God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Talitha Koum | Proper 8

Mark 5:21-43

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (CEB)

Talitha Koum | ταλιθα κουμ

In part, this text from Mark is one of several stories that tell us something of Jesus as king. You might remember some discussion I had in a previous sermon about the word Messiah. The word means anointed, and kings of Israel were invested to the office of king through anointing. So, when we talk about Jesus as the Messiah—or the Greek word Christ—kingship is always included. Mark 5:21-43 reveals that Jesus is king over life and Law, both of which are related to human community.

Here, we have a story, and a story-within-a-story. A leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, came to Jesus, fell at his feet, and told him that his little daughter was near death. Jairus begged Jesus to come lay hands on her so she could be healed and live. So, Jesus went. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders had felt Jesus out and turned against him. They were curious enough to gather in his house at Capernaum and witness his offering of forgiveness and healing to a paralyzed man (2:5-12). They judged him when they saw him eating with known sinners (2:16). They accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law in a couple of places (2:24, 3:2-6). Then, they organized against him by sending for legal experts from Jerusalem to make accusations that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and evil spirits.

So, the fact that a leader of the synagogue fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter is surprising because the rest of the Jewish leadership seems to have aligned themselves against Jesus and actively tried to destroy his reputation. But Jairus was a desperate man. The Greek word he used for his child is the diminutive of daughter that was often a term of endearment. Jairus was a desperate father asking Jesus to come heal his little girl.

But as these events were unfolding, a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years thought that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothes, she’d be made well. Verse 25, alone, tells us a lot about this woman’s predicament. If she had bled for twelve years, then she had been ritually unclean for twelve years. If she had been ritually unclean for twelve years, then she was a woman who existed on the fringes of society and probably had very little physical contact with anyone in that span.

Leviticus 15:25-28 says, “Whenever a woman has a bloody discharge for a long time, which is not during her menstrual period, or whenever she has a discharge beyond her menstrual period, the duration of her unclean discharge will be like the period of her menstruation; she will be unclean. Any bed she lies on during the discharge should be treated like the bed she uses during her menstruation; and any object she sits on will be unclean, as during her menstruation. Anyone who touches these things will be unclean. They must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and will be unclean until evening. When the woman is cleansed of her discharge, she will count off seven days; after that, she will be clean again” (Lev. 15:25-28 CEB). This is part of the law that governed this stuff for women in Jewish society. (It actually begins back in verse 19).

You can imagine how alone this woman was. Because of her ailment, anyone she touched would be considered unclean. Anything she touched that someone else touched would be considered unclean. Honestly, it sounds like a game of cooties gone horribly wrong.

Not only was she an outcast, she was poor. All the money she’d managed to earn, she’s spent it trying to get well. (Apparently, they didn’t have universal healthcare back then, either). But she’d only gotten worse under the care of many doctors. (Physicians back then didn’t have the training that ours do today).

This woman, too, is desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and the healings that had taken place all over Galilee. She might even have thought there was something mystical or magical about him. She’d probably heard that Jesus had been laying hands on people for those healings, and she thought that, if she could only touch his clothes some of that magic might rub off on her and heal her. And, in her mind, she probably thought that she’d have to sneak it because she’d lived for twelve years as someone that most people in her community would not touch.

So, she came up behind him, winding her way through the jostling crowd. It’s almost funny to imagine this scene because every person she bumped into on her way to Jesus was made unclean. But she didn’t care. She was too desperate to care about their ritual purity. If she bumped into them, they’d be unclean until evening, but she knew that if she didn’t get to Jesus, she’d be unclean for the rest of her life.

When she touched his clothes her bleeding stopped, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed. Note also how Jesus sensed that healing power had gone out from him. Jesus felt himself hemorrhage power as the woman’s hemorrhage of blood ceased.

Then, everything stopped. Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30 CEB). Again, the disciples reveal their lack of insight. They essentially said, Are you kidding? Who didn’t touch you? Don’t you see this crowd? But Jesus looked around carefully, searching for the person who had touched him.

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal someone of a physical ailment. For one thing, there’s more to wholeness of health than physical healing. For another, Jesus wanted to know the person he had healed. He sought the relationship because loving relationships and caring community are what shape us into whole human beings. Jesus wouldn’t go another step until he found the person he healed.

Meanwhile, Jairus, whose little daughter was dying, didn’t say a word. He didn’t urge Jesus on. He waited. He waited while the woman, this unclean, poor, outcast, fell at the feet of Jesus just as he had moments ago, and confessed that she had touched him. She had made him, a holy man, unclean. She had bumped into all these people, making them unclean.

Part of me wonders about the fear and trembling that overcame her. It’s the same word used to describe how the disciples were overcome with fear after Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:41). I think it could have included several aspects. For one, her belief that Jesus could heal her with power that was obviously beyond the mortal realm had just been confirmed. She might have been afraid of Jesus because she’d just stolen that power from him. She might also have been afraid because she’d made Jesus and the whole crowd unclean. Remember, whoever she touches, and whoever touches what she touches… cooties gone wild.

She had no idea how Jesus would react. She knew how he should have reacted according to the law. He should have condemned her. He had every right to under the law. But I wonder if part of her fearful trembling was born of hope that Jesus would finally be the one to have compassion on her, that this healer who hadn’t yet been afraid to touch others might see her as more than a plague to be avoided. Can you imagine her relief and her joy when Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed form your disease,”? (Mark 5:34 CEB).

When Jesus called her “Daughter,” he claimed her as family. This is important. This is the relationship moment. Jesus restored both this woman to the community and the community to her. You see, neither was complete without the other. When Jesus told her to go in peace, healed from her disease, the word he used is different from the other instances of healed in this text. Those other instances also mean saved. But the one at the end of verse 34 means made whole. Her faith healed (σέσωκέν) her from her physical ailment, not magic as she may have suspected! Even more, now that Jesus has restored her to her community, she’s been healed—made whole (ὑγιὴς)—from the disease that had separated her from even the possibility of caring relationships.

Dr. Mike Rynkiewich told me he was reading a dissertation in which the author claimed that “the antidote for shame is not affirmation but connection.” Another scholar, Michael Lindvall, suggested that, beyond physical healing, it is “acceptance, intimacy, and touch” that have the power to “make us whole and give us peace… Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. B.3, 192).

On Thursday afternoon, I had a discussion with some younger pastors in the district about the meaning of church membership. The question was posed, “What’s the advantage of membership? What’s the point beyond saying you get to vote on stuff?” My answer pointed them to vows in the liturgy. Since we’ve received new members today, we might want to look more closely at the baptismal covenant. When we join a congregation, we’re connected to a covenant community where we promise to nurture one another and include each other in our care. We promise to live according to the example of Christ and to surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness. We love each other, care for each other, help each other, mourn with each other, worship with each other, and celebrate with each other. These covenant relationships are the things that make us whole.

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, messengers came to Jairus telling him that his daughter was dead. Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB). Jesus went inside and tossed the crowd of mourners out. They had laughed at him when he said the girl was only sleeping. They’d seen death before, and this wasn’t sleep. They knew the girl had died. The mourners knew she had no future and no hope.

Jesus took the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means little girl, stand up. Immediately, the girl got up and started walking around. Knowing that death must take a lot out of a person, Jesus told her parents to give the girl something to eat.

In what way is Jesus king? In these stories, he’s king of life and law. Jesus shows over and again that he cares more about people and relationships than religious purity laws. When he took the girl’s hand, he would have been considered unclean from touching a dead body. But Jesus overcomes the law. Instead of being made unclean by touching those who are unclean, the touch of Jesus cleanses. Our touch, our contact with others in meaningful relationships can do the same.

When we enter into relationship with Jesus, and with each other as a covenant community, we’re restored to wholeness through those relationships. In these stories, Jesus teaches us that, as long as there are outcasts and people living on the fringes of society, our community isn’t whole. Those we might think of as they and them and those need us. And, whether we recognize it or not, we need them.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

A House Divided | Proper 5

Mark 3:20-35

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)

A House Divided

This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.

Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.

We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.

When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.

Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.

Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.

In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.

Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.

Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.

All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).

Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.

So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.

The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.

So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).

The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.

Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).

The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.

Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.

But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.

There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).

We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.

But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.

When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Born | Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)

Born

The Sunday after the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and it’s the day we celebrate one God in three Persons. While neither the John nor the Isaiah texts that we just read say anything direct or specific about God as Trinity, they are important texts in our reflection upon God’s nature as Three-in-One. The John 3 text hints at God as Trinity with Jesus the Son teaching Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God, and his own work on earth. The Son speaks of the Spirit and the Father to a leader of the Jews.

Nicodemus, himself, is a curious figure. From early on, church teachers and theologians have both lambasted and praised him depending on the teacher’s agenda. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin compared Protestants who were living in Catholic France to Nicodemus who, as a secret disciple, came to Jesus by night. The Nicodemites, as Calvin called them, were secretly Protestants at heart but Catholic in appearance because they were afraid of the Catholic authorities.

Later, Søren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus, but too cowardly from fear of his own people to become a follower.

Neither of those views of Nicodemus are accurate. Even though Nicodemus came to Jesus by night that first time, he did stand up among his peers and call them out when they wanted to arrest Jesus without giving him a fair hearing as the law required (John 7:44-53). Ironically, the leaders argued that no one among the leaders had believed Jesus to be the Christ except for the crowds who didn’t know God’s law. That’s when Nicodemus stood up and reminded them that the law doesn’t allow them to judge someone without first hearing them to see what they’re about. But his peers didn’t want to listen to Nicodemus and accused him of being a Jesus fanboy from Galilee because the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee as Jesus did. Later, Nicodemus brought the burial spices and helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial with Joseph of Arimathea (c.f. John 19:38-41).

Like most of us, it seems that Nicodemus was a work in progress. Painting him as a fearful coward who never stood up for Jesus against his peers or who never made the leap to true discipleship doesn’t fit his whole story. Nicodemus was someone who saw that Jesus had come from God, and who went to Jesus in order to investigate what his faith told him about Jesus. It’s really not fair for us to judge Nicodemus too harshly. He might have been confounded by what Jesus taught him, but he was trying to understand.

Every Trinity Sunday I’m reminded of the inadequacy of human language when speaking about God. One of the texts for today is from Romans 8, where Paul goes so far as to say that we’re children of God and cry, “Abba! Father!” In one sense, this cry signifies the confidence that we Christians have in turning to God. In another sense, the cry “Abba! Father!” reveals that the desperate longing, eager expectation, and grasping hope of humankind can only be expressed in comparison to the cry of a small child. Small children don’t know how to express why they want their mommy or daddy. But they feel that mommy and daddy are where they need to be.

We believe that the One God is revealed to the world and exists as Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s difficult to explain that concept in human language because human language is incapable of defining God. I studied the theology of the Holy Trinity in seminary because it is an essential dogma of the Christian Faith. Still, people have difficulty understanding it. In fact, we can’t know all there is to know about the Trinity, because God is unfathomable and indefinable. There is no end to who God is. No one could ever learn all there is to know about God. When we say that God is eternal, we mean more than how long God has existed or will exist. God is also eternally indefinable. God the Trinity is a mystery. We can only know what has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the Son, and that often times, just as with Nicodemus, we have difficulty grasping God and God’s work in our minds.

The text from Isaiah provides a powerful account of Isaiah’s vision of God sitting exalted on the throne. At this vision, Isaiah can only speak the words, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). One of the seraphs touched Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” (Isaiah 6:7 CEB). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord and was able to respond to it.

Isaiah was almost completely paralyzed with a sense of God’s power and his own inadequacy by his vision of God, and rightly so! Even the seraphim had to shield their faces from God’s majesty. The act of cleansing not only restored the sinful Isaiah to wholeness, but also released his power to hear God’s speech and, in turn, to speak God’s words to a sinful people. The prophet had been released from sin so that he could be the bearer of God’s word. His being able to hear and respond to God was not something of his own power or ability but was wholly a gift of grace from God. God enables us to hear and respond to God’s words. It’s never by our own abilities apart from God that we come to God, because all that we are is a gift from our Creator. Every breath we breathe is gift. Just like Isaiah responded, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB). We are called to respond to God’s voice and be sent.

As Jesus taught Nicodemus, it’s through the power of the Third Person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—that we’re born from above. Many translations of the Greek Scripture translate the adverb ἄνωθεν (anothen) as again, meaning, born again. Yet, the word has multiple meanings, including above. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about being born from above. Jesus says, “Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 CEB). We must be born of water and the Spirit.

This Son of God, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, was sent by the Father from heaven to earth, so that God might teach us and give us life through His eternally begotten Son. The eternal Son of God took on flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary and became human. By this action, God the Son forever united human flesh with the Godhead. Humanity has been given a share in the Divine life by God’s gracious invitation.

Yet, we had to be redeemed from the power of sin and death. So God’s Son was lifted up on a cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. When the people of Israel were still wandering in the wilderness, they sinned by speaking against God and Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents against the people. They repented, and asked Moses to pray to God for them so that He would take the serpents away. The Lord told Moses to make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by a serpent they could look at the serpent of bronze and live (c.f. Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus the Son, in whom all things were created, was killed by his own creation. He willingly gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. We have life in the cross of Christ.

One of the paradoxes of our faith is that our life comes through death. The eternal life of John 3:16 is synonymous with the birth from above of John 3:3 and 3:7. Birth from above is from believing—having faith—in the death of Jesus Christ.

Part of what we remember on Trinity Sunday is that God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity, is the one who sent His eternal Son into the world for our sake. God the Father initiated the redemptive activity of Christ. God would not remain content with a world in the process of self-destruction and enslaved to the power of sin. The divine act of love was reaching out to the unlovely creatures we had become. God’s gift of the Son is an expression of deep love. When the Son returned to the Father, the Spirit came not only to empower and teach us, but to birth us from above so we could be called children of God.

God is always acting in and among us, giving grace upon grace even to the unbelievers, so that all may come to know the love God has for us. Humanity has never merited salvation. We have never deserved to be saved. God’s grace is an unmerited, gratuitous gift. All is grace, and all is gift.

The Father loved, gave, and sent for the salvation of the world. The Divine Trinity wants all of us to live in communion with God. This communion is exemplified in our communal life together. God gives us grace when we seek grace, and has done wondrous and powerful deeds for our redemption and salvation. As God’s children, born of water and the Spirit, we share in the relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is perfect relationship, perfect love, and we’re invited to participate in and receive the life God offers.

But we know we aren’t perfect. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ shines on us, illuminating even the darkest pieces of our inner selves, and seeing the places within us that have been wrapped in darkness can make us want to keep hidden. It isn’t easy to let ourselves stand in the kind of light that sears and burns through the darkness. Like Nicodemus, we’re works in progress. What we can trust is that the Father didn’t send the Son to condemn us, but to save us and heal us and bring us into the light. God didn’t send the Son to judge us or toss us away, but to make us more perfectly God’s own.

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

~Pastopher

Ascension | Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

1 Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (CEB)

Ascension

Mothers know what it’s like to wait. Childbirth is preceded by nine months of expectation, anticipation, preparation, growth, change, worry, sometimes a touch of doubt or fear. Pregnancy, especially a first-pregnancy, is a transition time from one way of life to another. A whole new world looms before mothers (and fathers), and the life after childbirth is never quite the same as it was before. But before parents get there, (especially moms) they have the long wait of pregnancy.

Then, after childbirth, mothers (and fathers) learn even more about waiting. Waiting for that fist tooth to finally pop through so you can get a minute’s sleep again. Waiting for a child to say Mommy, because they always learn to say Daddy first. Then, waiting for the child to learn to say Daddy again because from then on out, it’s always, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mom! Momma! Mommy!” And, there’s waiting for your child to be able to find a matching shoe so you can finally leave the house now that you’re thirty minutes late. Even at age thirteen, we’re still not past that on some days.

The Day of Ascension was this past Thursday, forty days after Easter Day, but we commemorate the Ascension of Jesus Christ on a Sunday because, honestly, Sunday is the only day pastors can get most of their congregation to come to church for worship. Like the Epiphany, the Ascension is important enough that we don’t want to skip it, so we move it to a Sunday to make sure it’s covered.

The Ascension of Jesus falls in the between-time of Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost. Easter is joy and happiness. Pentecost marks a different kind of excitement as the church’s birthday and descent of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Ascension fall in a between-time, it marked the beginning of a waiting period for the Disciples. Remember, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples multiple times over forty days. He appeared in a locked room. He showed up again so Thomas could see. He was recognized after breaking bread in Emmaus. He cooked breakfast for the disciples on the beach.

Acts 1:4 suggests that Jesus may have stayed with the disciples, maybe even lived with them for part of those forty days. The Greek word used there has an uncertain meaning, in part, because it’s only used once in the New Testament. It might refer to table fellowship or gathering the disciples together. Or, it might refer to staying the night. The Common English Bible translates it as “While they were eating together,” while the New Revised Standard Version renders it, “While staying with them.”

Either way we translate the word, what’s clear is that Jesus was hanging out with the disciples a lot. The disciples had likely gotten used to resurrection-Jesus being present and continuing to teach them. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures about the Messiah and how repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed in his name (c.f. Luke 24:45-47). Acts 1:2-3 tells us that Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen speaking with them about God’s kingdom. And he ordered them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which the Father had promised to send upon them. The timeline of a few days from now is rather non-specific. They didn’t know the when.

But, the apostles still had questions about God’s kingdom, so they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (Acts 1:6 CEB).

At first, it sounds like a very earthly question, as thought the apostles were still looking forward to an earthly kingdom. And maybe it was an earthly question, in part. But the word Luke uses for restore is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament in Malachi 4:6 (*LXX 3:23) where God speaks of Elijah being sent to turn the hearts of children to parents, and the hearts of parents to children before the great and terrifying Day of the Lord comes. The Septuagint actually says “who will restore the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of people to their neighbors…” (Malachi 3:23 my translation of LXX).

So, if Luke used this word as an intentional reference to the restoration work of Elijah that was mentioned in Malachi, then the question of the apostles was about more than an earthly kingdom. It was about a kind of restoration that involved calling the people of Israel back to faithful community. A restoring of broken relationships. The importance of restored human relationships is one of the things Jesus preached about often (c.f. Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 5:20-26, 18:15-17; Mark 11:25). After all, the work of Jesus Christ on earth included restoring the human race to God and human beings to each other.

It seems like the apostles wanted to know if this restoration was about to take place. After all, what other work is left for Jesus to do? And Jesus responds by telling them not to worry about the timing of things. Instead of being concerned about the timing of things to come, the apostles will be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In essence, Jesus tells the apostles that his work will now continue through them. The Ascension is the transition of Christ’s ministry from Jesus, himself, to the apostles and those who will follow them. The gist of Jesus’s message to the apostles is this: Don’t worry about the time, you’ve got a job to do.

Then, suddenly, Jesus was taken up into heaven. There’s no indication that the Ascension was something the apostles who were with Jesus expected when it happened. One moment Jesus was walking and talking with them, the next moment he was zooming into the clouds. Luke notes that the apostles “were watching” as he was lifted up. They were staring toward heaven when two men in white robes suddenly appeared beside them and asked a pointed question: Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB).

First, it’s worth noting that these two men in white robes make several appearances in Luke’s writings. In the account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah show up and talk with Jesus about his departure, which is literally Exodus in Greek.

Later, two men in gleaming bright clothing appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. They also asked a rather pointed questions: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24:6-7 CEB). These men were later described as a “vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), but since the word angel means messenger, it would fit whether the men were actual angels of the heavenly kind or Moses and Elijah appearing once again. After all, they were described as men initially.

While the two men aren’t mentioned at the Ascension at the end of Luke, they do show up in Acts. And they ask questions once again. “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB). It’s possible that these two men—these messengers—were Moses and Elijah prodding the apostles on.

There is a strong connection to the Ascension of Elijah in this account of the Ascension of Jesus. Forty days recalled the forty-day experiences of both Moses and Elijah. Moses was with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai where he neither ate nor drank (c.f. Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for forty days as he travelled to Mount Horeb where he experienced the theophany and heard God’s voice (c.f. 1 Kings 19:8). The forty days of post-resurrection Jesus is an echo of his forty days of fasting in the wilderness during which he was tempted (c.f. Luke 4:1-13). But these forty days after the resurrection weren’t a time of preparation for Jesus, they were a time of preparation for the apostles and the ministry they would continue after Jesus ascended.

It’s significant that the apostles saw the Lord ascend into heaven. When Elijah was about to be taken up into heaven, he asked Elisha—his disciple—what he could do for him before he was taken away. And Elisha asked for a double-share of Elijah’s spirit; twice the spirit of Elijah. Elisha’s request would be granted only if he saw Elijah being taken into heaven. That event of Elijah’s ascension—of separation from Elisha—was what allowed Elisha to receive that double-share and continue the work of Elijah.

Joshua was filled with the spirit and wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him before Moses died (c.f. Deuteronomy 34:9). It is after the departure of the leader that the followers are empowered. The apostles saw Jesus ascend, and only a few days later, the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with fire and wind. They were empowered to speak languages they hadn’t learned, and to proclaim Christ with a boldness they hadn’t known before. They were empowered to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

While Jesus was on earth, his work of healing, restoration, and proclaiming God’s Kingdom was limited by the fact that he was only one person who could encounter a limited number of people. When Jesus ascended, his followers were empowered to continue his work, and the number of people with access to the power of God’s Spirit increased exponentially.

We are now witnesses. The work of Jesus Christ is ours to continue. While the apostles would wait another ten days after the Ascension to receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit is with us everywhere. We are Christ’s witnesses, and we have the privilege of continuing Christ’s work. We don’t have to start by traveling to the ends of the earth. We can begin right where we are.

It might also be worth noting that, while the apostles were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, the first thing they did was gather together to pray. That’s in verses 13-14. Before they did anything else, they prayed. That’s a model for us, too. We have work to do as followers of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves into business at the expense of everything else. The work of Jesus Christ includes the work of devoting ourselves to prayer. Prayer is a way of connecting to the Spirit. It’s how we prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit. Pentecost is waiting. Are we ready?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

*The Septuagint is commonly noted as LXX, which is the Roman numeral for 70. It is a translation of the Old Testament, written in Greek, which dates to the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. Also, chapters and verses sometimes differ between English translations, the Greek Septuagint, and the original Hebrew. Malachi 4:6 in English translations, for example, is Malachi 3:23 in the Septuagint (LXX) and Malachi 3:24 in Hebrew.

Water and Blood | 6th of Easter

1 John 5:1-6

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God. Whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments. 3 This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments. God’s commandments are not difficult,
4 because everyone who is born from God defeats the world. And this is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith. 5 Who defeats the world? Isn’t it the one who believes that Jesus is God’s Son?

6 This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (CEB)

Water and Blood

I have loved astronomy since I was a kid. Something about the night sky drew my fascination. All those points of light, all the stuff that’s up there that we don’t know about. As a 9-year-old boy, I searched the skies for Halley’s Comet in late 1985 and early 1986. On January 09, 1992, the first exoplanet was discovered by radio telescope, and I was amazed that we had proof that there were other planets out there. In July of 2005, there was a flurry of excitement and controversy when three new planets were discovered in our solar system. They were later designated Dwarf Planets, and poor Pluto was downgraded with them. Now, we’re looking for the hypothetical Planet Nine.

Through my telescopes, I’ve observed the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, Uranus, nebulae, globular star clusters, open star clusters, all kinds of stars (including the Sun), galaxies, and I’ve just peered toward the Milky Way for the heck of it to see what I could see. All the while, these new discoveries kept my eyes glued to the sky at night. That’s one of the reasons why I despise Daylight Savings Time. It makes darkness come incredibly late in the summer months, and I want to see the night sky! Even on nights I don’t have time to set up one of my telescopes, I still find myself going outside just to look up. With, perhaps, the exception of most galaxies, everything is orbiting something. Everywhere we look, gravity is at play.

All of First John’s argument is kind of like gravity. He uses the same words repetitively throughout, but the pattern of his argument doesn’t seem to be linear. In Bible study, when we looked at texts from First John, I noted that his argument seems to loop and circle back on itself. Like the pull of gravity, the same things keep coming around. At times, it can be frustrating to grasp John’s point. At the same time, within that circular argumentation, there is a discernable progression in what John writes. But you kind of have to search for it.

John starts off chapter five by mentioning those who are born of God, and he ties that with belief and love. First, we should note that being born of God is a theme found in the Gospel of John as well. Part of John’s prologue says, “The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God” (John 1:11-13 CEB). A little farther into the Gospel of John, we find mention of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5) and being born anew or from above (3:3, 7), and being born of the Spirit (3:6, 8).

According to the epistle, believing that Jesus is the Christ is proof that this birth from God has occurred. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God” (1 John 5:1a CEB). Now, that word, Christ, is something we hear a lot. Not all of it in a pleasant or religious context. But, sometimes I wonder if we understand what it means and how it applies to Jesus. It’s important to understand this because, if we’re going to say we believe in Jesus as the Christ, we probably need to know what the Christ is and what the word means.

Christ comes from the Greek word Χριστὸς (Christos), and that is a translation of a Hebrew word (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ) Meshiach that’s translated into English as both Messiah and Anointed. But anointed is what the words Messiah and Christ actually mean. You might remember that the kings of Israel were not crowned as kings as they are in much of Western European culture. Instead, they were anointed with oil.

Samuel anointed Saul as King over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). David was anointed three times. First, Samuel anointed him as king in place of Saul (1 Samuel 16:13). Then, the tribe of Judah officially anointed David as their king (2 Samuel 2:4). He ruled for seven and a half years as Judah’s king before the rest of the tribes anointed him as king over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

When King Saul was running around the countryside trying to kill David, we often read that David referred to Saul as the Lord’s Anointed. The word he used there was Messiah (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ). David called Saul “The LORD’s Messiah” (c.f. 1 Samuel 24:6,10, 26:9,11,16,23; 2 Samuel 1:14,16) but, in that case, it’s always translated into English as Anointed. So, the only way for Jesus to properly be called Christ or Messiah was for him to be anointed. But, there’s only one place in the New Testament where Jesus was anointed with oil, and that was when Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anointed him with perfumed oil and wiped his feet with her hair (c.f. Mark 14:8; John 11:2, 12:3). The reason we call Jesus the Messiah and Christ is because he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. The Spirit came down on him and God declared Jesus to be God’s Son (c.f. Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34).

So, when we say that we believe Jesus is the Christ, we’re saying that we believe Jesus is the one who was expected by the prophets and anointed by God with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to redeem us and heal us from the brokenness of sin.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” This birth from God not only points to our relationship with God, but our relationship with Jesus and each other. Since all believers are children of God and it’s assumed that believers love God, we also love each other. We’re family. If we’re all children of the same parent, then we’re family.

Verse two kind of throws us for a weird gravitational loop. Earlier in the epistle, John defined love as something that is active on behalf of others, not merely kind speech. He also strongly suggested that our actions toward others are a kind of proof of our love for God. But here in verse 2, John flipped it around. The proof of our love for each other—the children of God—is in our love for God and in keeping God’s commandments.

Of course, the question we need to ask is, What commandment do we have to follow? John stated the commandment back in chapter three: Believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other (c.f. 3:23). It’s one commandment in two, absolutely inseparable, parts.

This argument is swinging back around again.

In chapter four, John wrote, “This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also” (1 John 4:21 CEB). In verse 5:2, as we already know, John told us that our love for God proves our love for each other. The point of this, for John, is that we cannot love God without loving each other, and we cannot love each other without loving God. To love one requires us to love the other. There is no possibility of separating love for God from love for each other, or love for each other from love for God. The nature of love, itself, prevents it.

I think we just completed an orbit.

If we lack love for others—If what we think of as love doesn’t move beyond words or thoughts—it ought to nudge us to do some self-examination of our faith. To love God is to keep God’s commandments, and keeping God’s commandments isn’t a burden. Loving our sisters and brothers is not difficult for those whose lives have been transformed by the love God has for us. Those who have been reborn keep God’s commandments easily. We believe, and we love (yet remember that love requires action for it to genuinely be love).

What’s more, everyone who is born of God defeats the world. Remember that the world is often described in terms of opposition to God because of sin. It is because of the sickness of sin, the disease of rebellion against God, that the world stands in opposition. Instead of caring for each other, the world refuses to share. Instead of lifting others up, the world pushes them down. Instead of welcoming immigrants and treating them the same way we treat citizens—AS THE SCRIPURES DEMAND (c.f. Leviticus 19:10, 33-34, 25:35; Numbers 15:14-16)—we tell them there’s no room for them.

Read it anyway you want in light of current events, but I’m not making a political statement here, I’m making a statement of faith about what God requires of God’s people.

We love the story of Ruth, yet I think we forget that she was a Moabite immigrant living in Bethlehem. Deuteronomy says, “…Moabites can’t belong to the LORD’s assembly. Not even the tenth generation of such people can belong to the LORD’s assembly, as a rule,” (Deuteronomy 23:3 CEB). Yet, Ruth’s great-grandson was David, the King, and he was only four generations removed from his immigrant, Moabite great-grandmother.

When we love as those who are born of God, we defeat all that selfish, destructive, fear-filled nonsense. Our faith in a God who loves defeats the world. Our faith in Jesus as the Christ and God’s Son defeats the world. Because those who believe in these things exhibit love as God exhibits love: through the action of giving ourselves for others.

Verse six probably begins a new section of John’s argument, but it speaks to John’s firm belief in who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do as Christ. “This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6 CEB). Water likely represents birth and rebirth at baptism. Blood points to the humanity Jesus shares with us, and his sacrificial death for us. Water and blood flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross.

The Spirit is present here with us now, moving and living in and among us. In that sense, the Spirit testifies through the disciples of Jesus Christ. The Spirit testifies through us, by our loving actions for those around us. That idea is profound enough, I think, to give us pause. We should consider whether our belief in Jesus Christ and our actions align. That circular argument has come around again like planets orbiting a star. Faith, love, being born of God, being family to each other, keeping God’s commandments, and defeating the sin-sick world: they all orbit the gravitational center that is Jesus Christ.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay