“Finding the Lane” (I Timothy 2:1-7)

Tuesday is election day, and in churches all over the country this morning, both conservative and liberal, preachers are telling their congregants how to vote. Oh, they’re being careful. Since 1954 the Johnson Amendment has required churches to refrain from participating in political campaigns if they want to keep their tax-exempt status, and so they’re being very careful, but their implications and inferences will be unmistakably clear.  In some churches the message this morning will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Democrats, and in other churches the message will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Republicans.

Well, I’m not that kind of preacher, and we aren’t that kind of church, in fact, go back just a little bit in our denominational history, and the sermon that you might very well have heard preached from the pulpit of a church in our spiritual tradition on a Sunday before an election day would have been -“Don’t!”  David Lipscomb (1831 – 1917) was one of the really important second-generation leaders of our Movement.  He didn’t think that Christians should vote, and he arrived at that conclusion by reading his Bible with his distinctively Christian Church head and heart.

First of all, David Lipscomb said that he couldn’t find a single chapter or verse anywhere in his Bible that told him that God wanted Christians to vote.  Have you heard that old Disciples of Christ slogan – “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; Where the Scripture are silent, we’re silent”? Well, believing that the silences of Scripture were just as inspired and instructive of God’s will as its words, David Lipscomb believed that if God had wanted His people to vote, then God would have told us so in His Word, and God didn’t, so we shouldn’t.

Second, what David Lipscomb did find on the pages of his Bible were some clear teachings that his citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and that he was not to love this world and its ways (I John 2:15-17).  Instead, David Lipscomb’s Bible told him that he was to seek the things that were above, where Christ is and not to set his mind on the things of earth (Colossians 3:1-3). In fact, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ explicitly told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and David Lipscomb believed that political wranglings could only interfere with this clear Christ-given priority.

But the biggest reason why David Lipscomb didn’t believe that Christians should vote was because he knew from his own experience – he lived through the Civil War – how political disagreements could shatter the unity of the church, and the unity of the church was the key to the church’s mission. This is one of the clearest and most important things that our church says it believes.

On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus Christ prayed that His disciples would be one so that the world might believe in Him (John 17:20-21).  What God is doing in Jesus Christ, Paul told us, is bringing things that have flown apart back together again, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10), and if we, people who know that this is what God wants and is doing in Christ and by His Spirit, and who say that we know and trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, if we can’t get along with each other, then our message about how God in Jesus Christ is in the business of bringing separated things back together again is just not very believable.

I wasn’t raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You’ve seen that bumper sticker about Texas that says – “I wasn’t born here but I got her just as fast as I could”?  Well, that’s my story with this church. Just as soon as I woke up spiritually when I was a teenager, I went looking for a church that would nurture my newly stirred-up spiritual life, and it was an article on the Disciples of Christ in the famous “Look” magazine series on the denominations in the United States from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that got me here. 

In his essay in that magazine on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?,” James Craig memorably wrote – “There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper [in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ], each is responsible for his own belief and each has an obligation to serve God according to the dictates of his own conscience” – and instinctively I knew that this was the kind of church that I needed, the kind of church that was clear about what mattered most, and that was committed to keeping it the main thing while allowing people freedom of thought and conscience.  

David Lipscomb’s biggest concern about voting was that the way it has the power to get in the way of us being that kind of church.  He knew how partisan politics can stir passions and drive wedges between people, and how those passions and wedges can get carried into the sanctuary of the church and get in the way of who we are as Christians and what it is that we are called to do.  He wasn’t wrong.

Unlike David Lipscomb, I think that Christians should vote.  In a representative democracy like ours, I think that the New Testament’s instructions for Christians to love their neighbors, to be subject to (social) institutions, and to honor the governing authorities implies voting (I Peter 2:13-17).  But I hear David Lipscomb, and I think that his concerns about Christian’s voting have some merit. Paul counseled the Galatian Christians right before he named “enmity, strife, anger, dissension, and a party spirit” as attitudes and behaviors that are completely antithetical to the Spirit of Christ who was at work in them (5:20-21), that they needed to “take heed” lest they “bite, devour, and consume” one another (5:15).  Well, “biting, devouring, and consuming” is the political order of the day. If you vote differently than I do, it’s not just that we have different concerns and perspectives, it’s that you’re stupid, or evil, or disloyal, or want to destroy our country, and so I don’t want anything to do with you. It’s hard to be church when you feel this way about the people you are taking communion with every Sunday.

Believing that being a Christian means that you have to be politically conservative or politically liberal, depending on your interpretations and associations, churches are increasingly becoming caucuses of the Republican or Democratic parties. Christians and churches are choosing sides, withdrawing into their own walled-off fortresses, and launching broadsides of soundbites, half-truths, insults, false witness, and proof-texts, thinking that this is what faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord requires of them, and failing to see that Christ is actually being pushed away by the things they are saying and doing that they think are serving Him.

Oh, I think Christians should vote, but I strongly believe that there’s a Christian way of voting, and our Scripture lesson this morning, I Timothy 2:1-7, is the text from the Bible that has been most instrumental in shaping my own understanding of what it is that my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do,  and how that voting fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ.

I Timothy 2:1-7 begins with a call for prayer. “First of all,” Paul told Timothy, “I urge that prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1). There’s another sermon, or two, or three in just this verse!  There are lots of things about prayer I don’t understand, but here’s what I do understand. God does some things whether we ask Him to or not.  But there are other things that God won’t do unless and until we ask, and even then, God is going to do them in God’s own way and in God’s own time. So, when Scripture tells us to pray about something for somebody, I’ve learned to pay attention, to follow the directions.

In our Scripture lesson this morning Paul told Timothy to lead the church in praying specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions” (2). Now understand, that would have been the Emperor Nero when Paul wrote this I Timothy. Nero would be the Roman Emperor who in a couple of years would have Paul put to death for being a Christian.  Nero was not a good and godly ruler.  I would never have voted for him. Still Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for him. There’s simply no room for politics in prayer. Vote on Tuesday, and then pray for whoever wins the election regardless of who you voted for. That’s how I Timothy 2:1-2 works.

What Paul told Timothy and the church to pray about when they were praying for those in authority over them, was that they would do their job. Pray for those who rule, Paul explained, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (2). “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God” Paul told them (3). 

“It is the sad duty of politics,” the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained, “to establish justice in a fallen world.” In Romans 13, another passage where Paul told the church to pray for the state, he explained that the state exists to promote the common good, what makes for social order, and to suppress evil, what creates social chaos.

I don’t want or need city hall here in Dallas, or the government down in Austin, or over in Washington D.C. to preach the Gospel for me, or to write my prayers, or to teach the Faith, or to go around baptizing people.  That’s not their job. Their job is to be part of the process of  “forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That’s the state’s assignment, and when I vote, I vote for those who I think can do those things wisely, and competently, and fairly. And if it’s a Muslim, or a Jew, or an atheist, or a Republican, or a Democrat that I conclude can do these things best, then that’s who I will vote for.

Beginning in verse 4 of our Scripture lesson this morning, Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for the government to do its job so that they could get on with doing their job.  God wants all people to be saved, Paul told them (verse 4). God came to us in Jesus Christ to do what needed to be done to save us (verse 5-6).  And now, Paul said, it’s our job as the church to be telling people about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ so that they might know that they are loved, accepted, and can be forgiven too.

There’s just one God, but that one God is doing more than just one thing. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that with His left-hand God works to establish order in a world that is prone to coming apart at the seams, so that human life might flourish, while with His right-hand God works to restore people to a right relationship with Himself, so that people might receive the gift of eternal life.

It’s understanding these different things that God is doing in and through the church, and in and through the state, that informs my understanding of what my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do, and how it fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ. Just as I don’t go to the bank to get a loaf of bread, or take my cat to an auto mechanic to get his annual rabies shot, or go to the Meyerson to see a football game, so, while I believe that God is at work in and through both the state and the church, I don’t believe that God is doing the same thing in both places. They each have their own lane, their own assignment, and it is incumbent upon me as someone who lives in both lanes to understand which is which, and what is what, and who is who.

I don’t want or need my politicians preaching, or my preachers politicking. When I vote it’s with a view to what will make life better in this world here and now.  My commitment to Christ certainly informs what I think that means, what that looks like, but it’s the Constitution and not the Bible that’s my primary text for this assignment. And when I go to church it’s with a view to what will make life possible in the world to come.  My vote is not going to bring this Kingdom, and no political candidate is ever going to save us.  What our votes and candidates can do is to serve the common good and promote the general welfare so that the church can be safe and free to be the church, preaching the Gospel and inviting people into the embrace of His love.

So, let’s close by doing what Paul told us to do in our Scripture lesson this morning. On this Sunday morning before the election, let’s pray for those who are in authority over us, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, knowing that this is good, and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who wants everyone everywhere to be saved. And then on Tuesday, let’s vote our carefully considered concerns, convictions, and conclusions. This is a privilege and a responsibility that not every human being gets, and we should not take it for granted. And then on Wednesday, let’s remember who we are, make that – whose we are – and like light let’s shine for Christ in the darkness of the world, like salt let’s be a distinct spiritual presence on the earth, and like leaven let’s be a transforming power for good in society. This is our lane. This is our job. Let’s pray…

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“Getting More Out of Communion” (I Corinthians 11:17-32)

Bob Close, a Presbyterian minister, was on a retreat with some of his minister friends when the subject of worship came up.  “When do you worship?” was the question.  “When do you feel closest to God?”  And here are some of the answers those ministers gave –

“When I’m caring for children at the Daycare Center.”

“When I’m sharing a meal with my family.”

“When I’m listening to beautiful music.”

“When I’m working with the homeless and the poor.”       

“When I am with my spouse.”

“When I’m walking in the woods.”    

“When I’m playing golf with my good friends.”      

“When I’m tending to my garden.”

Now, the way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with any of these answers. The God of the Bible is a great big God, an “everywhere and always” kind of God.  Why, the Psalmist even went so far as to say that “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: (and) if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there!”(139:8 – KJV).  So, there’s nothing on this list that seems out of bounds to me. I know this “everywhere and always” God that they were talking about, in fact, I’ve met Him in many of these same ways and places myself.

What bothers me is not what they said, but what they didn’t say. You see, not one of them said anything about church, or prayer, or the Bible, or preaching, or the Lord’s Supper, and that troubles me.  I’m bothered by the fact that people who are responsible for planning and leading weekly worship in churches said nothing about what happens in worship at those churches when they were asked about when they feel closest to God!  In my mind, this flies in the face of what we say we believe, and it makes the effort we expend each week to do this seem a little silly.  I mean, we do this because of God, right?  We’re here to be close to God, and if that’s not happening, well then, why bother?

Jesus Christ made several promises before He went away about where we would be able to find Him going forward.  For instance, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus said – “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  We gather every Sunday morning under the banner of this promise.  And in Matthew 25 Jesus said – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (25:35-36).  And when it’s asked – “Lord, when did we do these things for you?” (25:37-39), Jesus answers, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (25:40). I suspect that we’ve all bumped into Christ when meeting the needs of others. 

A few years ago, I read a blog written by a young minister who is the father of several school-age girls. He said that most of his parenting responsibilities at that point in his life consisted of “waiting” and “picking up.”  “Knowing when an event ends and when and where I need to be waiting in my truck to pick them up is a big part of what I do.”  And he said this always worked out pretty well out so long as three things were clear – first, so long as he’d told his girls exactly where to find him; second, so long as his girls came to exactly where he told them that he’d be; and third, so long as they got into the right truck when they got there. Spiritually, Jesus Christ did this same thing for us.  

Jesus told us that there were some places He planned to be, and some activities that He planned to be a part of, and that so long as we went to those places and did those things, then we’d find Him there.  I’ve already mentioned two of them, Matthew 18, in the fellowship of the church, and Matthew 25, in the distress and disguise of the poor and needy. So, here’s a third one, the one that has been central and especially precious to our life as a church – the Lord’s Supper.

On Easter Sunday evening as the two forlorn disciples sat down at table with the stranger who’d joined them on their walk to Emmaus, and He took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it, Luke tells us that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized” that they were with Jesus (Luke 24:31).  It seems to me that this is the promise that the Lord’s Table holds out to all of us every Sunday. When we break the bread and bless the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are being given a way to be with Jesus Christ that was chosen by Jesus Christ Himself!  He said, “This is where I’ll be.”

This is why it’s called “communion.” “Communion” comes from a Latin word that means “coming together as one.” This clearly has a horizontal reference, to the way that we find our unity with each another around the Lord’s Table.  But it’s first reference is vertical, to the way that we find our unity with God restored by what it was that Jesus Christ did on the cross for us. The broken bread and poured-out cup of the Lord’s Supper are signs of this saving work that Jesus Christ did for us.

In the Old Testament the Tabernacle in the wilderness that became the Temple in Jerusalem was known as the “Tent of Meeting.” It’s where God’s first covenant people went be with God.  They went there because that’s where God told them that He’d be. It was where they could always be sure to always find Him, and the Lord’s Table is our “Tent of Meeting.”  This is where Jesus Christ said that He’d be for us. He’s known “in the breaking of the bread.” So, how come it doesn’t always work? How come there’s times when instead of sharing in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s Table, all we seem to get is a bite of bread and a sip of juice?

I Corinthians 11 describes a moment when this very thing happened in the life of the church at Corinth.  Paul told them that he knew that they thought they were getting together to take communion, but in fact. He told them, it was not the Lord’s Supper that they were eating (11:20).  Rather than being a means of grace, a “celebration with thanksgiving of the saving acts and presence of Christ,” Paul told the Corinthians that what they were actually doing was “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Rather than the Lord’s Supper serving their spiritual health and growth, Paul told them that it was making them spiritually sick and killing them instead (11:30).

“You are eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner” (11:27) was Paul’s diagnosis of what was going wrong.  The Lord’s Supper isn’t magic.  We don’t just say the right words, perform the right rituals, and then abracadabra, God shows up in a puff of some like some kind of genie from a bottle. We bring something to this party. This is why Jesus told the Parable of the Sower. Remember –

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:3-8)

Note that the problem in this story was not with the seed but with the soil. Where the soil was receptive the good seed produced a bumper crop.  But where the soil was crowded with weeds, or shallow, or hard, it brought no return.  That seed is the Gospel, Jesus said, and the soil, our hearts. 

The Lord’s Supper is a way that the Gospel gets preached to us every Sunday morning. The broken bread in remembrance of Christ’s broken body, and the cup poured in remembrance of Christ’s shed blood, are seeds of the Gospel’s hope, and power, and peace that get sown into our hearts each week. But what becomes of those seeds depends on the condition of our hearts.  Are they open or closed?  Are they hard or soft?  Are they receptive or resistant? 

Paul told the Corinthians that the remedy for their unworthy participation in the Lord’s Supper was self-examination. This is how the soil of our hearts gets prepared. “Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,” Paul told them (11:28).  Whenever I hear this, I think of those signs for the roller coasters over at Six Flags that say, “You must be this tall to ride.”  Put the words “worthy” and “self-examination” together, and I can’t help but wonder, and worry, about the requirements.  Have I done enough? Am I good enough? Will I get in?

I grew up in a church that did two things every Sunday morning. The Ten Commandments were read to us, every week, and then we celebrated Communion. In my little boy brain, how I put this together was by thinking that obeying the Ten Commandments was how you got to go to the Lord’s Table.  It was the “You must be this tall” sign at the beginning of the ride. But in time, as I grew in in understanding, when the Ten Commandments took my moral and spiritual measure each week, the further I found myself falling from God’s glory and the less deserving of God’s grace I felt myself to be.  The Ten Commandments didn’t congratulate me. They condemned me.

One of the prayers we prayed together at that church when I was a kid gave voice to what I felt after hearing the Ten Commandments read out loud each week. “We have offended against thy holy laws,” it said, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; we have done those things which we ought not to have done; there is no health in us.” The Old Testament Psalmist came to the painful realization that if God was keeping score, taking note of all his sins, then there was just no way that he was ever going to be able to stand in God’s Presence (139:3). If keeping the moral and spiritual demands of the Ten Commandment are what it takes to be worthy of the Lord’s Supper, then I’m out.  I’m not good enough or faithful enough to be here.  That’s where honest self-examination is going to leave me every single time.  But, in a surprising twist, this is precisely where the way to the Lord’s Table opens before us. This is where grace meets us.

As the Psalmist discovered, it was only when he knew that he had nowhere to stand before God on the basis of some imagined spiritual proficiency or moral superiority that he discovered God’s basic nature to be love, and experienced it as forgiveness (Psalm 130:3-4). The honest self-examination that Paul told the Corinthians was the prerequisite for their “worthy” participation in the Lord’s Supper doesn’t turn us into the Pharisee that Jesus talked about who went up to the Temple to pray with his list of moral and spiritual qualifications firmly in hand, but rather into the Publican who could only bow his head, beat his chest in the presence of God, and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).

John Hunter, a 19th century English Congregationalist minister, wrote one of the most widely used worship books for the churches of his day. It’s entirely possible that Thomas Campbell, one of our church’s founders, was familiar with this worship book, and maybe even used it.  What I do know for sure is that more than once I’ve heard echoes of John Hunter’s invitation to the Lord’s Table in the invitations to the Lord’s Table at Disciple churches where I’ve worshipped, and every time I have, I’ve thought it exactly “right” in tone and content.

“Come to this sacred Table, not because you must, but because you may: come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to be His true disciples: come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on Heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of Heaven’s mercy and help.”

This is a Communion Token. There was a time when the only way you could come the Lord’s Table was if you had one of these, and the only way you could get one of these was to prove to someone like me that you deserved it, that you were “worthy” of having it!  Can you imagine having to convince your minister that you are a good enough Christian before they would serve you Communion?

The beginnings of our church can be traced to the moment when our founders rejected this practice. We don’t qualify for the Lord’s Supper because we’re good, or because we believe the right things, or because behave in the acceptable ways, but only because we need grace.  The self-examination that Paul said we need to conduct as our preparation for coming to the Lord’s Table doesn’t establish our credentials, it exposes our need, and it’s only that need that makes us “worthy” of the Lord’s Supper. “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus said, “I will not send away” (John 6:37). So come, not because “any goodness of your own gives you a right to come, but because He loves you, and gave Himself for you.” It’s admitting our need for grace that makes us worthy of the gift of grace that we receive in the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Table.

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“Who is our Mission Field?” (Acts 8:4-8; 26-31)

William of Occam, a 14th century English priest and philosopher, had a razor. In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows you to “shave off” unnecessary arguments or unlikely explanations. Occam’s razor said that the simpler explanation of how something came about is almost always the right explanation. I might have parachuted into church this morning from my private jet, but it’s much more likely that I drove myself here in my Subaru.  That’s Occam’s razor.

Now, if my fifty years of local church ministry have shown me anything, it’s that we church folks are really good at complicating what Jesus Christ said. I once heard John Alexander say that we Christians make great effort and exert tremendous energy trying to convince ourselves that Jesus Christ couldn’t possibly have meant what He most clearly said!

“Go onto all the world, preach the Gospel, make disciples, and teach everything that I have commanded.” That’s something Jesus said. It’s the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19-20).  It’s Jesus Christ’s definitive statement on the mission of the church, or as the first preacher I ever worked for back in the early 1970’s put it, they’re “Christ’s marching orders” for us, His followers. 

I’ve never been a big fan of churches forming committees and hiring outside consultants to figure out what their mission is supposed to be. I’ve always thought that Jesus already settled that for us. He told us what He wanted us to do. We just need to follow the directions. I know a church up in Seattle that was really struggling, and so they took some time out and just read the Gospels together for the better part of a year.  They looked closely at what Jesus Christ did, at how He spent His time, and then they compared that to what they were doing, with how they were spending their time.  There was no resemblance whatsoever. They were busy with meetings, budgets, property, and policies. Jesus was busy with people. So, they changed. It’s Occam’s razor for the church!  Just do what Jesus said!

There’s a cartoon that was published years ago in a ministry journal I used to read that showed a great big room full of very serious-looking people all working hard at their computers, going over maps and data. A sign on the wall behind them said that they were the Global Center for Evangelism Research. And up at the top of the cartoon, a rather startled looking man bursts into the room waving his arms and shouting – “The computer was right! The most effective way is just to talk to people!”

Those verses from Acts chapter 8 that were our Scripture lesson this morning were a description of the early church when it was pushed out of its comfort zone by hardship for the very first time.  Stephen, one of the early church’s leaders, had been killed by a mob after preaching the Gospel. He was the first martyr, a word that means “witness.” He was the very first Christian to die for his faith, and Luke told us that after his death, as the church was scattered by the persecution that followed, that those scattered Christians “preached the word” as they went (8:4). 

Now “preaching” is an unfortunate translation of the word that Luke used to describe what those Christians did. “Preaching” sounds so formal, so official, so structured. More than one interpreter has argued that the word that Luke used here would be much better translated as “chattered” or even “gossiped” about Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean that they stood in a pulpit and delivered an oration, but rather that they just visited with anyone and everyone who would listen to them talk about who Jesus Christ was to them and about what Jesus Christ had done for them.

The second part of our Scripture lesson this morning from Acts chapter 8 was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-31). I think that Luke told us this story as an illustration of how those first Christians stepped onto the mission field the moment they were pushed out of their comfortable and familiar nests and into the world where our lives “casually brush up against” the lives of others. Those countless interactions we have with other people all day long are divine appointments, occasions of grace, opportunities for the seeds of faith to be planted in the lives of others. This is our mission field.

Notice that Philip was sent by an angel to the place where the road from Jerusalem turned toward Gaza (8:26), and when he got there, the Holy Spirit told Philip want to say and do in his encounter with the man in the chariot (8:29).  This is the Bible’s worldview. It’s world is crowded, full of presences and powers, both good and bad. God is everywhere and always active in it, constantly nudging His people in the direction of His purpose and prompting the words that He needs us to say.

One of the first things that Pope Francis said after his election to the papacy was that when the Holy Spirit shows up the church is going to be pushed outward and onward, and chances are pretty good that the church isn’t going to like it one little bit. He said –

“The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, but that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward, and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that’s not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.”

Theologian John Howard Yoder argued that the early church never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative. And this is what we see happening in our Scripture lesson this morning. The story of the scattered church and obedient Philip shows how the Holy Spirit is always pushing the church past its present boundaries and across its own thresholds to the people who are standing just outside its front doors.

There’s something called the law of proximity that has guided the church’s mission throughout the centuries.  Here’s how a bright young minister out in California puts it – “The doctrine of proximity is a biblically informed awareness of and submission to God’s providential placement of individual persons in specific places on His earth for His sovereign purposes” (Austin Thompson @ withallwisdom.org).  Do you want me to translate that for you? The Bible tells us stories about how God brought people into the lives of the first Christians, people God needed them to show His love to, because that’s what God needs us to do too.  We don’t have to overthink this.  We don’t have to complicate things.  Just love in specific and concrete ways the very next person who walks into your life with the love of Jesus Christ.

Oh, I’ve done it other ways. I’ve preached on downtown street corners and on the sidewalks in front of taverns on rowdy Saturday nights.  I’ve knocked on the doors of complete strangers wanting to share Christ with whoever answered.  I’ve handed out tracts to people pushing their way past me heading into football stadiums.  I’ve struck up conversations with people sitting next to me on buses and airplanes intending to turn the encounter to the question of where their souls were going to spend eternity. I’ve been that guy, and I can tell you that it doesn’t work. 

What does work is being a Christian intentionally, unapologetically, and unreservedly in every situation of every day with every person whose path crosses yours. That’s the mission field. It’s not across an ocean somewhere, or on the other side of town. It’s right outside the front door of our lives.  It’s the next person you meet, and it’s about the kind of people you are consciously and consistently going to choose to be with them, for them.

When by faith Jesus Christ becomes our Lord and Savior we are changed, fundamentally and irrevocably.  We become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we start to live new lives, lives that are “odd” and “interesting” by the standards of the world.  It’s these “question-posing lives” that we live as Christians that are the “secret” to the church’s mission according to the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider. 

He researched and wrote extensively about evangelism in the early church, and it was his conclusion that the early church gathered in worship to shape Christians with Christ-like virtues and values so that when they scattered back into the world they would go back different, changed, more Christ-like. Their attachment to Christ would show, and that would be incredibly attractive.  No longer squeezed into the world’s mold, they would be in the process of being transformed into a different mold altogether by the Christ who dwells within them, and that would get people’s attention.

I have learned a lot from Anna Geyer, a student of mine at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Iowa extension (Dr. Kreider explained). Anna is a 30-year-old mother who lives with her husband and children in an area where very few Mennonites live. Anna tends a large garden, ‘The Cutting Garden,’ to which people can come and cut flowers. A wide variety of women do and they are invited for a cup of coffee at her kitchen table. Anna reports that people look at her and ask questions:

‘Anna, you’re living in a way that I’m not used to.’

‘Anna, why are you and your husband so kind to each other?’

‘Anna, why do your kids talk politely?

‘Anna, why do you live like you do?’

And at the right moment, which may take years in coming, Anna will say, ‘Because of Jesus.’

Anna is a radical, who lives simply, who is committed to a peacemaking lifestyle, who is a good friend and an excellent listener. She has built up a remarkable network of women who don’t go to church but who want to talk about life — and about God. Anna is odd and interesting.”

Alan Kreider said that the New Testament never batters, begs, badgers, or bargains with Christians to get on with the Great Commission. Instead, it tells them to live lovingly, peacefully, joyfully, faithfully, patiently, gently, and hopefully, because when Christuian do, when they are Christ-like, when they live in ways that are “odd” and “interesting,” then people are invariably going to ask questions. “It’s living the way of Christ that leads people to ask questions,” Professor Kreider concluded from his lifetime of studying the mission of the church.  When we are those kinds of people, other people will want to know why?

In his classic book on the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster encouraged Christians to pray the same prayer every morning before leaving the house. “Dear Lord,” it says, “I would so appreciate it if you would send someone into my life today who I can love and serve.”  Wherever we are is our mission field, and our mission is to simply pray for whoever crosses our path, and to extend Christ’s compassion and care to whoever is standing in front of us. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.

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The Three Questions of Easter

There are Bible chapters every Christian should know –

Genesis 1 – The first Creation story,

Exodus 20 – The Ten Commandments,

Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm,

Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant,

Matthew 5 – The Beatitudes,

John 3 – The Born Again & “For God so loved” Chapter,

Romans 8 – The Assurance Chapter,

Hebrews 11 – The Faith Chapter,

Revelation 21 – The New Heavens and the New Earth Chapter,

And I Corinthians 15 – the Resurrection Chapter.

Chronologically speaking, I Corinthians 15 is the first written witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have, and the most comprehensive.  I have never conducted a funeral without a reference to I Corinthians 15, and I have rarely led an Easter worship service without quoting something from I Corinthians 15, and I have never made it through Holy Week without opening my Bible to I Corinthians 15 for prayer and meditation. In I Corinthians 15:19 Paul put all his eggs in the resurrection basket when he wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” and that’s a pretty good indicator of the centrality of what I Corinthians 15 tells us about the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a Biblical faith.

Michael Green (1930 – 2019), the British Anglican Theologian, in his little 1982 booklet. “The Day Death Died: Did Jesus Christ Really Rise from the Dead” (IVP), said that there are two questions that ought to loom large in our consideration of the resurrection – “What?” and “So what?” “What?” addresses the matter of the content of the resurrection claim. “So what?” addresses the matter of its significance. “What?” gets us into what happened on that first Easter morning.  “So what?” gets us into why it still matters on this Monday morning after the holiday has just passed. To Professor Green’s questions, I would add a third, “Now what?” This is the question that gets talk and thought of the resurrection out of the realm of ideas and into the realm of practicality.  How does a belief in the resurrection effect how I get up for and get through today?

For the next three days I am going to be posting my reflections on these three Easter questions about the resurrection: “What?” “So what?” & “Now what?”  Taking a moment today to read I Corinthians 15 would be a great way to begin the journey of faith.

The First Question of Easter – “What?”

The Question of the Content of the Resurrection

After three years of preaching, teaching, and working miracles, the Gospels tell us that Jesus Christ was arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. He was dead as dead could be on Good Friday afternoon. But on Easter Sunday morning He was back! He was different, changed, but still Jesus. That’s what resurrection means.  There’s continuity. It’s the same person.  But there’s discontinuity too. There are changes. One of the standard hymns the church sings at Easter expresses this “same but different” quality of resurrection poetically –

“Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side,
rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified;
no angels in the sky can fully bear that sight,
but downward bends their burning eye at mysteries so bright.”

The key here is that word “glorified.” The hymn encourages us to “behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above.” That’s the continuity part of resurrection. Who Jesus was and what Jesus did before Easter Sunday morning was still part of His identity after Easter Sunday morning. But, as the poetry of the hymn expresses it, those “rich wounds, yet visible above” are “in beauty glorified.” That’s the discontinuity part of resurrection. There was a real change.

A resurrection is not a resuscitation, the reanimation of a corpse. That’s what Jesus did for Lazarus. He gave life back to his dead body four days after he died.  That’s miraculous, to be sure, but it was only a temporary fix.  Lazarus had to die all over again, in fact, the Gospel of John tells us that the folks who plotted Jesus’ death wanted Lazarus dead too (12:11).  But as the Risen Christ of John’s vision at the beginning of the book of Revelation

Makes clear, He is now the “the living one,” the One who “died, and is now alive for evermore” (1:17-18). 

A resuscitation is a restoration of what once was. A resurrection is a transformation into something more, a coming back after death to a new order of existence.  “Glorified” is the word the church uses to talk about how the resurrection changed Jesus, and what it looks like is the Jesus of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36). At the beginning of Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem and the cross, on a mountaintop in Galilee, there was a disclosure of God’s glory in Christ so that the disciples might know the true identity of the One who was about to die for them. The description of the appearance of the transfigured Christ – “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2), and the description of the Risen Christ – “His appearance was like lightening, and His raiment white as snow” (Matthew 28:3), and the description of the glorified Christ in heaven –  “His eyes were like a flame of fire, and …His face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:14, 16), are dots in the Biblical narrative that we are supposed to connect.

The Greek word for “transfigured” is “metamorphosis.” It means “transformed, transforming.” It describes a change in form, and that’s what a resurrection is. Paul, in I Corinthians 15:42-44 described this change –

“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.

It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.

It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”

And on Easter we see what this looks like.

Contrary to the unbiblical idea that our final destiny involves dropping our “robes of flesh” and rising to “seize the everlasting prize” as pure spirits “passing through the air,” we believe in the resurrection of the body. On Easter Sunday morning the disciples didn’t look into the Garden tomb, see Christ’s body lying there on a slab of stone, conclude that His spirit had been released, and then joyfully went about proclaiming the “immortality of the soul.” No, when they looked into the garden tomb what they saw were Christ’s burial clothes lying about discarded and His body gone (John 20:6-7), prompting them to worry that it had been stolen and hidden away somewhere by somebody (John 20:2;13). On Easter Sunday morning Christ’s body wasn’t in the tomb because He had been raised, changed, transformed.

The resurrection of the body is an affirmation of the goodness of creation, the embodied nature of our personhood, the saving work of a God incarnate, and the promise of our own final transformation when we shall see Him as He is, and become like Him (I John 3:2).

The Second Question of Easter – “So What?”

The Question of the Meaning of the Resurrection

Three men were crucified on Golgotha the day Christ died. It was the same event for all three of them. They experienced the same fear, anguish, suffering, shame, and death. Christ wasn’t spared the horror of the moment because of who He was, if anything, the horror was increased because of who He was. His suffering involved His body and His soul. 

On the inside Christ’s crucifixion was very different from that of His two companions on Good Friday, but on the outside, they looked exactly the same. They each suffered, bled, and died. They were all executed for their crimes, the two beside Jesus because they were brigands, and Jesus for blasphemy and treason. Crucifixion was an action taken by Imperial Rome.

The Empire killed Jesus.  They killed Him because He was perceived to be a threat by them.  That’s why Rome killed the two men beside Jesus on Good Friday too. But the death of Jesus means something more than this. This is why when Pontius Pilate, the Empire’s legate in Judea, told Jesus that he had the power to release or crucify Him, Jesus relativized the boast by telling Pilate that any imagined power he thought he had had been “given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). 

The mechanics of the crucifixion were the work of the Empire, but the laying down of His life was something that Christ did “of His own accord” (John 10:18). “No one takes my life from me” Jesus explained, not Annas, not Caiaphas, not Herod, not Pilate.

Jesus died.  That’s what history can tell us.

Jesus died for our sins.  That’s what the Gospel tells us.

Events need interpretation.  It’s not enough just to know what happened.  We need to know why that something happened.  What does its happening mean?  Why does it matter?

Jesus’ tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning. The empty tomb is the evidence that something happened.  The disciples’ testimonies of their encounters with the risen Christ is the explanation that they gave as to why the tomb was empty. Another explanation that was given to account for the empty tomb was that Christ’s dead body had been stolen (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15; John 20:2;13). These are not inconsequential considerations, but even when we’ve sorted it all out, we’ve only dealt with the question of “What?” The real import and impact of Easter resides in the question of “So What?”

I Corinthians 15 is the New Testament’s first and fullest exploration of the resurrection, and while not uninterested in the “What?” question, where it really drills down is on the question of “So What?” Distilling Paul’s discussion of this in I Corinthians 15:12-19, I find three answers to the question “So What?” –

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ means that He is who He said He is, and that what He told us about God and life is true.  Paul said that Jesus Christ was “designated the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4), and on the day of Pentecost Peter preached that Jesus Christ was “attested” to us “by God with mighty works and wonders and signs,” climaxing with God “raising Him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:22-24). I take the things that Jesus Christ said with great seriousness because of who He claimed to be, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. And what makes this claim credible is His resurrection on the third day.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we can be forgiven of “all our failures and our sins, of who we are and who we’ve been” (Bob Bennett) and become brand new people. Ezekiel 36:26-27 needs to be engraved on the wall of every baptistry – “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that occurred in history effects an inward death, burial, and resurrection in our inner being by faith. We are regenerated, born again, made new creations, the old having passed away and new having come. This is a fundamental and irrevocable change of heart, and like fruit from a root, newness of life follows this foundational transformation.

And the Resurrection of Jesus Christ means that death does not have the power to destroy us or our relationship with God and one another. John wrote to the church –“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The Resurrection of Christ not only empowers our moral transformation now, it creates an expectation for the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” that awaits us (2 Corinthians 4:17).  The template for the “spiritual body” we will receive when “the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (I Corinthians 15:54) is what became of Christ in His resurrection.  “We will be like Him.”

The Third Question of Easter – “Now What?”

The Question of the Practicality of the Resurrection

One of the authors I read says that when he wakes up each morning the first thing he thinks and says is, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  He says that there is no more practical affirmation in our faith as Christians than this.

We live in a world that’s broken and in bodies that are prone to dissolution. We are numbered among the things that are passing away. The longer we live the more the losses stack up. We lose childhood. We lose friends. We lose relationships. We lose responsibilities. We lose jobs. We lose possessions. We lose security. We lose opportunities. We lose our loves. We lose our way. We lose strength. We lose capacity. We lose function. We lose our minds. We lose control. And eventually, we lose our lives. But we dare not lose heart. And so that author says that he begins each day by announcing what it is that he believes will be left standing when everything else has fallen away – “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Paul ended his discussion of Christ’s resurrection and ours in I Corinthians 15 with one of the most stunning turns to the practical consequence of good theology to be found anywhere in the Bible. After 57 verses of probing the “What?” and “So What?” questions about the resurrection, in a single verse, Paul turned to “Now What?” – to the question of the practicality of the Resurrection – “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).

The ”therefores” of Scripture are underappreciated. They are the hinges on which our faith turns from the considerations of theology/theory to the moral consequences/practice. Because the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened and matters (I Corinthians 15:1-57), Paul told believers that they had a basis for staying strong, engaged, and hopeful, regardless of circumstances, loses, or results. This was not some kind of Pollyannaish “every-dark-cloud-has a-silver-lining” way of thinking, but rather a reasonable response to life if Christ has in fact been raised from the dead. 

Hope is not some wispy, delicate creature of pious imagination or fearful desperation. Hope is a steely-eyed, “face-set-like-flint,” resolve with its feet firmly planted in the solid bedrock of God’s actions and promises preserved for us in Scripture.  With Morton Kelsey I say –

“The resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives me hope. It is the only event in history in which I have seen evil and ugliness, pain and violence, destructiveness and death confronted, defeated, transcended, and transmuted. The evil of this world is very real to me. I have experienced a lot of pain and destructiveness within me and around me. Much of my life has been hard and full of tension. The resurrection makes it worth the struggle.

I doubt very much that I could muster much realistic hope if Jesus had not risen. If he had gone up to Golgotha, to the place of the skull, and died nobly and that was the end of it, I would admire him as a heroic human being, but human existence would look like a trivial, meaningless farce. If love and glory were not somehow manifested in this world, I would doubt their ultimate reality and power. I know the power of evil and destructiveness, attacking us within in depression and despair and outwardly in war and poverty. I know the law of the jungle that the strong feed on the weak. I know that death lies ahead for all of us whether in nuclear holocaust or by sudden death or by a lingering painful death. If these for us are not somewhere defeated in history, is there any ultimate meaning or hope?

…I do not have an unconquerable soul. In the storms of life I will go under and disintegrate without the One who has conquered evil and death. If I am the only master of my fate and captain of my soul I am lost and a failure, but there is one who will captain my soul and bring me to a fate better than I had dreamed possible, if only I will allow it.”

I believe in the resurrection of the body.

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“Jesus Now” (Revelation 1:9-20)

George Fox (1624 – 1691) was a church reformer in England back in the 1600’s.  He was the founder of the Society of Friends, the “Quakers.” Every church has a big idea, something they think the rest of Christianity has missed and that’s important enough for them to start a new church built upon it. For George Fox that big idea was Easter. He didn’t think that the church of his day was taking the resurrection of Jesus Christ as seriously as it ought to be taken. His “big idea” was that if Jesus Christ is really risen from the dead, then He ought to still be around in perceptible ways.

So, George Fox would go into the churches of his day and at the end of the services of worship he would ask their preachers a question.  This was not an uncommon or inappropriate thing to do back in those days.  What he wanted to know was whether any of them had heard from the Risen Christ?  Had they ever gotten a word from the Risen Lord telling them to go somewhere or to do something just like the prophets and apostles in the Bible had? 

George Fox’s spiritual life had been transformed when, in a time of real crisis, he had heard from Christ. Preacher after preacher failed to help him, and then, on the brink of despair, when all his hopes in preachers and churches was gone, and he had nothing outwardly to help him, he inwardly heard a voice saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” In that moment George Fox said that his heart “did leap for joy,” and he knew in his own experience that the Living Christ was still around giving “grace, and faith, and power” to people like him. And because He is, George Fox said that we should come to church expecting to bump into the risen Christ, but what he found instead were churches that had no expectation of His presence and very little experience of His power.  The churches George Fox visited were Jesus “memorial societies,” what Calvin Miller, the Southern Baptist preacher called “hollow museums whose curators invoke the memory of Jesus without any chance of Him ever actually showing up.”

When I say “Jesus,” what do you think? Is He someone who once was, someone like a Genghis Kahn or a Florence Nightingale, somebody from history; or is He someone who still is, someone like me standing here in your pulpit here this morning, or the person seated beside you on your pew?  Is Jesus Christ somebody we know because we read about Him in the pages of an ancient book, or, as the old Easter hymn puts it, is He someone we know because He “walks with me, and talks with me, and tells me I am His own”?

It may have surprised you a bit to hear our Scripture reading this morning from the book of Revelation. We’re so much more accustomed to Scripture readings on Easter coming from the Gospels, stories about the empty tomb and the startled disciples.  I’m assuming we all know those stories. They tell us that after three years of preaching, teaching, and working miracles, that Jesus Christ was arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. He was dead as dead could be on Good Friday afternoon. But on Easter Sunday morning He was back! Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the third day. I believe it, and because I do, I really want to know where He is this morning and what He’s doing right now.

Easter’s not the signal that that the story of Jesus Christ is over, but rather that the page has turned, and a new chapter in the story of Jesus has begun.  When we end the Gospel story of Jesus on Easter with His resurrection, and don’t follow it to where it goes next, we get Jesus up and dressed, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.  This is not what the Bible says.  This is not what the church teaches.  There’s more to Jesus Christ and His saving work than just Christmas and Easter. In fact, Biblically, there are three more events in the saving work of Jesus Christ – the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Second Coming.  These are the saving works of the risen Christ. These are the Gospel events that tell us where the risen Christ is and what the risen Christ is doing now. This is the Jesus of our Scripture lesson this morning. This is the Jesus who’s there.  This is the Jesus we are dealing with. It’s still Jesus, but He’s different, changed. As one of the hymns the church sings at Easter says –

Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side,
rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified;
no angels in the sky can fully bear that sight,
but downward bends their burning eye at mysteries so bright.

The key is that word “glorified.” You see, a resurrection is not just a resuscitation, the reanimation of a corpse. That’s what Jesus did for Lazarus. He gave life back to his dead body four days after he died, but that was only a temporary fix.  Lazarus had to die all over again, in fact, the Gospel of John tells us that the folks who plotted Jesus’ death wanted Lazarus dead too (12:11).

A resuscitation is just a restoration of what once was. A resurrection is a transformation into something more, a coming back after death to a new order of existence.  “Glorified” is the word the church uses to talk about how the resurrection changed Jesus, and what it looks like is what John saw in Revelation chapter 1. The risen, glorious Christ of Revelation chapter 1 is still around and busy. There are three parts to His work in glory.

40 days after His resurrection, we’re told that the Risen Christ “ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”  The “right hand” of a king is the place of intimacy and influence. This is where Christ came from to save us, and this is where Christ returns to hold us.  As an old hymn explains –

“O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God,
hold us who wait before thee near to the heart of God.

When His saving work on earth was finished, the Risen Christ returned to the Father where, as the Bible says, “He lives to make intercession” (Hebrews 7:25).  “Intercession” is the language the New Testament uses to describe the first thing that the Risen, glorified Christ is doing for us right now.  It means He’s “praying for” us.  He’s talking about us with the Father.  He’s representing our cause.  He’s pleading our case.  He’s advocating for our needs.  He’s holding what’s on our hearts before the heart of God. 

I once heard Tony Campolo say that what Christ’s ministry of “intercession” for us at the right hand of God means is that He has our picture in His wallet and that He’s forever showing it to the Father as He tells Him all about us and what we need.  When I pray “in Jesus’ name,” what I’m saying is that it’s Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, who gains me my access to the throne of God, and who forever holds me there in His love.

50 days after His resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, the Risen Christ sent “another Helper.” In the Upper Room on the night when He was betrayed, Jesus told His disciples that He was going away.  Christ understood that telling them this would make them very sad, and so He made it very clear His going away was not going to leave them feeling “orphaned.”  

Christ told His disciples that when He went away that He was going send the Holy Spirit to His disciples so that He could be present with them in a new way. In fact, what Jesus said was that it would actually be to our “advantage” for Him to go away because that’s when the Spirit would come (John 16:7), and it’s the Spirit who takes what Jesus Christ did 2000 years ago and applies it to our hearts today.  It’s the Holy Spirit who takes what’s true and makes it real in our experience.

Pastor J.D. Greear says that lots of us operate with a God who’s like a busy teacher who gives an assignment and then steps out of the room, leaving her students to get the assignment done on their own. But we have not been abandoned.  We have not been forgotten. Abd we are certainly not alone. The second thing that the risen, glorified Christ does for us is to sends the Holy Spirit as His continuing empowering presence working in us and through us.

And finally, one day the Risen Christ “shall come again with glory,” bringing God’s kingdom that “shall have no end.”  There is so much more to Christianity than just our present experience of it.  God made promises that have yet to be fulfilled.  We’ve been told that there’s day coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, a day when death will be no more, a day when there will be no more sadness or suffering.  But that day has not yet come.

This means that right now we’re in-between. There’s an “already” to our faith, and a “not yet.”  It’s often compared to the time during World War 2 in Europe between D-Day and VE-Day.  The allied forces secured the beachhead at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. All the historians I’ve read say that Third Reich was for all intents and purposes defeated that day.  The Germans lost the war the moment those brave British, American, and Canadian troops stormed ashore.  But, as you know, the fighting went on in Europe for another 11 months, until May 8, 1945, VE-Day, when Germany finally surrendered. In the same way, Christ’s first coming 2000 years ago as that baby born in Bethlehem’s manger and offered up on Calvary’s cross was the Gospel’s D-Day, and the Gospel’s VE-Day will be when the Risen Christ comes again in glory to finally and fully establish God’s Kingdom that shall have no end. And that’s the third thing the risen, glorified Christ does.  He’s coming back to finish the saving work that He began in the manger and on the cross.

Where is Christ now?  What is Christ doing now?  In His vision of the Risen, Glorious Christ at the beginning of the book of Revelation, our Scripture Lesson this morning, John said that he saw Him walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands which represented the seven churches in Asia Minor that John pastored.  The risen Christ was in the midst of His people, and I believe the risen Christ still is, after all, it’s His promise that where 2 or 3 disciples gather in His name that He would be in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). And I believe that He is.

The risen Christ is right here this morning ministering His continuing care and concern for us. He’s here working in us, and for us, and through us by His indwelling, empowering Spirit.  And He’s here refashioning our hearts in the shape of the coming Kingdom, prodding us to lean more courageously into the promises that God has made, and assuring us that the saving work He began when He was here the first time will be completed when He comes again.

More than just a fond memory or a figure from history, Jesus Christ is the Living Lord whose presence and power are available to those whose hearts of love are open to Him, and whose eyes of faith are looking for Him.

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen Indeed.

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“The Hour has Come” – John 13:1-9

“What time is it?”

Did you see what we just did? We looked at our watches. We all have one, around our wrists or on our phones. We always know what time it is.  We can tell you the hour, the minute, even the second if need be.  At one of the churches I served, they put a great big clock on the back wall where the preacher could always see it, then they got a preacher who was far-sighted, and so they put another clock in the pulpit, they built it right into the woodwork.  I’ve been preaching for nearly 50 years now; I get it. I dare say that what you all did just a moment ago is not the only time that you’ll do it as I stand up here talking.

What about in Jesus’ day? How did they know what time it was? Sunrise and sunset gave people in the ancient world two fixed reference points for telling time, and the sundial gave them a way to measure the passing of time between the sun’s rising and sun’s setting.  But that only worked so long as the sun was shining, and the sun doesn’t always shine, and so the ancients developed other ways to tell time.

The water clock is a container with markings on its side calibrated to the passing of time measured by the sundial.  It would be filled with water and then drained slowly, evenly. By watching the level of the water drop in relation to those markings on the side of the container you would know how much time had passed.  It’s the same idea that’s behind the hourglass. 

There were ways they kept time in Jesus’ day.  But we’re talking about “Chronos” time here, the time of clocks and calendars. The Bible knows about another kind of time, “Kairos” time.  This is the time of weddings and pregnancies, significant time, time that ushers in new possibilities and changed realties.  “Chronos” time passes. “Kairos” time builds.

John 13 begins – “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  In the Gospel of John, references to the “hour” were about “Kairos” not “Chronos” time.  It wasn’t just a moment in time, it was the moment towards which all time moved. The first time we come across Jesus’ concern with “the hour” in the Gospel of John is back in chapter 2, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when they ran out of wine.

Mary went and found Jesus to report on this social blunder and public embarrassment with the unspoken expectation that He do something about it to make things better, which prompted Him to say, perhaps a bit impatiently – “Woman, what has this to do with me?” – quickly adding – “My hour has not yet come” (2:4).  And then, every so often after this, throughout the rest of the Gospel of John, Jesus explained His actions, or more often, His inaction, with a reference to his sense of the timing of His “hour.”  You see, Jesus was a man under orders. He was a man on a mission.

There’s an icon in the Eastern Orthodox Church that shows Jesus as a little boy gathered up into Mary’s arms. Above them, on either side, are some hovering angels who are holding the implements of a crucifixion – nails, a hammer, a ladder, a spear, the wood of a cross.  In the icon, Jesus is looking back over His shoulder at them. A sandal dangles from his foot, hanging by its strings.  It’s as if Jesus, startled by the appearance of these angels with the tools of cruel suffering, had fled, literally running out of his shoe into the safety and comfort of His mother’s arms. And there she holds Him tenderly, but in the icon, she doesn’t look at Him, she looks at us with a knowing look.  She knows where this story is going.  She knows how this story ends, and in the Gospel of John, so does Jesus.  At every moment of His life and ministry, Jesus operated with a keen awareness that He had an assignment, was on a schedule, and had an appointment. His “hour” was coming.

In John 12 we’re told about a group of “Greeks” who were in Jerusalem for the Passover and who wanted to see Jesus (12:20-36).  In John’s sequence of events, this happens right after the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday (12:12-19). They approached Philip, the only disciple of Jesus with a Greek name, to be their emissary.  Philip told Andrew, Peter’s brother and someone well known in the Gospel story for bringing people to Jesus, and together they went to see Jesus.

Jesus never directly addressed the request of the Greeks to see Him.  Instead, Jesus talked about his “hour” when Andrew and Philip approached Him with their request. Jesus told them – “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” (12:24).  What does any of this have to do with what the Greeks wanted?

Well, some commentators have speculated that those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus were the ancient equivalent of a pulpit committee.  They’d heard about Jesus, the authority of His teachings and the wonder of His works, and they wanted to make Him an offer.  “Come back to Greece with us,” they might have wanted to say to Him.  “We Greeks just love our teachers and their big ideas, in fact, we collect them, and we want you. We’ll build you a school. You’ll gather a following. You can live in a villa by the sea, drink wine, eat baklava, and die when you are an old man after a rich, full life.”   But Jesus said “no.”  His “hour” had come. It was time for Him to die.

In John 13 the arrival of Jesus’ “hour” coincides with the Jewish Passover – Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1).

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized, John the Baptist announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (1:29; 36).  That’s a Passover reference.  And the way that John tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion, Jesus was condemned to death at the precise moment when the Passover lambs were beginning to be sacrificed in the Temple, and all the while He was dying on the cross, those sacrifices continued (Raymond Brown).  Passover is the frame that the Gospel of John wants us to use when looking at who Jesus is, and why Jesus came, and what Jesus did. It’s no wonder that one of the earliest creeds of Christianity was – “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (I Corinthians 5:7).  Christ’s “hour” was the hour of His sacrificial death on the cross as the “Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world.

The best-known verse in the Bible comes from the Gospel of John – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In the Old Testament the Passover Lamb was sacrificed to set God’s people free from their bondage in Egypt.  God did this because God loved them. And in the New Testament, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God sacrifices Himself in Christ to set us free from the bondage of death. And God did this because God loves us too.

There’s a real risk in love. It can be resisted.  It can be repulsed.  It can be refused. Halfway down the Mount of Olives on the route that Jesus would have taken on Palm Sunday on His way into Jerusalem to keep His appointment with His “hour” on the schedule of Salvation History, there’s now a beautiful little church named “Dominus Flevit,” that’s Latin for – “The Lord Wept.”  In Luke’s account of the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, we’re told that as Jesus “drew near and saw the city, He wept over it” (19:41).  That church on the Mount of Olives marks the traditional place where it’s said that Christ stopped and wept. The building is in the shape of a tear drop, and in Matthew’s account of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (23:37-39), He tells us why He stopped and cried – “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, …How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.” 

Jesus keeping faith with His “hour” creates an “hour” for each one of us.  Our Quaker friends actually have a doctrine they call the “hour of visitation.” They believe that there is a moment in every human life when God in Christ makes His approach to them in love, seeking reconciliation and redemption.  Christ knocks on the door of every human being, wanting to come in and be with them (Revelation 3:20). And we each have the choice to open the door or not.

Our Scripture lesson this morning ended with Jesus laying aside His garment, girding Himself with a towel, and getting down on His knees to wash His disciples’ feet. Predictably, Peter objected. He resisted Christ’s act of self-giving love saying – “You will never wash my feet!” – prompting Jesus to say in response – “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” (13:8). These words have been called “the whole Gospel in a short sentence.” One of the great preachers of the early church, St. Ambrose of Milan, wrote a prayer in the fourth century that gets us very close to what this means –

“Jesus, I wish you would let me wash your feet, since it was through walking about inside me that you soiled them. I wish you would give me the task of wiping the stains from your feet, because it was my behavior that put them there. But where can I get the running water I need to wash your feet? If I have no water, at least I have tears: let me wash your feet with them…”

Today’s Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  This is the week we remember the Upper Room, Pilate’s judgement hall, the “Via Dolorosa,” three crosses on top of Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull,” the burial in a borrowed tomb, and a resurrection on the third day. One of the hymns I always made a point of singing this week in the services of the churches I pastored was “Were You There?”  I’ve always appreciated the balance this hymn strikes between head and heart, objective truth and subjective response, Jesus’ “hour” and our “hour.” 

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

It’s been said that Christ could go to Jerusalem to die on the cross a thousand times, but unless and until it’s understood that He went to Jerusalem to die on that cross for us, for you and me, it’s just ancient history.  And that’s the choice we have to make. Christ went into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to die. That’s history. Christ went into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to die for our sins. That’s the Gospel.

What time is it?

Don’t miss the time of God’s visitation.

Don’t miss the hour of salvation.

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“Asleep in the Light” – Acts 20:7-12

One of my best friends in Christian College got a kitten.  He didn’t know what to call it, then one day that kitten fell out the second-floor window of his apartment and survived.  From then on, he called his kitten “Eutychus.”  That was the name of the young man who fell out of the window in our Scripture lesson this morning.  “Eutychus” means “lucky,” and so it seems he was, for he too survived his fall.

What a strange story to include in this book about the spread of Christianity, the journey of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.  The very last thing that Christ told His followers was to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel, making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and teaching them everything that He had commanded (Matthew 28:16-20).  The book of Acts is the story about how those first Christians got on with this assignment in the power of the Spirit.  Everywhere they went they were telling people about “Jesus and His glory,” about “Jesus and His love.”

Just like the story of Jesus that the Gospels tell, Luke’s story of the early church had more episodes than room.  At the end of his Gospel, John told his readers that if everything Jesus said and did were written down, that there wasn’t a book in the world big enough to contain it all (20:30-31).  And so, he, and Matthew, and Mark, and Luke all picked the stories that they told, and then Luke had to do it all over again when he told the story of the early church.

I was never on a yearbook staff in school, but I can imagine them sitting around in a great big room with lots of boxes full of pictures scattered all about, and them going through each box, picking and choosing the pictures that they were going to use to tell the story of that school year.  They can’t use them all.  There are just too many of them, and the annual can only have so many pages. So, they pick representative ones.  Not pictures of every school dance, but a picture of a school dance.  Not pictures of every football game, but a picture of a football game.  Not pictures of every school assembly, but a picture of a school assembly.  Each picture had to be representative.  Each picture had to be strategic.  Each picture was specifically chosen to suggest a bigger reality and to elicit an anticipated response. New Testament authors had to do the same thing.

So, of all the stories that Luke could have told about how the Gospel was preached in the power of the Spirit “beginning in Jerusalem,” and then moving on through “all of Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), how did the story of poor Eutychus make the cut? 

The first verse in this story has actually played a rather important role in the life and faith of the Christiaan Church (Disciples of Christ).   We like to think and speak of ourselves as a New Testament church.  What this means is that we want to do what the New Testament church did in the way that the New Testament church did it.  And so, our founders said that we would be a church that known for its observance of the Lord’s Supper, and when they went looking for some guidance on how the Lord’s Supper was actually observed by the New Testament church, they soon came upon Acts 20:7 – “on the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread…”

The “Breaking of the Bread” was the way that the Lord’s Supper was spoken of in the book of Acts (2:42), and this verse specifically says that it was to do this – to break bread – that the New Testament church gathered on the first day of the week! The reason why we will take communion here in just a little bit, and do so every Sunday morning, is because of Acts 20:7.  This verse has had a big hand in ordering our life together, but surely that’s not the reason that Luke told us this story. This is just a detail in the text, an off-handed comment.

Every preacher I know has been told at some point that the reason why this story is in the Bible is to dissuade us from preaching too long.  The first preacher I worked with liked to say that if everybody who fell asleep while he preached were laid out on the floor of the church from end to end that they would be a lot more comfortable. Luke tells us that Eutychus fell asleep during Paul’s sermon, a sermon that went on and on, till well after midnight.  In fact, Luke tells us that the only thing that made Paul stop preaching was when poor Eutychus, in a deep sleep, fell out the window.  It must have been a “killer” sermon.

Paul raised Eutychus up again.  It was a miracle, a sign and wonder of the sort that fill the pages of the book of Acts; nothing too unusual.  And then Luke tells they all went back inside and upstairs where Paul continued his sermon until daybreak, and every preacher I know likes this part of the story. Maybe it’s in the Bible to tell us preachers to say whatever it is that the Lord has put on our hearts to say no matter how long it takes to say it!

Well, as appealing as that first interpretation is to congregations, and that second interpretation is to preachers, I’m pretty sure that Luke didn’t include this story as a word about the length of sermons.  So, again I ask, why did he tell it? What was important enough about this strange little story of Eutychus falling asleep and falling out of a window to his apparent death during a church service that out of all the stories he might have told, Luke felt compelled to tell this one? All we can do is guess, but it’s my guess that it had to do with the sleeping part.

In Luke’s day, sleeping was used to talk about three things: literal sleep, death, and the spiritual condition of being inattentive, careless about eternal things.  Interestingly, all three of these ways of sleeping are at work in this story that Luke tells.  Eutychus fell into a “deep sleep” right before he fell out the window to his death.  That’s the first two ways that the ancients thought and talked about sleeping. And all this happened in church, while Paul was preaching, and that’s the third meaning of sleep in the ancient world, and one that seems to have been of particular concern to Luke.

The Transfiguration, the disclosure of God’s glory in Christ on a mountaintop in the Galilee, is important enough to what the New Testament wants us to know about Jesus Christ that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us about it, and Peter, Paul, and John all makes allusions to it.  But only Luke tells us that the disciples Jesus took with Him to the mountaintop – Peter, John, and James – fell asleep before it happened and that they had to be awakened from a deep sleep in order witness this defining moment in the disclosure of Jesus’ true identity as God’s Son (Luke 9:32). And then there’s the Garden of Gethsemane.  They fell asleep there too, prompting Jesus to ask, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:45-46). There’s a sleep that’s spiritually dangerous to us.

Luke was a ministry partner of Paul. He worked with him in the advance of the Gospel from Jerusaelm to Rome. In this role Luke would have had plenty of opportunity to hear Paul preach, and the fact that Luke was still with Paul in his final days on this earth (2 Timothy 4:11) is pretty good evidence that Luke “continued in” (2 Timothy 3:10-14) the things that Paul taught him. So, here’s one of those things that Paul taught. In what’s probably the earliest letter that we have from the hand of Paul, he exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to be faithful using this language –

“…You are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Keith Green was a contemporary Christian musician back in the early 1980’s before his untimely death in a plane crash out near Tyler. I just love his music, and I regard many of his songs to be prophetic. One of my favorites is called “Asleep in the Light.” It’s a word to the church, to you and me, and in part it says –

“The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can’t fight ’cause it’s asleep in the light.
How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed?
Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed!
Jesus rose from the dead. Come on, get out of your bed!”

This is a frequent appeal and constant concern of Biblical religion.  This is a “Shofar.” A shofar is a ram’s horn that has been hollowed out to become a musical instrument. It’s blast in ancient Israel was understood to be a spiritual wake-up call.  Like a church bell for us, the blow of a shofar was a way of telling people that it was time for God.  Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher of the Middle Ages, said that the sound of a shofar says – “Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber.”  This is an echo of Scripture, Isaiah 60:1 to be exact – “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” And this verse gets picked up and restated by the New Testament in Ephesians 5: 14 – “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Wake up! Don’t sleep through what God is doing.  Don’t slumber when God is at work. Don’t miss where God is present.  Don’t be inattentive to the ways and will of God in this moment.  

Above the door of my office at Northway I kept this icon.  It’s a picture  of the disciples asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was the very last thing that I would see each Sunday morning as I headed out of my office for the sanctuary to preach. I put it there to remind me of what it was that I was up against, of what it is that I am so prone to myself.  We all get tired and distracted. We all become unfocused and can be completely unaware. We’re not always as disciplined and dialed in as we should be. We all sleep through God moments and movements as we “slouch towards Jerusalem.”

The author of Hebrews told his readers to “pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it,” and then wondered about “how we would escape if we neglected such a great salvation” (2:1;3).  This is the language of a ring slipping off a finger unnoticed and of an unmoored dinghy drifting away from the dock with the tide.  We lose things when we aren’t paying attention to them. We miss things when we aren’t awake. Where God is and what God is doing can be missed when we aren’t serious about knowing God or being with God.

Lent begins this week, on Wednesday – Ash Wednesday.  Contrary to what you might have heard, Lent is not about giving something up.  In fact, it trivializes the whole spiritual intention of Lent to make it about ice cream or caffine, another glass of wine or how much screen time you have each day. It may do you some good to get a better handle on some of these things in your life, but that’s not what Lent is for. Lent is for getting serious about God. Lent is about better paying attention to what it is that God is doing in the world and in our lives. It begins with these words –

“I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and mediating on God’s holy Word.”

Now, these are things that we should probably already be doing all the time, right? But the church knows all about our propensity for falling asleep in the light. The church doesn’t want to scold us about this. The church isn’t interested in shaming us over this.  But the church is going to shake us from time to time to try to wake us up.  That’s what Lent is.  It’s a spiritual wake-up call.

“My soul, my soul – arise!” begins one of the church’s ancient hymns of Lent. “Why are you sleeping?” it wants to know. “Come again to your senses” it pleads.  God in Christ is here.  That’s what the church wants us to know. God in Christ is doing something really important. That’s what the church wants us to understand.  So, don’t go dozing off and miss it!  That’s what the church is warning us about. And the way the church does all these things is by inviting us to the observance of a holy Lent.  Let’s pray –

LORD, we have been in a season of rude awakenings.

Our democratic institutions and traditions, once thought sacrosanct and inviolable, have been shaken to their foundations.

Our confidence in science with its utopian promise of being able to answer every question and solve every problem has been shown to be a good but gradual process with lots of dead ends and round-abouts made even more painful by real suffering of people.

The global order once thought firmly established with our national interests secure has tilted and things are flying apart and colliding once again. LORD, we remember Ukraine this morning, and pray that peace will come.

We thought that we had dealt with the sin of racism in our society once and for all, only to find that its seeds have sprouted again and are bringing forth their harvest of poisonous fruit.

LORD, we have remained faithful as a church to your mission in a cultural

climate of dizzying change, we have trimmed our sails, replotted our course, weathered the storms, stayed afloat and on course, only to be confronted now with even other changes. LORD, it’s hard, we’re tired and worried.

Our bodies grow old and break down. Things don’t work like they once did. Our strength wanes and our abilities decline. Our family and friends die, and we know that there’s a boundary out there waiting for us too.

And LORD, our souls still struggle to know you and grow in your love. We aren’t as far as long on this journey of faith as we had hoped that we would be by this time.  We still have our doubts and our questions. We still trip and fall spiritually. We are not sinners emeritus.

So, LORD, in this series of rude awakenings that we face, awaken us to your grace as well. Assure us of your love, a love that we can do nothing to get and nothing to lose because it’s the love of your choice, and you’re God. You have proven your love to us in Jesus Christ in whose name, and word, and work we have gathered here this morning. Remind us that there is nothing in all creation, nothing in all the changes and chances before us, that have the power to separate us from your love or to prevent your Kingdom from finally coming and your will being fully done on earth as it is in heaven. We live and pray this morning in that hope because of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

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“Kiss Me”

Song of Solomon 1:1-4; 2:8-13; 8:6-7

Will you be my valentine? It will cost you – $164.76 to be exact. That was the average that was spent per person in America for Valentine’s Day last year. That amounts to 21.8 billion dollars in sales. We spent 5.8 billion dollars on jewelry. This was the Valentine’s Day gift of choice for just about 20% of us. A third of us who celebrated Valentine’s Day last year went out for dinner despite the Pandemic, accounting for some 4.3 billion dollars in sales. 52% of Valentine’s Day shoppers got candy for their sweethearts to the tune 2.4 billion dollars in sales, while 37% of us purchased flowers amounting to 2.3 billion dollars in sales. We spent 2.9 billion dollars on clothing, 2 billion dollars on gift cards, 1.3 billion dollars on greeting cards, and one fourth of us even got a Valentine’s gift for our pet. And then there are the poems.

Writing a bad love poem for someone you’re sweet on is the quintessential Valentine’s Day DIY project, you know – “Roses are red… Violets are blue…”  In fact, so common is this practice that college English departments and University poetry clubs all over the country have “Bad Love Poem Contests” for Valentine’s Day. For instance, Madison College up in Wisconsin gives a $25 gift card and a half-eaten box of chocolates to the winner of its contest each year. Last year the winner was timely if nothing else –

“Roses are red. Violets are blue.

Covid is spreading, and so is my love for you.”

Here’s the worst love poem that I’ve ever come across –

“Girl you make me

Brush my teeth

Comb my hair

Use deoderant

Call you

You’re so swell.”

That’s so bad that it’ borders on being brilliant.

There’s a love poem in the Bible.  You heard some excerpts from it this morning as our Scripture lesson. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the first sermon that you’ve ever heard on the Song of Solomon.  We’ve not been real good as Protestants to read and preach this book of the Bible, in large part because we have not known what to do with this book of the Bible.  I know of a minister or two who have tried to use the Song of Solomon in their pre-martial classes and counseling. We Protestants are big on taking the Bible “literally,” that is “according to its letters.” And so, we read the Bible grammatically and historically.  We take what each book of the Bible is and what each book of the Bible says at face value.  The Song of Solomon is a love poem, and so if we use it all, we’ll use it as a marriage manual.

What’s fascinating to me is that the people who actually “own” the Song of Solomon, our Jewish mothers and fathers, they do something entirely different with it.  For one thing, they read it at Passover. The Song of Solomon is read every year in Jewish homes and Synagogues when the story gets told about how God went looking for His people in Egypt, delivered them from their bondage there, and then renewed His special covenant of love with them at the foot of Mt. Sinai after bringing them safely through the Red Sea. 

Our Jewish godparents read the Song of Solomon as part of this annual ceremonial reenactment of the story of what God did to be with His people.  Some go even further than this and read it every Friday evening at the beginning of the Sabbath!  Can you imagine the impact of that?  Gathering your family around a dinner table each week, kindling the candle that represents the special presence of God, saying the blessings that identify them as God’s chosen people, and then hearing mom or dad, grandma or granddad read the Song of Solomon out loud with all of its talk of desire and passion —

“O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! (1:2)

“Behold, you are beautiful my beloved, truly lovely.” (1:15)

“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,

You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes…” (4:9)

“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (7:10)

“Arise, my love, my fair one and come away with me.” (2:13)

“Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one…” (5:2)

“Your kisses (are) like the best wine that goes down smoothly…” (7:9)

While we are barely aware that it’s even in the Bible, and might be a bit confused and maybe even a little embarrassed when we learn that it is, our Jewish partners in the project of Biblical religion have no such hesitation.  In fact, Rabbi Akiva, the leading Jewish Scholar and Sage in Israel in the second half of the first century, in the years when the church was just getting started, said that while “all of the sacred writings are holy,” that “the Song of Solomon is the holy of holies!” The Holy of Holies was the innermost chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God on earth, the center of the center of the center of Jewish attention and devotion in the Old Testament.  Rabbi Akiva thought that this Hebrew love poem was the center of the Bible’s message — Really?

Well, let me ask you this – What was the first Bible verse that you memorized as a Christian? What’s the one Bible verse that everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike, seems to know? It’s John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  And the Song of Solomon is a kind of lyrical commentary on the first four words of this verse – “For God so loved.” 

The fact that there is a Jesus at all is a witness to the fact, not just that God loved us, but that God “so loved us.” Thomas Goodwin (1600 –1680), a 17th century English Puritan theologian, understood this distinction. He invited people to imagine a father and his son walking down a road together. That little boy already knows that his father loves him. His father has told him that he does many times, and that little boy believes it. He has no reason to question it. There is no confusion or uncertainty whatsoever in that little boy’s head about the fact of his father’s love for him, and it makes him very happy just to think about it. 

But then imagine that as they are walking down that road together side by side, moved by some unknown impulse, that father suddenly stops, stoops to gather up that little boy into his arms, and begins to shower him with his love.  He hugs his son tight.  He kisses him on the head and cheeks. He holds him close to his heart for a moment or two, and then he puts him back down and they continue their walk down the road together side by side.

Now, that little boy knew long before this happened that his father loved him, but that “loving embrace,” that “extra outpouring of love,” that “unusual manifestation” of it made what was already true to that little boy something that was completely real for him as well. It expanded the knowledge of his father’s love for him from information that he knew in his head to an experience that he felt in his heart.  This is what C.S. Lewis was talking about when he said that our Christianity needed to be more of a love affair than a theory.  And this is exactly what the Song of Solomon is in the Bible to do for us.  It’s there to tell us that we are not just loved by God, but that we are deeply desired by God.  It’s there to tell us that God doesn’t just feel a sense of obligation for us because He made us, but that God longs for us, and all this desire and longing that’s at work in our relationship with God is packed into the very first verse of the Song of Solomon – “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth.”

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), the medieval monk and mystic who is one of the most important and enduring thinkers of his age, preached 86 sermons on the Song of Solomon and he still hadn’t finished preaching through the book completely when he died.  This may seem odd, but this man bound by a lifetime vow of celibacy who was in charge of the spiritual well-being of a monastic order of men who had all taken vows of celibacy, thought that the one book in the Bible that they all really needed to understand was the Song of Solomon!  And the verse in the Song of Solomon that he thought was the key to their understanding of the book was – “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth.”  Bernard of Clairvaux understood this kiss to be the goal of the spiritual life, and its cultivation the reason for his ministry. Kissing was something of his specialty.

He saw three kinds of kisses in the Bible, each one corresponding to a different stage in our relationship with God.  There’s the kiss of the feet, the kiss of the hand, and the kiss of the mouth.  To understand the meaning of the kiss of the feet, think about the sinful woman in Luke 7 who crashed a dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and then dry them with her hair. 

Luke tells us that she “kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment” (7:38).  This is the kiss of repentance, the kiss of sorrow for sin and the fear of judgment. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson said, and “that his justice cannot sleep forever.” It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31), and the kiss of the feet what we do when we finally realize this is true of us personally.

To understand the meaning of the kiss of the hand, think about what Psalm 145:15-16 says – “The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” Growing up, I prayed these verses every night at the dinner table with my family before eating. They were our “grace,” my family’s way of returning thanks, and they taught me early and well that everything I am and everything I have comes form the hand of God.  

Kissing the hand follows the kissing of the feet.  Kissing the feet is our cry for help.  It’s the recognition that we’re “poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”  Kissing the hand is the word of thanks we give for the gifts of grace received.  This is the rhythm of much of our spiritual life. We tell God what we need, and then we thank God for what he gives. But there’s something so much more basic to our relationship with God than this transactional arrangement, and that’s the kiss of the mouth.

There’s an intimacy to this image that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable.  For almost 50 years now it has been part of my job to tell people when they can kiss, and then to stand there watching them as they do!  After pronouncing a couple married, I always say, “You may seal your vows with a kiss.”  What happens next can sometimes be a bit awkward, but I’m there giving permission for it to happen because it’s always sacred too. 

That kiss is a gesture of desire and an expression of wholehearted commitment.  It’s an act that shows that one person has given himself or herself to another person unashamedly and unreservedly. It’s the seal of a holy union formed in the presence of God and the presence of one’s family and friends. Think of what the waiting father did in the parable of the prodigal son when he saw his boy “yet a great way off.”  Jesus said that he “ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (15:20). And that’s what the kiss of the mouth is in the Song of Solomon according to Bernard of Clairvaux. 

He said that when we have kissed the feet of Christ by which we have cast ourselves in sorrow for our sins and out of fear of judgment, and after we have kissed the hand of Christ that has reached down to lift us up and steady our trembling knees, what remains is the kiss of His mouth which is expressive of the intimate relationship that His love creates with us.  In fact, Bernard of Clairvaux said that “this kiss is no other than the Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus.” 

Paul told the Romans that the proof that God loves us is the fact that Christ died for us (5:8), and Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said that every time you eat the bread and drink the cup of Communion in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, that you should be listening for the Holy Spirit to whisper in your heart that all of this is “for you.”  His body was broken “for you.”  His blood was shed “for you.”   God’s great desire is “for you.”  God’s great passion is “for you.”  And Jesus Christ is God’s kiss.

Let’s pray –

LORD, you called Jesus your “Beloved Son” in the waters of the Jordan and on a mountaintop in the Galilee, and you make us your daughters and sons again through Him. Help us to connect the dots, to know in our heads and our hearts that this makes us your “Beloveds” too.

We don’t always feel this way, LORD.  We hear voices inside us and around us that tear at us and break. We are guilty and ashamed. We are anxious and afraid. We are not what we are capable of being. We say and do things that are not in keeping with who we think we are or at least with who we want to be. People tell us all the time that we’re not enough, that we’re too different, too this or too that to belong, and then we turn right around and do the very same thing to somebody else because they don’t look like us, or talk like us, or think like us, or act like us.  We wound and are wounded, LORD, and we doubt our worth.  We struggle to love others and ourselves.

So come LORD, come and gather us up into your heart, assuring us of your love. Touch the broken places in us and make them whole. Create of us a family of love, acceptance, and forgiveness because you have loved, accepted, and forgiven us.  And then use us as a force of your love, acceptance, and forgiveness in a world that is desperate for such grace. Be with us in these troubled times, and use us to sow love where hatred thrives, peace where violence threatens, hope where fear abounds, and joy where sadness lives.

You are our Beloved, LORD, and now we renew our covenant of love with you because you have called us your “Beloveds” in Jesus Christ, your Son our Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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Getting it Straight, Keeping it Clear

In 1993 Rodney Clapp wrote a memorable article for “Christianity Today” called “Let the Pagans Have the Holiday.”  It was about Christmas.

In the opening salvos of “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “He’s the Reason for the Season” in the purported cultural “War on Christmas,” Rodney Clapp argued for Christians to pitch the battle on the right front.  He said that we worried too much about Christmas.  Christmas has never been the point. By the weight of Biblical emphasis and the focus of the church’s sacramental life, it’s Easter and not Christmas that’s the central holy day of the Gospel, and Rodney Clapp argued that when Christians get this straight and make it clear that only then “we will have our Christmas back.”

We came to the end of the Church’s Christmas cycle this past week with the observance of “The Meeting of the Lord” (better known in the western church as “The Presentation of Christ”) on Wednesday, February 2.  This is the day, exactly 40 days after Christmas, when Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the Temple to “present him to the Lord” in accordance with the requirements of the Mosaic Law – Exodus 13:2, 12; Numbers 3:13). In the eastern church, the emphasis of this day is on “the meeting of Christ with His chosen people in the persons of Simeon the Elder and Anna the Prophetess.”

Alexander Schememann said that liturgically this day “completes the time of Christmas” for us.  He said that it “reveals and recapitulates the full meaning” of the nativity of Christ. Simeon is the character in the Gospel story who scripts this “full meaning” in his song, the “Nunc Dimittis” (“Now lettest Thy Servant depart” – Luke 2:29-32). Because this Gospel canticle sings about the completion that the coming of the Christ brings to God’s provision of salvation, the church has used it at the close of each day and at the end of one’s life. This is the church’s preeminent song for evening prayer and funerals, for the darkness of night and death.

When Simeon gathered up Mary’s baby into his arms, he said that he could die in peace because his eyes had finally seen the salvation of the world that God had promised. Simeon saw it in the face of Jesus.  And when Simeon handed him back to his mother, he told her that this baby was going to be a “sign spoken against,” the cause of “the rise and fall of many in Israel,” and the source of an anguish that would pierce her soul like a sword (Luke 2:33-35).

Soren Kierkegaard (1813 –1855) told about how he found, when he was just a boy, deliberately inserted into a packet of colorful pictures of exotic jungle animals, and fancy soldiers on horseback, and stirring sailing ships, a picture of Christ on the cross.  It chilled him to the bone, forever tinting the way he looked at the world, and it’s Simeon in the Gospel story who spoils the happy day by warning Mary of the pain and conflict that awaited them because of the arrival of her son on the stage of history. “The manger is situated on Golgotha,” as Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961) wrote, “the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”

Some say we shouldn’t do this. In his book on Jesus (“The Jesus I Never Knew” | Zondervan | 1995), Philip Yancey quoted historian Barbara Tuchman’s rule about “no flash forwards.”  Even though we know what happens, where the story goes, how things work finally out, she said that we shouldn’t bring that knowledge to our reading of the story. This is how lots of people approach Christmas. They belong to what the Anglican priest Bosco Peters calls “the pretend camp of liturgical practice.” 

He explains that every year lots of people pretend that Jesus hasn’t come yet. They pretend that “when we celebrate his birth that we don’t know about his crucifixion.” He doesn’t, and neither do I. “I’m at the end of the spectrum which awaits Christ’s birth in the presence of the risen Christ, he explains, “I’m at the end of the spectrum that celebrates Christ’s birth with a Eucharist – eating and drinking the cup to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

This past week, praying with the Icon of “The Meeting of the Lord,” viewing it with an eye to the way that it “reveals and recapitulates the full meaning” of the nativity of Christ, I find myself thinking Rodney Clapp’s ideas after him –

“Christmas celebrated without the events of Easter overshadowing is too easily sentimentalized and secularized. A baby in a manger, angels hovering overhead, cattle lowing nearby – surely this idyllic world needs no redemption. …But Easter – Easter is on the other side of a cross with nails, of confrontation and beatings and death, and then, only then, resurrection and new life. …Easter is harder, for it requires facing death, the shortcomings of the disciples, the bloody lengths God must go to in order to rescue a confused, hateful world from itself.”

I’m glad Christ came. I really am. But I find that it’s what Christ came to do that means so much more to me because it’s what Christ came to do for you, for me, for the world, that is the power of God to save.

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For a couple of years now I have been praying the Order for Holy Communion from the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer midweek with an Anglican Church in the neighborhood where I live in North Dallas. This is the liturgy that I was raised on.  I prayed it every week, most weeks more than once, for 16 years growing up. These were the prayers that shaped my soul.

My Evangelical awakening in high school moved me away from the church of my childhood and youth, but as I left, I took their prayers with me. I couldn’t help it.  They were already lodged in my head and heart.  They had become the architecture of my soul. A Book of Common Prayer was never very far from my reach in Christian College and seminary, or in my 40 years of ordained ministry in local Disciples churches.

Praying these prayers again now regularly in community has been an affirming and probing spiritual discipline. I find that their words, phrases, and sequences are like trap doors that spring open and tumble through into a swirl of thoughts and feelings. The Invitation to Communion has transported me several times into the space between the High Church Anglicanism in which I was raised and the Evangelicalism that I have owned.  Each week the priest says –

“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort.”

My Evangelicalism has so emphasized the unconditional nature of God’s grace, how there’s nothing we can do to merit God’s favor in Jesus Christ, that I’m afraid I have routinely skirted the edges of cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) explained. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” The Invitation to Communion in the Order of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer isn’t having it. It wants you at the Table to celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ to be sure, but it insists that you come with your eyes open wide, understanding what it is that you are doing.

The Invitation to Communion comes with some expectations. The Christ who waits to meet us in the bread and cup as our Savior insists on being our Lord too. Let Him into your heart and He is going to take over your life. He demands to be taken seriously. He’s going to make moral judgments on the things we say and do. This is what Rene Padilla, the Latin American Theologian, meant at the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, when he said that the Gospel has teeth. It’s always going to upset things. Christianity will not just run alongside our lives, it’s going to cut straight through them. Racists are going to have to repent of their racism. Exploiters are going to have to stop their exploiting. As Paul told the Corinthians, the love of Christ “constrains” – “controls” – “compels” – “rules” – “guides” – “presseth” – “overmasters” us (2 Corinthians 5:14).

I read an article this week about a young man who is now an Eastern Orthodox priest. He was raised in a conservative Christian home with a leaning towards the Charismatic. When he grew discontent with the thinness and shallowness of the Christianity that he’d known, he went looking for a thicker and deeper version of the Faith. He found what he needed in Orthodoxy. He explained that one of the things that appealed to him were its expectations. He wrote –

“In my Protestant years, we practiced sin management. In other words, ‘sin is bad, so try not to do it. And if you do sin, say you’re sorry and move on.’ During those years I surrounded myself with noise and distractions so I wouldn’t hear my heart or conscience. It was not the same with Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy I learned inner quietness and that Christian virtue was not simply a nice idea, but the direction in which we should be striving to become one with Christ. The commandments of God were not given to us because God has a quirky dislike for certain things; rather, they reflect who God is… And to break the commandments is to break my communion with God.”

One of my greatest concerns as I look back over my lifetime of membership and ministry in the church is how easily we confess Christ and then live like everybody else. Being a Christian is supposed to mean something. Beliefs have behavioral consequences. It’s a truncated Gospel that leaves us unchanged and unchallenged.

Somewhere I’ve read that years ago the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. asked Reinhold Niebuhr to come and help them think about stewardship. The question they really wanted an answer to was – “How much money are we supposed to be giving?” Niebuhr finally told them that he didn’t have a neat formula or a precise percentage to offer them. Instead, he gave them a “rule of thumb.” “If your lifestyle as someone who says that Jesus Christ is Lord is identical to that of your neighbor who doesn’t,” he said them, “then chances are that you are not giving enough.”

The Christ who forgives us now and who will take us to himself when we die is the same Christ who showed us how to live and who is now at work changing us from the inside out to be more and more like him.

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