5th Sunday of Easter 2021

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“I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5a).   This is a beautiful passage that we love to use to decorate everything from tea cups to T-shirts, but have you every really taken the time to read the full passage and digest all that Jesus is saying?

He begins, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1a).  Psalm 80, probably written during the Babylonian captivity recalls the history of God’s relationship with Israel through the image of a vine. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.  You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.  The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches  it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.  Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” (Psalm 80: 8-13). The Psalmist evokes an image of a once cherished and well-tended grape vine that has been abandoned and the wild has overtaken it.  The prophet Ezekiel, writing about the same time uses the image of the vine to remind the people that they are in their current situation because rather than seek after God, who planted and tended them they sought protection from foreign kings. (Ezekiel 17).

Jesus’ opening statement is comforting to us, but would have been discomforting to many of the religious leaders of his time.  Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Jesus, who has already gotten in trouble several times for stating that he and the Father are one, has now declared that he is the true Israel.  The relationship that Israel, as a nation, had with God the Father in the days of Moses, Jesus now claims has been given to him.  What is that relationship? The inheritor of the covenant made with Abraham, continued through Moses and David that through Israel God would bless the world.  Jesus is stating that God did not break the covenant with Abraham’s ancestors, rather he fulfilled that covenant through Jesus who, through his biological parents, is a descendant of Abraham.  I am sure this did not go over well with many people at that time and can be disconcerting to many people today.  I think it is important to clarify a few things about this statement.  Jesus is speaking to the twelve that are his inner circle.  They are all Jews. Jesus is speaking as an prophet from the position of an insider, offering critique and hope. Psalm 80 accuses God of abandoning His people. Jesus claims that  God does not break his covenants, but because the people had not been faithful, God sent Jesus the only one able to perfectly fulfill humanity’s end of the covenant to represent and to be the root and base of the vine that can once again produce fruit.  Only with a healthy root and stock can the rest of us be the branches which will bear fruit.  This is only bad news if you are spiritually dead and chose to stay that way.

Jesus then says, “He [God the Father] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Jesus has absorbed the identity of all Israel into himself so that when God removes branches that bear no fruit, Jesus says, “every branch in me.”   In fact, Jesus will take into himself the identity of all humankind, not just Israel.

I am well aware that I am a novice in the area of care of plants, especially grapes.  I helped my grandmother pick grapes and make jelly, but that is the extent of my knowledge about them.  I have raised fig trees, though, which must be heavily pruned every year, so I understand the gist of what Jesus is saying.  As I understand it, most plants can benefit from dead wood being removed.  The dead wood can harbor insects and wood rot and takes away from the water and nutrients necessary for a healthy plant to grow.  A lot of dead wood can be made into useful things, but my understanding is that dead grape vine is not good for much of anything.  When a branch is separated from the rest of the plant, either by intentional pruning or like all the branches that fall off my trees with every rainstorm, if they are not already dead, they will die soon.  I pick them up and put them in a pile to be hauled off and burned as trash.  Jesus uses this illustration to demonstrate what happens to us when we turn away from Him.  If we die (cut ourselves off from Christ) while still on the vine, we will eventually be removed to protect those that are living and bearing fruit.  I suspect Jesus was referring to the religious leaders whom he saw as physically attached to the faith, but who refused to recognize Jesus for who he was and who were damaging those in their care rather than producing fruit to nurture those in their care.  Remember the hired hands and the thieves from last week.  Two important things to note here. 1) God the Father is the one who decides when and if the branch needs to be removed, that is not our job.  2) Jesus is using a description of what happens to useless items in his culture. It is a warning to us, not to become useless. This is not a literal description of hell nor does it give us permission to tell people they are trash.  Our baptismal vows remind us that we are to treat everyone with dignity.  We are branches and branches do not get to remove other branches or throw them away.

With figs, the fruit appears on new growth, so you cut the tree back to shape it and to provide room for the new growth in the spring.  I can’t speak for grapes, but perhaps my resident grape growers can fill me in if the same holds true for them.   Jesus says that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Pruning can be painful.  Pruning means some things which we want to hold on to are taken away from us so that we can be more productive as Christians. A healthy plant will more than make up for what is taken away in due season. 

Plants, like people, have a vascular system.  There are some obvious differences, but the general premise is the same.  Water and nutrients travel up through the roots and the vine, trunk, or stem to feed and nourish the branches, the leaves, and to produce fruit.  Jesus tells us that he is the root system and the vine or trunk through which we the branches receive our nutrition.  He says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…”  His words, his teachings are the nourishment we need to stay alive, to grow, and to bear fruit which by the way is how many plants reproduce.  Bearing fruit allows for more growth in general. 

Jesus continues “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”.  We must remember this statement cannot be separated from the “abide in me” statement.  If we are abiding in Jesus, what we desire will be pleasing to God and God will be pleased to grant it to us.  If we are not abiding in Jesus, if what we desire is contrary to the will of God, we may have a totally different outcome.

This is the perfect time of the year to get outside and work in our yards or gardens.  If you get the chance to do that, think about how you weed, trim, water and fertilize your plants and imagine what God might want to weed, trim, water and fertilize in your own life.  Remember to bring Jesus to help you in your garden.

4th Sunday of Easter 2021

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The story of the Good Shepherd is one most of us have heard many times and it brings to mind the pastoral images of Jesus as sweet and kind, but I want us to look closer at this story and what it is saying about who Jesus is.  To do so, I want to back up and put the teaching in context.

It is the Sabbath and Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. Some of those present have tried to discredit Jesus by bringing a woman to him that has been accused of adultery, and remind him that according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned.  Jesus points out that all those around her are also sinners, which does not endear him to the temple leaders. He then pardons the woman, putting himself in the place of a judge.  Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and in an extended discussion about his identity with the temple elders, Jesus ends with the statement “Before Abraham was, I am.”   There is no misunderstanding; Jesus has just linked himself with the creator, the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. In the eyes of the temple leaders, Jesus has just committed blasphemy and they attempt to stone him.  Jesus flees the immediate area of the temple, and along the way, he heals a man who has been blind since birth. Strike 3, Jesus has acted as judge, proclaimed himself one with God, and now in their eyes has broken one of the Ten Commandments by healing someone on the Sabbath which broke their interpretation of Sabbath rules. Jesus will teach that showing a kindness to someone is never breaking the Sabbath.   Who is this man? In the eyes of the temple leaders he is incredibly wicked.  Jesus claims it is the other way around.

Jesus pulls images of shepherds from their own scriptures to further explain who he is.  In Ezekiel 34, the prophet, speaking for God, chastises the leaders of Israel saying, “Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek 34:3, 4). The prophet continues to list the sins of the bad shepherds and the resultant scattering of the flock. He concludes, “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ezek 34: 11).  The Psalms also describe God as the good shepherd, David says in Psalm 23 that we read earlier, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).  When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is again identifying himself with the God of the prophets. Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  

Jesus begins by describing the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd enters the sheepfold by the gate; a thief climbs over the fence.  The shepherd is recognized by the one guarding the gate and by the sheep.  Perhaps an image we can better relate to is a person or persons entering their own home by the front door.  If they have a dog, the dog recognizes them and lets them in.  Their children run to them and embrace them, because their children know them and they know the names of each of their children.  An intruder comes under the cover of darkness and sneaks in through a broken window to rob and kill. Jesus is the owner of the home who enters by the front door.

Next Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheepfold.  The door of our homes provides us protection and makes us feel safe.  When we settle in for an evening, most of us check to make sure the doors are secured and then we can sleep without worrying.  Jesus is our door.

Today’s Gospel picks up where Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” He states that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He has been telling both the disciples and the temple leaders that he will be crucified before it is all over, but no one seems to believe him.  Shepherds who cared about the welfare of the sheep would sleep at the entrance of the sheepfold so if any wild animals or rustlers attempted to harm the sheep, they would have to come actually step on the shepherd first.  The shepherd would face lions, bears, and wolves to protect their sheep.  That is how the young David was able to kill Goliath, because he was accustomed to protecting his fold from wild animals much larger and stronger than himself. Jesus is stating that he will die before he allows any harm to come to his sheep.

Jesus states that he has other sheep that do not belong to this flock, but that he will unite the flocks so that there is one flock and one shepherd.  It is reasonable to assume that John was talking about bringing the Gentiles into the flock with the Jews, but there is still only one flock.  In this age of denominationalism it is easy to say, “We have all the answers and are the chosen ones, you are not.” Jesus calls us to find our common ground and to live peaceable side-by-side within the same fold.

Jesus then talks further about his death and resurrection, stating the Father loves him because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  He does so willingly and is able to take his life up again.  He allows the crucifixion as a vehicle for demonstrating resurrection.  This is what he has been commanded by God to do.

We are called to be sheep. We are called to respond to the voice of Christ and follow him.  We are called to rest peacefully in the knowledge that Christ is our protector.  We are called to come together as one flock living peaceably with one another, both within our family and parish, and with those other flocks that Christ has called to be part of the larger flock.

We are also in some sense called to be shepherds.  By our baptism we are all called into the priesthood of believers.  Jesus told Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”  In what ways are we feeding Jesus’ sheep? Or are we eating the fat, and clothing ourselves with the wool?  What are we doing to strengthen the weak?  How are we healing the sick and the crippled?  Are we bringing back those who have strayed and seeking out the lost?

Now, more than ever, people seem to be trying harder to belong to something while feeling more isolated.  They are seeking approval and acknowledgement of their self-worth.  Social media shows us the many ways people seek attention. Self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drugs are often sought as a means of escape from a world that seems too hard and cold and critical, but they are deep pits and ferocious beast that destroy. Some of the violence we see today are people seeking attention in destructive ways.

As you leave this building this morning, look out and see all the sheep wandering lost and aimless. See how many are falling into pits and being devoured by wild beast.  Let us help Jesus bring them back into the fold where they may graze on God’s bounty in safety.

3 Easter 2021

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Based upon some questions that came up during our Wednesday book study concerning the Trinity and given that today’s gospel story is focused on Christ’s Resurrection and the commissioning of the disciples to tell the story of Jesus’ life to all nations, a commissioning we as the extension of Christ own body have received ourselves, I want to spend some time this morning talking about who Jesus is and what teachings about him the early church felt was important to both protect and to share.

Christianity is unique in that we claim belief in a Triune God.  It is a difficult concept, one that doesn’t easily lend itself to examples without committing heresy.  Heresy is not a lack of belief, but a belief contrary to the teachings of the church. To talk about who Jesus is, we must talk about who our Triune God is.

I want to follow some of C S Lewis’ logic in Mere Christianity and also look at the Nicene Creed, the expression of our faith that we recite every Sunday during the Eucharist.

Lewis’ first question is do you believe in the existence of some form of intelligence that has intentionally created the universe or do you believe that all that surrounds us, the ordering of the chaos, occurred by random accident without any purpose or intentionality.  Are you a theist or an atheist?

Christians are theist, we believe in a higher intelligence and we believe the creation of the universe was done with intentionality and purpose.

Next, is this intelligence separate from creation or is it just the sum total of the universe itself.  The term pantheism is generally used to describe the religious beliefs that the universe is an emanation from god. The universe is the physical expression of god and god does not exist separate from the universe.  Another older Greek definition of pantheism is the belief in “all gods” Pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “god”, like the “pantheon” of Greek and Roman gods.    Christians are not pantheist.  The opening chapter of the book of Genesis and the opening chapter of the gospel of John clearly establish that the creator and creation are separate.   The opening sentence of the Nicene Creed states that “We believe in one God” and describes God the Father as “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

The next and admittedly very difficult question is: If God created the world, and called it good, what happened, because when we look around we see a lot that is not good?

One answer is called dualism.  Dualism states that there are two equally powerful and opposing powers in existence that are at war with each other.  There are various versions of how this works out, but the challenge of dualism is who decides which one is “good” and which one is “bad”? Lewis contends that the very fact that most of humanity considers certain behaviors as bad, means there is some greater law that guides us that defines what is good and what is not good.  That law Christians believe comes from the mind of God and we call it the law of love.  Christians are not true dualists, though we believe in evil forces that we are called to combat. 

How did evil come into God’s good world if God did not will it?  What we believe is that God created both heavenly creatures and human beings with free will because it is only when we have free will that we can love and be obedient out of that love.  Obedience that is compelled by external forces only creates puppets.  If we have free will, we have the ability to be obedient to God’s will or to do as we please.  Often, when we do as we please we find the consequences harmful to others and/or ourselves.  We call this sin, we have missed the mark, strayed off the path and we are called to repent, to change direction.  Often, we tell God to quit backseat driving and we wind up lost or we crash. This is how evil came into the world.  The Bible uses the story of Adam and Eve to explain it.  Humans desired to be like God to the point they became jealous of God, they quit trusting God, they quit doing as God commanded and they suffered the consequence. They allowed evil to enter their world.

There are other religions that would agree with us up to this point.  What separates Christianity from all other religions is not God – the creator, but a Triune God.  A God of one substance, but expressed in distinct three persons.  This is not, as the example is often given, like one person who is a parent to some, and child of another, a person with an occupation, etc.  That is the heresy called Modalism.  We are not talking about one God with 3 tasks, but 3 distinct persons that we experience as such yet that share one will, one mind and who are in relationship with one another.  There is Biblical evidence for this, but for the most part it is something that we must call a mystery, beyond complete understanding.

In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks and God breaths and chaos becomes order and the world as we know it is formed.  The Jewish word Torah, that we translate as Law means more like the thoughts of God and Jewish tradition holds that it existed before creation.  The Gospel of John tells us that the Logos, a Greek word we translate as “word” but which could also be described as reason, persuasive argument, and which John seems to mean the thoughts of God, was eternally with God, was present “in the beginning” and participated in the creation process, this Logos we are told became flesh.

What was important for the early church fathers to make clear was the Jesus was both fully human and fully God.  There have been and still are people who hold that Jesus was either/or but not both.  Many people see Jesus as a good person, but not God.  That is difficult to reconcile with the fact he was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders.  If he is not God, they were justified in their accusations. Some believe that Jesus was the first of God’s creation, not God, but more than human. If that is the case, Jesus would not be able to be in union with humanity, because he would be other than human.  Others, especially many of the Gnostics who are true dualist, claimed that Jesus only appeared to be God, but that he could not have been human because they believe the material world to be the creation of the evil demi-God.  So we begin the description in the Nicene Creed.

“the only Son of God” – Roman Emperors claimed this title

“eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.”

But why and how could God become man?  The why – “for our salvation he came down from heaven:”

The how – “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” – we have not talked about the Holy Spirit, yet, but ruach – the word in Hebrew that means wind or breath also means spirit.  Christians believe that wind that moved across the waters at creation and the breath that God breathed into Adam in the 2nd chapter of Genesis was the Holy Spirit.  This same Spirit came upon Mary, with her willful knowledge and consent, forming the infant Jesus of her flesh and God’s Spirit.

How did Jesus save us? This again is a bit of a mystery we know what Jesus did, but not exactly how his actions reconciled us to God.  The Nicene Creed tells us “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (Pilate’s name is here to indicate that this was a real historical event, not a myth); he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scripture.”

That takes us to today’s gospel reading. Luke emphasizes that Jesus’ resurrection was an incarnate one.  Jesus was not some disembodied spirit or ghost.  He eats a piece of fish to prove it.    At the end of the Nicene Creed we state, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  Our hope is that we too will experience resurrection, just like Jesus.  We believe that life continues after death, changed, perfected, but we don’t cease to exist, we don’t dissipate into some energy force called God, we don’t continue to live in a cycle of rebirths as someone or something else until we reach perfection. We are resurrected as incarnate beings, still distinctly ourselves.

What does this mean? It means that who we are matters.  What we do in this life matters.  How we treat our bodies and the bodies of others and all of creation matters. Life matters.   Alleluia, Christ is risen and we will too.

2 Easter 2021

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It is odd, and a little sad, that what history – the human memory of the past – remembers is when someone stumbled or fell, when they made a mistake, an incorrect statement, or even just hesitated.  And right now, it seems that we go out of our way to look for people’s errors to discredit anything good they had accomplished. When we see this between two individuals, we are likely to say that the fault finder is jealous, they are trying to elevate themselves at the expense of another.  When a large portion of a society does it, we find it harder to shake off.  This isn’t new.  It has been happening for centuries.

One of the main characters of today’s gospel has fallen victim to this kind of negative labeling.  He is often called Doubting Thomas, but I think it would be far more appropriate to call him Faithful Thomas or Believing Thomas.

From the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all we know about Thomas is that he was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and his students. It is something that those of us who embrace Christianity and seek to live into that calling share with him.  In John 15:16 Jesus tells those that were with him immediately before his arrest, that “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16).  We believe the words Jesus spoke that night were not just for those who were physically present, but they hold true for those of us who have inherited the faith through them.

The Gospel of John give us a couple more insights into the personality of Thomas. 

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus and the twelve had gone to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. (John 10:22) It was there that Jesus made the statement, “The Father and I are one.” (John 10: 30) and some of the local people had taken up stones with the intent of stoning Jesus for blasphemy. (John 10:31). Jesus and the twelve had left the area and crossed the Jordon River, effectively like crossing the Rapidan River here takes you into another county;  he moved into another province of the Roman Empire, probably the area that is now the country of Jordon.  While they were there, Jesus gets word that Lazarus is near death, and when he decides it is time to return to Judah, the disciples try to talk him out of it, but it is clear that he is determined.  Thomas speaks up and says to his companions, “Let us also go, that we might die with him.” (John 11: 16).  Thomas is not willing to abandon Jesus to his fate in Jerusalem and is the one rallying the troops so to speak to fall in and support Jesus with courage.

A couple of chapters later, Jesus is trying to explain to the twelve that he is leaving them, but he is talking about leaving to prepare a place for them and they don’t understand.  It is Thomas that has the courage to ask Jesus for clear directions, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

I see Thomas as forthright, courageous, a born leader, seeking clarification when he doesn’t understand, and one who likes to have all his facts clear and then he makes a very decisive decision.  If you look at Thomas in that light, removing the negative label from him  before you hear the story, does it change how you view the story and Thomas?

It is Sunday evening, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter and John have seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalen has spoken to Jesus.  Some of Jesus’ disciples have sought shelter together behind locked doors because they are afraid.  Thomas is not with them.  We do not know why.  Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them. (I always have visions of the Star Trek transporter as this point.) It appears, that Jesus, in his resurrected body is not encumbered by time and space. 

It is an unbelievably poignant moment.  Jesus, whom they had abandoned, whom they had seen tortured, crucified and buried.  He is not a ghost. He is not an imposter – he shows them his scars.  He is not angry at their abandonment of them.  He greets them with “Peace.”  He commissions them to continue his work, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21).  He breaths on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (John 20: 22) and he gives them the power to forgive sins, just as he had done.  When Thomas arrives, and we don’t know if it was that same night or later that week – “Oh, what you have missed.” Thomas is not willing to accept the testimony of the group.  He is reserving his hope, his expectations until he witnesses the risen Jesus for himself. “Unless I see that mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) There are a lot of people that we share our experience of Jesus with that seem to say the same thing.  The hope in this story is that Jesus provided that opportunity.

A week later, they are in the same place, the doors locked just like last time, but this time Thomas is with them.  Again, Jesus appears, and apparently just for the benefit of Thomas.  Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side, the proof that Thomas needed. Thomas’ response is “My Lord and my God!” Once Thomas has experienced the risen Christ for himself, he his wholly committed.  This is one of the highest Christological statements in all of the gospels by anyone other than Jesus himself.  This is a declaration that Jesus is not just a wise teacher or a good role model, this is a statement of total allegiance and an acknowledgement that Christ and God are one.

According to tradition, Thomas took the gospel message all the way to southern India where he was martyred. The Mar Thoma denomination that is now world-wide (I got to work with them when I lived in Dallas) claims that apostle Thomas as their founder. 

How would you like to be remembered by future generations?  I would encourage you to remember that “respecting the dignity of every human being” doesn’t end when that person dies. We are all sinners and we don’t have to approve of actions that are morally wrong, but if Jesus could forgive Peter and Thomas and the other disciples and go on to entrust his mission to them,  I think we need to be forgiving, not just of those who are living, but also, those who have gone before us.

Easter 2021

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Have you ever lost something that was precious to you and just about the time you have given up hope of ever finding it, it suddenly shows up. The relief and excitement at recovering the lost article is enough to brighten any day.  This is such a common experience to people that Jesus used this illustration several times in his teachings: the woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and even a man who loses a son.  Loss is part of the shared human experience.

This year, most of us are feeling loss with an intensity we have seldom experienced before.  Most of my friends are either clergy or musicians.  We live in front of a live audience for a good part of our life.  That evaporated and is just now beginning to come back slowly and with many changes.  Many of you may have lost a feeling of freedom and security.  The ability to go where you want, when you want, hug who you want, sing when you want, share a meal with others when and where you want. I suspect, this year, more than most I am ready for Easter.  I am ready for Resurrection and I suspect you are too.

In our gospel reading today the people in the story believe they have lost someone very precious to them.  They have lost their friend and teacher who has been the center of their lives. Jesus has been their life. Despite his constant attempt to prepare them for what he knew would happen, they refused to accept the idea that he would not always be with them.  When he was arrested, tried, condemned as a traitor, and crucified, they fled in fear, confusion, and sorrow.  Joseph of Arimathea, understood death.  A discrete follower of Jesus before his death, he stepped up and claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and placed it in the tomb he recently had built for himself.  The tomb was then sealed with a large stone disc which was rolled in front of the entrance.  All of this happened, very hurriedly, just before the Sabbath. 

Sunday morning before the sun came up, Mary Magdalene and some other women went to Jesus’ tomb, bringing some spices to anoint his body as was the custom.  When they got there, the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  Imagine the surprise and the grief of these women.  First their beloved teacher is taken from them by death, and now even his body has been taken. Jesus had told them he would rise again on the third day, but in their grief they had forgotten it.  Even those who had witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus, were unprepared for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Their process of grief has been interrupted by this unexpected occurrence.

They run to tell Peter, and the other disciples.  Peter, and another disciple, probably the young John, set out to see for themselves what has happened.  As  they approach the tomb the two men break into a run and the other disciple gets there first.   The women appear to be following behind them. As the first disciple approaches the tomb, he peers cautiously inside and sees the grave wrappings rolled up having been set on the ledge where Jesus’ body should have been.  He is frightened and bewildered and does not go in.  Impetuous Peter goes right in to check things out for himself and the other disciple follows behind him.  They can see that Jesus’ body is missing and that his burial cloths are still there, but at this point, they leave saddened, confused, perhaps angry, but it doesn’t yet click for them what has happened.

Mary Magdalene, remains by the tomb. The presence of Jesus seems to cling to this place, and even though she knows the tomb is empty, she longs to be near the memory of his presence.  The others have gone, but she can’t bear to leave.  She peers in the tomb, as though perhaps if she just looks one more time, he will be there.  Instead she sees two angels casually seated on the ledge that had once held Jesus’ body.  “Why are you weeping?” they asked?  Didn’t they know?  Didn’t they understand that the most important person in her life had just been taken from her?  She turns away and there is another man behind her.  He asks her the same thing “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” 

Mary cries out to the man she assumes is there tending the graves. “Have you moved him?  Please tell me where you have taken him.  I will take his body.”   Perhaps Joseph didn’t want Jesus in his tomb; perhaps the Romans had said he could not be laid there.  Where was her precious Jesus?  The man speaks her name “Mary.”  

It is incredible how much is conveyed in the human voice.  While Mary did not recognize the physical body of Jesus, she would always know his voice.  “Teacher!”  Mary rushed to put her arms around him, but he held her at a distance.  “I have not yet ascended to my Father.  But go and tell the others, I am ascending to my Father, your Father, my God, your God.”

 Mary rushed back to the others, being the first to share the good news, “Alleluia, our Lord is Risen!”  This was good news.  This was the best news she had ever experienced and she could not wait to tell those whom she loved.  If Mary had lived today, she probably would have tweeted everyone on her contact list and the news would have gone viral in a few minutes.  But then again, it would have been forgotten a few minutes later when some other world shattering news hit social media. 

God knew what he was doing when Jesus came two thousand years ago.  The Good News was spread person to person, with relationships built and strengthened as people shared their stories and experiences of Jesus.  Two men walking down the road toward Emmaus shared it with a stranger, who happened to be Jesus himself.  Peter shared it in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and three thousand people embraced the Good News and began sharing it with other people. 

The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost experience changed Christianity for the about 120 followers of Christ.  I am sure for many of them, they longed for the days when they could sit at Jesus’ feet and just listen to him.  Now they were the teachers.  Christianity was moving and spreading in new ways, embracing new groups of people, and facing new challenges. 

If COVID 19 has taught us anything I hope it is that Christianity is not about our buildings.  Christianity is not about which songs you sing, what instruments you play or what clothes you wear. Like the early Christians who found life had changed after Jesus’ resurrection, yet Jesus and his teachings had not.  We too must revision the life of our congregations in this new world, but our purpose has not changed. Christianity is about sharing that Jesus whom we love was once dead, but is now alive and has promised that we too can overcome death and experience resurrection.  Our lives will not end when our days here on earth run out.  We will not cease to exist, but will be transformed. 

This is the Good News.  This is what we are called to proclaim to everyone we meet.  Halleluiah!  Christ is Risen!

Good Friday 2021

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Several times in the gospels, Jesus challenges one or more people to “take up [your] cross, and follow me.”  This challenge is found in all three of the synoptic gospels, and occurs long before Jesus is crucified.  So what did the cross represent before Jesus’ crucifixion?  What was Jesus telling the people to do?

Crucifixion was typically reserved for non-citizens and traitors.   Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17).  There is no dual citizenship.  One must choose obedience and allegiance to Jesus, or to the princes of this world.  For Christians, when a decision has to be made to either obey one or the other, obedience to Christ must be chosen.  This becomes nothing short of treason to the other.

Who are the princes of this world?  Obviously in Jesus’ time the Roman government was top of that list, but other things made the list as well and these were not intrinsically evil things. These were good things given to us by God, but not intended to be placed before God.

The first competitor for our allegiance is life itself. One of the first things Jesus tells the twelve he chose to be the leaders in training for his new kingdom was “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10: 28).  Jesus also told his disciples “those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10: 39).  It was a hard lesson to learn. Peter later rebuked Jesus when he said he must be killed and Jesus called him “Satan” and a “stumbling block.” (Matt 16:21-23). Fear of death leads us to worship the false god of immortality.  Not the immortal soul or life in eternity, but the desire for immortal here in this life on this earth. From the Conquistadores search for the fountain of youth to today’s obsession with beauty and youth, we seek to be like God.  Taking up our cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”

Jesus’ next instruction to the twelve is not to allow family to become more important than commitment to him. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37)  Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from their boats and the family members that were on them to follow Jesus.  To what extent they stayed away we do not know, not completely, because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, but I am sure there were many times their families and the other disciples’ families had “other plans” for them that they had to forgo. At one time Jesus’ family, including his mother Mary tried to talk him into returning to Nazareth and stop his crazy behavior.  Jesus responds asking the rhetorical question “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12: 48) He answers his own question saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 12: 50).

Material possessions are another of the princes of this world that call us to worship at other altars.  In Mark, chapter 10 it was the man who came up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to whom Jesus said take up your cross.  Some translations just say “come, follow me”, but the KJV and some Greek manuscripts indicate that he was told to first to give away all that he owned to the poor and then take up his cross and follow Jesus.  The world tells us we need to worry about how much stuff we have and do we have the right stuff.  The billions of dollars that are spent on advertising each year are testimony to the importance the world places on buying and selling stuff.  Jesus says the stuff is not important.  Following me is what counts.

With Jesus’ crucifixion, the cross takes on an additional meaning.  The cross becomes for us the symbol of our Passover from everlasting death.  Jesus is the director in this Passion Play. While the leaders of the synagogue, Herod, and Pontus Pilate may all believe they are in control of the events of Good Friday, Jesus reminds Pilate, that God is the one in charge and that they can only do what God allows.  The scene is set at the Passover which has deep symbolic meaning for the Jews, but the meaning would not have been unknown to the local Gentiles because Passover was a huge holiday.  All the merchants and innkeepers would have geared up for the hordes of people that would descend on Jerusalem for the Passover, just like coastal communites prepare for Spring Breakers.  

After declaring during the previous night’s meal that that wine is representative of his blood that will be spilled and that the bread is representative of his body that will be broken, Jesus allows history to progress normally with his betrayal by one of his own disciples, his arrest by both the Jews and the Gentiles, his trial and physical abuse that so resembles the agony of Psalm 22 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 to 53, and finally his crucifixion.  This was not a coincidence; it was carefully staged by Jesus to occur at this time in this manner.  It is clear that Jesus intended his sacrifice to call to mind that first sacrifice in Egypt on the night of their deliverance out of slavery and bondage and to be a reminder for all time that with his blood, we are delivered from the plague of sin and eternal death.

We cannot take up Jesus’ cross.  There is only one cross of Christ.  Richard Harris says in a poem he wrote about the religious struggles in Ireland, “There are too many saviors on my cross, lending their blood to flood out my ballot box with needs of their own. Who put you there? Who told you that was your place?”  We are not called to take up our cross to save the world.  Jesus has already done that.  We are called to take up our cross by swearing allegiance to Christ and to Christ alone.   We should stick out as aliens in a foreign land and no one should have to guess at our nationality. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven whose allegiance is first and always to our king, Jesus.

Maundy Thursday 2021

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Many of you may remember Art Linkletter and his radio and film clips called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  It was later picked up by Bill Cosby for a couple years in the late 1990’s.  They were funny, because the children unabashedly spoke the truth they had witnessed or experienced, often in ways adults found refreshing in a child, but would never dare to say themselves.  Someone once asked a young girl why we have to be quiet in church.  Her response was “because people are sleeping.” What the girl had witnessed in church gave her a wrong impression of what was supposed to happen in church. Our actions do speak louder than our words.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples through both words and actions from the time he called them until this night.  They still haven’t caught on to half of what he has been trying to tell them.  They still don’t understand that he is about to die.  They are still expecting some sort of military rebellion, perhaps not a full army behind a general on a white charger, but at least some kind of resistance activity.  They are still anticipating that Jesus will supplant Herod and actually sit on a throne ruling Israel, and they are still arguing about who will be second in command.  So, Jesus demonstrates two things and gives them one new commandment. 

First, he washes their feet.  In a country where most of the people walked, wore sandals, and the roads were traveled by livestock as well as humans, a good host or hostess provided a bowl of water and a towel for their guest to wash their feet as soon as they entered the dwelling place.  A wealthy host or hostess also provided a servant or slave, usually the lowest ranking one in the house, to do the actual foot washing.  Jesus assumes this position among his disciples and begins to wash their feet for them.  At first, Peter is appalled.  His mentor, his teacher, has stooped, literally to take on one of the lowest jobs in a household.  Peter may have understood what Jesus was doing better than even he himself realized, because the reason he was appalled probably was tied to Peter’s own ego and his relationship with Jesus.  How many of you have ever been embarrassed by something your parent, child, or friend did?  You were probably embarrassed because you didn’t want anyone to think you would do that, or hang out with someone who did.  When Jesus basically tells him, if you don’t let me wash your feet you are not my friend, Peter suddenly wants a whole bath thinking this is some kind of purification ritual.  Jesus says no, I am just washing your feet because they are dirty and it is the kind thing to do.

Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership.  He is a mentor; a teacher not a political or military figure and they are called to be mentors and teachers not soldiers or politicians.  We are called to be mentors and teachers as well.  I suspect the reason the current generation is not engaged in religious activities is because they watched what we did, rather than did what we said.

The second thing Jesus did was he took the story of the Passover and appropriated its symbolism to help us understand the cross and to alter the way we approach God.  Up to this time, animal sacrifices were used to symbolically demonstrate our desire for forgiveness and assure us of God’s mercy.  Jesus puts an end to animal sacrifices and moves the focus of our relationship with God to the dinner table.  We are no longer subjects expected to cower in fear before God, we are children who are to gather as a family to share in the bountiful mercy of God’s love.

Finally Jesus gives them a new commandment.   Jesus had summarized the law given though Moses to the people by quoting two scripture passages: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)   But tonight he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). 

The reality is, we don’t always love ourselves or treat ourselves very kindly.  I am sure Jesus was aware of this.  If we only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, we may not love them very much or treat them very well.  But, if we use Jesus and the love he had for his disciples as the measuring stick for what love looks like, then we cannot fail.  What did that look like?  Jesus was about to show them.  Nothing that was said or done to Jesus by anyone lessened his love for them.    Jesus asked them to pray with him and for him in the garden during his greatest hour of need, and they fell asleep.  Only a very feeble attempt was made to stop Jesus from being arrested as one of the disciples whacked the ear of the servant of a soldier with a sword.  Jesus had compassion on the man and healed his ear even as he was being arrested.   The disciples slunk around in the shadows as Jesus was being tried and convicted.  Peter went so far as to deny he even knew Jesus on three different occasions that same night.  Jesus’ response is after the resurrection to ask him three times to confess that he loves him and to commission him to “feed me sheep.”  Only John and a few women stay with Jesus while he is dying.  After the Resurrection, Jesus first greeting is not, “Where were you jerks?” but, “Peace be with you.”   Jesus is brutally scourged and crucified, and Jesus’ response is “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus said if you do this, people will know you are my disciples.  One of the biggest complaints about Christians is that they are not very Christ like.  Some of this comes from people who expect Christians to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, but what Jesus demonstrates is not submission to evil.  He cast out demons, reprimanded religious officials, and even his own disciples.  What Jesus demonstrates on the cross is that forgiveness, not evil is the more powerful force.  We are called to forgive one another for our failings, even when the consequences cause us great pain, because in the long run forgiveness is our best weapon.

This week, be aware of what your actions say to those around you, demonstrate a Christ like love through servant leadership, and remember that forgiveness is the strongest weapon you have for combating evil.

Palm Sunday 2021

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When we hear the word prophet or prophecy, we are inclined to think of someone who predicts the future, but in reality, this is a common misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of prophecy from the biblical point of view.  A biblical prophet was a spokesperson for God and a prophet did signs and wonders that revealed God’s will to the people.  According to Old Testament scriptures, Moses was the greatest prophet.  The last paragraph in the Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah states:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Deut 34: 10-12

Moses, is quoted as saying, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:15).  Early Christians believed the Messiah was prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, a king like David.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, relates the history of Israel and reminds the crowd in the sermon that brought about his stoning, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.”

We have little trouble identifying Christ as priest or king.  The earliest images of Christ is the Christus Rex where he wears both the chasuble and crown, but prophet we have a harder time grasping.   Prophets are wild men, like Elijah or John the Baptist who look like they might smell bad and whom you would not be inclined to invite home for dinner.   

In our first gospel reading we heard the story of Palm Sunday.  Like much of scripture we are accustomed to hearing the sanitized version of the story where sweet humble Jesus rides into town on a donkey and everyone comes to greet him singing Hosannah and waving palm branches, and this is not far from the truth, but we have missed the point. 

King David had promised his son Solomon the rite of succession, but as David lay on his deathbed, there was an attempted coup by Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother who prior to David’s death tried to set himself up as king.  David gave orders that Solomon was to be put upon David’s mule and brought to a particular place just outside of Jerusalem, where he was anointed king by the priest Zadok and then rode in a joyful procession.   

The prophet Zechariah spoke to the people who had returned from exile in Babylon about the restoration of Israel and Judah.  He declared:

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

When a Roman general had been victorious in battle, they threw a giant parade called a triumph.  But not anyone could organize or claim right to a triumph.  It made a political and religious statement, and only the Senate could give permission.  By Jesus’ time, triumphs were typically reserved for the Emperor and his family. 

Jesus makes a very dangerous religious, political, and social statement when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey.  He is making what is called a prophet sign act.  He is acting outside of the social norm in critique of the status quo and claiming to speak for God.   He is claiming that he is the rightful king and heir to the throne of David.  This is sure to upset Herod, whose family gained the throne through battle, not bloodline.  This is sure to upset the Romans, because Jesus is defying the right of the Roman emperor to rule in Jerusalem and is claiming victory over that city.  This is sure to upset the Temple priest and officials because if they do not believe him to be the Messiah this is an act of heresy.  As we participate in the Palm Sunday procession, even if we have to do it sitting in our chairs, we are aligning ourselves with the rebellion.  

This is what liturgy is. Liturgy calls us to anamnesis. That fancy Greek word we translate “remembrance,” but it mean more than just calling something to mind.  It means to remember in such a way that we are united with those participating in the original act.  We are traveling though time, so to speak, and embracing the sights, sounds, and emotions of some significant event in our history and making it a part of who we are.  

Jesus performs another prophetic sign act on Thursday night.  The Gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, tells us that Jesus and his disciples had gone to the upper room on the first night of Passover.  The Passover as now celebrated, and very possibly celebrated in Jesus day, involved the drinking of 4 cups of wine and 3 pieces of unleavened bread were set aside in a special pouch.  The first cup is the cup of blessing, the middle piece of bread is broken symbolizing the parting of the sea of reeds.   Half of this piece of bread is hidden at this time.  Later in the celebration, after the meal has been eaten, this half piece of the middle piece of bread is “found” by a child, and it is broken in to small pieces and everyone shares this with the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption.  It is believed that it is at this time that Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my body” and “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14: 22, 24).

Jesus used symbols that were already heavily laden in meaning and added to them by associating them with his physical presence.  By the act of eating and drinking the bread and the wine, Jesus made those at the table with him one with him.  If they were one with him, then they too in a spiritual sense participated in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Paul says to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19b-20) When we participate in the Eucharist, we are at that Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples and we do then participate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ next prophet sign act was to associate himself with the Passover Lamb.  The story of the Exodus was the defining religious and cultural moment for most of Jesus’ disciples.  The story of how Moses ordered the children of Israel to sacrifice a spotless lamb, place the blood on the lintel and doorposts of their home, and then to remain inside, protected by the sign of the blood of the lamb while death passed by informed their understanding of redemption and their understanding of God.  Jesus placed himself in this story by allowing himself to become the final sacrificial lamb, protecting all who trust in him from eternal death.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, who came and dwelt among us and offered to us a means of eternal life and salvation to all who put their trust in him.   We worship a powerful God.  Our liturgies are designed to help us remember and, in a sense, participate in these power sign acts that Jesus initiated.  If you think your priests are fussy or grumpy about the way we do liturgy it is because it means something more than just niceties. Do not relegate Jesus to a kind man in children’s stories. It is in his humility and gentleness that Jesus demonstrates just how powerful he really is.  Jesus can ride into town on a donkey and cause emperors to become nervous.  Jesus can allow himself to be crucified to demonstrate just how powerful love can be.  Jesus is our king to whom we owe absolute allegiance.  He is powerful enough to be victorious over powers and principalities, triumphant over all the forces of evil.   Jesus is the bread of life.  He is the one who gives us life and sustains our life.  Jesus is our redeemer.  He is the one who defeated death at its own game and rose victorious to lead us to victory.

This week we are asked to pause and to remember the price of this victory before we celebrate the joy of it.  May you have a meaningful Holy Week.

5 Lent 2021

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Wednesday night, during our CS Lewis study, we talked about “tokens” or symbols and some ways we use them and how powerful they can be.  I was in Food Lion the other day and the man behind me noticed the cross around the neck of the woman behind him and immediately started asking her where she went to church.  That symbol was a sign of a common bond.

Jesus made great use of the images and symbols that were part of everyday life for the people he lived among, first century Jews living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Remembrance of cultural events were part of the cycle of their lives – reading of the Psalms and participation in the annual festivals.   Some have criticized Jesus claiming he manipulated his life to appear to fulfill scripture, but I think this was his great strength.  Rather than hold great theological discourses that could not be understood, he chose to illustrate the mind of God, his own and God’s purpose with stories and even events of his own life recalling symbols they knew and understood.  There was also a historical, cultural precedence for this.  They were called “prophetic sign-acts” and there are about thirty of them in the Old Testament.  Some of the most memorable are the life of Hosea – who takes a prostitute for a wife and then names his children No Mercy and Not My People to show the people their unfaithfulness to God and Jeremiah walking around the streets of Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck to warn the people of their upcoming enslavement. Jesus’ whole life is a prophetic-sign act demonstrating the faithfulness and mercy of God.

In our Gospel reading today from John we are between Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the feet washing at the last Supper.  We are told some Greeks come to Philip requesting an audience with Jesus. There were numerous Greek speaking Gentiles at this time who were attracted to and participated at the periphery of Jewish life.  They were allowed in the outer court of the Temple, the area where Jesus had cleared out the merchants, but no further. Isaiah declares in chapter 56 that “foreigners” will join themselves to the Lord (v6) and …”my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (v7).    The appearance  of the Greeks, though not mentioned again, seems to be a sign for Jesus that it is time to complete what he came to do because he does not tell Philip and Andrew either yes or no, but states ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23).

Jesus frequently used illustrations from agriculture to illustrate his points.  That was the life of the people – fish, sheep, grapes, figs, olives and grains. This time Jesus illustrates what he is about to do by talking about seeds.  A single seed out of the ground is inert and appears lifeless.  When you plant it, the seed itself is destroyed, but out of it come roots and shoots and life.  From that single seed will come a whole plant  – Jesus will later call himself “the vine” (John 15:1) and from that plant fruit will be produced which will bear many new seeds.  Jesus is telling his disciples that for new life to spring forth it is necessary to go through death.  He will soon die, but it is not the end it is the beginning.

Jesus tells his followers that they too are like seeds.  I think this can be applied in two senses.  While we are yet alive, we are called to put God’s will ahead of our own self-interest.  Having been granted free will, to surrender that will to another, is in a sense death of self, but as C S Lewis put it in Screwtape Letters, God wants “little replicas of Himself…not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His… He wants servants that can become sons” (Lewis, p.46-47). This death to self is a re-birth like the one Jesus described to Nicodemus, a spiritual rebirth. The other death is the one we will all eventually experience before we can experience Resurrection.

Jesus makes the most out of the historical rituals of his people to make his death and resurrection a neon flashing light that proclaim God’s forgiveness of their sins, the restoration of the covenant relationship, and the defeat of their number one enemy – death, by proclaiming a cure for its cause – sin.  I think COVID has given us a taste of what life was like for most people prior to the last hundred years or so. The difference being, we have hope that this plague will go away soon and have taken extreme measures to avoid it.  For most of history, death was the enemy lurking around every door, there was no cure, no escape. Any injury, accident or act of violence, childbirth, plague or common disease could quickly end a previously heathy life.

Jesus does not approach his death with the romantic notion of glory in battle.  He knows he will be tortured and executed in the most painful and humiliating way possible.  Public executions were the norm at this time.  It was seen as a way of controlling the population by fear. Jesus had probably witnessed a crucifixion growing up in a Roman controlled state. Jesus acknowledges the horror of what is about to happen, but Jesus knows that it is only though death that he can demonstrate resurrection. I think it was intentional  Jesus set up a situation where both Jews and Gentiles would conspire together to have him executed. All people, are equally guilty and all people are equally forgiven. The way the people of his time understood sin and the barrier between it and their relationship to God was deeply tied to ritual animal sacrifice. Jesus makes use of this understanding and times his arrest and execution to coincide with Passover. He uses the Passover ritual to redefine the covenant and ties it to his sacrificial death, he will wash the disciple’s feet and talk about servant leadership, but he has also linked his name with Melchizedek.  He is high priest and king predating the Mosaic covenant, who offered bread and wine as a sacrifice but because he is a high priest, he evokes images of one praying for the remission of sins for the people and performing the blood sacrifice that completed that ritual.  Jesus portrays himself as the righteous king of peace and the suffering servant. He is the good shepherd that looks after and cares for his flock and he is the lamb that will be given as both sacrifice and food for the people. He is the prophet enacting God’s will in story form for the people and he is the fulfillment of God’s prophecy.

The symbols Jesus used may seem strange to us today.  They may feel difficult to look at or imagine, but the message has not changed.  Jesus willing gave up his life so he could demonstrate to us that death is not our enemy, that our sinful natures can be reconciled, that an eternal relationship with God is not only possible, but greatly desired by God.  Jesus has offered himself as the path and has called us to walk with him.

4 Lent 2021

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When I had a houseful of kids, if something went missing or got broken there were plenty of possible suspects and of course no one ever wanted to confess to being the guilty one.  Now that I live alone, there is no one but myself to blame and when something goes missing, I know who misplaced it.

Confronting our own guilt is never easy, but it is what we are called to do on a daily basis as Christians. The remarkable thing is that we are told over and over again that if we confess, we will be forgiven.

In our Old Testament Lesson we have a rather odd story.  The children of Israel are making their way from the Red Sea which they crossed to escape slavery in Egypt toward the Jordon River and they are taking the long circuitous route to avoid the tribe of the Edomites.  Along the way the people begin to get tired of traveling and begin to complain. They are remembering the good-old-days in Egypt when they were slaves, but had easy access to food and water.  They even called the mana sent down from heaven “miserable food.”  Poisonous snakes invaded their campsite and many people were bit and died.  The people saw this as a sign from God that they had sinned by complaining against God and Moses and they begged Moses to intervene on their behalf so the snakes would go away.  God tells Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole.  Then when anyone was bit by a snake, if they would look at the snake on the pole they would live.  In effect, what they were doing was acknowledging their own guilt by looking at the snake on the pole, acknowledging the mercy of God by the simple act of looking at the cause of their illness, and receiving mercy from God who prevented them from dying.

This might have just remained one of those odd stories in the Bible except that Jesus made use of this symbol to explain what he, himself will do.

Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to him in the middle of the night. This is right after Jesus had driven the merchants off of the temple property.  Nicodemus may have been one of the men who witnessed this event and asked Jesus for a sign.  He obviously is concerned about what his peers would think of him if they caught him speaking to Jesus as a believer – otherwise he would not have come at night.  It is obviously important to him to speak to Jesus, otherwise he would not have gone to all the trouble to seek him out after the others have all gone home to bed.  Nicodemus tells Jesus “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has been watching Jesus and has witnessed what John in the previous chapter calls “the signs that he was doing.”  I suspect this was healing the sick, the wisdom of his teachings, and perhaps Nicodemus was beginning to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures as Jesus intended.   

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above;” sometimes this is translated “born again.”  This should have been a compliment to Nicodemus.  He has just confessed that he has seen the kingdom of God unfolding in the presence of Jesus and Jesus has responded that Nicodemus has experienced this new birth which has granted him this vision, but instead, Nicodemus takes what Jesus is saying literally and questions how one can be born again, thinking only of biological re-birth.

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be ‘born of water and the Spirit”. Nicodemus is still stuck – he is not getting any of what Jesus is saying despite his earlier confession that he knew Jesus had been sent from God and the signs that he did were testimony to that fact.

Jesus is now rather astonished and appalled at the lack of spiritual knowledge in this person who claims to be a religious leader of the children of Israel.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  I can empathize with both Nicodemus and Jesus at this point. Science and math can be hard, but at least you can point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify it is true and if you will observe it, you will see that it is true.  In spiritual matters, we can also point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify this is true, but telling someone else how to observe it for themselves can be difficult. Spiritual experiences are often difficult, if not impossible, to repeat even by those who first had the experience.  

Jesus continues to try to explain to Nicodemus what he is talking about and this is about the place we pick up todays gospel.   Jesus tell Nicodemus that if he is having trouble understanding something earthly, like birth and re-birth, how can he ever understand the heavenly things, but Jesus doesn’t stop trying to help him understand.

He tells him that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  Son of man is a term that goes back to Daniel where Daniel has a vision of one “like a son of man” (a human being) who is presented to “the Ancient one” and to him is given “dominion and glory and kingship…” Jesus is using passages of scripture that should be familiar to Nicodemus to tell him, I am the one  – I am the Son of Man that Daniel describes and I have come to earth as a man. 

Jesus pulls out another story from the scriptures that Nicodemus should know.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Jesus is describing his crucifixion and comparing it to the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole in the wilderness.  Jesus will take on the sins of the world at his crucifixion and all one needs to do is look to the cross and acknowledge that Jesus has taken on their sins and has forgiven them and they will be saved – not just for the moment, but for all eternity.

Verse 16 is the first Bible verse most people learn – “For God so loved the world that he give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “  It is a beautiful summary of the mercy of God, but we seldom pay attention to the rest of the passage and it is a statement of fact intended to cause Nicodemus to wake up to what Jesus has been telling him. 

Jesus emphasizes that he did not come to condemn the world.  The ancient notion of the last days was all about judgement, but mostly about judgement against the other person.  The prophets often reminded folks that in the day of judgement everyone, including you, would be judged, so be careful what you wish for.   Jesus states that we pronounce judgement on ourselves.  “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3: 18) None of us are put in the role of judging another person’s relationship with God, but I can’t state I believe the scriptures to be the inspired word of God and turn around and say it doesn’t matter what we believe.

Jesus gave this warning to Nicodemus – that we could tell the difference between good and evil because “those who do what is true come to the light.”  Symbolically, Jesus is comparing himself to the light but he is also saying that what is true, what is good, can stand up to the light of day – is not afraid of being exposed.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was afraid for others to know what he was doing.  His motives are questionable.  He is drawn to Jesus and yet, he places the esteem of his peers higher than his desire to be with Jesus.

Looking on our own shortcomings is never easy, but the solution is easy, we only need to turn and look at Jesus, to acknowledge what Jesus did on the cross as the path to our salvation.  We don’t have to completely understand it, but we must be willing to be seen in the light of day embracing the cross.  Are you willing to look at Jesus on the cross and acknowledge that is where your salvation was obtained?  Are you willing to let others know, or do you carry your faith only in the dark recesses of your own heart?  Jesus tells us to put our lamps where the light can be seen.  We are the lamps, Jesus is the light, but it is up to us to determine where we allow His light to shine.