Cleansed 05.02.21

 ‘[The book of] Acts, like Easter, urges you to put cautious rationality on the shelf and follow an unrestrained God into the world, wondering as you go what else might be possible.…. [our] passage about an Ethiopian court official who has a divinely orchestrated discussion with Philip is outlandish,…It provokes a question upon which the church still ruminates: …what will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’

Dr. Matt Skinner

Chapter eight of the book of Acts brings us two pivotal moments for the new testament church.  One good the other frightening. Chapter 8 presents a moment in time when God’s basic instruction to the apostles is almost accomplished and, ironically, in that same moment this new faith community of enters into a season of great darkness. 

Let’s look first at the Locational Elements of this pivotal moment seen in the first 3 verses..

‘And Saul approved of their killing Stephen. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem… All the believers that had been together since Pentecost now fled for their lives, only the apostles remained.’

Acts 8:1-3

Two parallel events, both very different and yet both very similar, mark this new season for the church.

In Luke’s account of Jesus ascension, Jesus gave his apostles the instruction to testify to all they had seen in, and learned from, the Messiah – a challenge to be the first hand account of Jesus to those who had not witnessed God in the flesh, Jesus, and a second opportunity for those who  had rejected Jesus.  The logistical specifics of this command was to ‘go to those in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and even to those in the remotest part of the earth.’ The apostles have  now ‘gone’ to the people of Jerusalem, of Judea, and of Samaria, they were now facing the remotest parts of the earth – the only known obstacle was the ‘how, who, and the where’ of the remotest parts?’

Two simultaneous moments provided the path to speak to discover their plans.

The arrival of a young sincere and faithful young man named Saul, who we known him as Paul.  A coming new star in religiosity and highly regarded politically as well.  He endorsed the killing of Stephen, followed by a full scale effort to stop the spread of the Jesus movement going house to house weeding out Jesus followers.  This sent the followers, who up to this point had remained in Jerusalem since Pentecost, to scatter back to their home.

The second logistical moment took place as the apostle Philip was sent by God, to go to a remote section of the road connecting Jerusalem with Gaza – a road in the wilderness. Soon, here on this ‘remoteish’ road he met a man who was of  ‘the remotest place on earth.’ What a logistical plan! – scatter those near, back to their homes in Jersusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and then, bring a person to the apostle from the remotest place on earth!

This is the way God works, he uses the good as well as the bad to remove the obstacles so we can continue with God’s intended purpose.

Now, we see the Practical Elements with which God works.  At this place, a distant destination for both men, a monumental moment takes place. In the wilderness, on this remote piece of the road,  Philip meets a man who has three outrageous labels that God’s practicalities eliminate. He was…

  1. Ethiopian
  2. Eunich
  3. Powerful

The first is an obstacle for everyone in the non-remote places on earth, the second is an obstacle for the religious people of the non-remote places on the earth, and the third is an opportunity for the implementation of God’s Good  News everywhere.

Ethiopian, brings us to God’s Geographical Practicality.  Ethiopian is a word that in the Greek language literally means ‘Burnt Face’ referring to the color and hue of his skin, which leads to judgements and condemnations of his culture, heritage, basically to this man. Greco-Roman literature often referred to “Ethiopians” as being a ‘people who lived on the fringes of the inhabited world’, judging them as inferior beings.  The presence of a Greco-Roman xenophobia should not surprise us even thousands of years later.

This was a meticulouslyorchestrated outrageous moment engineered by a God who is not daunted by skin color, culture, heritage or any other obstacle.  God brought this remotest man to another man’s remotest place for an impossible encounter.  As God gave Phillip a nudge, he approached the man and heard him reading from the Book of Isaiah, 

‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.’

Isaiah 53:7-9

Philip asks the man,‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

The man answered,‘Who is the prophet Isaiah speaking of?’

Philip addressed question knowing that none of the obstacles were of any consideration. 

The second practicality inhabited in this encounter – an Outlandish Practicality, particularly outrageous to the religious people and to the religious leaders – the man was a Eunuch.  This meant that he had been castrated as a condition for his position in the queen’s court. The castration had taken place for one, or more, of the following reasons,

  1. The decision to be castrated had been made by others, possibly even by parents when he was a child or as an adult by his masters and employers, to theoretically give him the credibility required for a better future and better employment.
  2. The decision to be castrated was made personally by the man for the same reasons.
  3. The decision to be castrated was a very personal decision made by him, for himself, for his own personal reasons – reasons that few people would understand or accept.

Any one of these reason is as likely another reason; we can be assured that this purposeful condition of his body was a major reason for a lifetime of judgement and rejection.  He did not fit the norms for conventional gender definition, he was not consider male or female; this put him outside the boundaries of masculinity and virility subjecting him to never-ending scorn and hatred.

The man was literate, he had the most influential ear in the queen, and he was trusted with her treasury, and subsequently he was rich.  He owned a rare and expensive scroll of scripture, he traveled on his own, with his own staff, and he had personal access to a chariot. While not accepted socially by his own countrymen, he was definitely feared and respected.  He had great influence at the remotest place on the earth – much more than Philip or any of the apostles. He would enthusiastically become a voice of witness to the remotest place on the earth. He would become the avenue for the good news that acknowledges worth and dignity – the good news that thwarts the prejudices that religions and societies easily fall into.

As Philip shares the ‘who’ of the Isaiah passage with the Ethiopian, the man meets and trusts in Jesus.  He recognizes that Jesus is the one spoken of by the prophet and that this same Christ is the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the  Law. This realization is automatically met with a personal acceptance and embrace. His immediate response is to follow Jesus, he excitedly asks, 

‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’

Acts 8:37

Philip in a wilderness place, probably the most foreign place he could be, here in this remotest place, a place where God brought the ends of the earth to him.  Here Philip began to share the Good News with the remotest parts of the earth. There was no think tank, no missionary strategy, no confab of the most persuasive evangelists, here there was Philip in a remote place not far from his home, addressing a question of a man who was far from his home at the ends of the earth.  Philip addressed the question, and did just as Jesus had instructed, he began to teach this pupil who the prophet Isaiah spoke of and proceeded from there to teach everything that Jesus did and everything that Jesus taught.  Everything that Philip had witnessed and experienced. The man became entranced in learning of Jesus compassion and mercy, his grace, his teachings of hope and deliverance, his life validation of Love.

He was reading from the scroll of Isaiah so it is proper to assume  that he was a Jew, although probably on the periphery of Judaism.  He would have been familiar with the cleansing and religious aspects of baptism.  He had an urgent need to express the cleansing from his sin and total immersion into the faith of following Jesus. Previously a seeker now he was a pupil, a disciple, a follower, and soon, a teacher; now he knew he was accepted, cleansed, loved. Now he  was asking, ‘why not now?’

‘The Ethiopian reminds us that we are inclined to expect too little from the good news or to underestimate its capacity to bless and include others.’

Justo L. González, Latin American Theologian and Historian

The Ethiopian has recognized something that we, in our evangelical comfort, have forgotten. He understands that faith is being a part of something Holy, an unexpected turn that brought him to an immersive experience into this faith and understanding.  He is ready to plug himself in the source, to live the full life in Christ, dependent on Jesus.  To thrive and grow, it is about a faith that we jump in with both feet. It is not about a new list of dos and don’ts, it about new life that writes truth on his heart, that leads him to strive to be like his source, like Jesus. Why wouldn’t he want to start now?

Jesus explained this to his followers as he said,

‘You have already been cleansed by the word, the truth, that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

John 15:3-5

Good News is a call to abide, it is a call to remain fully connected to the source of life, Jesus, the source of strength, the source of rejoicing, the source of perseverance, the source of confidence, the source of hope, the source of peace. The Source.

While we, years after Martin Luther’s proclamation that salvation is not a ‘how to’ journey, it is a faith journey, we have settled for a distant future in heaven and  ridged oversight of our actions and thoughts. Faith leads us to the same question as the Ethiopian,‘Why Not Now?!

Let’s return to our original question, ‘What will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?’

It is a question for all of us, What would it mean if we were to respond by saying, ‘Why not now?!’

Manifest Love

 Let’s return to where we began last Sunday, that moment prior to the cross, the grave, and the resurrection, to Jesus’ final moments with his disciples before the arrest. That moment at the table as Jesus and his disciples shared their final meal, and before they heard Jesus utter his final teachings and give his final encouragements.  Among those encouragements was one that that stands out among the rest,  

‘Love one another, even as I have loved you, you also love one another.’

John 13:34b

Now, this is not so odd in the words or message themself, but it that he introduces with statement, 

‘A NEW commandment I give to you,’

John 13:34a

If there is anything that was not new, it was to ‘Love God and to Love Others.’  One of Jesus’ best known parables had to do with the boundless limits of our call to love others  So why is this presented as a NEW commandment?

To get us started on this, let’s look back at the beginning of this chapter in John’s Gospel. 

John 13:1

‘Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that his hour had come and that he would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the END’

One of those Jesus loved, Judas, had already initiated his own betrayal of Jesus. We also know that Jesus was aware that the others would soon abandon him.  However, we see that the setting for everything that took place that evening was done from Jesus’ love for them all. Jesus begins the evening by washing their feet, all the while knowing the reality ahead, and then begging them to love each other – not to remain loyal to him. (End – Telos -purpose, tax)

This was not really a new commandment, while, at the same time, it was new in emphasis and urgency with which Christ said it in this specific moment. This was actually a lifeline that Jesus was throwing his disciples shortly before they were going to need it. In Jesus, this group had been witness to his command of love not just proclaimed verbally, but much more powerfully as LOVE was MANIFEST in the day to day life of Jesus.  Now, it was not aimed at the ‘hateful hopeless’ crowds, now it was aimed specifically at them, this group of followers, these that had an actual title, disciples and the coming title of apostles.  They knew it was significant that Christ focused this on them but probably didn’t grasp that this would be their avenue of  hope and comfort in their coming role of apostles, let alone surviving the coming few days. This was their lifeline that they didn’t realize they would soon desperately need – it is our lifeline that we often forget we have.

The approach to the truth about Love is one of the rare times that the Old Testament presentation is more in line with the way we commonly think.  Old Testament, Love is usually an identifier of internalization emotions.  It is often used as a way to identify a person, ‘you know him, he loves….’, ‘Or the statement ‘Father of Love.’ It is easily compared to our concept of Love as something internal, something emotional. Often regarded as a comfort and security type of word, our concept of love carries a meaning that is often difficult to fully explain.  

In the New Testament, Love is more of an action word, it usually connotes a call to action, to step out, to sacrifice or to experience. Love is usually listed along with a listing of things to do, or things that will prove that the love exists. Love is  fully manifest in the life of Christ and the epistles reveal how and why to Love.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

Jesus laid down his life for us, that is devotion. However, most of us would do the same, consider what you would do for a spouse, a child, a family member, a friend – giving your life for them is not unimaginable.  When Jesus laid down his life for us it was a much greater act that we could ever do, for in his death he not only died in our place, but he also took on the weight of our sins, our  disobedience, our rejection of God.  We do not qualify to be such a sacrifice, so, even if we were to desire to volunteer for such a task, we would not be able to.

Love does not obliterate the law, Love Manifest, Jesus, fulfilled the Law.  

We strive to be Love Manifest just as Christ Was and Is Love Manifest.

Here is the truth, Jesus took the basic teachings of the law, and raised them to a Holy level, a level to strive for, a level that becomes our aspiration. 

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with another, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult another, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”’

Matthew 5:21-22 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Matthew 5:27-28

Jesus continues the vein of instruction addressing the bar set for lying, divorce, retaliation, and then he says this,

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Matthew 5:43-44

Jesus teachings did not settle for the ‘get by’ level of our humanness, he called us to All that we are capable of being and doing.  We have the breath of God in us, we have the empty grave for us, we have the promise of life now and forever all over us- God knows us, God has high hopes for us, God has created us for that, in this moment, in this time.

Here is another thing, God knows that life can be difficult, that is why he experienced it for himself, that is why God became man.

So, Jesus raised the bar in regard to expectations, but he also raised the bar in regard to how we live. For this he did not just say it verbally, but he manifest it in every fiber of his being, he was love, he was love manifest. That is why, when he needed to rest, instead, he fed thousands instead; why, when he needed to fulfill a promise of healing an officer’s loved one, he made a stop to address the concerns of a chronically ill woman instead; why, when stopped by those he knew would reject him, he stopped anyway and talked and shared; Love Mainfest propelled Jesus to live out love through his deeds and actions.  Jesus taught love, not through his words but through his actions and his deeds. 

Here is the truth, Manifest Love is,

Intentional 

Powerful 

Sacrificial 

Manifest Love looks like Jesus

There are as many as 8 defined greek words for love, everything from family and brotherly love, to erotic love, to selfish and abusive love. Modern philosophers have divided love into as many as 12 forms of love.  The classifications have been defined to specify the function and details of the varied loves, some of the words speak to a perverse deviation of love. There is one thread that runs through all of the loves, it is a thread that cries out for something that cannot be found in our chaotic humanness, a love that is unconditional, and never ending, a love without limits and without expectations – a love, however, that is full of hope, acceptance, encouragement, sympathy and empathy, a love that is truly truly unconditional, this is Agape love, this is the love that Jesus Manifest, this is the love that we are called to Manifest. 

Jesus made it very clear what Love Manifest does in our life.

‘Love so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’

John 15:11

And then, as we go six verses further, Jesus adds, 

‘I am giving you truth so that you may love one another.’ 

John 15:17

Love Brings Us To The Table

Love Brings Others To The Table 

God’ Table Is A Full & Diverse Table

‘We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.’ 

― Jonathan Swift,  poet and Anglican cleric, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland (late 1600s) said, 

‘When we seek to see God, God redirects our sight to see the person next to us.’

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote (paraphrase),

So, we conclude in that room where the disciples, at  some point since the crucifixion, the disciples had gathered.  At the arrest they had scattered, to where they each went we do not know.  For those days in between Christ on the cross and this morning of resurrection, they had reassembled, they had, once again gathered.  They were ashamed and embarrassed, they were humiliated and hopeless, they thought everything was over, they questioned their investment of the past three years. But now they would be gathered, in this room of hopeless, hiding from a world that had declared this Jesus Movement officially over, here in this room these eleven were back together. They stood staring at the floor, sometimes catching the lifeless stare of one another.  Hopeless, frightened, dissolution, ashamed, here they stood, an empty table at the opposite end of the room, and at the other, these disciples of Jesus.

It could be said that they had returned here because they were unified in their fear and all the other emotions of devastation, but that is not true.  This group had regathered because of Love.  They had experienced Love Manifest in this man Jesus.  They had seen the outflow of Love Manifest in this man, they had felt Love Manifest from this man, they had witnessed the change he made on the world where they all lived.  The gathered back together not to address their shame or confusion, they gathered because they had lived in the presence of Love Manifest.

That is what love is when it is released to manifest itself through every aspect of  our life, when it permanently places its brand on or heart, our mind, and our soul. 

Love Manifest becomes the undefinable identifier of the Light Within Each Of Us.

So, as we began to permit the fact that, not only is God Love, but that His Son was/is Love Manifest in the Flesh, we can look again at the Psalm read earlier. We now see it not as an example of fantasy thinking but as a realistic description of the Loving Shepherd who desires the best for us, we can see it as the hopeful ode describing our God who is love. We can trust him in death’s valley as well as in the lush pastures.

God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing. You have  bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools for drink. 

You let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. 

Even when that direction goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid because I know you walk at my side. Your shepherd’s crook gives me security. 

You nourish me in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims over with blessing. 

Your beauty and love chase after me, they pursue me, every day of my life. 

I am back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.

Psalm 23

Willful Blindness

04.18.21

The table, particularly sitting with others around the table while enjoying relationships and food, was one of the most precision times to Jesus. I am assuming this, of course, but I think it is a valid assumption – it seems to be that the table is Jesus ‘go to’ tool for connectedness, counsel, consideration, and comfort.  We see him sit at the tables of tax collectors, sinners, gentiles, friends, and even those plotting his demise, at tables on beaches, on the sides of hills, in the homes of this friends, and even next to a well in Samaria. It is at these tables that there is an intimacy, a connectedness that opens ears, hearts, and minds – moments when lives are transformed and sacrifice takes place, it is at these holy moments that decisions are made and new path’s are taken. 

The thing about the table is that it is a true face to face, it was in those moments that a true self came through, vulnerability, devotion, hope, redemption, and sometimes opposition, hate, and rejection.  However, it was still face to face, it was still the place where everyone opened their eyes, let down their guard, and allowed themself to see the savior.

It is no surprise, then, that it is at a table that Jesus spends his final moments with his disciples. As he sat there, he knew that among those sitting at this table with him, those who were face to face, those who had no choice but to look up and see the face of Jesus, in this group was one that would betray him and another who would deny him, and ultimately all but one of them would desert him. In these final moments these were the ones he chose to sit with and who chose to sit with him. Jesus told the men that this would be the last time he would sit at a table with them until after he had completed what had to be done.  He would not sit at a table with these again until after the cross, the grave, and the resurrection. 

Before there was church, there was table, where sinners and saints, disciples and outcast, believers and betrayers gather to remember, to anticipate what is still to come, and to embody together the restoring and unifying power of God. The Lord’s Table is living theater, the communal enactment of unity amidst diversity, rooted in who God is and demonstrating where humankind and creation are headed. The Lord’s Table is the founding practice from which the church grew.

Dr. Stanley P. Saunders, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary

After the cross, the grave, and the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples again, it did not take long until it was also a table moment. Jesus appeared in the room and said ‘Peace’.  The disciples were burden with guilt, crippled by fear, they were confused and humiliated, the room was filled with all the enemies of Peace. And Jesus said Peace. They took a breath and remembered peace.  They had forgotten peace, they had blinded themselves to ever experiencing peace again, and her was peace manifested in this man they had sat with, this friend they had listen to, this savior they had experienced face to face, eyes open, this was peace.

Jesus reached out his hands, he let them see the wounds of the cross, the bruises of beatings, the marks of a sacrastic crown.  In those wounds the disciples saw beyond the marks, they saw beyond the pain, they saw the love that had carried Jesus through brutality of every kind, the love that  had brought him back to their table, just as he had promised.

‘While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”’

Luke 24:41

Can you imagine, after the days the disciples had just went through, in this place where they were hiding from the world, that in this moment, in this place, Jesus was hungry. I’m sure it made them grin, this was the Jesus they knew, he liked to eat just like them, just like any human. This was Jesus, resurrected, transformed, risen, alive, but still, it was the man they knew.  Eating meant reclining, reclining meant being at the table, being at the table would mean understanding.  Even in the doubts they still had, even after their actions that caused shame, still Jesus was there to teach them, to open their minds to truth.  It was just a matter of joining him at the table.

And, then, Jesus begins to teach, clarify, demystify,  

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms had to be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. YOU are the witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke 24:44-49 

Measured Faith

This last week in bible project we looked at Romans 12, in which the apostle Paul says, 

‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.’

Romans 12:3b

Now, you can imagine our question, why does God not give us a full measure to prepare us for anything and everything.  We see the answer to this in Jesus engagement with the disciples following the resurrection.  It all began with the first measure of faith –  sight. This was a group that had been following, listening, and learning from Jesus for the past three years, and that only began because they were first looking for Jesus – God had given them the first needed measure, the will to look instead of remaining blind. 

Let’s go back to that first encounter of Jesus and his disciple Andrew. Andrew had been looking, searching for truth, seeking the Messiah. His  mentor at the time, John the Baptizer, said to Andrew:

“Look, there he is – the Lamb of God!”

John 1:36

Now, God gave the second needed measure of faith, Andrew physically began to walk after Jesus, he followed him until he could ask the loaded question, 

“where are you staying?” 

John 1:38c

To which Jesus replied,

“Come and see.”

John 1:39a

Then came the third essential measure of faith, Andrew ran looking for his brother Simon Peter,  upon finding him he said, 

“We have found the Messiah, the Anointed!”

John 1:41

And then the process of faith continue with Peter.

Look again at that room full of Jesus disenchanted, frightened, and confused disciples,

This entire life changing experience of the past three years had actually begun long before this moment in the room – when God gave them the measure of faith needed to seek the Savior.  They had been willing and eager to receive this faith, to risk acting on it, to willingly accept the sacrifice all the while have no idea what any of that meant.  But they had enough to do what they were called to do – seek truth, search for the Deliverer, keep their eyes open removing obstacles along the way.

They had huddled together after the crucifixion clinging to the measure of faith they had been given.  Seeing no hope, they still clung together around an unused table. Here, with each their combined common faith, in their same heart and soul, they held on and held together.

Jesus appears in the room, very unexpected, he had never had that power, no one had ever seen someone with this power.  This was hopeful, scary, confusing, but they continued to look and listen, this was God giving another measure of faith.

Jesus knew that they needed more, and he knew that they were still looking, they had not accepted the lies of the religious and political officials of conspiracies and deceit. More faith was given.

They disciples were overjoyed, still looking and seeking, but still doubtful. Jesus gave them the next measure as he proved who he was to them, he asked about food and questioned why they were not at the table. This was the final measure of faith needed, a measure of faith they accepted and grasped with all their heart and soul. They sat together and Jesus opened their minds because they were ready to see more.

Later, after Jesus ascension back to heaven, apostles Peter and John were headed to the temple to pray. As they approached the entrance to the temple they encountered a man who had been crippled since birth. Sitting at the gate asking for monetary assistance had been his vocation for most of his life. Peter and John could not give him money but instead, God used these two to heal the man. Soon, he was up and walking, everyone noticed, they all saw, they knew this man had always been crippled now he could walk.  The crowds rushed to see and hear Peter and John, these two who had just preformed this miracle.

Peter began to speak. He spoke of their willful blindness, how Jesus himself, the one that was responsible for this miracle, had been before them but they had refused to see him. Peter reminded the crowd that Jesus had repeatedly invited them to the table but they had consistently refused the invitation.  He led them to consider the obstacles they had placed in the way of their sight, as well as those they had willingly allowed to remain blocking their sight.  Their willingness to accept the lies told about Jesus, the fact that they had allowed religious and political officials to stop their search willingly accepting the blindness these individuals had called them to. Petter pointed out the fact that they had all been given the needed measure of faith but they had been unwilling to use it, refusing to pull away the blindfold to see the table in front of them. The apostle confronted their choice of ignorant blindness. Peter called them to pull off the blindfolds, to see the table, to turn from the things that had led them to turn away from God, and to sit down in the refreshing presence of the Lord at His table.

It was a call to repentance, a call to see, a call turn away from the things they had given power to, the thing to which they had rendered their faith.

It is the same call that is proclaimed to us. A call to sit at God’s table, to accept his work, to choose to live in the faith he gives.  It is a call that requires we recognize those ways that we are willingly choosing blindness, it is a call of refreshment and redemption, a call of risk and reconciliation, a call to see and to seek.

The church at the table, Matt Skinner words it this way,  

“There is a diversity of encounters as well as the diversities of responses in these harmonious communities of believers where everyone belongs there.’

Dr. Matt Skinner (Paraphrase), Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary

Being at the table, and welcoming others to the table, is our call: 

‘“We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Jesus is finally revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him continually strive to purify themselves, just as Jesus is pure.”’

I John 3:2-3

What his your response to the invitation to come to the Table?

One Heart

04.11.21

Following the arrival of the Holy Spirit, when thousands came to personal acceptance of Jesus Christ, a personal acceptance that came from a personal encounter, these new Christians, who did not even have the label of ‘Christian’ yet, began to figure out how to be what they were led to be in the midst of millions of people who didn’t want them to be anything different that what everyone else was already being. They they were in uncharted territory.

This was a group from all over the known world, a group of different races, different religious understandings, different cultures, different religious practices, different social and economic standing, and different religious personal experiences. This was a group that would have never landed in the same place, in the same anything if it were not for the same savior and for the same sacrifice.

In this same place they were out of place; a group that did not belong together yet they could not help but be together, a group of misfits who fit perfectly together, a group that was lost but would lead a world through their story of being found.  This was the beginning of the church, this was our beginning.

This group was of one heart and one soul, none of them claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. They were dedicated to learning by listening to the apostles testimony about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

This was the tie that bound them together -Jesus, Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected, Jesus ascended, Jesus. 

It was the Holy Spirit that empowered them, the glue that held them together, the GPS that guided them, the hunger and thirst that grew them – this was the Holy Spirit.

This story in Acts, a story of the original New Testament church, is their story, it is how they, sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully,  figured out what it meant for them to be church.  This is their story, it is not our story, it is not our guide – the story of the New Testament Church is just that – it is Their Story.  A story of depending on Jesus and doing it alongside of others on the same journey. It is a story of finding their way together while still on their own personal journey.  It is a story of learning how to be of one heart and of one soul, even when everything about your experience is yours alone. It is a story of a journey that gives us inspiration in our journey alone together.

To understand the lesson from this passage, we have to understand the primary point that is being present – the people were of one heart and one soul.  It is not a lesson to be of one heart and one soul, but a lesson of what can happen with a group of people who, individually are of one heart and one soul.  What happened in the new testament church could only happen because of this heart and soul commonality. Understand, their story is not a story of things for us to do in the year 2021, it is not a rule book about how to govern and guide the institution of the church, it   revealed what happened with this first group that happened because that did have the same heart and soul, the author is celebrating the connectedness where there is the existence of one heart and one soul.  Note, and please grasp this note, the New Testament Church is not our How To Guide, it is a Here Is What Made Their Powerful Experience Possible.  It simply means that when we are in unity due to our heart and soul, not our agenda, our politics, our social or economic status – it is then that we can have enough respect for each other that disagreements are fine, our goal is not to eliminate disagreement, it is then that we learn to appreciate and prosper in our diversity. It is then that the Holy Spirit is freed to work among us – it is then that we begin to see Our Story. Having the same heart and same soul is our private journey our private story, however, when put together with others, and their different and distinct stories, God can do anything through us.

The New Testament Church had the story that it did because it was a group of people who shared one commonality, they each had the same heart and the same soul.  They did not connect together for any other reason that that.  They did not acquire that once were together but it was the factor that allowed them to thrive under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So, we begin with these individuals who would later be given the label of ‘Christian’ who are learning how to be what will be come known as the ‘Church’, figuring out how to be Church alongside of each other and apart from each other.  For this first Church of first Christians, they had one heart and soul, none of them claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. They were individually dedicated to learning by listening to the apostles testimony about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

The foundation was their individual distinct stories that led to their same heart and soul. Grasp this, the Church is a different people with different stories, all with the same heart and same soul. [The church is ] A community of God’s created human beings, often who have little or nothing in common except for different personal holy moments that have led to having the same heart and souls as the others we are in community, in church, with.

After Mary had proclaimed that Jesus was alive, the disciples were still hesitant to completely believe.  In fact, in the gospel of Matthew reprimands this group of men who fail to believe and receive the story of this woman. Christ did appear in the midst of the disciples, affirming the message of Mary and proving his risen humanity by showing them his scars and inviting them to fully understanding his humanness by the nail prints on his hands and feet.  Thomas was not at this gathering, and being told about this, he said that he too would believe when he saw, and even touched the scars, but until then he would not be able to believe.

We give Thomas a hard time for voicing his disbelief. We judge him in the same way we often hear the stories of everyone from a perspective of our own skepticism and arrogance.  We want to be given the space but we seldom want to give others grace. 

Here is a truth – scripture and scripture stories (and all stories for that matter) are not a one dimensional, they are multi dimensional.  This is why we never finish learning and why we never are done with these stories. God calls us to pick them up and turn them around, to look at them from every direction.  With each new look we see something new, with each new perspective we are offered a new enlightened understanding of the truth. Every time we open up and turn it around, scripture reveals more truth and clarifies the things we are mistaken or fuzzy on.  

When Jesus later appears to Thomas and offers to show him the scars, inviting him to even touch the hands and feet, Jesus is meeting Thomas exactly where he is ready to be met.  Thomas sees and no longer needs to touch, he know believes. Jesus’ statement that follows is not a reprimand to Thomas because he had to see,  it is actually Jesus taking advantage of a powerful teaching moment to preparing Thomas, and the other disciples, for the next stage of their stories. They would be sharing with individuals who could not see Jesus resurrected, they would not have the opportunity to touch the nail prints. What if Jesus was telling them that they would not be able to have Jesus as their show and tell but, instead, their own live were going to be the visual, they very existence was going to be their proof. Our story is our proof.

We know one thing for sure, before Jesus 2nd appearance, Thomas was still in fellowship with the other disciples and they still considered him to be a part of their fellowship.  In the same way that Jesus made sure to include Peter when he sent Mary to proclaim, ‘Jesus is alive.’

Why is this important? Because Thomas was still of the same heart and soul as these men, as well as Mary who had already seen Jesus.  The group had not made Thomas an outcast because he did not believe the same as them at this moment.  They trusted God’s work in Thomas, they trusted his story, just like they were trusting God’s work in each other and themselves. Unity is not because of full agreement, nor does it require unanimity of thought.  Unity is what happens in a group where each participant in that group brings a same heart and a same mind to the environment and connectedness of the group. 

The church is one in Jesus and his mission to save the world, the church is about unity of heart and soul. Notice that the word MIND is not used, this sameness is different than that.  We do not have to use the same vocabulary, the same actions, the same politics, the same anything – however, we are all committed to truth, and we are accountable to seek and search for this truth at all times and in all things.  What brings us together is not those things that are seen, it is inside, it is our connection to God which enables our connection to each other.

The first church had many intense disagreements in all areas of life, the book of Acts is full of those arguments some even between the apostles, but, they had agreement in the one thing that mattered, a same heart and a same soul. 

The greatest unity is found in the greatest diversity.  When our unity is in the midst of our diversity, the things that we commonly connect with, our preferences, our achievements, our season of life, the color of our skin, the sameness of our backgrounds, and many other factors that change with time – those things cannot divide us. Unity happens when we are connected by our heart and soul, when we are all tied into the same life pumping through us, when we are all clinging to the same hope that permits us to respect instead of hate. When we have this type of unity, politicians, religious leaders, and any one else with an agenda, are unable to divide us through sound bites and subtle insinuations.

The apostle Paul depicts our faith story, our journey, our salvation, as being ‘grafted in’ to our root, to God.  Our Bible Project looked at this last Tuesday night, we talked about the art of grafting.  I grew up seeing aluminum foil wrapped wrapped around the branches of hard shell pecan tree outside my grandmother’s back door. Honestly, I don’t remember this aluminum foil ever not being there.  As I got older and began to ask questions I learned that my grandmother was not very fond of hard shell pecans however she loved paper shell pecans. So, whenever possible, she would take a branch from a paper shell pecan tree and graft it in to the hard shell pecan tree.  This resulted in branches on the tree that actually produced paper shell rather than hard shell.  These new branches remained what they were created to be yet they were all tied into the heart of the tree that provided life, and the branch held onto the tree with a grasp on the soul of the tree.  

Our sin has caused us to be removed from our life source, from the soul and heart beat of the tree, we have died in this process and Jesus call is to graft us all back into the treeThat was the purpose of the cross, which came from the tree.  As these branches with different stories and different pasts choose to be grafted in through the redeeming work of Jesus, they, we, are once again tied into the heart and the soul of the tree.  We do not cease to be the branch we were made to be but, we are now connected, each with our own story, our own mind, connected to God’s heart and God’s soul – now we have life.

This is the church, a tree with limbs grafted in all over it.  While the limbs may look different and may even act different, they are all dependent on the same roots and same life source.  We are all on the tree together yet we are all on the tree separate.

This is how we are separate yet together, this is how our faith is personal yet public, this is how we have different stories but still have the same story, this is why we are always accepting yet holding everything accountable to truth, the truth of God, a truth we are constantly seeking and searching for.  This is why Jesus said we must search, seek, discern, and never permit any one human to control and dictate to us. This is why there is only unity when there is diversity.

Eugene Petersen, author of the Message paraphrase of the Bible, is often asked ‘How do I find the right church for you?’  His response was interesting.  He said, and I paraphrase – ‘Find a church that is not so big that you can disappear, don’t find a place you can be anonymous. Also, don’t find a church that makes you feel good or important, or one that is in tune with your emotions and practices, that shares you current tastes.  Make a commitment to stay there for 6 months or even a year, however long it takes. Stay there until you are finally able to see that these people, this group, this church, has the same heart and the same mind as you do.  Be open to it along the way. They may be strange and different than you, and they may be aggravating and frustrating beyond belief, but they have the same heart and soul.  Connect in a way that is it going to painful to leave’

Heart and Soul are our individual journey, seeing the power of Heart and Soul is only possible when diverse hearts and soul believers connect together.

This is church.

My God, Your God/My Father, Your Father

Message – My God/Your God 04.04.21

Possibly two of the most holy moments that any human can experience is to watch a human life come into this world and to witness a human life leave this world.  The birth of a child is exciting but also such an exhausting moment that we miss the holiness.  Then at death, we can be  so consumed by the misery and grief that we fail to notice the holiness of the moment.  However, they are both still holy, holy does not evaporate when we miss it, it just wraps its arms around us and carries us through the exhaustion and grief.

I have come to the conclusion that we seldom grasp  these holy moment for ourself because we are exhausted, we are miserable, we are relieved, we are overwhelmed, we are fearful, we are jubilant, we are distracted – none of these are necessarily bad things, it is just our reality. I have begun intentionally noticing holy in these moments, as I have attended funerals of the parents of old friends, or in the occasions when I am conducting the memorial and being invited into the holiness as I meet with the family or accompany them to see body of the loved one just minutes before the service. I have begun to recognize the holy in the comments made at their first time to see the body since preparation, dressing, and make up.  ‘He looks so peaceful,’or, ‘She loved this dress, she really looks good in it, definitely her colors.’  I think years ago these just seemed to be hollow words meant to hide the pain of the loss, now however, I have begun to recognize the genuine place the words come from.  I get to watch as the have these holy moments, moments when they get to see this loved one as they remembered, the face that they see when they tell their stories, the face they will always keep in their heart.  It is a holy moment, it is an unprecedented moment when holiness carries them through.

After Jesus was confirmed to be dead, his body was taken down from the cross and carried to a tomb donated by a religious leader named Joseph.   There had been a group of female followers watching the crucifixion of Jesus along with John the disciple, they all witnessed the holy and painful moment from a safe distance. A smaller subset of that group stealthily followed the body to the grave and witnessed the stone rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb.  Then an even small subset journeyed to the grave as early as possible after the Sabbath. Among this group was Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most faithful followers and possibly one of Jesus most dedicated devotees. Jesus had delivered Mary from seven demons who had taken up residence within her. She followed not just because she felt she had a debt, she also was a true seeker of truth.  Mary sought understanding in all the words and actions of Jesus. Mary have see the power of Jesus, she had seen the compassion and mercy of Jesus, and she had personally experience his deliverance and rescue in her own life.

Mary didn’t go to the tomb expecting to see Jesus, Mary went to the tomb because that was what needed to be done. She didn’t go seeking another Holy moment. It was so early that the sun was not yet fully above the horizon, identification as a Jesus follower was dangerous, and then there was the issue of the huge stone.  Nobody had any expectations except for the expectations they put on themselves.  All the women wanted to do was give Jesus’ body a proper and respectful anointing and burial preparation. This moment was holy as soon as she made her first step to the cemetery, as she journeyed to do what you do for a body recently buried, especially what you do for a friend that has been hurriedly  laid in the grave. Even though this was a practical and rational, action, it was a holy action, an action of respect, she went to the do the most holy, The entire endeavor was to be done without any acclaim, it was not about them. God’s holiness carried Mary and the others through their fear to the tomb which was opened, and inside as they took the steps to see Jesus. Her journey, her intended common purpose, her diligent and faithful act of respect were holy, to her though, it was just what needed to be done. But, once there, she saw Jesus, he was there, in human form, not dead but alive, a human form that she grabbed ahold of and embraced for as long as possible.  Jesus peeled her hands from his neck and arm, he told her that there was much to be done, she surely shook her head in agreement, she wiped away her tears of joy and waited for Jesus to speak. 

‘“Go and tell the disciples, and tell Peter,” Remembering Peter was huge, after his recent blatant and repeated rejection of Jesus, Peter could have easily been dismissed, but Jesus made a point to make sure everyone knew he was still included, he made an obvious notice that God was still Peter’s Father and he was still  Peter’s God. 

This was the first lesson about resurrection.  Resurrection heals and erases the scars of the pain and the hurt of rejection.  It was forgotten, Jesus had released it in death, there was no trace of it in the heart of the resurrected Jesus. 

“Go and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Jesus said.

Mary began to shiver, a tingling, she surely recognized that Jesus was back on his path, the green light his back was now to the cross and even to the empty grave, now he was continuing on his journey to save the world.  Jesus didn’t need to talk about cross, he didn’t need to explain the theological significance of his resurrection, he just needed back on his path. He didn’t need to say any of that because he knew Mary’s holy moment was going to be communicated to his disciples and followers clear and concise, and strangely, Mary did not need to ask any questions because seeing Jesus was the answer to all her questions. 

As she ripped into the room where the disciples were hiding, she could hardly wait for the door to even close. “I’ve seen him! I’ve seen him! I’ve seen the Lord, I’ve seen Jesus!”

The eyes of the disciples revealed everything, some were opened as wide as could be, some were all wrinkled together, their words expressed a myriad of perspectives.

“She has already been to the tomb? Is it wise to go to the tomb, isn’t it risky?”

“This has all been too much for her, she is being hysterical.”

Still others looked at each other with a hint of hope, “Is it possible? Wouldn’t he have told us this would happen? Wait a minute, did he tell us this would happen?”

May was bent over with her hands supporting her on her knees, she was catching her breath, shaking her head up and down, her actions were affirming this was real, she had seen the resurrected Jesus! 

“Are you sure it was him,?’ One of the disciples surely asked.

The room was abuzz with the chattering of the men gathered before Mary.  As she caught her breath, she said, “Oh, and he told me to tell you that he is ascending to God.” 

Here is the second lesson of the resurrection. A proclamation of seeing is always going to trump the message sent, even the message comes from Jesus.  All she could think to say was to testify that she had seen him, she had seen Jesus. Mary, without  even thinking about it, without any regard to the cultural expectations and restrictions on female, blurted out, “and, YES, it was him, don’t you think I, of all people, would recognize Jesus?!”

Jesus knew that she would proclaim everything in this manner, Jesus understood human nature. Months before, had told the Samaritan woman to “Go, call your husband, and come back.” But she too arrived back in the city and just proclaimed, “Come and see a man who told me everything! This man I have seen.”  Then, after all the city ran out to see Jesus, they proclaimed, “It is no longer because of what she said that we believe, for we have now seen for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” It was a holy moment that could have been missed but it was not because they had now seen.

Seeing and experiencing, changes everything, even in the most mundane of times and activities.  It is in our daily actions, taking the boring steps on our path, that we walk in holy moments.  Moments that change our life, moments that can be a part of Jesus’ path to save the world. Moment where our eyes are open, moments when we see the hand of God.

The cross and the empty grave were now behind Mary and the other followers. Death and Resurrection had been essential detours but now the victory was complete.  The followers were now living in the holy – in the midst of the most unholy.  It was a natural time of fear and chaos, but Jesus was now inviting them all to join him in the pool of peace. There was a lot ahead but it was holy, it didn’t actually seem to be holy and  peaceful, but still Mary could not help but burst into the room yelling “I’ve seen him, he is alive!”

Then there is a third lesson in the resurrection, – Jesus had scars.

This is a most intriguing aspect of Jesus in his resurrected state. This body was no longer the same body that hung on the cross, the body that had been suffocated by the pull of gravity, no  longer did his heart fail to beat nor did his lungs refuse to take a breath.  Now, Jesus embodied what he was meant to be, only now he was in a body that was impervious to the pains inflicted by an unholy world, now in a body that would never again feel the tug of death.  Now his body was perfect, however, he still had the nail prints in this hands and feet, he still bore the scar on his side from the sword that had pierced him.  

Giving Thomas a moment of holiness, Jesus held out his hands for Thomas to see and touch, Jesus carried the scars for the world to know, to know and understand Holy, that he is Holy, that this is God.  See, these scars were not just an earthly manifestation of what he had done, they were eternal scars marking the pivotal moment on the cross and the proof of the moment at the tomb. Scars to carry to be seen by those who were now freed from their own disobedience, cleansing  us of our rejection because we had chosen him, the scars continue to be a invitation to all peoples, to a world to whom were rescued by the same God, the same  Father.

Scars that call us all to recognize and to call upon the God who created all, who loves all, who reaches out to all, who desperately desires to save all. The God who bears our scars. 

Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.

I Corinthians 15:20-22

This is Easter, this day, this life, this moment is Holy. May we all recognize this truth today, may we all remember this holiness this week, may we all chose to live in this peace forever. May we also remember the message of the scars engraved into Jesus’ skin, scars that forever remind us of the why, the pain, the release, and the full burden of the cross. 

Today we stand looking up at an empty cross today, we stand outside the empty tomb, today we run with Mary who is exhausted but canot with to tell and proclaim, we stand with Jesus, we experience the holy Jesus, the sacrificial lamb who death could not hold.  Today we stand on hope because of that which will never need to be experienced again. Today is holy, this is Holy, this is our Holy moment.

Let us pray

No Defense

03.28.21 Palm Sunday

Have you ever asked someone how they were doing and find their response ‘I’m Fine’ hard to beloved.  Whether it is due to the tone of their voice or the look on their face, it is response that is not very convincing.  You want more, you want more words to help you navigate the assumptions made from their non verbal signals.

There are some responses, or explanations that only need a word or a handful of words and you know exactly what is meant.  Sometimes a very short sentence can communicate much more than a very wordy sentence.

An example, As we see the words ‘Jesus wept’, we are given a powerful moment with God’s experience of our experience of grief, as well as an evidence that Jesus, who sits next to God, understands the impact  of our humanness.

As we see Jesus on the cross and hear his voice the three simple words ‘It is finished’ we are hit in the face with his determination to travel his path all the way through the cross. 

And then, earlier in Mark, there is the narration ‘He intended to pass them by’

For us to understand the significance of Jesus silence before his accusers we must go back to Jesus voice in the midst of human struggle. Back to the midpoint in the ministry of Jesus. Early in the evening after Jesus fed 5,000 plus people and now he was closing out the day by permitting personal moments with those in attendance.  An exhausted Jesus looked over at this disciples.  This had to be an exhausted group of men, this journey following Jesus had been challenging especially today. Jesus had told them to feed the crowds, it was an absurd request. The men were tired and as Jesus saw this he insisted they get in the boat and head ahead of him, he assured them he would be fine as he pushed their boat into the deeper waters. Jesus then went back to the crowds and eventually found  a quiet spot and began to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 

But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  

Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Mark 6:47-52

Such an odd statement, ‘he intended to pass by them’ or ‘he wished to walk on by them.’ 

When Jesus saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. he wished, to pass them by.

Mark 6:48

He intended to pass them by? What stopped him? 

When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Jesus plan, or his preference, had been to walk on past them, not a word or even a wave. He stopped because they were afraid, they were struggling, they didn’t see any hope. They had just seen Jesus perform this miracle yet now, with the winds growing stronger, they quickly forgot God.  So Jesus got into the boat with the frightened disciples who had forgotten the power of God.

See Jesus was on a path, his calling, on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to the cross, on the way to saving the world.  Saving the world was his mission not calming the disciples, nor had it been the healings or feeding, or any of the other diversions. But, Jesus could not just walk by the hurting people anymore than he could walk on by his struggling disciples.  So he stopped, just like he would continue to stop whenever there was a need.  That is what he did, that is what God does, he goes off the path to bring us peace, he climbs into the boat with us.  Jesus detours off the path for us,  he hears our cries. 

Salvation of the world was Jesus’ calling, his mission, but, climbing into boats was Jesus’ character it had been carved out of compassion and mercy and powered by love.

I feel confident that I can say that we have all been in the scary boat at least sometime this past year.  Many times Jesus has claimed in the boat with us. Sometimes he even sends us to climb in a boat with mercy and compassion. 

When stepped off the path, he did not explain, he just helped, he calmed, he brought peace.  That was what he does, there was no explanation needed, there were no expectations, no defense, no conditions, no reprimands, he just did what he knew needed to be done, and then, he resumed towards his calling, he returned to his path.

The apostle Paul explains this challenging challenge to us, 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of  a slave, being born in human likeness. 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

Philippians 21-8

A determination that is willing to go through to do what God has called you to do – that was the determination of Jesus. That is the same mind of Christ, the same way of thinking, that we are called to.  A determination to follow God’s path all the while keeping our eyes open for essential detours, opportunities to reveal the same compassion and mercy displayed by Jesus.  It is only then, that Christians can heed God’s first call – to save the world. 

So let’s return to Holy Week.

Instead of focusing on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on this Palm Sunday, we are going to go right up to the cross.  We will travel with the compassionate and merciful Jesus on his determined path, right up to the cross.

The cross was not Jesus’ destination, however, his path led through the cross, though the empty grave, through the seat waiting next to the Father, and to his calling to save the world.  The cross was an essential part of his path.

We come to the trials of Jesus following his arrest, the lies, the deceit, the holes in the contradictory statements, and the near silence of Jesus the accused.  Mark’s gospel does not detail the scrambling between Pilate and Herod, it just gives us the tone and environment of what took place, and most importantly, we see what determination looks like.

Just before his arrest, Jesus had prayed in agony in the garden of Gethsemane, he had questioned God asking if there was any other way his path could go, did it have to go through the arrest, the trials, the public humiliation, the grief piled on his loved ones, the pain and misery…..was there any other way? Jesus knew the answer, he had been a part of the decision making before the beginning of our history, he knew what had to take place, he knew, but, he was also human, with the human emotions of fear and dread, he also knew, and he knew the victorious outcome, but still, he asked ‘is there any other way to get there?’

In the midst of all of this, there was already isolation, which had already begun, even his disciples were unable to help him navigate this human experience.  He knew the isolation would be complete as even God would have to forsake him.  The weight of the sin of the world on the shoulder of one man was not a journey that could be shared, isolation and rejection were expected but not looked forward to.

As Jesus walked from the garden, Satan grabbed the opportune moment.  Satan attempted to use Jesus’ humaness against him for 30 years – now, Satan had the most opportune opportune moment, if this didn’t work, Satan had no chance of any ultimate victory. Satan manipulated and cajoled humans, the guards appeared at the entrance to the garden.  They were there to arrest Jesus in this opportune moment. As Jesus saw  the guards he responded,

‘“What is this, coming after me with swords and clubs as if I were a dangerous criminal? Day after day I’ve been sitting in the Temple teaching, and you never so much as lifted a hand against me. What you in fact have done is confirm the prophetic writings.” All the disciples bailed on him.’

Mark 14:48-50 (the Message)

It had begun, Jesus was alone, he had been deserted.

The religious leaders quickly put together a trial of Jesus.  They coached witnesses, and brought them before the leaders as they approached their  formal judgement.  Finally, the chief priest said,

‘The Chief Priest stood up and asked Jesus, “What do you have to say to the accusation?” Jesus was silent. He said nothing. The Chief Priest tried again, this time asking, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”’

Mark 14:60-61 (the Message)

The chief priest was foaming at the mouth, Jesus remained calm which made the priest even more incensed.  Jesus didn’t look angry, scared or defensive, he had just sat there. The red faced priest glared at Jesus waiting for an answer, the other leaders and priests moved to the edge of their seats, then Jesus look directly into the eyes of the chief priest and began to speak, 

“Yes, I am, and you’ll see it yourself: The Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One, Arriving on the clouds of heaven.”

Mark 14:62 (the Message)

In their furor, the religious leaders, now a raging mob, took Jesus to the one who had the power to finish this ‘Jesus Problem’ off.  They took him to the ruler Pilot who could send Jesus to his death.  

In a room filled with the religious leaders, priests, and witnesses, Pilate asked Jesus,

“So You are the King of the Jews?” 

Jesus responded, “It is as you say.”

Mark 15:2 (NASB)

As the hate filled crowded room became even more hostile, Pilate  attempted to bring reason and rationale into the inquiry,

“Do You offer nothing in answer? See how many charges they are bringing against You!”

Mark 14: 4 (NASB)

Jesus, from this point forward was silent.  He did not need to talk, he did not need to defend himself, it was unnecessary, he had accepted his fate when he walked into the waters of John’s baptism, he had affirmed it in the garden. This was all part of this path, it was all part of the isolation, it was all essential to his purpose.  He did not need to take a detour just to prove that they were wrong, it would not advance Jesus on his path, nor would it be an opportunity for compassion and mercy.  So, from this point forward, he would offer no defense, he would give no argument, now it was time for love not words. 

In this opportune moment, Satan used screaming voices, lies, hatred, and deceit, Jesus, in this same opportune moment, used love, mercy, compassion, grace, and strangely, silence, and even hope.

That is what an opportune moment, a moment of opportunity.  We can chose to make that detour a opportunity to add to hate, or we can use that detour to let God shine through us.

Jesus at this moment chose to shine. He chose to sacrifice himself, beginning with what others thought of him, his reputation, his sacrifice was not limited to the cross.  HIs sacrifice involved his entirety.  At this point, as he chose to remain silent and give not defense, he had stepped fully into sacrifice.

I think that the good and the great are only separated by the willingness to sacrifice. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Jesus was now on the same path he had been since his baptism, he was now just steps from the cross, it was now just steps through the cross.

Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the week of Passover, the Holy Week, Mary took not he scandalous act of anointing of Jesus with her most valuable possession, a container of expensive perfume.  Those present aghast and critical, they were not silent, they spoke, they criticized, the judged, they condemned.  In this instance, Jesus did speak, he did offer a defense, not of himself but of Mary,

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Mark 14:9

Later, as Jesus drew his final breath and gave up his spirit, a centurion, who had been a part of the execution, now standing there where had stood all day watching and witnessing the sacrificial act of Jesus.

‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing Jesus and witnessed his final moments and the manner in which Jesus breathed his last breath, this centurion said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”’

Mark 15:34, 37-39

Centuries before Isaiah had voiced our call,

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”

Isaiah 50:4-10

This is our calling. This is a Holy Week.

Zeal

03.07.21 – John 2:13-23

Our focus passage today comes from the gospel of John 2:13-22, a very interesting passage placed at a very interesting moment in the ministry of Jesus.  It is shortly after he, his mother, and his newly formed family of disciples, attended the wedding of a family friend of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  This was the event where Jesus was mom-pressured to take care of the ‘wine’ situation – the wedding hosts had run out and his mom, wishing to rescue her friends from a huge social faux pas, ‘asks’ Jesus to take care of the situation.  You probably remember, this was the classic mother/son moment when the son responds to the mother’s persistent pressuring by saying the classic son statement, ‘What do you want of me. woman?”  This was not only where the disciples saw Jesus perform a miracle, but it is also where they saw the humaness of Jesus, and it seemed, I’m sure, very similar to their own experiences of family.

As we approach chapter 2, I must point out, John often uses a different chronological system than the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – John details Jesus’ visit to the temple at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus ‘cleanses’ the temple by confronting the collusion of the religious institution and the political system as well as aggressively challenging the merchants and money changers, all of who are taking advantage of the people for their own gain.  While John places this significant event early in the Jesus ministry, the other three gospel writers place it near the end, during holy week. Some think it is just a choice made by the author, others believe this is two different events.

Jesus had surely been to the temple before, even before John’s early placement in the canon. We actually know he was there as an adolescent, and surely, because of his religious training, had been there at least three times a year as a young adult. It would not be odd for him to address the abuse at the beginning and close of his earthly ministry.  Placing it as bookends of his ministry also confirms his own experience among the people, seeing their pain and misery, seeing their affliction and oppression, seeing that they were barely surviving when his passion was to give them life to its fullest.

Regardless of the time, or times, of this or these, temple experiences, there is an undeniable passion in Jesus’ response to the religious officials, for his fellow Jewish worshippers, and towards his earthly and eternal purpose.  This may be early on his path through the cross, or he may already be in the shadow of the cross.

Regardless, of placement, we begin at the Temple.

Around 600 hundred years prior to Jesus’ visit to the Temple, the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, and his forces destroyed Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple – as well as taking most of the Israelites back to Babylon to be slaves to the Babylonians. During the seven decades of this slavery, the faithful realized there was an internal void in this new reality – they were now without the temple which, to them, meant they were without the presence of God. Even though they were in this new reality because they had neglected God, they now, slowly began to recognize their mistake. As they began to identify their need for God, they also began to navigate how to ‘Do Faith.’ God provided prophets such as Jeremiah who reminded them that God had not abandoned them. So, they began a journey not dissimilar to our experience this past twelve months, they began to meet in homes and other places, making mini temples, figuring how to make sacrifices that were not animal sacrifices, a practice that was a180 degree turn from how they had sacrificed at the temple – in doing this they began to understand the true and personal meaning of sacrifice.  Over the course of the seven decades the Jews began to accept the fact of their own complicity that led to their exile and in turn, they began to turn back to God. This was a full immersion into a new, and very personal, way of observing faith, and of knowing God in a much more internal way. While they did not need masks, and of course virtual gatherings were not an option, they learned to have a new perspective, to open their eyes, they gained a willingness to sacrifice their ‘normal’ for themself as well as for others. They became a community of the faithful who were recognizing the forgotten power of community.

Take a moment to grasp this, they had no choice but to spend 7 decades on a journey of relating to the God they had rejected and having to do so in a totally new, and far less comfortable, than they had done since their birth.  This was a lot of ‘normality’ and personal agendas to lay aside in order to truly worship and gather. Although we are just now approaching a year in our loss of ‘normal’ and it has been difficult, we like the Israelites have faced the choice of resist and reject all change, to, instead accepting the reality that sometimes we needed to accept the loss of certain rights, comfort, and normality in order that we could figure out how to navigate change.

Everytime we see God ‘break through’ into our reality, we see requisite change, a change that ends up leaving us in a new place, a new perspective, a new practice, all of which have forced us to give up and to accept a new normal.  Often we attempt to return to the old normal, but the new normal is God’s gift to us for life, not just for ourself, but for others.

When the Israelites did finally returned to Judah, they were quick to return to their old ways and their very distant faith, one in which it was easy to dismiss God.  They set out to rebuild the temple even though the temple, which had always held the significance of holding the presence of God, now could not serve the same purpose. This people had learned that God’s presence was there they were, they had experienced the God could be worshipped where they were.  However, they built anyway. This was not like when God led King Solomon through the details and process of building the first temple, the building of the second temple was primarily a human endeavor. While God gave prophets to continue to guide them in their faith, this mammoth project was still a human project.  They did not have the donations and resources flowing in such as had been the case with the first temple.  Lebanon was no longer eager to give their cedars, nor were the surrounding nations willing to contribute money and laborers. As a result the temple seemed to be an ongoing and never-ending endeavor. At the time of our passage it had been almost fifty years since the Israelites had begun to build.  When this temple was near completion, people were disillusioned and disappointed because it was not as majestic as Solomon’s temple. 

This people who had figured out how to do faith without a temple had quickly returned to their pre exile existence. The result was that non-Jews began to contribute, and, began to have a say in the building of the temple.  The unholy began to have a hand in the establishment of the holy.  Even Herod the great, who order the death of the new born boys in order to solve his ‘Jesus’ problem contributed and glamorized the very simple and basic temple..

So, when the religious officials ask Jesus to prove himself and to justify his actions in the temple, his response is – “destroy this temple and it will be rebuilt in three days.’ God would prove the words of his Son by doing what he said would be done. Jesus, who along with the followers of God, was the temple,  and he would rise to life after destruction. There wold be a resurrection. Today we have 2 lessons.

First Lesson of a Cleansing. Don’t Be Stuck.

The encounter with Jesus inside the Temple is a classic example of ‘Stuck’ thinking. The religious officials, from within the Temple, could only see a structure that was not as good as the past, the project was now half a century later, it was still a process in the making and still not done, there could be no Ark of the Covenant, and there could be no glory of past days.  All they could see was what they no longer saw, which was not Solomon’s temple.

Have you ever sincerely told someone that you liked their new haircut only to receive a response pointing out everything wrong with the cut.  No matter how great you think they look, all they can see is what is not there.  This is what is taking place with the religious officials, all they could see was the past, a past which was no longer visible, present, or real, so, even tough a valid statement is being made by Jesus – it is impossible for the leaders to see or grasp. All they can see is turmoil and tables overturned in the temple square which still has a wall that is unpainted and a door that is barely hanging on one hinge – all they can see is what they have to do, they see no glory, they don’t see that God has broken through, right there in their presence.

They are stuck in a nightmare building project and cannot see an ongoing abusive system that has managed to be reestablished, a system which should not have been in place ever before, even in the first temple. 

We saw this a year ago, as we were called to sacrifice for the safety of ourselves and others. Many people of faith, especially the Christian faith, began to scream out that they were being denied their freedom to practice their faith, lawsuits were filed and political recalls were instituted. At the same time, we saw other faith communities recognize the opportunities and began to formulate new ways to practice and observe their faith, to redefine worship and sacrifice, to get unstuck. Being Stuck causes us to miss the curve in our path on which God  is letting us travel to see something amazing and life transforming. 

Second Lesson of a Cleansing. Look for Glimmers of Light.

A couple of months ago I was working from home at a desk I had pushed against a window. It was an unusual winter morning, especially for this odd year, it was warm outside but a little too cool to actually work outside so I did what made the most sense, I opened the window as I worked.  Pretty soon, a small finch landed on the windowsill and began to ponder taking a step past the usual barrier of glass, a step that was going to put the finch inside the house. I sat as still as I could be, I was about to become Mary Poppins, it was really cool and I attempted to not move or even blink while watching God’s creation closer than the length of my arm.  While I sat there, my excitement moved from how cool this was to all the things that could go wrong.  Our house is not a Sam’s warehouse where a bird can fly around overhead and do so unnoticed.  I realize the door of the room was open meaning that this finch would probably wreck havoc on the rest of the house.  As I moved from wander to distraction, I moved, the finch realized that it was a human sitting there and not a post to sit to – in an instant the little creature flew away and I was left with only a story an no possibility of a finch on my finger joining me in a song. I missed a moment because I forgot to look for the glimmer of light.

Jesus stood in the open space of the temple witnessing something that few even recognized anymore.  He had surely, as an adolescent, been there as his own parents had to over pay what they did not have in the first place, he had seen the downtrodden look on his father’s face as the money changers over charged him, he saw the abuse even as the leaders walked around caught up in their ‘work of God’ missing this miserable aspect of the human existence.  So, on this day, Jesus stood in the temple again, and again, he noticed that the the pilgrims who had already sacrificed much just to be at the temple, were now asked to unjustifiably sacrifice even more.  Jesus knew the it was not a holy sacrifice, it was an act of abuse by those who saw an opportunity to abuse others in order to get for themself.  Jesus also saw that this abuse caused those who came to worship to be so distracted they forgot there was a beautiful finch sitting on the windowsill to remind them that light was right in front of them, God was reflected in his creation yet all of creation was no longer visible.  

Jesus, who adhered to the greatest commandments of God, to love God and to love others, and this same Jesus, who came to give full life, and this same Jesus, who saw the misery and oppression of the people and sought to address it wherever he went, this Jesus could not help but act there in the temple.  He confronted the situation, he overturned tables, he yelled at the abusers, he disrupted, he vandalized, he did what he could do there in that time, and at that moment, to be a glimmer of light exposing injustice and suffering.

That is one of the things we Christians do with this story, we focus on the aggressive actions and the loudness and tone of his voice.  We question, ‘could Jesus really be angry, or worse yet, could he be mad?’  We argue if it is possible to react in the most human of human ways.  Jesus actions are an essential element of this story but not for those reasons, it is not a question of ‘can Jesus be angry/“ but it must be a question of ‘WHY would Jesus be angry in this moment?’

One of the periphery glimmer of lights that God we witnessed this past year was the Black Lives Matter uprisings. We that have sat in privilege cannot genuinely attempt to imagine what it is like to be afraid to let a child go out after dark, we cannot grasp the experience of watching a spouse drive away knowing that the very act of driving on the street or walking on the sidewalk might cause their death.  We sit in our own paradigm and say that we are not racists, or that racism does not exist in our community, or in our neighborhood, or in our government. As God gave us a glimmer of light through the testimonies of so many parents and loved ones this summer, those with different pigmentation and cultural backgrounds, expressed, in a very real way, their pain. Since we can’t fathom this reality we chose to dismiss it, or even to attempt to discredit it.  We saw the riots, some even acknowledged that something needed to be done, we began to hesitantly accept the reality of the problem. However, our first response was to say ‘well, they should vandalize, they shouldn’t be so aggressive, they should’nt disrupt, destroy, they shouldn’t turn over the tables, they shouldn’t be so lourd, they shouldn’t call so much attention to themselves.’ Recent poll results publicized this past week show that the majority of Americans have forgotten their own concern and outrage from this last summer, that we have largely forgotten the still present pain and suffering that exists for many Americans.  They just remembered that tables were overturned and that someone had to clean up the mess – but went back to noticing that the temple needs another room, a nicer facade, that it needs to be like it used to be. Much like our response toward Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling stance during the national anthem, we choose to be dismayed instead of thinking if this is something we need to think and pray about, if this is a moment we need to consider the why of this action.

Jesus, in his unacceptable confrontative attitude, was a glimmer of light the day in the temple, a glimmer that was quickly dismissed, a glimmer that was  too radical, too uncomfortable, too difficult to look at.

Early 20th century philosopher George Santayana wrote

‘There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.’

We live this earthly existence in OUR interval, reconciled to knowing little of our ‘before’, and holding only to hope for our ‘ahead’. We choose to settle in and just survive when God is calling us to flourish while we nurture. We choose to navigate change or, instead, to ferociously fight it, we can try to hold our tongue in the midst of injustice, or we can add our voice to the injustice inflicted on others.  We can learn from our own past as well the history of others, or, instead we repeat those mistakes in our attempts to re-experience past successes. Sometimes our interval takes forever, and sometimes it seems to pass in a blink of an eye,. Our interval journey can be tough but nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live it to its fullest and to be a reflection of the light for others to do the same. To be a light that shines light on God’s truth, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s Love, that accurately reveals God.

Jesus stood in the temple square and saw the same thing he had seen everytime he entered the holy space, only this time he could not just stand there. This time he had to do the unacceptable, he had to turn over some table, to run out those abusers and the selfish profiteers, to loudly speak truth to the authority, to be an emissary of God, telling and living truth. He chose to use this interval to make a difference.

Jesus intentionally lived out his interval, how is God calling you to live your interval?

Walk Behind Me

I had a very dear friend died this past week. Jim Barnette was diagnosed with a very rare brain disease several months ago.  It only took months for the disease to eat away at his brain and finally his body could no longer support life.  I say he was a very dear friend, but truth is that we worked and lived together for a couple of months as part of a ministerial team in 1984.  During that time I I was there when he shared with me that he was smitten with Deanna, another member of our team. I was there as he courted this young lady, now understand, he was the kind of guy who would use words like court and smitten. Since then we have hardly seen or talked with each other. I went to Louisville, to be in his wedding, and then Andrea and I stopped in  Birmingham, AL, the summer of 2010 to see him and his family. Otherwise, the descriptors of our relationship greatly changed over the 37 years. Even though the relationship changed I still, even this week feel as though I have lost a very dear friend.

Relationship are strange, they can change with the seasons of life, yet somewhere in our brain, and our heart, there will always be a small piece  remaining that defined the relationship as it once was.  

In a way, Andrea and I, like many of you, have had to navigate the changes in our relationship with our own kids.  The boundaries have changed, they are no longer under our authority, they are no longer in our house, they have grown up and taken the next steps on their paths. We are now figuring out the terms of those old, but now new, relationships.

There is a word for that in the Hebrew, it is the word ‘brit’, an agreement of relationship. While this, in our lives, is usually unspoken – sometimes developing an understanding and agreement of the relationship is a big deal.  This is the same idea as ‘treaties’ where one nation, or group, enters into an agreement and terms of coexistence.  In the English, this word is interpreted as the word ‘covenant’ but in the Hebrew language it is ‘Brit’.

Especially in the Old Testament, there are a handful of these covenants that define the relationship between God and man. Most Jewish, Christian, and even Islamic scholars say that the first covenant between God and humans was Abraham and Sarah, it was with these two individuals that God gave the promise and hope of and for all of humanity. However, these were not the first humans, nor did they have the first story about humanity. So, we are faced with the very real question, ‘why does it take 12 chapters in the book of Genesis, our origins account, for us to meet Sarah and Abraham the central characters in the development of our faiths.

Rabbi Eli Freedman explains it this way, ‘The authors and editors of the Torah were making an important point by telling a series of pre-stories before our progenitors arrive on the scene. The first four stories in the Torah all end poorly. Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden, Cain kills his brother Abel, God destroys the entire world with a flood, and, in the Tower of Babel, God confounds our languages and scatters us across the world.’

Rabbi Freedman then refers to a Rabbi Zoob who continues this explanation by adding, ‘these first four stories of Genesis teach us that the pre-Abraham and Sarah world could not function properly because it was missing the covenantal relationship between God and people. Although God spoke to Adam and Eve, and even walked with Noah, the world was not complete because it lacked brit – covenant.’

We are created to live and survive in community, in relationship, to be together.  That community, relationship, togetherness, is an always evolving union, one with differing boundaries which are different from our other unions, and even more different than the unions that we are not a part of. Marriage, family, work, play, and all types of defining words categorize those grouping within which there is a constant give and take process of establishing and reestablishing those relationships.  We are in a constant state of defining and redefining our covenants with each other, our ‘brits’.

This initial covenant relationship of humanity, between God, Abraham, and Sarah was one that was fairly defined from the beginning but it took decades for the 2 humans parties of the covenant to understand and grasp.  

The Brit, the Covenant, that Sarah and Abraham entered into with God was one were the primary obligation on the part of the humans was faith.  A faith that led to a trust in God. A belief that God will hold to, and come through on, his Brit responsibilities.

The primary reason for the extended period of time taken to understand the Brit was the human frailty of insecurities.  While we see this in both humans, Sarah and Abraham, we have very specific moments of insecurity where we are allowed to witness their lives and faith in God. Let’s just look at Abraham, his problem, which is the fragility for most of us, was Insecurity.

  1. An insecurity that presents as Fear and Self Centeredness.  Abraham was afraid for his own safety so he detoured from a covenant of respect and loyalty to his wife to a self centered safe yourself philosophy. He threw his wife under the bus to protect his own life.
  2. An insecurity that presents as Doubt.  Abraham could only see his own failings and weaknesses, he could seldom see anything else,  therefore. seeing God’s promise of a descendant was a no starter. His doubt about self blinded him from recognizing that God’s part of the Brit had nothing to do with Abraham, or Sarah’s, abilities.
  3. An insecurity that presents as Impatience.  God seemed to be taking too long so Abraham took charge to make sure God’s part of the Brit was fulfilled. Remember, time is a element of our human existence, it is not a factor in eternity.

Fear, Self Centeredness, Doubt, and Impatience were all blockades that keep these 2 humans, and often us, from recognizing that this Brit was made with God.  God would be and was faithful. So, on the third discussion between God and Abraham regarding the Brit, God says, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’

‘Walk before me and be blameless,’ What an interesting instruction.  Walk before me and be blameless.’

We had heard something similar but with an intentional difference when the relationship between God and Noah was described, ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.’ For Noah, this was a no-brainer, it was the very core of who he was, he didn’t need to be told to do this. For some reason, he did not have to have the terms of his Brit with God negotiated – he WAS blameless.  But the logistical terms of their Brit was different, we are told that Noah walked with God. The Hebrew preposition significant in this relationship was the word ‘eth’ which meant that Noah was walking beside God.  They were not equals but when God was present Noah walked before him. This same word ‘eth’ can also connote that the two were connected, they belonged together, much like Peanut butter and Jelly, there was a very comfortable and natural relationship between the two.

With Abraham, however, the relationship does not have the same automatic natural presentation.  Whether it was the insecurities that held Abraham back, or even just his background, personality, and human make up, Abraham needed to be told his stance in the Brit.  ‘Walk before me and be blameless,’  The word here is ‘lə·ā·nay’ (lafanay), carrying the logistical designation of ‘in front of’, and a more expansive understanding of ‘in the presence of’.

I was driving in a very small car, packed with many other people, on a one lane highway from Ketchum, ID to our project in the Sawtooth mountains. We were running late and did not have time for any delays so we were singularly focused on our destination. As we drove around a curve of the road taking us deeper into the Sawtooth National Forest we were quickly confronted with an obstacle leaving us no choice but to put the car in park and remain still.  For all we could see ahead and around us was a sea of sheep walking on the road and as far to our left and right as we could see.  The sheep were headed in our direction and soon we were engulfed by these animals that are by no means as  gentle and cute looking when they are knocking against you window and were rocking our car as they squeezed through. At one point a rather ambitious large sheep got on our hood of our car with the obvious plan to walk over us instead of fighting for a position in the mob going around us. So, we just sat there looking around locked into a situation that we had never experienced before, and would probably never again.  We began to marvel at the flow of the sheep and the control of those attempting to corral them.  We could see cowboys in the distance on their horses and the dog nipping at the heals of the sheep, but as we watched these were giving very little direction, mainly they were just present. However, as we began to see the end of this sea of sheep it became obvious that this entire mob was being driven by one person, on a horse, masterfully using his presence to lead from behind.  He was in the position where he could see what his helpers and the dogs were doing and where they needed to be, but also, he had a clear eye on all the sheep.  They were directly in his presence, where he could guide and protect. It was amazing to watch even if we were now running extremely late.

Abraham needed to be in God’s presence, he needed God to see him fully and completely, nothing hidden, nothing withheld. In that place, God could guide and encourage him in regard to the command to be blameless.  Abraham had a history of acting out of impatience, fear, and doubt, as we all do. Being in front he would be in a position where God could masterfully woo him back onto the path.

Jesus was a ‘from behind’ leader, Jesus was a ‘in the ‘presence leader’. Even though his disciples were called followers, he was directing, protecting, and leading from behind often. Their presence in front of him enabled his to lead while developing them into leaders they would need to be.  Jesus sent his disciples in front of him to go into the crowd as they were tasked with feeding 5,000 people.  He watched from behind as he sent them out to heal, cure, and deliver a hopeless and suffering people. He was present as he knelt down before the woman accused of adultery and then he was present with her accusers as he stood and asked ‘Who is truly qualified to stone this woman?’ He was present at a distance as he stood on the beach and called out to his disciples in their boat.  He was present when woman touched the hem of his garment to be healed.  Jesus’ presence was alway a reality, his ability to see everything in our story, and as we timidly, or even arrogantly attempt to approach him unnoticed.  He was there, in the garden, seeing everything as Adam and Eve thought they could go unnoticed.  He is there for us, not against us, he is there to guide us, not to judge us, he is there because he loves us.

I was hiking out of the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas after a week and a half of outdoor training. Because of previous scheduled engagements, I, and one other person had to pack out early.  I had very obviously failed to become a master backpacker during the time in training so I know that our trainer was overjoyed that I would not be making the trek alone.  I would be traveling with a guy who came into the training a weathered outdoorsman, and backpacker. He would not only carry his heavy pack, but he could also identify danger, and, in this instance, he could successfully navigate a topographical map.  As we began to walk I volunteered to walk behind and have him lead, but he declined and took the back position helping to guide me on the paths and turns we needed to make to arrive timely and safely at our pick up destination.  A couple of hours into the hike I felt my pack tug abruptly and then I was silently pulled back.  As I realized that it was my hiking partner who had stopped me – he gave me the signal to be still and be quiet.  He we walked a little ways off the path and picked up a fallen branch.  Then, as he carefully walked to a position a few steps in front of me he gently took the branch and used it to scoop up a rattlesnake on the path directly in front of me. When he had moved the snake I understood the value of having him in the back, where he was able to have my back.

God stays behind because he too, has our back.

How do we stand in front so Jesus can have an all encompassing view of us.

  1. We must genuinely decide, a heart and mind positioning, that we are willing to be that visible and exposed.
  2. We must deliberately put ourself, again, in a genuine heart and mind place of being seen.  This means asking ourselves, ‘Is there anything that I am purposely keeping off limits to God?’
  3. We must accept the fact that being ‘in front’ of God means that we are also ‘in front’ of others.
  4. We must make the deliberate move to be in the front of God, to be continually in his presence.

In the end, we are not really able to hide from God, Adam and Eve, discovered this, in fact, their thoughts and weaknesses in regard to what they could not have were very visible to God. Problem was, they were not in front of God,  their deceit before God deafened them from God’s guidance from behind.

God was present in garden, in the field with Cain and Able, in the flood, at Babel, and with Abraham, Jesus was present with the disciples when he asked  them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  And he was present when Peter boldly identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. And, moments later, Jesus was also there, as he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan!’

God walked beside Noah. God walked behind Abraham. God told Satan to get behind Jesus. Next to, in front of, and behind. Two of these options involve being in the presence of God, the third, being behind, blocks Satan’s sight and power – God does not need to see, watch over, or even watch out for Satan.  His end has already been decided, primarily by Satan himself.  God has already dealt with Satan, now he walks next to us, behind us, and he is always present with us.

There was a very human characteristic of that huge herd of sheep. None of the sheep displayed any attempts to get out of the herd, and out of the view of the shepherd.  In fact, the only ones that were ever moved out of the flow was due to being pushed out by the crowd, not by choice.  If they did find themself out of the flow of the herd, regardless of their size or age, they began the struggle, to battle, to get back in the flow with the  herd.  None wanted to be away from the flock – they had just descended from the mountain, where, I am sure, they experienced the presence of the protection and care of the shepherd.

When Jesus left the wilderness following the time of temptation, scripture tells us that Satan left with the intention to come back to Jesus when the time was opportune.  There was an opportune time time in the temple with the man filled with a demon began to proclaim who Jesus was. This moment with Peter was another opportune moment.  Peter was not seeking to be a tool of Satan, he was only expressing a desire that Jesus be received in the same positive light that Peter himself had originally seen Jesus.  Also, Peter did not want an unhappy and hopeless end of this story.  Jesus, however, came to give life, a life for eternity that begins now, not after death, not after suffering.  Jesus came to lead us, from behind, to a full life. His mission to confront injustice, to cure disease, and to heal sickness, could not be interrupted or even sidetracked, he would not be detoured.  So, Jesus called Satan out, in the midst of this opportune moment and said ‘get behind me!’  Jesus would continue on his mission even though it would mean going through the cross.

Notice the placement of Satan, his order when relegated to being behind Jesus, Jesus who was behind the followers.  Now, Jesus was blocking the view of Satan. Sure Satan could still lure those in front of Jesus away, but it would be as much a choice of the humans as it was an effort of Satan.  Now Jesus could see the followers, and now, even more than before, he could see if Satan was engaging in an unwelcome manner that needed to be confronted.

So, what do we do with this? What does it change in our life and how does it move us in our proximity to God? Where are we standing? Where are you standing?

Becoming Famous

‘Jesus’ fame began to spread’

Actually,  we see that ‘At once Jesus’ fame began to spread.’ In fact, the greek words used by the writer are ‘euthys’ (U-uh-theme-ik), meaning ‘immediately,’ and, ‘pantachou’ (pont – uh – khugh) meaning everywhere. So, if I am to be so bold, an even more accurate transliteration is ‘Immediately, Jesus’ fame began to spread, everywhere!’ Exclamation point is mine.

This took place after Jesus said after exiting the wilderness, ‘That is enough!’ This Exclamation point is mine as well. Jesus had been in the wilderness for an extended period of time time in prayer as well as head to head temptation, he had been brow to brow with the source of evil, and then as he stepped out of the wilderness, he was nose to nose with the impact of that evil on humanity.  This was not something new, God’s son had been living on the earth, and in the flesh, for 30 years.  This however, was a stark reminder of a reality he was already fully aware of.  It was a moment when definitely, it was time, time for him to officially step out and step into his role of deliverer. 

Now, to understand the significance of this moment, we look back to another deliverer who also, after experiencing life fully, this prophet stepped into his role of deliverer. We look at Moses. Part of Moses’ experience had already involved stepping into his calling.  Moses had appeared before God and stepped into his calling ‘to’ be the agent of deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery.  And, he had also already experienced God’s affirmation as he found himself worshipping  God alongside of those he had delivered as God had promised.  Now, as we see in Deuteronomy 18 he was to step into not just a title or a job, this step would land him into life long purpose, it would never be over, it would go with him to birth.

We have a friend who, up until a couple of years ago, had held an international position with the US government.  It was a position that required an incredibly high security clearance.  When she decided it was time to exit from that job, that position, that role, she found that it was much more difficult than just handing in a letter of resignation.  While she may have walked away from the work of that job, it was a much more involved process of exiting the essence of who she was, and who she is, due to that clearance.  Getting rid of that security clearance became an issue, even after leaving the job, it bound her to where she could live, with whom she could associate, and with where she could work.  She found that she was not alone, others had experienced the same weight restraining them from moving on.  Many have to hire lawyers who focused just on helping people rid themself of this designation.

Such was the weight of what Moses, and Jesus, were to step into.  It was a ‘for life’ thing, it would never end.

For Moses it began at Mount Sinai as the people proclaimed that they did not want to talk directly to God, nor did they want God to talk directly to them.  God rolled Moses into the role of being the ‘go between’.  Moses would speak from and to God. This was a role that would never change, it was a role that held the highest security and accountability designation, it was a role that would never go away. He was now the prophet to a people who would not talk to God as well as being a prophet for a God who still needed to communicate with that people.

So, as Jesus stepped out of the wilderness, he faced the same pivotal moment in his life that Moses faced when he descended from Mount Sinai.  Jesus had said yes to God’s perspective as he had stepped into the waters of John the Baptizer’s baptism, now he was stepping into the life long position of prophet, of deliverer, of the sacrifice for a people whom God So Loved.

‘Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They, the religious leaders and others present, were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one that held authority, and not like the scribes. As Jesus was teaching and interacting in the synagogue on that Sabbath day, a man with an unclean spirit, he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebuked the man, saying to the demon, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the demon, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Everyone was amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, the demons, and they obey him.” Immediately, Jesus’ fame began to spread, everywhere!’

Mark 1:21-28

So, let’s recap this first official public appearance. Jesus entered the holiest building in the community of Capernaum, on the holiest day of the week, and there found himself nose to nose with a demon. In the synagogue Jesus had captured the attention of the religious leaders for the confident and knowledgable manner in which he taught and carried himself. He had also caught the attention of the demon who left the man whom he had possessed, in turn, news of what happed on that Sabbath day, in that insignificant community, traveled throughout the community and across the countryside. Jesus was instantly famous a good thing, and a troublesome thing.

He now had Gravitas. An ancient Roman virtues that denoted “seriousness”. Gravitas means to carry an influential weight, to walk with an identifiable dignity, to effortlessly present an air of importance wile acting with restraint and moral rigor. It also come with a heavy responsibility and commitment to the calling.

Jesus, now on this first official public appearance, was noticed and acclaimed. Jesus, the one who noticed everyone – began this public ministry by serendipitously being noticed by everyone.

Being famous is a multifaceted beast.  It can be good, for some, it provides attention that brings in work and money to be used for good, however, it can also be equally beneficial for someone who is doing works of selfishness. 

Think about the current work of our government and health experts as they attempt to gain trust in their expertise of preventing the spread of Covid as well as the acceptability of the vaccines.  They have had to overcome conspiracies and lies, the more fame they have achieved, the more they have been able to counter the lies and convince people to take the vaccine, however, the fame has also made them all bigger targets from those who are determined to stop them.

I find Jesus’ introduction to fame a very interesting moment.  He went to a holy building, on a holy day, he read from and taught holy truth, and in the midst of that, he encountered evil.  It was all behind the closed doors of the synagogue but the news and impact of it all burst out of a building, grew beyond that 24 hour period, it held a truth that had existed since before time; Jesus again confronted evil nose to nose. Jesus calling was to proclaim and act out of truth, it is not easy to rise above, and lead people to live above the lies and deceit of the world.

Before Jesus exited the wilderness, scripture tells us that Satan left Jesus until another opportune moment – this was one of those moments – it was far less showy than the wilderness experience, it was probably easily missed by many witnesses. On this opportune times’ – Satan attempt to turn Jesus away from God, am unseen Satan altered his strategy.  This, was not a temptation for Jesus to act out of, but this was to plant a seed that would grow a beast that had proven successful to Satan throughout history.

Fame – power, recognition, public affirmation and acceptance, a sense of worth, an enticing acclaim, a following; a potential to be loved, to be a force for good however, it could also be a force for an ultimate destruction.

We could probably make a very long list right now if we were to try to account for all the famous people who have found fame to be destructive in their lives.  Our list would include movie, television, and stage stars, it would include politicians, authors, speakers, and the powerful, it would include those that are famous through their own efforts just to be famous, there would be those who would be famous through their infamy, and there would be a bunch of preachers and other religious leaders.

But fame can also be good, it can spread the news, it can call an entire city such as Ninevah to repentance, everyone in the city and beyond, in just a day’s time.  Jesus was now becoming famous, people had heard and were now paying attention, they would listen to the good news and respond.  He now had Gravitas!

The powerful thing in this moment on the Sabbath was that the demon wasn’t even using deceit or lies, he told truth, he accurately proclaimed who Jesus was as he said, ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!’

However, Jesus response was revealing, he spoke directly to the demon saying, ‘Be silent!”.  Jesus responded to this being who was accurately proclaiming the truth about Jesus by telling him to ‘shut up’.  Before he even ordered the demon to leave this man he first tells him to quit talking.

This was actually the hidden seed that was meant to provide the same result as Satan’s 3rd temptation in the wilderness had attempted, the temptation of fame and worship. I think rather lazily, Satan took Jesus to the top of a mountain and offered him the power over everything Jesus could see. That had been an effort to change Jesus perspective immediately, it was a failed attempt to quickly eliminate this ‘Jesus problem’ but it didn’t work, Jesus recognized what was going on as he recounted God’s truth in his resistance.  Now, Satan was taking a much more subtle route, he was attempting to plant a seed – he was subtly giving Jesus quick fame so Jesus could effectively communicate the good news with a greater efficacy.  It could have seemed to be a win-win. However, Jesus noticed what was going on. just as he was on that mountain in the wilderness.

‘Be Silent!’  It was a forceful order we will hear him say often as he heals and delivers countless people over the course of his ministry.  ‘Do not tell anyone’ he says after a healing, ‘Go and sin no more’ he orders after a deliverance. This was a full on example that our lives are not lived just to get to a destination, but they are to live to lives in a manner which is remembered and honored at the destination.  A calling to run the race of life so that our focus throughout the race is honorable and honoring.

As the apostle Paul later exclaimed to the believers in the city of Corinth focusing on the race they were running. He implored them to always focus on truth in their own choices, actions, and circumstances –  but to also recognize what is seen along the way – to remember in the race that others are running as well. ‘If an action is not a sin, but those around me are stuck in a former religiosity and think the action is, then don’t do the action,’ Paul tells the believers, ‘Make a sacrifice for others! It will help them get to the destination.’

The  Vendée Globe, a nonstop, round-the-world 24,000 miles single person sailing race which begins in France one every four years. This year, 22 days into the race, Kevin Escoffier’s boat was overwhelmed by a 15-foot wave, his boat was folded in half, and he was adrift in his rapidly sinking boat nearly a thousand miles off the tip of South Africa. It only took seconds for his 60  foot boat to fill with seawater. He managed to get out a ‘Mayday’ text, before all of his communications and cries for help were cut off.  He understandably went from focusing on a race to grasping for survival. After a brutal 16 hours of waiting, competitor Jean Le Cam turned up.  Le Cam, in his less advanced boat as surprising race officials by his third place position, Le Cam detoured from the race, and his position, and was later joined by other competitors who sacrificed their competitive positions to help a Escoffier who recounted his first interaction with Le Cam at the rescue, ‘We hugged each other and I said, I have spoiled your race. You were doing so well.’ Le Cam’s response later was ‘It’s part of the job of a sailor to go to the aid of another. Above and beyond — it’s human nature to go to people in need and help them. It’s part of life, physically or psychologically, to help another human. I am just part of that.’  Later the racers that detoured the race sacrificing their spots for the rescue were awarded a time allowance.

‘It’s part of the job, to go to the aid of another. It’s human nature to go to people in need and help them.  It’s part of life, physically or psychologically, to help another human.  I am just a part of that.’

‘I am just a part of that.’  What a proclamation, what a realization!

That was Jesus’ calling, ‘to be a part of a humanity, teaching that very principal through his life.  ‘To help another human being.’  It is a calling of mercy, compassion, and sacrifice.  It was the manner in which Jesus lived, it was the reason he eschewed the fame, it was the purpose of his encounters and relationships.  It was what he did, it was his part.

As I have performed funerals, and as I have visited the terminally ill, the one thing that loved ones have had in common is their unstoppable pursuit to make sure the ill or passed loved one is known, that the fame in their inner circles of this person is recognized.  Through tears and laughter, stories are told and the impact is proclaimed.  There is a human need to ‘not be silent’ but to proclaim the impact that this person had on them personally. It is not because of distant stories of others but of personal things that had meant so much.  I will always remember those stories because the impact on those people is always so pronounce.  One such occasion occurred outside after I had met with a family, a very quiet and demure inlaw, approached me as I opened my car door to make sure that I heard her story. It was a story of acceptance and inclusion for this young lady, an acceptance and inclusion that could have easily and justifiably been denied due to the scandalous reason for her entrance into the family. Whereas she could have easily been rejected by this person, instead, she was welcomed, loved, and instantly a part of this family.  For this individual, the passed family member would always be the most famous person in her life – not because of how many knew her but because she had known this individual that could have been unnoticed.

Jesus knew the gain of fame but also knew the price of fame, therefore he watched it and did not permit him to forget the why of his race rather than the destination of his race.

What are you doing with your fame? The fame of your presence among those God has blessed you with.  Are you seeing this as ‘your part’ to help them along in the race? Are you sacrificing what you can do, and have a right to do, in order to assist them to the destination?  What is your part in your moment of celebrity?

Prayer Together

prayer together penned by St. Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me a channel of your peace, that
where there is hatred, I may bring love;
where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness
where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
where there is error, I may bring truth;
where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
where there is despair, I may bring hope;
where there are shadows, I may bring light;
where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather
to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand than to be understood;
to love than to be loved;

For it is by forgetting self that one finds;
it is by forgiving that one is forgiven;
it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

Amen.