You Are Witnesses | Ascension Sunday

Luke 24:44-53

44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God. (CEB)

You Are Witnesses

There are moment in everyone’s life when some realization comes upon us that destroys our former perceptions. Like, that moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. Mind blown. No wonder Obiwan and Yoda didn’t want Luke to know the truth. How could Luke be expected to kill his own father if he knew Vader was his dad?

Then, there was the young daughter of one of my friends in North Carolina. She was talking to her dad about her sweethearts sometime around Saint Valentine’s Day. She told her dad which boys were her sweethearts in her preschool class. Then, she asked him who his sweetheart was. When he said, “Mommy,” she looked horrified. It was that moment when she realized Mommy and Daddy weren’t just her parents, they were a couple. They were sweethearts. It changed how she thought about them. Before that moment, she thought they only existed for her. Suddenly, there was this whole past that she had never seen, that she never knew existed.

The Ascension is that kind of mind-blowing, AHA! moment for the early followers of Jesus. Jesus was not merely some really cool teacher who said challenging things and behaved in odd-yet-endearing ways. This is the moment when the early church realized Jesus was more than what they had known. There was an entire history to him that they hadn’t noticed before. His life, teaching, suffering, and death were all a part of God’s activity that stretched back to the beginning of human existence and would continue to reach into the future.

Before the ascension, they didn’t know! If you look just a little further back to verse 36, you realize that, when Jesus appeared to the Disciples, they were terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. They thought it was just an ordinary dead person’s disembodied spirit floating around to haunt people the dude had known in life. I mean, what would you think if you were gathered together a few days after a funeral and the person whose life you just celebrated suddenly appeared and stood among you. It would be a clinic in screaming and pants-wetting.

Even as Jesus spoke to them, they doubted. So he showed them his wounds and invited them to touch them. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like they saw in the person standing before them. He asked for something to eat and ate some fish as a way of proving he was raised from the dead in a physical body. Ghosts don’t eat fish and, as far as I know, you can’t touch them physically. I hope I never find out for certain either way. This is when our text begins.

Jesus reminded them of what he said before about how everything written about him had to be fulfilled. He opened their minds to understand the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms. There have been movements within the Christian church that have sought to downplay the Old Testament books or disavow them altogether. There are people who don’t want to hear sermons on the Old Testament because they don’t think there’s anything of value there. After all, we’re Christians. They think our story is in the New Testament. But that’s not entirely correct.

I’ll never forget when a person came up to me after a sermon that I preached on one of the prophets – this wasn’t all that long ago – and he said, “You young preachers always want to preach on the Old Testament, but you need to preach on the Gospels. The Gospels!”

For one thing, I preached my first sermon in 1999 at College First Church of God at The University of Findlay. It was a disaster, but I’ve been preaching for 18 years, so to call me a “young preacher” was a little condescending. But my biggest disagreement with him was his implication that the Old Testament wasn’t worth a sermon and I should only preach on the Gospels. The Old Testament is Holy Scripture, too. It’s every bit as relevant as the New Testament. In fact, if we aren’t hearing the Old Testament story, then we aren’t hearing the story as it needs to be told. I do preach on the Gospels, and I make it a point to preach on the whole of Scripture and give as much time to the Old Testament as I do to the New Testament. Without the Old, the New makes no sense. A large portion of the New Testament is quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. If the New Testament writers thought it was worth quoting, then we probably need to pay attention to the Old Testament.

Look at the example we have from the New Testament. When Jesus taught the Disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures, he was not opening their minds to the New Testament. It hadn’t been written yet. Jesus pointed backward to the Old Testament writings that pointed forward to him, and point forward, still. If the Disciples and the early church needed to learn what the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms said about Jesus in order to understand who he was and why he came, then we do too.

The life and ministry of Jesus is something that was and is continuous with God’s action and work on behalf of the human race from the beginning. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s deep longing for us and all of creation to be healed from the corruption of sin and death. Jesus’ ministry is a fulfillment of the covenants God made with our ancestors long ago, and we are now participants in that ministry. The ascension changed everything for the early church. It shined a light on the massive scope of God’s saving love.

That’s one thing that we human beings are constantly trying to mess with, and not in a good way. Jesus tells us that the scope of God’s saving love is this: “the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:46b-49 CEB). Through Jesus Christ, God is actively redeeming all of creation, every nation and people. Our problem is that we keep trying to narrow the scope of God’s work. I guess, in part, it’s because we don’t always like other people.

I saw some demographic material earlier this week provided by the United Methodist General Board of Communications, and one of the things that caught my eye was a Quadrennium Report about beliefs of people in our community and country. While the number is quite low at 10.4%, slightly more than 1 in 10 people disagree with the idea that tolerance is necessary for social peace and well-being. Now, we don’t know what portion of that 10.4% claims to be Christians, but I bet some of them do. The idea that God’s message of salvation is for all the world – even those we don’t like – might be a tough pill for some people to swallow. Certain members of the Christian Church have, throughout history, tried to narrow the scope of God’s work. But God has already thrown the doors open so wide that not even the most stubborn among us can wrench them shut.

The early church wrestled with this idea, too. The back and forth argument about inclusion of the Gentiles in the church is splattered all over the pages of the New Testament. Some contended that Christianity was a Jewish thing, and Gentiles had to be converted to Judaism before they could be baptized as Christians. Paul really chewed out that group. There were Greek and Hebrew congregations worshipping separately in some cities. Apparently, they didn’t want to associate with each other too much. Even Peter thought along those lines until he had the vision about eating things that are unclean before going to visit Cornelius. Do not call unclean what God has made clean. The church finally realized that Gentiles were included in the promise of salvation, which really surprised a lot of people.

Another part of this that can seem unfathomable at times is the idea that the Messiah had to suffer and die. That’s the sort of thing that makes us wonder. In fact, there are all kinds of theories in Christian theology that attempt to offer solutions to the atonement accomplished in the death of Christ. No single theory has ever been deemed official by the major Christian bodies in the world.

At its heart, however, is the idea of power. The world sees power as something that is hierarchical. The few who have power stand on the heads of the masses and do whatever they can to hold on to that power. But the power of God’s love is different. God’s love is so broad that it took the worst that the worldly powers could throw at it in the torture and death of Jesus Christ, and defeated it in resurrection to a kind of life – an eternal life – that death cannot touch. The power of God’s love reaches out across the world to invite and welcome people of every nation.

Once again, there’s more to the story and, as usual, it includes us. The followers of Jesus were furnished with power so that we could be the very witnesses that carry God’s saving love to the world. Jesus blessed his followers and was taken into heaven. The response of the Disciples was joy so overwhelming that, for a while, they were continuously in the temple praising God. Then, when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they carried the story of God’s saving love to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem. Our job is to tell the story, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us in that endeavor. We are God’s witnesses to the world, but even the disciples had a starting place, which was Jerusalem. We are God’s witnesses to the world. As overwhelming as that sounds, we can start in our little corner of creation.

We can share what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how God has loved us, and continues to care for us. Who will we tell next?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Once for All | 6th of Easter

1 Peter 3:13-22

 13 Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient– when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now– not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. (CEB)

Once For All

Have you ever read or heard something that makes you wonder what alternate reality the person who wrote or spoke it is living in? This text from 1 Peter goes there immediately. “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good?” The question makes it sound like Peter doesn’t quite grasp reality. Has something slipped in his mind, because the answer is all kinds of people will hurt us and others for no other reason than they want to cause pain. There are people out there who are selfish enough to think our pain is worth their end goal. We’re merely a sacrifice on their way to the top.

The second line acknowledges that, but it only offers us the seemingly ridiculous idea that even if we do suffer for righteousness, we can be happy about it. I mean, I don’t know about you, but the last time I was verbally abused, I was thrilled. Again, we wonder, in what reality is Peter living? It certainly doesn’t seem like ours. This stuff sounds a little backward, a little crazy, a lot outside of acceptable norms. But it gets worse. Peter says, “Don’t be upset or terrified by them” (CEB). Really, Peter? Don’t be upset or scared of the people who want to harm us, who want to stab us in the back, who plot against us? If I had to pick a theme song for Peter, it would be Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

It seems like an unrealistic standard. We know this stuff intellectually because Jesus said similar things: “If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well” (Mt. 5:39, CEB). Still, it seems like living out ideas similar to these – actually doing them – is impossible. Instead of drawing us closer to Jesus Christ, it can make us feel like there’s an insurmountable gulf between us. After all, if we can’t do these things, what chance do we have? Jesus is on one level, and we’re somewhere else.

The point of Peter’s words, however, is not to put distance between us and Jesus, but to draw us closer. Peter wants us to grow closer and live like Jesus in our every day. The biggest problem we’ll find isn’t that we can’t live the kind of life Jesus lived, it’s that we might not really want to live that way. Jesus experienced misunderstanding and criticism. The last days of his life were full of scorn, mockery, mistreatment, and violence. He loved people and spoke of God’s love for people, and the people he loved killed him for it. I don’t want my theme song to be Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young any more than you do.

Love is really the place where we begin to understand what Peter is saying. If Jesus is, as we Christians believe, the most perfect example of God’s love for us, and if we want to make that love real in our own lives, then Jesus is the example we follow. Following such an example might not be easy, but it’s what we do anyway. That’s why we were baptized.

Why do we practice baptism in the church? Aside from the fact that Jesus was baptized and the disciples baptized people into the faith, why do we do it? I’ve had several conversations, recently, with those who wondered if they were ready for baptism. And I keep saying that baptism isn’t about our choice, it isn’t about how much we understand, it isn’t even what we do. Yes, if we weren’t baptized as infants, we can choose to be baptized, but the meaning of baptism isn’t found in our choice. Baptism is a sacrament, it’s something God does to and for us. In one sense, baptism is a sign that before anything – before we knew anything, thought anything, or recognized anything – God loved us. The one thing that came first in our lives, before our momma even knew we were growing inside of her body, was God’s love for us.

God’s love for us is not affected by our choice to respond to that love or not.

God loves us.

God’s love isn’t diminished by our bad behaviors and wrong choices.

God loves us.

God’s love doesn’t turn away even when we refuse to receive it. In fact, we may not feel it. We may not want it. We might ignore it as best we can, but our response will never change the fact that God loves us. Even when we think we’re unlovable or unworthy of being loved, it’s not the state of our minds or our feelings of self-worth that determines God’s disposition toward us.

God loves us.

God loves us.

God loves us.

God won’t stop loving us. We’re just kind of stuck with it.

Baptism isn’t really about our response. It’s not really about repentance. Nor is it about algebra. Baptism isn’t about bringing balance to the equation: God loves you, therefore you have to love God. In one sense, baptism is an invitation for us to see our lives with the kind of value that God sees us. Baptism is a lens through which we are invited to peer and glimpse ourselves as God sees us all the time. We were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died and was raised for us. We are so loved, so valuable to God, that God’s own Son was not too high a price to ransom us from sin and death. Jesus was willing to pay that price for us because we are worth it. We are valuable to God. We are loved. That’s an invitation for us to see ourselves as worth more than our self-doubt and self-pity often allow us to see. It’s an invitation for us to see ourselves as worth more than what other people sometimes say about us. Baptism is an invitation to see how much we are loved. And every baptism we witness, we’re reminded that God sees us through blood-stained glasses. We are reminded that every time God sees us, the God of the Universe sees the broken body of the Son and knows we are worth the pain he endured. We are loved.

When we begin to see ourselves as loved by God, whether we think we deserve it or not, we start to see that others are loved, too. The others who are loved by God even includes those who do us wrong, who hurt and oppress and put down. When we see the world as loved by God, and ourselves loved in spite of the hurts we bear, then we aren’t consumed by the suffering. Instead, as much as getting hurt might stink, we’re enabled to find happiness even in the midst of our sufferings. God’s love undergirds us in those low moments of our lives, too. That’s worthy of joy amid sorrow. That’s when we learn to grow closer to Jesus, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who harass us and want to tear us down.

This view of ourselves as loved allows us to live with confidence in God. When we recognize how much God loves us, what have we to fear from others? Peter encourages us to hold Christ in our hearts as something holy and be ready to defend our hope should anyone ask of it. But when we defend our faith and our hope in God, we do it with kind words. Even if the person asking about our hope is being antagonistic and asking us how we can possibly believe that nonsense, we don’t respond by saying, Well, you’re just an idiot! God is real and you’ll find out when you die and burn in Hell! Not the best technique. That’s why I don’t like those billboards around Evansville that say, “After you die, you will meet God” with the heartbeat flat-lining. Or the one that says, “If you die tonight, heaven or hell?” with the flames.

Be ready to defend your hope, “Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you” (1 Pet. 3:16 CEB). Now, the shame that Peter mentions here is not about making those who oppose us feel bad. It means we love them despite the ways they might be slandering us.

Paul says as much when he writes: “Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21 CEB). It’s actually a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. That’s what it means to defend our hope, perhaps even more potently than we could with words. That’s the kind of shame Peter means. We love our enemies until they know we aren’t really their enemies.

Despite the propensity for it in American Evangelical preaching, and the abundance of billboards making the claim, Peter suggests that even death isn’t a barrier to salvation. I know you’ve heard that you have to make a decision for Jesus before you die or you’re going to Hell, but that’s not actually found in the Scriptures. What is found in the Scriptures are Peter’s words that after Jesus died, he went and preached the message of salvation to the dead. Why would Jesus do that if not to invite the dead into eternal life? Now, following Jesus while we’re still living is probably the safer bet, but Jesus did tell a certain parable about the last being first and the first being last (Matt. 20:1-19).

Do you remember that story? A landowner hired people to work in his vineyard throughout the day. Some were hired in the morning and he agreed to pay them a denarion. Others were hired at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 and 5:00. When evening came, he paid the workers he hired last, first. And he gave them a denarion. Then, he paid those hired at 3:00, at noon, and at 9:00. Those the landowner hired first saw that the others were receiving a denarion and they though the would get more since they worked longer. But when they only received a denarion, they grumbled against the landowner because those who only worked one hour got the same wage as they did when they had worked all day long. It doesn’t matter how long we work in the vineyard, what matters is that we came when we were invited.

I don’t know about you, but I find a great deal of comfort in Peter’s words that Jesus preached even to the dead; that he invited the dead to have life. If your family and friends are anything like mine, there are some who have died that I wasn’t too sure about. Peter’s words tell me I don’t have to worry about it because not even death is a barrier to salvation. Isn’t death what Jesus destroyed?

Baptism is an invitation for us to see ourselves as God sees us. Our salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ who now reigns as the ruler over all creation. The death and resurrection of Jesus is what our baptism represents. We are so loved, worth so much to God, that the Son gave himself over to torture and death for us. We don’t have to be afraid.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Out of Darkness | 5th of Easter

1 Peter 2:2-10

 2 Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, 3 since you have tasted that the Lord is good.

4 Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. 5 You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Thus it is written in scripture, Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed. 7 So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. 8 This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. 10 Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (CEB)

Out of Darkness

It is entirely coincidental, yet somehow appropriate that we have a Scripture text mentioning newborn infants on Mother’s Day. The image that 1 Peter gives us about longing for pure, spiritual milk so we can grow into salvation is about as perfect as an image can get. Feeding an infant is an act of intimate nurturing. It’s almost miraculous. There’s some trial and error on both sides, but both mother and baby pretty much know what they need to do. Something in infants is hard-wired to know at some deep level that milk is what they need, and I can’t help but think the same thing is true of mothers. It’s at the level of instinct.

When our children were born, there was some learning on my side of things, too. You see, I took care of cleaning up the other end. Joy put milk in at the top, I took care of it when it came out the bottom. I can’t say I was hard-wired for it as a father, but I figured my wife had just given birth and wasn’t getting much sleep because of the feedings so, no matter how grossed-out I was, I put my big-boy pants on and changed diapers. Eventually, I just got used to getting poop on my hands. Doing the job certainly made me a better husband and father.

Peter tells us that Christians should be like newborn infants and long for the things that will help us to grow into salvation. We should want that spiritual goodness. Psalm 34:8 tells us to taste and see how Good the Lord is” (CEB). If we’ve tasted the goodness of the Lord, we’ll long for more. Hopefully not with an infant’s screaming and crying, but we’ll long for more of what will help us grow into mature Christian people nonetheless. Psalm 34 encourages people to honor God and worship as we ought. Worship is one of those necessities of Christian life. Milk provides an infant with basic needs. Milk is the raw material we all need to ingest at the beginning of life after birth. What feeds us, spiritually, after new birth in Christ Jesus?

In United Methodism, we look to the spiritual disciplines of our faith which we also call means of grace. The means of grace are the things, the ways, the means by which God gives us grace. They are the ways we connect with God and, when we do them corporately, with each other. Some of those include public worship, like what we’re doing now as a community of faith. We offer God our worship because we recognize that God is the source of life and our very being. Each breath is a gift, each molecule of oxygen is something God made to sustain our lives. That’s worthy of our worship.

We also pray in worship, with others, and as individuals. Prayer is more than bowing one’s head. Everything we do can be an act of prayer because God is in everything. Last week at Youth Group, we participated in different experiences of prayer. Everything we do can be prayerful. I told the youth that, even if you’re swinging a hoe to break up the dirt in your garden, God is in that. You’ll plant a seed, which will grow into a stalk, and you’ll harvest the fruit of it. God provides that growth and sustenance.

Studying the Bible is also a means of grace. Scripture study give us knowledge and understanding. The stories we read shape and reshape us. We learn how to pray, how to love, how to act toward others because, of how people worshipped and prayed in those stories. Ultimately, the narratives in the Bible tell us how God loves and acts toward us. Jesus Christ is our pattern.

Holy Communion is another means of grace: one which John Wesley called the Grand Channel.” If private prayer is a fire hose, Holy Communion is Niagara Falls. God feeds us with God’s own self: the body and blood of Jesus Christ which is really and truly present in the bread and juice.

You see, the basic needs of spiritual milk eventually give way to something else. We start eating regular foods, and we are formed into young women and men who eventually grow into adults. All of that formation during our early years becomes the foundation for who we become as adults. Peter uses the image of living stones. Jesus is a living stone that was rejected by people yet precious to God. Jesus Christ is, himself, the example of what we are called to become. Last week, the text from 1 Peter mentioned the hupogrammon, which is the perfect example of letters that we copy over and over until we can write our own letters perfectly. We are to be living stones like Jesus Christ who is the cornerstone God laid in Zion. All the other stones in a building are aligned to the cornerstone. It’s that alignment that helps make a foundation solid enough to hold the building up during pleasant and stormy weather alike.

There’s something important to note here. We don’t build ourselves into a spiritual house. Rather, we allow ourselves to be built into a spiritual house with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of our foundation. Jesus is the one who keeps us straight, so to speak, as we seek to be aligned with him. This isn’t about us, alone, as individuals, but about us together as a community of faith. A house isn’t built from one stone. We’re all in this together. We allow God to piece us together, to lay each living stone in its place. But this building process is never complete. There are always more stones to set in place. There are always more people for us to welcome into our kingdom community.

And, there are always ways we can be hewn and shaped to more perfectly match the cornerstone of Christ. We’re called to invite others in, to welcome everyone, even to seek people out to invite in. That’s what it means, in part, to be a holy priesthood. As God’s people living in the world, we proclaim the good news. The world around us is a mess. Some people hurt others as if they don’t matter. People who have been hurt, who feel isolated and alone, are all around us. If we have tasted the goodness of the Lord in this community, why would we not want to invite others to be a part of it, too? Why would we not want to tell others what God has done for us?

Those who believe will never be put to shame, even if those who reject God look down on us. God has given us a cornerstone that is chosen and precious. The stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone” (1 Pet. 2:7 CEB). We have been made, and are being built, into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9 CEB). In Greek, the words for chosen race can also mean chosen family. That’s what we are: a bunch of people chosen by God to be family to God and to each other, but we’re a family that is always wanting to grow and expand beyond ourselves, to knock down the fences that might keep others out and open our arms wide in welcome to those who aren’t part of us yet.

We’re a priesthood in that our purpose is to carry the good news to the world in which we live. We’re a holy nation in that we’re a reflection of Israel, which God called to be God’s own people. We are these things for a purpose, and that is so we may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called [us] out of darkness into his amazing light” (1 Pet. 2:9 CEB). We are God’s people so that we may speak of and proclaim God’s salvation to a world languishing in darkness.

Now, that doesn’t mean we have to stand on a corner somewhere and scream at people. Evangelism has a communal aspect to it. We build relationships and offer invitations to come be a part of our faith community. Honestly, that should be your pitch to others. When you invite people to church you can say, we’ve got this amazing pastor, intelligent, handsome, rather strapping beneath the dress he wears. You can say that, but then the pressure is all on me and if I preach a bad sermon, they’ll walk away thinking they’ve been duped.

Rather, our selling point should be all of us. Our community. I’ve seen how we welcome those who come in. I’ve seen how we take care of those who get sick or have a family member die. We celebrate joys and mourn sorrows together. That’s what community is. That’s what we practice together. When you invite someone to church, tell them you’ve found a community of people who genuinely love and care for each other, who show concern for our local communities and for the whole world. Just make sure you’re a part of backing that claim up.

If you think about it, God’s work among us is pretty amazing. We’re people from different places in life, different backgrounds, different passions, different political ideas, different values, different economics, different educations, you name it. Verse 10 refers to the prophet Hosea’s children, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, and a son named Lo-ammi. These are the names God told Hosea to give them. They mean No Compassion/Mercy and No People. Yet, God promised Hosea that there would come a day when these children would receive new names. God would have compassion on Hosea’s daughter, No Compassion, and she would be renamed Ruhamah: Compassion. Hosea’s son, No People, would be renamed Ammi: My people.

There was a time when we were not a people and we didn’t deserve God’s compassion. But, God has brought us together – all of us – and made us into a people, a family, a clan, who not only rely upon God’s mercy and compassion, but exhibit it every day to each other and to those we meet outside these walls. In a way, we are living out the promise God made to Hosea about his children. Once, we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we had not received compassion, but now we have received compassion. God is the one who brought us together. We are church. Look around yourself, and say hi to your family. Why wouldn’t we invite others to be a part of us?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Shepherd and Guardian | 4th of Easter

1 Peter 2:19-25

19 Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. 20 But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God.

21 You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. 22 He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. 23 When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. 25 Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives. (CEB)

Shepherd and Guardian

One of my seminary professors at Duke once said “Bible translators are spineless weenies who never let the Bible say what it actually says” He made the comment because, in his opinion, translators seemed to be too worried that people would read their translations and be scandalized if the actual meaning of certain texts came through. Like those places where Saint Paul suggests that certain people should go to hell. Apparently, the translators can’t have Saint Paul saying something so… harsh. Therefore, the translators lean toward Greek instead of English to water down the translation. Yes, the Greek might say, “let them be accursed,” but that isn’t how we speak in English. We don’t say, You know, you’re a real jerk. Be accursed. No. We typically tell them exactly where they can go, which is the English vernacular equivalent of what Paul was saying in Greek.

While I find the lectionary to be an invaluable tool for preachers and the congregations, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the Revised Common Lectionary, seems to have a similar penchant for displaying spineless weenie-ism. They often cut difficult texts out of the lectionary readings so they don’t get read. (Or, so pastors and congregations don’t have to deal with them). They do that with Psalm 139, for example. Everyone loves Psalm 139 with its intimate and flowy language.

“Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up… Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean, even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight… You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb… My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth…” (CEB).

Those are a few excerpts from the Psalm that the lectionary provides. Of the four times that the lectionary offers Psalm 139 as a reading, however, none of them include verses 19-22. You see, those verses get angry. Loud. Vicious. They are verses that say, If only, God, you would kill the wicked! Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (CEB). These verses are omitted as if there is no place for righteous anger, as if we cannot handle hearing them, as if preachers are not trusted enough to interpret them adequately.

Rather than ignore the difficult stuff, I think we should hear it, consider it, and wrestle with its interpretation. My reasoning is simple: the difficult parts are Holy Scripture, too, just as much as the easy-to-hear parts are Holy Scripture. We don’t get to ignore the hard stuff as if it doesn’t exist.

If you’ve ever read First Peter, you might recognize one glowering omission from the text I just read. Verse 18 is where the reading should actually begin, and it says this: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh” (CEB). This is where Biblical interpretation comes into play, and it’s incredibly important. We need to understand the context of those Christians who originally heard it. What did it mean to them? We also need to understand how it might have been used and abused throughout the centuries, and what it ought to mean to us.

It also begs the question: what do we do with texts from the Bible that have been used to harm people? Verse 18 is one of them. There was a time in American history when black slaves only heard sermons on 1 Peter 2:18 and a few other texts that talked about submission and accepting one’s lot. It was a way of keeping control over those they had enslaved. In fact, this was used against the abolitionist argument as Biblical justification for slavery. But that kind of interpretation is an abuse of the Biblical text. Any time the Scriptures are used to keep people down, shut people up, or makes us think better of ourselves and less of others, it’s an abuse. That’s called oppression, and God entire plan of salvation is one of liberation.

Despite how some have tried to twist these words through the centuries, Peter is not suggesting that suffering is the norm we should all accept for those who are belittled, abused, oppressed, or enslaved. Nor is Peter suggesting that those in positions of power are free to abuse, oppress, or enslave others. It is not God’s will that the oppressed should suffer. Even a cursory reading of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Gospels should make that clear.

Even if we leave verse 18 out, as the lectionary does, another incorrect interpretation would be to read this text as if it is praising suffering for the sake of suffering itself. It almost sounds like Peter is lifting suffering up as something that we should seek out for its own sake. There have been overzealous people throughout history who have done all manner of things like this so they could attain suffering: whipped themselves, frozen themselves in the snow, etc. As if you can get closer to God by smashing your thumb with a hammer. (Believe me, I’ve done it accidentally with my 20oz Estwing, and the words that spewed from my mouth did not bring me closer to God). That’s not what Peter is talking about.

He says, “But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20b, CEB). In the 1980s there were refugees from El Salvador who sought shelter in the United States. These were people with written death threats and scars from torture from their own government. The response of the United States government was to send them back to El Salvador into the hands of their torturers and those who wanted them dead. The Carter and Regan administrations saw the government of El Salvador as an ally and refused to recognize the human rights violations against the people of El Salvador. So, some American citizens took those refugees in and hid them. Some of those American citizens were arrested and prosecuted for doing it because it was illegal. But it was also the kind of civil disobedience that was the right thing to do. That is what it means to suffer for doing what is right. They were willing to be arrested and prosecuted to save lives.

In the context of 1 Peter, the comment about suffering may have had to do with worship. If a household slave was ridiculed by their master for worshipping the God of Christianity rather than the gods of Rome, they were suffering for doing what was right. The thing is, suffering is something the early church leaders told their flock to expect. If the incarnation of God could experience suffering, even death, at the hands of God’s own creatures, then why should Christians expect anything else? In fact, later in 1 Peter, he writes, Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory – indeed, the Spirit of God – rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14 CEB).

That Greek word, hupogrammon (example), is only found here in the New Testament. For those of us who had chalkboards in our elementary school classrooms, do you remember the alphabet that was usually written across the top? That’s what a hupogrammon is. It’s the perfect example which we copy and copy and copy until we can write those letters perfectly. We are to follow the example of Jesus Christ and follow in his steps. We are to pattern our lives after the example of Jesus Christ.

That pattern includes suffering. Suffering is something we should expect, not something we should see as abnormal. It’s a bummer when it happens, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The possibility of suffering exists because of the transformed life we live as followers of Christ. It is counter-cultural to entrust ourselves to God; to not seek revenge and return abuse for abuse, but trust that God will make everything right in the end. It is counter-intuitive to love our enemies and pray for those who harass us. We have been healed by the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross so that we can live in righteousness and free from sin; so that we can live for God.

Verse 25 serves as a reminder that there is a difference, a dichotomy, something irreconcilable from life before Christ and life in Christ. Before Christ, we were going astray like sheep without a shepherd. But in Christ, we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls. One of the reasons the sheep-shepherd imagery is so predominant in Christianity is that sheep are utterly reliant upon the shepherd. Who defends the sheep from predators who would devour them? The shepherd. Who leads the sheep to good pasture land and sources of water? The shepherd. Sheep are not self-reliant creatures. They need a shepherd. And so do we.

The story of Christians who experience adversity for doing right is not new. It’s actually the backbone of apocalyptic theology, which expects that those who are allied with God will suffer at the hands of the world because the world loved darkness rather than light (c.f. John 3:19). We are to keep our eyes on the light, and trust that the shepherd and guardian of our souls is watching over us even when we are in the midst of our sufferings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!