Go | Proper 6

Matthew 9:35-10:23

9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus;4 Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

5 Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment. 9 Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. 10 Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. 11 Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. 12 When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ 13 If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. 14 If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. 15 I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.

16 “Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. 17 Watch out for people– because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. 18 They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. 20 You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. 21 Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. 22 Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. 23 Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes. (CEB)

Go

Are we a community or are we the crowds? That’s the question that comes to my mind when I read today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel. The impetus for the sending of the twelve apostles is Jesus’ compassion on the crowds who were “troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 CEB). As much as I appreciate the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translations, I think they both miss the mark with how they’ve rendered the text into English. The Greek in this verse suggests oppression or, at the least, neglect by those in power. The crowds were dejected and thrown aside (my translation). The crowds have been written off and not had their needs provided for by the leadership who were supposed to be their protectors and ensure their well-being.

The prophet Ezekiel spoke about the same thing: “The LORD’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:1-4 CEB).

God intends for rulers and those in leadership positions to care for their people. The failure of the shepherds—political and religious leaders—in Ezekiel’s day caused God to say, “The LORD God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out” (Ezekiel 34:11 CEB), and “I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice” (Ezek. 34:15-16 CEB). This is the ministry of Jesus, the ministry he sent the apostles to do, and the ministry to which we are called.

The reality of our world—from ancient times to the present—is that those in positions of power and authority tend to step on the heads of the powerless and crush the livelihoods of the poor. The crowds, which are mentioned so many times in Matthew’s Gospel, are people who come seeking Jesus’s help, they amass as a crowd, but they don’t come together as a community. The crowds are made up of individuals who are driven to Jesus by their own needs. They’re in search of food and healing from all kinds of ailments.

By contrast, the disciples—which number many more than the twelve apostles and include a lot of women—had come together as a community. They took care of each other. In fact, some of those who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion were women who travelled with Jesus in order to take care of him (c.f. Matthew 27:55). Because the community of disciples came together in this way and took care of each other, they weren’t like the crowds who were often desperate and needy. The disciples were enabled to move beyond their own needs and be in ministry to others. That’s what Jesus was doing by sending out the twelve apostles. Their mission was to bring people into community by doing the same things Jesus had been doing: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with skin diseases, and throwing out demons.

The apostles were to draw the people who often made up the needy crowds and build them into a community of compassion. That’s the vision God had for Israel. It’s what Israel was supposed to be: an example of right-living and a blessing to the rest of the world. Instead of jubilee, there was oppression. “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isa. 5:7 CEB).

The message the apostles were sent to deliver was simple: The kingdom of heaven has come near. It’s the same message preached by John the Baptist. It’s the same message preached by Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. You see, one of the many things our faith tradition tells us is that we are living in a time-between-times. God has broken into our world with the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He taught that God’s kingdom is coming, and is already here, working in subtle ways. Jesus will come again to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven in all its fullness and begin a new age in which God reigns and we participate in the life of God as God intended.

We, the church, are to be like the disciples who were formed into a new community: a community which exemplifies the kingdom when we exhibit love and care for each other. Are we the crowds or are we a community? Do we look upon the crowds with the same compassion as Jesus, especially when we see that those who should be helping the people aren’t doing it? Jesus described the people in those crowds as dejected and thrown aside, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering around aimlessly, not knowing where they’re going, where to find nourishment, powerless to change their lot because those in power stacked the deck against them and got away with it. One thing is certain, this world needs apostles to bring good news, to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

Whenever there’s a problem in the world, I’ve heard people ask the question, why doesn’t God do something about that? C.S. Lewis had one of his protagonists, Elwin Ransom, wrestle with the same question in his book, Perelandra. The Eve-like figure of the planet, Perelandra, was being worn down by the evil one’s representative, and the protagonist knew that if something didn’t change soon, she might sin and the world would fall into ruin.

He wrote, “For the third time, more strongly than ever before, it came into his head, ‘This can’t go on.’ The enemy was using Third Degree methods. It seemed to Ransom that, but for a miracle, the Lady’s resistance was bound to be worn away in the end. Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil [God] should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person” (Lewis, 119). It was then that Ransom realized that he was the miracle. He was the one sent to do something about it.

So are we.

We often think of the apostles as twelve men who had specific authority, and the church has put stock in the authority of the twelve apostles and how that authority has been handed down. Yet, there isn’t anything particularly fancy or special about the word apostle. It’s a compound of the Greek words apo and stolos. Apo means from and stolos essentially means equipment, especially for war purposes. In fact, in ancient Greek a stolos is usually a fleet. Herodotus described the Greek expedition against Troy as στόλος χιλιοναύτης” (stolos chilionautes), a fleet of a thousand ships.

In later Greek, the word apostle came to mean something akin to ambassador, in that the apostle was equipped and sent from someone in authority. By the general definition of the term, we are all apostles. We are told to go and make disciples of all the nations. We are sent to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

That’s our task, and we do it by identifying with the crowds of needy people, which is really all people, indeed, every person. The apostles were initially sent out to the lost sheep of Israel, but that mission was expanded to all nations following Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospel.

We’re told that the harvest is upon us, but the labor force is scarce. That’s why we are sent. We are the ones who fill out the labor shortage. Even as the need around us appears overwhelming and beyond our abilities to fix, we are still told to go because the harvest is ripe. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This is no time to sit around and shake our heads, wondering at the world’s problems. Jesus sends us out to get busy loving the crowds one person or family at a time.

I know, we’re United Methodists. We do lots of stuff by committee and sometimes the church works at a snail’s pace. But here’s the thing. We don’t need permission to serve Jesus and work for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not to say our committees are irrelevant, because they aren’t. They do a lot of important work, and those who serve on those committees are doing ministry and working for Jesus Christ.

But if you want to start a Bible study for older adults, then start one. f you want to be a big brother or big sister to an at-risk kid, go for it! If you want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or other area ministry, sign up and go. If you’re worried about doing something alone, take someone else with you. Even the apostles were sent out in pairs. If you want to start an afterschool program for the students in our community, then talk to my wife, Joy, because she’s working on it right now. We don’t have to do everything, but we ought to do something. When we do, we affect other people and make new disciples who also go out to serve. This congregation has sent a lot of people into ministry over the past decade. That doesn’t just happen. People were involved in those lives.

Are we the crowds or are we a community? When we love and care for one another, and sending workers out into the harvest to serve, when we’re as outward-focuses as we are inward-focused, that’s when we’re being formed into a community. We’re preparing for a kingdom. We’re praying for the Lord to send out workers. The problem with prayer is that it works, which means the next worker God sends into the fields might just be you.

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

~Pastopher

Q&A #1

A Sunday School class in my congregation studied a lesson on Job and several members of the class had questions about the book. They invited me in to teach about Job the next Sunday. That discussion led to more even questions. I invited the class to email their questions to me, telling them I would answer them as best I could. The following are the first set of questions I got from a parishioner and my answers. I copied her questions and wrote my answers below.

Another parishioner asked me to post this exchange to my blog. A whole lot of discussion took place behind these questions and answers, so please keep in mind that I can’t provide the whole of that context here. The parts marked “Addition:” are sections I have added to my original answers in an attempt to shed some light on pieces of that missing context, but it is likely inadequate. Nevertheless, here we go:

  1. Does Satan control events in our life?

Satan does not control us directly. We are not puppets on a string. However, much the same way Eve and Adam were enticed to disobey God, we are enticed to disobey God. We are tempted to sin and, because of the Fall from Original Righteousness, we have, as Charles Wesley writes, a “bent to sinning” (see Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, stanza 2, The United Methodist Hymnal #384), which means we have an inclination to sin due to the fact that the image of God in which we are created has been damaged/distorted through the Fall. With free will, we choose to give in to Satan’s enticements. We choose to sin. Satan can’t force us to do it. So, no, Satan does not directly control events in our life. But Satan does try to get us to choose the wrong things all the time. When we do, we’re essentially allowing Satan to exercise a kind of indirect control.

  1. If so, does God give Satan permission?

God does not give Satan permission to tempt us, but Satan does it anyway. That is part of Satan’s disobedience to God. Remember that, according to pieces of our faith’s tradition, there was once a time when Satan was the most perfect of the heavenly host and a member of the heavenly court. It was then that God put the one we call Satan in charge of our world. That’s why he’s called the prince of this world. Logically, the angels cannot have been cast out of heaven unless they were there before they fell (sinned).

Check out the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (The United Methodist Hymnal #110). Stanza 1 mentions “…our ancient foe… his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” Stanza 3 says, “The Prince of Darkness grim.” Satan is powerful. Since God created all things, including Satan, that power was given to Satan by God. It’s not God’s fault, however, that Satan makes bad choices and misuses the gifts God gave any more than it’s God’s fault that I make bad choices and misuse the gifts I’ve been given. The trouble with gifting any creature with a free will is not that the creature will use it, but that the creature might choose to misuse it. That’s what both fallen angels (demons) and human beings have done.

Addition: For further reading, there are a few New Testament references to the fall of angelic beings:

  • 2 Peter 2:4, “God didn’t spare the angels when they sinned but cast them into the lowest level of the underworld and committed them to chains of darkness, keeping them there until the judgment” (CEB).
  • Jude 1:6, “I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day” (CEB).
  • Revelation 12:7-9, “Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him” (CEB).

The idea that Satan and the fallen angels were cast down to Earth was taken up by C.S. Lewis in his Sci-Fi/Fantasy Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous Strength). Lewis demonstrated a fascinating cosmic theology in his fiction writing.

  1. Describe “grace”.

The easiest way I can describe it is alongside those other words: Justice and Mercy.

  • Justice is getting what you deserve (a sentence for doing wrong).
  • Mercy is not getting what you deserve (a sentence pardoned/forgiven for doing wrong).
  • Grace is getting what you don’t deserve (God’s love despite what we’ve done wrong). Grace is God’s loving activity on our behalf, and God’s real presence with us in our every day.

Addition: John Wesley mentions certain means of grace, which are channels through which we receive God’s grace. In his sermon, On Zeal, he placed the means of grace into two categories: works of mercy and works of piety.

Works of mercy are things we do for others and include visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering the poor, giving generously so the needs of others can be met, seeking justice for the oppressed, working to end discrimination, assisting victims of natural disaster, etc.

Works of piety are things we do to intentionally grow in our faith or honor God and include devoting time to private or group prayer and Bible study, fasting or abstinence, healthy living, attending public worship with the gathered faith community, baptism, Eucharist (holy communion), Christian conferencing (such as an accountability group, youth group, or even attending Annual Conference).

God is always present with us, but the means of grace are things we can do to draw ourselves close to—center ourselves within—God.

  1. Explain your belief of what happens to our soul at the end our physical death [she meant life]. 

The difficulty with answering this question is that there is no definitive answer (certainly not one in the Bible, as the ideas shifted from Sheol to things like Gehenna, Hades, and Heaven). Any answer a person gives, therefore, will include some speculation. Personally, I believe we experience resurrection and go to heaven with God when we die. I also believe that heaven does not necessarily exist within chronological time, nor would it necessarily be subject to it. God created time and, therefore, exists beyond it.

Eventually (or possibly immediately as I believe), we will experience a physical resurrection, as Jesus experienced a physical resurrection. Our resurrection body will be a physical, glorified body that is a perfect instrument of our will. Now, it is possible that we live with God in Heaven for a while as disembodied spirits until the Day of Judgment and Resurrection. I kind of like to think that God is more efficient than that, and wouldn’t want us to exist in that kind of half-life. I imagine God would want us whole as soon as possible. Since God isn’t subject to time, the Day of Resurrection could be the exact same moment in heaven for the entirety of the human race. I mean, it’s outside of time, so we might show up there at the exact same moment as Moses without any of us experiencing that soul-sleep thing that neither of us like.

Addition: First, I would add that there is no permanent end of our physical existence. Christianity believes in the resurrection of the body (see The Apostle’s Creed, The United Methodist Hymnal #882). When Jesus appeared before his disciples after his resurrection, he could be touched, he had scars, he could walk and talk, he ate food, and he cooked breakfast. His body was raised from death. He was not a disembodied ghost.

Regarding time, I liken this idea of Heaven existing outside of chronological time to looking at a history book with a timeline across the pages. We can see everything on the timeline all at once. We can see George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – when they lived and what they did – marked on the pages, but those people are stuck in their places on the timeline. God can see all of history – the entire timeline, including what hasn’t happened yet for us – and is present in each moment across the whole thing.

We tend to think of everything in terms of chronological time but, since God created time, God is not limited to time as we are. From our perspective within time, the Day of Resurrection is a future event. For God, however, the perspective is not limited to present, past, and future. God sees the whole of time all at once and can reach into time to act in any moment. (God has shown that God is intimately involved within time. God is not a disinterested actor. The Son of God became a human being and lived within time for a while). If Heaven is where God dwells and God is not subject to chronological time, then Heaven is not subject to chronological time either. That’s how I can posit the idea that every person on the chronological timeline might end up in heaven in the exact same moment without any chronological delay or soul-sleep.

The parishioner who asked these questions didn’t like the idea that our souls might “sleep” until the Day of Resurrection. She thought it would be a colossal waste of time. While some of us might relish the idea of a nice, long nap, I agree with her wholeheartedly.

The shifting of thought about our post-mortem existence (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Heaven) that we find in the Scriptures is a whole other matter that would take way too much time to get into in this post. The Bible does not speak with a single, united voice on this matter, which is why I stated there is no definitive answer.

  1. You believe we will meet family in heaven?

Yes, I do. Human beings are created to live in community and I doubt God will sunder us from those we have loved while we live on Earth. I think we’ll all have one heck of a reunion in Heaven when God creates Heaven and Earth anew. I invite you to check out another hymn by Charles Wesley, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above (The United Methodist Hymnal #709). It talks about that very reunion. If you’ve never read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, you should give it a try. Book 7, The Last Battle, gets into that a lot. They are quick reads, since they’re children’s books.

Addition: Until moving here, I had never heard of the idea that we would not meet and know our families and loved ones in heaven. So far, two parishioners have told me that’s what they believe.

— — —

Thanks for asking your questions. They’re really excellent! If I haven’t answered something sufficiently for you, please let me know.

Christopher

Order | Holy Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2, 4a

1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth–2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters–

4 God saw how good the light was. (CEB)

Order

Trinity Sunday is kind of like the Church’s version of Memorial Day weekend in that it’s sort of the start of summer vacation. It’s the end of the seasons that are full of remarkable holy days like Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. In fact, there are no more commemorations of Christ on the liturgical calendar until Christ the King, which is the Sunday before Advent begins, and we have a long way to go until Advent.

Next Sunday is the season called Ordinary Time, and it lasts for about half the year. It’s actually called Ordinary Time because the Sundays are counted with ordinal numbers: first Sunday, second, Sunday, etc. But the term is fitting for the other meaning in that it’s mostly regular-old, ordinary Sundays with few significant holy days. I mean, there’s Thanksgiving (but that’s a Federal holiday) and Halloween/All Saints’ which is a great celebration, but there’s not much else.

The thing is, Trinity Sunday doesn’t sound like a really fun way of kicking things off. Of all the church’s dogma’s, God as Trinity—Three-In-One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is one of the more perplexing ideas. It’s one that most of us have real difficulty grasping. Kind of like the infinite nature of God. How can anything exist that doesn’t have a beginning? Yet, God is infinite, with no beginning and no end. Our heads start to hurt if we think about it too much, but that’s actually kind of the point. God is a mystery. God cannot be comprehended nor defined by our limited human imaginations and languages. It’s impossible! Yet, we humans are often undaunted by such things and we try anyway. A lot of writing material has been spent across the centuries in various attempts to explain the unexplainable.

Let’s look at the text because there are a few things we need to examine. Right off the bat, we have a Hebrew translation problem that has to do with time. Some translations render the Hebrew into English as, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (NRSV). Translations that speak of “the beginning” understand the Hebrew as a restrictive relative clause that highlights the reality of time by giving creation a specific starting-moment in time.

Others render it as “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB). These translations point to the beginning of God’s creative work rather than the beginning of time. Do you see the nuance there? “In the beginning” points to time, “When God began” points to action. While I think the emphasis on God’s action is the preferable translation, it’s true that God’s activity of creation had a beginning. Either way you look at it, God is the actor engaged in bringing order from the formless void.

That’s the next matter we need to look at. It almost makes it sound like the stuff of creation existed in some kind of primordial chaos, and God simply brought order and shape to it all, like it was a 3D puzzle that had been dumped on the coffee table, but hadn’t been pieced together yet. Here again, translations vary. Some say, “the earth was a formless void” (NRSV), and others say, “the earth was without shape or form” (CEB). The thing is, when we look closely at those words, formlessness or being without shape is a kind of infinity. If there’s no shape or form, that formlessness, that lack of shape, is a kind of nothingness that goes on forever. And a void is nothing at all. It’s empty. The text is suggesting that, when God began to create, what existed was infinite nothingness. Nothing is what existed. That’s why later tradition, most notably in 2 Maccabees, says that God created from nothing—ex nihilo.

When God began to create, God was intimately engaged with the stuff that was being given form and substance: the heavens and the earth were created. That word, create, is only used in reference to God’s work in the Hebrew Old Testament. Humans can craft stuff, make stuff, forge stuff, and bake stuff, but only God can create stuff. One of the reasons this text about creation is used for Trinity Sunday is that it reminds us that, from the beginning, God has a relationship with creation. When God began to create, God is the one who did the work. And God called creation good. God loves creation, from the most distant galaxy to the various breakfast items God provided for us that are digesting in our stomachs right now. God has been intimately engaged with everything that exists for as long as any of it has existed.

The Gospel text for today, Matthew 28:16-20, tells us to carry the relationship we have with God and each other out into the world so we can build even more relationships. That’s how we make disciples. We show people that we love them and build relationships. To a degree, we can invite others to be in relationships with us, but really, we’re sent out to show others that we desire to be in relationships with them. Making disciples is outward focused.

Another reason we use the first words from Genesis is because it gives us a glimpse, a hint, of God as Trinity. All three Persons of the Trinity are at play here. In fact, one issue I take with the Revised Common Lectionary’s cutting out of verse 3 is that it doesn’t include God speaking the light into existence. I understand why the lectionary committee did it. In John 1, John describes Jesus as both the Word and the Light, and it appears the lectionary committee was focused on Jesus as the light. Jesus is, after all, the light of the world. But in Genesis, God creates the light, and Christian theology is adamant that the Second Person of the Trinity was begotten, not created. Jesus is God. So, the lectionary understandably tries to avoid equating the light which God made in creation with the metaphor of the true light that shines on all people in John’s Gospel (c.f. John 1:4-11).

In focusing on the Son as the light, however, what I think the lectionary misses is that God’s very act of speaking is the Word through which everything came into being. It’s the power of God’s creative Word that calls creation forth into existence from the infinite nothingness. When we look at the first three verses of Genesis, we have Father, Spirit, and Word acting together to create. The Father decides to create, the Spirit moves over the waters—water being necessary for life—and the Word is spoken: “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3 CEB).

In verse two, the Holy Spirit moved, hovered, trembled, brooded, moved gently, some even suggest cherished over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word actually has a connotation of making the water fertile for life. God’s action in creation is intimate, loving, and deeply connected.

The Holy Trinity is something we discuss in confirmation classes over and again. We had five chapters on God because there’s a lot to talk about. We even looked at a piece of art to help us understand God as Trinity. Andre Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity is my favorite icon, and probably one of the best examples of Christian iconography. It depicts the scene from Genesis 18 where three men, who are revealed as the Lord later in the text, visit Abraham and Sarah. Yet, Rublev’s genius is revealed in how the work is essentially the Nicene Creed in painted form.

Holy Trinity-Rublev4

The three men are seated around a table with a bowl of food, representing the Eucharist, in the center. The three men look alike except for the different colors of their clothing. You can tell they belong together, that there’s a kind of intimacy between them, full of love, respect, and dignity. They’re seated in a circle, but the circle isn’t closed. It’s open precisely where we stand looking into the icon. It’s an invitation for us to be in communion with God. To enter into relationship with God and share in the goodness of the Divine Trinity is what it means to have life. God is a community of love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfect relationship, and we’re invited to be a part of that.

But there’s more. God not only invites us in, God has acted toward us in such a way that we know God loves us. The entire Bible is a love story about God’s activity on behalf of the human race and all of creation. That’s why caring for creation is important. It’s actually one of our responsibilities as human beings. We were given dominion, not domination. We are caregivers, not exploiters; stewards, not owners. We are called love each other and creation the way God loves and cares for us.

Whatever your politics on the matter might be, making the excuse that care for creation is bad for business is actually bad theology. I seriously doubt that God will excuse the destruction, exploitation, abuse, and violence done against God’s creation for the sake of our earning an extra dollar. We are intimately connected to creation, too. We need it to survive! We need clean air, clean water, uncontaminated and fertile soil, healthy game and livestock if we want to live. We need these things, and if we fail to protect them, it’s ultimately to our own detriment and destruction. The garden will only sustain the gardeners if the gardeners take care of the garden.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that the Persons of the Trinity are connected to each other in intimate relationship, and we are invited into that relationship. God’s actions have shown us that we are loved. We are connected to each other in the same kind of loving community and we are compelled to love the world around us so fiercely that others know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are loved, too. And we are to love what God has made because we are inextricably linked to the earth, sun, moon, and stars which God has made and called good. Trinity Sunday is all about relationships. And we are invited to go deeper, to love better, to open our arms wider, to see more clearly how intimately connected we are to God, to each other, and to all that God has made. God saw that creation was good and worth every effort of God’s love and care. So are we, and so is every person we’ll ever meet. Our call is to go and love as the Triune God has loved us.

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

~Pastopher

Seventy and Two | Pentecost

Numbers 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the LORD’s words. He assembled seventy men from the people’s elders and placed them around the tent. 25 The LORD descended in a cloud, spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders. When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but only this once. 26 Two men had remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second named Medad, and the spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they hadn’t gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

28 Joshua, Nun’s son and Moses’ assistant since his youth, responded, “My master Moses, stop them!”

29 Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the LORD’s people were prophets with the LORD placing his spirit on them!”

30 Moses and Israel’s elders were assembled in the camp. (CEB)

Seventy and Two

I had a plan for my life. Didn’t you have plans? I wanted to be a scientist. First, I was thinking astrophysics because I love astronomy. Then, I realized I’m not very good at math, so that wasn’t going to work out. But I thought some other kind of science would be great. So when I was accepted at The University of Findlay, I declared my major to be Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management. I loved it. I got to study chemistry, biology, geology, hydrology, and play with chemicals that could melt the tables in the chemistry lab if I wasn’t careful. It was exciting stuff!

Then the Holy Spirit ruined my plans. The whole week leading up to this moment, I had heard little promptings of the Spirit: promptings that I recognized because I’d heard them on and off since my youth. I always pushed them aside and did my best to ignore them, but this time the prompting wouldn’t go away. The Spirit refused to be ignored. Finally, the Sprit decided that it had had enough of my attempts to push the promptings away. I was studying my chemistry on Saint Valentine’s Day when God’s Spirit came crashing into me and wrecked everything. In that moment, I heard an inescapable call: it was as audible as a stereo exploding at full blast but I couldn’t quote what was said; it didn’t quite feel like a demand yet there was a finality to it that removed all doubt as to what I was supposed to do. In that moment, the Spirit shouted at me loudly and clearly that I was going into ministry.

So, I did what any normal person would have done. I shouted back. I pushed my book aside, threw my pencil across the room and shouted my disagreeable agreement. I probably could have reacted better, but I was a little ticked off. I was a good Christian boy, I had plans and God was screwing them all up. I didn’t want to be a pastor. Sometimes I still wonder what in the world God was thinking. My call to ministry still feels like an ongoing argument with God that hasn’t quite been resolved. Sometimes I feel like Jonah grumbling all the way to Nineveh with the rancid smell of fish vomit still clinging to my skin. My call to ministry has been a continual thing. It’s been a kind of Spiritual evolution rather than just a moment in time. It’s every day. God has added new elements to my call, such as writing. What we are right now is not necessarily who we will be when God is done with us. God’s Spirit keeps moving and prompting us in fresh ways. In fact, I would argue that God is never really done with us.

The Spirit moves in ways that we find disconcerting. If we can expect one thing of the Spirit, it’s that it will do unexpected things. We find comfort in our walls, in our definitions, in our plans, and even in our ability to determine the outcome of whatever it is we’re doing. But the Spirit has a way of frustrating our best attempts at maintaining our comfort zones.

Take this story about Moses for example. Numbers 11 tells us about a leadership crisis, whereas the section we read is one of those little extra bonus stories. The background is that the people are complaining. They’re grumbling that they don’t have any meat to eat: all they have is this dad-gum manna. Manna in the morning. Manna for lunch. Manna for dinner. Manna, manna, always manna: no vegetables and no meat! They’re ready to go back to slavery in Egypt just so they can get some real food.

Then Moses complains to God that he’s been turned into a single mother for an entire nation of whiney, moaning children and he can’t do this by himself. So, God immediately finds a way to give Moses some relief from this burden of leadership. God has Moses choose seventy elders from among Israel and place them around the tent. Then the Lord descended and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the seventy, and they began to prophesy. The Spirit of God falling upon these seventy legitimized their role as leaders of the community. They would share Moses’ burden.

But the problem is that there were these two other guys who were not placed around the tent. They were out in the camp. But the Spirit spilled over into the camp and landed on Eldad and Medad. And they, too, began to prophesy. Then, some little tattle-tale runs to Moses and tells him about the problem. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

The problem is that these two weren’t authorized by Moses for this job. Verse 24 tells us that Moses assembled and then placed seventy elders around the tent. Eldad and Medad weren’t among them. Joshua is certain that God made a mistake. Maybe God wasn’t carrying the cup with two hands and spilled some Spirit on these two guys accidentally. Who knows? But Joshua sees this unexpected movement of the Spirit as an affront to Moses’ authority because these two weren’t among the elders chosen by Moses. If they had been, then Joshua wouldn’t have been upset about it. Joshua wants to get the situation under control so he starts hollering, Moses! Stop them! The Spirit got away from us again!

I can almost see Moses shaking his head as he responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his Spirit on them!” Moses was exasperated. He’s ready to take all the help he can get, so if the Spirit got dumped on two extra elders, fine by him. They can help shoulder the burden of leadership, too.

And one of the things we miss here is that the Spirit was placed upon these elders, not for their blessing, but so that they would share Moses’ burden. The anointing of the Spirit is burdensome. The prophets were often ready to give the burden up. But the shared burden becomes a blessing for the community.

Because the movement of the Spirit is unpredictable, there will always be course corrections, new discernings, and adjustments along the way. So we have to make room for each other to fulfill the call that God has placed and continues to place on our lives.

On the Day of Pentecost we celebrate the time God got extremely sloppy with the Spirit. God dumped the Spirit out on all kinds of people. And the Spirit continues to be poured out on the church and the world today. We have our rituals, our means of grace, and our sacraments where we know the Spirit is working and being poured out. We know the Spirit is poured out on us in baptism, in confirmation, in Holy Communion, in our prayers, in our study of Scripture, in our gathering together to worship. We know the Spirit is here, right now, breathing into our hearts, whispering into our minds, tugging at our wills. We call today the Day of Pentecost, but in some ways what happened on the Day of Pentecost has never ended. We live in a continual Pentecost where God’s Spirit is continually poured out on us and the world around us.

We have to keep in mind that the Spirit is also being poured out beyond our walls. Sometimes the Spirit gets really sloppy, at least from our perspective. We sometimes think we are the proprietors of the Spirit because we’re the church. But the Spirit is already at work inside and outside of our faith community. We don’t have a monopoly on the Spirit, nor do we dictate where the Spirit goes.

Tom Heaton told me about one of his plane trips to Guatemala, on which he saw a mission team wearing t-shirts that said, “Bringing God to Guatemala.” And Tom being Tom confronted the leader of the group and told them that he’s lived in Guatemala for years and found that God has been working in and among the people there for ages, long before this missionary team ever put on their extraordinarily arrogant t-shirts. The Spirit is moving everywhere, my friends, long before we even think about it.

Pentecost was only the beginning. It didn’t fix all the church’s problems any more than the pouring out of the Spirit on the 70 Elders plus Eldad and Medad fixed everything for Israel, or any more than our own Confirmation or joining the church fixed everything for us. We still have problems, arguments, and things we need to work out. We need the Spirit to be poured out upon us again, and again, and again. Pentecost needs to be a daily event for us or we’ll get lost in the unimportant and fail to see and hear where the Spirit might be trying to lead us. When the Spirit crashes into your mind and says, “You need to do this! You’ve put it off long enough. No more excuses! Get to it! Now!” Well, what will you do, even if it’s not a call you expect?

In what ways is the Spirit of God tugging on your heart? Every one of us needs to listen and keep watch because God’s Spirit calls us and is poured out upon us in unexpected ways. We don’t know where or how the Spirit will be poured out today or tomorrow, or upon whom. But the Spirit of God is the purveyor of Holy Chaos, so we can be sure that we’ll be surprised.

I pray that, in your life and in mine, God will not hold the cup with two hands, but will let the Spirit be spilled out all over our lives. God never makes a mistake. When the Spirit is poured out, be assured it is no mistake. Answer the call. Take on the burden of the Spirit’s calling no matter what it is. Remember that Pentecost is not an end. Your call and the calls that will yet come, whatever they might be, are not ends. These things are continual, and the Spirit offers course corrections along the way as God makes all things new.

So listen to the Spirit. Be watchful. Who knows what the Spirit will do next?

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

~Pastopher

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!

~Pastopher

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!

~Pastopher

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!