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.

 

“My Sheep Hear My Voice”

Fourth Sunday of Easter

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (John 10:22-30)

It was winter in Jerusalem, and it was the time of the “festival of the Dedication.” It was a celebration of a long-ago military victory, when the Temple—which had been desecrated by a Gentile conqueror—was cleansed and rededicated for the worship of God.

It was a hopeful time, a time for remembering that God never breaks his promises, never abandons the ones he loves.

Today we know it as Hanukkah, the “festival of light.” And there, at this festival, stood the very light of the world being challenged once more.

“How long will you irritate us? How long will you bother us? Are you the Messiah? Tell us plainly, in words we can understand.”

But they could not understand, and Jesus knew it. He had already told them, time and again.

He had told them when he healed the blind, and cured the lepers, and raised the dead to life. He had told them as he fed the five thousand.

He offered them the very bread of heaven—and himself as the bread of life. He offered them living water. He told them he was the light of the world.

Yet they chose to stay in their darkness. They refused to see who stood before them. And each time he told them, they plotted to destroy him.

And who were they? They were the good, religious, law-abiding people. The upright ones, the moral ones—the pillars of the community. They had filled the Temple—and their religion—with traditions and rules that gave them power.

They had substituted obedience for faith.

“You cannot heal on the Sabbath,” they said. A person’s sight was not valued as highly as the law.

“You must stone the woman caught in adultery,” they said. Mercy should not prevail over righteousness. The sinner must be condemned. The law-breaker must be punished.

They were the Pharisees, the scribes, and the priests. They considered themselves pure. They considered themselves religious. Yet in their spiritual blindness, they could not see the One standing before them.

Their own ideas about the Messiah had blinded them. “He will be a conquering king,” they decided. “He will establish us in power. He will achieve what we cannot accomplish on our own—and he will rule the world, taking us to the top.”

Who was this poor peasant to tear down their dreams? Who was this carpenter to remind them that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice and mercy, a kingdom of love? A kingdom where all will have enough and no one will have too much?

Who was this lamb that they would lead to slaughter?

Those same questions are still asked today by those who value the “church” more than faith.

“We must keep the rabble out,” they say. “We must keep the church pristine. The street people will dirty up the place. Our liability will not cover us. They can’t help us pay our mortgage.”

And then there are those blinded by their own versions of the Saviour.

“If you have faith enough, God will protect you from all harm. The devil smites those who don’t believe enough. Just have faith!” we hear them call. “No need for God to wipe a tear from your eye. The Lord will see you have the good life. It’s prosperity believing! Possibility thinking! The poor deserve what they’ve got.”

How about us? Who do we say Jesus is?

Perhaps we need to look again at the Christ who is standing before us. Perhaps we need to listen one more time.

Jesus said, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (John 10:25)

Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Forgive the sinner.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What the Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  (John 10:27-30)

“What the Father has given me is greater than all else,” Jesus said. And what has the Father given him?

Us. What God gave Jesus was us. You. Me. All of us who hear our Shepherd’s voice, and follow.

That’s who Jesus is, for us: the One we follow, the One who loves us and cares for us in joy and in sorrow; the One who gives us eternal life and wants to be with us forever—not because we are righteous, not because we are perfect, but because of the bond of love which we share with him.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Like a shepherd of olden time, he lives with us and among us, and he knows us better than we know ourselves.

When we stray from the safety of the sheepfold and place ourselves in harm’s way, Jesus is the One who comes looking for us. He is the One who will not rest until he finds us and brings us home.

The face of the one who seeks us out in love may look different to each of us. It might be the face of a lover, a friend, a parent. It might be the face of a teacher, a nurse, a co-worker, or a child. It might be the face of a stranger, or a spouse. It might be a face marked by pain, or lit up with joy.

It is the face of a sister or of a brother. But whatever it looks like, it is the face of Christ. And in the face of Christ, we see the face of God.

In many churches, this Sunday, Christians will gather together at the table for the festive meal we call Communion, or Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.

We will share loaf and cup, and by so doing we will celebrate our oneness in Christ. We will acknowledge our connectedness, our inter-dependence, our need for communion with God and one another.

In other words, we will—by our presence, and by our actions—proclaim once more that which is the biggest fact of our existence: we are loved, and we are called to love one another.

A bit later on in John’s gospel, Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

To abide in the love of Jesus. What a blessed thought! What a wonderful reality! May it be so for us this day. May it be so for us always. Amen.

 

BREAKFAST ON THE BEACH

Third Sunday of Easter

TEXT:  John 21:1-19

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. (John 21:9-14)

In many of our churches, on this first Sunday in May, our attention will shift to the Communion table, as we remember Jesus’ last supper with his friends. Today, though, our gospel lesson tells us not about a “last supper,” but a “first breakfast”—Jesus’ first full meal with his disciples since his return from death.

The “last supper” and the “first breakfast”—two events that bookend the cross. An upper room, a gruesome hill, a Galilean beach; as someone has said, broken in each of these places is the bread of reconciliation.

Yes, there’s that word: reconciliation. By now—three weeks into Easter—I’m sure you all know that this is what the cross is all about: reconciliation. But it’s also what Jesus’ life was for—and what his resurrection proclaims.

In Christ, we are reconciled—made “at one” with God. In the man Jesus, God became one of us. He lived among us, walked with us, shared our human condition. In Christ, there is no more distance between divinity and humanity. No longer is the gap between heaven and earth measured in light years. And no longer insurmountable are the walls which separate us one from another.

In last week’s blog, you’ll remember, we heard about the risen Christ visiting his disciples, who were in hiding after Friday’s catastrophe. The women had already told the disciples that Jesus was alive again, but the men did not believe them. So the Lord appeared among them, somehow materializing inside a locked room, to vindicate the testimony of Mary and the others. Not only that, but Jesus made it clear that he still loved them—all of them. He did not blame them for what happened, and he did not want them to blame each other—or to doubt one another.

Today’s gospel reading continues this theme of reconciliation.

Peter announces he’s going fishing, and several of the other disciples join him. It’s interesting that at least some of them continue looking to Peter for leadership, given that Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times. But perhaps it has been easier for the others to forgive Peter than for Peter to forgive himself. We can only imagine the depth of his disappointment with himself, or the weight of his guilt and shame. Peter figures he has bombed out of the disciple business. And so, he’s decided to return to what he knows. After all, he feels most like himself aboard a fishing boat, wrestling the heavy nets throughout the frigid night. As day breaks, however, his efforts have proven fruitless. After many hours of fishing, the group has caught exactly zero fish.

Poor Peter. Not only is he a failed disciple, but now he’s a failed fisherman, too—and this is something he’s been good at his whole life.

Then the disciples notice a lone figure on the shore, and they see the smoke from a small fire. The stranger calls out to them and suggests something very odd. He shouts across the water, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.”

What possible difference could that make? But, at this point, the disciples are willing to try anything. So they do it—and suddenly the net is crammed with fish—filled almost to bursting! Then one of them—“that disciple whom Jesus loved”—realizes that he has seen something like this before. On a hillside, with thousands of people, he watched Jesus multiply bread and fish until all of them were fed. So he turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord!”

Upon hearing that, Peter jumps overboard and swims to shore. This time, it is Peter—not Thomas—who needs a closer look.

In fact, it is Jesus!  And, after the others arrive with their bulging fishnet, he invites all of them to share breakfast, as though this was just a normal morning after a night of fishing. The disciples shoot looks of amazement at each other across the fire and half-wonder if this is real. And yet … they know it is.

Like I said, this story is the other bookend to the Last Supper. This “First Breakfast” changes the trajectory of the disciples’ lives. Now, they will move from confusion to purpose; from malaise to mission. Everything Jesus said to the disciples before his crucifixion—and in John’s gospel, he said a lot—is now coming to bear on these men.

But first, Jesus has some very specific business with Peter. It always bears repeating that Peter—in so many gospel stories—appears to be a stand-in for the rest of us. His enthusiasm, his awkwardness, his lack of understanding, his enormous love for Jesus … are not these just like our own? So when the gospel account focuses on Peter, we find ourselves drawn in.

Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him, and—sadly—that prediction came true, three times. You all remember this. Waiting outside the high priest’s court while Jesus is being interrogated, Peter is repeatedly accosted by bystanders who ask him, “Weren’t you with Jesus?” And each time, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. But it gets even worse. At the cross, Peter is absent. Like almost all of the others, he went into hiding after Jesus was killed. He was neither courageous nor loyal.

Now, Jesus speaks to Peter directly: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks him this three times—and, three times, Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Each time, Jesus says: “Then, take care of my sheep.”

Do you see what’s going on here? Peter is being given the opportunity to undo the damage. With three affirmations of his love, Peter cancels out his three denials. Then Jesus tells him what to do with that love: feed the flock. Tend the sheep.

Although the word “forgiveness” never appears in this story, it is obviously a crucial theme. Peter—impetuous, big-mouthed Peter—caved in to fear. He failed to acknowledge Jesus, and he failed to stick around for the bitter end. Now, the risen Lord reaches out to him. As much as Peter has believed in Jesus, Jesus believes in Peter even more. “Feed my sheep,” he says, as he invites Peter to start over.

In this seaside tale, we glimpse what reconciliation can look like—for all of us. We are forgiven. We are completely loved. We are trusted. And we are given a job to do. This is not just Peter’s story; it is our story, too. When fear holds us back, love calls us forward. When we feel like we have utterly failed, Jesus tells us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat.

I wonder: do you see yourself here? Are you like Peter? Are guilt, shame, and fear holding you back from the abundant life Jesus is offering? If you really believed that you were completely forgiven, completely loved, and completely free … would that alter the choices you make? About your work? Your money? Your relationships?

The reconciliation Jesus offers is like a healing salve that opens our eyes and allows us to view our own lives in the light of his resurrection. All at once, we can see clearly! We can see how we have made choices out of fear rather than love. Suddenly, we understand why we feel so guilty, so dissatisfied, so empty. The road ahead comes into view, leading away from the fears and sorrows and regrets that burden us.

Just as he called Peter, Jesus is calling us. He is calling us to do something. We are called not only to proclaim God’s love, known to us in Jesus, but also to act upon it. Because Christ is risen, God’s love has been set free in the world. Jesus is on the loose!  And we are his hands and feet. We are his arms and legs, his eyes and ears. We are the ones who can make his love real. We can make his grace a tangible thing—here, in our town, on our beach, in this Year of Our Lord 2022.

Like Peter, we’re being called to change our perspectives and cast our nets where God’s love is abundant—and then to share a bountiful catch. There’s lots to go around. There’s plenty for everyone. Jesus invites us: “Come and have breakfast.”

In the bright light of Easter, we can see ourselves reconciled. There is no more room for fear and regret. There is a remedy for our guilt. Dear friends, we are forgiven. We are liberated. We are loved. Not only that, but … we have some sheep to feed!

Let’s get busy.

 

FEELING OVERWHELMED?

Second Sunday in Easter

TEXT: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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 20:19-25)

Have you ever felt overwhelmed? I’m sure we all have. We know that feeling of being bowled over by the sheer immensity or complexity of something. You can’t comprehend it. You can’t get it figured out. You cannot organize it or bring it under control. You’re overwhelmed in a way that makes you feel small, weak, and inadequate.

I think that probably describes the way the disciples were feeling three days after Jesus died. Really, how much worse could things get? There they were, hiding behind locked doors, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher—Jesus, whom they had thought was the invincible Messiah—had been executed like a common criminal. He was gone—dead and buried (or so they thought). Into the tomb with Jesus went all their hope, all their vision, all their sense of direction and purpose in life.

Now, all they had was an overwhelming sense of failure and loss and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.

And I have to wonder: were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves—or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to wrap your head around that kind of disappointment, to organize the feeling of that kind of loss, to bring under control that depth of shame. Of course they must have felt small, and weak, and inadequate!

But now, one of the women—Mary Magdalene—was saying things that didn’t make any sense: that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him. She claimed that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. Could this be true? How could it be true?

They did not believe Mary’s words, of course. After all, what she was telling them seemed impossible. So they did not rush out to look for the risen Christ. No. They stayed put, behind locked doors, and waited to see what would happen next.

And then, suddenly—astonishingly, quietly—there he was. Jesus was right there, in their midst, before their very eyes. It was true. Jesus was alive!

Now, I wonder whether at least some of the disciples might have been a little bit worried—afraid that Jesus might be angry with them for abandoning him (and, in Peter’s case, for even denying him three times). It’s frightening enough to think about seeing someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he has every reason to say: “Where were you when I needed you? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?”

But that’s not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment. There was not even any venting of disappointment and hurt. No. The first words Jesus offered were: “Peace be with you.”

He knew what was in their hearts. He knew why they had barred the door. He knew they weren’t re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move. He knew they were terrified and confused. He knew they were hiding out. And suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was—not with angels, trumpets, and legions of the heavenly host … but quietly, gently … only Jesus, all by himself. And with him he brought no hint of anger, no accusations, no trouble or turmoil—only peace.

Then, the very next thing, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit—doesn’t just give it to them, but breathes the Spirit into them. It’s kind of like Pentecost, except here the Spirit comes not with wind and flame but with Jesus’ own breath—the life-force of one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and demonstrate peace and forgiveness and love in the world. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them into the world that God loves so dearly.

Doesn’t it sort of remind you of Creation, when God breathed life into Adam? Here, Jesus re-creates this sorry crew of defeated men, giving them the gift of new life—the gift of grace—and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, these weak and overwhelmed disciples become Jesus’ gift to the world.

Then he talks about something that’s more difficult to speak of in the church than sex or politics or even money. He talks about forgiveness. This gives us some sense of what’s uppermost in Jesus’ mind, doesn’t it? Forgiveness.

Right away, though, the story shifts to Thomas, who must have been out running errands. When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he understandably wanted to have the same experience himself.

Now consider this: all he was asking for was the same assurance the other disciples had received. Thomas was no more a doubter than they were, before they saw the risen Christ. He just wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus’ suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was really true. His faith was no less. Thomas was just that one little sheep that the Good Shepherd (sure enough) would come back for, to tie up this one loose end.

You know, I think John included this story—about Thomas wanting to see for himself—because he sought to encourage the believers in his own community, a generation or so after the events occurred. Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes, but on what they had heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

Even better blessings. That would be the promise to you and me today, a week after Easter morning, when we’re back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own “overwhelmings”—with an economy which either is or is not recovering—depending on which news report you hear (but which, in any case, still leaves many of us underemployed). Back to a pandemic which still isn’t over, more than two years in. Back to a world full of wars and refugees and famine.

Yeah. Back to life as usual. Back to our own private griefs and burdens—health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us … so much to run away from, so much to fear. What’s an overwhelmed Christian supposed to do?

William Sloane Coffin, one of my favourite prophets of the past century, once said:

As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight … You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts—either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.*

All of us disciples—when our hearts fill with a fear we can’t organize or wrap our heads around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate—all of us disciples are offered that same gift of grace and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds. It also melts our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love. That’s why Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children. Isn’t that why we are the church?

Whatever overwhelms us, Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever doubts churn in our minds; whatever sins trouble our consciences; whatever pain and sorrow bind us up; whatever walls we have erected or doors we have locked securely … Jesus comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, Jesus feeds us well with living bread, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, to be salt and light, to be hope for the world.

We can do it, you know. You can do it!

We can do it because we, ourselves, have been overwhelmed by the love of God.

As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us—on this day. This very day.

____________________________

* William Sloane Coffin, A Passion for the Possible: a Message to U.S. Churches, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 2.

 

“GOD WITH SKIN ON”

EASTER SUNDAY

TEXTS: John 20:1-18; 1 John 1:1-3

… [Mary Magdalene] turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (John 20:14-15)

It’s a glorious day, isn’t it? There’s no holier day—and, for me, anyway—no more exciting, no more joyful day in the church year, than Easter Sunday.

I want to begin with a story …

A little boy, frightened by a violent thunderstorm, called out one dark night, “Daddy, come here. I’m scared!”

“Son,” his father replied, “God loves you, and he’ll take care of you.”

“I know God loves me,” the boy answered, “but right now I want somebody who has skin on!”

That’s a perfect description of Jesus. He was “God with skin on.”

Many of us wish we could have walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem with Jesus while he ministered on this earth, or sat at the table with him when he broke bread and blessed it. But we can’t. Or can we?

The apostle John, who personally walked and talked with Jesus, says that we can know him. No, we cannot reach out and touch him right now, but he is here just as powerfully as he was with his disciples some 2,000 years ago. He wants to speak to us, guide us, protect us, and develop a close friendship with us.

In the First Letter of John, chapter one, the apostle writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).

According to a commentary I looked at, the phrase translated “seen with our eyes” could more literally be rendered “to view attentively, to contemplate, to gaze upon as a spectacle.” Imagine what it must have been like to see God in human form. Imagine what it would be like to hear his voice with our own ears!

People often ask, “What did Jesus look like?” But you know, the apostle John—who spent several years with him—never mentions his appearance; not once, even in passing. Yes, John spent hours gazing at Jesus, but evidently not because of the Lord’s striking physical appearance. It seems that Jesus was rather ordinary in the way he looked.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus took the resurrected Christ to be an ordinary man. At the empty tomb—as we read in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel—Mary mistook him for the gardener. Certainly, no Bible passage tells us he wore a permanent halo. Judas told the enemies of Jesus that they could identify the Master when he would kiss him on the cheek. Now, if the Lord looked as striking as we might imagine him to look, he would have been easily identified—without a kiss from his betrayer. “He’s the guy who looks like a king,” Judas could have said. But he didn’t.

Why doesn’t Scripture give us a physical description of Jesus? Because it is not important. Though he looked ordinary in his outward appearance, John and the others had never met anyone like him. The disciples spent practically every waking hour in the presence of Jesus, enthralled—and sometimes unnerved.

Scripture tells us that John would often lean his head on the chest of Jesus so as not to miss anything (see John 13:23); that way, he could hear even a whisper. All of the disciples watched Jesus carefully, hung on his every word, and scrutinized his every move. And John says that this Jesus can be known today!

We might not be able to walk and talk and eat with Jesus in person as the disciples did, but we can have fellowship with him nonetheless. Jesus himself said, “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).

That, my friends, is a big part of the message of Easter. This Jesus whom we worship as God, whom we revere as Saviour and Lord, really is alive today—and he really does want you to know him, and have a relationship with him.

Are you ready to walk with the Saviour? Are you hungry for the food he has prepared for you? Are you anxious to spend some quality time with him, listening to his counsel and committing yourself to his plan for you? Then I invite you—in the days ahead—to get acquainted with him.

How can you do that? Well, reading the Bible is one very good way to start. Oh, I don’t mean you have to read the whole thing from cover to cover (not right away, anyhow). But you could begin by reading the first four books of the New Testament. After all, the gospels were written so that we might come to know Jesus through the eyes of the disciples who lived and ministered with him.

Another good way to get to know Jesus is by devoting some time every day to prayer and meditation—to both speaking to God and listening to God. By all means, tell the Lord what’s on your mind. Ask him for the things you need. Pour out your heart to him. You’re even allowed to complain, if you want to! But then—and too many of us forget about this part—remember to take time to listen for the Lord’s response.

And a third thing I would suggest to you is this: Don’t be a stranger in God’s house! The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that it’s important for believers to spend time together. In chapter 10, he says: “… let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …” (Heb. 10:24-25a). Scripture tells us that we should expect to meet the living Christ in our midst—and in one another.

So there, my friends, is my very short Easter blog. Short—but, hopefully, to the point. If you want to get to know Jesus personally, there are three important things you should do to start with: read the Bible; pray; and come to church.

Actually, don’t just come to church on Sunday mornings, but make time for fellowship with other believers during the rest of the week, as well. Maybe it could be at a Bible study. Maybe it could be at a church supper or bazaar or movie night. But it could also be in somebody’s living room, or at Tim Horton’s, over a cup of coffee—or even on the telephone.

That’s how it works. If you want to get to know Jesus, come join his family! And I guarantee that you will find him there—not just on Easter Sunday, but every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

KING FOR A DAY … OR EVERY DAY?

Palm Sunday

TEXTS: Zechariah 9:9-10, 16-17 and Luke 19:28b-40

Do any of you remember an old TV game show called, “Queen for a Day”? I don’t remember it at all. Apparently, the show ran on American television from 1948 until 1964 … going off the air when I was 10 years old. So maybe I should remember it … or perhaps it was never broadcast in Canada.

The only reason I know about “Queen for a Day” is because someone texted me a link to some archival footage, saying: “Watch this. It’s hilarious. LOL” 1

When I followed the link, I found a very old black-and-white episode, which began with a voice-over that went like this:

Once again, from Hollywood’s great Moulin Rouge Theater Restaurant, Pan-American Coffee Bureau, who says, “Want it great?  Make it coffee, make it often, make it right!”; Ex-Lax, the laxative that helps restore your normal regularity gently overnight; and Hartz Mountain, the best products for happier, healthier pets; proudly presents, “Queen for a Day,” the Cinderella show starring the one and only king of “Queen for a Day,” Mister Jack Bailey!

By all accounts, “Queen for a Day” was very popular in its time. Maybe not very good—but very popular! In fact, the NBC television network increased the show’s running time from 30 to 45 minutes in order to sell more commercials, at a then-premium rate of $4,000 per minute.

The program centered around finding a woman living in difficult circumstances and making her “Queen for a Day.” After she was selected for this honour, she would be picked up by a chauffeur-driven limousine and taken to a Beverly Hills salon, where she was given a complete makeover.

Then she would be outfitted with a new wardrobe and taken to a high-end restaurant, escorted by some Hollywood celebrities. That night, she would stay in a luxury hotel. Of course, in the morning she would be taken back to her actual residence—and back to her real life. She had been Queen … for a day.

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday—which recounts the story we refer to as the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus—could easily be re-titled “King for a Day.” I think it demonstrates—vividly—the fickle nature of those who would follow Jesus. Here’s the story as Luke reports it—and as Eugene Peterson renders it in his paraphrase, called The Message:

… Jesus headed straight up to Jerusalem. When he got near Bethphage and Bethany at the mountain called Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says anything, asks, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘His Master needs him.’”

The two left and found it just as he said. As they were untying the colt, its owners said, “What are you doing untying the colt?”

They said, “His Master needs him.”

They brought the colt to Jesus. Then, throwing their coats on its back, they helped Jesus get on. As he rode, the people gave him a grand welcome, throwing their coats on the street.

Right at the crest, where Mount Olives begins its descent, the whole crowd of disciples burst into enthusiastic praise over all the mighty works they had witnessed:

                  Blessed is he who comes,

                                    the king in God’s name!

                  All’s well in heaven!

                                    Glory in the high places!

Some Pharisees from the crowd told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!”

But he said, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise.”

That’s what the Revised Common Lectionary serves up for this day. But if we continue reading, we hear these four verses:

When the city came into view, he wept over it. “If you had only recognized this day, and everything that was good for you! But now it’s too late. In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact. All this because you didn’t recognize and welcome God’s personal visit.” 2

There were two and a half million people in Jerusalem that day. From all over the known world, they had come for the Passover Feast—and by now they had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, and all the wonders he had performed. They knew that he was at Bethany, and they knew what he could do. Now, word was spreading that Jesus was on his way into the city to drive out the Romans! Or at least, that was what many of them hoped. It was also what many of them feared.

His disciples had borrowed a donkey’s colt for his ride into Jerusalem—a donkey, not a war horse. By itself, this should have been a signal that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of peace—not any kind of military leader. Jesus proceeds into the city like a humble servant, just as the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would do:

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.
(Zech. 9:9)

Crowds line the streets to hail Jesus as Messiah—“the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This is theatre—theatre on a grand scale. But the adulation will be short-lived. As the week progresses—as it becomes obvious that Jesus is not going to fit into the popular image of the Messiah—public opinion will turn against him.

On this first day of the week, a crowd cries out to Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna!” By the end of the week, another crowd will shout, “Crucify him!”

But why? Could it have been because they wanted an instant kingdom—and he offered them an eternal kingdom? Could it have been because the crowds wanted entertainment—not challenging instruction? Could it have been because—once they were confronted with the real demands of Jesus’ kingdom—they took offence and turned away?

Jesus resisted any attempt to make his message—or his ministry—into an instrument of the culture, or the government, or any religious group. He would not dance to anyone’s tune—only to his Father’s melody. As this became clear, the expectant crowds began to dissipate.

And you know, they were not much different than we are. Just like them, we spurn religious commitments that fail to support our political views—or our economic interests. Any faith that demands first place in our lives is not acceptable … is it? After all, religious faith should make my life easier … shouldn’t it?  I want Jesus to uphold my worldview and demand of me nothing at all.

We live in a day of instant everything—from instant cake mixes, to information and entertainment. We can no longer tolerate waiting for anything. A God who does not give us what we want now is of no use to us. Church services and sermons are a waste of my time if they are not immediately translatable into four useful ways to do—or not do—something on Monday morning. I pray—and I expect God to jump!

Yet, Jesus will not jump for us. He refuses to adjust his message to the popular ideas of any place or time—whether first-century Jerusalem, or 21st-century Calgary—or Ottawa, or Washington, or Moscow, or even … (fill in your hometown). Jesus calls people to life-long commitment. He wants disciples, not dabblers! There is no place in his company for religious hobbyists. Jesus wants us to be “all in” for him. But that is scary, isn’t it?

God calls us to repentance. We want to make a deal.

God says his kingdom is forever—but we only want it for as long as we can use it.

God says all things belong to him. We hold our treasures tighter.

God stretches us. He does not stroke us. I don’t believe that God is particularly concerned about our happiness—but I do think God is very concerned about our holiness. He is concerned with our commitment, and not with our pleasure.

A math teacher doesn’t much care whether her students are happy on the night before a big test; what she cares about is whether her students are committed to learning math. Jesus is like that, too. He is not interested in being “king for a day”—but he does want to be Lord of our lives.

There are some things—some really important things—that can only be known through commitment. You will not know the joy of loving and being loved unless you are committed to the one you love. You will not know the satisfaction of serious accomplishment if you have not committed yourself to the challenge of attaining it. The long-term results of investing in your children—investing time, and investing care—probably will not be known until long after they have grown up.

Christian faith is like that, too. It only works well when it is a life-long commitment—one which leads us through all those moments when we are tempted to be less than God made us to be. The Bible is firm in its assertion that commitment is the way of faith.

Holy Week invites us to look deeper at the quality of our faith. The gospel story we hear on Palm Sunday challenges us to re-examine our own understanding of Jesus’ mission—and, also, to re-examine our commitment to him. It challenges us to ask ourselves: “Are we ‘all in’ for him?”

Or, to put it another way …

Have we made him Lord of our lives? Or just … king for a day?

_______________________________________

1 http://archive.org/details/Queen_For_A_Day

2 The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

COSTLY LOVE

Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 12:1-8

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)

Each Sunday in Lent is carrying us closer to the horror of Good Friday. Today the Gospel reading shows us Jesus having some respite, in a kindly home at Bethany, not far from the Holy City, not long before his betrayal. The awareness of his impending suffering is constantly with him. In a sense, his final passion is already upon him.

In this setting, one deeply sensitive woman massages his feet with expensive oil, and, in a wonderful outpouring of love, wipes his feet with her hair. Some have suggested that the details of this story—the expensive oil, the massage, Mary’s unbound hair—all point to something erotic. But I’m not so sure. To me, this looks like an expression of profound agape—a deluge of selfless love.

At this point, I want to note a distinction between the intuitive understanding of this woman, and the ongoing confusion in the minds of the men who followed Jesus.

Men first. It seems to me that the male disciples where in stubborn denial of the coming arrest and death of Jesus. With a mind-set which is unfortunately common among men, they did not want to think about disaster. They refused to face the probable demise of their leader. It was as if they thought that the unpleasant truth would go away if they just ignored it.

It reminds me of a man (I’ll call him Bill) who built up from the ground his own business.

Because of recession and the increasing tendering by overseas companies, his business was facing collapse. But Bill could not face this. He flayed around looking for more bank loans—and when that failed, he borrowed money from his friends.

His wife could see what was happening. She knew that what he saw as his life’s work was irrevocably crumbling. She tried to gently but firmly help Bill face the facts. But he would not. To accept defeat was, in Bill’s eyes, the attitude of a weakling. Real men did not admit to the possibility. Right to the end, Bill stayed in denial. His wife saw what was coming; he did not.

The male disciples were like that. From the moment when Peter made his bold statement that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus had tried to make the men see that his rejection by the religious leaders was inevitable. From that time he began talking about his cross. But they stayed in denial. They did not want to know.

The only trace of acceptance among the men (the only one I see in the gospel accounts, anyway) comes from the disciple we call “doubting” Thomas.

In the preceding chapter of John—just before their departure for Bethany—Thomas openly expresses his belief that the journey to Jerusalem will end in death. “Let us also go,” he says to the others, “that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

But the others were in denial—and that had a grave consequence. Because they were hiding from their own deep fears about the possible death of their Master, they could not give Jesus the emotional support he needed in those last weeks and days. They would not allow themselves to be in tune with his soul.

When he needed them most to understand and to support him in his resolve to remain true to his mission, the men were not there for him emotionally. Jesus must have been an extremely lonely person at that time.

Thank goodness for the women! We read about them also being followers of Jesus. Some of these were financially well off, and provided for Christ’s travelling mission out of their own pockets.

I wish more information had survived about these female disciples. I’m certain they played a much larger role than is suggested by the scant references to them that survive in the gospel accounts. However, I rejoice that John chose to preserve the story we read in today’s gospel lesson. I cherish the record of that evening meal at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Mary was prepared to bear the pain of admitting to herself the tragedy that lay ahead. Jesus, the loveliest person she had ever known, was going to fall into the hands of cruel men and be butchered.

This understanding must have been breaking her heart. But she faced it. No denial here! Some social commentators claim that women are genuinely the stronger sex. Mary certainly was. She was ready to demonstrate some costly love.

Because she was not in denial, Mary was able to comfort Jesus as he rested in their house at Bethany. She did not care what the other men thought. She did not care whether Martha understood or not. She simply did what she knew she had to do. She knelt at his feet, and—with the most expensive of oils—she anointed and massaged them, then unbound her hair and wiped his feet with her long dark tresses. Jesus knew himself understood and profoundly comforted by a woman who dared to be true to what her heart was telling her.

There must have been a stunned silence in that room. Silence, at least, until Judas—upset and embarrassed about it all—blurted out that pious blabber about selling the ointment and helping the poor.

Jesus would have none of that. He and Mary knew that death was for real: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (vv. 7-8)

It would be ridiculous, of course, to use this story to categorize all men as not able to deal with sensitive emotional issues. Likewise, all women cannot be put into the category of sensitive nurturers. We find some of both genders in both camps. However, it is no secret that social pressures tend towards shaping men to hide their emotional side, while allowing women more room to express theirs. And this was even more true in Jesus’ day than in ours.

The point of my message today is not about pointing the finger of blame on only men. I put it to you—whatever your gender—that we cannot truly support one another unless we stop the denial game; unless we take the risk and make ourselves sensitive to the feelings of others and to our own feelings in response to theirs.

We must deal in emotions—and not just in ideas. We must learn to be better listeners, and to resist the temptation to speak in platitudes to conceal our own discomfort.

I think the first step is getting to know ourselves better. Know yourself, and you will be better able to know others and stand with them at the point of their need. It is costly love, agape love, other-centred love. It is high risk-love that allows both ecstatic joy and profound grief.

Allow Mary to be your tutor. While others were in denial, she was willing to identify with Jesus and give some of the comfort he desperately needed.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance …

Amen.

Getting in on the Deal

Fourth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (1 Cor. 5:18-20)

Here’s a truth about our world: it’s full of trouble spots. And we know this—don’t we?—all too well. Long-standing animosity too frequently bubbles up into provocation and retaliation. The tragic and brutal war being waged by Russia against Ukraine is but the latest and most frightening example. Most frightening, because it could so easily spiral out of control into an unbounded nuclear conflict.

Here’s another truth about our world: in most of the trouble spots upon this earth, there are dedicated people working behind the scenes—striving for concord, hammering out the details of cease-fires and peace treaties.

But, you know … even when these negotiators are successful, their diligent efforts are but rarely acknowledged. Usually, the credit goes to the respective leaders on whose behalf they have acted. And most often—to all the armchair diplomats who watch the evening news—their work seems far too slow.

That’s because, most of the time, all we get are dribs and drabs in news reports about how the peace negotiations are grinding on with a final agreement still not reached. Sometimes, their work is conducted entirely in secret, and we never hear any details whatsoever. But without these dedicated mediators, the world, I submit, would be even more tragic and dangerous than it already is.

In most cases, their task involves trying to piece together a patchwork of compromises such that each side gives up enough of what it was asking for so as to secure the end of hostilities—but not so much that they lose face; because that would leave them even more bitter and hostile.

If the peacemakers can succeed in forging such an agreement—so that both sides can accept it—then an end to the violent hostility can be secured, and the work of reconciliation can begin.

Always, some will be unhappy with what was given away. Perhaps some loss of sovereignty. Or perhaps some monster is guaranteed immunity from prosecution for grievous crimes. It’s not perfect.  However, the choice often is between compromises … or continued bloodshed.

According to the Apostle Paul, in today’s passage from his letter to the Corinthians, God has hammered out a peace agreement with the world, and has made some astonishingly big concessions in the process. Indeed, God has made exactly the sort of concessions that often cause complaining in peace agreements—most notably, offering us immunity from prosecution.

In fact, if you put the agreement God offers on the table next to some of the convoluted cease-fires and treaties that are painstakingly negotiated between hostile nations, you might start to wonder just what was in it for God.

You might be tempted to describe it as an almost complete capitulation by God. The Almighty seems to give up everythingoffer everything—and demand almost nothing in return. In particular, God promises to wipe clean the record of everything we have ever done wrong.

And as if such a complete immunity from prosecution was not enough, God also offers us high-ranking diplomatic positions.

That’s right. He wants us to be his ambassadors! God calls us to represent him in the ongoing task of promoting this one-sided agreement.

We can’t imagine any of the world’s superpowers ever making such a monumental capitulation. Something close might sometimes be extracted from a very guilty party who has been single-handedly responsible for the ongoing mess … But in the case of the reconciliation deal which God offers to the world, the one who clearly holds the moral high ground is the very one who is rolling over and conceding absolutely everything.

We are the ones who took God’s gift of a beautiful planet and set about polluting it and tearing it apart with war and hatred and injustice. We are the ones who were invited to live in peaceful communion with one another, and who instead hardened our hearts and succumbed to the demons of selfishness and greed and cynicism. We are the ones who squandered our gifts, blew our inheritance, and dragged our own names—and God’s name—through the mud.

So why is God making such big concessions to secure a peace agreement with us?

It’s hard to come up with a satisfactory answer. And yet, we witness the same scenario being played out in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son. The prodigal knows he’s got no bargaining power. He has blown his father’s trust and his father’s money. He has dragged his father’s name through the mud of the pig sty. And he is desperate. He is ready and willing to give up everything for whatever shreds of his father’s care might be forthcoming.

However, what transpires is amazing. In fact, it almost becomes a competition to see who can give up the most.

The aging father bounds down the street in a most undignified manner, throws himself on his errant son, forgives him everything, and then crowns him in glory and throws a huge welcome-home party for him.

And Jesus tells this story to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. God is like that father, he says. Our God is the picture of boundless love, offering unconditional forgiveness.

What more could God give? Well actually, according to the apostle Paul, there is more. Reputation. God was in Christ, trading reputations with us. Christ, who was never implicated in any wrongdoing, accepted guilt by association with us.

Christ put his hand up and implicated himself in our callousness, injustice and hostility. He put his reputation on the table along with everything else to secure the deal. And, says the apostle, in doing so he paved the way for us to be implicated in his goodness. He made it possible for us to become—by association with him—righteous, and blameless before God.

This is the “extreme makeover” par excellence! Christ offers to be seen as ugly as we are, in order that we might become as perfectly beautiful and unblemished as him. No wonder Paul says we’d be crazy to turn our backs on this deal! It is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, but why on earth would you leave it? You’ve got everything to gain and almost nothing to lose.

The deal is completely stacked in our favour. We are offered complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, a new identity, a fresh start, mercy and healing and life and love beyond our wildest imaginings. And what are we asked in return? What do we have to put on the table to complete the deal?

Well, there’s a paradox here, because the answer is both nothing and everything. God actually demands nothing of us except our willingness to accept the deal, to sign our names on the line. Everything else is completely voluntary. God signs off on the deal regardless of our response. It is sheer gift. Nothing can break this agreement. God’s gracious acceptance of you cannot be nullified. God will be all over you like the prodigal’s father, lavishing love and generous gifts on you. And it costs you nothing at all.

And yet, like I said, there’s a paradox. Not a catch, but a paradox. And it’s this: if you give nothing in return … you will fail to appreciate—and fail to enjoy—even the lavish gifts you have been given. Then you’ll end up as sad and pathetic as the prodigal’s older brother who—even though he is now the sole heir to all his father owns—is weighed down by the burden of yesterday’s resentments.

That’s the awful truth. You can be forgiven, and yet still feel burdened. You can be accepted and still exclude yourself, refusing to join the banquet of celebration. You can be loved and still feel yourself unlovable.

In this season of Lent we are reminded again and again of the discipline and commitment required to experience the full fruits of life’s greatest gifts. They are gifts, and our response is purely voluntary, but unless we do volunteer and respond in full, the gift may again be squandered, and we may horribly short-change ourselves.

God calls us to become ambassadors for Christ, to be the ones who take the news of God’s gracious reconciliation and proclaim it and live it out so that the full dimensions of God’s gracious love might be obvious to all.

God’s offer is not dependent on our acceptance of the deal. But those of us who do not accept it …

Well, we will find that we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Because we will deprive ourselves of the here-and-now benefits of that gracious and healing love. Those benefits will still be there for us, but we will not take advantage of them.

What a tragedy. What a waste. What a shame.

Therefore … since God’s gift of reconciliation is so graciously free—and so extravagantly generous, let us respond to the challenge of this Lenten season by committing ourselves to the way of Christ. Let’s embrace the path of disciplined love: the path which leads all the way to the cross and beyond; the way which—in its very willingness to give up everything—opens our hearts to receive the fullness of life for which we hunger.

Perhaps that’s precisely the method in God’s madness. Perhaps that’s the secret God is enjoying and trying to let us in on: that, only in putting everything on the table—everything we are and everything we have—and then letting it go … can we enter into the fullness of life and love for which we were created.

May God’s Spirit guide our thinking as we ponder these things. Amen.

Come to the Waters

Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXTS: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)

Journeying further along the pilgrim path of Lent, we stumble upon today’s story from the gospel of Luke, and we find it … Well, it’s a bit disconcerting, isn’t it?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Isn’t that a hopeful message for today? But there it is, a statement, an admonition, an exhortation straight from the lips of Jesus.

“Unless you repent, you will all perish.” So Jesus exhorts us all—not just once, but twice in this relatively short passage.  “Repent!”  The word hits us right between the eyes!  Whatever happened to “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? Whatever happened to “Come unto me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest”? What about “Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”? (Matt. 11:28-30)

But no. “Repent or perish.” That’s how our gospel passage starts out. Then Luke shifts gears, and has Jesus tell a story about a fig tree and judgment and manure.  I would wager that this parable of the fig tree (or is it a parable about manure?) is less familiar to us than most of Jesus’ other teaching stories.

Sure, there are lots of parables scattered through the gospels that are about seeds and plants and trees and other things that grow and die. However, there are things that appear to set this story apart. The parable’s meaning does not seem obvious. It does not jump out at us in a clear way that makes us nod our heads in understanding. And, unfortunately, there’s no convenient part where the disciples ask Jesus to explain what it all means.

In the opening lines of our passage, somebody tells Jesus about a group of unfortunate Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.1 Most people in Jesus’ day believed that this sort of death—where life is cut short, where death is painful and shocking—was a sign of God’s judgment.

That wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion to draw from a study of the scriptures. Let’s face it: much of what we call the “Old Testament” promotes the idea that people with happy lives must be especially blessed by God. Consider Job, for example. Job was a faithful servant of God. Prior to his emergence as a cosmic bargaining chip, Job was blessed with family, land, home, livestock, and possessions of all sorts. These were supposed to be signs demonstrating his favour with God.

Perhaps we view God and God’s blessings somewhat differently today. Perhaps.

But perhaps not. When we are struggling financially, we wonder why God doesn’t bail us out. When a loved one dies tragically, we ask why God has forsaken us. And when things are going well for us, we thank God (if we remember). We see our good fortune as a sign of God’s blessings, and wonder what we’ve done wrong when things aren’t going our way.

Jesus steps up to challenge this presumption.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus continues with another example from a well-known engineering disaster,2 but his point is the same: The tragic death these Galileans suffered was not due to their supposed sinfulness or faithlessness. It was neither about God’s curse nor God’s blessing. Ultimately, what is called for, Jesus says, is our repentance. Unless we turn our lives around—unless we direct ourselves to God and God’s purposes for us—we are certain to perish, not in death, which finds us all, but in separation from God who loves us.

The second half of our passage seems to jump onto an entirely different track—as if we’re missing the middle chunk of the conversation. Jesus tells a parable about a man who planted a fig tree. The fig tree is a dud. It is not growing the fruit it is supposed to bear. This is annoying, because figs grow easily, under most conditions. For a fig tree to not bear fruit is a bad sign indeed. So the man is not being unreasonable when he orders his gardener to cut it down. The gardener, however, pleads for one more year. During this year, the gardener says he will pay special attention to the errant tree. After a year, if the plant still will not grow fruit, then, he will cut it down.

These passages ooze fear and dread, don’t they? In the first part, we get the idea that chaos and catastrophe can visit us at any moment, no matter what kind of lives we lead. We’re told to repent or perish. As simple as that.

As for the parable section … Well, if you’re familiar with Jesus’ parables, you’ve likely noticed that our human lives are often represented by the plants and trees in the stories he tells. In this case, we are the fig trees.

We are the fig trees? EEK! Does the Lord of the garden want to chop us down, because we’re not bearing fruit? I can hear the clock ticking, can’t you? Maybe some compassionate gardener will throw some manure on us, and buy us some extra time, but … we’ve still got to hurry and get to work bearing fruit. Or else.

Our reading from Isaiah, on the other hand, brings welcome relief from the impending doom of our gospel lesson. We read:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  (Isaiah 55:1-2)

These beautiful words conjure images of oasis in the midst of desert, refreshment in the midst of toil. And it’s all free! Now, this is a message we can get behind! What the prophet offers here is without cost to us. So, given the choice, we’d probably rather stick with this passage from Isaiah than ponder those unsettling words from Luke. But, as always, things aren’t so easy or straightforward as they seem.

We humans seem to rally behind either/or things in life. Know what I mean? We want it to be simple. We want things to be either right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, black or white. We want our choices clear and uncluttered. We want to know that if we do this or that, we are going to heaven or to hell. It’s a sin or else it’s not a sin.

Unfortunately, ours is not an either/or reality. We’re a complicated species, in a world full of all the shades of colour you can imagine—a world full of half-truths, lesser and greater evils, both/ands. The good news, though, is that living in a both/and world doesn’t have to be as bad or as confusing and uncomfortable as we might fear.

Somewhere along the path of Christian discipleship, we got it stuck in our heads that God is an either/or God. Either (1) we must keep our noses to the grindstone and earn our spot in heaven; or (2) our path is easy and God hands over grace and we don’t have to lift a finger. This second attitude is what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 3

God calls us to something more incredible: the joy of both/and. God’s grace is both totally free, and something that demands of us the hard and life-changing work of discipleship.

Turning back to the lesson from Luke, we hear Jesus calling us to repent, and reminding us that we are planted to bear fruit. But by God’s grace, Christ also bargains for us to have one more year. He promises to fertilize our lives with tender care, encouragement, and even some pruning. By God’s grace, we are called to come to the waters that Isaiah describes, and to drink deeply and freely. For, as Isaiah reminds us, God abundantly pardons us.

Here’s something to consider, though: free and easy are not the same things. Someone once said that the Christian life is like falling in love. And there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Love is something we know to be free. True love cannot be bought or sold. It is given and received as a gift. It is, indeed, free.

But easy? No one ever said love was easy, or that love did not require hard work, or care, or discipline. Love demands all these things. So it is with God’s grace. Grace is totally free. We cannot possibly earn it; if we tried, we would fail miserably. God gives grace freely. But easily? Not really.

A pastor I know—who had been present as a prayer counselor at an evangelistic rally—told me about one man who, after coming forward to receive Christ, said: “So, I’m good now, right? There’s nothing else I have to do?”

Taken aback for a moment, my friend replied, “No. You don’t have to do anything else. But you will want to!”

“You will want to.” As the Holy Spirit begins to work in your heart, you will want to do something else, something more. This is the truth about Christianity as presented in the New Testament.

We are called to repent, to be disciples, to choose the satisfying life of living water. Come to the waters, you who thirst. And drink deep of God’s free, challenging, difficult, and loving grace. Amen.

________________________

1 “Some who were present” reported to Jesus that the cruel governor Pontius Pilate had caused some Galileans to be murdered in the Temple. Their example was particularly gruesome, since at the moment the Galileans were killed, they were worshiping God by offering sacrifices according to their Jewish religious law. Those making the report were likely hoping Jesus would offer some explanation of why bad things happen to ordinary people—in this case, even in God’s house. The “sin and calamity” issue involves a presumption that an extraordinary tragedy in some way must signify extraordinary guilt. It assumes that a victim must have done something terrible for God to allow such tragedy to befall them.

2 The Tower of Siloam was a structure which fell upon 18 people, killing them. Siloam is a neighbourhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.

3 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995 (pp. 44-45).