“They thought they were drunk…”

“They thought they were drunk…”

Sometimes, people who haven’t actually read the Bible come up with this rather silly notion, that the Bible was written much later than it was, written by the winners of history (so to speak) to make the disciples and the Christian faith look good. So, we don’t actually have to believe any of it because it just glorifies the disciples. Now when we actually read the Bible we find out rather quickly how silly that kind of thinking and those excuses really are. For example, just in the NT, we see Peter, the Rock of the church and the basis for the catholic Papacy, swearing like the sailor he was at a little girl, denying he ever knew Jesus and having Jesus himself call him a servant of Satan. If I was writing a myth about a past hero, I can tell you, these would not be the details I would include, would you?

Then we have this account of how God’s Spirit worked to create the New Testament Era of the Church. This is the pinnacle, the moment that Jewish history pointed towards where God would recreate Israel and make it something new, a new people to tell the whole world about Jesus. This is the very exciting moment where the last 2000 and some years of the Worlwide, Universal Christian Church history, that 3 billion Christians this year alone call home, started. Of all the moments, if you were making this stuff up, to make the disciples look good, it would be now. So, what do we hear in the text, is the reaction of the crowds to the disciples?

“They thought they were drunk!”

This does not sound like the kind of thing that I would write if I was making this stuff up. My story would sound like “and tens of thousands of people, bowed down immediately and worshipped Jesus!” But you know, that’s not what happened. This is a real account, of real Christians, with a very real anointing by the Holy Spirit, dealing with very real people who say stuff like, “they must be drunk,” when confronted with a miracle and the good news about Jesus.

Because what do people so often do when they are confronted with something that does not fit into their understanding of the world. When they are confronted by a miracle from God almighty delivered through a group of ragtag disciples?

They notice and comment and try to make it fit into their worldview, saying they must be drunk, that’s it they’re drunk, and if they’re drunk then I don’t have to deal with the reality of what I’ve seen and heard and the words of conviction and love that come from those who love Jesus.

But you know what, at least the community noticed something was happening, right?

Part of the challenge and the question that Pentecost has for the Christian church today is do we have enough spirit-filled and spirit-driven love for our communities to make onlookers make any comment at all? If not, is it simply because the Holy Spirit is working in other ways or is it because the church has so successfully muffled the Holy Spirit that there is actually nothing happening at all in our Christian walk to make people take notice? (NT Wright, ACTS For Everyone)

This past week I am very grateful that our church as part of your commitment to my continuing education, sent me to a police chaplaincy and FEMA Incident Command conference. It was a good conference that gave me much that I can bring back to our congregation and community. There was a story in particular that  I want to share with you from that conference.

The first was a heartbreaking story that a Christian police officer’s widow told us. She shared with us how her husband in the line of duty was killed cruelly by a low life with a gun. Even after this scum had ambushed her husband, shot and incapacitated him, instead of taking the chance to escape, came back and deliberately killed her husband in cold-blood. The police caught the man quickly and he was sentenced to death row. But what she shared with us, was during the sentencing she and her daughter and son each publicly forgave the man that killed her husband and their father in the name of Jesus. They weren’t saying that what he had done was ok, or that he shouldn’t receive the justified earthly consequences of his actions. But what they wanted that man to know was that Jesus could forgive him and he didn’t have to suffer the punishment for his crimes eternally. So they forgave him so maybe, he could somehow come to and know Jesus.

How do you do that? That does not fit into a normal human worldly way of looking at the world. When people hear that kind of Christian story, they react much like those onlookers 2,000 years ago did on Pentecost. How could they do that? How could they forgive? It doesn’t fit.

Much like the story we hear about Jesus, that story that even the Bible says is foolishness to the gentiles and nonsense to the Greeks. The story about how God loved his broken and selfish world filled with people that kill police officers in cold blood, that he sent his son to bear the worse that sin and evil could bear upon the cross, to go to the very heart of darkness. To die so we could live. That’s the kind of story that does not make sense in this world. That’s the kind of story that people try do dismiss as myth or a fairy tale. But you know what, its not suppose to make sense to a worldly, sinful and selfish way of thinking. It is supposed to be received in faith and believed.

An act of generosity in the name of Jesus. An act of compassion in the name of Jesus. A gift to the community in the name of Jesus. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter so much, if we get it just right, or if we look like a group of rag tag disciples, or if people think we’re drunk on Jesus. At least something is being done and in the doing people notice and comment and wonder why. Because the opposite is nothing happening at all in the name of Jesus, nothing for people to notice or comment upon. For the Christian church, to not doing anything at all is by far worse than trying to do the right thing in the name of Jesus and not always getting it right or having people look at you a little bit funny.

Because we have to remember that even though many thought the disciples were drunk on that Pentecost Day in their community, 3,000 people were baptized and saved that day as well. Amen.

“What’s in a name?”

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Honestly, not a huge Romeo and Juliet fan, but there is an idea here that is worth bearing out. A name, is a symbol for a greater reality. The name Montague is not as important as the reality; including family ties, wealth, aristocracy, prejudices and the like, that it ties the star-crossed lover to. The symbol points to a greater reality.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that symbols are just things out there that have no power, empty objects, but that’s not the case. Take for example, someone who is on a long road trip, like the one I’m going on to my conference in St. Louis. This traveler forgot to pack their lunch, been driving for a long time, and getting grumpy. Then past the next exit, you see a glimpse of the golden arches! Your mouth starts watering and your stomach is grumbling just because you saw that symbol ahead. Those golden arches are a symbol pointing the way to the greater reality of a Big Mac in my hands.

But of course, you have to know why the symbol is important for it to mean anything at all. If I came from a remote tribe far removed in the Congo and you showed me a picture of the golden arches you probably wouldn’t get much of a reaction from the me.

I think the same is true today, when we read the first lesson from Acts chapter 1:

 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they all prayed, “O Lord, you know every heart. Show us which of these men you have chosen as an apostle to replace Judas in this ministry, for he has deserted us and gone where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and Matthias was selected to become an apostle with the other eleven.

Usually, when I read that passage, the very first question that comes to mind is, why? Why, do they go through all of the bother of praying and reading scripture, doing deep Bible Study (which we only see the results of from their quoting of the psalms not all of the history and thought behind it), why make such a fuss about making sure there are 12 Apostles. 11 seemed like a good enough number, considering there were about 120 disciples in the room in total in prayer. And if Justus and Matthias were both well qualified for the job, why not 13? The answer is the importance of a very specific symbol.

In the Old Testament, God made a promise with a man named Abraham, that through his family God would make all things new. Abraham was to be a blessing to the nations and to tell about the God of Heaven and Earth who made all things and was making all things new. Abraham and his wife Sarah didn’t have any children and it wasn’t until Sarah was well beyond her childbearing age into very old age, that she had her child Isaac. Isaac means laughter, because Sarah and Abraham laughed in joy and surprise that God had kept His promise to them. Now the promise that God was going to make all things new through this family, followed with Isaac and his children Jacob and Essau. Of the two, Jacob was a swindler, liar and cheat but God transformed him and made him new. This is the Jacob of Jacob’s ladder to heaven and who wrestled with God and in the process God made him into a new man with a new name- Israel. Israel would carry on God’s promise to make all things new. Jacob had 12 sons and one daughter. The younger son of these had a Broadway musical made after his life, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Whether Joseph’s coat of many colors was Technicolor or not, the Bible doesn’t say, but the evil that Joseph’s brothers tried to do to him like, trying to kill him, throwing him into a pit to die, selling him to cruel slave traders, God used for good. Joseph became a new man, a ruler in Egypt and advisor to the Pharaoh. The rest of the family eventually joined him in Egypt when a famine went across the land and God used Joseph to change his brother’s hearts and make them into new people. Those 12 brothers in Egypt became the patriarchs of the nation of Israel and the symbol that God keeps his promises, all that way back to Abraham, that God would use that family to make all things new. Those 12 families, the families of Israel were meant to carry on the promise that God was making all things new in this world, including them. But how was God going to do that? The God-inspired writings and teachings of those 12 families pointed to the one who would make all of God’s new creation work possible in his suffering and death, the one who was both God and man, Jesus Christ. The 12 families of Israel for all of those generations waited for and pointed to Jesus, who through his death and resurrection God would make all things new.

Just as those 12 families were a powerful symbol pointing to Jesus, so now the 12 Apostles pointed back to Jesus and pointed forward to show the whole world how God keeps His promises and how God is making the whole world new in Jesus.

But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The symbol of the 12 nations of Israel and the 12 Disciples, the new Israel, pointed people to a great reality. The 12 disciples were not as important as what they meant. They meant that God keeps his promises. They meant that God is active and alive, working in our world for our good and salvation. They mean Jesus is the center and hope of the whole thing, all of the history pointing towards him and then from him to the world that would never be the same. The 12 meant that they were part of this “making new” process that God was accomplishing in Jesus and they had a calling and a new life to live because of it. But in itself the symbol 12 is not sacred or holy, it only has meaning in that it points to what is important, that is God making all new things new through Jesus. We have to know the why of the symbol for it to mean anything to us. We have to know why.

In our women’s bible study this past week, we ran into this same problem with the candles next to and on the altar. One of our members asked the very honest question of why do we light some candles and not others and why do we sometimes light them this way going up and extinguish them going down. That led to the next question of why do we have candles in the first place? Are they sacred somehow? Do they have to be there? The “why” is what matters.

Why matters. I believe that God is making me and all things new through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe he does this through faith, in my baptism, in the hearing of his Word, singing of his praises, being with my church family and being a part of his “new making” work through love and service to my world. I believe that God has taken me, sin and all, failures and all, brokenness, pain, bad choices, and wrong headed thinking and is still making me new. His new creation and that this is a lifelong work that I will get to see the fulfillment of when I am with God eternally. That is a part of my why. Why I do what I do. Why I am what I am. Why I am standing here right now with you. This is part of God making me new and I get to be a part of that by preaching the Word that makes all of us new together in Jesus.

Why matters. Once you get past the symbols, whether it be 12 disciples, or candles on the altar, or even a cross around your neck, you have to know the why. If not, they don’t mean anything. Why do you come to church? Why do you try to forgive when you really don’t want too? Why do you try and love your neighbor? Why did you ask for forgiveness and receive it at the beginning of service? Why are you here? These are the everyday Christian questions we have to deal with and find an answer for. Just like those 11 disciples that weren’t quite sure what to do with themselves now that they weren’t 12. They prayed and sought God’s Words in Scripture and supported each other as God led them to the why that mattered. This is what we do too, need to do, to find our why, by searching God’s Words in Scripture, growing calluses on our knees and hands as they are folded in prayer and encouraging and holding each other up, so that we can be in the right places for God to lead us to our why.

It will sound a little different for each one of us. As I have been privileged to hear some of your why’s, you have broken my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and lifted my spirit. But even as our why’s will all sound a little bit different they will all be held together by the same greater reality, God in Jesus Christ is making all things new, including me, sin and all.

But knowing our why isn’t just for ourselves. When we know our Christian why it gives us the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations that really matter, that sound something like this:

See this cross around my neck, I’m glad you like, I do too. But it could be a fish, or a shepherd, or a number other Christian things. It’s just a symbol that points to something greater. Can I tell why I like it and what it means to me? Can I tell you about the one this symbol points to and what he has done for me? Amen.

 

 

“What you say matters”

What you say matters.

Obviously, right? Maybe not always? We were raised with useless rhymes like “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But we know deep down inside that words hurt more than sticks and stones ever could. Words shape the core of who we are. Words can form and mold our outlook on life and our perceptions of who we are in this life. Words can also shape reality around us. Just think about the first words spoken by God himself into the void of nothingness, “Let there be light.” Then there was light and it was what God wanted it to be. Words began the world. Jesus Christ himself is called the incarnate Word, God’s Word and intentions for his creation born in the flesh and made man for our salvation. We hear the Word of God and in the hearing of those Words about Jesus the Incarnate Word, faith is created and we are saved.

Words matter. Obviously, right? Well, you wouldn’t know it by how carelessly we throw around our words. Words like stupid, useless, loser, you don’t matter, no one loves you, are hurled in the heat of the moment or used with surgical precision to cut and bleed. Words like these can bruise and bind a person to a belief that they are useless and that they don’t matter. Words are like a bullet shot from a gun, they can’t be taken back. Words can change a person’s world.

Words matter. Think of some of the good words that are spoken that change everything. The great activist, pastor and devout Christian Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the words “I have a dream” in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 and with those words united a passion to reach for that dream to live like all people are God’s Children no matter their color. Or the words that begin with, “I, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies” If you slept well last night, it was because of a solider who said those words. Or the words “I love you,” three simple words that can change the course of a life and a family, three simple words whose consequences can be heard reverberating for generations afterwards. Or “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” words that bring hope and life and salvation where there was none before. Or, of course, the words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”

Words matter so very much that we may be tempted not to use words at all lest we use them wrongly and cause hurt that cannot be taken back. Abraham Lincoln, paraphrased Proverbs 17:28 when he said, “it is better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!”

But as Christians we are required to speak and not hold back the words that need to be spoken. Words that the world so desperately needs to hear. Words that can bring hope and healing in a world that eats up hope like candy. But what words are we to say?

There is a little prayer I say before I come up for our sermon together. I say to the Lord, “that I have nothing to give to them but what you have given to them and all that I have to give is all that you have given to me.” I know and believe deeply that the words of any sermon cannot be my words, my opinions, my preferences or my advice. I am only human and I have nothing different or wiser to say than you do to me. That is why the words of a sermon cannot come from me and my opinions but from God and his Words for us. It is only God’s Words that can save. It is only God’s Words that bring a hope that never fails. It is only God’s Words that hold the promise that His Words will not go out void but accomplish the good work that God planned for it. I cannot say that about my words or my opinions; I cannot rest my faith and hope or ask you to rest your faith and hope upon my words. Jesus alone is the one who has the words of eternal life.

In today’s reading from Acts 17:16-31, we are invited to follow Paul’s example and make Jesus’ words, our words and for us to speak the words of eternal life that Jesus has given to us. Paul was in the city of Athens and found himself surrounded by people who would believe and did believe just about anything if it suited what they wanted to hear. Much like today. But instead of yelling at them or simply telling them they were all wrong, Paul found an opening, a place where he could apply Jesus’ words of eternal life. “I see that you have a statute to the unknown God,” the just in case they missed a god and they didn’t want to tick it off kind of statute. But this was the perfect opportunity to speak the words of eternal life, “if you don’t mind, let me tell you about this unknown God and what He has done for you in Jesus.” Do you see how Paul has made the words of eternal life his own and applied them to the situation in his life?

When we approach God’s Word given to us in the Bible, our job like Paul, is to: Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest God’s Word. To see God’s word in the light of the cross by hearing it often, reading it daily, marking up and dog earring our Bibles, learning more and more about the depth and complexity that is contained in those pages, then- here is the really important word- digest it. Digest it, make it our own. Just like Paul did. To read and hear and mark and learn God’s Word so much that it becomes our own words and we begin to naturally apply it our own lives and to share it with others. For us to speak the words that really matter: the words of eternal life. Let me give you an example from Romans. There is now therefore, now condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It sounds nice and is kind of pretty but none of that really means anything unless it is real and applied in your life.

For example, think about those horrible, hurtful words that people throw around so carelessly that hurt more than sticks and stones ever could. Words like stupid, dumb, loser, useless. These words are used to condemn, to allow someone else to place themselves in judgment over someonelse and to condemn them with these hurtful words. These words are meant to condemn and bind a person to a belief that they are useless and stupid. But this is where the healing words of eternal life are spoken for you. To make the healing words of Jesus your own. Say, “I am in Christ Jesus, because of my baptism, Jesus has promised me that I am not condemned to believe those lies that people say about me. More than that, I am not those things, God does not make junk. God made me, loves me, died for me, if God loved me that much I can never be condemned by those hurtful words but instead find my strength and self-worth in the love of Jesus.” There is therefore, now no condemnation because I am in Christ Jesus.

Now that you have made it your own, it is time to share these words of healing and love for someone else that believes the hurtful words that have been said about them. You can see their hurt written all over their face. You are obliged, called and even commanded by God to tell them about how much God loves them, how he died for them, how someone who is loved that much could never be useless or worthless. Remind them that there is now no condemnation for them because of Jesus.

It is our privilege as Christians to digest the words of eternal life and make them our own. To speak God’s Words in the midst of all of the hurtful and broken words that this world throws at us. Then to take those words of eternal life and share them with someone that needs to hear them. Don’t worry about quoting them word for word, instead let God’s healing words be spoken through you, become part of your own language, because what you say does matter. Use your words wisely. Say the words of eternal life. Amen.

“For Jessica”

“So… what’s next?”

This past week I travelled for a very brief trip to visit some good friends, friends who became family kind of friends, in Alabama. Their youngest daughter Jessica was graduating from High School and I made a promise a long time ago that I would see her walk. The next day while my friends drove me back to the airport, Jessica asked us, out of the blue, “so… what’s next?” Her past four years of life had been fairly written for her in school, sports, and spending time with High School friends; but now that part of her life was past and the future was unwritten. So we talked about summer jobs, maybe college in January, her boyfriend and the beach, but nothing was set in stone, her future was open and to her credit she looked at the uncertain future with more hope than fear.

“So…what’s next?” is a question that as we get older we frankly don’t ask as much. For my friend Jessica, she doesn’t have any children, spouse, career or financial obligations limiting her options, it looks like the whole world is open to her. But as we all know, when we start making those decisions on spouses, children, careers, mortgages, rent, cars, insurance; everything that comes with house, home and hearth, our options narrow down and we have responsibilities and obligations to fulfill. No longer does the whole world seem open to us, our choices and the choices made for us, narrow the road we are obliged to take. Pretty soon we stop asking, “what’s next?” because we are pretty sure we know what’s next, simply more of the same: work, bills, day in and day out, same old same old, what comes next, loses it’s hopeful expectation replaced with bored drudgery.

This is one of the reasons that the “mid-life” crisis happens. We try to reclaim a time in our life when our options were not limited, when the sky felt open and the possibilities for tomorrow were endless. Thus, enter the stereotypical mid-life crisis ways of escape including the corvette, the inappropriate age-difference relationship and the jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. But like any mid-life crisis, if taken too far and too seriously, it always ends up the same. You still have to make payments for the corvette and the inappropriate age-difference relationship you had your eyes set on turns out to be a real person after all, not the imaginary person running around in your mind. However, if you really want to jump out of the airplane, have fun, but even that gets old after a while. Life returns, the bills are still there, routine is inescapable and the day to day of life still needs to be lived. The grass is really not greener on the other side of the fence and you still need to water, fertilize and cut it just like the grass on your side of the fence.

The preacher of the Old Testament book of proverbs gives this advice to his son who is facing his own crisis and wanting to escape the confines of house, home and hearth.

My son, pay attention to my wisdom 
listen carefully to my wise counsel. Then you will show discernment,
and your lips will express what you’ve learned. For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
and her mouth is smoother than oil.But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
as dangerous as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to death;
her steps lead straight to the grave.For she cares nothing about the path to life.
She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. Proverbs 5:1-6

The immoral woman of Proverbs 5, that his son is trying to find escape with, looks good at first but will only lead him to death and destruction in the end. She is described as being so drunk on her own desires that she is staggering her way to hell and doesn’t even realize it. This immoral woman is of course not always a woman or a man, but a lifetstyle choice that is drunk on its own desire for escape even if that escape leads straight to hell itself.

In our pursuit of escape from the choices we made, we forget that many times there were some really good reasons we made those choices in the first place. Our desire to have house, home and hearth, even with all of the obligations and responsibilities that come with it, can give to us a joy and a peace that is never found in the constant pursuit of escape. There is something to be said for being settled and planted in the ground. It is only the tree that has roots planted deeply in the ground that can withstand the storms that life always brings. Instead of escape, the preacher of proverbs encourages: “Drink water from your own well— share your love only with your wife. Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you.” In other words, find your joy at home and in the choices you made. I know that this is not always possible, and there are choices that we have made that have led us to hurtful places with hurtful people. I am not saying that we should stay in a place and dig deep when we are being abused or abandoned or worse, no one should treat you like a doormat. But I do think that way too often escape is an option that is used too lightly and too easily. We have more control over our situations than we like to admit, but to make the best of our choices takes hard work, commitment and passion. It will be really hard but ultimately worth it in the joy and peace that is to be had from it. Escape, when taken lightly, will never bring you the joy that being deeply rooted will. Instead of trying to find your happiness in escape, try this instead from one of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz in his Novel Deeply Odd, “my husband, he is my skydiving, and my four kids, they’re my rodeo.”

There is one more point that I want to emphasize and that is the work of God in your life. When we only ask the question “stay or escape?” we forget to ask the question “what does God have prepared for me next?” I believe that the love of God in Jesus Christ changes hearts and minds and is making us into something new; his new and beloved people. Because God is making you new through the hearing of his Word, the receiving of His sacraments and the living out of Christ’s love, the world is opened up to you once again! Instead of how can I escape, we need to ask how can I live? How can I live like God is calling me to live? How much deeper can I love? How much more can I give of myself for the sake of others? How much more can I get down in the dirt for those in need? Where else can I go to love the loveless and give hope to the hopeless? I want to tell you that the options are unlimited, the sky is wide open, the future is spread before you like the ocean from the shore. In the love of Jesus there is no end to the possibilities, the future is unwritten and the best is yet to come! Move forward in hope and let God surprise you once again.

So, during this graduation time of year, for my friend Jessica, for our graduating youth, for those whose choices are still pretty open to them, my advice. Be wise, keep your options open as long as you can, make your choices with eyes wide open, don’t be afraid of tomorrow because your God in Jesus is holding all of your tomorrows.

For the rest of us, whose choices have led us where we are now, my advice. Be hopeful, be in Jesus, work hard to make the best of what you have, know deeply that in Jesus the best is yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Heaven is my home???

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness intohis marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (I Peter 2:9-10)

 

“When I die, I get to be in heaven, that is all that matters.” Well…yes, in a sense, in the ultimate goal of life is to be with God eternally. But, no as well. An accusation is leveled at Christians sometimes that they are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. This can be taken as Christians become so focused on what comes next that they forget they are still living here, in this present age. But there is a deeper accusation as well. If I am so heavenly minded, quote on quote, and I am assuring myself of that ultimate end, then maybe I have convinced myself that what I do now, before heaven, doesn’t matter so much as long as I get to be in heaven in the end.

Martin Luther in his commentary on I Peter explains it this way: “those who say they have faith and live as they please are deceiving themselves.” In other words, I might say I am a Christian and that heaven is my home but the life I live right now has nothing of heaven about it. My language is hell-bent not heavenly sounding. My thoughts are living in the gutter not in the pearly gates. My actions have more of the devil in them then they do of the angels. To assume that heaven is my forgone conclusion, right and privilege has taken heaven out of my life and left me instead with hell on earth of my own making. For those of us who say “heaven is my home” are my thoughts, words and deeds of those who look like they are going home to heaven or does it not more reflect a citizenship down below?

We take the free and undeserved grace of God like a given, like we somehow deserve it, then we can go on our merry way living like it doesn’t matter how I live. I choose God anyways so I get to choose how I live.

But we did not choose God, God choose us. He choose to adopt these rebellious and hard headed children that we are. God choose to shine a light in the darkness of this world and find us. God choose to bleed and die while we drove the nails in blow by blow with our sins. God choose us who were damned already and gave us heaven instead to be our home. This is undeserved grace of God’s own choosing for sinners such as you and me. God choose you to be his own people, by his own grace and through His love great love for you and me.

If then, you have tasted and know that the Lord is good; that He does not give to us what we deserve but instead gives to us grace after grace and know that because of that Grace alone heaven is our home. While we still live here on earth God is building you up living stones, as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to god through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.5 paraphrase)

The word “building” from our second reading from 1 Peter 2 is really important. It is in the ancient Greek οἰκοδομεῖσθε, in the present indicative form, meaning you are being built up. The present indicative is called the “mood of certainty,” and when the author uses this tense it is to state a simple certain fact. In other words, because Heaven is your home God is now, as a matter of fact, building you up to a spiritual house and a holy priesthood in this life. This part is not optional, we don’t get to choose if we want to be a holy priesthood or part of a spiritual house, it is a matter of fact. The two always go together like 2+2=4, if Heaven is your home then God is making you into this kind of person right now. But what does this Holy Priesthood look like that God is making you into.

When I was writing this, I really struggled with this part to describe to you what it means to be a priest. We get the whole pastor, priest being close to God, that guy up front knows what he is doing, so I can let the professional do the work idea all wrong, and I don’t want to add to the confusion, so here goes. The day I was ordained and called into the pastoral ministry the congregation was singing the hymn Here I am Lord. “I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” Surrounded by other pastors, they laid their hands upon me, prayed and then placed this stole around my neck. This stole represents the burden placed upon my shoulders by God’s calling. Another word for this is the yoke of office, just like with oxen, it is a weight of burden of the souls we are to minister to. But the job of the pastor is actually really specific. We are called to preach, teach and administer the sacraments, thus equipping the saints for their ministry.

My burden, my job, is to go to the congregation, to be the priest to the priesthood or in more everyday terms, like the coach to the players on a team. For me to hold you, God’s people, in my heart. The pastor is not the team. That means that you are the team, you are the priesthood, you are God’s holy priests called by God himself in your baptism to hold God’s people in your hearts. Again, this is part of the deal, if you are heaven-bound, then the burden of ministry goes around your shoulders, to bring heaven to the souls in your life for the sake of Christ. You are to hold God’s people in your hearts.

So for a heaven-bound priest of God, does it matter how I live to the people around me? You bet it does. You can throw off your burden of ministry and say it doesn’t matter how I live and I’m only responsible for me, but honestly what does that say about your citizenship in Heaven and who you are really living for? Or we can let God make us to be so heavenly minded that heaven itself breaks through us into the world. For my language to be that of the angels, who never cease to praise God for all that he has done and to tell of the love of Jesus, saying he died for me. For my thoughts to be so on things above that, I cannot help but see the pain and brokenness all around and pray for all those in need. For my actions to be as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ himself and to be mindful that Christ loved and cared for all those in need in real and tangible ways. For me to be God’s priest to the people, no matter how undeserving I am, but by the grace of God to let him build me up into the Christian, into the priest He wants me to be; then to let God build up our church so we can be the priesthood that God wants us to be right here and now in our community.

Instead of assuming that heaven is a forgone conclusion it is time to humble ourselves before God and live out our salvation in fear and trembling knowing it is only by grace that we are saved. Give to Him all of our ways and He is faithful, God is building us up for the sake of Christ into his holy priesthood.

So, you who are Heaven bound, God’s holy priesthood, chosen and precious to him, respond to God in faith and say these words with me: “I will go Lord… if you lead me… I will hold your people in my heart.” 

“The Price the Shepherd Paid” Meditation

Look up. You see the cross. As Christians, when we come to worship this is something we are used to and expect. We expect to walk into the sanctuary and see the cross there up front and above the altar, we always have. But it wasn’t always like that.

The earliest Christians till about the 3rd century could not even consider having the sight of a cross in the front of the worship space. It was simply just to painful to bear. The Cross was the national symbol of bloody torture and an unbearable execution by Roman soldiers. To have the cross at the front of the worship space would be like having the guillotine at the front of the worship space in France or maybe the electric chair at the front of the worship space here in the U.S. To be reminded of the price that Jesus paid upon that cross at the front of the church was simply something that Christians could not bear to see every time they met. So they choose other symbols to identity themselves as Christians to each other and to remind them of the salvation that Jesus accomplished for them.

One of those earliest symbols was the fish. When the Christians were being persecuted they had to meet in secret. One Christian would come to the doorway and draw a simple half-oval in the sand and then a line coming straight down at the end. The other person would finish the drawing by completing the oval and finish with a line going straight up, creating the basic image of a fish.

But the most popular image by far in those early centuries of Christianity was the shepherd. The shepherd was the image that the Israelites of old used to picture God’s work in their lives. A gentle shepherd who would lead and guide the sheep through the wilderness to still waters and green meadows that restore the soul. And like sheep, they would often go astray and the shepherd would come and find them. In the wilderness when a sheep had wandered away from the flock and gotten lost they would wedge themselves underneath the nearest bush or stone and start crying as loud as they could. When the shepherd finally finds the lost sheep the poor thing has worn itself out so badly that it cannot even stand on its own feet. No matter how large that sheep is or how much it weighs, the only way for the shepherd to save that sheep from being devoured by the wild animals is to pick it up and heave it behind his neck and around his shoulders and carry it all the way home. In those early worship spaces, they would have instead of a cross, a carving or statute of a gentle shepherd carrying this hefty and cumbersome sheep around his shoulders, easily as big as the shepherd himself. But the depictions of the shepherd, despite the burden he is carrying, they always show him with a smile on his face like the weight he is carrying, it’s worth the price he is paying to carry the sheep home.

Whenever we talk about shepherds we know we are talking about sheep as well, because sheep rely upon the shepherd to take them to the right places, where they will be fed and watered, and to keep them safe from the harm that is constantly threatening them. And almost always in the bible the sheep are a metaphor for you and me, people who are just trying to find their way in this world but we don’t really know how, we need a shepherd, even if we don’t like to admit that we do. If you were to ask Jesus how someone is suppose to know which Shepherd to follow, Jesus would say, look at the price that the shepherd pays for the sheep, then you will know.

Then Jesus would share a parable to describe what this looks like. From our Gospel reading in John 10, “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, Truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep/If anyone enters by me, they will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”

Middle eastern shepherds typically only half about two or two and a half months of good green grazing time for their flocks and then the rest of the 10 months things would be mostly brown and dry. As the shepherds take their flocks out they always have to go farther and farther out each day for there to be decent enough grazing ground. Pretty soon it always gets to a point when it just doesn’t make sense to travel a great distance for food and to walk all the way back that same day and use up all of the food they worked so hard to get to. So, the shepherds corral the sheep into a cave and take bramble and thorn bushes from the countryside and create a wall in front of the cave entrance to discourage wild animals from getting in. But in this thorn bush wall there always has to be an opening so the shepherd can get in and the sheep can get out. If left open, predators would simply go into the opening and kill the sheep, so the shepherd himself lies in front of the opening and becomes the door for his flock, paying the price in his own blood to protect the sheep.

Jesus said I am the door. This is what the Good Shepherd does for his sheep. Jesus of his own choice laid down his life for his sheep and in his blood paid the price to protect the sheep against the enemies that would enter in and kill and destroy. These same enemies that we face today that wage war against us: the sin and brokenness of this world and our own hearts, the power of death and the spiritual forces of the devil. The Bible reminds us that sin and the devil are like a roaring lion seeking those people they can eat and destroy. But, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life upon the cross and in His blood destroyed the power of our spiritual enemies so that with Jesus as our shepherd we do not have anything to be afraid of whether in this life or the next. If you are wondering what shepherd to follow, look at the cross and remember the price the Good Shepherd paid for His sheep.

Then Jesus says, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and go out and find pasture.” I have to tell you that this little verse has meant more and more to me the longer I meditate on it. Thinking about those sheep, there was only way for them to be safe and that was through the Good Shepherd. If they went anywhere else they would get tangled in a thorn bush, fall of a cliff, drown in a river, get eaten by a wild animal. There was only one place that would be safe and that would be through the door and into the safety that the shepherd created for them. But the sheep wouldn’t stay their forever, they had to graze and live and find pasture, but again they couldn’t do that without going through the Good Shepherd who would take them where they needed to be. Those sheep were completely dependent upon the Good Shepherd for all good things and to go anywhere else meant thorns, cliffs, drowning and death.

For us, its not really all that different is it. There are a lot of places we can go in our spiritual lives, a lot of different shepherds you can follow, a lot of different kinds of ways of living that all promise you happiness but how often do we only find in those false shepherds thorns, cliffs, drowning and death both physically and spiritually. How do we know who to follow as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death together? Well, look at the price that the Shepherd pays for the sheep. Look at the cross. Look at the Good Shepherd that carries the burden of our sin upon his shoulders. Look at the price Jesus paid for you, then you will know. Amen.

(Author’s Note: The background information for today’s sermon came from the Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey. He is an expert in Middle-Eastern studies and his books and videos shed a lot of light on the culture and practices of that region that are many times a mystery to us Westerners. If you get a chance simply google Ken Bailey and Psalm 23 and you will get a good youtube listing for his videos.)

“Bible Bashing” Meditation

I think we are afraid of this book sometimes.

This book that was written over the course of 16 centuries, by 40 or more authors from every walk of life, from the lowest to the highest in society and contains 66 separate books within it. This book originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek but now has been translated into over 1,300 different languages. This book that speaks about ancient cultures far removed from the post-modern western society we live in but still somehow speaks about the same tragic human condition and failure that every person faces no matter the time or place. Maybe if were not exactly afraid of it, more than likely we are overwhelmed by it. There is so much in this book that it can make us wonder, where do I start and what do I do with it?

And if that isn’t enough to be daunting in our efforts to read this book. There is so much controversy swirling around about what the Bible says or doesn’t say on topics like homosexuality, abortion, the relationships between women and men and how they play out in the home, church and society, to just name a few. But, with all of the controversy and people yelling at each other, I’m never really sure that people have actually read the book that they are fighting over or if they are simply taking out passages they like or don’t like and are not actually reading the whole story. Unfortunately, all of the controversy can stop people from actually reading the book because they just assume they know what it means so they don’t actually have to read it.

But at the same time, we Christians are considered people of the book. This book. This Bible. What does that mean for you and me? Is it something to be afraid of? Is it something that people should use to beat each other over the head with? Is it something we should simply place on an altar and revere? If the Bible is not meant to be used in any of these ways, what am I supposed to use it for?

We see in our Gospel reading today from Luke 24:13-35, two of Jesus’ disciples leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. It has been three days after Jesus’ crucifixion and they are lost and confused. Their heads are filled with questions and problems. They had a lot of plans for Jesus, they thought He was a prophet of great power sent from God. They saw their religious leaders, the people they were suppose to be able to trust connive and scheme and succeed in killing Jesus on a Roman cross no less, the Romans who were the Jews oppressors! They thought Jesus was going to free Israel from Rome, but now he was dead. But most puzzling of all, some of the women disciples said they saw visions of angels telling them Jesus was alive. They had problems and questions, but notice what they were not doing, they were not reading the Bible. Instead, their thoughts were simply bouncing around in their own heads apart from God’s Word and their feet were walking away from the whole Jesus thing.

Then a stranger comes up to them, you and me, we know this is Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. Why? Because they never really knew who Jesus was and who he was promised to be. The Resurrected Jesus, who was the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Bible was a stranger to them. They thought they knew Him, but what they knew were their own desires and plans for Jesus not who Jesus really was.

So what did Jesus do but have a Bible Study with them! Jesus taught them from the Bible all about who Jesus was. How he came from God and was God, why He was born-suffered-died and rose from the dead. How it was all done for them so through faith God would make them and all of creation new. It had always been there, in the Bible, but they had been reading the Bible without Jesus. Their hearts began to burn within them, they finally saw Jesus in the Bible. This stranger who had opened up the Bible to them was now becoming a friend that they wanted to spend time and share a meal with. They didn’t know it then, but in the breaking of the bread, just like Jesus broke the bread when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus.

The Bible is meant to show us Jesus and we are meant to see the Bible through Jesus.

The Bible shows us God’s gracious and loving promises for all of creation and His condemnation and judgment against sin, death and the devil. All finding their fulfillment in Jesus and pointing us towards the day when God’s work will be finished and all things will be made new through Jesus.

Just like the disciples on the road to Emmaus we hear how each generation has struggled with God’s promises in Jesus, sometimes getting it right by the grace of God and many times getting it spectacularly wrong and the tragic consequences that followed. But throughout God’s promises in Jesus have always remained the same. The Bible is in our hands now and we want to see Jesus! But if we take the Bible and leave it on a dusty shelf, use it as a club to beat other people with or if we take ourselves away from church and bible study where God’s Word is taught then Jesus remains a stranger to us. Like any relationship we need to be with the person, to hear them and spend time with them, to let our relationship with them grow.

Then to our great surprise, the Bible becomes less of something we are afraid of or intimidated by and more of a journey that Jesus is traveling with us. Our hearts begin to burn within us and we are led to the places where Jesus promises to meet us: in His Word, in the breaking of the bread at the Lord’s Table and in the waters of Holy Baptism.

Christians are people of the book. It times for us to go away from soundbytes and clichés about the Bible and for us to know the whole story of who the Bible is all about. You will be challenged, but would you expect not to be when the living God is renewing all of creation and placing a claim upon your life? Of course, we will be challenged, changed and called to a life of greater service and of greater love. But what else would you expect from the living God who is making all things new in Jesus? The Bible brings heart and mind together, as we learn, discover and grow. Feel your hearts begin to burn as fresh and new insights into the lives we are called to live are revealed to us. It is time to read the Bible for all its worth because we want to see Jesus.

First Online Published Devotion!

I wanted to share with you my friends over at christiandevotions have published my devotion “Places” on their website christiandevotions.us. If you get a second, click on the link and check them out!

Philip

 

“I am a Thomas” Meditation

I always thought Thomas got a bad deal. When someone hears the name “Doubting Thomas”, they almost always know the reference and what it means. “Don’t be such a doubting Thomas!” someone might say. However, some people have taken on the title of a “Doubting Thomas” as an almost badge of honor. I’m not going to believe something happened just because you say it did, I want proof that I can get my hands on. I want to touch it for myself.

Sometimes people even hold Thomas out as the oddball in the mix of the disciples. Here in the upper room all of the other disciples are saying, “we’ve seen Jesus,” and they believe but here is old sourpuss Thomas wanting to throw his rational wet blanket on the party because he does not have a blind faith. But what we don’t always hear about Thomas, is that this doubter was the first Christian missionary to India, baptizing and teaching throughout the whole country where people from that tradition are still called today St. Thomas Christians. He died a martyr’s death for the Christian faith and is buried in the tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle in Mylapore, India.

Last week, I turned the radio to NPR and happened upon a political debate about immigration. In political debates, people will say a certain topic is a polarizing kind of topic like abortion or immigration. This means that the topic has the effect of dividing people between two different poles of the debate, either being in the pro or anti-immigration camps, like the conversation is so simple that you can define it like the Earth’s north and south magnetic poles can be defined from each other. Our friend Thomas, this disciple of Jesus, this Doubting Thomas, can be polarizing as well. People will use him as an example of being the doubting kind of person that wants to quantify and test and verify and will only believe what the eyes can see and the hands can touch vs. the “blind-faith kind of believer” that doesn’t seem to care about reality or facts or history, but simply believes,

These two camps in recent generations call this polarization the “science vs. religion” debates, but if you take it through history to its philosophical underpinnings, it is also known as the “material vs. spiritual” kind of debates. The science vs. religion debates hold these two things at opposite polar sides and says that science deals with reality and matter, facts and figures while religion deals with wish-fulfillment and desire, hopes and dreams, with science in current culture taking precedence while religion or faith becomes the delusion of the masses and uneducated.

Like all sort of polarizing debates, adherents on both sides want you to believe that you must choose one or the other side, either be black or white, pro or against immigration, for science or for religion and that there is no third way. Either you must have blind faith and only believe in spiritual things or you must have blind reason and only believe in material things.

But if this were the case, Jesus of all people who you would think would be on the spiritual side of the debate doesn’t say to Doubting Thomas go stand in the corner, close your eyes and imagine I’m here but tells Thomas to touch, feel and see. Jesus in his resurrected body stands there with his disciples and openly invites Thomas to take His hands in his own hands and to even place his fingers inside the holes left in his hands from the cruel nails that held him to the tree. Jesus says, look here is the gash where a Roman spear went through my side after I had died on the cross, take your hand and physically place it in my side. What else is Jesus inviting Thomas to do than to feel, touch, see, test and quantify his resurrected body. Touch and feel and believe.

Christianity is and always has been a thinking persons faith. It is a faith grounded in history, taught by eyewitnesses and has been one the greatest driving forces behind scientific pursuit. Think of some of the scientists of old who were devout Christians including Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Kelvin, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Mendel or Boyle. Or modern scientists like Dr. Francis Collins who headed the research team that decoded the human genome and is the Director of the National Institute of Health or Dr. John Polkinghorne who was a leading theoretical physicist and then studied to become an Anglican Priest while pursuing his scientific inquiry. These scientists saw faith and science not only as complementary to each other but saw science as a means of worshipping God through understanding His creation. One of my favorite quotes that summarizes this idea is from the church father St. Anselm, when he said, “Faith seeks understanding.” God made us both spiritual and material, mind and spirit, and our faith encompasses every part of who and what we are.

But, if that is the case, then we cannot take the once in history of the world event like the resurrection and boil it down to a blind faith vs. science kind of argument. We actually have to start contemplating an honest look at what the resurrection is and claims to be. That is the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a historical event that happened in a certain place and time and that has placed a claim upon all of humanity in this same person Jesus. As world-renowned genetic scientist Dr. Francis Collins said of his own faith, “I believe in the literal rising of the body of Christ. It’s the cornerstone of my Christian faith.”

The bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Easter morning is a dividing line in the entirety of human and indeed world history. You can try to disprove the historical claims, and many have tried to no avail while at the same time leading historians and scientists have delved the resurrection’s historical depths and come to faith because of its historical basis in the real world. You can try and sit on the fence about it and use excuses like the faith vs. science kind of excuse, but you would also be trying to match your argument against some of the leading scientists in the world who are devout followers of Christ. Or you can accept Jesus’ invitation to touch, see and feel. To explore, learn and grow. To be both spiritual and material in a world that tells you not to be. “To taste and see that the Lord is good.” To be a Thomas who sought with soul and mind. Do not disbelieve but believe.

“First Day” Easter Meditation

The day my son was born changed everything for me. I was still me, but at the same time everything was different. Not only was there the addition of diapers, bottles, formula, pediatric doctors, vaccines, schools and sleep deprivation- lots of sleep deprivation; but I changed too. My outlook on life changed. The way I made decisions now always factored in my son and His future. There were things in my life that I stopped doing and other things in my life that I started doing because I had that little one to take care of. There wasn’t any going back and then I had my daughter and let me tell you, nothing was ever the same again.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.

For me, the first day of the rest of my life, that time, was brought about by a joyful experience. But there have been other first days as well that have come from a different kind of life change. Very easily, an illness changes everything or a loss changes everything or getting older changes everything. Your outlook on life changes, the decisions that you make and what you do and don’t do are different now then they were before. There comes a point in any of these life changes, either from joy or from pain, that a line is drawn and we have to say that is the past and this is now and its time to live the rest of my life.

Jesus’ disciples thought they had experienced a first day on Good Friday when Jesus died upon the cross. The time they had with Jesus was amazing. Filled with miracles, revelations and glimpses of heaven and they wanted that life with Jesus to never end. Then suddenly everything seemed to go horribly wrong. The days after Palm Sunday were filled with pain and tears, struggle, doubt and death. That day after the death of Jesus they believed it was, sadly, the first day of the rest of their lives. With Jesus’ death, all of the hopes and plans they had were shattered like so much glass on the floor. They slowly started to think about their old life, about their fishing boats and working and living, apart from Jesus. This was it they thought, back to our old life, no new life after all, only life now without Jesus.

But that wasn’t where the story ended. In Jesus, there is no going back. There was a new day still coming.

 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.

 That moment changed everything for them. The actual, bodily resurrection of Jesus was not something they had planned on or expected. Even though Jesus had told them this would occur on the third day, they simply had no concept for the great things that God had planned in Jesus. From that day on Jesus in His glorified body sat, ate, talked, walked with the women, with the 12 disciples, with over 500 other disciples and more witnesses still, till He ascended into heaven.

That first Easter morning was the first day of the rest of their lives and nothing would ever be the same again. Through those people God created the first day of the Christian church whose job it was and still is to be a great big loudspeaker, telling the world that something new has happened, a new day has begun, Jesus has risen from the dead and nothing will ever be the same again.

When we read about those first Christians who were created in the Resurrection and the countless others who would believe all the way to the nearly 4 billion Christians celebrating Easter today, it’s hard to describe but there is a difference in their lives. Yes, they are still broken and sinful people, they still make mistakes, get angry and make bad choices. But there is something new there as well:

o   They have a powerful hope that points them beyond their brokenness to a life being made new in the Resurrected Jesus. They want to share that hope with those who have no hope.

o   Even though they still act selfishly, they also know that in Jesus, they are unconditionally forgiven and that forgiveness frees them from the shackles of shame and guilt. The resurrection of Jesus gives them the power to live for better things.

o   Even though they experience the normal pain and hurt of life, the faithfulness of God shown in the Resurrection of Jesus reminds them that God keeps his promises and that there is a new day promised after this veil of tears.

o   The freeness of God’s love shown in the Resurrection of Jesus reminds them again and again of just how precious they are in God’s eyes. When you know that God loves you unconditionally, you start to see your own worth and the worth of other people through the love of God.

This is where the Resurrection of Jesus on this Easter morning invites us to be. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead then there would be no forgiveness, no resurrection of the dead, no eternal life and no hope. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on that first Easter morning through the power of God and nothing has been the same since.

Being apart from Jesus and the things that take you away from Him is the past, now is the time to live the rest of your life with Jesus. Easter can be and is the first day in the rest of your life because Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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