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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

"He Shall Command Peace" (Zechariah 9:1-11)


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Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021


            What God has done?  I’ll tell you.  Jesus crucified for the sins of the world?  That was God’s doing.  Then, he rose on the third day.  Resurrected! So what?  Does it make any difference? How does the resurrection – what God did – define your life?

            Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Through Jesus’ resurrection, we see God’s peace as a present reality.  Though we continue to live in a time when the world does not dwell in peace, when the wolf cannot dwell with the lamb and a child cannot play over the hole of the asp [as imagined in Isaiah 11], we believe that peace has been made possible by the resurrection.”[i]

            Hauerwas believes that because of the resurrection of Jesus, peace is inevitable in God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom has begun breaking into this present reality.  We can be sure of both – peace and the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.  Count on it. 

However, there’s the rub.  The world does not know peace right now.  The Bible is full of war.  Last century saw two massive world wars.  Local, enduring conflicts seem ubiquitous and unending. 

            I think of the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol which ended in bloodshed and death. We Americans can no longer brag about transferring power peacefully.   We can no longer wag disapproving fingers at other nations we deem not democratic enough.  We saw deadly violence in the very heart of our democracy.

            I think about Honduran immigrants moving across Mexico to the southern U.S. border.  Homicidal gangs vying for control of the illegal drug trade and a corrupt government unwilling to confront the gangs make life in Honduras unlivable.  Honduras has the fourth highest numbers of murders per 100 people in the world.  Neighboring El Salvador is number 1 on the list, Guatemala is 14th, and Mexico is 16th.[ii]   Also, the region is often battered by hurricanes.  The masses to enter the U.S. aren’t “migrating.”  They’re desperately fleeing death. 

            I think about the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer whose killing of a black man, George Floyd, set off protests and riots last year.  The crime and the trial is emblematic of how violent racial tension in America is.  So too is the recent spate of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans.

            Whether it is political division, immigration and nationalism, racial strife, or something else, hate and violence are the flavors of the day in America.  We love Easter.  We bask in the light of the empty tomb.  We believe God is all powerful and we follow Jesus.  But, how can possibly we see God’s peace as a present reality?  When we read “he commanded peace to the nations,” don’t we assume that’s some distant, future thing that we won’t see in this lifetime? 

            That quote is Zechariah 9, 9:10 to be specific.  Zechariah chapters 1-8 are attributed to the prophet.  He and the prophet Haggai were late 6th century BC peers who heard God’s call to rebuild the temple as a catalyst to reestablish Israel’s God’s people after the Babylonian exile ended. 

            Zechariah 9-11, Zechariah 12-14, and Malachi 1-4, three distinct units probably written in the 400’s, the 5th century BC, close out Old Testament prophecy.  Through these anonymous prophets, God offers a special insight into his future promises.  In Zechariah 9 we hear God’s command for peace,  Because the resurrection has happened, we can begin living this peace even in a violent world. 

            The Gospel accounts of Jesus riding to Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, refer to Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O Zion; … your king comes to you triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a colt, on the foal of a donkey.”   Matthew and John quote this directly; Mark and Luke allude to it.   Entering Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion, Jesus fulfills the unknown prophet’s prophecy. 

            These promises come from Israel’s story.  Read about Samson and the other Judges.  Read about Israel’s greatest Judge-Prophet, Samuel; and the first Israelite king, King Saul, and the greatest, King David.  Each of these notable Old Testament figures fought the same enemy, a persistent foe who dogged Israel relentlessly: The Philistines!  After Solomon’s reign, as Philistia’s international influence diminished, a greater empire arose to threaten God’s people:  Assyria! 

            Zechariah 9:1-8 along with a prophet from a few centuries earlier, Amos, 1:3-8, name Syrian and Philistine cities.  Relating God’s vision through prophetic poetry, Amos and Zechariah recount God’s response to the Philistine and Syrian threats.

Syria: “The word of the Lord is against Damascus.”  The capital city of Aram belongs to the Lord.  The island city-state known as Tyre was thought to be impenetrable, but the prophet says, “The Lord will strip it of its possessions and hurl its wealth into the sea.”  The Philistine: Ashkelon shall be afraid, Gaza shall writhe in anguish, the hopes of Ekron are withered, and God will make an end of the pride of Philistia (Zechariah 9:5-6).  This prophet never bothers to tell us his own name, but repeats Amos’ condemnations of all these Syrian and Philistine cities.  Why?  Why tell us about the downfall of Israel’s oldest, fiercest rivals? 

            After describing how God will humble the enemies of His people, in verse 7, the perspective changes.  “I will,” God says, “take away … [the] abominations from between [the Philistines’] teeth.”  Is God going to wash Philistia’s mouth out with soap?  God says Philistia will also be a remnant for God.  God has always promised to save a remnant from Israel.  Since when did those cursed Philistines who cut Samson’s hair, harassed Samuel, and intimidated Saul get to be God’s remnant?  They aren’t us!  But God cares about Philistines and Syrians, Iraqis and North Koreans, black people from Alabama and white from Alabama.  Peace comes because of what God has done, not because we learn to be peaceful. 

Verse 7 says Philistia will be like a clan in Judah.  Just as God ushers in justice and peace for the Chosen People, God brings a new, peaceful age for all people.  What difference does the resurrection make?  The prophet of Zechariah 9 paints a picture of a united Israel with former enemies now a part of God’s community. 

It’s because of that king who rides in on the donkey. He will reign from “sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10).  He commands peace to all nations, and He has defeated death.  Jesus Christ, the resurrected Lord, fulfilles this prophecy. 

Time out, Pastor!  Where’s peace?

I hear your objection.  Our political division is as bad as ever, the poor souls at the Mexico-Texas border are living in anything but peace, and the Derek Chauvin trial is a powder keg that should drive all to our knees.  Where is this promised resurrection peace? 

It began with what God did: he resurrected Jesus.  New creation began, an age in which all sins are forgiven, and all who follow Christ will have eternal life.  It grows as we – God’s church – begin living the new creation reality today, even in the midst of a murderous, violent world. 

When we live the peace God commanded, we don’t let politics determine who are enemies are.  We may doggedly fight over policy differences with someone or a group from a different political party or persuasion, but when fight for our case, we do it with kindness, manners, and recognition of the other’s dignity.  We don’t hate Biden supporters or Trump supporters.  We give grace and love to all, as our Lord commands. 

When we live the peace God commanded, we recognize the plight of the immigrant fleeing death and seeking hope in America.  These are children of God.  Because we are in Christ, we do not act on some selfish desire to preserve an impression of what America is supposed to be.  We don’t fear how new arrivals change America.  We’re not driven by fear at all.  When we react to what God has done in the resurrection, we welcome people in distress just as Christ welcomes us.  

When we live the peace God commanded, we stand with the victims of prejudice and systemic injustice.  Those privileged to be in the dominant group don’t fight to protect what they have.  They share it.  Defending white privilege is akin to fighting to hold onto our share of stale crackers while ignoring the resurrection feast God offers to share.  When we throw down our old loyalties and insecurities, and accept God’s invitation, we discover that the joy of God’s table is not found only in the endless delicacies we eat, but also in eating those heavenly foods alongside our black brothers and Chinese sisters and African friends and arab friends and white cousins and Mexican neighbors. 

We begin anticipating that grand banquet by making space in our lives for black, white, Native, Arab, Asian, and Latin people right now.  God commanded peace.  That same God defeated death.  Can we see that this God has absolute authority to command peace?  Will we trust that in the risen Christ, this promised peace has come, is coming, and  as his return will come in full? 

Jesus has risen.  God has done something.  Will we live in God’s new reality, or hold on to our old rivalries and hatreds?  Go out this week, and share resurrection peace with someone who looks and thinks differently than you.  Ask God to put someone like that in your path.


[i] Hauerwas, S (1983), The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), p.88-89.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Easter 2021


Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

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Easter, April 4, 2021


A man overhears his friend say the police were at the elementary school.  He turns white with horror.  These are dads of second graders, and the first guy has been watching the news and become fixated on stories of mass shootings.  Panic-stricken, he asks, “What happened?” The second man, the story-teller, looks at him and says, “Nothing.  I was just talking about how cool it was that the police were at the school doing a demonstration with K-9 unit dogs.”

False assumptions distort our perception, of reality.  In the dark, early Sunday hours, Mary Magdalene discovered that the entrance to the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest on Friday had been opened.  The rock sealing the tomb entrance was rolled aside.  She assumed someone had stolen the body, so she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2).  We do not know.  We bump into several unknowns in John 20.  Mary did not know where Jesus’ body was. 

Bible readers, avoid what Mary did.  Avoid jumping to conclusions without knowing the full story.  Bible readers, do what Mary did.   Mary readily acknowledged what she did not know.  We should too. 

I have discovered freedom in saying three simple words: “I don’t know.”  Acknowledging my own ignorance protects me from leaping to false conclusions.  It makes me curious, especially when reading the Bible.  When confused, I tenaciously seek answers.  And, I don’t confidently assert untruths as if they were true.  The church does not demand that I have all the answers, so I shouldn’t pretend to know things I don’t know.

Mary ran to tell Peter and the “one whom Jesus loved,” the Beloved Disciple.  Most readers assume the Beloved Disciple is John, but the actual book we call “John’s Gospel,” doesn’t say that.  Anywhere.  Later tradition equates the Apostle John with the Beloved Disciple.  Since the gospel doesn’t name him, I will refer to him as the Beloved Disciple.

He outran Peter, but didn’t go into the tomb upon arrival.  Why did he hesitate?  I don’t know.  Upon arrival, the slower Peter went in, and then the Beloved Disciple followed.  They discovered the linens meant to enwrap the body lying where the body should have been.  The head cloth was not with the rest of the linens.  The head cloth was rolled up and set off to the side in a place by itself.

Head cloths do not unwrap themselves from around the corpse’s head.  Head cloths do not then roll themselves up and set themselves off to the side.   Something happened.  Mary, seeing the stone rolled aside knew something happened, and now, seeing the scene inside the tomb, Peter and the Beloved Disciple did too.  Neither they nor Mary knew what; they only knew something was going on.

John tells us the Beloved Disciple believed, but did not understand.  What, exactly, did he believe?  Belief soaked in incomplete knowledge comes up more than once in this gospel.  When grief-stricken Martha talked to Jesus in chapter 11 about her dead brother Lazarus, he said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).  He’s saying this where Lazarus, Martha’s brother, lay dead.  He then asks Martha, “Do you believe?”  “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

Does she?  He talked about being “the resurrection and the life.”  She says, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”  Did she hear Jesus’ words about people never dying?  When she said, “I believe,” did she understand what it was that she believed?  When we express our faith and belief that Jesus rose from death and in him, we will too, do we understand what we are saying?

The beloved discipled believed, though what he actually believed we cannot say because he also misunderstood the way Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled scripture.  And what about Peter?  What did believe was going on?  The gospel doesn’t say.

It does say after they left, Mary lingered and then looked into the tomb herself.  She saw two angels.  Peter and the Beloved Disciple didn’t see angels.  They saw clothes and head wrappings for a corpse, but no corpse.  Were the angels invisible to them, but then visible to Mary?  Did the angels slip in after the men left? 

The angels ask Mary, “Why are you weeping?”  She answers, still locked in her false assumption that Jesus is dead and someone has nefariously robbed the grave.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (20:13).  Did Mary know these were angles?  Was Mary startled or upset to find two unknown persons in the tomb of Jesus?  The Gospel doesn’t say. 

She steps away from the tomb and faced toward the surrounding garden.  For the first time, the narrator announces the resurrected Jesus.  For the first description of the risen Savior, wouldn’t we anticipate something more forceful and theatrical than what the fourth Gospel gives us?  It’s as if the resurrected Lord is a background character in a drama where Mary is the star.  Mary has been locked in on what she does not know.  She does not know where Jesus’ body is. 

Now, that which she has so earnestly sought, Jesus, stands before her and she thinks he’s a gardener.  He repeats the question the angels asked.  “Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Mary has spent this morning in the land of false assumptions, and who can blame her?  It had been a traumatic couple of days and that was before she discovered graves unable to hold in their residents.  Assuming he’s about to pick up his hoe and go to work on pesky weeds, she repeats her mantra to him, this time thinking she may finally make some headway. 

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (v.15).  In this statement, made in the land of false assumptions, made from a place of not-knowing, we have a hint of why the resurrection is the event upon which all of reality stands. 

In the world as we understand it, the dead don’t bury themselves.  It could be in unmarked mass graves, it could be in cheap pine boxes or gold inlaid, elaborate caskets, or it could cremation; whatever form we choose, we, the living, have to deal with dead bodies.  If we don’t, there will be carcasses in various stages of decomposition all over the place.  This is our reality as it was Mary’s. 

What does Jesus have to say to our ideas about reality?  Back in John 10, Jesus said, “No one takes my life. I lay it down of my own accord” (v.17-18).  Mary lives in a reality where she, or someone, has to deal with the corpse of a man they know and love.  Jesus announces a new reality.  The corpse she seeks is the living, breathing man before her.  She finally sees him when he speaks her name.  “Mary!”  

Remember what I said?  I found freedom in the phrase “I don’t know.”  I don’t know how this story hits you.  I don’t know what you think about Jesus’ resurrection or resurrection in general.  I do know I have become convinced through my reading of 1000’s of pages from New Testament scholars that the writer of John’s gospel believed he was writing about a fully raised, fully physical body.  Mary grabbed hold of Jesus.  In Luke’s Gospel, and later in John 20, and again in John 21, we see indicators that Jesus’ raised body was tangible but also different.  He could cook fish and share it; he could be bear hugged by Mary; but he could also pass through closed doors without opening them.

That different quality of existence signals that the resurrection of Jesus is the dawning of New Creation.  Do you want to be part of New Creation?  We believe in the resurrection because we believe God is free to step outside the boundaries of natural law, and more importantly, is free to do new things.  Please do not mistake this assertion of new creation for the insufferable platitude “God can do anything.”  That’s something someone says if they get the job they were hoping for, or their teams wins a title.  That sentiment is essentially meaningless. 

Forget God can do anything.  Respond to God has done something.  In the risen Jesus Christ, God has ushered in a new age in which all who believe in Jesus and follow him as Lord, will have eternal life.  Jesus declared this in Chapter 3.  His resurrection is the stamp of approval affirming his power to overcome of death. 

I am comfortable saying “I don’t know” when I really don’t.  I readily accept there is far more knowledge that I seek than what I possess, and there is far more I am unaware of than that which I seek.  But there is something I do know.

What I know is that I have studied the evidence of the resurrection.  I believe, historically and logically speaking, the most plausible conclusion is that Jesus’s resurrection happened in actual history. I know that I have studied the scientific method.  I believe the resurrection cannot be proven or disproven scientifically.  I know my experience with God tells me that God is real and that the Spirit of the risen Christ is with me. 

Based on what I know, I believe in Jesus Christ, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and present as Holy Spirit.  He is my Lord.  Because I know him, I believe New Creation has begun overtaking a dying world.  Because of what I believe, I invite you to consider the resurrection –death is no more.  Considering the resurrection, I invite you to give your life to Jesus.  Commit to follow him.  There will still be much you don’t understand, but when you give yourself to Jesus, you will know life, abundant, joy-filled, everlasting life.


Easter Sunrise 2021


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Easter Sunrise, March 31, 2021


            My grandmother’s house, was always a buzzing hive of activity.  On this night, as the adults sat hunkered around the table in steely-eyed consideration of their Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, and Clubs, I about 8, hovered behind, wondering when I would be old enough to learn Pinochle, a Tennant family rite of passage.  “Twenty-one.” My Papa cut the tension-filled air with his opening bid.  Betraying nothing but surveying his own hand with concentration and brain surgeon would envy, My Uncle Ed considered his response.  That’s when a shrill scream pierced the anxious quiet. 

            Like EMT’s filing out of the ambulance, we all vacated the kitchen and made for the source of terror, My Aunt Jane.  Lounging lazily on the livingroom couch, her eyes glanced up to see demonic face peering in.  It was her pranking older brother, My Uncle Jim, delighted by the terror he caused.

            This was 1978.  Channeling his own “easy-rider,” Jim had taken off on his motorcycle with no plans other than to leave Michigan and head west.  With no cellphones, My Meme didn’t know if her third son was lost somewhere in Utah, soaking up the sun on a Pacific beach, or right back here in Michigan, once again terrorizing her only daughter, my Aunt Jane.  Jane’s astonished scream announced how unexpected his arrival was. 

            When were you last disoriented by something thoroughly surprising?  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb intent on caring for Jesus’ dead body.  They meet an unnamed young man, notably dressed in white, and discover Jesus’ tomb is empty.  The Gospel writer Mark says they were seized by, in Greek, ‘tromos’ and ‘ekstasis;’ ‘trembling’ and ‘confused astonishment.’ 

My Aunt Jane surely needed a few minutes to recover the shock of her brother’s unannounced arrival.  Disruptions throw us off.  Once our hearts stop racing though, we can begin to make sense of reality, accounting for what has happened and how it changed things.  The trauma is brief.  She wasn’t entirely sorry her brother, who picked on her a lot growing up, had gone on a western walkabout; but, she was also probably, once the shock wore off, happy for his safe return. 

Could Mary, Mary, and Salome recover as quickly?  Resurrection is just a bit more destabilizing than the return of a prodigal son.  In most cases, we expect the dead and buried to stay dead and buried. 

            The women we meet approaching the tomb in Mark 16 would have lived by the beliefs of 1st century Messianic Judaism.  They believed the dead would rise and be judged, on the last day.  Prior to that day, they did not expect any resurrection. 

They also believed a Messiah would come, sent by God to restore the fortunes of Israel.  They did not believe that Messiah would be divine.  They did not expect that Messiah to die and then rise prior to the end time resurrection.  In fact, if someone thought to be the Messiah did in fact die, especially a death as shameful as crucifixion at the hands of the dreaded Romans the Messiah was supposed to defeat, his death would prove him to be a failed Messiah!  Such a view would not mean these women were guilty of lacking faith.  They simply lived within the worldview of their times.  They heard the things Jesus had said about his own approaching resurrection.  They loved him, so they listened intently to his sermons.  They believed, but when he died, they also were quite sure he’d stay dead. 

On the day that we read about in the Gospels, the women, overwhelmed by grief, expected a dead body.  Fluctuating between the dumb absence of feeling numb and excruciating, debilitating grief, it was all they could do to carry out their task of mercy, preparation of the body of one they loved for final burial.  We’re never ready for a surprise, but soaked in sorrow, they were especially unprepared.  These women, Jesus’ most faithful followers in the darkest of hours, were sure the story was over. 

We’re never given a comprehensive list of the women who followed Jesus.  The 12 named male disciples found listed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, formulaically hearkens to the 12 tribes, as the Gospel writers envisioned Jesus awakening the calling of God’s chosen people, Israel.   John offers no such list and the other three who do, do not offer identical lists.  Matthew and Mark include Thaddeus.  Luke, in place of Thaddeus, has a discipled called Judas son of James.  Acts chapter 1 makes it clear that the community of disciples was larger than 12 all the way through Jesus’ story. 

Perhaps we could construct a list of women.   At least three were named Mary.  There was Joanna, Salome, Junia (Romans 16), and many others.  Ancient custom did not count the testimony of women to be as reliable as that of men.  However, in spite of this misogynistic attitude, the Gospel writers identify these female disciples as the first witnesses of the resurrection.  The event that undid history and humanity’s understanding of the way things are rested on the testimony of women who had the temerity to approach the tomb while their male counterparts huddled in fear behind locked doors. 

These women visited the tomb of a seditious, condemned criminal.  So unbelievable is both this story and how it first came to us, some, even today, refuse to believe it.  Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan, a dedicated student of the gospels but also committed adherent to natural causes rejects any divine input in the course of history.  The women never came to the tomb.  According to Dr. Crossan all that we read in Mark 16 is fiction, created by Mark to justify the beginning of Christianity.

After crucifixions, the Romans threw the corpses into a pit, a mass, unmarked grave.  Crossan places his confidence in his knowledge of Roman tradition and his certainty that God, if there is a god, does not interfere in human affairs. 

Crossan’s conclusion runs right into the inferior place assigned to women in antiquity.  If Mark concocted a false narrative intended to prove that a dead Jesus was actually alive, would he make women his prime witnesses?  Already this story demands anyone who believes it to completely change their understanding of resurrection.  Now Mark’s asking people to willingly accept that paradigm shift on, what would have been taken as woefully shaky testimony?  Crossan may think he’s grounded his skepticism in science, but it fails the test of logic.

Standing on deduction and documentary evidence, I believe without doubt that the women really did set out early on Sunday morning as Mark said they did.  Their testimony along with the fact that shortly after that day, a group of Jews claimed that Jesus was the Messiah and was God in the flesh – an unprecedented claim – convinces me that the resurrection really did happen as Mark reports. 

It was as unbelievable as it was unsettling.  Imagine your reaction if one of the members of our church whose funeral we hosted in last two to three years walked in here for worship this morning.  You can’t imagine because we simply do not believe it will happen. 

Remember the words Mark used to describe the women - Greek, ‘tromos’ and ‘ekstasis;’ ‘trembling’ and ‘confused astonishment.’  One sense of the Greek is that one is so overwhelmed by some unexpected event it is as if one has fallen into a trance.  In the version of the Bible called The Message, translator Eugene Peterson tries to capture this rendering it this way.  “Their heads were swimming.” 

The women, Mark writes, “Said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Most likely, notations in your Bible cite verse 8 as the original ending of Mark and then after that there are notes indicating the “shorter” and “longer” endings.  Scholars almost universally agree those “shorter” and “longer” endings were added much, much later. 

Verse 8 is accepted as the original ending.  Most translations say, “They ran out for they were afraid,” but the Greek literally says, “They were afraid for …” and it stops.  The conjunction is the final word.

Imagine Mark is here, presenting his account of Jesus.  We hear from his own mouth the very first reading!  We lean forward, pushed to the edge of our seats by his fast-paced prose. He tells us Jesus has been raised!  What will the women do?  “They ran out.  They were afraid. For” … And he stops!  He smiles as if to say, OK, you finish it.

Will we?  Will we allow this story to topple what we knew to be certain – that dead people stay dead?  Will we listen as Mark tells of dead guy who didn’t stay dead?  Jesus rose from death.  Can we believe it?  Will we allow ourselves to be confronted by Easter? 

All people die, everyone; you, me, everyone.

Death is not the end.  Jesus has risen from death and prepared a way for us.  His followers will rise and be with him.  too.  This is as sure as anything we can be sure of.  It seems unbelievable!  By evidence, by logic, and by faith, I join those women, and the writer, Mark, and millions of Christ followers in definitively declaring that the unbelievable has happened!  Will we believe it?  Will we choose to follow the risen Christ?  Mark knows the answer comes when we respond to the story by putting our faith in Jesus.  God call us to write the ending of the story. 


Maundy Thursday 2021


April 1, 2021
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School was really cool on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, because in the last class before lunch, Health and PE, we were doing neither Health, nor PE.  We were watching television, at school.  It was ‘totally awesome’ as we liked to say in the ‘80’s.  We watched the triumph of American ingenuity.  The Space Shuttle Challenger took flight, and our hope in America went with it, and we watched as it exploded 73 seconds into the flight. 

A million moments pass through our lifetimes, but one or two sit fixed, because they are possessed by meaning-making power.  The Fall of the Berlin wall, November 9, 1989; terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001; these and other moments define how we see the world.  Perhaps January 6, 2021 will achieve such dubious immortality, the assault on the U.S. capitol.

In the Bible through sign-acts, prophets speaking and acting out God’s word instigated such moments.  On this day, Jesus, in one of the many roles he filled, the prophetic role, defined his church in two sign-acts performed at last supper.

            Examples of these sign-acts are found throughout the Bible.  To show that Judah would have a future, even after exile, Jeremiah bought a field, when Jerusalem was on the verges of collapse in the face of the Babylonian onslaught.  To demonstrate the way God loved a people who in turn were unfaithful to him, God compelled the prophet Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman and then to give the children born to that union specific names that depicted the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people.    These are but a few of the many sign-acts we encounter in the Bible.  Each memorable display called attention to the prophet’s message. 

The first of Jesus’ sign-acts is recorded in John 13:1-17. 

John 13:1-17, 34-35

13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,[b] but is entirely clean. And you[c] are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants[d] are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

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


            John’s gospel explains that when Jesus got up from the table with a towel and a basin of water, he did so “Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.”   Departure was on his mind as he bent before each of the 12 disciples, face to feet level.  Their feet were as dirty as yours or mine would be if we walked everywhere only on dirt roads wearing only sandals.  Washing their feet, Jesus performed a needed service, usually performed by a household servant, not the revered rabbi.  Defying convention was intentional.

            Jesus meant to show what life in the kingdom of God is like.  Knowing he wouldn’t be with them bodily after the resurrection, he wanted them to remember.  In his kingdom, leaders serve.  Leaders meet the lowliest of people at their level and raise them up.  The disciples were to follow their teacher’s example and serve one another, and also the poor and lowly of the world, and everyone in the world. 

In Christianity Today magazine, Michael Horton writes, “Jesus enacts a performance parable about power.  … Taking off his outer garment, he wraps a towel around his waist and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.”[i]  Horton refers back to John 10 where Jesus asserted that there is no power that takes life from him.  Rather, he lays his life down (10:17-18). 

Horton then points out that the kingdom of God is founded in blood, but not the blood of the people, but rather the shed blood of the king who defined his reign with compassion and sacrifice.  Contrast this stance with that of American politicians who claim the name Jesus, but then grasp desperately for earthly power that is divisive, destructive, and temporary.  “When Christian leaders are drawn to breath-taking expression of ungodly power, it raises questions about which kingdom and which sort of king they find most appealing.”[ii]

Peter felt the weight of what Jesus was doing.  He wanted to exalt Jesus, so he at first refused to see his master kneel at his feet.  Peter was ashamed to be over Jesus.  Jesus corrected him.  Then Peter, who badly wanted everything Jesus had to give, went from rejecting Jesus’ overture to asking that Jesus wash his entire body (v.9).

Jesus told him he was clean.  Peter would go on to deny knowing Jesus, misspeak when he met the resurrected Jesus, and later have a falling-out with the Apostle Paul.  Why did Jesus tell him he was clean?  The forgiveness God gave and the atonement Jesus would achieve in his own death on the cross, were already effective for the disciples.

I had a discussion recently with someone unsure about baptism.  He said, “The reason I hesitate to be baptized is I know I will sin again.”  Jesus knew Peter would sin again.  He predicted Peter’s denials.  Yet, he declared Peter clean because forgiveness and atonement would be achieved.  The salvation Jesus won for Peter, and for you, and for me, could not be undone by any mistake Peter or you or I make.   

Washing the disciples’ feet was a sign-act that defined the kingdom of Jesus, the church.  In the church, we show our love for God and each other through humble service.  In verse 15, Jesus says is plainly.  “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

The foot-washing is only recorded in John, and Jesus’ sharing of the bread and the cup is only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Taken together, as different accounts of the same meal, we see Jesus perform two sign-acts.  Foot-washing established that the church will be a community that loves through humble service, a community in which everyone is called to serve everyone else. 

The serving of the bread and cup, calling to mind Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, establishes the church of Jesus as a community of sacrifice.  Jesus took something familiar to the disciples, the elements of the Passover meal, as his canvas.  They knew of the blood of the Passover lamb that atoned for sins once.  The Passover meal and sacrifice would need to be repeated again each year. That ritual was now changed.  He told them, when you take the bread and drink the cup, remember that I was the Passover Lamb who died for the sins of all people. 

That eating the bread and drinking the wine is a normal, regular part of our worship is a reminder of what Jesus did for us.  It is also a defining act.  The Kingdom of Jesus, the church, which is a Kingdom in which love is expressed through service, is also a kingdom of sacrifice.  We are forgiven and made new because our Lord died in our place.

Every time we eat and drink, we remember.  We remember our sins are forgiven.  We remember we are children of God.  We remember that Jesus is Lord.  We cannot go back to being who we were before we began to follow Jesus.  There will be moments when we stumble in our following after him, and we don’t look very much like disciples at all.  In those moments of failure, we repent, again come to the table, and again eat and drink, and thus step back onto the path Jesus lays before us.  Eating and drinking, we remember who he is and we remember that because of God’s grace, we are his. 

Washing the disciples’ feet and instituting the bread and cup as His, the Lord’s, supper, Jesus established the values of his kingdom and the way we are to relate to each other if we want to be part of his kingdom. 

In ending Our Maundy Thursday worship by consuming the bread and cup, we receive the gift of forgiveness and the new life God gives.  And, we step into the world of meaning Jesus creates.  This world of meaning, where love is seen in service and sacrifice, is what makes sense of our lives. 



[i] M. Horton (2016) -

[ii] Ibid.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Plausibility of the Resurrection


            With the advances of scientific research too intricate and numerous to recount or even summarize here, it is apparent that the present age is one in which ‘what happens’ can be weighed, measured, timed, and, thus, explained.  That is, phenomena can be explained in concrete terms.  People sometimes accept things that happen outside the boundaries of scientific explanation, but even in those cases the claim has to make sense.

            If one claimed the moon was made of cheese, such a claim would be quickly and easily rejected.  Simply examine rocks brought back from the moon and the physical properties of cheese, and look at the process by which cheese is made, and the fact that there are no milk-producing animals on the moon, and the claim is shown to be absurd.

            On the other hand, what about this claim?  “Love makes my head swim.”   This is not a statement any law of physics can account for.  Yet, if someone spent time with me and saw that I had trouble concentrating, could not wipe the silly grin off my face, and walked around in a dreamlike state, they might readily accept the conclusion: “he’s in love alright!”  So, in our science-ruled age, non-scientific ideas are accepted by people all the time, but non-provable ideas do have to make sense to gain a hearing.

            I write these words as a Christian pastor two days after the Christian’s highest holy day: Easter.  Can we Christians make a plausible case for the resurrection of Jesus?  Resurrection cannot be tested the way theories and laws of physics are tested.  Who would want to be a test-subject in trying to determine that the dead will rise?  And, what would be used as a catalyst?  Christians accept the resurrection by faith, but why should anyone outside of Christianity even give the idea any consideration? 

            Several New Testament scholars have tackled this question and their work is helpful and thus worth the time of church-goers who don’t do scholarly research in theology or Biblical studies.  I say this because the 21st century is a science-ruled, rational age.  If the Christian faith wants a voice in this age, it must be conveyed in the language of this age, even in moments when Christianity defies the core principles of this age (like the resurrection of those who are completely dead).

            Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, and N.T. Wright are scholars who deal extensively with the evidence, or at least indicators, that the resurrection of Jesus is an event that happened in history.  Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010) weighs what he calls the ‘Resurrection Hypothesis’ against that of hypotheses of various Bible scholars who reject the notion that Jesus rose because resurrection violates natural law. These skeptics propose a number of explanations for why first century Christians claimed that Jesus rose when they knew he actually did not.  Licona compares his Resurrection Hypothesis with that of the skeptics.

            His basic argument is as follows.  Jesus died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.  The earliest sources (Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) claim that Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to his followers.  There is early source documentation that is as reliable as any source from this period of history.  That Jesus rose and appeared to his followers adequately explains the birth of Christianity.  And the actual resurrection is more plausible, as it is described by the Bible, than the thought that what Paul and the gospel writers present might be an intentional fiction. 

If these early, first century Jews wanted to concoct a fiction they hoped others would take as true, they would not have had women as the earliest witnesses.  The testimony of women was considered unreliable in court cases in first century Israel.  They would not have re-conceived the idea of resurrection.  None of the Messiah-claims included a story about a crucified-resurrected Messiah.  This would have been so unrecognizable, it would be unlikely to convince any 1st century skeptics, of which there we as many as there are today.  And finally, they would not have claimed a resurrection the authorities opposed to the movement could disprove by producing the corpse of the one they claimed to be alive. 

Of course, there’s much more to Licona’s argument and the other authors mentioned above significantly add to the discussion.  What believers today wanting to show the viability of Christianity need to understand is when it comes to resurrection, there is cogent argument to be made.  Licona bases his argument on the following points: (1) the resurrection provides explanatory scope of the events in question; (2) it possesses explanatory power; (3) it is plausible; (4) it is less ad hoc than other arguments; there’s no filling in the gaps with a retreat to ‘this doesn’t accord with the laws of nature”; and, (5) it illuminates the evidence (Licona, p.600-606).

Christians are free to believe Jesus rose simply as an expression of faith.  Christians can leave it at that.  Christians can defiantly declare, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  But it doesn’t settle it for those outside the church. We are called to be witnesses declaring what God has done to those outside the church.

We can do this.  We can express this faith in a way that speaks convincingly to skeptics in a secular age ruled by naturalism and rationalism.  Will such a presentation convince someone to turn to Jesus and put their faith in him?  Probably not.  Conviction of the heart is achieved by the Holy Spirit, not powerful arguments.  But, arguing for the plausibility of the resurrection in a way that’s intelligible to a scientists’ rational mind will help that skeptic see that Christian faith is more than an easily dismissed fantasy.  When Christians present their faith in a well-reasoned argument, skeptics will see that there’s something there; something worth exploring further.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021


watch -


11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
    But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples[a] went out of the city.

The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have[b] faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received[c] it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”[d]



            They came to the outskirts of Jerusalem and Jesus gave an instruction.  “As you go into the village, untie a donkey at a certain house and bring it back.  If anyone asks why you are taking a donkey that doesn’t belong to you, tell them, ‘the Lord needs it.’”  They followed Jesus’ instructions and as he indicated, someone asked about the donkey.  They responded as he said they should, and they were allowed to take the donkey. 

I have a thick sermon file on Mark 11.  Each Gospel has a version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but even alternating from one gospel to another, after 20 plus years, I have looked at Mark 11 quite often.  This week, following a simple ‘A-B’ pattern helped me walk through this story in scripture.  I don’t mean to prescribe this as the only way to analyze a passage.  Systematic theology and critical study of Biblical texts are useful, unless these approaches are overdone and given exclusive voice.  The Bible is a living word that speaks afresh in our lives. When we read, come with our own experiences and the Bible speaks into those experiences.  So, I offer this A-B pattern as one of many possible pathways into this passage, understanding that the Bible is under no obligation to conform to patterns imposed upon it.

Part A is a divine action.  God does something. In this case, Jesus gives an instruction.  Part B is human response.  In the Mark 11 text, the human response is obedience.  The disciples do exactly what Jesus says to do and it turns out well.  They get the donkey and are able to prepare for Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem.  This simple A-B approach reveals the action of Mark 11, what we now call “Palm Sunday,” as it unfolds.

Through this approach we see what God is doing as Jesus rides into the city on the donkey, the disciples’ garments serving as his saddle blanket.  A raucous crowd greets him on his ride, as if he were a conquering general.  Some were his true followers and had been for quite a while.  Some in the crowd were always watching for the Messiah, hoping he would come with fanfare and drama as he forcefully evicted Rome and re-established the throne of David.  Others lining the road shouting just saw a crowd and decided to join it.

Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was a divine action, and whatever motivated particular individuals within the crowd, that crowd provided the human response.  In the A-B pattern, God is the initiator and we, those created in his image, respond to what He’s doing, whether we realize it’s God acting or not.

Remember, how fickle the crowd can be.  On this day, they shouted “Hosanna,” which means, “O Lord save us, save us now.”  It’s from Psalm 118, verse 26.  A few days later, the same frenzied crowd would, at the prompting of certain priests and scribes, “Crucify him.”  The popular consciousness is easily manipulated and certainly was in this story.  The “Hosannas” were appropriate, but uttered in short-sighted ignorance.

The crowd hope the Messiah would boot the Romans out while they cheered.  They thought He had come to confront Rome.  They never imagined the Messiah to be God’s own son, through whom God would challenge their own sacrificial system.  That comes out in the next divine act.

Jesus instructed the disciples and the followed instructions; divine act, human response; the A-B pattern.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the crowd cheered and worshiped.  Upon arriving, he surveyed the happenings at the temple and then headed back out of the city to their lodgings in Bethany.

The next day, arriving back at the temple, Jesus sees more of what he noted the previous day: what has become the normal daily life in the temple’ outer court.  Jews from around the world want to have their sins atoned for at the temple, so they make a long journey to Jerusalem.  Too burdensome to haul the animal they would sacrifice that distance, instead, they bring money – Roman currency.  The temple will only accept temple currency, so the worshipers have to first visit the money changing station, where they are taken for a ride.  Then, they have to buy an animal so that can participate in worship through sacrifice.  The prices for animals are also marked up.  Priests and money changers get rich while worshipers leave the temple broke.

We see God’s thoughts on this crass greed that taints something holy when Jesus turns over the tables.  That’s the divine act, and I think it was as dramatically disruptive as we might imagine.  He certainly had everyone’s attention when then said, quoting Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but you – you religious leaders, priests, money changers - you have made it a den for robbers.”

Following our pattern, ‘A,’ is his actions of turning over tables, driving animals, and making this pronouncement.  What is ‘B,’ the human response?  There are two.

Verse 17 says he was teaching.  For one to teach, there must be those who listen and learn.  So, one human response from present was to listen to what Jesus had to say.  We know this because we have the Gospel of Mark.  Someone present wrote down what Jesus said and did, or remembered it and later dictated it to Mark who wrote it.  Paying attention while Jesus talked was one human response to the divine action.

The other comes from the chief priests and scribes.  These were the men – and in those day they indeed were all men – called by God to teach his word, lead in worship, and keep the community on the path to holiness.  These divinely ordained leaders responded to the action of God by looking for a way to kill Jesus.  Mark tells us they were afraid because the crowd was “spellbound by his teaching.”  These leaders feared losing their privileged position, even it they lost it because of an act of God.  They would manipulate that crowd they so feared to turn on Jesus.  God acted, in Jesus’ turning over money tables and condemnation of corruption, and the humans, the leaders anyway, responded out of fear, not faith.

We see three ways of rejecting God’s actions.  First is direct opposition.  This was the reaction of the scribes and leading priests.  The other two ways of rejecting God’ initiatives are seen in American culture today: to ignore Jesus and to reduce Jesus.

Those who ignore Jesus are generally outside the church.  The coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus is God acting to save the world.  But people in the world today don’t seem to care that God did that.  The mother of my daughter’s friend invited her to come to a fun outing.  It was very nice, and this family is wholesome and wonderful and I love them and especially I love how much they care about my daughter.  They invited her to come to an outing on Sunday; Easter Sunday.  Why would they invite a Christian youth to an outing on Easter Sunday?  Easter isn’t the center of their world like it is for a follower of Jesus.  They think to themselves, ‘we’ll distract this Christian and take her was from worship.’  They didn’t think about it at all.  They acted as if God is an afterthought, one option among many for how one invests’ one’s time, energy and thought.  Ignoring God is a way of rejecting God.

The other rejection happens in churches that teach a very limited Christianity.  The coming of Jesus alters reality throughout the cosmos and yet some believers only teach that Christianity is all about an individual going to heaven when he or she dies.  That’s it.  That’s the Gospel. 

Of course, individual salvation is an important part of the Gospel.  I need to reconcile for my sins and the only I can is coming to Jesus in faith and accepting his death for me.  I must do this.  I must receive what He has done.  However, when a pastor or a church teaches only an individual salvation story, they miss and their members miss, the grander story of Jesus dying on the cross to save the world.  There is much, much more going in the death and resurrection of Jesus than simply securing an individual’s personal salvation.  Jesus ushers in a new age.  With his resurrection, new creation has begun.  Churches today that fail to teach this reduce the Gospel.  Reduction of the Gospel is a rejection of God’s action.  It’s the opposite of a faith response.

            A faith response recognizes or at least senses that we need to live in the new creation.  We started out with the disciples obeying Jesus’ instructions to the letter, but prior to crucifixion-resurrection, they were locked into the the old way of thinking.  In Mark 10, the disciples James and John ask Jesus to allow them to sit on his right and left when his sits in glory.  This is rejection of God’s action as Jesus makes clear in his response to their request. 

            The rest of the disciples get furious at the request made by James and John and the group descends into a donnybrook as they argue about greatness.  Elevating our own greatness is not a way to live in the new creation nor is it a faith response to action of God.  Jesus insists that in his kingdom, the leaders serve everyone else. 

            Then he demonstrates this in the closing verses of Mark 10.  Walking to Jerusalem with anxious thoughts of crucifixion on his mind and surrounded by crowds with Messianic stars in their eyes, his progress is blocked by the wailings of blind Bartimaeus.  To be blind in the ancient world was to sit at the bottom of society’s social ladder and others made that clear, telling Bartimaeus to “hush, and stop bothering the teacher.”

            Jesus took a different approach.  He stopped and paid attention to the blind man ignored and overlooked by everyone else.  Bartimaeus’ human response to this divine action was to tell Jesus exactly what he wanted.  He wanted to see again.  In the new creation, God pays attention to everyone, even those ignored and forgotten.  If God loves in that way, then in our human response to God’s love, we ought to love everyone and overlook no one. 

            Throughout the narratives on and around Palm Sunday, we see God act.  Through Jesus God enacts new creation.   We can ignore what God’s doing, or oppose it, or reduce it.  Or, we can respond in faith, and begin living in the new creation.  God has acted.  How will we respond?