces of idolatrous power that he confronted, whether it was the divinized Romans or those Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome to gain power over of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was these Romans and their collaborators who physically and historically killed him, but it was Jesus’ defiant obedience to God that forced their hand. Jesus made clear his challenge to them by his paradoxical act of riding in like a King, but humbly on a donkey.

This humble, defiant obedience is what God had in mind all along for us human beings. But that’s not how it generally has worked out. Our human awareness of infinite potential has been used horribly wrongly. Not all the time. Each of us has acted the way Adam originally lived; his story is our story. We sometimes act in the innocence of natural obedience, like when we are naturally loving to our children or our parents or loved ones. But we all also grasp at power and equality with God, and the great powers that swirl around our globe especially do this, and claim to do it on our behalf.

So you do a little good here and there. We all do. We’re not pure, unadulterated sinners; that’s an absurd piece of bogus pessimism that some conservative Christians still hawk. But can you, with your small and occasional good acts, set a new course for all of humanity? Even if you thought you could, your next step would be to become famous and powerful so that everyone can see how good you are and strive to become like you. Maybe you’d post a youtube video of yourself and try to amass lots of hits. And then you could start the world’s largest megachurch, attended by 10s of thousands. Thank God Jesus didn’t have to do it that way. He lived in a time and a place when Jews and others were ready for a new humanity to dawn; they (unlike people today) were looking for a messiah. But Jesus did not advertise himself as the Messiah, boasting, “I am the one!” He just showed obedience to God and served as a vessel for God’s healing and prophetic power, and people couldn’t help but see him as the Messiah. And they thought he would take power and rule over them, and destroy their enemies, and force everyone to do good. (Now, that does sound a little familiar to the authoritarian and even fascist tendencies at loose in our world today.) They were dying to proclaim him king in that false image, that image of kingship taken from our old, power-mad humanity.

Instead he showed obedience unto death, even death by the cross, death by the execution that Romans devised to flaunt their ghastly, demonic power. Jesus, by his own obedience, but also just as much by how the great powers reacted to him, redefined what it means to be human before God. / Now, you can repent all you want to. We can strive to be good people. We can try to fix the gargantuan problems of our world (and come up short) and we can try to master the most petty flaws in our secret souls (and still fail to do so perfectly). But we can’t redefine, for the benefit of all humanity, what it means to be human before God. And we have absolutely no need to. Because Jesus did that, as well as it could be done. To follow Jesus, in the end we need to do nothing at all. We simply say Amen to this new humanity shown in him. (And even if we fail to do that, what he did still stands as valid for all time.) So our work is done; let us, like the disciples, just step back, quiet down, and watch Jesus do what only he can do; and watch the world expose itself in its godlessness as only its most blasphemous representatives can so do. That is our ‘agenda’ for Holy Week.

Were that all, of course, we wouldn’t be here. We never would have heard of this obscure Jesus, squashed like a bug by the Romans, to whom only a small crowd of Jewish bumpkins called “Messiah,” according to their mistaken notion of the word. But “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” God made it known that the humanity Jesus reshaped and redefined into the way God intended, was the right one. Hopefully we can live out that new humanity in our small, flawed way. But right now all that remains for us to do is to join all the other knees of all the powers and weird, unseen, even demonic forces out there, as the Philippians poem puts it, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and simply believe in the good news, and confess in our worship that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Questions for further thought:

I’ve read studies recently that claim that often 50% or more of people in congregations like ours believe that the point of church is be promote good values and service. Have I made a convincing case that this is not what is most important about being a church?

Is it part of your spiritual practice to simply recognize what God has done, not only for yourself, but for all of humanity and all of creation? Where and how do you do that?

Why do we need to recognize that our destiny (or purpose, or goal) has been set by God, not by ourselves? Why do you think it might be better to explain that by telling the story of Jesus?

What else could we use to state who we are besides a “mission statement?”

 

3rd in Lent (3/3): What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Religion?

A challenging topic, which some might have found off-putting.  It was an interesting message to preach right in front of the communion table, however. 

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

We heard the Ten Commandments read from Exodus. Now, people make a big deal out of the 10 commandments, and some have tried to post them in public places, to make them some official moral code. Others are content with the commandments as an insightful personal guideline for living a moral life. All these folk are thinking mostly of the last five commandments: honor your parents, don’t murder, cheat on your spouse, steal, slander someone, or scheme about getting your hands on your neighbor’s stuff. Do we really need a divine revelation about these matters? Sure, some people break these commandments; but I can’t imagine they have no inkling that they shouldn’t. Because most cultures, most religions agree about all these commandments. And that’s great.  But for that reason, these five commandments don’t seem very revelatory to me. They seem like common sense. And I’m just not inclined to pat myself on the back because I follow five common sense moral principles.

But the first five commandments, which many pass over to get to the common sense second five, are where I think things get really interesting, really revelatory. These commandments show us that some of the most important sinning that we do is nothing so obvious as murder; real sinning happens precisely when we are being religious. And this is revelatory, because don’t we imagine that things like prayer and praising God’s name are good, pious, honorable things to do? Aren’t we inclined to think well of someone who attends church regularly and prays often; but we are suspicious of someone who observes no religion, even if that person otherwise seems like a good person? (In polls, Americans have ranked atheists among the least favorable groups; in one scenario, an atheist was deemed equally as untrustworthy as a rapist.)

God apparently doesn’t agree. God in the Bible is much more concerned about those who misuse religion than about those who have no religion. Idolatry is a bigger problem than atheism. In our prejudiced minds, we might hear the word “idolatry” and imagine some primitive “native” bowing down to a little statue. But Amos, in our call to worship, was talking about Israel’s idolatry. And we have to wonder if his hard words could apply to us, the New Israel. An idol is simply any part of our religion—it doesn’t have to be a little statue; it could be an idea, or value, or practice—that comes from our small minds, not from God’s Spirit. And we all do this. Who here has not inserted something of your own wishes and imagination into your view of God? We all commit idolatry, even if in little ways.

And in the words of Exodus, “we make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.” In Sunday school, right, we learned this as “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” and it meant do use God in swear words. (I can still remember my Sunday school teacher demonstrating, very self-consciously and tentatively, a swear word using “God.”) That’s not it. This commandment is about claiming to speak for God when you don’t. The ancient Israelites understood, better than we, that is not wise to throw the word “God” around. They understood that God’s name is holy. And it should be obvious who in this room is most in danger of claiming to speak for God when you don’t: me! I guess that’s why you spend so much of our budget on me, because I bear the occupational hazard of making wrongful use of God’s name; and notice Exodus says, “The Lord will not acquit anyone who makes wrongful use of his name.” My goodness, you people have led me to sell my soul!

In his book God Against Religion, my friend Matt Boulton notes that, at the beginning of the Bible, there is no temple or worship in Eden, and at the end of the Bible, no temple in the New Jerusalem of Revelation. “Religion,” he writes, “far from being the happy solution to the basic human crisis of separation from God, is rather the very occasion for that crisis in the first place.” Religion done wrong is what most separates us from God, and religion is always done at least a little wrong.

So our question this week is this: Must we give up our religion to follow Jesus Christ? We have all this religious stuff that we do. Images we have for God, things we say about God and to God, prayers we fall back on, values that we assume are based on God, rituals we perform. How much of all that religious stuff might be misguided? How much of that might be idolatry? (Because there doesn’t seem to be much neutral ground when it comes to God.) This religious stuff might be the stuff God most requires us to change.

Jesus himself demonstrates out this cleansing of religion in today’s reading from John. He’s not a Christian criticizing “those Jews,” he’s purging his own established religion, the only true religion of his day, of its corruption. He pointedly commands: “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” We can only imagine what Jesus would do if he came in here. Would he overturn our tables, and pour out our collection baskets? Maybe he’s exclaim: “Hey, nice windows. Smart investment there.” Who knows? He wouldn’t drive out our sacrificial animals because no one has those anymore. But do you know that religious scholars commonly refer to America as sporting a “marketplace of religion”—that’s the idea that churches have to compete like businesses to attract “consumers” of religion. You’ve heard the expression “church shopping,” right? And of course the customer is always right; if you don’t like what you hear, you can pull out and go elsewhere. It’s not all bad, I suppose; this marketplace of religion keeps churches on their toes. But in our own way we’ve absolutely made our Father’s house into a marketplace.

At the end of the passage, Jesus cryptically refers to the temple of his own body as a replacement for the temple in Jerusalem. This idea is absolutely critical for how Christians think of worship, but it’s so deep we can barely begin to understand it. We don’t have a temple. We don’t believe God resides in this building, as such. The closest we come to that is what we will do momentarily: communion. Jesus promised his continual presence with us in this meal; this [gesture] is our ultimate assurance that we have access to God through the stuff of worship, even the material stuff of bread and drink. And that could invite idolatry. But the presence of Jesus and of God in this meal is shrouded in mystery; to claim, as many do, that the bread becomes Jesus’ actual body and the juice his blood, I think is way too literal, a little ghoulish, and maybe even idolatrous. Christ is present in this meal but we can hardly say how. Consider this: Before we partake, we’ll say together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s basically like saying Christ is present to us as a past story that culminated in his death; and Christ is present now in God’s eternal beyond, risen; and also Christ is not yet fully here, but will come again. This ancient saying points to just how complex and mysterious is Christ’s presence in our worship. Christ is no idol; he remains quite beyond us.

Through most of the year, we rightly emphasize Christ’s risen presence to us, and our presence to him before the Father. Communion can even be our momentary elevation into God’s heavenly banquet. But today, in Lent, we are right to recall that this meal that we share with God is also a reception of God’s judgment upon us—the bread that had to be broken for us, the cup that had to be poured out. In Corinthians, right after Paul recites the words of institution, which we will hear later, he adds this: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. …But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

Lent is the right time to judge ourselves, to discipline ourselves, and when we do so truly, it is Christ who judges us. We have to recognize our worship of God as both this gracious access we have to God, which even makes us partakers in God’s own eternal life; but we each have to judge how we use religion, and seek to purify our religion, because religion is also the most serious source of our sinfulness. Maybe our religion is too much about me, and not enough about God. Maybe we picture God as too stern; or maybe we do not rightly honor God’s holiness. We certainly shouldn’t fall back on the old refrain: we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.  And this judging of ourselves is part of God’s good gift of true worship, which is only made possible because of our Lord. Only in Christ Jesus, our Mediator, can we conceive of being fully one with God in righteousness, even while we are condemned and judged in our sinfulness. Most decisively on the cross, Jesus has brought together God’s mercy and judgment, and because of that we worship him as our true spiritual food and drink.

Lenten Series: What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Week one (Feb 18.): Our Fear of Death?

 

I give an extended introduction to the whole series below, which may have gotten a bit tedious.  But there’s a complicated bit of Christology involved: we follow Christ but can never be Christ.  Anyway, I thought the meditation on mortality came together pretty well.  But I received absolutely no feedback, good or bad, this morning.  I’d love to know what people thought, either way.  The hymns circled around this theme perfectly, I thought: “40 Days and 40 Nights,” “Abide with Me,” and “Rock of Ages.” 

Anyone who wants to hear the interview I refer to can find it here.  

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22

Every year we journey together through this amazing array of liturgical seasons, each offering a very different window into our one faith in God through Christ Jesus. At Christmas we received the surprising gift of God’s presence in our own flesh, with the joy that all humanity has been honored by God’s incarnation. Then after Epiphany, we heard this babe come-of-age, Jesus, call his disciples, and we wondered if we also were being called to leave everything to follow him into the Kingdom of God. Last week at the Transfiguration we saw Jesus glorified on the mountaintop before his choice, closest disciples. Even if we can’t like them claim that we’ve left everything to follow Jesus, at least the clumsiness and confusion of those elite disciples made them seem a little more down to earth. All of these different windows upon what faith in Jesus means deal with a common question: what about Jesus pertains to all humanity, and what pertains to a chosen few?

We have arrived at Lent, but today we begin by revisiting the start of Jesus’ preaching: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” When we first heard this verse a few weeks ago, we were focused on the good news, on the coming near of this Kingdom of God. But Lent is our time to repent, to turn back to God. We see from our Call to Worship why Lent is 40 days long: Lent is patterned on the 40 days Jesus spent after his baptism in the wilderness with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan. Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives us no other details. It is a time of testing in solitude for Jesus before he begins his ministry, ending with his destiny on Calvary; for us, Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday.

Lent invites us to put ourselves in the place of Jesus for these 40 days—in the wilderness; in solitude; vulnerable; surrounded with wild beasts, tempted by Satan, but also waited on by angels. What a shame Lent has often been trivialized as a time to ‘give something up,’ some petty indulgence like chocolate. That’s all I ever heard about it, growing up. Now, I’m not sure what it means to be tempted by Satan, but I think there’s more involved than being tempted by Hershey’s. Lent is not about sensual desires; not about the way innumerable dessert ads talk about “temptation;” it’s about deep spiritual testing. What is your life with God really made of? By our baptism into Jesus Christ, God has called to us, also, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Lent asks us: Are we really that? And what does that mean to us? And how then should our lives look different?

Now, every time we think about following Jesus or imitating Jesus or asking “what would Jesus do?” we need to catch ourselves, hold up for a minute, because we are not Jesus, individually—at best we the whole church are called Jesus’ body. First Peter will be helpful for reminding us why not. The letter points us ahead to Good Friday and Easter—which we always must come back to as our center, anyway. “Christ …suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” “Once for all” is key. It was for Jesus alone to atone or set right all of humanity before God. We can barely understand that; but surely we can’t do it, and we don’t have to. We never have to suffer unto death for sin; for Jesus has freed us from the power of sin and death.

So we are here at the very beginning of our Lenten journey, preparing to be tested as Jesus was tested, but as we look ahead at the end of the road, we see Jesus is going somewhere that we cannot follow. No one here will be nailed to that big wooden cross on Good Friday—dramatic as it may seem. (Maybe I’d be the first to be nominated.) Seriously, to sacrifice a human being for our sins would be the most heinous of crimes. But Jesus’ execution, only after it could be seen from the perspective of his resurrection, allowed those of faith to see it as God’s self-sacrifice for our sins. This is the greatest mystery of Christian faith, one on which many stumble. Today is not the day to explore it. Peter doesn’t explain it; he just invokes this mystery and connects it to our baptism (through a kind of bizarre reference to the story of Noah and the flood).

My point in bringing up the mystery of Christ’s atoning death is that, as much as we can try in Lent to follow Jesus as our model, by the end of Lent we’ll see that Jesus must go where we cannot follow. And that gave me the idea for our sermon series during Lent: What must we give up to follow Jesus? Every week we’ll follow the lead of the lectionary scriptures to ask a new question, a kind of testing: does following Jesus mean giving up something? It may. It’s a question each of us must consider individually. Then we may discover we are under an obligation to change and give up something dear. But Jesus did not come to take away our lives, but to give us life, a new life within the Kingdom of God. So the answer is not always, yes, you must change everything. God makes us all, each in a unique way, both recipients of the gifts of creation and participants in the shared life of redemption in Jesus, which inevitably involves giving of ourselves, and may involve giving things up. What must we give up, and how much? are the questions we will put to ourselves. We’ll each find our own answer. So what we seek is not some one-size-fits-all answer, but the assurance that we’ve tested ourselves and been proven faithful by the grace of Christ. I think that’s what Peter means when he describes baptism not a washing as of dirt, but “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Putting on ashes is a biblical sign of repentance, and also a reminder of the curse caused by sin: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder of our mortality—and not just death, but all of the strife and sorrow that comes with life. And so we ask ourselves today: Must we give up our fear of death?

Ok, I’ll confess that I’m not very happy with my title so far. It needs some explanation. I can hear you saying, “No problem, Pastor. I’ll gladly give up my fear of death. I was afraid you were going to ask me to give up chocolate.” But by fear of death, I mean the fear that makes us pretend that we are not going to die; to pretend that our natural state is a life free of suffering—we might even think we have a right to be free of suffering. But in truth we live on borrowed time, and we never absolutely know what tomorrow brings. It is a frightful thing. That fear itself can effectively kill us—it can paralyze us so that all we can do is live in anxiety. That’s no good. More often we simply live in willful ignorance of our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love. It’s a temptation more for those of us on the younger side of things; we can thank the clothing chain “Forever 21” for enshrining the vanity of youth in denial of mortality. Our older members amaze me by the wisdom that comes when you are no longer under illusions of mortality, both their own and the ones they love. Check it out, young folk. And you know who else is under no illusions about mortality? Jesus. He seems to know that living his life solely out of the love of God is going to be the death of him.

But when fear makes us turn away in willful ignorance, we become drunk with the illusion of being in control. My time is not borrowed; it’s all mine to make of it what I want. Life is all about possibilities, and we see the future as this thrilling realm of possibilities and adventure. And this can be genuinely beautiful, too. Our lives become this exciting project we create; and we are encouraged to see our life that way by our career-driven, consumerist society. Don’t we constantly send that message to our young people: Find and pursue your dream of what to make of your life! Does our secular culture have an Ash Wednesday? Perhaps now it does, in the daily news of school shootings.

We can honor the gift of life by making the most of it. But sometimes we become so thrilled by our personal life-project that other people, and entire communities, including churches, become secondary or even inconvenient. Others are ignored or even made instruments of our own advance. We put off hard reckonings and reconciliations with those we love or those we’ve hurt. We shrug and say, “The world has its own problems.” Now I’m not saying that you are being called this Lent to give up on having a life-project. But you might want to test how deeply you are invested in that, because your dreams of endless possibility will inevitably be put to the test.

I heard a very moving interview with Kate Bowler the other day on NPR; at 35, and still alive for now, she has stage IV cancer, and wrote a book about how this changed her faith. She found in her rude awakening to mortality not just an end to her vision of life as this great project to construct, and she is a promising scholar, but also the opening of a window to the suffering of others.

Here’s how she put it: “But it did feel like cancer was this secret key that opened up this whole new reality. And part of the reality was the realization that your own pain connects you to the pain of other people. I don’t know. Maybe I was just a narcissist before. But all of a sudden, I realized how incredibly fragile life is for almost everyone. And then I noticed things that felt like a spiritual – I don’t know – like a gift. You notice the tired mom in the grocery store who’s just like struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. It felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time.”

Her cancer marked her with the ashes of mortality, but receiving this in faith and trust, it was not at all debilitating—though maybe it was for her life project. It helped her to see others in a way she couldn’t before. And it brought her closer to God. She reports, “I was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. Granted – I have been pretty angry at times. But mostly I felt God’s presence like the way you’d feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn’t feel quite as scared. I just felt loved.” There is wisdom and love in the ashes of repentance.

We are not all being called to this, to giving up our fear of death, our desire to feign ignorance and, at least for today, just to live. To live with the innocence of children and see life as full of possibility. We are not all called to follow Goethe’s advice: “Live everyday as if it were your last.” Most of us need to get on with the business of living; laying plans, setting goals, hatching ambitions, expecting rewards. God wants us to enjoy the fruits of creation, and to exercise the powers of our potential. Some of us need to get off our duffs and do more of that! But the Olympics, with all those stories of those very young Olympiads, will give us plenty of reminders of striving to “Be all that you can be.” The Olympic torch burns bright but somehow produces no ash.

So let us this Lent watch Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem, towards his own death, and his own glorification, and let us be tested to see whether we can follow him. But let us begin with thanksgiving that by the grace of Christ, we do not have to.

 

 

Second in Ordinary/Baptism of Christ (January 14). First in Love of God series: “Jesus the Beloved”

 

Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11

I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)

Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.

That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.

Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)

On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.

But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.

Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.

And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples.  Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.

So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice.   Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.

So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.

It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.

I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.

Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.

Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.

God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.

Last Sunday in Ordinary/Reign of Christ: “Reigning as the Least”

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ the King of the Universe Sunday is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. This is our New Year’s Eve, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday our new liturgical year begins with Advent, and our whole sanctuary will be transformed into a festive scene of expectation and hope for the coming One, Jesus the Christ born in Bethlehem. /So how is it that we go from celebrating Christ as our king one Sunday, to waiting for him to arrive the next?

Well, we should note that celebrating the Reign of Christ on the final Sunday of the liturgical year is not an ancient tradition at all; the festival began in 1925 and only later was moved to the current Sunday. But it makes sense to me. Recall that we’ve been in ordinary time since June 4, Pentecost. For these five months we’ve been trying to be the living presence of Christ and Christ’s kingdom here and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the three slaves from last week’s parable, we have been entrusted with the possessions of the master. And we have been working hard to benefit God’s estate until the master returns. We are not laboring in vain. Our work as a church is not a pointless gesture, a Quixotic effort that we know will never succeed (“To Dream the Impossible Dream”). The world may think that our efforts are dreamy at best, pointless at worst. Reality is cold and brutal, they say; goodness shall never reign in human hearts. People are selfish. The reality is, is things will never change (That’s what people say, with their double ises). You Christians are just living a pipe dream.

Today we respond with a resounding: No! Our work is real work that we expect with real hope is going somewhere. Our work is based on God and God’s own power will complete and perfect our work. Capping off our efforts, including our recent commitment to another year of good stewardship, by lifting high the Reign of Christ is our way of saying: Christ will be King of all! Peace and justice shall reign on the earth. Indeed, today we recognize that already this is so. Christ reigns here and now!

Our reading from Ephesians speaks this truth beautifully. As always, Paul begins his letter by being thankful for the church at Ephesus. We also should begin by being thankful for the church at Granby. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…”   But Paul’s being thankful doesn’t at all mean the Ephesians were perfect and complete Christians (nor are we). He goes on to pray for God to give them a spirit of “wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” You see, they don’t know all of that yet. They have faith in Jesus and love for the saints, but there is still a lot for these Ephesians to learn.

Paul points that out so positively and without a trace of shaming them or taking back his great thankfulness for them. And likewise, you know what I love so much about this place is our ability to admit freely our puzzlement over and disagreement with some beliefs in the Christian faith. We don’t feel the need to piously pretend to be all orthodox. I was talking recently with two people here that I have always admired for the way they live such spiritually centered lives—indeed, models that I strive to follow. And they were both agreeing that they had come a long way in their spiritual journeys and were thankful for that, despite challenges that remain. And then one said: “But this Jesus, I don’t get what the big deal is.” And the other said, “Yeah, me neither.” I love it. A more uptight church and pastor would be scandalized. But obviously, like with the Ephesians, faith and love have become vessels of God’s power for us, even if some details remain hazy.

What shocked me (for real) was when I told this story to a friend who is an expert in Christianity and he said, Yeah, “I guess Jesus had to die for our sins, but I don’t really get it.” <Palm to forehead> Do you see what terrible straits the Christian faith is in? But I especially have to sigh a sigh of world weariness. <sigh> Because I really see, now—it took me a long time—and I appreciate (at least I’m beginning to) the glorious treasure we have in our faith in Jesus the Christ. With Paul I can say, “Blessed be the God and Father (or Mother) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3).  I can’t claim with confidence that I’m a better person in any way for it, sadly, but I get what having faith in Jesus the Christ is all about. You won’t hear me say this often, but I have been given something precious. I did nothing to earn this gift, but it inspired the work I have done. And I give thanks. / It is perfectly understandable that most people struggle and fail to grasp the meaning of the reign of Christ. The Bible is far from easy to read; the church has done a pretty poor job grasping and passing on this faith, and we’ve often been distracted from, and maybe a little slothful about, pursuing it. But I get it. And I thought you should know, because I would love to be a resource for you. (Maybe you’ll think about that adult confirmation class.)

What faith in Christ is all about is simple in essence, but like a ray of light it can refract through the crystal of life into the most complex and multicolored patterns. Still the essence is still there. With all due respect to my friend to so many of our old hymns, forgiveness of sins is only one of those refracted colors and beams, it is not the essence. And you might say “love” but I don’t think that’s the essence either; love doesn’t require a king. The essence is this: Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple. That’s what the whole Bible is about. That’s what everything we do here is about, most simply at Christmas. Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple, and yet humanity is both so near and so far from that union that we need the crystal of Jesus to illuminate the messy complexity of our many paths and challenges to that union with God.

Christ contains many facets. He is said to be a prophet; he is said to be a priest, and even our spouse. But another facet concerns the power of God which we have access to as human beings, and for this Christ is our king. Paul prays that the Ephesians will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now the rules of power and authority in our world are generally very clear. Be loyal to friends; hate (or at least ignore) your enemy. The one who is on top is entitled to feel high and mighty; the one on the bottom is expected to feel small and resentful. If you are powerful you might be able to get away with stealing or trickery, but the closest we expect you to come to goodness is a square deal: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. All of that is what usually passes for power and its trappings—for reigning.

Jesus upended all of that. Our king turned kingship on its head. And because of that, the (powers that be) lifted him in mockery on a cross and called him “King of the Jews.” But God raised him from the dead, for our sakes, so we could know that his way was the true way of power. Paul continues: “And God made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We the church are his body, the fullness of Christthat word in Greek does not mean the way you felt after Thanksgiving, but “completeness.” We are the completeness of Christ, which might sound odd, as if Christ weren’t complete by himself. But Christ exists for others. He exists for his body, for his way of turning power on its head to become the way of life for a people, even for all people, for “all in all.” And so we as fullness of the Christ reign do not hate our enemies. We still love our friends, but we don’t affirm them when they do wrong; we desire for them what we desire for ourselves: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. People among us who are powerful are to be servants to others; the one being served loves in turn and serves others. We would never think of trickery or selfish gain, but nor would we intone: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. No, we look out for the good of each other, rather than me thinking about your good only as a way to get mine.

Now, we’re not really that church yet, that fullness of Christ—right? The sinful marks of fallen and corrupt power are still to be found within us. But what I’ve described is what we are called to be, every time we invoke the one who is above every name that is named, the one who is the reality of God’s union with humanity. And we become the fullness of this one whenever we, in our way of life and our practice as a community, truly love one another.

But even then, would we really be the fullness of Christ? Or would we then just become a kind of self-enclosed love fest?   Our parable from Matthew reminds us that faithfulness to Christ our King means than just loving one another. Perhaps the most amazing beam of color and light to come out of this gem we know as Jesus is his particular identification with the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, and the neglected. In this way, Jesus is God’s justice, God’s setting right of the most egregious inhumanity that people commit on one another—often by naively innocent neglect.   So Jesus, at the coming of his kingdom in fullness, mounts the throne of his glory, as the parable has it. And he, Christ the King of the Universe, judges all the nations of the world. This is the perfect image of absolute power. But what no one is able to see, even the righteous, is that this one seated on the throne in absolute power is really to be found in the face of lowliest need: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. And in this parable, each of us is judged according not to whether I did harm or not, it’s whether I went out of my way to help these poor ones, or ignored them. So if we’re saying and singing and praying: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I love my Jesus, and we think we’ve got it all covered, we are going to surprised like the goats in this parable. Because Jesus went to the cross not just so our sins could be forgiven and we can go to heaven despite being sinners—if that is even true—he went to the cross to be truly united with human beings who suffer, who are cast out, who are oppressed. And if we are going to come to know Jesus, as Paul wants us to, in the immeasurable greatness of his power (to be all those who suffer), then we’d better do more than make a joyful noise. We’d better go feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. We’d better do some serious, hands-dirty, face to face mission work. We’d better get to know the reality of suffering in those most afflicted, and also in ourselves, for all of us know suffering. Otherwise we might find we don’t recognize this Jesus at all.

And perhaps that is why we go from acknowledging Christ as our King today, to waiting for him to come again next week. Because measured by our actions, maybe we’re not yet living up to the proclamation of Christ as our king. We do fine greeting Christ on the throne here in church, but are we more often neglecting the Christ in the lowly and the least, rather than coming to their aid? If so, then Paul’s desire that we come to know Christ better is still in our future, and perhaps it is time for us to once again admit that this Christ is a stranger to us. Or that we are strangers to him; and we shudder to imagine hearing those words: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or we shudder to imagine hearing Christ’s answer to the foolish bridesmaids knocking at the door: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” To that shudder, the fast of Advent, by which we take the humble posture of waiting for Christ to come, is the appropriate response. May Christ reign among you, and may he come.

 

Spiritual Inventory #8: Is God in Your Friendships?

Wow, this series is running long.  It’s been good and all, but it just feels like time to move on.  But this was well received.   

Heads up!  The 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation is next week!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matt 18: 15-22

You try to take care of your body, right? Sure, we all could do better. We care for our bodies so that we can accomplish our purposes, live our life. Our body makes possible our spirit, small “s,” our vibrant interaction with the world. For that reason we care for our bodies; but we wouldn’t want to spend so much time focusing on diet and exercise that we forget to live.

We are a social body. Our muscles and ligaments and circulatory system are our relationships with one another. We follow some rules, but mostly it is our personal relationships, our fellowship, that hold us together as a body, that make us move and act as one. We have to take care of this body. It can atrophy from lack of use; our muscles, our relationships, can become flabby when our fellowship is underused. This body can also become diseased; wounds of hurt relationships and anger can fester when not cleansed and allowed to heal. I’ll say more on that later. We need to tend to the health and wellbeing of this body, especially if we intend to grow, to get bigger and stronger.

But if that’s all we were—a social body, a collection of people in fellowship—we would be just a club. We would spend all our time just meeting and talking, and our talk would mostly be gossip. We would do nothing but fundraise to enable our social club to continue. If we were just a social club, we would attend to nothing else as much as our building, because we need a place to fellowship in, as well as our staff, because they coordinate our club meetings. That isn’t us, is it?

Because we are more than a fellowship, a body, for its own sake. We are not and could never be just a social club. In First Corinthians, Paul says to the church: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” That means we all share a single Spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” So let’s put it all together: we need to develop, heal, and nurture our fellowship life, our relationships with one another—our ‘body’—so that we can sustain Christ as our head and give God’s Spirit a place to dwell in power. We exist as a body so people will see our head, see the face of Christ over us.

And what does that mean, to recognize Christ as our head? Briefly, that Christ is our head means we represent a community that practices a godly ideal, namely, we’d rather risk our life, on a cross if necessary, practicing love toward all others, than to settle for putting myself above others, or loving and benefitting only those who I think are worthy or admirable, or only liking and honoring ‘our own kind.’ If that was how God loved us, God would have kicked us to the curb long ago. So, if we want Christ as our head and Spirit of our body, we need to be a community where compassion and forgiveness rule among us instead of ego and bearing grudges (more on that later), and we need to be constantly reaching out beyond ourselves to really welcome and embrace people we might otherwise ignore or even disdain. A healthy, Christian fellowship will do all this.

So to begin, it is vital that we have a vibrant social life. That’s what our body is made of. We should be a place where people find fun within committed and trusted friendship. Look at the first question on your inventory: What kinds of activities can we do to boost our fellowship and deepen our faith at the same time. What would you commit to? Take a moment to jot down any thoughts.

But if we just do more fellowship, more activities, even with more Spiritual upbuilding and dedication, we will not necessarily be a completely healthy body that shows forth the Spirit or the face of Christ. Now we have a lot to celebrate here, a lot to be thankful to God for, as a social body. I regularly hear people talk about what a friendly place this is, and there are strong friendships here. It’s not on the inventory, so take a moment to acknowledge and give thanks for what God has made of our body …

But: Question two. How bad a problem do we have with bearing grudges? Rate us from 1 for no problem to 10 for a serious and pervasive problem. I expect we have a wide variety of perceptions on this. Question Three: Do you bear a grudge against someone in the church? Keep in mind that if you think you are innocent but find yourself constantly blaming someone else for holding a grudge against you, I have news for you: you are holding a grudge! Whenever you see someone and think: “Fault! Blame!”—that’s a grudge.

And we have two excellent Scriptures today on grudges and how to be free of them. Because I bet you think the “Christian” answer to grudges is “Forgive, forgive, forgive!” Keep forgiving until you hit 77 times. We’ve all heard that text many times. Forgiveness is absolutely vital, but it is possible to overemphasize forgiveness. God forgives us indeed, but God also calls us into holiness and transforms us (through Word and Spirit, remember?).

Our reading from Leviticus (from next week’s lectionary) picks it up there: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And then this commandment: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Yes, we know all about that: we’re supposed to love each other, think nice thoughts about each other, always assume the best. We’re supposed to be all <Smiles>. Actually, no, not really. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Not fakey smiles. Reprove, which means correct, admonish, set right. Go to that person directly—not to others; that’s slander and it’s forbidden—and confront him or her with what you perceive, emphasis on perceive, to be the problem. You are not allowed to simply bottle up the offense you feel, thinking that’s the loving thing to do; no, then “You will incur guilt yourself.” To keep the hard feelings inside is to cut yourself off from a honest and true relationship with your sister or brother. And in the secret recesses of your heart, maybe you want to hold on to that grudge. Maybe you have grown to like the unnatural, secret, private heat that hatred brings the heart. Obviously, lots of people do in our world. If everyone knows “All you need is love,” why is hate so persistent? It holds it’s own seductive form of self-gratifying power.

Leviticus continues: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” When someone does wrong to us, especially here in the church, we either want to lash out in response or bury it inside of us and nurse it as a grudge. Fight or flight. Instead, we are commanded to do the more difficult but more loving thing: communicate our grievance directly. (And you can try this outside the church too.) This is difficult because it can so easily turn into taking vengeance. Jesus’s instructions add wisdom here. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Don’t use the occasion to humiliate the wrongdoer in front of others.   That will only make her or him defensive. (Now, by the way, the guidelines might differ if there has been an abuse of power or certainly any kind of assault or harassment. Let’s stick with ordinary wrongdoing in word and deed.)

Pointing out a fault in private takes a great deal of courage, and also spiritual discernment. You have to ask yourself: Am I doing this to make myself feel superior? Am I trying to bring this person down a peg? What is your heart set on as you go to confront one who sinned against you? If the Spirit is moving you, your heart should be set on lifting up this other one. It should be set on restoring your relationship. Love should be streaming out of you to this other, precisely while you are explaining what you think she or he did wrong. Being filled with Christ’s Spirit of love is what will guide you right and make a potentially uncomfortable occasion into a beautiful and rewarding one for you. And use that technique I talked about in the Message for All Ages.

But be prepared for things to get complicated. Be ready for the other person to see things differently. What someone said or did might have meant something to you which that person could not have anticipated. It might all be a matter of miscommunication—praise God! Or be prepared for your own faults to be a part of the problem. This honest dealing with grievances will work best if we are all prepared spiritually to have our faults pointed out to us, and if those doing so are prepared to accept that the fault was more in your perception than in the person’s act. It all begins with God’s command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

But we are not holy, not completely. That’s why Jesus allows that dealing with a fault one on one won’t always work. So then you bring in one or two others (are you ready for this, Deacons?). And finally you bring it before the whole church, and see if the offender will listen. We welcome everyone to this church, wherever you are coming from. But if someone persists in abusive, cruel behavior and refuses to repent, we must be prepared to let that person go, for the good of the body of Christ.

But I can hardly imagine that happening. We can rest assured that our grievances will almost always resolve in clarifying a miscommunication, or in admission of wrongdoing, an apology, and a willingness to do better. That’s when you forgive, and not seven but seventy seven times. Phew!

We need to work creatively at building a more satisfying and fun social life here, for the sake of our body. And then we need appreciate and take seriously how we are called by Christians to practice justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness with each other. The everyday ins-and-outs of Christian fellowship carry an absolute purpose for us, for there is so much at stake in doing Christian fellowship right. ‘Be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.’ And as Jesus said: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What we do and how we live are bound up with God own doing and living. We are the body of the living Christ, the Son of God. It might all sound intimidating. It’s not, because God is a merciful God.   Instead, it is glorious. Even in the seemingly small ways that we treat each other when two or three are gathered become serious occasions for living as God’s very presence and power. Let’s glory in our Christian fellowship as a friendship charged with the divine, and let’s treat it with the utmost care as the holy thing it is.

Spiritual Inventory Week Seven-Fellowship