The River of Mystery – Lectionary 05/26/2019

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21: 22-22:5

And in the spirit, he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Sermon Text

Baptism is a beautiful Sacrament. We are washed in the water. Cleansed of the stain of our sin and welcomed into the Kingdom. The work of Christ which leads us to accept the grace afforded to us begins from the moment we are born. The slow working of the Spirit in our life, in those we love and in the manifold gifts of God bring us closer to the Father’s love. The waters of the font become for us waters of life through the work of the Spirit, passing through death and into life.

Our scripture for today tells us of how Paul followed God’s call and came into Macedonia to preach the Gospel. What stands out in this text, what we discuss here today, is the way that God’s work leads to resurrection for Lydia and her household. This story is God initiated and completed by God’s work.

Though the reading begins with Paul’s vision of the Macedonian, Lydia was the first to move. As far as we know, Lydia was a merchant who was originally from a major trading town named Thyatira. Her work with purple cloth would have moved her throughout the Mediterranean, she was not just a dyer – she was an executive of an ancient multinational. Likely born to a Greek family and as a Roman citizen, Lydia would have been raised as a practitioner of the Roman Imperial Cult or some religion regional to the area.

Somewhere along the way, Lydia converted to Judaism. When she settled in Philippi, she joined with a synagogue there, fully integrating into the faith. He business continued, but when she settled she established a household of note. She was a woman with everything – faith, industry, power, and connections across the Mediterranean. The ministry she carried out in the region was far-reaching, and we know from the text that she led services by the waterside.

Paul enters into the narrative after Lydia has already established a firm foundation. Her ministry did not grow out of Paul’s, but Paul’s out of Lydia’s. His call to enter into Macedonia was not a call to create a new group of believers, it was to welcome them into a new understanding of what it meant to serve God. Paul followed the call and came to preach to Lydia and her peers, introducing them to the story of how God entered into the world and how his love and sacrifice saved the world.

Paul, like Christ before him, broke down social barriers in his ministry to Lydia. Though she was a woman of business, and so would have worked with men in a professional capacity, it was not considered common or acceptable for men and women to speak unsupervised with one another. Like Christ, Paul did not preach to women as though they were a lesser group within the assembly of the faithful, but as equals. He does not stand above them and preach from some lofty place, but we are told that he, “sits down,” among them. Paul does not enter as the proud missionary civilizing the locals but as a humble person sharing with other faithful witnesses.

Paul’s humility meets with Lydia’s industriousness and not just in that they met here on the banks of a river, but because the God who was moving up until this point continued to do so. This tradeswoman and this tentmaker met completely out of God’s providence, and if this was the end of their story it would be sufficient. That Christ had called a missionary to the household of a faithful Jewish woman and brought her entire household into the blossoming church is miraculous, to call the two to a partnership that changed the world is nothing less than earth moving. Everything had to fall perfectly, not a single element could be out of place to bring these two together. If Paul had been a day later, or Lydia settled a single town over, none of this would have happened – God alone is capable of such precision.

It does not take long for any of us to look at our lives and see how God has made things come together in our lives. The chance meetings, those friendships which began by accident, those bizarre pieces of happenstance which have made us who we are today. Take a moment, think of your life and all the ways that God has blessed you with those unexplainable meetings that have brought you to where you are. What a blessing it is to have God’ work in such amazing ways, to plan these meetings in the far-flung past and to bring people together at a later time.

In scripture, we see many of these meetings. Jesus constantly runs into people in need of his help. People who are ill, possessed, or simply in need of illumination all happen upon Jesus on his way to Calvary. None of these meetings were chance, but the work of God bringing those people into Jesus’ path, into Jesus’ care. It is not hard to see that this is not very different from how we are brought into the faith. There is always a Lydia, there is always a Paul, and we can be either person depending on where we are in life.

What is most important in this story is not that God moved to people to find each other, and that salvation was brought to a household in one time and place, but that God used this singular even to propel many more people into salvation. Paul did not, as some have tried to say, come to rest in Lydia’s house permanently, and Lydia did not stay by the river and lead this small congregation for her whole life. The apostle went to Macedonia and made a new apostle, someone willing to follow God’s call and bring still more people into the faith.

We do not see much in terms of Lydia’s story in the rest of the Bible, and we do not have many documents that talk about her outside of the Bible, except in relation to Paul. However, what remains is still significant. When Paul speaks to Lydia or about Lydia, it is always with the same language he would use for any male coworker. She went on not only to be a financial supporter of the Church but to actively work to preach the Gospel through her business.

These connections were instrumental in the development of Christianity. While Paul traveled along the Roman roads, Lydia and her household worked along the trade routes of the empire. Her business was transformed – it was not a means to make money with the work of the church on the side, but a ministry which used the benefits afforded by the trade to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the Roman empire. Paul would open leather shops wherever he went to preach, but Lydia could work out of any textile stand she came upon.

When we are brought into the faith we are not brought in by the actions of any one person. It is God’s work throughout history and God’s work bringing people together that allows us to become members of God’s fold. The work of the church is initiated and completed by God. What is necessary for us after being brought in is to follow God in the forward momentum of the church. We do not have to abandon what our life has been up to this point, but we need to completely change what direction it is going in.

Let us say that you are someone who has worked in an industry for many years or a student who is pursuing a specific career when God calls you to join the church. Unless your call is to join a specific kind of ministry, then you have no reason to abandon that path. What must happen is that your work in that career reflects the work of Christ. God does not work through one kind of person, and any work that is not counter to the message of the Gospel can be done for the good of the Gospel.

It is not an easy call, but it is a necessary one. God asks all people, no matter what their background to deny self and take up their cross. We forego worldly riches and work to elevate the plight of the poor. We preach the Gospel without shame, no matter what obstacles come our way. We become ministers and apostles regardless of our background, we all in our own way become the presence of Christ in the world.

The beauty of this particular story is that it takes place in a moment of baptism. The river of time which has brought Lydia and Paul together is represented by the river which they met beside. With the blessing of the Spirit, the waters of that river become the waters of Life. Pouring over the members of this household, the moment when the new life begins is made manifest. God cleanses them of their sin, they are made into something new, having been united to Christ’s body through those healing waters.

Whenever we are brought into the kingdom, whenever we are washed in those baptismal waters, we enter into the life eternal. The oil which anoints our forehead represents that seal of Christ upon our lives. All of God’s blessing, the fruits of the Spirit which yield eternal life all become our own. We are not stationary beside that river though, we are walking alongside it as we move closer to the Throne of God. Let us, as members of God’s church, commit ourselves to follow that path wherever it leads. The God who our journey will bring it to completion, we must trust that wherever we go will grow the Church. We all grow out of the waters of life, and we can bring about healing for the nations. – Amen

A New Heaven and a New Earth – Lectionary 05/19/2019

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon Text

“See I am making all things new.” This is not a statement for the future when God’s kingdom is established fully among, but an eternal truth of God’s work through Christ. There is not a day when we do not hear God call from on high, “I am making things new.” In the darkest times of our life, the call still comes and renews our Spirit. For those of us who are in a place where we can fully rejoice the call lands upon us and brings us forward to act and to fully participate in the newness which God has set before us.

To enter into the new creation which Christ has set before us, we must be willing to be transformed ourselves. We all, as sheep in Christ’s flock, know the voice of God. It is our willingness to return to God’s word and respond to the commands within it that allow us to reject our old ways, not being, “conformed to the ways of the world but transformed by the renewing of our mind.” We would be lying to ourselves if we said that we were always sure about what we are supposed to do in life. When a new job prospect arises, a friend comes to us with a problem we do not know how to help them solve, or even more mundane we have the choice between a kind word and a harsh one toward another person – in all these moments we are given a chance to act in a worldly way, or in a heavenly way.

Christ tells us how to live as people who are being made new in today’s passage from John. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This is the essence not only of Christianity but of the New Creation. The entirety of what will be is modeled after Christ and Christ’s life. Everything we know about the world to come is informed by the life of Christ. Last week we looked at what heaven means in the here and now, and we determined that when we bring God into our community that God is among us and we create heaven on earth. Today, let us look a bit more closely about what we do to love one another, and how our visions of Heaven are tied to this.

The most obvious thing about Heaven is that it is a place where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” Obviously, we cannot presently escape any of these things. We all must die and we all will feel loss, pain, decay. We do not escape these things through faith, even though we will eventually conquer them through Christ’s resurrection. No, we still suffer today as members of the Church, however, we are able to love one another and in so doing alleviate this pain.

Think of the Christ and his ministry to Mary and Martha. Yes, he did raise Lazarus, but before that, he stood with the sisters. He listened to their pain and was willing to simply be there with them, not to preach or to force their healing, just to be with them. Christ provided a ministry of presence which saw their weeping and their real anger toward him as valid, as worth being listened to. Even Christ, when he walked to the tomb was overcome. Death was so great and terrible a thing, that even Christ took a moment to mourn the damage that it caused him. Even with Lazarus’ raising on the horizon, Christ felt the absence of his friend.

We all in the Church know that feeling. We believe those who have passed on are with God and are awaiting the day Heaven and Earth come together again. That one day the separation brought on by death will be erased. Until then though, we will have tears, we will weep with Christ and with Mary and Martha. The Church makes the blessing come true which Jesus put forward in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The church begins to bring the new creation into the present world when we bring present to those who are in mourning, in those moments when words fail and we become the presence of Christ in the lives of others.

Another way that Christ shows us Heaven in his love is in the way that Christ opened the doors of Heaven to anyone who loves God. As revelation says, “The dwelling place of God is among people.” Not one person, not one group of people, but all people. Heaven is a place where the beloved of God join together and praise their Lord. It is not a place for one denomination, one church, one race, or one kind of background. Heaven is a place where peoples from all over the world will be gathered to praise God. It is the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry to all people.

When Christ went to the Samaritan woman at the Well and spoke to her, he was not just breaking boundaries relating to race, but also gender. Men did not speak to unattended women often, and if they did it was still usually in a public place. Yet, Jesus came to this woman and spoke to her frankly. He did not look at her race and make assumptions about her life, nor did he see her as someone to be bossed around or silence because of her gender. Jesus approaches her, speaks to her about her deepest concerns and all that has happened to her. He speaks to her as he would to Peter or John, she becomes a sort of disciple in that moment.

When we gather as a great multitude together before God. There will be no considerations of where people have come from or who they were born as. This does not mean that God erases our individual differences, those things that make each unique among the united body of Christ. Our culture, the things we love, those individual facets we have built up in this life are not erased when we enter Heaven, they are transformed. All the evils of our life wash away, and we see what God was getting at. That’s right, even in Heaven a love of ramps and buckwheat will have a purpose. What is now takes one form, what will come something unimaginable now – however, whatever it is, it will be an amplification of all things good, one that unites us in our common love for God.

Finally, we see that Jesus gave us a glimpse of Heaven in his glorification of God. As our scripture says today, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” This is a bit of a confusing sentence in itself, but I think that it is helpful to compare it to the language which is used in the beginning of John. Though not 1:1, this text reflects the hymn to Jesus as God’s word – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We are told in John that Jesus has been glorified and that by being God the Father was also glorified in this. The two persons of the Trinity glorify one another through love.

This glorifying of God is something that we are invited to participate in through our love of one God and one another. Whenever we worship God, we glorify God, and our greatest worship is to live a life worthy of Christ. When we love one another fully and commit ourselves to the work of the kingdom then we are glorifying God in our life. This was best put by St. Irenaeus, when he said, “The glory of God is a living person. The life of a person is in beholding God.”

Christ showed us that God chooses to glorify Godself through the righteous lives of the beloved. The greatest example of this was in the work of Christ, a truly righteous and perfect person as much as he was true God of true God. However, in our reception of the Holy Spirit, we are also able to live out a life of righteousness, we become “a person beholding God.” This the way that we are transformed into those who “Thirst for justice.” This is how we are satisfied by the “water [given] as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” For who all those who are transformed by their desire for Justice, there will be eternal life given to the love that has been placed within them. We become those who glorify God, we become those satisfied by God, we become the people of God.

The duty of the Christian, the way that we live in this world, is dependent upon and defined by love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” This love cannot be partial or hesitant, it does not look for excuses to ignore the object of our love. We must commit ourselves fully to the work of the Church and to loving one another. We break down whatever systems and prejudices we are a part of so that we can open the kingdom-wide and bring everyone into the fold. We allow ourselves to become the vessels and means of God’s glorification on earth.

Everything we do in this life; we do for God. This is the ultimate example which Christ puts ahead for us is a life that is oriented only for the work of the Kingdom. When we sit with those who mourn, we are weeping with Christ by the tomb of Lazarus. When we open our doors and our arms, we are at the table with Christ and the Gentiles. A life lived well for Christ is one that reflects the work of Christ in every way. The reality is that Heaven is a reflection of God’s will, and Christ was the visible God who showed us what that will look like.

When Christ Inaugurates the New Heaven and the New Earth, all will be transformed – we will be perfected. Let us work alongside God in establishing this perfected kingdom. Take up the plowshares, spread the tablecloth over the table of fellowship, and live together in peace and love. This is the simplest, the truest, and indeed the summit of the Christian life. Communion with God and one another lived out not just in the obvious and grandiose, but in the day to day simplicity of our shared lives. – Amen

When We All Get to Heaven – Lectionary 05/12/2019

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Sermon Text

Heaven, it is something so much more than a place where we go when we die. It is so much more than something that angels sing in and the righteous dead rest in. Heaven is a place and Heaven is a mode of being. There is, on one hand, the literal Heaven in which God, the Risen Lord, and all the company of the saints inhabit presently in sweet anticipation of the day when Heaven and Earth are one. On the other, there is the Heaven which is lived, the bringing down of God into the world, creating little pockets of Heaven here on earth.

We in the Church respond in many different ways when Heaven enters the conversation. Some of us dream of reunions with family members, others see golden streets and pearly gates, others wish we would focus more on the here and now, and still others – God-fearing or otherwise – are just not sure what they think about Heaven. Today we are not going to go through and work against anyone’s conception of Heaven, so don’t you worry, but I do want to take this time to talk about it generally, about what it is, and what we can look forward to when our time on this earth is over.

Heaven, as we call it, comes from two main words in scripture. שָׁמַיִם or shamayin in Hebrew and οὐρανός in Greek. These words generally mean sky, they are words that can mean, the place up above where God lives, but also just mean the place with clouds and stars, that place way up there. This does not mean that the Ancients believed that, climbing up high enough they would find a castle sitting on a cloud or some cities nestled among the moonbeams – like us, there was an understanding that while it is easy to talk about God being in the sky, God is somewhere else entirely, we talk about the sky because it is visible, it is a constant reminder of who God is and how great God can be.

The idea that God is somewhere else, close but simultaneously apart from us, is not something which is discussed only in terms of humans either. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in meditating on the Psalms discusses a Rabbinic tradition which goes something like this – “As humans look up to Heaven to see the work of God, so the Angels look down to the earth.” God is so transcendent, that even the angels look somewhere else and say, “God is there, God is doing things that we cannot even imagine!”

Now, this is not in the Bible of course, and upon hearing it you might have the same reaction I did. “If the angels live in the presence of God, worshipping at the Throne of Glory day and night, how can they not know where God is!” It’s a fine question, but let’s turn the lens back on ourselves and ask the same question. Why is it that we, those blessed with the image of God, the redemption of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and all the sacraments of the Church are unable to see God?

If we take scripture seriously in its claim that we are Temples of the Holy Spirit and image bearers of the Divine – then we must believe that each and every person is an image of God and each and every Christian contains the actual fullness of the Holy Spirit. That means that as we sit here, an assembled body of the Church, the Holy Spirit is working within and between us. The pulse of life, that which gives the entire universe being and meaning, is here among us. Take a deep breath now, breath deep in the knowledge that we are not simply looking at images of God, but that deep within us is God.

This is the way in which Heaven breaks into the now. With the reception of the Spirit, those of us who previously looked like God are now made to be in unity with God. Now our work is transformed, our lives and our bodies slowly transformed into that Spiritual Body which Paul speaks to us about. We are people on the move, people in the midst of change, we are the Body of Christ for the World.

What is important to remember, is that we do not take on this identity because of our own work, but only because of God’s mercy. Nothing about us or about the work we do could ever save us. However, the reception of the Spirit into our lives propels us to act. In our Baptism in the Methodist Church, we take an oath to:

Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness. Reject the evil powers of this world. Repent of our sin. We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

            This is what we do in response to Christ’s saving works. We are pushed into the realization that evil is not the final victor in this world and that we ultimately will win out in the battle against it. We are called to participate in that struggle, and in so doing propel the world into a state which is a bit closer to heaven, a bit more like what God intended. In doing what is right, in fighting for a just world, we begin to resemble the God within us more and more.

These are the ways that Heaven is a thing we take part in now, but it is not the only way. There is also the reality that it is a place of rest, a place that we can enter into when we lie down our head. When we confess Christ, and in our final moments look up to Heaven we hear the same thing which was said to the penitent thief, “Today you will be seated beside me in Paradise.” When we leave this mortal body, we enter into eternal life in the presence of God. This is when we enter our rest, in that moment when we “fall asleep.”

We talk a lot about how we cannot wait for the moment when we are united with those who have gone before us, but I tell you that they are still with us. I do not mean that they are sitting in the pew beside you or that they have some ghostly existence, but I mean that as members of the Church they continue to be with us as siblings in Christ. When we gather here to worship, when we pray to God, when we take Communion, in all these things the whole assembly of Heaven does so with us. To live is Christ, to die is gain. We gain an immediate understanding of God like we’ve never known before, but this does not mean we cease to love those we leave behind. We continue to love our neighbors after they die, and they continue to love us – that is the blessing of eternal life.

What we see in Revelation is all the gathered Saints worshipping God for all the work which God has done. They are redeemed in the blood of Christ, they are free to serve God in eternity, to praise and rejoice in God’s presence forever. In this moment the Church is visualized as an entire group gathered in Heaven, but know that every time you worship – you are part of the numberless crowd. This gathering of the saved is not just for the end of the present age it is carried out again and again, with every prayer and every hymn.

This gathering takes place across time and space, in Heaven and on Earth. The promise of God is that, eventually, we will be united not only in Spirit but in physical presence. One day, Heaven and Earth will be made new, there won’t be a need to see God as somehow far away from us, God will be directly in front of us. The full mystery of God will be laid in front of us, and we will begin to understand what it really means to know God. When all who have died are raised again, they will be given their old bodies, now made perfect, and they will gather together. Will there be reunions with loved ones? I imagine so, all of eternity among a finite number of people, it would be impossible not to run into one another.

The redemption of our flesh and of the world means that what we do now matters, there is a future for every flower we plant, every tree we trim. Likewise, every good thing you do for someone has eternal consequences – love the sick, the poor, the broken-hearted, they will be perfected in the next world but the work you do for them will go with them into the next world. If we do not feed those who hunger, elevate the status of the poor and oppressed, and comfort the brokenhearted – then not only they, but we too will be missing out when we enter the world to come.

There’s a lot we do not know about Heaven. The descriptions we are given and the time tables that come with them are not made to be understood any one way. Some people see Heaven as the City on a Hill, others as a vast open plain, and still others simply as a crowd surrounding the throne of Glory. All these are scriptural; all these are valid not because Heaven is whatever we want it to be, but because it is something far beyond our understanding. It is now, it is not yet, it is here in this room, and it is far away and unknown.

Heaven is most simply described, not in terms of Greek or Hebrew etymology, but in the simple phrase, “Heaven is where God is.” By extension, one could say, “Heaven is where Love is.” God is among us, God is within us. Let us be sure to make Love work among us. Let us make the innermost parts of us conformed to Love. This gives us the power to repel evil and this is the blessing of God for all ages. – Amen.

How We Must Suffer – Lectionary 05/05/2019

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Sermon Text

Today’s scripture tells of how two repentant followers of God enter into communion with Christ after working against him. For Peter, he repented of leaving Christ to die when the risk of death came to him. For Paul, his repentance was for murder, actively seeking out Christians to be threatened into abandoning the faith or else to be killed as blasphemers. In both situations, we are presented with genuine repentance and the acceptance of the offender back into the family of the faith. For Peter, this acceptance would lead him to his ministry in Rome, for Paul his entire ministry journey throughout the Eastern Empire.

What is interesting about the way in which the scripture describes their repentance, is that despite the varied nature of the wrongs the committed, the same sort of action preceded and followed their reconciliation to Christ. We see in both situations actions grave enough to cause discomfort for anyone involved with them – standing by while an innocent man, your friend, is dragged off to be killed… Dragging off innocent men to be killed. We do not have to think long to think of places we have seen such brutality today.

Whether it is in the shootings of children, or of unarmed People of Color, the persistent wars which rage across the world, or even in the day to day violence we unleash against those around us – the reality of hatred and violence in the world leads us within the church to equally weighty responsibilities. On the one hand, we are called to minister to the broken, those who are hurting and who face death every day simply for their existence. On the other, we are to minister to the offender, to those who commit violence, those who kill, those who are oppressive and hateful and in all ways and at all times work against the kingdom of God.

Though we may say of the first responders, “Well, who wouldn’t want to take care of those who are hurting,” we must be honest with ourselves that we often don’t. When faced with a person in pain, it is much easier to give them a sympathetic smile a halfhearted prayer, and then leave them to suffer as much as they were before we saw them. If we sit for a moment, it would not be hard for us to see the faces of all those people we have denied helping because of our own discomfort with their pain. How many people did we see struggling with groceries or to walk and but kept walking cause we had our own work to do? How many times have we seen someone on a street corner begging and decided that we knew better and that they would just use it for something wasteful? How many times have the opportunity to do good presented itself, and then we simply let it pass?

In the same way, we may say, “How can I take care of those who are violent, how can I ever treat them like they belong in the community of faith again?” The answer to this is that we are surprisingly ok with dealing with those who hurt others, as long as they hurt the sort of people that we do not value. What we do not like to do is ask that those who do harm repent of it. Consider those cases where women have come forward to name their abusers? For many of us, the innate response is to question the woman and not the man, “How could you be sure? Do you really mean? But what were you doing?” Or else consider our reactions to the death of unarmed civilians, especially unarmed civilians of Color. “They must have done something. They should have just complied. See how they moved their arm there, they shouldn’t have moved their arm.”

It is interesting that in both cases the decisions about what someone needs are moved from the individual to us, to we who have set ourselves up as judge and jury of all the world. In the former case, we have decided who among the poor and afflicted are worthy of our support, of our aid; in the latter, we have decided who and what can be accused of violence, and whose voices should be believed when they are raised against others. The economy of God is one of grace given to all, but we usually turn it into an economy of grace toward ourselves and people like us.

Now, there are moments when the violence that we see is responded to by those in the church. Again, this is usually times when people like us are hurt, but we do respond. How then do we fare? How good at we at helping those neighbors that have passed our initial checks? This is variable, and the church has done wonderful things to support Christians suffering. However, we are also known for our cruelty, for those reasons expressed above and for many other unspeakable evils committed across centuries of history.

The Church is the most important group to ever exist. If we believe that we are truly those who testify to the risen Christ and work to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, then we cannot be anything but important. However, this calling can make us prideful people. We bear Christ into the world, we embody Christ for those in need, but never at any point do we become Christ in authority. This is something which we lose, and it is what causes us to do wrong, rather than to do the good we are called for.

The two examples from scripture today are important because it displays two responses we can have to trouble and the two ways that we assume Christ’s authority in doing so. For Peter, he decided that Christ was as good as Dead, not worth helping and risking himself in the process. For Paul, the power that was taken was not passively determining who could live or die, but the complete assumption of power over life which comes in the decision to kill. Both these figures make decisions which only Christ ought to make. Anytime we withhold help or deliberately harm, we become God in our own eyes – we hold back the work of God and advance our own desires.

We as the Church are asked to give without question, to help people, to take up our cross and die – this is not a negotiable position. Whenever we start putting limits on our works, we begin to deny our primary work in the world. This work is to preach the Gospel, yes, but also to embody the deliverance of the world in our actions. We are not simply the proclaimers of a world to come, but the embodiment of that world in the here and now. This is not primarily reflected in our willingness to forgive, as we are often told it is, but in our ability to serve one another and suffer for those we have wronged.

In the case of Peter, his willingness to let Jesus die was replaced in his ministry in Rome. He went to the seat of the empire that had been threatening the Christians since they were just Jewish peasants in a backwater province. The follower who abandoned Christ at the cross was now in the midst of those who crucified him, working not to destroy or hurt them, but to bring them into the Kingdom and make them realize the evil they have committed. There is no attempt by Peter to make the evils of Rome somehow mean less. It is not a mission to make the Romans feel better for killing or the Christians feel better for being killed.

To modernize the example, Peter does not walk among Palestinian corpses and explain that their deaths were necessary for the security of a nation. Peter does not come to those who killed unarmed citizens and say, “You were only doing your job, they should have just listened to you.” Peter instead enters into the life of those who suffer, he works with them to relieve their pain. Peter wants the Romans to stop killing, Peter wants to protect the Christians who risk being killed. It was not enough for him to say, “I love you, Lord.” He had to work among the flock of the faithful, he had to suffer for their benefit – fiving up his safety and suffering death on the cross just like his Lord and God.

Paul similarly had to work to repent of his assumption of God’s power. Paul, having actively rather than passively hurt people, had to completely change his life. He gave up the rights which his placement among the Pharisees afforded him, he gave up holding any possession, and he became the most prolific preacher of the Gospel. He suffered and worked and advocated for those he had oppressed – Gentiles, Greeks, Christians – all these people he decided to work with in order to further the Kingdom.

Paul’s testimony is one in which we see someone suffering beside those he had hurt – not minimizing the harm which he caused, not excusing himself in any way, but taking on the repercussions of the harm he caused and working for the good of all those who he once called enemies, those he saw as lesser. The reality of forgiveness, the reality of our call to serve the least of these, is that we are never called to just say, “I am sorry.” Or “God bless you.” And then not doing something about someone’s situation or the wrong which we caused.

If we want to be forgiven for denying Christ, then we must tend the flock we abandoned in the process – even if that means we have to die for them. If we want to be forgiven for those we have hurt passively or actively, then we must be willing to advocate fully for them, to work in authentic ministry with them, even if that means we plead their case to the Emperor and die as a result as Paul did. The question of following Christ, and of making amends, is never if it will be difficult, it is not about if we will suffer. Instead, we must ask, “How we must suffer.” The example we have, of Paul and of Peter suggests an answer already. We are not to minimize or erase the suffering real suffering of others, but at all times offer ourselves up to suffer with them, suffer for them. To proclaim the Gospel at all times in words, in service, and in action. – Amen.