Win… By Losing | 4th of Easter

Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (CEB)

Win… By Losing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parishioner tell me that the Book of Revelation scares them. I’ve heard those words in every church I’ve served as a pastor. And, I understand why Revelation is a scary book. The first reason is probably that the style of writing is unfamiliar to us. It’s part of a genre of literature called apocalyptic, which includes Daniel 7-12 and many, many other writings. In fact, I have a book on my office shelves that contains more than twenty other writings in the apocalyptic genre.

Another reason Revelation scares us is because there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there, like the Left Behind series of books and movies. While this stuff is popular, it’s just plain wrong. It’s actually bad Biblical interpretation. And these incorrect interpretations scares some people because we don’t want to get left behind when the rapture happens and have to live through the tribulation with the antichrist in charge of the world. I mean, life is tough enough. We face enough difficulty as it is every day. So, we want out of here before even more difficult times come! We don’t want to live through suffering.

Yet, suffering is and has always been a part of the Christian story. If there is one serious misconception of the Christian Faith that John the Seer highlights in this text of Revelation, I’d say it’s the misconception that one of God’s main responsibilities—the thing that God owes to us—is to keep us and those we love safe from harm. And, if or when God “fails” to keep us or our loved ones safe from harm, then our faith can start to fall apart. We can question and accuse God for not doing the job God was supposed to do, for not meeting our most basic expectations. We ask ourselves questions, like, if God is all-powerful, then why wouldn’t God heal my uncle’s cancer? Was my uncle not good enough? Were his wife and children not good enough? Why did they all have to suffer through his illness and death?

Those are questions that grief asks, and I think they’re okay to ask them. I even think it’s okay for us to be angry at God at times, because I also believe that God takes our anger and grief and lives in it with us. Maybe God even asks those same questions of God’s self as we’re wrapped in God’s love and held tight.

Yet, questions remains for us to consider: why would we who follow a tortured and crucified savior expect that God should keep us from harm when Christ, himself, didn’t escape it?

Why should we expect to be kept from harm when all of the apostles but John was killed for confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord?

Paul was beheaded in Rome.

Uncounted Christians were martyred: Stephen, James, Ignatius, Perpetua, Felicity, Polycarp, Blandina – they were all killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians have experienced hardship in every chapter of the church’s existence. What part about the Christian Faith makes us think that we should be immune to suffering: that God’s job is to prevent suffering in our lives?

John’s vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no one can count, and they’ve all come out of great hardship. They’re in need of shelter. They have experienced hunger. They have experienced thirst. They have experienced scorching heat. And they have tears in their eyes. This gathered throng of people is not made up of people who are feeling all right, who’ve never been touched by hardship or harm. They have suffered.

Suffering is expected as a part of the Christian experience. That’s why Peter wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13 CEB).

“These are not strange happenings,” yet, it seems that even in Peter’s day Christian people were raising objections to their suffering. We do the same thing, which tells us that it’s a normal part of the human experience to reject suffering as something that we—or anyone—deserves.

But that’s true, too, isn’t it? We don’t deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. It’s wrong when human beings or human institutions cause other human beings to suffer. So, we reject the very idea that suffering is an acceptable lot for anyone—but especially us. I mean, we might not be able to personally vouch for those others—those refugees fleeing violence their homelands for instance, but we know that we’re good people. What we know for certain is that undeserved suffering is unjust, and I think (I hope!) that all of us would say that any suffering is unjust.

But, because of sin and how it gets a hold of each person and each institution we build, the world is not a fair place in which to live. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience because it’s part of the human experience of sin.

But thank God suffering not the only part of the Christian experience. While we should expect to experience suffering, God’s promise is to be with us through our trouble: to be present with us right in the midst of it—and to save us by raising us up to new life. And in that new life, God will care for us in all the ways we might need. In that new life, we’ll no longer live under the rule of sin, so all suffering will be a thing of the past.

This is only one part of what John’s vision teaches us. Revelation is one of my favorite books. As wild as some of the imagery and symbolism is, it’s really not scary. Let me highlight some parts of John’s vision in chapter 7. I’m going to include the first eight verses, too, because they’re part of this section as a whole.

The beginning of chapter 7 is where we’re introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Dan, if you’ve never noticed). In apocalyptic writings, numbers are symbolic. This number, 144,000, is a multiple of 12x12x10x10x10. The number 12 symbolizes fullness or completeness with obvious overtones of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 10 symbolizes the completion of a cycle of perfect order. So, the 144,000 is symbolic of the whole, complete number of God’s people: all of God’s people who are gathered together and who have finished their course.

John hears the number of those who are sealed as God’s servants (c.f. Rev. 7:4). But, when John looks in verse 9, he sees, “a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9 CEB). The image begins with the tribes of Israel, but what John sees clarifies that this group of worshippers includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, who speak all kinds of languages, and there are so many of them that they can’t possibly be numbered.

This uncountable throng of people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language should remind us that God’s dominion is more inclusive than our little tribes tend to be, and it should challenge us to strive to love and serve those whom we and our dominant culture would undoubtedly consider the other.

This uncountable, multi-cultural multitude are dressed in white. Colors have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature, too, and white means victory. In Revelation, white does not mean purity, as it often does in our cultural context. These people are dressed as victors. And, they have palm branches in their hands. The date palm was a symbol of the Judean kings, which was why the people waved palm branches when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as their king and Messiah (and probably making the Roman soldiers nervous about the possibility of an uprising).

The multitude of people in Revelation 7 cry out in a loud voice, “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10 CEB). But the word translated as victory here is σωτηρία (soteria), and it means salvation. This is actually a cry that runs counter to the official claims of the Roman Empire that salvation—in the sense of prosperity, peace, safety, and security—comes from the Emperor and the Roman State. One of the titles of the Roman Caesars was Soter, which is Savior.

So, this act of worship by those in white robes who hold palm branches is sedition against the Roman State. But that’s the thing we might not realize about worship. Worship is dangerous. Worship is a declaration of loyalty. When we worship God, we are making a statement that no other claimant for our loyalty has it. If you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you might recall that the beast also received worship. When we worship here, we are declaring that God alone has our loyalty over and above every other government, institution, party, and individual.

Worship is quite a statement, don’t you think?

Then, in a conversation between John and one of the elders, we find out that the gathered worshippers have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. When John first heard of this Lamb, he was described as “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5 CEB). But, when John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah, what he sees is, “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 CEB). That says something about the power dynamics at play in God’s dominion. The mighty, powerful lion appears as a slaughtered lamb, and it’s the Lamb that has emerged victorious.

The robes of the worshippers are washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white. It’s a powerful image and a powerful statement. Remember that, in apocalyptic literature, white means victory. The blood of Jesus that was spilled in his sacrificial death for us is what has won the victory for us.

And it’s important for us to note that every robe needs washing.

The Lamb at the center of God’s throne will shepherd the people. The Lamb will care for those who have come out of suffering and hardship. The Lamb will guide them to fresh water that pours from the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

This is beautiful, not scary.

John the Seer of Revelation reminds us that, if we are God’s people—as we claim to be by our very act of worship—then we can and should proclaim with boldness that salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb. Our witness on behalf of the crucified and risen Savior can and often does bring us into direct conflict with the powers of this world. Yet, no other allegiance matters because victory only comes from the blood of Jesus. New life only comes by dying. Victory is only won… by losing.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Witnesses | 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).

Witnesses

Let’s be honest, resurrection is not an easy sell in our modern world. I’d imagine that a lot of us have a difficult time believing in such a thing. And, if we do believe the resurrection happened, many of us hold the assumption that the resurrection doesn’t really affect us right now, there’s no immediate resurrection-impact on our lives, because it’s something that won’t really come into play for us until after we die.

That’s kind of how Karl Marx viewed religion. The reason Marx called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opium of the people” is because he thought religion promised oppressed and poor people a heaven that is denied them on earth. Thus, songs like The Preacher and the Slave became popular. Its refrain says: “You will eat [You will eat] bye and bye [bye and bye] in that glorious land above the sky. [Way up high]. Work and pray, [Work and pray], live on hay, [live on hay], you’ll get pie in the sky when you die. [That’s a lie!].”

What Marx and, I suspect, many Christians failed—and still fail—to recognize is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t about the future only. The resurrection is about now. The resurrection leads individuals and communities in the conversion of their hearts and minds now.

Part of our misunderstanding of the resurrection comes from the fact that we misunderstand the Gospels, themselves. We read the Gospels from beginning to end and assume that the resurrection is the miraculous happy ending to the story of Jesus. And, hopefully, we’ll get a miraculous happy ending, too when we die. I mean, we love happy endings, right? Even if we read a book or watch a movie where the ending isn’t happy, I at least feel some satisfaction if the bad guys face justice. I don’t like it when they get away with stuff. We want the happy ending that Jesus got.

What we forget—perhaps what we’ve never even noticed—is that the only reason the Gospels were written, the only reason we have the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching at all—is because of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the precondition for the witness of the Gospel accounts. The resurrection is the basis for every account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we would not have the four Gospels, nor a New Testament, nor a Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to everything. That’s why Easter is the holiest day for Christian people. We all love Christmas, but Christmas only ranks #3 on the list of holiest days on the Christian calendar. Pentecost comes in at #2. Without Easter, without the resurrection, we wouldn’t have the other celebrations.

When Peter visited the house of Cornelius—a Gentile centurion—and preached this message to his household, the foundation of Peter’s witness to Cornelius was the resurrection. None of Jesus’ earlier activities could be understood without the resurrection. That fact is clear in the Gospel accounts. The disciples, themselves, understood nothing of Jesus’ teaching and ministry until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Only in light of the resurrection did God’s revelation through Jesus Christ make sense. Only in light of the resurrection could Jesus Christ be claimed and affirmed as both divine and human. Only in light of the resurrection could the saving grace offered to us through the life, teaching, and death of Jesus be believed as God’s initiative to save us and be reconciled to us.

Without resurrection, we have nothing. That’s why Paul wrote, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… …If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-18 CEB). The resurrection is central to everything we believe and everything for which we hope.

The resurrection is also central to a Christian understanding of peace, freedom, and impartiality. And I said, a Christian understanding because we can use those same words in a secular sense and have radically different meanings from the Christian sense.

Peter’s first line to Cornelius’s household is that he really is learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Think about how incredible that statement is coming from a Jew who had lived his entire life in the unquestioned certainty of God’s particularity. God chose the Jewish people, not the gentiles (which is everyone else). Yet, Peter comes to recognize, by God’s initiative, that God does not show partiality or favor. Rather, God offers restoration and inclusion in God’s plan of salvation to all people.

There are whispers of God’s universal love and care for all people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the promise God made to Abraham included the words: “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3c CEB). God’s exclusive claim of Abraham’s descendants ended on a note of God’s radical inclusion of all the families of the earth.

The prophet Jonah was sent to a foreign city, Ninevah, so the people there could change their hearts and minds and find salvation in God. When Jonah got angry that God didn’t kill them all, God had to remind Jonah that God cared about those people and even their cattle, too.

We find that same theme in the New Testament, too. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel said, “Look! I bring goods news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10 CEB).

God took the initiative in changing and expanding Peter’s understanding of who is included in God’s plan of salvation. Peter experienced a conversion. His unquestioned assumptions about the particularity of Israel grew into a new insight of God’s expansive impartiality and inclusion of all peoples.

Another piece that we we desperately need to understand—just as Peter had to learn—is that salvation is not our plan. Salvation is not something we do. Salvation is neither ours to offer nor ours to withhold from others. Salvation belongs to God and is offered by God to all. God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another, which tells us that the church can and should become a community of radical reconciliation and peacemaking between women and men, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, between differing cultures and faiths and skin tones and languages.

It sounds nice, right? God loves everyone, and so should we. Yet, Peter’s new insight into God’s cosmopolitan impartiality should not make us feel particularly good about ourselves. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and feel good about the fact that we serve a God who knows and loves everyone. That’s not where this should lead.

Rather, Peter’s insight ought to chasten us because, while we’re called to love everyone, we don’t. Do we? I don’t.

God is the God of impartiality, so we’re supposed to be a people of impartiality, but we aren’t. Are we? I’m not.

God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people but we don’t often bother to build relationships with those who are different from us. We don’t have to look much further than the political rhetoric of the day to see how partial our thoughts can be. Much of the time, I act like God is partial, and I assume that God favors my way of doing things. Don’t we all do that?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands conversion. There’s some irony in the fact that Peter became the foundation for the Church’s own conversion in its earliest days. Peter’s name means rock. The image of a rock doesn’t lend itself much to change, yet Peter had his mind changed by God. When the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter about what he’d done, He convinced them that God had accepted even the Gentiles, and the whole church experienced a conversion. If God could change Peter’s mind, then God can change our minds, too.

Peter was a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Peter, along with other witnesses, ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised from the dead. And, it wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection that Peter and the other disciples began to understand the radical social implications of resurrection life.

What we proclaim on Easter is that Christ has been raised from the dead, and Jesus Christ really has taken away the sins of the world. Christ alone is appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Christ is Lord of all.

Christ has been raised from death. And, we are called to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection by living resurrection before the eyes of the world now, by living out God’s radical impartiality now. One of my seminary professors at Duke was fond of saying, “Show me your resurrection.” So, what does your resurrection look like? Like Peter, in what ways do we still need to experience conversion?

We don’t have to wait until we die before living a Resurrection life. We can live Resurrection now. We can live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the grace offered to us because of Christ’s work on our behalf now. Resurrection is where our faith begins and ends. The only reason any of us are here today is because Christ has been raised. Resurrection is the message of Easter. And Peter reminds us that everyone is invited to dine at the table of the Lord. Everyone is invited to live as members of God’s family. All of us, together, are the reason Christ came into the world and was raised from the dead.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Goal | 5th in Lent

Philippians 3:4b-14

4b If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless. 7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

The Goal

We live in a credentialed world. When my wife was working toward her credentials as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, she had to get a Bachelor of Science degree, complete required internships, and pass a test. Only after she met the right criteria could she put the letters CTRS behind her name to show that she had the right credentials in Therapeutic Recreation.

Many fields require credentialing. The credentials are why we believe people when they talk about their area of expertise. The credentials are why we trust people like doctors, nurses, lawyers, therapists, pastors, teachers, meteorologists (sometimes), firefighters, police officers, and so many others. When they have the right credentials, we can trust that they more-than-likely know what they’re talking about in their particular field.

You might not know this, but one of the steps for a person who’s seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church is that we are certified. We are certified as a candidate for ordained ministry. I think it’s an accurate term—despite the negative connotation—because you almost have to be crazy to go into ordained ministry. But they check that too through psychological examinations to make sure that, while we’re certified, we aren’t certified.

There are many autobiographical passages found in Paul’s letters. I think they’re powerful because Paul takes the little story about his life and makes it meaningful by showing us how his story connects to the bigger story of God’s activity of salvation. In this text, Paul lists some of his credentials.

Yet, for us, the idea moves beyond credentials. Because, if we’re properly credentialed, we should become a success. How do we judge our lives as successful? Maybe we can hold up our list of personal accomplishments and achievements. How do we judge others as successful? We probably hold up their list of personal accomplishments and achievements. We might also look at what kind of car they drive, how well they dress, or how big their house is.

This practice of judging successfulness is most visible in the world of professional sports. Before the Colts won the Superbowl in 2007, the commentators all said that Peyton Manning, as great as he was, needed to win the big one in order to be considered one of the elite quarterbacks ever to play the game. After he won, the commentators started to say that he needed to win two Superbowls to be considered “elite.” Even winning it all is never enough. What do all sports commentators still say about Dan Marino? He’s the greatest quarterback who never won a Superbowl. For all the things Dan Marino accomplished, his successes are all tempered by this one lacking achievement.

Let me tell you about myself. How would you judge me?

I grew up at Central United Methodist Church where all the Romains worshipped as a family.

I was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Web Garrison, the former Dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

As to zeal, I hardly ever missed a Sunday of worship or Youth Group unless I was too sick to go. God called me to ministry when I was a child so young that I didn’t understand what it meant, and God continued to call until I was old enough to answer.

I graduated from Evansville North High School in 1995, which was the year Redbook Magazine ranked my high school as the #3 academic high school in the United States of America.

I was accepted as a Certified Candidate for Ordained Ministry by the Evansville District of the South Indiana Conference in 1998.

I attended The University of Findlay and graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree. I majored in Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management with an emphasis in Environmental Policy and Compliance, and I had two minors: one in Political Science, and one in Religion. I was even voted the 1998 Homecoming King by the student body. (I have the crown to prove it).

I continued my education at Duke University: The Divinity School, and I graduated in 2003 with a Master of Divinity degree.

I am a United Methodist of United Methodists.

I was Commissioned as a Probationary Elder by Bishop Woody White at the 35th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 06, 2003.

I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection at the 38th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 09, 2006. Two bishops laid hands on me at my ordination: Bishop Michael Coyner of Indiana, and Bishop Hans Vaxby of the Eurasia Area. Others who laid hands on me were Rev. Craig Duke of the United Methodist Church, and Pastor Will Miller of The University of Findlay who is ordained in the Churches of God, General Conference.

I have served in ministry at a North Carolina state institution, a mission agency of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, and multiple local churches, large and small across North Carolina and Indiana.

I’m 42 years old. I have 3 amazing children, an intelligent and capable wife (which is, of course, the singularly most important thing on my resume).

As a family, we have always given the full 10% tithe to our churches, and we give to other charities as well.

So, what do you think of my résumé? Would you judge me as successful? Or would you say that I’ve not really been successful until I become a bishop?

The thing is, everyone here could give a story of your own grand successes—much grander than mine—be it in business, or farming, or education, or the medical field, or parenting, or volunteer work, or whatever else. We all have something on our résumé that speaks of our success.

Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless” Philippians 3:4b-6 CEB).

If it is all about success, Paul has it made! He’s got every important detail on his résumé. He has all the right credentials. We know that he was educated by Gamaliel, the son Hillel, who of one of the two most influential teachers in the last 2000 years of Jewish history. His heritage and religious achievements are unparalleled!

But then Paul gives us a reevaluation of his life in light of knowing Jesus Christ. He says, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11 CEB).

Let me give you a reevaluation of my résumé. Compared to knowing Jesus Christ, it is all rubbish. My education, my ordination, my financial situation, everything in my life is counted as loss compared to gaining Christ.

Will my education save me? How about my ordination? Won’t my ordination save me? I mean I’m a pastor, for Pete’s sake! No. No. No. In the light of Christ, what the world sees as important becomes unimportant. My life, my achievements, mean nothing without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. And I can say with all certainty that I would never have achieved a thing in my life had God not provided the way and the means for me to achieve it. Everything I have done has its root, its beginning, in God. Rather than what I have done, any accomplishments I might claim are what God has done in me, what God has accomplished in me, and what I expect God to yet accomplish in me.

In coming to know Jesus Christ, Paul gained a new lens through which he viewed life differently. Paul uses the commercial terms of “gain” and “loss.” Knowing Jesus Christ, to mix the metaphor a little, rearranges the price tags of life in such a way that items we previously thought of as valuable are recognized as worthless, and items once regarded as having little importance are cherished.

The surpassing value of knowing Christ means having a relationship to God that is based on faith in Christ. No credentials of success in life or religion will determine our status before God other than that of knowing Jesus Christ and following his example in faith. We are accepted by God not because of our achievements, but because of the faith we have in—and the obedience we show to—Christ.

You see, knowing Christ is spelled out in terms of participation with Christ, of knowing the power of his resurrection and sharing his sufferings by being conformed to his death. The way Paul writes this is arresting. I would have thought a different order was more appropriate—of suffering and then resurrection, of Good Friday and then Easter, of anguish endured and then resolution. Instead, the reverse is suggested: that the power of Christ’s resurrection leads to and is known in the obedience of our faith and the inevitable strife it brings.

Karl Barth puts it this way, “To know Easter means, for the person knowing it, as stringently as may be: to be implicated in the events of Good Friday…The way in which the power of Christ’s resurrection works powerfully in the apostle is, that he is clothed with the shame of the cross” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C, p.234).

So a question for us to consider is: do we see ourselves as being clothed in the shame of the cross?

Paul then tells us his intentions for how he’ll live the rest of his life because he knows Jesus Christ. He says that he hasn’t reached the goal or ben perfected, but he strives to grab hold of Christ because Christ grabbed hold of Paul for a purpose that is bigger than Paul. He said, “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 CEB).

Like my story, and like your story, Paul’s story is—at the time he wrote this—unfinished. God’s future beckons to us to press on and strain forward to what lies ahead. We have not yet arrived, but we are on our way. God has accepted us, and this acceptance by God can energize us to continue to press forward, to pursue the vocation to which God has called us. Our motivation comes from God’s grace and the promise of our participation in the resurrection. Paul’s story provides a paradigm of the Gospel. It shows us how the Gospel works to powerfully change our view of life and create in us a renewed sense of expectation for the future.

God’s plan for us is not to make us successful according to the way the world views success. God’s plan is to make us faithful, to make us holy, to reveal the power of the resurrection in a fragile body which is subject to death. Whether any of us are successful according to the judgment of the world, or not, it doesn’t matter. In light of Christ; in light of knowing Christ; in light of participating in Christ; our worldly successes and accomplishments are all rubbish anyway.

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

Economy | 3rd in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. 6 Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. 7 Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. 8 My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. (CEB)

Economy

If we’ve been paying attention to and participating in the Season of Lent, this text from Second Isaiah seems almost jarring. Isn’t Lent about less, not more? Isn’t Lent about giving up our excesses, not filling ourselves with them? Isn’t Lent about fasting, not feasting? In fact, in most liturgical traditions, we avoid using the word Alleluia in Lent because it’s a joyous, celebratory word. So, what’s with this invitation to feast; and not only feast, but feast for free!? Isaiah beckons us to bask in God’s abundance: to eat, drink, and be satisfied beyond measure. It feels odd for a text in Lent. Yet, what makes this text very Lenten is that the invitation is for us to feast on the abundance that God provides rather than relying wholly on ourselves.

I remember seeing a Reader’s Digest @Work piece that told of a woman who got out of her car to go into work and she saw one of her coworkers heading toward the entrance. She was about to say “Hi” to her colleague when she heard her coworker muttering under her breath, “It pays the bills. It pays the bills. It pays the bills.” She realized her coworker was steeling herself for the day ahead: a day of work she clearly loathed.

At some points in our lives, don’t we all experience the daily grind of work, work, work as grueling and unfulfilling? Even if you’re one of those lucky few who absolutely loves what you do to earn a living, you still might have days when you feel as unfulfilled as this woman in the @Work piece obviously was. Sometimes we have to psych ourselves up just to get out of bed.

If we live in the midst of unfulfillment, it can quickly lead to depression. I wasn’t surprised when, several years ago, a psychologist colleague of mine said that most of the people he encounters every day are living in some stage of depression, whether an early stage or more advanced. “Most people” is a lot of people. I might have even been included in his quantification of “most people,” because ministry—like many other professions—is stressful work. Believe it or not, it isn’t all rainbows and Easter Lilies.

Our culture has many suggestions for overcoming this sense of unfulfilling drudgery. Some of you may have heard of Retail or Mall Therapy. It’s where you go shopping to make yourself feel better. Lots of people do it. But the problem with retail therapy is that by the time the therapy session is over, you’ve only exacerbated the problem. You’ve either added more bills to your credit card statement that have to be paid off, or you’ve blown a hole in your bank account. We kill ourselves in endless circles—not of work and PLAY—but of work and PAY.

This cycle of work and pay causes our worldview to skew toward an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance. We can never feel content when all we see is what we don’t have; when all we feel is that there isn’t enough. And scarcity is scary. It’s frightening to think that we might not have enough. And that fear piles even more stress on us.

But God has something to say about how we live. God offers us an invitation to feast, to fully sate our hunger and thirst. God offers this invitation without a hitch because money is no object. The rich and poor alike can feast on abundance. You can’t buy what’s given for free. God implores us to listen and to eat what is good.

And therein lies another problem. We don’t always want to listen to others. I know this because I don’t always want to listen to others. My kids don’t always want to listen to me. A lot of people think that if the world would just listen to them, then the world would be in a lot better shape than it is. We—Christians included—don’t always want to listen to God. We’re willfully disobedient in more than one way. We can be as hard-headed and willfully deaf to God’s revelation as the rest of humanity.

But God again calls us to listen—incline your ear—and come to God so that we can live—truly live. Those who come to God are party to an everlasting covenant which is represented by God’s steadfast and sure love, as exemplified by God’s love for David. David is set before us as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and God made promises to David that were kept. But, this invitation to participate in God’s providential delight suggests that God’s covenant is no longer a covenant just for David and David’s line. It’s a covenant that extends to all the people.

What is it that we eat? Some would suggest that we feast on the word of God which is nothing short of grace to all who listen to it. I have a Biblical commentary series titled Feasting on the Word. Others would suggest that this invitation is an invitation to change our worldview from one of scarcity to one of abundance and contentment, trusting more fully in God’s gifts.

The prophet tells us to seek the Lord while there is still time, to recognize our sin and turn away from it. We’re invited to return to the Lord and are assured that God will have mercy and will abundantly pardon us from our sins. Fear of God’s wrath has no place here as a way of keeping us from coming to God, because God invites us to come and experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Closely related to humanity’s belief that we don’t need salvation is the fact that most people in firmly believe that our thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our ways are like God’s ways. I guess it’s easier to believe in an anthropomorphic God than a sovereign God who reigns above us. One of our favorite things to do is to put God in our box. After all, if God doesn’t think the way we think about what’s good and right, then God’s not a very good God.

It’s easier to try and make God conform to our image rather than recognize that we are created in God’s image. We want God to conform to our way of thinking about life and goodness rather than conform to God’s way of thinking about these things. We want to be the final authority in determining what is good and what merits salvation and eternal life rather than allow God to have God’s say regarding these things. We want God to be our obedient child, while at the same time we fail to recognize that we are God’s disobedient children.

For the people of Israel who were in exile, Isaiah points to the subtle spiritual threat that a life in exile poses for any people who live in exile. They’re invited to conform, to be integrated into Babylonian society and find their security within the confines of that society. They’re ushered into exile with open arms to become captives of transaction and materialism that are foreign to the ways of God, and the Jubilee-style economy of God. They’re enticed to participate in a culture that binds them, even as it appears to free them with an invitation to be a part of this life in exile.

For us, the state of exile isn’t so much a physical dislocation and separation from the Promised Land as it is the dislocation of our lives from reliance upon God. When the principalities and powers lure God’s people away from God’s service by false-promises of wealth, power, fame, authority, accumulation, whatever worldly thing it might be: then, we are in exile. For us, exile is a metaphor for a people of God who have accepted or resigned themselves to their full citizenship and participation in a materialistic world and do not live the life of faith.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, a much as we thought differently. God’s ways and Gods thoughts are much higher than our feeble brains can reach in the greatest height of our imagination. God is infinitely bigger than we are, yet small enough to care deeply about every single one of us: more deeply than even we can imagine.

That’s why we have Isaiah’s invitation in Lent. While Lent is a season in which we ought to practice spiritual disciplines, those disciplines are not ends. Fasting, penitence, prayer, abstinence, Bible study, sacraments, worship, these are pathways through which we move toward and experience the abundance of God and focus ardently on God’s grace.

Every Sunday, I stand before a people who are in exile, and I have to admit I’m right there in the middle of it with you. The difficult part is that we either forget or refuse to accept that we’re in exile. The enticements and lures of the principalities and powers that would draw us away are strong. They’re called “powers” for a reason: they can have power over us if we aren’t careful. If we want to be honest with ourselves during the season of Lent, we need to consider the possibility that we might be more deeply entrenched in exile than is comfortable to admit.

Yet, we have this beautiful invitation where God simply says, Come… Listen… Live…. And we are invited to feast on all the goodness of God. That’s why we gather together for worship in a spirit of confession and forgiveness. And that’s why the prophet’s words should be heard by our ears as a promise—even if it’s a promise we don’t fully understand. We are invited to “Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:6-8 CEB).

Even when we find ourselves in exile, surrounded by all the things the world offers, it’s still true that confession, repentance, and prayer lead to God’s mercy, God’s pardon, and God’s sure, steadfast love. The unending grace of God stands in contrast to society’s unquenchable thirst for accumulation. True abundance is God’s immeasurable and abundant grace.

So, even though it’s Lent, and we’re kind of supposed to avoid being too joyful with words like Alleluia, how can our response be otherwise? Even as we live in a society full of people who are tragically captive as exiles, how can our response to this invitation to God’s abundance, how can the response of anyone who has heard the invitation to turn from exile and receive God’s abundance and grace be anything less than a thankful, joyous, Alleluia!?

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

Citizenship | 2nd in Lent

Philippians 3:17-4:1

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. 4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Citizenship

Do you remember the old arcade and Atari game Space Invaders? If you do, your life has just been dated. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, it’s the game that revolutionized the video game industry. If you enjoy video games today, it’s because of Space Invaders.

One cool thing about Space Invaders is that it didn’t have an end. It kept going, level after level, the invaders moved faster and faster, until you died. The only thing you could win in that game was one level at a time, and your singular goal was the High Score. A player could only strive to reach the next level, and the next level, and the next level, until your hands cramped up and you couldn’t get that last invading ship. We know from other writings that Paul described the Christian life as a game: a race you ran—and kept running.

When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he did so from a prison somewhere in the Roman Empire. So, honestly, it seems a little arrogant of Paul to tell the Christians at Philippi to imitate him. I mean, he was in prison. He was a criminal. As a Roman citizen, Paul was executed by the Roman authorities by having his head chopped off because of his crimes against the Roman State. So, why would anyone follow Paul’s example? Why imitate a guy whom the government said was a criminal?

Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to imitate him comes after he recounts a hymn about Jesus Christ: a hymn which is at the center of and pattern for his argument in Philippians. “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. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11 CEB).

(We might remember that our Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, was also executed as a criminal by the government).

Just prior to our text, in verses 7-16, Paul describes how he has followed that same pattern of Christ’s self-emptying. Not that Paul had achieved perfection, not that he had arrived at the end-goal of the Christian life. Paul tells us plainly that he hasn’t (c.f. Philippians 3:12-13). But Paul was pursuing something he called “the prize of God’s upward call in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:14). Perfection in Christ was the goal toward which Paul strove, and he insisted it’s the goal toward which we should all strive—the race in which we should compete. Each Christian person should live in a way that’s consistent with whatever level of faith or perfection we’ve reached (Philippians 3:16 CEB).

John Wesley was one of many people who believed Christian perfection is not merely a proper aim, but a real possibility. After all, Jesus commanded us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (c.f. Matthew 5:48). And Wesley didn’t believe that Jesus give us a command that was impossible to fulfill.

But Wesley was also skeptical of anyone who actually claimed to be perfect or to have reached perfection. For him, the mark of true maturity in the Christian Faith is to know that one is not yet perfect. Perfection is the goal toward which we strive but, in this life, it’s always beyond our reaching it. Yet, perfection still is our goal, and our expectation should be to achieve it with God’s help, even as it remains out of reach.

Several years ago, Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke at Annual Conference. If you don’t know of Adam Hamilton, he’s the pastor The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. It’s the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States. He’s a prolific author. When he spoke at conference, I remember him saying that one of his habits is that he tends to categorize people on a pyramid of spiritual maturity.

The majority of people in the church fit into the largest level at the base of the pyramid. These are the children and infants in the faith (and he meant infants according to Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 3, not necessarily actual infants and children, though they fit into that category, too). The next two levels up the pyramid each denoted a smaller number of people who had reached an increased level of maturity until you finally got to the pinnacle of the pyramid. This represented the smallest number of people who had reached the highest level of maturity in the Christian Faith. (If you compare it to the old Food Pyramid, this is where all the candy and sweet stuff is).

But Adam also said that anyone who thought they were in that pinnacle category… he automatically dropped them down a level or two. The reason was that no person whose faith had matured to that level knew they were in that category. People who are at that highest level of Spiritual maturity, like Paul, know that they have so much room for growth that they’d never put themselves in it. Spiritually mature people don’t say that they’ve reached perfection or that they’re entirely sanctified because they don’t realize they are. In fact, the spiritually mature know that they are neither perfect nor entirely sanctified. Spiritually mature Christians only see room for growth.

Centuries before John Wesley, Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, wrote a treatise called On Perfection in which he expressed that the essential activity of the Christian is to imitate the nature of God in whose image we have been created. But the emphasis was on each person working at a change in our nature. In fact, Gregory of Nyssa said, “Being something does not result from being called something” (Callahan, trans., St. Gregory Ascetical Works, pg. 98). We can call ourselves a Christian, but that doesn’t make us one. Saint Gregory suggested that those who identify themselves by the name of Christ should become what the name implies and adapt ourselves and our behavior to the title. Saint Gregory also said, “For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection” (Ibid, 122).

So, when Paul tells the Christians at Philippi to become imitators of him, he’s speaking from a lifetime of striving toward that same goal of patterning his life after that of Christ. Remember how far Paul has come at this point, which wasn’t too far from the date of his execution. Paul was once an enemy of the church. In the early part of Acts of the Apostles, Paul was the bad guy in the story. For him, being conformed to the image of Christ required a complete change of allegiance. In truth, that change of allegiance is required of everyone who would claim the name of Christ.

Paul offers a comparison by reminding the Philippians that many people live as enemies of the cross, whose god is their belly, and who take pride in their focus on earthly things which, Paul says, is really their shame. These people, it seems, were busy enjoying an indulgent lifestyle and being rather pleased about it. But that runs contrary to the example of Christ Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, didn’t consider being equal with God something to exploit” (Philippians 2:6 CEB). Instead, Christ emptied himself, which led to his death on a cross. The example we have in Christ is one of self-sacrifice and self-emptying, not gluttonous excess.

In most instances in Scripture, when Paul has a disagreement with someone or some group, it’s over their teaching. In this case, it’s pretty clear that Paul disagreed with their behavior. Those who act like their god is the belly have not thought it necessary to have the same mind as Christ. Their minds are on earthly things rather than heavenly things. They keep for themselves instead of empty for others.

There is also a political bent to Paul’s words that we can’t ignore. He said, “Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20 CEB). Philippi was a Roman city, populated by many Roman citizens. They might well have been proud of their status as citizens of the distant Imperial city. Acts 16 tells us that Philippi is where Paul declared himself to be a Roman citizen.

So, on one hand, part of Paul’s intention here might be to remind the Philippians that they are citizens of a much greater country than Rome. On the other hand, it’s possible that many of the Christians at Philippi were slaves. So, to remind them that they held citizenship in heaven would have been especially meaningful. The Empire might be happy with their status as slaves, but their status in heaven was that of full citizens.

Another piece to the political bent of what Paul wrote in verse 20 is his use of the word savior. In the undisputed letters of Paul, this is the only place where the word is used. The Roman State used the title Savior for the Emperor, who was venerated as a god in the imperial cult. Our expectation is a savior from heaven: a savior with real power, not the pale shadow of power wielded by a human emperor and his government. Our savior isn’t a human ruler enjoying sumptuous feasts in his palatial estate, receiving the wealth of the world for himself.

The savior we expect from heaven is the one who emptied himself and gave himself over to death for us. Our savior is the one who created us, whose creative word called all things into existence, and that savior, Jesus Christ, will transform our humble bodies of flesh and blood into a glorious body like that of his own resurrection body.

In the final verse, Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm in the Lord. He doesn’t tell them to wait for heaven or to pray for personal salvation. Paul wants the Philippians to live as though the dominion of heaven is shaping their lives now. We can stand firm in the Lord because the source of salvation—real salvation—comes from Jesus Christ.

We who claim to be Christians owe our primary allegiance to Jesus Christ and the dominion of God. That allegiance must come before any other claimants for our loyalty. Belonging to Christ is both a privilege and a responsibility. We, like Paul and like the Philippians, serve a savior who was condemned and tortured by the government and executed by crucifixion. Paul encourages us to stand firm in the Lord because our citizenship and salvation are from heaven.

Like Space Invaders, there’s only one way to finish the course of the race we’re running as we model our lives after the pattern of Jesus Christ. With Paul and the saints who have gone before us, let’s aim for the high score.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Thanksgiving | 1st in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

1 Once you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it and are settled there, 2 take some of the early produce of the fertile ground that you have harvested from the land the LORD your God is giving you, and put it in a basket. Then go to the location the LORD your God selects for his name to reside. 3 Go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him: “I am declaring right now before the LORD my God that I have indeed arrived in the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”

4 The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the LORD your God’s altar. 5 Then you should solemnly state before the LORD your God:

“My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. 6 The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. 7 So we cried out for help to the LORD, our ancestors’ God. The LORD heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. 10 So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, LORD, have given me.”

Set the produce before the LORD your God, bowing down before the LORD your God. 11 Then celebrate all the good things the LORD your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you. (CEB)

Thanksgiving

This text brings several important questions to mind for me. Why do we worship? How does memory shape us as a people? Why do we give? To whom do we belong? These are, at their heart, deeply theological questions. One of the first things Dr. Teresa Berger, the professor of my Introduction to Christian Theology class, taught her students was that we are all theologians. Theologians are not limited to pastors, seminary professors, and seminary students. Every Christian is a theologian because thinking about God is theology.

It’s Sunday and we’re in church, so I’m guessing most of us have thought about God today. At least, I hope we have. By my professor’s definition, you are a theologian.

Deuteronomy 26 begins with an act of giving that is really an act of thanksgiving. This is a liturgy—an act or work of the people—that they should continue to do (c.f. Deuteronomy 26:16-19). The people of Israel were given this liturgy so they could remember their story. For the Jewish people, memory often proved itself the mother of faith for the way in which God’s promises were, not merely retold, but rehearsed and relived. The word re-member means to put something back together, as opposed to dis-member which is to tear something apart. This liturgy made the people remember who they are, where they came from, and whose they are.

If you look at the liturgies of the Old Testament, they almost always give instructions for what the people are to do and recount why they are to do those actions. There is purpose behind acts of worship. And there is purpose behind our acts of worship. It’s the memory that frames that purpose in our hearts and minds. “Deuteronomy knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future” (Archie Smith, Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, pg.28). If we forget that God has saved us, how can we live as salvation people?

Worship helps us re-member to whom we belong. God is always the one who acts first on our behalf. God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt to liberty in the Promised Land. God delivered us from bondage to sin and death to freedom from sin and a new life that is eternal in God’s presence.

How closely do we pay attention when we work through the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving? We declare that we are all made in God’s image, that our very life comes from the breath of God. If we’ve ever wondered who we are or whose we are, our liturgy of worship declares that we belong to God, that we were made by God so that we could be loved by God. Even when our love for God and each other failed, God’s love for us remained steadfast and unwavering.

Deuteronomy also makes clear that Israel was the victim of suffering and oppression in Egypt, and God delivered them. God chose them. God moved them from a land of oppression to a land flowing with milk and honey. Are we not victims of the oppression of the evil one, sin, and ultimately death? Yet, God has come to us, claimed us, and made a way for us where there was not a way. In Jesus Christ, we have become God’s own possession and people, and we are heirs to all the promises of God alongside Israel. In Christ, we are healed of the oppression of sin, and death, itself, has been defeated by resurrection.

Then, there’s the question about giving to God. In this liturgy from Deuteronomy, the act of giving culminates in celebration with Levites and immigrants—the priests and the aliens, the insiders and outsiders. In some parts of the world, the church erupts in celebration when the pastor invites people to give for the offering. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see here? That kind of celebration can only happen when the people who give remember that everything they have is a gift from God. That kind of remembering makes people want to give; excited to give. People who understand that they are the recipients of abundance can’t wait to acknowledge that gift by returning the first fruits to the one who first provided the gift to them.

In Deuteronomy, the word most often used regarding the land is “possess.” The people possessed the land, but it is abundantly clear that the land still belonged to God. The people do not own anything. They merely possess. In a sense, they are eternally beggars who reside in a land that is not their own, who rely utterly on the unfathomable generosity of God-the-landowner. I think that’s why God tells the people to celebrate with the Levites and the immigrants because such a celebration reflects the people’s own situation as immigrants residing in God’s land, living off the bounty only God can provide.

Due, in part, to American culture, our giving has become a private, inward moment instead of the communal, outward celebration described in Deuteronomy (and found in other Christian congregations of the world). How would our own sense of what we possess and how we give be altered by the memory that we are resident aliens, that what we have is God’s, and we’re living every day on God’s gift of abundance? What kind of remembrance might it take to get us celebrating an invitation to give our first fruits and tithes to God?

I think it would take a radical shift in priorities and how we organize those priorities. Because, it’s easy to forget our identity as God’s people. The world is full of distractions that draw our attention elsewhere. In one sense, we can get comfortable with our wealth, but in another sense we can get so tied up in worrying about our wealth and the fear of scarcity—that we might not have enough—that we’re pulled away by one of the many worries of the world. That’s why Jesus told us, “Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).

When we forget—even for a moment—that all we have is from God, that we are beloved of God; when we forget whose we are; when we forget our deliverance from the bondage of sin and death; then our acts of worship, thanksgiving, and praise, themselves, can become meaningless. And we might question why we’re even bothering to show up in this place on Sunday mornings.

For example, in Deuteronomy, the giving of the first fruits of the harvest and the reciting of the story of deliverance are inseparably linked. The meaning of the people’s giving of the first fruits is found in recounting of the story of God’s liberating act for the people. Without the story of liberation—without the remembering—the act of giving would hold no meaning for the people making the offering. If we forget the story—our story—then our worship won’t make sense. It’ll feel empty.

So, how do we organize our lives, our sense of worth, our sense of self, our sense of history, and our sense of priority? How do we remember who and whose we are?

One way we can begin is by remembering our own story.

Do we remember our own story? And by that, I don’t mean our personal history—though that certainly plays a part. What I mean is, do we remember that we are a people who were utterly lost and broken (and by “we” I mean all people, not just us in particular), we were created in the very image of God yet turned away from that glory in rebellion so we could chase after our own devices and desires, we were born to live in sin and to die because of it. But God intervened in our human mess by sending the Eternal Word to be born among us, to live, to teach, to suffer, and to die on a cross for us so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Do we remember our story? Do we remember where we’ve been as a human race and, by God’s grace, where we’re being led?

It’s important to remember. There is joy in remembering because—no matter what hot mess is going in in our lives right now—the memory reminds us how deeply we’re loved and how deeply present God is with us right now.

Why do we worship? Because more than any other thing we do, worship forms us as a people who live according to and unto God’s rule and reign of love and peace for all creation. Worship helps us to re-member whose we are, why we give, and how we’re called to live as people of the promise.

We must remember God’s work of creation, because we were created. We must remember God’s work of redemption and salvation because we have been redeemed and saved by a God who loved us before we were formed in our mother’s womb. We must remember, because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

With such a remembrance of who we are, whose we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re being led, what can our response be but celebration? How can we not rejoice with priests and immigrants, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies?

In a way, the journey of Lent prepares us and helps us to remember according to this same pattern. The psalmist reminds us that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 NRSV). Suffering comes before deliverance and salvation. This journey to the cross must be undertaken before we celebrate the joy of Easter. We must remember what God has done for us, how God has suffered for us, because it’s part of our story. The great invitation of Lent is to remember again the depth of God’s love, and the profundity of God’s overflowing grace. We were once outsiders. But now we are God’s people only because God has opened the way for us.

Do we remember our story?

How shall we respond?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Veiled | Transfiguration of the Lord

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

12 So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence. 13 We aren’t like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites couldn’t watch the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. Right up to the present day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The veil is not removed because it is taken away by Christ. 15 Even today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But whenever someone turns back to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. 18 All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

4:1 This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. 2 Instead, we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. Instead, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. (CEB)

Veiled

Reading and understanding Second Corinthians is difficult. Preaching from it is even more so. It’s difficult to follow Paul’s argument when we take a small section of it, like 3:12-4:2, because Paul’s arguments are long and complex. The first words of our text: “So…” in the CEB and “Since, then,…” in the NRSV, tell us that this text continues an argument or point that Paul had made in the preceding verses.

Yet, even if we were to go back and look at the preceding verses in Second Corinthians, there’s still the problem that this letter is correspondence with a church community, and we don’t even have half of that correspondence. What we call First Corinthians was at least the second letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (c.f. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

The letter we call Second Corinthians was at least the fourth letter Paul wrote to them. On one of Paul’s visits to Corinth, he experienced a falling out with the church there when one man publicly accused Paul of falsehood and no one in the church came to his defense. Paul left, and he was so upset that he canceled a later planned visit and, instead, he wrote a letter of tears in which he told the Corinthians of his overwhelming love for them. We don’t have that letter of tears.

Second Corinthians chapters 1-9 was Paul’s attempt to reconcile with the church at Corinth. In fact, having found out that the Corinthian church had punished the person who attacked Paul, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive and comfort the man (c.f. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).

But, chapters 10-13 are such a severe shift in tone from the first nine chapters that some scholars think those chapters are a fragment of yet another letter that Paul wrote sometime after he wrote the first nine chapters of Second Corinthians. So, Paul wrote at least two letters to Corinth that are now lost to history.

And, we don’t have any of the letters that the Corinthian Christians wrote to Paul, but we know that they wrote to him (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:1). So, the obvious difficulty in tracking Paul’s already complex arguments is that we never have the whole story. That lack of information, which is a lack of context, makes Second Corinthians a little challenging at times.

What we can determine is that, in our text and in the previous verses at the end of chapter 2, Paul was defending his ministry as having come from God. The work he was doing among the Corinthians wasn’t because he was qualified for it in his own right, nor was his success at Corinth something that came from him. Rather, God qualified him for the work of ministry among them by the power of the Spirit. And, because it is a ministry of the Spirit and not a ministry of written law, Paul declares how much confidence and hope we can have that this new thing God is doing is permanent and everlasting. “So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence” (2 Corinthians 3:12 CEB).

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. The ministry of Jesus was to reveal God and God’s deep love for every person to a broken and lost humanity. Paul used the imagery of the veil over Moses’ face to describe the separation between God and mortals, just as there was a curtain in the temple to separate worshipers from God’s holiness. But, in Christ Jesus—who is God the Word made flesh—that veil is removed. Jesus revealed God’s glory to the entire human race and opened the way of salvation to everyone.

The separation between God and human beings is taken away, and we now operate by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus for his ministry, and Paul for his. There is freedom where the Lord’s Spirit is. We Americans love the idea freedom. We believe we’re free, we will patriotically, insistently assert how free we are… even as we’re in complete bondage to almost everything around us… not to mention sin and death, and as we approach April 15: taxes. Don’t believe me that we’re in bondage? I dare you to take off your watches and turn your clocks face-down and see how long you last without utter reliance on the taskmaster-of-time telling us exactly where to be and when. And that’s only one example. But that’s not really the kind of freedom Paul is talking about.

We might ask what we’re freed from, or for. What Paul wants us to understand is that we’re free from any sense that we have to earn acceptance from God. Those illusions are shattered so that we are free to see Christ and follow him.

You see, freedom, for Paul, is not something we can accomplish or generate for ourselves. We can’t free ourselves by revolution, or smashing our clocks to bits, or gaining wealth. Freedom is a gift of God that liberates us to be what God created us to be: namely, servants to all whom we encounter. That’s what Christ did for us, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “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. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 CEB).

We’re free to see Jesus Christ and be who we’re meant to be because God has already accepted us and forgiven us. That freedom means we can reach out in service to others—as Christ did to the world. And we can have confidence in our activity of reaching out because we trust that God will equip us in the ways we need to be equipped for the ministry we do.

We’re also free from having to worry about human definitions of success and effectiveness in the ministry we do. Where the Spirit of God is, we’re free from the fear of failure and fear of criticism.

Paul also says, “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB). Paul dares us to imagine that we are being transformed in a way that gives glory to God. As humanity was created in God’s image (c.f. Genesis 1:27), yet that image was distorted through sin, the image of God in us is being restored as we are being transformed to more perfectly reflect God in our lives.

In that sense, our lives are being transformed by our God-given freedom. Our actions, our words, our thoughts all begin to reflect Christ as though we’re looking in a mirror. The end of the chorus of the song, Lord I Need You, says, “Holiness is Christ in me.” It’s exactly what Paul is talking about here. God’s Spirit equips us. God’s Spirit works through us. God’s Spirit leads us to lives of service to others. That is the freedom we have in Christ. We are free to be transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to another.

John Wesley described this process as Sanctification. The work of God’s grace in us does not leave us unchanged! The Christian life is a process, and Paul is a prime example of this. He was an enemy of the church, a persecutor who approved of the murder of Stephen by stoning, who traveled around with official letters that allowed him to arrest anyone who belonged to Christ so he could drag them back to Jerusalem for prosecution. It was Paul’s encounter with Christ that began a life-long process of transformation into the image of God.

As Robert Prim put it, “…no one falls head-first into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, vol.4, pg. 451). We are all works in progress. The work of God’s Spirit moves each of us from one degree of glory to the next: oftentimes our transformation comes as one baby step at a time or like a spilled jar of molasses in a deep freeze. The Christian life is one of growth and improvement as God’s Spirit is at work in us.

Even as we move forward through this process of transformation, we experience setbacks. We occasionally flounder. And there again, Paul is a prime example, and so were the churches and people to whom he ministered. As I said earlier: this letter, Second Corinthians, was written as an attempt at reconciliation after Paul and the church at Corinth had a severe falling out. We know that change isn’t always a welcome experience. At times, it’s upsetting, unsettling, and downright annoying.

It is in the nature of God’s grace, and it is an ever-loving action of the Holy Spirit, to interrupt, turn around, and overturn so that we can see Christ more clearly and reflect Christ’s image more perfectly. Change brought about by the Holy Spirit moves us to new places, opens our mind and heart to new understanding, and opens our eyes to new views.

Our hope and confidence is in Jesus Christ and in the transforming power of God’s loving grace. When we act with love and mercy toward others, we reflect Christ to them and—by God’s grace—in some small measure, represent Christ to them. When God’s love works in us and transforms us into God’s image from one degree glory to the next, we begin to reflect, not ourselves, but Christ who lives in us and moves through us.

Even during a season as disheartening as this one must have been for Paul, he says that we don’t lose heart or get discouraged. Christ is the Lord of the church. And our ministry—whatever it might be, however it might take shape—is to invite others to the freedom we find in Christ Jesus: to live in hope as those whom God accepts, embraces, and loves. In Christ, the veil is lifted, and our lives are transformed to the glory of God.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay