Living Like You’ll Live Forever

A sermon on Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 51-58, preached at  Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

If it all seems a bit unbelievable, that’s alright.  The message of Easter – the news that Jesus had beaten death and walked out of the tomb – struck the people who had known Jesus and traveled with him for years as unbelievable as well.  They had even heard him announce on several occasions that he was going to be crucified, buried, and raised to life again and still, when the women returned from the empty tomb to report that two angels had appeared to them and said “He’s not in there anymore – he’s on the loose in the world again,” the eleven dismissed it as “an idle tale” and for the most part returned to their moping (Luke 24:11).  They had seen what had happened to him – granted, from a safe distance.  First the thugs employed by the chief priests and then the thugs serving in the Roman peacekeeping force had made a complete mess of him.  Then they nailed him up on a pair of planks between two other unfortunates and that was that.  Game over. No bonus round.

It was difficult for the eleven to question what seemed, based on all observable evidence not only from that week but throughout their whole lives, to be the basic fact of life: death is the end.  Alright, so maybe Jesus gave a few people a “bonus round,” like that widow’s son in the village of Nain, or that daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, or Jesus’ own friend Lazarus, which was all pretty impressive, but all of them were just going to die again anyway.  Jesus could sneak a little extra time from Death for some people, but there’s no beating Death in the end.

It wasn’t long at all, however, before the disciples were confronted personally with the Risen Christ.  He didn’t quite look like himself – at least, a pair of disciples didn’t recognize him as they walked for perhaps seven miles together from Jerusalem to Emmaus, until he broke bread at a table with them.  In John’s Gospel we find Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, until Jesus calls her by name.  When he showed up in the midst of the eleven and their companions (and in John’s Gospel he just shows up among them in the middle of a locked room), the disciples weren’t sure if he was real or a ghost, until he told them to poke him and give him some food.  It took a while for it all to sink in, because it was just so hard to believe, after seeing the triumph of Death all around them for all their lives, that they knew someone who really had defeated Death, who now lived a life, in a body, over which Death had no more power. They still took another fifty days to process all this before they started preaching – and living – the implications of it all.

The Apostle Paul, who also had the benefit of getting turned around by an encounter with the risen, glorified Christ, knew a great deal about living the implications of it all.  Indeed, if he was going to prove faithful to God’s commission to him to proclaim Jesus as the risen Lord he would have to be willing to live the implications of following a resurrected Lord, which simply meant living now as if he was going to live forever.

Now, I’ve typically heard the expression “living like you’re going to live forever” applied to people doing stupid things, like taking unnecessary risks for the thrill of it, or putting a great deal of energy into work while allowing relationships with spouses or children to pass one by or to suffer for lack of investment, or just plain wasting precious time that one will never get back – but some day will desperately wish one could get back.  Living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die can be a path to living wisely during the span of this mortal life.  It can help us reflect on how to make the most of any given day in terms of pursuing what gives greatest value to our lives rather than allowing ourselves just to “kill” time, which is a kind of prolonged suicide.  It can help us prioritize wisely, which usually means prioritizing people.  (I wouldn’t take back a single hour that I spent playing with our boys, for example.) It can even help us stop investing ourselves in conflicts and concerns over the “little things” because we know that pouring any more of our limited time into such matters is just sending good money after bad.

More often, however, it seems that living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die leaves us vulnerable to living in a selfish and, sometimes, even cowardly manner.  We find ourselves thinking more of what we are getting out of life, and making sure that we get what we want out of life, even if that means giving up on a spouse who no longer makes us happy; even if that means spending 97% of our after-tax income on preserving the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed; even if that means getting behind public policies that hurt other people but are alright because they protect our interests. We are no longer motivated by virtue.  The good of the other, whom we are to love as we love ourselves, is no longer the primary guiding value.  Instead, we are seduced into an ethic of satisfying our own desires to the point that we are willing not only to withhold help from, but to cause harm to others to do it.  This is how Death makes us its slaves.  This is how Death asserts its control, its power over us.  This is precisely that from which Jesus died and rose again to free us.

If we are going to follow Jesus all the way, we need to discover an Easter faith.  We need to understand that Death is not the wall into which we slam at the end of our lives; Death is not a mirror that should keep us looking only to this life and looking out to get all we can out of this life.  Death is a door – one that Jesus has knocked off its hinges.  We need to hear Jesus this morning, standing outside his tomb with the round stone rolled back again, saying: “I died, and look! I’m alive now for all ages to come – and I hold the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:18).  Only if we hear him say this and trust him, that he can and will unlock our tombs, will we be able to follow him when obedience, when gratitude, becomes costly.  Only then will we trust him enough to give away our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, believing his word that it is only such people who will ultimately make their lives secure.

Paul understood all of this very well.  What we do not see in Paul is an attempt to have things both ways – a secure, comfortable life now and just enough of Jesus to have some insurance in case there’s something after death.  What we see instead is a complete re-ordering of life with a view to fulfilling the call that Paul understood God to have placed on his life – to announce God’s Son throughout the nations that made up the Roman Empire (Gal 1:15-16).  He took up an essentially itinerant life, a hard trade that required, however, only a few tools that could easily be carried as he moved from city to city, and hostility from everyone who felt threatened or betrayed by his proclamation of a crucified blasphemer as the Messiah of Israel, who loved Gentiles every bit as much as Jews, and would soon return to upset the entire Roman order.

Paul provides this summary of the downside of his life as a missionary and church planter:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.  (2 Cor 11:25-28, NRSV)

And all of that happened to him before the really bad stuff – his four years of imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome and his eventual execution under Nero.  He can rightly say: “If we’ve hoped in Christ only for this life, we’re of all people the most wretched” (1 Cor 15:19).  If there’s no resurrection from the dead for me, why have I been doing all this?  As Paul says just a few breaths later,

“Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way every hour?  It’s like I’m dying out there every day!  If I faced down people in Ephesus who were like wild animals, what did I gain from it?  If the dead aren’t raised” – if this life is all there is“then let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:30-32).

I wonder to what extent we spend our lives hedging our bets.  To what extent do we insulate ourselves from the possibility of ending up like Paul – the loser both here and hereafter because we failed to get all we could out of this life in the hope that Easter faith was real, perhaps to find out in the end that it wasn’t real.  This is, however, precisely the posture against which Jesus warned: “those who seek to make their lives secure will lose them; those who spend their lives for my sake and for the sake of the good news will secure them” (Matt 16:25).

Paul understood that one had to go “all in,” to live now like people who were assured of living forever, and not hedge one’s bets. Pastor Stephen Abur of Darfur, Sudan, understood this as well.  He continued his work of preaching Christ in open-air evangelism and building up a congregation of believers there despite having received multiple death threats from Muslim zealots, enraged that former Muslims were embracing Christianity.  Enough Sudanese Christian leaders had turned up dead for Stephen and his family to treat the threats as credible, yet they persisted in their witness and in their work.  In the still-dark hours of the morning of March 2, 2018, Stephen, his wife, and their two daughters were found butchered (the reports say “like livestock”) in their house, after their attackers had set fire to the church building in which over a hundred converts, who had been disowned by their own families, were living.

Theirs was an Easter faith. They continued to live as people who would live forever, for whom Death might hold some apprehension, but not fear, such as might cow them into silencing their obedient witness to the Lord who loved them and gave himself for them. And as I hear more and more such stories of our sisters and brothers around the globe, I think, more and more, that our best response is not: “Well, I’m certainly glad that we live here where that sort of thing doesn’t happen” or “Thank God we don’t have to face anything like that.”  I don’t think anymore that God calls for that degree of Easter faith from one family or person and calls for much less Easter faith from another family or person.  No, I have begun to hear this: “If they faced death with that kind of an Easter faith, how should we live life with an Easter faith to match?”

If they were willing to give their all on this side of death to continue the witness and work of Christ, sure that their Lord held the keys and would unlock death for them, and putting their all into advancing their Lord’s interests in Darfur, what would it look like for us to give our all on this side of death to advance our Lord’s interests both here and throughout the world?  Should I feel lucky that my faith journey doesn’t require such sacrifice as is required of others, and go back to enjoying my normal American life with all of its trappings?  Or should I start reorganizing my normal American life more radically so that, maybe, my living will bear the same kind of witness to an Easter faith as the Abur family bore in their dying?  The essential question that Easter places before us is this: will we go on living for the sake of the enjoyment of this life, witnessing to the power of death, or will we live like people who are going to live forever, proclaiming by our selfless actions and courageous witness, “Death, where is your sting?  Death, where is your victory?” (1 Cor 15:54b).

The “good news” of Easter is not merely that Jesus’ story has a happy ending. It’s the assurance that Jesus’ resurrection is the first of many: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits from among those that sleep” (1 Cor 15:20).  Where there are “first fruits,” the full harvest is not far behind. Christ’s resurrection turned the tomb into a womb.  It may swell now as its burden grows with each new death, but at the time of deliverance new life will burst forth as the dead are brought forth by God to live anew (Rev 20:13). The chief point of 1 Corinthians 15 is that you can’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus without also believing in your own.  And when you truly believe in your own resurrection, you will be free to give yourselves away for the good of others like people who have an endless supply of life – for you know that you really are going to live forever.

 

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A New Commandment

A sermon on John 13:1-17, 31-35, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

It’s impossible for them to have missed it.  The large basin, the pitcher full of water, and the towel had all been sitting there in the room before Jesus and his disciples arrived at the house.  As they entered the house, they all had to walk right on by this standard apparatus.  Jesus might even have been watching the faces of his disciples as they noticed the vessels, looked around for a servant, gave the slightest shrug, and moved on past to take their place on the cushions that had been arranged around the tables.  No servant in this house?  No rinsing of the sand and dust from our feet?  Oh, well.  I wonder what’s for dinner.

Then, after everyone selects their spot at the tables and settles in to the cushions, he does the unthinkable.  I can almost hear Peter thinking to himself: “Oy, vey! What’s he doing?  Why does he have to go and do that!  This is so embarrassing!  Why didn’t one of the guys think to do this, so he wouldn’t get up and put us through what he’s about to do?”  He looks over to James and John and shakes his head in disbelief, as if to say: “What do we keep the other nine around for anyway?”

In the other three Gospel narratives of what went on in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus’ death, the evangelists don’t give any account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  But they don’t ignore the point of the lesson, either.  In Luke’s narrative of the course of this evening, we see a dispute arising among the disciples concerning which one of them had the highest standing among the group.  Jesus won’t allow that elephant to enter the room, let alone settle in unchallenged, so he says:

Gentile rulers lord it over their subjects and those who hold authority among them are called “Benefactors,” but you’re not going to be like that.  No, but let the one who has the greater dignity become as the junior member, and the leader as the one who does the serving.  For who has the greater dignity?  The one who reclines at the table, or the one who stands to serve?  Everyone would say it’s the one who reclines at the table, no? And yet I stand among you as the one who does the serving. (Luke 22:25-27)

On the night before his suffering and death, it seems to have been most on Jesus’ mind to impress upon his followers once and for all this overturning, this shaking up, of worldly notions of status, social hierarchy, and the implications of the same for how we’re going to behave toward each other and where we’re going to draw the line between what we’re willing to do and what we’re not going to do.  John’s Gospel, as is so often the case, puts some real flesh on that word (“I stand among you as the one who does the serving”) by showing us Jesus getting up from the couch and washing his disciples’ feet.

Providing water and a basin for rinsing away the gritty dirt from sandal-clad feet appears to have been a widespread ritual of hospitality in the ancient Mediterranean.  In well-to-do homes, household slaves would perform the task for the freeborn members of the household and their guests. It could also be performed by any socially subordinate member of a household for those above them in the hierarchy of the home – in the Greco-Roman world, wives for their husbands or children for their parents. Disciples might perform such services for their rabbis as signs of respect. What one does not see, however, is social superiors performing this service for social subordinates.  In the highly status-conscious world of the ancient Mediterranean, such lines were not crossed or confused.

So Peter’s incredulous question – “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” – followed by his strenuous objection – “There’s no way that you’re going to wash my feet!” –  is imminently understandable, not only on the basis of Peter’s regard for Jesus’ dignity, but on the basis of Peter’s regard for his own personal comfort.  Such a status reversal was bound to be a dreadful embarrassment also to the inferior party.  Jesus, however, can’t let Peter off this particular hook: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8b).  With characteristic drama, Peter responds “Well, if it’s really necessary, let’s go all the way!  Wash my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus must have rolled his eyes (on the inside at least) as he patiently countered, “I don’t have to wash every part of you, Peter, but you do have to let me do this.”

Why did Jesus make such an issue of this with Peter?  I do not think it was because there was something mystical in the act itself, as if this was some necessary purification, a kind of special baptism.  But there was something mystical in each disciple allowing Jesus, the Master, to perform this inappropriately humbling, status-smashing act of service. To be thus served by Jesus changes the one who has received the service.  The one who has felt himself or herself thus served by Jesus will not shy, will not wince, at serving another.

After Jesus finishes making the rounds of the disciples’ feet sticking out from their couches, he puts on his outer cloak again and asks the disciples “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12, NRSV).  (“Yes, Jesus,” Peter thinks to himself, “you’ve made this evening extremely awkward, thank you very much.”) The way Jesus’ question ends is ambiguous in the Greek: it could be heard as “Do you know what I have done for you?” or “Do you know what I have done to you?” The NRSV chooses the latter, probably with very good reason.  Jesus has not just done something for the Twelve, performing a service for them; he’s done something to the Twelve. He’s laid a challenge, an obligation upon them. It’s a straightforward argument from the greater to the lesser:

You call out to me, “Teacher” and “Lord,” and you’re right to do so, because that’s what I am.  If, then, I – your Lord and teacher – washed your feet, you also are obliged to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:13-14) 

If I can do it, you surely can do it.  If I can set status and propriety as this world reckons them aside, you surely can set your narrower distances in status between each other aside and get down to the business of serving one another.  In this paragraph we find something that is rare indeed in the Fourth Gospel – a saying of Jesus that we also find in one of the first three Gospels: “A slave does not have greater dignity than his master, nor does the person who gets sent on a mission have greater dignity than the one who sent him out on a mission” (John 13:16; compare Matt 10:24).  In Matthew’s Gospel, this saying braces the disciples to face hostility and persecution: if it happened to me, says Jesus, it will happen to you.  In John’s Gospel, this saying lays the obligation of mutual servanthood on all who claim Jesus as their teacher and their Lord. If this isn’t beneath me, it’s not beneath you.  If you’ve experienced my washing your feet, Peter; if you’ve experienced how no act of loving service is beneath me, your Master and Lord, you’ll know that no act of loving service is beneath you, my disciple and follower.  And if you know this, blessed are you if you actually go about putting this into practice henceforth (John 13:17).

A modern analogy.  Dishes had been piling up in the sink in the executive lounge. A number of the management team had already had to start putting their own dishes off to the side of the sink for lack of room in the sink.  There was even some chatter about looking into the janitorial staff’s performance, since they seem to have been slacking off.  The CEO came in to get himself some coffee, noticed the dishes piling up, and heard some of the chatter.  He took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed the sponge and soap and started doing the dishes and setting them in the empty drying rack.  Then he went around the room, gathered any plates and cups that his management team had finished with, took those over the sink and washed them.  He rolled down his sleeves, put on his jacket, got his coffee, and walked out.  The CEO did something for his managerial staff, but he also did something to them.  They all realized that any one of them could also take off his or her jacket, roll up his or her sleeves, and wash dishes – and now they had no excuse not to do so.

It’s easy to apply this lesson to our life together as a church.  If you see something not done that someone else ought to have attended to, especially if you think it’s below you, remember what Jesus did on the night before his death.  If the garbage needs emptying, if the sanctuary needs some picking up, if there are crumbs left scattered on a table in the library; if the Visitation Team isn’t getting out to everyone you think they ought to be seeing, if the Trustees aren’t getting everything fixed in good time, if the rest of the parishioners aren’t inviting enough people to our services … you get the idea.  We do have a lot of people here with servants’ hearts, as I’ve been privileged to see week after week.  We also have a number of people here who, well, could probably pick up a basin and a towel a bit more frequently.

But, of course, Jesus’ object lesson goes well beyond such trifling matters, just as Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is a symbolic act that interprets the greater act of service on the part of the Suffering Servant – not merely laying down his garment and taking up a towel, but his laying down his life and taking up the cross. Indeed, at least one disciple clearly heard Jesus also saying, “if laying down my life for you is not beneath me, laying down your lives for one another in my family is not beneath you.” This brings us to the episode that gives this evening its name: “Maundy” Thursday, a corruption of the Latin Mandatum, “commandment.”  On this evening before his giving up of his life for all who would ever become his disciples, Jesus gives a new commandment: “Keep loving one another” (John 13:34).

In a sense, this is an old commandment, as the author of 1 John seems to recognize (2:7-8).  We are familiar with the commandment given to Israel at Sinai, found in Leviticus 19:18 – “Love your neighbor as yourself,” adopted by Jesus as the companion to the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength” (Deut 6:4; cf. Mark 12:29-31).  Jews continued to remind one another of this commandment, as for example in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, written not terribly long before Jesus’ birth: “Love your brothers and sisters, and put away hatred from your hearts, and love one another in action, in speech, and in your minds” (T. Gad 6.1); “Each one of you must love his or her brother or sister with a sincere heart” (T. Simeon 4.7).

In another sense, however, the commandment is new in one very significant way.  As if Leviticus 19:18 did not lay enough upon us in terms of taking our neighbor into our circle of care, our scope of concern, now Jesus gives a new commandment that surpasses all that preceded: “love one another just as I loved you” (John 13:34) – not merely “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but “Give yourself up to secure your neighbor’s good.” Taking up a towel for one another is an important first step; it’s essential training in discipleship.  But Jesus is really calling us much further – to take up a cross for one another, to lay aside our own comfort, our own pursuits, our own delights, our own time and resources for the sake of meeting the very real needs of the sisters and brothers both in our midst and throughout the globe – to bestow on those most in need among Jesus’ family the love and self-investment that Jesus bestowed on us.

John 3:16 is a verse that is often heard during Holy Week: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever should trust in him might not perish but have eternal life.”  I often have our Chancel Choir sing a musical setting of this verse by John Stainer during Lent or Holy Week, an anthem that notably comes from the middle of his oratorio, The Crucifixion.  But we hear tonight about our necessary response to John 3:16, a connection also made explicit in 1 John 3:16, where John the elder appears to be commenting on the material we’ve heard tonight from the Fourth Gospel:

This is the message that you heard from the outset – that we are to keep loving one another…. We have come to know love by this – that he laid down his life on our behalf.  So we ought also to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers.  Whoever has this world’s goods and sees a sister or brother in need and withholds compassion from him or her – how does God’s love live in such a person?  Little children, let’s not go on loving in word or in talk, but in action and in reality. (1 John 3:11, 16-18)

Jesus asserts that this kind of loving service is what will show the world that we follow Jesus; it will make the world recognize us to be Christ-followers and, by implication, have to recognize the reality of Christ even as the reality of effects demonstrate the reality of the cause.

Christians were accused quite early on of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  It is important that we continue in that venerable tradition – of classifying no act of loving service as below us, but jumping up to be the first to stoop down, following the example of our Lord and teacher; of observing no hierarchy among ourselves that does not call the most ambitious to the most humble service; of allowing Christ’s love for us to continue to have force in this world, by finding the ways in which we are being called to lay our own lives down for one another in love throughout the Body of Christ. Amen.

 

How Far Is Enough?

A sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

The week of Jesus’ Passion is also the week of the Jewish Passover, and the Passover has provided a frame of reference for the Passion since the night before Jesus was given over to suffering and death, when Jesus took the bread and the cup at a Passover seder with his disciples and gave them the shocking new meaning: “this is my body that is for you…. this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:24-25).

A song that has been sung at Passover since at least the ninth century AD, but that arguably has much more ancient roots, celebrates God’s generous kindness in rescuing Israel from Egypt by declaring that, had God only done a fraction of his works on Israel’s behalf, it would have been enough.  Had God stopped anywhere along the way, he would have given Israel cause enough to praise him and to acknowledge themselves to be forever indebted to God for his goodness toward them:

If God had brought us out from Egypt, and had not rained down plagues upon them, he would have done enough for us.

If God had rained down plagues upon them, and had not smitten their first-born, he would have done enough for us.

If God had smitten their first-born, and had not split the sea for us, he would have done enough for us.

If God had split the sea for us, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, he would have done enough for us.

And so the song proceeds through God’s bringing his people to Sinai for the giving of the Torah, into the promised land, and to Jerusalem, and to God’s dwelling in their midst in the Temple.

A similar sense of grateful awe seems to undergird the hymn to Christ that Paul either composes or recites here in Philippians, as we are led to consider each step further that Christ took on our behalf in his incarnation and death.  Indeed, I cannot help but hear the Passover song as a subtext for this early Christian hymn:

Had Christ given up his enjoyment of equality with God, and not humbled himself to take on human form, he would have done enough for us!

Had Christ humbled himself to take on human form, and not further abased himself to take on the form of a slave, he would have done enough for us!

Had Christ abased himself to take on the form of a slave, and not humbled himself further to become obedient to death, he would have done enough for us!

Had Christ humbled himself to become obedient to death, and not submitted to death on a cross, he would have done enough for us!

But at no point along the way did Christ say “that’s far enough to go for them.”

Over the decades I have often heard preachers speak as if there were some great disconnect between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  How, they ask, did we move in the space of a single week from a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the acclaim of thousands, waving their palm branches as symbols of the Messiah’s coming victory and laying them in his path, to a gruesome flogging and crucifixion outside Jerusalem to the mock acclaim of Roman soldiers and of Jerusalem’s leaders, waving their fingers as an expression of their victory over him?  I would ask, how could the week have moved in any other direction?  In an environment in which several would-be messiahs had already announced their candidacy and ended up routed by the Roman “peacekeeping” force, how could staging such an entry into Jerusalem at a major festival in obvious alignment with an ancient prophecy have failed to win for Jesus his own cross?  Nothing speaks to me as loudly concerning Jesus’ fixed intention to lay down his life – to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross – as his staging of today’s events.  As we move through this week, we may see Jesus wrestling with the consequences of what he has set in motion today as he prays in Gethsemane, “if this cup can pass by from me,” but we can be sure of this: what Jesus was looking for today was not really a parade into the city, but a procession to Calvary.

The hymn in Philippians tells us something vitally important about Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross.  This is not merely an act by a human being, giving up his life to the God whom people had alienated by their disobedience, to win pardon and reconciliation for them.  It is that, of course.  Obedience was precisely what we had not given God.  Adam had also been made “in the image of God,” but Adam had considered being equal with God indeed something to be seized. This was the very enticement to disobedience employed by the serpent: “Eat, and you shall be like gods yourselves.”  In that archetypal act are reflected all of our sins, every decision we’ve made to put ourselves and our wishes for our lives ahead of God and God’s vision for the same – the ongoing rebellion of created beings against the Creator’s claims upon those he had brought into being in the first place.  Jesus charted a different path, the path of saying at every step of the journey “Not what I want, God, but what you want,” the path not of securing his own enjoyment of this life but of using this life to achieve God’s ends for it.  In this way, Jesus’ offering of “obedience to the point of death” could become an offering for us, because Jesus had given to God all the obedience that we had not given – and did it specifically for our sake.

But this is not merely the act of a human being for human beings. Paul’s hymn also describes an act by a divine being, giving up divine rights and prerogatives, giving up his exalted dignity, lowering himself to our level and even below our level – “taking the form of a slave” – so as to break up the shell about our hearts that had been hardened against him and against our fellow creatures, our fellow human beings.  On the cross of Jesus we do not see a man giving himself up to a torturous death to win over an angry, bloodthirsty God; we see God giving himself up to win over ungrateful, self-absorbed human beings.   We see indeed the horror of the toll our sins have taken, but we see God having taken on flesh specifically so that he could bear that cost for us in the flesh. As Charles Wesley was led to exclaim, so must we: “Amazing Love! And can it be that Thou, my God, wouldst die for me?”

Paul, however, did not share this hymn with his converts in Philippi just to say something about Christ.  He shared it primarily to say something about being followers of this Christ, introducing his hymn with these words: “Have this disposition among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).  Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his rights and prerogatives for the sake of accomplishing God’s purposes; his willingness to go the full distance and not draw any lines in the sand; his emptying himself instead of becoming “full of himself”; his willingness to divest himself of everything, even every last shred of dignity and of life itself in order to obey God and advance God’s desire to restore people – all of this reveals something of the mindset that must drive us who follow this Jesus, who are bound to give for Jesus as he gave for us, in whom Jesus must take shape, so as to restore in us the image of God.

Paul invokes the example of Jesus specifically to support the instructions he had just given on how to interact with one another within the Christian community he planted in Philippi:

Don’t entertain rivalry or conceitedness in yourselves, but in humility consider the others around you to surpass you in dignity, each one of you looking out not for your own interests but each for the other’s interests. (Phil 2:3-4)

While the Christian group in Philippi was one of the least troublesome for the apostle, they weren’t without their issues.  At the moment, two leading women in the church – Syntyche and Euodia – were digging in their heels against each other over some disagreement that Paul was too wise to name, and were drawing other members of the church into their rival camps.  Paul simply says “stop it.”  As soon as you start treating the other Christian as if his or her interests don’t matter, as if he or she is less worthy of a hearing or deserves less consideration than yourself, you’ve lost sight of the issue that’s always going to be more important than the one over which you’re fighting – are we approaching the other person with the mind that was in Christ Jesus?  Take a moment and think about a person in this church who’s gotten in your way, or opposed something you thought important, or failed to value you enough, or done something that moved you to contempt.  What would it look like to take Paul’s instructions to heart in regard to that person?  What would it look like to empty yourself – to stop being so full of yourself – and put yourself at God’s disposal to serve God’s interests for that person?

Every church, it seems, has its own special T-shirt that it gives out or sells to its members.  One of the churches I had previously served had the number “1” on the back of every one of its T-shirts, the implication being: “Everyone is number one at Christ United Methodist Church.” I think they were trying to get at what Paul was after here, but maybe not quite strongly enough.  After all, many of us already think we’re number one at our church.  What Paul is trying to cultivate is more of an attitude that “everyone else is number one here at my church”; I am here to make sure the people around me don’t miss out on what God has and wants for them; I need to put myself at God’s disposal and at their disposal to facilitate their arriving at the fullness of life – both here and hereafter – that God desires for them.  A church full of people who have adopted that mindset, the mind of Christ, would be a powerfully nurturing community indeed!  Who in the midst of such a community could fail to meet head-on the challenges that life threw their way?  Who would fail to persevere in faithfulness to Christ, supported so completely along the journey by the strangers who had become genuine brothers and sisters through their mutual investment in one another?  And who would fail to be drawn to such a community, to sink roots into such a community?

How far should we go for one another here in this congregation, when we find ourselves at odds with a sister or brother?  How far should we go, when we discover that there is a need in our midst that we might have the resources or energies to meet, if we go far enough?  How far is enough for us to go for one another in the global Body of Christ, to give ourselves and what is ours away to show love to and solidarity with our sisters and brothers who have been driven out of their lands or beaten down in their lands because they wanted to hold onto Christ?  How far is enough for us in terms of realigning our lives so that we serve God’s kingdom agenda more and more directly and more and more fully?  Have we reached the point where we’ve said, “far enough”?  Do we find our “far enough” too soon?

The mindset that we see driving Christ this week – the mindset that Paul captures so perfectly in the hymn he recites – in part may shame us, who are so full of ourselves and so bent on getting our way or being treated as we think that we deserve that we sacrifice harmony in the church, or even break fellowship with someone in the church or with the church as a whole.  In part, what we see driving Christ this week obligates us, who have benefitted so greatly from Jesus’ pouring out of himself for others, to follow in his way, to learn from him to empty ourselves and seek the interests of one another, to learn from him that only all the way is far enough.

Now, if the end of Christ’s story had been that cross, none of us would be here today talking about him and celebrating this week.  I think (or, at least, I sincerely hope) that it will not come as a spoiler to anyone here that the end of Christ’s story is something quite glorious – all the more as it actually has no ending:

Because of this, God also greatly exalted him and favored him with the name that is above every name, in order that, at Jesus’ name, every knee should bow – that of every heavenly and earthly and underworldly being – and every tongue should confess, to the glorification of God the Father, that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:9-11)

The language deliberately echoes God’s own vow in Isaiah: “By myself I have sworn: … To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Isa 45:23, ESV).  No reader of Isaiah would miss the implications of Paul’s hymn about Christ: God has invested the one who humbled himself to become human, to take on a slave’s role, to remain obedient even to the point of the humiliating death of crucifixion – God has invested this one with the honor of Deity. The degradation of the cross was not to be feared: God had Jesus’ exaltation well in hand – not merely the vindication of the abused honor of the Son of God but the glorification of the human being that the Son of God had become.   Therein lies the great exchange – Deity allowed itself to be brought down to the depths so that redeemed Humanity could be exalted to the heights with him.

Paul offers the end of Christ’s story as assurance about the end of our story if we follow in his way.  The way of setting ourselves aside and giving ourselves over to others – the way of the cross – is, in fact, the way toward exaltation before God.  This counterintuitive claim is rooted in Jesus’ similarly challenging saying, the truth of which is demonstrated most dramatically in Jesus’ own story: “if anyone wants to make his life secure, he’ll lose it; but if anyone gives his life away for my sake and for the sake of the good news, that person will make his life secure.”  As we walk with Jesus through this, the climactic stage of his journey to “far enough,” I pray that God’s vindication of Jesus in the resurrection will awaken in all of us a firmer faith so as to follow Jesus far enough.

 

A Service of Tenebrae

MEDITATION: “He was wounded on account of our transgressions; he was bruised on account of our iniquities.  He endured the chastisement that bought our peace.” (Isaiah 53)

 

CALL TO WORSHIP

Leader: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,

Congregation: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Leader: We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection,

Congregation: for by virtue of your cross, joy has come to the whole world.

Leader: Let us pray.

All: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

HYMN 298: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

 

SOLEMN PRAYERS

 

Dear People of God: Our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved; that all who believe in him might be delivered from the power of sin and death and become heirs with him of everlasting life. We pray, therefore, for people everywhere according to their needs.

Let us pray for the Church of Christ throughout the world; for its unity in witness and service; for all bishops and other ministers and the people whom they serve; for our own congregation: that God will confirm his Church in faith, increase it in love, and preserve it in peace.

Silence

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Let us pray for all nations and peoples of the earth, and for those in authority among them; for Donald, the President of the United States; for the Congress and the Supreme Court; for the Members and Representatives of the United Nations; for all who serve the common good: that by God’s help they may seek justice and truth, and live in peace and concord.

Silence

Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth; that in tranquility your dominion may increase, until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Let us pray for all who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind; for the hungry and the homeless, the destitute and the oppressed; for the sick, the wounded, and the disabled; for those in loneliness, fear, and anguish; for those who face temptation, doubt, and despair; for the sorrowful and bereaved; for prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger: that God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and grant them the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.

Silence

Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Let us pray for all who have not received the Gospel of Christ; for those who have never heard the word of salvation; for those who have lost their faith; for those hardened by sin or indifference; for the contemptuous and the scornful; for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and persecutors of his disciples; for those who in the name of Christ have persecuted others: that God will open their hearts to the truth, and lead them to faith and obedience.

Silence

Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and lover of souls: Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us commit ourselves to our God, and pray for the grace of a holy life, that, with all who have departed this world and have died in the peace of Christ, and those whose faith is known to God alone, we may be accounted worthy to enter into the fullness of the joy of our Lord, and receive the crown of life in the day of resurrection.

Silence

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

OLD TESTAMENT LESSON                                                              Isaiah 52:13—53:12

 EPISTLE LESSON                                                                      Hebrews 9:11-15; 10:1-10

OFFERTORY ANTHEM: “Tenebrae Factae Sunt”   (G. Croce, arr. deSilva)

Darkness fell when they crucified Jesus; and at about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.

 

THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO JOHN (JOHN 18:1–19:42)

 

I

 

Jesus … went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom do you seek?”             5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.  7 Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” 8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”  9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”

10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Shall I refuse to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

 

The first candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 290: “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” verse 1

 

 

II

 

So the soldiers, their officer, and the officers of the Judean authorities arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish authorities that it was better to have one person die for the people.

 

The second candle is extinguished.

 

III

 

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

 

The third candle is extinguished.

 

IV

 

Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jewish people come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”  22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”  23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

 

The fourth candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 289: “Ah! Holy Jesus,” verse 1

 

V

 

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You’re also one of his disciples, aren’t you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”  26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

 

The fifth candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 289: “Ah! Holy Jesus,” verse 2

 

VI

 

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid pollution so that they would be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jewish authorities replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”  32 This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.

 

The sixth candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 290: “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” verse 2

 

VII

 

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

 

The seventh candle is extinguished.

 

VIII

 

After Pilate had said this, he went out to the Jewish authorities again and told them, “I find no case against him. 39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

 

The eighth candle is extinguished.

 

IX

 

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.

4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Look at the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 7 The Jewish authorities answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

 

The ninth candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN #286: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”

 

X

 

From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish authorities cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Look at your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

16 Then he handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.

 

The tenth candle is extinguished.

 

ANTHEM: “Crucifixus” from Mass in B-Minor   (J. S. Bach)

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.

 

XI

 

So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

                     19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

 

The eleventh candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 287: “O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done”

 

XII

 

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.

24 So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did.

 

The twelfth candle is extinguished.

 

XIII

 

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, that’s your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “This is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

 

The thirteenth candle is extinguished.

 

XIV

 

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”  29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

The fourteenth candle is extinguished.

 

HYMN 282: “‘Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies”

 

XV

 

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jewish authorities did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.  35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)  36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”  37 And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

 

The Christ candle is extinguished.

 

XVI

 

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

HYMN 296: “Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle”

 

CLOSING PRAYER

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.  Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

DISMISSAL

May Jesus Christ, who for our sake became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, keep you and strengthen you this night and for ever. Go in peace.

     All depart in silence, except those beginning a prayer vigil.

 

Letting in the Light

A sermon on Psalm 139 and 1 John 1:5-2:2, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

We grow up being taught that human beings have five senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.  We can lose one or more of these senses, and some within our congregation have suffered such losses, but we can’t naturally turn them on and off (save, of course, for closing our eyes).  If we have them, they’re pretty much “on” all the time.  All of these senses pertain to our perception of phenomena in the natural, physical world. The author of the 139th Psalm, however, bears witness to another sense, one that allows him to perceive a particular Phenomenon in the spiritual world – God.  And what a remarkably keen sense of God this psalmist has!  How vivid, how deeply personal, how real God is to him!

LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me…. Where could I go from your spirit? Where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the skies, you’re there; if I make my bed in the underworld, you’re there. If I take flight as the dawn and settle at the farthest western limits of the sea, even there your hand would lead me, and your right hand would grasp me. (Ps. 139:1-4, 6-10, NRSV alt.)

We may believe and confess that God is present everywhere; this psalmist expects to bump into God everywhere.  We may confess that God is all-knowing and sees everything that happens under heaven; this psalmist lives in the awareness that God knows all about him and sees everything that might dart about in the creases of his brain or most hidden corners of his heart.  He feels God’s eyes upon him and penetrating him; he is intimately aware of God’s intimate awareness of everything that has gone into making him who he has become, from the splitting of the first fertilized cell that was him in the womb.

This psalm asks each of us, first and foremost: do you exercise this God-sense regularly?  Do you give yourself time to experience the presence of God “hemming you in behind and before,” to sense the hand of God resting upon you (Ps 139:5)?  My ears are always open: I am constantly hearing the sounds around me.  My nose is just about always open (allergy season excepted): I am constantly able to smell any new scent, for better or worse, that wafts my way.  I wish that I could say that my sense of God was always open, that I was as constantly aware of God’s presence as I’m aware of the sound if there’s music playing or people talking, or that I was as constantly aware of God’s prompting as I’m aware of the first whiff of cookies baking. I wish that I could say that my sense of God’s sense of me was always open, so that I have the benefit, in regard to everything that moves me or drives me in a given moment, to hear God telling me, “hold on there; that’s not from me” or “where’s that coming from? Is there something there we should talk about?” The psalm, however, encourages me that we can become so aware – or, at the very least, a great deal more aware.

What the psalmist has given us is a prayer that can help each one of us awaken this God-sense a bit more.  This is one of the many gifts of Scripture – the psalms and prayers that arose out of the experience of a distant ancestor in the faith can open us up to the same kind of experience as we use their words to focus our own minds, hearts, and spirits.  And the goal of this psalm is not unfamiliar to us, who frequently pray here, particularly in services of holy communion, a brief prayer that begins, “O God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”  The prayer, like the psalm, doesn’t open God up to us – it opens us up to God; it invites us to experience our own hearts, our own desires, our own secrets as they are laid open before God.

It does so, moreover, with the same goal as our psalm.  We ask, in the prayer, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name.”  The psalmist asks the God before whom he now stands fully aware of God’s all-penetrating scrutiny:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23-24 NRSV)

The psalmist invites us to keep coming with him before the God who knows us better by far than we know ourselves.  And where the psalm ends, God’s actual work with us begins.  The silences and the conversations with God that follow the praying of this psalm are the ones in which we permit God to lay bare to our own gaze what we hide from ourselves, what we don’t want to admit about ourselves – whether because it’s never easy for us proud human beings to acknowledge that we are in the wrong about something, or because we’ve worked hard over long years to build up defenses against admitting something about ourselves to ourselves, or  because it will mean necessary changes: “Search me, O God…. See if there is any wicked leaning in me,” lay bare what hasn’t yet been transformed by your Holy Spirit, and show me the path toward transformation even there.

Now if you pray through this psalm at home – and I sincerely hope that you will, using it regularly to arrive at the same awareness of God that the psalmist himself expresses in the psalm – if you pray this psalm at home, you’re in for a bit of a shock when you get to verses 19-22.  In the middle of this prayer celebrating God’s intimate knowledge of the one praying and God’s happily inescapable presence and guiding hand, the psalmist suddenly goes sideways:

O that you would slay the wicked, O God! Would that people of violence might begone from me – those who speak of you with malice, who rise up against you to do evil! Don’t I hate those who hate you, O Lord? Don’t I abhor those who rise up against you? I hate them completely; I count them among my enemies. (Ps. 139:19-22)

Indeed, similar exclamations appear in several of the psalms.  Very often these are purged from the reading or the reciting of the Psalms in Christian worship, for they are deemed inappropriate in a community that has been charged by its Lord to “keep showing love to your enemies and keep praying for those who are persecuting you” (Matt 5:44).  We are frankly often embarrassed by these exclamations in the psalms, even though few of us can claim never to have treasured such wishes in our hearts.

Now, there are several ways to make sense of these declarations of hatred and prayers for the elimination of the wicked.  We could view them as a declaration of absolute loyalty to God.  The psalmist notably does not presume that his own personal enemies are God’s enemies; rather, he declares that he will regard God’s enemies as his own enemies as well.  He is “on the Lord’s side” against all who abuse God’s honor.

We could view them as the anguished expressions that are born of suffering deep injustice and oppression.  I may not have suffered such significant injustice as to possess the right to pray before God as this psalmist prays, but many people in our world have so suffered.  I think of the helpless villagers with limbs hacked off by rebels in Sierra Leone as a standard practice in a terror campaign that lasted a decade.  I think of the families of the Christian men lined up on their knees in orange suits and slaughtered like livestock by ISIS militants.  I think of the villages full of families whose pre-teen daughters were abducted by Boko Haram to become brides with which to reward their soldiers.   Those situations are not terribly unlike situations faced in ancient Israel during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and I, for one, will not judge even the psalmist who cries out against Babylon: “Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes their heads against the rocks!”  Babylonians did as much in Jerusalem.

As for me, I view them as invitations – even as warrants – to be completely honest in God’s presence.  The rawness of the psalmists’ expressions of their feelings before God encourages me to raw honesty in prayer.  The psalmist is deeply aware that God knows already all that is on his heart, both that which is “seemly” for polite “church talk” and that which is ugly and unredeemed, and so the psalmist holds nothing back.  He lays it all bare in prayer before God and before himself, owning those emotions and those wishes and putting them out there right in the open for God and for him to deal with together.  If the emotions are unredeemed and the wishes ungodly, it’s alright.  We’re not in danger of our angry prayers convincing God to do anything out of character for him, neither are we in danger of showing God a side of ourselves about which God was previously unaware. But if we own them, if we admit them to ourselves there in God’s presence, God may just work within us to set our hearts and desires back in order with his character. It’s a mistake for us, when we pray, to try to show God only our “church face.”  God is already also quite aware of our “backside,” our darker side.  We need to open up all of that before him in prayer as well, so as to let in his light.

Interestingly, it is immediately after his sideways step of declaring his hatred for God’s enemies that the psalmist turns his prayer toward his own need to be examined by God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24 NRSV).  God, I hate your enemies!  Make sure, God, that I’m not one of them.  I wish you would just wipe out those who are wicked!  Is there some part of me that fits that bill?  Search me out, God, and make sure that isn’t the case.

We have been moving through Lent which, as we are well aware, is a season of penitence.  It is a season for diligently searching out the ways in which we are still living out the unredeemed life, the life of the “old person” that we sentenced to death in our baptism but that seems to keep getting stays of final execution.  It is a season for repenting of our failure decisively to allow God to slay the wicked person that we once were. One of the spiritual disciplines that the Church has valued and nurtured throughout the centuries, and particularly during penitential seasons such as Lent, is the discipline of self-examination.  The psalmist reminds us, however, that effective self-examination is not something that I do on my own, but something that God guides.  It is God who brings to light what lurks in the shadows within us and still exerts control over us from those shadows.  It is God who shows us where and how to let more of that old person die so that more of the new person can come alive.

God is not afraid of the dark places in our hearts and minds, whether that darkness is the result of other people’s injuries against us, the darkness of our own making, or – as is so often the case – some mixture of the two.  That’s because light always overcomes darkness.  The sky’s blackness does not darken the moon; a room’s shadows never make a candle or a nightlight dimmer.  Light chases away darkness, never the reverse.  Because of this, we don’t have to be afraid of the truth about ourselves either, for whatever God brings to light, he does only to increase the domain of God’s light within us, not to condemn us or shame us.

If we invite God to search us and to see if there be any wicked way in us, it’s important that we resist the urge to jump in as defense attorneys for those parts of us that God’s Spirit convicts.  If we manage to defend what is dark in us against God’s light, we haven’t actually won anything.  Indeed, this is an area in which lying to ourselves is a most self-destructive defense mechanism:

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we’re walking around in darkness, we’re lying not doing what is true…. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we’re calling him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 Jn. 1:6)

We don’t need to defend ourselves against the truth, for Jesus is already the advocate with the Father on behalf of that part of “us” that is most fully and eternally “us.”  One essential facet of faith is to trust this: that Jesus is sufficiently “for us” that we can admit to, own, confess, and repent of all that we harbor within ourselves that is actually “against us,” against our becoming fully the Spirit-driven and Christ-like person that God desires to make of us, against our becoming our truest selves in him.

The way of salvation is the way of siding with God against everything that is hostile to God’s work within us of nurturing the fruit of the Spirit, of shaping and forming the new person that we are becoming in Christ, and that we hope fully to become even yet during this life.  John Wesley strongly believed in the power of the Spirit finally to bring us to the point of allowing love for God and neighbor to drive us fully and without contradiction in all that we do.  He called this “Christian perfection,” but it’s perhaps less daunting to think of it simply as letting in more and more of God’s light, until we have reserved no corner of ourselves for the darkness.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer, the Disciples’ Pledge

A sermon on Matthew 6:5-15 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

However varied Christian worship has become across denominations and across the millennia, almost all Christians know the Lord’s Prayer and pray it regularly either in their congregations or in their personal prayer lives.  During an internship as a hospital chaplain, standing beside the beds (in some cases, the death beds) of patients from the whole spectrum of Christian churches, I could always unite in prayer with these patients and their families using the Lord’s Prayer.  Indeed, when we pray this text, we unite our voices with saints from every Christian tradition in every age.

The fact that we are sufficiently familiar with the Lord’s Prayer to pray it from memory is a great asset, since we always have it on hand.  But our familiarity can also prevent us from really listening to the prayer and allowing it to sink deep into our consciousness so as to shape our intentions and desires.  I’d like to make some space for you this morning in which to listen afresh to what Jesus teaches us both to seek from God and to show forth in our living by means of this prayer he has given us.

Jesus tells us to address the God of the cosmos as “Our Father.” We are not slaves who must grovel before a master; we are not petitioners approaching an indifferent king.  Jesus wants us to see God as “Father,” and ourselves as God’s children. He brings us near to God as members of God’s family and encourages us to enjoy this intimate access to God. This God, however, is our Father, not my Father: from the get-go, Jesus reminds us of the larger, now global family of which we are a part – and that God cares as deeply for every member of a vast family as God does for me.

When we call God “Father,” we acknowledge that God is “parenting” us anew. I am aware that, for some even within our own congregation, the “father” in their natural household has made the very image problematic.  But to call God “Father” is not to attribute to God the hurtful and, in some cases, abusive behaviors of some natural fathers, in whom the image of God was as distorted by their own brokenness as it is in ourselves.  For Jesus, this is a Father whose kindness and generosity toward God’s children surpasses that of any earthly father:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!  (Matt 7:9-11)

This is a Father who gives a loving, generous, joy-filled welcome to the wayward child, rather than a reluctant second chance after a stiff lecture (Luke 15:21-24).  This is a not a Father who sets us up for failure with impossible expectations, but a Father who positions us to succeed in our coming to maturity as disciples, and who will provide whatever it takes to help us get there: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because it pleases the Father to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

To call God “Father” is also a pledge to grow more like him, to reflect his loving, generous, and righteous character more and more, as we allow God’s Holy Spirit to lead us into the likeness of the Father’s perfect Son.  The maxim “like father, like son” captures the direction in which the apostle Paul would impel us, who call God “Father”: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love” (Eph 5:1).

I once heard one pastor suggest, attempting to modernize the first petition – “Hallowed be thy name” – that we should pray “Holy be your Name.”  God’s Name, however, is already holy.  What we pray here is for more people in ever widening circles to recognize and revere the holiness of God’s name.  While this prayer will ultimately be fulfilled when God judges the world and reveals God’s glory (Rev 14:7; 15:4), it finds fulfillment now chiefly through the behavior of those who are identified as God’s people.

Where God’s people fail to honor God with their own commitment to do what pleases God, those who look on, who know God only through his effect on us and our lives, lose respect for God.  Paul wrote concerning his fellow Jews in this regard: “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?  For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is slandered among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom 2:23-24, quoting Isa 52:5).  By contrast, when people who associate themselves with God’s name do what is good, generous, noble, or otherwise reflective of God’s virtuous character, those who witness their behavior think more highly of the God in whose name they do these things: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16; see also 1 Pet 2:12). When we pray, then, that God’s name be revered as the holy name that it is, we pledge ourselves so to speak and act that we will give people no occasion to speak ill of our Lord, and every occasion to acknowledge that there is “something to this Jesus.”

The second petition – “Thy kingdom come” – takes us to the heart of Jesus’ own proclamation of “God’s kingdom,” God’s new ordering of human affairs to establish justice and wholeness throughout human community.  This was good news for all who found themselves hemmed in and pressed down by the domination systems of the day, but bad news for those who willingly participated in and profited from those systems. God’s kingdom would not come in gently alongside oppressive arrangements. It necessarily upsets the way this world is ordered; it will put an end to every power that plunders and slaughters and calls it “government,” or makes a desert and calls it “peace” (Tacitus, Agricola 30).

This petition is the Christian’s first pledge of allegiance.  We ask God to expose our cooperation with any and all oppression and commit to relinquishing any privileges that are purchased at the cost of another’s harm.  We pledge ourselves to reorder our lives more and more in line with God’s kingdom values and to call others to do the same, allowing God’s politics and God’s economy to shape our lives more and more and our temporary nation’s politics and economy to shape our lives less and less, so that, when Christ does come to inaugurate his kingdom, we will already be found among its citizens.

The Gospels give us a dramatic picture of what it means to wrestle with the next petition – “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – when Jesus returns to this particular prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Praying that God’s will be done means putting God’s purposes ahead of our own preferences, God’s desires ahead of our own agendas.  But, as I have shared before, to call Jesus “Lord” without being willing to do this is meaningless (Matt 7:21).  Everything in heaven — the orderly activity of angelic hosts, the stars moving in their courses, the progression of seasons — moves in tune with the decrees set for them by the Almighty.  It is only “earth,” the human sphere, that is out of step with God, where God must reassert God’s leadership.  We pledge ourselves, with this petition, to find our proper place as God’s creatures in God’s cosmos, in the seeking and doing of the will of the One who made us for his good pleasure.  How different from the prayers of “help me get my way,” “make everything turn out the way I want it to,” and “bless my projects” that we are so often disposed to offer!  But the more we are able to internalize this petition — “Thy will be done” — the more complete our journey to maturity in Christ.

“Give us this day our ration of bread.”  When it came to setting our expectations and even our desires for a share in this world’s goods, Jesus directed us towards extreme modesty.  Jesus reminds us of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, enough for everyone, everyday – and anything hoarded for the next day turned to maggots!  While this petition keeps me mindful of the fact that all the nourishment my family and I enjoy each day is a gift from God and is to be received with gratitude, we are so far from being in danger of not getting meat, fruit, vegetables, and snacks for the next year — let alone “daily bread” — that the petition seems quaint.  At the same time, for so many, what a gift it would be to have bread today!  What an unthinkable blessing it would be to be assured of its being supplied tomorrow!

As I pray this petition, I remember that I do not pray it alone, nor only on my behalf.  My sisters and brothers in Christ in South Sudan, in refugee camps throughout the world, in nations where confessing the faith means economic embargo, pray it as well.  Their petitions convict me of my plenty.  If they are part of the “us” for whom we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” has God already answered their prayer in what we hold in our possession? The failure may not be in God’s giving, but in our distribution of those gifts.  Does God regard the treasures we have stashed away for ourselves as the equivalent of containers of food and supplies rotting in a warehouse while nearby populations die for want of food and medicine?  This petition is also, really, our pledge to be sure that all of God’s family are receiving their daily bread.

The next petition makes the pledge related to our plea explicit: when we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive” – or, in Matthew, “as we have forgiven” – “those who trespass against us,” Jesus forces us to acknowledge that our forgiveness of others is really prerequisite to praying for our own forgiveness.  If we collect the texts in the Gospels about forgiveness, we find something of a circle of forgiveness being set in motion.  God forgives us our offenses against God’s dignity.  We, in response, forgive those who injure our sense of our honor, worth, and deserving in one form or another.  Because we are faithful to our obligation to imitate God’s character, we dare to come again to God asking forgiveness for our further offenses against him.  In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35), Jesus teaches that the requirement to forgive as we have been forgiven is simply a matter of mathematics.  Our sins have cost God so much more than other people’s sins against us have cost us, that we would offer God the greatest insult of all by holding onto our grudges against other human beings after expecting God to “get over” our affronts to him.

Forgiving is difficult.  Sometimes it’s difficult simply because we’re so prideful.  Where this is this case, we need to re-read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant until we understand that, if God can forgive us our affronts against his honor, we can forgive other people.  But sometimes it’s difficult because we have been so deeply hurt, betrayed, or demeaned.  This, too, is not foreign to God, whom we betray whenever we choose pleasing ourselves over pleasing the One who gives us the gift of each day’s life.  What God commands, God will also empower.  If we cannot pray this petition as people who have already “forgiven those who have trespassed against us,” we can pray for God’s help to come to the place where, having been so loved and healed by God’s Spirit, we can forgive, and move forward in freedom.  The importance of our forgiving, however, is underscored most dramatically by this simple fact: this is the only petition in the prayer on which Jesus himself commented at the end!

The final, complementary pair of petitions – “Don’t lead us into situations that will tempt or test us, but deliver us from the Evil One” – may seem odd at first.  Do we really expect God to lead us into temptation? That’s the role of Satan, “the Evil One.”  It’s the role of the world around us shaped by him, and the role of our own wayward yearnings.  The sense may be made clearer when we think of Jesus rousing the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane and telling them to pray “that they come not into the time of trial” (Matt 26:41).  That time was certainly coming; the question was whether they would remain faithful through it on the other side.

In this petition, we pray to the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, who discerns our weaknesses from afar, and who may exercise our faith so as to make it stronger, but will not allow us to be tempted beyond our capacity.  When we pray this petition, we ask of God: “Don’t ever bring us where our faith will falter.” And this does not always mean places of adversity.  Prosperity can be just as destructive to faith, if not more so, putting those things that are distracting and destructive to our souls more easily within our grasp.  It is also the pledge of our hearts to seek the way of faithfulness in the midst of temptation, and to turn aside from temptation, as soon as we recognize it as such, as the way in which God is not leading us.  We commit to God our complete allegiance: if we seek rescue from the Evil One, we will not, at the same time, flirt with his enticements.

The words of praise with which we conclude our prayer were not original to Jesus, but they were being added at the end of the Lord’s Prayer even before the church got out of the first century.  And it is indeed a fitting conclusion, as we affirm the surpassing power of God to bring about all for which we have just prayed – and to empower us to keep all to which we have pledged ourselves:

  • to bring ever-greater honor to God’s name as we honor God with our witness and service;
  • to give ourselves over ever more fully to the doing of God’s will and to making his kingdom visible and real among us;
  • to seeking God’s supply of daily bread for God’s entire household;
  • to extending forgiveness in recognition of God’s forgiveness of us; and
  • to follow God’s leading toward, and seek God’s empowerment for, faithfulness in the face of every temptation and trial.

Amen.

 

(This sermon was admittedly based on chapter 22 of my Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer [InterVarsity, 2008], but I still read three treatments of the Lord’s Prayer as I worked to refine the material and to be certain about my message!)

 

The Divine “Source Code”

A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:12-16 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Computers and the internet have not only changed the way we access information in and do business with the world around us. They have changed the way we think about our interactions with other human beings, even the way we think about the way we think.  They have provided us with a new realm of metaphors for our own mental processes and our social encounters.  Consider the following snippets of conversation you might hear even around this place:

“We need to get his input on this.  I’ll try to interface with him later this week.”

“That’s just not the way I’m programmed.”

“I don’t think I have the bandwidth to deal with that on top of everything else.”

“That’s just a lot for me to process right now.”

“It’s about time to reboot the evangelism committee.”

So, rather than fight the trend, I spent some time searching for an appropriate computer metaphor for the role that the Scriptures appear to have played in Jesus’ formation prior to his encounter with the Tempter in the desert – and, by extension, the role that the Scriptures ought to play in our ongoing formation if we are to share in his triumph over the Tempter.

I landed upon the idea of the “source code.”  Now I’m not sufficiently computer-savvy to explain this in a finely nuanced fashion; fortunately for me, very few of you are sufficiently computer-savvy to critique my explanation.  (I realize that I may be unfairly generalizing on the basis of the phone calls that I get from time to time from two of our congregation’s members, who shall remain nameless, about problems they’re having with their computers and how to fix them.) A program’s “source code” is the version of that program that real-life programmers use to communicate to one another about the program and to outline its parameters and functions. It’s the version of a computer program that human beings can actually read and fairly well understand.  It is not yet the “machine code” version of the program that the inanimate computer will actually read, on the basis of which it will actually run the program.  The source code contains the essential information, but also has to be “translated” to be put into practice in a computer’s functioning.

Scripture speaks to us, for the most part, very clearly.  It communicates, very clearly, God’s vision for how we will live our lives together, for where we will fix our desires and aspirations, and even for how we will recognize whether the impulses that surface within us come from his Holy Spirit or from some other source.  Of course, we still have to figure out which parts of it apply in particular situations; we still have to do the work of translating it from source code to machine code, from words on the sacred page to some real-time, real-world response that we are going to make in a given situation.  But we can all read and, for the most, understand quite well the details of the program God is seeking to install in each one of us as we, together with the Holy Spirit, do the real work of pushing the divine “source code” of Scripture into the “machine code” of our actual impulses and responses.

In Satan’s encounter with Jesus in the Judean desert, Satan is trying to mess with Jesus’ programming.  He’s trying to inject some subroutines that will actually cause the whole program to break down – “If X, then Y”; “If you’re the Son of God, then….”  Jesus is so well-grounded in the Word, however, that he recognizes and rejects these suggestions, these sidetracks, these viruses, and returns to that program that God has successfully put in place as Jesus has worked with, internalized, and continues to apply the divine source code.

The Judean desert is mercilessly hot.  It’s blindingly bright.  It’s bone dry.  Forty days out there without food, going who knows how long between water sources, will break a person down to the level of his or her most basic instincts.  It will show what a person is at the very core.  So of course, this is the point at which Satan decides to have a go at Jesus, when Jesus is broken down to his most vulnerable.  And what does Satan ultimately encounter?  Truly, the Word-made-Flesh – not the weak flesh that he is accustomed to overthrowing, but the flesh-made-strong by the Word that has permeated and steeled it.  He comes against Deuteronomy – the Law of God – incarnate.  Jesus may give expression to it in a parched, raspy voice, but it is Deuteronomy itself that speaks: “It is written, ‘Human beings will not live on the strength of bread alone, but on the nourishment that comes from every word that proceeds from God’s mouth’”; “It is written, ‘You will not test the Lord your God’”; “It is written, ‘The Lord your God is the one whom you will worship; him only will you serve’.”

The first and the last thing I would have you all take away from this story is how central this internalizing of Scripture was to Jesus’ own success in staying on track, in continuing to move in line with the Father’s program – and, if for him, how much more for us!  In the story of Jesus’ temptation we see the perfect embodiment of the psalmist’s declaration: “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:15).  Over the course of his first thirty years Jesus had devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and to their implementation in his daily life.  He had reprogrammed himself so that Scripture itself had become his operating system (to confuse the computer metaphor even further); when everything else was stripped away, the Scriptures and continuing to walk in line with the Scriptures was what was left.  This disciplined internalization of God’s Word empowered Jesus – even here at his most vulnerable – to recognize whether the source of a suggestion was God or something other; his disciplined commitment to walk in line with God’s promptings and God’s alone, then, empower him to reject the suggestions.  During this season of Lent, take up the Word with renewed interest and devotion.  Read it; internalize it.  As Jesus’ half-brother James wrote in his letter, “receive with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” and as he admonishes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas 1:21-22).  Don’t just read the divine source code; keep working diligently to implement it in your life, allowing it to shape your responses, your aspirations, your practices, your very instincts.

Now, I’ve read a lot of books by scholars interested in the “Historical Jesus,” and I can tell you that this particular episode doesn’t fare too well when it comes to scholars trying to sift out the legends from the history.  I think, however, that these scholars aren’t being critical enough in regard to their own reading of the story.  If we visualize this episode as involving Satan showing up in a black suit or, as in one movie version of the life of Jesus, as an alluring woman in a red dress, of course we’re going to think of it as legend.  But when does Satan ever actually show up like that?  When does he not prefer to manifest himself as that thought that just occurs to you and then burrows in and seeks to take root?

So I see a famished Jesus looking at some nice round stones baking in the Judean sun and visualizing some hot, fresh bread. If you’ve got the power, why not satisfy that gnawing hunger inside you?  There’s nothing particularly insidious about the suggestion; no one’s going to get hurt if Jesus turns a few stones into bread – heck, no one’s even going to notice.  But it’s not just the content of the suggestion that’s important; the source is also important. Why is Jesus out in the desert to begin with?  To practice some miracles, or to learn to recognize and overcome demonic tests?  Why is Jesus in this world to begin with?  To satisfy his own cravings or to do whatever it is that God prompts?  Is it God telling Jesus to break his fast, or does the impulse come from some other source?  For Jesus, the source of every impulse must be God.  It’s not just bread that gives a person life, but the word that God speaks that gives a person genuine life.

There’s a parishioner here who has spoken to me often of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggesting that we need to care for people’s physical needs, get them on a secure social footing, and thus put them in a position to be able to think about spiritual things and be receptive to the gospel.   Maslow’s theories seem essentially sound and defensible as a theory of human motivation. laying out what needs must be met before other, higher-order needs can move to the forefront of a human being’s consciousness.  The temptation story, however, gives me pause about it.  What are our most fundamental needs not merely as organisms, but as creatures – created organisms, spiritual organisms?  Is Maslow’s pyramid really just a manifestation of the demonic logic and prioritization of values that our society as a whole has internalized and now accepts as a given?  I don’t know, and I’m not really qualified to say.  I’ve never known hunger, homelessness, lack of a social network, never really lacked anything on Maslow’s pyramid.  But we follow one who said:

Don’t be anxious, saying “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “How will we clothe ourselves?”  These are the sorts of things the Gentiles seek after.  Don’t be anxious, for your Father in heaven realizes that you need all these things.  So, first and foremost, pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be thrown in for you as well. (Matt 6:32-33, DST)

How does Satan come to us, to impede our obedience to Jesus’ setting of our priorities? Put the needs of your body first. Put the wants of your eyes and body first. Put the excessive cravings of your eyes and your pride and your body first.  Make sure you satisfy your cravings, wants, and needs.  And, sure, attend to God and to God’s agenda for your life and your world once you’ve gotten those other things well in hand.

A devotional that is so popular around here is entitled Our Daily Bread.  It’s a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, of course – “Give us this day our daily bread” – but it’s also a reinterpretation of that phrase, suggesting that our most fundamental nourishment, even more fundamental than food, comes from meditation on God’s word.  (Not that I actually think Our Daily Bread provides the best such nourishment, but it’s title does point to the best nourishment.)  This is, incidentally, why fasting has always remained so central and valued a spiritual discipline, first in Jewish circles, then in Christian circles.  It trains us to re-think our hierarchy of needs and what needs are truly fundamental, truly to be put first.

Now Satan didn’t really have to physically convey Jesus to the highest corner of the Temple Mount enclosure to plant the next suggestion – and we ourselves don’t have to be tempted to some crazy, suicidal act in order to be led to put God to the test.  Similar suggestions plague us and our loved ones with merciless frequency.  “If you love me, God, you’ll heal this cancer”; “If you’re there, God, you’ll find me a job”; “If this promise of yours is true, you’ll come through for me right now.” And when the cancer grows or the job does not materialize or God does not perform, the person walks away from God, having posed a test and having come to believe that God failed to pass the test – as if the dynamics of our relationship with God permitted us to pose such tests in the first place.  No, Jesus had come to understand, God’s promises in Scripture like the one that Satan brought to his mind from the Psalms (“God’s angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone,” Psalm 91:11-12) are not there to be fulfilled at our initiative and upon our demand, but at God’s initiative and upon his command.  When God tells me to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, I can trust that his angels will bear me aloft.  If it’s just me wanting to see if God’s promises are trustworthy, well, the “thud” will be loud and the splatter pattern wide.

The third exchange is probably a familiar temptation to many of us, though Satan generally approaches us more subtly – and far less generously. “Make sure you get your little piece of the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  All it requires is your time, focus, and energy, and it will be yours.  And, of course, if you’ve got any time or energy or inclination leftover, by all means worship God, cultivate the inner life, and serve him.  But make sure you get these things first.”  To what extent, if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, have we set aside the commandment to “worship the Lord your God and serve him only” for the sake of getting what we want out of this world – and traded in our first allegiance to God for a whole lot less than “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”?

I paired Hebrews 4:12-16 with the temptation story as a good commentary both on the power of the Word of God and the availability of help in the face of temptation.  It begins thus:

God’s Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating unto the splitting of soul from spirit, of joint from marrow, evaluating the thoughts and intentions of the heart – and there is not creature who can hide from his gaze, but all are naked with their throats laid bare before the eyes of him with whom is our reckoning. (Heb 4:12-13, DST)

It is a fearsome series of images – standing with our throats exposed before the judge who wields the power of a sword that is able to carve us up cleanly. But if we diligently engage the word of God now as surgeon, we will avoid encountering the word of God later as executioner.

It is interesting to me that one of the most fear-inspiring images in Hebrews is juxtaposed with one of the most confidence-inspiring:

Since, then, we have a great high priest, one who has crossed through the heavens – Jesus, the Son of God – let us hold onto our confession.  For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way like ourselves – only without sinning.  Let us keep drawing closer, then, to the throne of favor in order that we might receive mercy and find favor for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16, DST)

The temptation story assures us that, indeed, “Jesus knows our every weakness”; he is able to feel sympathy for our weakness, because he himself experienced our weakness, our vulnerability to temptation, our experience of being tested by life’s changes and chances.  Just as importantly, however, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, procuring God’s mercy and favor for timely help, because he did not succumb to that weakness.  When we are tempted – not just to do something grossly and overtly un-Christian, but to give up on or fall short of doing what is quintessentially Christian – we can approach God’s throne, the throne of favor, with boldness, confident that God will indeed show us mercy and supply us with all that is needful to persevere in the way of faithfulness and grateful service.  Jesus will secure for us the help that we need to keep walking in line with God’s word, to continue to work out, in the routines of our own lives, the intentions of the divine source code.

Now, of course, whether or not this sermon has been of any value at all will not be determined by the level of inspiration you might feel today.  It will be determined by whether or not you open up the Word – and open yourself up before and to the Word – tomorrow.  I pray that we all, each one of us, will continue to seek out and to receive the Word that God would implant more and more fully within us, unto the salvation of our souls – and unto the consistent defeat of the Enemy of our souls.

 

“A Necessary Spoiler”

A Sermon for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9; 2 Peter 1:12-19) preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Spoilers.  You have to hate them.  Movies depend upon unforeseen plot twists to be effective entertainment.  Screenwriters and directors go out of their way to make sure that the steps of the plot are each only revealed at the right time; in the best movies, they make sure that dramatic tension is allowed to build to the very breaking point before a dramatic resolution or revelation occurs.  Imagine how much less effective When Harry Met Sally would have been if we had seen an aged Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as one of the old married couples being interviewed at the beginning of the film instead of at the very end, having wondered for two hours if they would ever finally get together? Or if we saw Bruce Willis’s widow standing by his graveside ten minutes into The Sixth Sense, or if the little kid had said, a half hour into the film, “I see dead people … like you, for instance”?  Or if, when Luke Skywalker asked old Ben Kenobi twenty minutes into Star Wars: A New Hope, “You knew my father?,” Ben replied, “Yes, a great Jedi that Anakin.  Pity he turned to the dark side and now goes by ‘Darth Vader’.”

But, when it comes to life, we desperately want spoilers.  We want to hear an authoritative voice speak the words, “we’re definitely going to beat this cancer; it will just take a few rounds of radiation and it’ll be all behind you.” Or, “things are going to work out just fine for your daughter – two years from now she’ll be a new person with this addiction completely behind her.”  Or, “I’ve already seen the two of you reconciled again with all of this mess behind you; it will just take a few months’ of work to get there.”  Sometimes we’d give just about anything – even fifty dollars to a “psychic” – for a spoiler, to get us through the hard times in which we find ourselves, to give us the assurance we crave that the outcome will be good.  If we had that, maybe, just maybe, we could persevere through the hard times and not give up along the way.

God appears to have decided that Jesus’ inner core of disciples needed such a spoiler if they were going to press on, for that’s essentially what we find here in this strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  Things were getting a bit bumpy for them before we got to this mountaintop.  Jesus had gathered his disciples around him, asking them about public perception of him and, finally, asking them about their own perception.  Peter had boldly declared, “You are the Messiah!” In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, because “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  None of this, of course, was in anyone’s messianic playbook, so Peter tries to set Jesus straight on what it really means to be the Messiah, earning Jesus’ sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re not thinking God’s thoughts, but merely human thoughts!” (Mark 8:33).

If that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus followed this up with an on-the-spot teaching to the crowds about what it would mean to follow such a Messiah as he was: “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow me.  For as many as want to preserve their lives will lose them, but as many as lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will be the ones to preserve them” (Mark 8:34-35).  Such an invitation would probably have sounded like the equivalent of this: “the first person to give away all his or her money will be the richest of all.  Ready? … Go!”

I didn’t think so.

But Jesus is clearly very serious about this claim, for he follows it up with an urgent warning: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in front of this sinful and adulterous brood, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him or her whenever he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).  Whoever does not own this Jesus, even if following him means putting reputation and life on the line, Jesus will not own on some mysterious future date after he himself is … put to death.  What?  Isn’t that what he said was going to happen to him?  Why am I following him, exactly?

I think that God gave a few key disciples a bit of a break at this point.  They were being asked to swallow a whole lot, and they needed something to help them see that, yes, Jesus’ vision for his own messiahship was heading somewhere glorious.  Yes, Jesus did have a place in God’s plan that was every bit as central and exalted as he had suggested with that last bit about loyalty to him now on this side of history being determinative for one’s well-being at some future point when Jesus would come again in glory.  Yes, following this Jesus to the end and beyond did make sense as a sound investment of one’s life.  The transfiguration was a spoiler, but it was a necessary one.

Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus, as the eternal Son, had had with the Father before his incarnation; they got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus would have, not just on the far side of his resurrection, but on the far side of his ascension and, ultimately, at his coming again as lord and judge.  This was the glorified Christ that Paul would encounter as he rode off to Damascus to persecute the Jesus cult that was eroding loyalty to the covenant of Israel, as he saw it.  This was the glorified Christ that John would see on the island of Patmos, as he entered into the visionary experiences that would eventually yield the book of Revelation.  It is no doubt because of this that we always celebrate the Transfiguration at the close of the season of Epiphany.  Short of the second coming itself, it is the ultimate epiphany, the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ glory, within the story of the Gospels.

It’s a strange story, but hold on: it gets weirder.  The disciples do not see Jesus alone in this glory, but they see Moses and Elijah showing up to talk with him.  Bear in mind that, according to the Old Testament, Elijah is never said to have died, exactly.  When the time came for his prophetic ministry to be over, a flaming chariot whisked him away to the divine realm.  It is because of this distinctive departure that later Jews expected to see him again, prior to God’s decisive interventions in history.  The closing words of the prophet Malachi, in fact, are these: “Look! I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives.  He will turn the hearts of the parents toward their children and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5-6).  In the final chapter of Deuteronomy, we read that Moses died (Deut 34:5-6), so his availability to appear here is harder to explain.  Nevertheless, the symbolism of these two men coming to speak with Jesus is unmistakable – the giver of the Law and the foremost of the Prophets were conversing with the One in whom both the Law and the Prophets would find their fulfillment.

Luke thought that the topic was Jesus’ “departure” – in Greek, the word is his exodos – “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Mark, however, doesn’t say anything about the topic of their conversation.  This was not part of the story that was important to him, and he leaves it to his readers to speculate, if they wished.  He pushes ahead to the climax, where a cloud – the visual symbol of God’s own presence settling down on a place – covers the six figures and God pronounces with his own voice: “This is my Son, my beloved one – listen to him” (Mark 9:7).  In Mark’s Gospel, the first time the divine voice speaks, it is to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son, my beloved; in you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  This is a second divine authorization of Jesus’ teaching, this time with his inner circle unmistakably hearing the voice.  To listen to Jesus is to obey the voice of God.

How strange, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection.  It must have stunk to have been Andrew! “So, bro – what went on up there on the mountain? Anything interesting?” “Sorry, bro – can’t really talk about it. Inner circle stuff.”  We are more aware as we read Mark’s Gospel than any of the others, however, how intent Jesus is that nothing should get in the way of his giving his life as a ransom for many on Calvary.  The time for talking about his divine glory is after that work is done.

How strategic, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection.  Even though they will continue to have trouble “getting it,” Jesus creates a mental hook for them: this awesome manifestation of his glory, this fleeting lifting of the veil that hid his divinity from view, should keep them looking forward to what would happen at the end of those long three days after he was nailed up on a cross and died.

Now, I have to admit that I am personally jealous of Peter, James, and John.  I’m jealous of Paul with his Damascus Road experience, and I’m jealous of John the prophet who was the last New Testament author to see the glorified Christ, to be visited by him and to encounter him.  I have often wished – I have sometimes prayed – for such an encounter.  I think it would go a long way toward burning off some of the mist of doubt, some of the reluctance to commit all the way.

But, I’m reminded that even such a vision didn’t resolve everything for them – certainly not for Peter, James, and John in Mark’s Gospel.  Not long after this episode we find James and John taking Jesus aside and asking him to allow them to take seats at his right and left hand in his glory.  They understood the coming exaltation of Jesus just fine and saw it as a source of personal advantage to them both – and clearly Peter was the only real competition they had to beat out.  But they didn’t yet understand what it meant to follow Jesus now on the way to glory, that whoever wishes to be most distinguished among Jesus’ disciples must most distinguish himself or herself as a servant of others, just as “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve – and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  The vision of Jesus transformed, radiant with the glory that had been and would again be his, didn’t help Peter in the courtyard of the high priest.  It didn’t embolden him, when Jesus was on trial for his life, to stand by his master and own him as his friend and teacher, as a man who had done nothing worthy of being put on trial, as a man whom God himself had invested with authority and called his Son.

Through that long Saturday, however, and through that long night into Sunday, did Peter, did James and John, remember their experience with Jesus on the mountain?  Did they look at one another in that room behind the bolted doors, and did they remember that experience that only the three of them had that day.  Did they remember that they couldn’t tell their brothers and sisters in that upper room until after Jesus’ resurrection? His resurrection!  Did it keep them looking forward, daring to hope that there would be an “after” the resurrection?

And after the resurrection, we can well imagine that the memory of this event became even more important.  “He told us all along; he even showed us; now we experience him risen – we’re not giving up now no matter what.”

If you were to read just Romans through Revelation – the back half of the New Testament – and write down everything we know about Jesus’ life from those twenty-two texts, it would surprise you how little you would write down.  But of all things, the transfiguration would be one of those events, referred to in some detail in 2 Peter 1:16-18:

For we didn’t make known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of following cleverly invented myths, but on the basis of having been eyewitnesses of his majesty – for we were with him on the holy mountain and we ourselves heard the voice that was borne from heaven when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne from the Majestic Glory to him: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

In this letter, the apostle Peter is preparing for his departure, his exodos (2 Pet 1:15), specifically preparing the Christian communities for which he feels responsible to carry on in the same assurance after his departure.  The letter responds to a challenge being voiced against one core conviction – “where is this promised ‘coming’ of his, for ever since our fathers died everything has gone on the same way since the beginning of creation?” (2 Pet 3:4).  Peter offers his eyewitness testimony to the transfiguration – the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain – as evidence against this challenge.

Mark had also understood the transfiguration as a sign, a foretaste, a “spoiler” of the second coming.  Just prior to this episode, Jesus had said: “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming in glory” (Mark 9:1).  Mark understood this to be fulfilled in the transfiguration, the next episode he relates – and the only episode in the story of Jesus up to this point that he connects to the preceding one with a precise timeline (“six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them up to a high mountain,” Mark 9:2).  Second Peter understands the transfiguration in precisely the same way – a visionary experience of Jesus at his second coming.  It was an experience that, for Peter, James, and John at least, made “the prophetic word more certain” for them; the apostolic testimony can do the same for us.

We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred just as Jesus foretold; if we did not, we would have little reason to be here today rather than in bed or at Starbucks or kicking around the mall. The transfiguration gives us additional assurance that the story will yet unfold as Jesus promised – that, as we confess in our creeds, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  It is a conviction meant not to remain in our heads or merely to find expression on our lips, but to shape our entire life.  As Peter will express it at the close of his second letter, looking ahead to the cataclysmic coming of Christ to usher in the new creation:

Since all these things are thus slated for destruction, what kind of people, then, are you obliged to be, awaiting and hastening the coming of the day of God in holy conduct and reverent piety! (2 Pet 3:11-12a)

I don’t know that Peter would have been all that surprised to learn that the end would still not have come almost two thousand years later. He almost anticipated this as he wrote:

Don’t let this one things escape you, beloved, namely that one day is as a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years as a single day.  The Lord does not delay in fulfilling his promise, as some people reckon a delay, but he is patient where you’re concerned, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pet 3:8-9)

It is perhaps not accidental that the Sunday of the Transfiguration immediately precedes the beginning of Lent.  Taking seriously the promise of Christ’s return and the prospect of encountering him as the judge of all things, and rightly understanding every day that he delays as a gift to us to prepare ourselves and our neighbors more fully, naturally leads us to examine our lives more closely, to repent of all that does not reflect “holy conduct and reverent piety,” and devote ourselves more fully to all those things and only those things that will leave us unashamed at his coming in glory.

 

 

“Going to Serve Christ”

A sermon on Hebrews 12:28-13:16, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.

 

It’s easy to lose sight of the value of a particular gift.  It’s easy for that initial flood of surprise and delight to fade away.  How many backs of closets, how many attics, how many yard sales are full of gifts that once enthralled us, then began their procession from the top of the desk or dresser where we could always access it, to the top drawer where we could reach for it occasionally, to the box in the closet, to the box in the garage, to Goodwill.  How much dust has already settled on some of the gifts you just received this past Christmas?

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to a group of Christians, some of whom at least have begun to lose sight of the value of a particular gift, others of whom might stand in similar danger.  I say “danger,” because there are some gifts that are just so valuable, or in which the giver is just so personally invested, that you don’t dare let them find their way into the back of a closet, or a box in the garage, or – heaven forbid – a yard sale.  You know the kind of gifts I mean.  Now, I’m not talking about that hideous wind chime that you have to leave up because so-and-so gave it to you, and so-and-so comes over to your house every now and then and listens for it when there’s a breeze.  I’m talking about the gift that cost the giver a lot, that he or she acquired only with considerable care, labor, or expense; perhaps that he or she found it difficult to part with, but did nevertheless as a sign of his or her affection for you.  For such a gift to end up in a box in the garage or in a yard sale would surely damage the relationship, for the gift and how it is treated is so valuable as to have become a symbol for the relationship itself.

Some of the Christians addressed by the Letter to the Hebrews were about ready to put this gift in the back of the closet, or even in the trash, because this was a gift that was costing them too much, in terms of their neighbors’ good will, to keep displaying.  I’m talking, of course, about the gift of reconciliation with the God of Israel, whom they had come to believe was the only God – the gift of reconciliation procured for them by Jesus at the cost of his own life, an expensive gift indeed.  A great deal of the Letter to the Hebrews, in fact, is given over to reminding the audience of the immense value of what they have been given in Jesus, so as to embolden them to continue to bear the cost of displaying this gift where it would be visible to their neighbors, not least of all by continuing openly to associate with the other people in their city who gather in Jesus’ name.  They have the forgiveness of their sins and a fresh start with God; they have the assurance that God’s Son will continue to direct God’s favor in their direction as they face any difficulty or necessity; they have a place now in God’s own household, God’s own family; they have the unprecedented boldness to enter into heaven itself, the very presence of the Holy God, having been cleansed from every defilement by Jesus their high priest and atoning sacrifice, whenever that day comes when the way into heaven is disclosed; they have the promise of citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom, a homeland that will embrace them forever.

And it is this that brings us to the reading we heard today.

So then, since we are in the process of receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, and through the manifestation of this gratitude let us worship God in a manner well-pleasing to him, with reverent submission and awe – for our God is indeed a consuming fire. (Heb 12:28-29)

The NRSV translates that first verse, “let us give thanks,” the NIV, “let us be thankful”; the CEB comes much closer to the meaning of the Greek at this point with “let’s continue to express our gratitude.”  Let us treat these gifts and act toward the Giver in the manner that will show him that we understand their value – and that we value the relationship into which he has invited us by the very act of giving us such precious gifts in the present and promises of gifts yet to come.

The ancient Greeks and Romans thought a great deal about gift-giving and gratitude and the quality of the relationships that these exchanges created and maintained.  Gratitude would take certain, rather predictable forms, all of them considerably more substantial than the perfunctory “thank you” notes we had to write out as kids to various uncles, aunts, and the like.  If I received a gift of significant value from someone, particularly a gift the value of which I would likely never be able to match in the future, I would show gratitude, in part, by bearing widespread witness to the gift and to the giver’s virtue in giving it.  In his manual on giving and receiving gifts well, Seneca, a Roman contemporary of Paul, wrote: “I shall never be able to repay you my gratitude, but, at any rate, I shall at least not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to repay it” (On Benefits 2.24.2).  He advises giving testimony to “the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings and bearing witness – not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere” (On Benefits 2.22.1).  A gift that one would prefer to keep hidden from public view (hiding one’s connection with the giver), one should never accept in the first place (On Benefits 2.23.1).  One would also be watchful for occasions on which to render some appropriate return for the gift – in investing oneself in advancing the giver’s interests in the world, hence in service to the giver, if one was not in a position to give a gift of like value.

And so, quite directly, gratitude supplies the fundamental motivation that drives and shapes our response of witnessing to the Giver and looking for opportunities to serve the Giver’s interests.  The author of Hebrews helps his hearers make this very connection.  In 12:28, he speaks of worshiping God in a way that will be “well pleasing” to God, that is, by allowing gratitude for God’s gifts and promises to shape how they will live.  Toward the end of this passage, in Hebrews 13:15-16, the author returns to naming those kinds of “worship” that are in fact “well pleasing” to God – the kinds of “religious acts,” the kinds of “liturgical sacrifices,” that show God the reverence and grateful service God’s favors merit:

Through Jesus Christ, therefore, let us continually offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name.  Let us not overlook doing good and sharing, for sacrifices of this kind are well-pleasing to God. (Heb 13:16)

This is what we ourselves were after when we decided, as a congregation, that the third mandate of our mission statement should be “Go to serve Christ.”  Knowing Christ and the immeasurable benefits Christ brings into our lives must lead to grateful response in the form of witness and service.  Growing more like Christ must translate into putting ourselves – our time, our energies, our resources, our very bodies and all that can be accomplished through them – at God’s disposal, even as Jesus had done, to advance God’s interests in and to serve God’s desires for the people and the world around us.  And, indeed, the level of our investment in witnessing and giving back to God through serving his interests reflects the level at which we value – or, frankly, do not value – the gifts we have received or are yet to receive.

The author of Hebrews clearly understands gratitude to involve us in service – again in his words: “let us not forget to do good and to share, for such sacrifices are well-pleasing to God” (Heb 13:16).  In our mission statement, we emphasize “going” to serve Christ, which is good – we have to get out of this building and into the world.  But the author of Hebrews himself points us to one another in the Body of Christ as our first arena of service.

Keep loving one another as sisters and brothers would love each other.  Don’t neglect showing hospitality, for in this way some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those in chains as though chained yourselves alongside them, those who are being mistreated as though you yourselves are in their skin. (Heb 13:1-3)

The needs within our own congregation are significant; the needs of our harassed and persecuted sisters and brothers abroad, staggering. The care and compassion we show one another, the time and energy and resources we invest in relieving one another, here in this congregation as well as throughout the global Body of Christ, are investments in people about whom God deeply cares, service that God receives as rendered even to himself.  These are the spiritual and bloodless sacrifices that ascend before God and proclaim loudly and genuinely in his hearing, “thank you, God, for all that you have brought into our lives.”

The author of Hebrews, however, also impels us to give expression to our gratitude in the form of testimony and witness: “Through Jesus Christ, let us always offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15).  It is obvious when we offer “the sacrifice of praise” in this place, singing our hymns to God and offering prayers of thanksgiving; the author of Hebrews points to the less obvious but even more necessary “sacrifice of praise,” when we own God out there with our lips, when we acknowledge, or confess, or profess God out there, testifying to the good things God has done for us, the help God has brought us, God’s saving interventions in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love.  Every such “sacrifice of praise,” every such act of witness that we make to God’s kindness, goodness, and beneficent intervention, is an invitation to our conversation partner to experience the same – and, as such, is an act of service of the greatest value to our neighbor.

D. T. Niles, a Sri Lankan pastor and evangelist of the 20th century, eventually president of the Methodist Church of Ceylon, once said that evangelism “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” This is a profound and justly celebrated quotation, for it tells us how we need to see ourselves and others, how we need to see ourselves in regard to the other – both beggars, one of whom has found a place that never fails to give out bread. It also tells us how we need to value Christ, what he brought and continues to bring into our lives, and what he has for the other person – the life-sustaining nourishment in which he or she stands in as much need as we did and do.

I remember what it was like going back to school, as a kid, after Christmas Break.  I was excited to tell my friends about the great toys that I had received, and they were all excited to tell us about the great toys they had received.  We’d end up going to each other’s houses and playing together with all these great, new toys.  Witness – evangelism – is a lot like that.  Only the better analogy is not boys and their toys, but beggars and bread, finding that which will nourish, sustain us, get us through.  Of course, even that analogy suffers, for witness – evangelism – is about sharing where to find life-giving bread of an entirely different and greater order.  In Jesus’ own words on the subject: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51, NRSV).

If we are ever to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, how can we keep back from them the invitation to enjoy what has been the most beneficial relationship that we have found, the connection with God through Christ that gains for us the greatest help for this life and the greatest hope for what follows this life?  Whose good are we serving if we exert ourselves to give them a loaf of bread, but falter at taking the extra step – the eternally significant extra step – of offering them the life-giving Bread that came down from heaven?

Perhaps we shy away from witness – from evangelism – because we think of it as walking someone down a theological argument like the “Romans Road” or as imposing our religion on someone else.  That’s all wrong.  Witness – evangelism – is nothing more and nothing less than telling another person how God reached into our lives and turned things around for the better, turned us in a better direction.  It is simply telling another person about the life-giving nourishment that we found, and that is available for him or her as well.

As you come to know Christ and Christ’s benefits more fully, allow yourself to be moved to witness and service in grateful response, simply sharing what you yourself have come to know of Christ and of his interventions in your life.  As you keep growing more like Christ and seeing what God’s transforming power and purpose can accomplish in your own life and in the lives of your sisters and brothers, simply bear witness to what you have experienced.  In so doing, you are fulfilling that climactic commission that Christ entrusted to all of his followers when he said: “Go, then; make disciples out of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).  Honor Christ’s lordship and make his reign visible and real in this world, because it is visible and real in you, in your life, in our life together, as we give ourselves over to Christ, for him to accomplish his good purposes in this world through us, both offering his love and issuing his invitation through us.  Go, indeed, to serve Christ.

 

“Growing More Like Christ”

A sermon (largely) on Romans 8:28-29; Luke 6:27-36, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

It’s a familiar saying from Scripture, perhaps one of the more frequently quoted from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “all things work together for good.”  You’ve probably heard it from other Christians on several occasions.  You shared the news that a job offer didn’t come through.  “Don’t worry – all things work together for good. Something better will come along.”  You just broke up with a significant other.  “I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to remember – all things work together for good.”  You were just diagnosed with cancer.  “Don’t give up; God will get you through.  ‘All things work together for good’.”

Now in all these situations, the person pulling out that clause from Romans 8:28 means well, seeking to shine a ray of hope, an assurance of a brighter future, where a dark cloud has just settled over a friend or family member.  Indeed, we can have confidence that God has our future – a good and bright one indeed – firmly in hand no matter what unwelcome circumstances settle upon us at any given time.  But it’s also good for us to listen to what Paul actually had in mind when he wrote those words, “All things work together for good,” lest we think that the “good” that God cares most about is to bring us back to pleasant circumstances in this life, rather than to fit us for glorious circumstances in the next.  This is one of those many instances where a little attention to context brings a great deal of clarity.

Now we know that, for those who persist in loving God, for those who are called in line with God’s purpose, all things work together unto the good, because those whom God foreknew God also destined to be shaped into the likeness of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29, DST)

Paul has a very clear idea of “the good” that is the aim towards which all things, by God’s providential ordering, are working – that we should be “shaped into the likeness of his Son,” Jesus Christ, that there should be an unmistakable “family resemblance” between all of us and our eldest brother in God’s household.  God’s overarching aim – and this for our ultimate good – is not to make us happy; it’s not to make us prosperous; it’s not to make all the troubles and heartaches of our lives go away.  It is to make us more like Jesus so that when at the last day he looks at us, he recognizes his Son, his righteous one, in each one of us.

The Christian life must be a journey of change – specifically change in the direction of becoming more and more like Christ. Paul was clear on this point throughout his writings: “Don’t continue to be conformed to this age, but keep on being transformed” (Rom 12:2). Every one of us is molded, is shaped, as we journey through life.  Every one of us is conformed to some pattern.  The question before us is, to what will we be conformed? In what direction will we be shaped?  Am I going to step out of the ruts that the structures and the logic and the values of “this age” have dug out for me, to keep me inclined to go with its flow, to be the kind of person it wants and even needs for me to be? Am I going to step out into new paths, the path of being transformed in the direction of Christ-likeness, ultimately the path of reflecting the heart of God and responding from the heart of God?  The world around me will keep applying its subtle pressures to conform to it, so that I maintain it; or I can cooperate with God’s Spirit as he applies his subtle pressures to transform me, so that God can also keep breaking into this world, this age, and change it through me, starting by reclaiming the space in the world that is me, that is the sphere of my interactions with the world’s inhabitants.

The first two clauses of our mission statement are: “KNOW Christ.  GROW more like Christ.”  We reflected at length last week on “KNOWing Christ” as we considered Paul’s intensely personal testimony in Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being transformed into the likeness of his death, so that I might somehow arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:11).  Notice that, for Paul, the knowing and the growing are inseparable.  Paul’s passion to know Christ drove him in the direction of growing more like Christ, specifically “being transformed into the likeness of his death,” being changed into a person who would give himself over for God’s purposes, who would live with a view to accomplishing God’s purposes for the other person and, thus, serving the interests of the other person rather than his own interests – which was precisely what Christ did in his death.  This growing, in turn, opened up new dimensions of knowing Christ for Paul – for there can be no knowing “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” apart from living in line with that “mind of Christ” who loved us and gave himself over for us.

In his second surviving letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul creates a clever contrast between an episode in Moses’ life and the essence of the Christian life.  During the period in which God was giving the Law to Moses, Moses would go up on Mount Sinai and sit in the presence of God.  As a result, when Moses returned to the camp of the Hebrews, his face was glowing with the reflected glory of having been in God’s presence.  After Moses delivered the next installment of the Law, he would put a veil over his face until the glow had faded away.  It’s different with us, Paul declared.  As we keep spending time in the Lord’s presence, the glory doesn’t fade away.  Indeed, we’re not just glowing with a reflected glory, but our very face – the self we see in the mirror – is becoming the reflection of the One into whose face we are gazing.  As Paul puts it, “we all, with our faces unveiled, gazing intently at the Lord’s glory, are being transformed” – the Greek word Paul uses gives us our English word “metamorphosis” – we are being transformed “into the same image, from glory to glory, and all of this from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

At the conclusion of his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul declared that it didn’t mean anything in God’s sight if a person was circumcised or not – that is, it didn’t matter if a person was Jewish or had joined himself to the Jewish people or not.  What mattered in God’s sight was “a new creation” (Gal 6:15). From the rest of Galatians, we get a pretty good idea of what this “new creation” is.  Paul himself had become “new creation” as a result of his seeking after the righteousness that comes from God to those who trust Christ to align them with what God approves: “Through the law, I died to the law so that I might come alive to God.  I was crucified together with Christ!  It’s no longer me living, but Christ living in me.  The life I’m now living in the flesh, I’m living by trusting the Son of God who loved me and gave himself over for me” (Gal 2:19-20).  This is precisely what Paul so earnestly seeks to bring into reality in and among his converts in Galatia, in regard to whom Paul finds himself at his wits’ end – “My little children, with whom I am again in labor pains until Christ takes shape in and among you!” (Gal 4:19).  Paul was after his own and his converts’ complete metamorphosis.  This was, for him, an indispensable facet of discipleship – indeed, the aim of all discipleship.

Is that your aim?

Is that where you are heading, seeking to move closer to that end day by day?

The second mandate in our mission statement – “GROW more like Christ” – drives us forward along this trajectory, urging us on to the disciplined “stripping off of the old person” that we used to be apart from Christ and the “putting on of the new person who is being made new again, reflecting the image of the Creator” (Col 3:8-15) – reflecting the image of Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).  Make no mistake: our goal is not merely to “become a better person.”  The goal towards which God works, the goal for which Paul strove, is to bring Christ to life within us, to make us “become a different person” who is “Christ in you,” which also gives us “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  This is what the Holy Spirit works to bring into being in each of our lives and in our relationships with one another, making us more like Jesus, shaping us to embody him and his attitudes and values more and more.

Growing more like Christ requires a death to make room for a new life.  It means our death to our own agendas, our own easily-provoked ill feelings, our own vision for how we want our lives to go and everyone else to behave.  It means coming alive to, and living for, God’s agenda, acting and responding to the person in front of us on the basis of God’s initiating love, giving our energies and time and resources over to God’s vision for how God wants others’ lives to go.

Jesus called his first followers to pursue a similar trajectory – that of growing more like God.  Since we confess Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God,” we can keep our mission statement, for to “GROW more like Christ” is to “GROW more like God,” it is to have the divine image restored in us and freshly imprinted on all our actions and interactions.  And so we read in the Gospel:

I say to you who are listening: keep showing love to your enemies, keep doing good for those who hate you, keep blessing those who persist in cursing you, keep praying concerning those who are mistreating you.  To the one striking you on the cheek, present also the other, and don’t hold back your tunic from the one taking your outer cloak. Keep giving to those who keep asking, and don’t demand that the person who takes your goods return them.  And what you would desire that people should do toward you, keep doing this for them.

            Now if you continue to love those who keep showing you love, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Don’t even sinners continue to show love to those who love them?  And if you do good for those who have been doing you good, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Even sinners do as much.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much back again.  But keep showing love to your enemies and doing good and lending, hoping for nothing, and your reward will be bountiful, and you will be children of the Most High – because he himself is generous to the ungracious and wicked.  Persevere in being compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:27-36, DST)

To “GROW more like Christ” is also to live in line with his instructions, for if ever anyone practiced what he preached, it was Jesus!  Who showed his enemies (including us, while we were still his enemies!) more love than Jesus did? Who prayed more powerfully for those who were mistreating him than Jesus did: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)?  Who more than Jesus showed love and did good to those who had not first loved or done good to him?

Our “old self” lives a narrow life, constrained on the one side by our self-centered, self-serving, and self-vaunting drives and, on the other side, by the good or by the lack of good that we encounter in others.  The good that our “old self” can do is generally limited by the good another has done (or might do); some words or actions of the other person can rather predictably provoke anger, enmity, or malice in us, as if the other person holds our strings.  The “old self” can never rise to the measure of God’s righteousness.  But God’s character – which is also the character we see in Jesus – is quite different.  It is, indeed, “vast, boundless, free.”  It is independent of the good or lack of good in the other; it is so full and so complete that it can be “generous toward the ungracious and wicked,” encountering the ungracious and the wicked with the transforming power that once encountered us, when we were ungracious and wicked.

To know Christ is also to remain continuously tapped in to God’s fullness, God’s completeness, as branches are tapped into and continually nourished and filled by the vine.  It is to be empowered for Christ-likeness, for acting and responding to those around us from God’s compassionate and generous character in ways that would have been impossible, incomprehensible, and ultimately undesirable to our “old self.”  I think that this is what is really meant by “justification” – not just being declared “innocent” because we have some pull with the Judge’s Son, but becoming just and good because God’s Son now drives us in our inclinations, words, and deeds.  I think that this is part of what Paul had in mind when he talked about “salvation” – not just being saved from the consequences of our past sins, but being saved from our past selves, the source of those sins, to become something else, something more beautiful, something well-pleasing to God – to GROW more like Christ.  This is what we pray for when we sing the final verse of Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn: “Finish then thy new creation! Pure and spotless let us be!  Let us see thy great salvation” as we are “perfectly restored in thee,” as the image of God, which we bore in creation but lost in our fall, is restored in us by Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), living in and through us.  Amen.