1 John 3:16-24

16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care– how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. (CEB)

Action and Truth

How do we know love? It’s a question Tevye asks his wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. After their second daughter makes her own marital match rather than following the tradition of marriages being arranged, a distraught Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. After all, the first time they met each other was on their wedding day. Their parents told them they would love each other in time but, because their daughters keep finding love before marriage, Tevye needs to know if his marriage to Golde has resulted in love. So he asks Golde if she loves him.

First, she calls him a fool, but he persists and asks the question again: “Do you love me.” Then, Golde says, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” But that’s not the answer Tevye wants. He wants to know, so he asks again, “Do you love me?”

Golde thinks about it, asking herself, “Do I love him?” And her answer is: “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye responds, excitedly, “Then you love me!” like it’s an accusation. And, Golde concedes, “I suppose I do.” Then Tevye replies, “And I suppose I love you, too.” Then, they sing together, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”

How do we know love? Like Golde and Tevye, John the Elder tells us we know love because of the actions of God—the things God does—on our behalf. It’s not because God said, I love you or because God said Hey, dear little humans, this is what love is…, and gave us an explanation. Instead, we know what love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. In the actions of Jesus Christ, God has acted lovingly toward us and for us.

In much the same way that James declares how faith is recognized through actions (c.f. James 2:8-26), John tells us that love is known through actions. And, like James, John even gives a contra-example (c.f. James 2:16-17). Just as faith doesn’t exist apart from action, love doesn’t exist apart from action. John asks, “But, if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” (1 John 3:17 CEB). It’s our action that reveals the truth and genuineness of our love. In verse 17, love is a verb. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth” (CEB).

Now, Greek subjunctive verbs aren’t always easy to translate into English, and love is a present-active verb in the subjunctive mood. So, my Greek professor might argue that, because the present tense indicates the kind of action, and non-indicative moods (such as the subjunctive) have little to do with time, another possible translation of this would be, “Little children, let’s not continue to love with words or speech, but in action and truth” (my translation).

So, instead of this sounding like a suggestion, as most translations make it seem (let us not love…), it’s probably intended to be corrective of either incorrect or inadequate behavior, which fits well with the overall tone of First John. It’s not enough to love in word or speech because words are easy to say and let slip away. Love is recognized, known, and proved through action. This action of love is how we know that we belong to the truth. Our loving action also reassures our hearts in God’s presence.

Our hearts can be fickle, and sometimes we’re harder on ourselves than we ought to be. We can wonder and even worry about our own salvation. We can ruminate on questions like, Am I good enough? Do I really love God? Do I have saving faith? One thing of which we can be certain is that our salvation is never defined by our feelings about ourselves. For one, we’re often wrong about ourselves.

John tells us that, even if our hearts say we’re not good enough, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. When we lack confidence in our standing before God, we can have confidence despite our lack of confidence because of God’s greatness. Because of our confidence in God’s greatness, we shouldn’t listen when self-doubt needles its way into our minds.

Our actions also act as proof to ourselves that our standing before God is in a good place. Earlier in the chapter, John said, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7 CEB). When we do things that are righteous, and that can be any number of things, we are righteous. Now, John continued that thought by saying that those who practice sin belong to the devil. But it’s the same definition that Jesus gave us. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, we are known by our actions. John the Elder must have been a Methodist, because this is the practical divinity of John Wesley.

Look at Golde and Tevye again. When Tevye asked her if she loved him, she took a moment to consider the matter. She wasn’t sure and had to ask herself if she loved Tevye. And what did she do to find an answer to her their mutual question? She examined her actions toward him. “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Golde’s actions toward her husband told her that she loved him. Tevye recognized that, too. That’s why he pointed his finger at her and declared, “Then you love me!” Tevye saw it, too. He saw Golde’s love for him in her actions. We can see our love for God and our love for others in our actions. And we can see our lack of love for God and for others in our lack of action. How can the love of God abide in us when we see a sister or brother in need but don’t care?

Now, a few people have mentioned that, after reading 1 John, they felt bad about not handing money out to people on street corners. If we tithe, then we have no reason to feel bad or let our heart condemn us. By giving to our church, we’re already supporting all kinds of ministry. And there is something to say about giving our resources responsibly. So, if we’re worried that someone might abuse what we give them on a street corner, then give to the church, and to local shelters, and to local food pantries, and to relief organizations that do things the right way. The Community Emergency Assistance Board helps people in Mount Vernon who are having financial difficulty, and they hold appointments here at our church. And that’s only on the money side of things. We can do a lot more than give our money. We can volunteer our time at a mission of the church, or volunteer with another organization.

I love working with kids, so I’m at the Thrive after-school program almost every weekday, even on my days off. I volunteer each Fall to work with students for a writing project. I run our youth group alongside the Simpsons. There are innumerable ways for us to show that we care, to put our love into action.

One of the more difficult verses here is verse 22, which says, “We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:22 CEB). It’s difficult because we’ve all asked for things and not gotten them. Now, this is not prosperity gospel where we can ask for that new Mercedes and God will deliver it to our driveway. Note what John says: we receive… because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. We receive whatever we ask of God when we learn to pray rightly, when we learn to pray for the things God wants for us. What are the commandment we’re told to keep? It’s actually one commandment in two, inseparable, parts. First, we believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Second, we love each other as he commanded us. The reason I say it’s one commandment is because John uses the singular to describe it: “This is his commandment…” (1 John 3:23 CEB).

When I look at John’s words to us, I can’t help but think that John the Elder had the same definition of belief as James. They were both disciples who walked with Jesus. They were both Elders of the church. They knew each other and had conversations about this stuff. Believe comes from the same root word in Greek as faith: (πιστεύω and πίστις). We need to believe—have faith—In Jesus and, according to James’ definition of faith/belief, that means our faith is active. When we see someone who lacks food or clothing, we do something about it. Belief is the first commandment John mentions. We believe, so we act like a person who believes by acting on our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ.

We also love each other as Jesus commanded us to love each other, which is an active kind of love. It’s interesting that First John uses the same example as James. If we don’t care when we see a person in need, how can the love of God, which does care about such matters, abide in us? Love is action. Love is what we Christians are supposed to do. Keeping the commandments keeps us in God, we abide in God by keeping them.

The parable of the vine in John 15 gives us a good idea of what Jesus meant about abiding—remaining—in God. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper… Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:1, 4-12 CEB).

That’s a lot of remaining, and it highlights that we must be coworkers with Christ. There’s no excuse for Christians to not get our hands dirty.

Aside from our actions, how do we know that God remains in us? John tells us it’s through the Spirit that God has given to us. The Holy Spirit is the gift promised by Jesus after his resurrection. The Spirit is the guide that strengthens the community of believers and, clearly, the one who inspired John the Elder to write this letter.

John wrote this epistle as the last living disciple. These are his words to us: believers who are generations removed from himself. He reminds us that Christians believe and love, and both belief and love are exhibited, proved, and shown to exist through action. Our actions are where belief and love become real.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Repent | 3rd of Easter

Acts 3:12-19

12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of our ancestors– has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.

17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. (CEB)

Repent

Throughout the Season of Easter, the lectionary provides a text from the Acts of the Apostles where we would normally find a lesson from the Old Testament. While I’m somewhat critical of this—because it can suggest, incorrectly, that the New Testament is more important than the Old—I think one of the reasons for the shift is to focus on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for the community of believers. Several of the texts from Acts are sermons of Peter, and this one is the second of Peter’s sermons in the book. So, in essence, I get to preach a sermon on a sermon.

Musicians get to do this all the time. You have Variations on A Theme by Hyden composed by Brahms, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis composed by Williams, and so on. And, any Star Wars fan who’s ever heard Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst knows where John Williams got his ideas for the Star Wars score. So, maybe I should have titled my sermon, Variations on a Theme by Peter.

First, it’s important that we understand the social context of Peter’s sermon. Just as I am a Christian speaking to an audience of Christians in a Christian worship setting, Peter was a Jew who is speaking to an audience of Jews within a Jewish worship setting. The reason why this is important is because Peter gets a little harsh with his audience. He accuses them of rejecting Jesus, of killing Jesus.

One of the more disgusting pieces of Christian history is that some of our European ancestors used Peters words as an excuse to murder Jews in retaliation for killing Jesus. Peter’s Christian context was Jewish. He wasn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. He was a Jewish, Semitic Christian, and he would be horrified at how some Christians after the third and fourth centuries used his words to persecute his own people. Jesus, himself, was a Jewish man. There is nothing anti-Jewish or anti-Semiotic about Peter’s words.

Second, it’s important for us to understand the context of this text within the book of Acts because, obviously, verse twelve is not the beginning of the story. “Seeing this, Peter addressed the people…” (Acts 3:12a CEB).

And our first question is… Seeing what? What precipitated Peter’s sermon? Let’s back up and take a look. Acts chapter two tells us about the Day of Pentecost, which includes Peter’s first sermon. Then, at the end of chapter two, Luke gives us a little summary of how the Pentecost Christians ordered their life together as Easter People. By the time we get to chapter three, we have no idea how many days have passed since Pentecost.

Chapter three begins with Peter and John going into the Temple to pray during the established prayer time of 3:00 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a man crippled from birth was being carried in so he could beg at the Beautiful Gate. When Peter and John walked by, he asked them for help. Peter simply told the man, “Look at us!” (Acts 3:4 CEB). The man looked at Peter and John expectantly, but Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 CEB). Peter took the man’s hand, pulled him up, and the man’s feet and ankles became strong.

All of a sudden, this guy starts jumping. He doesn’t try out his newly-healed legs with baby steps. He walks around, leaping and praising God. Can you imagine the joy this man felt and how it spilled out of him?

All the people saw this man jumping and leaping, full of exuberance and shouting praises to God, and they recognized him as the same man who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise. While the man clung to Peter and John, all the people rushed toward them at Solomon’s Porch, completely amazed at what they were seeing.

That’s what Peter saw. He saw the utter amazement and surprise written on the faces of the other Temple worshippers who had rushed together at Solomon’s Porch to see a crippled man jump and leap for joy and thanksgiving at being healed. And Peter asks, “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” (Acts 3:12 CEB).

I think this is one of the reasons why Jesus picked Peter to lead the fledgling church. The dude could preach. Paul couldn’t preach worth a lick. His gift was in writing. (2 Corinthians 10:10). But Peter, when he stood up to preach, he held his audience captive. After he preached his first sermon at Pentecost, three-thousand people were baptized into the church. After this, his second recorded sermon in chapter three, it depends on how one translates the Greek, but the church either grew to five-thousand in number, or they grew by five-thousand in number. Did you know the early church was the first mega-church? It was a big, Jewish, Semitic, predominantly Aramaic-speaking mega-church.

The fact that Peter addresses his audience as “Israelites,” which is their God-given name as a people, shows that he meant to honor them as God’s people who have their identity in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the same time, he wonders at their surprise and amazement. First, he denies that the once-crippled man’s healing came by his or John’s own power or piety and immediately points to God’s glorification of Jesus—the same Jesus that the people handed over and denied before Pontius Pilate, the holy and righteous one they rejected and asked for a murder to be released in his place. They killed the author of life.

Now, so far, Peter’s speech sounds bleak, and more than a little accusatory. But, we should note that his words are full of shared grief, and he’s probably including himself. Peter says, “This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence” (Acts 3:13 CEB), and “You rejected the holy and righteous one” (Acts 3:14 CEB). Those words denied and rejected are the same word in Greek. The reason I say he’s speaking of a shared grief is because that word is the same word used about Peter when he denied knowing Jesus. “Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, ‘This man was with him too.’ But Peter denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I don’t know him!’” (Lk. 22:56-57 CEB). Peter was just as guilty as the people, and he knew it.

Peter grounded his sermon in the patriarchs of Israel by saying, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13 CEB). The word in Greek for servant can also be used to refer to one’s immediate offspring: one’s child. It’s the same word used by Mary when she sang, “He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54 CEB).

Then, Peter tells them that God raised Jesus from the dead, and he and John are witnesses of the resurrection. If you were wondering what John’s role in the story is, it’s probably to serve as the second witness to corroborate the claim Peter makes. Several Old Testament texts (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15) require two witnesses when bringing testimony against someone for a crime. But the same idea developed about any claim. If one person made a claim, it wasn’t enough to substantiate the claim. But if two witnesses agreed about a matter, it was enough (c.f. Matthew 18:16; John 5:31-32, 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). John didn’t say anything, but his presence was required for Peter’s testimony about Jesus to be believed as true.

In a form of repetition similar to Hebrew poetry, Peter makes the same claim in three slightly different ways in verse 16. First, he says, “His [meaning Jesus’] name itself has made this man strong” (CEB). Second, he clarifies the first statement by saying, “That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know” (CEB). Third, he summarizes the first two statements by saying, “The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes” (CEB). It wasn’t Peter of John who healed the crippled man, it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Now that Peter has made his accusation and shown that the crippled man was healed in the name of Jesus whom God has glorified, Peter let his hearers off the hook in two ways. First, he told them that he knows they acted in ignorance, as did their rulers (c.f. vs.17). Then, he reminded them that the Messiah’s suffering was a fulfillment of God’s word as spoken through the prophets. The death of Jesus was bound to happen.

Not only did Peter let his brothers and sisters off the hook for their participation in Christ’s death, he shows them a way forward. He called them to repent, to change their hearts and lives and turn back to God so their sins could be forgiven.

The healing of the crippled man highlights a misunderstanding that we share with those who stood listening to Peter’s sermon. It’s a misunderstanding about something that is absolutely fundamental about our shared life with God. Brothers and sisters, our faith is often stuck in a kind of functional atheism in which we believe that sin and brokenness is the rule and, should God ever bother to speak or act, that would be the exception. But in an Easter world, and among an Easter people, the presence and power of God is as prevalent as night and day, sunshine and rain, wind and calm.

Do we see it? Do we see the mercy of God in our midst? I’ve seen it big and small ways: from healings from disease to the smile of a child eating a fresh cucumber for the first time and filling their hungry belly.

Peter also reminds us that, when we do see the workings of God in our world, our response must be more than astonishment and surprise. We must change our hearts and lives so that we can live into the healing and restoring work of God and participate in it. We, like Jesus, are God’s servants and God’s children. What is our response as Easter People?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Acceptable | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB)

Acceptable

It isn’t always easy to learn something new, especially if the new thing goes against what you’ve always known. I remember when I was first started playing guitar, my Grandpa taught me to play the G chord a certain way. And I got comfortable playing G that way. Sometime later, someone told me to try it with different fingers. They said it would be easier to transition to several other chords, and I could make the changes faster.

I didn’t like it. It was difficult, uncomfortable for my hand, and it made my pinky hurt. It wasn’t how my Grandpa taught me to play a G chord. The new way was messing with what I had always known. But, as I kept practicing, I realize the person was right. If I played G the other way, switches to other chords were faster because my hand barely had to move. Now, I can play a G chord in a lot of different ways.

Learning something new is even more difficult when it goes against something that’s deeply ingrained within us. Especially if the old thing is something we KNOW is right and the new thing is something we KNOW is wrong. We’re liable to put a lot of energy into fighting the new thing rather than giving it honest consideration. That’s what happened to the Jerusalem Council, the full assembly of Israel’s elders, when the apostles came along doing weird new things: preaching, teaching, and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, suggested that the Council let the apostles go after they were arrested. If their new thing was of human origin, it would fail just like all the other failed movements. But, if this new thing originated with God, then no one would be able to stop it. Instead, the elders of Israel might find themselves fighting God. The Council let the apostles live but had them beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Most of them couldn’t accept the new thing God was doing.

Learning something new is what happened to Paul. You might remember that he was called Saul before he took the name Paul, and he used to hunt Christians down to arrest them. Acts 8:3 puts it this way: Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison” (CEB). Later, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians and drag them as prisoners to Jerusalem, a vision of Jesus showed him that the new way was a God thing, and Saul needed to get on board with it. Within a few days, the man who had been breathing murderous threats against Christians was preaching the good news all over Damascus.

Peter had a lesson to learn, too. Now, note that this is the Christian-Peter; the leader-of-the-church-Peter; the Peter who was the reason people would set their sick friends and family members out in the streets in the hope that when Peter walked by, his shadow would touch them-Peter. This Peter still had a hard lesson to learn about the new thing God was doing.

You see, Peter was a faithful Jewish man, and he knew, to the core of his understanding of God’s ways, that salvation was for Jews. His Jewish faith also told him that Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. He knew that as truth. Faithful living required that he have no association with Gentiles. But then, he had this weird vision. He was up on the roof of a house in Joppa when he saw heaven opened and a large linen sheet being lowered by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told him to get up, kill, and eat. But Peter said, “Absolutely not, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then, the voice told him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This scenario happened three times, and left Peter bewildered. Then, three Gentile men who had been sent by the Centurion, Cornelius, showed up at the gate looking for him, and God told Peter to go.

You know what the first thing Peter said to the crowd of Gentiles gathered inside Cornelius’s house was? “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28 CEB).

Now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Peter was convinced of any new thing, any serious challenges to the certainty of what he already knew. The way Peter puts it, all he knew for sure was that God told him he couldn’t call the Gentiles dirty. He was obviously ill-at-ease, and it’s a racial-ethnic kind of ill-at-ease.

If God had not specifically told Peter to go, there is no chance that Peter would have gone to the house of an officer in the Roman Legion. Rome had conquered the independent Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom and occupied their homeland less than a hundred years prior. You can almost hear the reluctance and distaste dripping from Peter’s lips when he says, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” <Deep Sigh> “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 CEB).

Then, Cornelius told Peter his story, about an angel who visited him during his 3:00 prayers and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter” (Acts 10:31-32a CEB). Cornelius told Peter that he sent for him immediately, and Peter was kind enough to come, and now, here they all were, ready to listen to what the Lord had directed Peter to say.

Peter’s message begins with himself. “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). Before this moment, it was inconceivable to Peter that Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus. But there he stood, in a house full of Gentiles, ready to preach the good news of Jesus Christ because God had led him there and showed Peter that God was doing something new.

The message was this: God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone and overpowering the devil. The disciples bore witness to the things Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem. Then, Jesus was killed by crucifixion on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen by those who knew him in life, who ate and drank with him on a daily basis. Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. And, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins.

Even though it was contrary to what Peter had always known and held as faithful truth, Peter learned the new thing that God was doing, that people in every nation who worship God and do good are acceptable to God, even those who have no previous experience with Jesus, the Jewish faith, or what makes Jesus significant within it. It was unheard of! It was unimaginable! Throughout the whole of Acts 10, Peter’s long-held assumptions get replaced by God’s new thing.

We all have long-held habits and assumptions that we know, to the fullness of our conviction, are sacred and holy and right. With the same conviction, we know that those on the other side of those lines are sinful, unholy, and wrong, just like Peter thought of Cornelius and those of his household. We might even have Scripture to back up our positions, just like Peter did. But, when God moves outside of our interpretations of Scripture, when God decides to do something different, something like Easter, that new thing can turn our convictions and Biblical interpretations upside-down. Even the Scriptures tell us that God confounds human wisdom, so why should we be surprised, or affronted, when God proves our holy certainties false?

Our assumptions need adjusting from time to time, because God is not a prisoner of our assumptions. God is not constrained by what we think is right and holy. God acts. And when God acts, we’re often surprised—if not scandalized—by the things God does.

God took on human flesh and was born of a poor young virgin from some backcountry town? Most people had different ideas about God, believing God was too holy and set apart to ever do something so icky as becoming a human being.

Even the disciples rejected the idea that God’s Son would be killed by being crucified on a tree. They wanted to follow a victorious Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel, not a failure who would be killed. You might remember that Peter took Jesus aside a chewed him out for suggesting it.

And this resurrection thing: a mangled body, full of holes and a back flayed raw, with a chest cavity and heart pierced by a spear got up and walked around for forty days? He spoke to people, ate and drank with them, appeared to people inside of locked rooms?

In a day when the church is confronted with divisions of all kinds: race, ethnicity, beliefs about gun laws, abortion, human sexuality, immigration, war in the Middle East, to name only a few, it’s important for us to hear that no matter how many ways we try to tear ourselves apart, divide and separate from each other, and draw lines in the sand over issues, God continues to find ways to put us back together again. Peter came to realize that Jesus is Lord of All, and that’s a lesson we need to learn, too.

The resurrection of Jesus threw the doors of the church open wide—probably wider than we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we try to wrench them closed just a little more. But we are recipients of God’s Kingdom, not its doorkeepers. Resurrection means that whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable.

Now, we can try to qualify what’s meant by “does what is right,” but the comments in the text about Cornelius suggest it’s quite simple. Cornelius loved God enough to pray, and he loved his neighbors enough to give generously to meet their needs. He loved God, and he loved his neighbors. He did works of justice, he loved mercy, and he walked humbly. That’s what God finds acceptable.

Resurrection means that anyone who believes, anyone who trusts in Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins. The question is, can we learn that lesson as well as Peter?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Serpent of Bronze | 4th in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. 7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.”

9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live. (CEB)

Serpent of Bronze

Our text today deals with one of several “murmuring stories” in the book of Numbers. The story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is full of instances where the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against God, and after each instance of murmuring it is Moses who successfully intercedes on behalf of the people.

The reason this murmuring story is so interesting is because it’s different from most of the other examples of Israel’s murmuring. In most instances, Israel’s murmuring gets results from God. The people complain about their situation—they’re hungry or thirsty—and God provides for their needs by giving them food or water. God can be influenced by their complaints, and God responds by giving good gifts. This kind of thing may work a few times but, like any parent, God eventually grows weary of the complaining.

It’s something any parent can readily understand. When our older two children were little, I would take my day off on Thursdays and stay home with the kids so Joy could go to work. Any day a parent spends at home with their children will inevitably be a day filled with complaining.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

Ok, let me get you something to eat.

Daddy, I want a drink.

Ok, let me get you a cup of water.

No, I want juice.

How about water instead?

No, I want juice.

Ok, here’s your juice.

Daddy, I want to watch Berenstein Bears.

Ok, I’ll let you watch one episode.

Daddy, can I watch two?

No. You can watch one.

But mommy lets me watch two.

Well, I’m not mommy; you can watch one.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

But I just gave you a snack.

But can I have another snack?

And it would go on and on and on. Nevertheless, when the children complained they usually get what they wanted. That is, until my patience ran out. Eventually the dialogue of complaints broke down into one little girl or little boy getting very upset because something didn’t quite go their way. Various kinds of punishment soon followed: from spending a few minutes in the Naughty Chair to being sent to a bedroom to having a certain toy taken away – or any combination of the above.

There are a couple of places where God loses patience with his beloved children, the people of Israel, and punishes them. This is one of those instances. The complaint of the people is rather incoherent ranting. They complained that they had no food and no water, yet they also said, “…and we detest this miserable food,” meaning that they did actually have food in their possession.

Maybe they had soda crackers, but they wanted something fancier like Sociables or Tomato & Basil flavored Wheat Thins, and maybe a nice fancy cheese ball to boot. The food God had given them wasn’t good enough for them. So they hearkened back to the good ol’ days when they were slaves in Egypt. At least there they had better fare for their table. Their complaint accused the Lord of infidelity toward Israel by not taking care of them. And it accused Moses of poor, failed leadership. That’s what people do when the economy tanks. In Israel’s situation in the wilderness, there was barely any economy of which to speak.

This is the point where God has had enough. God sends הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים  (ha-netashim ha-seraphim) among the people to bite them, and many Israelites died. One question about verse 6 is how to translate these Hebrew words. Some possible translations include “venomous snakes,” “poisonous serpents,” or “fiery serpents.”

The Hebrew word seraphim could be taken as an adjective or a substantive. If it is to be taken as an adjective, then it describes the serpents as being venomous, or poisonous, or fiery.

If it is to be taken as a substantive, then it tells us what type of serpents they were: Seraph Serpents.

However you take it, another question remains. What were they? Again, the word used is seraphim. The seraphim are the angelic beings surrounding God’s throne. So, were these things that were biting the people actual snakes like the kind that slither through your yard? Or were they angelic beings coming down among the people in the form of serpents to punish the people? Either way, it sounds like something straight out of a Stephen King novel!

It’s this event of divine punishment that makes the people of Israel realize that they’ve gone too far with their complaining. This time, they’ve sinned against the Lord by spurning the gift of food already given, and by spurning the gift of freedom from slavery, which the Lord enabled. They came to Moses and confessed to him that they have sinned by complaining against the Lord and against Moses. They became submissive and repentant because of what had come upon them. They asked Moses to intercede for them: to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away from them. Those who were so impatient a short while ago had suddenly recognized that they needed to come to terms with God’s sovereign rule. They also realized that protest against God’s rule is not only futile, but self-destructive.

Recognizing and responding to the change that had come over the people, the God who had allowed death to come among the people now provided a way of life. God told Moses to make a Seraph Serpent—or fiery or poisonous serpent—and set it upon a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

On a side note, you’ve all seen copies of this bronze serpent on a pole. Nearly every physician’s office in the world has one posted somewhere. This is where physicians got their symbol of a snake wrapped around a pole. When you need healing, you go see your doctor.

Notice that God did not take the serpents away as the people hoped. The serpents were still among the people, and people still got bitten by them. The people still had to live with the consequences of their sin, and those consequences could very well have meant death! But God provided a way of salvation, a way of life. The very thing that brought death to so many people, the serpent, now brought life to those who looked toward it. God took a symbol of pain, suffering, and death, and transformed it into a symbol of life.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell from original righteousness into original sin, they had to live with the consequences of their sin. From the moment they were cast forth from Eden, they were subject to suffering, pain, and death. They, and all their children after them, have lived with these consequences. I’m sure that they repented and they begged God to change God’s mind and let them back into the Garden where every need they had was perfectly met. But what’s done is done, and there are consequences for sin.

We may think this is awfully callous on God’s part, even hardhearted. But how often do we read in Scripture that God punishes those whom God loves? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that consequences are, in the long run, in our own best interest, and are a shining example of God’s ever-present love for us. After all, without consequences we would never learn. Parents know that consequences are what help children learn to avoid bad behavior and do the right thing. If I want my kids to pick up their room, then I can tell them that they can’t have electronics until everything is picked up and put away properly. Believe me, they might complain, but when I start collecting their Kindles, things start getting picked up.

In the Gospel of John there’s a very short reference to this narrative in the book of Numbers. In John 3:14, Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to suffer death. And Paul says that death is the result of our own sin as well. He wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God took the cross—a symbol of grotesque suffering, torture, pain, and death—and by the lifting up of God’s only Son on that cross, transformed a symbol of death into the means of life. The consequences of sin remain with us, and we must live with those consequences. But whenever we’re bitten by the consequences of our sin, we know that we can look toward the cross of Jesus Christ and live.

God has provided a way for us to live, not only in the here and now, but in the hereafter. The promise of God to humanity is that those who believe in Jesus Christ may have eternal life. God transforms everything God touches. It’s not just that the serpents of death were transformed into something that saves. And it’s not just that the cross was transformed by Christ into something that saves. It’s also that when we believe, God transforms our lives so that we become ambassadors of salvation to the world. We become God’s own people, God’s own children. And through our proclamation of the Good News we become bringers of salvation to the world.

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

Foolishness | 3rd in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called– both Jews and Greeks– Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (CEB)

Foolishness

This text about the foolishness of the cross follows Paul’s appeal for unity in the church. It begins an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, and tries to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel. The fundamental theme in this part of First Corinthians is the opposition between human wisdom and the lo,goj, which is the Word of the cross.

Paul diagnoses the root causes of the conflicts and rivalries within the Corinthian church by showing that they glory in superficial human wisdom. People are boasting about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence—or at least they’re infatuated with leaders who possess these qualities. In a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, strong rhetoricians were the pop-stars of the day. It hardly mattered what was said, so long as it the speaker had a convincing argument or strong emotional appeal.

Paul wasn’t necessarily an excellent speaker. He was laughed at in Athens after attempting a speech there. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he writes that he knows what others are saying about him: “I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’” (CEB). Paul wasn’t a gifted orator. So, he used this fact about himself as an example of the very point he was making. God’s message to human beings doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in pretty packages. God’s true nature is revealed in weakness, not in the powerful and mighty and strong, which is what most of us would expect.

God has revealed in Jesus Christ a kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of the world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and helpless death of the crucified Jesus. If the crucifixion is the revelation of the deepest truth about God’s character, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned up-side-down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross. Paul takes the central event of the Christian story and uses it as a lens to bring what we know and see into focus so that everything—what we see and assume to know—is viewed afresh.

Much of the controversy among the Corinthians may have stemmed from the tendency of those Christians to regard Paul, Apollos, and Cephas as competing for public approval and attention alongside other popular—and probably pagan—philosophers and rhetoricians. The wisdom that Paul refers to is both the possession of divine knowledge, and the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful, eloquent, and rhetorically polished way.

Here, Paul forcefully argues against the idea that the gospel is just another kind of human wisdom, and reframes the debate into different categories. The gospel is placed into a category apart from the wisdom of this world. The gospel, the Good News of salvation offered through Jesus Christ, is not a secretive or mysterious body of religious knowledge. It’s not a slickly packaged philosophy. It’s not a scheme for living a better life. It’s not a handy self-improvement course. Instead, it’s an announcement about God’s intervention in the world for the sake of the world.

The perspective of God’s radical intervention to bring about something new, is signaled by the way in which Paul describes the encounter between the world and the gospel in verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (CEB). As the word of God—the word about the cross—breaks into the world, it divides all of humanity into two groups. The present participles that describe the two contrasting groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved indicate, significantly, that Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as something that’s underway right now. Paul describes the church not as those who are saved, but as those who are being saved. That distinction is important, because Paul will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed, still-in-process, character of salvation in Christ.

Part of the trouble with those who claim to have wisdom is that they suppose they’ve already arrived, already are in possession of the full truth. But for Paul, the power of God is presently stirring, presently occurring, presently percolating, presently on the move in the world through the gospel, bringing both destruction and deliverance: destruction to those who are willfully blind to the truth of God, and deliverance to those who believe.

Paul is saying that the books are not yet closed; God’s final verdict for our lives has not yet been rendered. Thus, as the power of God is at work in the world through the proclamation of the gospel, members of the church find themselves on a trajectory toward salvation, but they cannot unqualifiedly claim salvation at the present time. Salvation, at least in this instance, is described as something we work on throughout our lives. We can have confidence that God will achieve salvation for us in the end, but it only comes through the unmerited grace of God.

Paul’s also making another point. Simply put, Christians—those who are being saved—should see the world differently than those who are perishing. The fixation of the Christian church on a crucified Lord seems to be the height of absurdity to those who are perishing. To them, the word of the cross is not wisdom, but foolishness. The Greek word used there is μωρία (moria), and the root of that Greek word is found in our English word “moron.” The way the rest of the world sees it, we who believe in the power of the cross are a bunch of morons. But we who are being saved see the supposed foolishness of the cross from a different perspective.

The Christians of Corinth, who were celebrating their own wisdom, were celebrating something other than the gospel. It revealed that they still viewed the world from the perspective of those who are perishing. Those who are being saved, however, recognize the cross as God’s power.

This perspective changes the way we understand everything. This is Paul’s great paradox, and he sees its truth revealed in the Old Testament. He quotes from Isaiah 29:14 when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 CEB). Isaiah’s verb ἀπολῶ (apolo) I will destroy is echoed by Paul’s reference in 1:18 to those who are perishing ἀπολλυμένοις (apollumenois) which literally means those who are being destroyed. According to Isaiah, the thing that God is going to annihilate is the wisdom of the wise, precisely the thing that the Corinthians were prizing.

Therein lies the Corinthian problem. They were relying on human wisdom, which God is going to thwart and destroy. They talked about possessing Godly wisdom, but their behavior of quarreling and causing divisions revealed something else entirely. They made a show of honoring God with their lips, but their behavior toward each other revealed that their hearts were far from God.

When you read the whole of Isaiah’s oracle from which Paul quotes one line, you see that that is what Isaiah was talking about as well. The people of Judah honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. The message is that talk about God is cheap. Honoring God with the way we live is what ultimately matters. The Corinthians stood under the sentence of divine judgment which would nullify their professed wisdom and unmask their professed piety as a sham.

Having stated his paradox about the word of the cross and supporting it by a citation from Isaiah, Paul cranks up the tension of the passage even higher by developing a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The four rhetorical questions of verse 20 pose a direct challenge to the philosophers, scribes (who were experts in Jewish Law), and debaters of the world (the pagan orators). They all belong to this age. In apocalyptic thought everything of this age will be swept away, or simply made to appear ridiculous when the new age is inaugurated. The wisdom of this world will be revealed as foolishness by God’s strange way of revealing grace through the cross.

In the ancient world, rhetorical eloquence was highly prized. Powerful orators received the same sort of acclaim that today we reserve for movie stars and professional athletes. But Paul now regards all this acclaim as utterly negated by God. “Where are they now?” Paul asked rhetorically.

Philosophers, Torah scholars, and popular orators—all the most esteemed pundits of Paul’s day—failed to understand what was really going on in the world. All their wisdom had failed to grasp the truth about God. Paul notes the irony. He says it is “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 CEB).

Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are contrary to what our fallen minds would call common sense. In contrast to this age God has blown common sense away by revelation “through the foolishness of preaching.” That Greek word, μωρία (moria), suggests the utter craziness of the gospel message by the standards of common sense wisdom. How can the humiliating death of Jesus on a cross be the event of salvation for the world? One would have to be a fool, a moron, to believe it!

I guess that makes us fools for the Gospel.

Paul’s language throughout this part of 1 Corinthians reveals the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. But this isn’t just Paul’s version of worldly wisdom and rhetoric. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are shaken up and dumped up-side-down. The outlandish message confounded Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably sought evidence of a more credible sort, either “signs,” which would be empirical demonstrations of power, or “wisdom,” which would be rational and persuasive argumentation. But Paul offers neither signs nor wisdom. Instead Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB).

The scandal of this message can be a little difficult for us Christians of later eras to imagine. In Paul’s day, to proclaim a crucified Messiah was to speak nonsense. Crucifixion was a gruesome punishment administered by the Romans to make an example out of rebels, insurrectionists, and those who would otherwise disturb the Roman peace. It was a horrible form of public torture and execution, designed to demonstrate that no one should defy the Empire. Yet, Paul’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion of Jesus is somehow the singular event through which God has triumphed over Rome and all other worldly powers. Rather than confirming what the wisest minds already knew, the cross confounded the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Those Corinthians who had been converted to Christianity under Paul’s preaching ought to have known this, because his whole message was “Christ crucified.” This proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and absolutely nuts to the Greeks. But for those who are a part of the church—made up of Jews and Gentiles together, those who are called at Corinth and elsewhere—the mind-warping paradox is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

To enter the world of the Gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination. It’s to see all values transformed by the foolish and seemingly weak death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t do things the way we expect. Human wisdom is subverted by the power of God which is revealed in weakness. And the seeming defeat of death gave way to the victory of resurrection.

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

~Pastopher

Credited to Us | 2nd in Lent

Romans 4:13-25

13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have. 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. (CEB)

Credited to Us

My health insurance’s wellness program is pretty cool. We use Virgin Pulse, and it gives rewards based on physical activity and participation in features of the program. I wear my FitBit Blaze, which tracks my steps, active minutes, stairs, heartrate, and even sleep. All that information goes into the cloud and gets recorded by the Virgin Pulse website. I earn a certain number of points based on how many steps I’ve taken, and how many active minutes I’ve had in my day. I can record meals and healthy snacks. They have health coaches who call me and talk me through setting goals for physical activity and give me encouragement. I can even challenge friends of mine who are also in the Virgin Pulse program. I get points for all it.

All those points add up on my account, and I can earn small cash rewards based on the number I’ve earned. I usually dump mine into an Amazon gift card to help feed my book-reading habit, which my daughter appreciates because she gets to read the books, too. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to earn rewards for my healthy activity. But I wouldn’t earn anything if it weren’t for the wellness program that offered them. They have faith my ability to work toward better health, and that makes me want to work for it even more. Besides, I’ve already got my Amazon Wish List ready with my next book orders.

In the same way, our faith is a gift to us from God. It may be credited to us as righteousness, but faith isn’t something we have apart from God’s gracious gift. God offers faith to us as our response to God.

Paul’s writings are some of the more difficult to put into a sermon because you often have to look at his full argument, instead of pieces of it, and understand the context from whish he’s writing. It’s difficult to take a single text and preach about it because the preceding and following verses are also part of Paul’s argument as a whole. And, with this text, we need to include the reading about Abraham from Genesis 17 if we’re going to understand it.

Abraham is the key to understanding Paul’s argument here. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abraham represents something important. But it’s different for each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. For Jews, Abraham is the literal father of the nation. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham. For Muslims, Abraham is the example of a model Muslim—one who submits to the will of God. For Christians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the “father of many nations” is fulfilled in the faith of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, here’s a little background. Back in the year 49, Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. As a result of that decree, Priscila and Aquila had emigrated from Rome to Corinth, which is where Paul first met them on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-2). When the Jews were expelled, the Gentile Christians in Rome likely rose in prominence.

Less than a decade later, during the winter of the year 57 or 58 while he was staying in Corinth on his Third Missionary Journey, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church. By then, the ban of Jews in Rome had been lifted, and Priscila and Aquila had moved back. We know that because Paul sent his greetings to them in verse 16:3. When these Jewish Christians returned, it probably caused some ethnic discord between the Gentile and Jewish Christian congregations.

Remember that the earliest communities of the church often had Jewish and Gentile congregations who worshipped separately. It was a struggle for some, especially the Jewish Christians, to fully accept their Gentile sisters and brothers in Christ as such. Some Jewish Christians even argued that Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, because Christianity was a Jewish thing. The main thrust of Paul’s argument here is ethnicity, and he’s trying to show both groups that they’re actually equals through faith.

Earlier in Romans, Paul argues two main points. First, he argues that everyone knows the law, including Gentiles, because we can clearly see and understand God through the things God has made (c.f. 1:20). Yet, everyone rejects God instead of honoring God. Second, he argues that no one follows the Law, even the Jews who might boast of possessing it (c.f. 2:23). It seems like he’s painted himself into a corner with his argument when he concludes, “It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in his presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law” (Romans 3:20 CEB). In fact, he uses a list of Psalms in verses 3:10-18 to add to his point that no one is righteous.

At this point, we almost want to toss up our hands and throw in the towel, thinking, Well, who can win? And that starts the next phase of Paul’s argument. We can’t win. But God can. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, BUT all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 CEB).

Then, we get to chapter four, and our text for the day, where Paul introduces Abraham as his primary example of righteousness, not because Abraham followed the Law, but because Abraham had faith in God and believed in God’s promises. It’s important to note that, in Greek, faith and believe (or had faith in) share the same root: πίστις and πιστεύω (pistis and pisteuo). So when Paul is talking about faith as a noun, or believed as a verb he’s talking about the same thing, though the words are different in English. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was reckoned as righteous, not because he followed the Law, but because he believed God’s promises.

Only God can create faith in those who have faith. Righteousness is credited to those who believe, not because it’s something they earn through having faith, but because it’s accounted to them by God as a something God freely gives. Adherence to the Law depends upon human choice and agency. We choose to either obey or disobey the Law. In that sense, if the Law makes us righteous, we would essentially be making ourselves righteous by obeying the Law. But, Paul argues that the Law doesn’t make us righteous. The Law is educational, and serves to show us that we aren’t righteous. And, faith comes before obedience. The gift of faith to us is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s agency. God makes us righteous because of our faith, we can’t make ourselves righteous by following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.

For Paul, the timeline of Abraham’s life is important. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises, for which God reckoned him as righteous, came before circumcision as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:10. So, it wasn’t any act of covenant or Law that made Abraham righteous. According to Scripture, itself, it was Abraham’s faith in God back in chapter 15 that made him righteous.

Paul also argues that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of MANY nations, not merely the father of one nation. Jews thought of their birthright as Abraham’s direct descendants as an advantage, but Paul argued that it wasn’t really an advantage. John the Baptist made a similar argument when people were coming to him for baptism. He said, And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3:9 CEB). He went on to argue that what mattered was the fruit we produce. How we live matters to God.

It’s all people who have faith, Jews and Gentiles together that fulfills the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. God is able to bring forth life from what is dead (Abraham was nearly a hundred years old when he got Sarah pregnant) and from that which is barren (Sarah was also around ninety years old when she finally got pregnant). In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God again brought forth life from death.

Now, we can wonder about Paul’s words in in verses 19-21. He says Abraham’s faith never wavered, he didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith, but believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations even when it seemed impossible for him to have children. But we know Abraham’s story. We know that he fell on his face, laughing when God qualified the promise to mean that Abraham’s son would be with his wife, Sarah (c.f. Genesis 17:17). We know that, before that episode, Abraham got worried and he and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah had him get Hagar pregnant, which didn’t work out well for Sarah (c.f. Genesis 16:2-4). So, in one sense, it seems that Paul views Abraham through some rose-colored glasses.

But, it might be that Paul says these things about Abraham’s faith because Abraham really did have faith and believe in God’s promises. If Paul sees Abraham’s faith as unwavering, it’s not because Abraham never had doubts, it’s not because he never tried to take matters into his own hands. It’s because, in Abraham’s story as a whole, he really did have an unwavering faith. When Abraham was about seventy-five years old, he left the security of his home, his family, and his community because God told him to. (So much for kicking back and enjoying retirement, right?). He journeyed through the land in stages despite the dangers. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son, and all the hopes of God’s promises that were attached to him, because he had faith that God would accomplish the promises despite his son’s death.

The reason Paul can say that Abraham’s faith never wavered is because, when God called, Abraham put it all on the line and trusted God. As messy as things got at times, Abraham had faith in God, and he lived that faith out completely. Abraham was convinced that God could and would do what God promised. That belief, that trust, that faith, is why God accounted Abraham as righteous.

And there’s one last thing. Paul wrote, “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us” (Romans 4:23-25 CEB).

Muslims view Abraham as a model Muslim. Long before that, Paul used Abraham to describe a model Christian and to show us that, no matter who we are or what our genealogy is, faith puts us in a right relationship with God. The good news that Paul preached was that those who have faith in God, whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, are made righteous through that faith. We can believe that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give us life, too.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to this kind of unwavering faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ll never try to take matters into our own hands. But it does mean that when God calls, we lay it all on the line and step out in faith. It means that we have permission to go out in boldness, even if we don’t know exactly what it will mean or where God’s call will lead. But we can trust that, when God calls and we follow in faith, our faithfulness becomes a blessing to others, and God credits our faith as righteousness.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Transfiguration | Last after Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (CEB)

Transfiguration

Human beings have a fascination with power. The entire comic book industry, and a lot of movies and books, are about people who have powers. Star Wars is about Jedi and Sith who have the power to manipulate the Force.

On the DC side of comics: Wonder Woman has super strength, she can fly, she has indestructible bracers and a lasso of truth. Vixen has her ancient Tantu Totem that lets her harness the powers of animal spirits. Batman has his wealth, his tech gadgets, and his fearlessness. The Legends of Tomorrow have a variety of skills, abilities, and cool technology. The Flash has his superspeed. Green Arrow has his fighting skills and perfect accuracy with the bow. Superman has his array of powers thanks to our yellow Sun. And Supergirl has everything Superman has, and I watched her beat him in a straight-up fight on the CW.

In the Marvel world of comics: Black Panther has his super senses, strength, speed, agility, stamina, and healing abilities, plus Wakanda’s advanced technology. The X-Men (and Women!) have all kinds of powers and abilities based on their x-gene mutations. Captain America has his serum-induced strength and self-healing. Iron Man has his wealth, tech, and an awesome suit full of weapons that lets him fly and make things explode. Spiderman has his web-slingers and spider abilities.

We can find worlds full of magical powers in books and movies: the Harry Potter series, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Waterfire Saga, and The Lord of the Rings series. And when it comes to computer games, my favorite class is the Elementalist, which uses earth, water, air, and fire magic to blow bad people and monsters to pieces.

But our human fascination with power isn’t limited to fiction and imagination. Our president wants to spend a few million of our tax dollars to put on a grand military parade to show off our military might, as if we need to put it on display. He certainly wouldn’t be the first president or world leader to do so. Lots of modern nations do them. The Roman Empire liked their military parades, too. For some reason, leaders of nations like to flex their muscles and display their elegant tail feathers to show everyone else how big and tough they are.

Jesus had some pretty cool powers, too. He could heal people who were sick. He raised a few people from death. And this Transfiguration thing, that was God’s power on display for all the world to see, right? All of a sudden, everyone knew that Jesus had the power of God in the palm of his hand, and he was the new guy to be afraid of…

Except, that wasn’t how it went.

Jesus didn’t put his power on display the way nations and leaders of nations like to do. He only took three of his disciples with him as witnesses to the event. In fact, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from death.

When we put the Transfiguration in context with what Jesus had just taught his disciples in chapter 8, and with the rest of what happened in the Gospel of Mark, we see a completely different picture of power, and a different picture of purpose for those who would follow Jesus Christ. It’s chapter 8 where Jesus tells the crowds that any who want to come after him must take up their cross and follow him (c.f. Mark 8:34). While it’s never explained what cross-bearing looks like for the rest of us, it’s the story that follows and the example of Jesus that teaches us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The Transfiguration becomes the first important lesson of cross-bearing. It shows us that power is not something we pursue or wield so much as something we expose. Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth is what provoked the powers to make their oppressive, murderous response by killing Jesus. The powers of this world rule by fear, greed, and falsehood. They use violence, hatred, and despair to turn people against each other and distort everything we’re meant to be as human beings who are created in God’s image.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to die by exposing the corruption of earthly powers. He stands in a long line of prophets who were persecuted and murdered by the political and religious establishment for daring to speak the truth about their misuse of power and fraudulent, unethical operations.

Jesus came so that he could be the anointed-one who would be rejected and murdered by the corrupt powers that rule through fear, backhandedness, and violence. Several times throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll be killed and raised from the dead (c.f. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

At the same time, the disciples had their minds set on earthly things that didn’t allow them to see God’s reign on earth as anything more than human powers, such as the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom. You might recall that, when Jesus told the disciples that he would “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (Mark 8:31), Peter’s response was to take hold of Jesus firmly, as if Jesus were a child, to scold and “correct” him.

Peter couldn’t see beyond the things of earth, which is why Jesus turned and corrected Peter in front of the other disciples by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). The disciples were thinking about power, but in the same twisted way that we humans are so fascinated with it. They intended to make Jesus-the-Messiah into a hero of their nation, the savior of the earthly kingdom they desired. And, they would ride the coattails of their hero to fulfill their own this-worldly ambitions.

James and John even asked Jesus to let one of them sit at his right hand, and the other at his left, which angered the other disciples because the request got in the way of their ambitions. There could only be one right-hand-man, and one left-hand-man, but there were twelve disciples all vying for Jesus’ favor, and they acted and argued as rivals (c.f. Mark 10:35-45). Really, the other ten were mad that they didn’t have the boldness to ask that favor of Jesus before James and John did. They were thinking earthly things. Their minds and actions were stuck on a horizontal plane.

One scholar even suggested that, for Jesus’ first disciples, resurrection was more of a scandal than crucifixion. Death was something they could understand. Lives ended all the time. But resurrection? The glory of God? Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that that was downright scary stuff. Notice that every time the disciples are confronted with God’s glory—Jesus walking on the water (6:50), the Transfiguration (9:6), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the women at the tomb (16:8)—the word used to describe what the disciples felt is terror. This isn’t the kind of fear that a person can heroically overcome, but the kind of terror that incapacitates and turns the bravest among us into a useless blubbering heap.

These glimpses of glory remind us that there’s more to the story of Jesus than human ambition and earthly power. The fact that Jesus didn’t use that power to his own gain tells us that followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom should live and act differently from the world. In Philippians 2, Paul’s hymn says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Phil. 2:6-7a CEB). Paul also tells us to have the same mindset (c.f. Philippians 2:5).

That’s why Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to talk about the Transfiguration they had witnessed until after Jesus had risen from the dead, until after he had exposed the corrupt earthly powers for what they were. Then, the disciples could talk about the display of power and glory they had seen at the Transfiguration. But even then, sharing what they had witnessed wasn’t a way for the disciples to seize earthly power or prestige. Instead, it encouraged the followers of Jesus to take up their cross and follow Christ, and live in a way that will inevitably provoke the powers against us by insisting on the values of Jesus.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and he told us that, if we want to come after him, we have to take up our cross and follow. Taking up our cross means we die to ourselves. We set aside our earthly ambition and desire for power and live for others as Jesus did. It also means that our love as Christian people is not a passive thing. We don’t get to keep our distance and love others from afar.

It’s almost hard to believe that earthly powers would act so violently against love, nonviolence, acts of mercy, and acceptance of those the world rejects. But the values of Jesus, which are the values of God’s kingdom, end up exposing the corruption earthly powers.

Nothing exposes the hatred and viciousness of earthly power like people working on behalf of refugees or undocumented immigrants and demanding that the world recognize them as human beings worthy of our love, compassion, and direct assistance. Nothing exposes the injustice of earthly power like someone working on behalf of people the world would happily sweep under the rug: the poor, incarcerated, homeless. Legality is defined by the powers, and Christians have long recognized that what is legal is not always what is right, just, loving, or good.

Jesus ate with sinners to show them and the establishment that he was their friend, that he accepted them, and that he loved them. Those actions exposed the fact that the establishment had rejected and ostracized people.

As a glimpse of God’s glory, the Transfiguration reminds us that God is bringing a new world into being. The ways and values of this new world stand in stark contrast to the ways and values of the earthly powers. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to set aside the games of domination and exploitation that earthly powers like to play. And, we have to set aside the violence, hatred, greed, and deception that such powers use to win those games.

The voice of God which came from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Are we listening?

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

~Pastopher