THE THREE-IN-ONE GOD

TRINITY SUNDAY

TEXTS: John 3:1-17 and John 16:12-18

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:4-5)

“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus said, “he will guide you into all the truth” … They said, “What does he mean by this …? We do not know what he is talking about.” (John 16:13, 18)

The Canadian theologian Douglas Hall—whom I had the privilege of hearing speak, many years ago—tells the story of being at the beach one day with his three little children. An argument broke out between his older daughter and his son, and it escalated until she shouted at her brother, “God knows! God knows you are not nice!”

Her little brother was not about to be outdone. “Well,” he said, “Jesus is annoyed with you!”  Whereupon Dr. Hall imagined that if his third child had been old enough to enter the fray, the Holy Spirit would no doubt have weighed in on one side or the other.

And so it is that the Trinity has for centuries been misused and misunderstood by children and adults alike. In fact, the Trinity may well be the least understood basic teaching of our Christian faith. We mouth the creedal words and sing the hymns, but few of us would be able to take the Trinity much further than that.

A traditional but less than satisfying response to questions about the Trinity has been simply to describe it as an enigma we cannot ever fully grasp. I remember the story of another preacher who got into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday and delivered his message in such incomprehensible language that, afterward, one desperate soul complained that no one had been able to understand the sermon. To which the preacher replied, “You aren’t supposed to understand—it’s a mystery!”

Well, the Trinity is a mystery—just as the fullness of God is now concealed from us. Our very language itself, inadequate as it is, often gets in the way.

But if we are to embrace and worship and follow this God of ours, we have no choice other than to attempt to name and describe God. That’s how the Trinity came into being: as a way for people to describe their own experience of God.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be among the first Christians to worship God? There were no established Christian liturgical practices, not even an agreed-upon sacred text. No service bulletins, no hymnbooks or worship slides—only songs and stories, poems and prayers, all of which people had come to know by heart.

Most perplexing of all to those early Christians surely must have been the question of how to address the God whom they had gathered to worship.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the first days of the church, when people gathered to praise God and to pray to God, they needed to name God. They continued to address God as the ancient Hebrews had, as “Father” and as “Spirit.” But they also found themselves praying to Jesus! Those earliest Christians must have asked themselves: “Exactly who are we worshiping?”

So the Trinity—one God, yet known or experienced in three personae—became, over time, one way for Christians to express their understanding of God. Initially, the concept emerged in their worship and prayer life; and eventually, it became central to their way of conceiving of and naming God.

Now, the Trinity as a theological doctrine does not appear explicitly or systematically anywhere in Scripture. In fact, the word Trinity is not used even once in the Bible! Rather, it lurks there like so many pieces of a puzzle waiting to be discovered and assembled.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus offers us some of those puzzle pieces—referring as he does to both the “Spirit of truth” and the “Father.” And then he concludes by saying, “All that the Father has is mine.”

Earlier in the Gospel of John—in the third chapter—we find a passage that is actually the lectionary choice for Trinity Sunday, Year B. Recorded here is a conversation between Jesus and a leading Pharisee named Nicodemus.

The Pharisees believed in eternal life, and Jesus and Nicodemus find themselves in a discussion of this topic. They are talking about the nature of the kingdom of God, and Jesus insists that to be part of God’s kingdom one must be born again—in and by the Spirit. Then he says that whoever believes in God’s Son will not perish but have eternal life.

In the space of just a few verses, Jesus makes plain his own conception of God. It includes a traditional Hebrew perspective that God is like a Father who rules over the world—and that God is also a Spirit offering us new life. He then goes on to add the rather startling assertion that belief in the Son of God is the gateway to eternal life.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not seem to be the intention of John, the gospel writer, to teach us in this text about the Trinity per se, but, from our point of view, what we have here in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is a rudimentary introduction to the notion of a “three-in-one God.”

Elsewhere in Scripture we find references to God as the Sovereign who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who sustains. But it took the early church several centuries to work out the Trinitarian language that we have come to see as a basic teaching of the Christian faith—the language used at baptisms and benedictions: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Ever since Christians first began using Trinitarian language we have been tinkering with it, unsatisfied with the traditional male-infused formula to describe the being of God and our experience of God.

As early as the fifth century after Christ, Augustine suggested this as an alternative way to name God: “God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love.”

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich wrote: “As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is God our Mother.”

More recently, Letty Russell has proposed: “God the Source of life, God the Word of truth, and God the Spirit of love.”

Clearly, part of our tradition has called for innovation in the way we speak of God. We tend to think of the search for new imagery about God as a phenomenon of our time—but really, it’s not a new thing. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have struggled to find new and better ways of naming the God we worship.

The problem the Trinity was designed to address is with us still: what language can adequately express the fullness of God? Or perhaps it cannot be expressed in words!

The great Russian icon painter Rublev, in his famous 15th-century portrayal of the Trinity, has three persons seated in an open circle at a table, with their hands outstretched, as if to welcome the viewer into the circle. It suggests a Trinity that invites us to join and participate in the life and community of God.

A Trinity for today offers us not some monolithic, imposing, doctrinal Supreme Being, but rather an accessible, interactive, approachable, hospitable God. The Trinity is a conception of God that suggests that God is—within God’s own self—a community.

God does not exist apart from relationship or outside community. And neither do we! When we read in First John 4:8 that “God is love,” we are getting to the heart of what the Trinity means.

As Jurgen Moltmann said, “It is only from the Trinitarian perspective that we can claim that ‘God is Love,’ because love is never alone.” 1

The Trinity is like a household—the household of God. It is a loving household, and we are included in it. A Trinity for today focuses on the threeness of God as a window onto the one loving community that is God. And that divine community is the model for all genuine human community.

We need the Trinity now more than ever to begin to grasp, or at least get a glimpse of, the depth and breadth and height of who God is and what God does. Peter Gomes asserted that the Trinity “works to explain the unexplainable and helps to draw for us the big picture, satisfying our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination” about God. 2

A few years ago, I ran into a woman who was a former member of the church I served at the time. She was still living nearby, but no longer part of our congregation. I’m sure she dreaded running into me, fearing that I would ask her about her current church involvement, which—of course—I did!

In response she said, “I have found other ways to feed my spirituality now.”

You know, there are lots of people who would say the same thing. The church’s way of proclaiming its faith no longer feeds their spirits, no longer offers them the nourishment they desire for their souls. I wonder how much of that has to do with our lack of imagination when we speak about God.

Far from being an outmoded, obsolete image for us to use as we speak of God, the Trinity invites us to a new understanding of God—and to a re-energized relationship with God.

Part of our challenge as Christians today is to find a way of using “Trinity” language that is not bound exclusively to the traditional words—language that can have life and meaning not only for us, but also for a world full of people hungry for spiritual experience.

The Trinity pushes us to discover a God who is much bigger than any single image or word—a “three-in-one” God who is above us, beside us, and within us. One God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

________________________

1 Moltmann, Jurgen. “The Triune God: Rich in Relationships,” in The Living Pulpit, April-June, 1999, p. 4.

2 Gomes, Peter. Sermons, [New York: Wm. Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998], p. 108.

DEAF TO THE SPIRIT?

The Day of Pentecost

TEXT: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

 

On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church. You know the story. Christ has already ascended to heaven, after telling his disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They do as he tells them. And so, there they are, in Jerusalem, waiting. Then comes the harvest festival known as Shavuot, or Pentecost—which also celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses.

Now, Shavuot—Pentecost—is an important Jewish holiday. And in the first century, it was an occasion when thousands of religious Jews would visit Jerusalem. They would have come from all over the known world—“every nation under heaven,” as it said in our passage from Acts. And all these people, even though they shared a common religion, would have spoken different languages. Many of them would have had some understanding of Greek, some would have understood Hebrew; but their “mother tongues,” the languages they understood best, would have been varied and many.

So, what happens? Well, again, I’m sure you know the story. The Holy Spirit chooses this time to descend upon the followers of Jesus—or to come upon them “with power,” since according to John’s Gospel, they had already “received” the Spirit when the risen Christ breathed it upon them (see John 20:22). Whatever it is that’s supposed to be happening here, whatever distinction we might want to make between “receiving” the Spirit and having it come upon you or fill you, the effect of it is quite astonishing.

The disciples are all gathered together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit bursts in. Filled with the power of that Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages—presumably in languages they had not been able to speak previously. And they are speaking so loudly that the people out in the street hear them, even over the din and the bustle of the marketplace.

Soon a crowd gathers outside the house. They can’t believe their ears, because they hear the disciples speaking to them—to each of them, in the native language of each one. “What’s going on here?” they ask. Then they say:

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:7b-11)

Not surprisingly, everyone is shocked and bewildered, and want to know what’s happening. And even though the text says that those who had gathered outside the disciples’ window could understand what was being said, it seems that not everyone out there in the street could. To them, it just sounded like gibberish—like the inebriated ravings of men who had been drinking too much wine too early in the day. They sneered, and—as we read in verse 13—they said of the disciples, “They are filled with new wine.”

Now, in every Pentecost sermon I’ve ever heard, that verse is just sort of passed over without comment. Usually, the preacher goes on to emphasize what happens next. Peter rises to the defence of his friends, declares that, no, they are not drunk at all, but are filled with the Spirit of God. Then he delivers what must qualify as the most successful evangelistic sermon of all time, because at the end of it some 3,000 people believe and are baptized. I wish Peter was still around to give me some preaching tips!

But today, I want to focus on that usually passed-over verse, where the nay-sayers put down the disciples by saying they’re just a bunch of drunks and rabble-rousers. I think it’s a very significant verse, because it points out something important about the gift the Spirit gave at Pentecost: it was not just a gift of speaking—it was also a gift of hearing. And not everybody received it.

Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us why some of them did not receive the gift. It doesn’t say why some of them couldn’t hear the message of love—could not understand the languages of love—which the disciples were speaking. But if I’ve learned anything about the gifts of God—about the gifts of the Spirit—it’s this: God’s gifts are freely offered, and they are offered to everyone. All you have to do is to be willing to accept them.

So it seems to me that these folks who could not understand what the disciples were saying, even though they were speaking in just about every language there is on earth, must have had some kind of barrier inside them, or in their lives, that made them deaf to the Spirit’s words of love. It seems to me that if there was a problem, it must have been with the hearers, not with the speakers.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us what the problem was. It doesn’t let us know about the hang-ups, or the hatreds, or the petty jealousies or prejudices of those who could not or would not unstop their ears. But it does give us a clue—and it’s in that little verse which we preachers usually pass over: “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

They sneered. They treated the Spirit’s gift with derision. They treated the Spirit’s messengers with disrespect. They called them a bunch of drunks.

I have to wonder whether, perhaps, the sneering ones were not visitors to Jerusalem, but longtime residents. Folks who knew the disciples well. Or who had at least heard about them before. Or who, perhaps, had felt let down by this Jesus fellow when he didn’t turn out to be the Messiah they had been hoping for.

I mean, doesn’t it sound like there might have been just a touch of bitterness here? Like maybe there were some old tensions, some long-standing grievances, some hurt feelings from the past?

I’m giving my imagination free rein here, of course. But you know, I can hear these bitter folks saying things like:

“Look at those blasted show-offs! Look what they’re doing now! Jesus is gone, and they still want to be big shots.”

Or: “What a racket, this early in the morning! How undignified! Followers of Jesus shouldn’t draw such attention to themselves.”

Or: “Who does that Peter think he is, to be speaking in tongues, after he denied Jesus three times? There are certainly other people who deserve this gift more than he does.”

Or maybe some of them really did believe the disciples were drunk, and were upset because they thought the church’s money had been squandered on alcohol.

Whatever their issues were, whatever their grievances or grudges were, they became loud, bitter voices that drowned out the message that God so wanted them to hear. And that was a tragedy, because it meant that these people were now on the outside. While some 3,000 others made their way into the Kingdom of God on Pentecost Day, these poor souls remained on the outside, condemned by their own stubborn bitterness—by their own willful deafness to the voice of the Spirit.

I think there’s a warning here for all of us, even—and maybe especially—for those of us inside the Church. Because (I’m sad to say) church people don’t really have a very good track record when it comes to accepting new ideas, or encouraging novel ways of doing things. When stuff happens that is unfamiliar, or different, or which maybe just doesn’t suit our tastes, we tend to get our backs up. And sometimes our first reaction is an angry one, and we want to shut down this unfamiliar thing. Perhaps we even want to lash out at the people who are doing it.

Well, that’s a natural reaction, I guess. Someone once said, “Only babies like change.” And it’s been quite a while since most of us were babies (alas, that is especially true in my own denomination). But I think we have to be careful, and give some deeper thought to the way we react to things. Because we don’t want to allow old grievances, or new jealousies—or anything else—to put us on the outside of God’s Kingdom … do we?

Listen to the word of the Lord, being spoken anew:

I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

(Isaiah 43:19)

Look for the new thing, my friends. Look for the new thing that God is doing. Look for the way through the wilderness. In whatever desert you find yourselves, may you locate the river winding through it … and climb aboard the Spirit’s lifeboat.

Blessings on your journey. Amen.

IN THE WORLD … AS ONE

Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year B)

TEXTS: Acts 1:1-11 and John 17:6-19

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)

Today’s gospel lesson is part of what Bible scholars refer to as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, because it was offered on behalf of his people. That includes not only his first disciples, but also all of us—all of his followers, in every place and time.

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus praying for you? I’m sure it would be a wonderful thing, to hear the Lord himself speaking to his Father about you—speaking about how much he loves you, speaking about his concern for you, asking God to protect you.

I’m sure it was no less wonderful for those original disciples, even though they had certainly heard Jesus praying on many occasions. After all, he was the one who had taught them how to pray.

But this time, things were different. This was the evening of Jesus’ betrayal, the last night of his earthly life. He had washed their feet, shocking all of them by taking on the role of a humble servant. He had celebrated Passover with them, telling them that this would be their last Seder meal together. He declared that his body would soon be broken, that his blood would soon be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). By now, they must have been wondering what was up.

Obviously, Jesus knows that his time is running out. As his friends listen, he prays, saying: “I am no longer in the world, but they are.”

What a powerful—and ominous—statement. Cryptic, too—just like the words that follow today’s reading, where Jesus continues his prayer by saying:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Like I said, cryptic words—yet Jesus’ meaning will become crystal clear in the hours that follow, as he leads his disciples across the Kidron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be arrested. From there, he will be taken to the high priest’s house, and eventually to Pilate’s headquarters, and finally to a tortured death upon a cross.

Of course, we know how the story plays out. Easter morning arrives, and we rejoice. Jesus has come back! But he is not here to stay. Forty days after Easter—as we heard in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts—Jesus departs once again, being lifted up into the clouds, where he disappears. Someday he will come back, we are told … but we’re still waiting.

Now what? Those first disciples must have asked themselves that question. Maybe we ask it, also. Jesus is no longer in the world—but we are. Here we are, down here, on our own, with Jesus no longer in this world as a flesh-and-blood presence.

Or is he? Jesus’ prayer for us was that we might become one not only with one another, but also with his Father and him. That’s another cryptic statement, I guess, but I think we come close to understanding it if we listen to Paul’s familiar words in First Corinthians, chapter 12: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (v. 27).

We are the body of Christ. That has been the Church’s understanding of itself for 2,000 years. In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world, yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”

Ours are the hands with which Jesus wants to bless the world. And that task of blessing, to be effective, requires a kind of unity. The kind of unity of purpose you find on a ship with a well-disciplined crew. We are the hands of Jesus, and it’s “all hands on deck” as we maneuver the gospel ship through the turbulent waters of this world.

Unfortunately, we Christians have not always been a well-disciplined crew. Too often, we’ve looked more like a “ship of fools” who can’t get along with one another.

One of the ways we see this demonstrated is, of course, through the proliferation of Christian denominations whose defining characteristic seems to be that each one thinks it is somehow better than all the others. And yet, the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be one church—one body. So these artificial units called denominations are problematic.

Several years ago, there was a big clergy convention in the United states, held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Some 50,000 preachers were in attendance, one of whom was a Methodist pastor named James Howell. On a website called “Day One,” Howell describes that conference, and he says this:

One of the speakers at the three-day event was the well-known devotional author Max Lucado. Max described the church as God’s boat, a vessel with one purpose—to carry us safely to the other shore. This is no cruise ship, it is a battleship. We are not called to leisure, but to service. Each of us has a different task. Some are concerned with those who are in danger of drowning, snatching people from the water. Others are concerned with the care and feeding of the crew.
Though different, we are all the same, for each of us can tell of a personal encounter with the captain who bid us come aboard and follow him. We crossed the gangplank of his grace and found ourselves here. Here we are on one boat, with one captain, and one destination. And though our battle is fierce, the boat is safe for our captain is strong and the gates of hell will not prevail against this grand vessel. Of that there is no concern. This boat will not sink.
Max says there is concern, however, not with the strength of the boat, but with the harmony of the crew. You see, when we first came on board we assumed that everyone here was just like us. But as we have wandered these decks we have found a few curious converts. Some wear uniforms we have never seen. Some sport styles we have never witnessed and we stop them and say, “Why do you look the way you do?” To which they respond, “We were about to ask you the same question!”
The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the diversity of opinions. There is one group, for example, that clusters every morning for intense study. They promote rigid discipline and wear somber expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they say. It is no coincidence that they tend to congregate toward the back of the boat, the stern.
There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in a certain posture for prayer. They believe you can only talk with God on your knees with head forward—that is why they can always be found on this vessel near the bow.
Still another group has positioned itself near the engine. They occupy themselves with studying the nuts and bolts of this ship—they are only comfortable if they can grasp the details. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, inspired by the wind in their hair and the sun in their face who insist, “It is not what you know, it is what you feel.”
Some think once you are on the boat you can never get off. Others say, you would be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours. Some believe you were recruited and subsequently volunteered yourself for service on this boat. Others believe you were destined for service before the boat was ever built.
There are those who address the captain in a private and personal language, while others think such conversation is gibberish. There are those who think the officers should wear special robes and others who think there should be no officers at all.

Then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is honored and his instructions read. All agree on its importance, but some want it loud while others want it quiet.
Some want ritual, others want spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate, others want to meditate so they can celebrate.
The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out between sailors. There have been times, incredible as it may seem, when one group even refused to acknowledge the presence of any other group on the ship.
Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board this boat. “Life is rough out here on the choppy seas,” they say, “but, I would rather face the wind and waves than get caught in a fight between those sailors.” 
Can there ever be harmony on the ship? That was the dream of the captain. Three different times in Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 is the plea, “that they may be one” (vv. 11, 21-22).
As Max Lucado wrapped up his message to the ministers, he invited his audience to think of some denomination or Christian group they had previously insulted or denigrated or put down, and then go find a member of that group and apologize. It was upset-the-applecart as folks climbed over one another to respond. There were hugs and handshakes, a marvelous moment of forgiveness and grace.
At the conclusion of the convention, the plan was to have Communion together. Sounds good … until you remember that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has been and sadly remains a major bone of contention in Christ’s church. Some preachers left early, unable to overcome theological barriers. That was sad, but the word from those who stayed, as they responded to the movement of the Holy Spirit, was that the walls of resistance began to crumble. Differences in the way one group or another understood the ceremony became less significant. They began to realize that what united them was far more important than what divided them.*

James Howell concludes his piece by saying that, as crew members on God’s ship, we are all invited to the captain’s table. And I love that image. I hope that, in the future, more and more of us can embrace it—because that really will make for smoother sailing on the gospel ship.

Years ago, in my denomination, there was a catch-phrase—or a slogan—I used to hear a lot. We used to say we were “a united and uniting church”—by which we meant that we were not only open to the idea of working with other denominations, but that we were eagerly seeking opportunities to do that.

But I haven’t heard that slogan lately. And today, it seems—to me, at least—that perhaps we are not quite as eager to work with other Christians. That’s not to say we won’t do it—but I just don’t feel that we’re as enthusiastic as we used to be, especially at the local level. In many places in our church, it seems like folks don’t want to touch any project that doesn’t have our denominational crest stamped on it. And that’s a shame. Because, on those occasions when we do play well with others, we broadcast a message all the world needs to hear. We are proclaiming that we value—and love—all the members of Christ’s body. And we are demonstrating, through our actions, that we are happy to work with any and all of our brothers and sisters for a common cause.

And, you know what? Every time we do that, we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer that all his followers might become one.

____________

* http://day1.org/1256-in_but_not_of_the_world

 

COMMANDED TO LOVE

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXTS: John 15:1-17 and 1 John 5:1-6

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9-11)

This week I want to turn your attention to two of our lectionary readings: the gospel and the epistle—John and First John. These texts are intertwined, playing off each other with a common theme. In fact, their language is so repetitive that it is hard to miss the point being made. Between our two passages, the words “command,” “commanded,” or “commandments” appear no fewer than eight times. Get the message? We’re commanded. So what is it that we are being commanded to do? Let’s look more closely.

In the epistle lesson, we hear that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” Got that? Jesus has been born of God, and everyone who believes in him has been born of God—and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.

Now, understand this: the “child” being referred to here is any Christian—not only Jesus, but every one of his adopted sisters and brothers, as well. And, John argues, we know that we love God’s children if we love God, and the way we know we love God is if we obey his commandments.

In the gospel lesson, we hear similar language. Jesus describes himself as “the vine” and us as “the branches.” Jesus was telling us that we should abide in him—be at home in him—and let him abide in us.

Jesus describes in detail what this means. He explains how we go about getting this abiding love: “If you keep my commandments,” he says, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And Jesus makes his point clear: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Then Jesus concludes: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Some 30 years ago, pastor and anthropologist Gary Chapman authored a best-selling book called The Five Love Languages 1 — a work which still informs our conversations today. In it, Chapman explains how problems in relationships occur because people have different understandings of what it means to show love. We all might be able to say “I love you”—but for some, love is only really communicated in a particular way. Chapman outlines five of these, which he calls “the languages of love”: quality time, acts of service, receiving of gifts, physical affection, and words of affirmation. He talks about how knowing someone’s “love language” can help you better demonstrate the love you feel for them.

Now, if you love five different people and they all have different “love languages,” you might have to work very hard to show each of them that you love them. Of course, in your most important relationships, working a little harder is probably worth it. The point is, we often tie love to other things; and Gary Chapman tells us that figuring out how we can best communicate love to others is essential if we want strong and lasting relationships.

Lucky for us, Jesus tells us straight out what his love language is—and it’s not one of those listed in Chapman’s book. Jesus is quite specific. Jesus very plainly relates love to obedience. If we love him, we will obey his commandments. He tells us how he wants us to love him, and he tells us how he loves us. He says, “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love … this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you … You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Now, hold on … is Jesus saying that our relationship with him is contingent upon our following his commandments? That makes him sound like a control freak, doesn’t it? “We’ll get along great as long as you do what I say!”

“You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In any other situation, we’d call this a dysfunctional relationship, wouldn’t we? How can love work if one person is in control? Our independent natures bristle at the thought. You can’t make someone love you. You can’t command love, can you? But there it is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

Well, some background might be helpful. Jesus lived and taught in a day when being a faithful person meant following the laws of the Torah—the laws that had bound the community together from generation to generation. More than that, the people Jesus lived among were people who lived in a very highly structured society, where masters and slaves and every status level in between lived according to rules and customs that governed almost every aspect of behaviour.

You want to talk about commandments? The teachers of the law counted over 600 laws that faithful Jews were supposed to follow. So Jesus comes along, as one more person talking about commandments. However, Jesus’ idea of making rules is to require love. He commands us to love.

The epistle lesson says almost the same thing as Jesus said in the gospel: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” Then John adds a tag, as if prepared in advance for our complaints: “And his commandments are not burdensome.”

You know, we are not so different from the people Jesus was teaching, or from the people John was writing to. We also live our lives surrounded by rules and regulations: household rules, school rules, rules at work, rules of order for the church, rules for society, national rules, rules for the international community; even rules of the road, increasingly enforced by surveillance cameras watching our every move.

We live under so much law! So many commandments. Really, to be commanded to love … how can we find this burdensome? If we obeyed this command, this one command—to love—how many of those other rules would we need? And, what’s more, we’re being commanded by Jesus simply to practice the very thing we ought to desire above all.

Thinking again of the Five Love Languages, the real point of Chapman’s book is that no matter how we want to receive love, we do all want it. We want to be loved. On a website called “Sermons From Seattle,” pastor Edward Markquart writes this:

It’s about love, love, love. From the moment you are born until the moment you die; and every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves. The purpose of time, of every moment and every day and every year is that God is teaching us what it means to be truly loving people. That’s what it is all about. That is what it has always been about. God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place. We were created in the image of God; we are like God; and God is love.2

In our epistle lesson, we read that Christ’s commandments are not burdensome. But in the gospel, Jesus takes it a step further: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Complete joy! Have you ever experienced such a thing as complete joy? Think over your life experiences. Think about the times in your life when you have felt joy most intensely. I’m going to guess that these experiences of joy probably have something to do with experiences of love, as well. It seems to me that our experiences of joy are never just about us, but always have something to do with the relationships in our lives.

Jesus speaks to us of commandments, not to burden us, but to free us. He wants us to have this joy not just in fleeting moments, but as a regular part of our living. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

So let’s be followers of the rules. And of all the rules we’re bound by—of all the laws we can choose to follow—why not choose obedience to the one commandment that promises us everything in return?

_____________________________________________

1 The Five Love Languages by Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D. Northfield Publishing, Chicago (1992). ISBN: 1-881273-15-6

2 http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_its_about_love_love_love.htm

CONNECTED TO CHRIST

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine,” [Jesus said] “and my Father is the vine-grower.” (John 15:1)

Today, we consider some of the “I am” statements found in The Gospel According to Saint John. I’m sure these are familiar to you:

  • “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)
  • “I am the light of the world.” (8:12)
  • “I am the gate for the sheep.” (10:7)
  • “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (14:6)

All those “I am” statements imply an intimate, vital, and continuing relationship with God. And perhaps by way of summarizing what he has said up to this point, Jesus declares: “I am the Vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

Everyone who heard this should have understood what Jesus meant. It is the vine that supplies the necessary food, nurture, and environment for a branch to live and blossom. It is only when we are connected to Christ the Vine that our lives remain healthy and full of vitality. Jesus’ words remind us that we are not the bread, or the light, or the door, or the shepherd. Neither are we the life, or the truth, or the way.

No. We are only witnesses to these things—only in Christ do these things find embodiment. God in Christ is the centre of our faith and the fulfillment of God’s promises; and it is to Christ that we belong. As branches are an extension of the vine, so we are an extension of Christ; but we are not the Christ. When Jesus declares, “I am the Vine, you are the branches,” he is reminding his disciples that we can serve only one Lord. Jesus’ Lordship sets our priorities for the rest of our lives.

Have you ever heard the story of the young man who goes to the greeting card store? He carefully looks through all the cards, opening and reading and examining each one. Finally, he finds the perfect card—the one with just the right verses to express his deep love and devotion for the special girl in his life. Then he goes to the register, and he finds the clerk, and he says to her: “I need six of these!”

You can’t have six special girlfriends, no matter how much energy you think you’ve got! Likewise, you can’t have six “number one priorities.” And you can’t have six Lords. There has to be one that ranks above all the others. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matt. 6:24)

How many of you have seen the movie, “City Slickers” with Jack Palance and Billy Crystal? If you haven’t seen it, rent it! Apple TV’s got it, and I’m sure it’s on other streaming services, as well.

The premise of the film is that three New Yorkers come to a ranch in the American West to unwind, and to find renewal and purpose. At one point, Jack Palance’s character (Curly) laughs and says: “You guys come out here every summer and you all have the same problem. You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your stomach, and you think two weeks here will solve all your problems. You don’t get it, do you?”

He pauses. And then, he asks: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”

Billy Crystal says, “Nope. What is it?”

Palance replies, “One thing—just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else doesn’t mean a thing.”

Billy Crystal says, “Wow! One thing! That’s great! But what is that one thing?”

Jack Palance grins and says, “That is what you turkeys must figure out!”

Here’s another story—one that really happened, in New York City (about 30 years ago, I think). As I recall the details, a building on the lower east side of Manhattan was destroyed by fire. Now, that in itself isn’t such an uncommon occurrence. So why did news about this fire get reported in Canada—and all around the world?

It’s because this fire should never have gotten as big as it did—and it should not have been as destructive as it was. The people inside the building must have had a lot of practice with fire drills, because everybody seemed to be doing exactly the right thing. The alarm was raised early on. The exit doors worked properly. The steps were clear. The people got out of the building quickly. The trucks and fire personnel arrived promptly. When the firefighters arrived, they found the standpipes just where they should have been on the wall, and properly installed. They also found hoses just where they should have been—hundreds of feet of hose, in fact. With so many things going right, it should have been relatively easy to put the fire out.

In spite of all that, however, the fire burned out of control—and the building was completely lost. So what went wrong? Well, you see, it was discovered that the water connection from the street had never been attached to the standpipes in the system!

The same thing can happen in our walk with God. However good we think our system is—in the church or in our families—if our pipeline is not connected to Christ, we’ll be in for a rude awakening when our lives catch fire.

Jesus did more than simply come to live among us for 30 years, 2,000 years ago. That was just the beginning. His mission continues to this very day, which is why we are able to live in him—and he is able to live in us. Jesus says we are to abide in him. And abide is a verb; it signifies action and activity. It announces that something is flowing in the pipeline. This is what the power of the Holy Spirit is all about. This is the perspective that Jesus shares in today’s gospel text, where he summarizes what he has taught so far—and it’s all about “being connected.”

“I am the bread of life.” But what good is bread, if it is not eaten?

“I am the light of the world.” But what good is light, if it does not lead us out of darkness?

“I am the gate for the sheep.” But what’s the point of a gate, unless it’s opened, and we pass through?

I am the good shepherd.” But of what benefit to us is a shepherd—unless we follow, and listen?

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But what good is a way—unless by faith we trust someone to lead us upon it? What good is truth, unless we act upon it? And what good is life, if we refuse to live it?

All these great “I am” statements point us toward God—and they also point out an important truth for all who would be disciples: God in Christ has the priority claim upon our lives. We must not allow anything—or anyone—to compete with God for first place in our lives. That’s why we gather for worship week after week: so we can keep our lives connected to God. Before we can give ourselves to the purposes of God, we must immerse ourselves in the presence of God!

Dr. R. Maurice Boyd, who was minister of Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario, for more than a decade (1975-1988) was the author of many books. In one of them, he wrote this:

The choosing of one’s life’s priorities brings a sense of peace. An awareness of what one is called to do makes the big decision for us, and making the big decision makes many of the little ones. If I am a Christian … I don’t have to discover a new set of values every day. Being a Christian is enough to decide many questions of my behaviour and morality. What is left for me is not to discover new answers, but to be obedient and faithful to the truth I already know.”

[R. Maurice Boyd, Permit Me Voyage (Burlington, Ontario: Welch Publishing Company Inc., 1989), Chapter 10: “Simplicity.”]

The only way to do that is to remain connected to the One who is the source of our faith: Jesus Christ. This is the beauty of Christian faith: God has given us more than a set of instructions. God has given us more than a nicely-bound book. God has given us himself. More than rules and outward appearances, God offers us a relationship with himself—a relationship of the heart, through Christ.

In closing, I offer one final story. It’s about the American author Mark Twain, who once made a trip to Europe with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. They were guests of many famous people. Kings and nobles vied with each other for the privilege of having Mark Twain at their dinner parties. At the end of the trip, as they were on their way to the port where they were to sail for home, Mark Twain read to his wife and daughter a list of the celebrities who had entertained them. When Twain had completed the long recitation, his daughter looked up at him and said, “Daddy, you must know almost everybody worth knowing—except God!”

“You know everybody worth knowing—except God.” Ouch. I hope nobody ever says that to me!

Or to you, either.

GOOD NEWS FOR SHEEP!

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXTS: Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus tells us. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:11, 14)

I grew up in the city, so I cannot pretend to have a lot of first-hand knowledge about sheep. However, those who are in the know (sheep-wise) tell me that what the Bible hints at about them is in fact quite true: sheep aren’t very bright! They have the tendency to wander—and they get themselves stuck in situations that they can’t get out of.

Sheep, I am told, often don’t realize where they are going. To make matters worse, they don’t keep track of where they’ve been, and they seldom see the need of returning to the point from which they started.

If somehow they end up on their backs with their legs up in the air, sheep appear unable to flip themselves right-side up (or maybe they just can’t figure out how). In such a predicament, they will probably die if someone doesn’t help them out.

During thunderstorms, sheep have been known to crowd into one corner of the sheep pen to the point that they actually smother and kill one another. Why? Because they are frightened out of their scarce wits, and they don’t know what else to do. They don’t know where to turn.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe it only sounds familiar to me—because that description of sheep behaviour reminds of what my own behaviour has been like, way too often in my life. Except for the part about being scared of thunderstorms; I like them! But then, that may just be evidence that sometimes I’m too dumb to be frightened of stuff that should terrify me.

However, I doubt that I’m the only person in the room with a history of stupid blunders, or bad choices, or poor judgment. I doubt that I’m the only one with a lousy sense of direction, or a short attention span.

Most people I’ve asked about it have admitted to having at least a few undesirable “sheep-like” qualities. And I think we could all come up with examples of how the very brightest people we know have on occasion surprised us by making absolutely boneheaded mistakes.

It’s no wonder that the Bible often refers to us as sheep—not so much because we are dull mentally, but because we tend to be dull spiritually.

Isn’t it true? We love to wander in search of the seemingly greener pastures that this world has to offer, even if it means leaving our Good Shepherd behind.

At times, we find ourselves in situations that pose great danger to our spiritual well-being—temptations and circumstances that seek to rob us of our faith in our Good Shepherd.

And when the many storms of life come our way, do we not sometimes find ourselves huddling in a corner somewhere? When we let fear and worry control our lives, all sense of logic and reason seems to evaporate, and we find ourselves asking why we allow such things to happen to us! How do we get ourselves into these messes?

Well, maybe that’s just it! Too often, we focus our attention on ourselves and what’s going on in our physical lives instead of focusing on our Good Shepherd and the promises that he makes concerning our spiritual lives. In our text, Jesus tells us:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” (John 10:11-13)

In this world you will find all sorts of hired hands who care nothing for the sheep: false teachers, false religions, false churches, false beliefs, philosophies, ideologies—all convincingly promoted by people who are in it for themselves rather than for the sheep; people who claim that they know you and know what you need.

But nobody knows you the way that your Good Shepherd knows you. Nobody else has been with you since the beginning the way that your Good Shepherd has. Nobody else has the kind of investment in you that your Good Shepherd has. Placing your faith or your trust in anyone or anything else could have disastrous results when the wolf comes knocking at your door.

The Good Shepherd knows his sheep. After all, you’ve been together from the beginning—and together, you’ve been through a lot. Together, you’ve weathered many storms—and your Good Shepherd has been with you, and has seen you through every time. That’s why you can say, with the psalmist: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Are you the kind of sheep that has the tendency to wander, and wind up in situations that you shouldn’t be in? Your Good Shepherd knows this. At such times, he uses his rod to guide and correct you, and bring you back into the fold.

Are you the kind of sheep who is hurting or sick? Your Good Shepherd knows this, too—and he uses his staff to draw you closer to himself, so he can give you the special attention that you need. It is said that when the sheep see the shepherd’s staff they know that the shepherd is close by, and this comforts them. It’s the same with the Good Shepherd that we have in Jesus.

Your Good Shepherd knows you through and through. He knows you by name. He knows your case history. After all, he was the One who called you to be his own. And so, you know him. You know his voice because he has spoken to you so often.

In times of sorrow, he has spoken his Word of comfort. In times of fear, he has spoken his Word of peace. When you have felt yourself hopelessly lost, he has called your name—called you to himself. And when you have been filled with joy, has he not sung the tune to which you danced?

Our Shepherd is good because he never abandons his sheep. Jesus is not a good shepherd; he is the Good Shepherd. He is not simply a good preacher, or a venerated prophet, or one of the world’s great leaders. He is not just one among many good shepherds. No. Jesus is far above and beyond the measurements and comparisons of this world. He is God’s Beloved Son!

Years ago, I came to know a man who was almost destroyed by alcohol and drugs and crime. His life had been a downward spiral of overdoses and prison terms and violence. He told me that things had been so bad that he even contemplated suicide.

But the Good Shepherd came looking for him, and he had just enough sense to let himself be found. By the time I met him, he had been sober and clean for almost 10 years. He had learned a trade and was earning an honest living. And because he wanted to help others out of their downward spirals, he spent many hours every week as a volunteer at a rescue mission. He also devoted time to editing the mission’s newsletter. One time, in that publication, he wrote the following: “To find Jesus is to find the most excellent treasure. To love Jesus is to love what is most beautiful, most merciful, and most forgiving. He is the friend who is always honest, always fair, and always faithful.”

And you know, that really is the nature and the character of the “Good Shepherd.” His love for us is unconditional, his mercy toward us is without limit, and his seeking of us is absolutely relentless. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks you even if you are the only one who is lost—and no matter how lost you are. Thanks be to God for this good news. Amen.

 

 

RADICAL FAITH

Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)

If you look up the word “radical” in the dictionary, you may see that (as an adjective, anyway), something is radical if it is:

  1. relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of perceived reality; far-reaching or thorough.
  2. based on thorough or complete change.
  3. very different from the usual or traditional: extreme.

I suggest that the entire Easter season is a radical time. Through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Day, we encounter some very radical stuff: radical obedience, radical acceptance, radical despair and radical hope.

Radical obedience was what led Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, even though he knew it was carrying him to his death.

Radical acceptance was what Jesus came to after an evening of prayer in a garden, when he began by asking his Father to please take from him the cup of suffering—and finished by saying, “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

Radical despair kept Mary Magdalene from recognizing the risen Jesus when at first she encountered him. Radical hope was what she came to, after Jesus called her by name, and she then knew who he was. “Rabbouni!” she exclaimed, and embraced him.

Her radical despair was, in a flash, overcome by radical hope. But until that moment, she was absolutely convinced that he was gone forever, and she had not the faintest hope of ever seeing him again. The Messiah was dead. Defeated by the forces of evil he had come to overthrow.

If that’s not a cause for radical despair, I don’t know what would be. And I suspect that may account for her inability to recognize this man she knew so well; her brain would not permit her to believe what her eyes were seeing.

Perhaps something like that is happening in today’s gospel lesson. These two disciples walking toward Emmaus have not one shred of hope. They’ve heard the rumour about Jesus being alive … but they obviously don’t believe it.

Devastated and demoralized by the events of the past three days, they cannot recognize Jesus, either—even when he joins them on the road and engages them in conversation.

So clueless are they, in fact, that they begin to explain Jesus’ own story to him—how he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” and yet was betrayed, tried and executed.

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say.

But now their hopes are dashed. Destroyed. As dead, they think, as their failed Messiah.

Like Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, they are so convinced they’ll never see Jesus again … that they cannot recognize him, even when he’s walking right beside them. Their brains won’t let them believe what their eyes are telling them.

Maybe. Or perhaps there’s something else going on here. After all, Luke tells us that, as soon as they do recognize him—after he breaks bread at supper—he vanishes from their sight!

Poof. Gone. Vanished into thin air, like a ghost. Yeah. A ghost. Able to do ghostly things. Like walk right through walls; which seems to be what happens next, because—if you keep reading past verse 35, you hear a story that is best described as spooky.

The two Emmaus Road disciples—Cleopas and his companion—hurry back to Jerusalem. They find the eleven hiding behind what John’s gospel tells us were locked doors. And then they report what has happened to them, and how Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

That’s where today’s reading left off. But then—continuing on from the very next verse, we read:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:36-43).

Let’s recap. While they’re still telling their Emmaus Road story to the other disciples … “Poof!” (again) Jesus suddenly appears in the room. And they do think they’re seeing a ghost!

But then Jesus invites them to touch him, saying, “It is I myself … a ghost does not have flesh and bones like I do.” Just like last week’s gospel, where Jesus comes back so Thomas can touch his wounds, and believe.

Then he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t get hungry, do they?

So what is going on here? On the one hand, the risen Christ appears to be as real and solid and physical as we are. And yet he’s able to blip in and out of the physical world at will. How can that be?

I wonder if it all comes back to the idea of incarnation. Or the idea of at-one-ment. In Christ, divinity and humanity are perfectly reconciled. And in the risen Christ, we encounter someone who has all the qualities of God and all the qualities of a man.

Perhaps what we see here is a foreshadowing of our own future existence. Some commentators think that’s what Paul is hinting at in First Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 20, when he refers to the risen Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died”—and when he talks about the perishable putting on imperishability, and the mortal body putting on immortality (1 Cor. 15:54).

Perhaps. However, those interpretations raise troubling questions of their own—questions which could fuel quite a number of blog posts. In a way, it’s as if the resurrected Jesus has become a rapidly-moving target: one that’s hard to keep in focus.

It seems to me that whenever we try to explain faith rationally—whenever we demand complete understanding of the things of God—we wind up frustrated. Perhaps the really important message of today’s gospel story is simply this: faith has very little to do with reason, and very much to do with experience.

I’m sure none of the disciples could make sense of this, either. And from the gospel accounts, it looks like they didn’t even try to figure it out. If they were attempting to write sensible, rational accounts, they surely would have glossed over—or omitted—the most bizarre details.

Jesus was dead … and then he wasn’t!

He had a physical human body, just like anyone else’s … except his could dissolve from sight in one location, and then re-materialize in another!

Of course it doesn’t make any sense. And of course it isn’t the kind of story you’d invent if you wanted to fool people. Or convince them that your claims are true. Why would the disciples record such unbelievable stuff … unless … it was because that’s what actually happened?

I think they had to write what they wrote, because anything else would have been, at best, a half-truth—and at worst, a lie. They had to report what they saw and heard and touched and felt, because that was their genuine experience. They had to write what they wrote, even though they knew it sounded ridiculous, could not be explained, and would be doubted by most.

Friends, this is radical faith. Yes.

Through the events of Holy Week and Easter, we’ve seen Jesus display radical obedience and radical acceptance; we’ve watched as Mary Magdalene’s radical despair is transformed into radical hope; and now we have arrived at radical faith.

Radical faith is born out of radical experiences. And experience has everything to do with perception. One may see a miracle where another does not. One may feel deeply blessed while another shrugs his shoulders.

In Ephesians, chapter two, verse eight, Paul says that faith is a “gift” from God. Often, I think, that gift of faith is offered through experiences that are—at one and the same time—profoundly holy and deeply subjective. And I wonder whether these sorts of experiences are there for us all the time, if only we will notice them.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps the risen Christ is walking beside us and we do not recognize him until something opens our eyes. Perhaps Jesus is sitting beside you right now. Or will be tomorrow, on the bus. Or riding in the bike lane.

See, I think the risen Christ shows up in our lives—and keeps on showing up—until we do recognize him.

I don’t think it’s very often as dramatic as the episodes we read about in the gospels. But I do believe he shows up. I believe he shows up in the life of every person—over and over again, trying to get us to notice him—because he knows he has something to give us. Something we each need, desperately, whether we know it or not.

For a man I know, Jesus showed up in his bathroom mirror. Yes. His bathroom mirror. This fellow was kind of unsteadily standing in front of the sink, trying to get his bearings after waking up drunk. Yes. Not merely hung over, but still drunk, after many hours of sleeping. And this was not unusual for him. His bleary-eyed countenance, viewed in the mirror, was a familiar face.

Except, this time, something about that face was different. This time, rather than simply the sad visage of a man who had given up on his life, he saw—for the first time—the face of the Christ he’d heard about long ago in Sunday School; the Christ whom he had, in baptism, put on as a teenager; the Christ whom he had, as an adult, turned away from.

But on this morning, looking in the mirror, he realized that Jesus had never turned away from him. And this experience was so profound—and so real—that it awakened in him a desire for new life, and set him on the road to recovery.

For a woman I once knew, Christ showed up in the face of her newborn daughter—who had come into this world addicted to the heroin her mother had used during her pregnancy; used because she didn’t believe she could stop using it.

But the sight of her child’s distress—and the realization that she was herself responsible for it—awakened in her a kind of love she did not know herself capable of. And for the first time in her life, she sought help and devoted herself to getting well.

Much later—after years of being clean and sober—she would speak about how her daughter “became as Christ for her.” Because, you see, that tiny girl literally bore her mother’s sins; and through bearing them, she removed them.

I also remember a man who—freshly released from prison—surprised me by making this declaration: “I don’t want to be a murderer any more.”

His words surprised me because I had never before considered that such a thing was possible. I thought that once you had killed someone, you were a murderer. And that’s what you would always be, even if you repented and were forgiven. But this ex-convict believed that Christ could make him—really and truly—“a new creature.” He understood that better I did. He knew that, if you’re walking with Jesus, your past does not have to be your future.

I hear stories like that—I witness things like that—and I think to myself, “Wow! That is radical faith!”

That is the kind of faith that not only changes a person’s life, but turns it upside down. That is the kind of faith you arrive at after you witness something you thought was impossible (or at least, impossible for you).

I also know people who hear those same stories and dismiss them as silly rationalizations by individuals who needed to trick themselves into doing the right thing.

But that doesn’t really matter. Because radical faith testifies to the truth—even if it brings ridicule, even if the telling of that truth comes with a cost.

As I said, some people see miracles where others do not. And some shrug their shoulders when handed a blessing. But even so, Jesus keeps on showing up. He shows up for each one of us—over and over and over again—until we either notice him … or pass from this life without ever knowing the priceless value of the gift of faith he wanted us to have.

So, my friends, if you have not yet noticed this Jesus fellow walking with you—then I urge you to stay alert. Keep your eyes open. Look at your life with open eyes. Wait on the Lord—and believe that you will see him. For on this day, Jesus is saying to you: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Brothers and sisters, the meal is ready. The table is set. Come, and take your places.

Doubt That Leads to Faith

Second Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: John 20:19-31

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b)

Most Christians think the great believers of the faith never doubted. They know about the faith of the famous Christian leaders, but not about their inner struggles. Yet …

The Scottish reformer, John Knox, wrote of a time when his soul knew “anger, wrath and indignation, which is conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt.”

Or consider another great reformer—Martin Luther. When we think of his courage in the face of persecution, we may assume Luther never questioned his faith; but he once wrote this: “For more than a week, Christ was entirely lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God.

In today’s Scripture passage we find that same kind of faith-struggle even in one of the twelve disciples: Thomas. Now, to me, Thomas seems like a disciple for times such as we live in. Why? Because we live in an age that questions everything! Perhaps we can learn something from Thomas about how to handle our own questions and doubts.

And we do have them. It’s not always easy for us to simply believe. Most of us are more like Thomas than we care to admit. However, I think that’s not really such a bad thing, being like Thomas. For being able to admit our doubts and questions is the first step toward honest faith.

You know, if we had only the first three gospels, all we would know about Thomas would be his name—for that’s all they tell us. To find out more about Thomas, we have to look at the fourth gospel—John’s Gospel.

In chapter eleven of John, we read the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This is the first time John mentions Thomas, and he gives us some real insight into the kind of person he was.

As you may recall, Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was desperately ill. They lived in the small village of Bethany, very close to Jerusalem. After considering the request for a couple of days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

But the disciples were reluctant. They said, “Teacher, just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and now you are planning to go back?

They thought he was crazy to even consider returning there. But then Thomas spoke out—and he said, “Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

He was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem knowing full well that it just might cost him his own life. This guy was no coward! Thomas loved Jesus and was fiercely loyal to him. We also see that Thomas leaned toward pessimism—“Let’s go along with Jesus, so that we can die too!”

Well, you know what a pessimist is, don’t you? A pessimist is someone who can look at the land of milk and honey and see only calories and cholesterol. For a person like that, Christian discipleship must be an almost impossibly difficult thing. Yet—in spite of his pessimism—Thomas was willing to follow Jesus wherever he led.

In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away to prepare them a room in his Father’s house. He says to them: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way?”

Thomas was not afraid to ask questions when he didn’t understand something—and that seems to have been okay    with Jesus. Of course, the honest doubters and questioners never did bother Jesus. The ones who got under his skin were the know-it-alls—the ones who refused to open their hearts and minds to the truth he was teaching.

There is, after all, more than one kind of doubt. There is the kind of doubt that does not want to believe, that reaches for arguments in order to deny the affirmations of faith. But there is also the “seeking” kind of doubt—the kind that Thomas had. The person who doubts in this way earnestly wants to believe—but honestly admits that understanding is difficult. This kind of doubt actually energizes and expands faith—and that is a healthy kind of doubting.

Thomas was that way. He asked questions because he wanted to understand. Doubt need not be the enemy of faith.

If you have never had any doubts or questions, it may be because you have never seriously thought about your faith. Often we do not truly understand what we believe until some doubt arises that makes us search for answers—just like Thomas did.

Now, let’s return to our gospel lesson. It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. Then—suddenly—Jesus is with them in the room! He shows them his hands and side—and they are filled with unspeakable joy. But Thomas is absent.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with them. Perhaps it was because his heart was broken. Things had turned out just as his pessimism had suggested. Perhaps Thomas had withdrawn to grieve in solitude. That would be understandable. However, because he isolated himself, Thomas missed out on the one thing that could have turned his sorrow into joy—the presence of the risen Christ.

You know, it’s like Jesus told us: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). When we withdraw from the fellowship of the Christian family, we miss out on that special sense of the presence of Christ—and we miss out on the tremendous peace and joy that goes along with it.

Perhaps the disciples realized that. In any case, they rushed out to look for Thomas. And when they found him, they proclaimed their happy news: “We have seen the Lord!”

Then, of course, Thomas made that reply for which he has become famous: “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Fast-forward to one week later. The disciples have gathered again—and this time Thomas is with them. Like before, Jesus appears to them. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then Jesus turns to Thomas and offers to allow him to touch his hands and his side.

We’re not told whether Thomas actually did this. Probably, he did not need to. But he fell on his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!” And with those words, Thomas made one of the greatest confessions of faith in the entire Bible. Thomas’s doubt—even his great doubt—did not destroy his capacity for great faith.

So don’t let anyone tell you to stop asking questions, or to suppress all your doubts. Admit them. Ask your questions. Talk things over with people you trust. But please—do not allow your doubts and questions drive you away from Christian fellowship. For it is as you gather with God’s people that the risen Lord will make his presence known to you. Make no mistake about it: Jesus still comes and stands among us, giving us peace and power through the gift of his Spirit.

Here is the truth: Christ understands our doubt and accepts our imperfect discipleship—and he still entrusts his message and his mission to us, saying, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

I guess that means Jesus has no doubts about us!

Maybe—if we just hang in there—some of his confidence in us will rub off. What a thing to consider! Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Peering Into the Tomb”

Easter Sunday

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

—Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)

Here is where the Christian faith begins—with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the main event of Easter—the return to life of the One who was crucified, dead, and buried. The main event of Easter—and the very thing that is hardest to believe.

The resurrection defies our understanding, and it pushes our reasoning abilities to the breaking point. Fortunately, we do not have to explain the resurrection. No. Because Jesus’ resurrection explains us. It establishes who we are and why we believe today. Because the resurrection happened—because Easter happened—the church happened.

The story of Easter is so familiar that we sometimes fail to hear some of the details of the account. On all three years of the liturgical cycle, the Revised Common Lectionary points us to John’s report (John 20:1-18). Today, however, I want to look at Matthew’s account of the first Easter morning—and, specifically, at three details which are reported there.

First, the stone was rolled away—not to let Jesus out—but to let us in! I say this because the idea that God rolled the stone away from the door to let Jesus escape is inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.

Remember the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the last chapter of John’s Gospel? On two occasions, John tells us, Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of the disciples—even when they were behind locked doors!

Locked doors never kept Jesus in or out. Matthew makes this clear in today’s reading. In his account of the resurrection it was after Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had come to the tomb that “there was a great earthquake,” and an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone and sat upon it.

For centuries, the curious have always wanted to peer into the dark depths of death—but the tomb has been sealed with secrecy. The tomb has always mocked us. It has always stood as the “dead end” of all our efforts to see beyond this life into the life to come. But on the first Easter morning, the angel tells the two women to look inside the tomb, saying: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matt. 28:5-6)

Easter rolls the stone door of the tomb away for us so that we might penetrate the mystery of death. Easter makes the tomb into a tunnel—a tunnel into the heart of the eternal; and it shows us that the holy heart of God is love and life. God rolls the door of the tomb away not to let Jesus out—but to let us in—to allow us to see that Christ’s promises are true.

Second, the tomb is not completely empty. Christ’s body is absent, but the place is filled with the words of the angel—the words that say: “He is not here; for he has been raised.” The words that continue on, saying: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”  (Matt. 28:6-7)

If the women on that first Easter morning had looked into an empty and silent tomb, then our resurrection faith would be a belief based on human speculation, an assumption of the moment, an argument based on negative evidence. But no! Our faith is based on a word spoken to us by God. It is based on God’s holy promise, spoken by Christ before he died, and upon God’s holy assurance—spoken by the angel on the first Easter Sunday. That same word that echoed in that Easter tomb still fills the emptiness of our world today: “Christ is risen!”

The tomb has become a trumpet proclaiming the victory of life over death, and the continuation of Christ’s presence and mission in this world—first in Galilee, and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

The third detail is this: because of Easter, we can turn our backs on the grave. Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—having heard the angel’s message—turned their backs on the grave and ran with “great joy” to tell the disciples.

Joy is the key word here. Christ was buried, but he wouldn’t stay dead! The tomb could not hold him. And because of him, the tomb cannot hold us, either. This indeed is what Jesus promised to us before he died, a promise that seemed—at the time—totally incredible. However, because of that first Easter morning, we know it was a matter of fact and substance.

The stone was rolled away from the tomb—not to let Jesus out, but to let us in!

The stone was rolled away from the tomb, to show us that death is not the end, but is rather a new beginning. A new beginning that proclaims the victory of life over death. A new beginning which allows us to turn our backs on the grave. A new beginning which calls us to embrace the future with faith and with hope. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen.

“Hosanna!”

Palm Sunday (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 11:1-11

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  (Mark 11:8-10)

AH! The fans of Jesus! Rock stars have fans. Movie stars have them. Athletes have them. Even some politicians have fans.

The fans that Jesus had seem more like that last kind than anything else. Andrew Lloyd Webber had it right when—in Jesus Christ Superstar—he coined the term, “Jesusmania.”

As Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, his fans made a carpet of welcome for him with their cloaks, and with the branches they had cut in the fields. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!”

The word hosanna means “save now” or “save us now.” To call out, “Save us!” was to greet a saviour—but not in the personal sense in which Christians today might think of it. No. The sense here is of a national Saviour—like a general leading an army of liberation.

The form of this celebration goes back to the Jewish “Festival of the Booths.” In that celebration, the branches represented the crude shelters in which the Hebrew people lived in the desert after they escaped from Egypt. Psalm 118 echoes what the ancient Jews used to sing as they approached Jerusalem to join in the festival. In part, it goes like this:

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the
Lord.                           (Psalm 118:25-26)

“Save us! (Hosanna!) Save us, we beseech you …” These are the words with which Jesus was welcomed into the capital city. They used the greeting for a saviour—for a liberator, a Messiah. That apparently unconscious acknowledgment in the word “hosanna” (“save us”), is like using the name “Jesus” without remembering that it, too, means “Saviour.” (see Matt. 1:21)

Jesus was welcomed as a conquering hero. But instead of a war horse, he chose to ride a donkey, in what should have been an obvious reference to the messianic symbolism of the prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.              (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Christ entered Jerusalem not in the style of a triumphant general, but in the style of a humble servant. To the very end, Jesus tried to make people understand the true nature of his Messiahship.

It is perhaps difficult for us to understand—as we look backward in time—how they could possibly have misunderstood him. But we have to remember how desperate they were. They were an occupied and oppressed people. What they wanted—what they thought they needed—was a warrior-king who would expel the Romans, and restore their nation. If they had paid attention to what Jesus was trying to show them about himself, they would have had to face the same question which confronted Pilate later in the week—concerning who this man was, and if he was a king, what sort of king. (see John 18:33-38)

I guess it’s the same question we still grapple with, some 2,000 years later: Who was he? Who is he? And—with all the conflicting and competing pictures of Jesus in our modern world—who is he, for us?

Who is Jesus, for you? Who is he, for me? Perhaps, for us, it has indeed become a question that can only be answered in a personal way … and perhaps, after all, that’s what he always intended. I wish I knew for sure. I wish the church, at least, could reach some kind of consensus on that point—about who he is, and what he means. And I wonder what would happen if Jesus was arriving in our city this afternoon, and all of the Christians turned out to greet him. What kind of hosannas would we be shouting?

Here’s a poem. Actually, I guess it’s more like a prayer than a poem. A Briton named John Young wrote it, and I think it’s worth quoting today.

A Palm Sunday Reflection: Twenty Centuries Past

Twenty centuries past, what city has not heard
of your coming?
From Beijing to Berlin, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg,
from New York to New Delhi
surely the word has spread that you’ve come in peace,
not violence
to enrich, renew, transform our lives and bring us to shalom?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city has not heard
of your church?
From Catholic, Orthodox, Uniting or Anglican,
Evangelical, Progressive or Pentecostal
surely the message of acceptance, healing, confidence
in your royal advent, has been passed on through
faithful living?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city has not rejected you?
From penthouse to tenement, from factory to leisure centre,
from theme park to concert hall,
surely the news is that this life is for taking, not giving
and what stands in the way of this lifestyle
must now be removed?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city does the Christ seek to enter?
From leafy suburb to shanty town, from housing estate
to West-End flat, from salon to slum,
surely the sign of the church free from pride, united in deed,
must be the welcome the Christ longs for
as he enters our city?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Amen.