Starting Discipleship

May 7, 2017               4th Sunday of Easter

Act 2:42-47   1 Peter 2:19–25           John 10:1–10

I like this description of the disciples from Acts: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Doesn’t that sound nice? And I don’t mean that sarcastically.  This seems like such a simple formula for being a disciple.

#1: Devote yourself to the teaching of the apostles.

Well, of course back then the teaching of the apostles came from those of Christ’s inner circle telling people what Jesus had told them. Today we read about Jesus, his life, works and philosophy, from the Gospels, and then discuss how we can effectively apply them in our time, to our lives. So step number one is to get familiar with the Gospels. And how many of us actually do that? I’m sure that some of you do. But how many of us actually read the Gospels with the intent of going beyond the story and figuring out who Jesus is? Hold that thought.

#2: Devote yourselves to fellowship.

Back then fellowship had a slightly different meaning. Today, in the 21st century, we think of fellowship as a compartmentalized event. We have fellowship at work, or fellowship with coffee hours, or fellowship when we go out to eat with people. But in the 1st century people lived a lot closer together and more communally, because that was the best way to get things done in a non-industrial society. Relationships are happening all the time, whether you want to have them or not; relationships can be positive and functional, or negative and dysfunctional. Fellowship is word that defines positive, functioning relationships that are the real building blocks of society. Back then if you didn’t have a lot of money, but had a good solid family like structure that was pulling for the good of the whole you would probably succeed in living a good life.

In fact I would like to emphasize that a lot of religions devote their philosophies, and their rules, to how we live with each other. A lot of people think that religion is all about defining who and what God is. That’s a part of it. But the big part of any religion is how we relate to God by how we relate to each other.   A religion that lasts is a religion that nurtures and maximizes a person’s ability to relate to other people in a positive, nurturing manner.   Do we always get there? No, but study any religion that has lasted for centuries and you will find that the core tenants deal with having people learn how to best relate to others in kindness and compassion.

#3: One of the important ways of relating to each other in the early church was the devotion to prayer, or the individual spending time relating to God. When we learn how to wrestle with our own problems with God’s help we move to point #4 and become better at relating to other people. Which leads to the sharing of the bread, or the community relating to each other.

Let me side track a bit here. Have you ever noticed that in business the most effective managers are the ones who have the best communication skills? Next time you are in a bookstore or in the library go and look at the business isle. There will be nuts-and-bolts books on how to do accounting, or set up payrolls, or organize floor lay-outs; but 80 percent of the books are about how to effectively communicate with people.

In fact I would like to give an except from one of those books: An effective salesperson first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, and the situation of the customer. The amateur salesman sells products; the professional sells solutions to the needs and problems.

            I would like to paraphrase that: An effective Christian first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, and the situation of everyone they meet. The Pharisee gives us the rules that they say we must live by. The Christian shows, by their words and deeds of servant love, that Christ is the solution to our needs and problems.

In the Gospels, Jesus gives us a number of pointers on how to relate to people. One of the big ones is that he tells us is not to rush into judgment. Jesus is always willing to suspend the established judgment that people had about others.

Remember when Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus ? Zacchaeus, as a tax-collector for Rome, was a person who was considered to be socially and morally bankrupt as far as everyone around him was concerned. By working with the Roman government, and exploiting people to put food on his own table, he had cut himself off from his own people who considered him to be the scum of the earth. Yet Jesus, stopped, he looked up in the tree, suspended judgment, and saw the human, not the scum bag, that was Zacchaeus. And he said, “Zacchaeus, today I am going to have dinner at your house.”

You cannot see the needs, concerns, or the situations of people until you step back, suspend judgment, and listen with an open mind. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with that person once the needs, concerns, and situations are laid out. Jesus didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Yeah, go ahead and keep on exploiting people.” But I am sure during the conversation at dinner Jesus listened to Matthew’s story, found out why he had become a tax collector in the first place, listened to his concerns, got a clear picture of what his situation was, and then showed him a path to change. And Matthew accepted the new path and changed so much that he returned all the money he had stolen with interest.

How many times do we approach a person with problems, or any problem, thinking that we already know what is going on? Jesus didn’t make that mistake with people. We do say that Jesus knows our needs before we know them – but that’s because he doesn’t walk into our lives with preconceived notions. He’s willing to listen to us in prayer, take the time to examine our hearts, and set things up for us so that we will learn about and receive what we really need, not what we think we want.

The other thing that Jesus models for us is the acceptance of the differences between us. Jesus did not collect a like-minded or like-personality group of people around him. Peter was impulsive and at times oblivious; Thomas questioned; Nathaniel was the smart-aleck; John and James, the brothers, were super competitive with each other and everyone else, and had really bad tempers; and you get the impression that John was just this super easy-going dude. Yet despite all these different personalities with all these different talents, who all grasped the teachings of Christ in different ways, they learned to accept each other and learned how to work together.

In their fellowship of listening to each other, and learning about each other, and respectfully wrestling the needs, concerns and situations that were before them they built the church. The scripture then says that: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

Well, of course many wonders were being done by them! In a dysfunctional society they were taking the time and making the effort to figure out the best, most humane way to get things done. They were all working on getting a better personal relationship with God going, and then taking that relationship and applying it to the people around them, and then using those people and their talents to get things done in the most effective way that they could.

What is that pithy business saying: There is no I in team? Well I would like to say that there is the Great I AM in Christianity. I AM going to devote myself to getting in better communication with God. I AM going to be a person of kindness and compassion. I AM going to love myself by treating myself with respect and working on my integrity. I AM going to love my neighbors by seeking to understand the needs, concerns, and situations of the people around me. I AM going treat people as Christ would have treated them. I AM going to suspend judgment and really figure out who this person is and how they can be helped.

When we embrace those I AMs we start to be disciples. We start to have the goodwill of all the people. And we start to add ourselves and others to the numbers of those who are being saved.

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Sharon UMC Question and Answer Sunday; April 30, 2017

FIRST LESSON: 1 John 1:5-9     QUESTION: Why do we change the candleholders during Lent to three candles on the altar?

The questions this time around were more about tradition than they were about theology. And that’s okay – because Wesley said that our faith is built on Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And while scripture stays the same, tradition, reason and experience are very dependent on what our world is like right now. We have a lot of traditions form the early church, but we don’t act them out the same way that they were implemented in the 1st or 2nd century.   Every culture, in it’s own time, develops their own way of expressing how the Gospels have meaning for them.

Now the three candles on the altar that you saw during Lent I have to take some responsibility for. You see in my first Lent/Easter here in 2014, I noticed that we only had the brass candle holders on the Altar – but one of the Methodist traditions that was handed down from the church of England via the Catholic Church (remember – Methodists are reformed Episcopalians and renegade Catholics) is that all gold ornaments and flowers should be removed from the Altar during Lent, and dark metals or wood used instead. This is to remind us of the earthly suffering that Christ went through, and the fact that even though he was the Son of God he was living an earthy life with us. Gold is symbolic of divinity but wood or dark metals are associated with earth.

So after talking about it in our worship committee, a group of us went to Hobby Lobby for some supplies and we also found the candleholders that we use now. I actually was planning on getting three of the same design. (I wanted three because I could use the extra candleholder when we had Trinity Sunday, or I preached on the trinity.) But as we tried out a bunch of different candles holders we really liked how these three looked together.

So now we take out the three Trinity candles during Lent. And they are also handy for other times of the year – like when we use red, white, and blue candles for the fourth of July and Memorial Day, or when we use the red candle for Pentecost.

I think I should also mention the silver candlesticks. About two years ago I was at a garage sale where two matching candlestick and one single candlestick were being sold. When I asked how much they were the owners apologized for not having another matching candlestick, but I told them that that was okay because I was going to buy them to use in the church and since I could use three to represent the Trinity that it didn’t matter that they didn’t match. They were really trilled that I was going to use them in the church and they very kindly donated them to us.

Now we have our wood, silver, and gold candlesticks that we can use to express the beauty of our faith on our altar during worship.

SECOND LESSON: Luke 23:50-56     QUESTION:  Is the story of the Legend of Glastonbury real?

The Legend of Glastonbury is about Joseph of Arimatheia, who we read about in our scripture. From scripture we know that he was a rich man, because he had a private tomb, and that he was a follower of Jesus, even though he seems to have been quiet about it. There is a strong possibility that he was also a relative of Jesus because after the Crucifixion he claimed the body of Jesus from Pilate, which implies that legally he was a relative. Most of the legends make him Jesus’ uncle.

After Jesus’ resurrection, Joseph got on the Temple Authorities black list and so Joseph fled to Britain with some other followers of Jesus. Why Britain you might ask? Tradition states that he knew Britain from his trips as a tin merchant (that’s how he became wealthy.) Part of the legend even states that Joseph brought Jesus with him on one of his trading trips during Jesus’ “lost years” between the ages of 12 and 30. When Joseph fled to Britain he landed near Glastonbury on the coast and then traveled to a site where he planted his staff, as if to say, “This is where we will settle.”   The staff miraculously flowered into a tree, The Glastonbury Thorn. A cutting from that first tree was planted in the grounds of the later Glastonbury Abbey, where it continued to bloom every year thereafter, at Christmas time. There is still a thorn tree in the Abbey grounds, and a cutting is sent to Buckingham Palace every year at Christmas time, which analysis has shown is a Palestinian variety.

Parts of the Legend also say that Joseph brought with him the Holy Grail, and some also say that the Virgin Mary fled with him and that she and Joseph are secretly buried with the Grail somewhere in the area. Another version is that Joseph buried the Grail at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, whereupon a spring of blood gushed forth from the ground. In any case Glastonbury claimed for a long time to be the first Christian Church of England and until the Reformation, when it was destroyed by King Henry VII, it was a prominent abbey and influential center of power.

Actually, this story could be true. You see that area of England has long been known as a tin mining site, it was actually one of the reasons that Rome invaded England. But those tin mines must have been up and running before the Romans started to invade in about 43 BCE, and there is evidence that trade was taking place because Britain was actually known as the Tin Islands. Jewish people lived all over the Roman Empire and a lot of them were traders – so it is quite possible that there were Jewish traders in Britain or who had connections in Britain.

There is nothing to say that Joseph wasn’t a trader in tin or other goods. And he certainly could have traveled by sea or land for business. And if you are running away from prosecution the best place to go is someplace far away, but also to a place that you are familiar with. So I could see Joseph running to Britain and bringing with him some disciples who just wanted to live their faith quietly. One of the first things that they would do, would be to build a church and actually there has been a very small church found, dating back to the time of the Romans, although there is not enough evidence to have it be conclusively as early as the 1st century.   Further legends tell that the church founded by Joseph continued for many years and eventually became a monastery, and one of the first abbots of Glastonbury Abbey was the future St Patrick, who was born in England’s west country.

About the Holy Grail – I think that’s an added on legend from the medieval period when EVERYONE was creating Grail legends. Depending on what legend you believe the Grail was taken to and hidden in France, England, Scotland, North America, Israel, or even the Vatican. Besides England, the Virgin Mary also has burial sites in Israel, Turkey, and India. There is a spring at the base of Glastonbury Tor, but it runs red because of the high iron content, not because of blood.

While the legend of Joseph of Arimethia doesn’t reveal any great theological in-site into Christianity, it does tell a story of faith and a certain place and time and about how Christianity grew. I think that the Legend of Glastonbury is true at least about Joseph coming to Britain. After all, how is that story any different from a scrappy group of about 100 people who got onboard a ship and crawled their way across the Atlantic Ocean to land in the area that we know as Cape-Cod? They were fleeing from a place that didn’t accept their faith and hoping to build a place where they could live with their faith. That’s a story of resilient Christianity that has been repeated many times over many generations. It’s a story that we are a part of now, because every generation reclaims Christianity in a new time, and adapts the place they use to express their need to connect with God.

The Legend of Glastonbury is so inspirational that the poem ‘Prelude to Milton’ by William Blake (1757-1827) is better-known as the popular “hymn” Jerusalem. It was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Edward Elgar, and has been sung at national events since the First World War, when it was adopted as an ‘anthem’ by the Women’s Institute. As well as being sung in church, it is now a popular alternative to the England’s official God-Save-The-Queen anthem, to close national cultural events.

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

Now that is the way to carry faith forward into the world.

*THIRD LESSON: Luke 24:13-35     QUESTION: Who were the Disciples who were walking with Jesus to Emmaus?

We know that there were two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. But there has been a lot of speculation about who that other person is.

There are two 2nd century commentaries by different authors. One author states that the other disciple was a man named Joseph and was Cleopas’ brother. The other author names Mary, his wife, as his companion and mentions that their son James became a priest, of the early Christian Church.

What is interesting about the name Cleopas is that it isn’t Jewish – it’s Greek. Which indicates that even before the early church was evangelizing in Greece there were Greek followers among Jesus’ movement. This could also be why Jesus spends a large amount of time explaining the Jewish scriptures to these two travelers while they are walking. If the two disciples were Greek then they probably didn’t grow up with the Torah tradition or the criteria from the Torah about who the Messiah would be that most Jewish children would have. Jesus might have wanted to give them a quick history/scripture lesson to confirm for them that he fulfilled all the Messiah criteria from the Jewish faith.

Another point that is possible is that if Cleopas, who was Greek, was traveling with his wife, whose name is Mary, then they might be a mixed race couple, since MARY was a very common Jewish name, but not a common Greek name at the time. If so that would mean that the Jesus movement was very accepting right from the start of people who were stepping out of the norm.

Of course all of this is scholastic conjecture, but imagine what those unconventional possibilities do for our message of evangelism. Are we supposed to be talking to people who we think should be disciples, or are we reaching out to people who are not following the norm? Sometimes all of us need to step out of what we expect a Christian to be and realize that Christ came for all people, no matter how unconventional they might have been.

Jesus spoke with a lot of different people. Jesus accepted a lot of different people. Can we do the same? We are all walking to Emmaus, and I believe that Christ is always walking with us. But we need to open our eyes to the possibilities that all people we encounter could be Christians. We shouldn’t be shy of reaching out to them and finding out. Maybe we will teach them, maybe they will teach us, but I think, in the love of Christ, we will all be in for a big surprise.

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Who Are Those Disciples?

April 30, 2017                        3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36–41      1 Peter 1:17–23     Luke 24:13–35

We know that there were two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. But there has been a lot of speculation about who that other person is.

When I was researching this scripture I found out that this encounter with Jesus is one of the most painted subjects in Christian art. Both the two disciples traveling on the road talking to Jesus and the moment when Jesus breaks bread and the disciples recognize him. Some artists have painted both encounters and some, like Caravaggio, have even painted the same encounter twice. But one element that is always constant is that the two disciples are male.

This is consistent with one of two 2nd century commentaries by different authors who mention who they believe the disciple is. One author states that Cleopas’ companion was a man named Joseph and was Cleopas’ brother. It would make sense that two men were brothers, who would be returning home from the Passover together, for companionship as well as for safety reasons.

Although it is uncertain where the town of Emmaus existed exactly, it was about 7 miles from Jerusalem, which means that it would have taken the disciples about 3–4 hours to walk there at a moderate pace. (That’s about the distance from Salisbury to Sharon) From their conversation we can assume that they would have set out after lunch after they had heard about the encounter that the women disciples had with Jesus at the tomb, and then met Jesus on the road and been talking with him from mid-afternoon until they got to Emmaus. But it was late enough for them to have dinner together, and I’m sure that they would feel that it wasn’t safe for Jesus to be traveling alone, which is why they kindly invited him to stay with them. It doesn’t say in the scripture if they invited him into their home or to an inn to dine together – the important thing was the invitation that was given, accepted, and then there was the blessing of the meal and the revealing of Christ with them.

Last week I said that the purpose of the forty days between Easter and the Ascension for Christ was to give his disciples a chance to understand themselves as disciples of a RISEN Christ. Before his rising Jesus was teaching good and loving morals and mindset, but as the risen Christ he brings the assurance that we are forgiven for our sins and live within the eternal life and power of God. What does the encounter tell us about what Jesus was teaching his disciples on how to be disciples of the risen Christ?

First of all, there is the encounter on the road. It is important to remember that these people were already disciples of Christ and were trying to follow his teaching. They were very sad that they wouldn’t have access to his teaching anymore, but they were still following Jesus. As they are walking they are talking and remembering all that Christ meant to them and how he affected their lives.

That is something that we as fellow Christians should do. We should continue to examine what Christ means to us with each other and find strength in each other’s stories. Sometimes I think that we are too shy or nervous about sharing our own Christ stories even with each other. How are we going to be able to tell people about Christ if we can’t even talk about our experience with him among ourselves? Fellow Christians are people who you can talk with and hone your explanations with. Also we are not all of us like-minded because we all have different Christ experiences – but that’s okay because this teaches us tolerance and open mindedness and we expand our experiences vicariously when you listen to the experiences others.

Then they encounter this stranger who wants to know what they are talking about.   The disciples then start to tell this stranger about Jesus. Now, we know that the person is really Jesus, but they don’t. If you think about it – this is the first moment of evangelism after Christ is raised from the dead. These people are telling a complete stranger about the importance of Christ in their lives. But then they get a surprise when Jesus starts to explain to them about Himself and clarifies a few points that they hadn’t thought of.

This I think is a learning curve for the disciples. Here they were thinking that they were going to tell this person all about Jesus but this person had already heard about Jesus. I think that a lot of people have heard about Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that they really know or understand what Christianity is all about. We all know about things that we don’t understand. I know about Russian Easter Eggs – but I don’t understand how they are made – and if I ever get a chance I would like to learn how to make them.   I think Christ is like that for many people – they know about him but don’t understand who or what Christ really is or what he really stands for. Also people get Christ mixed up with organized, politicized Christianity. They are not one and the same. Christ didn’t come to set up a geo-political structure – he came to save souls and show us how we can connect to God.   That’s who we need to be telling people about.

Also we can learn about what people need from Jesus if we are willing to listen to them – just as the two disciples were willing to listen to Jesus. To recognize the Christ in others is one of the things we need to cultivate as disciples.

Later when Christ breaks bread with the disciples that is a defining moment for our communion with Christ. Christianity takes the spirit of the Luke Communion to say that whenever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name that Christ is sure to be among us.   Even though we cannot recognize Christ he is there and will reveal Himself to us in actions of invitation and love. Just as the disciples invited Jesus to be a part of their meal and blessing we need to invite people to be a part of our communion with God and each other.

Now all of this is pretty standard as far as this story goes but I want to tell you about another 2nd century author. The other author names Cleopas’ companion as his wife Mary, and mentions that their son James became a bishop, or priest, of the early Christian Church.

Now that is interesting but also possible. If Mary was Cleopas’ wife, that could be a reason why her name wasn’t mentioned. At the time it was considered to be immodest for a married woman to be named in a story, so as a couple they might not have wanted her name mentioned. We know that some of the disciples were married so why couldn’t these two be a couple? In which case it confirms the opinion of the Pharisees and Temple authorities that Jesus was a radical rabbi who was teaching people whom he shouldn’t be teaching.

Another thing that is interesting about the name Cleopas is that it isn’t Jewish – it’s Greek. Which indicates that even before the early church was evangelizing in Greece there were Greek followers among Jesus’ movement. This could also be why Jesus spends a large amount of time explaining the Jewish scriptures to these two travelers while they are walking. If the two disciples were Greek then they probably didn’t grow up with the Torah tradition or knowledge about who the Messiah would be that most Jewish children would have. Jesus might have wanted to give them a quick history/scripture lesson to confirm for them that he fulfilled all the Messiah criteria from the Jewish faith.

Another point that is possible is that if Cleopas, who was Greek, was traveling with his wife, whose name is Mary, then they might have been a mixed race couple, since MARY was a very common Jewish name, but not a common Greek name at the time. If so that would mean that the Jesus movement was very accepting right from the start of people who were stepping out of the norm.

Of course all of this is scholastic conjecture, but imagine what those unconventional possibilities do for our message of evangelism. Are we supposed to be talking to people who we think should be disciples, or are we reaching out to people who are not following the norm? Sometimes all of us need to step out of what we expect a Christian to be and realize that Christ came for all people, no matter how unconventional they might have been.

Jesus spoke with a lot of different people. Jesus accepted a lot of different people. Can we do the same? We are all walking to Emmaus, and I believe that Christ is always walking with us. But we need to open our eyes to the possibilities that all people we encounter could be Christians. We shouldn’t be shy of reaching out to them and finding out. Maybe we will teach them, maybe they will teach us, but I think, in the love of Christ, we will all be in for a big surprise.

 

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Discipleship of Faith

April 23, 2017           2nd Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 22–32           1 Peter 1:3–9         John 20:19–31

I think that Peter sums up the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus for himself and many disciples when he says: By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

The two letters of Peter were important to early Christians not just because Peter was one of the apostles but also because reading Peter is a contrast in faith to Paul.

You see Paul became a follower of Jesus after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul’s encounter with Jesus is a completely spiritual one, when Jesus is a powerful spiritual being.

Peter’s encounter with Jesus, however, was that of a living, breathing man, who was a powerful spiritual leader first, and then became the spiritual being and son of God.

Paul’s struggles with faith are our struggles with faith. Paul struggles to pierce the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world. And that can be a really hard thing to do, because sometimes our faith seems really shaky when we think: Gosh darn it! I just don’t have the physical evidence to back it up!

On the other hand Peter lived the whole process of Jesus’ ministry. Peter wasn’t there at the birth or the first 30 years of Jesus’ life or maybe the baptism – but he was there right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and witnessed the three years of his preaching, teaching, and healing, plus the death, resurrection, and ascension thing.

Peter’s faith stands on the absolute certain that Jesus Christ has given us, through his blood sacrifice on the cross, an imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance: An inheritance that means eternal life and joy with God. An inheritance that we find through our faith: That God loves us so much that he would give us his only son, so that if we-of-little-faith take that step to believe in Him, as Peter believed in Him, that we will not perish, but have eternal life.

I find that certainty of faith comforting, but sometimes a little difficult to relate to. As I’ve said before, I’m a lot more like Thomas, who really wants to be shown that this God-Jesus power is real and working in the universe. Especially as a child of the 20th and 21st century of empirical data, I need a little bit of fact to boost my little bit of faith.

But you know what – Jesus gets Thomas and his doubts. Jesus does appear to him, and he shows Thomas his hands and side, Jesus even tells Thomas to touch them. And then Jesus challenges Thomas to believe. And after Thomas acknowledges Jesus as the resurrected Christ, Jesus says a line that seems like a rebuke: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

I’ve always been bothered by that line because I always feel that Jesus is being a little mean when he says that. But when I was in seminary my Professor of Preaching gave our class some very good advice: If we have a problem with a piece of scripture then we should probably examine that scripture, because then we will resolve a spiritual question within us.

So I sat down and thought: What was happening to the disciples, and what was Jesus trying to do for them?

First of all, the disciples had just been through a huge emotional rollercoaster. The only way I could think of picturing how it would feel was by imagining that I had lost my entire family in a car accident one week, and won the power-ball lottery of 50 million dollars the next. My emotions would be so jumbled by devastating loss, absolute fear and uncertainty about what I would do next, along with the joy that: Hey, all my monetary worries are over! I would probably go into a dark room, hide under a comforter with my cat, and not come out for three days. It is no wonder that the disciples stayed in that upper room for a week or two.

During the 40 days, between the resurrection until the ascension, Jesus was trying to help his disciples heal from all those crazy emotions and rearrange their minds into a new order of being. He was giving them time to process the knowledge that everything he had taught them was true, and giving them a chance to figure out what it meant to them and to see how it could be workable in their lives. He was giving them a chance to reset into a new way of thinking and doing.

But he also knew that after the healing was over that they were going to go out into the world and spread his message of Love and Salvation.

Jesus knew that his message was probably going to start with the people who had come into contact with him during his ministry. His disciple would probably encounter people who had gathered at one time and heard Jesus preach. They would encounter people who had maybe sat with Jesus and been part of a teaching experience with Him. His disciples would come in contact with people who had witnesses him doing miracles, like expanding loves and fishes, or healing someone publically or privately. These people, who had already witnessed Jesus, would form the beginning of the church.

But at some point the disciples were going to encounter people who had never met Jesus in the flesh; people who had never had an opportunity to see or touch Jesus physically. They would be the new disciples who have not seen, yet have come to believe.

That’s who we are – We are the ones who have not seen Jesus in the flesh as he lived 2,000 years ago, but we have come to believe in him.

Although we have not seen him, we love him; and even though we do not see him now, we believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for we are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls. Because of 2,000 years of discipleship, passed down person to person, family generation to generation, church to church, we, in this Northwest corner of Connecticut, have come into an inheritance of eternal life everlasting.

And it is also up to us to pass down our knowledge of Jesus, and his power to connect everyone to God and eternal life.

But before we do that we need to be like the disciples and spend some time learning about our own connection with Jesus, his power, and our connection to the promises of God’s inheritance to us.

That’s a tough thing to do. Even 100 years ago our culture relied much more on what we felt rather than where our empirical proof is. How do we explain that even though we don’t see and touch Christ in the flesh, we still believe in him? There are some answers in the Bible stories that are coming up during this Easter Season, the forty days between Easter and the Ascension. In the 40 days of Lent we reflect on problems in our spiritual path. During the 40 days of Easter we reflect on what it means for us to be disciples.

Our starting point is defining in our own lives what believing in Christ does for us. For Thomas it was proof that Christ was continuing to be in his life. For Peter it meant that he was assured of his inheritance in eternal life. For me it is the fact that I have, and am part of, a God connection that is flowing both ways: From heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. That’s not my only reason, but it’s where I start.

Those are three good reasons and maybe yours is one of those three, or maybe it’s something else. Knowing what it is, is going to get you a clearer focus on yourself and your life actions, because that is the starting point from which you operate.

So for the next week I challenge you to ask yourself: What does Christ being in my life mean to me, and what does it do for me? You might want to try to write it down to help you clarify your idea. It doesn’t matter when you work on it: In prayer, while your driving, or while your eating breakfast. It doesn’t matter where you write it: Your diary, day-planner, computer or phone. What matters is: You are figuring out – just like Peter and Thomas did – what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

And as you figure it out – it will make you stronger and more certain in your faith and get you one step closer to your inheritance in God.

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Eternal Possibilities

April 16, 2017           Easter Sunday

Romans: 6:3-11           Matthew: 28:1-10

There is a wonderfully crazy movie, called Big Fish. It tells the life story of Edward Bloom, who puts himself into strange and unusual situations, which result in marvelous, improbable adventures.   His life of adventure starts in Alabama, when he is a ten-year old boy, and he goes with his two friends one night to a spooky old mansion, which is supposedly inhabited by an old woman who is a witch. The local legend says that she has a glass eye and that if you look into it you will see how you are going to die. Edward goes inside the house, finds the old woman, who is wearing an eye patch, and asks her to politely come outside. Outside the other two boys demand that she show them her glass eye. She pulls up her eye patch and both of them look into it, see their deaths, and promptly run away in fear. Edward then says to the woman, “I was thinking about death and all. About how seeing how you’re gonna die. I mean on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up. But it could kind of help you, couldn’t it? Because you’d know that everything else you can survive.”  She then allows him to look in her eye, to which he says, “So, that’s how it’s supposed to happen.” From then on when he does something that’s too dangerous and people warn him that he might get killed he says, “I know how I’m going to die. This is not how it’s going to happen.”

The main character ends up living a full life of love and adventure without fear – all because he knew what his own ending was going to be.

I think that was, in some measure, what Jesus experienced during his ministry. Several times in the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen to him – that he is going to be falsely accused, put on trial, be put to death, and then rise on the third day. The disciples were pretty much in denial about this. Peter, the guy who is always in denial, openly contradicts Jesus and says, “This never shall happen to you.” But Jesus knows where he is going to end up, so until then he openly walks all over the Roman-Palestine territory and fearlessly preaches and heals in God’s name. I am not saying that Jesus was without fear. We can see that in the Garden of Gethsemane he is terribly afraid of what is coming.   But he still, despite this fear, puts his trust in God to get him through it. And his trust was rested on the fact that even though he was going to have a horrible death, he also knew that, on the other side of it, he had life eternal.

On the other side of that horrible death was Christ’s resurrection. The final proof of the assurances that we have from God: The assurance that God reaches down and participates in this world that we live in; the assurance that we are forgiven for our sins; the assurance that there is eternal life that stretches beyond our death; the assurance that we participate now in that eternal life; the assurance that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

That’s a lot of assurance, and a lot to celebrate.

Unlike the movie Big Fish we are not told how we are going to die. After I saw the movie, I wondered if I would be like Edward and live without fear if I knew what my ending was. But then I realized that knowing how I am going to die is not the only way to take away the fear of dying. Having faith and certainty in the Christian Knowing that you really aren’t going to die, and that you are guaranteed to continue on into another life is actually a more powerful knowledge to live fearlessly.

Edward in Big Fish had a lot of adventures, touched a lot of people, and made a lot of friends along the way. But a lot of the good that came out of his life was incidental to the story. Although he made the most of his opportunities, a lot of them were simply chance encounters.

What would our lives be like if we lived a fearless intentionality in the Grace of God’s Assurances that we receive through Christ’s resurrection?

Let’s start with the assurance that God reaches into and participates in this world. This means that there is an active connection between all of us and God, and that you are also allowed to participate in that connection. When you intentionally decide what you want to do, and decide that you are going to be the best person you can be while doing it, you can ask God to help you in your process. You can say in prayer: God, I want to be a better parent, or a better co-worker, or a better student, or teacher, or nurse, or doctor. This is my objective, this is how I’m planning to do it, but give me guidance to chart my course; help me to see my errors and correct them; and show me how to use my work to further your love in the world.

God is a great partner to work with in life because He isn’t a control-freak manager. God is the type of manager who says: Hey, you got talent, you got skills, if this is a project that you’re interested in doing, go ahead and see how it works. If you need help I’m here for you – just ask. As long as you’re working on Building the Kingdom then go for it.

But of course, though we often start with good intentions, we can get caught up in our doubts and say: Well, what if I do something wrong? What if I really mess up? Well, that’s when the second assurance kicks in – that we are forgiven for our sins, those Systemic or Spontaneous Inflictions of Negativity.

Because of Jesus we have the assurance that God is with us now and forever, and that our mess-ups are forgiven now and forever, as long as we stay connected to God and try to work to correct them. You know those actions in your life that you don’t want other people to know about because you’re afraid that they’ll stop liking or loving you?  Well, God isn’t one of those people. You can go to God and admit your mistakes, and He’s not going to sit there and lecture you for an hour on what you already know you did wrong. Instead what He’s going to tell you is: I still love you and I will give you the strength to live with this, and the guidance to show you how to make it right. God is not interested in fixing things by wiping the slate clean so that everything returns to the past – God is interested in making things right so that we can live with what has happened to us in the future.

But you know sometimes we really get discouraged and wonder if all this effort is really worth it. We can feel like: we’re born, we live, we die. I’m just one person living up here in the Northwest corner of Connecticut.  What does anything I do matter?

Remember that assurance of eternal life that stretches beyond our death? This is where the resurrection is proof to your faith that there is SOMETHING beyond what we do here and now. We are not given to know exactly what it is.   But I think we are not given to know that because it would completely short out all the circuits in our psyches. Think about it – if you took a person from the first century and put them in the middle of Times Square they would freak out and immediately go insane – they just wouldn’t be ready for it, or able to process it. It would be the same for us if we knew everything on the other-side. It would be too much information and we would freak out completely.

We have been given what we need to know. And what we know from Christ’s resurrection is that there is continuance of life after death, and that our faith is going to enable us to make the crossing into that life, and what we do here is not wasted but continues on in this life after we are gone, and is probably carried over by us into the life eternal. But we are actually participating in that eternal life right now.   Eternal life means: Life all through time. Our past is eternal life, our present is eternal life, and death is only a point between the continuance of life in this place, to the continuance of eternal life in the next place.

But also, the fact that Jesus came back and walked with his disciples for another 40 days means that the current flows both ways. And if the current flows both ways with Christ: The final assurance is that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven: Meaning that while we are moving from earth to heaven, God is moving from heaven to earth.

You are given endless possibilities in this life: Many different ways to be in life, many different ways to live in life, many different ways to take action in life. But remember they are all of them eternal possibilities, because you are living a life eternal right here, right now, with Jesus Christ’s love, God’s Glory, and the untiring and joyful working of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection doesn’t happen just at Easter. The resurrection happens to you everyday when you wake up and say: I will intentionally live the eternal life that God gave to me. God forth and live it fearlessly with the eternal love that Christ gave to you in your heart. Go forth and live in fearlessly in the eternal glory of God.

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Healing Our Separation from Eternal Life

April 2, 2017              5th Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1–14         Romans 8:6–11           John 11:1–45

This Lent we have been talking about repairing the brokenness in our lives and today finally we come to our separation from Eternal Life. I think it is the hardest to preach on because it involves something that we don’t usually like to talk about in our 20th century – the subject of death.

There is something interesting that I’ve noticed about the subject of death: Younger people today seem to have more despair attached to this subject. Separation from our loved ones through death is always hard but I think that since our average life span has increased this has resulted in many people not facing death at an early age. Today, if death is faced when you are young, it is usually as a tragic accident, rather than as something that is attached to all of us that we go through as part of the natural process of living. I have talked to a lot of people in their late 20’s and early 30’s, who have lost someone who is significant to them for the first time, and they just don’t know how to think of it or handle it. When you come face-to-face with another person’s mortality your own mortality becomes real. And you start to question: What is the purpose of all this life if it is just going to go away?

I think that death is especially hard if you have no religious background or upbringing.

No matter what the atheists argue about the lack of proof of God and the afterlife; the worthlessness of the concept of God and the afterlife; or even the political argument that religion, God, and the promise of the afterlife, are just political tools to placate the masses; if you believe that there is something beyond your physical life then you have a stronger hope of a meaning in your life and less despair that your life will amount to nothing. The people I’ve talked to, who don’t think there is anything, have less hope and more despair for themselves when they come up against the heavy loss of someone they love.

In Jesus’ time, death was a heavy, daily fact of life. Half of all children born didn’t live to be past 5; 50% of adult males died before they were 35; 50% of adult women died in childbirth; the rest, male and female, could expect to live into their 60’s, if they stayed healthy. Life as a state of being was far more precarious than it is now – and as a result I think much more precious and more concentrated an experience.

Lazarus’ death is probably the most famous story of Christ’s reviving someone from the dead. Not just because it’s the longest and most descriptive of these stories but also because it is the most intimate of them. The Bethany family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus appears many times in the Gospel. Their home was a place where Jesus stayed often, and we know from Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ interactions with the siblings that he truly cared for all of them, as if they were his family.

Martha’s conversation with Jesus about her brother’s death reveals some of this intimacy.   It is very apparent that Martha is familiar with Jesus’ power and ability to work miracles when she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” From this phrase we don’t know what Martha wants Jesus to do for Lazarus. Does she want Jesus to resurrect Lazarus or does she want the assurance that Lazarus will be a part of God’s Kingdom?

Jesus replies: “Your brother will rise again,” and Martha replies: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Readers in the 1st century would have understood that Martha believed in a prominent philosophy about the afterlife: That if you were a good person and you really tried to do your best, that when you died your soul would hang out in a stasis mode, and when God remade the world into a more perfect place, then you would be reborn and live again.   Another belief was that we don’t live on in an afterlife. You get one shot and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things.   And yet another school stipulated that there was an afterlife for really righteous people, but, as I have mentioned before, no one could really decide when good enough was good enough.

But Jesus came to bring a different viewpoint. No more of only this life, or never knowing if you are the best, or waiting until God is ready. Jesus came to connect us to God’s eternal life that is happening right now. Jesus says 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. Do you believe this?”

Martha answers yes, and Jesus goes to the tomb, where he prays: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” It is interesting to note that before Jesus even arrived at Bethany he had commented to his disciples: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

            The operating word here is BELIEVE. In the Gospel of John he is continually asking and telling his disciples to believe in Eternal Life: Not the fact that our souls stop living, or that only some selected souls will continue to live; or that eventually we will be able to live again – but that: We don’t stop living. In the belief system of Christ, “death” is not final. It is only a point between giving up the bodies that we inhabit for the conditions of the next life that is waiting for us. But we need to believe in order to participate in this new phenomenon of Eternal Life that Christ is offering to us. If we do not believe that Jesus is who he is, and has come to teach us about God’s love and the promise of Eternal Life, then it is just not going to happen to us.

Once an atheist pooh-poohed my beliefs about life after death. I told him that at least I was prepared. If I die and there is nothing, I won’t have any worries because I won’t even be there to know that I was wrong. But if he dies and finds out that I’m right – well, he’s going to have a lot of adjusting to do.

But what does Eternal Life get us? What is so important about it that Jesus is constantly preaching about it and proving its existence by bringing other people back to life and finally by bringing himself back to life? And why was it so important that it be available to everyone who believes?

First of all, it qualifies that life has meaning beyond just what we do within the inhabitation of this body.  Remember the philosophy that you only live once, get one shot, and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things? Well, this takes away the importance of proving that you are good person by acquiring good things. It takes away the importance of physical perfection and puts the emphasis on working towards a strong spiritual perfection of belief.

It also expands the inclusion of an afterlife from really righteous people into all people who are trying their best to be righteous. Remember one of Christ’s stipulations is not that you are righteous in rules, but that you are righteous in trying to live as a person who is healing yourself and others in kindness and love. No one is ever “good enough” but rather we are forgiven for not being “good enough” if we try to live as Christ wishes us to live.

Finally if you are a good person then your reward of eternal life is assured – you don’t have to wait in some sort of stasis mode. You are going to continue to participate in God’s love, the creation of God’s kingdom, and the renewing of the world.

And finally there is no separation from our loved ones. If Lazarus, the widow’s son, and the official’s daughter, and Jesus can come back from the other side, then the line between this world and the eternal one is pretty thin and the connections pretty strong.

The miracles of those resurrections were the proof positive that Jesus gave to us to allow us to begin to believe. We believe that the impossible can become possible. When we believe in eternal life, we believe in eternal hope and endless possibilities within God’s working love.

We believe that we are actually participating in eternal life with the life we are living in now, because this life is going to continue into eternity. So never feel that you are separated from your loved ones who are living the life eternal, because our lives are all one with Jesus Christ.

 

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Healing Our Unbelief

March 26, 2017                      4th Sunday in Easter

1 Samuel 16:1–13        Ephesians 5:8–14        John 9:1–41

Jesus and his disciples are walking along outside the walls of Jerusalem when they see a man who has been blind from birth and they ask Jesus if the man was born blind because of his own sin or because of his parent’s sin.

When I first started to read the Bible, as opposed to Bible stories, I would be trotting along in the narrative and all of a sudden I would read something that would make me go, “SAY WHAT?” I mean, to me the question doesn’t make sense. I get how someone might think that God would punish a couple who had been bad by giving them a blind baby – I don’t agree with it, but I get the logic. But how could a baby be born blind because of something the baby did? The baby wasn’t even born – he didn’t have a chance to do anything wrong.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that while the Jewish tradition doesn’t believe in reincarnation, that apparently it was an eastern concept and a theology about eternal life that was being debated in the 1st century. So this question is probably alluding to that. But Jesus doesn’t get into the reincarnation debate, in fact he doesn’t even get into the debate about the parent’s sins, he just says that the man was born so that God’s work might be revealed in him.         

Wow! That is a profound testimony to lay on anyone: That a person was born with the purpose of revealing God’s glory. And the blind man does reveal God’s glory. Jesus takes him to one side, spits on some dirt, rubs it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Now apparently many pilgrims used to wash themselves in the pool as a way of cleansing themselves before they stepped into what was considered to be their Holy City. So the blind man is actually preforming an act of ritual cleansing. And the scripture tells us that the man was then able to see.

Pretty much like every other miracle healing in our Gospels. But unlike the other healing stories where the person is healed and we move onto the next adventure of Jesus, this is when the drama really starts.

Now it doesn’t mention this in the story, but I can imagine that the ex-blind man was elated and that he meant to go straight home and tell his parents what had happened to him. But I am sure that he was wondering around in a sensory overload daze looking at everything, and of course he is going to encounter his neighbors.

Now the neighbors have, what I consider to be, a typical reaction: Oh, my God. You’re the kid who was blind what happened to you?  And then other neighbors, who maybe didn’t know him as well said: No, that’s not him. Because of course, this kid has been blind from birth, and now he can see, and this doesn’t normally happen. So let’s give the neighbors their moment of denial because I know that I would have questioned it: Is that him? It looks like him, but he was born blind. So it can’t be him, because these things don’t happen. But it looks like him. Are you him?

This is the first type of unbelief that happens in this story. When we encounter something that is so outside our realm of experience that we just can’t grasp it, and we are torn between denying that it actually happened, and accepting that it is true. And that’s what the neighbor’s do – they don’t believe it happened but they do ask him: How did you get your sight?

The problems is, not only is the event outside the realm of experience and hard to grasp, but so is the answer. The ex-blind man says that Jesus made mud, put it on his eyes, told him to wash in the pool, and now he could see.

The neighbors have gotten an explanation, but they don’t understand the explanation; they need some more concrete proof so they ask the ex-blind man: Where’s this guy who did this to you? And he answers quite truthfully: I don’t know!

Well, that isn’t going to help them understand, so they take the ex-blind man to the wisest authorities that they know – the local Pharisees. Unbelief reaction number two: I don’t understand something so I’m going to ask an authority and find out what’s really happening. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do. Other times, as our unfolding story illustrates, it’s not a good thing to do.

The Pharisee’s question the ex-blind man, who tells them his story. Immediately they start a debate as to whether this is a bad miracle, because it was performed on the Sabbath (Even Holy men aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath) or a good miracle, because the man was healed and evil people can’t perform miracles of healing. Unbelief reaction number three: instead of accepting that something has happened, even if it is a good thing, debate the validity of it; because if you can disprove it, then it’s not real. The Pharisees tried to disprove the validity or that it had even happened by questioning the ex-blind man, and then calling in his parents.

How do you think his parents felt? They were probably overjoyed that their son was healed but they were probably terrified that he was going to be stoned or banished because he’s someone who has been healed by a possible evil prophet. Unbelief reaction number four: make people afraid of the unusual thing that has happened, that you can’t explain or control, even if it’s a good thing. Then you don’t have to deal with it.

In the end the ex-blind man sticks to what HE knows. He was blind, Jesus healed him, this is a good thing, bad prophets can’t heal, so Jesus must be a good prophet sent by God. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.

In the end the ex-blind man was condemned by the Pharisees. Unbelief reaction number five: Completely condemn that which you do not know, understand, or can control.

But afterwards the ex-blind man goes to Jesus and accepts that Jesus is the Messiah. Probably a lot of people condemned or avoided him from that point on, but he believes, because he knows what he experienced. He is not swayed by the improbability of the experience, the unconventionality of the experience, the validity of it, or of the possibility that he will ostracized because of his beliefs. He knows what he knows.

But I get the unbelief of the crowd, the Pharisees, and his parents. I carry unbelief with me everyday both in things I learn, but more importantly in my personal belief in how God is working in my life. Because really that’s what the denial in the story is about – the unbelief that God can actually work miracles in our lives.

The underlying condition of the blind man is not that he is blind but that he is unaware and blind to the fact that he has been born so that God’s work might be revealed in him. The underlying condition of all of us is that we have been born so that God’s work might be revealed in us, and we are blind to it because of our unbelief.

How many times, when I have been shown my potential of doing good in God’s name have I not believed that I was capable because I just can’t grasp the notion of my potential and I don’t want to try to verify and accept that I can be an instrument of God’s glory? How many times have I hid behind trying to verify what I can do rather than just doing it?   How many times when I do verify that could possibly do something do I hide behind authority – I can’t do that – I’m not qualified.   How many times have I made myself afraid and not moved forward by scaring myself with all the things that could go wrong, and all the ways I could mess up? How many times have I condemned the possibility that God could work in me by saying: It just can’t be possible, or I am not worthy enough.

I am like the boy’s father, whose son was possessed by a demon, and he begs Jesus to heal his son, if Jesus is able to. And Jesus says, All things can be done for those who believe. And the father says: I believe. Help my unbelief.

Unbelief comes to us as denial, the uncertainty of validity, the authority that says otherwise, the trap of over debating the existence, and the condemning what we do not understand. We keep ourselves blind, but still Jesus is telling us to wash our eyes with the Holy Spirit and see how God’s will is being done in this world. Jesus is inviting us to participate in that will. All of us can when we say, like the ex-blind man, Lord, I believe.

When we open our hearts to the belief in God’s power and Holy Spirit then we will fulfill the destiny that we are all born with, and God’s glory, through our love, will be revealed in each of us, in His world. And then we will become children of light, walking in Christ’s love

 

 

 

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