THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD

TEXT: Colossians 1:15-28

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The story is told of a teenage boy who became attracted to a girl in his math class. Asked what about her appealed to him most, he answered: “Her mom. She’s hot!” Then he explained that, as he figured it, in a few years his classmate would grow into the very likeness of her “hot” mother.

It seems not to have occurred to him that she might grow up to look like her dad. However, the young man was thinking analytically. He deduced that the daughter was more or less the incarnate image of her mom.

In Colossians, Paul figures the same way. “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (vv. 15, 19). Or, as Jesus himself put it, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is the clearest picture of God available to us.

Do you want to know what God is like? All you have to do is look at the earthly ministry of Jesus.

  • Look at his grace toward sinners, and his joy in the presence of children.
  • Look at his healing compassion for those who hurt, and his impatience with smug self-righteousness.
  • Consider his love for the disadvantaged and oppressed—and his willingness to offer fresh starts and second chances.

In these and countless other ways, we are shown the very heart of the Creator. “He is the image of the invisible God.” Additionally, Paul identifies Jesus as the glue that connects everything. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v. 17).

“In him all things hold together.” Need an example? Consider the diversity of the Christian church. Our skin colours vary, as do our denominations, our politics, our genders, and our ages. Often, we do not understand one another. Nevertheless, in spite of our differences, we are family to one another because we all gather together around Jesus.

Or, as the apostle Paul liked to put it, we are gathered together in Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We find the same terminology in today’s epistle lesson, where—in verse 24—Paul refers to “[Christ’s] body, that is, the church.”

We are the church. We are Christ’s body. Individually, we are members of him. That concept, by the way, is called “extended incarnation”—and it challenges us to do what Jesus did. The name “Christian” literally means “little Christ.”

If we are Christians, then by definition we are supposed to be doing what Jesus did. As Paul says, we are to be “blameless and irreproachable … [to] continue in the faith, securely established and steadfast” (vv. 22-23). In short, our witness to the world is to be Christlike.

A tall order, I know. And yet, the truth is: if our witness for Christ is not “blameless and irreproachable … securely established and steadfast,” then it is a broken witness.

When churches (corporately) and church people (individually) are prejudiced, greedy, insensitive, arrogant, uncaring, or wasteful, the world is not likely to be won over. Only when people look at us and see Jesus—only when experience his love through us—will they see something that may attract them. It’s all about authentic witness.

From time to time you encounter people who have a bee in their bonnet about the Bible and they tell you in all earnestness that every word of the Bible is relevant and authoritative for every person today, and that we all have to obey every word of it. Ever meet folks like that? Here’s a Bible verse you might ask them about: Romans, chapter 16, verse eight. Ask them about how obeying that verse has been meaningful for them.

Now, I’m sure you’ve all memorized Romans 16:8, because it has been so meaningful to you … But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what it says. Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, and he tells them: “Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.”

Hands up, all those who’ve ever met anybody called, “Ampliatus” … Me, neither! Now what would happen if your relationship with God was dependent on obeying that specific verse? You’d have to find someone called Ampliatus so that you could greet him. But how? You can’t look him up in the phone book, because “Ampliatus” is probably his first name. You can’t just wait until you spot him in the street, because you don’t know what he looks like. Without an image of Ampliatus in your mind, you would not recognize him, even if you did see him.

Now of course, I’m being facetious here. But you see the problem, right? As disciples of Jesus, we are called to grow in godliness—or god-likeness. Our tradition tells us that, while we were created in the image of God, that image has been distorted. Jesus calls us to reclaim that image. In the Sermon on the Mount, he even goes so far as to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Well—just as if we were seeking to “greet Ampliatus”—if we are seeking to become godlike, we need to have an image in our mind of what we’re striving for. We cannot work towards something without some idea of what it looks like. If you visit any of the numerous gyms in your city, you will see people who are there every day—pumping iron and running on treadmills. If you asked them, I’m sure you’d find that they all have an image in mind of how they want to look. Maybe they want to build up some muscle. Maybe they want to get slimmer. Maybe they want to look like Brandon Curry. Or Rachel Cammon. But all of them have an ideal that they are working towards.

Not only with regard to physical attributes does this principle apply. If our goal is to be like God, then we need a clear image of God to work towards.

And—just to clear up a misunderstanding before it develops—I am not saying you cannot make a start until you have the full picture in mind. You can respond to what you know of God now—and the gaps in your picture will continue to be filled in as you go.

So, how shall we formulate our image of God? In our reading from his letter to the Colossians, Paul gives this question some serious thought. Listen once again to the words he wrote. Like I said earlier, Paul starts by saying that “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God” (v. 15). That’s probably the most radical statement ever made about God. It is the thing that most distinguishes Christianity from other religions.

Our tradition insists that Jesus of Nazareth—a person who was born in disreputable circumstances, who broke all kinds of religious rules, and who died a criminal’s death—is the image of the invisible God! No other major religion claims that we have seen in human form the exact image of the Creator of the universe. Most religions would call that blasphemy.

But Paul goes even further than that. He says that the great mystery of God that was hidden throughout the ages—and is now being made known—is that Christ is in you. That’s right; the image of God is in you!

Remember the message that Jesus proclaimed—and sends us to proclaim: the nearness of God. “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). The image of God is within you. Christ is in us.

Now, when Paul describes the characteristics of this Christ who is the image of the invisible God, what does he say? Well, I’m sure he did not intend this to be an exhaustive description of the image of God, but it is a pretty good thumbnail sketch. First of all, Paul talks about creativity. Christ is the firstborn of all creation, and all things on earth and in heaven were created in him, through him and for him (vv. 15-16). The God made known in Christ is an enthusiastic Creator; he pours his very being into every creative act.

Then, Paul talks about sustaining what is created. That’s what he means when he says that, in Christ, “all things hold together” (v. 17). This is a remarkable image, one that grows richer the more you think about it. Christ is the power of cohesion within the universe.

The first image of creation in Genesis is about giving form to the “formless void”—or the “original chaos.” Christ is pictured here as the One who keeps everything from descending back into chaos. If Christ’s Spirit were withdrawn from the world, the whole structure of matter would just cave in on itself.

You can also think about this in terms of relationships. We know that good relationships require ongoing attention; we need to keep working at developing and holding together our relationships. The more intimate they are, the more this is true. Christ is the power that holds things together; he is the One who makes it possible for the togetherness to continue.

Thirdly, Paul describes Christ as the reconciler. Christ is the image of God in that he seeks to restore whatever is damaged within Creation. He identifies that which has become separated from the sustaining energy of God, and seeks to reconcile it.

And the thing that is especially notable about this characteristic of the Christ is that he is willing to suffer incredible personal loss—even an agonizing death—in order to bring about that reconciliation.

Paul says that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through the blood of his cross” (vv. 19-20). Notice that it doesn’t just say “all souls”—or even “all people.” It says all things. All people, all animals, all mountains and trees, all families and ethnic groups, all institutions and forms of commerce, all political and economic systems, all the realities that shape life in the world as we know it.

Through Christ, God was pleased to undertake the task of reconciling to himself all things that are not in right relationship with their Creator.

 And as an example, Paul uses …

Well, the example he uses is you! He says, you—“who were once estranged and hostile in mind … he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death …” (vv. 21-22).

Our most common use of the word estranged is for an estranged husband and wife, after a separation. They are estranged, and there is hostility in their minds towards one another. According to Paul, this is how we were towards God. But, through his suffering, Christ has reopened the lines of communication. Reconciliation is made possible—and now, Christ presents us to God “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (v. 22). Christ presents us to God completely purified—totally beyond reproach. Now, there is absolutely no accusation anyone can bring against us before God. Nothing will stick. Before God’s throne, you and I stand in holiness. We are without blame and beyond reproach.

God creates and reconciles and sustains all things. That, in a nutshell, is the image of God that Paul says Christ demonstrates to us. Do you notice how Trinitarian that description is? One of the many good alternatives to describing God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to refer to him as “Creator, Reconciler, and Sustainer”—and those are indeed the three roles that Paul attributes to God in this passage.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about how Jesus gives us our image of God. Paul did not know Jesus before the crucifixion, so Paul concentrates upon the risen Christ. There is much more we can learn about God from the earthly life of Jesus, as reported in the gospels. However, even if all we look at is this first chapter of Colossians, the images of godlikeness offered here provide a lifetime’s worth of growing for us to do.

If we want to be more like God, if we want to grow to maturity in Christ, we must strive to be creators—people who produce and appreciate beauty and practicality. We are to be reconcilers—people who are willing to go out on a limb to ensure that all things are brought back into right relationship. And, we are to be sustainers—people who overcome what is divisive; who nurture healthy relationships; who seek to ensure the sustainability of Creation.

That is what discipleship is all about. This is what it means to try to imitate God.

Our epistle reading concludes with Paul saying that all his proclaiming and warning and teaching have but one purpose: so that we may be presented in heaven as mature persons in Christ. Friends, as we go out into the world to be the church, let’s make sure the apostle’s words are not lost on us.

God chose to make known … the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:27-28)

Amen.

“GO AND DO LIKEWISE”

TEXTS: Colossians 1:1-14 and Luke 10:25-37

For this reason … we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10)

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)

In “American History According to Hollywood,” the Old West was a wild and dangerous place—a place where larger-than-life villains ruled by force of arms.

In the frontier America of the silver screen, anarchy has always held sway. The atmosphere of the typical Hollywood western is permeated with gunsmoke. It’s a place where bullets dart like horseflies across the prairie, and ordinary folks cower in fear until some larger-than-life hero comes to save them—somebody like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood … or if you’re a lover of newer versions of old classics … Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, et al. in The Magnificent Seven.

Historians tell us that—while the reality of life on the American frontier was considerably less violent than Hollywood’s portrayal of it—there is a germ of truth behind the screenplays.

As for the Canadian frontier—historians tell us that it was a much tamer place, thanks in large part to a concerted effort by British authorities to ensure the rule of law in the developing territories west of Fort Garry. The North-West Mounted Police force was created for that purpose—and it was very effective.

There were instances of lawlessness and violence, of course—Fort Whoop-Up near Lethbridge being a notorious example—but, relatively speaking, the Canadian west was quite a civilized place. And I think we can say that Canada is still a pretty civilized, law-abiding place. Certainly, Canadians—for the most part—retain a deep-seated respect for the law of the land (so-called “Freedom Convoys” notwithstanding).

The Hebrew people in Jesus’ time had an even deeper respect for the Law—for the Torah. In fact, their feelings about the law transcended simple respect. Torah was a beloved thing. Torah was good. Torah was sweet. Torah was their delight. Then, as now, faithful Jews lived for the observance of the Law. For them, the Law came from God, not from human beings—and God’s commands could not be subject to argument. Torah demanded all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.

For centuries, the struggle to observe the Law kept the people of Israel and Judah focused on the living God. The prophets amongst them recognized that obedience was the best sacrifice one could offer to such a Deity. Even so, the struggle to observe all the fine points of the Law continued. Now—and it probably goes without saying—the outward observance of the Law was always easier to attain than true purity of heart.

Certainly, outward observances were more easily monitored by others—especially by the self-appointed “morality police.” And the people who paid attention to appearances were content to think of themselves as righteous. But then, along came Jesus—this famous teacher and healer, a rabbi who spoke of God and God’s kingdom as no one else had ever done—and he confounded them!

When someone sick came to him on the Sabbath, he did not hesitate to heal that person. When a woman who was an outcast—a Canaanite—asked him to heal her child, he listened to the pleading of the foreigner and granted her request. He did not keep himself aloof from tax collectors, even though other Jews considered them traitors because they served the interests of the occupying Romans.

Jesus did not seem to care much for the outward niceties of the Law. Indeed, he declared that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath!

Those who heard him would have understood—correctly—that what Jesus was saying about the Sabbath, he extended to the whole body of Jewish law. According to Jesus, God intended the law to benefit the people, not to burden them and become a hardship. But this was a radical idea. Many who heard Jesus were deeply offended—and probably more than a little frightened, as well.

We can understand that, can we not? They did not want to lose the security of their traditions—the certainty of that which was familiar. Many of us would feel the same way, I think. Also, Jesus was asking them to think for themselves—and that is a tall order for human beings in any era!

Others, of course, were attracted to this charismatic young teacher who spoke about grace rather than perfection—about how God’s perfect justice was tempered by God’s perfect mercy and delivered through God’s perfect love.

Jesus filled Galilee with his loving presence, and people wanted to know his secret. They wanted to have what he had: a peace that could come only from close, daily communion with God. They desired to enter—to inherit—the kingdom of heaven, of which he spoke. So they came to Jesus to ask him about it. People from all walks of life sought him out.

We find several instances of that in the Gospels. The one in today’s reading from Luke occasions the telling of one of the most beautiful stories in all of Scripture. We know it as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

In Luke’s account, a lawyer comes to Jesus, and asks him: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus refers the inquirer to what he (being a lawyer) must already know—the Mosaic Law: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answers correctly with words from the Shema, quoting its magnificent injunction to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind—and our neighbour as ourselves.

Jesus commends the man’s answer: “Do this and you will live.”

But the lawyer finds a stumbling block in the last part—the part about “loving your neighbour as yourself.” And so, he asks the probing question, “Who is my neighbour?”

In the story that Jesus tells to illustrate his answer, the wounded man is bypassed by two of the most respectable members of the religious community—a priest and a lay assistant. They pretend they don’t see the dying man. It is easier to pretend not to see, much less bother.

They are both so busy, you understand. They have important, holy business to attend to. Their hands are clean. Their clothes are fine—they must not become soiled with blood and dirt!

But the Samaritan (whom they would have considered an outcast) is not troubled by such concerns. He stops and offers help—the kind of help that takes responsibility, that is not “here today and gone tomorrow.” He takes the victim to the inn. He treats the wounds with his own hands. He stays with him through the night. He pays the bill, and he comes back to check on him.

No questions are asked here, except the one posed by Jesus: “Which one of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the wounded one?”

The answer—obviously—is: “The one who showed him mercy.” And the simple command of Jesus is: “Go and do likewise.”

Some years later, the apostle Paul would pick up Jesus’ message and spread it throughout the ancient world. Paul urged his fellow Jews to see past the minutiae of the Law in order to embrace the holy freedom proclaimed by that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, whom we know as Jesus the Christ.

Paul—who as a young man had dedicated his life to the Torah—came to see how impossible it is for any of us to keep the Law perfectly. But—instead of being filled with despair over the human condition—Paul found good news to preach:

[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13-14)

Jesus has shown us a way to God that is not dependent upon our ability to obey outward rules and regulations. What he offers us is a chance to walk in the light of freedom.

With the power and grace of God through Jesus Christ, we can indeed go out and emulate the Good Samaritan. We can “do likewise.” We can show mercy to our neighbours. We can “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.”

So our Scriptures for today have given us some good things to remember—to take with us, as we journey into the future. First, there is the vision of the Good Samaritan from our gospel lesson, along with the words of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.” Then, there is Paul’s advice to the Colossians: “Bear fruit in every good work. But at the same time, grow in the knowledge of God.”

What can that mean, I wonder—to “grow in the knowledge of God”?

In part, I think, it means realizing—and really caring about—the fact that each human being was created in God’s image. And so, each person we meet is of infinite value in God’s sight.

Mother Teresa once said that her goal on the streets of Calcutta was to see that no one died unloved and alone. She was not able to save the lives of most of the dying, because the people were so sick when she found them. But she could give them a clean bed, a loving touch, and a measure of comfort.

We cannot always undo the effects of evil—but we can make sure that evil does not have the last word!

Bear fruit in every good work. Grow in the knowledge of God. Love your neighbour as you love yourself … and trust that the law of God is thereby fulfilled.

A SPIRIT OF GENTLENESS

TEXT: Galatians 6:1-18

“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 6:18).

These words, written by Saint Paul to the Christians in Galatia, come coursing down the centuries, a benediction on us from this man of God. And then, being the teacher that he is, Paul gives us some instruction, not on how to obtain this grace—for he would be the first to tell you that grace is a free gift from God—but rather on how, having been so gifted, we should then live our lives.

Early in the Epistle reading appointed for today, we hear Paul speaking of “a spirit of gentleness.”

This is not the only time we will hear about the quality of gentleness in Holy Scripture—nor, indeed, the only time we will hear Paul talking about it. But what does it mean—gentleness? What kind of person can be described as possessing this quality?

We probably need to rid ourselves of the image of one who is meek, mild, ineffective—what we would call a “doormat.” We’ve all read St. Paul’s letters and it is doubtful that you would use any of those terms to describe him.

Earlier in this same Letter to the Galatians, we read: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face …” (2:11)

Cephas, you understand, is Peter—even then, considered by many to be the chief of apostles. But Paul wasn’t afraid to take him on! The disagreement they had doesn’t bear re-hashing here—but the point is: Paul was not a meek doormat!

However, he also knew that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Remember his advice to the Galatians: “If anyone is detected in transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”

In other words, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

In a given instance, we may be right and our sister or brother may be wrong. But if we speak to that person in such a way as to anger them, or cause them to become defensive—or so as to shame or humiliate them—the only thing we will accomplish is to slam the door shut on future discussion.

Hostile words can destroy relationships.

“Speak the truth in love,” Paul encourages us in the letter to the Ephesians (4:15). A spirit of gentleness leaves the door open for the other person to think about what we have said, perhaps to talk again.

It leaves the door open for us as well. Because sometimes—just possibly—we will be the ones who are in the wrong!

This same spirit of gentleness is needed when we share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. The author of First Peter wrote about this:

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Nobody likes being hit over the head, even if it is with good news. “Let your gentleness be known to all,” Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (4:5).

The Christians in Galatia lived in a world that was much in need of a spirit of gentleness. So do we! As ambassadors of Christ, it is up to all of us to contribute this spirit of gentleness.

  • In a world where competitiveness reigns, can we sometimes just yield to one another?
  • In a world full of road rage, can we practice a little courtesy, even on the freeway?
  • In a world of worsening climate crisis, can we live gently—and responsibly—within nature?
  • In a world where politicians demonize their opponents in order to win elections, can we listen to both sides?
  • In a world where even Christians let disagreements fracture the body of Christ, can we still be agents of God’s reconciliation?

Earlier in this same Epistle, Paul writes: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

And, as we hear in today’s reading, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow” (Gal. 6:7).

Let us, then, sow the kind of harvest that we will be happy to reap! As it is written in the letter of James: “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18).

Lord, make us instruments of your love, your peace, your gentleness—this day, and always. Amen.

What a Hard Case!

TEXT: Luke 9:51-62

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:57-62)

The week before last (on June 10), I posted a blog which referenced the 1996 movie, “Leaving Las Vegas” (I guess it qualifies as an old movie, by now). Today, I’m going to talk about another movie from that same year.

How many of you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire”? *

If you’ve seen it, you know the title character—played by Tom Cruise—is a sports agent who has a moral epiphany which turns out to be very costly.

As the film opens, life is pretty good for Jerry Maguire. He represents some of the most gifted and talented athletes in sports. He lives in the fast lane, dashing from one meeting to the next, wheeling and dealing in multi-million dollar contracts. But then something happens. He starts noticing the greed, the selfishness, and—most importantly—the destroyed lives that go along with big-time, professional sports. Jerry Maguire realizes something has to change. He can’t go on representing spoiled, overpaid athletes.

One night Jerry suffers a “breakdown” (religious types might call it a “dark night of the soul”). He tosses and turns in his bed, unable to sleep. Finally, he gets up, turns on his computer, and begins typing a mission statement for the future of his company. As he writes, he tries to recapture his own love of sports—the excitement he once felt simply watching an athlete perform.

He writes about the values that his profession once had, but has lost in its quest for more money and more power. By the time he stops typing, he has written 25 pages. He entitles it, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say.” In the middle of the night, he takes the document to a copy center and makes 110 copies. Then he gives a copy to everyone in his company.

The next morning, Jerry realizes what he’s done. Timidly, he walks into his office. To his surprise, he receives a standing ovation for his act of courage. One person says, “Finally, somebody said it.”

Jerry feels more alive than he has in years. He’s just 35, but he feels like he’s starting his life all over again. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating feeling.

However, a week later Jerry is fired by one of his closest friends, who believes that the “new” Jerry Maguire poses a threat to the company. The new Jerry Maguire does not conform to the company’s values and cannot achieve the company’s goals. So Jerry is tossed out onto the street. Within a few days of losing his job, he also loses his fiancée—a woman who does not want to be married to a loser.

Just like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Jerry Maguire” has a stunning realism. When a person stands up and speaks out for what is right, and defends what is true, there is inevitably a high price to pay. Just as “Leaving Las Vegas” does not soft-pedal the deadliness of alcoholism, “Jerry Maguire” does not romanticize or sentimentalize the role of the courageous reformer. Jerry never gets his job back. He loses the contract for the number one draft choice to the man who fired him. He does not get revenge. The tables do not turn. Jerry Maguire learns that idealistic choices are expensive choices.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus presents the high costs of discipleship—and his words are not easy to hear. You know, Jesus probably would have been a total flop at parish ministry. Pastors are supposed to be diplomatic and non-threatening … aren’t they? They’re supposed to comfort, not convict … right? Pastors are supposed to encourage, not demand. Jesus says all the wrong things. His words to his would-be disciples are sharp, tough, and unreasonable. The first disciple approaches Jesus beaming with enthusiasm offering his time and talents announcing that he is willing to follow the rabbi from Nazareth anywhere. Jesus tells the man, “If you follow me, expect to be homeless, hungry, and alone.”

In the second encounter, the would-be disciple just wants to attend his father’s funeral. You might think that Jesus would try to show a bit of compassion, and wait for the poor guy. But no. He tells the man that discipleship takes precedence over family. Your family commitments—your family obligations—must be put aside, if you want to be a disciple.

The third aspiring disciple only makes one small request. Before he signs on the dotted line, he wants to go home and say good-bye to his family. That seems reasonable enough. But once again, in his call to commitment, Jesus issues a rebuke. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

I am reminded of a rather odd question that was put to me once (years ago) in a written examination.  It was actually more of a thought-experiment than a question. It went like this: Imagine you have a time machine, and you go back to first-century Palestine and meet Jesus of Nazareth face-to-face. Imagine you spend some time with him. Imagine you listen to his teaching. Imagine you observe him as he interacts with other people.

Now imagine this: After you really get to know Jesus, you decide that you don’t like him! (And let’s face it—a lot of people who met Jesus didn’t like him!)  Then you get back in the time machine and return to the present.

Now what? What, if anything, would change about your Christian faith?

The way I actually answered that question was to regurgitate some theological mumbo-jumbo about the Jesus of history being different from the Christ of faith. I think I also threw in some pop psychology about clashing personality types and how that shouldn’t be allowed to detract from Jesus’ underlying message. That apparently satisfied the examiner, because I passed the test!

But as I contemplate the story Luke serves up to us today, it occurs to me that I might answer that examination question differently if I was facing it today. Because I don’t like the Jesus I read about here! But, if I’m being honest about it, I have to admit that what I don’t like about him is the difficult challenge he’s putting forward. He’s asking his disciples—and that includes me—to be absolutely single-minded about discipleship. He’s asking me to care about nothing else besides following him—not my family, not my home, or my friends, or my career, or even my own well-being.

“I’ll follow you, Lord, but first I just need to spend half an hour to get my cholesterol level checked…”

“No! You don’t have half an hour. You don’t have five minutes. Follow me now!”

This Jesus guy is a hard case, isn’t he? On the other hand, he certainly did practice what he preached. Maybe that’s why he makes us so uncomfortable. Perhaps too many of us—myself included—have a sort of “bookshelf” approach to God. Most people believe in God, but they place him on the shelf to admire—or to refer to in the proper company. God becomes a possession—one commodity amongst many. Every home should have at least one. Then, when we invite company over, we can show off our new living room furniture, our new dining room table, our new kitchen cabinets … and our quaint little “bookshelf God.” And God will stay on the shelf until a crisis strikes. Then we offer a “bail-out” prayer, and we expect our “bookshelf God” to comfort, support and assist us with a miracle.

But the God of the Bible is nothing like that. The God revealed in Jesus is a God who makes discipleship an arduous—even back-breaking—thing. He is more than a sympathetic, hand-holding personal friend. He calls his followers to make difficult choices—decisions that require sacrifice and commitment.

I don’t like it, either. But discipleship is not about creating a safe, caring environment where people’s needs will be taken care of. No. It is about a radically different way of life. It is about making hard decisions. It is about responding in faith to the demands of the living God. That does not mean that the church should forget about maintaining a safe and caring environment. What it means is that we cannot create a loving and supportive community of faith unless people are willing to make sacrifices to the difficult demands of discipleship.

Jesus knew what that was about. He gave himself wholly. He committed himself fully—so completely that nothing was left over. Like it or not, that’s what he asks of us, also.

Now, there’s something to think about on our summer holidays! May God grant us both insight and courage as we ponder what discipleship means for us. Amen.

_________________

* https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/60022922

 

A BAD DAY FOR PIGS

TEXT: Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. (Luke 8:26-27a)

So begins Luke’s account of this familiar story. It is a remarkable story—and not just because of its supernatural aura. Consider, if you will, some of the details of this account. First, Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes; this district east of Lake Galilee was a largely non-Jewish area. Second—from what Luke tells us—pig farming seems to have been a mainstay of the region’s economy. Certainly, large quantities of pork would have been purchased by the Roman army to feed its soldiers in the vicinity.

Pigs, of course, were considered unclean animals by the Jews—and the fact that the Gerasenes were making a profit by feeding the Romans probably didn’t make them popular with their Jewish neighbours across the lake. This wasn’t a place you’d expect a travelling rabbi to visit! But this is precisely where Jesus and his disciples arrive as our gospel lesson opens. He has come, we may presume, to bring them his message of good news. Gentile or Jew—clean or unclean—it makes no difference to our Lord; all are children of the same Creator.

So Jesus steps out of the boat onto the Gerasene shore, and the very first thing that happens is that he is approached by this deranged person. Before Jesus can do anything else—before he can find a place to stay, before he can set up any speaking engagements—he is confronted by the spectacle of this man who has been living in a graveyard, who has been driven out of town by a frightened populace. He’s naked. He’s raving. In his fury, he can break strong chains and burst shackles applied to restrain him. He runs at Jesus, and throws himself down at his feet, screaming: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

If none of the Gerasenes had noticed Jesus arriving before this, all their eyes were trained on him now! Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replies. “My name is Legion. My name is Mob. I have a whole mob of demons inside me.”

Taking pity on the man, Jesus orders the demons out. He casts them into some swine which are feeding on a nearby hillside, and then the whole herd of them goes berserk. They rush headlong into the lake, and they are all drowned.

Quickly, a crowd of villagers gathers; and what do they find? They find Jesus standing with the former demoniac, who is clothed and in his right mind. And they discover that their pigs—all of them—are gone!

Well, they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And the Gerasenes won’t give Jesus a chance to make a second impression. They’re afraid of what he might do next. So they ask him to leave—to get out of there, to get away from them, to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.

The disciples who had come across the lake with Jesus might have wondered what he was doing. After making the difficult voyage—during which there had been a violent storm—Jesus has squandered his opportunity to evangelize the Gerasenes. After going to all this trouble, after putting their lives in danger, after expending the effort to calm the dangerous wind and waves (we hear about this earlier in the chapter)—after doing all this just to preach to a bunch of worthless, pig-farming Gentiles—Jesus blows off the whole plan in order to heal this one pitiful soul.

What was he thinking?

You know, this story reminds me of another one—of a parable Jesus tells a bit later in Luke (15:4-7), about a lost sheep. You remember it, I’m sure. It’s about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but notices that one of them is missing. And so he leaves his 99 remaining sheep to fend for themselves, and he goes off and searches for the one who is lost.

Now, you’ve got to understand that Jesus was preaching to rural people—to farmers and sheep-herders. These were people who knew about the realities of keeping livestock, and they would have listened to his parable, and they would have thought that shepherd was irresponsible. You don’t go off and leave your flock unattended—unguarded, uncared for. You don’t trust the 99 remaining sheep to stay put. You don’t gamble that predators won’t attack them. You don’t risk losing all your sheep just to go looking for one that is lost. Not if you’re an experienced shepherd. Yet Jesus tells us that God is like that foolish shepherd. If we are his sheep, he’ll risk everything just to save one of us.

“Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

And so, the Son of God lands on the beach near Gerasa, all set to bring his message to this place which observant Jews find so repulsive. And immediately he is faced with a choice. Will he let this one disturbed individual get in the way of his larger mission?

Well, we know the choice he makes. He heals the demon-possessed man. But he wrecks the local economy in the process! And he so profoundly freaks out the Gerasenes that they don’t want to hear anything he has to say. All they want is for him to leave them alone. So Jesus steps back into the boat, and his disciples prepare to cast off from the shore. What a disaster! Can anything be salvaged from it?

Perhaps one thing can be. The man who was healed—for whom Jesus sacrificed his plans—the former demoniac wants to come with them. He wants to be one of them, to join in their ministry. And just think about that! Talk about a testimony! Can’t you imagine this guy standing before the crowd gathered on a Judean hillside, talking about all that Jesus has done for him? Can’t you imagine him dressed to the nines? All freshened up and clean-shaven and handsome in a nice tailored suit, saying: “My friends, I was not always the man you see before you now. No. Once I was a madman! It’s true. Once I had a mob of demons living inside me. And my friends and family had to drive me out of town. And I was naked, and I lived in a graveyard, amongst death and decay. But then, this man—this Jesus—he healed me!”

If Jesus was a TV evangelist, he’d want this guy in front of the cameras, introducing him. But Jesus doesn’t let the man into the boat. He doesn’t bring him back across the lake to star in his travelling salvation show. No. He tells him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Luke tells us the man did exactly that. He stayed put in Gerasa, amongst his countrymen and his neighbours—everyone who had known him at his worst—and he proclaimed the truth that Jesus had come to tell. And so maybe the mission was salvaged, after all. Maybe this Gerasene man—now cured of his afflictions, restored to his sanity, to his home, to his family—maybe he was a much more effective messenger than even Jesus could have been, for these people. Maybe this familiar face, this long-lost sheep, would have a much greater impact than some strange rabbi from across the sea.

I wonder … maybe for those of us in mainline North American churches, this gospel story salvages a truth that we too seldom proclaim. We do not often speak about individual salvation—or about individual experience of God, about knowing Jesus personally. We speak often about how all of us together comprise “the body of Christ” but we don’t often mention the fact that God cares about each member of that body—that while Christ came to save the entire world, he also seeks to have a relationship with each person in it.

That’s what the man delivered from his demons had—he had a relationship with the living Christ, with God, who healed him. He had a real and compelling testimony to give, one that would continue to touch hearts and change lives long after the foreign rabbi had left his country’s shores. I think that’s why Jesus left him behind; because he knew that, once the shock and fear had died away, the Gerasenes would realize that—while they could always get more pigs—it wasn’t every day they saw a lost sheep return home.

How great is our God, who risks all to save one—and who, by saving the one, gains the many.

 

Learning From Las Vegas

TRINITY SUNDAY

TEXTS: Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15

[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 6:12-15)

OnTrinity Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary serves us up the words of Jesus and the words of Paul. Both passages speak about the Holy Spirit, and both refer us to Christ.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit who will come will guide them into truth. More than that, Jesus says, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Spirit comes to bring us the things of Christ. And if we aren’t sure quite what that means, the apostle makes it clear to us. Writing to the Christians at Rome, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:1-5).

The things of Christ are declared to us: “this grace in which we stand … God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Before I go any further, I want to ask you a question: have you ever seen the movie, Leaving Las Vegas? If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you consider renting it.* Nicholas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in that film in 1996, and Elizabeth Shue was nominated for Best Actress.

Now, as I’m recommending it to you, I have to warn you that it has an “R” rating. And it got its “R” rating the old-fashioned way—it earned it! Still, it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, for reasons I’ll make clearer shortly. For now, I’ll just tell you that it’s a film about—among other things—unconditional acceptance.

That’s a theological term, by the way. Unconditional acceptance. It was a favourite theme of the great theologian Paul Tillich, who sought to outline the gospel of Jesus Christ for a post-religious age. Writing from just after World War Two through the tumultuous Sixties, Tillich aimed to translate Biblical concepts into the language of a world whose faith in God had been shaken to its very foundations. In one of his great, ringing passages, Paul Tillich preached the following: “Sometimes a light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than yourself and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek anything; do not intend anything; do not perform anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted’.”

In the writings of Paul Tillich, the interchangeable terms “acceptance” and “unconditional love” appear over and over again. He specifically used the term “unconditional love” as a modern translation—a new synonym—for the Biblical term grace. “Unconditional love” means “the grace of God.”

Grace is the undeserved, unearned, unmerited love that the children of God receive from their Creator. Grace is the love of the father who keeps the candle flame of love burning for his wayward, prodigal son. Grace is the care of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 members of his flock on the hillside pasture and goes out searching for the one lost sheep. Grace is the Lord Jesus Christ nailed to a heavy, rough wooden cross, managing to say with virtually his dying breath, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

You and I depend upon the grace of God in the same way a skydiver depends upon his backup parachute. Grace is the forgiveness of our sins. Grace is the assumption of our debts.  Grace is the mending of our brokenness.  Grace is the affirmation of our identities. Grace is the restoration of our relationships. And the modern way of saying “grace” is “unconditional love.”

I think Paul Tillich would have been intrigued by the promotional blurb for the movie. It reads: “From the moment Ben and Sera (the two main characters) connect, they form a unique bond based on unconditional acceptance and mutual respect that will change each of them forever.”

What does our culture mean by “unconditional acceptance”? This motion picture provides us with some vivid insights about how we have come to understand that term.

Leaving Las Vegas is, quite simply, a portrait of two individuals in hell. Ben is a successful executive for a Hollywood film company, and he has it all—the BMW, the split-level home with a swimming pool, the gorgeous blonde wife and the terrific son. Or at least, he had these blessings until he drank them away. When we first meet him, Ben is being fired from his job because of his alcoholism. His wife has already left him, and has taken their child with her.

We don’t know any of Ben’s reasons for wasting his opportunities, and we are not let in on them as the story unfolds. And that’s a good thing, really, for every man who has ever drained away his future at the bottom of a bottle has done so with all the most plausible excuses in the world. All we know about Ben is that he has lost his will to live, and he has made up his mind to move to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. There in the glittering city of the night, he meets Sera, a young prostitute who has seen it all—at least twice. He hires her—not to have sex, but just to talk. And this is how their relationship begins.

By and by, Sera’s pimp meets with a violent death—and so she becomes her own boss. At the same time, her affection for Ben grows to the point where she invites him to move in with her. They are a very odd couple indeed, with Ben drinking himself into total oblivion every day and Sera going out to walk the streets every night. Her customers range from polite-seeming, well-dressed men to vicious creeps, and she comes out much the worse for wear.

At one point early in their cohabitation, Ben spells out his condition for staying with Sera: “You must never, never ask me to stop drinking.” In her turn, Sera expects Ben to not interfere with her performance of her chosen career.

What binds them together is their shared, desperate sense of loneliness. Some claim that a primary motive of alcoholics is to distance themselves from other people. Likewise, selling sex is a way to de-personalize this most holy of our physical gifts from God. Both Ben and Sera have made up their minds that—as far as the rest of the human race is concerned—they’re simply going to “check out”.

As tough as it is to watch, Leaving Las Vegas is a film with a heart. Before long, you care about these people. You want them to turn their lives around. You really believe that they love each other—and some of their tender moments together are achingly romantic. Yet the story is too realistic to have a sugary happy ending pasted onto it. The sad truth is that most people who set out to destroy themselves eventually succeed.

What happens? After a month of steady binge drinking, Ben finally defeats his body’s ability to absorb massive quantities of alcohol. Binge drinkers usually die either from acute liver failure or from aneurysms of the esophagus or the stomach, literally drowning in their own blood. Sera is there when Ben dies, after he mutters something about “putting us asunder”—a tragic echo of Jesus’ words so familiar to us from the church’s marriage ceremony.

We hear Sera’s perspective on her relationship with Ben through vignettes of her speaking to a therapist. These are her last lines: “I think the thing is, we both realized that we didn’t have that much time, and I accepted him for who he was. And I didn’t expect him to change. And I think he felt that for me, too. I liked his drama. And he needed me. I loved him.”

And that, my friends, is what our culture means by “unconditional acceptance”—to accept someone for who they are, and never expect them to change.

Mark my words: this is not—repeat—this is not grace. This is not the love God gives us, and it is not the love God calls us to have for one another.

The untold story of Leaving Las Vegas is all the other people like Ben and Sera. I think most of us would be shocked to learn how many real lives are careening out of their orbits. Not just in Las Vegas, but right here in our own pleasant neighbourhoods, people are perishing from loneliness and the hopelessness of thinking that no one really knows them—and that if they did know them, they wouldn’t like them.

Feeling so vulnerable—feeling so desperate for companionship—too many of us expect too little of others, just as we expect too little of ourselves. God loves real people who are sinking into the muck just like Ben and Sera.

The grace of God is the love of a parent who wants the very best for his or her beloved child. Can a loving parent stand by dully while his or her children let the promise of life slip through their fingers? No way!

To be sure, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7). But does love not care about such things? Of course it does. Love cares about what happens!

Our culture has an expression that perfectly describes the commitment level of too many modern relationships: “I’ll always be there for you.” That’s great. But there is more to love than just being in the room when a loved one manages to commit suicide. Love also must be willing to intervene for the sake of the loved one.

Here is the crux of what the apostle Paul was getting at: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6, 8)

This is love’s intervention into the destructive pattern of sin. Through Jesus Christ we have been given emergency access to the grace of God. Simply being there for his children was not enough for the God of infinite love. God has always been—and always will be—there for us. God loves us as we are; that’s a given. But in his boundless compassion, God saw that our persistence in sinning required a more dramatic, more effective action on his part. And so God intervened.

Can we learn something from movies like Leaving Las Vegas? You bet we can! The number one lesson we can learn is how lost we are without the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But the good news is that this loving God is capable of turning any life around—no matter how messed up it is—through the transforming power of unconditional love. And that’s what it really means.

 

___________________

* “Leaving Las Vegas” is apparently unavailable on Netflix Canada. However, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you should be able to view it there: https://www.amazon.ca/Leaving-Las-Vegas-Nicolas-Cage/dp/0792838068

 

INCARNATION: GOD IN OUR SKIN

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)

During the past six months or so, the Revised Common Lectionary has led us on a remarkable journey with the Lord.

Throughout the season of Advent, we anticipated his birth.

During the short season of Christmas, we witnessed that birth, and rejoiced with the shepherds who came to adore the holy Child. And yes, what we witnessed was a miracle—not only the miracle of birth, but the miracle of God becoming flesh, taking on our human form.

During Epiphany, we heard about Jesus’ first visit to the Jerusalem Temple, when he was still a tiny infant. That was when Simeon predicted his future and Anna the prophetess blessed him.

We began the Season of Lent by following Jesus into the wilderness. Forty days later, we watched as he entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. And then began that holiest of weeks—that week which culminates in the resounding cry that we hear on Resurrection morning: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”

With these words, the Season of Easter begins—a season during which we celebrate the good news that Jesus lives.

Yes, we’ve been on quite a journey over these past six months. We’ve not only heard the story of Jesus, but also lived it along with his first disciples, witnessing through their eyes the landmark events of his life.

And in this story that we’ve been re-living for half a year, we have once again experienced the central mystery of our faith—the story of the Incarnation, of “Emmanuel,” of “God with us.” We’ve been reminded that, in Christ Jesus, the Creator of the universe became one of us.

As the Church has always insisted, Jesus was fully and absolutely human, even though he was fully and absolutely God, as well. We may not completely understand that truth, but we celebrate it, anyway—just as Christians have done for over 2,000 years now.

Yes, we celebrate Incarnation. But what do we mean by that? What do we think of when we hear that word?

I’d wager that most of us think of the Incarnation in this way: “God walked on this earth, physically, for 33 years or so. Then he died, he rose again, and—finally—he returned to heaven. When he left, he sent the Holy Spirit to be present among us—but the actual physical body of Jesus was gone forever.”

Isn’t that how we usually think of it? Jesus was here on earth healing, teaching, and revealing God for about 30 years. But he is not actually here anymore—he’s in heaven. The Incarnation—that time when God was physically present and walked among us … Well, that time is over. And while the Holy Spirit is real … the Spirit is not the actual, physical presence of God—at least, not in the way that Jesus was.

Some days, I find myself wishing that Jesus was still here—right now—in the flesh. Do you ever wish for that? Do you ever wish that he was still here, so that we could touch him and feel him and actually hear his voice? So that we could see the compassion in his eyes?

There’s a story I heard once about a child who woke up in the middle of the night after a terrifying dream. She was convinced that there were all kinds of monsters and goblins lurking under her bed and in the corners of her room—so, frightened and crying, she ran to her parents’ bedroom. After her mother had calmed her down, she took the child back to her own room and said, “You don’t need to be afraid, you’re not alone. God is right here with you in your room.”

And the little girl said, “I know that God is here, but I need someone in my room that has some skin on!”

We all need a God who has some skin on, don’t we? We need God to be present here and now, in the flesh, in 2022 in the midst of this frightening world. We need someone we can hear and touch and smell and see.

You know, after talking to many people over the years, I’m convinced that most of us don’t need to find God in some obscure setting—like a remote mountain monastery, or the solitude of the desert. No. Most of us need to find God in the kitchen, and in the backyard, and in the parking lot, and on the telephone.

We need God to hold us when we are discouraged.

We need God to give us a gentle kick in the butt when we ignore somebody in need.

We need a God who has some skin on.

Ronald Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic theologian from Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan. In his book, The Holy Longing,1 Rolheiser offers some helpful observations for those of us who long for a God “with skin on.” He suggests that the reason we find it difficult to experience God as real and alive and physically present has to do with a faulty understanding of what Incarnation means.

Rolheiser points out that most of us have a rather short-sighted perspective in this regard. It’s as if we think the Incarnation was a 33-year experiment—a one-shot excursion by God into human history. And now, it’s over.

You know, if that were really true, I think I’d suggest that we just close up shop, give everyone a pat on the back, and then head on out to make the best of it on our own.

However, the truth is different. The Incarnation did not come to an abrupt end when Jesus ascended into heaven.

No. The Incarnation is still going on. It’s just as physically real today as it was when Jesus of Nazareth walked the dusty roads of Palestine.

Why do I say that? Consider once again today’s passage from the Book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit came to fill up those believers on the Church’s first Pentecost—after Jesus had gone back to heaven—God once again took on flesh. Once again, God put on some skin. Not in the way it happened when Jesus was born, of course, but in another way.

On the Church’s first Pentecost—through the power of the Holy Spirit—God was again clothed in human flesh. And ever since then—down through more than 20 centuries—God has been sending the Holy Spirit to the Church. Still today, God sends the Holy Spirit to us, and for the same reason. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God awakens gifts in each one of us—gifts that the world still needs; gifts that God needs to continue giving, here and now, in this weary old world.

It seems strange to us, but—on that day we think of as the first Pentecost—God came to depend on us, just as we depend on him. I know how odd that sounds, but that is the message of the New Testament: God depends on us to do his work in the world, to be the living Body of Christ in the world.

Through the power of the Spirit that lives in us, God lives in us. God is incarnate in us!

Does that sound weird? Does it sound like heresy? It’s not. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

The season of Pentecost is the longest season of the Church Year, lasting until the season of Advent arrives, and we once again find ourselves waiting, and anticipating.

In a way, much of the Pentecost season is “down time” in the Church. Soon, summer will be upon us, and many of us will depart on vacation. Worship attendance will drop, and perhaps most of us won’t really think much about church until September. So the Pentecost season sounds kind of … well … like a non-event, doesn’t it?

And that’s a shame, really. Because it seems to me that in many ways, the long, seemingly boring season of Pentecost is perhaps the most important season of the church year. Why? Because this is the season wherein God once again fills us up with the Holy Spirit. This is the season wherein we can be renewed in the Body of Christ. This is the season wherein God wants to make sure that people see him with some skin on.

During Pentecost, we are called to use the gifts that God has given us. God has blessed us with gifts so that we can bless others. God has given us time and talent and money to share with those who need it. God has given us ears for listening and compassionate hearts for understanding.

The gifts God has given us are meant to be used for others, used in such a way that those who need God—a real, physical God with skin on—will be able to find that God. That’s what Jesus did 2,000 years ago—but now God is depending on us to do it.

St. Teresa of Avila captured it so well when she wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,

no hands but yours,

no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which

Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.

Yours are the feet with which

He is to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which

He is to bless us now.2

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus—God made human. At Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Church—where God takes on skin as the Body of Christ. It seems to me that these past six months we’ve traveled with our Saviour, have been something like a dress rehearsal. And now we’re at opening night.

Ready or not, the curtain has been lifted—and now it’s up to us to make sure that the show goes on.

What are we going to do about that, during this season of Pentecost? What are we going to do, to make sure that the Incarnation continues to live on in us, as the Body of Christ? What are we going to do, to make sure that those who desperately need God’s unconditional love will be able to find it?

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will hold them when they need to be held, who will fix a leaky faucet for a cup of coffee, who will comfort and reassure them when they are afraid.

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will laugh with them when they are delighted, who will run an errand for them when they are homebound, who will pick up the phone to let them know that they are being thought of, who will mourn with them when they grieve.

In us, may they find a God with skin on—a God who will house them when they are homeless, feed them when they are hungry, and visit them when they are in prison; a God who will sit silently with them when they simply need a quiet companion.

So, of each one of you, I ask this question: what are your gifts from the Spirit? You have them, you know. Young or old, long-time church member or newcomer, if you’re part of Christ’s Body, you have gifts from the Spirit. And—especially during this season of Pentecost—you’re called to use them. We all are.

And remember—God is depending on us.

___________________________________________________________

1Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search For A Christian Spirituality. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

2Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila and quoted in The Holy Longing, p. 73.

LIFE TOGETHER

Seventh Sunday of Easter

TEXT: John 17:20-26

“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.” (John 17:20-21)

Some passages of Scripture are difficult because they are so clear. “Love one another as I have loved you,” is about as clear as Scripture can get. However, its clarity does not render Jesus’ commandment easy to follow. Loving is tough. And “loving as God loves”—can we humans possibly do that?

Other passages of Scripture are difficult because they are confusing to begin with. They do not speak with clarity. And that is the case with our gospel text for today.

“I [am] in them and you [are] 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.”

So it is with much of John’s Gospel. The words roll and tumble and circle about, and they are beautiful—but they can also be mystifying. Reading Scripture of this sort can be challenging. It’s a bit like what happens to those of us who—in our waning years—have to get used to bifocals or “graduated lenses.”

They’re very different from ordinary spectacles. We put them on, and—wonder of wonders—things at first seem very clear. We say: “Ah! Now I get it! Now I know what I’m reading.” But with one crank of the neck or one blink of the eyes, it all blurs over again.

So it is with the Gospel of John. Just when you think you have a handle on what the author is saying, up comes a crank—or a blink … and it all blurs over again.

Today we hear Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one. Jesus is praying one last, long prayer for his disciples—and for the disciples that will follow them in the centuries to come. Right now, Jesus’ prayer is for us—and for all Christians around the world:

  • For Canadian Christians seeking reconciliation with their First Nations sisters and brothers, Jesus is praying.
  • For fundamentalist and evangelical and liberal Christians across North America, Jesus is praying.
  • For Orthodox Christians suddenly divided by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Jesus is praying.
  • For pastors and teachers in the world’s churches—thirsty and dried up with fatigue, surrounded by the sufferings of their people—Jesus is praying.
  • For those mourning loved ones lost in the latest of too many mass shootings and wondering when and how the life-giving water of the Spirit will come, Jesus is praying.
  • For those who find themselves wondering if God will really catch them if they fall … For them, too, Jesus is praying.

Jesus is praying for all people in times such as these, when we are troubled and perplexed that our personal worth seems to be tied to who’s got what—to who’s got the biggest, and the best. Even Christians fall into this trap—and then we behave as though success depends upon the size of our congregational budget, or upon huge attendance figures at Sunday worship.

When that happens, we know Jesus’ prayer for us has not been fully answered.

Some years ago, I heard another pastor speaking to a gathering of church workers. His parish was in Chicago—in some of that city’s worst slums—and he told a story from his ministry there.

One day a woman whom he knew slightly came to visit him in his office. He recognized her immediately as one of the prostitutes who walked the hooker stroll not far from his church. She was in wretched condition—homeless, sick, and unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told the pastor in detail how she and her daughter had been living.

“I could hardly bear hearing her story,” he told us. “I had no idea what to say to this woman. The story she was sharing was making me sick. At last I asked her if she had ever thought of going to church.”

Then he saw the look on her face. It was a look of horror! “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They would only make me feel worse!”

Probably, she was right.

Jesus is praying for us. And his prayer has not been fully answered.

In the rambling, rolling, exquisite language flowing from the apostle John’s pen, Jesus is praying that the unity of love will bind us and hold us together.

Muslim, Jew, Christian—we all claim the same patriarch, Abraham. We all say we worship a God who desires peace, and not conflict; who calls us to love our neighbours and bless our enemies; who loves people of all races and creeds.

In recent years, the similarities in our three faiths have been emphasized more than perhaps at any other moment in history. In these dreadful times, people of faith everywhere are seeking common ground. And that is a good and amazing thing!

But I wonder: have you given any thought to what it is that makes Christianity stand unique among the world’s religions?  What makes Christianity truly different from the others?

Is it our teaching about the incarnation—about God becoming human in the person of Jesus? No. Other religions have similar stories about gods appearing in human form.

Is it our belief in resurrection? No. Other religions have accounts of miraculous returns from the grave.

What makes Christianity unique is its teaching about grace—the assertion that God’s eternal and perfect love is being offered to us free of charge, with no strings attached. Grace is the essence of this good news—this gospel—that we proclaim, and it is God’s free gift to the world, offered through Christian faith.

The Buddhist “eight-fold path,” the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, the Muslim code of law—each of these offer to humanity methods of earning approval, or of working out our own salvation.

Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional!

In grace, the sun shines alike on good people and on bad. By grace, birds gather seed freely, neither plowing nor reaping to earn a harvest. Through grace, untended wildflowers burst into bloom on rocky hillsides. Grace teaches us that God is eager to bless us—not because we have worked for blessing or because we deserve it—but simply because we are God’s beloved creation, the sheep of God’s fold.

Yet we live in a world that teaches the opposite. We live in a culture that teaches ungrace. We live in a world that judges us and sorts us and labels us and tells us that what we get is only what we deserve.

Businesses do that. Long-serving employees—who cost too much in wages and benefits—are pressured to retire or resign (it’s called “constructive dismissal”). Others are expected to consistently generate huge financial returns and are devalued when they inevitably fail. Human resources departments grade workers according to “performance-graded rating scales” where “one” is bad and “five” means job survival. 

Such business practices foster ungrace.

Some families ooze ungrace, as well. Families like that of the novelist, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s very religious mother detested his hard-drinking, two-fisted lifestyle, and in later years refused to allow him near her. One year for his birthday, she sent him a cake—along with the gun his father had used to kill himself!

Another year, she wrote him a letter explaining that a mother’s life was like a bank. Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, she said. As the child grows, she explained, it draws upon the bank’s resources—without making any deposits, of course. However, when the child is grown, it is time to replenish the account—it’s time to pay the mother back. Hemingway’s mother then proceeded to explain how he could remain in her good favour.

“Send me often flowers, fruit, candy, pay my bills, and above all,” she wrote, “stop neglecting your duties to God and your Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Hemingway never got over his hatred of his mother.* And he never got over his hatred of her Saviour—Jesus Christ.

Churches can teach ungrace, too. They become shame-based churches. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you a story. It’s about a man I met once.

“What do you do?” he asked me. So of course I told him, “I am a United Church minister.”

Over the next half hour or so, he told me how tough his life has been. But then his face brightened, as he spoke proudly about having completed his second week of outpatient treatment for drug addiction. And with great enthusiasm, he told me about his “Twelve-Step” group, where—at his first meeting—he heard that there is a Higher Power who loves him no matter how badly he has screwed up.

“I never heard that in my church,” he said. “All my life—in church—what I heard was, ‘Don’t come back until your life is straightened out!’”

“As you 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.”

That is Jesus’ prayer for us. I do not believe that his prayer is for uniformity in our doctrines. I don’t even think it’s a prayer that all our churches should merge and become one huge “mega-denomination.” No. I believe what Jesus meant when he prayed that we might all be one was that we be united in our message of grace and hope.

As we look to the days ahead and ponder what the future may hold, Jesus continues to pray for us. And his prayer is not just that we might survive on promises of a brighter tomorrow, but that we may live fully in the present, receiving encouragement for life in the now.

Is that prayer being answered in our lives? Is there deep faith amongst us, whatever challenges we might face?

Here is good news: the power of heaven is ours for the asking—so let us ask. The love of God is even now being displayed in our midst—so let’s look for it.

The best is yet to come, my friends. Despite appearances, the best is yet to come. Thanks be to God.

________________

* https://keywestlou.com/hemingway-hated-his-mother/

 

 

 

 

Keeping the Word, Keeping the Peace

Sixth Sunday of Easter

TEXTS: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and John 14:23-29

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

What a beautiful Scripture! We are invited to love Jesus, and the Gospel says that the best way to do this is to keep his Word. So I encourage you to read a little of the Bible every day—to become familiar with the Word, so you can keep it!

We know what the Word of Jesus is. It’s a specific message: “Love one another, love your neighbours, be as compassionate as God, do not judge anyone, put down the sword, forgive seventy times seven times, seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, love your enemies.”

That’s the Word. If we are to keep his Word, we have to disregard all the false words of the world, all the lies and hypocrisy of our culture.

The Gospel says: if we love him, if we keep his Word, and live according to it, over time, the Word will shape us and we will live like Jesus and really follow him, and God will come to us and dwell inside us. So our job is to be “keepers of the Word” and to let God live in us!

More than that, the Gospel calls us not only to be keepers of the Word of Jesus, but keepers of the peace of Jesus. “Peace I leave with you,” he says, “my peace I give you.” He says this at the last supper, on the night before he dies. And then again when he rises from the dead, he says, “Peace be with you.”

This peace is the most important thing Jesus wants to give us. The world knows nothing of his peace, and we too may have a hard time living in peace. We are busy, we have many worries, we’re sick or we have problems with our families or at work or at school, but we do have moments when we are at peace … don’t we?

Don’t we?

If you take up my challenge to read some of the Bible every day—maybe at the start of the day—and meditate upon it, and ask God to show you what it means for you … then I think you’ll come to know that time as peaceful.

If we make time to be centred and at peace in communion with Jesus, he says that he will come to dwell with us. I think when Jesus says he gives us his peace, that he wants us to live all our days like that—centred in that moment of communion with him. Of course, that’s easier said than done in the complicated lives we all lead. But that’s the ideal.

Perhaps by way of encouragement, today’s reading from the Book of Revelation holds out the promise of the fulfillment of that ideal when it says:

… in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God …  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light … (Rev. 21:10; 22:22-23a)

As I considered that passage this past week—and wondered how I could weave a blog post out of it—I remembered something that I had read once. It’s by a Roman Catholic writer—an American priest named Tom Mannebach—and I think it casts some holy light on the themes of this day. It speaks about memory and hope, about why churches are important, and about motherly love and childhood memories.*  It goes like this:

It’s Sunday morning, and Mom and I walk into the church of my childhood. I was only about six or seven at the time, but I was old enough to know what awaited me. Namely, it was about an hour of daydreaming, staring, squirming, and just waiting for an hour to pass in order for freedom to return. And so the question naturally sprung into mind. “Mom,” I asked, “why do we have to come here?”  Without batting an eye she responded, “because God lives here.” (Moms have built-in catechisms that are made for situations like this.) Her response didn’t thrill me one iota, but it did content me—after all, it’s hard to argue about coming to see God. So we enter the side-door of the church, where I begin another hour-long squirm session with the Source of all life.

She was right. Church is where God lives. Word and sacrament, priest and assembly—we’ve learned it all before. God is alive and well as we gather together. But the Easter season doesn’t leave us in the here and now. Not if we take our cue from the book of Revelation. Here we can find a daydream about the future. And if we stare through the church windows long enough, we’ll see what John sees: not simply an outside world, but a transformed world! A holy city! A new Jerusalem!

Turns out, we’re not the only ones who daydream in church. God’s pretty good at it too. In fact, God stares so intently at the church walls that eventually they break down. God’s dream will make church overcrowding a thing of the past. The worship space is expanding, we are told. And once it’s finished, the new Jerusalem will accommodate even the largest Easter assembly.

Maybe John’s description of holy city sounds more like a description of the emerald city. Flashing lights and jewels galore. But God’s dream is no eight-hour snooze. It’s a living reality. As a people of faith, we are called to do our daydreaming wide awake. The message God speaks has nothing to do with the land of Oz, but our land and our world. It’s the dream God shares with us, and for good reason.

We need this dream—for we all see headlines about war and terror, about sickness and scandal. We wonder if we’re living more in a nightmare than a daydream. But God is faithful—to us, and to the plan that is now unfolding. We await the fulfillment of the dream. We yearn for the day when church capacity will match city capacity, and today’s headlines will melt into tomorrow’s footnotes.

So why do we have to come here? One day we will say that we don’t. One day we will not have to go to church. We’ll already be there.

If only I could have told my Mom that.

Amen.

 

_____________________

* Found on the website of the Athenaeum of Ohio (http://www.mtsm.org/Preaching/h-easter6c.htm)

 

 

THE FULLNESS OF TIME

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven … Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. (Rev. 21:2, 4b)

How many of you like to go to the movies? Did any of you see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? How about Moonfall (the newest Halle Berry film)?

It strikes me that, for the longest time, North American movie-goers have had a real obsession with science fiction. Looking back over the half-decade, we recall titles like:

  • Dune (2021)
  • Underwater (2020)
  • I Am Mother (2019)
  • Annihilation (2018); and, of course,
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).

Why do we love these movies so much? I wonder if part of the reason has to do with the harsh realities of the actual world in which we live. Good people suffer. Children die. Admired leaders in church and state turn out to be untrustworthy. Many of us worry about how secure our jobs are—and many of us don’t have jobs. We are surrounded by war and disaster, famine and disease and looming environmental catastrophe.

I remember that when I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that she sometimes thought this world was hell. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that—in a way—she was right. Life is a hard thing. It is no wonder that we seek an alternate reality upon which to project our hopes for the future. Who among us cannot assemble a list of the past year’s tragedies and losses?

Collectively, we are desperate for reassurance, for some testimony to goodness—for something to offset our shock and dismay, our sense of hopelessness toward our human condition. We have not experienced collapse, but we live in expectation of collapse. In such a world, it is easy to become discouraged—or even to despair.

It is easy to think that God has forgotten us. Our faith tells us that Christ is Lord and King of the world—but our experience makes us wonder why he doesn’t act on behalf of his people. And so, we are left with a tension between our faith and our experience.

The book of Revelation addresses precisely that tension. It was written to give hope to a people who felt that their God had forgotten them. They were oppressed and persecuted in the Roman Empire because they placed Jesus as Lord above the empire—and above the emperor. This experience of persecution and oppression and daily poverty ran counter to their conviction that God—in Christ—does indeed prevail.

To encourage and strengthen his fellow Christians, the author (traditionally, John the Apostle) presents to this disheartened people an entirely new future with possibilities greater than any they had ever imagined. He describes this future in terms of a “new earth,” one very different from the earth we know and experience.

It is a world transformed—so totally transformed that it is “heaven.” In this world there is no destructive or oppressive power, and no reason to shed tears. The world is entirely at peace and there is no death. The transformation to “heaven on earth” is God’s act, for God proclaims, “See, I am making all things new.” It rests upon God’s choice to be with us:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev. 21:3)

Transformation happens when God comes to our world and exercises power—just as if this world were heaven! God’s coming is the event which liberates the world. This vision holds out hope for our future, even as it did for the Christians of the first century. Like them, we are still moving toward a future that has not yet fully come upon us—the long-awaited return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Part of what John’s community was waiting for is what we are still waiting for. On every front—global, local, and within each of our hearts—we can see that evil has not been overcome. Neither have all tears been wiped away. Violence and injustice yet prevail. We have not ceased mourning, and we have not yet stood together in the presence of God.

But there is another aspect to all this talk of a new earth—something more than a hope for the future. Consider today’s gospel reading—also, traditionally, from John’s pen. Here, Jesus assures his disciples that his death is not an ending, but a return to the One he called “Father.”

And here, God’s power to transform is revealed in the glorification of Jesus. In this unparalleled act, God is unveiled as a God of power—One whose power is expressed not so much in terms of force as in terms of love. This is a God who can overcome the deadliness of death. And this is a God who has done exactly that!

This glorification is God’s act—but it is God’s act in this world, on the body of Jesus Christ. This action on the body of the One who was crucified has a twofold significance. On the one hand, God’s action moved Jesus into a new dimension of existence. But on the other hand, we see that Jesus remains—in a very real sense—entirely in this world. It is not that Jesus “goes up” to heaven, but that his resurrected body is transformed. His body itself becomes heaven.

Is that confusing? Think of it like this. Remember that the church—which is you and me—is called “the body of Christ.” It is made up of faithful people—not perfect people, but people who have faith, who have their hope and their peace in Christ. Together, we make up this body. It is that portion of this world that has been taken up into the life of God. The church is the place where Christ dwells in the midst of his people; he is lodged in us—we who are his body.

For we who believe in Christ, his coming into history—and his death and his resurrection—have signalled the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. A self-evident, common-sense interpretation of this world no longer holds. We are summoned to decide whether or not we will see reality from God’s vantage point.

Scripture directs our thoughts—uncomfortably, to be sure—to the judgment that has already come upon us:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

The unmistakable sign that God has already claimed the earth is the love—the visible, demonstrable love—that we have for each other. We are summoned to witness to the transforming power of God, then, not in escape from this world, but precisely within this wounded world of time and space.

We can only witness to God’s power in the terrible order of freedom, in which we allow ourselves to become instruments of God’s saving love. Once, that love was incarnate in Jesus alone—now, it lives and breathes in Jesus and in us. Jesus came announcing “the time of fulfillment.” In that fullness of time, that hour and day of the Lord, we are strangely privileged to live. It is our calling to work for justice and for peace on earth. It is our calling to seek reconciliation, and wholeness, and healing. That is God’s will for us, living as we do in the fullness of time—in the risen Christ’s own time, in the age of the Holy Spirit.

Our comfort in the face of tragedy and loss cannot be escape from this world. Rather, it is the promise and gift of the risen Lord—the assurance that something lasting, something permanently worthwhile, is being formed now. It is being formed at the core of our personal histories, and at the heart of this redeemed world.

What a time to be alive! Thanks be to God. Amen.