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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

By the Name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:5-14)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

            Who are we?
            On the trips our church takes to Ethiopia, people from there see our group.  They hear us speak English.  They see us emerge from a guest house that is foreigners.  They watch us buy things designed to be sold to tourists.  They may not know our affiliation or that we are there to work with poor children.  But one thing is clear.  We are Americans.
            I travel back to Roanoke and spend time with old high school friends.  We reminisce about good times we spent as kids and a lot of those memories happened in the home where my parents still live.  Whatever else I am, in those moments, I am of the Tennant family.
            Who are we?
            Heather and I and other pastors gather, and it is clear, we are of HillSong Church.  Sometimes in an ecumenical gathering, I am the Baptist in the group.
            American; Tennant; HillSong; Baptist; who am I?  Who are you?  On what do we stand?  What is it that undergirds who we are, how we think and act, and all that we do? 

            It was a key moment for the apostles John and Peter.  Just before they entered the temple, a handicapped man asked for a hand-out.  He had been disabled from birth.  His entire life’s identity was built upon begging.  On what did he stand?  Nothing.  His role in society, his very identity, was that of one who could not stand and could only survive by the generosity of others. 
            Then Peter said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.”  In the name of Jesus Christ; and this man who have never walked, stood and jumped and leaped and praised God.  Heather discussed this last week in her sermon from Acts 3.  Right there in the temple, Peter preached an impromptu sermon in which he accused the leaders of killing Jesus (3:15) and then invited them to come to faith (3:19, 26).
            On what do we stand?  What authority authorizes the way we live our lives? 
            The leaders in Jerusalem stood on shaky ground according to Peter.  They heard him clearly affix responsibility for the death of Jesus to them.  They saw clearly that Peter and John healed a man everyone knew – a full-grown adult who have never in his life walked.  They felt the movement of history as the crowds flocked to the disciples to hear them talk about salvation in Jesus.  The leaders in the temple needed to cut this off, before it got away from them. 
            The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them “much annoyed” says Acts 4:2.  These officials of government and religion did not like the claim that in Jesus we have resurrection – his and ours when we put our trust in him.  No, they did not like any of this.  These officials stood on their own unique understanding of scripture, a perspective that assured them of power. 
            Do we dare confess a faith that upsets the conventions of our time?  Tolerance of all religions, which means saying all religions are okay and basically teach the same thing; this sentiment rules in our time.  Do we dare oppose this by saying Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him? 
An individual person’s individual rights are sacred and not to be threatened in our culture.  We believe in the autonomy of the individual.  At least, that is what we claim to live by.  Do followers of Jesus dare say, no, my rights are not as important fully submitting myself to Jesus as my Lord and my King?
The priests and Sadducees stood on their privilege as leaders.  They expected all in Jerusalem to live by this foundation, so they were furious that the disciples of an already crucified man would continue defying their authority.  But they could not deny what everyone witnessed.  The man with useless legs was now completely healed and jumping around praising God.   
How could they maintain power?  Who were they?  Those in leadership positions in the temple may not have consciously wondered that, but the actions of Peter and John created a crisis for them.  They who understood themselves to be the ones in control now had to face forces beyond their reach.  Verses 14-15 say, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that [these] were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.  When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them [Peter and John], they [the officials] had nothing to say in opposition.”
All they could do was pose the question.  Their last gasp, their final lurch for control was to name this thing that was happening.  “By what power or by what name did you do this” (4:7)?
On what do we stand? 
What authority authorizes the way we live our lives?
Who are we?  Americans?  Tennants or Asbills, Johnsons or Bakers, Folliards or Sits?  Baptists?  Who or what makes us, drives and defines our actions and attitude, our thoughts, deeds, and words?
All the priests and Sadducees could do was throw the question out into the crowd, into the air, out where all gathered would hear and consider.  All Peter and John could do was give one answer – the only answer they had, the only answer that is true.  “Let it be known that this man is standing in good health by the name of Jesus Christ whom you crucified, whom God raised from the Dead” (4:10).
A few years ago I watched a film produced by an independent Christian film maker.[i]  It was about a couple professors at a Christian college in the late 1800’s.  They were debating morals.  Is it enough to speak and truth and do good works or must our truth and our deed of help and benevolence be done in Jesus’ name.  One professor said as long as good is done; it does not matter if it is in Jesus’ name or simply in the cause of doing what’s right.  His colleague disagreed.  He insisted that unless deeds were done in Jesus’ name, they could not be considered really true or truly good.
The film involves a time machine and caricatures that lack verisimilitude.  I found it silly.  But the debate between these fictional Christian college professors from the 19th century is fascinating and is timeless.  In any context, we could ask, is a deed good in and of itself?  Simply speaking, yes.  It is good to give food to hungry people.  It is good to provide education to impoverished students so they can develop their minds, reach their potential, get good jobs and climb out of poverty.  These are a few of thousands of examples in which I see non-Christians contributing.  I have seen people who say, “I am not Christian,” contributing to the good of humanity.  Sometimes non-Christians outdo Christ-followers in generosity. 
Yet at a much deeper level, I side with the view that it is not enough to simply do good things.  At some point, after people have been healed, fed, clothed, educated, and given shelter, they gain power.  When they gain power, those who had been holding all of it will feel threatened and a confrontation occurs. 
“By what power or by what name are you doing this?”  The question is inevitable.  When it comes, we need more than groundless claims that love is self-evident and charity is self-evident and compassion is self-evident.  Where do these values come from?  Who are we that we dare stand on these things, and standing on these values, what gives us the gumption to help people? 
Unless we are in Christ, we are speechless.  If we are in Christ, our lives have purpose and we do not lack for words.  His Holy Spirit provides them.  “By what power?”  We answer, “We heal and we feed and we travel and we work and we love and we help in the name of Jesus.  He was crucified by sin, yours and ours.  He was raised by God.”  And we say as Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under given among human beings by which we might be saved” (4:12). 

I do not say any of this to reject the good things unbelievers do to help people in the world.  We have sponsors who support children in Kombolcha, Ethiopia who are not Christian.  We gladly receive their non-Christian sponsorship dollars and I affirm that what they do is helpful and is good. 
I find here in this story, in Peter’s word when the question is put to him that the intent of the Holy Spirit of God and the driving force in Peter’s actions not only heals crippled men at the temple gate and feeds hungry Ethiopian kids.  The driving force also transforms the giver of the gift.  The temple leaders, the Sadducees, some of the most lettered intellectuals of the day were silenced by uneducated fishermen from backwater Galilee.
How could that be?  Peter and John and everyone who acts in the name of Jesus by the name of Jesus speaks and works with power that is beyond what any human possesses. 
On what do we stand?  We stand on the name of Jesus. 
Who are we?  We are a community of followers of the risen, Jesus Christ, the King.  He is our testimony.  He gives meaning to what we do – transcendent, eternal meaning.  He binds us together as a family with God as our Father.  Under His banner, our acts, both the work in our day-to-day lives and the works we do that are explicitly Christian are part of a greater story – the story of the emergence of God’s eternal kingdom.  This included the work of home, vocation (our jobs), and the work of relationships, family, friendships, acquaintances, neighbors, and unexpected encounters.  In all works in every part of life, He is Lord and we speak, act, and think by His name. 
This week, you and I won’t be dragged before officials who want to know why we performed as miracle healing on a handicapped man who has never walked.  The world is different.  We will have opportunities to help people and do good things.  Right now we as a church body are invited to pray that God would ready us, so when those opportunities come, we’ll respond by His name in His power sharing His love.  Fueled by the Holy Spirit we will not only be inclined to do good and helpful things; we will also be ready to respond to anyone who wonders about us by pointing them to Jesus.
Please join me in silent prayer as we, the church, join our hearts together in asking God to fill us, empower us, and ready us to be His witnesses.
Now please join me in this responsive prayer.

Leader: Lord Jesus.
Congregation: You are the risen one.
Leader: Fill us with the hope and the power of the resurrection
Congregation: Help us to speak and act in Your Name.
Leader: Lead us, Lord Jesus.
Congregation: We commit ourselves to you.



Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Powerful Testimony (Acts 4:32-35)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 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. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

            Pastors who imagine themselves innovators attempt to plant new churches and they do so with a fantasy of a church that is in the mold of the New Testament church.  An idea exists that Christianity began immediately after the resurrection and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as this perfectly harmonious community.  This dream is usually paired with severe criticism of today’s churches. 
Today’s churches are too self-serving. Today’s churches are inward focused and refuse to reach out to the community.   Today’s churches are bound by tradition instead of being committed to the Bible.  Today’s churches fail to be praying communities and instead rely too much on human wisdom and human abilities and resources.  The complaints and critiques mount and the rallying cry sounds.  We need to get back to the New Testament church!
The passage we just read, Acts 4:32-35, is cited as an example of the ideal faith community.  See, it says right there.  “Now the whole group of those who believed was of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”  Their faith was so strong they enjoyed perfect harmony.
Really?  Acts 4 describes events which happened a couple of months or so after the resurrection.  Just before the resurrection, this perfectly harmonious community accomplished the following: the leading voice, Peter, denied knowing Jesus.  The treasurer of the group, Judas, turned Jesus into those who handed him over to death.  The entire group abandoned him.
OK, but after they met the risen Lord, then they got it right!  Oh?  The critical thinker in the group, Thomas refused to exercise faith and said he would only accept things if he was granted empirical evidence.  Several of the disciples, all people who had heard Jesus say resurrection was coming, could not recognize him when he was raised.
But it is not fair to lay that on them.  Once the Holy Spirit came upon them all at Pentecost, then their hearts were ready to form the ideal church.  What we read in Acts 4 as well as Acts 2 show how wonderful the New Testament church.  No, actually it does not show that.
Listen again verses 32 and 34.
“The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 
34 “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.”  That gives the impression of a perfectly selfless, welcoming, and shalom-filled community.  How long did they sustain this?
We only need to keep reading.  This picture ends Acts chapter 4.  In the next chapter, we read of a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who do not share the proceeds of what was sold.  They promise that they will give the entire amount of what they get from the sale of their field.  So, they sell the field and receive the amount, and then pocket some of it. 
That is not a sin, by the way.  Making a prophet by a sale or in business, or earning a high salary; these are not bad things.  However, making a promise to God is.  Allowing greed and desire for material things to compromise our spiritual commitments is very much a sin.  In this ideal community, the second and third financial contributors specifically named actually deceive the church.  And God kills them for it.  So in the perfect first century church idolized by trendy pastors of today, there is deceit and death almost immediately.
Who the first named contributor?  A guy named Joe.  He was such an encourager; the apostles changed his name to Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement.”  He is one of the great heroes of the faith.  However, even Barnabas experienced conflict in a church that was never free from it. 
He was the Apostle Paul’s first ministry partner.  But, they got into a sharp dispute about whether to bring a young man named Mark on their next missionary voyage.  This is all in the closing verse of Acts 15.  Mark had previously quit midway through on a journey with them.  Barnabas wanted to show the young man mercy and give him another chance.  Paul had no time for deserters.  These two leaders in the nascent church could not agree and experienced what Christians have struggled with ever since – a split; a parting of ways.  By the way, Paul eventually came around and Mark became one of his most trusted friends.
Read through all of Paul’s letters.  Read 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John.  Read Jude or 2nd Peter.  The New Testament was full of conflict for the same reason churches struggle today.  Churches are comprised of human beings.  Even though we have the Holy Spirit in us, we have been forgiven and freed from sin’s grip, we still get tempted.  One is tempted to gluttony, another to a sharp, critical tongue, and another to cursing and foul language.  One is tempted by greed, another by sex, and another by laziness.  The church then was not perfect, nor is the church now perfect.
So what are we?  We are a community of people who give witness to the kingdom of God as we understand it and have received it from Jesus.  The key moments in our testimony are the crucifixion and the resurrection and the moment we came to know Jesus.  This is who we are. 
We are sinful people, but sinners whose sins have been nailed to a cross.  We are dead people – those who have died in sin.  But we have been raised from death to eternal life.  We know this is all true because the Holy Spirit is in us.  We are called to tell this story in a way that is genuine, filled with love and compassion for those we tell, and persuasive.  We want the people with whom we share the good news of Jesus to make the decision to receive him into their lives. 
From Acts 4, I think the verse we do well to highlight is verse 33.  “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”  What was so powerful about their testimony?        First, they believed it.  I mentioned last week on Easter Sunday that I believe our hearts and our minds have trouble reconciling over resurrection because we want it to be true, but we are conditioned to accept death as final.  The early Christians did see and touch the risen Lord.  We need to be attentive to the Holy Spirit.  When we are then we have confirmation that is as real and believable as the physical presence of the resurrected Jesus.  But this demands that we focus spiritually and listen spiritually.  The Holy Spirit will assure us and we need to receive what the Spirit gives to bolster our belief.
Second, the first believers lived out the love of Jesus.  As Acts 4 reports, they fed the hungry.  We may not do it in the same way they did, but when we participate in ministries that meet peoples’ needs that gives legitimacy to our words about Jesus’ love.  One simple example is next Crop Walk.  Come out and walk and help us raise money to fight hunger.  The connection to faith is indirect but there nonetheless.  We walk to fight hunger, because we are Christ followers. 
The first believers performed miracle healings.  We visit people in the hospital as they are treated by today’s healers, doctors.  You may remember some of our members were Ethiopia last month and helped a man gain access to 21st century healing – medicine he could not afford to buy.  Peter healed a lame man and he did it in Jesus’ name.  Today we come alongside the sick, the hungry, the broken, and the hurting, and we do it in Jesus’ name.
Third, the first Christ-following communities strove to overcome ethnic and racial tensions.  The biggest issue in New Testament writings was Jew-Gentile.  It was not the only one.  Greeks called non-Greeks “Barbarians.”  Romans looked down upon people who were not Roman citizens.  Most groups have terms of derision for outsiders.  When I preached in a Gypsy church, I was what Gypsies called non-Gypsies, a “Gazhol.”  In Bolivia, a 3-year-old child looked me and with scorn said, “Gringo.”  In Ethiopia, we are what they call foreigners, “Ferengi.
Through the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, we see the early church learning how to overcome these differences so that outsiders are transformed into insiders.  Words like “them” and concepts like “those people” lose meaning as Christ-followers include everyone in “us.”
We could probably comb through the New Testament and find more categories of love and compassion but the three we mentioned make the point.  The testimony of the disciples in Acts 4 is a powerful testimony because the believers were transformed by their belief.  And it was powerful because the words they said about Jesus gained traction in good works like feeding and healing.  Finally the testimony was powerful in a radical way as the disciples shattered old divisions that separated people.  Greeks and non-Greeks, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and masters all embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

At the beginning of worship, I asked, do we understand that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses?  Do we realize that as we grow in Christ and add our voice to the story of Him saving the world through death and resurrection, we become a part of the cloud of witness?
Before the sermon began, before the reading of Acts 4:32, we heard Acts 1:8 where Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”
I dream of us – each individual – believing the reality of resurrection in such a profound way it alters our view of everything else we know and understand.  I dream of us going through an earth-shattering paradigm shift as the full truth of resurrection settles on each of us.
I dream that when we do a home repair for someone who needs it or go on a mission trip or participate in the crop walk or visit a hospital to pray with those who are sick or do other works of compassion – I dream it will be abundantly clear that we do these things in Jesus’ name as an expression of Jesus’ love.  And I pray those helped by our efforts will feel themselves drawn to him.
I dream that we will be the voice of grace and welcome in a world of violence and hatred.  Just this week, another unarmed black man was killed by a white officer in South Carolina.  It has happened again!  Once again, we humans find a most dramatic expression of injustice.  I dream that in our church our witness will be seen in the way blacks and white, Hispanics and Asian, straights and gays and lesbians all embrace as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
I guess I do want us to be like the New Testament Church.  I guess I am one of those pastors.  I don’t have any fantasies that those first century Christians were perfect or even any better than us.  They were selfish, they fought, and they sometimes excluded people.  But in their witness, they worked through these mistakes and at their best, their actions and their words pointed people to Christ.  That’s my dream and my prayer for us as a body of believers.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday - 2015

Easter Faith (John 20:1-18)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

            Upon seeing the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said, “They have taken the Lord” (20:2).  Could Jesus really be taken somewhere He did not want to go?  She knew he had power other men could not even dream of having.  But she watched him die.  Yes, a corpse could be dragged about, used by one group for its purposes and by another for theirs.  But, if he was a corpse, could he be “the Lord?”
            Mary reacted before thinking things through and before remembering things Jesus had said, including that he would die and then rise
            This morning we will look at the way three of Jesus’ disciples responded to his resurrection.  I do include Mary in the group of Biblical disciples.  A disciple is a passionately devoted follower of Jesus.  That Mary Magdalene came to the tomb after Jesus was dead and buried shows her devotion.  That she grabbed hold of his resurrected body to worship him by hugging his feet shows her passion (Mt. 28:9).  Mary Magdalene was a disciple. 
              The Gospel of John tells us three came to the tomb on Sunday morning, first Mary Magdalene and then Simon Peter with the Beloved Disciple.
            Mary arrives first, sees the stone rolled away, and runs to the disciples.  She follows them back to the tomb and hears their report that the tomb was empty save for Jesus’ burial cloth.  They inspect, and then leave.  She lingers and looks in.
            It is not empty!  Two angels in white are sitting there.  Because angels appear often in Bible stories, we may think people in those accounts were accustomed to visits from divine beings.  They weren’t.  The appearance of angels shocked them as much as they would you or me.  Except, not Mary.  Mary continued worrying about “they,” whoever they are.
            “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  And she turns away from the angels.  What about asking them what happened?  They are messengers from God.  Couldn’t she say, “Hey, where is Jesus?” Nope, not Mary.  Most people in the Bible drop to the ground in fear when they meet angels.  Mary just turned away.
            Turning from the tomb, she bumps into one she takes to be the gardener.  I don’t know why she could not recognize Jesus.  Was his appearance altered?  Were her eyes blinded?  I don’t know. 
            She thinks he is the gardener.
            “Sir,” she says, “If you have carried him away, tell me where and I will take him away” (20:15).  She loved Jesus, who she was sure had died, and she wanted to keep on loving him.  She didn’t really think about how she would move a corpse around. 
            When he spoke her name and she realized it was him, she grabbed him.  If this account lines up with Matthew’s, then Mary literally grabbed Jesus feet with such enthusiasm that Jesus had to tell her “Do not hold onto me” (20:17).
            In her reactions on resurrection morning, Mary demonstrated a very hasty Easter Faith.  She jumped to conclusions at seeing the tomb empty and those conclusions led her to a series of missteps that were only cleared up when the resurrected Lord spoke her name.
            As hasty as she acted, she was also quite faithful.  She did not flee but instead stood at the cross, staying with him as he died.  She did not hide, but went to the tomb to honor him one last time.  The resurrection shed light on different aspects of Mary’s character that show flaws but more importantly show her to be a true follower of Jesus.
            It had a similar effect on Simon Peter.  Here we stick to the way John’s gospel presents him.  He was extremely outspoken.  When crowds abandoned Jesus, Jesus asked the 12 if they too wanted to leave.  Peter was the disciple who pledged to stay.  He said, “Lord, to whom [else] can we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  It was a shining moment for Peter, one of the rare times that insight matched the words his mouth blurted.
            At the foot washing, Peter was the one who initially refused to let the master was his feet.  He would not have his Lord stoop before him.  When Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter asked that his entire body be washed. 
In the garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers came to arrest Jesus.  One of the disciples attacked one of the soldiers, cutting off his ear.  Only John tells us the disciple to do this violent act, antithetical to the way of peace and love Jesus taught, was Peter.
It was Peter who, when Jesus predicted all the disciples would abandon him, promised to stay true.  Then in John 18, we read that Peter not only ran, but when confronted, denied knowing Jesus. 
  John presents a blundering, act first, think later (or think never) man in Simon Peter.
            The morning of the resurrection, he and the beloved disciple heard Mary’s report that the tomb was empty and Peter did not hesitate.  He ran to the tomb.  When he got there, Peter kept right on going.  The other disciple waited, but Peter barged right into the empty tomb.  He surveyed the contents: linen wrappings, the head cloth intentionally rolled up, and no angels, and no body.  Neither Peter nor the other bumped into a familiar but unrecognized gardener.  They came, they saw, and they went home. 
            If Mary’s Easter faith was hasty but also faithful and true, Simon Peter’s was blundering but also bold.  His tendency to act first got him in trouble plenty of times, but Jesus loved him for it. 
After the resurrection Peter declared he was going fishing and six other disciples followed his lead.  They were out in a boat, and they saw a man walking on the beach.  The beloved disciples recognized that it was Jesus.  Peter, true to form, dove in, literally.  He swam to Jesus, his Lord whom loved so much.  Hasty and faithful, blundering and bold, the resurrection brought the true Easter faith out of both Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter.
            There was a third player on the day of the resurrection.  Mary reported the empty tomb to Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.  It does not say his name was John.  Neither does it say that when it reports he was was the only disciple standing with Jesus’ mother Mary at the foot of the cross.  The gospel is called ‘John,’ and the gospel’s author identifies himself as Jesus’ ‘beloved disciple.’  Thus early church historians put the two facts together and came to associate the Beloved Disciple with John.  But the Gospel itself does not do that, ever.  So I will refer to him as the Gospel does, as the Beloved Disciple.
He could just as easily be called the timid disciple. When they are gathered with Jesus at the last supper and he predicts one will deny him, Simon Peter nudges the Beloved Disciple.  Ask him who he means.  Who will be the betrayer?  Acting at Peter’s initiative, he asked, and Jesus answered (John 13:24-26).
Again on the morning of the resurrection, the Beloved Disciple was hiding out until Mary Magdalene reported the tomb empty.  He and Peter, not he on his own, got up to check on things.  He outran Peter so that upon arriving at the tomb, he was there, for a moment, alone.  In that moment he just waited.
After Peter, huffing and puffing to catch up, arrived and barreled right into the empty tomb, only then did the Beloved Disciple follow.  The Gospel of John is his autobiography even if he makes himself a minor character and refers to himself in the third person.  He tells us he saw the empty tomb and believed and at the same time did not understand.  What does that mean?
It could probably be a fitting way to describe a lot of disciples, maybe many of us.  We read the story and we say we believe that Jesus rose from the grave and is the son of God and is the Savior of the world whose resurrection makes it certain we will be resurrected.  We say we are sure of this, but do we understand it?  The beloved disciple admits that even standing in the empty tomb, he did not.
That same evening he was with the other disciples and he was holding up behind locked doors as they all were.  Even with what he had seen, he was still plagued by fear of the authorities.  In his heart, he believed Jesus has conquered death.  His brain was having trouble catching up.  Resurrection is so paradigm-shattering, even we who live after the event and after the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, even we who live with a couple thousand years of brilliant Christian history and thought which gives great depth to our theology, even we have a terrible time aligning our heart beliefs with the logic our brains construct.
The Beloved Disciple owned up to his own timidity.  He did not try to make himself out to be a star in the Gospel he wrote.  Just the opposite; he was so self-effacing, he never mentioned his name.  He was not worried about scholars spending 2000 years debating about who wrote the Gospel.  He wanted them and us to focus on the Jesus we meet in the Gospel, not the author.  Yes, his was a timid faith, but it was a humble faith.  We do well to imitate this and we can when our lives point people away from ourselves and to Jesus.
So we have an empty tomb, and examples of Easter faith; it is faith that is hasty but true and faithful.  It can be blundering and clumsy, but also courageous and bold.  It is timid and unsure, but it is a humble faith that exalts Jesus.  Were we to look deeper into John’s Gospel at more disciples, we’d find Nathanael.  His faith started out uncomfortably blunt, but he was steadfast. 
We’d meet the Pharisee Nicodemus who began with a careful faith that stayed hidden and conformed to the expectations of the temple insider crowd.  Nicodemus was afraid of how it would injure him socially if he were seen with Jesus in the light of day.  A few years of watching Jesus transformed Nicodemus from this unimpressive caution to a man who risked all he had earned in his life in order to honor the Lord.  He went from careful to risky faith. 
Of course it is in John that we meet Thomas.  The resurrection brought his doubts.  If we go through the Gospel carefully and imaginatively, we see that Thomas whose doubting faith was exposed in the resurrection was perhaps the most rational of the disciples.  His faith, relying upon reason, may be as helpful as any we study in our post-enlightenment age. 
What kind of faith does the resurrection inspire in you?  Do you resonate with one we’ve explored or touched upon briefly?  The tomb is empty.  Let this settle in your mind.  Put yourself there.  What does it mean?
Try to explain to people who think Christianity is just a fantasy or nothing but garbage that actually it is a faith based upon this man who rose from the grave.  Try to imagine yourself attempting to convince nonbelievers that this story is absolutely true, is the best news ever, and is their hope for salvation.  The resurrection can be difficult to embrace even when we believe it without question.
What faith does it create in you?  However we answer, from our predecessors in the Bible, we know the faith we have won’t be perfect.  Our Easter faith will be hasty or blundering, timid or blunt, careful or doubtful.  But the resurrected Jesus will love us right where we are, right there in our flawed faith.  The risen Christ will make our faith steadfast and bold, rational and risky.  He does this because this story is His and he invites to inhabit it.  He calls us to resurrection faith which, because of His grace, ends in us being resurrected and living forever. 
Is this hard to believe?  That’s OK.  Believe it as best you can with the faith you have.  Jesus will carry us from here into life, life everlasting.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Palm Sunday Sermon

Parade, Protest, Procession, Prelude (Mark 11:1-11)
Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

        Picture it.  Jesus sits on the donkey, slowly moving toward Jerusalem.  His followers and crowds, either curious or hopeful, line the roadway and wave palms.  “Hosanna,” they shout.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David.”
          This event in scripture, Jesus’ slow ride into the city on the Sunday before his crucifixion, has been titled “the triumphal entry.”  The title fits.  Crowds are calling out their hopes and laying those hopes on Jesus’ back.  He is the star of this show.  This is his parade.
          It certainly looks like a great triumph.  Recall Mark chapter 3.  Scribes – legal experts – traveled from Jerusalem to the north where Jesus was teaching and healing and driving demons out of people.  The scribes came and checked out the fuss being made over Jesus.  They called him “Beelzebu” (3:22), a demon.  His own family tried to rein him in.  Now, here he is parading into the great city of David.  Crowds praise his name.  And this is all happening around the time of Passover.  Victory will be his.  Yes, this certainly looks like a parade for Jesus.
          We cannot stop there.  We have to go deeper into the story.
          Yes, Jesus is ushering in the Kingdom of God.  But it is not a kingdom the Romans would respect.  The Kingdom of Jesus stands on love and compassion, not intimidation and force.  The Romans would have appreciated the “shock and awe” military campaign our nation tried to impose a little over a decade ago.  We’ll force our will by way of power.  It is very Roman, very military; it is not very Christ-like. 
Some scholars believe that around the same time Jesus rode his humble donkey into Jerusalem, maybe even the same day, another procession was parading into town.[i]  The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was processing, on gallant stallions, with all the pomp, circumstance, power, and intimidation the legionnaires could muster.  They would should these denizens of Jerusalem what real power is.  Jesus showed Jerusalem and the world what God is about.
His Kingdom was not for Rome, nor was it for the Jewish temple scribes.  They are in the privileged class and they enjoy the benefits their position brings.  Jesus, the Son of God, identifies with the lowliest in society – shepherds, the blind, children, prostitutes and tax collectors, women, and even gentiles.  Who are those people in our world you might think of morally base or of low status.  Jesus locates himself with them.  The elites of Jerusalem, themselves heirs of Abraham just as Jesus was, would feel threatened by his identification with the humble of the world because he came to lift the lowly.
          Thus his “triumphal entry,” as it is sometimes called, his parade was a protest march.  His actions communicate a resounding “no” to politics of power.  His stance negates the idea that might makes right.  He also protested the calls of the revolutionaries who were in the crowd shouting “Hosanna.”  They wanted him to lead the sword-bearing charge that would evict Roman.  Many people in the crowd that waved palm branches in his honor had patriotism and nationalism in mind.  Jesus had the salvation of all humanity in mind.  There were conflicting agendas. 
          He protested the Romans who worshiped power, the Jerusalem establishment who cozied up to that power, and he protested those who would have him play a role other than the one God intended.  He was not a violent revolutionary.  His victory would come through sacrifice.  No one around him was prepared for what was coming.  This parade, which was in actuality a protest march, was also a funeral procession.
          Jesus had said so on three occasions. 
          Mark 8:31, “31‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ 32 He said all this quite openly.”
          Mark 9:31, “‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But [the disciples] did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
          Mark 10:32, “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him,33 saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’”
          When Jesus rode into town to the tune of the hopeful “Hosanna’s,” he knew more was coming.  So too did the first community to read the book of Mark as a completed gospel.  The stories that informed Mark’s writing circulated through Christian communities from the very first days after the resurrection, but the document we find in our New Testaments as the book of Mark was not put together until after 60AD, maybe after 70 AD.
          When someone, maybe Mark himself, first stood and read this work in a worship service, the core group knew Jesus died on a cross.  And they believed it to be historical fact that he rose from the grave.  Some of the older members were probably among those who met the resurrected Jesus in person (see 1 Corinthians 15:5).  The disciples did not understand that after Palm Sunday would come Good Friday.  The day would only be called “good” for what it means, not how it feels. 
          As we go through Mark and see the utter lack of vision displayed by the disciples, we must extend them grace.  In their shoes, not knowing the resurrection was coming, we would do no better.  They, so close to Jesus and yet so blind, should be one more impetus to us to show grace upon grace.  That is why Jesus died out of love and as an act of compassionate love and grace for all sinners. For you and me.
          The shout, “Hosanna,” a quotation from Psalm 118:25 literally means “Save us, we pray.”  Those shouting it thought salvation would come with a new David, a new Goliath-slayer.  Clearly, they did not realize God had a different plan.  Their cry was appropriate though.  Jesus would save everyone in his death and resurrection.  Seeing the story as we do, from the standpoint of knowing how it turns out, we know that this parade in which Jesus protested violence, conquest, elitism, and many other pains that have resulted from the infestation of sin in the world – this parade was his funeral procession even before he was forced to drag his own cross to his place of execution.[ii]
          But it does not end there.  The story of Jesus and of us – following Jesus, running from Jesus, hiding from Jesus, denying Jesus, and ultimately being found by Jesus and made new by Jesus – this story does not end at the cross.
          It pauses there.  We cannot sing Hosanna’s Palm Sunday and then skip to the Hallelujah’s of Easter.  We have to go through the Thursday of bread and wine and washing feet.  We have to linger in the bloody, black darkness of Friday when our Savior was hung on the cross, nailed to it by our sins.  We have to worship in awareness of our dependence upon him. 
This drama plays out every time we gather.  We come as sinners saved by grace.  To say we are sinners means we have been hurt and we have hurt others.  It means we have cut ourselves off from God.  But, we are saved from this alienation and the death that comes with it.  We are saved to joyous eternal life, lived in relationships of love with one another as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in the family of God.  The highs and lows of this story must never be forgotten.
We acknowledge the pause, while remembering we are a people defined by the light on the distant hill, the light that emanates from an empty tomb.  The parade that is a protest that is in fact a procession to death in the end is a prelude to a new age.  At Thanksgiving, at Christmas, on Palm Sunday, on a nondescript Tuesday in August, and on every day in between, we are Easter people.  We are born again.  We are made new, called into eternal life in Christ.  The story of Palm Sunday is the introduction to the great work of literary art that speaks in words, in images, on the screen, and in way we live our lives.  It is the prequel to the greatest story that can be told, the unending life lived in the Kingdom of God and the part God invites us to play in it. 
Palm Sunday is our lead-in prepping us for resurrection.  But, more on that next week. 
This week, we worship and rejoice because of who Jesus is and who we are in Him.

[i] I got this from Kirby Lawrence Hill who was citing speculation from Borg and Crossan -
[ii] Fred Craddock (2003)

A Disciple's Focus

A Disciple’s Focus

As I type, I am listening to David Benoit’s version of “Linus and Lucy,” one of my favorite instrumental pieces.  Benoit’s version is very busy.  I think I’ll go on You Tube to hear the old version …

Wait a minute.

As I write, I have 10 documents open on my computer and three Bibles open on my desk.  I have to review some notes from my recent sermon and I need to go over the final details for the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.  And then I need to …

Wait a minute.

I am supposed to be centering my thought, reflecting on the call of Jesus in my life, focusing on what it is to be his follower.  I am to be about the process of setting my inner self toward Easter and the movements (Last Supper, Crucifixion) that lead up to it.    I have serious thinking to do and yet, so many other competitors vie for my attention.

It reminds of the past two days.  My family visited Washington DC.  We went to Museum of Natural History, the White House visitor’s center, the MLK, Korean War, and Lincoln Memorials, and both Air and Space Museums (on the national mall and at Dulles Airport).  There were so many people, kids there on spring break.  The crowds were loud, cacophonous.  The exhibits overwhelmed one’s senses.  I can still feel the dizziness of it all.  Maybe I need to go through the pictures and …

Wait a minute. 

What thoughts left the minds of Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple (see John’s gospel) adrift?  These three each came with their own distractions when they visited the tomb on that Sunday.  One lingered, one hesitated, and one left as abruptly as he came.  Even the absence of the body, even encounters with the Risen Christ were not enough to make everything clear.  But meeting Jesus was enough to get their attention.

And it is enough to grab mine.  In the word, in the people of the church, and in the Holy Spirit, I meet Jesus.  It is always on his terms.  Sometimes, I successfully eliminate distractions, and he is strangely silent. Sometimes, I am more distracted than I am even now, and still he breaks through, grabs my mind, and forces me to focus on Him.  Most of the time … well, I cannot really say what happens most of the time.  It is unique each time. 

I am his.  I may be a lousy disciple, but I am Jesus’ disciple.  This Sunday, knowing the resurrection happened, I will approach the tomb much differently than those three disciples did.  They were neck-deep in grief.  I come with indescribable joy and gratitude.  But also distracted. 

Still, I step from all the noise of “Linus and Lucy” and memories and stacks on my desk, and the unending noise of my computer.  I step from it into worship, toward Him.  I step toward God, and with unending love He receives me and the worship I offer.  He makes me new, which includes a renewal of my focus.  And I follow Him as I know Him in Christ.  Distractions will come again, and again He will call me back. 

I don’t worry about being a lousy disciple.  I know some days I get it right and love rightly, as Jesus loves.  I know there are moments in which I am a very good disciple.  And there are many when I am not.  But my discipleship is not a measure of my talents as a Christ-follower.  This is about His love and grace, and it is about his faithfulness.  His promise to be with me and to give eternal life is one I can trust. 

So, I’ll try to be a good disciple.  I’ll do my best.  But even when I get distracted, He’ll call me back and I will come back.  I will gratefully receive his grace because my disciple life is a life about the goodness of Jesus.  He is the one who determines how things go, Thank God.