Believe in God | 5th of Easter

John 14:1-14

1 “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. 2 My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? 3 When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. 4 You know the way to the place I’m going.”

5 Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.”

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (CEB)

Worship Video

Trust in God

John 14 is a text that we often hear at funerals or beside freshly dug graves. In fact, our pervasive use of this text during times of death and loss almost makes it strange for us to hear it read on the fifth Sunday of Easter. Afterall, the Season of Easter is about resurrection and life. So why would we read a passage from Scripture that is so deeply associated with death?

One reason might be that death is kind of a prerequisite to resurrection. We don’t get to experience the joy of Easter without the horror of Good Friday. Good Friday isn’t exactly a popular holy day. One can see that in the attendance record at Good Friday worship services. We can say we revere Good Friday, but very few people actually show up to bear witness to the agony of our God as we walk through the account in Scripture. That’s one of the reasons why the church has moved to include the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday. We call it Palm/Passion Sunday now. We slip the Passion in there because we know most people are not going to experience it during Holy Week.

Another reason why we read this text during the Easter season might be that the church today finds itself in the same predicament that the disciples were about to find themselves in of Jesus-in-absentia (at least physically absent). John 14 begins Jesus’ lengthy farewell discourse in which he prepares his followers for his absence. Things are about to radically change. Jesus knows he’s going to die. But he also knows he’ll rise from death and ascend to glory. He’ll return to God whence he came. He also knows that we will follow him in this pattern. Jesus, in this passage, is about to go ahead of us. But the relationship doesn’t end with death.

Still, the hearts of his disciples are troubled. Remember, all of this is taking place in the upper room. Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples. He has just announced that he will be betrayed. He has just finished telling Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows. The growing anxiety in the room must have been thick enough to cut with a knife. And Jesus next words to this group of troubled disciples is, “Don’t be troubled” (John 14:1a CEB).

Now, this feels a little like being told to calm down. I saw a meme once that said, “Never in the history of calm down has anyone who was told to calm down ever actually calmed down.” Being told to calm down usually raises our hackles, doesn’t it? Unless the person speaking is someone we know, love, and trust. If it’s a random person, them’s fightin’ words. If it’s a parent or spouse or loved one whom we know and trust is in solidarity with us, who is ready to walk through fire and flood with us, that trust enables us to listen instead of react.

I don’t know whether the disciples were able to listen right away, but it seems by their questions and comments that they were struggling to understand their present and their future. They had just been told that they would betray, deny, and abandon Jesus. Their hearts were definitely troubled. So, Jesus tells them to trust; to believe. “Trust in God. Trust also in me” (John 14:1b CEB).

In John’s writings, trust, belief, or faith, however the Greek word is translated, is never a person’s inner intellectual assent or agreement. Faith, belief, trust is almost exclusively an active commitment that is outwardly displayed in how we behave. If we believe, trust, have faith in Jesus, then our actions will display the love and compassion of Jesus. The well-dressed words that come out of our mouth matter very little if our actions fail to live up to the standard Jesus set by his example. Jesus didn’t teach intellectual agreement. Jesus taught love, acceptance, and forgiveness by loving, accepting, and forgiving.

So, when Jesus tells his disciples to trust in God and trust in him, he’s telling them to live like they trust in God and in him. Again, it’s important for us to remember the context of Jesus’ words. “After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, ‘Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do’” (John 13:12-15 CEB). We have faith, belief, or trust in Jesus by continuing to serve each other and those outside our community of faith as Jesus served. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34-35 CEB).

What are the things that trouble our hearts? The whole world is in a difficult season of life right now. The pandemic we’re facing has caused innumerable fears and concerns. Some of us are worried about paying our bills. Some of us are worried about our health. Some of us are worried about loved ones and friends who are in medical professions. Some of us are worried about our retirement accounts and whether we’ll have enough to sustain us in the coming years. Some of us are simply struggling with the isolation, itself. The Indiana 211 hotline has gone from about 1,000 calls a day to 25,000 calls a day. I read that the national suicide hotline saw an 891% increase in calls. People are struggling to cope. We can get through this difficult time by living out our trust in God. That means we continue to love each other and continue to serve as Jesus taught us.

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure, he reminded them that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place. He says his Father’s house has room to spare. There’s a lot of room in God. God is eternally roomy. God is expansively available. Eternal life is entrance into God’s vast and roomy being. Our place, the place to which Jesus will gather us in resurrection from death, is eternal life in God. The place to which Jesus will gather us is God’s own self. Probably less a location than a relational presence. It’s impossible to know the fullness of what this means, but we can trust that where Jesus is, we will be also.

This is ancient Jewish wedding imagery. A groom would go and prepare a place for his bride. Then, he would formally come to her parents’ house and take her to where he lives, so she can live with him as part of his larger family. Jesus makes room for us as part of his extremely large family. He gathers us together in a new household.

Yet, like Thomas, there are times in our lives where we find ourselves lost enough to say, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5 CEB). That’s when Jesus reminds us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 CEB). Now, there are some who take this to point to a kind of Christian exclusivity or triumphalism. But that’s not what this means. God can save anyone that God wants to save. God can invite anyone into God’s household that God wants to invite, and there’s not a dang thing that you and I can do about it. Except, perhaps, rejoice.

If Jesus wanted the disciples to aim for a narrow exclusivity, then he would have told us how his Father’s house has only a few rooms, and those will be set aside only for those who are good enough. After all, Jesus can’t let just any old riffraff into his Father’s house. What would the neighbors think?

No! Jesus said that his Father’s house has room to spare. Jesus came to save the riffraff: people like you and me, if we’re honest about ourselves. There’s room for all of us, and Jesus will come and take us to that place. We have a home in God, so there’s no reason for us to be troubled.

Or, like Philip, we might ask Jesus for more specific directions: “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us” (John 14:8 CEB). That’s when Jesus reminds us of his oneness with the Father. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:9-11 CEB).

What we are invited to hear as we read through this passage is God’s initiative in Jesus Christ for us to come to God. None of this is our doing. None of this is our acting. God has acted in Jesus Christ on our behalf. Salvation is God’s initiative. God has revealed God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. God’s self-knowledge is revealed in God’s love, God’s self-emptying, God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to be Emmanuel, which is God With Us. It should be a source of amazement and comfort to know that God has unequivocally chosen not to be God Without Us. Trust that God has space for you. God has prepared room for you, no matter how messed up, troubled, hurting, broken down, or unfinished you may be. We are invited to trust in God and trust in Jesus: to live as a member of God’s house according to the ways members of this household ought to act.

The way we follow the way, the truth, and the life, is by living the way Jesus lived. It means we embody the values he embodied. It means we hold fast to the truth he exemplified. It means that we spend our lives giving of ourselves and sharing with the world this life-altering, love-centered, abundantly roomy good news.

Jesus said that whoever believes in him will do the works that he does (c.f. John 14:12). Following Jesus means we live our story as if it’s Christ’s story. We live as though we’re family. We welcome others and make room for them the same way God has welcomed us and made room for us. We get to create space for others the same way Christ has made space for us. This is the greater work to which we’re called. God is always making room. And since we’re people of God’s expansive and ever-expanding household, that’s what we’re called to do as well.

It’s fitting that this is a text we use so often at funerals, because it’s a text that invites us to new, abundant, and eternal life.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Devoted | 4th Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:42-47

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (CEB)

Devoted

The first verse of this text highlights four important things that we Christians need. The first need is the Apostles’ Teaching. The teaching of the apostles was a continuation of the teaching of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus—who is God—was a continuation of what God had already told us through the Law and the Prophets.

And, just like the Law and the Prophets and Jesus, the teaching of the apostles is primarily about our ethics: it’s about how we act, especially toward others. How we treat other people matters profoundly to God.

The apostle John taught that we should love each other, not with word or speech, but with action and truth (c.f. 1 John 3:18). The apostle James taught that our actions show whether we really have faith or not (c.f. James 2:1-26). The apostle Peter taught that we should set ourselves apart by our obedience to the truth, which results in genuine affection and loving each other deeply (c.f. 1 Peter 1:22). He also taught that, above all, we should show sincere love to each other because love brings about forgiveness (c.f. 1 Peter 4:8).

Jesus, himself, kind of boiled everything down to love. If we love God and if we love our neighbor, we’re fulfilling what God requires of us. That “love your neighbor as yourself” thing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke came from Leviticus 19:18. In both Leviticus and according to Jesus, the definition of neighbor was expanded to include people we might not want to include if we were left to our own preferences.

In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the legal expert who questioned Jesus about the greatest commandment agreed that loving God and loving our neighbors is more important than all the other religious stuff we might do. It does not mean that our religious stuff—our activities, rituals, tithing, or whatever else we might do—are unimportant. They are important. But how well we love each other—or not—matters more. It’s exactly what the prophet Micah taught when he said, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

The first forty-one verse of Acts chapter 2 describe the Day of Pentecost: the sound of rushing wind, the tongues of flame, the disciples speaking in other languages, and Peter’s sermon that brought three-thousand people into the church. It was a day of great enthusiasm. But enthusiasm for anything has a tendency to burn out in a short while. In seminary, I was enthusiastic about mastering Biblical Hebrew…until about chapter 3. If the disciples hadn’t done something to encourage and enable long-term commitment to Jesus, the enthusiasm of Pentecost would have been a short-term high, and a mighty letdown.

But, led by the Holy Spirit, the people of the church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. They moved right into the task of teaching what the church is, how the church ought to act, and what the church ought to do. And remember, we are the church. Church is not a building. Church is people. Church is us. Without us, this building is not a church. Even without a building, we are the church.

The second need in verse 42 is the Community. We live together in community. We’re all part of many different communities: our local church community, our school community, our broader civic community, our Girl Scout or Scouts community. When I lived in Fort Wayne, my family had a Taekwondo community. Community is about people relating to other people. Sometimes we do that well, and sometimes we don’t do that so well. In the church, we’re Christian people, yes, but we’re still people. And people don’t always get along. Jesus taught the apostles two important matters about community.

The first is about when we mess up and maybe do something to hurt someone else. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus said: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift” (CEB). In other words, if you messed up, and you realize you’ve messed up, then you go make your relationship with that person right again. The reconciliation of that relationship is more important to God than bringing our gifts to the altar.

The second is about when others hurt us. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector” (CEB).

Now, a lot of people who read this text think, well, I did A, B, and C, and the jerk didn’t repent, so now I’m done with them. Jesus said I get to cut them out of my life and treat them like a tax collector and a sinner. But, if you think about it, that interpretation doesn’t quite jive with Jesus. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? Jesus offered invitations for all people, including those tax collectors and sinners, to be in relationship with him.

With broken relationships, we only have broken community. Relationships within a community are incredibly important, and in most cases we ought to try for reconciliation.

Now, I say, in most cases because there is a pastoral caveat here. If a relationship is abusive, get out of it. Whether it’s emotional abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, get out. Get out of that relationship and get help from people who love you and will protect you. That’s what Jesus wants for you. We don’t stay in abusive relationships to try to save the abuser. I was ordained in 2006, commissioned to full-time pastoral ministry in 2003, and I’ve been doing professional ministry since 1999. In my 21 years of professional ministry, I’ve never saved anyone. Saving people is what Jesus does, not us. We aren’t allowed to be that arrogant.

If you’ve suffered abuse, it is not your fault. Get out of that relationship and get help. The problem in that relationship is the abuser, not the abused. I can say with absolute certainty that Jesus wants each of us to be healthy and whole, and you will never be healthy and whole in an abusive relationship. Honestly, neither will the abuser.

Being a community together demands that we take care of each other—and ourselves. It demands that we check in with each other and treat each other with love, respect, dignity, concern, and care. We’re responsible for our own loving actions—or lack thereof—toward each other. The Holy Spirit generated this thing the New Testament calls koinonia, which is community. It’s a kind of Spirit-induced fellowship that produces real solidarity. And, I’ll say again, a lot of people in our congregation have exemplified this kind of care very well during this COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it matters to you or not, you have a proud pastor.

The third need in verse 42 is their Shared Meals. Some scholars point to this as a reference to Holy Communion, and it might be. But I think it’s also about being present with each other. When we get together for anything, are we present? Or, are we kind of physically there but mentally somewhere else? Being present with each other is how we build and solidify the relationships of our community.

Think about the times Jesus shared meals with people. He was bad-mouthed because he broke bread with known sinners. He ate and drank with the dregs of society. He welcomed broken people to his table, and joined broken people at their tables. Jesus promised that we will one day eat and drink with him at his table (c.f. Luke 22:30). This is about hospitality and presence. When we receive Holy Communion together, we are guests at God’s table.

I miss our shared meals together. I wish we had a mission meal after worship today. I miss being present with my congregation. So, when we are able to gather together again, commit to being present. While we’re stuck at home, be present with those who are with you. Commit to taking time for conversation with each other. Learn about each other. Listen to each other. It shows others that we care. It shows that our love for each other is genuine.

The fourth need in verse 42 is their Prayers. They prayed together and they prayed individually. Prayer links us to God in a powerful way. Prayer is a means of receiving God’s grace. And, prayer connects us to each other. After all, if I’m praying for someone, I’ll probably follow up with them to see how they’re doing. I want to follow their story so I know how to continue praying for them. That’s love. That’s community. And that’s being present. Prayer matters, also, because it’s one of the ways we build up our relationship with God. Verse 46 tells us that the community gathered daily in the Temple.

So, how might we be more intentional about devoting ourselves to the teaching of the Apostles? Someone once called the Bible the most revered, yet least-read book in America. Do we study our Scripture? Do we say our prayers? Do we treat others—especially the outcasts of our local and world community—with love and respect?

We need to remember to devote ourselves to the teachings of the Apostles, which are the teachings of Jesus, which are the teachings of God.

We need to take care of each other and check in with each other, because our relationships matter. God requires us to treat each other with faithful love. God cares more about how we treat each other than pretty much anything else.

We need to be present with each other. Maybe that’s sharing a meal together. Maybe that’s something else for you. But we should be intentional about being present with each other.

We need to pray for each other, and we need to pray for our own needs. Prayer builds our relationship with God. In fact, I imagine God craves that time of prayer with us as much as we need it.

What we glimpse in these verses—the devotion to the teaching of the apostles, and to the community, and to their shared meals, and to their prayers—are the marks of an authentic embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the church. May God’s Spirit work in us and renew our devotion to these things, so that we might embody the Holy Spirit in the same way.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Worship Video

God’s Word | Third Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 Since you call upon a Father who judges all people according to their actions without favoritism, you should conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your dwelling in a strange land. 18 Live in this way, knowing that you were not liberated by perishable things like silver or gold from the empty lifestyle you inherited from your ancestors. 19 Instead, you were liberated by the precious blood of Christ, like that of a flawless, spotless lamb. 20 Christ was chosen before the creation of the world, but was only revealed at the end of time. This was done for you, 21 who through Christ are faithful to the God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory. So now, your faith and hope should rest in God.

22 As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. 23 Do this because you have been given new birth– not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word. (CEB)

God’s Word

As we journey deeper into the eight-week long Easter season, the Scripture texts we encounter continue to confront us with the idea that there is more to resurrection life than joy and halleluiahs. We who claim to follow Jesus Christ have certain obligations. And those obligations will make us look alien to the rest of the world. In fact, Peter identifies us as the displaced who are living in a strange land. We are, essentially, exiles, resident aliens, foreigners-in-place. The United States of America might be our native land, but it’s not our home. Our present time is a journey of homelessness.

Peter can say that about us because our home isn’t here on this broken earth. Our home is in God, and we won’t truly be home until the restoration which God intends, happens. That restored creation—the new heaven and the new earth—is our home (c.f. 2 Peter 3:13). Peter points this fact out to us, and he reminds us to conduct ourselves with reverence in our present exile.

First, I think it’s important to point out why Peter insists that we conduct ourselves with reverence, and it has to do with what Peter had learned about the God upon whom we call. As a disciple and an apostle, Peter had come to know that God judges all people without favoritism. God’s judgment is impartial.

Every time the Bible mentions judgment, we’re told that human beings will be judged by what we’ve done, by what we’ve failed to do, and by what we’ve said. Revelation even states, “‘Favored are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘so they can rest from their labors, because their deeds follow them” (Revelation 14:13 CEB). The idea that our deeds follow us might not be very comforting to some of us. I’m not really that good of a person. I’d rather some of my deeds not follow me. It makes God’s judgment feel a little scary!

Hold that thought.

Peter says God will judge us without favoritism. God is impartial. God’s impartiality is a lesson Peter learned in Acts chapter 10 when God sent him to the house of a Gentile Roman soldier named Cornelius. After the initial encounter, Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB).

That theme is front and center in this reading from 1 Peter. So, what kind of behavior does God define as acceptable? What are the parameters of God’s impartial judgment? What is right conduct?

The Common English Bible translates 1 Peter 1:17 as “…conduct yourselves with reverence…” while the New Revised Standard Version translates it as “…live in reverent fear…”. Fear is one of those words that we English speakers in a broad swath of American culture don’t like very much. When we read that we should fear God, something recoils in us. When we read that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we’re bewildered because fear is something we hide. Fear is shameful. Fear is weakness. Fear is cowardice.

Unless we’re intentionally exposing ourselves to fear by walking through a haunted house, watching a horror movie, or riding a crazy-tall roller coaster, fear is something we don’t admit to. The only reason people in our culture can get away with expressing fear in the examples above is because we choose to face fear in those instances. We turn fear into amusement. When we choose to look fear in the eye, we can call it bravery. Otherwise, fear is generally understood as a bad thing.

But that’s not how other cultures understand fear. Fear was often understood as a good, healthy thing. Fearing God instead of people can help us act the right way. In Exodus 1:16, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Hebrew women. But, Shiphrah and Puah feared God, so they disobeyed Pharaoh. They feared God, not Pharaoh. Their fear was in the right place, which encouraged them to act properly and kept them from acting improperly.

On the other hand, King Saul won a battle, but after the win, he feared his soldiers instead of God. This misplaced fear led him to disobey God’s command and act improperly (c.f. 1 Samuel 15:24).

Yet, we also find the idea that, when we’re right with God, there’s no reason to be afraid of fearful things (c.f. Isaiah 41:10. For further examples c.f. Matthew Schlimm, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know, p.137-141).

So, behavior that’s guided by a healthy and respectful fear of God is what God finds acceptable. God has told us what God expects. Do justice, embrace faithful love, walk humbly, take care of vulnerable people like widows, orphans, and immigrants, love God, and love others (c.f. Micah 6:8, Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbors (c.f. Mark 12:29-31). God will judge each person according to what we have done, and whether what we have done aligns with love or not. Love is the rule for our behavior. Love is what God requires of us. Love is why we seek justice for the oppressed and vulnerable. Love is why we walk humbly with God and each other.

Since God will judge us according to our actions, we probably want to make sure our actions stem from the root of love. Whatever we might say or think, our deepest allegiance, our truest character, is on display through our behavior.

Peter reminds us that our behavior matters to God. If we are a people in exile, a people dwelling in a strange land, we should live out the values of our true home wherever we are. We are called to live in a way that reflects the salvation we’ve been given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter reminds us that we have been liberated—ransomed—from an empty lifestyle by the blood of Christ. The old way—the way we lived before we believed in the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus—is something we set aside for a new way of living.

Ironically, the new way is even older than the old way. Peter wrote, “Christ was chosen before the creation of the world, but was only revealed at the end of time. This was done for you, who through Christ are faithful to the God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory. So now, your faith and hope should rest in God” (1 Peter 1:20-21 CEB). The way of Christ is older than creation, itself. God is love. God created out of love. God breathed life into the human race out of love. Everything God does is love.

Easter People are called to be holy as God is holy. Some people like to define holiness as a list of rules: dos and don’ts. But the holiness of God is born of love. When we live holy lives, we love as we ought. Holiness cannot be defined apart from love, and love cannot be described apart from the way God loves us. Holiness happens when the blood of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness and new life we have been given through the death and resurrection of Christ, opens our hearts to a true, genuine love and affection for one another. Love sets us apart. Love is what makes us look like weirdos to the world.

I think Peter knew this. What we do has lasting consequences. Peter wrote, “As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word” (1 Peter 1:22-23 CEB). Easter people live in obedience to the truth, and the truth is that God wants us to love each other.

Earlier, I asked you to hold that scary thought about how we’ll be judged according to our deeds. Any fear we might have of God’s judgment of our lives falls away when we recognize that God revealed Jesus Christ for us! God sent Jesus into the world for us! We all carry baggage. We’ve all sinned. Not one of us is perfect. If this were a perfection test, we’d all fail. Only Jesus, the “flawless, spotless lamb” would pass (1 Peter 1:19 CEB).

What we can trust is that God loves us so desperately, so completely, that God made it possible for us to have new birth. God has drawn us to each other in a new community: a community defined, first and foremost, by God’s love for the human race. God did this for us, despite the ways that we, ourselves, and those who came before us have rebelled against God! That’s the most amazing example of love I can think of.

How do we show genuine affection? How do we love each other deeply and earnestly as Peter describes?

Well, our community is also defined by our love for each other. And love doesn’t forever sit still. Even though we’ve mostly been sheltering in place for several weeks, our love for each other has led many people of our congregation to find ways to continue showing affection for each other. Some of us have been checking in with each other, especially our elderly members. Some of us have made phone calls, sent cards, connected on social media, sent texts. Some of us have delivered meals. Some of us have checked in with those on the front lines, especially our medical professionals. Some have checked with me to see if there are any families in need during these strange and difficult times. I am grateful for the many ways the people of First United Methodist Church have reached out to those around us in genuine love, care, and affection.

We show our love for each other by our actions. When we live in reverent fear, as Peter describes, it’s not about living afraid. It’s about living in such a way that our actions point toward God and, at the same time, our actions become an extension of God’s love to the world. We are Easter people. Let’s continue to show genuine love and affection to our local community and to the whole world. Love is the defining quality of Christ’s church, and we all need more of that right now.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Worship Service Video

Raised with Christ | Easter Day

Video of the full Easter service

 

Colossians 3:1-4

1 Therefore, if you were raised with Christ, look for the things that are above where Christ is sitting at God’s right side. 2 Think about the things above and not things on earth. 3 You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (CEB)

Raised with Christ

Two weeks ago, when I preached on Ezekiel 37, I made the comment that familiarity with a text can stop us from looking for something new, or even render us unable to hear or see newness. Certain holy days have the same air of familiarity to them, and Easter Day is probably the most familiar of them all. Almost everyone who has had any contact at all with Christianity knows the story of Easter in the simplest terms: Jesus was raised from the dead. We can even sum it up in one word: resurrection. (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen).

Just kidding.

But it is reality isn’t it? You might assume that Easter should be an easy preaching experience. I mean, it’s Easter! It’s the most important holy day of our Christian Faith! This ought to be easy, right?

But I will confess to you that there have been times when the preacher in me has dreaded the approach of Easter. Not because I don’t love the holy day, not because what we celebrate on Easter isn’t important, but because it’s intimidating and difficult to approach a subject in a sermon that everyone already seems to know about. I mean, even people who only show up to church once a year know what Easter is about. For some, an Easter sermon is the only sermon they ever hear. We’re all experts on Easter. Everyone is an authority on Easter. We know what happened. Even those who don’t believe in resurrection know what we Christians believe happened. We know about Easter.

Yet, knowing about Easter is hardly enough. It doesn’t take a deep examination of the people around us, or our broader society, or—dare I say—ourselves, to realize that we Christians don’t always live Easter very well. We—and I mean all of us, including myself—often fail to live out the ways our resurrection life ought to be lived. We either forget, or we close our eyes to the fact that there are ethical implications for resurrection people. Jesus was raised from the dead, not merely so we can live with God in heaven at some future point in time, but also so that we can live resurrection lives now and share that resurrection life with others.

Time is always a strange and fluid thing in our faith. We can talk about one subject as something that has been definitively accomplished, something that is currently being accomplished, and something that will yet be accomplished. Salvation, for example, is talked about in Scripture as a done deal: we are saved (Acts 15:11; Ephesians 2:5, 8). Yet, salvation is also described as something currently underway and something we have to continue to work out: we are being saved (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:2; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Philippians 2:12). And salvation is described as something that will yet be, a future reality: we will be saved (Romans 5:9-10). Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all three are true at the same time.

Regarding our own resurrection, Paul talks about it as something that will happen in the future in Romans 6. Yet, in Colossians, resurrection is described as something that we experience now. In Romans 6, Colossians 3, and 1 Corinthians 15, we’re told that the resurrection informs how we live, now, while we’re still in the flesh. Paul tells us to sober up, act like we ought to act, and don’t sin (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15:34). So, if resurrection is not only a future event, but something we live now, then what does your resurrection look like?

Colossians 2:12 says, “You were buried with him through baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (CEB). Later in chapter 2, we’re asked, “If you have died with Christ to the way the world thinks and acts, why do you submit to rules and regulations as though you were living in the world?” (Colossians 2:20 CEB).

And, while the author of Colossians was talking about erroneous religious practices and philosophies that were creeping their way into the church—human traditions rather than Christ (c.f. Colossians 2:8b)—the point has a broad application. There are foolish deceptions and philosophies that we hold to that are not of Christ. What are the ideologies and values to which we offer our loyalty and even rationalize as Christian that are not of Christ? Would we know how to identify those things within ourselves and begin to take the log out of our own eye? Certainly not without the grace of God.

Easter is the biggest reminder of the Christian Year that God’s grace is with us. Easter helps us to remember the truth about ourselves: that we belong to Christ, that God loves us deeply, that the trajectory of our lives has been fundamentally changed, that our values are the values of God, not the petty and transitory values of sinful human beings. Our values begin and end with love. If the way we treat others, speak about others, or think about others is anything less than love, then we can be assured that that particular ideology or value is not one that God shares with us. Easter reminds us whose we are, and who God’s grace has made us to be.

I remember hearing a story years ago about parents who dropped their son off at college. And, after the hugs and tears, they told him two things before they drove away: 1) Remember that we love you. 2) and remember that you are baptized. When we remember, continually, that we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we remember that the life we are living ought to look different to the eyes of the world.

Our baptism stands as a reminder to us that our allegiance has shifted dramatically from the things of this world—the world below—to “the things that are above where Christ is sitting at God’s right side” (Colossians 3:1b CEB). Do you remember the promises that were made in your own baptism and confirmation? “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 34).

How do we live out these baptismal promises? How do we live our resurrection life? The author of Colossians tells us to look heavenward.

“Therefore, if you were raised with Christ, look for the things that are above where Christ is sitting at God’s right side. Think about the things above and not things on earth. You have died, and your live if hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3 CEB).

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should despise everything on Earth. The author is not teaching us that earthly things are nothing. God made the earth. God made the life and life-sustaining systems that are on earth. In fact, our misuse of the earth and its resources, the damage we cause to creation, are matters over which we’re called to repent. We’re called to care for and tend creation. But earthly things and worldly power are finite and perishable. Earthly things are not worthy of our greatest loyalty, nor are they worthy of being our ultimate goal. God is. If we have died to this world and been raised with Christ, then our values will begin to reflect the values of God’s rule and reign.

We’re told that our life is hidden with Christ in God. Our life is not hidden from the world. Rev. Cathy Hoop, a Presbyterian pastor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, talks about this text by describing the game of hide-and-seek. It’s a game that evolves with age. We start children out with peek-a-boo when they’re toddlers. Then, we move into the actual game of hide-and-seek, but it can take young children time to get the point of the game. Little children tend to hide in the same place over and over again, yet they’re amazed every time their parents find them. (I mean, when you find a good hiding spot, you might as well wear that thing out). Kids that age trust in their hiding place. If our life is hidden with Christ in God, then we can trust in that perfect hiding place, and we can trust that, though hidden, we are not lost. In fact, we’re perfectly found.

Then, the game evolves again. The best version of hide-and-seek is sardines. It’s reverse-hide-and-seek where the person who is “it” is the one who hides and everyone else gets to seek. But, every time the person is found, the finder has to hide with them until they’re all packed into a single hiding space like sardines in a tin. It’s curious that the element of fear in regular hide-and-seek is that you might not be found by the one who seeks. The element of fear in sardines is that you won’t find the hiding place with all the others, and you’ll be left wandering the darkness alone.

God is our hiding place, but we don’t live hidden from the world. We want our family, our friends, our coworkers—everyone—to discover that perfect hiding place where we are wrapped in God’s love and grace-filled presence. After Jesus was killed, the disciples tried to hide from the world. But the Holy Spirit compelled them to go out into the world instead. They had a story to tell. They had a hiding place to share. As Jesus Christ sought out the lost and forsaken and rejected people of the world, so must we.

The ethical implications of resurrection life means that we welcome others into the love of Christ our God. In all things, love is our measuring stick. Love is our guide. Because Christ is our life here, now, and beyond time itself. When Christ is revealed, we will be revealed with Christ. We will find ourselves found. And no matter what happens, we can trust that we are safely protected and securely hidden with Christ in God.

We have been raised with Christ. What does resurrection life look like to you? That’s the question I hope you’ll discuss with your family and friends throughout this Easter week and season.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Morning Praise and Prayer | Fifth in Lent

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

The first part of this post includes a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.
My sermon and the text on which I wrote it follows the liturgy.

CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.

MORNING HYMN
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.
Come, Christians, Join to Sing (Hymnal #158)
IMG_20200329_100933
Or
The God Who Stays by Matthew West

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

SCRIPTURE LESSONS
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.
After the time of silence, you may share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.

SONG OF PRAISE: PSALM 100
Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with celebration!
Come before him with shouts of joy!

Know that the LORD is God—
he made us; we belong to him.
We are his people,
the sheep of his own pasture.

Enter his gates with thanks;
enter his courtyards with praise!
Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the LORD is good,
his loyal love lasts forever;
his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of this congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…

THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

BLESSING
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

THE PEACE
Signs of peace may be exchanged.

 

Sermon Video:


 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The LORD’s power overcame me, and while I was in the LORD’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “LORD God, only you know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! 5 The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD.”

7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says.” (CEB)

You Will Live

This is arguably the most well-known text in Ezekiel. Everyone who attended Sunday school or church camp as a child probably sang the song about how “Ezekiel connected them dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

We know this text. Or, so we think. The problem with such familiarity is that we can stop looking for something new, whether it’s insight, or wisdom, or some revelation about God that we simply didn’t see before. It’s a little ironic that familiarity can dry out our bones and render us unable to hear or to see such newness in God’s revealed word.

Ezekiel’s vision was certainly something new to the Jewish people who were living in Babylon. They were stuck. They were in exile. They were cut off from home: their land, their city, and their temple. They were a conquered people, and they had no way out of their situation. In every way, they felt cut off from God. Even abandoned.

The exile lasted longer than the Exodus. But, unlike the Exodus, there was no pillar of fire and smoke to offer guidance. There was no cloud shrouded mountain to reveal God’s presence among them. There was no tabernacle at which they could worship. The people in Babylonian exile surely felt like they were dried out.

With all that’s happening in the world right now with this pandemic—the real possibility that COVID-19 could hit our community, worry for our elderly family members and friends, being stuck inside our homes, a disruption in our lives that we’ve never experienced in living memory, the fear that there might not be enough toilet paper for everyone—we might wonder how we’ll ever recover the lives we had before the month of March began.

We’re certainly in uncertain times. It’s unnatural for human beings to be isolated. We’re made in God’s image, which means we’re designed for relationships and social community. We’re made to be with each other. For two-thousand years, we Christians have gathered together to offer God our worship, our praise, our prayers, and our tithes. We’ve gathered together to eat, to serve, to study, to offer care.

But we haven’t gathered together as a congregation since March 08. And we won’t gather again until some indefinite date after Easter. Even as we try to find creative ways to stay connected through our social distancing, we might feel a little cut off. Maybe lonely or abandoned.

Maybe we even feel distanced spiritually because we’re distanced socially. Are we thriving, merely surviving, or hanging by a fraying thread? How is it with our soul? In the season of Lent, we’re invited to consider that question and to stop for a moment to seriously consider our dry bones. When we’re made to walk through our own dry valley, what are the dry bones scattered around us? What can we learn from them?

Ezekiel tells us that the Lord’s hand came upon him and brought him to the middle of the valley, which was full of bones. There were a great many bones. And they were very dry. And God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (Ezekiel 37:3 CEB).

I wish I could hear the tone of Ezekiel’s voice as he answers. Was it a powerful and confident reply: Lord God, only you know. If you say they can live, then they can live. Let’s get this resurrection party started!

Or, was the prophet’s reply a timid, uncertain whisper: Lord God, only you know. Everything is so bleak that even life doesn’t feel like life. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know how anything can live again. I feel as lifeless as these bones. Only you know.

I kind of feel like Ezekiel’s tone was closer to the latter simply because it’s not easy to give confident answers when life has taken so much from us that we’re dried out and barely hang on. When we’ve suffered for any length of time, it wears on us and grinds us down.

If God were to ask us this question right now, how would we answer? What would our voice sound like as we uttered a reply? And I don’t mean only in light of the present pandemic because I know that life was happening before we even heard of COVID-19. Some us have stared down and struggled with seemingly insurmountable difficulties long before this present crisis. There have been deaths and diagnoses, problems at work and within families. There have been real, fearful, and life-altering events that have weighed on us to our breaking point. Though quite serious and concerning, COVID-19 is merely one new worry among many that have the potential to desiccate our joy, our faith, our hope, our very life.

Can these bones live again?

In this scene, God first told Ezekiel exactly what God would do. God told Ezekiel beforehand, so when it happened, he couldn’t say: Well that was surprising! God always accomplishes what God says, which proves God’s word to us is true every time. Sometimes God does surprise us, but that’s usually because we weren’t listening. Like, when Peter learned that God doesn’t show partiality to one people over the rest of the world (c.f. Acts 10:34). Peter shouldn’t have been surprised. Afterall, Abraham was blessed so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth (c.f. Genesis 12:2-3, 18:18). We can trust God will do what God says.

All Ezekiel had to do in this valley was speak the words God told him to speak. “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word! The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:4-6 CEB).

We might wonder why God didn’t simply raise the bones to life. Why did God need Ezekiel to do anything? The reality of the matter is that God didn’t need Ezekiel. Yet, God chooses, time and again, to work alongside and in concert with human beings because God is a God who desire relationship. We build relationships by being with others, working with others, conversing with others.

We don’t build relationships by having another person do everything for us, or by doing everything for another. That’s called servitude, not friendship. God deeply desires a relationship with each of us. God knows what we need before we ask, but we’re still told to ask through prayer (c.f. Matthew 6:8-13). Relationship is found in the asking: in the conversation. As three Persons, loving relationship is at the heart of who God is. God wants a loving relationship with us. That’s another one of those matters that, if we were listening, shouldn’t surprise us.

Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. And what I find interesting is the divine impatience going on here. God didn’t even wait for Ezekiel to get all the words out. As soon as Ezekiel starts to speak the bones rattle and quake and come together, bone by bone. Then, suddenly, Ezekiel looked up and there was sinew on the skeletons, then flesh, then skin covered the bodies. But there was still no breath in them.

And here, there seems to be a pause in the text. Ezekiel stops speaking. Maybe he was so amazed at what he saw that words failed him. Ezekiel knew that these bones weren’t just bones, they were cursed. The Hebrew of verse 9 tells us that these bones belonged to people who had been killed and left to rot in the field. That fact, alone, marked these slain as cursed (c.f. 1 Kings 14:11, 21:23-24; Jeremiah 16:4, 34:20; Ezekiel 24:6-8). Yet, God took the dry bones of those whom Ezekiel would have understood as cursed and rebuilt them so that they could live. This was amazing!

Maybe that little seed of doubt in the back of his mind… haven’t you experienced that same seed of doubt where you want to believe, but God help our unbelief? I have. I still do at times. Maybe Ezekiel’s little seed of doubt was as surprised to discover—as we often are—that God meant what God said. In this moment of pause, where Ezekiel stops to watch what’s unfolding before his eyes—God rebuilding the bodies of the cursed from dry bones—it’s in this moment that we can hear God’s excitement, God’s unbridled anticipation, God’s profound desire to give life to the dead so that they’re no longer cursed but living.

God says, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The LORD God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (Ezekiel 37:9 CEB).

God’s like, Why are you stopping, Ezekiel! Prophesy to the breath! Keep going! We’re almost there! Don’t quit now, we haven’t even gotten to the cool part yet! So, Ezekiel prophesied just as he was commanded. The breath entered the bodies of the dead and they came to life. They stood on their feet. An extraordinarily large company.

Then, God speaks another promise to Ezekiel. “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says” (Ezekiel 37:11-14 CEB).

There is a wordplay going on here that you can’t see easily in English. The Hebrew word for breath, which is found nine times in this text, also means spirit or wind. God tells the people, I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live. Just breathing isn’t enough. We need God’s life-sustaining Spirit. We need God’s breath within us. That’s what God promises us. That’s the gift that God offers to everyone.

One thing Ezekiel’s vision reminds us of is that God holds the last word over everything. God gives life. God restores life. Bad things still happen, even death still happens, but those things don’t have the final say over us. God does. God is with us even when we feel dried up and abandoned.

Even when we feel as broken and desiccated as the bones Ezekiel saw, even when the hardships of life have us feeling like we must be cursed, nothing will stand in the way of God’s promise to restore us and give us life. Restoration is what God wants for us. That’s the promise we have in Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is representative of that promise. Jesus, God’s Word-Made-Flesh, is the one who said, “Because I live, you will live, too” (John 14:19 CEB).

“Can these bones live again?”

Yeah. They will.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

First United Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Indiana; Sunday, 29 March 2020, online: COVID-19.

Morning Praise and Prayer | 3rd in Lent

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
The first part of this post includes a short order for Morning Praise and Prayer with your family or friends.
My sermon and the text on which I wrote it follows the liturgy.

CALL TO PRAISE AND PRAYER
O Lord, open our lips.
And we shall declare your praise.

MORNING HYMN
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (Hymnal #89)
If you don’t want to sing, you may read the text as if you were saying a prayer.

img_20200315_081405

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

SCRIPTURE LESSONS
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

SILENCE & DISCUSSION
Take five to ten minutes to meditate upon the Scriptures that have just been read. Some find it helpful to write their thoughts and questions on paper or in a journal.
After the time of silence, you may
share your thoughts and questions about the Scriptures with those who are with you.

SONG OF PRAISE: CANTICLE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS (Hymnal #205)
We look for light but find darkness,
for brightness, but walk in gloom.
We grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight.

If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

 Blessed be your name, O God, for ever.
You reveal deep and mysterious things;
you are light and in you is no darkness.
Our darkness is passing away
and already the true light is shining.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Following each petition, anyone may offer a brief prayer or intercession. After each prayer, the leader may conclude: Lord, in your mercy, and all may respond together: Hear our prayer.
Together, let us pray for:
the people of this congregation…
those who suffer and those in trouble…
the concerns of our local communities…
the world, its people, and its leaders…
the church universal—its leaders, its members, and its mission…
the communion of saints…

THE LORD’S PRAYER (Hymnal #10 & #894)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time or trial, and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

BLESSING
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

THE PEACE
Signs of peace may be exchanged.

Sermon Text – Romans 5:1-11

1 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. 7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God. (CEB)

Boasting

For most of us the notion of boasting has little more than negative connotations. While we might briefly put up with a friend or co-worker’s boasting about how good looking or how smart their children or grandchildren are, or we might listen politely to the story about the big fish that he or she caught at the lake was, for the most part we get annoyed at people who brag.

This is especially so when the person in question seems to utterly fail to recognize that the rest of the world has little interest in their latest, greatest, towering achievement, or whatever their topic of personal greatness happens to be at the time.

Given these negative connotations of boasting in our modern world, it’s difficult to imagine a preacher summing up the significance of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the claim that Because of God’s actions in Jesus Christ we can now make grand boasts! But that is exactly what Paul does in Romans 5:1-11, and that is exactly what I am going to talk about in this sermon.

It is interesting that Paul suggests that we can make such grand boasts because, earlier on in Romans 2, he lashes out against those who boast of their own accomplishments. He does the same in two places in First Corinthians. But here in Romans chapter 5, boasting is not only tolerated, boasting is an accepted and expected part of the response to the Good News of Jesus Christ. The difference between the kind of boasting Paul rails against in Romans 2 and First Corinthians is, of course, drawn from the basis on which the boasting is made.

Paul denounces those who boast in themselves because boasting in oneself ought to be completely rejected. Those who boast in themselves, who fail to acknowledge that God makes all things possible, are acting like fools because they don’t recognize who it is that made their accomplishments accomplishable in the first place.

Luke 5 tells us that the Disciples went fishing. They were out all night and caught nothing. Jesus told them to row out into deep water and cast their nets. When they did, they hauled in so many fish their nets were starting to break. But did they get to shore and brag about the big catch they managed to haul in? Did they boast to their fellow fishermen at the docks about how great they are at fishing?

Nope.

Boasting in God’s actions and in the consequences which God’s actions have for the whole human race is a way of proclaiming the Gospel.

The Disciples recognized from their fishing experience that God is involved in even the most mundane parts of our lives, including our workday. God provided the fish for the big catch. God makes everything we accomplish possible. Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and could only say, Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” (Luke 5:8 CEB). Jesus’ reply to Peter and the other Disciples was this, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people” (Luke 5:8 CEB).

The fishermen then left everything and followed Jesus. They proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, and their proclamation—their boasting in what God has done—has been handed down to us. Boasting in God’s actions and the consequences of that action is proclamation of the Gospel. It’s what Christians are supposed to do.

In this passage of Romans 5, Paul identifies three ways in which believers may boast: the first is in hope, the second is in suffering, and the third is in God.

When Christians boast in hope, it is in our hope of sharing the glory of God, that is, our hope in God’s final triumph as anticipated in Romans 8. And if you don’t remember what Romans 8 says, read it! To boast in hope will sound very odd if hope is understood as the equivalent of wishing. When a child “hopes” for mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert, the child expresses a wish—a preference. That wish for ice cream may or may not have a happy outcome.

For Paul, hope is not merely wishing or relishing the idea of something that might come to be. Rather, to have hope is to earnestly expect that which is certain to occur. Because of his absolute confidence in God’s justification of “the ungodly” for whom Christ died, Paul can be certain and without a doubt that humanity will share in God’s glory. In this kind of hope, one may and, indeed should, boast until your heart’s content and then a little more!

If the first reason for boasting lies still in the future, the second reason is altogether too close at hand. Believers boast in their suffering—an idea that few would find appealing and that Paul knows will require explanation. He doesn’t glorify suffering in and of itself, as if suffering were itself an act of piety or a reason for boasting. Yet, suffering can lead to endurance, endurance to character, and character leads again to hope.

Verse 5 makes it clear that boasting in suffering does not mean boasting in one’s own achievements, because those who endure suffering do so as a result of God’s love: “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 CEB). So understood in this way, even boasting in one’s own suffering is boasting in God.

Only at the very end of the passage, in verse 11, does Paul identify the third way in which believers may boast; that we may boast in God because of the reconciliation we have received through Jesus Christ. But before he can name it in a few words, he identified the significance of Jesus’ death and its results. Verses 6-10 present a tangled web of assertions to us modern readers who are not accustomed to the logical principles with which Paul wrote. Paul can, at times, be very confusing. But the principle he uses is arguing from something lesser to something greater.

The lesser in this case is the death of Christ, in itself an object of amazement because Christ died for the ungodly. Verses 7-8 elaborate on this point. Paul says, “It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8 CEB). Perhaps someone might die for a truly good person, but Christ died for sinners! His death resulted in the justification of the ungodly.

The greater, by contrast, is the life of Christ. If the lesser thing, Christ’s death, ushered in the justification of the ungodly, then the greater thing, Christ’s life, ushers in much more assurance of salvation and reconciliation.

This is much more than an enthusiastic celebration of the reconciliation of God and humanity. Paul asserts that God both saves the ungodly, people who in no way whatsoever merit salvation. And God pours out an excessive assurance of that salvation on those who recognize their reconciliation. It is in our reconciliation—accomplished by God alone—that Christian people may and ought to boast.

John Wesley believed that we could have an assurance of our salvation: that we can know without a doubt that we are saved and will inherit the kingdom. We can have this assurance because of what Jesus did for us: he died, and he rose again. Through God’s actions we have received the gift of reconciliation with God. That is something to boast about! That’s something to shout from the mountaintops and brag about in the grocery store!

Paul wrote, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16 CEB). Sometimes it’s translated, “…woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (NRSV).

Put another way, Paul is saying, Woe to me if I don’t brag on Jesus!

And, perhaps, woe to us if we don’t brag on Jesus too.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Listen to Him | Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9

1 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.” (CEB)

Listen to Him

My wife likes French toast. So, early in our marriage, she made French toast for breakfast fairly often. And I ate the French toast she made. About ten years into our marriage, I finally found the courage to admit to her that I don’t really care for French toast. She never asked me if I liked French toast, and I never said anything because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We both failed to communicate. I think we finally communicated with each other about it when she asked me why I never ate more than one piece. Marriage is a relationship, and relationships require the people in them to relate.

A big part of that relating to each other is a willingness to speak and to listen together. Words like commune and communication come from the Latin prefix com- meaning together and the root munis meaning burden, duty, and obligation. Community is sharing the burdens of life together. It’s our obligations and duties to each other. Sometimes it’s bearing with each other. For community, communion, and communication to happen, we need to listen to each other and learn about each other. We especially need to pay attention to what the other in any particular relationship wants, needs, likes, dislikes, etc.

The reason I mention relationships and the etymology of com-mune is because we’re made for this stuff. God designed us for relationships: relationships with God, with creation, and with each other.

If you were asked to summarize the narratives of the Bible, how would you describe them? When I think on that matter, what I would describe is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with us—God’s beloved creatures—who, more often than not, try our darndest to ignore the very God who created us as reflections of the Divine. The Bible tells the story of a God who desires our attention, to be in a relationship; a God who—for our sake—gave the law to teach us, sent the prophets to remind us, sent the Son to walk with us, and gave the Holy Spirit to guide us.

God loves us so deeply, so potently, so vastly that God refuses to give up on us or let us leave. God has fought for us and worked on our behalf from the moment we were created, and God will keep fighting for us until we’re all gathered-in to live with God as a family, which is exactly what we’re made to do and be. God wants our attention because relationships require our attention. Relationships require effort from all parties involved. When we stop giving attention to someone, or they stop giving attention to us, our relationship with that person will break down.

There are innumerable hindrances and obstacles to the necessary work for building up and developing our relationships. Every day, we are assailed by attempts from people and things who want our attention. The bombardment becomes even more of a constant the moment we turn on the television or radio. Every advertisement, whether it’s for a political candidate or a new product which is guaranteed to make our life easier, or grant us more success, or gain increased wealth, or feel a deeper sense of contentment, or find secret meaning: they’re all vying for our attention. They promise us that if we listen to them, then our lives will be better.

The things that want our attention are more than TV and radio advertisements, obviously. There are people peddling ideologies and sentiments that promise us their way will make our lives better. If we exclude these people, for instance, they promise that we’ll prosper. If we blame these people for our troubles, then we can fix our problems by getting rid of them. If we make these people look bad or less important than us, then we can feel better about ourselves.

We all have strong beliefs about lots of stuff. We each have our own thoughts, values, and hopes which we espouse and champion, whether the stance is religious, political, ideological, or otherwise. We’re somewhat defined by the stances we take. Our stances set limits and lines for our lives that we dare not cross. We all have them, and often times these are good things. It’s how we know not to kill someone when we get angry at them, for instance. We all have ideas that we desperately know—to the core of our being—that our beliefs are true and right and divinely approved. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t always agree with our assessment of what is true and right and divinely approved.

The Apostle Peter was a person with a firm belief in who Jesus was. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ who had come into the world. Peter was, in fact, the first one to confess this belief. Slightly earlier in Matthew, just before our text begins, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” (Matthew 16:13 CEB). And, they replied by telling Jesus the latest word on the street. Some suggested that Jesus must be John the Baptizer come back from the dead. Others said Jesus was Elijah. Still others said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (c.f. Matthew 16:14). Then, Jesus asked his companions, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 CEB). It’s then that Peter makes his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 CEB).

And, you know what? Peter nailed it! He knew exactly who Jesus was. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the true Ruler of Israel! And, since Peter got the answer right, Jesus apparently felt he could trust the disciples with more information. So, after blessing Peter for his God-revealed confession, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he needed to go to Jerusalem and suffer terrible things at the hands of the elders, priests, and legal experts. There, in Jerusalem, he would be killed and raised on the third day.

But Peter didn’t like what he heard. We’re told, “Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: ‘God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.’ But he [Jesus] turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

Peter reminds us that it’s possible to know who Jesus is without really understanding what Jesus is about. Peter reminds us that we should be cautious about believing—let alone declaring to others—that we possess the whole truth. Sometimes the stances we take—while they might seem good to us—they do not have their origin in God.

“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:1-3 CEB).

I wish I could have listened in on that conversation. Can you imagine? Luke’s Gospel tells us that they spoke about Jesus’ departure, which was a reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension. Moses, the prophet of God who represented the law and the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai; Elijah, the Man of God who represented the prophets of Israel; and Jesus, the Christ and Son of the Living God who came to fulfill both the law and the prophets were having a chat on the mountain.

But, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are connected. The teaching of Jesus wasn’t new or innovative. Some of what Jesus taught corrected misguided human interpretations, but it wasn’t new stuff. The teaching of Jesus is inextricably linked to the prophets and the law. That love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength thing, Jesus got that from Deuteronomy 6. And the love your neighbor as yourself thing, Jesus got that from Leviticus 19. Love is at the center of what Jesus taught, just as love is the central reason why God pursues us no matter how badly we mess life up for ourselves and for others.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is this powerful moment in time. And, in a sermon on this day, I should probably talk about the parallel connections to Moses at Sinai: how they both went up on a mountain, how they both were overshadowed by a luminous cloud, how God spoke out of the cloud, how Moses’ face shined brightly and Jesus’ whole being lit up like a newborn star.

I could talk about the connection to Elijah at Mount Horeb with the wind, earthquake, fire, and God’s voice like the sound of silence.

I could, or probably should, talk about the theological significance of this moment being the second time that God is fully revealed as Three-In-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I could talk about how the Son went up the mountain, the Holy Spirit covered them in a luminous cloud, and the Father spoke from the heavens to identify the Son and call him beloved.

I could talk about Peter’s offer to act as servant by building shrines to house this profound appearance of divine splendor where all of Israel’s history suddenly intersected with their present.

But what I want us to hear, what I think we desperately need to hear, are God’s words about listening. “Listen to him!” You see, Peter already knew the first part about Jesus. The voice of God said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Matthew 17:5 CEB), all that, Peter already got. He confessed it. It was the last bit, “Listen to him!”, that was—and so often still proves to be—the difficult part. When Peter didn’t want to hear the lesson Jesus had to teach, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

When we listen to the wrong voices vying for our attention instead of the voice of Jesus, we sin. When we heed the wrong teachers instead of the teaching of Jesus, we sin. When we listen to our own rationalizations and pay attention to our own desires instead of the lessons and examples of God’s Son, we sin.

“Listen to him!” We must listen to Jesus in order to learn the way of God, not to our politicians and political leanings. We must listen to Jesus to learn what God demands of us, not to our personal preferences. We must listen to Jesus to discover how God wants us to treat other human beings, not to our human ideologies. The teaching of Jesus trumps everyone and everything because the teaching of Jesus is the teaching of God. What Jesus teaches us is that love is central to everything.

God loves you. God loves you, and God loves the people you think are unholy sinners, and God is as desperate for a relationship with you as you need a relationship with God. God has pursued you with grace and love your whole life long. But, if we want to build our relationship with God, if we want to foster and com-mune with the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, who sent the Son to live and die for our sake, then we need to listen to Jesus.

I’ll be the first to admit that listening to Jesus might lead us into places and among people and into ideas that will make our hearts and minds recoil in fear. But maybe that’s where our listening to Jesus can begin. Because after Peter, James, and John fell prostrate to the ground, trembling in fear at the voice of God, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Get up,” and “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 17:7 CEB).

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

Rev. Christopher Millay