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?”

 

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Fifth in Lent (3/18): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Sins? Our Lives?”

Call to worship: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Psalm 51:1-12

John 12:20-33

Some people in churches like ours are just done with the word sin. It sounds so backward and old-fashioned, and it’s too often been used to shame women or LGBT folks who don’t conform to “Leave It to Beaver” domesticity. I, on the other hand, am just getting started with the word sin. Despite the risks, I think we need to greatly expand our appreciation for that powerful word, and reclaim it from its petty and narrow use. Because if you remove the word “sin” from your vocabulary, you are going to have a hard time reading the Bible. But the Bible has a wonderfully rich and surprising grasp of sin. And I’ve been trying to convey that surprise by considering the sin, or fallenness or, if I must, the imperfection that shows up in surprising places, like in our religion and our clinging to spiritual experiences.

But I recently realized that my desire to make sin hip and interesting could wrongly neglect the truth of even the old-fashioned, backward sense of sin. I have been reading studies and stories of people who drop out of churches like ours. One story was a man named Wayne Sanders. Wayne had been struggling for some time with his sins and failings. He burned through one marriage and was on his second, and his wandering eye as well as substance abuse made him think that his life was not on the right track. As he looked ahead to possibly failing again as a husband, or worse, as a father, Wayne talked to friends at work, and he watched Billy Graham, God rest his tireless soul, on tv, and all this led him to give his life to Christ. He then joined a fundamentalist megachurch, for he had quickly concluded that the mainline Presbyterian church he had occasionally attended was not calling people to Christ. He would probably say the same of us. Now, I’m not sure I trust his judgment about that. I think fundamentalists who seek absolute authority directly from the Bible don’t realize that the Bible, too, can become an idol. Scholars even coined a nifty word for that: bibliolatry. But it is true: churches like ours often do not speak to the kind of problems Wayne was dealing with. What really seemed to bother him was sexual sin. Wayne believes that sex is a “huge issue, probably the bottom line in most people hearts and minds when” it comes to religion.

Wayne’s story, as well as reading Psalm 51 in our lectionary for today, made me realize that I should not go through Lent without addressing our personal sins, those actions and habits and inclinations that we don’t like about ourselves. Probably many of us feel personally out of control in one respect or another, much like Paul puts it in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Now, some of us don’t feel that way, and some of us really aren’t that way. Keep listening.) This is a real problem; but it doesn’t have to be about sex. Wayne made a common mistake; he assumed that everyone must have the same problem with sex that he does. We don’t. It might be all kinds of things. It might be substance abuse or alcohol, it might be that you have a bad temper you cannot control; you might be unable to stop picking on your spouse or your children and pushing their buttons; you might be even violently abusive to your spouse or partner or loved one. You might find yourself breaking rules, shoplifting, acting out—and for no good reason. My mild-mannered high school guidance counselor was arrested late in life for shoplifting—go figure. These are real sins. And they are hurting others around you.

Let me be clear. God wants you to stop sinning. God wants us to stop sinning against others, that’s for sure. But God wants this for us, also. God wants us to be liberated from that feeling of being out of control. You cannot find real peace within the Kingdom of God if your own actions are not really yours, if your sins are controlling you. God wants you to stop, I want you to stop, and this church wants you to stop sinning and be free. We are a community under God that is here for sinners.

The human spirit is often murky and irrational. We like to pretend that all of us are fully in control of ourselves, and the fact is that none of us is in complete control. Most of us hold it together well enough to stay out of trouble and to appear like responsible people. Some slide off the deep end and commit the kind of heinous acts that we read about every day. We like to draw a clean line through all this murkiness and say, “As long as you aren’t hurting anybody else, you’re ok, you got it all together.” But nothing in the Bible supports that easy compromise. Anything short of a pure heart fully directed to love is a failure to attain the perfection to which God has called us. And I know of none who have attained this perfection. The Biblical view of sin does not allow us to condemn some group of sinners out there. Instead, it calls us all to charity and compassion toward one another, and in humility to take a good hard look at ourselves—remove the log that is in your own eye, as Jesus put it.

And so, beyond the sins that harm others, we should also attend to the kind of private hang-ups we have that don’t seem to hurt yourself or anyone else, but which cause us private shame. It might be a habit for porn or some other embarrassing habit. You might have weird fantasies that you can’t seem to shake. You might often be consumed with pettiness or envy, even if you keep it to yourself. Now Wayne and others can focus too much on private sins. But even though they are affecting you only in secret, the fact that they trouble you means they are somehow affecting your relationship with yourself and with God, and perhaps with others more than you realize. They do not testify to the reign of God’s peace and righteousness in your heart, to what the Psalmist calls “truth in the inward being.” And God wants you to be free of these sins also.

Lent is the right time to confess all of these sins. This is the time to pray, with our Psalm, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. … Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Our sin might be secret; it may not seem to harm anyone else. But you can’t hide from God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” When we have to hide something from God and others, we are cutting ourselves off from our source of life and truth and love. “You desire truth in the inward being; Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence”—I would add, when we are out of control, we cast ourselves from God’s presence, we lose our union with God. “Do not take your holy spirit from me.” / You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be unified and collected to stand in God’s presence and receive God’s power. And finally, the Psalmist’s prayer is not only about being free from guilt, free from a bad habit, or even free from harming others. The point is to put yourself on the path to true joy: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” We want a spirit that joyfully and with holy pride does good, and has nothing to hide. That is where God wants you to be, and don’t settle for anything less. Confess yourself before God. If it helps, you can confess before me or before a trusted friend or counselor who understands divine mercy. And especially if you are trapped in substance abuse, or abuse against others, you need God working through others to restore you.

All of that needs to be said here more than I’ve been saying it. Now, I think I’ve neglected addressing that kind of sin because some churches both today and in the past have overemphasized them. Like I said at the start, sin is much bigger than those bad habits and inclinations that we cannot seem to control. Feminist theologians helped me learn that lesson, by pointing out that the church’s tradition of teaching (and harping on about) sin spoke mostly to those in power: mostly to males like Wayne whose main problem was maintaining personal control. Still today so much serious wrongdoing is by men who are out of control: name me a female mass shooter. Roughly 90% of both sexual abuse and homicide is committed by men. And so on. So yes, let’s not forget to address all the sins that men, and women also, commit by their wrongful habits and inclinations. But what about the victims? Those without power, typically women and minorities, have often experienced sin primarily as something done to them: as violation, as bodily injustice. Now I’m sure all women, who have been gaining power in many ways, can also identify with something in my earlier words about the personal sins we can’t control. But is a woman who is abused or harassed supposed to deal with that before God and the church by confessing that she is a sinner? No. Jesus healed and restored the victims of sin. He could be hard on sinners, but that was almost always the powerful men who were in charge in his day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Roman rulers. So let us all confess our sins before God, and let us ask God to heal us when we’ve been sinned against, and to bring us justice where appropriate (#metoo), and to help us forgive where appropriate. This will take a lot of discernment, and we are here to help each other do that.

Finally, we are sinners, and we are sinned against, but we are more than that. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples. And Jesus taught his disciples to set their sights higher than just overcoming their personal sins, or the sins committed against them. Jesus was more than a therapist. He was ushering in the Kingdom of God, a community of people set aside to live a unique life together dedicated to God and to loving all others. And when some Greek-speaking Jews come looking for Jesus in our reading from John, Jesus reveals the full extent of this life for God for which he came to earth. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” What does that mean?

If you have come here with your sins, and maybe your wounds from others, and are looking to be made well, Jesus desires to heal you, for God created you and wants you to be well. But if you then say, “Thanks!” and go home and get on with your life, get back to your career, you will remain “just a single grain.” Your work place will appreciate you, and at your retirement or after you are gone you will be remembered briefly for your accomplishments, your single grain of fruit. But that’s about it. Or, freed from sin, you may go back home and be a good parent. I marvel at the joy and responsibility of raising Silas, and how much impact I will have on him. But I also realize how limited my impact may be in some ways, how much is out of my control. And I wonder about how much from my ancestors was preserved in me and will be passed on to Silas. My father and mother—yes, he will remember them and I will pass on to him stories and some of the values I learned. My grandparents? My great grandparents? I’m not even sure of their names. Can I expect the generations after Silas to bear my imprint? I just don’t see a whole lot of fruit which I will be able to call mine. That’s what I have to show for being a single grain of wheat.

“Those who love their life,” Jesus said, love their single grain, which is not nothing, and is a good gift from God, “Those who love their life lose it.” Let’s be honest about that. And so we come full circle to where we began Lent on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”

But Jesus also said this: “And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, that doesn’t sound very inviting. I am not going to hate my life, my work, my role as husband and father, the little things that I get a kick out of doing. But we can love our little life too much. We have to admit that what I do doesn’t add up to a whole lot. And more painful still, we have to admit that “life in this world” is not fair. There are many, like the Bermudez children, who never have the chance to love their little grain of life, and this was true for some of Jesus’ followers also. But if you give of your life to follow Jesus in God’s way, you will participate in something infinitely greater than yourself. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” he said, “and where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Now I don’t claim to know what exactly that means for life beyond this one. But if you truly give yourself to the Christian way of being servants together, following the way Jesus came to serve all, and you plant your grain of wheat in this soil, you will bear much fruit, because you are now united in worldwide and history-spanning communion with God, a people committed to loving one another and loving across all barriers and divisions.

We are lucky. We probably won’t have to give up and hate our single-grain lives to take part in this eternal life, the life God honors and makes God’s own in the church. But maybe this Lent, which is almost over, we should listen to see if God is calling us to follow Jesus in this way, and so to be ready to give up our little grain, to let it fall to the earth and die, so that we together can bear much fruit, the fruit of eternal life.

 

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

More on Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom as a Worship Structure

I surprised most of those gathered yesterday with a new structure for our worship service.  We began briefly attending to the Body, then shifted the focus to our Self.  (I could call it “soul,” but that could make us think more of the eternal destiny of our soul, which is not where I wanted to go.  Rather, I wanted this part of the service to be where we place our most personal and individual concerns before God. )

From the Gloria, through Scriptures, Anthem, and Sermon, the focus was on Spirit.  This term is the vaguest or most easily misunderstood.  “Spirit” as I use it is not some ghost-like ethereal substance in us.  If we look just to each individual, the Spirit most strongly connects to our minds.  But Spirit is inherently social.  Think “school spirit” or “team spirit.”  Spirit is the meaning and purpose that a group of people embody as a whole, and if the meaning and purpose is a good one and is well understood, that group will be powerfully motivated.  Donald Trump was able to generate a certain spirit among his supporters, which is why they seem impervious to unseemly news about him.  (And a reminder: just because you have “spirit” does not mean you are doing something right.  Hitler generated one of the most powerful juggernauts of spirit in the 20th century, which led theologians to see the “demonic” side of spirit.  And it’s why the Bible calls for a careful “discernment of spirits.”)  So in the Spirit section we try to achieve a unity of purpose and mind by attending to Scripture and reflecting on it in our day.  It is no accident that my sermon yesterday made the point that this act of Spirit involves a dangerous laying hold of God, as we should do it with fear and trembling.

Having sought to raise ourselves up into the Spirit, the fourth part of worship enacted and embodied the Kingdom of God within our little community.  I was so glad the we could start this new structure on a Communion Sunday, which is the perfect expression of becoming a distinct form of divine community.  On subsequent weeks, the main expression will be a Prayer of Intercession, which is also fitting: we enact God’s Kingdom by praying for each other and the world.  And then we go forth and leave church to continuing enacting that Kingdom in a hundred little ways.

Here, in brief, is why I felt the need to try this experimental structure–which is only for the month of August and involves very few changes to our order of worship.  (I moved the Passing of the Peace, and added a body-centered meditation.)

  1. Our current practice of worship completely ignores the body, but our bodies are an integral part of who we are and of how we connect with God and each other.
  2. Protestant worship, as my recent research has shown me, took over a very penitential structure of worship.  (See John Witte, Protestant Worship).  In the Medieval church, communion was rarely received, in part because you had to say a full confession before you could receive it.  The assumption was that you had to be absolved of sin before you could receive communion.  Communion, in other words, was not the primary expression of being a community; it was a bonus reserved for the purified.  Protestants continued this understanding of communion by beginning worship with a Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon.  That can be fine–and I like doing this during Lent–but it assumes that the main point of worship is always dealing with personal sin.  There’s much more to it than that: we grow in our commitment to goodness and holiness, we strengthen our bonds of community by uniting together with Christ, we lose ourselves in mystical union with God, we confess before God our powerlessness and suffering at the hands of the world, and so on.  We need to explore many more possibilities than guilt and forgiveness.  (And so I have generalized the Prayer of Confession to mean confessing many things: our sin, but also our faith, our needs, our sorrow and suffering, our unity with each other, and so on.)
  3. The worship service at the Church of Christ, not unusual among Congregational Churches, has two prayers, each with a moment of silence built in.  I puzzled at the redundancy of this.  So in the Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom structure, the first prayer (“Confession”) is about our individual needs and prayers.  The second (“Intercession”) is us praying a community for each other and for the world.

There you have it.  This is a great place to comment on whether the four-fold structure made any difference for you in worship, and whether you like it or not.  Thanks!

3rd in Easter (4/30): “Life for Others: Life Also for Me”

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23

In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think  we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.

No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)

But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes?  If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?

And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.

There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.

In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?

I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?

The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /

What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.”   But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.

Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.

Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.

But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.

Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?

Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.

All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.

So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.

And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.

 

Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.

 

5th of Lent (April 2): “Loving Loved Ones”

I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon.  I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from.  So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact.  (Almost) Always the right thing to do!  Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe).  For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus.  It sounds stiff and repetitive.  But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.  

Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.”  In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid.  And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing.  But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially.  (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!)  I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones. 


Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45

Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.

That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.

A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.

Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss.   “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.

But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.

If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.

It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.

So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.

But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”

But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.

That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.

Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.

In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.

Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.

Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /

We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”  But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.